Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Robin McKelle Heart Of Memphis 2014

Those people that feel music is dead and there's no great new artists sure are a drag. The only thing new about this music is that it is new. I mean that Ms. McKelle has written a tribute to the sound of Memphis (Stax, Hi) that is both loving tribute, in the style (ala), but also wholly new and original.

And that is a pretty cool deal right there.

I stumbled upon Robin McKelle over at PledgeMusic, and was intrigued enough to just try this one out. Her backstory is a bit odd I must say. Born in upstate New York, and "discovered" in France singing interpretations of the classic jazz songbook in a big band setting (Introducing Robin McKelle 2006 and Modern Antique 2008), she followed that with Mess Around 2010, a more contemporary jazz-pop outing, if I'm reading her bio correctly. And then she wrote most of Soul Flower 2011. I have heard none of those records, so I have no idea if they rival this one, but given her singing, they can't possibly be bad.

Memphis has been rediscovered again recently, with retro-soul outings recorded on site from Boz Scaggs and Paul Rodgers and many others. What makes this release so special is that the songs are newly penned by McKelle, with help from several band members, and they totally nail the Memphis sound without being derivative. Oh, the band is spectacular. The six-piece Flytones, with drums, bass, guitar, keyboards and two horns, rock these songs to the ground every time. Robin McKelle has a perfect alto voice with a touch of rasp, and she sings with street-cred soul.

One of the two covers is a fabulous reading of Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood, the Animal's chestnut. This song has been covered to death, but I've never heard a fast version nearly as good as this one. Ben Stivers organ is choice, but so is the whole arrangement. But the originals are where this baby shines, with Baby You're The Best, Down With The Ship, Good and Plenty, About To Be Your Baby, and Good Time all stars. There really isn't a weak track. The title track and Like A River emulate the Hi Records sound so well you don't even miss Al Green. Soulful and laid back, with that thing that moves your hips in a, well, Memphis, sort of way.

Give in to it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Morphine Cure For Pain 1993

Morphine managed to be largely overlooked during most of their ten years. But they are at once fascinating and a bunch of fun. With their odd-ball instrumentation of two-stringed bass, baritone sax and drums, they should never have sounded so much like a fine rock band as they most certainly did. Credit Mark Sandman's great songs and Jerome Deupree's brilliant drumming. And the best rock guitar ever played on saxophone, Dana Colley's baritone, frequently multi-tracked to fatten the already fat bari-tone.

So it's just another rock power trio, at least in some ways. But there's a bit of jazz, and strangely powerful rhythm, smart lyrics, and an expansive sound culled from the limitations they impose on themselves. These three guys did more than work well together, they were thinking and breathing as a unit.

Side one is just about perfect. The single Beuna rocks with a jazzy swing, while the mid-tempo I'm Free Now is a terrific melody. All Wrong, Candy, and A Head With Wings all have killer sax breaks and songwriting highlights either lyrical or melodic to recommend them. Sandman picks up an acoustic guitar for In Spite Of Me, a beautiful lyric ballad of loss to end the side.

The scary tale of illicit lust and the husband that just might kill you that is Thursday explodes the second side in fine style. The rest of side two branches out a bit more, and not everything pops like the first side. But Cure For Pain, and the spacey-cool Let's Take A Trip Together are solid.

It is almost the whole record, and plenty by any standard. I think I like 1995's Yes even more, but I've spent more time with that one.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Zappadan 2015

It's the most wonderful time of the year...

You can almost hear the percussion ringing out...

Happy celebrators singing 'round the fire...

"Did a vehicle
Come from somewhere out there
Just to land in the Andes?
Was it round
And did it have
A motor
Or was it Something Different?"
from Inca Roads, 1975

There's a swell version on YT right here. Happy Zappadan.
Keep your eyes open for miracles. We could always use a few.


