Monday, December 19, 2011

Bill Frisell All We Are Saying... 2011

Still looking for a last minute present for the music lover in your life? Good thing you stopped by.

Bill Frisell is a remarkable guitarist, and he approaches the instrument, and music in general, in novel and interesting ways. He releases records at a remarkable pace. Since 1983, he's released 30 records under his own name, and at least another 35 with Paul Motain and Joe Lovano, Joe Zorn, and Zorn's band Naked City. And then there's the 15 or so other one-off collaborations, and at least 80 other records where he has made guest appearances. The guy stays busy. If you don't know his name, you can't possibly be interested in jazz unless all you listen to are old vinyl records your dad left you (not that there's anything wrong with that). But he also plays country and bluegrass inflected jazz, and some of his records are easy and simple (in a complex way) while others are more challenging. And some of them are aggressively avant-garde.

This one is nearly perfect. An examination of the John Lennon songbook, it is way way way better than almost any tribute record you can imagine (it feels like I must be forgetting some other one this good). Longtime collaborators Greg Leisz (steel guitar), Jenny Scheinman (violin), Tony Scherr (bass) and Kenny Wollesen (drums) work with Frisell like five people with one brain. One very complex, integrated, high-operating musical brain. They don't let these melodies stray very far, so if you like John Lennon's songs, this could probably be the first jazz record you ever buy, and you'd still love it.

I certainly don't know everything about Frisell's work, but I've liked most of the ones I've heard, and I especially liked Good Dog, Happy Man from 1999. This reminds me of that record. A mellow, laid back approach to almost everything, the record delights at first and just gets better and deeper with additional listening. When they start to jam (and they never rock real hard), they can develop an amazing groove without breaking a sweat.

Every track works. Highlights abound. The opening Across The Universe invites you gently into Frisell's world. A languid You've Got To Hide Your Love Away features Liesz to lovely effect, while Scheinman lights up In My Life. But more than any one of these musicians' efforts, it is the interplay between them that comes so naturally to them, that diverse single-mindedness, that will leave you slowly, quietly staggered.   

It's a quiet, relaxed, monumental record. A glowing tribute to melodies you know so well already. They aren't so much dissected, as gently pulled apart so you can take a look inside, so you can feel how someone else feels these songs, someone who cares about them.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Frank Zappa Chunga's Revenge 1970

Well, Zappadan continues, and so we continue to celebrate all things Zappa. This one is harder to celebrate than most of Zappa's work, though it has its moments. Most of side one is pretty good.

Transylvania Boogie kicks things off with one of those crazy Zappa time signatures. The song is essentially a guitar solo, and a pretty good one at that. Road Ladies follows, and it is cool to hear Frank playing guitar in a basic blues structure, and Aynsley Dunbar's drums are a standout. Twenty Small Cigars is an almost jazz composition, and Zappa plays this mellow guitar lead that is another unusual setting for him, so that's fun to hear. The live The Nancy And Mary Music is an extended jam that includes at least two drum solos, some good guitar, and a minute of dueling pianos from Ian Underwood and George Duke that is pretty exciting, but it doesn't live up to Frank's usual quality standard.

Side two is what makes this a disappointing Zappa record. Tell Me You Love Me is standard issue stuff, and nothing saves it. Would You Go All The Way, Rudy Wants To Buy Yez A Drink, and Sharleena all make you wonder what Frank saw in Flo and Eddie, and all three are some of Frank's least interesting songs. Chunga's Revenge is an instrumental jam with a irritating sax played through a wah wah pedal, and Frank's guitar is less than stellar. The song is too long for the one idea it contains.

When you make as many records as Zappa did, there's bound to be some that just don't stand up next to the best ones. This is one of those. I don't mean to pick on Zappa during the holiday, so just think of it as a public service.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Who Quadrophenia 1973

Usually when I write about a record from 1973, I bought it in 1973. So this is a little different, and it feels weird. I heard this record once in 1973, and frankly, coming on the heels of Who's Next, I was unimpressed. I've been familiar with the classic rock radio cuts, Real Me, 5:15, and Love, Reign O'er Me, and I always liked them.

So recently, an expanded deluxe remastered 4-CD Quadrophenia was released, and there's been plenty of press for the record. I was talking to my friend Bob, and he starts raving about the record, saying it's the Who's best album. I respect Bob's opinion, and although our tastes are pretty different, there are some areas where our musical interests overlap (Zappa, XTC, Elvis Costello, The Proclaimers).

But don't think for a minute I was going to buy some new-fangled 4-CD extravaganza with a boatload of useless extra tracks that should have never seen the light of day. No, I went to and picked up a used vinyl copy for a very reasonable price. It got here a few days ago.

It turns out I was wrong in 1973, and Quadrophenia is darn good. The aforementioned radio-friendly tracks are still solid, but many of the album tracks are equally excellent. The title track, Cut My Hair, The Punk Meets The Godfather, I'm One, Is It In My Head, I've Had Enough, Sea And Sand, Drowned, and Doctor Jimmy are all killer, and any of them could have coexisted nicely on Who's Next. There's a few weaker cuts, but not many, and only Bell Boy, with Moon's exaggerated Cockney vocal, is unnecessary.

Speaking of Moon, like all great Who records, and perhaps as much as any of them, Kieth Moon sounds like the best rock and roll drummer ever on this record. With all of Townsend's self-aggrandizing, sometimes you forget how important Moon was to this band.

I'm not so sure I'm ready to give up my opinion of Who's Next as their finest hour, especially since I've always felt that it was, track by track, near perfect. But Quadrophenia certainly surpasses Tommy, if not in story, definitely in song quality. And the recording sounds more like Who's Next, with the power and dynamics that Tommy lacked.

The record can probably never be for me what it may have been if I'd bought it in '73. There's something about those records you loved and listened to in your teens and twenties that feels burned into your musical DNA. But there's no denying that The Who's best work includes 1969's Tommy, 1970's Live At Leeds, 1971's Who's Next, and 1973's Quadrophenia. You might want to hear the earlier stuff, but anything after 1973 should be approached with reduced expectations.

Thanks for the head's up, Bob.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Zappadan 2011 Orchestral Music

Over at Ketchup Is A Vegetable, Brady Bonk is listening to The Yellow Shark. This is real commitment, people, this needs to be taken very seriously. And the posts are great. After my last post regarding the LSO recordings, perhaps a  brief history of Zappa's orchestral music deserves mention.

I suppose the first foray is 1967's Lumpy Gravy, almost completely instrumental, and featuring a full orchestra. The great music is interspersed with inane raps and bits of conversation, but the big inventions are there. Oh No, King Kong, Envelopes and several others are fine, but it is a hard listen today. Frank was really pushing it, and he wasn't quite fully developed, but you've gotta admire the cajones it took to release it in 1967. 

Next up would be Uncle Meat 1969, which introduces us to Uncle Meat, Dog Breath, and King Kong, and their variations, all performed by rock band, but later exposed as works intended for orchestra. The Royal Philharmonic played on 200 Motels 1971, and while some of the music is OK (the 11-minute Strictly Genteel stands out), much of the record is unlistenable in an annoying way unlike almost any other Zappa work. The Tuna Fish suite and the Overture both show Zappa developing his classical style, and signal the rich work that is to come. 1972's magnum opus, The Grand Wazoo, should count, but that is really a record made for a big band (the jazz kind), not a big orchestra.

But in 1979, Orchestral Favorites was released, and it's a beauty. Featuring Strictly Genteel, Pedro's Dowery, Duke Of Prunes and Bogus Pomp, and recorded live with full orchestra, it's killer stuff. It all was intended for Lather, and was reissued on the 3 CD Lather set in 1996. Much of the material ended up on the LSO recordings as well.

