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.