Thursday, December 24, 2009

What makes this music sound so good?

I guess there might be someone out there who wants to know on what kind of equipment I listen to all this music? Well, it's a wonderful system that reveals fine details while keeping music moving. I've heard great systems that can't deliver rhythm and pacing, but this one does this difficult job just fine. Most of the music systems that I don't like sound too sterile, or dry, or they can't involve you at the rhythmic level. Either of these problems makes listening to music very tiring. There is no fatigue while listening to my gear. Here's what I've got:
Reference 3A MM deCapo i speakers
Anthem PRE-2L tube preamp
Granite Audio Aspen 800 tube amp
Cambridge Audio Azur 840C
Wadia 170 iTransport
iPod Classic 160 GB
Music Hall MMF-5 Turntable
Benz Micro Ace cartridge
Pro-Ject Tube Box phono pre-amp

The Reference 3A speakers are just killer. They are very efficient (92dB) so they can be driven by the mighty 8 watts of the Granite Audio 300B SET amp. The Anthem preamp is relatively clean and not terribly "tubey", but it's warm and sweet. I've been very pleased with the sound of the Cambridge Audio CD player, and it's upsampling DAC can be used for other digital signals. I take the digital (Apple Lossless) out of the iPod directly into the Cambridge Audio's DAC, avoiding the iPod's DAC and amplifier. CD quality sound from the iPod. It's a good thing.

Obviously I'm still into vinyl, and there are tubes in all of my pre-amps and amps. Long live analog. I've heard plenty of solid state equipment that sounds good, but I do love the warmth and bloom that tubes and analog recordings provide.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Sons of Champlin

The Sons of Champlin started in 1969 with Loosen Up Naturally, a double-LP set of horn-heavy rock with Bill Champlin's soulful singing preaching peace, love and pot. Despite the hippie vibe of the lyrics, which have aged with mixed results, the record is a huge gas. It's like a Chicago album except better (way better). Champlin sounds a lot like Lou Rawls, the horn charts are great, and Terry Haggerty is a lightning hot rock guitarist with a jazz heart. Geoff Palmer's vibes add a nice element, one that remains with the group throughout it's career. 1982-A, The Thing To Do, Misery Isn't Free, Get High, and Freedom are all standouts on this first LP. Also in 1969, The Sons was released. A dour looking photo on the cover and the name change foretell trouble for the group, but the record is pretty good. Love of a Woman is a great arraignment, and It's Time and Boomp Boomp Chop are strong. While it's not the first record, it has it's moments.

In 1971, Champlin brought in a new rhythm section, laid off the horns, and recorded Follow Your Heart as a five-piece. It confused the fans of their horn-based sound, but it remains a high point in their work. The title track has my personal favorite guitar solo of all time, with Terry Haggerty ripping one of the best jazz-rock guitar breaks ever recorded. Before You Right Now, Hey Children, Headway and A Sound Love are all strong tracks, and the band cooks soulful even without horns. It's hard to think of another record that sounds quite like Follow Your Heart.

In 1993, Capitol Records put out a Best Of The Sons Of Champlin CD that covers these first three records, and it's pretty good except for the omission of Follow Your Heart, probably because of the "smoke lots of weed" message of the song.

In 1973 they showed up on Columbia with Welcome To The Dance, a record which has become, in retrospect, a career peak. It's a great record, funky rock and soul, intricate, hook-filled arrangements, super tight playing, and the horns are back. Think of a cross between Chicago, Earth Wind and Fire, and Sly and the Family Stone. One weak track- hey, everybody gets to have one- otherwise a stone classic.

Columbia said goodbye after Welcome To The Dance didn't sell, and the band released The Sons Of Champlin on their own Gold Mine label in 1975. This one is a mixed-up bag in terms of style, but another strong record. Lookout, Like To Get To Know You, All And Everything, Without Love, Queen Of The Rain, and Gold Mine are all strong songs. Mark Isham joins the band on trumpet and keyboards. There are a few songs that don't work, but the good ones lead the way. The only way I know to buy this on CD is in the 2 CD The Ariola Years set, which also includes the next two. Ariola picked up this one after they signed the band to record A Circle Filled With Love in 1976. Circle Filled With Love was produced by Keith Olsen, who has turned many a hit in his day, and the record seems stunted by too much production. There's some excellent cuts, but the sound seems just too slick for the band. Funky this one is not.

The next Ariola LP was 1977's Loving Is Why. A surprisingly good record when heard today, alas there was no hit single or significant airplay. Saved By The Grace Of Your Love is Bill Champlin at his soulful best. Loving Is Why and Love Can Take Me Now show the big balladry that Champlin will continue when he joins Chicago in the eighties. A fine Big Boss Man, that shouldn't really work for this band, gets a bluesy workout and cooks.

After that Bill Champlin went solo for a while before he was invited to join Chicago in the 1982. He recorded and toured with Chicago and released four solo records in the nineties.

The band reunited in 1997 and released Live in 1998. It's a hot set that mostly comes from the first three records. Another live set, Secrets came in 2002, and a new studio album, Hip Lil' Dreams, sadly without Terry Haggerty, was released in 2005.