The first LSO recording was released in 1983, and shortly on it's heals was Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger 1984, with many a homage to Varese, whom Boulez also promoted as a unique 20th century composer. It's a pretty fine record, and certainly challenging enough. If you're ready for Frank's modern classical music, here you go. Boulez is a great conductor, but he seems to take some of the crazy out of Zappa's work. LSO Volume 2 Came out in 1987.

Which brings us to The Yellow Shark 1993, a magnificent recording, made just before Zappa's death, and performed exquisitely by the Ensemble Moderne. Including a few new compositions, it was the last release during Zappa's lifetime. If following Brady's blog this Zappadan doesn't make you run out and buy the record, it's a real shame. Unless you don't like it. Zappa made enough fine, almost regular rock records, plenty of jazz-rock, and tons of wacky rock-jazz hybrids (with a pinch of doo-wop) to please anyone, but these orchestral works may very well be the ones Zappa himself most wanted you to hear.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Zappadan 2011 London Symphony Orchestra Vol. 1 1983 and Vol. 2 1987

Welcome to Zappadan. From Dec 4 to Dec 21, we celebrate the life and work of a great modern composer, and one heck of an axe ripper as well. I thought I'd kick off the proceedings by reviewing some of Frank's least familiar work. There is no guitar on these records, and of course, no singing either. Both were recorded in 1983 with Kent Nagano conducting. Zappa is the orchestra's harshest critic, complaining about the performance quality in his own liner notes. But there is some fine music to be had here.

Sad Jane is a moody, Varese-like, highly percussive piece scattered with easy to hear, frequent Zappa motifs, such as discordant strings (often portrayed vocally on his rock records) and quick, jarring percussion-driven tempo changes. It's very entertaining. Pedro's Dowry features horns and strings in a spastic battle, again with much percussion (Frank loved vibes). Tensely disjointed, almost arhythmic at times, it's challenging. Near the end is a percussion-driven section that benefits greatly from a remarkable violin solo. Side one ends with Envelopes, which starts softer than most of Frank's work, and is lovely, and then breaks into a strange fairy march section that reminds me of a cartoon chase scene soundtrack.

Side two of the original Vol. 1 is Mo 'N Herb's vacation, which, at 27 minutes, is a lot of weirdness, even for the devoted. There's probably something important going on that I can't understand. It just never seems to get off the ground, or make a coherent statement. Your results may vary.

Vol. 2 opens with Bogus Pomp, another full-scale piece at 24 minutes, but this time things are more cohesive. Zappa describes the piece as a parody of movie music cliches and mannerisms, and it's fun to hear Zappa's take on that idea. Using traditional symphonic elements of build tension, relax tension, build tension patterns, Zappa has fun with the theme and lets the listener have a good time, too. Bob In Dacron follows, and begins with what Zappa calls a "musical description of patterns which do not blend", and yet it still works surprisingly well. The second section returns to the repeated build/relax tension pattern, and is symphonic in structure while both rhythmically and melodically challenging. It's real good. Strictly Genteel ends the record, and has been a very good finale structure since it's use as such in 200 Motels, and the big orchestra does a fine job, even if Frank is pissed at the trumpet section.   

Both records are available on a more recent 2-CD package, with a different running order, as Bob In Dacron and Sad Jane were designed as two parts of one piece.

I've mentioned Zappa several times before here at this blog, so if you want more Zappa, try these: Z  A   P  P  A     (Yes, it's an apostrophe, i.e. the crux of the biscuit).

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Subdudes 1989-2008

I haven't said enough about the Subdudes. First, you've got to love the name Subdudes. You almost know New Orleans is involved. And the band's blend of roots Americana, soul, R&B, gospel and rock, with a pinch of New Orleans second line rhythm, is as appealing as it is unique. And they've made the most of it.

Singer, songwriter, guitarist Tommy Malone dominates the group, but he needs them, as his solo work has proved.

The records are splendid. If you haven't heard them, you should. Their sound is a delicious gumbo. Malone is a smokin' hot guitarist and excellent vocalist. Magnie plays accordion and keys and harmonizes with Malone in a special way, and Magnie's finely crafted songs relieve Malone of all of the songwriting and lead vocal duties. Steve Amadee plays an over-sized tambourine to remarkable effect, turning the simple instrument into an earthy drum kit, and a integral signature of the band's intricate, rootsy sound.

Where to start? Their debut, The Subdudes 1989, is as good a place as any, and one of their best. Light In You Eyes, Tell Me What's Wrong, Need Somebody, Got You On His Mind, One Time, and their fine cover of the New Orleans staple Big Chief are all standouts. It's an excellent record. The follow-up 1991's Lucky, is less fine, but has it's moments (Someday, Somehow, and Bye, Bye). Annunciation 1994 is a strong return to form, and You'll Be Satisfied and Late At Night are both priceless slices of funky Southern roots rock. Primitive Streak 1996 was not their best, but still All The Time In The World and Sarita are as good as their best work. 1997's Live At Last, closed the book on their first stint with a fine live document of a great live band, and it's a solid live hits sort of gig. The band had split prior to the record's release.

But come 2002, the original principles regroup. And the next thing you know, Miracle Mule 2004 is released, and it happens to rival the first one. Inspired with the band's revival, and perhaps benefiting from a long spell of writing, the band produces it's second classic. If Wishing Made It So, Sound Of Her Voice, Maybe You Think and the title track are all as good as they get, and the whole record holds up. Behind The Levee 2006 comes darn close to doing it again, and includes one fine gotta-dance-right-now single in Papa Dukie And The Mud People (Love Is  A Beautiful Thing), sort of a rootsy New Orleans version of John Mellencamp's Cherry Bomb. 2007's Street Symphony was a bit of a let-down, and consequently I haven't heard Flower Petals 2009.

Try the first one, The Subdudes 1989, Miracle Mule 2004, or Annunciation 1994, and you can't go wrong. Rootsy Americana, phat New Orleans funkiness, smart songwriting, great spare arrangements and top notch vocals. They are a great band to see live if you get the chance.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings Soul Time! 2011 Brendan Benson Upstairs At United 2011

For the last four years the third Saturday in April has been Record Store Day. Record companies big and small release new music, and they also release some limited edition products aimed at the "collector" market. This year the Record Store Day folks decided to have another Record Store Day on Black Friday, and for the first time in what feels like forever I went shopping the day after Thanksgiving. I went specifically to purchase the new Sharon Jones record, which her web site had announced for release on Record Store Day. The guys at the store had to dig into a shipping box to produce the LP. They didn't think they had it. Record stores never change.
The new Sharon Jones is killer. The sales pitch calls it the funkier side of Sharon Jones, and the liner notes say the songs are live show staples that never made it to a record. I'd have to say that they nailed it. Jones and the Dap Kings have long emulated the best of James Brown, but their sound is more sixties Brown sounding, in a good way of course. This new one digs deep groves more like Brown's remarkable seventies output. Genuine Parts 1 an 2 is seven minutes of if you ain't dancin', you dead. He Said I Can, I'm Not Going To Cry, and When I Come Home keep the funky soul driving right at you.

You've got to love What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes, and they make a pretty good lyrical point. Settling In and Without A Trace are deep soul highlights, and the remarkable Christmas funk of Ain't No Chimneys In The Projects is spectacular, and previously existed only in 45 rpm, 7 inch format. Everything they've done has been great, and they just keep getting better at it. I really didn't think they could outdo I Learned The Hard Way, but they've at least matched it right here.

The only thing that Sharon Jones and Brendan Benson have in common is that I bought them both on Record Store Day. While at the store, I looked through the special Record Store Day limited edition vinyl releases, and I was tempted by some overpriced Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan 7 inch "box sets" of four singles in a set. The Dylan stuff was original sixties mono mixes, and the Janis had some "rare" versions. Snap out of it!

