Saturday, September 23, 2023

Todd Rundgren Runt 1970 and alternate reissue 2023

I broke one of my own "rules" just this week. I purchased the new reissued Runt album. I have bought many expanded and remixed records over the years and I generally find little of importance in the "bonus" tracks, and the newly remixed or remastered versions may sound a little better, but rarely enough to make the purchase essential. I had mostly given up on the whole reissue idea, at least if I had the original.

Sal Nunziato over at the Burning Wood blog went gaga over this reissue a couple of weeks ago, and he is a bona fide Rundgren afficianato. I think he likes everything Todd ever did, even the recent stuff. But he knows his Todd, and I always liked this debut. Also, I always thought that the first print Ampex copy I own didn't really sound that great. Sometimes it sounds like there's tape wobble changing the pitch of the piano, and there are other problems. I think the spindle hole is too far off center.

This reissue is significantly different from the original pressing (I haven't heard the other reissues). There are new songs. One is Say No More, which seems to serve as an intro to Birthday Carol. It's nothing special. There's also Hope I'm Around, which was on his second album in essentailly the same arrangement. Devil's Bite opens the record in place of Broke Down And Busted (the two songs swap positions on side one). Right from the get-go, the mix on Devil's Bite is vastly superior to the original. We Gotta Get You A Woman also sounds better, but not enough to buy this record.

But here's the coolest thing. I always loved the three song medley of Baby Let's Swing/The Last Thing You Said/Don't Tie My Hands. On this new version, the songs from the medley are each presented as separate songs, and both Baby Let's Swing and The Last Thing You Said have additional verses not included in the medley. It is a treat to hear the three of them, and the medley is on the flip side of the We Gotta Get You A Woman 45 that accompanies the LP, so you get that too.

But I have to say that having heard this version, I'd be OK without it. I mean really, how bad did I need to have this version of a record I have enjoyed for 50 years? Then again, the sound of the mix is certainly an improvement on the original. Any way you cut it, it is an excellent record, and this new one sounds much better than the original. But I won't be changing my basic opinion of reissues in general, and it'll probably be a while before I break the rules again.

Monday, August 28, 2023

P. Hux As Good As Advertised 2023

Parthenon Huxley has been around since the early eighties producing finely crafted power pop, as well as completing two stints (1999-2007, 2011) with ELO Part 2/The Orchestra, the touring band that kept ELO alive after Jeff Lynne departed. You can hear how Huxley would do a fine job with Lynne's vocal parts with ease. Plus he's a talented guitarist.

The P. Hux albums have all been great power pop gems, and this one is no exception. A highly capable writer, Huxley pens hooky tunes with smart lyrics and melodies that sound familiar but are hard to place. He has an outstanding voice and as mentioned, plays hot and tasty guitar. Add to all that a talented band with Dave Phenicie on bass, Ricky Wise on drums, and Daniel Clarke on keyboards. Clarke's piano and organ really add a lot of color to these songs. He decorates the melodies and plays some lead keyboard breaks that add depth to the basic trio sound he admirably expands.

Catchy pop/rock dominates the record, and As Good As Advertised, Til The World Looks Right, Rainbow, This Song Reminds Me Of You, Human Again, and Bitter Tears are all solid, with great vocals, guitar and keyboards, and hooks galore. The ballads are equally strong, with What's It Gonna Take, Sad About The Boy and Uncivil War all keeping the quality high. Uncivil War could be about a disappointing relationship or maybe its about the political polarization of our country. It works both ways. Finally, Mister Black Sky answer's the old ELO hit and includes some of that Jeff Lynne reverb on Huxley's vocal. There isn't a weak song on the disc.

This is about as good as modern rock/power pop gets. Lots of bands have done this gig in the past and many continue today, but nobody does it any better than Parthenon Huxley.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Lucinda Williams Lu's Jukebox Six Releases 2021-2022

From October through December 2020 during Covid lockdown, Lucinda Williams performed a series of live in the studio sets for streaming, with proceeds going to music venues financially hit by closed doors. She ended up doing six of them altogether, and each night was a themed concert featuring cover versions. CDs of the performances were released in 2021 and 2022. The idea is certainly cool, and Lucinda most likely drew a good deal of ticketed streaming. I'll take them in the order they were released.

