Sunday, September 15, 2019

Elton John Blue Moves 1976

I've had time to overthink this one. Months ago I began writing the entry in my head, feeling that Blue Moves was one of Elton's lost classics that needed reconsideration. I've gone back to the record many times, and I do like it, but it seems I usually only go back to side three, and I'd been perhaps a bit too generous with the rest of it.

All this prompted me to think about Elton John's best records. I tend to think everything between Elton John 1970 and Blue Moves 1976 was great. But Caribou 1974 and Rock Of The Westies 1975 were lousy records carried by their singles, and even Madman Across The Water 1971 is less impressive in hindsight.

So, I'd say that the five best Elton John albums are: Tumbleweed Connection 1970, Honky Chateau 1972,  Goodbye Yellow Brick Road 1973, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy 1975, and Songs From The West Coast 2001. I also have to throw in 17-11-70, the early live recording that showed off a great trio with Dee Murray and Nigel Olssen, as some sort of honorable mention.

So, Blue Moves. The album starts with Your Starter For..., a Caleb Quaye instrumental that is fine, really, and very short. Then Tonight, a sad ballad of troubled love, features a symphony orchestra, and a strong lyric from Bernie Taupin (something that doesn't happen enough on this record). One Horse Town features a rocking arrangement that almost saves it, and Chameleon benefits from a chorus featuring Beach-Boys styled vocals courtesy of Bruce Johnston and Toni Tennille.  The funky backbeat and gospel choir help with Boogie Pilgrim, but it's pretty vapid. Graham Nash and David Crosby provide vocal support on the sweet, tender ballad Cage The Songbird. Crazy Water is upbeat and is funkified by a strong arrangement. Bernie writes a good story for Shoulder Holster, and the Brecker Brother's horns assist, but it's not a great one by any stretch.

Side three is where I return frequently, opening with Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word. Everything about the song works, Bernie's lyric, Elton's sympathetic melody, Ray Cooper's vibes, the lush strings. Out Of The Blue follows, and it's a nice rocking instrumental that sounds like it grew out from a band jam. Between Seventeen And Twenty is another killer ballad with all the elements: words, music, execution. Crosby and Nash help again on The Wide-Eyed And Laughing, but they don't save it. Someone's Final Song is a pretty suicide ballad with a sad topic. On the last side, only If There's A God Up In Heaven with it's funk, and the fading rock star of ballad Idol are much to hear. Where's The Shoorah?, Theme From A Non-Existent T.V. Series, and Bite Your Lip (Get Up And Dance!) are all throwaways that should have been left off.

With some editing, and maybe one or two more up-tempo numbers, it could have been solid. It would have been a respected record as a single LP release, although still too ballad-heavy. It is not the lost classic I had been thinking it was, but I still love side three.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Badfinger No Dice 1970

Badfinger's second record, and their first cohesive effort.

Today they are seen as early purveyors of power pop along with the Raspberries and Big Star, but in 1970 I loved them because they sounded a lot like the Beatles circa Rubber Soul or Help! It would be generous to call them derivative.

But the Beatles wern't doing this anymore, so why shouldn't Badfinger do it?

With three solid songwriters and four fine voices, the harmonies are glorious, the guitars are rocking, and almost every song is a winner.

No Matter What, a great single that the Apple execs thought wouldn't work, I Can't Take It's swagger, Love Me Do rocking like the Beatles on the rooftop, the mid-tempo stomper Better Days, and Believe Me all rock with great guitar and vocals, and drummer Mike Gibbins stands out consistently.

And there are several fine ballads as well in I Don't Mind and We're For The Dark, not to mention Without You, which Harry Nilsson turned to gold in 1972 with pretty much the same arrangemnet heard here.

So there are a few I didn't mention, and it isn't quite perfect. Side one comes awfully close.

Great band, great material, top rate cover art. Their tale includes too many managers and being caught up in the whole Apple records leadership boondoggle. If only they'd signed with another record company they could have been stars. Probably, I mean, you just never know.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

David Byrne How Music Works 2017

David Byrne is an interesting guy, and multitalented. As the leader of the Talking Heads, he always seemed a bit quirky in a smart, sophisticated, ironic sort of way. This book, essentially a collection of essays on his own career in music as well as music itself, is an excellent read. Part autobiography, part treatise on music in relation to performance spaces, technology, neuroscience, and society, the book is readable, insightful and well researched. This 2017 edition adds one chapter not included in the original 2012 printing.

