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.