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.