Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Calexico Edge Of The Sun 2015

Well, Calexico is on a roll. This one continues the development pattern of Algiers, and ups the game even from that fine work, with perhaps a tad more energy, and again with the great songs.

The driving Tex-Mex-Jayhawks of Falling From The Sky kicks it off in fine style. The spooky minor key melody of Bullets and Rocks follows with excellent harmonies. Lost love features in the ballads When Angels Played and Moon Never Rises, and the later includes a fine female vocal duet with Carla Morrison. More of the moody Southwestern thing they do so well is on display on Tapping On The Line, World Undone, and Follow The River. Miles From The Sea has a fine string arrangement and Baroque-pop sound. Their love of Ennio Moricone is fully expressed in the cinematic instrumental Cayoacan. Cumbia de Donde has a Spanish-trance groove that sucks you in, and the uptempo Beneath The City Of Dreams enhances its dark story with super horn charts. The piano-driven country ballad Woodshed Waltz swings its sadness to the title dance beat.

It may be telling that the band listed on the sleeve includes eight members as opposed to just Burns and Convertino. It is their usual convention for just the two of them to be separated from the rest of the players by at least an empty line. Additionally, Sergio Mendoza (multiple instruments, vocals) assists with songwriting and production, and that may have helped to keep things fresh and new. Mostly, though, it sounds like the work of a band, and not just two guys with help. They're touring as a seven-piece, and the early results should make you want to catch the tour when they come your way.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Julia Fordham Porcelain 1989

Besides being an amazing photo shoot of a cover, Julia Fordham's Porcelain is a breathtakingly lovely recording, jam packed with great songs. I was looking for something I hadn't heard in a while, and stumbled upon this sumptuous record. Fordham writes these lovelorn melodies and sings these intimate lyrics with her crystalline voice. They are near perfect sophisticated pop-rock gems. The songs and arraignments are splendid, really.  

Her early records into the nineties all contained a few great songs each. And the rest of the material was hardly slouch, but Porcelain holds up pretty much in it's entirety. So does The Julia Fordham Collection 1998, an unassailable best-of disc with the cream of the crop of her first five releases.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Fleetwood Mac 1970-1974

From 1966 to 1969, Fleetwood Mac was a blues-based rock band headed by Peter Green on guitar and vocals with Jeremy Spencer, also guitar and vocals, Mick Fleetwood's drums and John McVie on bass. Danny Kirwin's guitar and vocals were added to the line-up for their third LP Then Play On in 1968. Green left the group he founded in 1969. Between Green's departure and the 1975 arrival of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac went through multiple line-up changes, with different personnel on all but two of the six records they released during this middle period.

Kiln House 1970 was recorded by Kirwin, Spencer, Fleetwood and McVie, with an uncredited Christine Perfect/McVie on keyboards and vocals. Jeremy Spencer left after Kiln House, to be replaced by American Bob Welsh, and Christine McVie became an official member. Future Games 1971 introduced Welsh's spacey, mystical rock songs, and also premiered Christine McVie's romantic balladry, which would become a stable for the band, with Show Me A Smile. The record garnered Fleetwood Mac a fair amount of FM radio play in America, even while the English reaction to their new distance from the blues was not well received .

The same line-up completed Bare Trees 1972, and again the record was neglected in the UK, and made it's way into the top 100 in the US. Strong songs from all three writers (Welsh, Kirwin, McVie) help fortify the record. Future Games and Bare Trees both benefit from the guitar interplay between Kirwin and Welsh, some fine jamming and riffing going on.

1973 saw two relatively unfocused releases from the band in a period of transition. Kirwin was dismissed during the tour in support of Bare Trees, and for Penguin, Bob Weston on guitar and Dave Walker (ex Savoy Brown vocalist) were added to the line-up. Penquin is probably their weakest outing since the band's inception, and is only saved by two of Christine McVie's better love songs, Remember Me and Dissatisfied. After Dave Walker left, the remaining five made Mystery To Me, and it's another weaker one, but not without redeeming moments in Welsh's Somebody and Hypnotized (which got considerable FM radio play) and McVie's Believe Me.

Heroes Are Hard To Find 1974 was made by the quartet of Welsh, McVie, Fleetwood and McVie, and was their first record to break into the top 40 Billboard album charts. The album holds up pretty well even today, and is clearly the precursor to the so-cal rock lite classics that are right around the corner. Welsh and McVie each contribute strong material, and a successful tour helped sell the record more than any before it. The title track and Welsh's Silver Heels are standouts, as is Come A Little Bit Closer by Christine McVie.

