Tuesday, February 28, 2012

David Mead Dudes 2011 and Bill Lloyd Set To Pop 1994

Power pop. A retro sound I suppose, but it can be done fresh and shiny new. Take this new David Mead CD. Every song is melodic, with lyrics between fun and almost serious, big fat hooks in the chorus, snappy harmonies, and the perfect arrangement for that song. Rocking guitar break in on one, trumpet on another, crazed piano for yet another, and Mead's lovely vocals.

He writes them, he sings them, he plays guitar and piano. It's hard to believe he's the only songwriter, the songs are that varied. The ballads are beautiful, the rockers rock, the humor is funny. There's even a song called Bocce Ball, and I thinks that's what it's actually about. The fraternity of Dudes, the sweet despair of The Smile Of Rachel Ray, the Hall and Oates swing of No One Roxx This Town No More, I could just list them all, it really is that good. A summer-y disc to be sure, it might just be perfect for that road trip you'll be taking when things warm up and the days get longer.

Then there's the old school. Way back in 1994, Bill Lloyd nailed it. I would put these two in the same Power Pop genre, but very different records. Lloyd, after all, is a guitar player through and through, so he never sounds like he wrote one on piano. He hasn't got Mead's vocal chops, but he always sounds sincere. Songs with perfect hooks in the chorus, rockers with big guitars, skillfully crafted pop-rock with intelligent lyrics and a crack ace band with several big-name guests, including Al Kooper, Kim Richey, and Garry Tallent (Springteen's E Street Band), it 's an excellent recipe.

Highlights include I Went Electric (pulsing rock), Trampoline (great lyric), I Know What You're Thinkin' (driving mid-tempo ballad, a great chorus), The Man Who Knew Too Much (Tom Petty's version of The Byrds), A Beautiful Lie (the perfect relationship), Channeling The King (yes- it's about channeling Elvis, and it works), and the fine closer (I won't settle for) Anything Less Than Love, that sounds like a great lost Searchers song.

Tap your toes, get your Rubber Soul on, call it what you want to, but the legacy of the great Power Pop record lives on.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Benz Micro Ace moving coil cartridge

I've had three cartridges in my Music Hall MMF-5 turntable. The Goldring 1012 moving magnet cartridge that came with it sounded good, but I'd also heard good things about the Shure V15, and the threatened last iteration of said classic was to be the V15VxMR. I bought it. I loved that sucker. An amazing cartridge, warm and rocking.

After a few years, I bought a phono preamp that would handle the lower output of moving coil cartridges. I'd heard things that sounded very interesting about moving-coil pick-ups, and I eventually read good reviews of the Benz Micro Ace series. Available in three output levels, I chose the middle, 0.8 mV output model. More spacious, more minute details within recordings, more air between instruments than the Shure, but without some of the Shure's warmth. I loved that baby.

A few months ago I took the Benz out and put the Shure back in. It took about three days to realize that the love I have for the Shure is a fond love, an old love, but the love I have for the Benz is the real deal. (That sounds like crap to me, too.)

It took me three months to put the Benz Micro Ace cartridge back in the turntable. It is a big project, but I knew I wanted the Benz back. Last weekend I finally got it done. It sounds fantastic. The Shure has it's place, but in my listening room, the Benz is just better. It's got more of what makes vinyl better to begin with. Don't get me wrong, CDs can and do sound good, but the best vinyl beats the best CD. I listened to some of my vinyl favorites, like Jennifer Warnes' Bird On A Wire from Famous Blue Raincoat 1990 and Song Of The Wind from Santana's Caravanserai 1972, and everything was wonderful.

It took me forever to put the Benz back on the tonearm. I gotta stop procrastinating.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tom Tom Club Close To The Bone 1983

Tom Tom Club, the brainchild of Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth, the drums-bass, husband-wife Talking Heads rhythm section, was this perfect hybrid of Funkadelic and Bananarama. The second album from Tom Tom Club was a thing of funky beauty. Pleasure Of Love, On The Line Again, The Man With The 4-Way Hips, Never Took A Penny, and Measure Up are all pure funk fun. The rest might not quite get there, but close enough.

The original vinyl is the way to go. The debut got the big push, but this one is just as good. The funky Weymouth sisters jammin' reggae and funk with that Talking Heads pulse, and an all-star band. The girlish singing, the wiggly synth lines, it's all so eighties, but don't worry, no one wants you to take things seriously.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Cleveland Orchestra Tito Munoz Conductor, Pierre-Laurent Aimard Piano February 18, 2012

Around this time of year the orchestra's programs often feature guest soloists and more challenging modern classical fare. Last night was no exception. I usually like to stretch myself and go to one of these concerts each year and get exposed to new things. I usually like it more than I did last night.

