Sharps & Flats

Reviews of new releases from the Kinks, Wynton Marsalis, the Mayflies USA and Robert Cray.


Salon Staff
May 4, 1999 8:30PM (UTC)


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The Kinks "One for the Road"

Velvel

By Geoff Edgers |
When the Zombies box set arrived last year, turning the career of a band that had only two hits into a four-CD retrospective, the Kinks officially became the least appreciated of the '60s British invaders. Although the mod band has retained some hipster charm -- witness "Nothing in This World Can Stop Me Worrin' 'Bout That Girl" in "Rushmore" -- a large portion of the band's back catalog has fallen out of print. That includes the important chapter covering the band's rebirth in the late 1970s. Spurred on by punk, burned out on rock opera, the boys returned to three-minute songs, hooks and electric guitars. There was a semi-hit -- "A Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy" -- but a far better measure of the spirit can be heard on the just-reissued "One for the Road," which documents the 1979-80 tour. The comeback wasn't one of unplugged storytellers, it was loud arena rock, pop subtlety blown out with power chords.

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I admit a personal soft spot for the album. On my block, a cassette of "One for the Road" was in steady rotation during the summer of 1984, along with the Dead Kennedys, Judas Priest and "Back in Black." We sat for hours on suburban lawns, teenage jerks blasting Tommy Sutherland's gray box so the neighbors could hear the Davies' Cheap Trickery.

There were cranked-out classics like "You Really Got Me," "All Day and All of the Night" and "Till the End of the Day" and otherwise forgettable late-period songs brought to life. "(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman" was no longer bad disco; "Catch Me Now I'm Falling" worked as nicely as a song should when its main riff is lifted from "Jumpin' Jack Flash."

Listening to Ray Davies' goofy, 55-second guitar tease before "Lola" -- "We're not going to play that one tonight," he says before launching into the opening chords -- it's easy to remember why he was the original wise-ass, working-class Ginger Man. Dave Davies, the hopelessly jealous younger brother, shows off the punk sound he discovered in 1963 by slashing his 10-watt amplifier with a razor blade.

So why are the present-day Kinks without a record deal while New Kid Joey McIntyre, Damn Yankees and even Nazareth continue to score studio time? It's likely a combination of brotherly dysfunction and industry reality: Ray's profit margin is much greater as a solo storyteller than as a small-label Kink. "One for the Road" isn't going to spark a summer shed reunion. But for anyone willing to dip into the live version of the last Kinks revival, it provides an important reminder of just how good a few souped-up bars of "Lola" can sound.

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Wynton Marsalis "Marsalis Plays Monk: Standard Time Vol. IV"

Columbia

By Seth Mnookin |
For almost 20 years, Wynton Marsalis has represented both the best and worst of what jazz has to offer. His fierce dedication to jazz history and heritage has helped bring the American art form to new commercial and cultural heights; he won a Pulitzer in 1997 for his slavery epic "Blood on the Fields," the first time a jazz composition has been so honored.

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Musically, Marsalis is truly one of the lions of today. After leaving the Jazz Messengers in 1980, he burst onto the solo scene in his 20s as a trumpet phenomenon. Since then, he's matured as both a player and a composer. "Thick in the South" (1991), on which Marsalis plays both with old-school heroes Joe Henderson and Elvin Jones and fellow young lion Marcus Roberts, is a beautiful collection of original blues. And suites like "Citi Movement" (1993) show Marsalis at his most ambitious and far-reaching. While Marsalis will never be recognized as a creative genius, he is a brilliant musician and gifted educator who has carved out a niche with ample room for the exercise of his strengths.

But as his critics -- especially proponents of experimental contemporary work -- point out, Marsalis has advanced a knee-jerk orthodoxy of what can and cannot be called jazz. In Marsalis' world, hard bop, blues and swing are in; anything operating on the fringes is out. His narrow-minded vision has repercussions throughout the jazz world. As musical director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, he influences who gets grants and other forms of funding. Critics say he fails to use his popularity and figurehead status to help expose uncommitted jazz listeners to today's more exciting avant-garde and post-avant-garde scenes.

Alternately loved, hated and resented, Marsalis is always ambitious. To cap the century that saw the birth of jazz, he's planned an eight-CD survey that will combine standards and originals, classical and jazz, ballet and film soundtracks. But his first CD in the series, "Marsalis Plays Monk," seems ill-suited to his own style and temperament.

