Rico Bell & the Snake Handlers
Dark Side of the Mersey
Where Were You?: Hen's Teeth and Other Lost Fragments of Unpopular Culture, Volume 2
The Mekons, it seems, are trying to out-Wu-Tang the Wu-Tang Clan, with each member and friend of the band putting out solo records, guest-producing various ventures, and appearing in unexpected combinations and permutations. But you can't blame a 21-year-old punk band for wanting to stretch its (still alluring) legs.
Rico Bell's long been an auxiliary Mekon, and Dark Side of the Mersey is his second album for Bloodshot. Bell, raised on the Mersey, is a man who lives fast and squeezes his accordion hard. The album is an interesting musical hybrid, though it's all smoothly integrated. It has a driving, straight-ahead, hard-country sound — for which Bell's unlovely, forceful voice is perfect — but as often as not, the big chords are played on an accordion. Other songs have a vaguely English folk feel, and there are definite elements of rock-style melody, though in general the album sticks squarely to the country-western tradition. The tunes are catchy, and occasionally moving, but not that clever or innovative, and Bell's influences can be obvious: Listening from a distance, this could be an album by Mekons offshoot the Waco Brothers. “Hear the Sirens Call” owes a debt to “Maggie May” (as does the Mekons' “Born to Choose”) and “Cold Comfort” borrows the Waco Brothers' “Arizona Rose”'s rhyme scheme and feel.
The album is ostensibly about the singer's life on the banks of the Mersey — he comes from Wallasey, across the river from Liverpool — but relatively little of this comes through. In general the songs are universal tales of being down and out, tragic, alone, drunk, and unlucky. Occasionally the lyrics can be uninspired (“Let me take this glove off/ As the organ pedal swells”) or misinspired (“There's a hole in the thing /And the whole thing stinks” — repeat six times). And attempts at Mekonian constellations of metaphors don't work terribly well: Is “The Rose From Your Garden” literally about a rock star who brings a rose in a vase to a gig and then gives it to a fan after the show? Or is that a metaphor? Bell's accordion playing deserves more emphasis than the subpar songcraft. But the album is strong nonetheless; somehow, the veins of emotion that Rico Bell is mining are rich enough to be profitable even when his techniques are a little clumsy.
Rico Bell's accordion is more melodic and meandering on “My Song at Night,” a live track from the Mekons' new anthology Where Were You? Here, the Mekons continue to empty their vaults of a shocking miscellany of rare material, ranging from the classic punk of the title song to the avant-punk of “Polaroid (I Don't Own I Only Dote),” via “My Song at Night,” which is a lovely ballad from the Mekons' collaboration with the late author Kathy Acker, and “Fancy,” a fairly faithful Ray Davies cover. And the album contains the entirety of the band's 1995 two-song Untitled EP — a $6.99 value! (The two songs, “Untitled 1” and “Untitled 2,” have the same lyrics, but one is a solo-bass dirge, the other an Elvis tribute with a jitterbug country rhythm, twangy guitar, and slap-back reverb on the vocals.) There are also interesting alternate versions of some songs from other albums. Where Were You? would make a singularly bad introduction to the Mekons, but those who already appreciate the band will no doubt find something to like on this album, if not every song.
It's futile to put together lists of the most influential jazz pianists or vocalists. The rosters run too long, and the heavy names who aren't represented stand out in absentia. But that isn't the case with the vibraphone, the shimmering, lighthearted, percussive sister of the marimba and xylophone that a few jazz geniuses have made a dynamic vehicle for swing. There's Lionel Hampton, the big band leader and collaborator with Benny Goodman, whose “Flying Home” has become an essential jazz text. Milt Jackson's majestic, blues-drenched work with the Modern Jazz Quartet and others brought the vibes into (and beyond) the bebop era. Gary Burton pushed the ethereal limits of the instrument. Bobby Hutcherson's 1960s post-bop recordings revealed a darker, more jagged vibe, making him a titan of his adventurous times. Listeners could still hear — if not see — Hutcherson's prowess during a recent fog-shrouded performance outside Coit Tower.
With apologies to Red Norvo and a few others, that more or less brings us to Stefon Harris, the young phenom who stormed the jazz citadel after dumping his classical studies for the vibes. In 1998, at 25, Harris joined the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Wynton Marsalis, won a prestigious award for young jazz players, and toured in the ensemble of sax great Joe Henderson; last summer at Stern Grove, Harris was a standout on a bill that featured Henderson's group and the Kronos Quartet. Henderson's searching improvisations, always full of strange beauty, were countered by the brightness and blazing speed of Harris' solos, crisp and melodic and witty.
As with his first release, A Cloud of Red Dust, BlackActionFigure finds Harris in the company of trombonist Steve Turre and alto player Greg Osby, among others. He sprints gracefully through “Feline Blues,” inspired by a cat padding atop the metal bars of a vibraphone, while his mallets tell mellower tales as the CD unwinds, making the vibes resonate warmly on the ballad “Faded Beauty.” Throughout, the rhythm section brings an elastic sense of time to the recording, rushing madly on the uptempo numbers and staying in soft focus elsewhere. Harris may have many miles to travel before he can be placed on the all-time best-of list, but he's off to a fast start.
Stefon Harris appears on Tuesday, Sept. 21, at 8 and 10 p.m. at Yoshi's Nitespot, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland. Tickets are $12; call (510) 238-9200.