Thursday, October 28, 2010

Elton John / Leon Russel The Union 2010

I've been waiting patiently for this release for several months now. Three reasons: Elton John has been making some great records in the last ten years, his best since the seventies; Leon Russell made some great records a long time ago, and the two of them together sounded like an interesting idea; It was to be released on vinyl, and even though that shouldn't matter, it does.

Elton's liner notes tell a sweet story of how the record came to be, and I'm glad for Leon that Elton's a generous soul, because I suspect this record will change Leon's tax bracket this year.

There are, though, several less than perfect aspects to the record. T-bone Burnett produces, and while Burnett has a way with country/acoustic/roots music recordings, he's definitely not the guy for this job. A steadier pop hand would have worked better. And the sound is often muddy. When there are multiple players and singers, the sound is dark and distant, like Phil Spector from down the hall. Being able to hear both pianos in interplay is only really possible on a few tracks.

But the even greater weakness is the material. Of course, it's a two LP set, with 16 songs in this CD age, and it would have been better as a ten-song affair. That would have made this a much better product right there. Much of what could be omitted are the John/Taupin compositions, because they sound like outtakes from his last three records.

But it is not without its charms.

The opener is Russell's If It Wasn't For Bad. A good start to the record, Leon's voice sounds good, and his piano fills are superb. Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes follows, a slow John/Taupin ballad that features a nice piano duet and a strong lyric from Taupin. Hey Ahab, another John/Taupin write, is a fair mid-tempo rocker that goes on a little too long, although Leon's piano almost saves the day. Gone To Shiloh is a John/Taupin number that hearkens back to Tumbleweed Connection and that record's focus on Civil War America. Neil Young guests, and sings some fine harmonies with Leon.

Hearts Have Turned To Stone, a Russell composition, is a good mid-tempo rocker. Jimmie Rodger's Dream is a rolling country cowboy song, something Elton and Bernie have done a lot before. It's OK. There's No Tomorrow is a co-write between Elton and Leon with a mediocre lyric, that is just plain too slow. The guitar work by Marc Ribot and Robert Randolph just barely keeps it breathing. Monkey Suit is one of those Crocodile Rock/ Saturday Night's Alright bluesy rockers that Elton and Bernie do so well, and it's a keeper. Leon is relegated to back-up vocals, and the pianos are too deep in the mix, but it is still good.

Best Part Of The Day has an honest duet vocal that works, and the lyric is worth hearing, but it is a very very familiar Elton John melody barely reworked. A Dream Come True, written by Elton and Leon, is a rollicking, fast-paced rag, with a sentimental lyric that is a tribute to Elton from Leon. Wonderful pianos on this one also. I Should Have Sent Roses is a Russel/Taupin composed gem. Leon sings his heart out, and benefits from a fine Taupin lyric. When Love Is Dying is another overly familiar John/Taupin melody hung on a big, slow ballad that's just OK.

My Kind Of Hell, another John/Taupin authorship, is a second-rate Taupin lyric attached to a Honky Cat remake that's not bad. Mandalay Again (John/Taupin) is a boring march that is just not up to snuff. Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody) is another painfully slow, dull melody, but there is a tasty vocal arrangement with choir. And finally, Leon comes through at the end with his own In The Hands Of Angels, a beautiful song with just piano, organ, bass and choir, Leon again pays tribute to Elton, and T-bone Burnett. The sparse arrangement is like nothing else on the record, and thank goodness! Everything else sounds too much the same. And that is T-bone Burnett's job.

There are great moments from both Elton and Leon. There are some weaker songs courtesy of Elton mostly. Some of the highs are very much worth hearing. By my count seven excellent tracks, five others that are good, and four that should have never been released.

I'm a little disappointed. It's worth hearing, and you might like it more than I did. Take it out of the library.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Frank Sinatra Sinatra And Sextet Live In Paris 1962

Well, I've been on a bit of a spree lately. And this lovely two slabs of plastic is pretty fine.

Newly remastered and pressed, this '62 recording is far from perfect, but it comes close on several tracks. Sinatra is in fine voice, and the sextet is polished and able. But the band is recorded too low in the mix most of the time, and Sinatra's voice is too forward. But if it is Sinatra's voice you're after, it is here in spades.