We all know what happened next. Welsh quit, and very shortly after, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks were added to the line-up. That band made two classic rock FM radio staples, Fleetwood Mac 1975 and Rumours 1977. The five are back together and touring again in 2015. Other than those classics from 1975 and 1977, their recorded output has been a mixed bag, with Buckingham, McVie, and Nicks each out of the picture at various times. In fact, these records from 1970-1974, especially Kiln House, Future Games, Bare Trees, and Heroes Are Hard To Find, are in my view much more interesting than any of their post 1977 output.

Monday, April 27, 2015

12 Best

I just stumbled on a document I wrote in 2007. I believe I wrote it in response to a challenge put forth by one of the magazines I was reading to name the 12 best records to encapsulate American music. I went with a contemporary approach.

Marti Jones Live At Spirit Square
Maybe the single best live pop record ever. Great songs, great band, great recording. Marti’s lovely alto, producer-husband Don Dixon on bass and songwriting. Jaime Hoover proves himself to be one of the most remarkably skilled guitarists ever.

Spirit The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus 
A wonderful summation of the west coast psychedelic sound, with Beatles woven throughout.

Swan Dive Swan Dive
What do you get when you combine the pop of Bacharach, the girl group sound of the sixties, and contemporary production values? 

NRBQ  At Yankee Stadium
The single best studio recording from America’s answer to whatever question you had in mind, and the most fun you’ll ever have seeing a live band.

Santana Caravanseri
Latin, jazz-rock fusion, southern California style. All of the first four are classics, but no one else ever made a record quite like this one.

Cassandra Wilson Blue Light ‘Til Dawn
The bayou, native influences, the blues, jazz, and the sultry tones of one of today’s finest voices in jazz, even if she’s not the flavor of the month right now.

Jackson Browne Jackson Browne (Saturate Before Using)
There are lots of good examples of the perfect singer-songwriter record. This one’s mine.

James Brown Star Time
Ok, it’s four CDs, but it’s also the only perfect James Brown purchase available. Absolutely essential all the way through, and (almost) everything you need. Also stands out as the best single-artist four CD set ever, by a pretty fair margin.

Marcia Ball, Erma Thomas, Tracy Nelson Sing It
What can I say about this record? A little blues, a little soul, a little R&B, and a rollicking party tune or two. Three great women more people should have heard a long time ago.

The Neville Brothers Neville-ization
Never able to capture it all in the studio, these two nights at Tipitina’s are what the Neville Brothers are all about. Smokin’ hot band at the top of their form for the hometown crowd.

Frank Sinatra Classic Sinatra
Ah, Sinatra’s thirties during our perfect 1950s. Lots of hits, nicely mastered to CD. Sinatra is in peak form, still with the power of a young man, but having learned just exactly how much of it to use at any one time.

Bill Frisell Good Dog, Happy Man
What can you say about country-bluegrass-jazz fusion? Lots of things of course, but for sure it’s American.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Little Richard Here's Little Richard 1957

The search for the holy grail of the Birth of Rock and Roll will take you to early sides by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Going further back pulls in The 5 Royals, Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, and a host of others. But no one should give you any grief for including Little Richard's Tutti Frutti in the mix. And many other tracks from this fine debut long player from Little Richard, including True Fine Mama, Ready Teddy, Long Tall Sally, Rip It Up, and She's Got It.

Little Richard Penniman recorded a few sides in 1952 and 1953, but the bulk of his rock and roll fame was produced for Specialty records from 1955-1957. And everything he recorded for Specialty was released as singles. This collection of A and B sides recorded in 55 and 56, and released while Richard was still recording for the company, is as good as early rock and roll gets, and Richard is completely on fire. Known for his wild performances, you get the idea loud and clear on these studio tracks. Specialty released two other LPs, both after Pennimen left the company, and the rest of his early hits are included on those LPs, Little Richard 1958 and The Fabulous Little Richard 1959.

There's many CD compilations for Little Richard, but the Specialty recordings are really the crux of the matter. So much so that he re-recorded much of this material at least twice later in his career (those recordings are bested by the originals, even if they offer improved- and stereo- sound). Little Richard had a long and strange career, bouncing back and forth between gospel and rock and roll, with one comeback after another, but it was always his seminal fifties sides that made him awe-inspiring. This one (or a compilation of his Specialty hits) and his outstanding 1970 comeback, The Rill Thing, are some of his finest moments.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Sound of Music, The Sound of Sound

Audiophiles are regularly accused these days of being overly obsessed with the gear, and less interested in the music. I like to think I stay mostly focused on the music, but I do love cool looking boxes. I do worry sometimes that the idea of just sitting and listening to music, and not doing anything else, is foreign to most people these days. But then I'm never alone when I visit the orchestra and hear live music for almost two hours, and we mostly sit still.

