Saturday, March 24, 2018

Belle and Sebastian Write About Love 2010

Sunny pop with catchy melodies and lyrics of failed love. What's not to like?

I've been checking out some bands that escaped my attention the first time around, and I don't think I've heard any Belle and Sebastian before. This one is relatively recent (they've been around since 1995) and I very much enjoy their delightful pop music.

And it may be their very sunny pop that have kept them from most American ears. Running contrary to most of the mainstream, they present lilting musical gems that hearken back to sixties pop without sounding derivative. To some this can come off as a bit twee, but they are really good at it, and the generally downbeat lyrical content helps to balance the saccharine music.

Comparisons with Swan Dive and Camera Obscura seem pretty obvious, but Stuart Murdoch's melodies seem more fresh and new compared to Camera Obscura's less accessable melodies, and the band is a talented bunch that all contribute, rather than Swan Dive's more one-man-band approach.

If music makes you feel good, maybe it doesn't really need to do anything else.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Joe Jackson Summer In The City 2017

Here's one for the vinyl lovers in the crowd. Originally released only on CD in 2000, and now receiving the deluxe 180 gram vinyl treatment from Intervention Records, the performance merits the top-quality LP pressing.

Recorded live at Joe's Pub in Manhattan, and featuring Jackson at piano, Graham Maby on bass and Gary Burke on drums, the trio looks back at some nice Jackson catalog choices and well as several tasty covers, including Eleanor Rigby, Ellington's Mood Indigo, Steely Dan's King Of The World, Dobie Gray's The "In" Crowd, and the title track.

The Fools In Love/For Your Love medley is excellent and features some seriously rumbling bass from Maby (For LP lovers looking to see how well their vinyl system presents electric bass, this might be a good test track). Be My Number Two, Home Town, and It's Different For Girls are all solid. The "In" Crowd owes more to Ramsey Lewis' jazz version than the Dobie Gray original, and this and the version of Mood Indigo show off Jackson's skills on both piano and arranging.

Overall the song selection is a real crowd pleaser. The arrangements for trio are consistently interesting, Jackson is in good voice, and the band cooks. The recording itself is exceptional. That this recording followed several of Jackson's extended jazz and classical works in the ninties gave hope to those that admired his more pop leanings.

And now you can enjoy it on your turntable. There's been plenty of good ones from Jackson, and he's produced more than his share of live documents, but this is a special outing that captures a unique band playing some fine updated arrangements of Jackson classics  and covers. You might even like it as much as I do.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Tom Petty Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers 1976, You're Gonna Get It! 1978, Damn The Torpedoes 1979

Tom Petty passed away last year, and I'm a bit late to the wake.

I'm not one of those people that will take anything away from Petty. The guy was just a kid (and later a grownup) with a guitar, and the pure purpose of mission to be a rock star.

A talented singer, writer, guitarist and band leader that can stand his body of work against any. And I don't say that lightly. Moreover, and of real importance, is that Petty produced three magnificent, near perfect records in a row. If you consider how many artists/bands manage something near perfect on three consecutive releases, the list gets pretty darn short.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers 1976, the debut. Rockin' Around (With You), Breakdown, Anything That's Rock 'n' Roll, Fooled Again (I Don't Like It), Mystery Man, and the great American Girl. They might have tried to brand it punk, but it was always just rock and roll, with all of the essential elements.

You're Gonna Get It! 1978 took everything about the debut and turned it up one more notch. The title track, Hurt, Magnolia, I Need To Know, Listen To Her Heart, Baby's A Rock 'n' Roller, all of them just defined rock and roll in a fundamental way that Petty conjured with his songs and his delivery. There was an American heart to his sound: part Bryds, part Stones, part South. It is surprising how much good music comes from parts of the world where it's hot most of the time.

Which brings us to Damn The Torpedoes 1979. A new label. A follow-up to the chart breakthrough. And Petty sends it out of the park. Refuge, Here Comes My Girl,  Even The Losers: these three open the record with a statement of purpose. This band is in charge, and they are going to tour this material until you hear it in your sleep. Don't Do Me Like That was top ten. The sneer that was Petty's response to Dylan's drawl completed the trifecta.

You show me any artist that produces three consecutive records as good as these three, and I'll concede that they are Tom Petty's equals. There aren't that many competitors. 

Saturday, January 6, 2018

St. Vincent Masseduction 2017

I've just spent the last hour or so reading the "best albums of 2017" lists from all the big music review media outlets, and man, do I feel old.

