Friday, September 16, 2016

Van Morrison It's Too Late To Stop Now Volumes 2, 3, 4, and DVD 2016

There are so many reasons to avoid this release, and maybe just a few to own it.

Even though I knew I was breaking several of my personal rules, I decided to give it a go. I'm not a fan of previously unreleased material. In fact, I discussed my take on this issue back here. I'm also not obsessed with hearing alternate versions of material I've already heard.

That said, I own just about everything Van Morrison ever released. I was able to keep myself from getting his 2015 Duets: Re-Working The Catalogue, as the samples led me to believe it was just as bad as most such outings. But his Too Late To Stop Now from 1974 (now referred to as Volume 1) is one of the finest live recordings ever made, both for the performances and for the sound quality.

The band is as good as they get. The core rhythm section of John Platania guitar, Jeff Labes keyboards and string arrangements, David Hayes bass, and Dave Shaw on drums is rock solid. Platania is skilled in both his rhythm playing and tasteful leads. Add to this the remarkable long-time Morrison band member Jack Schroer on sax and horn arrangements, Bill Atwood on trumpet, as well as the string section of Nathan Rubin, Tim Kovatch, and Tom Halpin on violin, Nancy Ellis on viola and Terry Adams on cello, and you have The Caledonia Soul Orchestra in all its glory. The strings add a really nice depth and touch to quite a few of Morrison's songs, and are a bit unique for 1973 to say the least. Morrison himself is in fine voice, and the band plays most of these songs in uptempo versions that are excellent.

But there's three CDs and a DVD here. The material is taken from recordings made for the original 1974 release. The three CDs and the DVD were recordings made at the Troubadour in LA, Santa Monica Civic Center, and The Rainbow Theater in London. None of the versions included here were also included on the original release. Each of the CDs was recorded at a different venue, and include songs performed during a single night, or two nights in the case of the London shows.

What do you get? There were 18 songs on the original double LP, and the remastered CD added only a fairly lame run through Brown-Eyed Girl, one of the 18 previously unreleased songs here. So why not do a two-CD deluxe version and include the 18 songs not heard before, or even a single CD/2 LP version Volume 2? I have no idea, but greed comes to mind. Over the course of the three CDs and DVD, we get 18 new songs. Some of them are pretty special (The Way Young Lovers Do, Snow In San Anselmo, Bein' Green, Hard Nose The Highway, Since I Fell For You, Moonshine Whiskey), and some were obvious choices to leave off the original release (Hey Good Lookin', Buona Sera, Brown-Eyed Girl, Everyone). Additionally, there are multiple versions here of songs that appeared on the original release, with new versions of seven songs, two new versions of three songs, and three new versions of five songs. That's a lot of stuff we've heard before, even if these are different takes. Only two of the tracks from the original release (Warm Love and St. Dominic's Preview) are not included here on either CD or DVD.

The remastered recordings are good. They are not dramatically different from the original, but they are improved.

The DVD video quality is terrible. Even though the show was broadcast on the BBC, and as such should have been around in the original film quality, this looks like a third generation video transfer to me. Fuzzy images, poor overall contrast control, and just generally crummy video. The sound is fine.

How about the book? There are two paragraphs that extol the virtues of the performances and assure us that none of the versions here were on the original release. There are songwriting and production credits. No essays, no lengthy gushing over or dissection of the material. Nada. How lame is that? Totally lame.

You gotta want it bad. Should this remain the only way to get at those 18 other songs, well, then maybe you want it. Eight or even ten of the previously unheard songs are very good. If you enjoy comparing different performances to detect the "important" differences, you'll like this, since there is plenty opportunity for that game. If you like to watch a good DVD of classic rock performances, you can forget it.

I certainly cannot recommend it, unless you're obsessive about Van Morrison. Then it probably doesn't matter what I say anyway since you already own it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Tift Merritt Traveling Alone 2013

I mentioned this one back when it came out but it never received an actual review. I remember listening to it the three or four requisite times I give any new record, but it never really connected. So it sat in the stacks for some time before just a few weeks ago, when I went to give it a new listen. And several more since then.

