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.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Bonnie Raitt Dig In Deep 2016

Bonnie's on a roll. She wrote or co-wrote four of the selections here. Her singing is as expressive and casually powerful as ever. And she's playing more guitar, confident in her simmering strength on slide guitar.

Unintended Consequence Of Love kicks things off in slinky, funk-blues style with a hot slide solo. Need You Tonight has a strong back beat, twin guitars, and organ and guitar solos- it's a serious band effort all around. The first ballad, I Know, is more great guitar interplay, capped with Bonnie's subtly restrained vocal. All Alone With Something To Say mines the heartache ballad territory that Bonnie has done so well her entire career. Another arrangement that lets the band shine comes in the form of the rocking What You're Doing To Me, with more fine organ and guitars.

The cover of Los Lobos' Shakin' Shakin' Shakes is fun, and there's more smoking twin guitars between Bonnie and George Martinelli. Undone is the sad break-up ballad, and Bonnie brings another great, heartfelt vocal. There's Bonnie's anti-corporate rant The Comin' Round Is Going Through, the seemingly autobiographical Gypsy In Me, and more solid band rocking in If You Need Somebody.

The record closes with two deep ballads. The first, Joe Henry's You've Changed My Mind, was recorded during sessions for Bonnie's last, Slipstream in 2012, and it must have been hard to leave this one off that record. The last song, The Ones We Couldn't Be, with Bonnie writing and playing piano, is a beautiful sad ballad of imperfect love.

The band is Bonnie's touring unit, and they are hardly a back-up band. George Martinelli is as tasteful and talented a guitarist as any, always perfect, and he and Bonnie can jam. Mike Finnigan's Hammond B3 is equally ideal at every turn. And Ricky Fatar on drums and Hutch Hutchinson's bass lay down a solid rhythm. Solid like twenty inches of concrete solid. There's a few other guests, but these guys don't need any help.

Bonnie's voice has lost little, and her hot licks on slide guitar are generously applied. The recording is clean as a whistle, and the vinyl is pressed at 45 rpm for maximum groovitude. Bonnie's always had a great ear for songs, and now she's also writing more that match that same quality control level. Put all that together with a super hot band, and it should be no surprise how good it comes out.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Marc Benno Lost In Austin 1979

Here's a lost gem for you. Something to look for in a used record shop.

Benno is a guitarist, singer and songwriter with plenty of skill in all three areas. While his voice is fine, it is not what makes his work memorable. It is his writing that really shines, with a deft touch for both melody and lyric.

And on this particular record, all the pieces are in place, and everyone involved is stellar. Produced and engineered by the genius of Glyn Johns, the recording is warm, clear and spirited. But what makes this a record to hear thirty-five years after its release is the band. Carl Radle on bass, Jim Keltner on drums, Dick Sims on keyboards, and Albert Lee on guitar, with Eric Clapton guesting on at least two songs, and Dickie Morresey on saxophone. Benno adds his own guitar and piano. These guys could blow you away in their sleep. And they stay awake through the entire project.

Nice singer-songwriter rock and roll with highly skilled accompaniment. If any guitarist deserves comparison to Clapton, Albert Lee is the guy (he toured with Clapton several times). Jim Keltner is never less than terrific.

If you like Clapton's work around this same time, this is a fine addition to that oeuvre.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Robert Palmer Woke Up Laughing 1998 and At The BBC 2010

I covered pretty much the entire Robert Palmer catalog back here in 2010. But these two items escaped that treatment, mainly because I hadn't heard them at the time. At The BBC is an excellent live recording from 1983 that is well recorded with a hot band touring in support of Palmer's Pride album. It is the only posthumous release from Palmer since his untimely death in 2003, other than a few redundant "Best Of"s and a nearly complete/only somewhat flawed 2-CD Anthology. This is either a remarkable level of restraint from Palmer's estate, or there's just too many lawyers involved. Anyway, it is a worthwhile recording that fans deserved to have released.

