Short Cuts

The Neville Brothers
Live at Tipitina's (1982)
(Rhino)

Before they became the mere soundtrack for the increasingly treacly solo career of vocalist and Linda Ronstadt collaborator Aaron Neville, the Neville Brothers were the embodiment of New Orleans' vast music history -- from the second-line shimmy of Professor Longhair and the raucous R&B boogie of Huey Smith to the percolating funk of the Meters (which featured brother Art Neville on piano). Sadly, as Aaron's work continues to move closer and closer to formulaic, spit-polished adult pop, the Brothers have lost some of their rhythmic punch in the recording studio as well as the concert stage. Fortunately Rhino's Live at Tipitina's -- a two-disc repackage of the '80s live albums Nevillization and Nevillization II -- returns some of the sparkle to the Brothers' tarnished legacy.

Recorded over two nights in 1982, just after the release of the masterful Fiyo on the Bayou, the Tipitina's sets captured much of the Nevilles' long-revered nightclub intensity (something even Fiyo managed only in spots) and documented the group's eclectic, genre-spanning reach. They move effortlessly from the graceful thump of "Big Chief" to the antiwar chant "Fear, Hate, Envy, Jealousy," from a shimmering recasting of Aaron's '60s hit "Tell It Like It Is" to a definitive romp through Bobby Womack's "Woman's Gotta Have It," spotlighting more than just the breathtaking beauty of Aaron's singing.

Charles' sax work on the cover of Duke Ellington's "Caravan" is sinuously erotic, while Cyril's percussion work is steeped in the African hoodoo rhythms that provided the bedrock for the Crescent City sound. And on songs as hoary as "My Girl" and "Fever," or as trite as "Dance Your Blues Away," the rhythm section of bassist Daryl Johnson and drummer Willie Green is solidly working as one.

That isn't to say that Live at Tipitina's will make you forget such concert benchmarks as Otis Redding's Live in Europe or any of James Brown's Apollo sets. Even at their finest, the Neville Brothers were always best experienced live, in a tight, sweaty room with a steady flow of beer and an ass-bumping dance floor. But enough of that excitement is heard here -- the wallop that precedes the tinkly intro to "Fever"; the delirious wobble of "Little Liza Jane" -- to remind you that, before Aaron decided he wanted to be Perry Como and before the brothers succumbed to the weightless production hand of Daniel Lanois, the Neville Brothers were, if nothing else, a hell of a live band.

-- John Floyd

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Acme
(Matador)

Having pushed the psychobilly punk oeuvre to its limits (over the course of six records in the past eight years), the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion explores more sonically ambitious territory on Acme. Using 1995's Experimental Remixes EP as something of a blueprint -- the disc featured mixes of Blues Explosion songs by the likes of Beck, Beastie Boy Mike D, Moby, and Wu-Tang's Genius -- the band asked numerous producers and mixers to tinker with its new material. As a result the Automator (Dan Nakamura), Steve Albini, Dub Narcotic's Calvin Johnson, Atari Teenage Riot's Alec Empire, and Memphis legend Jim Dickinson tweak and twist surprising sounds from the group.

Nakamura mixed 6 of Acme's 13 tracks, adding both hip-hop flourishes and deep grooves to Blues Explosion's raunchy, propulsive tunes. With his input the songs are more funky than punky. On "Do You Wanna Get Heavy?" for instance, Spencer sings softly over acoustic guitars and fluttering drums as a falsetto voice doo-wops in between. After he name-checks various soulsters -- including Stax greats Isaac Hayes and Rufus Thomas -- Judah Bauer and Russell Simins break the spell with rock-heavy guitar and drum licks, respectively. But before long the rock histrionics fall away, and the quiet storm vibe re-emerges with more street-corner doo-wop.

Nakamura works in a few other surprises, as well. The lively "Blue Green Olga" features pristine background vocals by Luscious Jackson's Jill Cunniff, "Attack" musters digital hardcore mayhem out of Alec Empire, and "Torture" cops the feel of Emotional Rescue-era Stones. Best of all, "Talk About the Blues" blends Bauer's stinging guitar, Simins' taut drums, and Spencer's smart-ass attitude with pulsing keyboards, wild-style scratching, and short wave radio effects courtesy of Skeleton Key's Rick Lee. Carved from rock, rap, and funk, it's an imaginatively crafted sound sculpture.

The rest of Acme has an eccentric edge to it. Full of strangled guitar, transistorized vocals, and sampled studio banter, "Bernie" (recorded by Calvin Johnson and mixed by Nick Sansano, who's worked with Sonic Youth and Public Enemy) rides a grinding groove through a salacious nursery rhyme, while "Lovin' Machine" (mixed by Jim Waters, co-producer of the previous two Blues Explosion records) recycles hunks of funk that fall in and out of the mix. The record ends with a shambling piece that reprises the opening track, "Calvin." Constructed by Jim Dickinson, the tune uses off-kilter trombone and samples of bluesman Othar Turner's voice to turn Memphis soul inside out and upside down. It's an appropriately odd ending to a strange and wonderful disc that blurs boundaries and crosses color lines.

-- John Lewis

 
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