Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Lady Gaga Born This Way 2011

Those of you who read this blog regularly (and I just know there's 4 or 5 of you) probably have a sense of my musical taste. And it had to come as a surprise (disappointment?) when I reviewed the first set from Gaga back here.

Oh well. It is my wife's fault. But as with most of her ideas, my initial trepidation was later reversed by my own enjoyment. Of half the record anyway.

This new one is OK, but not quite as interesting as the first. There's 17 songs here, so that's a lot of space to fill up with ideas, and there are clearly less than 17 ideas. So some of it is obvious filler. Also, the novelty of the "New Madonna" thing is wearing off.

The thing that hurts it the most is the writing. Almost all of the song are written by Gaga with Paul Blair and/or Fernando Garibay (way too many). Redone returns for a few, but only Hair represents the same quality he brought to the first record. There were more writers involved in the first one, so there was more variety. But there's still some good stuff here.

The highlights include the title cut, a blatant rewrite of Madonna's Express Yourself with a little Vogue in the middle eight, and Hair, a great teen girl anthem with the line "I'm as free as my hair. I am my hair" sung with the conviction only a fifteen year old girl could bring to those words. Bad Kids is another teen anthem, but it's also pretty good. Fashion Of His Love is a Big Rock Anthem done, again, a la Madonna, with different Madonna riffs borrowed throughout.

Highway Unicorn (Road To Love) is a mix of Gaga, Bon Jovi and Madonna all wrapped up in another Big Song. You And I changes things up from the rock anthems to a big country ballad. It sounds like one of those barely country things Keith Urban or Shania Twain does. The Edge Of Glory returns to arena rock, with a giant chorus that sounds like a Journey song (with a sax solo by Clarence Clemons!).

So there's seven that I like. Not a great return on your investment, really. There's at least five more that are interesting (Marry The Night- standard disco, but good, the quasi-Latin Americano, Scheibe, a darn good faux-Kraut-rock disco tune, Bloody Mary-nicely developed melody, but sounds plastic, and Queen, a pretty good pop tune). Five others could have been left off the record.

If there's four or five from the first album that I'll like hearing five years from now, there's probably only a couple on this one that are that good. I should also mention the sound. It's overcompressed. Not as bad as a few I've heard, but bad enough. And there are no sounds on this record that could ever be called organic. This is polished product, not made for anything except dancing. But you can enjoy it that way.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Leven Helm Ramble At The Ryman 2011

Levon Helm has a new record out, and it is cause for celebration. Recorded live at the Grand Old Opry's Ryman Auditorium with the crack Levon Helm Band augmented by an All-Star lineup of guests, it's rich with fine performances. Larry Campbell has been with Levon for several years, and his guitar playing, writing and arranging are excellent. Little Sammy Davis sings his ragged blues on quite a few songs, and his harmonica lights up several. The horn section is talented and the horn charts are especially good, veering between New Orleans and Muscle Shoals, and adding depth, soul and interest along the way. Amy Helm and Teresa Williams sing like angels. And Levon sounds great. 

The record, a 2-LP set, opens with Ophelia, a staple in Helm's live shows, and an oft-overlooked Band gem. It rocks, and the horns shine. Chuck Berry's Back To Memphis follows, and keeps the energy up high, the band cooking with gas and Helm having a fine time. Fannie Mae and Baby Scratch My Back follow, both featuring Little Sammy Davis's vocal and harmonica, and really the whole band. Guitar, horn, harmonica and piano solos - everybody gets a feature.

The high wail of The Band's Evangeline, with Sheryl Crow helping out Amy and Teresa's vocals is good, although I'm not quite as fond of Helm's more authentic Appalachian moments, and this is one of several on the record. Crow sticks around for the Carter family's No Depression In Heaven, and it's OK. Then it's Buddy Miller singing his own Wide River To Cross, and Miller is very very good, and the songs benefits from lovely harmonies on the chorus. Deep Elem Blues features the band again to excellent effect, with guitar, piano and sax solos, and a rolling shuffle of good old-timey fun.

Anna Lee begins side three, and it's more of Helm's country traditionalism, but a sparse arrangement and heavenly harmonies are ethereal. A fine rendition of Rag Mama Rag follows, and then Amy takes the lead on Time Out For The Blues, a rollicking blues stomp featuring the band again, and they're smokin'. The side ends with A Train Robbery, the last of Levon's lonesome country blues before the excitement of side four rips the roof off.

Side four is The Shape I'm In (sung by Davis), Chest Fever (with Campbell's guitar playing the organ parts), and The Weight (with John Hiatt trading verses with Levon). All three are great Band songs that are done to perfection with both reverence and updated arrangements, and crazy good ensemble playing.

Levon's on a roll of late, and this is one of his best ever.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Jimi Hendrix Live At Woodstock 1999

I've been tempted by this record many times. Historical Document, yeah yeah, blah blah, etc. But I knew the story of Hendrix's little-rehearsed band and even though this was finally the (almost) entire set, I just never went for it. So the other day I'm at the library, and I stumble onto the 2 CD set.

I cannot begin to tell you how happy I am that I did not spend a dime of my hard-earned money on this really bad Hendrix live recording. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of Hendrix I love. The three studio records released during his brief life are near perfect, each in a different way. But I've never been a big fan of posthumous records culled from recordings that were not worthy the first time around.

And nobody would have released this material if Hendrix were a seventy year old geezer rocker today. He wouldn't have allowed it, unless he'd become a washed-up old has-been pushing "The Golden Sixties" three-CD set on late night TV. Which somehow seems hard to fathom.

