Friday, February 10, 2017

Drive-By Truckers American Band 2016

Drive-By Truckers have done something very unusual. They have made a great record with overtly political lyrics. Shocking really.

Lots of bands and artists have made politically-themed records before, and some of them are OK I guess. Actually I say that only because I certainly haven't heard them all. The ones I can think of are all pretty bad. And I don't mean records with one political song and the rest is a mix of romance and fast cars. Or the records with some serious stuff between the lines. I am talking about the message record. Neil Young's done it. Springsteen, too. And Jackson Browne made two or three of them in a row. Not coincidentally, it was when nobody listened to Jackson Browne for a while.

The Truckers have certainly produced plenty of sociological observation over the years, and have told some very telling political tales. They are clearly left of center, but they are also from the South, so there is always "the duality of the Southern thing".

Can this one actually be compared favorably with Southern Rock Opera 2001, The Dirty South 2004 and Brighter Than Creation's Dark 2008? Each of those can vie for record of the year with the best of contenders. And they are profound statements from the best possible mix of Neil Young, The Clash, The Stones, and Skynyrd.

The answer is a rousing Yes. An exploration of the divisions within the title country, the record is impressive in its anger and focus. And like their greatest records, this one also contains the perfect trilogy that encapsulates the themes of the record. Like Southern Rock Opera's The Southern Thing, Three Great Alabama Icons, and Wallace, and Brighter Than Creation's Dark's Two Daughters And A Beautiful Wife, Three Dimes Down, and The Righteous Path, this one contains Ever South, What It Means, and Once They Banned Imagine.

The band continues with just the two songwriters in Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley that forged the fine English Oceans 2015, and I stand behind what I felt about the writing on that record. They have both become better writers than on the early outings, and they don't need more help.

I'll leave this with the first stanza of What It Means, one of several songs that ruminate on our love of guns and the racial tensions that we only thought were getting better before the last few years:

He was running down the street when they shot him in his tracks
About the only thing agreed upon is he ain’t coming back
There won’t be any trial so the air it won’t be cleared
There’s just two sides calling names out of anger and of fear
If you say it wasn’t racial when they shot him in his tracks
well I guess that means that you ain’t black, it means that you ain’t black
I mean Barack Obama won and you can choose where to eat
but you don’t see too many white kids lying bleeding on the street

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Norah Jones Day Breaks 2016

So here we get Norah Jones going back for a little jazz credibility. The sly mix of pop, jazz, and a dash of country that made her debut the biggest thing since sliced bread, and her lovely vocal delivery and impressively nuanced piano playing all have left us with high expectations.

She followed the debut (Come Away With Me 2002) with two more lovely outings (Feels Like Home 2004, Not Too Late 2007) that felt alternatively like growth some times and treading water other times. The Fall 2009 came next, and it really showed a different side of Jones that I thought was invigorating. More guitar, more pop, more ever so slightly faster tempos, and some of her best writing. I wasn't so thrilled with Little Broken Hearts 2012, and while it was generally well-received, I never thought Danger Mouse was the right partner.

This new one is being touted as a return to the form of her debut. There's still some pop songs, and a bit of country, but she's mostly playing jazz on this one, and it works to her advantage.

Burn opens the record with a slinky tune enhanced by Wayne Shorter on sax and Peter Rehm's Hammond organ. Tragedy features a fine Jones piano figure and a nice lyric. Flipside brings out a rocking Wulitzer piano applied to a perfect pop song. Like a great lost Melody Gardot song, It's A Wonderful Time For Love shows off Jones in trio mode. The piano trio plus string quartet arrangement of And Then There Was You is just plain pretty. Side one closes with Neil Young's Don't Be Denied, and while it's not Young's greatest song, at least we don't have to hear him do it.

Side two is rock solid, with opener Day Break featuring the string quartet and Wayne Shorter again in big dramatic beauty. Horace Silver's Peace gets the trio treatment plus Shorter again, and he smokes it. Brain Blade on drums and John Pettucci on bass are great here and on several other tracks. On Once I Had A Laugh, she turns a seemingly lightweight composition into big fun with a brassy horn section. Sleeping Wild is nice, and is saved by the string quartet coda. Carry On is an upbeat tune with a familiar Jones melody, and it holds up. She closes with Ellington's Fleurette Africaine, again with just a piano trio plus Shorter's sax, and as she hums and moans, the band spreads out for some real deal jazz.

Bringing in Wayne Shorter on four tracks helps to make it sound like the jazz-intentioned outing it is. But the song writing is some of Jones best ever, and she uses two new writing partners in Sarah Oda and Peter Rehm who must take some of the credit for the quality on display here. A few well-chosen covers, and heck, what else do you possibly want from the girl?

Norah Jones never went away, and now she's back.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Zappadan 2016 Again The 10 Best (a bad idea)

Here's a Zappadan idea that has to be wrong. Feel free to correct me in comments, or add your own list, but be nice, it's not like I presume this to be the list anyone else should agree with. Even Frank had to have his favorites. Choosing ten is very difficult.

