Thursday, April 29, 2010

Dwight Yoakam This Time 1993

Dwight Yoakam has made many a fine record, but none better than this relatively early one. This Time is flawless, and Pete Anderson's production and guitar playing are stellar throughout. And then there is the songwriting. Yoakam writes many of them himself, and gets help on the others from Kostas, a writing hired gun that appears on many records if you keep your eye on writing credits.

Pocket Of A Clown starts things off, and it's a catchy shuffle with a nice heartbreak lyric. A Thousand Miles From Nowhere is the big guitar country/rock number that Yoakam does as well as anyone, and he manages to still sound a little country. It is that great voice and Bakersfield attitude that does it. Home For Sale is a perfect country weeper, with a great lyric delivered in Yoakam's aching yodel. The title cut is another fabulous heartbreak song. You just know that when Yoakam sings "This time is the last time she'll ever hurt me again", that he'll be back for more.

Two Doors Down is a barroom weeper with a killer electric piano part that sounds like 3 am. Ain't That Lonely Yet is the perfect kiss-off to the woman that wants him back, and Yoakam plays it straight, as always. King Of Fools has a Texas swing feel with fiddle and tremolo guitar. Fast As You is the fast rocker, and it is helped along by driving drums and Hammond organ. The pain in Yoakam's delivery of Try Not To Look So Pretty is palpable, and the lyric is again a nice twist on country's oldest theme. Wild Ride is a funny rocker about that girl that just might be too much, except, of course, for Dwight. The record ends with Lonesome Roads, a fairly typical country song that none the less ends a great record with another strong lyric and arrangement, featuring fiddle and pedal steel guitar.

The strength of the songwriting is impressive to say the least. Just when you think nobody could write another country song with originality about one of the three topics covered by all country songs, along comes Yoakam, and writes an entire album of them. The band is hot, the production perfect, the singing is killer. There are many other good Yoakam albums, and this one sits at the top of that heap.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Rotary Connection Black Gold: The Very Best of Rotary Connection 2006

Rotary Connection was an interesting band. The group was assembled by Marshall Chess, son of the legendary Leonard Chess. Marshall saw the burgeoning psychedelic music genre and figured he'd cash in on the idea for his new record label Cadet Concept, a subsidiary of daddy's Chess records. Or maybe he just wanted to try something different. He hired a multiracial gang of artists, singers and arrangers to develop a mix of cover versions of popular rock and pop songs of the day and originals done in quasi-classical psychedelic style with dashes of pop, spacey interludes, rock and soul. It actually worked to produce something unique and original in pop. That unique something never developed much more than a small audience in the midwest. I bought the first one for the cool cover, and liked the music. I saw the band live in Cleveland opening for the Lemon Pipers in 1969.

They released six records between 1967 and 1971. That first record was the only one just like it that they made, but their other records always contained some good songs. And that's where this 2 CD set comes in. They came pretty close to making exactly this much good music that you might like to hear today. Or you will think this is the most ridiculously dated sounding CD ever. You'll have to decide.

Their secret weapons were Minnie Riperton, with her five-octive range, and classical-pop arranger-producer songwriter Charles Stepney. But the rest of the band and singers were good, and there are plenty of musicians on the records. Eight of the thirteen tracks from the debut are here, and they are fun to hear. The cover of Soul Man from that eponymous album is sadly left off this Best Of, but their albums are all available on CD. The first is available by itself (and it was almost tempting to recommend it over this Best Of) and their other records are available as twofers- two albums on one CD (the sixth record was a Christmas album, and it was one weird Christmas album- it is not available on CD as far as I know.)

Sometimes they sound like the Carpenters on acid. Sometimes they sound like the Hollywood Strings on acid. And sometimes they sound like the Fifth Dimension doing Cream covers, on acid. They do covers of Sunshine Of Your Love, Respect, Didn't Want to Have To Do It, We're Going Wrong and The Weight. And there are quite a few Stepney originals that hold their own with the covers, although a few are overly syrupy. Peace and love abound.