Seek out the early records, especially Loosen Up Naturally, Follow Your Heart, and Welcome To The Dance, or the Capital Best Of.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Zappadan 2009 again... The 1988 Tour CDs

Well it's still Zappadan. I hope you're having a nice celebration.
I have the distinct dishonor of missing Zappa's 1988 tour, but the CDs produced are excellent. The first one released was Broadway The Hard Way in 1988. It's a fine record, heavy on political rants, but with some great songs. Sting (yes, Sting) guests on Murder By Numbers, and there's a good Outside Now, Elvis Has Left The Building, and Jesus Thinks You're A Jerk. It happens to include the definitive version of Hot Plate Heaven At The Green Hotel. Otherwise it's not really the best, especially compared to the other two from the same tour.

The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life 1991 is a real crowd-pleaser, with Zappa doing many covers, often with hilarious results. Purple Haze, Ring Of Fire, Sunshine Of Your Love, and a totally amazing Stairway To Heaven are all great. The Torture Never Stops medley is killer, and Inca Roads is a standout. A great introduction to Zappa, and an indispensable release. Consistently excellent.

Equally good, but a little more work to listen to, is Make A Jazz Noise Here 1991. A smokin' Stinkfoot leads things off, followed by When Yuppies Go To Hell, 14 minutes of virtuoso playing that is awe inspiring. But the entire CD is like that. Black Napkins, King Kong, City Of Tiny Lights, Cruising For Burgers, and Dupree's Paradise are classics. The CD is comprised of Zappa's most difficult to play charts, and this band has no problems meeting the challenge. An amazing experience, but not the rollicking fun of Best Band. Also for fusion lovers that never knew how complex Zappa's work could be.
Check them out- they're all good.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Zappadan 2009

It's the most wonderful time of the year... it's Zappadan. Zappadan is a festival celebrating all things Zappa, running from Dec 4 to Dec 21 each year. It's barely enough time to remember the spirit of Frank Zappa, American Composer. You can celebrate Zappadan in your own way- in fact, why would you possibly celebrate Zappa by doing anything that anyone else might be doing. That's why it's so perfect. I was trying to think of what to post, top five or ten records, great live performances, wonderfully skewed quotes, favorite moments. I'm still struggling.

I have a friend who has tried to let me get him into Zappa for several years. He's a pretty regular guy and likes music and wants to have an open mind, but every time we sit down and I play him some Frank, the music eventually gets too weird for him and he can't take it. Don't ask me to explain this behavior. I think it may be that there's so much going on in Zappa's music that he can't process it all.
A few years ago I made my friend a CD of Zappa tunes that I felt was a swell mix of humor, guitar playing, jazz, and well, all things Zappa in a single CD. Of course, it included many of my favorites. The track list was:
1. Peaches En Regalia Hot Rats 1969
2. Cosmik Debris Apostrophe(‘) 1974
3. Stairway To Heaven The Greatest Band You Never Heard In Your Life 1991
4. Watermelon In Easter Hay Joe’s Garage 1979
5. Hot Plate Heaven At The Green Hotel Broadway The Hard Way 1988
6. Re-gyptian Strut Sleep Dirt 1978
7. I’m The Slime Over-nite Sensation 1973
8. Black Napkins Make A Jazz Noise Here 1991
9. Inca Roads One Size Fits All 1975
10. For The Young Sophisticate Tinsel Town Rebellion 1981
11. Uncle Meat Uncle Meat 1968
12. Oh No Weasels Ripped My Flesh 1970
13. The Orange County Lumber Truck Weasels Ripped My Flesh 1970
14. RDNZL Studio Tan 1978
15. Duke Of Orchestral Prunes Orchestral Favorites 1979
16. Let’s Make The Water Turn Black We’re Only In It For The Money 1968

I'm listening to it now. All songs from my own CDs or LPs. I still think it's one of my best ever compilations, if I may say so myself.

The CD did not apparently turn my friend into a Zappa fan, but your results may vary.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Nick Lowe At My Age 2007

Who doesn't like Nick Lowe? I'm sure they're out there, and I hope they can find their way. Through 40 years in the music business, Lowe has made more than his share of great music. From the early quality of Brinsley Schwartz's strange country/pub-rock output in the seventies, to producing the first four Elvis Costello records, to snarky pop-rock and rockabilly with Rockpile in the eighties, to the more organic, crooner-styled recent work in the ninties and oughts. The overall quality of his work has been as remarkable as it has been diverse, as a producer, songwriter, singer, bass and guitar player, and bandleader.

This most recent Lowe CD (there's a newer "best of" 2 CD set) is no exception. It's a laid-back affair, with Lowe singing his heart out on a great list of new originals. I Trained Her To Love Me, Hope For Us All, People Change, Love's Got A Lot To Answer For, Rome Wasn't Built In A Day, The Other Side Of The Coin are all classics. If some of those titles sound cliche, know that Lowe is better at turning a familiar phrase with a new twist than almost anyone. This record continues the subtle, supple arraignments that made Dig My Mood 1998 and The Convincer 2001 so excellent. A band of crack ace musicians make the whole thing sound effortless.

