I’ve been listening to the latest release, Thunderbird (Blue Note) from Cassandra Wilson, and enjoying the new direction the chanteuse has taken. Not that her old sound — the lushly organic, swamp-slow vibe perfected on New Moon Daughter — wasn’t great; it’s just nice to hear her stretch, pulling more modern elements like programmed keyboards and electric bass into this collection of mostly age-old tunes.
The record also has me thinking of those singers whose voices are so individual they sometimes outshine the music being recorded. Van Morrison, for instance, whose new Pay The Devil (Lost Highway) has him relaxing through such honky-tonk favorites as “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “There Stands the Glass.” It sounds like something whipped up casually after a great Southern-fried meal and recorded that afternoon — hard to believe it was recorded in Belfast — but the pleasure of hearing Van sing these tunes is hard to deny. (Meanwhile, the new release from Morrison’s labelmate Willie Nelson, You Don’t Know Me, is sadly timely in its tribute to songwriter Cindy Walker, who died last month.)
When it comes to honky-tonks, of course — and another fond “rest in peace” is due here to Bakersfield giant Buck Owens — there are few voices to rival Merle Haggard’s. Following up his well-received fall release Chicago Wind, Capitol/EMI recently began a “Year of the Hag” campaign of reissues. They’re on the right track with the five released so far: Each is a single disc boasting not only two albums from Haggard’s prime (e.g. Strangers or Mama Tried), but bonus tracks to boot. Four of the 10 albums have never had a CD release before.
The label isn’t as generous with their new Al Green reissues (including Al Green is Love and Full of Fire), which clean up the sound and packaging for each album but don’t contain any extras. To be fair, there’s not as much to exploit here: Haggard was far more prolific in his heyday, and all those iconic horn arrangements surely took some time to hone. It’s true that Green’s voice is supernatural, but in his case he truly benefited from the right setting. If producer Willie Mitchell hadn’t met Green on tour in Midland, Texas, and made these transcendent albums, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t know either of their names today.
Not all the best voices in pop music are beautiful, of course. Some make you feel like you’ve rolled around in sewage a while. Take the guttural grunts of Aidan Moffat, the unhappy sod who “sings” alongside Malcolm Middleton in Arab Strap. That band’s new one is The Last Romance (Trancedreamer), which continues the trend in which the boys cautiously polish their famously grubby music. The moody monologues are still here (witness “Chat in Amsterdam, Winter 2003”), but more and more songs here sound, in a good way, like something that might get played on a TV show.
TV may be unlikely for Eugene Hutz, but at least the singer can claim to be a movie star. Hutz, the best thing about Everything Is Illuminated, is also frontman for Gogol Bordello, which just released Gypsy Punks (Side One Dummy). That title accurately describes the band’s sound, which pairs wild Eastern European rhythms, fiddles, and accordions with loud guitars and Hutz’s voice, which is raw enough, even coming from the stereo, to make you swear you’ve been spat on.
If Gypsy Punks stretches your capacity for anxiety, two Collector’s Choice reissues from Loudon Wainwright III might help. I’ve always associated Rufus’s dad, probably unfairly, with the cutesy, irritatingly clever songs — the kind of thing that gives contemporary folk its bad name — that get played occasionally on the radio. (although he was redeemed in my eyes by Judd Apatow, who gave him a sweet role in the TV series Undeclared.) But these two records, known as Album I and Album II, present a side I hadn’t known: that of a painfully honest songwriter more interested in dissecting his experience than in getting a laugh. With his awkward, quavering tenor and stripped-to-the-bone recordings, he’s an ancestor of The Mountain Goats, even if he did eventually detour into crowd-pleasing silliness like “I Wish I Was A Lesbian.”