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.