Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Nick Lowe 1970-2020

Nick Lowe has had a stellar career as a performer, producer and songwriter. 

As a producer, he helmed the first five Elvis Costello records, the Damned's debut, Graham Parker's first and third, two of then wife Carlene Carter's releases, and most of his own efforts as well as quite a few others. As a songwriter, he had minor hits with his Cruel To Be Kind, So It Goes, and (I Love The Sound Of) Breaking Glass, while other artists made good with (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding, I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock 'n' Roll), and The Beast In Me. As a performer, he played bass, sang, and wrote for Brinsley Schwarz, Rockpile, and Little Village, and most famously as a solo performer. In the 1990s he reinvented his solo career as he transitioned from pop-rock basher to a more mature, introspective, acoustic-guitar based modern pop crooner.

His solo debut (after six records with Brinsley Schwarz from 1970-1973), 1978's Jesus Of Cool (released in the US with a somewhat different song selection as Pure Pop For Now People) included I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass, So It Goes, Heart Of The City, They Called It Rock, and Marie Provost. The songs are all top notch, displaying Lowe's penchant for melody and lyrical humor. In 2008, Yep Rock released a deluxe version that includes all the songs from both US and UK versions as well as a number of excellent singles released before the album. It is a great record made even greater in the deluxe version.

Next up was Labour Of Lust 1979. Containing Lowe's biggest US hit, Cruel To Be Kind, the record is a strong outing with many other killer tracks including Switch Board Susan, Without Love, Cracking Up, and Skin Deep. Recorded by Rockpile while simultaneously recording Dave Edmund's Repeat When Necessary, the two records show off the strength of Rockpile, with Lowe (bass and vocals), Edmunds (guitar and vocals), Billy Bremner (guitar and vocals) and Terry Williams (drums).

Rockpile would feature on several other Edmunds records as well as Carlene Carter's Musical Shapes 1980, and the only release under the Rockpile name, 1980's Seconds Of Pleasure. Seconds Of Pleasure was a very strong outing, and featured great songs Heart, Play That Fast Thing (One More Time), and When I Write The Book from Lowe's pen. Early pressings of the LP included a four-song 7 inch EP titled Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds Sing The Everly Brothers, and they do a fine job emulating their heroes with acoustic guitars and sweet harmonies.

1982 saw Nick The Knife, a decent follow-up to Labour Of Lust with a more eclectic sound. A slower version of Rockpile's Heart, Let Me Kiss Ya, Too Many Teardrops, and Burning are all good songs, and the rest of it holds up pretty well, too.

The Abominable Showman 1983 contained some good songs in Ragin' Eyes, Time Wounds All Heels, and Man Of A Fool, but it's not his finest hour, and remained out of print for twenty years until a recent reissue in 2017. It's well worth hearing, but not his finest hour.

1984 saw Nick Lowe And His Cowboy Outfit, which contained his classic Half A Boy And Half A Man, as well as You'll Never Get Me Up In One Of Those, the instrumental Awesome, and L.A.F.S. Half A Boy And Half A Man is one of Nick's finer funny lyrics, although it may be a bit too true for some of the females in the audience.

The Rose Of England 1985 (also credited to Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit) was a stronger record than he had made in a while. Darlin' Angel Eyes, She Don't Love Nobody, 7 Nights To Rock, and I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock 'n' Roll) are all good, and most of the record holds up quite well, even if it didn't exactly tear up the charts.

In 1987, Nick played bass on John Hiatt's Bring The Family. The album, arguably Hiatt's best, featured Hiatt (guitar, piano, vocals), Ry Cooder (guitar), Jim Keltner (drums), and Lowe. While not a Nick Lowe record in any sense, it is one of the finest records of 1987 (and maybe all of the 80s), and a near perfect singer-songwriter outing.

1988 brought Pinker And Prouder Than Previous, his best work since Labour Of Lust, and a tragically neglected release. Cobbled together from recordings in at least four studios, it contains both some of Lowe's best songs as well as a number of excellent cover song choices. Wildest Dream, Crying In My Sleep, I Got The Love, and Lover's Jamboree are all great Lowe songs. Love Gets Strange, Black Lincoln Continental, and Big, Big Love are well-chosen covers. Another one that remained out of print for almost twenty years, it is a highlight of his pre-1990 output.

