Mr. Lif

Plus CD Reviews of Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Awesome Color, Miles Davis Quintet, and Thelonius Monk with John Coltrane.

Mr. Lif

Mo' Mega

(Definitive Jux)

Where he previously delivered unapologetic, agreeably paranoid diatribes against the state of political affairs on 2002's full-length, I Phantom, Mr. Lif just doesn't have the energy this time around. On the album's power chord–heavy opener, "Collapse," he is admittedly uninspired (Have you heard of Lif? Well, maybe, sorta, perhaps/Listen up and let me guide you to the point of collapse), setting a dispirited tone that is as doubtful about the direction of his career as it is the American government. "The Fries" is an exhausted, if playful, assault on the golden arches, and Akrobatik and Blueprint pump him back up on the high-tempo title track, an ode to the constant grind. Lif's flow, which has grown increasingly speedier since his early EPs and recent work as one-third of the Perceptionists, is largely overwhelmed by El-P's industrial and insistent production. Worn thin from nine years in the music industry, he breaks away from the robotic, post- apocalyptic theme Def Jux has become synonymous with and distracts himself on "Murs Iz My Manager." Produced by Edan, funky horns and bass lines bring a much-needed uplift to the mix, while fellow emcee Murs imagines himself as Lif's new manager, intent on straightening him out. "Looking In" and "For You" suggest Lif has begun to dissect personal struggles for a change, becoming more accessible to the audience in turn. It's obvious Mr. Lif wants his music to speak to the majority, and thankfully so, but here it sounds as though he's finally starting to reach out to himself. EMILY YOUSSEF

Mr. Lif plays Chop Suey, 1325 E. Madison St., 206-324-8000, www.chopsuey.com. $12. All ages. 8 p.m. Sun., June 16.

Ramblin' Jack Elliott

I Stand Alone

(Anti)

Just shy of his 75th birthday, Ramblin' Jack Elliott has released a new album that clearly reveals his tremendous talents and his terrible faults. Elliott is one of the great folksingers to emerge from the folk revival. He partied with Woody Guthrie and bummed around the country collecting blues, cowboy songs, old-time country music, and inspiring and recording the work of younger, new song-writers of the time such as Bob Dylan. I Stand Alone has some wonderful material like the Carter Family's "Engine 143" and Butch Hawes' "Arthritis Blues," where Elliott shows off his fabulous singing that emulates jazz in its sophisticated syncopation, and his great flat-picked guitar work with its quirky rhythms and dynamic single-note runs. The recording also has some self-indulgent clips that should have been left in the studio like "My Old Dog & Me" and "Woody's Last Ride," which closes the CD with a whimper. Elliott fails to make good use of the talented people who come in to play and sing with him, including alt- country wonder Lucinda Williams and Los Lobos' David Hidalgo. One also has to question Elliott's judgment in including Hoagie Carmichael's racist "Hong Kong Blues," a song that reminds us of the problems even great artists like Carmichael face in overcoming the prejudices of their era. Buyers would be best served by downloading the CD's six great cuts and leaving the rest on the Web. GEORGE HOWLAND JR.

The Miles Davis Quintet

The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions

(Prestige/Concord)

Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane

The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings

(Riverside/Concord)

Just because an artist is legendary doesn't make him infallible. Take the two new box sets devoted to Miles Davis' and Thelonious Monk's respective collaborations with John Coltrane. Though these essential historic snapshots of the jazz giants actually demystify their iconic status, they also point out why the best of this material is some of the greatest music ever recorded. The four-CD Davis compilation brings together previously issued titles from 1955–56, plus a disc of unreleased live tracks with a few cuts from 1958. Updates on bebop classics ("Salt Peanuts," "Woody 'n' You") stew with the requisite fiery bounce, while other familiar compositions—the post-bop cookers ("Airegin," "Tune Up"), ballads ("'Round Midnight," "Diane"), and blues ("Trane's Blues," "Ahmad's Blues")—come across as dynamically rich today as they must have a half-century ago. Unfortunately, quite a few of the earliest featured tunes are unremarkable, cocktail party background filler, and Coltrane's playing unexpectedly takes some time to get off the ground. Such a revelation (that the giants were actually human!) speaks volumes about the value of Davis' tastiest trumpet phrasing and Coltrane's full-throttle search for a new tenor-sax language that would soon change the shape of jazz forever. The two-disc Monk set is more consistent than the Davis, spotlighting the pianist-composer's bent-beautiful vision of equal parts freak-groove effervescence and drugged-out languor. Coltrane's in stronger form here, his solos often pushing the contours of Monk's melodies to the edge. The problem, though, is that there are far too many alternate recordings of the exact same songs. While this may make collectors drool, the average listener will likely fast-forward past the all-too-human outtakes to get to the godlike performances; in the end, jazz fans do want their legends larger than life. SAM PRESTIANNI

Awesome Color

Awesome Color

(Ecstatic Peace)

Awesome Color work within the format of their Detroit forebears the MC5 and the Stooges; primal backbeat, crunchy blue riffs, and hypnotic repetition. While they're just one out of many to appropriate such influences, Awesome Color throw enough variation into the mix to merit multiple listens. The harmonica wanking at the end of "Unknown" is a psych-blues freak-out, and the saxophone-powered riffs of "Hat Energy" are akin to Roxy Music. And while there are times vocalist Derek Stanton chews his lyrics in proper Iggy fashion, there are other, whinier moments ("Free Man") when he comes close to mimicking his Ecstatic Peace label owner, Thurston Moore, who has taken to wearing Awesome Color tees onstage. However, one thing Stanton tries for that those two rarely did is delivering soul-inflected vocal roars summoned from deep in his gut in the vein of MC5 vocalist Rob Tyner. That said, there's nothing insanely original about Awesome Color. But for anyone who has grown tired of listening to Fun House and Kick out the Jams over and over, this Brooklyn-via-Michigan duo aptly fill the void. BRIAN J. BARR

Awesome Color play the Funhouse, 206 Fifth Ave. N., 206-374-8400, www.thefunhouseseattle.com. $6. 4 p.m. Sun, July 16.

 
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