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Sometimes the Bargain Basement is too seductive. You start buying records for the sake of the purchase. You lose the ability to screen. You’ve read a good review turns into you read a review turns into you recognize the name. “Vital” back catalogue picks go unlistened. Soon you have a collection of CD’s and you don’t know whether some are any good. Try to focus.

Smokey Robinson
20th Century Masters: The Best of Smokey Robinson –The Millennium Collection
6,877 out of 10,000

But Dad… it’s Smokey!

--TV Commercial for Smokey Robinson collection

I could never reconsile the later groove sensuous Smokey with the man who penned so many Motown masterpieces. The sound is in the mellow aftermath of Marvin Gaye’s transformation of soul. The Miracle’s Smokey and the early Motown numbers such as “Tear’s of a clown” and “Tracks of My Tears” share with the later numbers the anguished moan of the man. In the early songs it’s nothing but pain, but in the sultry love ballads, the hurting man gasps his sigh of relief and release. I’ve long been looking for a collection of only the later works, but this is an awful lot of sexual sighing.

Cruisin’ is one of the all time greatest songs. I will leave the room rather than here the Huey Lewis and Gweneth Paltrow version. It’s a masterpeice of production, wherein lyric and music are one. Lovemaking becomes a total abstraction of the music as a ride, still leaving room for specifics such as, “Closer and closer to every little part of each other.” Is this about listening to the car stereo? No, our couple isn’t driving, they are flying, floating, gliding inside the music, inside each other just as Smokey, as the music, is inside you, forever.

I linked Cruisin with a 1987’s VHI heavy rotation video, “One Heartbeat” which is here, with a selection of nine other sweet lovemakers of the like. I forget how processed 80’s the production of “One Heartbeat” got. Eighties production is so sterile, so chincy, it has ruined so many beautiful songs, that have to be listened to through a film of irony. The synthesizer may have been redeemed, but these weren’t.

A lot of these tracks get awfully bubbly and flutey. The Lite funk gets real lite. One very questionable collaboration, “This Time We Win”, with Kenny G, isn’t here, but would fit in. Bear in mind, I still liked the song, which always made me smile, then wince with each verse and tinny sax solo, but like many songs here, it’s over sugared.

Bob. Dylan may have called our hero America’s greatest poet, but “Hickory Dickory Dock/ I want to be your clock” from “Let Me Be The Clock” the “Tit for tat/ This for that” from “Baby That’s Backatcha” aren’t America’s greatest poems. The economy of the language and simple beauty of “Cruisin’”, “Quiet Storm” and “Ooo Baby Baby” do display the gift for words that brought on that praise.

Still, far as pop music goes, English remains the prime language, with the economy of it’s syllables, it’s clipped Germanic consonants demanding more inventive rhymes to compensate with the bumpy nature of the words. When “Being With You” turns out to be some half Spanish version, it suggests a lack of rights to the original rather than any aesthetic considerations.

The same question arises with the live “OOO Baby Baby”, but the live Smokey answers it with unprocessed passion and pain. It’s sweetness without the guilt.

Smokeys flights of sweetness threaten the back of the tongue, but larger players usually overstep some line or another. Only cowards never offend. You might say, hey those flutes make everything into soft jazz, but I have to say “But Dad…It’s Smokey!”

Steely Dan
Two Against Nature
6,598 out of 10,000

This perfectionist studio duo of cynical slickness picks up just where they left off in 1980, making Gaucho. The problem is, Gaucho has been made, and doesn't need to be a double album. This isn't a bad disc, but I don't see where anyone would need to listen to it over Gaucho or Aja. Rich sophisticates on a coke binge probably listen to trance music, whatever that is (Skittering beats with a lot of spacey sounds and echoes?). Could be good cooking music for the middle class, or aerobics for the old. But I see no other purpose, other than simply keeping up with the Dan.

How are the Dan? (Does anyone call them that? Am I secretly talking about myself in the third person?) Mellow and horny. Slick, highly produced and surgical in their jazzy pop acumen, as they ever were. The lyrical storytelling is as strangely specific and wryly funny as before.

Unfortunately, Becker and Fagen have veered even deeper into muzak territory. This isn’t entirely their fault. In their prime, their production techniques influenced many contemporary recordings, especially Jazz-Pop including what still comes across as that classic Muzak sound. This doesn’t really make the new sound terribly edgy however. Somehow the funkier vibe with its Latin incorporations draws attention to the softness. You could space out to Gaucho; no one’s going to dance to Two Against Nature.

Now, a word about the Grammies. Music press are making a big to do about how the lyrics on this record are every bit as nasty as what’s on Eminem’s. They may be cleverer, and they may be dirty, but let’s not get carried away. Seducing young girls and kissing cousins (Cousin Dupree) isn’t the same deal as raping your mother. I’m in serious danger of discussing Eminem, so I’ll stop this review right now.