Woke Up Laughing is a collection of previously released material put together by Palmer in his lifetime, and as such is not wholly original. But half of the songs are either (significantly) remixed or rerecorded, and the theme of collecting Palmer's African and Caribbean rhythm explorations in one place makes for an unusually coherent, and really good, Robert Palmer record. The remixed material is generally at least the original's equal. I always liked what these songs contributed to their respective releases, but putting them all in one place would not have occurred to me as a great idea. I'd have been wrong.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Robin McKelle Heart Of Memphis 2014

Those people that feel music is dead and there's no great new artists sure are a drag. The only thing new about this music is that it is new. I mean that Ms. McKelle has written a tribute to the sound of Memphis (Stax, Hi) that is both loving tribute, in the style (ala), but also wholly new and original.

And that is a pretty cool deal right there.

I stumbled upon Robin McKelle over at PledgeMusic, and was intrigued enough to just try this one out. Her backstory is a bit odd I must say. Born in upstate New York, and "discovered" in France singing interpretations of the classic jazz songbook in a big band setting (Introducing Robin McKelle 2006 and Modern Antique 2008), she followed that with Mess Around 2010, a more contemporary jazz-pop outing, if I'm reading her bio correctly. And then she wrote most of Soul Flower 2011. I have heard none of those records, so I have no idea if they rival this one, but given her singing, they can't possibly be bad.

Memphis has been rediscovered again recently, with retro-soul outings recorded on site from Boz Scaggs and Paul Rodgers and many others. What makes this release so special is that the songs are newly penned by McKelle, with help from several band members, and they totally nail the Memphis sound without being derivative. Oh, the band is spectacular. The six-piece Flytones, with drums, bass, guitar, keyboards and two horns, rock these songs to the ground every time. Robin McKelle has a perfect alto voice with a touch of rasp, and she sings with street-cred soul.

One of the two covers is a fabulous reading of Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood, the Animal's chestnut. This song has been covered to death, but I've never heard a fast version nearly as good as this one. Ben Stivers organ is choice, but so is the whole arrangement. But the originals are where this baby shines, with Baby You're The Best, Down With The Ship, Good and Plenty, About To Be Your Baby, and Good Time all stars. There really isn't a weak track. The title track and Like A River emulate the Hi Records sound so well you don't even miss Al Green. Soulful and laid back, with that thing that moves your hips in a, well, Memphis, sort of way.

Give in to it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Morphine Cure For Pain 1993

Morphine managed to be largely overlooked during most of their ten years. But they are at once fascinating and a bunch of fun. With their odd-ball instrumentation of two-stringed bass, baritone sax and drums, they should never have sounded so much like a fine rock band as they most certainly did. Credit Mark Sandman's great songs and Jerome Deupree's brilliant drumming. And the best rock guitar ever played on saxophone, Dana Colley's baritone, frequently multi-tracked to fatten the already fat bari-tone.

So it's just another rock power trio, at least in some ways. But there's a bit of jazz, and strangely powerful rhythm, smart lyrics, and an expansive sound culled from the limitations they impose on themselves. These three guys did more than work well together, they were thinking and breathing as a unit.

Side one is just about perfect. The single Beuna rocks with a jazzy swing, while the mid-tempo I'm Free Now is a terrific melody. All Wrong, Candy, and A Head With Wings all have killer sax breaks and songwriting highlights either lyrical or melodic to recommend them. Sandman picks up an acoustic guitar for In Spite Of Me, a beautiful lyric ballad of loss to end the side.

The scary tale of illicit lust and the husband that just might kill you that is Thursday explodes the second side in fine style. The rest of side two branches out a bit more, and not everything pops like the first side. But Cure For Pain, and the spacey-cool Let's Take A Trip Together are solid.

It is almost the whole record, and plenty by any standard. I think I like 1995's Yes even more, but I've spent more time with that one.