Monday, December 31, 2012

Morphine Yes 1995

A very unusual thing happened at Christmas this year. Someone (my son in-law) actually bought me music he was pretty sure I'd never heard (he was correct). As a music collector, people rarely buy me music for gifts since I typically buy myself anything I know I want. So it was a bold move.

The record is Morphine's Yes. The third of their five records, it's very good. They are an unusual band of which I previously new nothing. Featuring a lineup of bass, drums and baritone sax (!), made all the more odd by singer-songwriter-bass player Mark Sandman playing an oddly-tuned, two-string bass with a slide. There are episodes of jazz, beat raps, and rockers. Deep, low-rumble rockers. Sandman sings in a baritone/low tenor, so there's little going on at higher frequencies in the mix. In fact, the tenor sax on Sharks comes as a high-pitched surprise 3/4 of the way through the record. Singles Honey White and Super Sex both deserved more air time than they garnered, and they benefit from fine melodies and strong choruses.

Side one kicks off with Honey White, Scratch, and Radar, and it's an up-beat, rocking trifecta to start things off. Whisper is darker, and the only one that slows the side down just a little. The title track, which includes a near-spoken vocal, and All Your Way continue with quality songwriting and performances.

Most of the first side plays it pretty straight (considering the instrumental context, anyway), while things get a tad weirder on side two. After the twisted Dragnet theme that is Super Sex, I Had My Chance and Free Love are both sax-heavy dirges, and The Jury and Sharks both feature beat raps from Sandman over loose jazz-rock. The closer Gone For Good is a sad, gentle guitar ballad that makes a great ending to a terrific album.

All three musicians are talented guys working well together. Sandman and drummer Billy Conway get in deep grooves. Sandman's songs are good, and the lyrical content is strong. Dana Colley's sax must receive special mention, since he's responsible for keeping melodies and momentum going on top of the fine rhythm section. All layed down in black grooves on clean new vinyl.

It's a treat to get turned on to something so good.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Donald Fagan Sunken Condos 2012

I've been bugged about Fagan's work for a long time. I really loved the original Steely Dan, especially Countdown To Ecstasy 1973, but all of the first four records. That was before Becker and Fagan incorporated the smooth jazz-lite sound that would reach it's pinnacle with Aja 1977 and Gaucho 1980.

Those records, and this new one, were lovingly recorded and are sonic delights. But sonics will only get you so far, and after that there better be great songs and performances.

I really shouldn't review this work, because frankly, I struggle with the sterile, soulless sound that Fagan has perfected. Cool detachment has always been a theme of his lyric writing, and so why not express the same in the music?

This is a pretty good outing for Fagan. Slinky Thing, Weather In My Head, The New Breed, Isaac Hayes' Out Of The Ghetto, and the almost-funky Good Stuff are all right up there with Fagan's better work. But don't look for anything new here. The melodies he's been writing over and over since 1977. The jazz-lite arrangements and ultra-cool, ultra-slick, ultra-clean recording and performances are all here. If you like his work, here's more of it.

I just can't get moved by what he does. It is too slick. Rock, and for that matter, jazz, has always benefited from the occasional lucky mistake. Everything here is perfect.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Santana Caravanserai 1972

Sanatana's fourth album was a beauty. A fairly sharp departure in sound, it featured more jazz-rock fusion than the previous efforts, and was mostly instrumental, with only three songs with vocals.

The core band is still pretty much intact, although Tom Brown (bass) and Michael Carabello (congas) from the original outfit were replaced by this time, and Neal Schon (guitar) had been added on the previous record. After this one, Schon and Greg Rollie (organ) left to form Journey.

The first side plays as one long medley, and its 26 minutes fly by. Waves Within features Rollie's fabulous Hammond B3 organ, and the percussion is particularly well recorded. Song Of The Wind has some great Santana guitar, and All The Love In The Universe is a driving rocker that tries to disassemble itself in jazz-like fashion. With a fine vocal, and the band playing hot and tight, it rocks.  Doug Rauch's bass is a stand-out, as are the guitars and organ.

Side two opens with Future Primitive, a hot percussion workout between Jose Chepito Areas, James Mingo Lewis and Michael Shrieve. It's more of a song than a drum solo. Antonio Carlos Jobim's Stone Flower follows, and features plenty of hot guitar and ensemble playing. It has the more Latin feel of the earlier records, and Shrieve and Santana wrote lyrics for Jobim's melody. La Fuente Del Ritmo is a driving rocker with hot percussion and dueling guitars from Santana and Schon, and some fine electric piano from Tom Coster, who will replace Rollie on the next record, 1973's Welcome. The record ends with Every Step Of The Way, which begins as an airy, ethereal song that eventually explodes into a jazzy, nine-minute workout that features the entire band and more hot guitar.

As cohesive in sound as the debut, but this one holds up much better today. It may well be Santana's greatest moment, and it was certainly the last gasp from the original band. The band will especially miss Greg Rollie after this. It also happens to be extremely well recorded, and sounds amazing. It sold well, and clean vinyl copies show up in used record bins since the record was too jazzy for many fans. Classic.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Zappadan 2012 You Are What You Is 1981 and Orchestral Favorites 1979

Happy Zappadan one and all. I'm late to the show this year, but it's still a swell alternative holiday season. Frank had his moments, and then there are "those" records that make no one's best-of list, but they must have at least some redeeming value.

Which brings us to You Are What You Is from 1981. Not a great Zappa record, but there are some moments of greatness, or at least hilarity. Harder Than Your Husband is one of Frank's cuter funny lines, and the song is a fun joke. Doreen has some hot playing, and there are frequent hot instrumental breaks throughout. The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing is notable both for it's lyric and composition. But there's a lot of Frank's lazy lyric writing, anti-religion squawking, and mostly well-worn Zappa musical motifs.

Of course the band is on fire. The hot stuff is well worth hearing. It's just not the most condensed. It's two slabs of vinyl. It could've been a strong single record. Frank always has a lot to say. And there's plenty of Frank's politics on this one.

1979's Orchestral Favorites is another bird altogether. Originally intended for the four-record set Lather (depending on whom you believe), these all-instrumental orchestral works are as good a look at Zappa's work for large ensemble as we get until The Yellow Shark in 1993. The London Symphony Orchestra records were good, but this set has a certain rightness to it that is irresistible. The Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra does Zappa proud. The vinyl is warm and friendly.

I didn't think I needed it because I had all but one of the songs on the CD version of Lather. But when I found the vinyl in a used record store, I jumped on it. It was a great idea. I highly recommend the record to anyone who wants to hear Frank's most accessible version of his orchestral compositions. It's hard not to like. Or you'll think I'm crazy. It's not Mozart.

Those are the two Zappa records I added to the stacks this past year; one great, one, well, you know, something else.

For you insatiable Zappadan enthusiasts, I've written a quite a bit about Zappa here at the blog before:
Zappadan 2009- My first Compilation
Zappadan 2009- The 1988 tour CDs
Zappadan 2010- My Favorite Zappa records
Zappadan 2010- My second Compilation
Zappadan 2011- LSO Vol. 1 and 2
Zappadan 2011- Orchestral Music
Chunga's Revenge
The Grand Wazoo 
One Size Fits All

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Jennifer Warnes Famous Blue Raincoat 1987

If you know this record, you might be asking yourself why I should write about it. It's one of the most written about records in recent music history, at least within the audiophile press, and deservedly so. To hear it for the first time on a serious hi-fi is an ear-opening experience. It has music on it that can help you evaluate the quality of the system you're listening to, maybe thinking about buying. The recording is legend.

But that doesn't mean anything if the music and performance aren't there. The same people who worship this record for it's sound often listen to inferior performances just because they are well recorded. This one really has it all.

This is a record of Leonard Cohen songs, and that generally sounds like a bad idea to me. I don't like the ones he makes. I just can't stand his singing. But Warnes has a deep respect for the man, and sang in his band throughout much of the seventies. She inhabits this music, and her beautiful voice makes it clear what a superior songwriter Cohen is.

The music is made by a band of exceptional musicians, studio aces and guest celebrities. The personnel on the record reads like a who's who of modern popular music circa 1987. Cohen's deeply personal ballads and mid-tempo rockers are performed at the most professional level imaginable, and yet, yet, even then, these performances have soul and depth beneath the gloss. Much of that is due to Warnes herself. If she isn't the very best singer of her generation, then she's the most underrated. She's made several other fine records, but she hasn't bettered this one.

