Saturday, January 6, 2018

St. Vincent Masseduction 2017

I've just spent the last hour or so reading the "best albums of 2017" lists from all the big music review media outlets, and man, do I feel old.

I suppose there are plenty of music lovers in the AARP set that would feel the same way. But one of my favorites did in fact make it to most of those lists, St. Vincent's Masseduction.

I can't add much to the praise and descriptions you can read elsewhere, and I agree with those who have been impressed with the arc of St. Vincent's career. From the quirky pop of Marry Me 2007, to the more expansive, more dangerous Actor 2009, and on to the more inward-looking Strange Mercy 2011, St. Vincent has grown with every new release. 2014's St. Vincent rocked everyone's best-of lists, and for good reason. The increased use of St. Vincent's distorted guitar and jarring electronics, along with an outstanding set of songs all helped the 2014 release receive accolades. It was hard to see how she would top that effort. But she did.

How did she make an even better album? She added more. More precisely crafted songs. More twisted, distorted guitar (Well, not really more than the last record, but plenty). More lyrical twists somewhere between personal and frightening. More perfect arrangements layering synths and programming on top of her human voice and otherworldly guitar distortion. And a more pop sound, courtesy of producer and songwriter Jack Antonoff (P!nk, Taylor Swift, Lorde, Sara Bareilles), who does not so much change St. Vincent, but helps her become, well, more.

New music that presents a future we might just be able to live with (or, occasionally, a nightmare we cannot escape). Forward progress that integrates the best of the artist's past work while becoming something new. St. Vincent continues to venture further down the road her muse is leading her along, and we all benefit.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Zappadan 2017

The Festival of Zappadan.

Celebrate. Dance. Play Frank's music. Post something on the world wide web. Sing praise for one of the least definable icons of the twentieth century.

What Mr. Zappa means most to me is music. Gloriously unhinged, yet planned down to every note. His manic perfectionism. His occasionally brilliant lyrics, and his throwaway smut. His weird and novel approach to the lead guitar break. From Hungry Freaks Daddy to G-Spot Tornado. Peaches En Regalia and Pedro's Dowry.  Inca Roads and Joe's Garage. Percussion, always percussion.

And then there was the philosopher, observer, social commentator, politico. It always seemed that when Frank had a rant, he just couldn't help himself. There's just so much stupid one can tolerate.

Whatever Frank Zappa means to you, celebrate that.

If you're new to this blog or even Zappadan, there's more here.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Greg Kihn Greg Kihn Again 1977

Greg Kihn was a hard-working power-popster that put many miles on the road as the opening act for everyone big in the eighties. He managed a #2 hit in 1983 with Jeopardy, riding a nice hook and some major MTV support for the video. He produced a string of pop-heavy rock and roll throughout the eighties, and all of the records had at least one fine single that was lost on the lower regions of the chart.

He broke out in 1975 on the Beserkely Chartbusters Vol. 1 compilation he shared with Jonathon Richmond, Earthquake, and the Rubinoos. His All The Right Reasons was pop confection perfection. In 1976 he made his eponymous debut, and that was a splendid outing that rivals the follow-up under inspection here. But the debut used a borrowed lead guitarist, and some of the songs were less developed.

Everything great about Kihn's work is fully on display on Greg Kihn Again. The songs are consistently excellent, Dave Carpenter joins the band on lead guitar, and shines, the production is first rate and "bigger" than the debut, and Kihn's warm vocals invite easy smiles. As smart pop goes, Kihn is as good as anyone at incorporating classic sounds into what seem like completely original songs. If this is what happens when you blend Beatles, Raspberries and Big Star, then why not?