Pierre Boulez was supposed to conduct, and had to back out last minute for health reasons. Two of the pieces he was to lead were replaced only a week before the performance was scheduled. But I'm not sure that had anything to do with my disappointment.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard started the evening with a solo piano piece by Arnold Schoenberg titled Three Piano Pieces. The program described it as "a seminal work of atonality". That hits it right on the head. I know that there was something going on that may well have been important, but I just couldn't get it. It was, mercifully, only 10-12 minutes long.

Mr. Aimard then conducted Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 18 from the piano. This was the only non-modern classical piece on the program, and I always enjoy Mozart's Piano Concertos.  I'm also reasonably familiar with them. It was a fine reading of the concerto, but it didn't enthrall me the way Mozart usually does. I may have seen Mitzuko Uchida conduct these pieces too many times before, but Ms. Uchida always seems to bring emotion to the concertos without becoming overly dramatic. Mr. Aimard's playing seemed too technical, and less romantic. I'm sure he's a very skilled pianist, but something was lacking.

After the intermission, Tito Munoz conducted two Stravinsky pieces. The first, Symphonies of Wind Instruments was interesting and challenging, and I liked some of it. Stravinsky himself said of the work "I did not, and indeed could not, count on any immediate success for this work. It is devoid of all the elements which infallibly appeal to the ordinary listener and to which he is accustomed. It would be futile to look in it for any passionate impulse or dynamic brilliance." I guess that makes me the ordinary listener in spades.

The final work was Symphony of Psalms, a choral piece for voice and mostly wind instruments, with only basses and cellos for the strings. I've never been big on choral music in general, but the 20th century modernist ideas of Stravinsky in his quest to find new modes of expression welded to choral readings of the Psalms left me cold. Religious music without soul. Odd.

I always think I want to be challenged to expand my horizons with modern classical fare.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Fame Studios Story 1961-1973 2011

I'm a terrible sucker for the soul box set/compilation. I've reviewed quite a few in the past here and here.

So now this one comes along, and you know it's a great story. The Fame studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, was one of the preeminent purveyors of that funky, gritty soul style our U.K. friends like to call Southern soul, or deep soul, in sharp contrast to the slicker, smoother sounds coming from up north in Motown and Philadelphia. 

Rick Hall is the man. He made the sound his signature, he hired fabulously talented house bands that provided the rhythm for most of the featured artists. He also regularly used some of the best writers available, with George Jackson, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham among them.

Add the singers- Arthur Alexander, James and Bobby Purify, Arthur Conley, Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett, Candi Staton, Mitty Collier, Otis Reddding- and you've got the recipe for a hit-making palace. A funky-looking cinder-block palace with all the exterior appeal of the warehouse the building had been before Hall turned it into a studio. All of those great singers are featured here, but so are many lesser-known artists that give no less riveting performances.

It's three CDs with a built-in booklet that includes an excellent history of Hall and his studio, an in-depth discussion of the signature sound of that studio, and a track-by-track narrative that is the rival of any product in the box set category. It's what I've come to expect from the Kent label, an English reissue company committed to unearthing everything soul and every sub-genre of soul possible. These guys released an entire CD of Vietnamese soul (no, I don't have that one). They released the four volumes of Dave Godin's Deep Soul Treasures Taken From The Vaults, the most remarkable treasure trove of lost soul classics you (or I) can imagine.

They did a stellar job putting this one together. There are a few familiar songs, but this isn't a product meant to provide you with a greatest hits/chart-toppers sort of package. Rather it does its intended job of showcasing the sound of one of America's most famous studios in fine fashion. And the studio is worthy of this deep investigation, because it, and Hall, leave their mark on every song. There are also several interesting never-before released selections (Otis Redding accompanying himself on guitar on a demo of You Left The Water Running, anyone?), and a few surprises as well. The third CD features a few non-soul acts that came to benefit from the sound of the place. This may upset a few purists, but they need to lighten up.

If you still enjoy buying music that comes with well-thought out packaging and supporting material, here you go. If you just love deep, Southern soul and want to discover a few new artists or songs in the genre, here you go. If you need research material to write a thesis for a music appreciation class with an open-minded professor, here you go.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Band 1968-1998

It's a bit of a surprise that I haven't yet dedicated an entry to The Band. I've mentioned them a few times, but I've done pretty big career overviews of Robert Palmer, The Sons Of Champlin, Van Morrison and The Beatles. It seems like I should have gotten to The Band.

Let's make sure we understand each other. This will not be an unbiased review of the artists' output. I loved their first four records. At the time they were released, I would have been less your friend if you dissed them (although we didn't say "dissed" back then).

I'm not sure what to say about Music From Big Pink 1968. It is everything anyone you read says it is. There's a million reviews and old print articles archived. This record is the meaning of the musical term (coined thirty years later) Americana. It is country, R&B, blues, New Orleans funeral march, bluegrass, and Buddy Holley rock 'n' roll wrapped up in a blue plate special for your ears. The stoming piano-driven rock of To Kingdom Come,  the funky country stomp of Calidonia Mission, the ensemble lead vocals of We Can Talk, the lead guitar and pulsing R&B of This Wheels On Fire, not to mention The Weight ("take a load off, Fanny") and Garth Hudson's amazing organ opening to the rocking ode to frontal anatomy that is Chest Fever. The record never stops.

