Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cheryl Wheeler Circles & Arrows 1990 and Mrs. Pinocci's Guitar 1995



Cheryl Wheeler is a wonderful folk singer-songwriter who has had a long and productive career. She owns a clear, beautiful voice, and pens some of the most touching love songs and ballads in the genre.

After her first two CDs on the tiny North Star label, she had one CD on Capitol (currently available on Rounder) entitled Circles & Arrows. It contains her own superior version of Aces (made famous by Suzy Bogus), but that's just the beginning of the list of great songs on this CD- Hard Line To Draw, Northern Girl, Moonlight And Roses, When You're Gone, Arrow- they're all gorgeous. There's also the hilarious Estate Sale, a jaunty little ditty about that swell hobby of "Going to dead people's houses, wonderful things they have collected" that is still one of her best joke songs. This CD also received excellent production by Kyle Lemming, and a cast of crack ace Nashville musicians, making it unique among her output.

The CD didn't produce a hit, so Wheeler's subsequent work, since 1993, has all been on the Philo/Rounder label. Her Philo CDs all contain some great songs and beautiful performances, but also several novelty joke songs and loving tributes to her pets that may or may not be your cup of tea. She is really funny, though, and the funny ones on Mrs. Pinocci's Guitar are some of her best. Is It Peace or Is It Prozac? is particularly hilarious. The CD also contains many of her best songs with the title track, Howl At The Moon, and One Love as good as anything she's done.

The follow up, 1999's Sylvia Hotel, is the most consistent of the other titles Wheeler has produced. If you ever get the chance to see her perform live, don't miss it. She is at once hilarious and touching, and her guitar playing and especially her singing are spot on. You'll laugh, you'll cry.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Erin McKeown We Will Become Like Birds 2005


Here's a CD that has spent an inordinate amount of time in the player in recent years. McKeown began as a folk artist, and there's still traces on this mostly pop-rock oriented record. The songwriting is remarkably consistent. The ballads are strong and varied (Float, The Golden Dream, Delicate December), but the real stars here are the rockers.

The record starts with four songs that are almost of a piece- Aspera, Air, Life On The Moon, and To The Stars work so well together, and follow a lyrical of theme of flight that's tied to the album title. To The Stars is a perfect pop rocker with a hook-laden chorus.

Beautiful (I Guess) is a lovely ballad and ode to fractured/imperfect love. We Are More shuffles forward, White City is another catchy pop-rocker, and Bells And Bombs is driving rock. The record ends with You Were Right About Everything, a mid-tempo rocker right out of the Aimee Mann school of post-breakup misery. McKeown's songwriting is consistently excellent, and the lyrics are strong throughout.

But what really makes this record special is the playing. McKeown's guitar playing adds texture and nuance. She's hardly flashy, but she plays with interesting tones and techniques that make every song different. Her high voice is lovely, never squeaky or grating, and she feels the songs as much as she sings them. Of special note is drummer Matt Chamberlain, who adds something special to every song. A swinging, jazzy, idiosyncratic drummer adept at finding just the right flourishes and beats, the record would be considerably less interesting without his input.

Every CD in Ms. McKeown's catalog is different, and several of the others are good, but this one stands out as a near perfect example of the singer-songwriter-rocker genre.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The one Great Record from ...

What's up with those bands that produce that one great record, never to be repeated again? I suppose there are many reasons for this. Sometimes it's the debut that took six years to write the songs before the recording contract happened. After that, the pressure to write as many good songs is just too much for most bands. Sometimes, it's that the band gets the perfect match with the right producer, and it never happens again. Sometimes, it's just that this record hits me just right, and you might choose another one as the "best". But it seems to happen far too often, especially if you're a collector like me, who hears that great record and goes looking for the repeat performance, only to be let down by every other record that band ever made. I've actually tried to swear off the practice of chasing the next great record. Now, when I discover a perfect record, I often don't keep buying music from the artist. I just stop there and listen to the one I love. After 40 years of buying music, I still buy the next record, or the one before the one I love, but I'm trying to rein myself in, and sometimes I'm even successful. Here's some examples:

The Faces A Nod Is As Good As A Wink...To A Blind Horse 1971 A near perfect collection, with Glyn Johns producing, the next record he did after Who's Next. Every song is good, and the best of them are just great- Miss Judy's Farm, Stay With Me, That's All You Need, Debris, Too Bad, You're So Rude. It's better than a "best of" collection. They did lots of other good songs, but never another great album.

