Monday, January 27, 2014

Etta James The Right Time 1992

Etta James had a tough go of things both personal and professional. She made some great singles in the sixties, and continued to record fairly steadily through most of the seventies, albeit with little chart success. During those two decades, she recorded for no less than six different labels.

In 1992, after ten years without a release, Jerry Wexler produced this come-back gem. Wexler collected an all-star band (Steve Cropper, Steve Ferrone, David Hood, Roger Hawkins, Jim Horn, Willie Weeks, and many more), took Etta to Muscle Shoals for two weeks, and got more than a few blazing hot performances from everyone involved. Top-notch songs, all carefully chosen to bring out the forceful voice of the inimitable Etta James.

Kicking off with I Sing The Blues, the record gets hot in a hurry with a stomping blues boast. Al Green's Love And Happiness follows, and Etta sings it with deep soul, while Lucky Peterson rips a cookin' guitar solo. Evening Of Love is a slow burner, sexy come on, and You're Taking Up Another Man's Place begs the man to put up or get out. Wilson Pickett's Ninety-Nine And A Half Won't Do gets a driving, funky treatment, and Etta burns it to the ground. Down-Home Blues is a stomper, Etta bringing it again.

Not everything is perfect (it's a high bar), but a few songs get the blame, not Etta. She is in good, healthy voice for this one, and the production is excellent. There's more emphasis on the blues than on the rhythm side of things, and those low-down dirties suit James' big brash voice just fine. A consistently strong CD.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Ten Years After Ssssh 1969

Ten Years After gained big time fame right after this record with their incendiary performance of I'm Goin' Home at Woodstock. But this one is perhaps the best of their work. They went on to develop more intricate arrangements, psychedelic touches, and a more sensitive ballad side. But as a concise way to hear what the band was all about, this works just fine. And what they were about is blues rock, plain and simple.

Plain and simple is what you get. A rock solid driving rhythm section propels the band. Chick Churchill integrates organ into rock as well as anybody. And Alvin Lee rips his axe while also scream-snarling his straight-ahead blues lyrics.

Alvin Lee's songs often sound just a little too close to the traditional blues they emulate, but he always comes up with new lyrics, and just how many ways can those notes get put together anyway. His guitar playing is the star of the show, with notes just flying off the fretboard, and killer tone. He's also a fine singer, and the whole band cooks, all the time. There's no filler. Andy Johns engineered, and the record sounds great.

Cricklewood Green in 1970 comes very close, and some might argue that it betters this one. They both benefit from unusually strong original songs from Lee. I've been listening to them both recently, and I can't really pick, but Ssssh just puts everything they do best on display front and center, without embellishment. Straightforward.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Pietasters Oolooloo 1995

Ska music represents a fairly small domain in popular music, but has proved to be more resilient than most would imagine. Ska was the late 1950s-early 60s precursor to rocksteady and then reggae. There are technical explanations for the sound of ska, but suffice it to say that ska sounds like reggae played real fast.

Ska dominated Jamaican music in the early 60s, and eventually morphed into reggae, which then stole the spotlight. The style was revived in the late 70s-early 80s, driven mostly by the 2 Tone Records roster of ska and ska-punk bands The Beat, The Specials, The Selecter, and Madness. I've heard and own some of those records, and they have a big fun party sound.

What I missed altogether was another ska revival in America in the 90s. I knew about No Doubt, but I didn't realize the breadth of reach of ska in the 90s.

So for Christmas my intrepid son-in-law goes all vinyl on me again and scores heavily with the Death LP (and DVD) and this killer 1995 Pietasters record. The vinyl is new, released in 2012 after a Kickstarter campaign to reissue this and several other ska records.

All that's fun, but it's gotta be in the grooves, as it were.

This record is good enough to recommend to someone as their introduction to ska music. They do credible covers of soul chestnuts Same Old Song and Can I Change My Mind, but the originals are the strength of the band. Something Better, Freak Show, Pleasure Bribe, Girl Take It Easy, Night Before, and Movin On Up are all killer, and if you aren't at least tapping your foot, your heart will probably explode. If you dance to the whole record (and you might want to), you'll need to be in shape.

The band sounds mostly like the ska-punk of the early 80s, but they also capture the 60s sound on a few numbers, including Can I Change My Mind and Biblical Sense. The horn charts are super-fine, and the band cooks. The vocals are good, party-boy soul shouting. If you ever counted yourself a ska (or reggae) fan, this is one to hear. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, and you're still reading, you really need to hear this record. You'll have a good time.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Left Banke Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina 1967

There was a lot going on in 1967. The sixties music scene was exploding new pop music sounds every day. The Left Banke invented baroque-pop, and managed three near-perfect singles that sounded unique in their melding of harpsichord, Birds-like harmonies, and string quartet backing. Add to that the band's strong original material and and the plaintive voice of Steve Martin, and you've got a winner.

The singles are wonders. Walk Away Renee, Pretty Ballerina, and She May Call You Up Tonight are perfect slices of sixties radio, and sound like little else, from any era. There's a few average spots, but most of the other songs are good, especially considering that the band wrote their own material.

There was a second record, Left Banke Too in 1968, made without their original piano and harpsichord player and primary songwriter, and while it has a few moments, this debut is their legacy, and is probably all you need. Sundazed has released it on both CD and LP, for your listening pleasure.