If you haven't heard it, you should. Original Cypress Records vinyl pressings go for big bucks unless you find one at a garage sale and they don't know what they've got. There's new vinyl at criminal prices that's said to sound great, but no current, reasonably priced vinyl exists. There's a nice sounding 20th Anniversary CD that's fine. Whatever you do, don't buy this one in mp3. That would just be wrong.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Marshall Crenshaw I Don't See You Laughing Now 2012 and Dr. Dog Wild Race 2012

So last week's Black Friday was also Record Store Day. Labels release quite a few new items for this semi-annual event, and this November 23 was no different. So I visited one of my local record stores, My Mind's Eye in Lakewood, where I picked up these two EP items (Extended Play: shorter than an album, longer than a single).

The Crenshaw is a three-track 10-inch 45 rpm red vinyl record. Before you think I'm a lost cause, let me say right here that the color of the vinyl most certainly does not matter. Ever. But of course the songs do, and this record contains a well-recorded, great new Crenshaw song (the title track), an oddball Jeff Lynne cover (No Time) that's fun, and a slow live version of There She Goes Again that has a raw, feral guitar sound, and is a nice reimagining of the song's arrangement.

Dr. Dog's Wild Race EP includes five tracks on one side of a twelve-inch record. The other side has no groove, and is embossed with a photo of the band. So it's one side of a record. In fact, it's pretty much side three/bonus tracks for their last LP, the fine Be The Void 2012. (I should have reviewed Be The Void by now, but I have such a hard time describing their music, completely unlike the easy time I have loving it.) The first track from this EP is Be The Void, the title track that was omitted from the record of the same name. It's great, but you can see why they might have left it off, just because they had so many great songs to replace it. The Sun, a live track follows. It's nice to hear some live music from this band, and it's a good song. The other three are studio tracks that sound like they were just edged out for a spot on Be The Void. Wild Race is especially good, but all five tracks are strong. There is a hodgepodge effect that comes from tossing out some songs that didn't fit anywhere else, but it's all surprisingly good.

I had a couple other "collectibles" in my hands walking around the store (a reissued 1964 Rolling Stones EP and a single from 1967 by The Mothers Of Invention), but I put them back and left with these. Another excellent Black Friday as far away from the mall as possible.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Robert Palmer Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley 1974

Robert Palmer's first effort is a fine debut. While not quite fully formed, the funky New Orleans-Caribbean blend that will carry him through the seventies is mostly here. His vocals are as assured as they will be ten years later.

He's helped a great deal by The Meters and Lowell George of Little Feat, who are featured on at least half the record, and are as funky as you wanna be. Two Allen Toussaint songs doesn't hurt either.

The main reason to return to the record over and over is the loose medley of Lowell George's Sailin' Shoes, Palmer's Hey Julia, and Allen Toussaint's Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley that opens Side one. These three have always been worth the price of admission. Great songs, great singing, great band. The groove that the Meters lay down is killer. They are one of the great rhythm sections.

Get Outside follows, and it's slow, simmering funk and Palmer's sweet soul vocal make it a winner. Blackmail foretells the rockier side of future 80s Palmer, and sounds like a good Bob Seger song.

Side two opens with How Much Fun, another Southern funk workout, this time with a hot female backing chorus. Then Palmer incinerates Toussaint's From A Whisper To A Scream with a fine vocal of steamy boudoir soul. Through It All There Is You has a great bass line, syncopated guitar, drums and organ, and digs a deep groove that can't quite sustain interest over it's 12 minutes. It's lyrically weak, and it meanders.

It's not quite the perfection that the follow-up, 1975's Pressure Drop will be, but it's one heck of a debut. More Robert Palmer here.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Van Morrison Born To Sing: No Plan B 2012

I was suspicious from the title. What does a 66 year old millionaire need with a plan B? After 40 releases, did anyone think he wasn't born to sing? Then the CD arrives, and there's three "reviews" of the record on the first four pages of the booklet. Alarms sound.

There's some redeeming material here, but this is not one of Van's better outings. In fact it may be the weakest since Days Like This, his disappointing effort from 1995 (not counting The Skiffle Sessions 2000 and Pay The Devil 2006, both disastrous forays into non-Van music forms).

The best of the record is the first half. Open The Door (To Your Heart) is upbeat and swinging. The smooth jazz-R&B of Goin' Down To Monte Carlo is loaded with great solos from all band members, and it is hot. End Of The Rainbow is a mellow ballad with great solos on sax and trombone. And the mostly instrumental Close Enough For Jazz features more great playing from the band. Kudos to Chris White on sax and Alistair White on trombone on the entire record.

The second half slows down and drags some fairly small ideas over long stretches of music. Two of the songs are eight minutes long. Retreat And View and Born To Sing are at least OK. But the rest really drags, and the entire record suffers from weak, lazy writing from The Man himself. He has a lot to complain about: he's pissed about greed and materialism; he wants to be left alone; the little guy gets screwed. He's been here before, but it's in almost every song on this one. Even the romantic-sounding Open The Door is a rant against materialism. There's one spiritual searcher song (the terrible Mystic Of The East), and one failed attempt at a John Lee Hooker-styled blues (Pagan Heart). Dave Keary does a fine job on guitar, but Van mails in the vocal.

Four good ones, and two others worth hearing. And even then you need to ignore the lyrical content, and just listen to the music and singing. Considering some of the fine work he's done in the last twenty years, this one's a let down.

I wrote a comprehensive career overview of Van's work last year. It's here.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Kinks The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society 1968

This record sounds English in a way few records do. Some of the Small Faces work comes to mind, and some of the English folk-inspired music comes to mind, such as Fairport Convention and Fotheringay (those sound English, but not like this).

This is something else entirely, and uniquely English. It is at once pop confection, ode to a romanticized simpler English past, and rock and roll record. Ray Davies had a clear and unique vision in 1968, and it sounded like nothing else. The intricate arrangements were rivaled by only Lennon and McCartney and Brian Wilson in 1968.

The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society was released near the end of a ban from live performance in America that had harmed the Kinks popularity here, and it sold poorly (in America and the U.K.) despite positive press. It is the only Kinks record to stay off the charts in both America and the U.K., and the band would never again see the U.K. album charts except for compilation records, although they continued to sneak a single in once in a while. The lack of a hit single on the record probably didn't help. It's one of those records that became famous long after it's initial weak sales. Dusty Springfield's Dusty In Memphis suffered the same fate, and has since, like this one, become an "instant classic".

There are, of course, quite a few songs about the idyllic English past and quaint pastimes. The title track, Picture Book, Last Of The Steam-Powered Trains, Sitting By The Riverside, Animal Farm, and Village Green all focus lyrically on nostalgia for some idealized past. The mature psych-rock of Do You Remember Walter and Big Sky is refreshing, and the blues-rock of Wicked Anabella and Steam-Powered Trains recalls their early singles. Throw in Starstruck with its Beach Boys chorus, the odd chamber-pop of Phenomenal Cat, the Latin styling of Monica, and a bit of Davies' music hall/carbaret influence on the self deprecating All My Friends Were There, and you've covered a lot of territory.

The songs and arrangements are almost universally strong. Mick Avory is an outstanding drummer. Nicky Hopkins is still assisting on piano and harpsichord. Ray and Dave Davies both bring unique assets to the rock and roll game. The recording is good, if at times a bit thin on the low end.

Is it THE Classic Kinks record? If you say so, I won't argue with you. It is the culmination of the style they birthed two years earlier with Face To Face, and which will begin to change with Arthur. They will begin to rock just a little bit more after this, and branch out a bit stylistically. The next few years hold quite a few more highlights.

For me, Ray Davies wrote his strongest song cycle for Arthur, where he combined the nostalgia for the past on display here with bitter social commentary on the present. A couple of years ago, I reviewed Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1969 here.

Here's my other Kinks reviews:
Face To Face 1966
Something Else By The Kinks  1967
Ray Davies The Kinks Choral Collection 2009

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Brad Paisley American Saturday Night 2009

I'm not the biggest fan of what country music radio calls country music these days.