Day In - Day Out, I've Got You Under My Skin, I Get A Kick Out Of You, My Funny Valentine, In The Still Of The Night, and They Can't Take That Away From Me are all stellar performances from the Voice. A quiet duet between Sinatra and guitarist Al Viola on Night And Day is excellent. Nancy (With The Laughing Eyes) and the closer, Come Fly With Me, are also standouts.

The trouble is that's less than half of what's here, and much of the rest sounds like Sinatra and band are sleepwalking through the repertoire. Maybe I shouldn't be that harsh on the band. It's a strong group, but the arrangements were written for orchestra, so the saxophone and vibes are trying hard to mimic a string section, and it doesn't work that well. Then there is the unfortunate mix, which does not let you hear the band until Sinatra is way too loud.

I enjoyed the record. Sinatra has it all going on in '62, and the record has been lovingly restored and pressed by Mobile Fidelity. It's a darn good live Sinatra record, but it could have been a great record. The (mostly) lazy performances and the unfortunate mix keep this from being everything it could be. Pretty good for fanatics, but most of us will be better off with other Sinatra recordings.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Tom Caufield Long Distance Calling 1987

Tom Caufield's debut is one of those perfect records. To me. You might like it, too. You'll have to shop used, but it is available.

The record opens with Recovery Room, all spit and pop. "Get me out of the recovery room, 'cause other girls are looking good again". All this to a Tom Petty-like hook-filled chorus. My Discovery is a jangle-pop gem, and again the great chorus. Long Distance Calling is a classic rocker, and Caufield's lyrics are perfect pop, full of teen angst and metaphor.

After the three song opening barrage, Long After Summer sounds just like the summer memories it should. Precious Town rocks fast and furious, with a horn section adding to the mostly guitar, bass, drums, and keys of the rest of the record. We See As One and Another Time, Another Place keep the quality of the rockers high, while I should Work For This and For Her Intimate Self are particularly fine ballads.

The consistency of songwriting, the frequency and quality of the memorable choruses and catchy hooks, the lyrical turns of phrase, and Caufield's above average voice. It's killer stuff.

What sounds like it? Nothing really, but Del Amitri, Tom Petty (early), Bill Lloyd, and the Hang-Ups come close. This is a rock and roll record that could have, and should have, had at least four hit singles, and there's nothing wrong with listening to the whole thing. Great for a road trip, too.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

John Lennon 1940-1980

John Lennon would have turned 70 a few days ago, and naturally it was time to release a giant remastered box set of his entire catalog. But it's not quite his entire catalog, since some of the crazier John and Yoko records are omitted, and no Live Peace In Toronto. Still, a good looking set for Lennonophiles. I have not heard it. But I own all of the original Lennon solo records on LP anyway.

Of all the Beatles' solo releases, I like John's the best. Paul's records always had some moments, and certainly Band On The Run and Venus And Mars were darn good. George's All Things Must Pass was a classic, even if Phil Spector overdid it, and the Live In Japan release with Eric Clapton's band is excellent. Ringo's stuff is fun, and he certainly has plenty of famous help.

But Lennon's work, while flawed, always seemed closest to maintaining Beatles-quality standards of songwriting and performance. Mind you, it does not rival Beatles records, but it seems to come closer than any other band members' output.

Lennon's first official solo record was Live Peace In Toronto 1969. Side one was John's set, and there are a few keepers, especially the oldies covers of Blue Suede Shoes, Money and Dizzy Miss Lizzy. Clapton plays guitar. Side two is Yoko screaming. No one ever listens to side 2 twice.

Lennon really hit the ground running with Plastic Ono Band 1970, arguably his best effort. Most of us have heard the primal scream therapy stories that helped John expres his anger on this record. It surely worked. Working Class Hero, Mother, I Found Out, God, Isolation and Well, Well, Well are standouts. The stripped bare sound was a revelation in 1970, and it still sounds raw today. Ringo on drums, Klaus Voorman on bass, and John on guitar and piano. It laid a foundation for punk later every bit as much as the Velvet Underground's ealier work. A richly emotional record, but not always easy to listen to.

1971's Imagine is Lennon's most successful record comercially, a worldwide #1, and it deserves it. The title track, Jealous Guy, Gimme Some Truth, and the Paul-bashing How Do You Sleep? are all great, and the production values are excellent. There are few weaker songs, but generally it's all listenable. The closest thing to a pop gem in his catalog.

