Thursday, September 30, 2010

Spinning Vinyl

Last night I sat down between the speakers and turned it up to pretty loud and listened to vinyl records. After 2 1/2- 3 hours, here's what I'd listened to:

Johnny Cash Original Sun Singles '55-'58. A newly restored 2-LP set that includes all of Cash's singles on Sun Records. The sound is clean and in your face. It's well worth hearing, and Cash really sounds dangerous. I listened to Folsom Prison Blues, So Doggone Lonesome, I Walk The Line, Get Rhythm, and Train Of Love. Amazingly raw.

Speaking of raw, I then segued to Johnny Cash American IV: The Man Comes Around from 2002. One of Cash's last recordings, his voice is especially ragged, and sometimes he just can't make it do the right thing. But the performance is moving, covers of popular music that Cash does surprisingly well with. I listened to The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, Personal Jesus, and In My Life. Personal Jesus was the best, the old guy can't really do the other two justice. It's painful to hear him try. Or it's poignant, at least that is what some writers think.

Next up I listened to the entire Laura Nyro and Labelle Gonna Take A Miracle from 1971. This is an amazingly well recorded and produced record. Nyro, the New York singer, hit songwriter, comes to Philly to be produced by Gamble and Huff. And the famous songwriter records an entire record of covers. This shouldn't work, but with the vocal power of Patti Labelle, Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx, it can't fail. The record is all covers of fifties and sixties girl group, doo-wop and Motown classics. The vocals are magnificent, the arrangements perfect.

Next up, a change of pace to side 8 of the four-LP release of Led Zeppelin's Mothership. Zep never sounded better than on these slabs of plastic. In The Evening and All My Love from the band's later work. Gotta rock sometime.

Frank Zappa Them Or Us from 1984 is hardly my favorite Zappa LP, but it does contain one of Frank's best doo-wop efforts ever, the hilarious Be In My Video. The lyrics poke fun at rock stars, groupies, and the music biz in general (a common Zappa theme), but the vocal arrangement is at once complex doo-wop styling and giggle inducing.

Next up, The Kinks! Yes, The Beatles, The Stones, and... It should be The Kinks, and there should be no hesitation. 1969's The Kinks Arthur, Or The Rise And Fall Of The British Empire has always been a favorite, and like most of the Kinks records, is available on beautiful new vinyl. I wore mine out from 1969 a long time ago. I listened to side 1, with Victoria, Yes Sir, No Sir, Some Mother's Son, Drivin', Brainwashed, and Australia. A great album side. Australia ends the side with a great melody and lyric and a fabulous jammed-out ending that may well be the best Dave Davies guitar lead ever.

Lucinda Williams Little Honey from 2008 is a pretty good Lucinda record, and Lost Highway does a good job with the sound of this 2 LP set. I just had to hear her version of AC/DC's It's A Long Way To The Top that concludes this record. Yes, that's right, Lucinda covering AC/DC. It's a killer song, and Lucinda and band rip it up.

Side two of Elton John The Captain And The Kid from 2006. Elton's been on a roll lately, and this sequel to 1975's Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy deserves it's sequel status. It's just plain solid Elton and Bernie. Great songcraft. Nigel and Davey are still going strong, and Elton can write where he can sing. If you lost faith in Elton in the 80s and 90s, he's back.

Side 1 of The Elvin Bishop Band Rock My Soul is another old gem from 1972. Jo Baker takes lead vocals on several smoldering R&B tracks, and the crack ace band is on fire. Rock My Soul does just that, with swinging R&B. Holler And Shout has a great horn chart, Let It Shine is a gospel tinged ballad that Jo Baker sings to the ground. It's all bluesy fun.

Across The Universe from David Bowie's Young Americans 1975 has always sat well with me. Bowie lays on the, well, the Bowie thing, and turns John Lennon's classic into a slow grind. I wouldn't think that would work, either. But It does.

And finally, there's a new The Best Of Sly And The Family Stone from 1999 that adds on some of the later material that escaped the otherwise excellent 1970 Greatest Hits. If You Want Me To Stay, from 1973's Fresh, is a great Sly tune, from what is arguably his last good record. Funky as you wanna be.

And then the evening was ended. A fun romp through the stacks completed.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings I Learned The Hard Way 2010

I can't believe I haven't mentioned Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings before this! Sharon is the closest thing you're going to find to a living and breathing James Brown. This is her fourth record (all are available on vinyl), and it is the work of a mature artist, band , and label all coming together at once.

