Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Continental Drifters Continental Drifters 1994

The Continental Drifters were a fabulous band that made multiple great recordings that somehow went largely unnoticed. There's no logical reason for it. They had several fine songwriters, three or four lead singers, former members of The Cowsills, The dbs, Dream Syndicate, and The Bangles, and a rich blend of rootsy Americana, New Orleans swamp rock, and intelligent pop songcraft.

This is their debut (an earlier 1993 recording wasn't released until 2003, and that was a different line-up), and it's shockingly good for the first time out. With five different band members writing songs, you get their best work, plus some very well selected covers.

They do Gram Parson's Song For You, Michael Nesmith's Some Of Shelly's Blues, The Box Top's Soul Deep (a great choice, and a perfect version), and Goffin-King's (and Dusty Springfield's) I Can't Make It Alone. It's a brilliantly esoteric mix, and they put a unique stamp on every one of them. The originals are all top quality, too.

Susan Cowsill and Vicki Peterson are an interestingly rough mix, and Cowsill is especially expressive in an raw, edgy, angry way that cuts right to the bone. Peter Holsapple and Carlo Nuccio are both good singers and songwriters. The band is all so talented and they work so well together, it had to be a huge hit. But of course it wasn't.

The band went on to make two more near-perfect studio records, Vermilion 1999, and Better Day 2001, and a Sandy Denny/Richard Thompson tribute called Listen, Listen (and you should), also in 2001, on the German Blue Rose label, that apparently is something of a collectable, gauging by the outlandish used CD prices.

I like them all, but none more than this debut.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, The Rubinoos, Cleveland, Ohio March 20, 1979

I was at the Cleveland Agora for this particular show. The Rubinoos opened the show with their perfect so-cal sunshine. They covered Beatles, Eric Carmen, and Tommy James. And their originals were terrific. Great power-pop, and they were a very tight unit. A great overlooked band for any Raspberries fan.

Costello and the Attractions were the most well-managed chaos I've ever seen. Spitfire songs pouring out for an hour at 3 minutes each. No chatting, no introductions, just in your face rock & roll, full steam ahead. Their latest was Armed Forces, so they did some of that and plenty from This Year's Model as well. And Alison of course. They were also an extremely tight band. And loud. I don't remember all the songs, but I remember loving all the songs. The period from 77-79 was very fertile ground for Costello, he was writing so well. The Attractions were blazing hot. I went with a musician friend of mine, and for us the double bill was Valhalla.

Anyone into a hobby or pastime tends to develop those dreaded best-of lists that simultaneously clutter and tidy-up the world of discourse. Anyone into music has a few shows, or maybe even a lot of them, that were magical nights when music, performance, history, attitude, timing, astrology, love, a sound guy that can still hear, harmonies and chiming guitars all came together at the just perfect moment. Top Ten Live Shows ever.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Natalie Maines Mother 2013

Natalie Maines released this debut solo rock CD last year to generally positive reviews.

You'll remember Maines as the lead voice of The Dixie Chicks, whose four studio albums represent some of the best contemporary country music released in the last twenty years. The same band with the authentic instrumental talents and exceptional harmonies of sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison. And Maines' perfect country pipes, with a touch of nasal twang and an abundance of Texas heart.

And now, with Dixie Chicks on indefinite hiatus, Maines comes up with a rock record. I have to admit that the idea sounded a tad misguided to me, just because she really is so very good at country music. But I looked forward to hearing that voice, and figured she deserved a listen.

Positives: She can still sing, and she sounds great. She can apply her voice to rock better than I thought she might. Dan Wilson's sentimental Free Life gets a good reading, and the Gary Louris co-write Come Crying To Me is a good mid-tempo rocker.

Negatives, to varying degrees: Produced by Ben Harper and Natalie Maines. Song selection. Ben Harper and band provide instrumental and vocal backing on all of the tracks.

Why have Ben Harper produce? Or maybe the question is: Why have Ben Harper produce the entire record? She could have used more help, if only to add some diversity to the whole affair. I could think of any number of producers that could have helped. Harper and band do an OK job, but it's a middling rock record at best. You have to put some of that on the producers to a degree, especially when the artist isn't a songwriter.