But there was this 12 inch 45 rpm four-song Brendan Benson Upstairs At United, recorded live to tape and pressed on black plastic. Benson sings and plays guitar, and is ably assisted on drums (Nicole Childrey), bass (Young Hines) and keyboards (Andrew Higley).  As you wouldn't expect from a songwriter of Benson's talent, they do four cover songs: David Bowie's Candidate, Dave Davies' Strangers, Elvis Costello's Beyond Belief, and Randy Newman's Love Story. Strangers and Beyond Belief are top notch, and Benson delivers them reverently. The all-analog direct to tape sound is very immediate. It sounds like you're in the room with the band. Lovely really.

If I'd known that shopping on Black Friday was this much fun, I would have done it long ago.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Lou Ann Barton Read My Lips 1989

Blues and R&B, belted out with conviction through a powerhouse, smokey, scratchy Texas drawl with a heavy dose of Southern-style smoldering heat. Lou Ann sang with Stevie Ray Vaughn early on and did a great record in 1990 with Marcia Ball and Angela Strehli called Dreams Come True.

This was Lou Ann Barton's shining moment. Backed by an all-pro band featuring George Rains, Kim Wilson, Jimmie Vaughn and others, it is a remarkably clean recording of a set of Blues and R&B classics. Her versions of You'll Lose A Good Thing, Sexy Ways, It's Raining, Sugar Coated Love and Let's Have A Party are all stellar. Everything on the record works. Lou Ann can sing the daylights out of these tunes, and she inhabits every single one like the pro she is. She's made a few others, but this is her claim to fame. A talented singer has a magical moment when everything works. Nothing fancy, just perfect blues, and a fine list of songs.

It's party time in Texas and you'll only need one CD.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Be Bop Deluxe Modern Music 1976

Be Bop Deluxe was one of those bands that never quite got off the ground commercially, even though they made some very interesting music. Singer-writer-guitarist Bill Nelson blended his impressive guitar playing into a sound that was equal parts glam, progressive rock, and quirky pop. Nelson's frequent lyrical forays into science fiction territory were sometimes fun, occasionally pretentious. Releasing six records between 1974-1978, their two 1976 albums, Sunburst Finish and Modern Music, were both excellent.

Orphans Of Babylon kicks off side one in fine style, and Kiss Of Light and Bring Back The Spark are both strong. Kiss Of Light should have been the hit follow-up to their most successful single, Ships In The Night, but it didn't dent the charts. Even their most commercial moments contain a certain lyrical awkwardness that Nelson never seems to escape.

Side two starts with the Modern Music suite/medley, and it is twelve minutes of near-perfect Be Bop Deluxe. The suite contains all of their best elements, from the romance of Modern Music, to the catchy pop of Dancing In The Moonlight, and on to the instrumental fireworks of Dance Of The Uncle Sam Humanoids. Forbidden Lovers follows and features their more prog side, and contains enough ideas for three songs in most bands' hands. It is a fine example of Nelson's weakness for cramming too many ideas into one song, and his inability, sometimes, to weave those ideas together comfortably. A common problem for prog bands in general, with Yes, ELP, and Genesis all displaying this same dilemma.

The best of the songs are terrific, and the band have a truly unique sound. Nelson's guitar is always a stand-out, but Andrew Clark's keyboards and Simon Fox's drumming are also very important to the band's tight, quirky arrangements. This record's immediate predecessor, Sunburst Finish, is equally good, contains their biggest hit, the reggae-flavored Ships In The Night, and comes with a cover that includes a naked woman holding a flaming guitar. How could you go wrong?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Led Zeppelin 1969-1982

Led Zeppelin had a magnificent genre-defining career in heavy metal. And they did it better than anyone else, unless you discredit their love of English country folk. Lovers of their work fall into two distinct camps- those who favor the first two records, and those who favor the fourth and fifth.

The first two (1969) featured the heavy blues-rock that would be the claim to fame of the band, and much of this music is excellent, if today a bit dated. Classics like Good Times, Bad Times, Whole Lotta Love, You Shook Me, Ramble On, I Can't Quit You, and Living Loving Maid, all are stellar, and deeply rooted in the blues.

The fourth (1971), the ultimate classic rock standard, blended the blues with something else, and Black Dog, Rock And Roll, Going To California, Misty Mountain Hop, and When The Levee Breaks all rock hard with amazing hooks. And Stairway To Heaven. The follow-up, Houses Of The Holy 1973, brought more of the same with The Song Remains The Same, Dancing Days, and The Ocean, plus reggae with D'yer Mak'er. Huge.
And every bit the classic of the fourth's mammoth success.

Anybody who stuck around for Physical Graffiti 1975 was in for a troubled ride. Great tracks like Houses Of The Holy, Trampled Under Foot and Kashmir shared time with too much lesser material.

After that, Presence 1976 and In Through The Out Door 1979 held their charms for the devoted, and at least one or two great songs each. Coda 1982, a piece-meal effort at best, let them leave without regret, if nothing else.

More recently, their work has been remixed to very good effect, and the Mothership 2007 collection is worth the trouble. The four-LP vinyl set is the bomb, but the CD sounds great, too. It is pretty remarkable how well their work holds up.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Bob Dylan New Morning 1970

I suppose I could write about Blonde On Blonde, but what is there left to say? I like much of Dylan's work, but between 1967's John Wesley Harding and 1975's Blood On The Tracks, both classics, things were mostly disappointing. Except for New Morning. I rank it much higher than many would put it in Dylan's cannon, and you should hear it again.

If Not For You is a celebratory love song with a nicely simple arrangement. Day Of The Locusts features soulful singing from Dylan, and Al Kooper's organ "high whine and trill". On Time Passes Slowly, Dylan's deceptively simple piano and languid vocal are paired to the fine dueling lead guitars of David Bromberg and Buzzy Feiten(?). The funky beat and scratchy guitar figure of Went To See The Gypsy are genius, and the line "He did in Las Vegas, and he can do it here" is irresistible. The frolic of Winterlude follows, and the tongue-in-cheek traditionalism is fun. The jazzy blues of If Dogs Run Free ends the first side with Kooper's fine piano and Maeretha Sweart's scat vocal.

The back side is solid, too. New Morning celebrates life and love with a great lead break, a hooky chorus, and sweet organ throughout. The yearning for simpler times, and Dylan's own simple, Randy Newman-esque piano make the difference on Sign On The Window. One More Weekend is a classic Dylan country blues that sounds like a Blonde On Blonde outtake (a good one). The soulful ballad that is The Man In Me is marvelous "happy" Dylan. Three Angels is a bit of a jolt in an otherwise fun record. But it's solemn, surreal, and when the choir kicks in... Father Of Night ends the record on a simple, deep note, with all the faces of God called upon in prayer.

It's monumental. In a simple, easy, organic way. That's Dylan for you.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Guy Clark's website videos

Over at Guy Clark's website, you can listen to almost all of his music streaming. You can buy it, too, which I highly recommend. You can't go wrong. I discussed one of his recent records here.

You can also enjoy great performances of a couple of Clark's fine tunes. At the video section of Clark's website, there's three live performances that are wonderful. The second video is one of Clark's finest moments ever in a songwriting and performing career of unusual breadth and depth. The Randall Knife, a heartfelt son-to-father tribute, is far and away the best song on it's theme ever, and if it isn't true, you'd never guess from hearing Clark's touching delivery. Man this guy can sing. There's also a fine reading of The Guitar, another of Clark's fine songs, and one with a great punch line. Check it out here.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Jayhawks Mockingbird Time 2011

A new Jayhawks record is always welcome, and this time it is the first Jayhawks record featuring both Gary Louris and Mark Olson since 1995's Tomorrow The Green Grass. That's a long time. They also co-wrote all the songs, as they did with the aforementioned Tomorrow... as well as the brilliant major-label debut Hollywood Town Hall, from 1992.

