Friday, February 25, 2011

T-Bone Burnett Trap Door 1982 and The DoDeans Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams 1986

I said some not nice things a while back about T-Bone Burnett's recent work producing Elton John and Leon Russell. But it hasn't always been that way.

Burnett got famous with the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, although he had much fine production work prior to that with Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, Bruce Cockburn, Marshall Crenshaw, Roy Orbison, and Sam Phillips.

And the first BoDeans album Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams in 1986. The roots rock sound they birthed in Wisconsin was matched perfectly to Burnett's sympathetic production, and a classic was born. Kurt Neumann and Sammy Llanas wrote great songs, the band is hot, and the production is perfect. Llanas' voice is something you either love or hate, but you can only know thatfrom hearing it. Anyway, fine work from T-Bone Burnett in the producer's chair.

T-Bone's very own Trap Door 1982 is a perfect pop record. A six-song EP, I Wish You Could Have Seen Her Dance got the airplay, but Hold On Tight, Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend, and Trap Door are all killer.

Songs, singing, arrangements, band, recording, everything is just right. It doesn't sound like anything else he ever did, which is very good news. His other solo records were eighties New Wave, or twitchy experimentation, or challengingly aggressive, or avant-garde, or country. All over the map, sometimes on the same record.

This one is just a pop-rock gem. Two guitars, bass and drums done to perfection with toe-tapping rhythms, excellent lyrics, great hooks. It's simple and perfect (and meaty) like a great steak.

Aretha Franklin I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You 1967

Everything has already been written about this amazing record. If you own it, you need to get it out and listen to it again. I did just that last night. I pulled out my 2001 vinyl reissue and let Aretha sing.

After six years at Columbia, trying her, mostly without success, on jazz, pop and cabaret material, Aretha arrived at Atlantic records, and Jerry Wexler knew just how to let Aretha be Aretha, through gospel-infused, Ray Charles rave-up, down South soul music. Aretha and Wexler picked the songs, Aretha plays piano on all the tracks, and the Muscle Shoals rhythm section cooks behind her. The recording is excellent, the sound perfect.

Respect, Drown In My Own Tears, I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You), Soul Serenade, Don't Let Me Lose This Dream, Dr. Feelgood, Good Times, Do Right Woman-Do Right Man, and A Change Is Gonna Come, they're all solid gold deep soul. The two I didn't list aren't filler- they're only half a notch below these classics.

The record has made every top soul albums list ever compiled. If you fancy yourself a soul music fan, if you have even a passing interest in soul music, you must own this music. There are no acceptable excuses. Aretha made quite a few good records, but this one will light up your life every time you listen. If you're not feelin' it, you dead.

Tim Easton Porcupine 2009

Tim Easton is one of the many indie singer-songwriter rockers around these days, and he's a pretty interesting talent. This one is his latest, and there's much to like about it.

Easton sings, writes, plays guitar and piano, and is joined by a talented band of Matt Surgeson on bass, Sam Brown on drums, and Kenny Vaughn on guitar. Brad Jones produced and added guitar and keyboards, and several other guests add vocals, violin, guitar, and lap steel.

The songs are particularly well arranged, and this is definitely a key ingredient to making this record as good as it is. I suppose that credit goes to Easton and Jones, and maybe the band some too.

Highlights include Burgundy Red, a big reverb-drenched bluesy rocker. Broke My Heart, a nice mid-tempo pop tune that sounds like a cross between Tom Petty and Nick Lowe, and Porcupine, a driving swamp rock thing lead by a fine acoustic guitar figure. The Dylan/Los Lobos hybrid Stormy rocks hard, as does the machine gun rock of Get What I Got. Northbound is a good Creedence-styled twangy blues. Of the ballads and slower songs, Long Cold Night In Bed is the best lyrically and musically.

There are a few lesser and cliched lyrical moments, and Easton's voice is not a big strong instrument, but I'm nit-picking now. Mostly this is another fine outing from a skilled tunesmith. And there's quite a bit of excellent guitar built into the especially well-crafted arrangements. Check it out.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Death of the Music Industry?

I don't know if it is really death, but certainly serious atrophy. I'm not all that sad to see sales back to 1993 levels, nor would I call that a death knell, but it is bad news for record moguls. If the CD trend continues and digital sales only grow at the present rate, it could be back to pre-85 sales levels in no time, and this is not a good thing.