I suppose there are plenty of music lovers in the AARP set that would feel the same way. But one of my favorites did in fact make it to most of those lists, St. Vincent's Masseduction.

I can't add much to the praise and descriptions you can read elsewhere, and I agree with those who have been impressed with the arc of St. Vincent's career. From the quirky pop of Marry Me 2007, to the more expansive, more dangerous Actor 2009, and on to the more inward-looking Strange Mercy 2011, St. Vincent has grown with every new release. 2014's St. Vincent rocked everyone's best-of lists, and for good reason. The increased use of St. Vincent's distorted guitar and jarring electronics, along with an outstanding set of songs all helped the 2014 release receive accolades. It was hard to see how she would top that effort. But she did.

How did she make an even better album? She added more. More precisely crafted songs. More twisted, distorted guitar (Well, not really more than the last record, but plenty). More lyrical twists somewhere between personal and frightening. More perfect arrangements layering synths and programming on top of her human voice and otherworldly guitar distortion. And a more pop sound, courtesy of producer and songwriter Jack Antonoff (P!nk, Taylor Swift, Lorde, Sara Bareilles), who does not so much change St. Vincent, but helps her become, well, more.

New music that presents a future we might just be able to live with (or, occasionally, a nightmare we cannot escape). Forward progress that integrates the best of the artist's past work while becoming something new. St. Vincent continues to venture further down the road her muse is leading her along, and we all benefit.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Zappadan 2017

The Festival of Zappadan.

Celebrate. Dance. Play Frank's music. Post something on the world wide web. Sing praise for one of the least definable icons of the twentieth century.

What Mr. Zappa means most to me is music. Gloriously unhinged, yet planned down to every note. His manic perfectionism. His occasionally brilliant lyrics, and his throwaway smut. His weird and novel approach to the lead guitar break. From Hungry Freaks Daddy to G-Spot Tornado. Peaches En Regalia and Pedro's Dowry.  Inca Roads and Joe's Garage. Percussion, always percussion.

And then there was the philosopher, observer, social commentator, politico. It always seemed that when Frank had a rant, he just couldn't help himself. There's just so much stupid one can tolerate.

Whatever Frank Zappa means to you, celebrate that.

If you're new to this blog or even Zappadan, there's more here.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Greg Kihn Greg Kihn Again 1977

Greg Kihn was a hard-working power-popster that put many miles on the road as the opening act for everyone big in the eighties. He managed a #2 hit in 1983 with Jeopardy, riding a nice hook and some major MTV support for the video. He produced a string of pop-heavy rock and roll throughout the eighties, and all of the records had at least one fine single that was lost on the lower regions of the chart.

He broke out in 1975 on the Beserkely Chartbusters Vol. 1 compilation he shared with Jonathon Richmond, Earthquake, and the Rubinoos. His All The Right Reasons was pop confection perfection. In 1976 he made his eponymous debut, and that was a splendid outing that rivals the follow-up under inspection here. But the debut used a borrowed lead guitarist, and some of the songs were less developed.

Everything great about Kihn's work is fully on display on Greg Kihn Again. The songs are consistently excellent, Dave Carpenter joins the band on lead guitar, and shines, the production is first rate and "bigger" than the debut, and Kihn's warm vocals invite easy smiles. As smart pop goes, Kihn is as good as anyone at incorporating classic sounds into what seem like completely original songs. If this is what happens when you blend Beatles, Raspberries and Big Star, then why not?

The record kicks off with Buddy Holly's Love's Made A Fool Of You, and Kihn's version is as good as any. A jangly, driving rhythm number that updates the Holly sound only slightly, and Dave Carpenter rocks the lead break as well as fills throughout. Next up is the Reggae-light Kihn original Island, which is a jaunty dose of Caribbean fun. Last Of Me is a lovely ballad than Kihn does so well. A nice chorus filled with harmonies, the song is a fine example of the quality ballads that Kihn cranks out regularly. Real Big Man is a hook-filled rocker with fine harmonies and a solid lyric. Side one ends with Politics, a great mid-tempo rocker with another fine chorus.

Side two opens with Hurt So Bad, yet another fine pop song with a catchy chorus and a tight band workout. Then it's Springsteen's For You, and it turns out to be a excellent choice for a cover song. If You Be My Love is another solid ballad with beautiful harmonies, and jangly rhythm that benefits from Kihn's 12-string guitar. And then we get one of Kihn's finest moments, the stomping Madison Avenue, where Kihn sells himself as "your Madison Avenue man, let me touch your money with my Madison hands", and again with the great back-up vocal harmonies and tight ensemble playing. The record closes with the instrumental Untie My Hands, and Dave Carpenter gets to show us why he's such a hot guitarist. It's not the highlight of the record, but it's good.