In the interim, Louris, bass player Marc Perlman, drummer Tim O'Reagan and keyboard player par excellence Karen Grotberg made Sound Of Lies 1997, Smile 2000 (Grotberg left after Smile), and Rainy Day Music 2003. All three of those records had things to recommend them, but the magic sparked by the writing, guitar interplay, and vocal harmonies of Louris and Olsen together on the first two is special.

So is this the new Tomorrow The Green Grass or Hollywood Town Hall? The short answer is "no". But it consistently features those remarkable harmonies, and the high points are very much worth hearing, and hearken back to those first two classics from this fine line-up.

Hide Your Colors opens the record with a classic Americana rock ballad, with great harmonies, and their signature minor-key sadness. Closer To Your Side features Grotberg's regal piano and an interestingly awkward lyric that somehow works.The slow, dark ballad Tiny Arrows follows and features a wonderful band arrangement, great guitar-piano interplay, and those otherworldly harmonies. She Walks In So Many Ways is a jangle-pop gem, and the clear choice for lead-off single. Like they're  a pop band. The straight ahead rocker High Water Blues becomes a different song in the acoustic guitar middle jam section, and them bursts back into the hook-laden chorus to finish a great song. The title track is another big ballad in the Americana style they practically invented. One part The Band, one part the country-flavored Van Morrison (or maybe Poco), one part Crosby, Stills and Nash, a dash of folk.

Then begins a stretch of the record that just does not hold up against the rest. Stand Out In The Rain is an overly familiar melody that is barely saved by the instrumental break. The unconventional structure and almost Zappa-like changes of Cinnamon Love don't work. The melody and the lyric of Guilder Annie are both weak, and Black-Eyed Susan is another weak melody, that at least features good band interplay and a nice string quartet arrangement. The last great one on the record, sweet romantic ballad Pouring Rain At Dawn is a gentle roller that makes the most of acoustic guitar and stellar harmonies. Hey Mr. Man ends the record, and it's a bluesy riff-rocker with strange slower sections that make little sense in the context of the song's structure. Or I don't get it.

The first six and Pouring Rain At Dawn. That's seven you really should like, and five others that you might like better than me. The Jayhawks are back. This line-up is the best version of this band, at least based on past product, and this record does not disappoint much. The unique harmonies of Olsen and Louris are very good to hear again. Their writing, when it works (more often than not), is top quality. The record sounds great. I don't think their songwriting is quite at the consistent level it was sixteen years ago, but maybe I'm over-romanticizing the early records.

If you're a Jayhawks fan, I suspect you already own it. It's worth taking a chance on. If you've never heard the Jayhawks, I highly recommend Hollywood Town Hall. Then either Tomorrow's The Green Grass or Rainy Day Music. Then this one. It's in good company.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Animals Retrospective 2004

The Animals were one of those "other" British Invasion bands, not the Beatles, not the Stones. There was a ton of great music made by the Kinks, the Dave Clark Five, the Searchers, and many other great bands out of the UK. And the Animals, who, like the Stones, took a more blues-inspired approach than some of the others.

Although this compilation is ostensibly by the Animals, it includes the Eric Burden and War classic Spill The Wine, which certainly sweetens the pot. The early hits are here, and House Of The Rising Sun, Boom Boom, Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place and Don't Bring Me Down are all great to hear again. The young Eric Burden was one scary dude, angry and full of piss and vinegar. And a big testosterone-fueled baritone. Nobody would let their daughter leave the house with this guy. Watch some of the early YouTube videos. They are bad boys with a capitol B.

Even the later singles like When I Was Young, San Franciscan Nights, Monterey and Sky Pilot sound great, not just because of the performances, but also because the CD is very nicely recorded. These songs never sounded this good. Analog to digital transfers done at Abbey Road, mastered by Bob Ludwig, the sound is sharp and crisp without an overly hard edge.

There's twenty-two songs, so you get some of the less successful singles, and a fair amount of the later work that was performed by only Burden from the original band, even if the records were still being sold as Eric Burden and the Animals. The original band with Chas Chandler, Alan Price and Hilton Valentine from 1962-1966 was a remarkable outfit, but Burden still had some good work in him, and it's not like the bands he assembled weren't professionals. But they weren't the Animals either.

They have almost as many compilations out there as they had originals albums. This one is certainly one of the better.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Los Straightjackets The Velvet Touch Of... 1999

Los Straightjackets do surf guitar instrumental music updated (slightly) to a modern rock sound. Their records are remarkably well recorded, the songs are quite good, and the band is super-tight.

The sound of the Fender guitar needs no further advertisement, but if it did, any Los Straightjackets CDs would do just fine.

This, their third, is an excellent example of their skills, and it includes the amazing cover of My Heart Will Go On. You gotta hear it to believe it. The originals are every bit as good.

They've made ten-twelve other CDs since this one, and I've heard some of them. Avoid anything with singers, the band just doesn't need them. The live Damas Y Caballeros! from 2001 is also excellent, and they are a smokin' hot live band, crazy Mexican wrestler masks and everything.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Velvet Underground 1967-1970

What can you say about the Velvet Underground? A remarkable band for their time, groundbreaking on several levels, and rather frustrating as well. Their four studio records were all completely different from each other, and also from almost anything being done at the time of their release, with the exception of Loaded 1970, which was noteworthy for its Classic Rock sound, itself a departure for such a cutting edge band.

The first album, The Velvet Underground And Nico, done with Nico singing vocals on half the tracks, was insanely eclectic, wildly experimental (both Lou Reed and John Cale were firing on all cylinders), and mind-blowing in 1967.

From Waiting For The Man, a tale of drug addiction, to the drone of Venus In Furs, to the chamber-folk of All Tomorrow's Parties, through the closing cacophony of Heroin, to the soft pop-folk of Sunday Morning and I'll Be Your Mirror. Head-spinning, and even if it's a difficult listen today, it is still quite an achievement.

To be followed by White Light/White Heat in 1968. Aggressive, noisy, distorted, dangerous and loud, it is easy to understand why it is considered an early punk/metal blueprint. It is also easy to understand why it didn't sell any better than the first one. If you can get through it, the 17-minute Sister Ray is a trip.

The Velvet Underground 1969 took an about face, and became the equivalent of their "unplugged" record. A quiet storm of a record, it stands today as their finest hour. Doug Yule replaced John Cale, and the result is a much more accessible record, while no less boundary-pushing in its own right.
The gorgeous ballads Candy Says, Jesus, and Pale Blue Eyes, the rollicking What Goes On and Beginning To See The Light,  the rocking magnificence of I'm Set Free, all simply constructed of feeling, rhythm, and nuance. It's a classic, and the most listenable today. This one is the blueprint for chill-out.

1970 saw Loaded, their most commercially successful record, released a few months after Reed quit, but not before he made one of the best, and most commercial, records of his career. Side one with Who Loves The Sun, Sweet Jane, Rock And Roll, Cool It Down, and New Age is all but perfect. Side two doesn't live up to the first side, but Head Held High and Oh! Sweet Nothing come through. 

The first two are remarkable documents of an exciting time in New York and in music history, but they're not that easy to listen to today. They are both important to rock's later developments, and as such, are years ahead of their time. The fourth is a fine record, with Sweet Jane and Rock And Roll easily worth the price of admission. 1969's The Velvet Underground is a remarkable record, even today, after 42 years. Reed finds a niche he never returned to even though it is some of his finest work. I suggest serving with a glass of dry red wine. Candles would be nice.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Elvin Bishop Band Rock My Soul 1972

The Elvin Bishop Band Rock My Soul is an old gem from 1972. I probably have an irrational love of the record, but it is not without its merits. If you want an organically recorded, all-analog experience focused on swinging rock/R&B from the early seventies (this is really good stuff) it is peerless, and the vinyl sounds particularly good. I used the title cut as one of the tracks I auditioned speakers with when I bought my current speakers.