Del Amitri Some Other Sucker's Parade 1997 Again, a classic. Twisted 1995 was very good, and so was Can You Do Me Good? 2002. But Some Other Sucker's Parade really captures this band at peak performance. As usual, it's a combination of great songs and production. Not Where It's At, the title cut, Medicine, High Times, Through All That Nothing, Lucky Guy- there isn't a loser on the entire album.

The Connels Still Life 1998 I stumbled across this one after reading a rave review. It's wonderful modern rock, with a Stones-y sound, but more varied textures and excellent singing and, of course, songwriting. Dull, Brown And Gray, The Leper, Curly's Train, Soul Reactor, Still Life, Circlin', Gonna Take A Lie, are all classics. Like all the albums on this list, I can just put it on and listen all the way through. I've bought two or three of their others, and it's never been quite the same.

Gomez How We Operate 2006 I like all of their records, and Split The Difference 2004 comes close to being as good as How We Operate. Some fans could argue that their earlier works are better, and they are definately different. But this one just has it all. Great songs, production, and performance. Notice, See the World, How We Operate, Girlshapedlovedrug, Tear Your Love Apart, Woman! Man!, Cry on Demand, Don't Make Me Laugh, they're all excellent. The most potential radio hits of any of their records. Remarkably consistent.

Guy Clark Boats To Build 1992 Thirty-three minutes of perfection. Every song is beautifully written and sung, and the acoustic instrumentation is recorded very well. Again, I like a lot of Clark's albums- Cold Dog Soup 1999 and The Dark 2002 are almost as good- but this one is a complete knock-out. Every song is a winner. Emmylou Harris guests on I Don't Love You Much Do I, but all the songs are special. Clark is a magnificent songwriter, and here his voice is still intact. The title track is one of those songs to live your life by.

Here's a few more that fit the criteria for me:
Matthew Sweet Girlfriend 1991
Neville Brothers Neville-ization Live At Tipitinas 1984
New York Rock Ensemble Roll Over 1971
5 Chinese Brothers Let's Kill Saturday Night 1997
Badfinger No Dice 1970
Aimee Mann I'm With Stupid 1995
Ryan Adams Gold 2001

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fleetwood Mac Kiln House 1970


The first record after the departure of founder Peter Green should have been a let down. Instead, Danny Kirwin and Jeremy Spencer say never mind the blues, we're here to rock. Moreover, this version of the band could swing.

They have this casual, easy feel to much of this record, none more than the opener This Is The Rock. Station Man is a hypnotic jam that digs a very deep groove. Blood On The Floor is a straight-ahead country blues that suffers from an weak vocal. Hi Ho Silver is a Fats Waller cover that plays fast and fun, and rocks. Then the beauty of Jewel Eyed Judy winds up side one by displaying a feel for dynamic nuances ahead of their time. It's a great song, with a big Badfinger/Big Star chorus that makes you just want to play it one more time before you flip the record over.

Side two doesn't disappoint. Buddy's Song opens, a Buddy Holley cover that's great fun. Earl Gray and One Together show the loose, spacey sound that will develop more fully on Future Games 1971. There's instrumental prowess and skilled songwriting on display everywhere. Tell Me All The Things You Do just plain rocks, with a great guitar riff, and a jam band's tight instrumental playing. Mission Bell , a folk-rock ballad, rounds things out on a quiet note.

Ten songs, at least six classics, maybe eight.

The LP is just all the things that make vinyl fun. It's warm, with nice separation between instruments. John McVie and Mick Fleetwood's rhythm just push the whole record along. An uncredited Christine McVie plays keyboards for the first time with the band. The guitar interplay is about as good as it gets in rock, but it's always in service to the songs. I haven't met people that love this record more than me, but everyone that hears it finds something to like.

A classic.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Greg Milner Perfecting Sound Forever 2009

I just finished reading Greg Milner's excellent book, the title of which is a play on the classic CD sales pitch from the 80s, "Perfect Sound Forever". Mr. Milner traces the history of recorded sound from Edison's wax cylinder to today's ProTools computer-based recording, and manages to show the arc of history by telling many interesting stories of the technologies and personalities involved in the progress through the twentieth century to today.

