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.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Diana Krall Live at the State Theatre, Cleveland, April 28, 2012

I had the pleasure of seeing Diana Krall live last weekend, and with a few small exceptions, it was a lovely night. Krall was in fine voice, her vocals one of the evenings' highlights. And when she applied herself to the piano, she played with aplomb. The opening run of I Just Found Out About Love, How Deep Is the Ocean? (How High Is the Sky?) (with a touch of Leon Russell's Song For You on the side), So Nice (Summer Samba) from her most recent Quiet Nights LP,  and I’ll String Along with You, were all excellent, with ensemble playing and solos by all- Krall herself, Anthony Wilson, guitarist extraordinaire, bassist Robert Hurst and Karriem Riggins on drums- all stellar players, with Wilson and Riggins especially hot. Walk On By, played too fast, but saved by Wilson's incendiary guitar, and the amazing I Was Doing Alright, in tribute to Oscar Peterson, concluded the first "band" set.

Krall then played four songs solo at the piano, and Dylan's Simple Twist of Fate (great vocal) and Fats Waller's If You’re a Viper were very good, and I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter was fine. Her under-prepared Don’t Fence Me In was the only disappointment of the night. It may have been her Mom's favorite, but it deserved more thought.

The band returned for the Krall-Costello-penned Abandoned Masquerade, followed by Exactly like You, and a remarkable version of Tom Waits' Jockey Full of Bourbon, and all three were killer, the band firing on all cylinders, including Krall herself. An encore of the title cut from Quiet Nights sent the crowd home in a mellow mood.

At just  eighty minutes it felt short,  but it was good, what there was of it. The backing trio could have played a brief 20-minute opening set, and I would have felt more amply rewarded for my dollars.

Small gripes. You may not like her jazz-pop style, but if you do, well, she's outstanding in person.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Perfect (or near perfect)

It's not very often that a record is perfect. What's perfect? You can listen to every song, and enjoy every song. The performance, songwriting, singing and production make a cohesive whole, a record that is of itself and unlike quite anything else (except maybe one of the other records on this list). There aren't too many of these for me, and many of them are from the sixties and seventies. I tried to stay a little more current with this list.

Many of these records are rockers. This first list is the rockers. Fast and furious, hot guitars, tight band, great songs. Often the best effort by the artist or band, these are the only reason the rest of their work is a little disappointing.

The Proclaimers Persevere 2001

Matthew Sweet Girlfriend 1991

Semisonic The Great Divide 1996

John Mellencamp Whenever We Wanted 1991

Sloan Between The Bridges 1999

The BoDeans Home 1999

Tom Caufield Long Distance Calling 1987

The Connells Still Life 1998

Gomez Split The Difference 2004

John Hiatt Bring The Family 1987

Del Amitri Some Other Sucker's Parade 1997

The rest of these are less rockers and more something else; blues, country, folk, mellower rock, and in one case too eclectic to be any one of those categories. But they are no less perfect, with every track a winner.

Dwight Yoakam This Time 1993

Boz Scaggs Come On Home 1997

Lucinda Williams Car Wheels On A Gravel Road 1998

Erin McKeown We Will Become Like Birds 2005

5 Chinese Brothers Let's Kill Saturday Night 1997

Freedy Johnson This Perfect World 1994

The Jayhawks Hollywood Town Hall 1992

Al Kooper Black Coffee 2005

Shelby Lynne I Am Shelby Lynne 1998

Kirsty MacColl Titanic Days 1993