Saturday, July 28, 2018

Kelly Willis Back Being Blue 2018 and Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis Our Year 2014

Time to catch up with Kelly Willis. Ms. Willis has a new one out, produced by her husband Bruce Robison, and backed by a great band. Kelly wrote six of the ten songs, and while she has benefited from past writing partners, it would seem that she's learned all she needs to from the experience. And the covers she has chosen are equally fine songs.

The title track leads off, and it is just one of her finer moments. A sultry Willis sings of losing her love to an old flame. "She's back in my baby's arms, I'm back being blue." Only You follows in rocking mode, as Kelly tries to understand the rationale of a cheating bum. Fool's Paradise is a sweet country ballad, and Modern World rocks again, and laments the pace of life these days. Freewheeling is a country weeper with fine fiddle accompaniment. Willis nails the sad side of country again with The Heart Doesn't Know, with a smart lyric delivered with feeling and twang. All of them from her own pen.

Ronnie Light's I'm A Lover (Not A Fighter) swings with Texas panache and a fun lyric. Geoff Queen's pedal steel guitar is just right for this two-step. Rodney Crowell's We'll Do It For Love Next Time is a perfect country tune with a great lyric. Afternoon's Gone Blind by Karl Straub is a sweet country ballad that Kelly sings perfectly, and more great instrumental talent shines on the fiddle and guitar lead break. Don't Step Away ends the program on an upbeat note, and leaves you wanting for more.

I've called Willis the finest voice in country, and there's nothing here to change that opinion. She continues to mine gold with every release, and Robison's analog production captures a band in fine form.
While Back Being Blue is the first new release from Willis since Translated From Love in 2007, she's released two excellent duet records with husband Bruce Robison, Cheater's Game 2013, and Our Year 2014.

Our Year is a highly successful follow-up to Cheater's Game, and may even improve on that record's formula. Kelly and Bruce take turns on lead vocals, and as great as Kelly is, Bruce is also an excellent singer, made even better with Kelly's harmonies. Song selection is impressively tasty. Bruce nails the sadness and melancholy of Departing Louisiana, Carousel, and Anywhere But Here. Hangin On is a beautiful love song celebrating the woman that gives "just enough to keep me hangin' on".

Kelly takes the lead on the rollicking Motor City Man, the yearning Lonely For You, and the title track, a cover of the Zombies This Will Be Our Year, which turns the baroque original into a sweet, simple country love song. Oh, and Kelly also updates Harper Valley PTA, backed by the spare, organic, country that is on display all over the record.

The band is perfect at every turn. The arrangements are simple country done with just right combinations of acoustic instruments recorded beautifully. I've said it before, but you just can't go wrong with Kelly Willis.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Jennifer Warnes Another Time, Another Place 2018

Jennifer Warnes has made a living from her TV and movie soundtrack work, and since 1987 at least, has graced us with the music she has wanted to make, regardless of commercial appeal or other non-artistic gauges. Famous Blue Raincoat 1987, The Hunter 1992, and The Well 2001 were all rewarding on many levels, and all three were pristine recordings that have made fans for Warnes among audio enthusiasts. Now, a mere seventeen years after her last release, we get Another Time, Another Place.

This is a very mellow affair, so those looking for another First We Take Manhattan or even Rock You Gently will be a bit disappointed. But get into the gentle flow here and there are some treasures to be heard.

Song selection is very good, both for the diversity as well as how each song fits Warnes. Either that or she just makes the songs hers. Eddie Vedder's Just Breathe opens the record and sets the bar high with his ode to love and mortality. A walking bass line and slinky Hammond B3 illuminate the "will you still love me" of Tomorrow Night. John Legend's Once I Was Loved gets a lovely string quartet arrangement. Grez Liesz and Dean Parks' atmospheric guitars give Mickey Newbury's So Sad a perfect, aching setting.

I Am The Big Easy features Sonny Landreth on resonator guitar for authentic New Orleans credibility. The record closes with Mark Knopfler's Why Worry, a soft ode to love pure and simple that Warnes sings with perfect tone and soul.

Not everything works perfectly. Freedom plays with The Well's big choir sound almost successfully, and there's maybe a bit too much tenderness. But all of the selections benefit from smart arrangements executed by the cream of the studio crop. In addition to Greg Leisz and Dean parks, there's Vinnie Colaiuta (drums), Lenny Castro (percussion), Jim Cox (keys), and producer Roscoe Beck (bass), and other great musicians.

But what you are here for is to hear Jennifer Warnes sing again, and that we get in spades. Always a pitch-perfect singer, Warnes is also spot on with the emotion the song calls for. There's restraint here in the singer, the band and the production that leaves us to hear deeper into these sweet songs.

I'm surprised she made another recording. I'm not surprised it's this good.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Kim Richey Edgeland 2018

Teamwork. It can make a huge difference.

Produced by bassist/producer Brad Jones (whose only solo recording, 2000s Gilt Flake is a lost gem), and musically assisted by Chuck Profit, Robin Hitchcock, Mando Saenz, Dan Dugmore, Pat McLaughlin, Pat Sansone, Chris Carmichael and others. 

Songwriting credits are shared by Richey with Profit, Al Anderson, Saenz, and Jenny Queen, with everyone pushing Richey to some of her best, most varied songwriting output.

And then there's the vocal duets with Profit and Saenz that offer a lovely way to hear Richey share the spotlight and shine at the same time.

But she does just fine on her own. Richey's voice has always been rich and fluid, and she's only gotten more nuanced and confident. Her heartfelt songs have never been better, and she's got some rockers along to help her keep the energy up in a very good way. 

Some of her earlier works are very good. Still, this may be her best yet.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Sloan 12 2018

This is Sloan's twelfth studio record. The first one was in 1992. Same four members, all write songs, sing, and play multiple instruments. They range from pure innocent power pop to Cheap Trick bashing power pop, and everything power pop between.

And they are brilliant. Not every release has been perfect, but more often than not they hit it out of the park. 1994's Twice Removed is highly regarded, and 1998's Navy Blues and 1999's Between The Bridges were close to ideal. In 2006 Never Hear The End Of It set a new bar for the band, as well as showing a remarkable ability to produce a ton of good songs. And 2014's Commonwealth was another high-water mark.

So, twelve records in, do they still have it? Oh boy do they. As much as I like several individual songs, I really enjoy the record as a whole.

The record opens with Spin Our Wheels, a perfect slice of pop nirvana. Right To Roam welds the Raspberries and the Left Banke into saccharine heaven. Don't Stop is simple and delightfully straightforward. Similarly, A Lion's Share sounds like BigStar jamming with Beach Boys. Big loud Cheap Trick-styled power pop infuses Wish Upon A Satellite and The Day Will Be Mine. Add in the almost CSNY-ish Gone For Good and The Pink Floyd-like 14 Teenagers that closes the record, and there's a lot going on here.

And again, I must point out that this is one worth putting on and listening to right through. Not all of them are quite this good. If you're on the fence, don't worry. They're on the good foot this time. Again.

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.