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September 14, 2007


Not Comics: My Five Favorite Albums

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Closing Time, Tom Waits, Asylum, 1973
I love the frog-voiced, glitter-tossing, bastard son of Bertolt Brecht version of Tom Waits as much as the next 100 graying hipsters in my age group, but the music of his to which I keep returning is on this first studio album, with its winsome dance hall numbers and sashaying near-country pop. Closing Time occasionally overreaches; there's a look-at-me-I-belong swagger to some of the turns of phrase, a plea to sit at the big songwriters' table communicated with a shaggy wink that would become far more charming realized by the bruised, weary quality of Waits' later vocals. But the songs save one or two are sweet and good-natured, and you can hear the best parts of the 1970s Southern California rock scene in numbers like "Ol '55" and "Rosie." I don't know if there's a lovelier song about being young than "Old Shoes (& Picture Postcards)," or a more adorably sentimental one about what young people think growing old is like than "Martha." It all charms, it all works, tip the piano player on your way out.

*****

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In Philadelphia, Wilson Pickett, Atlantic, 1970
The signature offerings of a great and I think largely wasted talent, Wilson Pickett's strutting vocals and manly growls are buoyed here by sprightly orchestration from the great Philly soul production team of Gamble and Huff, the way little kids might dress their favorite, gruff uncle in a brightly colored sweater. At a distance the combination of rough-edged R&B shouter and emerging disco godfathers seems like the worst possible grouping, but the producers soften and restrain Pickett's excesses and redirect his energy into an album of upbeat, timeless pop. With a chorus that makes you open and close your fists in time, like it or not, "Help the Needy" sounds like one of those out of left field, perfect, top 40 hits by a one-hit wonder. On In Philadelphia it's surrounded by a progressive showcase of high-energy tunes, starting with the laugh out loud "Run, Joey, Run" and culminating in one of the sunniest braggart songs ever recorded, "International Playboy." Humorous, lively and wise, it's the musical version of every adult party you sat on the stairs and eavesdropped on.

*****

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Live at the Harlem Square Club, Sam Cooke, RCA, 1963
The great gospel and pop singer rips into a club set with a fervor that belies his status as a then-fading star. If Cooke wasn't slowing down in terms of record sales or concert appearances or Mike Douglas Show guest spots by the time he took the Miami stage, he was at least becoming the kind of performer for whom you imagined a long and difficult third act. The concert's best moments are a feverish, rave-up version of "You'll Send Me" that opens another song entirely, and an almost relaxed medley blending "It's All Right" into "I Love You (For Sentimental Reasons)" that includes a partial sing-along. At times you can practically feel the heat coming through Cooke's microphone; in the pauses you can sense the reverence audience to performer.

*****

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The Next Hundred Years, Ted Hawkins, Geffen, 1994
Most Ted Hawkins fans prefer the leaner and probably greater Songs From Venice Beach, but I love the almost florid quality of the orchestration here. It's like watching Fred Astaire come alive on those rare moments he was paired with a dancer of his talent and relative charisma. The way Hawkins voice floats into the space created for it is as thrilling as listening to him power through the acoustic numbers by which he made his name. The songs in Next Hundred Years are strong, too, particularly "Biloxi," "There Stands the Glass," and the irresistible "Green-Eyed Girl." I have a soft spot for "The Good and the Bad" and its devastating chorus; it was my first encounter with Hawkins, stopping me dead in my tracks as it bled from an Oxford American giveaway CD on which it was included some 10 years ago.

He'll hurt you
Yes, just for the sake of hurting you
And he'll hate you
If you try to love him just the same
He'll use you
And everything you have to offer him
On your way, girl
Get out and find you someone new


Hawkins had one of the great voices, under appreciated for the lack of a recognizable genre in which he recorded, regarded with suspicion I think because of its sustained vulnerability and his almost too-perfect past as street performer and lost soul. While his life story certainly sounds like something a team of writers would prepare for a made-up story to appear on NPR, making it easy to see someone falling for the romanticism inherent in his difficult, never realized potential, listening to that voice should end any and all questions of authenticity. Hawkins is one of the few artists where you can learn to sing his songs note for note on your own and perform them perfectly but when you play the originals you hear nothing of your version in his. He was one of a kind, in the best possible way.

*****

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You're the Top: Cole Porter in the 1930s, Various, Koch International Classics, 1992

A compilation of songs from Cole Porter's assault on the stage musical in the 1930s organized by the show in which they originally appeared, the greatness of this three-disc set is in the wide variety of interpreters on hand. Sometimes they appear one right after another, to fascinating effect. Listening to Louis Armstrong crush and own everything he sings here makes you feel bad for anyone who tried to perform the same music, and perhaps even every single member of his direct peer group. His take on Porter's casually brutal toast to regret "Just One of Those Things" may be the greatest song ever sung by an artist with what seems like an intentional disconnect from the lyrics.

There are a few forgotten figures present like New York cabaret singer Mabel Mercer, an oddity or two like Jimmy Stewart (who's quite respectable), and even Porter himself in good voice and possessed of a songwriter's care with phrasing. I think my favorite cut comes from Bobby Short, whose normally forgettable but pleasant summer breeze of a voice finds an affecting measure of longing in the ridiculous "Rap Tap on Wood." You can feel Short lose himself in a couple of the notes; close your eyes and you can envision the elegant showman, at the piano, as he softly shudders his way back into the moment.
 
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