Friday, August 18, 2017

Jules Shear Healing Bones 1994

Jules Shear has knocked around modern rock for the last 40 years or so, and had a modicum of chart success with songs he wrote for The Bangles and Cyndi Lauper in the eighties. I can't recall how I became interested, but I ended up with three Jules Shear CDs: 1992's The Great Puzzle, 2000's Allow Me, and this one from 1994, sandwiched between those two. I like all three of them, and The Great Puzzle is almost as perfect as Healing Bones.

Healing Bones has everything going for it. Shear is a uniquely qualified songwriter, and his lyrical skill is always impressive. I can't say enough what a smart lyricist Shear is. From Listen To What She Says:
When I saw the envelope
I could tell the source
How seriously can you take a letter 
Signed off "carnally yours"
But as I read those words 
I could hear the voice
And when she could hurt or avoid it
I recognized the choice

All of the songs on the record are strong, mostly mid-tempo and up-tempo rock. The ballads Never Again Or Forever and By And By are slower, but no less compelling. Shear's melodic efforts equal his deft lyrics on this CD. The songs are just plain perfect adult rock. Hooks galore.

Shear has an interesting voice with a touch of nasal and a strong high register. He also has a very slightly flat tone at the end of phrases that plays quite well with his minor key angst.

But I said it had everything going for it. And that brings us to the band. Veteran drummer Jerry Marotta and bassist extraordinaire Tony Levin anchor the rhythm, while Eliot Easton (ex of Cars) plays lead guitar and Rod Argent brings his keyboards as well as co-produces with Peter Van Hooke. They all show up on other Shear CDs, but they converge only here. It's a magic moment, and it gives Jules Shear plenty of support on which to hang these study rockers and emotionally charged lyrics.

There's lots of comparisons that sort-of work (Tom Petty, Freedy Johnson) but none of them are just right. Shear is his own guy most certainly, and I suspect this is one of his best. A compelling singer-songwriter rocks it.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Carlene Carter 1978-2017

Carlene Carter has had a long career, and a somewhat odd one. She is a talented singer and songwriter, blessed with a country twang of a voice that she comes by honestly as the granddaughter of Mother Maybelle Carter and daughter of June Carter Cash.

But she rebelled against her traditional country roots, and followed a pop-rock muse on her first five records in the late seventies and eighties to wildly variable results.

Her eponymous debut got things started in fine form. It is a lost treasure from 1978 that should have been a huge success. Backed by Graham Parker and the Rumour, and produced by Rumour
 members Bob Andrews and Brinsley Schwarz, it has a country-
rock sound with a pop edge that fits Carlene perfectly. Great songs abound, with Parker's Between You And Me, Rodney Crowell's Never Together But Close Sometimes, Tracey Nelson's I've Been There Before, and Bacon and Cain's Alabama Morning. And Carlene's contributions are also fine. Her Slow Dance, Smoke Dreams, and Who Needs Words all show a strong songwriter developing. It's not a country record by 1978 standards, but there's more of her roots showing than not. The Rumour provides ideal backing, and the organic sound of the recording adds to the perfection.

The next one, 1979's Two Sides To Every Woman, is a disastrous attempt to make her into Pat Benatar. Even the country songs are performed as pop-rock, and the slick sound produced by Lance Quinn and Tony Bongiovi is a poor fit for Carlene. Carter writes or co-writes most of the material, and some it might have fared better with more complementary production. Old Photographs is one of Carlene's fine ballads, and she does a pretty good job with Elvis Costello's Radio Sweetheart. Do It In A Heartbeat, that leads off the record, is a solid song. But there's way too many keyboards, and the slick sound is a mess.

Nick Lowe married Carlene in 1979 and produced 1980's Musical Shapes. Backed by the stellar Rockpile (Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Billy Bremner, and Terry Williams), Musical Shapes has Edmunds' country/rockabilly stamp all over it. There's a nice duet with Edmunds on Baby Ride Easy, a swell version of her mother's Ring Of Fire, a cover of her uncle A. P. Carter's Foggy Mountain Top, and a handful of excellent songs from Carlene's pen, including Cry, Too Bad About Sandy, I'm So Cool, and Appalachian Eyes. Along with her debut, perhaps her finest hour.