First, the recording sucks. You can only really hear Hendrix, Billy Cox on bass, and the inimitable Mitch Mitchell on drums. The two percussionists and rhythm guitar are all but inaudible. Given the reputation of this short-lived experimental line-up, that may not be the worst thing about the record, but we'll never know, because you can't hear them. It's a sound board recording, and as such, not the worst, but that's only really good enough to be released when the performance is transcendent. A few Grateful Dead performance records come to mind. Not so much this debacle.

What you can hear is plenty bad enough. Billy Cox hasn't become familiar enough with these songs to sound like the solid foundational player he would become on Band Of Gypsies. Mitch Mitchell shines brightest, but only because I love his wild way with the kit. Hendrix himself seems mortified, uncharacteristically apologizing throughout the set. And although there are moments of greatness, it sounds like Hendrix is just way to stoned to play at the top of his game. And did I mention that the band were ill-rehearsed? This sounds like three guys flailing at instruments, maybe not even aware of each other most of the time.

The highlights, you ask? A crazy Spanish Castle Magic is worth hearing. The version of Fire is good (of course there are many better),  and the first half of Voodoo Child (Slight Return) is some killer Hendrix guitar, and it sounds like the band at least remembers how that one goes. The Star Spangled Banner is, well, it's of it's time, and you've heard it before.

The Sly and the Family Stone Woodstock Experience 2009 is the record to buy if you want to hear a great set at Woodstock. Hendrix was in a purple haze.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks Beatin' The Heat 2000

Back in 2000, Dan Hicks did an amazing thing when he released this record. It was the perfect come-back, except Hicks had never come the first time. Dan Hicks had some fleeting success in the early seventies, but even his most die hard fans would have to concede that this is his best record. Ever. So not so much a comeback, as a career highlight and defining moment.

The songs are terrific, and Hicks' easy, laid-back, suave and debonair, and hilarious, delivery is perfect. The record opens with My Cello, a uniquely twisted ode to that fine instrument, and a sneaky shuffle of a love song. I Don't Want Love follows, and it's an hilarious song about "if love makes you not want food, I don't want love". It's great. No foolin'. That's followed by an excellent updating of the classic Hot Licks oldie I Scare Myself. The title tune is a pop gem that swings a duet with Bette Midler. He Don't Care is an outrageously funny ode to the wacky tobacky.

And the hits keep on coming. Humming To Myself, Chattanooga Shoe-Shine Boy, I've Got A Capo On My Brain, and Don't Stop The Meter, Mack are all right there in the quality department. And Hick's version of Tom Wait's The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) is priceless.

The blend of blues, ragtime, vaudeville, folk, swing, and pop is eclectic. It's also all-over-the-map and a bit coy at the same time. But the songs are very good. The production is the best he's ever had. And Hicks himself is both a new man and the same old guy he'd always been. It's fun, and you can dance to some of it. You'll laugh, and you won't have to cry. It is far and away the funniest pop record in the last decade.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Glyn Johns

Glyn Johns is a recording engineer, producer, and mixing engineer on scores of records, and they all sound very good. The music may not always be there, but when it is, and the chemistry is working between Johns and the artist, great things happen.

His early work was engineering several Rolling Stones records in the sixties, but by the early seventies he was producing while continuing his engineering work.

He produced some of the finest recorded rock music ever. In 1971 alone he produced The Faces A Nod Is As Good As A Wink... To A Blind Horse, The Who's Who's Next, and Boz Scagg's Boz Scaggs and Band. That was a good year. All three of those records are sonically flawless, and they are also perfect performances by bands at the peak of their power.

He went on to produce and engineer the first Eagles records, and I know, they're pretty dated now, but they sound great! He produced many of Joan Armatrading's overlooked gems, a few of Clapton's late seventies records (which are quite fine in retrospect), some excellent John Hiatt eighties outings, and The Subdudes' fine Annunciation. The list goes on and on. His list of engineering credits is even longer than that of his production work. As recently as the late nineties, he remained current and vital, producing Joe Satriani and Belly. He's also engineered and produced many excellent box sets and Best Of's.

He had an excellent ear, and he recorded rock music as well as anyone. He seems to have retired about 13 years ago, and should be in his early seventies by now. The picture above is from 2007. Let's hope this entry finds him well. A gentleman and a skilled artisan. A producer with impeccable taste and enormous talent.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7 Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones

I recently returned from a wonderful 12-day trip to Alaska. It was magnificent. Mountains, wildlife,
and more wildlife. And there was very good food, and very good beer.
Everything in Alaska is very far apart. And Alaska itself is far far away. So there are long times spent in transit, often in noisy vehicles such as jets, buses and trains (which, in Alaska, is a nice way to get around).

Which brings me to the headphones. I don't know if they are the best noise-cancelling headphones made, but they work great, and they sound very good. In fact they have a very musical sound that rivals my headphones at home. The iPod drives them plenty loud, and of course the beauty of the noise-cancelling technology is that you don't have to turn them way up to drown out the din of a jet engine. The jet engine noise is reduced to a point where you can listen to music at reasonable levels. This is a very big blessing.

They work with the movies on the plane, too.

They even work with no music on. I keep them on when I'm just reading on the plane. You can hear conversation that is directed towards you, but people don't know that, which prevents them from striking up a conversation. This can be an invaluable asset on a long plane ride. Nice to meet you, I'm putting my headphones on now.