Party Of One 1990 saw Nick produced by his old pal Dave Edmunds, and it is a good record that sometimes sounds just a little too slick for Nick Lowe. You Got The Look I Like, What's Shakin' On The Hill, and All Men Are Liars are the standouts. The last of Nick's pop-rock records, it feels like he needs something new.

In 1992, the foursome that recorded Hiatt's Bring The Family reunited as a band and released their eponymous album, Little Village. How the band that made Hiatt's classic, and included such great writers and performers, could produce such a disappointment is beyond understanding, but the record was dreadful. This was not the something new Nick needed.

Something new came along just in time in the form of The Impossible Bird 1994. A landmark record, The Impossible Bird finds Lowe writing an entire record of strong songs, accompanied by a stellar band (including rockabilly great, guitarist Bill Kirchen), and a stylistic change from the pop-rock of his

previous work to a more casual, country-Americana-rockabilly, thoughtful adult sound that also finds him singing with a new depth of feeling that is impossible to ignore. This is the pivot point for Lowe in which he becomes the singer-songwriter he is today. I'd tell you which are the great songs, but that would be 11 of the 13 tracks. 14 Days, 12-Step Program, Soulful Wind, and Lowe's cover of True Love Travels On A Gravel Road are all fantastic. Easily one of the best records of the 1990s, hands down.

Hard act to follow? Not for Nick. Dig My Mood 1998 sees Lowe step into the role of crooner and continues the remarkably strong songwriting of The Impossible Bird. This one is Nick's version of Frank Sinatra's In The Wee Small Hours, all moody heartbreak and resignation, and all quietly fabulous. Faithless Lover, Lonesome Reverie, What Lack Of Love Has Done, Man That I've Become, High On A Hilltop, and I Must Be Getting Over You all find Lowe writing at a very high level, and delivering his woeful lyrics with feeling and nuance. Ivory Joe Hunter's Cold Grey Light Of Dawn concludes the record in fine style.

The Convincer 2001 carries on, and even betters Dig My Mood. Homewrecker, Lately I've Let Things Slide, Cupid Must Be Angry, Has She Got A Friend?, and Let's Stay In And Make Love are among the better songs, and a cover of Johnny Rivers' Poor Side Of Town fits perfectly. The easy swing of these simple live in the studio arrangements, and the perfect delivery of Lowe's singing make for a fine record indeed.

In 2004, there was Untouched Takeaway. A live record documenting the tours for The Impossible Bird and The Convincer, it is a nice document that shows off a bit more energy in the live shows than on the studio outings.

2007 brought At My Age, and the string of excellent work continues unabated. Laid-back arrangements, skilled band, great songs, and Nick's crooning vocal style all working to perfection. A Better Man, I Trained Her To Love Me, Love's Got A Lot To Answer For, and The Other Side Of The Coin are just a few of the great songs.

The Old Magic 2011 lives up to it's name, and follows the formula in place since Dig My Mood. Stoplight Roses, House For Sale, 'Til The Real Thing Comes Along, I Read A Lot, and Restless Feeling are some of the good ones, but the whole record holds up in the same way as the other recent releases. All the same great elements are on display here. Any and all of the Nick Lowe records between The Impossible Bird and The Old Magic are worth owning, and outshine much of what is available in new music in the new millennium.

Quality Street:A Seasonal Selection For The Whole Family showed up in 2013. Lowe gives us his unexpected take on mostly less-known holiday chestnuts, and writes a few new ones that hold up quite well. The sound is similar to his recent work, with a blend of country, rockabilly, torch songs and pop, and avoids the worst of the holiday record cliches in style. His own I Was Born In Bethlehem, A Dollar Short Of Happy (written with Ry Cooder), and especially Christmas At The Airport add some new tunes to the genre, and the whole affair is a refreshing take on the holiday record.

Since 2014, Lowe has toured with Los Straitjackets. He has released a number of singles and EPs recorded with them, and a live album, The Quality Holiday Revue Live 2015, featuring songs from the holiday record as well as others from Lowe's catalog and a couple of Los Straitjackets instrumentals. The most recent EP, Lay It On Me, was released in 2020. A digital live album that documents their fine non-holiday shows together, Live At Haw River Ballroom (available at Bandcamp) was also released in 2020.