If you thought that format wars started with VHS or BETA, or SACD or DVD-A, Milner tells us of the format war of the 1920s between Edison's Diamond Disc and the Victor company's Victrola. And it was Edison's relentless pursuit of acoustic recordings, which he knew sounded better than the electronic recordings (even though they did not play as loud) that helped him lose that particular round.

Milner tells the fascinating stories of the early "Tone Tests" designed to prove the quality of the new recorded media. These sales demonstrations had opera singers sing live, followed by recorded versions to wow audiences with the fidelity of the recordings. The focus, even early, on fidelity and sound quality is particularly telling in light of the changes that have reduced fidelity of recorded music in recent decades. And Milner has plenty to say on that topic as well.

Along the way the author interviews recording engineers, producers, businessmen, composers, and audiophiles, weaving wonderful stories that build into a comprehensive history of recorded music that focuses primarily on the recording process.

The attitudes towards sound recording and the enjoyment of those recordings in the home over the past sixty years is a tale that raises questions about how we listen and why we like, or don't like, what we hear. Milner covers this era with a mix of the reporter's objectivity and the great storyteller's colorful insights.
The advent of sampling synthesizers in the 1980s heralds the coming move away from analog recording studios, and the push towards digital, and then to the now pervasive ProTools, and the questionable benefits this progress has brought. The process of mixing pop music to sound louder than other CDs to the point of dynamic compression is given considerable discussion, as is the controversial use of the Auto Tune Pro Tools application.

There isn't much said about the SACD and DVD-A formats, and that seems a little odd, given how comprehensive the book seems otherwise. Then again, what can be the point of spending time on another marketing debacle.

It is a very fun read while being very informative. That's a good book any day. My only warning is that Greg Milner is pretty clearly in the analog camp, even though he tries hard to at least sound objective. If you think anybody that listens to vinyl is completely nuts, this might not be your book. Then again, if you want to know how we got to this place in recorded music, and be entertained while you learn, read this book. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Box Sets - Soul and R&B

Let me start by saying up front that I am an absolutely huge fan of sixties soul music. I have vinyl copies of many of the Motown three-disc anthologies- Stevie Wonder, Four Tops, Temps, Supremes, Marvin Gaye, etc. and they are all good stuff. So I don't own any of the four-disc CD sets by these artists, but if you've got a favorite, there's sure to be some non-hits in those boxes that are fun to hear.

I do own a bunch of soul sets that I thoroughly enjoy, so I'll talk about some of those.

Beg, Scream and Shout! The Big 'Ol Box of Sixties Soul 1997. This is a huge six CD box that is a treasure trove of hits and lesser hits that is just about as good as it gets. With artists appearing no more than once on the set, there are some unusual choices from big artists that won't please everyone, but the set more than makes up for it with rare 45s and great minor hits. There are numerous original versions of songs made into hits in the seventies by Linda Ronstadt, J. Geils Band, and Janis Joplin, to name but a few. If you're open to discovering some great old songs you've either never heard or forgotten, mixed up with big hits from most major artists, and including a healthy dose of Memphis-style "deep soul", this will keep you very happy for a good long while. One of the best box sets ever.

Hitsville U.S.A. The Motown Singles Collection 1959-1971 1992
Easy one-stop shopping for most of the biggest Motown hits, and a few interesting lesser-known artists. This really focuses on what you're already familiar with, and as such it's packed with great songs. Nicely done in chronological order.

The Complete Stax//Volt Singles 1959-1968 1991
This nine-disc set is definitely diving into the deep end. There's great songs here by Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, Booker T & The MGs, Sam and Dave, and many more. The ones you know are outnumbered by the ones you've likely never heard (unless you lived in the southern US and listened to the black radio station), and that is either what you like about this set or it's what you hate about it. I love it, but even I have a hard time spending a lot of time with it. But every time I throw a disc on, I'm amazed at the quality of what this label did overall, and the sound they got in the studio is just wonderful. Funky stuff, but only recommended to the hard core.

Soul Spectacular! The Greatest Soul Hits of All Time 2002
This four-disc set is a great crowd-pleaser. It overlaps Beg, Scream and Shout a lot (they are both Rhino products), but if you want a taste of that set with less cost, here you go. There's less of the obscure on this set, but it otherwise hits most of the big hits, licensing issues keeping a few out.