The song selection is questionable. There's plenty of big arena choruses, and she can sing them, but the sensitive beginnings of those anthems all sound way better in her voice than the big rock that they become. Harper's Trained is a funky duet that is formulaic, and his Take It On Faith that closes the record is overblown. Covers of Pink Floyd and Eddie Vedder sound like she's trying too hard to do everything, but the band and the production make everything sound the same anyway. Marc Olsen and Gary Louris' I'd Run Away is a great song, but to compete with the Jayhawks' original, she sure could use Martie and Emily on the harmonies, as opposed to herself and Harper.

I know I have to accept that it's a rock record and take it as that, without comparing it to the Dixie Chicks output, but that is hard. The Chicks made very very good country music, and the three voices blended so incredibly. They were immaculately produced by first rate producers, and there were very few, if any, really weak songs. Any time anyone judges a new record, the artist's past work can't be entirely neglected.

This is a good rock record, solid and worth hearing, but certainly not a great one. You won't be listening to it years from now, it just isn't that record. The singer has a great voice, though.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Mother Earth Living With The Animals 1968

Besides the roots blues of Tracy Nelson's rare 1964 debut Deep Are The Roots, this would be Tracy's introduction to most listeners. Sharing a splendid blues band with R. P. (Phillips) St. John and his strange blues-based psychedelic tripitude, Nelson nevertheless shines.

The band doesn't hurt. Mark Naftalin (piano), ex of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Toad Andrews (guitar), George Rains (drums), and Bob Arthur (bass) are a solid rhythm section, and St. John's harmonica, a full horn section, three back-up singers, and a guest appearance by Michael Bloomfield supply more than enough good music.

The Tracy Nelson lead vocals are all solid blues and R&B, and she sings everything with her magnificently powerful voice. The record features the original recording of her self-penned classic, Down So Low, and it is a jaw-dropping performance. Memphis Slim's Mother Earth is scorched to the ground by Nelson's voice, as is Allen Toussaint's Cry On. I Did My Part has Tracy firing off some hot dance-floor R&B, and It Won't Be Long follows suit. Great horn arrangements and Naftalin's piano are consistent highlights. Her ambitious Goodnight Nelda Grebe... is a complex arrangement and slightly awkward rhythm, but it delights also.

Then there's the R. P. St. John material, and that is hit-and-miss. Some of the misses are pretty bad. Marvel Group, with its Stan Lee inspired lyrics, is funny and spacey, and his Living With The Animals features harmonica and violin in a odd old-time blues setting that is either richly colored or trite bunk. You'll have to pick, I can't decide. His vocal on My Love Will Never Die is saved by great ensemble playing and nuclear horn charts. There's little redeeming The Kingdom Of Heaven, a major space-out that ends the album on a less-than-stellar note.

But if you're here at all, it is definitely for some of Tracy Nelson's earliest work, and not too surprisingly, it is as good as her best. A mere twenty-four when this was recorded, its hard to believe the depth her voice evokes. But not if you've heard her before. Quite possibly the best blues singer of her generation, but at least one of the better white female blues singers of any generation.

The record is "of its time" most certainly, but they were doing some interesting blues in San Francisco in the sixties. Here it is.

Remarkably the record is widely available in used vinyl and new CD. You also can't go wrong with The Best Of Tracy Nelson/Mother Earth, a fine 1996 CD release, also available as a download, that collects much of Tracy's best work throughout the late sixties and early seventies.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Drive-By Truckers English Oceans 2014

For the first time ever, Mike Cooley splits songwriting duties almost down the middle with Patterson Hood. It may well be their best effort to date. Coincidence? I don't think so.

And it's not like I think Cooley's such a hotdog songwriter, but he definitely rises to the occasion, and holds up his end of the bargain. He has always offered his Stones antidote to Hood's Neil Young, and with more of his songs, there's a very good balance. We also get more consistently strong songs from Hood as well, maybe because the weaker ones weren't needed this time.

Since 2011's Go-Go Boots, the band lost bassist Shonna Tucker, and also guitarist John Neff, and replaced her with new bassist Matt Patton. Longtime drummer Brad Morgan is in fine form, and Jay Gonzalez plays keyboards and sometimes takes up the third guitar role left by Neff. We have a tight little five-piece firing on all cylinders.

And that may be the key. This band has been as sprawling and uneven in its personnel as its big ideas and large statements. It is a glorious mess at its best. But the focus on the two mainstay writers, the tight guitar interplay (sometimes down to just two guitars), and the continuation of the lyrical theme of the seedy underbelly of humanity that has been their hallmark, all make this the most focused Drive-By Truckers release yet.

