Rockin' in the Free World (3/30/2001)
Lenny Kravitz, Greatest Hits (Virgin 2000) - With a recording career beginning in 1989 and including five studio releases, including his 1998 triple platinum 5, Lenny Kravitz is well due for a greatest hit set. Greatest Hits highlights the skills of this breakthrough artist, who plays almost every note on his albums, while also acting as producer, arranger, writer and live performer.
Greatest Hits draws from all of Kravitz' albums: "Rock and Roll is Dead" comes from Circus, "Always on the Run" comes from Mama Said, "Heaven Help" and "Are You Gonna Go My Way" are from Are You Gonna Go My Way, "Let Love Rule" and "Stand By My Woman" come from Let Love Rule, and the slinky "Black Velveteen" and "American Woman" come from 5.
Kravitz has followed in the footsteps of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, while forging his own sound. Says the artist, "I think I've covered a lot of ground. There are a lot of different elements in my music . . . It's a blessing for me to have the opportunity to put this record out, especially in an era of music when careers are very disposable."
The album also includes a new track, "Again," recorded at Kravitz' Roxie Studios in Miami, which is named after his late mother, TV actress Roxie Roker.
Even though Kravitz won back-to-back Grammys for best rock vocal performance in 1999 ("Fly Way") and 2000 ("American Woman"), I've never been a big fan. But Greatest Hits wins me over, as Kravitz' consistent musicality and skills come through.
What's fun about the Greatest Hits collection is finding overlooked gems, like the rock-steady-jam of "Mr. Cab Driver" and the plaintive, "Heaven Help."
Says the artist, "Doing this record brought back a lot of memories. You remember what you were going through at the time you wrote and recorded each song. It also recalled the work process. It's like having these old friends drop by that you haven't seen in a long time. You don't remember all the details, but you feel good about them."
Kravitz is an absolutely assured, absolutely skilled artist. Says Lenny, "They think I'm being serious when actually I am a very big clown, but you have to know me to see that. I'm constantly cracking up and cracking everybody else around me up. They see my photos and think I labor over my image, and I'm this cool, brooding artist. But I'm just having fun with it."
Greatest Hits shows all the facets of Lenny - sublime lover, funkmeister, lights-on rocker. Enjoy this top ten smash.
R.L. Burnside, Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down (Fat Possum/Epitaph 2000) - Veteran Mississippi blues man R.L. Burnside delivers the goods on Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down. Mixing in contemporary loops and scratching against Burnside's low-down voice, the result is apocalyptic blues.
Front and center on the album is Burnside's rich, evocative, sometimes pissed-off voice. Thus, his read of the Aretha Franklin song, "Chain of Fools," is full of fire and venom, while "See What My Buddy Done" is home spun, hard-edge blues.
Burnside is not only about hard times - "Nothin' Man" is a bouncy track, and "Got Messed Up" features techno loops and harmonia feedback. In the middle of the album stands "Too Many Ups," in which Burnside's looped vocals come across like old William S. Burroughs.
Born in Mississippi in 1926, Robert Lee Burnside spent several years in a hard-scrabble life in Chicago and Memphis. (Listen to "R.L.'s story," a haunting spoken word piece in which Burnside talks about the death of his father, his uncle, and his two brothers in Chicago. While it's hard to get the story straight, the emphasis on death is unmistakable.)
Burnside has been married for more than 50 years, and is the father of 12 living children.
While in Chicago, Burnside rubbed shoulders with Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry. Recalls Burnside, "Chuck Berry was sleeping in his car at the time, 'cause he didn't have no money. But he played real good blues. Got to be a big man in the world, eventually."
Burnside returned to Mississippi in 1959, where he again worked the farms and started a family. Performing his music at night and on weekends, Burnside made his first recording in 1967. Burnside's electric guitar was broken at the time, so he recorded on an acoustic, which caused him to be seen as an old-fashioned country blues artist, when in reality, he had been continually updating the blues.
Burnside continued to perform during the 70's and 80's with the band that included his wife, his sons, his brother-in-law, and his grandchildren. Burnside finally caught the media eye in 1990, when journalist Robert Palmer journeyed to Holly Springs, Mississippi, to film Deep Blues, a film that brought attention to the contemporary blues scene in Mississippi.
Burnside responded by recording Too Bad Jim, filed with electric, raw, North Mississippi hill country blues, before turning to An Ass Pocket of Whiskey, in which he was backed by Jon Spencer and the Blues Explosion. Most recently, Burnside released Come on In, which generated a song for the Sopranos soundtrack ("It's Bad You Know").
Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down was co-produced by John Porter (who has worked with such artists as Taj Mahal and B.B. King) and label head Andy Kaulkin. I give Kaulkin a lot of credit; like Rick Rubin, he takes a seasoned artist, lets him work in his organic style, then mixes in contemporary flourishes to create an updated sound.
Also included are three bonus tracks by other artists recording for Fat Possum Records: Robert Belfour ("Black Mattie"), Kenny Brown ("Laugh to Keep From Cryin'"), a slide guitarist from Burnside describes as his "adopted son," and Paul Jones ("Pucker up Buttercup"), playing his electrified blues.
The band on Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down includes R.L. Burnside on all vocals, Smokey Hormel and Rick Holmstrom on guitars, Jeff Turms and Antony Genn on bass, and Steve Mugallian on drums. Also appearing are DJ Swamp and DJ Pete Bee on scratching, veteran Lynwood Slim on harmonica, and Jon Porter on mandolin.
Burnside's music is not always pretty. But he has lived the blues, and earned the right to sing them any way he wants.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Life (Geffen Records 1987/2000) - Neil Young's 1980's albums on Geffen are being retrieved from the vaults, remastered, and reissued. So it is with Life, a forgotten friend from 1987.
And friend is the right term. What's immediately striking about Life is the intimacy and warmth of Young's voice. Though working with his renowned loud band, Crazy Horse (featuring Frank "Poncho" Sampedro on guitar and keyboards, Ralph Molina on drums, and Billy Talbot on bass), Young places his voice and songs front and center.
Unlike Van Morrison, whose recent albums have been barely hatched in the studio and then refined on the road, Young's albums in the 80's were fully realized in the studio, including the techno-based Trans, in which Young filtered his voice through a computer synthesizer called a vocoder.
If I had my druthers, I'd re-sequence Life to start with the last song, "We Never Danced." "We Never Danced" clearly foreshadows the themes and sounds that Young would explore to widespread acclaim on his 1994 tribute to Kurt Cobain, Sleeps with Angels.
The album next connects with "Mideast Vacation," a rocking piece with synthesizers and a Warren Zevon-influenced political bent, followed by "Long Walk Home," with its opening harmonica and CSNY-styled harmonies, which segues back to when "Liberty was a Little Girl." Lest you think Young is ready for the old age home, "Around the World" is a full-blown rock jam.
Neil Young is an American treasure, an artist who does not get the full measure of a claim he has earned. With a voice that has been part of the fabric of American pop music for more than three decades (stretching back to his seminal days with Buffalo Springfield), Life deserves a new listening.
- Randy Krbechek © 2001
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