One of the most interesting new CDs of the year is neither new nor a CD. In fact, it wasn't even made by a professional musician.
Lo-Fi Troubadour is 36 minutes of acoustic songs written and recorded by the comedian Bill Hicks several years before his death from pancreatic cancer in 1994, and it's available only as an mp3 download with the purchase of Rykodisc's new two-CD, two-DVD Hicks boxed set, The Essential Collection. In contrast to the confrontational, profanity-laced stand-up routines for which Hicks became notorious, these private recordings, recorded in stolen moments while Hicks was on the road in the early '90s, are tender-even sweet-and will surely surprise the comedian's followers.
They will not, however, surprise Hicks' biggest supporters: his mother Mary and his brother Steve, who discovered the songs on cassettes among Bill's effects after his death.
"Bill was sweet," Mary told me.
"The songs are very introspective and wistful," added Steve. "They're a different but equally creative and passionate and soulful part of his being."
They also reveal that Hicks was as gifted a composer of "clean" songs as he was of scathing comedy-and that he was a talented guitarist and singer. He developed the latter talent, according to Mary, while singing as a teenager in, of all places, the youth choir of the Houston-area Southern Baptist church in which he was reared.
"He was imbedded in it," she recalls, "just like all of my children were. He even went to Vacation Bible School."
As the hard-copy portions of The Essential Collection abundantly demonstrate, Baptists-Southern or otherwise-will find much of Hicks' R-rated comedy rough going. And Mary herself admits that some of it remains even too much for a mother to love. But she also believes that those who focus only on her son's frequently raunchy demeanor might be missing the fruits of his Christian upbringing (he traveled with Bibles and donated generously to the needy to the end).
"Some of my Baptist friends have sensitive ears," she said. "So I've told them what Bill told me: 'Don't listen to the words if they bother you. Listen to what he is saying.' He wasn't a fan of organized religion, but he also said that there was nothing wrong with Christianity if people who professed to be Christians would only act that way."
Almost as unusual as an album of sensitive music from a scabrous comic is a four-disc boxed set from a band that only recorded one album. But that's exactly what Callin' All (Universal) by the Liverpool quartet the La's, whose eponymous album on the Go! Disc label came and went in 1990, is. And, weirder still, each of Callin' All's 92 tracks has never been officially unreleased until now.
At least not in these versions. Discs One and Two testify to the perfectionism that led the band to record (and re-record) its songs with multiple producers (Steve Lillywhite, Jeremy Allom, Bob Andrews, John Leckie, John Porter, Steve Ripley) in search of the right sonic setting for its infectiously retro, British Invasion-rooted pop rock. Discs Three and Four, meanwhile, comprise two entire London live shows and a Dutch radio session circa 1989-1991.
So there's a lot of repetition. One could, in fact, assemble three different versions of the band's sole long-player from the renditions included herein. What keeps the tedium to a more-than-tolerable minimum is that the La's approached each take as if it might be "the one." That there's no success like "failure" makes it more fun than ever to be their fan.