Cooley's Shit Shots Count opens the record with a Stones-y rocker and a killer lead guitar. Hood follows with his When He's Gone, a Neil Young tribute to the classic love-hate relationship. There's a fair amount of country-rock here as well, more so than recent records anyway. Both Primer Coat and Pauline Hawkins dissect female dysfunction in country rhythms. The Part Of Him's politician bashing and the fast-paced country shuffle of First Air Of Autumn run the same vein.

Natural Light is about as close as Cooley gets to a love song, a countrified swagger with great guitars bouncing off Gonzalez' piano. Gonzalez shines again on Hood's Hanging On, with chiming keyboards over Hood's tale of just getting by.

Finally, there are the anthems. No Drive-by Truckers record can be without them. The country dirge of When Walter Went Crazy works perfectly with Hood's cinematic powerhouse lyric. The final track, Grand Canyon, an ode to their longtime assistant Craig Lieske, is the big rock ballad that perfectly wraps a great record.

Maybe the lack of friction between Hood, Cooley, and a third writer (Tucker, and before that, Jason Isbell) is good for this band. Maybe this is the band they were meant to be, distilled down to its core components. Or maybe we just needed a few more Mike Cooley songs.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

20 Feet From Stardom DVD 2013

This is a fine little documentary of several great background singers, each who contributed wonderful sounds to other artists' recordings.

The singers themselves are interviewed both in archival footage and today. Springsteen, Sting, Mick Jagger, and Stevie Wonder offer the stars' take on, and appreciation of, the background vocalists.

The singers also get to tell their own stories, and most of them are heartwarming and sweet, despite hard times. Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Stevvi Alexander, Claudia Lennear, and Cissy Houston all get their due. Several of them recorded solo projects, usually with less than great commercial success, and several talk frankly about wanting to deliberately stay in the background.

Where I beg to differ with the movie is the inclusion of Darlene Love in too much of the movie's time. Love is indeed a fine singer, and has done her share of background work, but first she was a lead vocalist. Shame indeed that the wacked Phil Spector choose to bill her best work as the Crystals, but hey, this is not the time nor the place. The movie get's sucked into Love's personal crap, and that is too bad.

It's well worth ninety minutes of your time, despite its flaws. There's good music, and some old footage of David Bowie that's fun to see. The women are remarkable singers all, and Lisa Fischer does some stuff with her voice that is hard to believe, even as you see it before your very eyes.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Paul Rodgers The Royal Sessions 2014

Summary: English classic rock voice (Free, Bad Company) goes to Memphis to record a set of sixties soul covers in a famous studio (Royal Studios), home to highly regarded seventies soul label Hi Records, and recording locale for many sixties and seventies soul greats.
Additional details: The band includes musicians that played on the previously mentioned original recordings.

There are four Otis Redding covers. That's just looking for trouble, since no one EVER improves on the Otis Redding version of anything. Except maybe Aretha.

The arrangements are super-tight. This could go up or down in its effect on the overall evaluation.

If you liked that last Boz Scaggs record, this is very similar. Great horn charts. Beautiful backup singers on several tracks. Lovely, warm recording venue with theoretically wonderful vintage equipment (no doubt augmented these days). Rodgers has a nice rough edge to replace Scaggs' smooth croon.

I never really considered Rodgers as a soul singer. There really was no need, he was so splendid at bluesy rock swagger.

His voice has held up quite well. He has lost perhaps a little power (and only a little), but not much range. His tone is the same as his younger self, and that's pretty cool.

Song selection is pretty solid. Not surprisingly, Rodgers does some of his best work on the bluesier numbers like Down Don't Bother Me and Born Under A Bad Sign. I Can't Stand The Rain is a weird choice, but it comes off better than I would have thought. Walk On By gets a 7-minute treatment almost worthy of an Issac Hayes solo record.

A few songs don't work so well. It's Growing and Any Ole Way sound like talented bar band covers, but from the less-energized first set of the night. 

Conclusion: Mostly quite good with only a few weak performances, but still better than the majority of genre cover sets. Most of the time the band sounds like they're into it, and when they're hot, it is very good. Rodgers does better than might be expected in the soul setting, and his voice is still an impressive tool. You probably need to like both Rodgers and old soul music.