Friday, November 13, 2015

Edgar Winter's White Trash Introducing Jerry LaCroix 1971

Strange things go on in the vinyl reissue sector. There are quite a few live outings that have been released on vinyl only (some of questionable quality, others pretty darn good, but basically bootlegs), and loads of reissues of major- and minor- label "classics". There are many audiophile quality (read over-priced) versions of truly great releases (how many versions of Blood On The Tracks do you own?) And there are oddball anomalies. Sometimes you can find reissues of everything except the one great record by a band or performer. And maybe it has more to do with the ease of licensing a given record than the actual quality.

All that said, I was still surprised to see this record receive new reissued vinyl status recently. I didn't think it was all that big when it came out. I always liked a few choice cuts, but never thought of it as a strong record from start to finish. My copy is 45 years old, and it's got a bit more surface noise than ideal, but I'll discuss it because it sounds fine. When I saw that it had been reissued, I went to listen to it again, and discovered it in the primary stacks (some records don't fit in the stereo room), having never been moved to secondary storage, a pretty good sign for a record I bought new 45 years ago.

And the more I listen, the less surprised I am that it got reissued. It's not perfect or anything like that, but it is a special treat in several ways. LaCroix brings a gospel flavor to the recording that shines on Save The Planet and Give It Everything You Got. The band itself is a drums, bass, guitar rhythm section plus Winter's vocals, keyboards and sax and three more singer/horn players (including LaCroix). So you get these great back-up vocal choruses and a four man horn section, whatever you want for the song. The record includes Winter's classic, autobiographical Keep Playin' That Rock "N" Roll, and the soulful ballad Dying To Live. There's blues, gospel, soul, and that unique seventies horn-rock thing that Chicago, Tower of Power, and Ides of March did so well. If there's a down side, the lyrical content quality dips in a few places, and not every song works like the best of them.

That sounds like nit-picking even to me. I'm on my third recent time through it as I write this, and I just keep remembering more and more of what I like about it. It is definitely of more consistent quality than I had remembered. This is not the Edgar Winter of Frankenstein fame, and that's a good thing about it. A rock-hot soul stew drenched in horns. Coming strong out of Texas and Louisiana to a record player near you. Just in time for your holiday shopping.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Bob Dylan Shadows Of The Nght 2015

So here we have Bob Dylan's tribute to Frank Sinatra. It is, on some level, everything the rave reviews say it is. Dylan pays loving homage to a style of music that came before his own. He inhabits the lyrics, caresses them from his lips, with some shockingly good singing. The use of his own touring and recording band works out just fine. The only problem is that it is dull and boring, every arrangement more lifeless than the one before.

Rolling Stone gave it four stars (out of five, not ten).

The Guardian gave it five stars and called it "an unalloyed pleasure".

The Telegraph gave it five stars and called it "extraordinary".

AllMusic gave it four stars.

Washington Square gave it a 9/10 and finished the review with "When Dylan flexes and fires on all cylinders like this, nobody else has a chance."

That last guy couldn't possibly have been listening to the same CD that I was.

Pitchfork gave it a more realistic 6.2/10, and noted quite accurately "Say what you want about Sinatra, but at least the man could swing." Dylan can sometimes swing, too, but there's none of that here. They also said  "Shadows in the Night may pose some compelling questions for the Bobophiles who scrutinize every line and every word of every Dylan song, but for the more casual, less obsessive listener, it can be a bit of a snooze." To which I say Amen.

Dylan sings these songs really very well, with nuance and emotion. He sings as well, or better, than we could have ever expected. These lovely melodies are enhanced regularly by pedal steel guitar that is just perfect for the occasion. But these ballads (every song) move at glacial speed, making the thought of a dirge sound snappy. I get the whole moody thing, but unless it's two am and you're already depressed, I'd skip this one.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

JD McPherson Let The Good Times Roll 2015

The audacity. The record is called Let The Good Times Roll, and there's a title cut, and it is an original JD McPherson composition, not a cover song.

