The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions
Miles Davis left a huge discography, with an amazing number of five-star recordings. Among those, A Tribute to Jack Johnson stands out. Just before it, Miles had released In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, groundbreaking albums that helped create jazz fusion and establish standards of excellence for the new music. Jack Johnson was recorded soon after those, with many of the same musicians, using the same recording technique of letting the tape run in the studio and then cutting and pasting together parts of the sessions to make an album. Jack Johnson is like the culmination of a trilogy, as if Miles moved from using rock influences and decided to just make a rock album. That approach makes it stand out.
Guitarist John McLaughlin also makes it stand out. This 5-CD box set documents the recordings from 11 sessions in 16 weeks of 1970. McLaughlin wasn't a member of Miles' working band, but he was the co-star of these sessions. Real fame would come a couple years later with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but his playing is fantastic here -- inventive, adventurous and incredibly distinctive. He seems to invigorate Miles, too, who lays down some of his most fiery, intense blowing ever. There are great contributions from others, as well, such as the soprano saxophone of Steve Grossman and the abstract, echoplex-laden madness from guitarist Sonny Sharrock that never made it onto the original album.
The recording method of this set might cause some difficulty for all but hard-core fans. There are at least two versions of almost every song, with six takes of "Willie Nelson" and five of "Go Ahead John." Miles was experimenting in the studio, giving his musicians little direction and seeing where they went, then culling pieces or snippets to edit into an album. With selective listening, it's easy to hear the remarkable difference in each take. Listen to the recordings the way Miles and producer Teo Macero did, and you'll find moments of brilliance everywhere.
Track to burn: "Right Off (Take 10)"
-- Brian Falk
Despite the fact that they broke up a few years back, Harvey Milk left behind a sound still able to cause coronary palpitations, even at low volume. It was part Black Sabbath with a touch of the Melvins, but mostly it was symphonic math rock that grew out of the darkest corners of their turf in Athens, GA. The rumbling bass loosens dirt on the ceiling; the guitar's impact sways from a caress to a sledgehammer, sometimes in the same song, and the drums stitch it all up. There's the atonal deconstruction of jazz in "The Pigeon (I Like My Finger)," the raw bombast of "Women Dig It," and the punk epic "I Don't Know How To Live My Life," all straddling hard punk and, yes, psychedelic rock. Even the "ballad" "Easy Thing" manages to disturb while temporarily soothing eardrums, which wait for the next assault. The demise of Harvey Milk left a gaping hole in noise rock and the musical cauldron of Athens. There are other singles, but this collection documents the trio that recorded through 1996 and the singles released during their short, bright life.
Track to burn: "Yer Mouse Gets My Dander Up"
Galactic has a well-deserved reputation as a strong concert band, and on most of their records they have tried to capture that same vibe. That's a tough task, so most of their records have been solid but unremarkable. Ruckus takes a different approach, and it pays off. Inspired by some of the hip hop and techno artists they've shared dates with, they decided to use some new equipment, techniques, and talent. Saxophonist Ben Ellman and drummer Stanton Moore created some programmed and looped tracks, and alternative hip hop producer Dan the Automator rounded out the new sound. It's still Galactic, though, so the southern-fried funk flavor remains strong. It's vaguely reminiscent of what the Beastie Boys did with Check Your Head. The Beasties invigorated their hip hop sound by incorporating old-school funk and soul; Galactic rejuvenated their funk sound by going in the opposite direction, adding electronics, for example, to an acoustic guitar and harmonica. The result is darker and heavier, but a lot of fun. Singer Theryl de' Clouet has a good voice, but bad lyrics are still Galactic's weak spot. Ruckus focuses more on instrumentals and the overall sound, though, and that helps hide the problem.
Track to burn: "Doomed"