And this record contains every modern country cliche: patriotic rocker (the title track); sentimental weepers (Then, No, Oh Yeah You're Gone); assorted topical rockers (Welcome To The Future, Water); modern romance (She's Her Own Woman, You Do The Math); humor to a two-step (The Pants); lessons learned (Anything Like Me).

The band is stellar. Paisley is a highly qualified singer and songwriter. The recording and production are clean and clear. It sounds great.

There's one other thing. Brad Paisley might be the best living guitar player on the planet. Or he might just be the best one in country music. Either way, it's well worth your coin.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Loose Fur Loose Fur 2003

Loose Fur was a side project of Wilco. Jeff Tweedy, Glen Kotche, and Jim O'Rourke went into the studio and made this little slice of experimentation in 2000. It didn't get released until 2003 as Tweedy and Wilco (with O'Rouke's assistance) were working on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

There are moments that sound like deconstructed Wilco (So Long, You Were Wrong). There are several songs that include long, spacey jams that are subtly delicious (Laminated Cat, Elegant Transition, So Long, Liquidation Totale).

So Long is a crazy discordant mess that has a melody that eventually crawls out from under the cacophony. Elegant Transition is a soft, gentle, slightly country ballad. Laminated Cat, a reworked version of a Wilco demo entitled Not For The Season, has spacey lyrics followed by a long instrumental jam section. You Were Wrong is a sad breakup song with a nice keyboard part from O'Rourke. Liquidation Totale is a mellow, slow-building instrumental that includes an interesting banjo part. Chinese Apple contains some of the lyrics that became Heavy Metal Drummer, but is a very different song, gentle and repetitive.

It is a quiet record mostly. There are clearly keys to what would become the Wilco sound on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and later records A Ghost Is Born and Sky Blue Sky. But this isn't Wilco. It's casual. It was fun for these guys to make, and there were no commercial aspirations. Both O'Rourke and Kotche have been blamed for much of the turmoil that lead Tweedy to disband and reform Wilco's personnel line-up, and Tweedy has been quoted as wanting to take Wilco in the direction of Loose Fur. For Wilco fans, this is an interesting record for it's effect on that band.

Three players that work well together, doing whatever they want to do. It is well worth hearing, and could easily become a late night, low key staple.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Jimi Hendrix Experience 1967-1968

What the Experience did on three studio records is astounding. There's little I can add to the dialogue, but here goes anyway.

Hendrix not only redefined rock guitar in a way still not surpassed, or even approached, but he was also a gifted songwriter and an expressive singer, with the gift of nonchalance in all three categories.

Mitch Mitchell was a remarkable drummer who not only kept time, but played parts of the melody from time to time. A rock drummer with jazz-blues cred, he was certainly never intimidated by his band's leader, and their musical sparring is always perfect.

Noel Redding provided solid bass lines that held the rhythm, and allowed his bandmates to find their ways down all sorts of musical rabbit holes. His bass playing is more important than the credit he receives. 

The three records they released are all strikingly different, and all three are near perfect. Are You Experienced is a debut as big and bold as any, and the encyclopedia of rock guitar. Recent reissued versions (including a two-record vinyl version that's stellar) include the UK singles and UK album tracks that were absent from the original US release, and greatly enhance the record. To have heard this record in 1967 was mind-exploding. It was from Mars.

Axis: Bold As Love is the most commercial sounding of the three, and Hendrix experiments with stereo effects tricks and studio magic in a way that sounds a little dated today. But the songs and the playing are just fine, and some of these tracks (Wait Until Tomorrow, Little Wing, Bold As Love) are indispensable.

1968's Electric Ladyland found Hendrix letting loose with blues jams, as well as recording some of his most concise, single-worthy tracks. It's a sprawling affair, and rewards repeated listening.

There is little else you really need. Band Of Gypsies? Buddy Miles makes you miss Mitch Mitchell. Period. Billy Cox is more fundamental than even Redding was. This was never more than a brief whim in what should have been Hendrix's long career.

Everything else was released posthumously, and there are good reasons why that stuff never saw the light of day in his lifetime. I've heard plenty of it, and there's some that's worth hearing, but it isn't what we would have enjoyed had he not passed so young. I know there are plenty of fans that want whatever they can get their hands on, heck, there's been something like thirty records released since he died, and that was 42 years ago. But all most of us need is these three right here.

The Experience records are the bomb.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Dwight Yoakam 3 Pears 2012

I really wanted to like this CD. And as it turns out, there's a lot to like about it.

Yoakam can still sing in his twangy, hiccuping Bakersfield style. That's good. He can still write a great song, especially the sad country weepers he has always excelled at. That's good, too.

And songs are the strength of this CD. The rockers are hot (Take Hold Of My Hand, Waterfall, Dim Lights Thick Smoke, 3 Pears), and the ballads are very good (Trying, It's Never Alright, Missing Heart). Long Way To Go is mid-tempo classic Dwight Yoakam melancholy, and the song's reprise at the end of the CD in a piano and voice version is one of the best vocal performances on the disc. There are a few that don't quite hold up: Rock It All Away is just OK, and Nothing But Love and A Heart Like Mine both miss Pete Anderson's guitar. Anderson played guitar and produced every Yoakam CD through Population Me in 2003.

And there's the rub. Yoakam is the only electric guitar player on more than half the CD. Eddie Perez and Jason Faulkner are both good when they appear, but Pete could always dress up a Yoakam song with some tasty licks, and his absence is felt. Yoakam seems to do pretty well producing in Anderson's place, and the sound is good. Ah, but Anderson's great lead guitar breaks are missed.

If Yoakam were really the right guy to produce his own material, he should have known to get a hot shot guitar player to fill twelve bars or so in every song.

Most of the songs are good enough that it's not a big deal. Like I said, there's a lot to like. Maybe it's not fair to hold this one up to This Time or Gone from his mid-nineties heyday. So long as you don't compare it with those, it is a fine outing.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Calexico Algiers 2012

This new one from Calexico finds them mining old territory from a new angle. They still sound like the Southwestern Jayhawks at their most accessible, but it is their other material that creeps up on you. Quiet ballads with brilliant arrangements. Tasty Spanish guitar and mariachi horns. All elements they've used before to fuse their Ennio Moricone soundtrack-inspired instrumentals with a their unique take on Tex-Mex Americana.

Those influences are less obvious on this one, but they are infused in every song. Rather than individual songs that feature single elements of their inspiration, we get instead a blend of all that has come before into a new, unified sound. The sound of Calexico. Not so much homogenized as thoroughly blended.  

There are rockers (Epic, Splitter, Maybe On Monday, Sinner In The Sea), ballads (Fortune Teller, Para, Better And Better, Hush, The Vanishing Mind), a few fine Spanish numbers thrown in for good measure (Puerto, No Te Vayas), and the title track, an instrumental as only Calexico crafts them. Everything tastes like the Southwest, with some of that wide-screen cinematic scope they have made their own. They really cover a broad range stylistically, and that helps them stay entertaining.

The work of two songwriters, John Convertino (drums) and Joey Burns (vocals, guitars, keyboards), Calexico tour and record with many additional players. If you've never heard this band, this isn't the worst way to be introduced. If you're a fan already, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Drive-By Truckers 2001-2011

I've been interested in this band for quite a while now. They've gotten consistently good press, and they have a pretty loyal fan base. They used the internet as a marketing tool long before most other bands. Their combination of Lynyrd Skynyrd-style three guitar interplay, early Wilco alt-country, and a penchant for writing big Southern Gothic songs full of the highs and (more often) the lows in the lives of modern, everyday poor white Southerners is inspired. What's not to like?

I have three of their ten studio records. Recently, with the help of local libraries, I've gotten a very broad picture of the band's evolution, at least since 2001, when they released Southern Rock Opera, their early peak, and a fine record by any measure. That record features more great songs than most, and includes the must-hear trilogy of The Southern Thing, The Three Great Alabama Icons, and Wallace. These three songs tell a great story, and that is exactly what this band does so well.

They mine the modern South, with its hypocrites, hucksters, politicians, preachers, and beer-swilling low life. And they bring some humanity to all the hard-luck stories they tell. All of their subsequent records work the same territory, often carrying a specific sub-theme on the modern South. There is always a touching moment of heartbreak, and there is always some loud, rude guitar rock. Sometimes there are a few that fall in the middle and seem like they could have been left off, but their best songs are worth the ride.