Merritt is a skilled songwriter and a pretty fine singer, too. She plays acoustic guitar like someone that's entertained with just that and her voice, and it's sturdy guitar. The mid-tempo title track kicks things off with a fine lyric and atmospheric guitar. Sweet Spot follows in mid-tempo country rock style, again with guitar and pedal steel highlights. The sad sweet Drifted Apart has a nice duet vocal and violin from Andrew Bird. Still Not Home documents a restless soul in rocking style, with an understated lead guitar. The slow ballad Small Talk Relations builds instrumentally into a strong chorus. Spring is folky introspection, but with a strong vocal and hot guitar to save it. To Myself returns to the too rare rocking mode with solid workmanship. In The Way is an optimistic country-pop with a great hook in the chorus. The record closes with the atmospheric Marks, where a  deep yearning lyric combines with some exceptional guitars.

And those guitars come from none other than the famous Mark Ribot and journeyman guitar and pedal steel player Eric Heywood. The rhythm section is Jay Brown on bass and Calexico's unnaturally talented drummer John Convertino. And all this is produced by the tireless Tucker Martine, who has been at the helm of fine records by everyone from Bill Frisell to The Long Winters.

It is that band that makes this record worth hearing again. Merritt's songs are good, her voice is lovely, her lyrics are compelling, but the record could really use just a few more uptempo songs. So if you're going to do the delicate folk-country-Americana thing, best to have it embellished by an all-star troupe. That's the recipe here, and it comes out quite well.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Hookfoot Good Times A' Comin' 1972

I was talking to a friend about a particularly poignant lyric in a song when he told me that he never listened to the lyrics. He was aware of the singing as part of the overall musical experience, but he NEVER listened to the lyrics enough to even know what they were about. All music, all songs. I was quite aghast at this, and insisted that lyrics got through to him sometimes. He reconfirmed that the lyrics were not a part of his listening experience. And he liked music quite a bit. I just couldn't relate, so I just had to accept.

That was years ago. Today, I pulled out this old Hookfoot record that I remembered enjoying. These are four talented guys that played the DJM house band rhythm section behind Elton John in the early seventies and produced five or six records of their own. Caleb Quale is a hot guitarist, Ian Duck is a fine vocalist and harmonica player, and Roger Pope and Dave Glover lay down a solid foundation. The songs are pretty well constructed, and they have a funky, organic rock sound that hearkens back to the era of emerging country rock and Elton's Tumbleweed Connection, on which they played.

Sweet Sweet Funky Music pulls off a Dr. Hook - BTO hybrid that rocks nicely. If I Had The Words is solid riff-rock, as is Is Anyone There. And the instrumental guitar/harp of Slick Blues For Jumbo is the highlight of the record. Why, you might ask? Well, it is because that's the one without lyrics. Several other songs would be at least pretty good with different words, but they've got these clunky, awkward lyrics that serve as a rather big distraction.

This is the record for my friend from years ago. Rock solid music, good playing and singing.

I can frequently look the other way when the lyrics are dated, of their time, as it were. But these lyrics have that problem as well as being just plain bad. The word that keeps coming to mind is banal. Caleb Quayle may have been one hot guitarist, but a lyricist he was not.

So when you see this one in a used record store, and it looks interesting, maybe the name seems cool, don't buy it.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Allen Toussaint American Tunes 2016

Allen Toussaint passed away in November 2015, and left behind this gem of a record. There may be questions about whether this would have been the record we would have received had Toussaint lived, but they are mostly academic, and hardly worth the time. What we have here is a worthy successor to The Bright Mississippi, Toussaint's recent career high-water mark from 2009.

There are several solo piano recordings that Toussaint made in 2013, and a four-day session with a stellar cast of modern day jazz greats in October 2015. Produced by Joe Henry, who also did The Bright Mississippi, the record has a different feel and intention from its predecessor.

Delores' Boyfriend starts the set, and it is a solo piano Toussaint composition that owes much to the sound of the great Professor Longhair. Delightful in its New Orleans perfection, it is the first of many magical moments from Toussaint at the keys. Fats Waller's Viper's Drag follows, and we get another fun tune with great piano and sympathetic band support. Confessin' (That I Love You) finds the band swinging, and then Longhair's Mardi Gras In New Orleans gets a surprise quiet, laid back arrangement that Toussaint delivers on solo piano, transforming the usually raucous tune. Side one ends with Billy Strayhorn's Lotus Blossom, which includes sweet guitar/piano interplay and a lovely Charles Lloyd sax break.