Of course there have quite a few compilations. Basher: The Best Of Nick Lowe 1989 is a good single disc best-of that covers his pop years pretty well. The Doings 1999 is a four-disc box set that covers everything up to and including Dig My Mood on three CDs and adds a CD of mostly unreleased live recordings. Quiet Please...The New Best Of Nick Lowe 2009 is a two-CD affair that covers a lot of ground and includes almost a CD worth of his work since 1994. So you get a good sampling of everything. A limited edition included a DVD with a 2007 live performance and a number of song videos.

What a great career. The records he made with Brinsley Schwarz are worth checking out when you find them in the used record shop. His production work with Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and others produced some of the better late 70s- early 80s records. Jesus Of Cool, Labour Of Lust and Pinker And Prouder Than Previous are early classics. The Impossible Bird might well be his best single effort. All of his work between 1994 and 2011 is stellar in a quiet, nuanced way and displays some top quality songwriting and singing. And he keeps chugging along, touring and releasing new music that maintains his reputation as a skilled craftsman and entertainer.

Friday, April 9, 2021

David Byrne American Utopia on Broadway Original Cast Recording 2019

So, if you have HBO, hopefully you've already seen the Spike Lee film of this fine stage presentation. Currently streaming on HBO+ and HBO on Amazon, it is an excellent show. And by show I mostly mean concert, although it is carefully choreographed and includes spoken interludes between songs that do not detract from a killer live performance, and give it a bit more of a theatrical quality than your typical rock concert. Not that David Byrne has ever been particularly typical. 

The song list includes four songs from Byrne's American Utopia 2018 solo release, his most well-received solo outing since the disbanding of Talking Heads. It also contains nine Talking Heads songs and six songs from either his other solo recordings or contributions/duets with other artists, plus one Janelle Monae protest song. So there is something like a 60/40 split between solo career and Talking Heads material.

Byrne, along with Talking Heads, is already responsible for one of the greatest concert films (and soundtracks) of all time, the inimitable Stop Making Sense. That tour was also theatrical in it's presentation, beginning with Byrne on acoustic guitar, accompanied by a boom box, singing Psycho Killer, and then slowing adding band members each song until the entire nine-member troupe is Burning Down The House.

American Utopia is even more theatrical in performance. Alongside Byrne and two dancer/singers, a keyboardist, guitarist, and bassist, and no less than six percussionists/singers (all of whom move around stage in carefully scripted moves by choreographer Annie-B Parson) turn the songs into stunning visual as well as musical theater. The music holds up quite well by itself. The soundtrack eschews the between-song narratives, and presents the songs in their staged order, and it is simply a splendid record. Song selection is close to perfect, with obscurities, or at least less obvious choices, showing up to excellent effect. So not a greatest hits by any stretch, but even better. 

The four songs from the original American Utopia studio release are all highlights, and nothing disappoints. The multiple percussionists make the band extra special. The whole ensemble is talented as heck, and really everything works. Byrne is in a celebratory mood, and positivity is the theme. Even without seeing the show, the soundtrack is excellent. If you've seen the show, it seems indispensable.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Irma Thomas

Irma Thomas has had an unusual career, especially for someone who has been singing professionally for such a long time. Her first recording was in 1959 and her most recent, the magnificent Love Is The Foundation, in 2020.

She recorded a string of singles for the Minit and Imperial labels in the early and mid-sixties. Her biggest hit during this time was Wish Someone Would Care, which reached #17 on the Pop charts in 1964. But several other singles were very strong, including the original recording of Time Is On My Side (the Rolling Stones first top ten hit in the U.S.), It's Raining, Ruler Of My Heart, Cry On, and Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand). This era is well-documented on two near-identical compilations Sweet Soul Queen of New Orleans (Razor and Tie) and The Irma Thomas Collection 1961-1966 (Capitol). There are others that also include some of her early seventies work, and while they are more inclusive, they are not better at all. And that's because her work for Chess, Canyon, Cotillion, and Fungus records between 1967-1974 just isn't as good as her earlier work, and in some cases, is poorly produced and downright disappointing. The "lost" records Full Time Woman (recorded in 1971, released in 2014) and In Between Tears 1973, are not her best work, and should probably be avoided.

Thomas continued recording the occasional single throughout the seventies with little success. She never stopped live performance completely, and used the stage at The Lion's Den, the New Orleans club she owned with her husband (until Katrina), to perform as often as she wished. She has also participated in the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for many years and remains popular in her home town. 