1972 saw the release of Some Time In New York City, easily Lennon's worst work. All of the songs are political rants. It's really a tough listen. It's not just the angry lyrics, but the songs themselves are not up to Lennon's usual standards. It deserves the bad press it recieved, and fans were generally and understandably disapointed. The original release included an extra record of live recordings that are entirely irrelevant.

Mind Games 1973 was a good Lennon record that made the US top 10 and contained several great tracks, Mind Games, Bring On The Lucie (Freda People), Intuition and Only People topping the list. Not his strongest songwriting, there are more than a few weaker tracks, but as a mostly neglected slice of Lennon history, it's not bad to hear.

Walls And Bridges was Lennon's 1974 venture, and contained the hit Whatever Gets You Through The Night, with Elton John on piano and duet vocal. #9 Dream, Nobody Loves You (When You're Down And Out), and What You Got are highlights, and many consider it among his best. It's definately more consistent, and varied in sound, than Mind Games at least.

Rock 'N' Roll came out in 1975, just before Lennon retired to raise Sean. A record of 50s and 60s covers, it holds up remarkably well. The songs are filled with a few too many musicians, giving it a less raw sound than might be perfect, but Lennon obviously loves the material and sings his heart out on these oldies. The press on this one ranges from "terrible" to "classic". I lean towards the later.

In 1980 Lennon came out of retirement with Double Fantasy, an album shared with Yoko, so it's only half a John Lennon record. The Lennon material is some of his best. Watching The Wheels, Woman, (Just Like ) Starting Over, and Dear Yoko are all very good songs. The Yoko songs are more pop than she ever displayed before, so they don't spoil the show completely.

In 1984, Milk And Honey was cobbled together from recordings made during the Double Fantasy sessions, and it sounds like just that. I'm Stepping Out and Nobody Told Me are good, but the record would never have happened without John's untimely murder in 1980.

There have been numerous repackagings of Lennon's solo output, and some of these are very good. There were several singles that never made to any of the above, such as Power To The People, Instant Karma and Happy Xmas (War Is Over), and these are included on almost any of the compilations. The new four CD set Gimme Some Truth looks like a good way to go deeper than a single CD, and get almost everything of importance and quality. The new Power To The People: The Hits is about as good as the single discs get.

For me, Plastic Ono Band, Imagine, Rock 'N' Roll, and the early singles compilation Shaved Fish are essential.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Honeydogs 10,000 Years 2003 and The Long Winters When I Pretend To Fall 2003


Where are the new great songwriters? Well, as it turns out, there's plenty of them out there. How about if we just stick to songwriters with some original ideas. That narrows the field more than a little.

Here's two of them: Adam Levy of Honeydogs and John Roderick of The Long Winters. Smart, intelligent lyrics dealing with everything from the classic love song to sharp social commentary, melodies that both borrow from the past and bring something new to the game, all filtered through particularly artful arrangements.

In the case of Honeydogs, we get a crack ace band at the peak of its powers, Levy outdoes himself with the songs, and everything works. 10,00 Years, The Rake's Progress, Panhandler's Serenade, Poor Little Sugar, and Test Tube Kid are all stand-outs.

With The Long Winters, Roderick and band are augmented by many guests, but again, it is the songs and the singing that make the show. And again, great idiosyncratic arrangements. With their occasional indie envelope-pushing strangeness, they sound a little Spoon-like, but with less pretense and more pop. New Girl, Prom Night At Hater High, Cinnamon, Shapes, Scared Straight, and Blue Diamonds are the best of the lot.

Lyrically, both of these gentleman have honed their craft well beyond even good current songwriters, and these CDs are fine results of great craftsmanship.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Ben Webster Soulville 1957

Ellington's tenor sax player for eight years between 1935-1943, Webster had a smooth, swinging style that is just a joy to hear. I just heard this record for the first time recently, but I know it will have lasting appeal.

Oscar Peterson on piano, Ray Brown on bass, Herb Ellis on guitar, and Stan Levey on drums, that is an all-star 50s jazz lineup.

Nicely recorded. Laid back, late night jazz, but with an elegant strength that only a group as talented as this can produce.