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These Are the Days

The The
45 RPM: The Singles of The The (Epic/Legacy)

45 RPM provides a fine, two-decade overview of the work of Matt Johnson, one of the more insightful and incisive songwriters of the postpunk era, who has made records with a variety of excellent bands under his difficult-to-use-properly-in-a-sentence The The moniker. The contents of this new album may come as a something of a surprise to devoted fans of Soul Mining, an early ’80s masterpiece and the most widely played The The album on this side of the big salty, as that record’s three signature songs are all represented here in radically different versions that those featured thereon: “Uncertain Smile” and “Perfect” are pulled from their original single releases, and “This Is the Day” is culled from 1994’s Disinfected EP. These stripped-down versions are surprisingly effective, though, with special accolades for David Johansen’s fabulous harmonica work on “Perfect.”

New(ish) material includes a gorgeous alternate version of “DecemberSunlight (Cried Out)” from 2000’s underappreciated NakedSelf, a re-edited version of “Sweet Bird of Truth” (perhaps the most provocative and disturbing pop single ever issued, with such key lyrical lines as: “Ain’t never been to church or believed in Jesus Christ/But I’m praying that God’s with you . . . when you die”), and the previously unreleased “Pillar Box Red” and “Deep Down Truth,” both nice, latter-day cuts with a nice, latter-day The The sound. In between, Johnson inserts seven other originals, plus “I Saw the Light” from his tribute to Hank Williams, Hanky Panky. It’s a nice rendition, but it feels out of place here next to such cynical and topical masterpieces as “Heartland” (wherein Johnson notes of his English homeland “This is the 51st state of the U.S.A.”) and 1989’s “Armageddon Days (Are Here Again),” a discourse on the role of religion in war that’s distressingly timely in the era of Al Qaeda. Worth a listen, or 10—is this excellent introduction to the work of one of modern pop music’s most intelligent writers and performers.

—J. Eric Smith

Little Charlie and the Nightcats
That’s Big (Alligator)

In any musical tradition, there are those who expand the boundaries and there are preservationists. Little Charlie and the Nightcats are a hot quartet who have long hewed to Chicago blues and West Coast swing, and their latest 14 tracks stay the course. The point of That’s Big is that when it ain’t broke, you don’t fix it.

Charlie Baty works the fretboard of his hollow-body Gibson with a well-honed sense of restraint. His jazzy playing is understated, but he can still send up cascades of notes when the moment demands. As a vocalist, Rick Estrin is more of a crooner than a belter, which may explain why the Nightcats have leaned toward humorous material over the years. He is one the best blues harmonica players on the scene today, though, and his chops evoke the muses of past masters such as Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson II.

The title cut, an original (as are all but one of the songs), is a sly paean to portly women. Estrin’s harmonica recalls Little Walter’s jazzy phrasing in “Livin’ Good,” while a guest horn section provides an uptown backdrop. The swingy instrumental “Bluto’s Back in Town” showcases Little Charlie and guest Rusty Zinn swapping insouciant guitar lines. Robert Johnson’s “Steady Rollin’ Man,” the only cover here, is a rare harmonica-and-stand-up-bass duet that is a re- creation of the Willie Dixon and Sonny Boy Williamson II rendition of the song.

—Glenn Weiser

New Band
Partch and Drummond (Innova)

Dean Drummond has been involved with the music of Harry Partch since he joined the composer’s Venice, Calif., ensemble while still in high school. A few years after Partch’s death in 1974, Drummond cofounded the New Band, who have been invaluable in both maintaining Partch’s invented instruments and preserving and expanding his musical legacy. This disc offers works by both Partch and Drummond. The former is presented in “Eleven Intrusions,” a suite of relatively short pieces written in the late ’40s. They utilize mixed instrumentation and spoken-sung texts by a variety of poets. That is followed by the nine-minute “Dark Brother.” Completed in 1943, it was the first piece Partch wrote for his then-recently-constructed chromelodeon. Along with an adapted viola, the kithara and a bass marimba, it provides a setting for the final paragraphs of “God’s Lonely Man” by Thomas Wolfe.

Drummond’s own pieces explore a similar terrain of microtonal accompaniment and text. “Before the Last Laugh” originally was developed as a live soundtrack to a 1925 silent film, while “Congressional Record” uses text from four speeches extracted from the publication of the same name. The mix of operatic bearing and contemporary issues commingle to create a whole at once jarring and timeless.

—David Greenberger

Hoagy Carmichael and Friends
Stardust Melody (Bluebird)

Hoagy Carmichael was hip enough to record with Bix Beiderbecke in 1927 and with Art Pepper in 1956. His song “Star Dust” is a cornerstone of American popular music. He had an easygoing presence in movies, with notable roles in To Have and Have Not and The Best Years of Our Lives. And his songs have been covered by anyone who dips at all into the standards canon.

The cuts on Bluebird’s Stardust Melody were chosen by Richard Sudhalter, whose Carmichael biography was recently published. Although Carmichael was a compelling performer of his own material, others put more definitive stamps on the songs. But Carmichael’s roots were very much in the early years of jazz, and this collection mines the strengths of the RCA Victor catalogue to present versions that are more jazz- than vocal-driven, all recorded between 1925 and 1947. And the 1947 cut “Rockin’ Chair” by Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars is a throwback to the prewar style.

“Rockin’ Chair” makes two other appearances: in a small-group session with Mildred Bailey, who made a trademark out of the song, and in Hoagy’s own 1929 version. Although the latter, and its sessionmate “March of the Hoodlums,” are billed as previously unreleased, they in fact appeared with all the other Carmichael-featured cuts on the 1989 Bluebird CD Stardust and Much More.

Sudhalter’s notes put the collection in just the perspective it needs: “The very idea of composing terrified, yet fascinated Carmichael. Self-taught, barely able to read or notate music, he found himself groping, as he’d have put it, beyond his limitations.” But he produced “Riverboat Shuffle,” which Beiderbecke recorded in 1924 (for the Gennett label, so we get the Chicago-based Benson Orchestra’s uncharacteristically hot 1925 Victor waxing), and “Star Dust” soon after that.

Carmichael’s debut recording of his best-loved song was also for Gennett and featured a small band, but he gave it a more thoughtful treatment as a piano solo for Victor in 1933, and that’s the cut that leads off this CD. No vocal version is included, but that’s not what this collection is about.

Not that there’s any lack of vocalists. Carmichael himself sings “Washboard Blues” in a mushy Paul Whiteman arrangement from 1927; he’s also the crooner for “Lazy River,” “Come Easy, Go Easy Love,” “Sing It Way Down Low,” “Moon Country” and “Lazy Bones.” Ethel Waters gets two spots: “Old Man Harlem” and “Bread and Gravy.” Also included are vocals from trumpet players Louis Armstrong (a “Rockin’ Chair” duet with Jack Teagarden) and Hot Lips Page (“Small Fry”) among others.

The jazz quotient is very high and the remasterings are as good as you can expect from material this old, but certainly better than some earlier CD releases. And what with the attention George Gershwin keeps grabbing as the quintessential American songwriter, it’s about time Carmichael got some deserved recognition.

—B.A. Nilsson

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