Rock My Soul kicks things off in fine style. The sound of the bass guitar on this track is classic, right there between Motown and Muscle Shoals. Not much deep bass, but the bass that is there is remarkably melodic with well-defined tone and pitch. The horn charts test a system's dynamics, and the organ near the end of the song will bring out the worst in a harsh speaker if it has any sibilance. And the song happens to be a gas, too.

Holler And Shout follows, and again we have a fine R&B/Rock classic full of organ and horns and featuring a smokin' hot sax solo. Let It Shine features Jo Baker, who takes lead vocal on almost half of the songs on the record, and it's a smoldering, sexy soul ballad done up right. Don't Mind If I Do is some of Bishop's aw-shucks good-time humor. A little goes a long way. Jo Baker returns to burn down Rock Bottom, an R&B rocker from Baker's pen. Last Mile is a slow instrumental featuring Bishop's slide guitar.

On side two the quality slides slightly, but it still rewards repeated listening. Have A Good Time is a better example of Bishop's good-time, laid back slacker vibe. Wings Of A Bird is Baker's big showcase, and she more than lives up to it. A slinky soul, slow-building ballad with a tasty Bishop guitar lead makes it a keeper for sure. Old Man Trouble finds Jo back at the microphone for a stomping soul-blues that reminds of the present-day Dap Kings, funky middle section and sax break included. Out Behind The Barn is saved by the New Orleans-styled horn charts, and the live instrumental Stomp is a hot guitar jam.

It might not make everybody's list, but it makes mine. Beautifully recorded, not quite musically perfect, it has it's weaker moments. But not enough weak moments to overshadow the transcendent moments in the title track, Holler And Shout, Let It Shine, Rock Bottom, Wings Of A Bird, and Old Man Trouble.

Some people wonder why this record is getting expensive on the used market, but not me. Elvin Bishop made some other good ones, but none that quite hit home like this one.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Ahmad Jamal Trio At The Pershing But Not For Me 1958

It's 1958. You're sitting in a nice cocktail lounge, and Ahmad Jamal, Israel Crosby (bass), and Vernell Fournier (drums) are playing wonderfully melodic, endlessly rhythmic jazz. I don't know that much about jazz, but I know what I like. And I know why this was a number one selling jazz record that stayed on the charts for 107 weeks. It's just lovely music. You can let it play in the background or you can listen to every note. None are wasted, none are wrong.

Jamal went on to a long, productive, and influential career. In fact, another great jazz recommendation that's easier to find is Jamal's It's Magic, from 2008. At age 81, he's still gigging. If you can get a chance to see him, don't miss it. I've seen him live twice, and he's wonderful.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Wilco Kicking Television Live In Chicago 2005

Recorded in front of a home town audience, with a relatively new line-up, Kicking Television is a stellar document of a great live band firing on all cylinders. The recent additions of Nels Cline and Pat Sansone, on guitar noise and keyboards respectively, added greatly to the sound the band was developing.

They were then, as they are now, a remarkable live band. These guys really work together. The song list on this 2-CD affair is heavy on their current release (at the time), A Ghost Is Born 2004, but there's room for songs from almost their entire career up to this point, and the band isn't the same line-up that made A Ghost Is Born.
I can't describe it, not really. In fact, I've probably avoided reviewing any Wilco records for the shear lack of being able to describe the band. The band is this strange hybrid of musical styles, all of them seemingly American, including the musical equivalent of abstract impressionism, country, folk, rock, free jazz, noise and civil disobedience. Jeff Tweedy drives the band as singer and songwriter, and he brings a unique talent and approach to both roles. He's a melodic writer and a languid singer that sounds like he's equally bored and brokenhearted. His vision for the band seems to change quite a bit, and this line-up, which is still together six years later,  is a real ensemble, in that all the players contribute, and they are a particularly skilled bunch. That the studio albums this line-up has made (Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album)) are arguably slightly less interesting than earlier records is probably on Tweedy's shoulders. There's a brand new one out I haven't heard yet. I'll have to report on that soon.

This CD takes many of the best of Tweedy's songs from the 1996-2004 canon, and updates them with this remarkable band that was just getting started. They clearly enjoyed the interplay they were experiencing with each other. They're hot as hell.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Two Years

While I'm not into the whole meta-cognitive "lets blog about blogging" concept, I just can't resist at this, the two year anniversary of this blog. There have been 155 entries made, almost exactly 1.5 per week. Here's the breakdown:
3 reviews of live shows
5 editions of Spinning Vinyl
3 mentions of stereo equipment
10 artist career overviews, or features regarding box sets of music
5 entries devoted to Frank Zappa, often written during the December celebration of Zappadan
111 individual records or CDs reviewed. The release dates and the number of recordings from each year/period of those reccords/CDs is:

  1957- 1
  1961-1967- 4
  1969- 6
  1970-1975- 12 
  1976-1980- 2
  1981-1985- 5
  1986-1990- 11
  1991-1995- 6
  1996-2000- 8
  2001-2005- 12
  2006-2008- 11
  2009- 17
  2010- 14
  2011- 7

17 other various entries that don't fit the above categories
and a couple I must not have counted, because those numbers don't quite add up.

The most frequently viewed entries ever are an odd mix of Dusty Springfield, Boz Scaggs, Christian Cuff, Richie Havens, and Elton John and Leon Russel. The reasons for these being the top five are different for each of the five. Respectively, one because there's just a ton of interest, one because no one else blogs about him much, especially his older stuff, one because he's an interesting young artist that very few others have reviewed, one because it's so obscure and out there, and one because I spelled a name wrong, so I got hits because other people searched the same wrong spelling. My apologies to Mr. Russell. I couldn't figure out why I was getting so many hits on that entry for weeks. Ha!

Statistically, the blog sees about 100 visitors per week, but most of them click away before they read anything when they realize that I neither sell or give away anything.  Depending which counter system I trust (neither of them), there's between 1-5 people or 20 or so per day that actually read something. I'm pretty sure it's closer to the low end, but who knows.

Of course the blog has an obscure web address and title, neither of which help identify its content, so if you've been here before, welcome back. Thanks for coming by.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Sloan The Double Cross 2011

I've always liked this fine Canadian band of pop-rockers. Over the years they've added some punk-lite sounds to their repertoire of power-pop gems and Beatles-inspired rock and roll. I've been disappointed by a few of their records, but several are excellent. I'm especially fond of Navy Blues 1998, Never Hear The End Of It 2006, and the near perfect Beatles-esque Between The Bridges 1999. Their live       4 Nights At The Palais Royale, also from 1999, is also good.

Blessed with multiple songwriters and singers, the band has kept things interesting over the years by advancing their sound in a number of directions, and creating records that don't all sound the same. For instance, Never Hear The End Of It (two CDs in Canada, one in America) featured 30 songs over its 72 minutes, and the quality of those songs is stunning, given the number of them.

This new one is a pretty fine effort. The record opens with Follow The Leader, an intriguing psych-rock stomper that has an almost Spoon-like sound, at least until the pristine harmonies come into play. The Answer Is You is a blend of Raspberries and ELO in the verses, with a more aggressive chorus. She's Slowing Down Again is a mid-tempo rocker that hearkens back to the power-pop of Navy Blues. Green Gardens, Cold Montreal is a McCartney-esque acoustic ballad that ends side one of the vinyl version.

It's Plain To See is a hard punk-like rocker that has some killer guitar. More excellent mid-tempo numbers with great arrangements include Your Daddy Will Do and the piano-led Beverly Terrace. The big surprise of the record is Traces, a bluesy rocker that digs a deep groove that sounds like a very good Dylan tune, with a big swinging chorus and a clean, open sound that is like nothing they've done before, and really special. Laying So Low closes the record on a sad acoustic note that includes some swell guitar-electric piano interplay and a big, harmony-filled chorus.

