Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Zappadan 2018 Lumpy Gravy Primordial 2018

Zappadan is a celebration of all things Zappa. It is celebrated from December 4 to December 21 each year. It was originally conceived as a blogswarm, but has moved beyond just the blogosphere to be embraced on other media as well.

Zappadan, as far as I can tell, got started in 2006. The origin may have been The Aristocrats blog (now defunct) or Mark Hoback’s FriedGreen Al-Qaedas blog (still around, but idle since July 2017), or even Blue Gal (currently operating her own blog, The Professional Left podcast, and contributing to Crooks and Liars).

Aaron Pryor at Adventures Into The Well Known is a regular contributor, and has many Zappadan posts. Patrick O’Grady at Mad Dog Media, Brady Bonk at Ketchup Is A Vegetable, the The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing blog all either continue the tradition or have some swell posts in the archive. Mr. Pryor also maintains a blog for referencing more Zappadan info at Zappadan.com

Let's hope this will be a Zappadan filled with miracles for all. We could use a few miracles.
At Zappadan, I have frequently discussed whatever Zappa recordings I've added to the stacks during the previous year. I had come to the conclusion that I pretty much had all the Zappa I needed, and that I certainly didn't need all the posthumous stuff. But last April for Record Store Day, the Zappa family trust issued a mono, vinyl only, 45 rpm 12-inch original version of Lumpy Gravy, which had been released only as a four track tape in 1967. The story goes that Zappa released the tape in August 1967 only to be sued for releasing it on Columbia. By the time Zappa reedited the album for release on Verve, he had added several surf music pieces and spoken word bits and stretched the record to 32 minutes from the original 22 minute tape release.

I always liked Lumpy Gravy's orchestrated works, and was generally annoyed by the surf music and spoken word pieces. Especially the spoken word stuff, which Frank had recorded inside a piano when he discovered something he liked about the sound. He used some of the spoken word bits on multiple other releases over the years.

Now at last was the chance to listen to Frank's first orchestral work as he initially intended it. Yes, he always seemed happy with the record that came out in 1968, but this version is what he first put together, and like many an artist, Frank was not always his own best editor/producer. 

For anyone who likes Zappa's orchestral works, this presentation of this material is a vast improvement over the Lumpy Gravy we've had for the last fifty years. It is just delightful to hear this music without the stuff that got in the way of hearing this music all this time. There is nothing new here; this is the same material without the other stuff tacked on, but it makes such a difference.

More Zappadan over the years here

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Raspberries Raspberries Best 1976

Cleveland's own Raspberries made four pretty good records between 1972 and 1974, and each one had at least one fine single. Considered a band for the past in 1972 with their matching suits and choirboy harmonies, their legacy later placed them squarely ahead of their time before the burgeoning power pop scene. They wanted to rock hard and get singles on the radio.

Today not all of it holds up, and they had a schmaltzy way with a big ballad that singer Eric Carmen would build into a successful solo career. But their best, and this single LP issue mostly got it right, was some fine pop music taken to a grand level.

The hits are all here. The rarefied Go All The Way, the pure Beatles of I Wanna Be With You, and the brilliant arena rock bombast of Overnite Sensation would almost be enough. Add in Tonight's solid power pop, the Beach Boys inspired Drivin' Around and Let's Pretend's rocking harmonies, and you've got a hot collection. The other four songs suffer from too much of one thing or another, but it is a splendid look into an early seventies band that wasn't hippy or heavy or singer-songwriterly folky.

Two guitars bass and drums. Hooks for the choruses, big crunchy riffs for the rockers, and immaculate harmonies. It looks like a magic formula.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Belly Dove 2018

Belly were a fine band that made two excellent records in Star 1993 and King 1995 and then vanished. Tanya Donelly soldiered on as solo artist, and made some good records. But Belly was special. Sweet Ride, a compilation released in 2002, was a splendid swan song.

So now, more than twenty years later, the original line-up reconvenes. There's a fair amount of good news to report, even if this one doesn't quite rise to the level of their 1990s work.

The first four songs hold out the promise of a perfect return to form. Mine kicks things off with big hooks, reverb-drenched vocals, solid guitar and lots of melody. Shiny One keeps it going with razor sharp guitars and a fine arrangement. Human Child is the Big Anthem, and is fine arena rock all the way. The distorted guitars and sunny background vocals of Faceless spell smart music making.