Chapters investigate musical styles and the effects on music of the environments in which the performances take place (Chapter 1), how we choose what we listen to (Chapter 5), and how to sell music in today’s environment as well as how things used to work (Chapter 8). Other essays explore how new music can be encouraged by the “scene” that encourages performers (Chapter 9, mostly a explanation of why CGBG became a famous hole in the wall), a great treatise on financial support for the musical arts, music therapy and the social fabric of our relationship with music (Chapter 10), and a summary that touches on our personal experience of music, looking at neuroscience and social factors (Chapter 11).

The more autobiographical sections focus on Byrne’s performance (Chapter 2), his recordings, including several interesting insights into how recordings have changed (Chapter 6), and his collaborations with a wide variety of musicians from different genres since his days with Talking Heads (Chapter 7).

Two chapters (3 and 4) explore how Technology Shapes Music, and it’s a concise history of analog and digital technology’s effect on music and performance since the beginning of recorded music in the early 20th century. It is a nice overview, intriguing and a bit controversial at times. Byrne makes some excuses for digital sound quality, but overall he handles the progression through the last century and a quarter with aplomb.  This section applies his research to both how we listen to music as well as how it is recorded and played back, and how these technologies interact with performance.

There is none of the dirt dishing about band members that fill many rocker’s autobiographies, and there is no real attempt at explanation of why he’s such a brilliant guy. And those, along with many other qualities, make this a book that probably shouldn’t be considered an autobiography at all.

It’s brilliant, it’s engaging, it’s original and fun to read. And you'll probably learn something, too.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Vampire Weekend Father of the Bride 2019

There is a new Vampire Weekend record, and it's both different and much the same, and it's good, if not the perfect summer bauble that the first two were.

In the years since ModernVampires of the City 2013, Rostam Batmanglij has left the band, and he is certainly missed, even though he contributes to at least two songs here. So Ezra Koenig is on his own for the ideas on the record, and Batmanglij's ideas have always spiced things up.

I did something I don't do very often, I read reviews of this record as I was preparing my own, and I'm apparently not deep enough, or full of myself enough (which I thought I had covered), to even understand the deep stuff going on with this band. Read the reviews at Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, NME, Spin or The Guardian, and there is apparently a whole Freudian level of BS that can be applied to listening to this pop record and comparing it to their previous work.

Me, I'm just going to do it like I usually do. Listen to it, make notes, discuss the music.

Hold You Now, one of three duets with Danielle Haim, kicks things off with a great sentimental ballad about the guy that wants her back too late. Harmony Hall follows, and is a highlight with sparkly acoustic guitar and a laid back rhythm that gains momentum as the song builds. Bambina features the quirky percussion that has been one of the the band's hallmarks. This Life is a big pop song the VW way, tinkling melody, high vocals, driving beat and hooks thanks to Mark Ronson, who seems to have an endless supply of them.

Then the record slows down for a while, and while Big Blue, How Long?, Rich Man, and My Mistake are pretty good, they expand the sound in a relatively small way, and sound like the first Ezra Koenig solo album more than they should. In the midst of all that stands Unbearably White, a gentle lyrical grenade of a song that still needs a good hook, and Gold Rush (with Haim again), a fine duet with all the right flourishes.

Then back to what the band does best. Sympathy is an excellent tune energized by drummer Chris Thomson and the bass of Chris Baio. This band would be nowhere without the rhythm section, and Thomson is about as good as a drummer can be. Sunflower has another great rhythm with an odd scat vocal and cool pop weirdness. Flower Moon has some of the Juju influence this record could use more of. The third with Haim, We Belong Together is a pretty love song that may include some irony. Strangers is the upbeat rhythm rocker we should expect from VW, with great vocals and drumming.

There's three more middling efforts in 2021, Spring Snow, and the closer Jerusalem, New York, Berlin, and all three have their merits, but again add a bit too many smaller ideas to the fray. One wonders if Batmanglij could have added some interesting gilding on all three.

So I count eleven great songs that equal everything their reputation stands on. But seven lessor efforts, some smaller songs, some ballads, some gentle introspection, but seven when two would have been fine. It's an hour long, and maybe a more concise effort would have been more perfect. I miss the Talking Heads/African rhythms that the earlier records featured more prominently than on this one. And I like it a lot.

I've said before that all a band really needs is a singer, a song writer, and a great drummer. Vampire Weekend still has all of that. You'll have to decide if the softer side is a worthy expansion of their sound or there's songs that should have been left off. Either way there's a bunch of killer pop here for the taking.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Ultra-Lounge #5 Wild, Cool, and Swingin' 1996

The Ultra-Lounge series got started in 1996, and there's some big fun music to be had if you're in the 1950's-1960's bachelor pad mood. #5 here features classics from Dean Martin, Wayne Newton, Bobby Darin, Peggy Lee, Kelly Smith, Luis Prima and Vic Damone, just to name a few.