Erykah Badu
Momma's Gun
7,008 out of 10,000

I almost bought Erika Badu's first record, Baduism, after listening to little bits at a listening station. My superego said, "Wait! This might be quality stuff, but when are you going to need all that slinky jazz-funk? You chop vegetables to Air. You make out to Al Green. Granted, you’re alone, but at least you put on "I’m Still In Love With You."

I dug “Tyrone”, and Ms Badu’s key role on The Root’s “You Got Me”, so she was still in my cool book when I saw Momma’s Gun at a listening station. I checked out the first track, “Penitentiary Philosophy”, and was blown away. It was a sale. Oh those tricky listening stations.

“Penitentiary Philosophy” is a bold new direction for this gentle funkster. She’s singing out, with anger, over a churning broth of echoing wah-wah guitar and sweeping waves of organ. Badu is by turns sneering at human weakness and wailing for the human condition. It’s quite a number.

That’s why it’s so disappointing for the rest of the rest of the record to be so gentle. More of that jazz-funk, latter-day Billie Holiday business. It’s quality stuff, but after “Penitentiary”, the effect is of seeing a shark pull out its teeth. How did the shark pull out its teeth anyway? Does it have somehow prehensile, handlike fins?

The tunes, while good, in a low key, languid way, tend to blend together until “Booty”. “Booty” brags about the many ways Erykah pulls another woman’s man. It’s funny and funky, with more oomph. “Ya got sugar/ on your pita/ but ya nigga thinks I’m sweeter”. Unfortunately, she sensitizes it by decrying “I don’t want him/ cause of what he doin to you”. Now that’s just wrong. Don’t tear a woman up over how you’ve got her beat, and then pretend to be her sister. If you’re going to be bad, be bad, Badu!

Be bad! Be that angry woman screeching through “Penitentiary Philosophy” not some “Space Princess” cooing over some lounge act. Also, lose some of the precious incense and poetry schtick. We don’t wants a “lioness”, a “warrior” or an African Queen; we want an American woman.

It’s a good sign, in a somewhat disorganized way, that none of the track listings can be trusted. Lyrics aren’t yet available, and the sequence has all been changed at the last minute. This could mean Badu’s a flake, or that she’d just written “Penitentiary Philosophy” and had to redesign this record. Maybe there’s a blistering recreation going on, which could mean great things in the future.

The Beatles
9,000 out of 10,000

I have got to get my buddy Eppie his Hanukkah present. He asked for Bowie’s Hunky Dory then switched to some live Pete Townsend record (please refer to Eppie and the tale of The Who) which really threw me off. I get these mental blocks with gifts. I was all geared up to get Bowie, now I’ve got to start the process all over again. And I’m thinking the eighth day of Hanukkah has already passed.

I asked for Help! I was getting their anthology book and figured I’d be through to that middle period by the time Eppie got me my present (he delays more each year, in the hopes that will spur more promptness from me). I didn’t count on the book being a huge unreadable tome that will crush your chest if you try to actually read it. I’m halfway through George’s infancy. He tries to be funny!

This is a great record, full of Beatles’ songs. It doesn’t have the wholistic feel of the albums to come, but it still has it’s own flow. There’s a feeling of old meets new. The mop top pop of “Another Girl” and “Tell Me What You See” meets the melancholy of “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” and the sophistication of “Ticket To Ride” (Check out Ringo’s drumming on this), perhaps merging on “The Night Before”.

The killer song for me, however, is Lennon’s “It’s Only Love”. This song collapses time in that rare way that only the songwriting medium can do. In under two minutes the song traverses the neurotic arc of a young man’s love life. Verse one, he’s a nervous youngster, pining for a new love. Love is a painful burst of butterflies and shyness, an aching need, and “It’s so hard, loving you”. In verse two, he’s got the girl, and the tone is now world weary yet desperate. He’s still looking to make it up, but “It’s so hard, loving you.” In that twist of meaning lies an entire life. It’s an immaculate song.

Of course, McCartney’s “I’ve Just Seen A Face” is immaculate in it’s joy of love and the joy of it’s own songwriting. The interior rhymes build giddily to a timeless chorus (I can hear many of McCartney’s choruses sung by sailors of old) then gentle, folky La Las refresh the song. They knew so many ways to La.

Harrison has two songs on this disc.

Ringo sings “Act Naturally”. Of course it’s fun.

The album ends with McCartney in the wane, with “Yesterday” a song it seems impossible to even listen to objectively. It’s like having the album with the original version of “Happy Birthday” on it. It’s a bittersweet closer with so much familiarity and beauty, it’s good they cap the whole thing off with “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” letting the boys let of some rock steam after all that melancholy.

I’ve decided that I’ve let too much time go by. I’m not going to get Eppie anything for Hanukkah.

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