Greg Kihn made an album a year from 1976 to 1986, and continued to record regularly until 1996. All of his eighties albums contained at least one solid single, and most of them were darn good. His 1989 Kihnsolidated: The Best of Greg Kihn is a great place to hear some of the best neglected pop songs ever recorded. Kihn became a popular radio DJ in 1996 at the San Jose/San Francisco KFOX and stayed there in the morning slot until 2012, a pretty solid run for that kind of job. He released an album of new songs, Rekihndled, in 2017 with his son Ry on lead guitar.

A super-tight band, fine singer, good songs, and good old-fashioned harmonies applied to smart, hook-filled pop nuggets all make Greg Kihn Again a treat for pop-rockers the world over.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Van Morrison Roll With The Punches 2017

I did a career overview of Van Morrison back in 2011. I guess I thought he was probably pretty close to done. I was wrong on that one. Since then he has released Born To Sing: No Plan B 2012, Duets: Reworking The Catalog 2015, Keep Me Singing 2016, and now this one.

Born To Sing: No Plan B was about as weak as Morrison records get. Lackluster would be gilding the lily.

Duets: Reworking The Catalog 2015 is the first Van Morrison record in almost 50 years that I didn't buy. I listened to it, and it was all the things wrong with those dreadful duets records that Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and Ray Charles have embarrassed themselves with in their later years (Morrison himself was on the Ray Charles duets recording).

Keep Me Singing 2016 was a pretty good outing for Van. Solid backing band, mostly good songs, Van invested in the vocals. Maybe not perfect, but darn good.

And now only a year later comes Roll With The Punches. This time out Van writes only five of the fifteen tracks. Most of the rest are blues and R&B chestnuts. And when Van gets simple and bluesy, things usually go pretty well. Add to that a number of famous guests, including four Chris Farlowe vocals, five Jeff Beck blues guitar triumphs, and two visitations by old pal Georgie Fame on the Hammond B-3 and vocals, and it's hard for at least some of it not to be inspired. Most of the star action is front-loaded, but the record maintains relatively high standards even when "just the backing band" is there with Van.

Because the backing band is stellar. The core rhythm section of Mez Clough or Colin Griffin on drums, Lawence Cottle or Pete Hurley on bass, Jason Rebello or Stuart McIlroy on piano, and Dave Kearny or Ned Edwards on guitar offer excellent support, and several great solos.

Roll With The Punches is an ancient blues riff that Van appropriates and gives a fine lyric and solid vocal. Transformation is typical mid-tempo Morrison, but it gets a sublime Jeff Beck solo that takes it up several notches. The walking blues of I Can Tell from Bo Diddley's pen gets another fine Beck blues solo, and a choice Van vocal. Beck rips another blues lead on Stormy Monday/Lonely Avenue, and Chris Farlowe singing with Morrison seems to incite Van to try harder.

Georgie Fame sings and plays the B-3 on Count Basie's Goin' To Chicago, a slinky, laid back blues done small combo style. Morrison whines about being famous (again!) on Fame, but the song is saved by vocals and especially harmonica from Paul Jones. Too Much Trouble is a jazzy little number from Morrison's pen that features piano and horns from Paul Moran and Cottle. Sam Cooke's Bring It On Home To Me finds Morrison singing with perfect soul restraint, and Jeff Beck smokes the lead guitar break. Beck and Farlowe return once more on to shine on Ordinary People.

The last six songs are all covers ranging from Bo Diddley (Ride On Josephine) to Sister Rosetta Tharpe (How Far From God) to Mose Allison (Benediction). Georgie Fame helps keep Teardrops From My Eyes from becoming filler and core band members Stuart McIlroy (piano), and Ned Edward (harmonica and guitar) juice up the rest and keep the last leg of the record from stagnation, but the last third isn't really up to the first half's high bar.

Some might see this as Van generating product for it's own sake. Only five originals, and three of the covers (Bring It On Home, Stormy Monday/Lonely Avenue, Benediction) have appeared on previous releases. But this sounds to me like Van doing a blues record, and mostly getting the best of it. At age 72, Van Morrison can still sing, play and write. It is no surprise that he can build a sturdy band and attract a few stars to help out. Even if you're a choosy Van Morrison fan, I'd be surprised if you don't like this one.