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.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Xx I See You 2017

I have to laugh at myself. I blogged about the first Xx recording not long after it came out in 2009, and I gave it a pretty bad review. I then listened to it repeatedly, and it became a favorite of my wife, so it and the follow-up, Coexist 2012, have gotten plenty of play on the system. I've come to fully appreciate the skill of this band, even if none of them have the chops.

Like Ringo. Ringo was never a flashy drummer, and he was frankly not capable of the flashy stuff. But he never needed more than what he could do well. He was a human metronome, and his pace and timing were impeccable. And everything he chose to do was the perfect choice, unquestionable in its rightness for the song at hand.

These guys are kinda like Ringo. They either don't have much instrumental skill or they deliberately play minimalist when they could do more. Not important really, they have built the perfect vehicle for their skill set.

This, their third, is a fine record indeed.There's real human love in these chilly, sometimes distant songs. There are also a few tempos above slow, which is very nice indeed. Dangerous kicks the record off with a nice dance groove and a duet vocal testimony to the risks of love. Say Something Loving is maybe the best lyrical capture of insecure love, and the Tracy Thorn-like vocal shows how Romy Madley Croft has grown as a singer. Lips and A Violent Noise are both pretty seriously chill, but in a good way, as this band has always done. Simple guitar figure, strong bass line, layers of synths to flesh things out, dramatic slow development of the song. Performance features another gifted vocal from Madley Croft. And oh! the romance of Brave For You, with another skeletal frame embellished to a sheen. On Hold has a driving rhythm, I Dare You another throbbing pulse, and Test Me is a spacey dirge. All three feature slowly developed ideas on top of simple instrumental motifs.

The thing is, if you asked me if I was into minimalism in my music I'm sure I wouldn't answer as enthusiastically as I love this band. They are gifted songwriters, they have two compelling singers, and have been able to develop their ideas over three excellent records. All three are solid, this is the new one. Go for it.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Drive-By Truckers American Band 2016

Drive-By Truckers have done something very unusual. They have made a great record with overtly political lyrics. Shocking really.

Lots of bands and artists have made politically-themed records before, and some of them are OK I guess. Actually I say that only because I certainly haven't heard them all. The ones I can think of are all pretty bad. And I don't mean records with one political song and the rest is a mix of romance and fast cars. Or the records with some serious stuff between the lines. I am talking about the message record. Neil Young's done it. Springsteen, too. And Jackson Browne made two or three of them in a row. Not coincidentally, it was when nobody listened to Jackson Browne for a while.

The Truckers have certainly produced plenty of sociological observation over the years, and have told some very telling political tales. They are clearly left of center, but they are also from the South, so there is always "the duality of the Southern thing".

Can this one actually be compared favorably with Southern Rock Opera 2001, The Dirty South 2004 and Brighter Than Creation's Dark 2008? Each of those can vie for record of the year with the best of contenders. And they are profound statements from the best possible mix of Neil Young, The Clash, The Stones, and Skynyrd.

The answer is a rousing Yes. An exploration of the divisions within the title country, the record is impressive in its anger and focus. And like their greatest records, this one also contains the perfect trilogy that encapsulates the themes of the record. Like Southern Rock Opera's The Southern Thing, Three Great Alabama Icons, and Wallace, and Brighter Than Creation's Dark's Two Daughters And A Beautiful Wife, Three Dimes Down, and The Righteous Path, this one contains Ever South, What It Means, and Once They Banned Imagine.

The band continues with just the two songwriters in Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley that forged the fine English Oceans 2015, and I stand behind what I felt about the writing on that record. They have both become better writers than on the early outings, and they don't need more help.

I'll leave this with the first stanza of What It Means, one of several songs that ruminate on our love of guns and the racial tensions that we only thought were getting better before the last few years:

He was running down the street when they shot him in his tracks
About the only thing agreed upon is he ain’t coming back
There won’t be any trial so the air it won’t be cleared
There’s just two sides calling names out of anger and of fear
If you say it wasn’t racial when they shot him in his tracks
well I guess that means that you ain’t black, it means that you ain’t black
I mean Barack Obama won and you can choose where to eat
but you don’t see too many white kids lying bleeding on the street

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Norah Jones Day Breaks 2016

So here we get Norah Jones going back for a little jazz credibility. The sly mix of pop, jazz, and a dash of country that made her debut the biggest thing since sliced bread, and her lovely vocal delivery and impressively nuanced piano playing all have left us with high expectations.

She followed the debut (Come Away With Me 2002) with two more lovely outings (Feels Like Home 2004, Not Too Late 2007) that felt alternatively like growth some times and treading water other times. The Fall 2009 came next, and it really showed a different side of Jones that I thought was invigorating. More guitar, more pop, more ever so slightly faster tempos, and some of her best writing. I wasn't so thrilled with Little Broken Hearts 2012, and while it was generally well-received, I never thought Danger Mouse was the right partner.

This new one is being touted as a return to the form of her debut. There's still some pop songs, and a bit of country, but she's mostly playing jazz on this one, and it works to her advantage.

Burn opens the record with a slinky tune enhanced by Wayne Shorter on sax and Peter Rehm's Hammond organ. Tragedy features a fine Jones piano figure and a nice lyric. Flipside brings out a rocking Wulitzer piano applied to a perfect pop song. Like a great lost Melody Gardot song, It's A Wonderful Time For Love shows off Jones in trio mode. The piano trio plus string quartet arrangement of And Then There Was You is just plain pretty. Side one closes with Neil Young's Don't Be Denied, and while it's not Young's greatest song, at least we don't have to hear him do it.