Some things get better with age, but not many things, it turns out. Nick Lowe is like a fine wine. Thinking back to to his 1978 solo debut, Jesus Of Cool, it seems remarkable that he's still doing it so well. A great tunesmith, a singer that improves with age, and a highly skilled producer in one package. Buy this, and almost anything else he's ever done while you're at it.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Holiday Music

Rough terrain, this one. Holiday Music is often mundane at best, with big stars walking through the standard repertoire, backed by unenthusiastic orchestras. I am rarely excited about single artists collections of holiday music, and generally prefer collections with a variety of artists.
Here's my top five:

The Roches We Three Kings 1990 My personal favorite in the category, a record that delights year after year. There are choral pieces, light baroque, jazzy renditions, modern folk, Celtic, Andrews sisters swing, and folk-rock all cobbled together for a perfect modern/traditional seasonal CD. Breath-taking harmonies on every song, reverence for the hymns, and big fun with the carols, this CD is just about perfect.

Vince Guaraldi Trio A Charlie Brown Christmas The season isn't complete without Christmas Time Is Here and Linus And Lucy. Period.

Phil Spector's Christmas Album 1963 Here is the source of Ronnie Spector's I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. That is reason enough, but there's Darlene Love's White Christmas, the Crystals doing Frosty The Snowman and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans' Here Comes Santa Claus. A rock and roll classic, this one, and well worth seeking out.

Merry Christmas, Baby- Romance And Reindeer From Capitol Records 1991 Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, Lou Rawls, Lena Horne, Johnny Mercer, Glen Campbell, Nancy Wilson, Bing Crosby, and more. All secular, all heart-felt, all fun.
Croon and Swoon A Classic Christmas Volume Two 1999 Another secular gem, with greats from Mel Torme, Johnny Mathis, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Julie Andrews and Eartha Kitt. The Volume One song list just doesn't excite like this one, although I'm sure it's good, too.

For more fun, the Christmas Cocktails (Part One and Two, 1995 and 1997) CDs are also very good, and go a little farther-out than Merry Christmas, Baby or Croon And Swoon.

A fairly non-traditional list now that I look at it. Load the Holiday music onto the iPod, it's that special time of year!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Frank Zappa Buffalo 2007

The Zappa Family Trust has been releasing some interesting items from the vault lately, and this show recorded live in Buffalo NY in 1980 is from an under-represented live touring band from Frank's past. A worthy addition to the Zappa catalog, this 2 CD live set includes many amazing guitar solos and a great track selection. Wonderful versions of Chunga's Revenge, Cosmik Debris, City Of Tiny Lights, Joe's Garage, and Dancing Fool delight. A 23 minute The Torture Never Stops is excellent, with solos from Zappa, Vinnie Colaluta on drums, and some fine keyboard work by Tommy Mars.

The band, like all of Frank's touring outfits, is capable of remarkable technical displays of musical prowess, but they also sound like they are having fun. Steve Vai (guitar), Ray White and Ike Willis (vocals and guitar), Tommy Mars (keyboards), Bob Harris (keyboards and trumpet), Arthur Barrow (bass), and the amazing Vinnie Colaluta (drums) play tight and mighty. Many of the arrangements are unique to this tour, and the set list is a blast. Hearing these songs in this relatively stripped-down group setting is big fun.

Not the place to start if you're new to Zappa, but essential listening for fans. Plenty of offensive moments mean you might not want to drive the kids to school while listening to this one.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Allen Toussaint The Bright Mississippi 2009

Unless something very unusual happens with the new holiday releases this year, I've got my record of the year for 2009. Allen Toussaint has given us what we might least expect from him, a straight-ahead New Orleans jazz album of instrumentals. But this is no standard New Orleans jazz record where all the songs sound alike performed by veteran New Orleans musicians. Quite the contrary, here is a beautiful, immaculately recorded set of songs that takes the New Orleans jazz tradition into the present with an amazing cast of musicians.

Toussaint's piano is excellent throughout, and his style encompasses all of the great New Orleans players from Professor Longhair through Fats Domino and Dr. John.
And the "back-up" band is stellar. The rhythm section is Jay Bellerose on drums, David Piltch on bass, and Marc Ribot on acoustic guitar. Nicolas Payton plays trumpet and Don Byron is on clarinet. Brad Mehldau and Josh Redman each guest on one track. The backing is sympathetic to everything Toussaint does, and the solos are all spectacular. Toussaint is perhaps best known as an arranger, and these songs are impeccably designed as group efforts.

Twelve songs, not a single one makes you want to fast-forward. The record starts with Egyptian Fantasy, a New Orleans march with outstanding clarinet from Byron. Dear Old Southland features piano and trumpet interplay that is nothing short of telepathic, and Toussaint playfully quotes Summertime near the song's end. St. James Infirmary is done as a walking blues. Singin' The Blues is swinging New Orleans style, again featuring wonderful piano and trumpet interplay. Winin' Boy Blues, Jelly Roll Morton's classic, features Brad Mehldau in a piano duet with Toussaint that makes you want a whole record of these two casually playing off each others styles. It's a highlight of the disc. West End Blues is a New Orleans funeral dirge with Professor Longhair flourishes from Toussaint and classic trumpet-clarinet interplay. On Blue Drag, Marc Ribot finally steps out from his rhythm role for a killer, albeit laid back guitar lead. Just A Closer Walk With Thee features smoking clarinet from Byron and Toussaint meandering all around the melody during his piano solo. Monk's The Bright Mississippi is a strutting stomp/march with more trumpet-clarinet interplay and the obligatory bass solo from Piltch. Day Dream features Redman on saxophone giving a tender and beautifully smoking hot reading on this ballad. Toussaint lays down rhythmic changes in a call-and response with Redman that is just too much fun. Long Journey Home features Toussaint's only vocal on the record, a heart-felt look at age and love that also stars Ribot on guitar. Finally, Solitude ends the disc on a delicate note, with Ribot and Toussaint playing off each other as wonderfully as Byron and Payton do on the rest of the record.

