The Jackson 5
Pre-History: The Lost Steeltown Recordings

Alex Chilton

“I wish I wish I was a fish/ I would jump about just like trout.” That's a poem I wrote when I was 5 years old that I suddenly feel the need to a) share with the world and b) get paid for. It's spring cleaning! Our beloved music industry is holding a garage sale, dusting off two little numbers that were quite literally forgotten in closets — Alex Chilton's solo album 1970 on a shelf at Ardent studios and the Jackson 5's Pre-History: The Lost Steeltown Recordings, packed away in producer Ben Brown's parents' house in Gary, Ind., for 30 years. Since young performers don't often let entire albums' worth of material slip their minds for a reason, these are records that you can live without. Still, they contain no posthumous duets, so how bad could they be?

Pre-History showcases the Jackson kids' first recordings. Containing tracks with titles like “Jam Session (Part One)” and “Jam Session (Part Two)” they're refreshingly cruddy and amateurish documents given Little Boy Slick's rise to gazillion-dollar seamless production. Plus it's almost worth owning just to hear Michael singing the prophetic “We Don't Have to Be Over 21 (To Fall in Love).” But that's a big almost.

1970, recorded in between the demise of the Box Tops and the formation of Big Star, is bizarre even by Alex Chilton standards, which is saying something. Considering that about five minutes after he finished this he wrote the kind of perfect pop song (like “September Gurls”) that can change your life, this collection of white-boy soul goes pretty much nowhere. Redemption comes in the form of a creepy, banjo-backed tribute to Chilton's most famous Memphis neighbor. In “I Wish I Could Meet Elvis,” he remarks that “it sure would be real weird” if the King was by his side. News flash: It's weird without him.

— Sarah Vowell

Willie Nelson

If misery does in fact love company, it couldn't possibly ask for a more faithful companion than country music. Willie Nelson has existed on both sides of the equation for decades. Indeed, adversity has played an oddly beneficial role in the Red Headed Stranger's life: The 1970 destruction by fire of his Nashville home sent him packing to his native Texas, which in turn cast him as part of country music's then-nascent outlaw movement and revivified his career; his well-publicized 1992 run-in with the IRS yielded both the successful Who Will Buy My Memories? album (popularly known as the “IRS Tapes”) and an endorsement deal with Taco Bell; and every heartache … well, every heartache means another chart-topper, his previous assertion that “sad songs and waltzes aren't selling this year” notwithstanding. Even in a genre where crying in your beer is pretty much mandated by edict, Nelson has distinguished himself as a premier voice of the jilted, and done pretty well for himself in the process.

Spirit walks the trail of tears faithfully; there are plenty of sad songs and waltzes to be had on this self-produced slab of bittersweet reflection. “I'm Waiting Forever” finds Willie setting up permanent post beside his telephone, wallowing in a quagmire of longing and rationalization, while “I Guess I've Come to Live Here in Your Eyes” includes the confession that “fears and doubts consume me, and I'm afraid someone will take it all away.” The music provides an appropriate sonic analogue to the juxtaposition of pathos and strength expressed in the lyrics. Sparsely orchestrated to highlight Nelson's fragile vocals and eloquently staggered guitar-picking style, Spirit's tracks resonate with delicate resilience; they may bend under the weight of their emotional baggage, but they never break.

— Tim Kenneally

O Espirito da Paz
(Metro Blue)

So-called “peaceful” music, or (gasp!) “New Age,” usually sends me reeling for the chain saw. Hopelessly devoid of personality, the delusional therapy of a monotonous synthesizer tends to agitate rather than mollify this listener. Over the past couple of years the influx of sacred chant, Renaissance, and other early musics into American popular culture has shifted the contours of the soporific strains toward a more genuine, acoustic-based variety. Not unlike the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos or a cappella, early music revivalists such as Schola Discantus, enchanting vocalist Teresa Salgueiro lends a credible human element to the meditations of Portuguese sextet Madredeus. To be fair, the group's core instrumental configuration of classical guitars, cello, and accordion also gives the music an organic flow. In a wise arrangement move by leader Pedro Ayres Magalhaes, the expendable keyboard on O Espirito da Paz (“Spirit of Peace”) is at least limited to a subordinate role, providing a serene harmonic wash behind the prominent strings and voice.

Combining folk and classical influences with a contemporary extension of fado, Lisbon's melancholic vocal tradition, the group infuses its songs with saudade, the emotionally rich Portuguese version of fla-menco's duende or the deep soul of Mississippi Delta blues. English translations of the lyrics to “Destiny” suggest a Buddhist embrace of the void: “Quiet waters/ Clear moonlight/ Almost nothing/ But better/ Almost better.” In the “Three Illusions,” Salgueiro endeavors to overcome bitterness through a similar introspection: “Nothing is close to me/ Neither am I sad.” The singer's woeful vocals are clearly imbued with saudade. Yet she comes to terms with the empty longing for peace by singing in almost ethereal tones. This seemingly paradoxical resignation gives Madredeus' music a curious hook that eludes most bands of its tranquil ilk.

Madredeus plays Thursday, June 21, at Bimbo's 365 Club, 1025 Columbus, S.F.; call 474-0365.

— Sam Prestianni

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