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.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Ry Cooder Manuel Galban Mambo Sinuendo 2001

Manuel Galban starred in Buena Vista Social Club 1998, Ry Cooder's movie and recording collaboration with some of the stars of Cuban music's glorious past. I liked Buena Vista Social Club enough, but this 2001 follow-up collaboration is even better. Galban's technique, thick with effects, melodic and sneakily jazz-pop, is unique in all of guitar stylists. He's really like nothing you've ever heard. Lind of like Duane Eddy grew up in Cuba playing in jazz bands. The record is all instrumental except for one song, and the freedom of this small combo allows some of the most beautiful guitar interplay to unfold naturally and gracefully. Cooder is a consummate duet partner, and Galban, well, we're just lucky to have this document of his fascinating approach to the instrument.

Ry Cooder himself probably said it best when he said "Galbán and I felt that there was a sound that had not been explored, a Cuban electric-guitar band that could re-interpret the atmosphere of the 1950s with beauty, agility, and simplicity. We decided on two electrics, two drum sets, congas and bass: a sexteto that could swing like a big band and penetrate the mysteries of the classic tunes. This music is powerful, lyrical, and funny; what more could you ask?"

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

George Benson The Other Side Of Abbey Road 1970

There are plenty of reasons you haven't heard this LP, but that doesn't make it a forgettable record. No, far from it. One reason might be that the record came out within a year of Abbey Road itself, which didn't (initially) give one time to appreciate the new perspective Benson brings to this now-classic material. Another reason was that Benson was not yet the household name he would become in the mid-seventies as an early progenitor of smooth jazz. And I suppose the necessity of a jazz interpretation of the songs from Abbey Road seemed every bit as essential then as it does now. But now we have time, history, and perspective to clarify our insight into this rare jewel.

Side one opens with harpsichord-accompanied string quartet on Golden Slumbers/You Never Give Me Your Money, a recurring motif throughout the record, which encompasses big-band arrangements, small combo jazz, and the aforementioned Baroque jazz, with Benson's mellifluous baritone vocal stylings. Because/Come Together is funk all the way from the Hubert Laws flute to Benson's guitar and the magnificent horns, topped by a a fine sax solo. And all bookended by the string quartet. Oh! Darling wraps side one with Benson singing it to the ground, and then ripping a sweet guitar break. Inspired.

The string quartet/piano/vocal combo opens side two with Here Comes The Sun, and it's fine. Then I Want You (She's So Heavy) becomes a sly, funky, riff-rocker until Benson just shreds blues to close it down. Something returns once more with the string quartet, with fine supplemental guitar and flute. The guitar-led big band of Octopus' Garden may be the set's best surprise, and then The End is played as a fast-paced big band arrangement with fiery percussion and smoking guitar.

The horn charts throughout are glorious. The cast of musicians is top drawer, with Hubert Laws, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Bob James, Ron Carter, and many more. It may all be a bit too much "of it's time", but it still sounds fresh today, especially if you happen to be hearing it for the first time (or the first time in a long while).

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Calexico Edge Of The Sun 2015

Well, Calexico is on a roll. This one continues the development pattern of Algiers, and ups the game even from that fine work, with perhaps a tad more energy, and again with the great songs.

The driving Tex-Mex-Jayhawks of Falling From The Sky kicks it off in fine style. The spooky minor key melody of Bullets and Rocks follows with excellent harmonies. Lost love features in the ballads When Angels Played and Moon Never Rises, and the later includes a fine female vocal duet with Carla Morrison. More of the moody Southwestern thing they do so well is on display on Tapping On The Line, World Undone, and Follow The River. Miles From The Sea has a fine string arrangement and Baroque-pop sound. Their love of Ennio Moricone is fully expressed in the cinematic instrumental Cayoacan. Cumbia de Donde has a Spanish-trance groove that sucks you in, and the uptempo Beneath The City Of Dreams enhances its dark story with super horn charts. The piano-driven country ballad Woodshed Waltz swings its sadness to the title dance beat.

It may be telling that the band listed on the sleeve includes eight members as opposed to just Burns and Convertino. It is their usual convention for just the two of them to be separated from the rest of the players by at least an empty line. Additionally, Sergio Mendoza (multiple instruments, vocals) assists with songwriting and production, and that may have helped to keep things fresh and new. Mostly, though, it sounds like the work of a band, and not just two guys with help. They're touring as a seven-piece, and the early results should make you want to catch the tour when they come your way.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Julia Fordham Porcelain 1989

Besides being an amazing photo shoot of a cover, Julia Fordham's Porcelain is a breathtakingly lovely recording, jam packed with great songs. I was looking for something I hadn't heard in a while, and stumbled upon this sumptuous record. Fordham writes these lovelorn melodies and sings these intimate lyrics with her crystalline voice. They are near perfect sophisticated pop-rock gems. The songs and arraignments are splendid, really.  