Lu's Jukebox Vol. 1 – Runnin' Down a Dream: A Tribute to Tom Petty is a pretty good show, and Williams clearly loves the Southern connection she shares with Petty, and hits on quite a few of his Southern themed songs. Lucinda sounds great, and the band is solid. Rebels, Runnin' Down A Dream, Louisiana Rain, I Won't Back Down, and You Know How It Feels are highlights, but there are none of his early rockers that I love, so it's not the set I would have wished for. And no Magnolia? You may like it more than I did.

Lu's Jukebox Vol. 2 – Southern Soul: From Memphis to Muscle Shoals is a great set that plays to Lucinda's strengths. There's not a misstep anywhere. Ode To Billie Joe, I Can't Stand The Rain, It Tears Me Up, Rainy Night In Georgia, all have Williams digging deep into her soulful delivery. Games People Play, Take Me To The River, and Williams' own Still I Long For Your Kiss are also highlights, but every song is a winner. If I had to pick just one of these Jukebox releases, this is the one.

Lu's Jukebox Vol. 3 – Bob's Back Pages: A Night of Bob Dylan Songs isn't the thrill it seems like it should have been. I can't really pinpoint why it was a disappointment for me, but it was. Song selection wasn't always great, and even some of the ones that sound like a great idea for Lucinda were just not that exciting. It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry was my favorite, but not much else wowed me.

Lu's Jukebox Vol. 4 – Funny How Time Slips Away: A Night of 60's Country Classics seems like a great idea, especially after the success of Vol. 2. I can't say I was thrilled with the song selection, and the band, with too much pedal steel guitar, sounds like a cover band from anywhere. Lucinda sings most of it well, but even Night Life, Long Black Limousine, Gentile On My Mind, and the title track are just not great deliveries.

Lu's Jukebox Vol. 5 – Have Yourself a Rockin' Little Christmas with Lucinda is a huge letdown. Not really a surprise when the artist is known for material ranging from melancholy to downright sad (and occasionally bitterness) but a letdown all the same. Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin' is fun, and a few others should be, but Lucinda's delivery just doesn't have the lighthearted positivity that these songs beg for.

Lu's Jukebox Vol. 6 – You Are Cordially Invited...A Tribute to the Rolling Stones ends the series on a high note. She sticks to the great sixties/early seventies material the band is famous for, and anger is a very good match for her voice. And the band rocks. Early songs Satisfaction, The Last Time, Get Off My Cloud, Paint It Black are great. Street Fighting Man, You Gotta Move, Sway, and You Can't Always Get What You Want rock hard and Lucinda tears 'em up.

Vol. 1, Vol. 2, and Vol.6 are recommended. You may like the others more than I did, but only if you think she can do no wrong, or maybe if you just can't get enough Dylan.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Bob Dylan Shadow Kingdom 2023

This new Bob Dylan record is an odd entry in the catalog, and a good one in most ways. The studio recording was used as the soundtrack to the "concert" film Shadow Kingdom: The Early Songs of Bob Dylan by Alma Har'el. It was recorded in early 2021 with a drummer-less band featuring Don Was, T-Bone Burnett, Greg Leisz, Jeff Taylor, Doug Lacy, and Tim Pierce.The arrangements are acoustic, the songs are from Dylan's catalog, originally released between 1965 and 1989, with one new instrumental, the lovely Sierra's Theme that closes the album. 

The arrangements are all very different from their original versions, most of them strikingly so. Some of the songs fare better in these new arrangements than others, but the approach is admirable and certainly more interesting than a simple re-recording of past material. The arrangements are generally sparse, and feature accordion on almost all tracks. Dylan plays harmonica quite a bit, and the band is loose and casual sounding. Nothing is "thrown off", but some of it is meant to sound that way. Dylan's singing is quietly up front and very expressive, especially since he doesn't have to sing "over" the music. 

The set opens with When I Paint My Masterpiece, and it takes a while to realize it's the same song. That happens quite a few times on the earliest work such as Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I Go Mine), Queen Jane Approximately, Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues, and Pledging My Time. There are versions of To Be Alone With You (Nashville Skyline), What Was It You Wanted (Oh Mercy), The Wicked Messenger and I'll Be Your Baby Tonight (John Wesley Harding), and an especially poignant Forever Young, one of several standouts.