The record companies, at least the major players, probably deserve their fate, if for no other reason than for being greedy bastards who have made a series of remarkably stupid moves (SACD vs DVD-A anyone?). Anticipate the future? These guys can barely respond to it.

But when most of the loss in sales is due to illegal file sharing (and don't kid yourself, it is), the artists who make the music also get robbed. Corporations may not get my sympathy, but singers and songwriters and players of instruments deserve a better fate. Yes, new music delivery systems are coming into being, and some people are accepting those new retail outlets and purchasing digital downloads, while others are buying CDs and vinyl on the internet. But compared to CD sales in the 90s, sales are gone. There may come a new paradigm, but it should protect the product from theft, somehow. Probably not any of the ways that that have been tried, but somehow.

Is music gone? No. Are young people listening to music? Yes. Do they buy it? No, at least not many from what I can tell. And I suppose there are plenty of older music fans that have gotten on board as well. Why pay for a product that you can get for free? Because there is an artist you are stealing from. If you were stealing a painting, or a piece of stained glass, or a sculpture, you'd have to pick it up and run, and hide it somewhere, and find someone you could sell it to. But music, you can put it on the internet for anyone to take, and you can go there and take all you want. And nobody gets paid.

I don't like the big record companies, but I'm an ardent fan of artists. The changes we are seeing are bad for artists that make music. The artist's situation isn't just different, it is worse. And eventually it will mean that there will be less high-quality product on the market, because you can't make a living making a product that most consumers steal. So who's going to be attracted to that life?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

David Wilcox Home Again 1991

David Wilcox is a folky singer-songwriter with a nice voice and a gift for both metaphor and simile (I better cover all the bases), plus he's an excellent guitar player. I own and like several of his records, but this is the one.

This is the real deal heart-on-the-sleeve, confessional, romantic, yearning, deeply emotional singer-songwriter stuff here. In the liner notes, Wilcox himself says "...most of these songs are about facing the stuff that follows me when I run." He's not kidding.

Immaculately produced by Ben Wisch and staffed by impressive guest stars and an all-star cast of studio go-to guys, the CD sounds terrific. And the arrangements are stellar.

All it takes now is songs to hang all that good stuff on. Songs that will stand up and make the most of all that talent. There really aren't any lame songs on this record. There are highlights for sure, but the record is listenable from end to end, and that alone is a rarity.

Burgundy Heart-Shaped Medallion hangs a beautiful love song on a Bach guitar piece just to kick things off. Farther To Fall, the sneakily dirty-sexy Wildberry Pie, Distant Water, the hilarious over-the-hill tale of Top Of The Roller Coaster, the painfully confessional Covert War- all great songs. But some of the best are yet to come near the end of the CD. Last Chance Waltz is a sweet young 28 year old with a problem at his 10-year high school reunion. She's Just Dancing is an up-tempo beauty of a writing job, and a lovely lyric, right there with Joni Mitchell or Jackson Browne or Guy Clark. And then Chet Baker's Swan song, complete with Randy Brecker on flugelhorn, is a gorgeous homage to Baker, and another exceptional lyric.

All this can be too much delicate folk for some folks, and you know who you are. But when you want the soundtrack for your occasional angst, there's nothing like this stuff. And of modern purveyors of the genre, Wilcox is a rare talent. He's made a bunch of good records, and this one is the most consistently excellent.

Much of David Wilcox's music can be heard at his web site, including several of the songs from this fine CD.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Spinning Vinyl

A few days ago I got some quality time with the stereo. It was only two hours on a weeknight, but it turned into a fine session of turntable love.

Side one of Free The Bees 2004 got things started. The Bees are a highly engaging psych-funk-rock outfit from England that have made some great records, and this one is particularly strong. The new one is good, too. The psychedelic opener These Are The Ghosts is a killer tune, and Wash In The Rain and No Atmosphere are both excellent.

Next up was the last side of the four-LP The Rolling Stones Singles Collection The London Years 1989. This is a very fun set that includes many rarely-heard B-sides. I listened to Brown Sugar, Wild Horses, Don't Know Why I Love You (a Stevie Wonder cover!), Try A Little Harder, Out Of Time (Jagger's 1966 version recorded by a non-Stones band), and Jiving Sister Fanny. Those last four are all rare singles and B-sides and fine performances. This box set is full of surprises like that and the vinyl sounds good, even if it was cut from digitally remastered recordings.

I had to get my fix of Kiln House, Fleetwood Mac's 1970 masterwork and Cristine McVie's debut with the group. Hi Ho Silver and the magnificent Jewel-Eyed Judy lit up the speakers with classic rock glory.

