Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bruce Cockburn Breatfast In New Orleans, Dinner In Timbuktu 1999

Bruce Cockburn has made plenty of good records, but they don't get any better than this one right here.

When You Give It Away is a masterfully written blues with an exceptional lyric and great rhythm. Mango is that tone poem chant that Cockburn does so well. Last Night Of The World is just plain one of the top five most romantic songs ever. Really. It has that folk-singer-songwriter thing in spades, then breaks into a mid-tempo rocking chorus. It is a beautiful song.

Down To The Delta is a swinging swamp jazz instrumental. It could stand up on a Bill Frisell record. There's a radical version of Blueberry Hill with distorted guitar and Hammond organ that does something meaningfully different with this chestnut. Let The Bad Air Out is a slightly ska, slightly blues flavored folk song. Look How Far is a sentiment not many songwriters can pull off, but Cockburn's authentic sincerity does it with a straight face. Canada's Jackson Browne.

The record slows down a tad near the end, but it's not a rock and roll record as much as it is a study of what New Orleans feels like inside. And as usual, Cockburn nails it. If you've never heard Bruce Cockburn, where have you been? He plays guitar like a champ, writes intense songs with deep heartfelt humanity, has an excellent voice, and always has a stellar cast of supporting musicians. Lucinda Williams sings on a few on this record. But Cockburn's the star, and of his many fine records, this on calls me back after ten years of hearing it. Good stuff.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Power Pop

For me, the idea of Power Pop started with the pop side of what was called New Wave music in the late seventies. Nick Lowe, Dwight Twilly, Elvis Costello, The Romantics, and a few others received the label first, followed by retroactive Power Pop status awarded to The Raspberries and Big Star. Clearly the roots of this sound are found in sixties rock from The Beatles, The Who, and Small Faces, with a long list of other highly melodic, guitar-based, hook-filled wonders.

The Power Pop sound has been alive and well for the last three decades. Quite a few purveyors have added to the fray, and many of them are excellent. The Spongetones, Marshall Crenshaw, Del Amitri, Sloan, The Smithereens, Matthew Sweet, Tommy Keene, Material Issue, and countless others.

So here's a few good ones:

Matthew Sweet Kama Ga Suki 2003

Steve Ward Opening Night 2000

Sloan Between The Bridges 1999

The Smithereens Green Thoughts 1988

The Spongetones Odd Fellows 2000

The Mood Elevator Married Alive 2003

Fountains Of Wayne Welcome Interstate Managers 2003

Richard X. Heyman Hey Man! 1991

Tommy Keene Ten Years After 1996

Del Amitri Some Other Sucker's Parade 1997

Brendan Benson The Alternative To Love 2005

Gigolo Aunts Minor Chords And Major Themes 1990

The Hang Ups Second Story 1999

Bill Lloyd Set To Pop 1994

The Proclaimers Persevere 2001

And the record that while it did not define the form, certainly perfected it:

Marshall Crenshaw Marshall Crenshaw 1982

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Kirsty MacColl From Croydon To Cuba... An Anthology 2003

Kirsty MacColl had a rather strange career, but produced several unusually good albums, and she possessed a killer voice and a keen sense for songwriting. This three-CD set does a nice job of touching all the bases in a varied career, and throws in several rarities that are top notch, for that sort of thing.

Each of her five full-length albums (1981-200) is well represented, and many non-album singles from her early career appear. A few have never been released on CD. Tracks recorded for her second album, Real, that was never released, are also included.

Some of the early material is a bit too eighties synth-heavy, but most of the songs are the classic perky pop with intelligent lyrics that are the hallmark of her early pop period. There's A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis, A New England, He's On The Beach and They Don't Know all all great singles, and offer an interesting glimpse into the pop sensibility and humor that infuse her entire output.

Her work throughout the nineties included three fantastic albums. Electric Landlady (1991) was a fine blend of folk, pop, rock, and even a bit of rap on Walking Down Madison. He Never Mentioned Love, All I Ever Wanted, My Affair and Walking Down Madison are all strong songs, all with hook-laden choruses and memorable melodies. My Affair is an early example of her love for Latin music, later fully realized on Tropical Brainstorm (2000).