There are a few that just don't have the melody or hooks of their best material, but most of what is here is darn fine Sloan. If you've never heard them, Between The Bridges is my recommended place to start. This new one is well worth hearing, and is certainly a good enough introduction that you just might want to hear some more.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Marshall Crenshaw with The Bottle Rockets, Beachland Ballroom, Cleveland, September 21, 2011

I saw Crenshaw at the Beechland. It was a good show.  I've seen Marshall Crenshaw a number of times before, and he always puts on a good live show.

The Bottle Rockets opened with an acoustic set that was great fun, even without their lead guitarist, who was apparently on paternity leave (rock and roll has really changed). They were rootsy, organic, songs were good, and the sound was great. The audience was absolutely reverent- you could hear a pin drop during the quiet songs. The between song chatter was funny and self-deprecating, and several of the songs were quite funny, most notably 1000 Dollar Car. The sad Smokin' 100s Alone was great. You could tell they were missing a lead guitarist, but it didn't matter much at all.

The Bottle Rockets then came back as Crenshaw's band for the main event. and it was excellent. It turns out that Brain Henneman, when he's not singing, is a pretty hot guitarist. Crenshaw did a lot of his first record (the show was billed as a 30 year celebration), including There She Goes Again, Someday, Someway, Cynical Girl, Mary Anne, and a particularly kick-ass Rockin' Around In N.Y.C. Other highlights included his version of Richard Thompson's Valerie, his Don Dixon co-write Calling Out For Love (At Crying Time), and two Buddy Holley covers. Crenshaw's voice was in fine form, and he is still hitting the high notes.

The Rockets were reasonably tight, but it also had a loose, spontaneous feel at times, maybe because Henneman was taking over leads for the missing John Horton. Special merit award to Keith Voegele, whose bass, and especially his harmony vocals, were the spice in the mix all night. Crenshaw took a few tasty leads, and it would have been fine if he played more. Leave them wanting more.

The sound was the usual thick muddy mess that seems to be the staple of live rock and roll. Too much bass drum, not enough lead guitar (especially Crenshaw's, and on this night at least, he was the hotter guitarist), and too much total volume. You know it's what you're going to get, but it still sounds like crap.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Joan Jett Fit To Be Tied: Great Hits by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts 1997

I've always had a soft spot for Joan Jett. Not a great voice, but it's hard not to notice how much she gives a damn. Simple rock 'n' roll. Why use four chords when three will do? And Joan's out there, shouting away with an invigorating insistence.

The Blackhearts are solid. Think AC/DC, but not quite that riff-heavy. Just a good hard rock band.

Joan always had an ear for songs. The covers she chooses, and invariably executes perfectly, are a big part of Joan's draw. Her versions of Jonathan Richmonds' Roadrunner, Sly Stone's Everyday People, Tommy James' Crimson And Clover, and especially the Mary Tyler Moore show theme Love Is All Around are all killer renditions.

Her own classics are here, too. Bad Reputation, I Love Rock N Roll, Cherry Bomb, Little Liar, Do You Want To Touch Me? (Oh Yeah), and the Springsteen penned Light Of Day, all rock hard and fast with zero subtlety. There's never any problem understanding what Joan means.

For a CD, I like the song selection here more than the recent 2010 Greatest Hits. Even though that one has more songs, it omits the essential Roadrunner, and Little Liar, which was a hit, and should be on any Jett hits package. This one from '97 is available cheap, even new.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Fountains Of Wayne Sky Full Of Holes 2011

Fountains Of Wayne are a particularly smart pop band, with brilliant lyrics that celebrate mundane everyday times in the modern age. At times both acute and hilarious, they dissect the ordinary with scalpel-like precision. Musically, their influences are too many and too varied to detail. While they are derivative for sure, they combine Beatles, Cheap Trick, and ELO, as well as more modern popsters such as Tommy Keane, Sloan, Marshall Crenshaw and Brenden Benson (all inspired by the same pop Fountains Of Wayne are emulating), into a unique blend almost all their own.

This CD might not please all fans, as there are more mid-tempo numbers, and less fast power-pop, than on their 2003 classic Welcome Interstate Managers. But just because a band is branching out a little is no reason to turn your back. Quite the opposite, really. They may be maturing, but they're still having fun doing it. And the songwriting is as good as anything out there when they are firing on all cylinders, which is most of the time.

If you need rockers, the suburban ennui of The Summer Place, the island vacation of A Dip In The Ocean, and the dumb fun of Radio Bar are here for you, rocking fast and smart hook-filled power-pop. There's also a few country tinged numbers in Workingman's Hands and the Irish ballad Firelight Waltz (which could have been a great lost Waterboys song).

Richie And Ruben is a great slacker-makes-bad lyric that they write so well (think Bright Future In Sales). Someone's Gonna Break You Heart follows a commuter's depressed daydream with a big chorus and chiming guitar. A lovely lead guitar break saves the gloomy Acela. There's a deft lyrical twist to Action Hero. A Road Song is a soft-rock song for the girl at home with another particularly smart lyric. And finally, there's Hate To See You Like This, perhaps the most sadly accurate description of living with someone deep in the throes of depression you'll ever hear. In a big lovely pop ballad.

There are a few lesser moments (Cold Comfort Flowers, the closing Cemetery Guns), and even I'd like a few more fast ones, but there really is not much to gripe about here. Great lyrics, strong melodies, hook-filled choruses, interesting arrangements with enough creativity to keep things from getting dull, and Chris Collingwood's post-punk vocals that a) you can always understand, and b) slide between deeply personal and downright snarky with ease. The band members are all highly skilled, with Jody Porter's guitar a consistent standout.

There are not many power-pop bands that remain as interesting and intelligent (even when they're being stupid) as these guys. You don't have to think, but if you want to, you can.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Elvis Costello and the Attractions Imperial Bedroom 1982

Everyone by now knows of the greatness of the first three Elvis Costello records. Or doesn't care. The fact is rarely challenged, and for good reason. From 1977-1979 My Aim Is True, This Year's Model, and Armed Forces represented some fine songcraft, a strong motivating force for each record, and a display of unbridled rock sensibility. They were great records led by an artist hitting an early pinnacle. The first one was made by Costello with the SoCal country-rock band Clover, the next two were with the inimitable Attractions.

But Elvis didn't really slow down much after that, either. 1980's Get Happy and 1981's Trust and the countrified Almost Blue hold up well, even next to the first three.

And in 1982 Elvis and the Attractions made what is arguably their last great record, Imperial Bedroom. At least that would be my argument.

The record is rich with Costello's overly-wordy lyrics, displaying remarkable depth and insight into human relationships, especially the dysfunctional ones. The record explores love from so many angles and in just as many forms. It is Costello's best "theme" record, with complex melodies, great lyrics, and the Attractions firing on all cylinders. Rife with big, technicolor arrangements, and some of Costello's most intimate vocal delivery. The recording makes the band bigger than life, Beatles' recording engineer Geoff Emerick producing,and giving the record an Abbey Road-like sheen. It's a lovely, lush and immediate sound.

Beyond Belief, Tears Before Bedtime, Man Out Of Time, Human Hands, Boy With A Problem, and You Little Fool are all classics (I could have just listed all the songs). But it's not a record that you play for the songs. The songs, in this case, are for the record. Sit down and listen to side one, and the only thing to do after that is listen to side two. This record is way too good for random play. It cries out for you to listen and enjoy from front to back.

If you haven't heard it in a while, put it on. If you haven't heard it, you should. You'll be richly rewarded. One of rock's finest talents doing one killer record.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Steve Cropper Deadicated- A Salute To The 5 Royales 2011

I've discussed with misgivings the Dreaded Tribute Album before. It is usually a disappointing mix of artists and styles and recording venues that combine to form a bit of a mish-mash that has a few great moments between mostly lackluster performances by artists often mismatched with material that doesn't suit them.