The Dirty South 2004, A Blessing And A Curse 2006 and Brighter Than Creation's Dark 2008 all keep the quality level high. 2003's Decoration Day feels like a lesser record today, and their more recent work, 2010's The Big To-Do and 2011's Go-Go Boots lacks some of the focus of their earlier releases.

Brighter Than Creation's Dark is an especially bleak record, and also one of their better. Another trilogy of songs, The Man I Shot, Purgatory Line, and The Home Front, this time focused on Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, is moving in a way most rock isn't sensitive or intelligent enough to pull off. These guys aren't afraid of taking on the big questions, even if the answers are painful.

They lift things up and expose the soft, and sometimes ugly underbelly. The songs are full of hard-luck losers, and good folk that just somehow wake up on the front lawn. Or in jail. They do it with conviction. They do it with sometimes brutal honesty, as well as some Neil Young-like musical brutality. And they write sensitive ballads focused on the smallest details of everyday life. If there's a problem, it's that they are so very intense. It can get exhausting.

Rock and roll that's intense. I suppose that isn't really a problem.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Frank Zappa And The Mothers Of Invention One Size Fits All 1975

There are a lot of Zappa records to choose from. There is also a lot of inconsistency in the quality of his product. For every great record there's one with few good songs. Perhaps his best run of consecutive records began in July of 1972 with Waka/Jawaka and ended in 1975 with this one, One Size Fits All. Everything in between is good stuff: The Grand Wazoo (Zappa's incredible big-band jazz moment),  Over-Nite Sensation (Zappa's most sexually explicit record, which also includes the great, and still applicable, I'm The Slime), 'Apostrophe (Frank's biggest hit record, and deserving of the fame), and Roxy & Elsewhere (the live document of the great band being reviewed here). There is one thing that all of these records have in common, and that is George Duke, the highly regarded jazz-rock fusion keyboardist. Duke clearly inspired Zappa to new explorations of fusion music, and Zappa benefited greatly from his ideas and performances.

But Duke is just the beginning. The band on One Size Fits All also includes Chester Thompson on drums, the incomparable Ruth Underwood on vibes, marimba and percussion, Tom Fowler on bass, and long time Zappa sideman Napoleon Murphy Brock on flute, sax and vocals. Most of these tight jams are realized by four or five musicians, and they kick butt.

The other thing that makes this record easy to recommend is the lyrical content. I'm not saying it's great, but it's fun and inoffensive (OK, there's that one line about Bobby and the prison shower). Zappa was clearly trying to be more "commercial". This is a record of songs, five to seven minutes long, with well defined lead breaks of 12-20 bars.

The record opens with Inca Roads, one of Zappa's finest, and a future staple of his live shows. Zappa's hot jazz guitar and Duke's synthesizer lead are incredible. Can't Afford No Shows is a simple structure, with more great guitar. The instrumental Sofa #1 is next, and it's an orchestral introduction for Po-Jama People, with trite mocking lyrics and another incendiary jam by this smokin' band.

Florentine Pogen opens side two, with wacky lyrics mocking the very prog rock that the song emulates. Evelyn, A Modified Dog is, well, you'd have to hear it. It's short, and very funny. That's followed by San Ber'Dino poking fun at trailer trash and producing yet another crazy jazz-rock break. Andy is more of the same, and finally Sofa #2 ends the show with Wagner-style pomposity,  mind-bending vibes from Ms. Underwood, and Frank singing nonsense in German.

This is one of the ones that is great all the way trhough.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Belly Sweet Ride / The Best Of Belly 2002

Belly was a tease of a band. They released two fine records in Star 1993 and King 1995. Star was a big hit, especially in the U.K., and garnered a Grammy nomination in the U.S. King was every bit as good, rocked a bit harder, and went nowhere. Then the band broke up, and Tanya Donelly, the band's  singer-songwriter, went on to solo work (pre-Belly, she had served in Throwing Muses and The Breeders). Some of that work is good, but Belly was her best effort, and a great band. In 2002, this excellent compilation was released, and it is all the more special because it contains lots of killer single B-sides that owners of the two previous releases have not heard. And they're very much worth hearing, which is not always the case.

This one gives you most of their singles, five b-sides, a live song, a previously unreleased bauble, a Hendrix tribute-record version of Are You Experienced?, and a French language version of Judas My Heart, a fine ballad from King. Eight songs from their two previous records, and eighteen tracks in all. Even if you have the two original releases- no!, make that especially if you have the other two - you need this one. It's also an easy-to-recommend introduction to a great band lots of people missed.

Donelly is a fine writer of both lyrics and very catchy music onto which the band puts a buzz saw edge. I love her voice, so much that I hardly care what she's singing about. It's a blend of sweet young thing and ready to explode angry woman. Her smallish voice can turn suddenly enormous. Same with the arrangements. And they sound like a band with a purpose, and a leader with a clear vision forward.

I don't have an idea what to call them. Alternative? Is that really a genre? Post-punk? Post Grunge? (that couldn't come fast enough). They rock pretty hard. They do some of that soft verse/loud chorus thing that the Seattle grunge bands specialized in. At times they almost sound glam. It's interesting melodic rock and roll with fine songs and cryptic lyrics sung with feeling, all performed by a tight band that presents a unique and unified sound. This was a great band that should have given us a few more records.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Tom Moon 1001 Recordings to Hear Before You Die 2008

I recently finished reading this delightful book. Tom Moon is a Philadelphia-based writer that has written for GQ, Rolling Stone, Spin, Vibe, Esquire, Harp, and Musician, and has been featured as music reviewer on National Public Radio. He is clearly knowledgeable about music, and is equally comfortable with classical, jazz, world, punk, pop and hip-hop. And he seems to honestly enjoy it all.

He sometimes sticks to the recordings that make everyone's lists. At other times, he chooses the record that most critics would call the second best, just to stay away from the most obvious choice- and he comes up with a valid defense of his opinion when he does this. More importantly, for someone who might use this book to expand both their horizons and their collections, these slightly different recommendations are particularly insightful.

Each recording gets a brief review/introduction with reasons why you need to hear it. Sometimes it goes beyond how great the music is to how important the music is to the development of a genre. Each selection also includes additional recommended recordings by the same artist, as well as by other artists mining the same vein, or some similar offshoot. Some of these are quite illuminating.

The best reason to be attracted to this book is if you are interested in getting introduced to new musical styles and genres. Moon spreads the titles around pretty equally, so if you're a rocker that wants to discover the blues, country, or R&B roots of that genre, there's plenty here to get you beyond started. Want to hear some of the most renowned classical and jazz recordings? Again, Moon can take care of you. Same thing for hip-hop, R&B and soul. And if you think you're ready to explore "world" music - that mix of international styles that have little in common (unless they are both Portuguese) other than they sound dramatically different from most Western styles- this is an excellent resource.

It is easy to nitpick Moon's selections, but we are talking about taste. If all music critics agreed with each other, we'd only need one of them. I was duly impressed with the depth of his knowledge, especially outside the mainstream, which is already well covered by the gazillion Top 100 whatever lists that have been published. Everything from Fela Kuti to Slayer, from Zappa to Mozart, from Big Bill Broonzy to 10cc, from Sex Pistols to Phillip Glass. And in between.

If you're a collector, don't read this book until you pay down the Visa bill.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Kinks Something Else by the Kinks 1967

I fully intend to continue the cycle that begins in 1966 with Face To Face, which I reviewed a short while ago, and ends in 1972 with Everybody's In Show-Biz. I'll get to them all, in order. For me it is a terribly under appreciated body of work, the pinnacle of the Kinks' output. So next up is Something Else By The Kinks from 1967. In it's sound, and as a transition from the hard-hitting early Kinks (You've Really Got Me, All Day And All Night) to the pastoral English country side of The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society in 1968, it most closely resembles Face To Face.

But it is not that record in as many ways as it is similar. The record opens with David Watts, an interesting lyric coupled to a catchy tune, but with a thin recorded sound that has a cabaret/music hall feel. Dave's Death Of A Clown follows, and it was a big single for Dave in England, especially considering the subject matter, and it is a fine song. Two Sisters is a sweet tune about a good girl/bad girl envy/pity mix, with a fine lyric and vocal from Ray Davies. No Return is jazzy (?!), almost Latin sounding, and an unusual Kinks track indeed. Harry Rag and Tin Soldier Man both have a cabaret/music hall sing-a-long feel, although Tin Soldier Man adds some psychedelic touches that may have worked in 1967, but sound pretty quaint today. Situation Vacant closes the first side on a strong rocking note, even if the bluesy guitar riff is stolen from Bob Dylan's Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine.  