Some backstory. Sharon was the first artist released on DapTone Records from Brooklyn, NY. Daptone is a small label that releases Sharon's records as well as ten or so other bands, several including Dap Kings band members. Neal Sugerman, the Dap Kings sax player, is half-owner of the label, and the whole outfit is a tight knit family-style operation. Check it out at Daptone.

This is the new one, and definitely her best. 2005's Naturally comes very close, though, and they are all good. But the songwriting, almost all done in-house at Daptone, plus the recording, the singing, the performance of a smokin' hot band on a mission, it all adds up to a monster soul record. The modern day Otis Blue. These guys are old school, and nobody can do it better, at least not today.

If you like Amy Winehouse (and why wouldn't you like Back To Black- it was killer, and oh, the Dap Kings backed her up on most of it), or James Brown, or Irma Thomas, or funky soul in general, you need this record. The vinyl sounds great, very much like the best of the Stax and Atlantic sides of the sixties out of Memphis.

I could try to describe the songs, and tell you about the hooks, and the great lyrics, and Sharon Jones' amazingly soulful voice. Otis Redding. Sly and the Family Stone. Aretha Franklin. This is not an imitation of authentic soul music. It's the real deal.

Last month Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings played a concert at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame here in C town, and I got to be there. It was incendiary. They are touring the southwest this month, and then they are off to Europe and Australia through early December. Heads up there across the pond, this is a must see band, completely on fire.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Eighties

I was looking back at this blog the other day and I realized that there weren't many entries from the eighties. Lots of seventies, and plenty of recent and nineties releases. Were the eighties a bad decade for music (or is it just me)?

I know, it is ten years. It can't be all bad, and I agree with that. There were some good Talking Heads records, at least. But was there a general slump in the overall quality of popular music in the eighties? And if this hypothesis could be demonstrated to have merit, what could have caused this period of melodic malaise.

I can't really support the idea that the quality of music went down in the 80s, except based on my own personal anecdotal evidence. But what is it about 80s music? Too many synthesizers, sure, but that doesn't explain it all.

First, the decade began on the heels of the punk peak, and disco was still very much alive. Not a good sign. Then there is the synthesizer thing, and that was a major problem in the 80s. Lots and lots of synthesizers everywhere. It was the decade of the hair band. It was in the eighties that Jefferson Airplane became Jefferson Starship. And Elton John became, well, bad Elton John. Artists that had done some vital work turned in their worst work in the eighties: Van Morrison, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, Phil Collins, J. Geils Band, Fleetwood Mac.
It was also the time when pop music became very very big business. The arena tour, the zillion sellers. The major labels knew what they wanted to sell, and if you weren't making it, they didn't want it. Artist development began to change. No longer could an artist release two of three records before one of them really sold. And of course, the independant recording and distribution we see today was not yet established, so if it wasn't on a major label, you didn't know about it.
And the new bands coming up didn't seem to bring much of interest to the table. Let's just look at some examples of mediocrity that seemed to take up so much of the airwaves in the 80s: Bon Jovi, Duran Duran, Journey, The Bangles, INXS, Rick Springfield, Night Ranger, Poison, Culture Club, Styx, Men At Work, Wang Chung, Paula Abdul, Loverboy. Yipes!

Oh, I know it's easy to pick on some schlock from any decade. Goodness knows there was terrible crap in every decade. But who was doing the best work in the 80s? OK: Madonna, Michael Jackson, REM, Squeeze, Devo, Talking Heads, Prince, The Cars, U2, Van Halen, ACDC, Marshall Crenshaw. And who among those brought anything new to the table?
So the decade opened up with post-punk and disco at odds. Over-synthesized pop crap dominated the middle of the decade, and the birth of hip-hop and grunge arrived before the decade was over.

The eighties reminds me now of how good the end of the seventies really was, with the punk and new wave bands revitalizing popular music and at least bringing some emotion into the game. Granted, most of the emotion was anger, but at least somebody cared. And at least disco and punk pushed most of the country-rock out of the way. Although country-rock has made an unfortuanate comeback in the newer "country" music of today, which is mostly just rock balladry learned from those hair bands of the eighties.

In the seventies, everything was happening at once. Sixties artists that hadn't overdosed continued to make some good records, and there were lots of ideas/genres/styles to choose from. Some of the soul music was fabulous, and you certainly can't say that about the eighties. In the nineties things seemed to open back up again, with more styles and genres to choose from, and that seems to continue today.