Thelonious Monk was one of the most enigmatic, musically adventurous and just plain bizarre characters jazz has ever produced. Marsalis, who can imbue the blues with rare emotional depth, falls flat here. Monk could slur along a slightly offbeat melody while he played; such roughness is antithetical to Marsalis. And Monk's most joyous tunes ("Evidence," "Brilliant Corners") sound stiff and dry in Marsalis' hands. The joyful techniques that made Monk's music so special -- the off-kilter comping, the frenetic rhythmic changes, the exuberant irreverence -- are all missing.

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Paradoxically, it's Monk's very nature -- his stubborn individualism, his incessant innovation, his proud refusal to tailor his sound to what others wanted to hear -- that both made him a master and ensured that Marsalis would stumble in his interpretations. There's no doubt that Marsalis means well, but he's bound to slip as long as he's trying to be all things to all people (except, of course, to those pesky avant-gardists).

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The Mayflies USA "Summertown"

Yep Roc

By Dawn Eden |
Pete Townshend named it, Stiff Records championed it and a bunch of guys in skinny ties ruined it. Power pop, once an unassailably cool genre, is not cool. Still doing penance for the Knack's sins, it ranks one notch below whaling songs on the hipness scale.

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In such a power pop-unfriendly atmosphere, it's tempting to dub the Mayflies USA the movement's long-awaited saviors. Their debut album, "Summertown," is punchy enough to unite power popsters and indie rockers at the altar of the three-minute, guitar-based, frug-inducing, "choke you up at the memory of your doe-eyed college girlfriend" pop song. Unlike more ironic peers such as Ben Folds Five, the Mayflies operate on instinct. The lack of affectation -- wistful summer ballads, explosive rockers -- is arresting, to the point that the members seem to have no more self-consciousness than their insect counterparts.

Like other Chapel Hill bands past and present, including the dB's (whose Chris Stamey produced "Summertown"), the Mayflies obviously worship Big Star. "The Apple" is all trebly guitars, angelic harmonies, angst-filled lyrics and killer hooks. The apparent abandon disguises a neurotic attention to detail; romanticism tempers their angst. But try as they might to emulate Big Star's Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, the Mayflies can't sing flat.

There's probably not a band in Chapel Hill that's escaped the influence of Superchunk. Like the town's fuzz-pop '90s heroes, the Mayflies love melody but maintain a fetish for distorted guitars. In "A Change in the Weather" and the glorious "Down with Peter Green" (no insult to the former Fleetwood Mac guitarist), the Mayflies mingle jangle and fuzz, interlocking complex guitar lines and stopping just short of white noise. Not all the songs are so aggressive. "Baby's Got Her Own Ideas" is a fine addition to pop's canon of sad songs that sound happy, taking an unlikely bundle of styles -- pained Left Banke verses, Wings-worthy choruses -- and merging them to give you goose bumps.

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As on the rest of "Summertown," the "Baby" performance has such overpowering immediacy that it's impossible to picture the Mayflies in ties of any width. It's the sound of whaling songs tumbling down the popularity ladder.

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Robert Cray "Take Your Shoes Off"

Rykodisc

By Geoff Edgers |
"Take Your Shoes Off" is a sign of life for Cray, a return to edgy rhythm and blues after a serviceable if somewhat uninspired decade of anemic electric stylings. There's not a single plodding 12-bar shuffle on the album. "Let Me Know" and "That Wasn't Me" are soul boils brought to life by Cray's shimmering voice. "Love Gone to Waste" captures the sound of Memphis' Hi Records, one-time home to O.V. Wright, Ann Peebles and Al Green. It makes sense since Hi boss Willie Mitchell, Green's longtime producer, arranges the Memphis horns on the song.

Cray's hard-pluck solos are, as always, consistent. Unlike many great blues players, he's a strong rhythm player, comfortable with meaty grinds and Stax slides. He's also wisely surrounded himself with the right songwriters and producer. Many of the best cuts are written by Willie Dixon and King Solomon Burke, the Philadelphia-born rock 'n' gospel singer. And along with Mitchell, the album is produced by Keith Richards sideman Steve Jordan. These choices bring out both aspects of his ability: blues and soul.

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