Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Review: ‘After School Session’ / ‘Chuck Berry Is on Top’

Coupling Chuck Berry’s first studio album and his first compilation on a single CD is a cheeky move on the part of British label BGO, but hearing After School Session back-to-back with Chuck Berry Is on Top just highlights how great of an artist he was at 33 1/3 and 45 rpms. Cut at a time when Rock & Roll LPs were still outside the ordinary, After School Session is interesting for housing only two hits (“School Day” and “Too Much Monkey Business”) and standing up so well atop its lesser known numbers. There isn’t much filler here. The vocal cuts are uniformly terrific, and on occasion (“Havana Moon”, “Downbound Train”, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”), monumental. The instrumentals are slight but charming: “Deep Feeling” provides the rare opportunity to hear Berry’s primitive but evocative slide playing; “Berry Pickin’” twists from a saucy Latin two-step to a hard Rock & Roll swing. But we all want to hear Chuck work his velvet pipes, and he recaptures some of the eeriness of Elvis’s Sun Sessions on the magical calypso “Havana Moon” and “Downbound Train”. His over-enunciated croon is unintentionally comical on “Together We Will Always Be”, but the track provides more evidence of his willingness to stretch himself without losing his bluesy edge. The lilting “Drifting Heart” is a more convincing and intoxicating endeavor in the traditional ballad vein. Gorgeous.

Anyone with a dime’s worth of interest in Rock & Roll requires no introduction to the mass of Chuck Berry Is on Top. “Almost Grown”, “Carol”, “Maybellene”, “Sweet Little Rock & Roller”, “Roll over Beethoven”, “Johnny B. Goode”, and so many others are as fundamental to a musical education as the ABCs and 123s are to an academic one. Their humor, energy, vivid characterizations, and joyful musicianship inspired generations of musicians to pick up their Gibsons and Fenders for the first time. There’s only one otherwise unavailable cut on this singles collection, though “Blues for Hawaiians”, a retread of “Deep Feeling”, is the most disposable thing here.

The quartet of bonus tracks is a random assortment of the obscure (“Time Was”, “Little Marie”—a rerecording of “Memphis, Tennessee”) and the essential (“Come On”, “Promised Land”) mostly recorded well outside the timeframe of the two LPs they follow. Why are they here? When you start swinging along to them, such questions will grow trivial and evaporate real fast. If you don’t already own After School Session and Chuck Berry Is on Top, your homework is to pick up BGO’s new twofer. Your schooling ain’t complete without them.
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