Monday, July 17, 2017

Five Reggae Records

Reggae music was creeping into America in the early seventies with singles by Jimmy Cliff and Paul Simon, and the soundtrack to the movie The Harder They Come. Reggae broke out of Jamaica onto American ears big time in 1974 with Eric Clapton's cover of Bob Marley's I Shot The Sheriff. The golden age of reggae music in America starts there, and ends in less than ten years with Marley's untimely death in 1981. The early eighties UK punks were big fans, and reggae mixed with punk from multiple UK sources in the eighties. And of course reggae music continues today, but my own interest in the style is decidedly not contemporary. My time with reggae was its seventies heyday.

I don't listen to reggae music all that often anymore, and when I thought of writing this blog entry, I went back to reconsider my favorites and reaffirm my belief in this short list as worthy contenders. These aren't "the best" reggae records ever made, not the least because I haven't kept up with the genre very well, but they are very very good examples of reggae classics from the seventies. The hardest part of compiling this list was choosing one Bob Marley record. So here's what I usually think of as my favorite reggae records:

Peter Tosh Equal Rights 1977. I wrote this one up before. I stand behind my opinion of it as the best reggae record ever. Great songs, delivered in Tosh's sumptuous baritone, and some of the best playing and arranging in the genre. And the recording is excellent. Eight perfect, politically charged song bombs. Classic.

Bunny Wailer Blackheart Man 1976. While Bunny Wailer never was as successful commercially as Tosh, they both made records every bit as good as Marley's after they left the Wailers. Tosh had a string of solid albums, while Bunny is mostly known for this gem, his solo debut. The songs, oh the songs. The title track, Fighting Against Convictions, Rasta Man, Armagedon, This Train, and especially Reincarnated Souls are all magnificent examples of the form. A rare classic that wasn't heard by enough reggae fans.

Burning Spear Marcus Garvey 1975. Winston Rodney, lead singer and primary songwriter for Burning Spear, has a fine, if somewhat nasal voice, and fills his singing with undeterred conviction. The music is roots reggae, the players (from Soul Syndicate and The Wailers) are top notch and the grooves are deep. The political message of Garvey (a Rastafari prophet and black activist leader) is a mixed message at best these days, and a difficult political stance to rationalize, but his activist work on behalf of blacks in the early twentieth century was heartfelt even if his aims seem out of place today. The record is filled with political and social concerns.

The Heptones Night Food 1976. Let's have some fun, and why not. In contrast to the political nature of much reggae, The Heptones were essentially a party band. They did covers of Motown and other soul classics, and they wrote some great ones themselves. Leroy Sibbles is a soulful crooner every bit as talented as Toots Hibbert. This was their Island records debut, and they rerecorded several classics from earlier Jamaican releases. This is "smooth reggae", dance music with the reggae vibe. A few songs (I Got The Handle and Fatty Fatty) are a bit misogynistic, so you've been warned, but so much here (Country Boy, Book Of Rules, Mama Say, Love Won't Come Easy, In The Groove) is just plain perfect soulful reggae that it is irresistible.

Bob Marley and the Wailers Kaya 1978. There's probably a better choice for "best" Bob Marley record, but I've always been fond of Kaya. On the heels of the politically charged Exodus 1977, Marley was criticized for his love and pot message, and his less angry approach. But the political is not entirely ignored, and can be heard in Crisis and the lovely Time Will Tell. The record contains great songs delivered in a laid back style, and Easy Skanking, Kaya, Is This Love, Satisfy My Soul, and Sun Is Shining are all stellar. I could have just as easily gone with Exodus, or even the original Wailers Catch A Fire 1973. Both of those are solid, as is pretty much all of Marley's seventies output.

Honorable mention goes to Toots and the Maytals' Funky Kingston 1973, the The Harder They Come 1972 soundtrack, and Black Uhuru Red 1981.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Dieselhed 1993-2000

Country-punk. It's a genre. And these guys defined it pretty darn well on their 1993 eponymous debut. The first half of the record is close to perfection. Poodle's Ear and Cloud Of Diesel are full of funky country harmonies. Sergio Taurus combines slow country verses with a shouted punk chorus. The punk shouting of Happy Donut thrashes it up, while B A Band is their grand statement. Telling the story of the band members some fifteen years in the future, after the band breaks up, it is a fascinating take on the band biography song (think The Ballad Of Mott The Hoople) from a unique lyrical approach. Plus there's the big arena rock chorus of "Someday we won't be a band", sounding both sincere and tongue-in-cheek at the same time.

It is the songwriting that sets the band apart. Virgil Shaw and Zac Holtzman combine interesting, funny approaches to country songs, oddball lyrical twists, and punk thrashing to unique effect. Shaw has a way with a sincere lyric even when he's writing about weird ideas, and you never quite know if he's mocking himself or wearing his heart on his sleeve. The band is talented, and drummer Danny Heifetz (who played simultaneously in Mr. Bungle) is a particular standout, and also adds horns on a several songs to good effect. The debut also features violin from Jonathon Segel that adds to their already interesting sound.

Tales Of A Brown Dragon 1995 followed the same recipe with considerable success. Brown Dragon, Wedding Song ("put your finger through the ringy-ding-ding"), Wipe Down The Vinyl, and Snow Blind In The Liquor Store  showing their formidable skills.
1997 brought Shallow Water Blackout, and they continue to scrape country sounds across a loud punk vibe that is infectious. Fog It Up, Produce Section (with a pretty sick lyric), Yellow Kitchen, Inches Of Air, and Blue Hawaiian are all excellent.

