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Music Reviews

Millie Jackson
Between the Sheets
House of Hits 66748-77003-2 Soul / Pop

We have a very good friend whose appreciation of popular culture rivals our own. All we have to do is say, "You know, they're good kids…." And he'll immediately respond, "…I think they're gonna make it." We usually bust out laughing. This little dialogue comes from If You're Not Back in Love By Monday, the closing tune from Millie Jackson's historic recording, Feelin' Bitchy.

There is no way Millie Jackson was unaware of how much campy fun she was. From her sagely advice for the young kids to a rather strong threat to her lover ("If you stop now, I'll kill 'ya!"), Millie Jackson was what made the 1970s bearable. Unless you were there, it's hard to imagine how completely wild and original an LP called Feelin' Bitchy really was. In 1977, it was a refreshing alternative to the Lynard Skinner, Jackson Brown and Grateful Dead songs that were almost religious anthems to our fellow classmates. Earlier in the '70s, as a long-haired leftwing hippie love-child, we loved and understood the absurdity of our connection to Millie's plea for tolerance, A Child of God (It's Hard to Believe). Our favorite lyric was always: "I know a woman / Who steals from her mother / And that same woman / She gets drunk from one day to another / She kicks her kids out in the streets / Puts another man under their father's sheets / And I find it hard / Oaoaoaow! I find it hard to believe she's a child of God!" Right on!

As a singer, Millie was fine. She sounded a lot like Gladys Knight's nastier little sister who would do most anything for attention. Once she realized what boys like, there was no stopping her. This new collection of Millie's hits, Between the Sheets, downplays the "royal rappin'" that Millie was famous for, presumably to validate her as a classic R&B singer. Unfortunately, most of her material was mediocre and it was the combination of sexual innuendo, soul music and her chats that made her such a gas. The raps are cut from some of the songs (as in If You're Not Back in Love by Monday) and that's a shame. But her best and most famous opus, All The Way Lover is here in all its glory. Millie pleads with the women and the men to be all the way lovers, touching on men's vanity ("He cutah than you!"), homosexuality ("I don't blame some of these men!") and personal hygeine ("He can't run his fingers through your hair….as nappy as it is!"). There should have been even more heart to hearts with Millie to make this an essential collection. Still, there's a lot to enjoy on Between the Sheets and we hope it re-ignites an interest in Millie Jackson.

Ibrahim Ferrer
Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer
World Circuit / Nonesuch 79532-2 Cuba / Latin

Who would have thought the world would have gone so nuts for these wonderful old-time Cuban musicians? We wonder why but in the end, who really cares? What surprises us even more than the popularity of these Buena Vista recordings is not that traditional Cuban music started to catch on but that the country-flavored guaira style beat out the much hotter Afro-Cuban dance tunes.

Ibrahim Ferrer is a great Cuban vocalists but the hype that he's the Cuban Nat "King" Cole is bound to disappoint. Also disappointing would be be to expect the same level of quality that the other Buena Vista recordings have enjoyed. This is a production problem rather than Señor Ferrer's. There's a general sloppiness to the recording that we enjoy on some level, but given that Ferrer has such a limited chance to record, it's a shame. The horns are often out of tune and sloppy and Ry Cooder's continually lame (but thankfully brief) guitar solos mar the event.

The songs are what could be called the Great Cuban Songbook. From Arsenio Rodriguez to Beny Moré, it's all here. And it's all been done better before but it's more important that a great singer like Ferrer be given a chance to be heard.

To sum up, we like it but it should have been much better.

Crystal Gayle
Sings the Heart & Soul of Hoagy Carmichael
Platunum 9362Vocals

Tony Bennett
Sings the Ellington Hot & Cool
RPM / Columbia Records CK 63668 Vocals

Maybe the modern consumer really is pretty stupid, ("Honey! Look! Gershwin tribute. Equals good. Buy. Yes!"), but we really don't understand the thinking behind most "tribute" albums. Occasionally, these concepts work (like Carol Sloane's Ellington tribute, the various Wynton Marsalis tributes, Streisand's first Broadway album), but in general, these tributes seem arbitrary and unnecessarily restricting. Perhaps Barry Manilow trying to recreate Frank Sinatra's finest and most memorable moments is an effort to erase any doubts that Manilow is his generation's Sinatra. We weren't exactly on the fence about that one but we do admire Manilow's nerve.

It seems that turning 100, whether dead or alive, is the best reason of all to have a tribute album made in your honor. Lucky you, if you're Noel Coward and get to have Twiggy sing your melodies! Duke Ellington has been harassed, er, honored by almost everyone. Even more disappointing than the performances are the incredibly boring and obvious song selections.

We were looking somewhat forward to Crystal Gayle's Hoagy Carmichael tribute. Because the general public and record executives who decide these things don't really have an idea of how important Carmichael was, he hasn't been given the royal treatment. The problem with honoring someone like Hoagy is that he himself was the total package. He didn't have the chops but he had the personality and it more than made up for his vocal limitations. There's very little one could do to better him or even pay tribute. And even though he wrote several great songs (Skylark, Stardust and Lazy River among them), he didn't produce a huge body of great work like a Harold Arlen or Cole Porter.

Gayle has a pleasant enough voice (she was a knockout on the soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola's One From the Heart) but she sounds as if she's reading the songs from sheet music. She has a peculiar way of chopping off the notes that is incredibly unpleasant and we suspect it's because she doesn't know many of these songs well-- One Morning in May and Two Sleepy People in particular. Even if she did connect on some level, she'd be fighting the pedestrian arrangements that accompany each and every song. Gayle seems like a very nice woman and we really wanted to like this. We don't.

Despite the MTV Generation's endorsement, we haven't been much interested in Tony Bennett since his The Art of Excellence CD many years ago, long before the kids declared him "da' bomb." He, like Rosemary Clooney, often just opens his mouth and expects his same old singing to amaze and inspire when in fact it bores. Too many perfectly capable albums with the perfectly capable Ralph Sharon Trio made us stop buying Tony awhile back. It's all pleasant but how many of these discs do you need?

Well, given our dislike of tribute albums and our low expectations of contemporary Tony Bennett, who would have thought this album would give so much pleasure? Tony's voice is in great shape, the arrangements are really swell, the recording is pristine without sounding sterile and there's none of Tony's "artwork" adorning the CD jacket. Who could ask for anything more?

To be fair, this disc isn't perfect. There's a really brief riff of A-Train that runs throughout the disc and is like a gnat you want to swat. It's too short to mean anything and it's too long to ignore. It fades in and out and adds nothing at all. The song selection isn't exactly inspired but the arrangements are. Peppy numbers run at ballad tempo and ballads, like Day Dream in particular, are given the business.

It's almost as if Tony proved his point these last few years by claiming his spot on top of the heap. Now he's there, there's no one in sight to knock him off and it's time he had some fun. He does a few things that are so fresh and over the top, longtime fans will be confused. Hopefully they'll keep an open mind and this will be the first of many fresh new takes on traditional pop from Tony Bennett

Crystal Gayle:

Tony Bennett:



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