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.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Heather Myles

Maybe you're like me, and today's country music leaves you confused and unhappy.

Maybe you like country music, but it isn't what you hear when you hear Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, or Sugarland.

Maybe you'd like to hear one contemporary country artist that respected the legacy of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, and the honky-tonk, Bakersfield sound.

Look no farther than Heather Myles, who would be a huge star if country music radio still played country music, without the pop and eighties-rock influences that have morphed country into the slick product it has become today.

Myles got started in the early nineties with Just Like Old Times 1992 and Untamed 1995 on High Tone Records. You can hear her talent, but both records are a little underproduced, and her songs are not quite as perfect as they will become. The two records' best material was reissued on Rum & Rodeo in 2005.

Starting in 1998, Myles has produced three fine country records. Highways And Honky Tonks 1998, Sweet Talk And Good Lies 2002, and In The Wind 2011 are all non-stop gold. Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, and Willie Nelson have all made guest appearances, in case she needed any additional credibility. She writes almost all the songs, and they are consistently great, with traditional country values (lovin', drinkin', cheatin') and solid, catchy country choruses. There are no strings and no synthesizers, just good old honky-tonkin' country music. And she has a fabulous, strong voice with just enough twang to feel the heartache, and just enough power to know she ain't fooling around.
Highways And Honky Tonks might be the best place to start. It might have the best collection of songs, but you can't go wrong with any of the three of them. Treat yourself to the real deal.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Bette Midler It's The Girls! 2014

Bette Midler is a fine vocal talent that has been wasted on middling material and just plain wrong production for much of her career. That hasn't stopped her from winning Grammy's and having big hit singles, but it has made much of her material come off as product, and pretty standard product at that. Of course, things got started in fine style with her stellar 1972 debut, The Divine Miss M. But the soundtrack work, and much of Arif Marden's later productions left me wanting. I came to think of her as an actor (and a darn good one) as much as a singer. Then there was that last Carson show when she serenaded him with One For The Road. I mean, you almost have to love her even if her recordings seemed so, I don't know, schlocky.

What made The Divine Miss M so great were the songs, many of which would fit right in with this new recording. There were girl group sounds all over Miss M, with Chapel Of Love and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. And there wasn't any padding on the record.

Well, I'll save you any suspense and just tell you that Bette Midler has finally made The Divine Miss M Part 2. It is a delight to hear Midler tackle these fabulous, and mostly true to the original, girl group classics. The song selection is spot on, with plenty of obvious choices, but also some rarities. When the songs get new arrangements, they're really great choices, like the slow, heartfelt version of Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow. Heartfelt is a good choice of words, really, because Midler sounds more invested in this material than she ever has sounded. Wow.

Be My Baby, One Fine Day, Tell Him, Baby It's You, He's Sure The Boy I Love, You Can't Hurry Love, all done just different enough from their sixties originals to sound fresh. The tracks from the forties "original" girl groups are particularly fine, with The DeCastro Sister's close harmony version of Teach Me Tonight just breathtakingly beautiful.

I didn't really care much if there was ever going to be another great Bette Midler recording, and I certainly didn't expect it. What a lovely surprise!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Grapes Of Wrath These Days 1991

A fairly successful eighties folk-rock band from Canada, The Grapes Of Wrath presented a somewhat harder rock sound on These Days than they had previously displayed. While critics and fans may have been less than thrilled with the direction change, the two singles still charted higher than any of their previous efforts.

And today, the CD comes off like some lost classic jangle-pop gem. The two singles, I Am Here and You May Be Right are both timeless mid-tempo rockers packed with melody, great hooks, fine vocals, and hot guitar.

And the whole thing holds up surprisingly well. The songs are strong, the lyrics worthy, and the band is talented. It turned out to be their swan song after an EP and three other CDs throughout the eighties. I think they went out on a high note.

Most of the band continued to play through the nineties as Ginger, and they reformed for new releases in 2000 (Field Trip) and again in 2013 (the solid High Road). But their strongest moment may have been These Days. It was a nice change of pace in 1991, and a delightful treat today.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The battle with loudness at live performances

There's some fairly recent science that supports what many of us have believed for a long time, that is, that Most Rock 'N' Roll Bands Play Too Loud.