Blue Nun 1981 is another Lowe production, but this time the rocking moves the rockabilly to the side mostly. Two duets with Paul Carrack, Oh How Happy and Do Me Lover are both good. Great songs from Carter abound, and feature Carlene's bad girl image more than any other record she's made. Her Love Is A 4-Letter Verb, That Boy, Tougher Stuff, Me And My .38, and Think Dirty are all strong songs delivered with Joan Jett subtlety and Carlene's charming twang.

1983 brought another terrible try at making Carlene into standard pop-rock fare. Even worse than Two Sides To Every Woman, C'est C Bon, produced by Roger Bechirian, takes pretty good material and swamps it in slick eighties production and glossy keyboards. The single Meant It For A Minute isn't too bad, but the record seems all wrong for Carlene, and is as hard to listen to today as the day it came out.

Seven years passed before Carlene made another record, and by then, divorced from Nick Lowe, she decided to give mainstream country music a try for a change. This lead to her period of greatest commercial success, working in Nashville with a string of talented co-writers including Al Anderson, producer Howie Epstein, James Eller, and Radney Foster. Three records were released between 1990 and 1995, I Fell In Love, Little Love Letters, and Little Acts Of Treason. All three are solid examples of modern country music in the 1990s, with big rock guitars and drums mixed with more traditional country sounds. Carlene wrote lots of great songs, and I Fell In Love, a #3 country single, Come On Back, The Sweetest Thing, and Me And The Wildwood Rose from I Fell In Love were great. Little Love Letters featured another #3 hit with Every Little Thing, and Sweet Meant To Be, I Love You 'Cause I Want To, and First Kiss were all first rate. Excellent production from Howie Epstein and top-notch professional musicians made these records into very strong modern country music. Little Acts Of Treason should have equaled the first two, but even with four fine Al Anderson co-writes, it was somehow less successful. Hurricane, Love Like This, The Lucky Ones, and a duet with her father Carl Smith on Loose Talk are all winners.

 A 1996 best-of entitled Hindsight 20/20 collected much of the best from these three records and a few of the more country tunes from her work in the 70s and 80s. It is a good way to enjoy the highlights of these three Carlene Carter records, arguably her best work, even if I still hold a soft spot for her early gems.

After disappearing from recording for an extended while, Carlene returned in 2008 with Stronger. The title is a reference to Carlene's rough times on several levels, and her survival. The record is filled with good songs from Carter's pen, and her voice is as strong and rich as ever. If there's any downside, it is one of those records produced, performed and recorded by one person, the talented John McFee, formerly of Clover and Doobie Brothers, and a skilled multi-instrumentalist. Recordings made this way often lack for input from studio pros on each instrument, and there's some of that here. But McFee does about as good a job as possible, and Carlene more than upholds her end as singer and songwriter.

 Coming full circle in 2014, and with producer extraordinaire Don Was at the helm, Carlene made Carter Girl.  A tribute to her famous family, most of the songs are by A. P. or Maybelle Carter, Carlene's uncle and grandmother. Carlene reprises her Me And The Wildwood Rose, and she and Al Anderson update an early Carter Family gem in Lonesome Valley 2003. There's a crack ace band that modernizes the sound of these classics with love and restraint. Jim Keltner drums, Greg Leisz guitar and steel guitar, Rami Jaffee keyboards, Blake Mills guitar, Val McCallum guitar, all are seasoned pros, and Don Was plays bass and directs it all with panache. Carlene still sounds great, and gets help from a few stars making cameo appearances: Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Sam Bush.

And finally in 2017 she shows up featured on a John Mellencamp record, his recent Sad Clowns and Hillbillies. Carlene's contributions are generally the best thing about the record.
I had plenty to say about it just a short while ago here. 