Compared to most legacy artists, Dylan continues to find new approaches while refusing to do the same thing. During the eighties and most of the nineties, that produced mostly disappointing results, while more recently it has produced some great records. I don't know if this is essential Dylan, but if you think any of his work in the last twenty years is essential, then you should at least hear this one.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

The Rolling Stones

I'm not fanatic about the Stones, but I'm a fan, and I've been surprised by their longevity and the quality of much of their work, even after 1971. 

The Stones got started with a bang. Their early records were all worth hearing. The debut, England's Newest Hit Makers 1964, is an amazing first effort. The covers of American R&B are all solid, and there's even an early Jagger/Richards classic in Tell Me. Now! 1965 is the debut's equal with more great R&B covers, and Jagger/Richards' Heart of Stone and Off The Hook are solid. More great covers and even stronger Jagger/Richards efforts fill Out Of Our Heads 1965, with Satisfaction, The Last Time, Play With Fire and The Spider and the Fly showing off their quickly developing writing prowess. December's Children 1965 is a collection of songs not previously released in the US with a few US singles. No new recording sessions were done for the record,  It is another fine blend of covers and originals (half of the songs). Get Off My Cloud, As Tears Go By, and I'm Free are standout originals, and although it was cobbled together for the US market, it is another worthy outing from the early Stones.

The Stones were treated similarly to the Beatles in that their US and UK records were not the same, even though many were released with the same title. The first five UK releases were turned into seven albums in the US, with the addition of singles and UK EPs. 

Next up was Aftermath 1966, the first Rolling Stones release with only Jagger/Richards originals. It is highly regarded as a classic, and I'm not one to argue, but the US release is front-loaded with many of the best songs, kicking off with Paint It Black, Stupid Girl, Lady Jane, and Under My Thumb. Their songwriting is strong and the performances are excellent, with Brian Jones becoming more a multi-instrumentalist than merely a guitarist, and adding color and variety in the process. 1967 saw the release of Between The Buttons, another all-originals set, and while not quite as fine as Aftermath, it's very close, and more varied in both writing and performance. Brian Jones plays no less than twelve instruments in addition to guitar, and Jagger/Richards produce a varied set of strong tunes. While it is ostensibly a compilation, Flowers 1967, released in the US only, had three songs that had never been released, and two others had only appeared as singles in the US market. Although derided as a promotional ploy for the US market, it has plenty of good songs, and a few that were only available on this release at the time. 

December 1967 brought Their Satanic Majesties Request, the first Rolling Stones record that received mixed-to-poor reviews. The record was their first self-produced effort, their only psychedelic release, as far from rhythm and blues as they would ever stray, and mostly a mess. She's A Rainbow and 2000 Light Years From Home save it from the junk bin, but it is their only early stinker.

Beggar's Banquet 1968 began the run of their four finest records, all produced by Jimmy Miller, and released between 1967 and 1972. A grand mix of rockers and blues, it is a classic from start to finish. With Sympathy For The Devil, Street Fighting Man, and Salt Of The Earth showing their mature songwriting and arranging, and the funky blues of Stray Cat Blues, it is just a fine record. It is also the first time that they adopt a country sound for some songs, a trend that will continue throughout this classic period and beyond.

Let It Bleed 1969 continues in a similar vein to Beggar's Banquet. Rockers, country and blues all show up in spades, and it is another Stones classic. The record has a darkness to both the music and lyrical themes that sets it apart from anything they did before it. Gimme Shelter, Let It Bleed, Live With Me, Midnight Rambler, and You Can't Always Get What You Want all rock hard, and Love In Vain and Country Honk show off their country blues to fine effect. Another one that rewards listening all the way through, just like it was 1969 again.

That brings us to Sticky Fingers 1971. With the full integration of Mick Taylor's guitar, and a near-perfect set of songs, it is the Stones' finest hour. Brown Sugar, Can't You Hear Me Knocking, Wild Horses, Bitch, You Gotta Move, and Dead Flowers are all stand-outs, and there isn't a song, or even a note, out of place. They have done much good work since this one, but they've never bettered it.