In fact all of the songs are McPherson originals, and all of them draw heavily on 1950s R&B, rockabilly, and rock 'n' roll. The songs are in many ways the champ here, because it takes skill to make music this derivative and still have it sound fresh and new.

Although McPherson's voice is a very strong asset as well. A high tenor that verges on scream on the ravers, it is a fine instrument. He's clearly got conviction behind his musical beliefs, and he never tries to sing like anybody but himself.

And the band, and the arrangements. Simple almost to a fault. Almost. Or this is the distillation of 50s rockabilly down to the most primal, necessary elements, and nothing else. Everything needed to define the genre without further embellishment. Sparse arrangements often dropping down to only three of the five musicians (drums, bass, piano/organ, sax, and McPherson's own primal guitar), the record sounds like a rockabilly version of The Velvet Underground's spare, primal The Velvet Underground from 1969.

The title track is a swinging rocker. Bossy follows with rockabilly a la Dwane Eddy tremolo guitar, and McPherson's near scream. The bluesy R&B of Its All Over But The Shouting is driven by honking sax. McPherson's simple lead guitar works, but here, and in a few other spots, I find myself wondering what this band might sound like with a really hot guitarist. McPherson is talented and very tasteful. Sort of George Harrison as opposed to Jimmy Page.

Bridgebuilder is a weepy 50s-style ballad, and McPherson again sings it to the ground. It Shook Me Up follows, and updates the sound of a classic Little Richard screamer with a twangy lead break and fine vocal. The basic party R&B of Head Over Heels ends side one on a high note, with a brilliant arrangement of very simple parts into a primal, stomping rocker.

Again perfecting the sparsest shell of rockabilly style, Shy Boy rocks. All tremolo guitar and howling chorus, You Must Have Met Little Caroline consoles those lost to the title heartbreaker. Precious is an atmospheric ballad that recalls John Hiatt's best writing, while Mother Of Lies struts a fast walking blues and finally, a guitar break with a touch of wild abandon.

The record closes with a final Little Richard/Buddy Holley rave-up, Everybody's Talking 'Bout The All-American, that like so many of these songs, sounds vaguely familiar, and yet not. McPherson has an uncanny ability to draw from without taking from the 50s forms he so clearly admires.

It is as derivative as it is uniquely new. The guy can sing, and he can write. He's got this great band that plays only what is needed and absolutely nothing more, and it is all part of the plan. If any of this sounds like your cup of tea, you owe it to yourself to hear it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Don Dixon 1985-2013

Don Dixon has given us many audio joys over the years, producing his wife Marti Jones' fine output as well as many others, including REM , Marshall Crenshaw, Tommy Keene, Guadalcanal Diary, and Smithereens. He has produced over 100 recordings by many diverse artists. And he's made a series of records himself.

His debut was 1985's Most Of The Girls Like To Dance Buy Only Some Of The Boys Like To, a collection of demos and new tunes performed with members of Arrogance, Dixon's band from 1970 to 1983. It includes the college radio "hit" Praying Mantis, Dixon's ode to dangerous love, and one of his great ones. The title cut, Girls L.T.D., as well as Just Rites and Southside Girl show Dixon capturing the teenage zeitgeist with great rhythm, lyrics, and production. Skin Deep is a fine Nick Lowe cover, with a perfect Mitch Easter lead guitar and fine group vocals. Other highlights include an early version of Renaissance Eyes (done just a tad too fast) and Talk To Me, an ideal example of Dixon's syncopated, funky bass lines. Overall one of Dixon's finest.