Toussaint reimagines another classic, this time taking on Bill Evan's Waltz For Debby, with an almost Latin-style, non-waltz time, perky approach that takes the song in a new and interestingly unique direction that works in spades. Another novel interpretation follows, as Toussaint's solo piano reading of the New Orleans classic Big Chief alternates tempo changes, and jazzed-out searching before finally returning to the classic chorus. Ellington's Rocks In My Head follows, with a big brassy vocal by Rhiannon Giddens supported by a swaggering band and hot piano and guitar solos. Dual pianos by Toussaint and Van Dyke Parks, and a sweet, understated orchestral arrangement by Parks turns the sweet dance of Louis Gottschalk's Danza Op. 33 into pure bliss. Solo piano returns again for Longhair's Hey Little Girl, and it's another winner.

Earl "Fatha" Hines' Rosetta gets a piano trio workout, with more fine Toussaint piano and a tasty bass solo by David Piltch. Then Ellington's Come Sunday gets the vocal treatment from Giddens again, and this time her pained Gospel vocal, while emulating Mahalia Jackson's original, is just a little too brash for me. Another fine Charles Lloyd solo almost saves it. Van Dyke Parks returns for another piano duet on Toussaint's biggest hit Southern Nights, and the two of them present a beautifully jazzy take on the classic. Finally, Toussaint sings a sweet, heartfelt version of Paul Simon's American Tune with guitar by Adam Levy, and a delicate band arrangement that seeps into the song as it progresses. Toussaint sings the song with reverence, and it is lovely.

If you buy the CD, that's it. But side four of the LP includes two more Professor Longhair songs on solo piano (Her Mind Is Gone and Bald Head both receive slow, finely articulated readings) and Mancini's Moon River, which is a tasty guitar/piano duet featuring Bill Frissell's understated perfection.

The cast is impeccable, with Bill Frissell and Greg Leisz on guitars, Jay Bellerose on drums, David Piltch's bass, and Charles Lloyd on saxophone. Guest Van Dyke Parks makes a significant impression on the three on which he contributes. But it is mostly about Allen Toussaint's pure New Orleans genius on piano, and his incomparable arranging skill. Clearly the focus is on tributes to Longhair, Ellington, and a few other masters of American song. The cohesiveness of the sound on The Bright Mississippi is missing somewhat, and this one feels, not really scattershot, but less focused. But other than the over-the-top vocal on Come Sunday (and your impression may not match mine), every moment is treasure.

A master of the American form has left behind another beautiful way for us to remember him.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Eva Cassidy Nightbird 2015

Nightbird is the long overdue release of the entire night recorded at Blues Alley on January 3, 1996 that, edited, became the 1996 classic Live At Blues Alley, reviewed here.

Live At Blues Alley is indispensable for anyone interested in the jazz-pop light genre, and Cassidy's voice was a thing of nearly unparalleled beauty. Pitch-perfect, and with an astounding range and power, we can only speculate on her potential. But given the success of Diana Krall and Norah Jones, it is hard to believe that Eva Cassidy wouldn't have found fame in her time.

Her choice of material was all-encompassing, with songs from the great American jazz songbook, sixties soul, folk, pop, rock and gospel. She could sing it all with her lovely phrasing and immaculate voice. And she was emotionally invested in every song.

But the question now is whether you need to own this new, two-CD, 33-track expanded version of the performance that gave us Live At Blues Alley. Most of the 33 songs here have been released previously. There are only eight that have never been heard, although some of the others were released in re-recorded form over Eva's original vocal tracks. Quite a few of the songs have been released on one of the many posthumous releases since Cassidy's tragic death at age 33. Of the ones that have never seen the light of day, a few are a bit rough, and Cassidy drops a lyric on a couple of them. But overall, the quality is very fine. There could have been a Live At Blues Alley Part Two that would have been every bit the original's equal. And that is pretty much your answer.

I suppose if you own all of her posthumous recordings, you've already purchased this one. If not, you'll have to buy it to get at those eight unreleased tracks. Maybe you love Blues Alley, and got tired of buying the mixed quality of the posthumous releases- they definitely progressed to weaker and weaker material and production with each "new" release. For you, I can also recommend this CD without reservation. It's not perfect, but the quality of the original release is certainly not tainted in any way by getting to hear the whole performance. Having all the songs in one place is nice, and most of the deserved accolades that the original received can be applied here with only rare exceptions.