Dave's Love Me Till The Sun Shines opens side two, and it sounds like early Who, with a John Entwistle bass sound. Where's that come from? But it's a good thing. Lazy Old Sun follows, and it is another odd production with a thin sound that again sounds slightly psychedelic and almost Zappa-like. Funny Face has multiple intricate parts shifting through several quite different sections, and it is good. The melancholic search for lost love is the key to the Nilsson-like End Of The Season, and again we get a keeper. Finally Waterloo Sunset closes the record, and what a close it is. Waterloo Sunset is just one of the great Kinks songs; the high background vocals, the tender ennui of the lyric, Dave's twangy guitar riff, the rocking chorus. Even the ending fade seems perfect.

So where does Something Else fit into this peak period of Kinks productions? Well, not at the top of the heap, certainly. It's a little unfocused, especially side one. Producer Shel Talmy left part-way through and Ray Davies produced the rest of the record. Maybe Ray wasn't quite ready. The weaker songs seem weaker than on most of the Kinks records of this era. There are some great moments, and for some fans the unusual tracks may offer some unique insight into Ray Davies' persona. I don't care to go that deep myself, but I respect that level of obsession.

Rolling Stone called it "The Kinks' most tuneful, reflective album". Allmusic calls it "endlessly fascinating". I certainly think that Face To Face and Something Else both offer a unique take on mid-sixties British rock, some fine lyric writing by Ray, and mostly good songs. The cabaret/music hall sounding material mostly disappoints, and the particularly thin/tinny sound of the recording is less than ideal, but not unusual in the mid-sixties. I've got no beef if you think it's a classic, but I think their best work is right around the corner, with The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur

Monday, September 3, 2012

Tafelmusik Georg Philipp Telemann 2003

Music for the table, as written by Baroque master Telemann and performed by members of the esteemed Musica Amphion, led by Remy Baudet and under the baton of Pieter-Jan Belder. Only thirteen players, and four or less on many pieces.

Telemann fashioned these works as light dinner fare, and they certainly work that way. But the compositions are hardly superficial; the three works each include five individual movements, each scored for different sets of musicians, and all performed flawlessly on period instruments by the ensemble's members.

So, not really dinner music at all. Captivating Baroque that is enjoyable in every setting, including careful listening. There's four very nicely recorded CDs in an attractive and informative package at a bargain price.

Oh, to be among the gentry in 1730, hiring ten musicians to play your dinner for a few close friends. Ordering a copy of the music from Telemann himself to be played by your hired little orchestra.   

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Paul Desmond Take Ten 1963

Artists collaborate. They work together, they help each other sound better. They produce something greater than the sum of its parts. They expand each other.

There are moments when this occurs in such a profound way, in such a deep, meaningful, transcendent way, that the outcome is fluid perfection.

There are few better examples of this kind of synergistic wedding of like minds than the work of Paul Desmond and Jim Hall. Desmond's alto sax and Hall's guitar breathe the same air. They dance together flawlessly, and without seeming to require any effort.

This pairing, and the quartet in which it worked, with Connie Kay on drums and several different bass players, lasted only from 1963 to 1965 and produced four records in their day. This one, the first, is a fine place to hear what they could do. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Jackson Browne I'm Alive 1993

There have been many a great break-up record. Standing right there near the top of the list is Jackson Browne's I'm Alive.

Browne is no stranger to the break-up song, but when an entire record is about the same break-up (Browne and Daryl Hannah), it's special.

The record opens with the title track, and it is an affirmation of strength in the face of the new day. The record proceeds with intimate songs of the relationship as it crumbles (My Problem Is You, Miles Away, Two Of Me, Two Of You, and Take This Rain), longing for some gloriously imagined past (Everywhere I Go, I'll Do Anything, All Good Things), and the magnificent resignation of the man who knows he can but only befriend the lover that was before (Sky Blue And Black).

The intimate details are startling, especially in Too Many Angels, but really, throughout. If you've ever taken a big break-up badly, here's your chance to hear what often seems like a familiar point of view. It is both deeply personal and universal. If you haven't felt like the lyrics in one of these songs, you've either been remarkably lucky in love, or you've never felt it.

The songs have good structure. They are mid-tempo rockers and ballads mostly, with a reggae beat thrown in for good measure on one track. The band is highly skilled, with big name guitarists (Waddy Wachtel, Mike Campbell, Scott Thursten), Kevin McCormick on bass and Maurice Lewak on drums (both veterans of Melissa Etheridge's best work), and a cast of talented guests.

But mostly, it's the pain of heartbreak, the looking back, and finally the looking forward. Emotion has always been at the heart of Browne's best work, and when it's all torn up inside, well, he's your guy.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Elvis Presley The Memphis Record 1990

In 1968, after years of shoddy film soundtrack records, Elvis Presley made a fine showing on a "comeback" TV special that proved he still had vital music to make. Shortly thereafter, he went back to Memphis and recorded the twelve-track From Elvis In Memphis 1969, one of his better records, and the best thing he had produced in ten years.

The Memphis Record 1990, is a CD repackaging of the original record plus eleven tracks that were recorded at the same sessions. It is out of print, but widely available, or similar sets can be had in the form of From Elvis In Memphis Remastered 2000 (18 tracks) and From Elvis In Memphis Legacy Edition 2009 (34 tracks on 2 CDs, a bit of overkill).

The songs are carefully selected, and of consistently high quality. This entire set is designed to be top quality, from the studio musicians and orchestra, to (and especially) Elvis himself. This is the best singing he'd done in a long time, and he had material that was easy in which to loose himself. Stranger In My Own Home Town, Power Of My Love, Suspicious Minds, After Loving You, True Love Travels On A Gravel Road, You'll Think Of Me, and In The Ghetto all feature Presley vocals of the highest caliber. He sounds like he has something to prove, which of course he did in 1969, and as it turns out, he proved it.

There isn't a non-compilation record he made that's as good as this one. The original Sun sessions recordings, in one of the many versions (2004's Elvis At Sun is good), are great to hear, raw and nervy, before RCA turned him into product. Any of the one or two CD Best Ofs is worth having around. I've got the 1987 2 CD The Top Ten Singles collection that pretty well sums up the 50s and 60s RCA hits, and the 2007 The Essential Elvis Presley hits most of the same territory. But for a single record that was actually released during his lifetime, From Elvis In Memphis stands up to any other, and shows the 34 year old Presley out to prove he's worth more than the world ever expected of him in 1969.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Was (Not Was) What Up, Dog? 1988

I pulled this out the other day, and I had forgotten what a fine, and fairly unique record it was. Starring producer Don Was (Fagenson) and David Was (Weiss) and the soulful vocals of "Sweet Pea" Atkinson and Harry Bowens, their records featured many guests to liven things up.

They are renowned for their eclectic sound, but the core is soul- some Philly, some Minneapolis (read Prince), and some funky Detroit.

The record opens with Somewhere In America There's A Street Named After My Dad, a soulful ghetto lament for a better life via the American dream, with jazzy trumpet and slinky backbeat. Prince-styled dance floor funk fills Out Come The Freaks, Robot Girl, and Boys Gone Crazy. Spy In The House Of Love is a blend of Philly soul and Earth, Wind and Fire disco, as is Walk The Dinosaur (their biggest hit). Hall and Oates' Philly soul sound is expressed in Love Can Be Bad Luck, Anything Can Happen, and Anytime Lisa. Shadow And Jimmy recalls the Drifters in boardwalk mode. Throw in a splendid cover of I Can't Turn You Loose, and a little lounge jazz with a Frank Sinatra Jr. guest vocal on Wedding Vows In Vegas, and the eclectic tag is easy to understand.