There isn't a bum track in the bunch. Record of the year for 2009, and good enough to appeal to jazz lovers as well as anyone with an ear for great music. Not "challenging" jazz, but melodic and skillful. As near perfect as music gets these days, and timeless.

Available on an excellent two LP set- and you get a CD copy when you buy the vinyl. You can't go wrong. A veteran makes the surprise record of his career. Vital and uplifting, relaxed and fun. This will make a fine gift this holiday season for the music lover on your list.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Kelly Willis Translated From Love 2007

This excellent record is just one of many from Ms. Willis that answer the question "What ever happened to great country music?" While the rest of the Country scene is filling the airwaves with a mix of country-rock a la the Eagles and big-hair eighties guitar rock ballads, there still exist artists like Willis. She has a perfect country singer voice with a little twang and lilt, and that catch in her phrasing that lets you understand heartbreak even if you've never been in love.

The record kicks off with Nobody Wants To Go To The Moon Anymore, a rolling rocker with a great hook in the chorus. Too Much To Lose is Willis at her best, crying her way through the pain. Losing You is a classic country tune with wonderful pedal steel guitar and a great lyric. Don't Know Why, The More I'm Around You, and Stone's Throw Away are highlights. There are a few that try just a little too hard, and there's even some concession to the big rock new country sound. But not too much, and when Willis hits her stride, she's unbeatable.

This time out she's produced by Chuck Prophet, with Prophet and Willis co-writing many of the songs, and there is a more rock-oriented sound than earlier recordings. You should probably own What I Deserve 1999 or Easy 2002 if you're new to Kelly Willis. This one almost rivals those former career twin peaks, and is easy to recommend.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Box Sets - Soul and R&B Part 2

After the initial post on this topic there remain a few sets that were left off. So here we go...

The Funk Box 2000- Here's another fine piece of work from Hip-O Records. Covering 1970-1982, this four-disc set hits most of the high points from funk's golden era. James Brown, The Meters, Ohio Players, Funkadelic, Brothers Johnson, Rick James, Bootsy Collins, they're all here. The selections are mostly dance floor hits, and there's always room for debate over what isn't included on a set like this, but this one's pretty solid, and nicely varied. It includes a number of artists not immediately associated with funk (O'Jays, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin), as well as the most obvious suspects (Brown, Kool & The Gang, Ohio Players, Rufus, George Clinton) and quite a few bands you may be hard pressed to remember (The New Birth, Jimmy Castor Bunch, Brass Construction, Bohannon). The selections are consistently good, and the definition of funk is broad enough that the set is varied and eclectic. It's too much funk for many, but it is an excellent overview of the best of the genre. Do it 'till you're satisfied.

What It Is! Funky Soul And Rare Grooves 2006 Here's a set from Rhino Records that is a lot of fun but does not maintain their usual high quality. The tracks are from 1967-1977, and most of the big hits are missing on purpose. Focusing intentionally on lesser-known artists in an attempt to show that there was a lot more funk happening than just the artists on the Funk Box, this is "dirty, gritty, gutbucket funk" according to the excellent book that accompanies the set. Mixed in with a few name artists are many groups distributed by tiny labels and the occasional one almost-hit wonder. As an historical study in funky soul, it is a worthy complement to the big stars, but you've got to want it bad. Compared to most Rhino box sets, the lesser-known artists often sound like they were lesser-known for good reason. There's plenty of good stuff, but those tracks would have fit onto two discs.

Atlantic Soul 1959-1975 2007 Atlantic was a hotbed of great soul stars in the sixties, and this set is packed with great performances. Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, and Patti LaBelle are mixed in with many lesser-knowns, and the quality is quite good. Hits from the smaller artists, and less well-known songs from the big stars help to make the set something other than just another soul compilation with the same old songs. With only Atlantic artists represented, it can't be the set that Rhino's Beg, Scream and Shout is, but it's a good look at a label that did a good job with a variety of soul sounds. You have to be open to hearing some songs you missed the first time around, so don't come here for a comprehensive soul hits package.

Well, I think that mostly covers my collection of R&B box sets. There are of course lots of single and double disc compilations for the more casual fan, and I've got some of those, too. Let me know if I can help you find the set for you.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Marshall Crenshaw Jaggedland 2009

It's been a while since a new Marshall Crenshaw record- since 2003's What's In The Bag, in fact, and it's been even longer since one this good. There are 12 cuts on here and 10 of them are everything you could still want from Crenshaw.