Well, as tribute records go, there is a new gold standard. The bar has been set, and it is very high indeed. And it should come as no surprise that the man making the best tribute record ever is Steve Cropper. Guitarist extraordinaire Cropper should need no introduction, but just in case, here goes. Guitarist for Booker T. and the M.G.s, both on their funky records and as the house band behind many if not most of the great soul records released on the Stax and Volt labels in the sixties. On many of those sessions, he was also a songwriter and/or producer. Guitarist for the Blues Brothers, who of course mostly lived off the Memphis and Muscle Shoals soul that Cropper help define. And really, that's just the beginning. He went on to produce many artists and recorded a number of solo albums.

This record is so good I don't know where to begin. Cropper admired Lowman Pauling, the guitarist of the 5 Royales, and was influenced early by Pauling's guitar playing. The 5 Royales recorded between 1950-1957, and it could be argued that they were combining R&B, Doo-Wop and Gospel into the precursor of soul music every bit as much as Ray Charles, who usually gets the credit. And it turns out that Pauling was also a fantastic songwriter.

But all that won't make for a great record either. First, the songs are great. Second, the band is Cropper, Muscle Shoals veteran David Hood on bass, the incomparable Spooner Oldham on piano, Steve Ferrone and Steve Jordan on drums, and producer Jon Tiven and The Daptone's Neal Sugerman on sax. And they are tight. Third, about half the vocal performances were actually recorded live with the band because all the guests contacted were falling all over themselves to participate in any project in which Cropper was involved. Fourth, the guest stars are really stars in their own right, no second-stringers hired to flesh out the record. Vocalists are B.B. King, Shemika Copeland, Sharon Jones, John Popper, Bettye LaVette, Steve Winwood, Delbert McClinton, Lucinda Williams, Dylan Leblanc, Dan Penn, and Buddy Miller. Miller and May also add even more killer guitar to Cropper's remarkable chops. Fifth, every performance is stellar. Band, arrangement, vocal- everything clicks. Sixth, and this one should have come first really, Steve Cropper plays the heck out of everything, in the most unassuming way possible. This guy is so good, and always has been, that it takes a while to realize just how magnificently he plays. He is a guitarist who has always served the song first and foremost, and never his ego.  

Lucinda Williams doing Dedicated To The One I Love (it's too cool), Sharon Jones's Messin' Up, Buddy Miller's The Slummer The Slum, and Dan Penn's lovely reading of Someone Made You For Me are all great vocal performances backed by that stellar band, all recorded in Dan Penn's studio. The instrumental Think (yes, the song James Brown covered famously) shows off Cropper's skills both as guitarist and arranger/band leader. The rest of the songs? There isn't a single weak performance.

The recording is clean and neat, just like those Stax records of yore, but with modern production values. If you have any interest in Cropper's playing, or you just want to hear a killer record for a change, look no further. Five stars. This is not product. This is music lovingly prepared by talent of the highest caliber.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Maceo Parker Roots & Grooves 2008

While we're in a funky mood- no better time for Maceo's remarkable 2-CD 2008 set.
Maceo Parker is the most famous of James Brown's soloists, and is one seriously funky dude. His work with Brown is rightfully heralded, but he's made plenty of great music since his days with the Godfather of Soul. From 1975-1985 he played with George Clinton's Parliament and on Bootsy Collins' solo records, and he's made some fifteen solo records since 1970. He's played on many records as a guest, and was featured on several of Prince's records in the last ten years (some of which are a lot better than you'd think).

But the title being discussed here is a monumental recording. Two CDs. Live in Europe with the WDR Big Band, a 20-piece ensemble with impressive skills of their own. The first CD is a Tribute To Ray Charles and the second is dubbed Back To Funk. The Ray Charles tribute disc is a thrill. Maceo sings most of the songs, and his singing is perfect for these tunes, and even sounds a bit like Ray himself. The arrangements and the work of both the star and his noble backing band- no, his fellow stars, the WDR Big Band- it all adds up to fun and beauty. Maceo even does a memorable Georgia On My Mind.

Then on the Back To Funk CD, the gang takes on a number of Maceo originals mostly originally recorded by Parliament or Bootsy, and as one song title states, this is Advanced Funk. A 17-minute Pass The Peas, with no less than six solos by horns, keys, guitar and drums, rounds out the set in fine style. When you're ready for an especially deep groove, look no further. Parker's solos on the entie CD are breathtaking. He is a soulful sax stylist of unparalleled expressiveness.

The recording is luminous. On a good stereo, you can experience new things with this CD. Clarity without edginess. Details abound. Rhythm and pacing that will keep you moving at all times. You can almost see where each player/section is on the stage.

The work of the WDR Big Band cannot be underestimated. And Maceo is thrilled to be in such company, and as such, rises to the occasion. Maceo's no spring chicken. This might be the best recording he ever makes. It definately in the running for the best he's made so far. Seriously. Landmark stuff.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Ernie Isley High Wire 1990

Ernie Isley, a talented young Jimi Hendrix disciple, was the hot guitarist on all those excellent Isley Brothers seventies records (Who's That Lady, Live It Up!, etc.). He continued to record with the Isleys into the eigthies, and later with Isley/Jasper/Isley, and then again with Ronald Isley in the ninties. In 1990, he made this, his only solo effort. I don't think that many people heard it.

The record kicks off with Song For The Muses, a wailing funk guitar workout. Then the title track is one of those slinky sneaky funk jams that the Isleys were still capable of in the eighties. Later, Ernie shreds his axe on She Takes Me Up, which also has a classic funk bass line. Back To Square One rocks hard, and again features Isley's guitar in an impressive display.

Not everything works perfectly. There's a couple of sappy love songs. But most of what's here holds up darn well. Ernie's voice isn't Ronald's, far from it, but he's a passable singer at least, and occasionally gets soulful. But what you're here for is funk-rock of the highest order, and there are some choice slabs of guitar-heavy funk, and some gloriously deep grooves, that, if you like that kind of thing, are well worth your time. There's at least three that will make it to any great party playlist.

Get down. The only question left to answer now is if badself is one word or two (bad self).

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Little Richard The Rill Thing 1970

Little Richard had one strange career. His earliest work was some of the rockingest music of the fifties, equally as seminal and important as Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis or Buddy Holley. Any of his hits collections from the fifties is worth owning. He went back and forth between spiritual and rock music several times over the years, so there were many come-backs, and most of them didn't go that well. This one was something else.

A deep soul R&B Muscle Shoals sound pervades the record. The stomping Freedom Blues kicks things off in fine R&B style, and Richard is screaming at the top of his game to a great hook. It was Little Richard's first single to break into the top 50 in over ten years. Greenwood, Mississippi follows, and it is Creedence-sounding swamp rock done right. Two-Time Loser is built on a great guitar riff, with another stellar vocal. Dew Drop Inn sounds like it could have been recorded in his fifties heyday, with a hot sax break and wild piano. Somebody Saw You digs a deep groove, and Richard keeps the thing on fire with his singing. Spreadin' Natta, What's The Matter? ends the first side with another fine vocal over a rocking guitar figure, and another deep groove, almost James Brown-like.

And there's another side. The title cut is a 10-minute instrumental funk groove that cooks pretty well and stays mostly interesting in a Sly Stone way. It either gets you dancing or it's too long, but as ten minute funk tunes go, it's solid. Lovesick Blues is a Hank Williams country blues that Richard does with grace, but it doesn't really work for him that well. The album ends with Richard getting completely funky all over Lennon and McCartney's I Saw Her Standing There, with great horn charts and another vocal highlight. A surprisingly good cover of a song that never had much soul before this version. 

Recorded in Muscle Shoals, the sound is magnificent in an old-school way. Twang on the guitar helps it cut through the mix. Snap on the drums does the same. The bass has that thick yet somehow tight sound that the best sixties southern soul shared. The horns sound great, too. And Little Richards sings like a man possessed, right out front in the mix.