This big, orchestrated pop-psych sound is the one thing that continues through all of their work. They always have skilled singers, the playing is top notch, and the arrangements, well, here's the thing. The arrangements are pretty out there, especially the covers. And they don't all work. But they are consistently different. Nobody does them this way. Yea, it's hippy-heavy in a way hippies of the time wrote off as hype. But they were wrong. It's fun stuff, and it is well-executed.

I don't know if you'd like this one as much as I do, but you can always donate it to the library. It is a unique historical document.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Desert Island Discs

"If you were stranded on a desert island, which 10 CDs would you take?" (Assuming there's electricity and a stereo on the island.)

Many a late night hour has been filled seeking the answer to this question. There are many factors to ponder, to consider, to argue about. Like what are the qualities of the music you'll choose? Should you take your 10 favorites? Should you try to cover a range of styles/genres? Do you take the CDs with your 10 favorite songs, or are you looking for complete records that contain only songs you like.

I approach this list with the latter attitude. I'm looking for CDs that I like from start to end, because they are the only 10 I'll have. I don't want a single crappy song. So I'm only considering records that I think are near perfect, every song.

I'd come up with a different list next week, or last year (but it would always contain one of the first three records by The Band). So, for today, here's my Desert Island CD List:

The Band The Band 1969
Blood On The Tracks Bob Dylan 1974
Rubber Soul The Beatles 1965
Live In Paris Diana Krall 2002
Star Time James Brown 1991
Kiln House Fleetwood Mac 1970
It's Too Late To Stop Now Van Morrison 1974
How We Operate Gomez 2006
Live At Blues Alley Eva Cassidy 1996
Boats To Build Guy Clark 1992

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Aimee Mann I'm With Stupid 1995

Sometimes I ask myself Why do I keep buying these Aimee Mann CDs? Here's the answer. I keep waiting for her to repeat this record.

Long Shot opens the record with a driving rhythm and great lyric. Choice In The Matter and Sugarcoated are great mid-tempo rockers. You Could Make A Killing is a quiet, rolling ballad with a dangerous underside. Superball totally rocks with crunchy guitar and and great lyrics. Several songs in the middle slow down to the pace that almost kills her later records. The record rebounds with That's Just What You Are, Frankenstein, and It's Not Safe, all upbeat rockers.

The lyrics are outstanding throughout. Snappy pop-rock tempos and hooks are everywhere. And big guitars. And she's really angry, but she has that beautiful voice. Jon Brion produces and plays, and the sound is good. And Mann herself is really pushing all the buttons on this one. Many of her records are just too languid. But not this one. You really should hear it.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Kinks Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1969

A while back I said some very disparaging things about Ray Davies most recent work. He's one of my favorite songwriters, and the work he did with the Kinks in the late sixties and early seventies is vital even today. He's also managed to put out some fine solo records in recent years.

Arthur is my personal favorite. There are others that come very close, and I wouldn't argue with you if Village Green or Muswell Hillbillies topped your list. But Davies' reverence for English society and the idyllic life of leisure once afforded the gentried class, as well as his sharp eye aimed at the misery of the working class, is, for me, exemplified in Arthur. And it rocks.

Victoria is a rocking ode to the great queen's era. Drivin' is Davies at his best painting that little picture with all those tiny details of a small joy of living. Australia is a classic, with a great chorus and a jammed-out forever ending.

No one ever takes his life or beats around the bush in Australia
So if you're young and if you're healthy why not get a boat and come to Australia...
We'll surf like they do in the USA
We'll fly down to Sidney for our holiday
On sunny Christmas day, Australia

The guitar sounds that Ray and brother Dave get on this record are beautiful. She Bought A Hat Like Princess Marina is another of Davies' sharply drawn observations of the working class, and it's both funny and sad. Arthur is another driving rocker with thoughtful lyrics about the disappearance of the middle class. In between, Davies laments the horrors of war (Yes Sir, No Sir, Some Mother's Son), and longs for the better days of old (Young And Innocent Days).

The Kinks made many wonderful records, but I still come back to this one with regularity. It is available on lovingly mastered, newly reissued vinyl, too, if that's your thing.

The Xx 2009

I wrote the review below when this record was new to me, and I didn't realize how good it really is. Much of my descriptions are fine, but my conclusion that the record lacks merit is way off. I have since come to appreciate what this band does so well.