The opener Right On Time is classic guitar pop-rock from the master, and would be a huge single in a perfect world. Passing Through, Never Coming Down, and Eventually are great mid-tempo rocker/ballads that live up to Crenshaw's best. He's always had a good hand for the melancholy side of the rock ballad, all minor chords and the like. Someone Told Me is a rolicking rocker, Stormy River is a blues stomper, and Just Snap Your Fingers has a poppy feel that's just short of his eighties greatness. All in all, it rivals his post-eighties best, right there with Miracle of Science 1996 and #447 1999, and almost approaching 1991's Life's Too Short.

The band is fabulous, with Greg Liesz and Jim Keltner standing out as always. Long Hard Road and the closer Live And Learn keep this one from perfection, but hey, it's mighty close. If you've been looking for Crenshaw's next good one, here it is. Recommended.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cheryl Wheeler Circles & Arrows 1990 and Mrs. Pinocci's Guitar 1995

Cheryl Wheeler is a wonderful folk singer-songwriter who has had a long and productive career. She owns a clear, beautiful voice, and pens some of the most touching love songs and ballads in the genre.

After her first two CDs on the tiny North Star label, she had one CD on Capitol (currently available on Rounder) entitled Circles & Arrows. It contains her own superior version of Aces (made famous by Suzy Bogus), but that's just the beginning of the list of great songs on this CD- Hard Line To Draw, Northern Girl, Moonlight And Roses, When You're Gone, Arrow- they're all gorgeous. There's also the hilarious Estate Sale, a jaunty little ditty about that swell hobby of "Going to dead people's houses, wonderful things they have collected" that is still one of her best joke songs. This CD also received excellent production by Kyle Lemming, and a cast of crack ace Nashville musicians, making it unique among her output.

The CD didn't produce a hit, so Wheeler's subsequent work, since 1993, has all been on the Philo/Rounder label. Her Philo CDs all contain some great songs and beautiful performances, but also several novelty joke songs and loving tributes to her pets that may or may not be your cup of tea. She is really funny, though, and the funny ones on Mrs. Pinocci's Guitar are some of her best. Is It Peace or Is It Prozac? is particularly hilarious. The CD also contains many of her best songs with the title track, Howl At The Moon, and One Love as good as anything she's done.

The follow up, 1999's Sylvia Hotel, is the most consistent of the other titles Wheeler has produced. If you ever get the chance to see her perform live, don't miss it. She is at once hilarious and touching, and her guitar playing and especially her singing are spot on. You'll laugh, you'll cry.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Erin McKeown We Will Become Like Birds 2005

Here's a CD that has spent an inordinate amount of time in the player in recent years. McKeown began as a folk artist, and there's still traces on this mostly pop-rock oriented record. The songwriting is remarkably consistent. The ballads are strong and varied (Float, The Golden Dream, Delicate December), but the real stars here are the rockers.

The record starts with four songs that are almost of a piece- Aspera, Air, Life On The Moon, and To The Stars work so well together, and follow a lyrical of theme of flight that's tied to the album title. To The Stars is a perfect pop rocker with a hook-laden chorus.

Beautiful (I Guess) is a lovely ballad and ode to fractured/imperfect love. We Are More shuffles forward, White City is another catchy pop-rocker, and Bells And Bombs is driving rock. The record ends with You Were Right About Everything, a mid-tempo rocker right out of the Aimee Mann school of post-breakup misery. McKeown's songwriting is consistently excellent, and the lyrics are strong throughout.

But what really makes this record special is the playing. McKeown's guitar playing adds texture and nuance. She's hardly flashy, but she plays with interesting tones and techniques that make every song different. Her high voice is lovely, never squeaky or grating, and she feels the songs as much as she sings them. Of special note is drummer Matt Chamberlain, who adds something special to every song. A swinging, jazzy, idiosyncratic drummer adept at finding just the right flourishes and beats, the record would be considerably less interesting without his input.

Every CD in Ms. McKeown's catalog is different, and several of the others are good, but this one stands out as a near perfect example of the singer-songwriter-rocker genre.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The one Great Record from ...

What's up with those bands that produce that one great record, never to be repeated again? I suppose there are many reasons for this. Sometimes it's the debut that took six years to write the songs before the recording contract happened. After that, the pressure to write as many good songs is just too much for most bands. Sometimes, it's that the band gets the perfect match with the right producer, and it never happens again. Sometimes, it's just that this record hits me just right, and you might choose another one as the "best". But it seems to happen far too often, especially if you're a collector like me, who hears that great record and goes looking for the repeat performance, only to be let down by every other record that band ever made. I've actually tried to swear off the practice of chasing the next great record. Now, when I discover a perfect record, I often don't keep buying music from the artist. I just stop there and listen to the one I love. After 40 years of buying music, I still buy the next record, or the one before the one I love, but I'm trying to rein myself in, and sometimes I'm even successful. Here's some examples:

The Faces A Nod Is As Good As A Wink...To A Blind Horse 1971 A near perfect collection, with Glyn Johns producing, the next record he did after Who's Next. Every song is good, and the best of them are just great- Miss Judy's Farm, Stay With Me, That's All You Need, Debris, Too Bad, You're So Rude. It's better than a "best of" collection. They did lots of other good songs, but never another great album.