Side two is rock solid, with opener Day Break featuring the string quartet and Wayne Shorter again in big dramatic beauty. Horace Silver's Peace gets the trio treatment plus Shorter again, and he smokes it. Brain Blade on drums and John Pettucci on bass are great here and on several other tracks. On Once I Had A Laugh, she turns a seemingly lightweight composition into big fun with a brassy horn section. Sleeping Wild is nice, and is saved by the string quartet coda. Carry On is an upbeat tune with a familiar Jones melody, and it holds up. She closes with Ellington's Fleurette Africaine, again with just a piano trio plus Shorter's sax, and as she hums and moans, the band spreads out for some real deal jazz.

Bringing in Wayne Shorter on four tracks helps to make it sound like the jazz-intentioned outing it is. But the song writing is some of Jones best ever, and she uses two new writing partners in Sarah Oda and Peter Rehm who must take some of the credit for the quality on display here. A few well-chosen covers, and heck, what else do you possibly want from the girl?

Norah Jones never went away, and now she's back.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Zappadan 2016 Again The 10 Best (a bad idea)

Here's a Zappadan idea that has to be wrong. Feel free to correct me in comments, or add your own list, but be nice, it's not like I presume this to be the list anyone else should agree with. Even Frank had to have his favorites. Choosing ten is very difficult.

The 10 Best (oh, please) Frank Zappa albums:

Freak Out! 1966
Weasels Ripped My Flesh 1970
The Grand Wazoo 1972
Apostrophe(') 1974
One Size Fits All 1975
Orchestral Favorites 1979
Joe's Garage Acts I, II, and III 1987
       (I know that was cheating)
The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life 1991
Make A Jazz Noise Here 1991
The Yellow Shark 1993

Monday, December 5, 2016

Zappadan 2016 Lumpy Gravy 1967 and Just Another Band From L.A. 1972

Let me just start with the important news. You don't need Just Another Band From L.A. at all. It is the inane pinnacle of everything that was wrong with the 1970-1972 Flo and Eddie Mothers. I know we should hold Frank up to the golden light during Zappadan, but I have finally purchased the only Zappa record in which I find zero delight. I don't have them all, but even Chunga's Revenge and Fillmore East- June 1971 (the other two by this line-up) hold some charms. This one is mostly Flo and Eddie telling insipid stories with a rhythm section.
On the other hand, Lumpy Gravy. The first of Zappa's solo records, it is the first realization of his more formal compositional works. As such, it appears to have meant a lot to the composer. While I could do without the spoken word ramblings inside the piano that are scattered throughout, the music is a fascinating look at the Zappa we will come to admire on Orchestral Favorites, the London Symphony recordings, and The Yellow Shark. Sprinkled with a touch of surf music, Zappa presents several themes we will encounter later in his oeuvre. Any critical dissection of Zappa's importance as a modern composer must include this delightful effort. Rated W for weirdness, especially in 1967.

For more Zappadan related goodies, try these...
Zappadan 2015
Zappadan 2014
Zappadan 2014
Zappadan 2013
Zappadan 2013
Zappadan 2012
Zappadan 2011
Zappadan 2011
Zappadan 2010
Zappadan 2010
Zappadan 2009
Zappadan 2009
And even more at Frank Zappa here on this blog.

Thanks again, Mr. Zappa.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Jenny Scheinman The Littlest Prisoner 2014

If only I could adequately describe this fine recording in a way that would make you want it the way I want it again and again.

I'm destined to fail. I could compare it to a few other records and find some similarities, but those could only approximate at best this quietly stunning record. I've been listening to it for over a year now and every time I put it on I enjoy it immensely. And my blood pressure goes down.

I guess I would classify it as country/folk. Spare, quietly deliberate country/folk. Beautiful, intriguing, fragile music with a sensitive heart. Played by a small jazz ensemble of Bill Frisell (guitar), Brian Blade (drums and harmony vocals), and Tony Garnier (bass), with Scheinman's violin and arresting vocals. But it is not a jazz record.

Scheinman writes these direct sounding lyrics that always leave something to the imagination of the listener. She inspects the nooks and corners of relationships in intricately intimate ways, and finds the perfect detail that elevates the moment into crystalline clarity. I'm not always excited by lyrical content in my music, but Jenny Scheinman is just plain poetic.

The country/folk (with a touch of bluegrass ramble here and there) of these fairly simple melodies fits the mood of her lyrics so perfectly, so well, fittingly, that the record feels right. Scheinman's vocals are delicate without girlishness, quiet without shyness, childlike yet fully grown. She has a lovely voice.

And then there's the music. With such a small cast of players, and most of the songs don't even feature all four members, spare is the only way to describe it. But to be able to listen to these masterful musicians in these delicate arrangements, pouring themselves out so that every note, every nuance is full of the emotion (or even the ennui) that is perfect for the song, it is a treat.

There are three instrumentals that allow Scheinman and band to shine, and sequenced perfectly, give the record some nice pacing.  

Scheinman has contributed to many of Frisell's projects, and has made several jazz records as well as an earlier vocal record. Her playing is versatile and nimble, and she has performed in a broad range of settings. As it turns out, she can also sing and write lyrics exceptionally well. What can't she do?