It's a theme that rewards over and over, attested to by the plethora of sub-genres included in the Ultra-Lounge series; Saxiphobia, Organs In Orbit, Bongo Land, Mondo Exotica, Bachelor Pad Royale, Mambo Fever, and the ever popular Christmas Cocktails. And there are quite a few individual artists in the Artists Series that expand on individual interest from some of the recurring artists.

The series has even been reprised within itself with the release of Best of Christmas Cocktails (I have the first two of that series, and there's really no reason to leave any songs out) and several samplers.

Since 2009 there have been 10 more download-only releases bringing the series to fifty CD-length releases, which is probably more than enough. Go check one or two of them out, or listen to some samples. You might just find some swingin' chickadees to melt some ice with you just for fun. This music is cool, daddy-o.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Spinning Vinyl

I haven't done a Spinning Vinyl episode in quite a while. This is the Easter Sunday edition. My wife and I spent Easter at home with our best friends. My lovely bride made a great meal, and our guests brought a carrot cake that completely and unequivocally redefined carrot cake in the most amazing way possible. I like carrot cake generally, but this item was really something else. The cake was totally incredible, and unique, and the cream cheese icing was replaced by a blend of whipped cream and mascarpone that was the bomb.

Oh wait, this is about the music. Since it was the holiday, I mostly stuck to jazz while we had appetizers and drinks in the afternoon. I got things started with Joe Jackson's Summer In The City Live In New York 2000. The recording was released only on CD when it was new, and made it to vinyl as a reissue in 2017. Intervention Records did a really nice job with the pressing and it's a fine recording of Jackson in a trio setting doing a nice mix of material.

I played Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson 1959. I love Webster's mellow blowing as much as any sax player I can think of. The late 1950s seem to have produced much of my most-loved jazz.

So right after that I went to one of my all-time favorite piano trio records, Ahmad Jamal At The Pershing / If Not For Me 1958. Jamal, here with Israel Crosby on bass and Vernell Fournier at the kit, makes some of the most comfortably swinging piano jazz, well, ever. The version of Poinciana here is delightful.

I wanted to push things up a bit, so I went to Buena Vista Social Club, Ry Cooder's 1997 foray into Cuban music with the original cast of players, as it were. This kind of cross-cultural outing rarely works as well as it works here. But then Cooder pretty much stays out of the way.

Earlier in the week I had T. Rex's Electric Warrior 1971 on, and I brought it back out to have some party music in the mix. Bang A Gong, Planet Queen, Life's A Gas, Rip Off. One great glam song after another.

Getting closer to dinner time I pulled out Cassandra Wilson's Blue Skies 1988. After two boundary-testing outings, Wilson made her traditional standards record. With a trio of Mulgrew Miller piano, Lonnie Plaxico bass and Terri Lynn Carrington drums, Wilson raised the bar on what could be expected from a set of great American songbook standards. It is a very special record for me, and one I never tire of hearing.

And finally Allen Toussaint's The Bright Mississippi 2009. This is a  record every music lover should own. New Orleans music as expressed by some of today's finest instrumental talent and the smooth piano and arranging of Toussaint. Subtle, breathtaking beauty.

As dinner was up next, I switched to shuffling the French playlist on the iPod. A playlist consisting of the Midnight In Paris 2011 soundtrack, added to with similar jazz and vocal tracks from Madeleine Peyroux, Bill Evans, Stacy Kent and others. Great dinner music, and my wife's favorite. That played at least until the carrot cake...

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Reggie Young Forever Young 2017

 Reggie Young was one of the most recorded guitar players of all time. Backing country and pop stars as a go-to session pro, he was in demand in both Memphis and Nashville recording studios from the early sixties through the seventies and beyond. His guitar fills and leads can be heard on many a chart hit of the day, including songs by Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, Jackie De Shannon, J.J. Cale, the Box Tops and B.J. Thomas. He toured and/or recorded with Jimmy Buffet, The Highwaymen, and Waylon Jennings. If you needed the guy that could walk in and play the perfect guitar part, you called Reggie Young.

In 2017, at age eighty, Reggie Young made his first and only solo record. It is seven songs written by Young himself, each a lovely slice of pop/rock/soul/country. It is mostly mellow, and all instrumental. The songs are often riffs and practice melodies Young had played for years turned into complete songs. A raft of top session men accompany Reggie ably, but the beauty of the record lies in the lovely guitar parts, the perfect feel on the fret board, the understated, tasteful magic of Reggie Young.

It is near perfect, and easy as Sunday morning. It will soothe your soul.