Del Amitri Some Other Sucker's Parade 1997 Again, a classic. Twisted 1995 was very good, and so was Can You Do Me Good? 2002. But Some Other Sucker's Parade really captures this band at peak performance. As usual, it's a combination of great songs and production. Not Where It's At, the title cut, Medicine, High Times, Through All That Nothing, Lucky Guy- there isn't a loser on the entire album.

The Connels Still Life 1998 I stumbled across this one after reading a rave review. It's wonderful modern rock, with a Stones-y sound, but more varied textures and excellent singing and, of course, songwriting. Dull, Brown And Gray, The Leper, Curly's Train, Soul Reactor, Still Life, Circlin', Gonna Take A Lie, are all classics. Like all the albums on this list, I can just put it on and listen all the way through. I've bought two or three of their others, and it's never been quite the same.

Gomez How We Operate 2006 I like all of their records, and Split The Difference 2004 comes close to being as good as How We Operate. Some fans could argue that their earlier works are better, and they are definately different. But this one just has it all. Great songs, production, and performance. Notice, See the World, How We Operate, Girlshapedlovedrug, Tear Your Love Apart, Woman! Man!, Cry on Demand, Don't Make Me Laugh, they're all excellent. The most potential radio hits of any of their records. Remarkably consistent.

Guy Clark Boats To Build 1992 Thirty-three minutes of perfection. Every song is beautifully written and sung, and the acoustic instrumentation is recorded very well. Again, I like a lot of Clark's albums- Cold Dog Soup 1999 and The Dark 2002 are almost as good- but this one is a complete knock-out. Every song is a winner. Emmylou Harris guests on I Don't Love You Much Do I, but all the songs are special. Clark is a magnificent songwriter, and here his voice is still intact. The title track is one of those songs to live your life by.

Here's a few more that fit the criteria for me:
Matthew Sweet Girlfriend 1991
Neville Brothers Neville-ization Live At Tipitinas 1984
New York Rock Ensemble Roll Over 1971
5 Chinese Brothers Let's Kill Saturday Night 1997
Badfinger No Dice 1970
Aimee Mann I'm With Stupid 1995
Ryan Adams Gold 2001

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fleetwood Mac Kiln House 1970

The first record after the departure of founder Peter Green should have been a let down. Instead, Danny Kirwin and Jeremy Spencer say never mind the blues, we're here to rock. Moreover, this version of the band could swing.

They have this casual, easy feel to much of this record, none more than the opener This Is The Rock. Station Man is a hypnotic jam that digs a very deep groove. Blood On The Floor is a straight-ahead country blues that suffers from an weak vocal. Hi Ho Silver is a Fats Waller cover that plays fast and fun, and rocks. Then the beauty of Jewel Eyed Judy winds up side one by displaying a feel for dynamic nuances ahead of their time. It's a great song, with a big Badfinger/Big Star chorus that makes you just want to play it one more time before you flip the record over.

Side two doesn't disappoint. Buddy's Song opens, a Buddy Holley cover that's great fun. Earl Gray and One Together show the loose, spacey sound that will develop more fully on Future Games 1971. There's instrumental prowess and skilled songwriting on display everywhere. Tell Me All The Things You Do just plain rocks, with a great guitar riff, and a jam band's tight instrumental playing. Mission Bell , a folk-rock ballad, rounds things out on a quiet note.

Ten songs, at least six classics, maybe eight.

The LP is just all the things that make vinyl fun. It's warm, with nice separation between instruments. John McVie and Mick Fleetwood's rhythm just push the whole record along. An uncredited Christine McVie plays keyboards for the first time with the band. The guitar interplay is about as good as it gets in rock, but it's always in service to the songs. I haven't met people that love this record more than me, but everyone that hears it finds something to like.

A classic.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Greg Milner Perfecting Sound Forever 2009

I just finished reading Greg Milner's excellent book, the title of which is a play on the classic CD sales pitch from the 80s, "Perfect Sound Forever". Mr. Milner traces the history of recorded sound from Edison's wax cylinder to today's ProTools computer-based recording, and manages to show the arc of history by telling many interesting stories of the technologies and personalities involved in the progress through the twentieth century to today.

If you thought that format wars started with VHS or BETA, or SACD or DVD-A, Milner tells us of the format war of the 1920s between Edison's Diamond Disc and the Victor company's Victrola. And it was Edison's relentless pursuit of acoustic recordings, which he knew sounded better than the electronic recordings (even though they did not play as loud) that helped him lose that particular round.

Milner tells the fascinating stories of the early "Tone Tests" designed to prove the quality of the new recorded media. These sales demonstrations had opera singers sing live, followed by recorded versions to wow audiences with the fidelity of the recordings. The focus, even early, on fidelity and sound quality is particularly telling in light of the changes that have reduced fidelity of recorded music in recent decades. And Milner has plenty to say on that topic as well.

Along the way the author interviews recording engineers, producers, businessmen, composers, and audiophiles, weaving wonderful stories that build into a comprehensive history of recorded music that focuses primarily on the recording process.