The record kicks off with Buddy Holly's Love's Made A Fool Of You, and Kihn's version is as good as any. A jangly, driving rhythm number that updates the Holly sound only slightly, and Dave Carpenter rocks the lead break as well as fills throughout. Next up is the Reggae-light Kihn original Island, which is a jaunty dose of Caribbean fun. Last Of Me is a lovely ballad than Kihn does so well. A nice chorus filled with harmonies, the song is a fine example of the quality ballads that Kihn cranks out regularly. Real Big Man is a hook-filled rocker with fine harmonies and a solid lyric. Side one ends with Politics, a great mid-tempo rocker with another fine chorus.

Side two opens with Hurt So Bad, yet another fine pop song with a catchy chorus and a tight band workout. Then it's Springsteen's For You, and it turns out to be a excellent choice for a cover song. If You Be My Love is another solid ballad with beautiful harmonies, and jangly rhythm that benefits from Kihn's 12-string guitar. And then we get one of Kihn's finest moments, the stomping Madison Avenue, where Kihn sells himself as "your Madison Avenue man, let me touch your money with my Madison hands", and again with the great back-up vocal harmonies and tight ensemble playing. The record closes with the instrumental Untie My Hands, and Dave Carpenter gets to show us why he's such a hot guitarist. It's not the highlight of the record, but it's good.

Greg Kihn made an album a year from 1976 to 1986, and continued to record regularly until 1996. All of his eighties albums contained at least one solid single, and most of them were darn good. His 1989 Kihnsolidated: The Best of Greg Kihn is a great place to hear some of the best neglected pop songs ever recorded. Kihn became a popular radio DJ in 1996 at the San Jose/San Francisco KFOX and stayed there in the morning slot until 2012, a pretty solid run for that kind of job. He released an album of new songs, Rekihndled, in 2017 with his son Ry on lead guitar.

A super-tight band, fine singer, good songs, and good old-fashioned harmonies applied to smart, hook-filled pop nuggets all make Greg Kihn Again a treat for pop-rockers the world over.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Van Morrison Roll With The Punches 2017

I did a career overview of Van Morrison back in 2011. I guess I thought he was probably pretty close to done. I was wrong on that one. Since then he has released Born To Sing: No Plan B 2012, Duets: Reworking The Catalog 2015, Keep Me Singing 2016, and now this one.

Born To Sing: No Plan B was about as weak as Morrison records get. Lackluster would be gilding the lily.

Duets: Reworking The Catalog 2015 is the first Van Morrison record in almost 50 years that I didn't buy. I listened to it, and it was all the things wrong with those dreadful duets records that Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and Ray Charles have embarrassed themselves with in their later years (Morrison himself was on the Ray Charles duets recording).

Keep Me Singing 2016 was a pretty good outing for Van. Solid backing band, mostly good songs, Van invested in the vocals. Maybe not perfect, but darn good.

And now only a year later comes Roll With The Punches. This time out Van writes only five of the fifteen tracks. Most of the rest are blues and R&B chestnuts. And when Van gets simple and bluesy, things usually go pretty well. Add to that a number of famous guests, including four Chris Farlowe vocals, five Jeff Beck blues guitar triumphs, and two visitations by old pal Georgie Fame on the Hammond B-3 and vocals, and it's hard for at least some of it not to be inspired. Most of the star action is front-loaded, but the record maintains relatively high standards even when "just the backing band" is there with Van.

Because the backing band is stellar. The core rhythm section of Mez Clough or Colin Griffin on drums, Lawence Cottle or Pete Hurley on bass, Jason Rebello or Stuart McIlroy on piano, and Dave Kearny or Ned Edwards on guitar offer excellent support, and several great solos.

Roll With The Punches is an ancient blues riff that Van appropriates and gives a fine lyric and solid vocal. Transformation is typical mid-tempo Morrison, but it gets a sublime Jeff Beck solo that takes it up several notches. The walking blues of I Can Tell from Bo Diddley's pen gets another fine Beck blues solo, and a choice Van vocal. Beck rips another blues lead on Stormy Monday/Lonely Avenue, and Chris Farlowe singing with Morrison seems to incite Van to try harder.

