Sunday, December 23, 2007

Real Cool

Tommy McCook

Real Cool: The Jamaican King of The Saxophone '66-'77

Sanctuary Trojan US

2005 (Compilation Release) 1966-1977 (Original Releases)

Originally, I was unsure if a compilation such as this was appropriate for our discussion here at The Red Skull, even if the re-release did barely squeezed into our 2 years-and-older window. Conferring with my erstwhile co-blogger confirmed that it was a fit, so I'm gladly reviewing it here. Still, a little discussion on this point is in order.

It is this critic's opinion that the album itself is an art form. When arranged properly, the album is more than a collection of songs, but an artistic statement itself. Adding in the (often) ignored details of cover art and packaging reinforces this notion. This was the source of the trepidation on my part about the inclusion of a compilation. Interestingly, this was most true for a certain period of time. In the 50's and 60's, it was much more common for artists to release singles and EP's. Full length albums weren't the commodity they became in later years. In the present day, we seem to be returning to that mentality with the migration from physical to digital media. If an artist has recorded a great new song, why go through the process of recording filler for a full-length album when iTunes is just a click away?

For now, however, releasing full-length albums is still quite fashionable, much to my delight. In the case of Tommy McCook's golden age in Jamaica, however, that wasn't the case. Real Cool is a collection of the many singles, 7"s, and EPs he released for the legendary Trojan Records label. Compilations like this are a great boon for those like me who were born after these releases and didn't discover them for many years.

This massive (49 tracks!) two disc set contains the definitive solo work of McCook's best years as a pioneer of Ska, Dub, and Reggae. Additionally, it contains fantastic collaborations with other giants of the era. Bobby Ellis, Ron Wilson, The Aggrovators, The Supersonics, Lester Sterling, Lloyd Knibb, Lyn Taitt and others make appearances here. It is a fantastic collection of the the best years of Jamaican music. McCook shows himself to be an excellent band leader and soloist on his own compositions as well as those by Bunny Lee, Lester Sterling, and even Oscar Hammerstein. Through it all, McCook shows comfort and innovation all different kinds of musical styles. This is fantastic as in introduction to McCook's vast catalog, or as a source of some hard to find gems.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Sweet Sorrow

Hang Ups

A great deal of the charm in reviewing older albums is the joy we get from watching them age and discovering hidden subtleties and new interpretations of the ambiguity of previously concrete-seeming lyrics. As time passes, it becomes a challenge to tease apart the changing feelings we have of albums that have been nearly constantly playing for years. Do I feel differently because I've grown and changed as a person, or am I hearing something for the first time? The greatest albums grow to become rich layered works of art, never revealing their true intentions to us. We review them to seek to place them in historical context, both in the time they were released, and in the artist's canon. We review them to highlight unfairly overlooked entries. We review them to give a snapshot of our interpretations which will evolve in time themselves.

Then there are the other albums. Albums without any sense of ironic self-awareness or postmodern tricksterism. Albums who reveal themselves to you on the first listen (or even at the record store, while you look at the cover), and yet are fantastic all the same. Goldfinger's high water mark, 1998's Hang Ups, is one of these albums.

What is it about the dreaded sophomore album**? For decades it has been a stumbling block for so many artists. The one theme common to so many sophomore albums, it seems, is the departure. For whatever reason, most artists' second releases attempt to show a different direction in the music. Sometimes it builds on their existing reputation (see Dinosaur Jr's You're Living All Over Me or My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque), sometimes it damages it (See U2's October, or Weezer's Pinkerton***), but it's usually way out there and it usually takes for fucking ever to come out.

Hang Ups was a departure for Goldfinger, in that it's the their only record with a brass section (largely borrowed from assorted acts of the late-90's Orange County music scene.) Lots of ska-style upstroke and much less distortion than any of their other albums. Fishbone's Angelo Moore even drops by on a few tunes to lend his massive genre credibility to this effort.

Make no mistake, this was an album about goodbyes. From the opening track, a farewell to the feelings of being in control of one's own life, to the closer (Chris Cayton, a song reminiscing over the fate of an estranged friend), this album's tone remains constant. It's an album about loss and about the other kind of hang-up: things we can't get around. It's an album of questions without answers.
"Where are you now? Were you just toying with me? Did you need me to play all your high school games?"
"I wanna know you, is it too late to even try? I hardly know you, another 20 cent goodbye."
"Got some question about your life/don't how you'll ever make it through"

Don't let me convince you that this is a depressing teen angst anthem record. Through it all, the tone of the record is also of survival. It's rough, but we'll get through it. By the time the final song comes around, we're celebrating the time we had with our lost friend, not lamenting the end of the friendship (the reason for which is never even stated). And even the end of the album isn't concrete, as a hidden track (which is one of the strongest tracks on the album) greets the patient listener.

Hang Ups plays its hand openly from the beginning. From the CD booklet which is presented in the form of the yellow pages (with humorous ads), to the CD label which looks like the dialer on a rotary phone, to the album cover or a phone cord in the shape of a noose. Like a Mariano Rivera cut-fastball, you know what this album packs, but it does it so well that it doesn't matter.

** Have you ever noticed this is true of movies as well? The 2nd entry in any movie trilogy is the WTF one. Karate Kid II, Temple of Doom, Empire Strikes Back, the second Mad Max movie, you name it!

*** Whatever you may think of these albums now, they were commercial and critical failures when released.