I am certainly not all that familiar with Little Richard's output, but I am sure this is one of his better ones after his early work. And it seems to me that The Rill Thing could be a rare and unusual find for a soul, R&B, or funk lover that's never heard it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

April Smith and the Great Picture Show Songs For A Sinking Ship 2010

I had the good pleasure of seeing April Smith and band live a few weeks ago in Elyria. They put on a fun show.  This, her debut release, is much better put together than you might guess going in. The arrangements keep things interesting, and April, her voice, her lyrics, her tunes- all are operating at a very high level.

The sound is cabaret-styled much of the time, but she does it superbly. Her songs range from sweet ballads to pounding rockers. The writing is good, and the arrangements make the most of every song. Drummer Elliot Jacobson and guitarist Marty O'Kane are particularly key to the sound, and the band is tight. 

April Smith has a big voice. A little coquettish when she's not belting it out, it's crystal clear and powerful. Not a subtle instrument, but it sure works for her songs, which seem to have a unique style that nobody else is doing right now. Nellie McKay is about the only comparison I can think of, and that's only a reference here and there. Some of the songs have a show tune quality, some a little old-time sounding, maybe a touch of ragtime or 40's big band (without the big band, but there is a bit of trumpet on a few). And all dressed up as hook-heavy pop.

The record opens with the 1-2 punch of the quick pop-rock of Movie Loves A Screen followed by Terrible Things, with its cabaret/march verses and big hooky rock chorus. Other highlights include Colors (stomping pop-rock with a crazy and fun "crowd" chorus), The One That Got Away (big rocker backed by a carnival organ sound), Beloved (ballad with string quartet adding depth), Wow And Flutter (quick tempo cabaret style again) and Stop Wondering (cute kiss-off song with a fun lyrical twist).

Occasionally, with so many songs having a punch line, the lyrical comedy can get old. But these are fun songs, not novelty songs. April can write a good lyrical twist and turn, and it does keep things entertaining. Her more somber moments (Beloved, What'll I Do) are strong numbers, and balance the frivolity. 

Go see her live if she comes your way. She did a spectacular cover of You Don't Own Me the night I saw her. Until then, this CD might be just what you need.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Spinning Vinyl

We've been here before. And here. And here. And here.

So this time no explanation, yes there was a theme, it wasn't always followed.
All vinyl, all in the last few hours, in this actual order:
Levon Helm: Rag Mama Rag and Time Out For The Blues, from Ramble At The Ryman, 2011
Grateful Dead: Mama Tried, from Grateful Dead, 1971
Eric Clapton: May You Never, Wonderful Tonight, and Lay Down Sally, from Slowhand, 1977
Nick Lowe: True Love Travels On A Gravel Road, from The Impossible Bird, 1994
John Hiatt: Drive South, from Slow Turning, 1988
Neil Young And Crazy Horse: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, from At The Fillmore 1970, 2006
Spoon: You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb and Rhythm & Soul, from Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, 2007
Drive By Truckers: The Southern Thing, The Three Great Alabama Icons, and Wallace, from Southern Rock Opera, 2003
Fleetwood Mac: Lay It All Down, from Future Games, 1971
Van Morrison: Bulbs, from Veedon Fleece, 1974
Jim O Rourke: All Downhill from Here, from Insignificance, 2001
Wilco: Impossible Germany, from Sky Blue Sky, 2007
Gary Louris: True Blue, from Vagabonds, 2008
Rolling Stones: Wild Horses and I Can Hear You Knockin', from Sticky Fingers, 1971
Burning Spear: Live Good, from Marcus Garvey, 1975

That was fun.

Gon Out

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Joss Stone LP1 2011

Let's start with the scorecard. Ten songs, four very good or excellent. That's not a very good percentage. In fact, based on that standard, this is the weakest Joss Stone record yet.

Who can we blame? Two people mostly, Ms. Stone herself and producer, songwriter, guitarist David A. Stewart of Eurythmics fame. Stewart is not the first name I'd come up with as a producer of a soul record, and if Stone isn't going to sing soul, what's the point? This is also the first Joss Stone record where she is co-songwriter on all tracks, and frankly, she could use more help than she gets from Stewart and a scant few others.

Betty Wright did a fine job on the first two, and Nas and Raphael Saadiq (and several others) helped assemble the next two, which updated her old school soul with more contemporary fare. But David A. Stewart is just not the guy for this job, and this is the fist Joss Stone record that can't really be defined as soul. Recorded in Nashville. Nashville?

Newborn starts things off on a high note, and it's a good rock/soul ballad with a dynamic arrangement and one of Stone's better lyrics. Karma keeps the quality high, with a strong, angry Martina McBride lyric. It's not really a soul song though, and almost sounds like Pat Benatar. It has a Stevie Wonder funk-lite piano line as it's only concession to soul. Don't Start Lying To Me Now is a funky rocker with a strong lyric, great vocals (and background vocals), and that spit-the-words-out angry thing Stone does especially well. Somehow is a funky, slinky soul groove with a hooky chorus that Stone sings the crap out of. That's the four good ones.

Last One To Know is another rock ballad that sounds like a Melissa Etheridge song and goes on for too long. Drive All Night is an OK slow burner with deliberately sparse instrumentation that just doesn't do anything interesting. Cry Myself To Sleep is a mellow folk-rock thing that Cat Stevens might have done. Landlord is an acoustic guitar/vocal tune that is a failed attempt to pull off a Janis Joplin  vibe. The lyric sounds forced. Boat Yard is a mid-tempo rocker  that could have been filler on a Tom Petty record. And Take Good Care  is an acoustic guitar-led folk song that sounds like the winner of a high school songwriting contest.

Ms. Stone has been screaming for her independence for years now. Her third record was called Introducing... and now her fifth is titled LP1. She didn't want those record company guys pushing her around. Turns out she was wrong. For a singer with such a soulful delivery, this rock product is way off the mark.

The four good ones are really good.

Suede (The London Suede) Coming Up 1988

This record always struck a chord with me. Trash, Filmstar, Lazy, Beautiful Ones, The Chemistry Between Us, all of them are perfect David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust crossed with Mott The Hoople's Mott album. Pretty cool stuff really, and even the ballads (By The Sea, Saturday Night) are strong.

There are a few lesser moments, but how many great songs can anybody come up with? And even the lesser songs hold up. It is a CD you can listen to without having to fast forward or skip ahead (does anyone still do this, other than me?).

The singer, Brett Anderson, is completely affected in that cool, detached way, and the band plays tight, straight ahead glam rock old school. The record was a smash hit in the UK, making it to #1 on the album charts, and generating no less than five top-10 singles. It's that good.

Anyway, I still like it. If you've never heard it and you don't hate glam-rock, it's worth your time.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Cool Off

Taking the Kelly challenge (see comments on the last post), since it's HOT, maybe we should try to chill a little.

Cool It Down- The Velvet Underground
Cool- West Side Story Soundtrack
Cool Operator- Sade
Cool Water- Joni Mitchell
Coolin' In Cali- 7A3
Cool Love- Wanda Jackson
Cool Turkey- James Booker
Cool Jerk- The Capitols
Cool Me Out- Lamont Dozier
Cool World- American Men

Midwest girl may still be too hot extra cut:

Cool Off- Detroit Executives

Special thanks to the new site search tool for helping me track down some obscurities!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Very Hot Hotness

It is (at least) 95 degrees in Kleaveburg today.
I know it's hotter elsewhere, but here in the frozen north, it's smokin' hot for us.

Some Like It Hot- Power Station
Hot Fun In The Summertime- Sky And The Family Stone
Hot In The City- Billy Idol
Hot Summer Day- It's A Beautiful Day
Hot Hot Hot- Buster Poindexter
Hot For Teacher- Van Halen
Hot Smoke and Sassafras- The Bubble Puppy 
Hot Plate Heaven At The Green Hotel- Frank Zappa
Hot 'lanta- The Allman Brothers
Hot Blood- Lucinda Williams
Too Darn Hot- Stacey Kent