Can You Dig It? The Seventies Soul Experience 2001
Yet another Rhino product, and another killer. A six CD set companion to Beg, Scream and Shout!, this one proves soul was still quite alive in at least the first half of the seventies. Mixing big hits with lesser-known fare, the formula works again. The last two discs are a little heavy on the burgeoning disco era, but they avoid most of the worst of that genre. Not as easy to recommend as the sixties stuff, but an excellent package for the soul fanatic.

Dave Godin's Deep Soul Treasures Taken From The Vaults... Vols. 1-4 1997-2004
This one isn't actually a box set but four individual compilations. But oh, my, what an amazing collection of hidden jewels. Each of the four discs contains 2-5 songs you've maybe heard before, and twenty more that it is hard to believe weren't hits. Gave Godin was an English music journalist and soul fan that compiled these mostly rare recordings. Let's just say that Mr. Godin loved his work, and was particularly good at it. All four discs are to die for, and if you're not convinced, you can buy any one and see what you think. I think you'll buy the rest.

There's a few I've left out, so I may have to return to this theme again, but I can't end until I've mentioned
James Brown Star Time 1991
Yes, four discs of James Brown may be too much for some. But this, for me, is the best single-artist four CD set ever. The first two discs are the sixties and early seventies hits, and are just essential. There's a few extended versions and interesting alternatives, but it's the singles you want, and they're all here. The later seventies and eighties tracks on the last two discs explore Brown's love and mastery of funk, and there's only 2-3 non-essential tracks here. Unless you already own a ton of JB, this box is a terrific buy.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham Live-Moments From This Theatre, 2005


Now here is a wonderful CD from a few years ago. Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham were very successful songwriters in the 60s and 70s, mostly writing soul and country songs and working as session musicians (especially Oldham, whose piano has graced many Memphis gems, and he has played recently with Drive By Truckers). This live recording was made during a 1988 tour of England and Ireland opening for Nick Lowe. Penn plays guitar and sings while Oldham adds harmony vocals and brilliant Wurlitzer piano. No rhythm section is needed. Penn's vocals are expressive, and he inhabits his own lyrics like an old pro, which, of course he is.

Sensitive readings of I'm Your Puppet, Cry Like A Baby, The Dark End Of The Street, A Woman Left Lonely, and Ol' Folks show Penn has a marvelously rich voice that just oozes tenderness. Great songs originally recorded by Aretha Franklin, the Box Tops, and others all surface here- these guys wrote a ton of hits- and every version on this CD is a revelation. As hard as it is to imagine two sixty-something dudes doing justice to Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, they pull it off. There are some delightful lyrical surprises on Lonely Women Make Good Lovers and Memphis Women and Chicken. There isn't a bad song in the bunch, and every performance is stellar.

Penn's guitar holds the songs together while Oldham's piano adds the color on most of these gems.
Oldham's piano is relaxed and playful, and it is always just the right touch. The recording is close-miked and sounds like they are sitting and playing in your living room. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Proclaimers Notes and Rhymes 2009


The record starts with the big hit single Love Can Move Mountains. It's big, hit single stuff, but it's not (I'm Gonna Be) 500 Miles or There's a Touch. But let's not hold that against them, what next? The title track is their classic "wild abandon" track, rocking with a jungle beat, and it's up to par. From there, the CD is heavy on ballads and mid-tempo fare, but they're well written and sung examples of the form. Highlights include It Was Always So Easy (To Find An Unhappy Woman), Like A Flame, and the fear of terrorists statement I Know. Politics reappear on Free Market - you can guess- and this is very similar to S-O-R-R-Y on their last CD, 2007's Life With You.

There's no quirky cover song, no giant hit, and not enough fast songs. But there are plenty of excellent songs, and the twins' tight harmonies are always great to hear- they are the only current incarnation of the Everly Brothers, and they deserve the title. They write good songs, and they have a crack band, and, well, it should be just a little more exciting than this one. Just a little more.

So the great Scots haven't delivered their best. If you're already a fan, there's plenty to enjoy, but for the unfamiliar, best to go back to the 2001 masterpiece Persevere, or even the 2002 The Best Of...87-02. And if you've never heard the Proclaimers, and you are a sucker for a pop tune and gorgeous harmonies, you really should try one of those two right now.