The Wolf That House Built
If you're a purist, give this sucker wide berth, because it's sure to piss you off. Yep, Little Axe uses the blues the way Enigma used Gregorian chants--as raw material for atmospheric samples. Which means, friends, that those raspy voices you hear sliding in and out of this disc don't just sound like Howlin' Wolf's and Leadbelly's--they are Howlin' Wolf's and Leadbelly's. Moreover, these blues masters' timeless yowling, mumbling and testifying are used as random elements in a sonic wave created by synthesizers and Lord knows what other implements of Nineties-style technological destruction. So why, given a tower of potential negatives, does The Wolf That House Built turn out to be an intriguing experiment? Because of Little Axe's Skip McDonald, Doug Wimbish and Keith Le Blanc, all of whom were members of the Sugarhill Records house band that played on early hip-hop discs by acts such as Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five and the Treacherous Three. Each is a skillful player, and collectively they succeed in providing the oozing grooves here a coherence and structure that's missing from all but a few house tracks. Moreover, McDonald has gone to the trouble of writing genuine songs, and some of them ("Ride On," "Hear My Cry") actually stand on their own. The spookiness Little Axe shoots for sometimes comes across as strained, and the concept itself suggests that the musicians see blues as a dead idiom good for little more than the occasional exotic flourish rather than a living, breathing genre that still packs a punch. Nevertheless, House sounds surprisingly fresh--and these days, freshness is a rare commodity. Just ask Mr. Wolf.--Michael Roberts
Joanne Shenandoah With Peter Kater
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Those who actually paid attention to Woodstock '94 will remember singer Shenandoah--a Wolf Clan member of the Oneida Nation--as the woman who opened the festivities with a "wish" (not a prayer) for peace. Now, with the release of Life Blood, she is also the latest in a line of Native American musicians to hook up with new-age pianist Kater--and the result is another pleasant but whitewashed collection of American Indian folk tunes. Shenandoah is a pristine vocalist who, according to the disc's liner notes, knows the original way around "ancient melodies created by the Haudenosaunee-Iroquois when they first rose from the ground." Which means, I guess, that she is able to deliver these strains in the mealy, quasi-mystical style perfected by Kater and craved by crystal-carrying, pseudo-spiritual neo-geeks everywhere. Not that Native American sounds are too sacred to be exploited by people who aren't Indians: Clearly, Wynton Marsalis's pious suggestion that certain musics "belong" to only one racial group is idiotic. Still, a crime is being committed against the music here--and the guilty party is Kater, who seemingly can't play anything with so much as an ounce of soul. Unlike fellow white men Benny Goodman, Johnny Clegg and Stevie Ray Vaughan, he doesn't have it in him to effectively celebrate songs that spring from nonwhite traditions. But even Kater's creative inferiority probably won't prevent Life Blood from achieving commercial success. In a world where dumb yuppies drive around with dream-catchers fastened to their rear-view mirrors instead of their beds, anything with an Indian association is going to be considered hot stuff. Even Peter Kater.--Linda Gruno
The Aladdin Records Story
Given the vibrancy of early rock and roll, it's easy to forget that the music didn't spring full-blown from Zeus's brow; without the contributions of jazz and rhythm and blues, rock as we know it would never have come to pass. The Aladdin Records Story, a two-disc sampler that traces the label's life-span from the mid-1940s to 1957, serves as a reminder of this reality--and fortunately, the lessons it provides never devolve into musicological esoterica. Rather, the Story tells itself--and an entertaining tale it is. "Flying Home (Part I and Part II)," by Illinois Jacquet and his All Stars--the first track here--was released in the summer of 1945 and is representative of the jumpy, jazzy dance ditties that were just beginning to mutate into something else. In short order, performers such as Johnny Moore's Three Blazers (1945's "Drifting Blues") and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown (1947's "Guitar in My Hand") were taking elements of the style symbolized by "Flying Home" and mixing in more traditional, rootsy ingredients. By the early Fifties, this blending was simultaneously becoming more commonplace and more radical: As a result, "Dad Gum Ya Hide Boy," by Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five, and Shirley and Lee's "Let the Good Times Roll" seem to come from very different periods, even though they were cut just two years apart. The Aladdin compilation helps you understand why. But more important, it swings, rocks and grooves in the process of doing so.--Roberts