In 1986 she began a long association with Rounder Records, releasing nine albums and two compilations between 1986 and 2009. All of her Rounder releases were lovingly produced by Scott Billington, including the fantastic Sing It! 1998 with Marcia Ball and Tracy Nelson, and the Grammy-winning After The Rain 2006, recorded in the aftermath of Katrina. Not to mention her last original studio album release until 2020, Simply Grand 2008, which features a different piano player on each track, and overcomes it's cute premise with outstanding performances by the pianists, as well as Thomas. Good song selection, skilled bands, and Irma's mature soulful singing are the hallmarks of her Rounder output, and you can't go wrong with any of it. Her Rounder material has been the subject of two compilations, If You Want It, Come And Get It 2001 and The Soul Queen of New Orleans: 50th Anniversary Celebration 2009. There are only two songs that appear on both sets, and the latter also includes three new songs recorded in 2009. Then again, Sing It! and After The Rain are well worth owning.

And now, after ten years without a new release, Newvelle Records released Love Is The Foundation in 2020 as part of their four-LP The New Orleans Collection. The recording quality and performance of Irma Thomas and a crack ace band, the top notch song selection, and the sumptuous vinyl pressing all make for an exceptional experience. At 79 years old, Ms. Thomas not only can still sing, she inhabits these songs with her powerful and deep soul. It sounds like hyperbole to me, too, but it isn't. Newvelle recordings are only available as (high-priced) vinyl, but it is still almost too good not to hear.

A sixties soul queen matures into a contemporary gifted blues and soul singer with impeccable taste and deeply profound feeling. Her earliest work as well as her most recent outshine most if not all of the competition. A rare jewel, a treasure.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Poco From The Inside 1972 and A Good Feelin' To Know 1973

Poco were an interesting country-rock band that probably deserved bigger success. The band soldiered on in one form or another into this century, and toured until 2013 with at least one original member, Rusty Young. They got their start in 1969 with Pickin' Up The Pieces, the title a reference to the recently dissolved Buffalo Springfield, from whence both Jim Messina and Richie Furay came. 1970 brought Poco, with a more rock-oriented sound, great songs by Furay, as well as Messina's You Better Think Twice, and the 18-minute jam on Nobody's Fool that set them apart from most country-rock acts of the day, with Rusty Young's remarkable pedal steel guitar playing emulating a Hammond B-3 organ. The record also introduced Timothy B. Schmit, whose bass and high vocals replaced Randy Meisner's, as would happen again in 1977 in the Eagles line-up. In 1971, Poco released Deliverin', a live album that sold better than the first two. And with that, Jim Messina left to begin a producing career that turned into five years in Loggins and Messina.
So in 1971, Poco version three replaced Jim Messina with singer/songwriter/guitarist Paul Cotton. Messina left ostensibly due to Furay's dominance of the group. Ironically, although Furay wrote most of Poco's songs on the first three records, Cotton, Schmit, and Young would begin songwriting duties from this point forward, and take on more writing duties on successive albums.
From The Inside 1971 features a more mature sound than Poco had produced previously. Produced by Steve Cropper, the recording is excellent. Hoe Down and You Are The One hearken back to the good times, foot-stompin' country of the previous records, but Paul Cotton's Bad Weather and Ol' Forgiver have a darker tone, and his Railroad Days just rocks. Schmit writes the title track, and it is a lovely song and a fine vocal delivery. And Furay delivered three of his finer love songs in What Am I Gonna Do, What If I Should Say I Love You, and Just For Me And You. And again, sales were disappointing.
A Good Feelin' To Know 1972 is another strong outing fairly similar to From The Inside, but with even less country leanings. The record features a solid-rocking cover of the Steve Stills-written Buffalo Springfield song Go And Say Goodbye, and Furay's title track would go on to be one of the early band's most recognizable songs. Overall, the songs, while good, don't always sound like the same band. Cotton's Keeper Of The Fire and Early Times are not his strongest writing, and Furay's Sweet Loving is a bit overblown. Schmit's I Can See Everything is sweet and fine, and he even writes the solid rocker Restrain. Overall, it is a good record, with solid playing, singing and writing for the most part. Produced by Jack Richardson, it was supposed to seal their forward momentum and open them up to new fans, but it did not.
It wasn't enough for Richie Furay, who recorded Crazy Eyes in 1973 with one foot out the door to join The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. After Furay left, Poco continued as a quartet with Young, Cotton, Schmit, and Grantham until Schmit left to join the Eagles in 1977. The original line-up reunited in 1989 to record Legacy as a one-off. Young and Cotton carried on until 2006, and Young kept the name alive touring until at least 2013. Any of the first five Poco records is recommendable. The first one is historic as a rather early country-rock outing, while From The Inside is my personal favorite.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Mary Lee's Corvette Blood On The Tracks 2002

Audacity: a willingness to take bold risks.

Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks is one great record. This live performance by Mary Lee Kortes and her talented band from 2002 covers the record song by song in its entirety, and is both audacious and remarkably good. Of course the song selection is excellent, it is after all one of Dylan's finest, and one of the best breakup records of all time.

Kortes, for her part, has a strong voice with just a bit of keening edge that helps, especially on the more angry songs. The band is tight, the arrangements true to the original, and the recording is good, especially for a live outing. And how many more times are you going to listen to the original?

So, what are the best Dylan records? (Speaking of audacity!) 
Here's my list:
Bringing It All Back Home 1965
Highway 61 Revisted 1965
Blonde On Blonde 1966
John Wesley Harding 1967
New Morning 1970
Blood On The Tracks 1975
Desire 1976
Love And Theft 2001
Modern Times 2006

Monday, January 11, 2021

Katie Love Ready Or Not 2015

Here's one I just cannot understand. In 2015 this totally great new pop-soul record comes out. I have no idea how I discovered it. I thought I had it on vinyl (I think I got confused with Duffy's Rockferry, which is similar looking), but I apparently bought the digital at iTunes, something I rarely do.

The record is excellent. One solid song after another. Pop-soul with nice arrangements, Katie Love has a fine voice, and everything is in place. Sort of old school in 2015, but done to near perfection.

And then what? I can't be sure. The record company, Red Tree Records, is Canadian, and was tweeting as recently as last year, but the website at no longer exists. There are a few songs by Katie Hess and Katie Love Hess that are country at Amazon and iTunes, and those songs predate this record by five years or more. It looks and sounds like the same woman, but who knows.

The title track kicks things off in fine style with nice horns and a catchy chorus. The funky Made For love follows, with hot organ and horns, and Love's great pipes. Waitin' On You is classic soul with more fine organ and horns and another hooky chorus. Gone rocks a bit harder, with syncopated horn charts and sweet background vocals. The pleading soul ballad that is I Can't Help It has an Amy Winehouse vibe, and Love sings it with style. The second half holds up well, with strong ballads Walk Away and Heal This Heart and more rockin' soul-pop in Shake Your Tree and Kick. The Reggae-lite of The Good Life rounds it all out in fine form.

The whole thing has a good beat and you can dance to it. 

I wish I knew who wrote the songs, the musicians and producer, but alas, you get no information with the digital purchase. And five years later, no new music from Katie Love. It may not be "great", but it is consistently strong, and there are no weak tracks. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Zappadan 2020 Orchestral Favorites 40th Anniversary 2019

Happy Zappadan one and all. The celebration on the blogosphere seems a bit subdued this year, but Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr all have some news of the holiday. And of course you can explore my Zappadan posts from the past right here.

This new 3 CD version of Orchestral Favorites, recorded in 1975 and originally released in 1979, is a real treat. The original release included five excellent tracks, all recorded in the afternoons before live performances in the evening. Those five tracks are here, plus a "keyboard overdose" version of Strictly Genteel with Tommy Mars' keyboard overdubs recorded in 1978. Frank was always upset about the sound of the original release because the master tone reel was not used to align the tape heads for mastering the original release. That's been fixed here, so the sound is quite good, and better than the original.

But even more exciting is that the concerts performed in the evening included twelve songs, not just five, and this set includes (on CDs 2 and 3), the entire performance with the orchestra live on the evening of September 18, 1975. Well, almost the entire show, as the tape ran out near the end of the last song, which is faded out. The additional material has mostly never been released, and lots of it is great. For fans of Zappa's contemporary classical music (see here and here), this is very exciting news. There is even a 13 minute version of The Adventures of Greggery Peccary that is outstanding, and a fine rendition of Lumpy Gravy that is decidedly out there.

I'm not certain that everything the Zappa Family Trust has released posthumously has been worth dropping your coin on, but if you liked the original Orchestral Favorites, this is an easy recommendation.