In fact, the slow death of the major labels is producing music from more artists in more styles today than ever before. It may not be easy to find in a store, but there's everything out there.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Stanton Moore Groove Alchemy 2010

This is an organ trio led by the drummer Moore, who is also a member of New Orleans jazz-funksters Galactic. Although it is ostensibly a jazz record, it it mainly just as funky as you wanna be.

Robert Walter handles the Hammond B3, and Will Bernard plays tasty guitar. Most of the songs were written by the trio members. The closest I can get to describing this music is a cross between classic Jimmy Smith and The Meters.

That's right. Funky as The Meters, but with a jazz heart. Moore is a very busy drummer, and that keeps things interesting. He also rocks. Walter is an expressive B3 player who clearly has the chops to play anything with anybody. Bernard lays off to a rhythm role much of the time, but when he gets a solo, he shreds it with feeling and perfect lines.

What more could you need. Twelve funky, driving instrumentals performed by a stellar cast of three; a fiery drummer, a creative organist, and one hot guitarist. If you love the classic jazz organ trios, this might be too much funk-rock for you, but otherwise, it's manna from heaven. I can see this appealing to rockers that might want to try a taste of jazz.

You will tap your toes. It may even be difficult to hold still. Highly recommended to open minds everywhere.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Lagy Gaga The Fame Monster (Deluxe Edition) 2009


You don't get that many opportunities to use the word. But when a review of Lady Gaga follows an acoustic live Neil Young set, well, that's juxtaposition all the way.

Another unusual thing might just be finding a review of a Gaga release on this blog. We're full of surprises today.

This particular release is a 2 CD affair including her debut The Fame, along with The Fame Monster, eight newer tracks, all bundled up nice and neat. I won't explain what may have led me to buy it, but I'm pleased I did. It's got quite a few killer songs.

OK, it's product, I understand that. But it's very well assembled product. I liked Madonna, too. I can't help myself. Will I be listening to it years from now? I don't know, how many years we talkin' 'bout? I still put Madonna on sometimes.

Between the two discs, there's 22 songs total. I'd have to say that 11 of them are darn good, and there's at least six classics: Bad Romance, Alejandro, Paparazzi, Poker Face, I Like It Rough, and Telephone. The other half is listenable. And you can dance to almost all of it.

I suppose you could just download those six at the on-line retailer of your choice and be good to go. There. It's almost a public service.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Neil Young Live At Massey Hall 1971

I wasn't expecting to like this disc. I raved about the Neil Young and Crazy Horse Live at the Fillmore 1970 record. I just didn't really think an acoustic set was going to do it for me.

Well, I was wrong. Yes, these songs are stripped bare, and no, that isn't usually a good thing. But Young's voice has never sounded better, and the songs showcase his remarkable range as a lyricist. Accompanying himself on either guitar or piano, his voice is clear, high and full of emotion. This is Neil Young the singer's record.

The set list is pretty close to an early "best of" with some interesting rarities. But what shines here, other than a remarkable performance, is the recording itself. You might like to hear this just to hear how good a close-miked acoustic live recording can sound. It's a remarkably in-your-face every detail tenth row clean as a whistle recording. Very special stuff.

Of course if you can't stand Neil Young, this won't change your mind. If you've been vacillating, go for it. It's not just historic. It's darn good, too.

This is another in the series of archival recordings Neil Young has issued in the last several years. It is available on vinyl as well as CD. I heard the CD this time, but if the vinyl version of Live At The Fillmore is any indication, I'll bet it sounds great. The CD sounds great. Really great.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The New York Rock Ensemble Roll Over 1971

This was the great record that should have made this band. There's barely a weak track. The band had everything. Solid musicianship on all instruments played. Multiple singers, multiple songwriters. Reasonably good recording and production, at least by the time they made this one.

There is just a trace of the rock-classical fusion they practically invented on the first two records. This one rocks. It was their debut on Columbia, and I have no idea how this group didn't break huge on the heels of this offering. Somebody must have been asleep at the wheel. They toured the record, and their live show was excellent. Yes, I saw them. Twice.