Born into roots country's most famous family, Carlene Carter spurned the traditional as a young artist, and made some fine records in Carlene Carter 1978 and Musical Shapes 1980. Then her modern country records in the 1990s proved her commercial country appeal. The last ten years have shown us that she never lost her voice or her pen, and that as a mature artist, still has much to offer her fans old and newer.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Five Reggae Records

Reggae music was creeping into America in the early seventies with singles by Jimmy Cliff and Paul Simon, and the soundtrack to the movie The Harder They Come. Reggae broke out of Jamaica onto American ears big time in 1974 with Eric Clapton's cover of Bob Marley's I Shot The Sheriff. The golden age of reggae music in America starts there, and ends in less than ten years with Marley's untimely death in 1981. The early eighties UK punks were big fans, and reggae mixed with punk from multiple UK sources in the eighties. And of course reggae music continues today, but my own interest in the style is decidedly not contemporary. My time with reggae was its seventies heyday.

I don't listen to reggae music all that often anymore, and when I thought of writing this blog entry, I went back to reconsider my favorites and reaffirm my belief in this short list as worthy contenders. These aren't "the best" reggae records ever made, not the least because I haven't kept up with the genre very well, but they are very very good examples of reggae classics from the seventies. The hardest part of compiling this list was choosing one Bob Marley record. So here's what I usually think of as my favorite reggae records:

Peter Tosh Equal Rights 1977. I wrote this one up before. I stand behind my opinion of it as the best reggae record ever. Great songs, delivered in Tosh's sumptuous baritone, and some of the best playing and arranging in the genre. And the recording is excellent. Eight perfect, politically charged song bombs. Classic.

Bunny Wailer Blackheart Man 1976. While Bunny Wailer never was as successful commercially as Tosh, they both made records every bit as good as Marley's after they left the Wailers. Tosh had a string of solid albums, while Bunny is mostly known for this gem, his solo debut. The songs, oh the songs. The title track, Fighting Against Convictions, Rasta Man, Armagedon, This Train, and especially Reincarnated Souls are all magnificent examples of the form. A rare classic that wasn't heard by enough reggae fans.

Burning Spear Marcus Garvey 1975. Winston Rodney, lead singer and primary songwriter for Burning Spear, has a fine, if somewhat nasal voice, and fills his singing with undeterred conviction. The music is roots reggae, the players (from Soul Syndicate and The Wailers) are top notch and the grooves are deep. The political message of Garvey (a Rastafari prophet and black activist leader) is a mixed message at best these days, and a difficult political stance to rationalize, but his activist work on behalf of blacks in the early twentieth century was heartfelt even if his aims seem out of place today. The record is filled with political and social concerns.

The Heptones Night Food 1976. Let's have some fun, and why not. In contrast to the political nature of much reggae, The Heptones were essentially a party band. They did covers of Motown and other soul classics, and they wrote some great ones themselves. Leroy Sibbles is a soulful crooner every bit as talented as Toots Hibbert. This was their Island records debut, and they rerecorded several classics from earlier Jamaican releases. This is "smooth reggae", dance music with the reggae vibe. A few songs (I Got The Handle and Fatty Fatty) are a bit misogynistic, so you've been warned, but so much here (Country Boy, Book Of Rules, Mama Say, Love Won't Come Easy, In The Groove) is just plain perfect soulful reggae that it is irresistible.

Bob Marley and the Wailers Kaya 1978. There's probably a better choice for "best" Bob Marley record, but I've always been fond of Kaya. On the heels of the politically charged Exodus 1977, Marley was criticized for his love and pot message, and his less angry approach. But the political is not entirely ignored, and can be heard in Crisis and the lovely Time Will Tell. The record contains great songs delivered in a laid back style, and Easy Skanking, Kaya, Is This Love, Satisfy My Soul, and Sun Is Shining are all stellar. I could have just as easily gone with Exodus, or even the original Wailers Catch A Fire 1973. Both of those are solid, as is pretty much all of Marley's seventies output.

Honorable mention goes to Toots and the Maytals' Funky Kingston 1973, the The Harder They Come 1972 soundtrack, and Black Uhuru Red 1981.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Dieselhed 1993-2000

Country-punk. It's a genre. And these guys defined it pretty darn well on their 1993 eponymous debut. The first half of the record is close to perfection. Poodle's Ear and Cloud Of Diesel are full of funky country harmonies. Sergio Taurus combines slow country verses with a shouted punk chorus. The punk shouting of Happy Donut thrashes it up, while B A Band is their grand statement. Telling the story of the band members some fifteen years in the future, after the band breaks up, it is a fascinating take on the band biography song (think The Ballad Of Mott The Hoople) from a unique lyrical approach. Plus there's the big arena rock chorus of "Someday we won't be a band", sounding both sincere and tongue-in-cheek at the same time.

