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Weekly Alibi Tiny Tunes

By Stewart Mason

AUGUST 31, 1998: 

Alibi Rating Scale:
!!!!!= Habañero
!!!!= Big Jim
!!!= Poblano
!!= NuMex 6
!= Bell pepper

Miles Davis The Complete Birth of the Cool (Capitol/Blue Note)

When these tracks were originally released in 1950, they were all but ignored, which seems almost impossible now. Since he'd worked with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis had something of a name, but his collaborators were at the time unknown by all but the hippest New York jazz cognoscenti. This would change: Gil Evans, John Lewis and Kenny Clarke (later half of the Modern Jazz Quartet), Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan and Max Roach pretty much defined jazz later in the '50s.

Collected under the title Birth of the Cool in 1957, the 12 studio recordings by the Miles Davis Nonet didn't (despite the album title) singlehandedly start cool jazz so much as it solidified and brought together various influences. Lewis, Clarke, Evans and Konitz were working with big bands at the time, while Davis and most of the rest of the participants were small-combo beboppers. The nine-piece setup, almost twice as big as the average bop combo but much smaller than a big band, was a novel way to bridge the gap between the two styles. The nonet could be lush (Evans' arrangement of "Moon Dreams" is still startling--this is music that seems to float motionless in the air) or hard (Roach's explosive drum solos in "Move" and "Budo" rock harder than any rock drummer you can name), but throughout, there's a casual offhandedness, making this remarkably complex music sound as easy and natural as breathing.

Despite the sometimes dodgy sound, the September 1948 live sets included here for the first time are revelatory. Free of the time constraints of 78s, the band stretches out ("Godchild" and "Budo" are nearly twice as long) and plays with a looseness that makes the studio sessions sound almost rigid. The two takes of "Moon Dreams" are somehow even more languid, and Kenny Hagood's vocals on "Darn That Dream" and Gershwin's "Why Do I Love You" lack the mannered phrasing that mars his studio work. Even if the stunning remastering of the studio tracks (these songs have never sounded so good) and the masterful liner notes were absent, this CD would be indispensable for the live sessions alone. !!!!!

Sleepyhead Late Night Thinkin' (Sealed Fate)

Talk about growing up in public. Sleepyhead's first two nothing-special albums of diffident alterna-noise, 1993's Punk Rock City USA and 1994's Starduster, buried some smart, hooky songs in indifferent performances and lackluster production. However, the New York trio finally came into their own with 1996's wonderful Communist Love Songs. Drummer Rachael McNally sang more, giving guitarist Chris O'Rourke a musical foil that made listening fatigue less likely, while more spacious and substantial arrangements replaced the monochromatic din of the earlier records. Suddenly, Sleepyhead was a pop band.

Not that they ever made any secret of where their true allegiance lay: The B-side of the "Punk Rock City USA" single was a reverent cover of Game Theory's "Like A Girl Jesus." This six-song EP's cover is Shoes' "Boys Don't Lie," and the way it fits like an original shows the style Sleepyhead has claimed as their own: buzz-pop guitars overlaid with O'Rourke's twinky voice and McNally's equally helium-filled harmonies, accented with cool '60s-punk organ lines and percussion, ending up sounding something like a meatier version of the Three O'Clock or the Orange Peels. The title track and the zippy "Wake Up Call" are the easy highlights, but not one track stumbles.

I do have to dock the CD for one reason, though: With very, very rare exceptions, CD-EPs just suck. The dissolution of their association with their old label, Homestead Records, obviously left Sleepyhead in something of a bind, and I can understand why they would want to hurry up and release something to keep in the public eye. But CD-EPs are not a good investment for artists (they cost about as much to press as full-length CDs), and they almost invariably leave consumers feeling cheated. Six songs in 21 minutes for (at most stores) not much less than the price of a regular CD is hardly value for money, and as much as I love these songs, I would have rather they waited until they had the money to record a full album. But until then, this CD will do nicely. !!! 1/2

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