From there came The Band 1969, with Up On Cripple Creek, Across The Great Divide,  The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Rocking Chair, The Unfaithful Servant, and King Harvest (Has Surely Come). And every other song on the record. If you haven't heard this record, you can't really fully understand American rock and roll. Don't buy that crap? Go listen to it.

Their third, a disappointment to some, and even I must admit that side two is what really makes it, is still the group living up to their potential, and a fine record. Stage Fright 1970 side one feels like treading water, and Todd Rundgren's slightly sterile engineering doesn't help. Strawberry Wine and Time To Kill sound great today, and the recording is especially good on Levon Helm's drum kit. Side two is just a classic. The final three tracks, Daniel And The Sacred Harp, Stage Fright, and The Rumor are well worth the price of the record or CD. The Rumor is just beautiful.

1971's Cahoots found the band stretching out, and not everything worked. But enough of it did, and Life Is A Carnival, 4% Pantomime (with Van Morrison), and Where Do We Go From Here? were particular highlights. The River Hymn is another classic.

If there is a hallmark to this group, it is their organic sound. Levon Helm's drums always sound just a little like sticks on cardboard, Richard Manual's piano sounds like a small upright in someone's parlor, the reedy twang of Robbie Robertson's Fender Telecaster, always without effects, the high lonesome tenor of spot-on bassman and vocalist extraordinaire Rick Danko, and the deeply American sound of Garth Hudson's Hammond B3 organ.

In 1972, The Band made Rock Of Ages, one of the best live double-LP packages you can find anywhere. Adding horns arranged by Allen Toussaint, the live performance is exquisite. The 2-CD reissue contains the entire concert, including Bob Dylan's four-song set with the group.

After those first four studio recordings, things get dicey. 1973's Moondog Matinee finds The Band biding time with covers of oldies rock and roll from the (mostly) fifties. It's fine, but dispensable. Their last two, Northern Lights, Southern Cross 1975 (with at least a few good ones-Acadian Driftwood and It Makes No Difference) and Islands 1977 were mostly unnecessary. But those first four, and especially the first three, remain classics today, and you can hear today how different they were from their contemporaries.

1978 saw The Last Waltz, the soundtrack of the movie by the same name, that documented their star-studded farewell concert. It has it's moments.

The group resumed in 1983 without founder-songwriter Robbie Robertson, and I've heard at least some of the three records they released. It's sadly not the same. All of the members have made solo recordings, and of those, Helm's have been the most successful. Robertson seems content to confound his listeners at every turn, and hell if he's ever going to do anything that sounds like the band that made him famous.

Own the first three. If you're too young, think of it as a music history lesson.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Christmas 1969

My oldest brother recently started reading this blog, and it reminded me of an ages old Christmas musical moment. I have two siblings, both older brothers. My middle brother (for lack of a better term) is 2 years older than me, and my oldest brother is 6 plus years my senior. In 1969, my oldest brother left college to play bass guitar in a famous one-hit wonder rock band, and he was touring and did not get home for the holiday. 

But he sent presents home. He sent me and my middle brother one gift- a package that contained exactly seven record albums for us to share/divide. Now if you know anything about sibling rivalry, you'll understand how twisted this move was. Seven is a hard number to divide two ways, and sharing things is not the strong suit of adolescent brothers (we did date the same girl once, but not at the same time). I honestly don't remember the outcome, and I know we didn't really fight about it, but it was a dilemma on which we no doubt spent hours and hours of deliberation. We were, after all, 14 and 16 years old, so what else did we have to do? I know that I ended up with the Band and The Sons Of Champlin records eventually. They're in the living room now.

Do I remember all seven of the titles? No, I do not, but I sure wish I did. This blog post would be way better if I remembered them all. I do absolutely remember four of them, and they were Music From Big Pink 1968 by The Band, Cream's Wheels Of Fire 1968, the first Dr. John "The Night Tripper" album, Gris-Gris 1968, and The Sons Of Champlin Loosen Up Naturally 1969. I think two of the  other three were Procol Harum 1967, and Mother Earth, with Tracy Nelson singing her signature "Down So Low", on Living With The Animals 1968, but I really can't be sure.

Two of those records, Music From Big Pink and Loosen Up Naturally were the opening salvos from bands I would follow for the rest of their careers. The Band is one of my all-time favorites, and The Sons come pretty close. The Gris-Gris album was and is a trip to the (swampy New Orleans) beach . Let's just say it is not the Dr. John of Right Place, Right Time fame. This is much darker terrain. And what can I say about Wheels Of Fire? Not a great Cream record. Either that, or their best. It's definitely eclectic, and you don't get many times to use that oft-overused term accurately these days.

I was already way into music, but it was one hot bundle o' wax. I certainly don't remember any of the other presents I got that year.