Georgie Fame sings and plays the B-3 on Count Basie's Goin' To Chicago, a slinky, laid back blues done small combo style. Morrison whines about being famous (again!) on Fame, but the song is saved by vocals and especially harmonica from Paul Jones. Too Much Trouble is a jazzy little number from Morrison's pen that features piano and horns from Paul Moran and Cottle. Sam Cooke's Bring It On Home To Me finds Morrison singing with perfect soul restraint, and Jeff Beck smokes the lead guitar break. Beck and Farlowe return once more on to shine on Ordinary People.

The last six songs are all covers ranging from Bo Diddley (Ride On Josephine) to Sister Rosetta Tharpe (How Far From God) to Mose Allison (Benediction). Georgie Fame helps keep Teardrops From My Eyes from becoming filler and core band members Stuart McIlroy (piano), and Ned Edward (harmonica and guitar) juice up the rest and keep the last leg of the record from stagnation, but the last third isn't really up to the first half's high bar.

Some might see this as Van generating product for it's own sake. Only five originals, and three of the covers (Bring It On Home, Stormy Monday/Lonely Avenue, Benediction) have appeared on previous releases. But this sounds to me like Van doing a blues record, and mostly getting the best of it. At age 72, Van Morrison can still sing, play and write. It is no surprise that he can build a sturdy band and attract a few stars to help out. Even if you're a choosy Van Morrison fan, I'd be surprised if you don't like this one.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Updated Stereo System

So waaaaay back in 2009, I discussed my stereo on which I listen to all this music. Well, There have been some updates, most if them relatively recently. I replaced my turntable, cartridge, phono pre-amp, and added a subwoofer. So without further adieu, here's the "new" system:

Reference 3A MM deCapo i speakers
Anthem PRE-2L tube preamp
Granite Audio Aspen 800 tube amp
Cambridge Audio Azur 840C
Wadia 170 i Transport
iPod Classic 160 GB
Funk Firm Little Super Deck turntable
Denon 103-R moving coil cartridge
Vacuum Tube Audio PH-16 phono preamplifier
SVS SB-12 NSD subwoofer

Those last four are new. A new turntable and phono preamplifier have expanded the enjoyment of vinyl, and the VTA PH-16 is a truly amazing tube-driven phono section. The optional addition of the Lundahl step-up transformer facilitating completely visceral presentation of low-output moving coils. I love listening to vinyl more than ever (and that is fairly hard to believe). 

I lived with, and loved, the deCapo speakers for twelve years before I finally augmented them with the SVS subwoofer. The SB-12 was on sale as it was discontinued. The deCapos never seemed to lack for bass, but the eight-watt 300B SET amplifier couldn't really articulate bass the way the sub has. Bass notes are much easier to distinguish from each other, and bass drum and bass guitar played simultaneously can be easily distinguished. It cracks me up that the sub has a 400 watt amp built in and I only have 8 watts on the main speakers.

My brother took the MMF-5 turntable off my hands, and has enjoyed it quite a bit. Funk Firm's vector drive is an elegantly simple solution to a complex turntable issue, and I'm convinced that the tonearm is also an engineering design that is a delightfully unique approach, and solves several issues in a lovely way. It's relatively small as quality turntables go, and has an attached dust cover, which isn't always available in mid-priced turntables.

Did I mention the VTA PH-16? This bad-boy is sold as a build-it-yourself kit, but thank goodness, there's also a guy who will build you one for a reasonable price. The amp is classic tube architecture using four 6922 tubes, and the optional step-up transformer makes the deal irresistible, and allows the use of low-output moving coil cartridges. 

I remain enthralled with the second-order distortion of tube amplifiers, and I feel strongly that analog audio reproduction beats the heck out of CD quality digital, even with vinyl's inherent noise issues, in analog's ability to connect to the listener. That, and what was I going to do, replace 1500 LPs?

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.