Her early records into the nineties all contained a few great songs each. And the rest of the material was hardly slouch, but Porcelain holds up pretty much in it's entirety. So does The Julia Fordham Collection 1998, an unassailable best-of disc with the cream of the crop of her first five releases.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Fleetwood Mac 1970-1974

From 1966 to 1969, Fleetwood Mac was a blues-based rock band headed by Peter Green on guitar and vocals with Jeremy Spencer, also guitar and vocals, Mick Fleetwood's drums and John McVie on bass. Danny Kirwin's guitar and vocals were added to the line-up for their third LP Then Play On in 1968. Green left the group he founded in 1969. Between Green's departure and the 1975 arrival of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac went through multiple line-up changes, with different personnel on all but two of the six records they released during this middle period.

Kiln House 1970 was recorded by Kirwin, Spencer, Fleetwood and McVie, with an uncredited Christine Perfect/McVie on keyboards and vocals. Jeremy Spencer left after Kiln House, to be replaced by American Bob Welsh, and Christine McVie became an official member. Future Games 1971 introduced Welsh's spacey, mystical rock songs, and also premiered Christine McVie's romantic balladry, which would become a stable for the band, with Show Me A Smile. The record garnered Fleetwood Mac a fair amount of FM radio play in America, even while the English reaction to their new distance from the blues was not well received .

The same line-up completed Bare Trees 1972, and again the record was neglected in the UK, and made it's way into the top 100 in the US. Strong songs from all three writers (Welsh, Kirwin, McVie) help fortify the record. Future Games and Bare Trees both benefit from the guitar interplay between Kirwin and Welsh, some fine jamming and riffing going on.

1973 saw two relatively unfocused releases from the band in a period of transition. Kirwin was dismissed during the tour in support of Bare Trees, and for Penguin, Bob Weston on guitar and Dave Walker (ex Savoy Brown vocalist) were added to the line-up. Penquin is probably their weakest outing since the band's inception, and is only saved by two of Christine McVie's better love songs, Remember Me and Dissatisfied. After Dave Walker left, the remaining five made Mystery To Me, and it's another weaker one, but not without redeeming moments in Welsh's Somebody and Hypnotized (which got considerable FM radio play) and McVie's Believe Me.

Heroes Are Hard To Find 1974 was made by the quartet of Welsh, McVie, Fleetwood and McVie, and was their first record to break into the top 40 Billboard album charts. The album holds up pretty well even today, and is clearly the precursor to the so-cal rock lite classics that are right around the corner. Welsh and McVie each contribute strong material, and a successful tour helped sell the record more than any before it. The title track and Welsh's Silver Heels are standouts, as is Come A Little Bit Closer by Christine McVie.

We all know what happened next. Welsh quit, and very shortly after, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks were added to the line-up. That band made two classic rock FM radio staples, Fleetwood Mac 1975 and Rumours 1977. The five are back together and touring again in 2015. Other than those classics from 1975 and 1977, their recorded output has been a mixed bag, with Buckingham, McVie, and Nicks each out of the picture at various times. In fact, these records from 1970-1974, especially Kiln House, Future Games, Bare Trees, and Heroes Are Hard To Find, are in my view much more interesting than any of their post 1977 output.

Monday, April 27, 2015

12 Best

I just stumbled on a document I wrote in 2007. I believe I wrote it in response to a challenge put forth by one of the magazines I was reading to name the 12 best records to encapsulate American music. I went with a contemporary approach.

Marti Jones Live At Spirit Square
Maybe the single best live pop record ever. Great songs, great band, great recording. Marti’s lovely alto, producer-husband Don Dixon on bass and songwriting. Jaime Hoover proves himself to be one of the most remarkably skilled guitarists ever.

Spirit The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus 
A wonderful summation of the west coast psychedelic sound, with Beatles woven throughout.

Swan Dive Swan Dive
What do you get when you combine the pop of Bacharach, the girl group sound of the sixties, and contemporary production values? 

NRBQ  At Yankee Stadium
The single best studio recording from America’s answer to whatever question you had in mind, and the most fun you’ll ever have seeing a live band.

Santana Caravanseri
Latin, jazz-rock fusion, southern California style. All of the first four are classics, but no one else ever made a record quite like this one.

Cassandra Wilson Blue Light ‘Til Dawn
The bayou, native influences, the blues, jazz, and the sultry tones of one of today’s finest voices in jazz, even if she’s not the flavor of the month right now.

Jackson Browne Jackson Browne (Saturate Before Using)
There are lots of good examples of the perfect singer-songwriter record. This one’s mine.

James Brown Star Time
Ok, it’s four CDs, but it’s also the only perfect James Brown purchase available. Absolutely essential all the way through, and (almost) everything you need. Also stands out as the best single-artist four CD set ever, by a pretty fair margin.

Marcia Ball, Erma Thomas, Tracy Nelson Sing It
What can I say about this record? A little blues, a little soul, a little R&B, and a rollicking party tune or two. Three great women more people should have heard a long time ago.

The Neville Brothers Neville-ization
Never able to capture it all in the studio, these two nights at Tipitina’s are what the Neville Brothers are all about. Smokin’ hot band at the top of their form for the hometown crowd.

Frank Sinatra Classic Sinatra
Ah, Sinatra’s thirties during our perfect 1950s. Lots of hits, nicely mastered to CD. Sinatra is in peak form, still with the power of a young man, but having learned just exactly how much of it to use at any one time.

Bill Frisell Good Dog, Happy Man
What can you say about country-bluegrass-jazz fusion? Lots of things of course, but for sure it’s American.