Music reviews for music released in 1931.
1. The Savannah Syncopators: “Radio Rhythm” (10/10)
“Radio Rhythm” is the most aggressive and complicated track the Fletcher Henderson band had recorded to date. It must have been ridiculous to play as an ensemble (especially that opening).
2. Skip James: “I’m So Glad” / “Special Rider Blues” (10/10)
The A-Side, James’ most enduring song, is an incredible performance, with a clearer-than-normal voice (and lyrics where he refers to how he’s tired of moaning, referencing his own style) and it also makes me appreciate the Cream cover, which is slightly more radical than I would have thought. An absolute classic song. The B-Side pales in comparison (and the vocal sounds bad on this transfer) but it’s still more proof that James was one of the great blues guitarists.
3. Skip James: “Jesus is a Mighty Good Leader” / “Be Ready When He Comes” (10/10)
James’ most spiritual side from this era feels like the template for so much spiritual blues and gospel songs going forward. Both the A-Side and B-Side feel like fundamental documents for gospel and every single blues song about Jesus (there are a lot of them).
4. Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra: “My Pretty Girl (10/10)
“My Pretty Girl” has one of the most overly rhythmic openings of any of Henderson’s work from this period. It’s the first song on this compilation with a vocalist. The main melody is played straight up while people do crazy dixieland-type things in the background. The song gets more sophisticated after the vocal.
5. Skip James: “How Long ‘Buck'” / “Little Cow and Calf is Gonna Die Blues” (10/10)
One of the most interesting things about James is that he was also a piano player. The A-Side is a pretty iconic blues lyric paired with his kind of bonkers piano playing which sounds like he’s playing the guitar. The B-Side shows off his pretty capable piano playing, which has the same kind of bending/breaking of traditional musical rhythms that early blues playing caused.
6. The Baltimore Bell Hops: “Hot and Anxious” (9/10)
“Hot and Anxious” is rather sedate compared to Henderson’s other work of this time, but features a classic muted solo (where it sounds like the cornet is singing), also there’s a part of this that really sounds like an early “In the Mood” – I guess that means it swings.
Guitar solo alert!
7. Skip James: “Devil Got my Woman” / “Cypress Grove Blues” (9/10)
James has a wild voice, which is really shown off on this 78. Both songs have him wailing over his pretty impressive acoustic guitar playing. The B-Side is a little more what we would expect from the blues of this era. Great stuff.
8. Skip James: “22-20 Blues” / “If You Haven’t Got Any Hay Get on Down the Road” (9/10)
Another classic piano blues on the A-Side, the lyrics help to establish the classic misogyny in the blues, hooray! His foot percussion is neat. There’s a similarly compelling performance on the B-Side, though the tenor of this one is significantly different. It’s a lot more jaunty for a lack of a better word.
9. Skip James: “Cherry Ball Blues” / “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” (9/10)
The A-Side shows off his considerable guitar playing ability as well as showing how free with traditional ideas of metre the early blues musicians were. The B-side is another one of these wailing/moaning songs of his. It’s not identifiable as the source of the standard “Killing Floor” necessarily, but his humming at the end of each verse reminds me of some blues song I can’t remember.
10. Skip James: “Drunken Spree” / “What Am I To Do? [aka What Am I Gonna Do Blues]” (9/10)
The A-Side begins with extremely uncharacteristic full chords. But this is finger-picking takes over and it’s proof of why he was so revered as a guitarist. The B-Side is a piano blues, the only time I know of that he combined guitar and piano for one of these 1931 78s. The sound is just awful on his voice, but the piano sounds decent (relatively speaking).
11. Gustav Holst: “Hammersmith” Op. 52 (8/10)
“Hammersmith” is my kind of thing. It makes sense that it was originally written for a military band. It is bombastic but then contrasted with extreme quiet. What I love about late Romantic music, even if it was written rather late.
12. Memphis Minnie: “Pickin’ the Blues” (8/10)
A rare instrumental featuring some pretty impressive slide playing (for the day) from one of the couple (not sure who was the slide guitarist).
13. Alexander Glazunov: Concerto Ballata in C major for cello and orchestra, op. 108 (7/10)
The ‘Concerto Ballata’ is, I guess, sort of a cello concerto as a ballad. It’s very pleasant, but not knowing anything about music theory, I’m at a loss as to how this is more of a ballad than a cello concerto, as it sounds to me like a cello concerto. It’s pretty traditional for the era, but it’s nice enough.
14. Skip James: “Four O’clock Blues” / “Hard Luck Child” (7/10)
Unfortunately the A-Side is one of the hardest to hear on the collection I listened to it on. The song is pretty standard (and great) James though: wailing vocals with impressive finger picked guitar playing. The B-Side sounds better: the guitar is clearer so whatever we might think of the lyrics is much less important. This is one of James’ more impressive guitar performances from this period.
15. The Baltimore Bell Hops: “Comin’ and Goin'” (7/10)
“Comin’ and Goin'” sounds somewhat backwards after hearing something like “Hot and Anxious.” It’s got a more traditional “blues” feel compared to Henderson’s other recordings this year and feels like it belongs in the twenties.
16. Skip James: “Illinois Blues” / “Yola My Blues Away” (7/10)
The A-Side is one of the lesser tracks of James that I’ve heard until the break when he shows off his guitar playing. His voice is compelling as always, but the song feels more like a cliche than his other sides. The B-Side’s title is appropriate as James doesn’t single any actual lyrics until maybe 45 seconds into the song. Instead he does his moaning things. The guitar playing is impressive.
17. Edward Elgar: Nursery Suite (6/10)
Like so much else of his stuff I find myself thinking, ‘well this is all very nice but I know that there was a hell of a lot more interesting stuff being written at the same time.’ It figures it was written based on youthful ideas. It sounds like it’s from another age.
18. Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra: “Oh! It Looks Like Rain” (6/10)
“Oh! It Looks Like Rain” features some of those so-dirty-you-can’t-believe-it lyrics that were snuck into jazz, blues and pop songs from the thirties onward. But otherwise, it’s one of the least interesting songs on this compilation. It feels like a bid for a hit. There’s another one of those rare Henderson piano solos.
19. Frederick Delius: “A Song of Summer” (5/10)
At this point it’s the 30s and Delius is still doing his thing. This particular piece has substantial more mystery than most, but it still has that idyllic quality that Delius loved to point of seeming exclusion of everything else. It feels as though this is just what he does and he doesn’t really want to do anything else. (I say that have only heard about 20 works of his, all for orchestra and nearly all on the briefer side).
Look, there’s nothing inherently wrong with music like this, but this is music that doesn’t challenge the listener in any way. Moreover, it feels completely of a different time, the Victorian era. I’m living through the worst economic depression the world has seen and I’m supposed to find solace in this nostalgia?