Tropical Brainstorm was her last album before her untimely death, and it is a perfect blend of Latin rhythms, great songwriting, and Kirsty's wonderful voice. Mambo De La Luna, In These Shoes?, Celestine, Alegria, and England 2 Columbia 0 are all just plain classics.

Between those high points came Titanic Days (1993), her high-water mark, and one of my personal favorites. Produced by then husband Steve Lillywhite, Titanic Days has it all: bright love song You Know It's You, tales of very bad men (to which MacColl seems drawn, at least in her lyrics) Titanic Days, Can't Stop Killing You, and Bad, and the sentimental melancholy of Soho Square. The airy, dreamy Angel and Tomorrow Never Comes are beautiful. Lillywhite's production and the backing of crack musicians help realize MacColl's most consistent songwriting, and her performances are both cool and riveting.

The Anthology does a fine job of representing her entire career, from They Don't Know (the original that Tracy Ullman made famous) to In These Shoes?, a hilarious tale of dangerous love. It includes (as does Galore) the classic Fairytale In New York with the Pogues. It is well worth your dollars or pounds or euros.

For the uninitiated, there is a newer single-disc Best Of that is a good choice, although in trying to cover everything on one CD, you miss some good stuff. The 1995 collection Galore might be a better single-disc choice. If you love it, you can buy Tropical Brainstorm and have most of her best output. Personally I couldn't do without Titanic Days, but that's an odd place to start, because it is such a singular record.

The collections What Do Pretty Girls Do? (BBC recordings) and The Essential Collection and The One And Only (both early Stiff records collections that are not complete career overviews) are for devout fans only. Avoid them unless you must own everything.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bonus Tracks

The new remastered version of the Rolling Stones Exile On Main Street is out with ten bonus tracks. I haven't heard it yet, so there could be some swell tracks we've never heard. But I doubt it.

There have been thousands of remastered "with bonus tracks" CDs over the last thirty years. I've bought more than my share. I can't think of more than a handful of bonus tracks that added anything to the experience of the original album. There may be some sort of academic interest in the bonus tracks, but really improving on the original? Not so much. Every once in a while, bonus tracks include singles that were never released on an album, and some of those can be worth hearing.

What is a producer's job? Well, one of the important roles of a producer is to choose which songs are the best, and/or which songs fit into the particular record being produced. Bonus tracks typically prove that the producers did a fine job the first time around. The bonus tracks were the outtakes from the recording session. They were left off for good reason. Often the bonus tracks are unfinished, which makes matters just that much worse.

I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who disagree with me on this one, and far be it from me to tell those people how to enjoy their music.

Worst offender: The Beatles Anthology series. Six CDs of outtakes and early versions. You might want to listen to three tracks more than once. I know these are not really bonus tracks because there is nothing else on these CDs, but it is still getting you to pay for the stuff on the cutting room floor.

Best bonus tracks: The Band Rock Of Ages. Here we get the rest of the songs performed live that night, including some songs with guest Bob Dylan. Even so, the original record is not improved, and the bonus tracks are not as good as what was originally released.

Why is this such a common phenomenon? Well, vinyl LPs held about 50 minutes of music. You could cram 60 minutes in (Todd Rundgren's A Wizard, A True Star), but the fidelity was reduced because the grooves had to be crammed together. CDs hold 74-78 minutes of music, so there's plenty of room for the crap that was left of the original album. And, of course, now you can resell the "enhanced" product as something other than what the customer bought the first time.

It's like your favorite restaurant decided to give you a free pile of yesterday's leftovers with every meal. Yum.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Girl Group Greats 2001 More Girl Group Greats 2001 One Kiss Can Lead To Another: Girl Group Sounds, Lost & Found 2005

The Girl Group sub-genre was a fascinating little piece of sixties pop that really didn't last too long, but certainly has had a lasting effect on popular music through influence and inspiration. The concept didn't exactly begin in the sixties or even the fifties. The Andrews Sisters are sort of a modern place to begin, but the girl groups of the sixties saw producers using the form to elevate teen drama to new heights. And what a day that it was...

These Rhino CDs and box set are spot on perfect. The two separate Girl Group Greats and More Girl Group Greats include the essential classics and better lesser hits of this genre. Little Peggy March singing I Will Follow Him, Lesley Gore's It's My Party and You Don't Own Me, The Paris Sisters' I Love How You Love Me, the list goes on and on. Shangri-Las, Chiffons, The Angels, Supremes, and The Dixie Cups: this set has it all.