Maybe it was the single about the necrophiliac Gravedigger. That probably didn't sell, at least not in the south. But what a great tune, twisted lyric and all, and with a B-movie bass line that drives the song forward. Running Down The Highway is a killer rockin' road tune. Fields Of Joy is a lovely ballad with a rock soul. Don't Wait Too Long kicks butt, Anaconda is another creepy lyric hung on a rocking riff, Beside You is a beautiful song that appeared in an inferior version many years later on one of Michael Kamen's many motion picture soundtracks, and Traditional Order is another solid rocker.

The bad news is that this record was released as a budget-priced twofer CD with the follow-up Freedomburger (that should be the good news, because Freedomburger was almost as strong as this set) and the mastering job is not good. Overly bright and digitally harsh, it sounds pretty bad- like it was mastered before 1990, even though it came out in 1999.

The good news is if you've still got a turntable, I'll bet you could find a decent used copy. And don't you love the cover art?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Original Chico Hamilton Quintet Complete Studio Recordings 2006

Recorded in 1955 and 1956, this CD is a splendid introduction to a famous group featuring an unusual line-up of drums, guitar, clarinet, cello and bass, once referred to as the last important group in West Coast jazz.

This music is perhaps best described as "chamber jazz", and it is mostly quite mellow. The interplay of cello, guitar and clarinet reminds the listener of classical chamber music, but the jazz sounds and structures dominate. The instrumentation keeps the sounds relaxed even on the upbeat songs.

A delicate and lovely version of My Funny Valentine is breathtaking. The Morning After is an oddly perky little number given the title. Chrissie is mellow enough to please smooth jazz listeners yet the intricate interplay amongst the group is pure jazz bliss. Gone Lover swings like crazy, and still you can relax.

Jim Hall plays guitar, and Mr. Hall is renowned in jazz as a great player. So is Buddy Collette, the clarinet, flute, and sax player extraordinaire. Carson Smith on bass and especially Fred Katz on cello are outstanding. The cello turns out to be a perfect, if not often thought of, jazz instrument. And Chico's drumming is subtly killer. Not a flashy guy, it is all in the service of the song.

I'd never heard anything quite like this, and although that isn't always a good thing, it is here. Laid back jazz that is full of ideas and swing. Great Sunday morning music. Or late night. Or right now.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

All Back To My Place

MOJO magazine has a regular feature where they ask musicians and celebrities a specific set of questions about their musical tastes. Not unlike the Bernard Pivot questionnaire that James Lipton used on The Actor's Studio program, but focused on musical taste.

The feature in the magazine is called All Back To My Place. Since it seems unlikely that MOJO will ever call me, I'll give you my answers here.

What music are you currently grooving to?
Right now it's Justin Currie's The Great War, Lady Gaga's The Fame Monster, The Band Of Heathens' One Foot In The Ether, Melody Gardot's My One And Only Thrill, and Don Dixon Sings The Songs Of The Jeffords Brothers.

What, if push comes to shove, is your all-time favorite album?
Oh well, sometimes it's Rubber Soul by the Beatles, or Kiln House by Fleetwood Mac. But the one that rises to the top of the list most often is probably The Band by The Band.

What was the first record you ever bought? And where did you buy it?
The first record that was actually mine was 50,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong, which was given to me for my eighth birthday. My older brothers always had records and I got to listen to those, so the first record I actually bought was much later, and it may have been The Guess Who's Wheatfield Soul. I always liked These Eyes, the single from that record. I bought it at Culver Military Academy, where I attended one summer.

Which musician (other than yourself) have you ever wanted to be?
I'd want to be a musician that isn't too badly screwed up. Who would that be? Maybe Eric Clapton, or Elton John. No, make that Van Morrison. But I just want their talent and money, and I'll develop my own psychoses.

What do you sing in the shower?
Whatever is stuck in my head at the time. I always liked a lot of Elton John's stuff, so maybe Rocket Man or Amoreena. But it could be anything I heard recently. Boppin' The Blues by Carl Perkins is always good.

What is your favorite Saturday night record?
Getting ready to go out, I might fire up some ACDC, maybe You Shook Me All Night Long, or Edgar Winter's Keep Playing That Rock And Roll, or Sniff 'n' The Tears' Driver's Seat, or NRBQ's Me And The Boys. Sometimes it's more dancable, like Kirsty MacColl's Mambo De La Luna or Jackie Wilson's Baby Workout, or One Nation Under A Groove by Funkadelic.

And your Sunday morning record?
For a long time my Sunday morning music was Donovan's A Gift From A Flower To A Garden. These days it's more likely to be a female jazz singer such as Karrin Allyson or Barb Jungr.