Especially the bass and bass drum, which almost always seem too loud in the mix compared to everything else. And it seems to get worse as the night progresses.

This could be due to an already deaf sound guy.

It could also be quite purposeful, to make sure your chest rattles with the beat. That way you know it's really rock 'n' roll.

And the "get louder as the set progresses" deal could also be individual band members slowly creeping their volumes up until it's all just too much.

Or it could be alcohol. Follow that link to read an interesting article (and comments) supported by this research.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Elton John 17-11-70 1971

I've pulled this little gem out an unusual number of times in the recent past. Unique in Elton John's output, it was recorded live in a studio with a small audience for radio broadcast, and includes only the core band of John, Dee Murray (bass) and Nigel Olssen (drums).

It is the interplay of this tight outfit, and Elton's rocking piano, that make the record so special. Elton still had plenty to prove at this point. His songwriting was never a question, but this was his first American tour, and the band plays like it is now or never. Murray's bass lines are all over the place, almost a bass/lead instrument, and Olssen's drumming is equally wild and ferocious. And Elton plays like a man simultaneously possessed by Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Piano can rock. Here's all the proof you need.

Take Me To The Pilot starts things off in fine form, followed by Honky Tonk Woman, on which the trio sings some knock-out harmonies, and John rips the piano to shreds. The slow burner Sixty Years On turns incendiary, and Can I Put You On keeps the rocking front and center. Side two features an eighteen-minute Burn Down The Mission, that includes bits of Arthur Crudup's My Baby Left Me and The Beatles Get Back.

Elton never did this same thing again, and a little over a year later, guitarist Davey Johnstone was a full-time band member. John's live performances became more sophisticated, but never really recaptured the raw power of this dynamic trio.   

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Zappadan 2014 again Imaginary Diseases 2006 and You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. I 1988

During the previous two Zappadan celebrations, I've discussed recent acquisitions of Zappa releases. This year didn't contain the revelations found in either Wazoo or Orchestral Favorites, but I did add to the stacks with the two in the title.

Imaginary Diseases is a good Zappa release in a number of ways. It is a live recording of the 1972 10-Piece Band, or as it is often known, the Petite Wazoo.This band followed hot on the heels of the 20-piece Grand Wazoo featured on the aforementioned Wazoo release. Nine of the members of this unit also played in the previous larger one.

The disc contains some fine recordings, all instrumentals, that cannot be duplicated elsewhere. The 6-man horn section gets heavily involved right away on Rollo, while Been To Kansas City In A Minor rocks a fairly regular blues under smoking solos on trumpet, guitar, and trombone. Farther O'Blivion again features horn charts and solos, and at 16 minutes, covers a lot of ground. D.C. Boogie is mostly guitar solo, and it's a good one. Imaginary Diseases and Montreal both feature more guitar than horns, and they keep your attention. After the Grand Wazoo, the Petite Wazoo is less amazing. But there is no denying that these are some very hot performances.

Recommended then for the already deep into Zappa type. Might not be for the uninitiated.

No one really needs YCDTOSA Vol. I all that much. Disc one is filled almost entirely with inane humor.  Let's Make The Water Turn Black/Harry You're A Beast/The Orange County Lumber Truck from the 1969 original Mothers line-up is three minutes of perfection. There are good versions of I'm The Slime and Big Swifty from the 1973 band featuring George Duke and Ruth Underwood. That's three tracks out of fourteen. The second disc almost has to be better, and it is. Two more tracks from 1969 (Plastic People  and Oh No).  A version of The Torture Never Stops from the 1977 band featuring Adrian Belew on guitar would be indispensable were it not for so many other good versions of the song. Fine Girl and Be In My Video are always good. The recordings of Frank's eighties bands are less distinguished, and maybe some of the material is weaker. There's some priceless stuff for the obsessed, but as a CD to sit and listen to, it doesn't hold up. Without getting too negative, Vol. II (The Helsinki Concert) is where this series really starts.