It is the songwriting that sets the band apart. Virgil Shaw and Zac Holtzman combine interesting, funny approaches to country songs, oddball lyrical twists, and punk thrashing to unique effect. Shaw has a way with a sincere lyric even when he's writing about weird ideas, and you never quite know if he's mocking himself or wearing his heart on his sleeve. The band is talented, and drummer Danny Heifetz (who played simultaneously in Mr. Bungle) is a particular standout, and also adds horns on a several songs to good effect. The debut also features violin from Jonathon Segel that adds to their already interesting sound.

Tales Of A Brown Dragon 1995 followed the same recipe with considerable success. Brown Dragon, Wedding Song ("put your finger through the ringy-ding-ding"), Wipe Down The Vinyl, and Snow Blind In The Liquor Store  showing their formidable skills.
1997 brought Shallow Water Blackout, and they continue to scrape country sounds across a loud punk vibe that is infectious. Fog It Up, Produce Section (with a pretty sick lyric), Yellow Kitchen, Inches Of Air, and Blue Hawaiian are all excellent.

All three of the records also include some more country-sounding slow numbers that have solid, often twisted, lyrics. These songs help relieve the stress of the more punk efforts, but they are not the strongest songs generally.

Which brings us to 1998 and Elephant Rest Home. For some unknown reason, the loud punk rock of the first three gives way to a mostly acoustic, mostly country record that seems under-baked compared to the first three. Some of them are perfectly good songs with decent lyrical ideas, but the loud punk sounds that ignite their earlier outings are all but gone. It almost sounds like they didn't bother to finish it.

In 2000 they released their final record, Chico and the Flute, and it again it suffers from too little energy, but not nearly as badly as Elephant Rest Home. Brownie, Tidepool, Gentle Grooming, and Homemade Shoes almost rock like they did on the first three, and it is a worthy send-off for a band that more people should have heard.

The debut is their strongest effort, and the next two are close behind. An eye-opening experience for an old graduate of the 70s country-rock movement, and a fine kick in the pants.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter Sad Clowns and Hillbillies 2017

I haven't been following John Mellencamp for a while. His last three before this were produced by T-bone Burnett, whose productions I generally avoid. I also never really warmed up to Mellencamp's newer country-Americana sound. I liked his rocking records from the early nineties, but I also thought that most of his records featured some great singles and some lesser material (with an exception for Whenever We Wanted 1991, a near perfect hard rocking effort). His best-of compilation Words And Music 2004 is outstanding.

I bought this because I've always enjoyed Carlene Carter. I realize now that I haven't written about Carter here before, and I hope to rectify that in the near future. For now, we have this one to discuss, and I'm sorry to say it is not a great record, but it has its moments.

The record starts with Mobile Blue, an OK mid-tempo country blues. Battle Of Angels follows, and it is a dull country song with little to hold the listener's interest. Grandview is a decent mid-tempo rocker, and features Martina McBride (briefly) to good effect. It's built on a good guitar riff. Four tracks in, we finally get Carlene Carter on Indigo Sunset, and it's the highlight of the record. A lovely, sentimental ballad written by Carter and Mellencamp, and Carlene sounds great. A real treat of a song and fine performance. The sad country ballad What Kind Of Man Am I? follows, and it is saved by Carlene's harmonies and a big choral finish. All Night Talk Radio is a typical Mellencamp melody and a decent lyric.

Side two opens with Sugar Hill Mountain, again featuring Carter's fine vocal. Even Carlene can't save the the song's trite lyric and so-so country waltz melody. You Are Blind is more mid-tempo country fare, and it is better than some of the others, but not by much. Damascus Road is good mid-tempo rock, and Carlene and Mellencamp do a nice duet. Early Bird Cafe is stronger than most of the other songs, and it's telling that it's a cover song. Sad Clowns is a better than average Mellencamp tune that sounds like it took more than five minutes to write, which is good. Carlene returns for My Soul's Got Wings, a Mellencamp melody over a Woody Guthrie lyric that has a country-gospel feel. Mellencamp and Carter sing it very nicely. The closer, Easy Target, has a political lyric, and is a better than average  country ballad.

