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Tucson Weekly Rhythm and Views

JUNE 7, 1999: 

BREMEN TOWN MUSICIANS Quagmire Expedition (Bremen Town)

PEOPLE WHO TOUT the diversity of the Tucson music scene sometimes come across more as apologists than supporters--call it the "Well, At Least We're Not Phoenix" syndrome--while spending precious little time examining what makes this or that band unique. Maybe Dennis Mitchell, who with his combo The Wilsons notched a fair amount of local kudos awhile back, sensed that transparency. He moved to the Northwest for a spell, put together a new band, and recorded this exceedingly fine set of tunes before making the prodigal trek back home to the Old Pueblo.

Well, we're the better for it. Mitchell is an unapologetic pop classicist, right down to his jaunty swagger through The Kinks' goofy chestnut "Harry Rag." Vocally, his trembly upper register suggests a younger, less flamboyant Russell Mael (Sparks), with echoes of Robyn Hitchcock and ex-Auteurs Luke Haines surfacing in his singing as well. He weds this to an ironic but romantic sense of wordplay, a keenly inventive guitar style (Mitchell clearly grasps rock's Great Riff Imperative) and a knack for hummable melodies whose hooks sink in deep. And the results, from the creepy faux tango "The Devil & Me (At A Birthday Party)" to the sproingy, noir-ish swamp pop of "I Feel" to the insanely catchy, neo-New Wave rocker "Body Bag" (quite literally, the best musical anti-depressant I've heard in ages) are the kind that not too long ago would have had critics tossing around phrases like "the new Elvis Costello." Cliché or not, in this instance it's no half-hearted compliment. You folks better claim Mitchell and his Bremen Town Musicians as your own before he slips away in the night again.

--Fred Mills

VARIOUS ARTISTS The Last Soul Company (Malaco Records)

THERE'S NOTHING presumptuous about Mississippi's Malaco Records claiming to be the last soul company. Doubters should check out the six discs in this box-set label overview and compare what they hear to the weenie pseudo R&B that litters contemporary radio and CD racks. That a label would continue to support gritty crooners like Bobby Blue Bland, Johnnie Taylor, Ernie Johnson and Little Milton is so miraculous as to merit some serious national endowment funding. While the attitude and production of these 112 cuts are tethered to the late '50s and '60s, the players plant themselves there out of genre purity, not nostalgia. Many of these 69 artists are still cutting hardcore R&B albums, and when they warble about cheating spouses and drunken trysts, you're inclined to believe they're not role playing. Anyone feeling that hardcore R&B should be belted out by cheapsuit croakers rather than powdered VH-1 stars will find this set the most important offering since The Complete Stax/Volt Singles 1959-1968.

--Dave McElfresh

SPADE COOLEY Shame on You (Soundies/Bloodshot Revival)

MASTER fiddler/bandleader Spade Cooley is perhaps best remembered (though quite sordidly) for beating his second wife to death in 1961 while his 14-year-old daughter was forced to watch. Cooley was a mean, vicious alcoholic, but you'd never guess it after hearing the joyous, innocent and highly danceable Western Swing tunes featured here. Cooley was hailed as the King of Western California Swing during its '40s heyday and this swank collection of 25 never-before-released, live, in-studio radio transcription recordings (used for broadcast but not for sale) from 1944-45 confirm those lofty musical accolades. Showcasing the smooth, crooning tenor vocal talent of Tex Williams, "Shame on You" manifests Cooley and Williams at the height of their cooperative endeavors. Along with Bob Wills and Milton Brown, Cooley was among the three prime inventors of Western Swing that combined pop, Appalachian string-band music, cowboy songs, blues, Mexican folk, polkas and jazz into a harmonious union that appealed to all ages. Cooley's amazing fiddle work is prominently displayed on such blazing instrumental workouts as "Swinging to the Devil's Dream" and "Cowbell Polka." While Williams' velvety-smooth, aw-shucks voice will cause the hair on the back of your neck to bristle on tearjerker ballads like "There Is No Sunshine" and the riveting Top 40 pop-meets-jump blues of "Corrine, Corrina." Let's face it: Spade Cooley was not a pleasant, caring human being, but the music he made sure was.

--Ron Bally

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