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.