Suffer The Fools and Girl both offer somewhat less magic, and the melodies seem less unique than Donellly's best songs. Then Army Of Clay and Stars Align make a comeback, but not quite all the way. Quicksand is a good ballad with space-y vocals, and Artifact is a strong mid-tempo rocker with steel guitar that's good. But then it ends with not one but two closing ballads, the acoustic Heartstrings and Staryeyed that sound like some of Donelly's recent solo work, but not so much like Belly.

If you'd love to hear that great band from the early nineties again, the first four songs will thrill you. Some of the rest is darn good, and at least two more hearken back to their heyday. So now they've made two and a half great original studio records. Fans will rejoice. The curious should still start with Sweet Ride if you've never heard Belly.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Bonnie Raitt Give It Up 1972

I hadn't listened to this one in a while, and thought I'd go back for an old one since I've mostly focused on contemporary releases lately. I have fond memories of this record, and it has remained in the primary stacks all these years.

As it turns out, I wasn't quite as thrilled as I sometimes am with a classic from the past. So I'm not sure what this review may add to the fray, but let's try to see it through some kind of objective lens.

Bonnie's voice is flat out lovely throughout, and her high register is clear as a bell. The songwriting is from A-listers, but some of the material does not revisit that well, being of the early-seventies singer-songwriter fare that today rings just a little too twee.

The good ones: the New Orleans horns, excellent lyric, and Bonnie's own slide on Give It Up Or Let Me Go (from Bonnie's pen), the R&B chestnut I Know, Bonnie's guitar and vocal on Love Me Like A Man, the sexy New Orleans vibe on You Got To Know How, and Bonnie's fine rendition of Eric Kaz's Love Has No Pride.

Everything else is good. Bonnie does the melancholy as well as anyone, and Spent Too Long At The Fair is one of those. Jackson Browne's Under The Falling Sky plods along. Bonnie's Nothing Seems To Matter is not great, but the guitar interplay and sax almost save it. Half the record is great, and the other half just sounds too much like 1972. Of course, it was actually 1972 at the time.

For a vinyl collector, Bonnie's early work is readily available used, and worth it just about every time. Not perfect records, but darn good ones. This is one of those.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Boz Scaggs Out Of The Blues 2018 and A Fool To Care 2015

Boz Scaggs has been producing some great material in later years. I discussed most of his catalog along with his 1997 Anthology, and I reviewed his Memphis from 2013. Since then Boz has maintained his activity with these two fine records.

What both of these records show is that Boz's voice has lost nothing as he's aged. In his seventies, he sounds like his younger self in both presence and range, and if anything he has become an even better, more nuanced, singer in maturity. 

A Fool To Care was a grand return to form, and showed a wide range of Boz'z musical interests from soul to blues to rock to Americana. From the country/blues stomp of Rich Woman to Al Green's soulful Full Of Fire to Rick Danko's Small Town Talk, the song selection is broad and excellent, and Boz and the band (Ray Parker, Jr., Willie Weeks, and Steve Jordan) nail it all. Guest appearance duets with Lucinda Williams (Whispering Pines) and Bonnie Raitt (Hell To Pay) add even more dimension to an already fine record.

The new Out Of The Blues is not quite the review of classic blues chestnuts that 1997's Come On Home was. Instead, it is a review of several newly minted blues chestnuts. About half the album is new songs from songwriter Jack Walroth, while the rest cover Bobby Blue Bland, Magic Sam, Jimmy Reed, and Neil Young. All four of Walroth's contributions are solid blues-rock with a funky edge. Scagg's slow burning take on Neil Young's On The Beach is a smoldering blues, and everything else works perfectly. The band again features Ray Parker, Jr. and Willie Weeks, plus Jim Keltner on drums, Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton on guitars, Jim Cox on keyboards, and Walroth on harmonica.

In the early part of the new century, Scaggs gave us two fine records of jazz standards, and they were super. Since then, these two and Memphis are a trifecta of late-career showstoppers that display the soulful voice and sophisticated blues and R&B that Scaggs has done as well as anyone during a career that spans five decades. It is very unusual for an artist to maintain work that rivals their best fifty years on, but Boz Scaggs does, and he does it in spades.

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.