Speaking of classic records, Greg Allman's Laid Back from 1973 is near perfect. My drummer friend Todd mentioned it to me a few years ago, and I picked up a used copy. Allman's version of Jackson Browne's These Days is a terrific rendition of a fine song.

I'm soaking up the seventies by now, so why not Joni Mitchell's Miles Of Aisles, her 1974 live outing with The L.A. Express. Side four, with Carey, The Last Time I Saw Richard, Jericho, and Love Or Money is as good as Joni gets. The L.A. Express really found a sweet spot between Joni's early folk-pop and her later jazz leanings. They compliment her well throughout the entire record.

Back to the future, I grabbed Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga from 2007. I go back and forth on this band sometimes, but the trifecta of You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb, Don't You Evah, and the amazing Rhythm And Soul had me rockin' in that strange place this band inhabits.

The stereo was up pretty loud by now, and the attitude of Spoon made me long for some more concentrated sneer. I knew I couldn't go wrong with side four of The Clash's London Calling 1979. Lover's Rock, Four Horsemen, I'm Not Down, Revolution Rock, and Train In Vain. What an amazing album side. Hard core punks probably prefer earlier Clash, but it's hard to deny the the sheer perfection of London Calling, with so many classic tunes and a band clearly at the top of their game.

Time to wind down, and what better way to get back to earth than with The Band. I pulled out 1970's Stage Fright and listened to Stage Fright and The Rumor. I've always loved both of these songs, especially the moralistic tale of The Rumor, a simple reminder of the lasting damage done to reputation by oft-told lies.

Just another night of music on black plastic. For more of the occasional Spinning Vinyl series, try here or here.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Robin Stine Daydream 2005

So maybe you're like me and you like the easy jazz and jazz-pop stylings of Diana Krall, Norah Jones, Madeline Peyroux, Eva Cassidy, Karrin Allyson and Stacey Kent. If that's the case, and you'd like to listen to more of the same with quality original songwriting, then you should just buy this CD. It's that simple.

Robin Stine writes songs that sound familiar. Blues and jazz that avoid cliche and yet still sound like old classics. She has a nice voice, not particularly powerful, but well-controlled and easy on the ears without sounding coquettish. And delightfully emotive.

The supporting cast is stellar. Warren Bernhardt on piano, Gary Burke on drums, and Steve Bernstein on trumpet all make very important contributions to the music here. Steven Calandra's bass, Matt Rhody's violin, and Steve Cardenas's and Mark Bingham's guitars round out the crack band. Mark Bingham also produces, and does a fine job. The sound of the CD is very good, the recording done right.

It's mellow and bluesy. It sounds like a Madeline Peyroux CD with the angst and pretense removed, crossed with an old Nat King Cole Trio record.

Wow. That sounds like high praise. And I can stand by that. She deserves your ear.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Steely Dan Countdown To Ectasy 1973

I liked all of the first four Steely Dan records, but this one especially. The twin guitars of Denny Dias and Skunk Baxter, the added color of Victor Feldman's vibes and percussion, and of course the smart songs from Becker and Fagan, it all adds up to a classic.

Bodhisattva, a mostly instrumental driving rocker kicks things off, and the twin guitars are in fine form. Razor Boy is reminiscent of the first record with it's soft pop-rock, and Baxter adds a nice pedal steel to the mix. The Boston Rag is a slow-to-mid-tempo rocker with an tasty guitar lead. Side one ends with Your Gold Teeth, a quick-paced, jazzy tune with a Fagan piano break and a catchy chorus.

Side two opens with both of the singles from the album. Show Biz Kids condemns LA excess with a funky/twangy guitar figure and the hypnotically repeated "Goin' to Las Vegas, Goin' to lost wages" vocal background over a cool lyric. An excellent chicken-pickin' guitar lead from Dias is perfectly in synch with the jittery feel of the song. My Old School is a classic, with another fine lead guitar, and a great lyric that always reminds me of that girl that was just too good for me. A sad country ballad of too brief love, Pearl Of The Quarter features Baxter's pedal steel guitar. The record ends with King Of The World, a fine band effort, with wah-wah rhythm guitar and driving drums that push the song forward. Piano, synth, and guitar leads all add tasty color.

You can really hear the fine live band they had become by this time. They would stop touring a year later, and they would never again be the band that they really were on this record. After this it is Becker and Fagan and hired studio hands. They made some more great records, but never another quite like this.