Or does it. You can go deeper. Much, much deeper. Rhino's One Kiss Can Lead To Another, a four disc set with reasonably slick packaging, Includes many of the groups from the two Girl Group CDs, usually performing less well known hits, and a bevy of obscurities that certainly are entertaining, if not the equal of some of the hits. Not all of the one-off girl group selections are top rate, and the set can force you into academic mode just to get through it all. So you gotta want it.

Anyone who loves sixties pop sounds should like the Girl Groups and More... CDs. They sound good, the hits are all there and the occasional non-hit is always perfect.

The box set One Kiss Can Lead To Another is certainly recommended, but with reservations. You have to really want to delve into the girl group sound, and not every track is a winner. Most are very solid. In today's "download the hits" era, it may be more than any but the most dedicated are ready for.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mitsuko Uchida and the Cleveland Orchestra Mozart Piano Concertos 23 and 24 2009

It's Mother's Day, and I get to make dinner for three of my favorite mothers: my beautiful wife, my charming mother-in-law, and our dear friend Susan. You might be doing the same, and wondering what to put on the stereo for dinner. Easy one. Mozart.

As I mentioned before, my wife and I attended a five-year cycle of Mozart's piano concertos played and conducted from the piano by Ms. Uchida and the Cleveland Orchestra. Two years ago the cycle began repeating, and in December of 2008, this live recording was made. I was there. Aren't I cool.

First, the orchestra. Since the arrival of Franz Welser-Most, the Cleveland Orchestra has been an amazing ensemble to hear playing Mozart. Welser-Most takes a serene approach to Mozart, emphasizing delicacy and cohesion over emotional grandeur. Ms. Uchida, on the other hand, approaches Mozart very emotionally, and the balance achieved by the two working together is quite special.

Some reviewers over at Amazon feel that little is added to Uchida's previous reading of this material with Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra, and that is some fine Mozart. But this is a more subtle, delicate reading than Tate's, and the music is lush without being melodramatic. I own and enjoy the Uchida/Tate recordings, but this new version with Uchida conducting is a new way to hear this music, and these new recordings bring a unique perspective to the material. It is as much the Cleveland players' interpretation as it is Uchida's.

These two concertos are some of Mozart's finest and most popular works in the form. Uchida gives a breathtaking performance, and the recording is particularly well executed. Severance Hall is a magnificent place with killer acoustics, and the recording is nicely balanced between the piano and orchestra.

They were recording again when we saw Ms. Uchida just this last April, so maybe we are seeing the beginnings of a new complete cycle. Listen to a very talented pianist's take on Mozart. I think you'll like it.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

David + David Boomtown 1986

1986- tough times for music. The mid-eighties were filled with synth-driven, drum-machine inspired drivel. David + David was the only record released by the duo of David Baerwald and David Ricketts, two LA studio musicians, writers, and singers that teamed up for this swell entry.

The sound is a little BoDeans, a little Springsteen, a little U2, a little singer-songwriter flavor, and a little Steely Dan. The high-gloss eighties sound creeps in on a few cuts, but the record is otherwise an amalgam of big guitar arena rock with great Regan-era malaise deep into both the feel and and the lyrics. Welcome To The Boomtown opens the record and was a moderate hit. The album went platinum on the strength of that single and the follow-up Swallowed By The Cracks. But the entire record sounds like Springsteen decided to write his own Hotel California.

The lyrics deal with urban angst about as well as any record. The love songs, if I can call them that, are pained vignettes of dysfunction. None more so than Being Alone Together. The rest are telescopically focused anthems- songs that take a tiny slice of ordinary and blow it up into a representation of a grander theme. And they do it so very well.

The two Davids play all of the instruments except for the drumming, but it doesn't sound like that kind of record. It sounds very much like a mature band, already with their first stadium tour behind them.

Baerwald went on to record a series of solo records from 1990 - 2002 and has done quite a bit of soundtrack work. Both Ricketts and Baerwald were involved with the Tuesday Night Music Club that helped put Sheryl Crow on the map.

For a "band" that had only one record, it is a remarkable feat.