All three of the records also include some more country-sounding slow numbers that have solid, often twisted, lyrics. These songs help relieve the stress of the more punk efforts, but they are not the strongest songs generally.

Which brings us to 1998 and Elephant Rest Home. For some unknown reason, the loud punk rock of the first three gives way to a mostly acoustic, mostly country record that seems under-baked compared to the first three. Some of them are perfectly good songs with decent lyrical ideas, but the loud punk sounds that ignite their earlier outings are all but gone. It almost sounds like they didn't bother to finish it.

In 2000 they released their final record, Chico and the Flute, and it again it suffers from too little energy, but not nearly as badly as Elephant Rest Home. Brownie, Tidepool, Gentle Grooming, and Homemade Shoes almost rock like they did on the first three, and it is a worthy send-off for a band that more people should have heard.

The debut is their strongest effort, and the next two are close behind. An eye-opening experience for an old graduate of the 70s country-rock movement, and a fine kick in the pants.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter Sad Clowns and Hillbillies 2017

I haven't been following John Mellencamp for a while. His last three before this were produced by T-bone Burnett, whose productions I generally avoid. I also never really warmed up to Mellencamp's newer country-Americana sound. I liked his rocking records from the early nineties, but I also thought that most of his records featured some great singles and some lesser material (with an exception for Whenever We Wanted 1991, a near perfect hard rocking effort). His best-of compilation Words And Music 2004 is outstanding.

I bought this because I've always enjoyed Carlene Carter. I realize now that I haven't written about Carter here before, and I hope to rectify that in the near future. For now, we have this one to discuss, and I'm sorry to say it is not a great record, but it has its moments.

The record starts with Mobile Blue, an OK mid-tempo country blues. Battle Of Angels follows, and it is a dull country song with little to hold the listener's interest. Grandview is a decent mid-tempo rocker, and features Martina McBride (briefly) to good effect. It's built on a good guitar riff. Four tracks in, we finally get Carlene Carter on Indigo Sunset, and it's the highlight of the record. A lovely, sentimental ballad written by Carter and Mellencamp, and Carlene sounds great. A real treat of a song and fine performance. The sad country ballad What Kind Of Man Am I? follows, and it is saved by Carlene's harmonies and a big choral finish. All Night Talk Radio is a typical Mellencamp melody and a decent lyric.

Side two opens with Sugar Hill Mountain, again featuring Carter's fine vocal. Even Carlene can't save the the song's trite lyric and so-so country waltz melody. You Are Blind is more mid-tempo country fare, and it is better than some of the others, but not by much. Damascus Road is good mid-tempo rock, and Carlene and Mellencamp do a nice duet. Early Bird Cafe is stronger than most of the other songs, and it's telling that it's a cover song. Sad Clowns is a better than average Mellencamp tune that sounds like it took more than five minutes to write, which is good. Carlene returns for My Soul's Got Wings, a Mellencamp melody over a Woody Guthrie lyric that has a country-gospel feel. Mellencamp and Carter sing it very nicely. The closer, Easy Target, has a political lyric, and is a better than average  country ballad.

Mellencamp's voice has a raspy, ravaged sound these days, but he can still be a compelling singer. What is mostly lacking from this record is great songs. Most of Mellencamp's efforts seem under-developed, with tossed-off melodies and only fair lyrical ideas. Only Indigo Sunset, Damascus Road, My Soul's Got Wings, and Easy Target are strong material. Carlene Carter appears on only five songs (with some minor harmony vocals on one or two others), although she helps make things more interesting every time she appears. The band is good, and guitars, organ, and violin add color and craftsmanship frequently. But I just can't stop wondering how great it could have been with better material and more Carlene Carter.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Elton John 17-11-70+ 2017

So on the tenth annual Record Store Day, Saturday April 22, 2017, they released this set in it's complete form, a mere forty-seven years after it was recorded.

For Record Store Day this year, Elton lent his support as a sort of celebrity spokesman, doing a video about vinyl, and coupling that with the release of this vinyl edition of the complete radio broadcast from that historic date in 1970.

They pressed far more than even the Record Store Day crowd could eat up, so I'm assuming the record should be widely available. And if you appreciated the original, then this might interest you.

The original performance, broadcast on New York radio, included 13 songs, and they are all here. The original vinyl release featured six songs, most of them from the rocking second half of the set. The songs left off the original include the soft-rock of Amoreena (included as a bonus track on the 1995 CD version), I Need You To Turn To, Your Song, Country Comfort, Border Song, Indian Sunset, and My Father's Gun.

So most of the ballads he performed earlier in the set. OK, nobody really needs to hear Your Song again, I get that. But the vitriol, held in check by English manners alone, of Indian Sunset, an homage to native Americans, is stunning. My Father's Gun is another wonderful song from Bernie Taupin's Americana pen, as is Country Comfort. 

It is hard to argue with the original song selection, and by some accounts that means that the new material here is something less than the original record. I can't refute that, and still I find value and reward in this release. Here's the thing: the original record is just plain flat-out killer. The stuff they left off makes sense in the context of the original production, but it also helps to illuminate the point in time for this band, and Elton, that was a fleeting moment of perfect rock and roll piano trio performance.

If I can nit-pick at all, I would have liked to see this record sequenced as the original performance, What we get is the original release on record one, and the rest on record two. That's OK I suppose, but if you're going to release the whole show, why not present it as it was performed (although there seems to be some dispute over the actual set list).

All in all, a wonderful find on Record Store Day this year, and a real treat for anyone that acknowledges the quality of Elton's early work. The trio format allowed for some serious rocking from the whole band (Dee Murray is on fire). A young man is a strong man, indeed.

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