The attitudes towards sound recording and the enjoyment of those recordings in the home over the past sixty years is a tale that raises questions about how we listen and why we like, or don't like, what we hear. Milner covers this era with a mix of the reporter's objectivity and the great storyteller's colorful insights.
The advent of sampling synthesizers in the 1980s heralds the coming move away from analog recording studios, and the push towards digital, and then to the now pervasive ProTools, and the questionable benefits this progress has brought. The process of mixing pop music to sound louder than other CDs to the point of dynamic compression is given considerable discussion, as is the controversial use of the Auto Tune Pro Tools application.

There isn't much said about the SACD and DVD-A formats, and that seems a little odd, given how comprehensive the book seems otherwise. Then again, what can be the point of spending time on another marketing debacle.

It is a very fun read while being very informative. That's a good book any day. My only warning is that Greg Milner is pretty clearly in the analog camp, even though he tries hard to at least sound objective. If you think anybody that listens to vinyl is completely nuts, this might not be your book. Then again, if you want to know how we got to this place in recorded music, and be entertained while you learn, read this book. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Box Sets - Soul and R&B

Let me start by saying up front that I am an absolutely huge fan of sixties soul music. I have vinyl copies of many of the Motown three-disc anthologies- Stevie Wonder, Four Tops, Temps, Supremes, Marvin Gaye, etc. and they are all good stuff. So I don't own any of the four-disc CD sets by these artists, but if you've got a favorite, there's sure to be some non-hits in those boxes that are fun to hear.

I do own a bunch of soul sets that I thoroughly enjoy, so I'll talk about some of those.

Beg, Scream and Shout! The Big 'Ol Box of Sixties Soul 1997. This is a huge six CD box that is a treasure trove of hits and lesser hits that is just about as good as it gets. With artists appearing no more than once on the set, there are some unusual choices from big artists that won't please everyone, but the set more than makes up for it with rare 45s and great minor hits. There are numerous original versions of songs made into hits in the seventies by Linda Ronstadt, J. Geils Band, and Janis Joplin, to name but a few. If you're open to discovering some great old songs you've either never heard or forgotten, mixed up with big hits from most major artists, and including a healthy dose of Memphis-style "deep soul", this will keep you very happy for a good long while. One of the best box sets ever.

Hitsville U.S.A. The Motown Singles Collection 1959-1971 1992
Easy one-stop shopping for most of the biggest Motown hits, and a few interesting lesser-known artists. This really focuses on what you're already familiar with, and as such it's packed with great songs. Nicely done in chronological order.

The Complete Stax//Volt Singles 1959-1968 1991
This nine-disc set is definitely diving into the deep end. There's great songs here by Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, Booker T & The MGs, Sam and Dave, and many more. The ones you know are outnumbered by the ones you've likely never heard (unless you lived in the southern US and listened to the black radio station), and that is either what you like about this set or it's what you hate about it. I love it, but even I have a hard time spending a lot of time with it. But every time I throw a disc on, I'm amazed at the quality of what this label did overall, and the sound they got in the studio is just wonderful. Funky stuff, but only recommended to the hard core.

Soul Spectacular! The Greatest Soul Hits of All Time 2002
This four-disc set is a great crowd-pleaser. It overlaps Beg, Scream and Shout a lot (they are both Rhino products), but if you want a taste of that set with less cost, here you go. There's less of the obscure on this set, but it otherwise hits most of the big hits, licensing issues keeping a few out.

Can You Dig It? The Seventies Soul Experience 2001
Yet another Rhino product, and another killer. A six CD set companion to Beg, Scream and Shout!, this one proves soul was still quite alive in at least the first half of the seventies. Mixing big hits with lesser-known fare, the formula works again. The last two discs are a little heavy on the burgeoning disco era, but they avoid most of the worst of that genre. Not as easy to recommend as the sixties stuff, but an excellent package for the soul fanatic.

Dave Godin's Deep Soul Treasures Taken From The Vaults... Vols. 1-4 1997-2004
This one isn't actually a box set but four individual compilations. But oh, my, what an amazing collection of hidden jewels. Each of the four discs contains 2-5 songs you've maybe heard before, and twenty more that it is hard to believe weren't hits. Gave Godin was an English music journalist and soul fan that compiled these mostly rare recordings. Let's just say that Mr. Godin loved his work, and was particularly good at it. All four discs are to die for, and if you're not convinced, you can buy any one and see what you think. I think you'll buy the rest.

There's a few I've left out, so I may have to return to this theme again, but I can't end until I've mentioned
James Brown Star Time 1991
Yes, four discs of James Brown may be too much for some. But this, for me, is the best single-artist four CD set ever. The first two discs are the sixties and early seventies hits, and are just essential. There's a few extended versions and interesting alternatives, but it's the singles you want, and they're all here. The later seventies and eighties tracks on the last two discs explore Brown's love and mastery of funk, and there's only 2-3 non-essential tracks here. Unless you already own a ton of JB, this box is a terrific buy.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham Live-Moments From This Theatre, 2005

Now here is a wonderful CD from a few years ago. Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham were very successful songwriters in the 60s and 70s, mostly writing soul and country songs and working as session musicians (especially Oldham, whose piano has graced many Memphis gems, and he has played recently with Drive By Truckers). This live recording was made during a 1988 tour of England and Ireland opening for Nick Lowe. Penn plays guitar and sings while Oldham adds harmony vocals and brilliant Wurlitzer piano. No rhythm section is needed. Penn's vocals are expressive, and he inhabits his own lyrics like an old pro, which, of course he is.

