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Vintage Blues

Leadbelly
When the Sun Goes Down, Vol. 5: Take This Hammer (RCA/Bluebird)

Various Artists
When the Sun Goes Down, Vol. 6: Poor Man’s Heaven (RCA/Bluebird)

Following up on the success of last year’s four-volume vintage blues collection, Bluebird gives us two more very different entries in the series.

Take This Hammer collects Huddie Ledbetter’s Bluebird recordings of June 1940, many of which were made with the Golden Gate Quartet. Alan Lomax, who was featuring the artists on radio at the time, persuaded RCA to record them, and the resulting sides capture Leadbelly at his peak, with a representative core of his repertory.

Don’t expect the silken harmonies of the Golden Gate Quartet’s other recordings. This was rough, barely rehearsed stuff, the roughness justified by Lomax’s wish to capture the spirit of field hollers. Although much of this material was CD-released some 15 years ago as part of the short-lived Heritage Series, these are the complete sessions with slightly better sound—not that it ever was all that great. And it deserves the moniker “The Secret History of Rock & Roll” emblazoned across the cover.

Not so Vol. 6, a collection of Depression-era songs titled Poor Man’s Heaven. It’s a charming collection of oddities nevertheless, with material much of which previously was mined by Book-of-the-Month Records and Bear Family Records. New to this collection are items like Frank Crumit’s funny “Take of the Ticker” and the High Hatters’ “Ten Cents a Dance”—but the latter pales beside Ruth Etting’s version. And who wants to hear the forgotten Milton Douglas operatize “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” when Bing laid down the definitive version?

The choice stuff is at the end of the CD, when it shifts into rural mode with selections like Mac McClintock’s “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” Uncle Dave Macon’s “All in Down and Out Blues” and a handful of thoroughly obscure material. The much-recorded Rev. J.M. Gates preaches that “President Roosevelt Is Everybody’s Friend,” Woody Guthrie sings “Dusty Old Dust” (better known as “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh”), and, among the dance-band numbers, there’s Alex Bartha’s sarcastic “It Must Be Swell to Be Laying out Dead,” a 1932 release that lasted a week in the shops before an offended RCA exec yanked and destroyed it. Or so he thought (it was previously available only on a costly four-CD Bear Family set).

If you have the first four volumes, be prepared for something a little different with these two. But go ahead and buy them. It’ll encourage RCA to mine other gems from those overstuffed vaults.

—B.A. Nilsson

Dressy Bessy
Little Music (Kindercore)

Since their beginnings in 1997, Denver-based Dressy Bessy have brought forth a pair of albums, an EP, and numerous singles and compilation tracks. It is the latter entries that comprise Little Music, 13 songs that serve to elucidate the band’s history. The quartet are built around singer Tammy Ealom and guitarist John Hill, who’s also a member of Apples in Stereo. Their upbeat, streamlined pop is anchored by a rhythm section of transplanted New Yorkers. Catchy background vocals are but one element in this set of hook-filled songs. Wonderfully fat and fuzzy guitars create a tapestry that the vocals languish upon with a confidently regal bearing, with propulsion all the while remaining gently incessant. All of which makes for the very embodiment of robust glee. Dressy Bessy are the sound of girl-group pop and bubblegum music filtered through the muscle of Hüsker Dü.

—David Greenberger

The Luxury Liners
Overbored (Litterbug)

When Big Star did it on their first two albums—swimming bravely against the early-’70s tides of bloated importance—it went down in the annals as “power pop.” When Evan Dando did it—most notably on 1993’s Come on Feel the Lemonheads—it was deemed “alternative pop-rock” (and overshadowed by Dando’s pin-up image and inexplicable boasts about hitting the crack pipe). The truth is, when artists tether unsophisticated, swooning melodies to booming guitars (Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet, Velvet Crush, et al.), it’s real easy to run out of euphemisms, forget the hand-wringing over categories and just get lost in the sweet noise—especially in an age when such gut-wrenching, post-Nirvana seriousness dominates the rock format.

Add Nashville power trio the Luxury Liners to a long list of groups trolling the melodic rock waters with their towering, heart-throbbing love-rock. And if the world is a just place, leader David Dewese—who looks as if his DNA was carved at the genetic crossroads between Dando, Thurston Moore and Stephen Malkmus—will reach a wider audience with his top-notch tunes and not be relegated to the culthood of Alex Chilton or the goofy, anti-prolific existence of Dando.

The album opener, “Sunshine,” is a sweet slab of mousse that could be the Archies or Tommy James blaring sugar-coated ditties through the Who’s Marshall stacks. “Waiting for the Sun” (yes, another tune about sunshine) is drop-dead-perfect pop-rock (and the best song here), while the booming chorus of “Woman” (“All I need is a woman! To brighten up my day!”) would be camp or cliché in another group’s hands. Other highlights include “15 Again,” “Restless” and the title track, wherein the sentiment, “I hate your guts, you drive me nuts,” doesn’t sound so menacing when cast across a fat bed of guitar crunch and delivered in Dewese’s earnestly smooth baritone. This is one of my favorites of the year.

—Erik Hage

Dump
A Grown-Ass Man (Shrimper)

Dump is the ongoing whenever-he-feels like it side project of Yo La Tengo’s James McNew. His first new full-length release in five years, A Grown-Ass Man, is equal parts lo-fi song charm, honest and direct singing, and sly musical surprises. It’s a true solo project, and McNew plays everything, with just a couple guest vocal appearances, most notably by Sue Garner, who duets on the perfectly romantic “Once Upon a Time” (one of the set’s three covers, the two others being from the songbooks of Thin Lizzy and the Isley Brothers). This is nearly an hour of endearing performances, well on their way to becoming enduring. No fireworks, just one utterly believable moment after another, quietly moving into your head and heart.

—David Greenberger


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