Here’s a band that has gotten a ton of hype. Hailed as the next big thing just last year, this London band mixes minimalism with an ambient, chill out vibe and softly whispered vocals singing lyrics drenched in teenage angst.

I had somehow managed to miss the news when they arrived. I’m sure I at least read a review in Mojo, but if the review described their music at all accurately, I would have moved on quickly. I heard the disc when I was in an upscale stereo store last month listening to this ridiculously good system that cost close to six figures, and the Xx were playing. So I ordered it.

For what it is, it’s a good record. It’s well recorded (and it did sound wonderful on that world class stereo). The music is minimalist in the same way as, say, the third Velvet Underground album, but without that record’s rock base. Spacey keyboards, ultra-simplistic guitar lines, and (here comes the really bad news) electronic beats straight from hip-hop and everywhere else these days. The organic sound of a real drummer might have helped, but I suppose I’m just too old to "get it" in this instance. I’ve never really liked drum machines, and the new beat generators and samplers don’t improve on that sound.

On top of the sparse sound, the two singers, guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Oliver Sim sing in soft whispered tones that are really the best thing about this band. Their male-female harmonies are excellent (Croft has the better voice), and their voices are unique and interesting together. Jamie Smith adds beats and MPC (sampler), and Baria Queshi plays keyboards and guitar.

After I got the record, I played it several times as background music while something else was going on, and I really thought I liked it. Then I put headphones on and gave it a thorough listening in preparation for this writing. Here are some of my notes: sparse sound; clean recording; like early U2, not much instrumental talent; too much electronic drums; nothing moves fast.

There were some highlights. VCR has a great vocal duet and uses the primitive guitar sound to good effect. Crystalised has a slightly threatening mid-tempo pop sound with spooky distant female backing vocals. Shelter is a yearning love song with a nice guitar part. Basic Space has strange harmonies that somehow work.

Islands sounds like dragging Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac through a two-note version of Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark, and that is not a good thing. The rest is so minimal as to be, well, boring. Good napping music, if you need music to nap by. The record goes very slowly nowhere. Yes, the vocals are good. But minimalism here is taken to such an extreme that you really wonder if these guys could play any faster. And the sampled beats are irritating and don’t seem to do much for the overall sound. The teenage angst is over the top. I know I’m old, but really. Sixties girl groups didn’t whine this much.

It’s popular. It’s the next big thing. It will be so last week in another month. If you really like chill-out, it might be worth your money. Against the tide of popular opinion, not at all recommended.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Boz Scaggs My Time: A Boz Scaggs Anthology 1969-1997

Boz Scaggs has had an interesting history in contemporary music, and has made many excellent records in several styles. Always a consummately smooth and tasteful R&B singer, and a gifted songwriter, much of his best work has been criminally neglected.

His debut solo record from 1969, Boz Scaggs was a mix of blues, country blues, and the sweet ballads he delivers so well. While not a great album, it contains the classic Loan Me A Dime, featuring Duane Allman on slide guitar. (It's not really his debut. He recorded a record in 1965, called Boz, which may have been released only in Europe, and he played and sang on the first two Steve Miller Band records.)

His early seventies records were excellent. Moments 1971, Boz Scaggs And Band 1971, My Time 1972, and Slow Dancer 1974, were all solid records. Carefully arranged, well-written R&B with a horn section and female backup singers and Boz's fine singing, they are still good today, even if they sound a little dated. They all contain moments of driving R&B, heartfelt ballads, and wonderful mid-tempo rock with horns.

In 1976 Silk Degrees was Boz's biggest hit record and contained the single most people remember him for, Lowdown. Recorded with the musicians who would become Toto, and others, it made it's way to the Disco dance floor. Follow-ups Down Two Then Left 1977 and Middle Man 1980 attempted to repeat the Silk Dgrees formula, and Middle Man came close.

After an eight year hiatus, Scaggs returned with Other Roads 1988, a disappointing foray into the burgeoning Adult Contemporary market. In 1994, Boz reappeared with Some Change, an interesting record and mostly a return to form. Some Change is a little heavy on the ballads that suit Scagg's voice so well, but it's a good record. 1996 saw Scaggs deliver Fade Into Light, released only in Japan until 2005, the record contains some re-recordings of a few earlier songs mixed with new material. It good, but it's very mellow.