Sensitive readings of I'm Your Puppet, Cry Like A Baby, The Dark End Of The Street, A Woman Left Lonely, and Ol' Folks show Penn has a marvelously rich voice that just oozes tenderness. Great songs originally recorded by Aretha Franklin, the Box Tops, and others all surface here- these guys wrote a ton of hits- and every version on this CD is a revelation. As hard as it is to imagine two sixty-something dudes doing justice to Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, they pull it off. There are some delightful lyrical surprises on Lonely Women Make Good Lovers and Memphis Women and Chicken. There isn't a bad song in the bunch, and every performance is stellar.

Penn's guitar holds the songs together while Oldham's piano adds the color on most of these gems.
Oldham's piano is relaxed and playful, and it is always just the right touch. The recording is close-miked and sounds like they are sitting and playing in your living room. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Proclaimers Notes and Rhymes 2009

The record starts with the big hit single Love Can Move Mountains. It's big, hit single stuff, but it's not (I'm Gonna Be) 500 Miles or There's a Touch. But let's not hold that against them, what next? The title track is their classic "wild abandon" track, rocking with a jungle beat, and it's up to par. From there, the CD is heavy on ballads and mid-tempo fare, but they're well written and sung examples of the form. Highlights include It Was Always So Easy (To Find An Unhappy Woman), Like A Flame, and the fear of terrorists statement I Know. Politics reappear on Free Market - you can guess- and this is very similar to S-O-R-R-Y on their last CD, 2007's Life With You.

There's no quirky cover song, no giant hit, and not enough fast songs. But there are plenty of excellent songs, and the twins' tight harmonies are always great to hear- they are the only current incarnation of the Everly Brothers, and they deserve the title. They write good songs, and they have a crack band, and, well, it should be just a little more exciting than this one. Just a little more.

So the great Scots haven't delivered their best. If you're already a fan, there's plenty to enjoy, but for the unfamiliar, best to go back to the 2001 masterpiece Persevere, or even the 2002 The Best Of...87-02. And if you've never heard the Proclaimers, and you are a sucker for a pop tune and gorgeous harmonies, you really should try one of those two right now.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Brendan Benson My Old Familiar Friend 2009

Brendan Benson is a popmeister from Detroit that mixes power-pop styles with singer-songwriter fare as he navigates the pains of relationships. He has an unusually direct way with a lyric and easily blends pop and occasionally folk styles into a nice contemporary pop-rock. His latest record, My Old Familiar Friend is produced by Gil Norton (Pixies, Belly, Del Amitri), and the production work has added new sounds and flavors to Benson's work.

Benson can write nice twists into his lyrics that add some irony such as on this record's opener "I feel a whole lot better when you're not around, I feel a whole lot better when you come around" and similarly contradictory lines in I Feel Like Taking You Home ("I feel like being alone"). Several of the slower tracks have added strings, and the arrangements add a nice dimension to some of Benson's songs that need some flavor to set them apart. There are big power-pop rockers (A Whole Lot Better, Poised And Ready, Don't Wanna Talk, Borrow), nice mid-tempo pop in an upbeat, Aimee Mann mode (Eyes On The Horizon, You Make A Fool Out Of Me, Lessons Learned), and a few surprises. Garbage Day starts like a 70s soul classic by the Spinners with strings layered over a pop gem, and Gonowhere has a synth intro that sounds a bit like ELP's Lucky Man. But Benson's musical references are less obvious on this record than on some of his past work, and Norton's production work helps to keep the record varied in sound if not song structure.

There are a few weaker moments (Feel Like Taking You Home, Lessons Learned) that are kept from being too boring with nice production flourishes. Overall, an excellent record from a skilled songwriter who can assemble a pop song with the best of them. Lovers of the folkier first two records (One Mississippi, 1996, Laplaco, 2002) may miss the lower-fi attitude of those records. This new one builds on the very good work on Alternative To Love, 2006, and having Gil Norton produce seems to have helped keep the songs interesting even during the energy lulls of the more singer-songwriter tunes. Recommended.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Intro

So here I begin blogging about music old and new, and occasionally about electronic music reproduction equipment. My only qualifications are a large music collection, a good stereo, ears and enthusiasm.

My musical interests were formed in my teen years, which puts sixties rock, pop and soul, early seventies rock, late seventies new wave, punk and power-pop at the top of my list. But I listen to plenty of melodic jazz and current jazz-pop, and I like classical music, attending several Cleveland Orchestra concerts at Severence Hall each season. And I enjoy lots of newer music, but I haven't got any Britney albums or death metal or gangsta rap. I guess you'll learn more about me and my musical tastes if you end up stopping by and reading the blog once in a while. My plan is to review music that is both old and new, and add any other musical blather I come up with to the web-o-sphere.

The title of the blog comes from an interview with Frank Zappa in which he commented on music journalism, saying that "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." I know that this quote has been attributed to many people, but I like thinking Frank said it first.