There has long been an argument among those as interested in arguing as they are in music, about what a music playback system is supposed to do in your home. One raison d'etre of a home music system is to bring the experience of live music into the home (this may well be the unachievable goal). Another is to be faithful to the sound of the original recording (wherever that may have happened). Another is to duplicate the movie theater experience. And yes, for some, it's to provide pleasant background music.

Art Dudley, whose writing I like at least as much as Carl Hiaasen's or Kurt Vonnegut's, wrote another great Listening column in Stereophile in February, and while it gets pretty seriously technical, it also gets to the core of the tube/solid state debate in a clearly biased (it's not always a bad thing), yet still scientific way. Dudley discusses the various types of distortion present in music systems, and how the ones made by simple tube amplifiers are, to him, the least objectionable, and in some ways, may even enhance the listening experience. And Dudley answers the question of what a stereo should do, with elegance and élan. I don't care so much for all the technicalities, but the end result that tube electronics sound better than solid state certainly resonates with me.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not dissing anyone's solid state electronics. Taste is taste. I also believe that when you get to the very expensive stuff, the tubes vs. solid state debate becomes moot, and there are remarkable products that anyone could enjoy in both categories. But in the lower- and mid-level products, there are very real differences, and more watts is not always the answer.

Of course it all has a lot to do with what you want from you music delivery system, and all the other priorities in your life as well. My answer to what your stereo should do is whatever you want it to, and make you happy. It is, after all, a product. As Paul Butterfield once sang, "Take your pleasure where you find it."

OK I'm done.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Bill Evans The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings 1961, 2014

Why (or why not) do you need (or want) this four-record vinyl set?

The four records here include everything that was recorded (and survives) on that fateful day in 1961 when Evans and company played four sets, and it all got recorded. These recordings went on to become two classic jazz albums that have never been out of print since their 1961 release (!), Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debbie. The recording represents for many the pinnacle of Evans' work, even though he enjoyed popularity and success until his death in 1980. Evans is most famous for developing and expanding the language of the piano trio, and this trio, with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums, is credited with redefining that language forever. Add to the facts that LaFaro died in a car crash shortly after this recording, and you get a slice of history that cannot be repeated.

Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debbie are both available in excellent reissued vinyl versions, so this set either needs to be better sounding than those records or offer something unique in the tracks that haven't appeared on vinyl previously. All of the tracks here were released in 1991 on the 12 CD set The Complete Riverside Recordings except for the incomplete first take of Gloria's Step, but that means buying 12 CDs of material that many Evans fans own much of already. You can also get all of this material on a 3 CD set with the same name from 2005. And you can also buy the CD reissues with bonus tracks of the two aforementioned releases, and get all but two of the tracks here. But this is the only way to get the whole enchilada on vinyl.

The original two-track tapes required some editing that could not be done without damaging the tapes. So when the 2005 CD version was produced, the music was transferred to digital for editing, and these vinyl pressings are made from those digital files. Surprisingly, in 2005 the tapes were digitized at 44 kHz (standard CD resolution) instead of a higher sampling rate, and it certainly begs the question of how much better this music could have sounded if digitized in a higher quality transfer. All that said, the vinyl here sounds very good. The pressing quality is exceptional, with less surface noise than I may have ever heard on any vinyl. Ever. If there is a small amount of digital hash/edge to the piano, you're going to have to turn it up very loud to hear it. And here's the kicker- digital transfer aside, this version is closer to those original two-track tapes than any of the reissued vinyl versions out there, which were sourced from mixed down masters that could only be second generation copies at best. And what this means is that Scott LaFaro's bass sounds better than it ever has on vinyl in the past. If you know these recordings, the bass has always been well presented, so the improvement isn't night and day, but it seems quite real to my ears. And the interplay between Evans and LaFaro is essentially what has made this one of the great moments in Evans' career, and in all of jazz history, for many an aficionado.

Add to that the alternate takes and never-released tracks available on vinyl for the first time, and you have something very special indeed. Do you need this if you already own Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debbie? I can't tell you. For me, having more from this trio in my collection is well worth it. The additional music is in many ways the equal of the tracks released on those two fine original releases, but I doubt I would have purchased it myself (I received the box as a birthday gift). Having now heard it though, I would certainly have purchased it for myself. Especially because of the particularly excellent pressing job and overall sound quality.

The box comes with a decent book, and a nice poster-type thing. The packaging and presentation is fine, although it's not the reason to buy. You have to want this music, and you have to want it on vinyl, because you can get it all on the CD version for less.

You probably don't have a friend as good as the friend that gave it to me. If after reading this, you wish you had a friend like mine, but you know you don't have that kind of friend, you'll just have to buy it for yourself.