The 10 Best (oh, please) Frank Zappa albums:

Freak Out! 1966
Weasels Ripped My Flesh 1970
The Grand Wazoo 1972
Apostrophe(') 1974
One Size Fits All 1975
Orchestral Favorites 1979
Joe's Garage Acts I, II, and III 1987
       (I know that was cheating)
The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life 1991
Make A Jazz Noise Here 1991
The Yellow Shark 1993

Monday, December 5, 2016

Zappadan 2016 Lumpy Gravy 1967 and Just Another Band From L.A. 1972


Let me just start with the important news. You don't need Just Another Band From L.A. at all. It is the inane pinnacle of everything that was wrong with the 1970-1972 Flo and Eddie Mothers. I know we should hold Frank up to the golden light during Zappadan, but I have finally purchased the only Zappa record in which I find zero delight. I don't have them all, but even Chunga's Revenge and Fillmore East- June 1971 (the other two by this line-up) hold some charms. This one is mostly Flo and Eddie telling insipid stories with a rhythm section.
On the other hand, Lumpy Gravy. The first of Zappa's solo records, it is the first realization of his more formal compositional works. As such, it appears to have meant a lot to the composer. While I could do without the spoken word ramblings inside the piano that are scattered throughout, the music is a fascinating look at the Zappa we will come to admire on Orchestral Favorites, the London Symphony recordings, and The Yellow Shark. Sprinkled with a touch of surf music, Zappa presents several themes we will encounter later in his oeuvre. Any critical dissection of Zappa's importance as a modern composer must include this delightful effort. Rated W for weirdness, especially in 1967.

For more Zappadan related goodies, try these...
Zappadan 2015
Zappadan 2014
Zappadan 2014
Zappadan 2013
Zappadan 2013
Zappadan 2012
Zappadan 2011
Zappadan 2011
Zappadan 2010
Zappadan 2010
Zappadan 2009
Zappadan 2009
And even more at Frank Zappa here on this blog.

Thanks again, Mr. Zappa.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Jenny Scheinman The Littlest Prisoner 2014

If only I could adequately describe this fine recording in a way that would make you want it the way I want it again and again.

I'm destined to fail. I could compare it to a few other records and find some similarities, but those could only approximate at best this quietly stunning record. I've been listening to it for over a year now and every time I put it on I enjoy it immensely. And my blood pressure goes down.

I guess I would classify it as country/folk. Spare, quietly deliberate country/folk. Beautiful, intriguing, fragile music with a sensitive heart. Played by a small jazz ensemble of Bill Frisell (guitar), Brian Blade (drums and harmony vocals), and Tony Garnier (bass), with Scheinman's violin and arresting vocals. But it is not a jazz record.

Scheinman writes these direct sounding lyrics that always leave something to the imagination of the listener. She inspects the nooks and corners of relationships in intricately intimate ways, and finds the perfect detail that elevates the moment into crystalline clarity. I'm not always excited by lyrical content in my music, but Jenny Scheinman is just plain poetic.

The country/folk (with a touch of bluegrass ramble here and there) of these fairly simple melodies fits the mood of her lyrics so perfectly, so well, fittingly, that the record feels right. Scheinman's vocals are delicate without girlishness, quiet without shyness, childlike yet fully grown. She has a lovely voice.

And then there's the music. With such a small cast of players, and most of the songs don't even feature all four members, spare is the only way to describe it. But to be able to listen to these masterful musicians in these delicate arrangements, pouring themselves out so that every note, every nuance is full of the emotion (or even the ennui) that is perfect for the song, it is a treat.

There are three instrumentals that allow Scheinman and band to shine, and sequenced perfectly, give the record some nice pacing.  

Scheinman has contributed to many of Frisell's projects, and has made several jazz records as well as an earlier vocal record. Her playing is versatile and nimble, and she has performed in a broad range of settings. As it turns out, she can also sing and write lyrics exceptionally well. What can't she do?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Colin Towns NDR Big Band Frank Zappa's Hot Licks (And Funny Smells) 2005

Take a bright modern composer and arranger, a super-hot big band with amazing chops, and sixteen mostly jazz Zappa compositions. Put them all in front of a rabid German festival crowd, stir vigorously, and stand back. There could be an explosion.

Don't look for ballads. This is straight-ahead up-tempo wild abandon, except for the part where everything is completely in exact control. Zappa would be proud of the performance, arranged and executed with precision and verve. Tons of great solos from the horn players as well as the guitarist. And the drummer and percussionist are on fire throughout.

It is all about thirteen big brass instruments, and a smoking hot rhythm section. Repeatedly we hear Zappa's guitar solos twisted into horn charts and solos. More importantly, we get renditions of Zappa's music that sound as if he wrote for big band all the time. This has got to be credited to Mr. Towns' wonderfully interpretive arrangements that follow Zappa the composer's intentions while drawing out the best for use in the big band format. 

From the opening lilt of Peaches En Regalia to the titanic (and ridiculously difficult) closer G-Spot Tornado, everything works. Along the way we get fine brass arrangements of Watermelon In Easter Hay, King Kong, Waka Jawaka, Big Swifty, Black Napkins, and many more.

There are so many ways to enjoy Frank Zappa's work. Here's yet another good one.

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.