The lyrical quality is especially high (and frequently politically charged), and the playing and arrangements are tight and hot. Atkinson and Bowers are fine soul vocalists. The band has a wacky and sometimes bleak sense of humor that fits perfectly with the musical and social malaise that was the late 1980s. The late 80s weren't exactly music's finest hour, but this record certainly made up for some of that.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

James Carr The Essential James Carr 1995

One of the finer soul singers of his day, James Carr's original version of The Dark End Of The Street is the ultimate tale of forbidden love, and no one has ever bettered Carr's performance. In fact his singing takes most songs over- he inhabits a song, he haunts it.

You've Got My Mind Messed Up rivals the best of Otis Redding's work. Redding is the most immediate comparison, but Carr isn't a copy of anyone. The gritty southern soul of Love Attack, These Ain't Raindrops, I'm Going For Myself Now, and You Didn't Know It But You Had Me (a one-man Sam and Dave number) is as good as any of the Memphis soul you've ever heard before. The uptempo numbers like Stronger Than Love, Gonna Send You Back To Georgia, and Coming Back To You could fill the dance floor with ease. And what can you say about Pouring Water On A Drowning Man? That it wasn't a huge hit is unfathomable.

If you haven't heard James Carr and you have any affinity for what DJ and soul fanatic Dave Godin would call Deep Soul, you need to hear him. Great voice, great songs, great Memphis soul arrangements. Everything but the gold records, which is a shame. There are many other great unheralded soul singers from the 1960s. James Carr could have been, should have been, huge.

The Essential James Carr is out of print, but still widely available both new and used. The Complete Goldwax Singles 2001 covers almost the same material, and all the essentials are on either disc.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Big Al Anderson and the Balls Pawn Shop Guitars 2007

Big Al Anderson made twenty years of great music with NRBQ, but by 1994, he left that band to move to Nashville and write music for other artists. He has been very successful as a songwriter, writing songs for country stars, and occasionally making solo records. This one, from 2007, is a very impressive display of his skills as songwriter, guitarist and singer. And he's backed by an outstanding supporting cast.

The songs are consistently good. From the opening country-blues-rock of Something In The Water, to the hard-rocking story of a teenage band that is the title track, to the soul of  heartbroken memories that is Just A Thought, the lyrics, melodies, and hook-filled choruses all add up to great songs. And there's funky stuff, too, in the stomping dance of Shake That Thing and the guitar-clavinet interplay of What Did I Do, which recals both NRBQ and Stevie Wonder simultaneously. The lyrics are mostly fun (Drinkin' On The Weekend, Airstream), but there's tender moments, too (Poor Me, World Came Tumblin' Down).

The music is a pop blend of rock 'n' roll, blues and country. The core backing band of Glenn Worf on bass, Chad Cromwell on drums (a crack rhythm section), and Reese Wynans tinklin' the ivories (Wynans deserves very special mention for his piano) is rock solid. Throw in a few guest guitarists, singers, and horns to flesh out the arrangements, and what else could you need? Add Al himself playing his always tasty guitar leads, and singing with his slightly nasal high tenor (it's got a country twang), and you don't need anything.

They play straight-ahead rock and roll with fervor and verve. They are clearly professionals, but they also sound like the best bar band you ever heard. These guys are having fun, and I'll bet you will, too.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Honeydogs What Comes After 2012

I had the pleasure of seeing The Honeydogs last week at the Beachland in Cleveland. Touring as a four-piece, they were great. Adam Levy is one of today's finest songwriters, and his singing and guitar playing are equally strong. Trent Norton is a killer bass player, and sings perfect harmonies on Levy's voice. Peter Sands adds flavor and nuance to everything he plays on keyboards. The drumming of Peter Anderson is metronome sharp and Ringo Starr perfect at all times. They are tight,  the arrangements are varied, and the band is smoking hot.

Naturally, they played much of the new record, which is as good as their best work. With the addition of another guitar, and a trombone and trumpet horn section (their usual 6-7 piece line-up), the studio recording is excellent, and the songs have the big sound and complex arrangements for which their records are known.

I wish I could find the right reference, but Levy's songs are both intelligent and melodic, with smart lyrics, great choruses, and catchy hooks. I can't find the right band for a comparison- maybe The Connells crossed with Clem Snide (and there is always a bit of Beatles in  there). Anyway, it's rock and roll for adults who can still dance and think at the same time. Smart modern rock. There's some decent audio over at Minnesota Public Radio. Check them out, they're brilliant.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Gomez Live Volume 3: Los Angeles 2011

So here's the deal. There's this band you maybe haven't heard, and they're so good in so many ways that you just have to hear them. If you knew they were as good as I'm telling you, you'd lay down some bucks for their products, but, hey, what do these bloggers really know?

Go to and download the free Live Volume 3. It's free, and it's twenty tracks, and it's killer. Go get it. It is only available as an mp3, which is a shame, but hey, it is free. You have to give them your email, but you can avoid "signing up". There's also Volume 1 and Volume 2, both available as greatly superior FLAC files, but they are not free, and I haven't heard them. The mp3 isn't really too bad, but if you have the gear to hear the difference, you will.

After you really dig the live gig, go buy one of their CDs. I'd suggest How We Operate 2006 or Whatever's On Your Mind 2011, but you can't go wrong with any of their material.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Kinks Face To Face 1966

The Kinks' Face To Face was their first record written entirely by Ray Davies, and it ushered in the period of their finest output. The string of records from here to 1972's Everybody's In Showbiz is enough of a catalog for any great band.

The Kinks hit the scene in 1964 with You Really Got Me, and for two years they continued to mine that hard rock sound with All Day And All Of The Night, Tired Of Waiting For You, and Till The End Of The Day. The three LPs from this early period are typical of the era, with singles and covers and album filler. They're good, but they are a different band than the one that essentially debuted on Face To Face.

By 1966, the singles A Well Respected Man, Dedicated Follower Of Fashion, and Sunny Afternoon were introducing a new Kinks, the product of Ray's suspicious examination of UK society and the class system that fascinated him and inspired the detailed vignettes that would become the hallmark of his unique talent.

And so when Face To Face was released, it confused the band's fan base, and sold less than any of their previous efforts. It is the place to begin an examination of this band's golden era.

The album opens with the rollicking pop-rock of Party Line, an early take on Davies' paranoia, which will surface repeatedly in later work. Dandy is another Dedicated Follower Of Fashion in cabaret swing mode. Too Much On My Mind is Ray's wish for simplicity and Session Man is an ode to the fifth Kink, Nicky Hopkins. Rocker House In The Country ends side one on a strong note, with a fine Dave Davies lead guitar break and Ray's lyrical bashing of middle class ennui.

Davies' disillusioned trip to the beach, Holiday In Waikiki is hilarious and sad. Fancy features a drone-like, almost Indian sound that predates similar work by The Beatles. Little Miss Queen Of Darkness features an unusual acoustic guitar and drums middle section and a country-cabaret sound that Davies will return to on Muswell Hillbillies in a few years. The slinky, bluesy rocker of You're Lookin' Fine sounds like early Stones (or early Kinks). The classic, melancholic Sunny Afternoon is just one of Davies' finest moments, all wrapped up in sadness and irony, and yet evoking the pleasure of leisure at the same time.

This is the beginning of the Kink's exploration of all thing English that will peak in 1968 and 1969 with The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire). It is also the beginning of an impressive run of songwriting by Ray Davies. Everything was exploding in rock in the mid sixties, and young bands were finding a more mature voice. Nobody wrote smarter lyrics than Davies, or hung them on better songs.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Prince Sign O The Times 1987

I've always liked Prince. I know there are plenty of reasons not to, but his music is often compelling and funky at the same time. That's hard to beat around here.

Sign O The Times (and I'm not going to bother to replace the "O" with a peace sign, because nobody cared in 1987 either) is often heralded as Prince's best, and it certainly deserves to be in the running. It doesn't qualify as a perfect record, and really none of his records get there. There are lots of good ones, and they all have some great moments, but there are also a few weaker tracks. Prince reminds me of Todd Rundgren: a producer, writer, and performer that can't edit himself as well as another producer would.

It was originally released as a two-record vinyl set, and that's what I refer to here. There are three near-perfect sides, and Side Two. The record opens with the title track, and it is a spare funk that gives a snapshot of the ghetto amid the news of the day. Then Play In The Sunshine unleashes hot psychedelic pop that could have existed comfortably on Around The World In A Day (Prince's least funky record) or Purple Rain, with it's hot guitar break. Housequake follows and it is perfect James Brown/Funkadelic dance floor, not to mention the hilarious lyrics. Then The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker, a soulful, funky-pop slow jam cuts loose with a crazy lyric.

