Listening Log 03: Booker T., Clem Snide, Staff Benda Bilili

Posted by Chris Herrington on Tue, May 12, 2009 at 3:11 PM

Two cover stories in three weeks, not counting our Beale Street Music Fest guide, has kept Listening Log dormant for a little while. Hopefully that can change for the rest of the summer, as there are lots of records to catch up on.

On deck for this third Listening Log: A Stax legend, brainy folk-rock, and a Congolese street band:

Potato Hole — Booker T. (Anti-): On this first solo album in more than 20 years, the MGs bandleader and Stax legend is assisted by the Drive-By Truckers — known more for their songs than their sound — and Neil Young, who downplays his own guitar-hero bona fides to play judicious sideman here. Young and the Truckers have made a bundle of brilliant records between them, but needless to say they aren't exactly the funkiest white guys with whom Jones has ever worked. These collaborators make for better press hooks than musical ones (the cover of Outkast's "Hey Ya" similarly feels like publicity bait). There are many lesser-knowns that would have made for presumably more interesting music. Though that familiar organ tone is the first sound you hear on Potato Hole, this is almost as much of an instrumental guitar album as an organ one, with even Jones himself joining in on the instrument. Jones is a deserving legend, but it's hard to imagine this record would have gotten much attention if tied to a different bio. It's not as compelling, for instance, as the 2009 debut from local MGs inheritors the City Champs. ("Space City," "Potato Hole")
Grade: B-

Hungry Bird — Clem Snide (429): Clem Snide's Eef Barzelay is a frequently dazzling, occasionally impenetrable songwriter, and while this first band album in four years has more musical juice than his two solo albums (albeit considerably less than the band's 2001 peak The Ghost of Fashion), the lack of specificity in this batch of Barzelay's songs makes it difficult to grasp. Gone are the self-aware video hoes, Joan Jetts of Arc, and autobiographical new dads that have populated some of Barzelay's better songs. A direct closing plea aside, these modest little folk-rock songs reach high, occasionally beyond their grasp, with impressionistic, sometimes stream-of-consciousness intimations of wonder and doom. ("Born a Man," "Beard of Bees," "With All My Heart")
Grade: B

Tres Tres Fort — Staff Benda Bilili (Crammed Discs): From the same Western promoters who brought you the Konono series — the rare recent Afropop to find an audience among American alt-rock fans — comes this oddball discovery: A band of aging, handicapped Congolese street musicians found playing on the grounds of the zoo in Kinshasa, where most of this three-years-in-the-making debut album was recorded. The band's ranks are swelled by a rhythm section of street kids, starring 17-year-old Roger Landu riffing and soloing on a homemade, one-string electric lute he fashioned with a tin can.

In other words, this exotic backstory is rife with red flags, but Tres Tres Fort would demand attention even if the music-makers were as relatively square and normal as Orchestra Baobab. This acoustic music is usually lively, sometimes stately, always beautiful, redolent at times of rumba, country blues, doo-wop. The aged voices harmonize in a manner that would be astounding if it wasn't perfectly common for top-notch African pop, and the kid torpedoes any creeping sense of folkie dignity by wailing away on what, in his hands, sounds like a musical saw with note-by-note dexterity; otherworldly and hypnotic. ("Sala Mosala," "Poliomyelite," "Tonkara")
Grade: A-

A clip of Staff Benda Bilili:

Comments (4)

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I've got to say I'm really enjoying the Booker T album -- and the MGs have backed up Neil Young off and on for more than a decade. Don't forget that Jones has a country soul -- his work with Willie Nelson constitutes some of my favorite '70s oeuvre.

re: the Afro pop, have you heard the Ghanian taxi drivers album yet? Pretty genius -- here's a link to NPR:…

Posted by Andria Lisle on 05/14/2009 at 4:37 PM

Willie has a long-standing jazz/blues aspect to his sound and made for a great collaborator with Jones on Stardust.

I'm one of the Drive-By Truckers biggest fans, but they're great for their songs, voices, personalities, and sometimes their guitars. Unlike their heroes Lynyrd Skynyrd, they don't have much of a rhythm section. (I think their collaboration with Bettye LaVette is similarly a record over-praised for conceptual reasons rather than purely musical ones).

To me, the minor charms of Potato Hole have everything to do with the knowledge the listener brings about who is doing the playing, not as much about what's actually being played.

Posted by Chris Herrington on 05/14/2009 at 4:56 PM

I want to be one of the DBT's biggest fans, and individually love the guys in that band and everything they've done to reinvigorate the Muscle Shoals musical tradition, but get kinda lost whenever I listen to their albums.

LaVette was similarly mis-matched at the Blues Music Awards last week -- what I wouldn't give to see her backed up by the Bo-Keys or the Tearjerkers.

You're dead on with that last statement -- so much of what I listen to has an invisible asterisk hanging beside it, standing in for a great musical pedigree that's not always apparent in its current incarnation.

But, all footnotes aside, I'll stand by Potato Hole as a record with a lot of depth.

Posted by Andria Lisle on 05/14/2009 at 5:35 PM

Maybe my expectations were low because I thought Bettye/DBT was a tone deaf match to begin with, but I was completely taken in by Scene of the Crime. There were a few tracks where the mismatch was obvious but over all it pushed the right buttons. There's no "That Man Made a Woman out of Me" on the disc, but as a showcase for LaVette's voice it delivers even where it's odd. As intergenerational team-ups go I put it on a shelf next to Van Lear Rose. A lesser record, sure, but with lots of new light streaming through those old windows. And like Van Lear Rose the revelation is in the title artist's voice, not necessarily the support, inventive as it may be.

Posted by Chris Davis on 05/14/2009 at 6:27 PM
Showing 1-4 of 4

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