Mellencamp's voice has a raspy, ravaged sound these days, but he can still be a compelling singer. What is mostly lacking from this record is great songs. Most of Mellencamp's efforts seem under-developed, with tossed-off melodies and only fair lyrical ideas. Only Indigo Sunset, Damascus Road, My Soul's Got Wings, and Easy Target are strong material. Carlene Carter appears on only five songs (with some minor harmony vocals on one or two others), although she helps make things more interesting every time she appears. The band is good, and guitars, organ, and violin add color and craftsmanship frequently. But I just can't stop wondering how great it could have been with better material and more Carlene Carter.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Elton John 17-11-70+ 2017

So on the tenth annual Record Store Day, Saturday April 22, 2017, they released this set in it's complete form, a mere forty-seven years after it was recorded.

For Record Store Day this year, Elton lent his support as a sort of celebrity spokesman, doing a video about vinyl, and coupling that with the release of this vinyl edition of the complete radio broadcast from that historic date in 1970.

They pressed far more than even the Record Store Day crowd could eat up, so I'm assuming the record should be widely available. And if you appreciated the original, then this might interest you.

The original performance, broadcast on New York radio, included 13 songs, and they are all here. The original vinyl release featured six songs, most of them from the rocking second half of the set. The songs left off the original include the soft-rock of Amoreena (included as a bonus track on the 1995 CD version), I Need You To Turn To, Your Song, Country Comfort, Border Song, Indian Sunset, and My Father's Gun.

So most of the ballads he performed earlier in the set. OK, nobody really needs to hear Your Song again, I get that. But the vitriol, held in check by English manners alone, of Indian Sunset, an homage to native Americans, is stunning. My Father's Gun is another wonderful song from Bernie Taupin's Americana pen, as is Country Comfort. 

It is hard to argue with the original song selection, and by some accounts that means that the new material here is something less than the original record. I can't refute that, and still I find value and reward in this release. Here's the thing: the original record is just plain flat-out killer. The stuff they left off makes sense in the context of the original production, but it also helps to illuminate the point in time for this band, and Elton, that was a fleeting moment of perfect rock and roll piano trio performance.

If I can nit-pick at all, I would have liked to see this record sequenced as the original performance, What we get is the original release on record one, and the rest on record two. That's OK I suppose, but if you're going to release the whole show, why not present it as it was performed (although there seems to be some dispute over the actual set list).

All in all, a wonderful find on Record Store Day this year, and a real treat for anyone that acknowledges the quality of Elton's early work. The trio format allowed for some serious rocking from the whole band (Dee Murray is on fire). A young man is a strong man, indeed.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Anatomy Of A Song Marc Myers 2016

Mr. Myers book is a lot of fun. The audience that agrees with me might be a fairly narrowly defined sort.

This is a story about singles in a time when the 45 was changing from the driving force behind popular music to a sales device for LPs. And that story is told pretty well by the author's own narrative. He has to stretch his point beyond reason a few times, but not many, and the stories behind some of these performances are excellent. Not in any tell-all sort of way, but with fondness and nostalgia.

The author interviewed artists, producers, musicians and songwriters about the recording and producing of these classic singles. It is an easy read and highly enjoyable. Well-edited for the most part, which keeps it from being indulgent. The interviewees often have fresh perspectives that go beyond the technical to the sublime.

All of these songs come from 1952-1991. But the core of the book features the 1960s and 1970s when the record industry was changing in a significant way, and the relative importance of singles was still high. From a historical perspective it is an excellent book, with good observations to add to the already thick body of work surrounding the subject.

From the perspective of a music lover that first heard most of these songs on the radio, it is a lovely ride back through a fabulous time in pop music history.

In that the 60s and 70s are heavily featured, it may be of most interest to boomers.

Really a fun read. The author's approach is engaging, and the stories are delightful.