Then Side Two. It was really a stroke of genius to put all the weakest songs on one side. It (that's the song title) is an OK funk jam that isn't up to the dirty lyric. Starfish and Coffee is cute psych-pop a la Raspberry Beret. Slow Love is a hot slow jam with nice horn charts. While there is certainly nothing subtle about it, the Philly soul sound is commendable. Hot Thing is a basic dance beat that goes on a bit too long, and Forever In My Life can't save the side with it's percussion-dominated arrangement, and stellar Prince vocal.

The hot funk-rock of You Got The Look kicks off Side Three, with a great Shiela E duet vocal and percussion. It's almost Little Red Corvette. If I Was Your Girlfriend grafts a kinky lyric to a slinky soul jam, and you really need the album version that includes the freaky sex rap near the end. Strange Relationship is solid, with a spare arrangement topped with a multi-tracked vocal and great chorus hook. Then it is on to Prince nirvana: I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man. One of Prince's best lyrics ever, great driving rock beat, killer melody, hook-filled chorus, hot (but too short) lead guitar break- the edited single omits half of the song. Album track heaven.

Side Four is right there with One and Three. The Cross opens the side with the hymn accompaniment to Sigh O The Times, which Prince turns into a guitar-driven slow blues freakout worthy of Neil Young. The live It's Gonna Be A Beautiful Night (recorded in Paris with The Revolution) is a fine jam with solos for all, and it rocks, but it's long. The record closes with Adore, one of the greatest love songs of all time. I still crack up when Prince sings "You can burn up my clothes, smash up my ride (Well maybe not the ride)". Even with the comic relief, it is a great love song.

So that's at least six classics (Housquake, You Got The Look, Slow Love, If I Was Your Girlfriend, I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man, and Adore), and the rest is pretty solid. There's a bunch of good Prince out there, but this is one of his most diverse and quality outings. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Adele 21 2011

Let me be the last person on earth to review Adele's 21.

Here goes.

It's good. It's better than the first one by quite a bit.

There are too many slow, heartfelt big pop ballads. You might say just a little too Streisand, or Journey. But they are pretty good big pop ballads.

I guess, for me, Rolling In The Deep, Rumour Has It, and Someone Like You needed at least two more equals to make this a classic. The soulful He Won't Go comes close.

As it is, it's good. There's clearly a lot of people who feel more strongly than do I, since 22 million units have been sold. That's actually purchased. Think about the decent living a guy in a punk band could make if their fans actually purchased a copy of their CD.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Kelly Willis 1990-2007

Kelly Willis has had an imperfect career, but she is none the less gifted with a very nearly perfect country singing voice. Her earlier records on MCA, Well Travelled Love 1990, Bang Bang 1991, and Kelly Willis 1993, were all good efforts, and had some fine songs. But nothing sold terribly well. This era was reprised recently (2011) on One More Time. There's a CD worth your time for sure.
After an EP for A&M she began an independent relationship with Rykodisc, and has made three stellar records. 1999's What I Deserve is just remarkable at every turn. Willis' twang is at once vulnerable and steeled for a fight. She writes half the songs, and uses particularly skilled partners, including Chuck Prophit, whose skills as writer, producer, and guitarist served Willis well on this as well as the next two. Take Me Down, What I Deserve, Not Forgotten You, Wrapped- all of them, and generally the whole record, is perfect writing around lovely (and smart) lyrics, sung by a terrific voice with seriously deep soul, and backed by a half Nashville, half LA band with country chops and pop smarts.

Easy 2002 repeated the formula to near perfection again. If I Left You, with it's great lyrical turn, Easy (As Falling Apart), and Kirsti MacColl's Don"t Come The Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim! are all top notch. But so is Not What I Had In Mind, with the remorse of the morning after with the ex, made as explicit as only a great country song can.

If you're like me, and you've been blown away by the last two, you almost have to give the next one a shot. Translated From Love 2007 continues the thrill. Great songs, great singing, great band. Hooks, teardrops, and mostly straight country backing. This isn't that big Nashville Product you're used to. It's closer to k.d. lang than to Faith Hill, closer to early Trisha Yearwood than to Dixie Chicks.

Listening to these CDs again, I am stunned by the consistency of the performances. Plus Willis has an amazing voice. Not just a good one, a truly unique talent. When you put it together with killer songs and perfect (not over-stated) production, and you can keep it up for three whole records (or five, since Bang Bang and Kelly Willis come darn close!), you should be rich and very famous.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Eric Hutchinson Moving Up Living Down 2012

Eric Hutchinson has made it back. His 2008 breakthrough Sounds Like This was the perfect summer record and a great pop record. How could he possibly NOT hit the sophomore slump after that classic? I waited for this release with the mix of anticipation and anxiety that question evokes.

I'm happy to report that Mr. Hutchinson does not disappoint. He not only avoids the slump, he comes darn close to topping Sounds Like This. He stays with some of the things he does well: hooky choruses, interesting arrangements, good lyrics and vocals, the occasional Stevie Wonder reference, and a clear understanding of the history and deep meaning of the hit pop record.

He manages to branch out a little without losing any of his identity. Living In The Afterlife plays harder than before, Best Days' sunshine and The Basement's cool night are ready to go for summer. He throws in some Reggae-lite on Not There Yet and Talk Is Cheap. What the new songs lack in familiar-sounding catchy hooks they make up for with new-sounding catchy hooks. Still derivative, the references seem slightly less obvious on this one.

Hutchinson writes great songs, with immediate sing-a-long choruses, and adult lyrics. He's got a fine high tenor, a little bit of Philadelphia funk, and smart arrangements. All recorded fairly well for a modern pop record. If this pop music is too slight for you, you might be taking yourself too seriously. Time to once again turn the car stereo up very loud and hang out the window screaming and dancing down some Michigan back road... 

It turns out he's the real deal.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Hang Ups Second Story 1999

In 1999 this little pop-rock band from Minneapolis made one of the finest power-pop records ever. What does that sound like? Put The Raspberries, Big Star, Badfinger (especially Badfinger), Todd Rundgren and Marshall Crenshaw (and, by association, The Beatles) in a blender and blend on high.
Brian Tighe wrote a batch of great songs, and some lovely ones. The band is just right all the time. Don Dixon produces one of his best sounding CDs. Everything works.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Melody Gardot The Absence 2012

I was looking forward to this release because I liked her first two so very much. Then as the release date approached, I heard it was her Latin-influenced record, and I got nervous. I like some Latin music, but usually only when performed by Latin artists. I've been disappointed by American or European artists attempts at incorporating Latin styles. Then the record arrived.

The album is produced by Heitor Pereira, a Brazilian-born guitar player and composer for film scores. He also plays guitar throughout, and even gets a duet vocal. There are Brazilian, Cuban, African, and Caribbean sounds incorporated in most, but not all, of the songs. She sings in English, Portuguese, French and maybe some Spanish. And yet it is still a Melody Gardot recording in every way, including all the best ways. And I think the reason for that is songwriting. Gardot wrote all of the songs on this record (three have co-writers), and the quality of her songwriting has certainly not diminished.

Mira kicks things off on an upbeat note. Amelia follows, it's guitar- and drum-driven sound is as smooth as an old Scotch in a small Brazilian bar. The soft kiss-off of So Long (Don't wait up for me, darling, 'cause I'm not coming home), and the slow tango of So We Meet Again My Heartache, with it's vaguely familiar melody and lovely string arrangement, both feature great lyrics and singing. Lisboa ends the first side, and is just a little too languid for its own good.

Impossible Love has a fabulous gypsy-sounding orchestration that features the bandoneon (the classic tango "accordion", actually closer in size and sound to the concertina). The cabaret style jazz-pop of her first two records surfaces on If I Tell You I Love You, which also has a fine lyric. Goodbye is a Brazil via New Orleans march, with a sultry-snarly vocal and great clarinet solo. Se Voce Me Ama is the vocal duet with Pereira, and while it is slow, the guitars and vocals are very pretty. The lush arrangement given to My Heart Won't Have It Any Other Way is delightful. Sinatra would have done this song for sure if she'd written it in 1955. The closing Iemanja is a quick-paced African/Caribbean piece with a rollicking chorus.