It really is a shame that she died so young and full of potential. That we cannot ever hear what she might have produced is sad indeed. This should be the last of her offerings, and it should have been done sooner, but all that aside, it is one fine record for anyone that loved the original.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Albert King Born Under A Bad Sign 1967

Technically not an produced as an album, but rather a collection of singles and B sides. Stax knew their game, and backed-up King with Booker T. and the MGs and the Memphis horns (the Stax house band). The combination of a expressive blues singer and hot guitarist with the soulful MGs was a brilliant move. Suddenly, the blues became as accessible as soul music. The record sold well, and remains a classic that has found a home in any serious record collector's stacks. The record is sometimes credited as the point when the blues became contemporary. Its influence on rock guitarists is easy to hear and appreciate. 

Of course the title cut is a classic, and was made more famous with Cream's cover version. The funky Crosscut Saw, with great horn charts and King's sweet guitar solo is another fine moment. Blues classics Down Don't Bother Me, As The Years Go Passing By, and I Almost Lost My Mind mine deep blues with King's sensitive vocal and searing guitar. The R&B side is represented by Kansas City,  The Hunter, and The Very Thought Of You. There isn't much weak material at all, and everything benefits from the previously mentioned combination of artist and band.

Sometimes a classic sounds a bit dated, a bit of its time. But this one holds up today just as it did when new. Sundazed released an expanded vinyl version with two additional B sides, King compositions Funk-Shun and Overall Junction. Whatever the format, the music is timeless.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

CD vs Vinyl

A friend sent me this article recently called Why CDs May Actually Sound Better Than Vinyl. It mostly explains why CD sound is better than vinyl. Because it must be, since there are so many things wrong with vinyl: surface noise, scratches, roll-off of higher frequencies, lack of dynamic range. CD sound is better because it has none of those disadvantages, and it is far more accurate because of its inherent lack of noise and wide dynamic range. By the way, the dynamic range issue is true, but very few CDs take advantage of this, and most of them are classical recordings. Most modern rock and pop music is compressed to a fault when it is mastered, so it sounds louder on the radio or streaming though small speakers. The people who apply this compression, especially the more egregious offenders, should be taken to task, possibly even sent away to a small jail without electricity.

I have no real problem with CD quality sound, and I think that newer DACs and ADCs sound way better than they did 30 years ago. Some jazz and rock CDs are recorded well, and not over-compressed, and sound pretty darn good, especially through better digital players that can do away with most of the jitter and other technical glitches of CD playback. Clearly ripping CDs to a dedicated digital storage medium and transferring that data to a quality DAC without the real-time playback problems associated with CD can help a great deal.

But vinyl still sounds better. Yes, the high frequency roll-off is responsible for some of the warmth of the sound, but the real problem is digitizing music.

Here's my take: With digital, the music is chopped up into discrete pieces and then put back together again to return to analog. Discrete pieces are the problem. Music is a continuous sine wave, an analog, physical event. Dividing it up into discrete, single value moments SCREWS IT UP, period. It destroys the sine wave, and frankly, it can never be put back together again. So, new vinyl records that are recorded digitally sound only marginally different/better than CDs, mostly because of the pleasant warmth distortion of the medium. But vinyl records recorded originally on tape, and then transferred to vinyl, can and do sound better than CD because the sine wave has never been disassembled in the recording process.

You can't measure it. Analog music is what music really is. But the ability of a true analog presentation to connect with the listener on an emotional level cannot be achieved in the digital domain. You can't measure it only because we don't know how to measure it. The idea that humans know how to measure everything is bunk. We are naked apes who have only scratched the surface of scientific understanding.

Signal to noise is BS too. Does 1000:1 sound better than 500:1? Noise inherent in analog tape is too low to bother you unless you are frantically listening for it. Vinyl surface noise and scratches are problematic, but the the original sine wave is preserved. And that trumps digital no matter how thin you slice it.

Do higher resolution digital files sound better than CD? Yes, of course they do, because they lessen the chopped up problem by chopping the sine wave up into smaller pieces (higher sampling rate), and expand the bit depth to a more appropriate level. But do they sound better than a never-digitized analog format? No they don't. And they can't. Are they more accurate? Maybe in at least some sense, but accuracy is overrated. The emotional response to a sine wave that has never been dissected is a response that digital cannot produce.

I don't care that it can't be proven with measurements. I have ears. Ears are clearly analog devices designed to detect continuous sine waves. My ears hear something different when they listen to music that has been digitized. If you don't hear it, I'm fine with that. But don't even try to tell me that I'm wrong because you can measure something.