At this point I should mention Singles Collection: The London Years 1989, a compilation on 3 CDs or 4 LPs that contains all the singles and B sides from 1963 to 1971. There are a ton of Stones compilations, and  a few really good ones, but this one is just the bomb. Quite a few lesser known B sides, and a great overview of the most interesting period for the band.

Which brings us to Exile On Main Street 1972. It is a shambles, and it is great. It is the most Kieth Richards of any Stones record. A friend recently derided Kieth's technique as primitive and sloppy (I know, shocking, right?). But that's at least partly true, and this record is the proof. And it is also a really fun sort of Mott The Hoople kind of mess. I love it, then I'm less crazy about it, but it is a singular record in the Stones catalog, and maybe anyone else's. Recommended tracks: Side 1, Side 2, Side 4, and more than half of Side 3.

I'm not so aligned with the more recent positive reassessments of Goat's Head Soup 1973. It was always a disappointment, and maybe the bar was too high after the four beforehand. It has good songs- Angie, Heartbreaker, Star Star- but the lesser songs sound like a band running on fumes and bubbles. 

It's Only Rock and Roll 1974 was a mixed bag, but the high points got higher than Goat's Head Soup. Ain't Too Proud To Beg, Time Waits For No One, and the title track stand up to their best work. But this is going to be the way ahead for most Stones records to come. A few solid singles destined for the next compilation (they released more compilation albums than studio records), and a lot of mediocre other stuff.

I'll just shorten things up here and say that description applies to all of the following: Black And Blue 1976, Emotional Rescue 1980, Tatoo You 1981, Undercover 1983, Dirty Work 1986, Voodoo Lounge 1994, Bridges To Babylon 1997, and A Bigger Bang 2005. If your favorite is in there, that's fine, they all have a few tasty morsels, but limited moments of high quality rock and roll.

So what were the standouts since 1972? Some Girls 1978 qualifies as a really good one. When The Whip Comes Down, Beast Of Burden, Shattered, Miss You and the title track are hot, and they sound rowdy and young and full of themselves, which has always worked for the Stones. Steel Wheels 1989 was a solid return to form after a pretty awful decade. Even if the singles didn't outshine their past, the record as a whole held up quite well. And the featured ballads, Almost Hear You Sigh and Slipping Away, are both classics. Stripped 1995 is shockingly good at this point in their career. I'm not spending time with their plethora of mostly dull live records, but Stripped, billed as live, has only 6 live tracks recorded in small venues, and 8 "live in the studio" tracks. Jagger sounds particularly inspired, and the acoustic guitars and mix of songs are a blast.

I don't quite know what to say about Blue & Lonesome 2016. It's all old blues songs rendered with respect and reverence. It's OK. Maybe you loved the early sixties R&B material and hear a resemblance. But it is not R&B, it's straight blues, and it just never grabbed me. While Kieth Richards and Ronnie Wood are good guitarists, they are not really blues players. Your mileage may vary.

There are a lot of compilations covering various periods, and most are pretty good. GRRR! 2012 is the most complete career overview, and does a good job if you want the hits and a few other standouts. It came in 2, 3, and 4 disc versions, with 2 missing too much, 4 a bit of overload, and 3 just right, Goldilocks.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Allen Toussaint The Allen Toussaint Collection 1991

Allen Toussaint is an interesting artist, producer, and songwriter whose work helped to define New Orleans modern-day funky soul. As a producer, arranger, pianist and songwriter, he contributed to the work of Lee Dorsey, Ernie K Doe, Erma Thomas, Art and Aaron Neville, The Meters, Etta James, Robert Palmer, The Wild Tchoupitoulas, Patti LaBelle, Dr. John, The Band, Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Cyndi Lauper, and more.

He had a late career renaissance with The River In Reverse 2006 (with Elvis Costello), The Bright Mississippi 2009, Songbook 2013 and American Tunes 2016 (released posthumously).

This collection is a best-of from his four seventies records that tried to turn him into a solo star- From A Whisper To A Scream 1971, Life, Love and Faith 1972, Southern Nights 1975, and Motion 1978. The compilation pulls the stronger material from each record, and is a fine set of Toussaint's New Orleans soul-funk-pop. From A Whisper to a Scream and Night People (both covered by Robert Palmer), On Your Way Down (covered by Little Feat), What Do You Want The Girl To Do (Bonnie Raitt), and Southern Nights (Glen Campbell) all sound as good here as their more famous covers. 

