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Into the Bowels
By Bill Ketzer

Corrosion of Conformity

In the Arms of God (Sanctuary)

Just when I reckoned they had disappeared forever, Southern juggernauts Corrosion of Conformity thankfully plugged in the ESPs once again for their first new batch of studio sorties since 2000’s America’s Volume Dealer. Lyrically, vocalist Pepper Keenan remains true to his muse with exemplary prose, but the band explore much more checkered terrain with this latest platter. They’re more than a little influenced by the likes of early Sabbath, but unlike so many others, COC learned more from their ancestors than just bowel emptying hooks. They appreciate the importance of experimentation with texture and extrapolation, every album a unique sport, without losing the maker’s mark: the fiery bellicosity that is expected from such veterans. Indeed, In the Arms is another incredible collection, with Keenan always championing a kind of scruffy, abrasive insouciance in his songwriting that makes the utterly incapacitating riffage that much more splendid. And here, his attitude floods new corridors with blazing light. The almost Middle Eastern “Rise River Rise,” for example, or the eclectic, Soundgarden-esque “So Much Left Behind” strike an invigorating counterbalance to filth-churning staples like “It Is That Way” and opener “Stonebeaker.”

As always, Keenan is no meliorist; the themes remain rifle-scoped on elemental retribution, poor choices and broad-based societal decay, the results of which are at times wondrous and liberating (the punishing puissance of “Never Turns to More” or “Infinite War,” for instance). Sadly, others are frustrated by the overzealous stickwork of their session drummer, Galactic’s Stanton Moore. What makes COC truly mighty is their ability to drive a riff through your skull with unwavering might. This makes Moore a liability, despite his obvious talent. The drums are too loud in the mix, and even if they weren’t, he overplays so profoundly that at times the lockstep might is obscured by his unbridled hams. The end of the sulphurous “Paranoid Opioid” is a perfect example, where a rumbling percussive seizure kidnaps what should be the song’s most essential moments; likewise, the otherwise stupefying “Backslider,” which is peppered almost compulsively with unnecessary syncopated paradiddles and overindulgent polyrhythms. Thankfully, it is not enough to kill the disc. Still brilliant, still munificent.

Dan Levinson and His Canary Cottage Dance Orchestra

Crinoline Days (Stomp Off)

You heard Dan Levinson in the movie The Aviator, in which he was one of the Coconut Grove musicians; you can see him in July and August at the Saratoga Racetrack when he performs with Reggie’s Red-Hot Feetwarmers. He’s also a member of Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, a band re-creating music from the ’20s and ’30s, and he plays in any number of other ensembles paying tribute to older styles of jazz.

The Canary Cottage Dance Orchestra explores yet another niche: a dance-band style of the late teens, exemplified by the Frisco Jazz Band, who recorded only nine sides but had a widespread influence. As Levinson points out in the detailed liner notes, the style still showed a strong influence of ragtime, with an “even eighth-note” feel. It wasn’t what we think of as vintage jazz; it provided pleasing melodies and a steady beat for dancers.

So he termed it “rag-a-jazz,” and played a what-if game with this new recording. Specifically, what might the Frisco Jazz Band have done with songs they didn’t record, songs that were popular during that era? Levinson wrote arrangements for the 23 tracks on this disc and assembled an ensemble of six sympathetic, talented musicians (he plays both clarinet and c-melody saxophone) as well as a vocal quartet.

The result is a delightful trip back in time, but with excellent audio quality. Make no mistake: You have to enjoy this kind of music in the first place, but if you’re any kind of a fan of older music stylings, this is a valuable insight into what people danced to in the days of the Great War.

Many of the tunes endure, such as “Smile, Smile, Smile (Pack Up Your Troubles),” “Pretty Baby,” “Shine On, Harvest Moon” and “In the Good Old Summer Time.” Some are pleasing surprises: “At the Ball, That’s All” is now best known as the tune to which Laurel and Hardy dance in Way Out West, while Schubert’s “Serenade” proves as compelling in this setting as it does spiced up by the John Kirby Sextet (and, of course, as it does in its original version).

The Blue Amberol Quartette sings on six of the tracks, but in a style that doesn’t strike me as compellingly authentic as the instrumentalists—they sing too nicely, going for a creamy barbershop sound rather than the crisp inflections I’m used to from the Peerless Quartet or American Quartet. Perhaps this is how those earlier groups would have sounded if recording technology back then had been better.

This is a delightful collection that will send you to dancing once you surrender to its charm. Levinson is that rare breed of historian who actually lives what he studies, and we need more textbooks like this recording.

—B.A. Nilsson

Bobby Purify

Better to Have It (Proper)

Plain-spoken, affecting and effective, this is a comeback album both for Bobby Purify and for the pure soul music of the late ’60s and early ’70s. It’s a keeper akin to Don’t Give Up on Me, Solomon Burke’s comeback album of 2002; Dan Penn, who produced this, cowrote the title track for that lean, eclectic effort. Penn is the Alabama man who produced “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby” for the Box Tops, and wrote “The Dark End of the Street” for troubled Memphis soulman James Carr. Like those touchstones, Better to Have It packs authenticity and passion.

Some tunes are lame: “Only in America” is hokey if heartfelt; “Things Happen” is as throwaway as its title. But “I’m Qualified” boasts everyman conviction, “The Pond” is terrific and funny vernacular soul a la Jerry Reed’s “Amos Moses,” and “Nobody’s Home,” Penn’s take on poverty, is heartrending.

The songs wouldn’t ring so true without Purify’s tenor, however. The man born Ben Moore, whom Penn produced way back in “I’m Your Puppet,” a hit for James and Bobby Purify, sings with purity, perfect pitch and power. Blind since 1998, turned off to music-making until Ray Charles encouraged him, Purify hooked up with Penn through Hoy “Bucky” Lindsey, who cowrote the Burke disc’s title track with Penn a few years ago. They got Purify an album deal, backed him with sassy arrangements and the cream of Muscle Shoals and Memphis session men, and turned out a classic, flaws and all. Underrated, underheard, and the equal of contemporaries Dobie Gray, Ben E. King and Brook Benton, Bobby Purify earns his day in the sun with this rich album.

—Carlo Wolff

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