Romeo At Julliard 1987 is a bit better produced, and Dixon spreads out a bit beyond the power-pop of the debut. It also is the first time that he includes the assistance of Marti Jones on vocals and guitar, percussionist extraordinaire Jim Brock, and one of my favorite guitarists of all time, Jaime Hoover, all of whom will contribute greatly to the quality of Dixon's work for years to come. Highlights include Borrowed Time (Dixon's vocal rasp to good effect), Your Sister Told Me (solid rocker), Heart In A Box (twisted lyric and great arrangement), February Ingenue (smoking Hoover guitar), Cat Out Of The Bag (bluesy rock swagger), and Cool (from Westside Story, done up with a five-piece horn section and another creative arrangement). There's a few weaker ones, but it is another very strong outing.

Then we come to what is Don Dixon's finest, most fully realized solo effort, EEE 1989. A combination of great Dixon songs, well-chosen covers, some big production numbers, and some great rockers, this really is the one. Oh Cheap Chatter is a great song about the hazards of being in love with a girl that thinks you're her best friend. John Hiatt's Love Gets Strange gets a fine reading with lots of percussion and great horns. Dixon's soulful rasp does unusually great work on At The Dark End Of The Street, a perfect fit between song and singer. I Can Hear The River is a gospel choir-assisted rocking ode to water, and Calling Out For Love is another classic from the pens of Dixon and Marshall Crenshaw. Sweet Surrender is a sweet, sad ballad that ends the record featuring Jim Brock's fabulous percussion. Song for song, his finest hour on record.

In 1992, (If) I'm A Ham, Then You're A Sausage was released, a fine best-of collection from the first three with a live version of Renaissance Eyes that betters the original and a one-off from a movie soundtrack. The best of Dixon's rocking era is right here. For the most casual fan, it is the cream of the crop. That said, there is much to like in Don Dixon's work after this, too. But for concentrated rocking fun, it is hard to beat. Close on the heals of Ham came The Chi-Town Budget Show 1993, a live document of Dixon's tour with Marti Jones and The Woods. The show starts with Don and Marti doing a couple of acoustic numbers. They are then joined by The Woods, and we get tight live readings of many of the early fan favorites, including, of course, Praying Mantis. It is mostly a fan's document, but it's fun, the band is hot, and the recording is good.

1995's Romantic Depressive is the beginning of a change in Dixon's music away from the power-pop rockers of the first three records to something of a more folk-rock mode. Dominated by mid-tempo and slower songs, there are great songs here, and the production values are high, but there's a clear shift away from Dixon's rockier side. Saved from slow tempos only by opener Righteous Side Of Love (a big loud rocker), the record features Giving Up The Ghost (a great sad lyric and fine melody), Good Golly Svengali (a slinky instrumental), and 25,000 Days (harmonies, guitar, lyric). Again, there's some fine stuff here, but I can't help but want for more energy. The Invisible Man 2000 takes the lack of energy in Romantic Depressive and multiplies it. It also has a less produced, low-budget feel to it that hasn't been heard before. I don't mean that it has none of Dixon's fine production flourishes, but the acoustic folky songs are prevalent, and there is a dark feel to the mood overall. Do So Well is a fine February Ingenue rewrite, and Tax The Churches is a rocking rant, but after that the energy drains away pretty fast. When I Woke Up and Invisible & Free are good efforts.

Note Pad #38 is a terrific return to form in 2001, but it is also a collection of demos and one-offs Dixon recorded over a period of time (like the debut), so some of this material has been aged. Two versions of (If I Could) Walk Away, and both are great. The rocking version that opens the record is accompanied by Test (a father's advice to his daughter on boy shopping), Wise Up, (slinky rocker with a funky arrangement), Girl With A P.O.V. (great hook in the chorus), and Betty Lou Got A Tattoo Too. Dixon tries his hand on Inside These Arms, and while he can't better the wife's version from Match Game, it plays well as a slow ballad. The definitive live version of Praying Mantis, with horn section and tight playing (Dixon, Jones, Hoover, Brock, Todd Wilhelm), closes out the record.

The Entire Combustible World in One Small Room 2006 is again plagued by the slow acoustic numbers, but most of it is interesting and well written and recorded. In Darkness Found is a catchy number, and Roommate does a pretty good approximation of Most Of The Girls..., while Secret Room returns to EEE territory to good effect. Marti's vocal on Room With A View is excellent. Not a great one, but there are some very real treats. The theme of rooms is an intriging idea, and Dixon holds it up through the whole record.

2008 finds two very different releases from Dixon. The first is Don Dixon and Marti Jones' download-only Lucky Stars. Five instrumentals interspersed with six vocal numbers (five by Marti), all very sweet, acoustic guitar-led folk, it is a fine thing in its way. Subtitled Lullabies For Old Souls, it delivers on that promise. The songs are good, if a bit twee, and the instrumentals allow Dixon to play around with ideas that are, within the context of the record, quite enjoyable. The other 2008 release is The Nu-Look by Don Dixon and the Jump Rabbits (Jaime Hoover and Jim Brock, Dixon's long-time studio and touring band). Most of the songs are well-chosen covers, and the power trio setting makes for some serious rocking. Three Hundred Pounds Of Joy is a great blues with smokin' hot guitar. The Night That Otis Died is a loving tribute to the great Otis Redding. There's a sexy/pretty pop song in Take A Walk With Me. Sputnik and Skinny both just ooze Jaime Hoover's best work with the Spongetones, and are classic power-pop. Amplifier and Six Pack bring more great syncopated, riff-heavy rock and roll. For the last look at Dixon the rocker, this record is perfect. There's a few soft spots, so not literally perfect, but a blast of a rocking record.

Don Dixon Sings The Jeffords Brothers was released in 2010. It is nothing except a great pop-soul record Carolina style. Really a delight. There is plenty of new "old school" soul out there, but this one deserves to be among the first-mentioned. The Jeffords Brothers have a feel for soul music that Dixon massages into gold. From 2006-2013, Dixon produced (and played and sang on) three records by Dip Farrel and the Truetones, all with songs from the Jeffords, and similar quality to this release. Dixon sings a cameo or two, but Dip is the featured vocalist.

2010 also saw Music From Robert Creep & Other Instrumentals, a download only release, and a bit of an odd bird. More of the movie music instrumentals/occasional themes heard on Lucky Stars, but also more developed ideas. And a few that rock. It is interesting to hear, and shows that Dixon can do more and still be, well, interesting. Not to be confused with what most people might expect from Dixon. But when you get over that, it still sounds like Todd Rundgren when his ideas don't coalesce into a whole. And I still like it quite a bit.

2011 brought another Marti Jones and Don Dixon release, Living Stereo. Unlike the previous Lucky Stars, this one is a proper CD release, and for the first time ever, a proper duets record for Don & Marti. It's just a load of fun. Feels Like 1972 gets a big production from Don, That Scorching Song has fantastic harmonies, and Trouble Is As Trouble Does features the amazing Mr. Brock's percussion. It's mostly a folky record, but they do it so well. Hanging My Laundry, Walk Outside, and Why, Why, Why all display special qualities. And then there's Marti's reading of These Arms Of Mine, and she just nails it with beauty and reverence.

Finally there is Dixon's latest, High, Filthy and Borderline 2013. For the most part, folk has replaced rock, even when some of the material could use a kick in the butt. There's still solid songwriting in Torpedo Road, Seraphina, and A Promise On The Sole Of My Shoe, and some rock on My Felon Girlfriend and Love Is All Attitude. It sounds good, but also could have benefited from more production. Some of it sounds just too casual. Too much just acoustic guitar. So not a high water mark, but some strong material mixed with some undercooked tracks.

I've had the great pleasure to see live shows with Dixon and Jones many times, including many nights with Dixon, Jones, Hoover and Brock, and their live show is always a blast. In that the two reside in Canton, Ohio, all of the tours either begin or end with a Cleveland show. If you get a chance to see them live, you'll have an unusually fine time.