In 1997, the year of the Anthology I'm ostensibly reviewing, Boz released Come On Home. Hearkening back to his earlier blues roots, this mix of straight blues and R&B is a killer record. If you have any interest in Boz Scaggs, this one is indispensable. His singing is great, the material is excellent, and the cast of musicians is stellar. In fact, if you're at all into the blues, you should hear this record.

The Anthology serves up two CDs of Boz, and it's very good. There's too much focus on the his slick hit period from 1976-80, but that's what most people know him for, and they are good songs. There's a good introduction to his early seventies output that will surprise a few listeners, and of course Loan Me A Dime is there, all 13 minutes of it. The later years include some soundtrack songs and one-offs that are only so-so, but most of it holds up. I would have put together a different collection, but this one is darn good. Only one song from Come On Home is disappointing, but it's such a good record you need to own every song anyway.

More recently, Boz Scaggs has delivered two fine albums of jazz standards. But Beautiful 2003 and Speak Low 2008 are both excellent late-night, laid back jazz records with fine players, and Scaggs' glorious voice and subtle phrasing do justice to the great American songbook.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Vampire Weekend Contra 2010

What does a band need to be good? I've thought about this from time to time, and there's three things that every good pop/rock band needs. First, you need a good singer. For many listeners, this person does not have to actually have a good voice as long as they have attitude. I prefer those singers that are actually good singers, but I like some of those attitude guys, too. Next you need good songwriting. It's a big plus if you have at least two songwriters, since any one writer has maybe 5-6 rock songs in them, and if you only have one writer, then you have to repeat ideas just to finish one record. Third, you need a drummer. The drummer needs to keep time well at a minimum, and they also need to add interesting touches or unusual rhythms. That's all you really need.

Plenty of bands have gotten by with no more than the above essential elements. I hope I haven't offended bass players, since my brother is a bass player. You really don't need a great guitar player (think Grand Funk). Mostly any skilled keyboard player will do, unless the band is keyboard based (Bruce Hornsby, Ben Folds, Elton John). My point is that the above three ingredients are essential for any good band, and these ingredients are the only truly essential elements.

Vampire Weekend is an excellent example of this theory. They have a delightful, high tenor in singer Ezra Koenig. The songwriting is credited to all four band members, and it certainly sounds to me like at least two of them write melodies. The lyrics are fairly cryptic most of the time (at least I don't usually know what they're about), but they work well within the music and Koenig's phrasing helps them work. Christopher Tomson is a fine drummer. The band uses African and Reggae derived rhythms quite a bit, and this adds a significant level of interest to their music. If everything was basic rock rhythms, this record would be just another decent pop record. With Tomson on the kit, the songs sound fresh and different, especially since these rhythms are being put to use in what are otherwise modern pop songs, which is unusual. Chris Baio is fine on bass, and Rostam Batmanglij is the keyboard/multi-instrumentalist that makes the vast majority of the music heard here.

Horchata opens with one of those African rhythms, and there's that staccato plucked guitar/marimba sound so common to Nigerian music. White Sky follows in a similar vein and is accented with excellent percussion and a wordless chorus that is great fun. Holiday is a fast ska/reggae rhythm with a cool keyboard part and driving guitar, all with fun vacation lyrics. California English is another quick-paced ditty that uses that African plucked guitar sound and big backup vocals on the chorus. Taxi Cab, Run, Cousins, and Giving Up The Gun are all strong songs with interesting instrumental and rhythmic touches, and good lyrics and vocals.

Diplomat's Son milks it's Reggae light thing a bit too long, and I Think Ur A Contra ends the record on a low note, a slow ballad that features Koenig's vocals and adds a string section that can't save the song from it's own inertia.

That's ten songs, and the first eight are very good to excellent. This should be the soundtrack to the coming summer. It's fun, poppy, and clean pop/rock with interesting songwriting, solid singing, and a great drummer. Batmanglij adds plenty of interesting little sounds to the mix, and is a creative keyboard player as well as a good guitarist. It's not deep or heavy or particularly important. And that spells great pop in my book.