It's grown on me as I've listened to it more times. If there's a gripe, it's that there's a lot of slow songs, but that claim can be made for her previous work as well. And there are some luminous, albeit slow, performances on most of them. If you haven't heard 2009's My One And Only Thrill, you really should. Larry Klein did a great job with that record. So this one gets 1/2 star less, and that may just be a matter of taste. If you're fan of Norah Jones, or much closer, Madeleine Peyroux, you should know about Melody Gardot by now. If not, you're welcome.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The (Young) Rascals 1966-1972

The Rascals were one of the better blue-eyed soul/R&B bands of their time. And then they became something different and lost their audience. You can't blame them for trying to stretch out, but their best material was always danceable fun, and the jazz-lite styles they incorporated later, sometimes fairly successfully, just didn't serve the same purpose.

The first four records are the work of a hot outfit from New Jersey out to prove something. With a fabulous drummer in Dino Danelli, and the organ and soulful voice of Felix Cavaliere, you didn't need much more, but the vocals of Eddie Brigati (and brother David) and Gene Cornish's tasty guitar made for a great vocal group, as well as a rhythmically tight band.

From 1966 to 1968 those four records (Young Rascals 1966, Collections 1967, Groovin' 1967 and Once Upon A Dream 1968) contained solid singles and pretty good filler, too. Cavaliere and Brigati were a fiery hot writing team, and the band had three #1 singles (six in Canada) and five more singles in the Top 20. This era is perfectly documented on their 1968 Time Peace: The Rascals Greatest Hits. It is indispensable, and ranks as one of the better greatest hits records of the sixties. With Good Lovin', Groovin, I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore, Mustang Sally, A Beautiful Morning, and How Can I Be Sure, it's a classic.

The records that followed this golden era were a mixed bag. Freedom Suite 1969, a double LP, was a good single disc, that made a good follow-up to Once Upon A Dream, and contained their last #1 single, People Got To Be Free as well as highlights A Ray Of Hope, Any Dance'll Do and Island Of Love. The second disc was useless, featuring two loosely-structured "jams" clocking in at 5 and 15 minutes, plus a 13 minute drum solo.    

1969 also saw See, a troubled record that didn't sound enough like The Rascals. Jazz, Gospel and Blues elements were introduced to no great effect, and only the title track, I'd Like To Take You Home, Carry Me Back, and Hold On are much worth hearing. Search And Nearness 1970 followed, and it deserved the pallid sales figures it achieved. Right On was good, and I Believe played the pop-soul-gospel card nicely, but the Vanilla Fudge-styled bombastic arrangement of The Letter is criminal, and the rest does little to hold your attention.

After founding members Eddie Brigati and Gene Cornish left, and a label change, Cavaliere and Danelli teamed with Buzzy Feiten (guitar) and various jazz bassists and horn players to produce Peaceful World 1971. By this time they had lost their original audience entirely. The record is nearly great, and a darn fine jazz-rock record, especially considering the times. Cavaliere also wrote some of his punchiest tunes. In And Out Of Love, Bit Of Heaven, Happy Song, and Love Letter are all single-worthy. The jazz-trance-rock of Sky Trane, the stomping gospel of Love Me, and the tribal beat of Mother Nature Land pay extra dividends. Feiten is a hot and funky guitarist, and he's all over the record. It should have been a big seller.

Island Of Real 1972 was the last try. The record has its moments, but mostly it plays like an unfocused Peaceful World. And the songs just are not as strong. Lucky Day (a Happy Song rewrite) and the funk-jazz of Saga Of New York are both fine, as is Feiten's Jungle Walk, but the rest never comes together.

Time Peace is well worth it, and there are some fancy Anthologies that might interest some. The best looking comprehensive single disc is probably The Ultimate Rascals, although Time Peace might still be the better choice for most. Peaceful World is a gas, and a unique record. A great sixties singles band becomes a light-jazz-gospel-soul band, but looses its audience along the way.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Frank Sinatra Moonlight Sinatra 1966

Frank Sinatra actually invented the "concept" album, although the idea came to mean something more in the rock world. For Sinatra, the concept was really more of a theme. Sinatra made In The Wee Small Hours (ballads) in 1955 and Sings For Only The Lonely (heartbreak) in 1958, both during his heydays at Capitol Records.

Moonlight Sinatra came out on Reprise Records, and Sinatra's sixties records were more hit-and-miss than his work for Capitol in the fifties. While this one didn't chart very high, especially given that it was released just before the #1 Strangers In The Night, also from 1966, it holds up much better today than most of his work from the era.

Nelson Riddle did the arrangements, and as always, Riddle's work is interesting all on its own. Sinatra is in fine form, and his Moonlight Becomes You that opens the record is lovely (And why wasn't it released as a single?). All the songs have "moon" in the title, and while that sounds like a hokey idea (even in 1966), Sinatra and Riddle pull it off with aplomb. The whole record is good, the songs are consistently winners, and Frank's gives them his full attention, especially compared to some of his tossed-off work in the sixties. Moonlight Serenade, I Wished Upon The Moon, and Oh, You Crazy Moon are standouts, but the record is made to be played through, as opposed to being a vehicle for one or two singles. A lesser-known record that deserves renewed interest, it is a wonderful find in a used record shop. The fact that the only CD version is an import is some kind of crime.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Paul Butterfield's Better Days It All Comes Back 1973

I never think of myself as much of a blues fan. I can surely enjoy some of it, and I own my share, but I almost never want to get through an entire blues record after the first time.

I was rooting through the stacks as I stumbled on this gem from 1973. A great take on the blues, the Better Days band was a more organic, country blues sounding outfit, than the Paul Butterfield Blues Band recordings that preceded the Better Days project. This is their second, and last, record. It will be released this month as a reasonably priced two-fer with the first, albeit slightly less brilliant, Better Days self-titled debut, both on one CD.

Too Many Drivers licks things off in fine rocking style, a hot blues answer to Drive My Car. It's Getting Harder To Survive is a stomping blues with a funky piano riff. The spare country blues of Mose Allison's If You Live benefits from the fine guitars of Geoff Mudaur and Amos Garrett, as does the entire record. Butterfield belts out Win Or Lose with conviction, and his harmonica is scorching on this driving blues-rock. Take Your Pleasure Where You Find It is another rhythmic blues, and a fine ode to hedonism. Ronnie Barron serves up a great vocal on Louisiana Flood, and adds more of his funky piano to the title track, that closes the record.

Only Small Town Talk, a nice Rick Danko composition, but not really a blues, and Muldaur's weak Poor Boy disappoint. And you might like those more than I do.

The band is hot, Butterfield is a fine singer, as are Barron and Muldaur, the harmonica is smokin', and the piano and guitars are deep in a groove. They don't make them like this anymore.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Beatles Rubber Soul 1965

I've never really strayed from this being my favorite by the world's most famous band. And while I'm sure there's a decent rebuttal, I believe that the American version, with two less songs, is the better, more cohesive record. I bought the CD not long after it came out, and the shock of the difference in the two versions took some time to get over.

The American version was this:
Side one
1. I’ve Just Seen A Face
2. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)"
3. You Won't See Me
4. Think for Yourself
5. The Word
6. Michelle
Side two
1. It’s Only Love
2. Girl
3. I’m Looking Through You
4. In My Life
5. Wait
6. Run for Your Life

The UK version was this:
Side one
1. Drive My Car
2. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
3. You Won't See Me
4. Nowhere Man
5. Think for Yourself
6. The Word
7. Michelle
Side two
1. What Goes On
2. Girl
3. I'm Looking Through You
4. In My Life
5. Wait
6. If I Needed Someone
7. Run for Your Life
The UK version has four songs that the American version does not: Drive My Car, Nowhere Man, What Goes On, and If I Needed Someone. Drive My Car and Nowhere Man are good, but they don't really fit the rest of the record. In the context of this record, the American version's I've Just Seen A Face, and the harmonies of It's Only Love just make better sense.

There's a few that come close, but song for song, this record can hold it's own against all comers.

Within the Beatles' catalog, it's right in the middle, in so many ways. Still a touch of innocence, some new innovations and inspirations, but without some of the excess of later works. Lennon and McCartney still writing together, everyone maturing, and the band firing on all cylinders.