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Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

By Stephen Grimstead

JUNE 29, 1998: 

Joe Ely, Twistin’ In The Wind (MCA)

Joe Ely is a shark – his only options appear to be movement or death.

His latest release, Twistin’ In The Wind, abounds with long, galloping rhythms, implying motion and distant horizons. Mysterious strangers, mythical figures, and uncontrolled passions are portrayed in a literate and lyrically rich style throughout the twelve songs found here. And while Ely is prowling the same waters he has inhabited for most of his career, there are new directions evident in his songwriting and musical approach. Where he once obsessed on the attempted escape from fate and destiny, he now spends equal time flying directly into the face of these looming realities. With maturity (which, in Ely’s case, does not imply stagnation) comes a degree of acceptance and, at times, a grim resignation regarding the end result of one’s path, whether willfully chosen or not.

His hot new release finds Joe Ely stalking fresh territory

Ely skillfully mixes his now familiar style with new musical touches. His venerable roadhouse attitude is challenged by the pugilistic nascency of the gospel-inspired chorus of “Roll Again,” and the ghostly chain gang despair and resentment of “You’re Working For The Man.” In each song, a basic understanding of the human condition is magnified by a formerly unused attention to primal vocal energies. And there are remnants of the stylistic departure that defined 1995’s Letter To Laredo. For instance, “I Will Lose My Life” sounds like the classic conjunto weeper with a strong country feel. (On the relative down side, Ely’s attempt to stretch his musical paradigm sometimes outstrips his ability, as in “Gulf Coast Blues.” This particular choice of twang/torch begs for a more supple vocal ability.)

But what really makes this album stronger than his last release is the welcome resurgence of the electric guitar(s), which alternate between soothing ambience and embracing aggression. Long-time cohorts David Grissom and Jesse Taylor are featured prominently here, to great advantage. Original Joe Ely Band member Lloyd Maines is in especially fine form, weaving his liquid steel through most every number with white hot subtlety. The opening track, “Up On The Ridge,” recollects his Musta Notta Gotta Lotta days with a long Taylor/Maines duel shooting sparks all over the place.

The centerpiece of the album has to be “Behind the Bamboo Shade.” This is a classic piece of Western songwriting reminiscent of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” with its hypnotically beautiful musical structure (especially guitarist Teye’s bold flamenco fretwork) contrasting the cruel deception and violent denouement of the tale. Sort of like a Cormac McCarthy tale set to great music.

Always restless, never content, Joe Ely has admirably incorporated new elements into yet another finely crafted, impassioned piece of work. And while a few of his innovative touches fall flat, it’s good to see the old shark still prowling. – David Kendall

Charlie Haden and Kenny Barron, Night And The City (Verve)

This relaxed and unassuming pairing of Haden and pianist Kenny Barron continues a trend of duet albums for the legendary bassist. Haden collaborated with pianist Hank Jones in 1995 on the masterpiece Steal Away, a remarkable collection of spirituals and folk tunes. Haden and Pat Metheny recorded Beyond The Missouri Sky last year, melding folk and country motifs into a brilliant and highly potent blend. By all accounts, Haden’s recent duet records have been stunning, highly unique events.

In the wake of this superlative legacy, Night And The City comes as something of a disappointment. Not that Barron is any musical slouch – far from it, for Barron’s Things Unseen was one of last year’s most exciting recordings. It seems that the inspiration and insight that have fueled Haden’s recent duets is missing from this recording, and the two masters fall back on old warhorse tunes like “Body and Soul” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is” to fill out the disc.

The feel is late-night, romantic, and almost too relaxed. The lack of a fresh and original concept for this outing leaves you hungry for more. Sure, it’s very comfortable, and the playing is warm and inviting, but the brilliance and exciting uniqueness that made both Steal Away and Beyond The Missouri Sky so appealing are absent here. After a dozen or so listenings the longing for something more compelling, more original, and more creative from these two masters overrides the pleasantness of the music. You just know that Barron and Haden are capable of much more than a disc of rehashed standards. – Gene Hyde

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