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