Beyond Playlist: Carla Bley and More

Carla Bley The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu (ECM)

Bley is among the most underappreciated talents in jazz – a fine pianist who also happens to be an extremely creative and gifted arranger. Since bowing in 1971 with Escalator Over the Hill, a recording that marked her as a leader with an original voice and a severe allergy to trend-following, she’s released one smart, singular disc after another – and while she’s at her best working with oversized ensembles, she can also make a small group sound big, as she does on her latest release. Bley’s wit comes out in the names she chooses for her latest compositions – the album begins with “One Banana,” followed by “Two Banana,” “Three Banana” and “Four” – and often in the tunes tackled by her current quintet. For instance, “Two Banana” is a striptease-tempoed joust that pits trumpeter/flugelhornist Paolo Fresu against Andy Sheppard, on naughty saxophone. But Bley’s just as adept when it comes to intricate beauties like “Liver of Life” and the concluding “Ad Infinitum.” The Lost Chords deserves to be found. -- Michael Roberts

Ramones It’s Alive 1974-1996 (Rhino Home Video)

An appropriately straight-forward two-disc video compendium, It’s Alive is a fitting tribute to the band that transformed shouts of “One! Two! Three! Four!” into the coolest-ever way to start a song. The early footage is really early, dating back to a September 1974 gig at CBGB, and its production values rival amateur stag films made during the Korean War. Yet these snippets, and the rest of the first DVD, effectively showcase the group’s stubborn, and conceptually brilliant, decision to strip down its songs to their bare essentials, thereby allowing their fun and forcefulness to come through unfiltered. Predictably, the second DVD is a spottier affair, with the last chapter, culled from a 1996 performance before a massive throng in Buenos Aires, Argentina, qualifying as sad, not triumphant: Leader Joey Ramone is in poor shape, sitting out sections or songs and failing to hit even many not-so-high notes. Still, it’s worth eyeballing if only for a 1980 version of “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School” from a cheeseball TV show starring the ‘50s throwback group Sha Na Na, in which Our Heroes lip synch bravely while dudes in comic drag shimmy and shake. So that’s what happened to punk rock. -- Roberts

Dashboard Confessional The Shade of Poison Trees (Vagrant)

Chris Carrabba is often whiplashed by emo types for his dewy-eyed sensitivity, and he’s apparently been listening to their criticism. “Where There’s Gold,” the lead track of what’s essentially a solo album, eschews tender I-love-yous in favor of an unexpectedly harsh put-down of the groupie mentality epitomized by the couplet, “Where there’s gold/There’s a gold-digger.” But Carrabba being Carrabba, he can’t resist highlighting his pain as well as his anger: In that same song, he declares, “Mistresses have all the fun/But no one’s ever there to take you home,” as if getting laid and then not having to make awkward small talk afterward was somehow a terrible burden. Musically, though, his decision to focus on his acoustic guitar and bare-bones arrangements (“Keep Watch for the Mines” doesn’t even include drums) is right for him – a way of embracing his inveterate wimpiness rather than running from it. Poison Trees may contain some venom, but it’s wrapped in the sort of melodic sweetness the little girls will understand. -- Roberts

The Gladiators Studio One Singles (Heartbeat)

Although reductionists often view roots reggae as a genre dominated by performers, the style during its nascent period was really a producer’s medium, with a handful of dial-twisters establishing aural rudiments and often dominating the groups in their roster. Such was the case with the Gladiators. Although the outfit featured Albert Griffiths, a fine vocalist, tunesmith and guitarist, producer Clement Dodd deserves much of the credit for the act’s lovely recordings. Dodd is listed as a co-songwriter with Griffiths on all 23 selections here, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect the amount of writing he did; in Jamaica during the ‘60s and ‘70s, credits tended to reflect power as much as participation. Nevertheless, the spacious sonics heard throughout the likes of “Beautiful Locks” and mixes such as “Dub Ina Babylon” and “Sufferation Version” are triumphs of production and engineering that groove as persuasively today as they ever did. Thank goodness the Gladiators didn’t enter the ring alone. -- Roberts

Kevin Fowler Bring It On (Equity Music Group)

Fowler is the country-music equivalent of a cock-rocker. “Feels Good Don’t It” features raise-the-roof lines such as “Life’s too hard to hold it all in/Turn it loose, let the party begin,” not to mention a showy guitar solo intended to provoke ass shaking, while “Bring It On” uses a phrase associated with a certain George W. Bush the way it was intended – as a ballsy barroom taunt. If subtlety isn’t Fowler’s strong suit, he has good taste in influences, titling one number “I Pulled a Hank Last Night” and roping in George Jones for a duet on “Me and the Boys.” More important, he mainly avoids the soporific schmaltz that can make listening to contemporary country radio such a chore these days in favor of juke-joint jumpers. His tunes are the opposite of deep, with many lyrics leaning too heavily on clichéd catch phrases. But on the dance floor, superficiality ain’t such a bad thing. -- Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts