Thursday, September 18, 2014

Sloan Commonwealth 2014

Sloan have a new one out. This band is interesting in several ways:

They're Canadian. This is hardly big news these days, but hey, it's still pretty cool to be Canadian. And they are HUGE in Canada.

The same four people have been in the band since its inception in 1991. This is particularly unusual, especially given that...

All four are multi-instrumentalists, songwriters, and singers. Every one of their records includes songs written by all four members. This is the most egalitarian rock band on the planet.

This new one is a doozy. The double LP set has one side written by each member.

Jay Ferguson's first side reveals him as the most Beatles-influenced member of the band. His work has been consistently stellar throughout their career. And I don't mean he mimics the Beatles, instead the band often sounds like if the Beatles had been 20 in 1991 when they met in college. They're that good, and so are his songs.

Side two features Chris Murphy, and Murphy brings diversity of style and pop sensibility to every track. All of them have really produced strong material for this record.

Patrick Pentland's side rocks harder than the rest, and the power-pop label applies at least a few times. Pentland gets the most out of the strength of two guitars, bass, and drums, straight ahead hard rocking, and gives a nice balance to the (usually) less hard rocking Ferguson and Murphy. There's even a few psych and prog moments.

Finally, Andrew Scott delivers a 17-minute medley/suite/collage that caps the record off with style, panache, and daring. The suite features at least a few moments from past records as it defines the term musical amalgamation. But it starts with several minutes of what can most favorably be called musique concrete, and it's still 14 minutes long after that. I've heard it through at least three times, and I like most of it. You'll probably listen to the fourteen other songs more often than this one.

But the usual beauty of a Sloan record is to have these four voices heard, all mixed together and bouncing off each other, and some people are going to miss their musical democracy for this more deconstructed Sloan. I'm not having that problem, and if I did I guess I'd hit shuffle play. It is very good Sloan.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Spoon They Want My Soul 2014

I've been listening to this record a lot since it arrived recently. I think it is their best effort yet, and that is very high praise given the quality of their recent work.

In case you're not familiar with Spoon, let's review. A quirky, punkish indie band releases two relatively lo-fi records in the later 90's to generally good reception and limited sales. 2001 and 2002 see them release Girls Can Tell and Kill The Moonlight on the trendy Merge label, and both are successful with the critics and begin to see more sales. The band tours more, and the buzz builds. By the time of Gimme Fiction 2005, they hit big, score a #1 in the indie charts, and repeat in 2007 with Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. 2010's Transference makes it to #2, and they are by any measure a big deal.

Since Kill The Moonlight their records have become more and more accessible, with better production, nice instrumental arrangements and embellishment, and a little less sneer in Britt Daniel's vocal delivery. The path of their progression reminds me a bit of XTC- from punk to melodic modernism, and they have become as interesting in their own way as XTC was in their 80s heyday. Daniel's songs have improved significantly in melody and intricacy, and the band has solidified around Daniel, with relatively few personnel changes in the last nine years except for the recent addition of a second guitar/keyboardist, making the touring quintet capable of reproducing their studio work in the live setting.

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and Transference set a very high bar. The four-year wait was worth it. Daniel has written his best set of songs yet, without letting go of his quirks, but definitely favoring his recent melodic bent. There's even some arena rock here, and some perfect pop. But it still sounds like Spoon. I was going to take it track-by-track, but I struggle with describing what they sound like. I guess if you took The Shins and The Clash and Beck and Modest Mouse and threw them in a blender, you might get close. But Daniel's songs, lyrics, and approach to songcraft seem uniquely his own, and that makes this band something special indeed.

You can put this one on and listen to the whole thing. In fact, that is by far the best way to hear it. Somebody thought long and hard about the sequence. It is a cohesive effort, and there are really no weak songs.

If you've been following the band and like their recent work, you won't be disappointed. If you're new to Spoon, start here. After you fall in love with it, go get Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Eva Cassidy Live At Blues Alley 1996

Eva Cassidy's Live At Blues Alley from 1996 is a wonderful record featuring Cassidy's fine band as well as her magnificent vocals. Something of a folk-jazz-pop hybrid, Cassidy's song selection is impeccable, and she invests herself fully in every song, and in the process, gives unique  and stellar performances of classics such as Stormy Monday, Bridge Over Troubled Water, People Get Ready, and Take Me To The River. Her version of Tall Trees In Georgia is achingly beautiful, and the studio version of Oh, Had I A Golden Thread added to the end of the record is breathtaking.

She had an amazing voice, full of emotional gravitas, and pitch-perfect to boot. The arrangements are quite good, and the band, if not all-stars, plays with style and professionalism. It is a CD you should own if you're into the plethora of jazz-pop chanteuses available these days. It is special good.

Then tragedy struck, when 2 months after the CD came out, she died at age 33 of melanoma. 

Her family and producer-bassist Chris Biondo then released Eva By Heart in 1997, a studio record that contains songs that had been mostly, if not fully, completed by Cassidy before her death. It's pretty good, but does not contain the perfect set of songs found on Live At Blues Alley, and some of them sound more like demos than competed projects.

The compilation Songbird, released in 1998, contains tracks from Blues Alley, Eva By Heart, and her signature Over The Rainbow from her 1992 duets record with pianist Chuck Brown, The Other Side. Like most decent compilations, it is a good record, and rivals Blues Alley as the one to have if you only have one.

Since 2000, her family has worked hard to tarnish her beautiful image by releasing every speck of recorded material they could find. Some of it is not bad, and there was probably a decent live CD to be found in the recordings made at Pearl's, King Of France Tavern, and the left-overs from the Blues Alley sets. But instead they doled out those tracks, mixed with demos and toss-offs, over the course of no less than five CDs and two more compilations from 2000-2012. The woman who completed two CDs in her lifetime (Live At Blues Alley and The Other Side with Chuck Brown) now has no less than six additional original CDs and three compilations all released after her untimely death. Only Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley have had more posthumous releases. So shame on her family for bilking the public that fell in love with their daughter with second-rate material over the course of the last decade.

Live At Blues Alley is indispensable. Songbird is a fine collection. After that, caveat emptor.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Dr. John Mos' Scocious The Anthology 1993

There have been some fine Dr. John CDs since this collection, and I'm comfy recommending Goin' Back To New Orleans 1992 (probably his strongest single album), Duke Elegant 1999, and Creole Moon 2001.

But this fine 2-CD set from Rhino in 1993, which is heavily tilted to his 1968-1975 period, is priceless. Although none of the individual records was completely great, this collection with 3-5 tracks from each of the eight records made in the aforementioned era is unquestionably completely great. Add to that a nice selection of early sixties singles that Mac Rebenack was featured on, and a few tracks from his eighties solo piano outings, and you've got a killer collection, and a pretty good encapsulation of the modern New Orleans gumbo of jazz, funk, and swamp-rock. The good Doctor distilled everything into his thick stew- James Booker, Nevilles, Preservation Hall, and a fat slab of voodoo. And during this uniquely commercial period, he penned a number of classic songs, all included here.

By the late sixties Dr. John had been around the block twice, and he knew the studio and the stage. His best work is eclectic and eccentric and electric- and funky. His gruff voice, his songwriting, and his classic New Orleans piano, incorporating Professor Longhair and Fats Domino, and everyone in between, is a nice set of skills. It seems a shame now that he didn't break bigger, but it hasn't hurt his longevity. His most recent, a tribute to Louis Armstrong, was released this year.

This one is out of print, but Amazon has used sets for $15-20. It comes with a pretty good book, too.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Al Kooper White Chocolate 2008

Al Kooper has had a long and successful career in rock and roll. From his first hit (Short Shorts) as a 14 year old in 1958 with The Royal Teens, to his latest solo release, White Chocolate 2008, Kooper's work has been both eclectic and highly entertaining.
Here's a brief list of Al Kooper moments in musical history:
Wrote This Diamond Ring, a hit for Gary Lewis and the Playboys.
Played organ on Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone.
Was a founding member of The Blues Project.
Was a founding member of Blood, Sweat and Tears.
Produced and played on Super Session in 1968 with Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills, the first-ever "jam" album.
Played piano, organ and horn on The Rolling Stones' You Can't Always Get What You Want.
Recorded seven solo records from 1969-1977.
Produced and played on the first three Lynyrd Skynyrd albums.
Taught composition and recording production at Boston's Berklee College of Music.
And much, much more.

Since 1994, Al has had quite a renaissance, and has released four particularly fine records. 1994 saw ReKooperation, an all-instrumental soul-jazz-rock record full of great versions of classics and a few Kooper originals.

Recorded in 1994 for Al's fiftieth birthday, and released in 1995, Soul Of A Man: Al Kooper Live is a tremendous career overview/live best-of that sees Al playing with original members of Blues Project and Blood, Sweat and Tears, as well as the ReKooperators during a three-day stint at New York's Bottom Line.

2005 saw the release of perhaps Al's best solo outing ever, the fantastic Black Coffee. Eclectic as always, but this one is a perfect mix of what Al Kooper does best. Seven of the tracks feature The Funky Faculty, a group of his colleagues from Berklee College, and a super hot band. My Hands Are Tied and Going, Going, Gone rate with Al's best songs, and the whole CD is flawless. Al's singing, playing, arranging and producing firing on all cylinders. The CD booklet also contains an Al Kooper timeline that reviews his entire career.

Al followed Black Coffee with the nearly equal White Chocolate in 2008. Members of The Funky Faculty and ReKooperators (and other famous guests) return to help , and Al again assembles a batch of fine originals and carefully chosen covers.

All four of the 1994 and later CDs are well worth owning, and outshine much of the contemporary competition.

Al also has a weekly blog post over at the Morton Report called New Music For Old People, where Al, the consummate musicologist, helps the elderly discover musical gems.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Parthenon Huxley Thank You Bethesda 2013

There is a power pop thing going on here for sure, but there's also that perfect pop rock record ala Fountains Of Wayne's Welcome Interstate Managers. There are comparisons galore (Sloan, Crenshaw, The Hang Ups, Tim Easton), but Huxley makes it all his own. This is a genre that is derivative by nature, so when an artist can stay within a style and yet express himself so clearly, well, you should pay attention.

Huxley is certainly no newcomer, having made solo discs and produced and written songs for other artists since 1988. He's had a way with a hook from the beginning. A particularly strong songwriter, an above average singer, a hot shit guitar player: what else is there? Well, his arrangements are always interesting.

The hard-rocking title track kicks things off in fine style, a tribute to either nature or hallucinogens. Angelino is a fine riff rocker with a funny "becoming a star" lyric. Luckiest Man is a sweet love ballad that is neither cloying or trite. Buddha, Buddha has a fun lyric hung on a terrific song structure, and three great guitar leads, two from hot shot guests. And a fine Wurlitzer break from Daniel Clarke. Long Way To Go is a lonely road song that leads into a hot lead guitar.

Beautiful shuffles in for a nicely different take on a classic love song theme. A long look back at the thrills and chills of real life is the mid-tempo Roller Coaster, and it includes some super guitar from Huxley and another shining moment from keyboardist Clarke. A Feeling That Won't Fade Away is an airy, acoustic guitar driven soft rock that is a pleasant surprise. Huxley takes on everyone's reference, The Beatles, with Love Is The Greatest Thing, and manages to turn a Beatlesesque intro into a gutsy guitar rocker with a first rate hook-filled chorus. The CD ends with the closing ballad Turn The Soil, another long look at aging that is written to perfection.

The real difference here is the consistent song quality. Well, that and Huxley's many exceptional skills. Huxley has given us a CD that doesn't require any track skipping. Put it on and play the whole thing. An album, the old fashioned way.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Karrin Allyson In Blue 2002

There's been other just as recommendable Karrin Allyson records in the last twenty years, but none has found the perfect fit between songs and songstress as this one. And the band is choice, too. Mulgrew Miller (piano), Lewis Nash (drums), Peter Washington (bass), Danny Embrey (guitar) and Steve Wilson (saxophone) are all top notch, and Nick Phillips' production is flawless.

The songs are themed around the the album's title, but these aren't just torch songs. There's spritely work here, but it is all in the service of a late-night blues vibe that cooks like crazy and works consistently. Songs by Oscar Brown, Jr., Mose Allison, George and Ira Gershwin, Joni Mitchell, and Bobby Troup all share a perfect frame within these casual yet deep arraignments, and Allyson's subtle yet powerful delivery.

If you're unfamiliar with Karrin Allyson, you've missed one of today's finest jazz interpreters. She's got it going on in a serious way, with real jazz cred, and an approachable style that's as comfortable as an old shoe. Then it gets into you, and you're transported to a dark room late at night, and she's signing just for you.

After twelve years on the stereo, it still sounds fresh every time.