The rest of the songs are equal to the more famous ones, with What Is Success, Soul Sister, Motion and Happiness showing off Toussaint's sly funk-soul to good effect, and several fine examples of Toussaint's way with a ballad. Drawing 3-6 songs from each album makes for a very strong collection, without a weak song in the set.

Originally released on CD in 1991, it saw its way to vinyl in 2017 as a three-sided LP. Although Toussaint generally preferred his work behind the scenes, he was a fine performer, and returned to touring outside of New Orleans (post-Katrina) in his later years. I had the extreme pleasure of seeing him live in Cleveland in 2014 with The Preservation Hall Jazz Band just a year before he died while on tour in Spain, and he put on a fabulous show.

You can't go wrong with this collection. I'm sure it leaves out quite a few other good songs, but the ones that made the cut are all top notch.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Perfect (or near perfect) again

I've approached this topic several times before here and here and here and here. It is a fun thing to consider, but also clearly a matter of taste, and so not everyone will agree. I won't be listing any Genesis or Yes albums, or anything by the Jam or Pink Floyd, even though I know people who would certainly have those bands' records on a list like this. This time I'll stick closer to the "classics" perhaps than my previous posts.

Obviously, I find Rubber Soul to fit the description, but with one caveat. I think the original American release is perfect, but I don't feel quite the same about the UK version, which became the standard once the Beatles were on CD. Of course now the American releases can be had on CD (individually since 2014, or in a 2006 box set).

Elvis Costello and the Attractions This Year's Model and Imperial Bedroom. For This Year's Model, I prefer the UK release because it included I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea, maybe the best song on the record, and not included on the original American release. Imperial Bedroom is the last great record with the Attractions, and the most Beatles-like record in Costello's catalog.

The Who Who's Next. Almost as interesting a story as the record itself. In the wake of Pete Townsend's overblown expectations and failed completion of his Lifehouse project, the best of that project and a few others were recorded for the Who's finest moment. A classic radio staple, it got played to death and still somehow sounds great today. One of many fantastic Glyn Johns produced records.

The Clash London Calling. They hit it out of the park. Nothing else compares to it. Not as punk as their earlier records, and not as indulgent (or in the case of Combat Rock, lame) as what came after it.

Moby Grape Moby Grape. A fabulous debut that the band could never again match. They had some great songs, but never again a great LP.

Bob Dylan Blond On Blond. It's hard to digest in one sitting, but any side is enjoyable on its own. There are of course other Dylan records to consider (Bringing It All Back Home, John Wesley Harding, Blood On The Tracks, Time Out Of Mind, "Love And Theft"), but Blond On Blond is the one that almost no one will disagree with as a perfect (or near perfect) outing.

David Bowie Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Again, every song a winner. Would we even have a glam rock category without this record? It also makes a case for Mick Ronson being one of the most underrated guitarists in rock.

Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers. This one is about the songs. The record contains the most consistently strong list of Jagger-Richards compositions of any Stones album. The pinnacle of their amazing 1968-1972 run of four great ones.

Kelly Willis What I Deserve. Perfect country record. Easy and Translated From Love come in awfully close. Willis has a great voice, writes great songs (many with husband Bruce Robison), and lays off the "modern" country sound that emulates 80's arena rock to stick to a more traditional mainstream.

Allen Toussaint The Bright Mississippi. Just right New Orleans jazz, and Toussaint's late career masterpiece.  Not "challenging" jazz, but melodic and skillful. As near perfect as music gets these days, and timeless.

Irma Thomas Love Is The Foundation. Another New Orleans classic, Thomas has made a lot of fine music in her career. This one was recorded and released by Newvelle Records, a pricey niche vinyl-only label that produces (mostly) jazz records. Again, a late career masterwork.

I don't discuss jazz here as often as I listen to it, but here's three slices of jazz perfection: Nat King Cole After Midnight, Bill Evans Sunday At The Village Vanguard (both classics from the golden age of jazz in the 50s and 60s) and Stacey Kent Breakfast On The Morning Tram, a more recent choice, but no less compelling.