Monday, December 31, 2012

Morphine Yes 1995

A very unusual thing happened at Christmas this year. Someone (my son in-law) actually bought me music he was pretty sure I'd never heard (he was correct). As a music collector, people rarely buy me music for gifts since I typically buy myself anything I know I want. So it was a bold move.

The record is Morphine's Yes. The third of their five records, it's very good. They are an unusual band of which I previously new nothing. Featuring a lineup of bass, drums and baritone sax (!), made all the more odd by singer-songwriter-bass player Mark Sandman playing an oddly-tuned, two-string bass with a slide. There are episodes of jazz, beat raps, and rockers. Deep, low-rumble rockers. Sandman sings in a baritone/low tenor, so there's little going on at higher frequencies in the mix. In fact, the tenor sax on Sharks comes as a high-pitched surprise 3/4 of the way through the record. Singles Honey White and Super Sex both deserved more air time than they garnered, and they benefit from fine melodies and strong choruses.

Side one kicks off with Honey White, Scratch, and Radar, and it's an up-beat, rocking trifecta to start things off. Whisper is darker, and the only one that slows the side down just a little. The title track, which includes a near-spoken vocal, and All Your Way continue with quality songwriting and performances.

Most of the first side plays it pretty straight (considering the instrumental context, anyway), while things get a tad weirder on side two. After the twisted Dragnet theme that is Super Sex, I Had My Chance and Free Love are both sax-heavy dirges, and The Jury and Sharks both feature beat raps from Sandman over loose jazz-rock. The closer Gone For Good is a sad, gentle guitar ballad that makes a great ending to a terrific album.

All three musicians are talented guys working well together. Sandman and drummer Billy Conway get in deep grooves. Sandman's songs are good, and the lyrical content is strong. Dana Colley's sax must receive special mention, since he's responsible for keeping melodies and momentum going on top of the fine rhythm section. All layed down in black grooves on clean new vinyl.

It's a treat to get turned on to something so good.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Donald Fagan Sunken Condos 2012

I've been bugged about Fagan's work for a long time. I really loved the original Steely Dan, especially Countdown To Ecstasy 1973, but all of the first four records. That was before Becker and Fagan incorporated the smooth jazz-lite sound that would reach it's pinnacle with Aja 1977 and Gaucho 1980.

Those records, and this new one, were lovingly recorded and are sonic delights. But sonics will only get you so far, and after that there better be great songs and performances.

I really shouldn't review this work, because frankly, I struggle with the sterile, soulless sound that Fagan has perfected. Cool detachment has always been a theme of his lyric writing, and so why not express the same in the music?

This is a pretty good outing for Fagan. Slinky Thing, Weather In My Head, The New Breed, Isaac Hayes' Out Of The Ghetto, and the almost-funky Good Stuff are all right up there with Fagan's better work. But don't look for anything new here. The melodies he's been writing over and over since 1977. The jazz-lite arrangements and ultra-cool, ultra-slick, ultra-clean recording and performances are all here. If you like his work, here's more of it.

I just can't get moved by what he does. It is too slick. Rock, and for that matter, jazz, has always benefited from the occasional lucky mistake. Everything here is perfect.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Santana Caravanserai 1972

Sanatana's fourth album was a beauty. A fairly sharp departure in sound, it featured more jazz-rock fusion than the previous efforts, and was mostly instrumental, with only three songs with vocals.

The core band is still pretty much intact, although Tom Brown (bass) and Michael Carabello (congas) from the original outfit were replaced by this time, and Neal Schon (guitar) had been added on the previous record. After this one, Schon and Greg Rollie (organ) left to form Journey.

The first side plays as one long medley, and its 26 minutes fly by. Waves Within features Rollie's fabulous Hammond B3 organ, and the percussion is particularly well recorded. Song Of The Wind has some great Santana guitar, and All The Love In The Universe is a driving rocker that tries to disassemble itself in jazz-like fashion. With a fine vocal, and the band playing hot and tight, it rocks.  Doug Rauch's bass is a stand-out, as are the guitars and organ.

Side two opens with Future Primitive, a hot percussion workout between Jose Chepito Areas, James Mingo Lewis and Michael Shrieve. It's more of a song than a drum solo. Antonio Carlos Jobim's Stone Flower follows, and features plenty of hot guitar and ensemble playing. It has the more Latin feel of the earlier records, and Shrieve and Santana wrote lyrics for Jobim's melody. La Fuente Del Ritmo is a driving rocker with hot percussion and dueling guitars from Santana and Schon, and some fine electric piano from Tom Coster, who will replace Rollie on the next record, 1973's Welcome. The record ends with Every Step Of The Way, which begins as an airy, ethereal song that eventually explodes into a jazzy, nine-minute workout that features the entire band and more hot guitar.

As cohesive in sound as the debut, but this one holds up much better today. It may well be Santana's greatest moment, and it was certainly the last gasp from the original band. The band will especially miss Greg Rollie after this. It also happens to be extremely well recorded, and sounds amazing. It sold well, and clean vinyl copies show up in used record bins since the record was too jazzy for many fans. Classic.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Zappadan 2012 You Are What You Is 1981 and Orchestral Favorites 1979

Happy Zappadan one and all. I'm late to the show this year, but it's still a swell alternative holiday season. Frank had his moments, and then there are "those" records that make no one's best-of list, but they must have at least some redeeming value.

Which brings us to You Are What You Is from 1981. Not a great Zappa record, but there are some moments of greatness, or at least hilarity. Harder Than Your Husband is one of Frank's cuter funny lines, and the song is a fun joke. Doreen has some hot playing, and there are frequent hot instrumental breaks throughout. The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing is notable both for it's lyric and composition. But there's a lot of Frank's lazy lyric writing, anti-religion squawking, and mostly well-worn Zappa musical motifs.

Of course the band is on fire. The hot stuff is well worth hearing. It's just not the most condensed. It's two slabs of vinyl. It could've been a strong single record. Frank always has a lot to say. And there's plenty of Frank's politics on this one.

1979's Orchestral Favorites is another bird altogether. Originally intended for the four-record set Lather (depending on whom you believe), these all-instrumental orchestral works are as good a look at Zappa's work for large ensemble as we get until The Yellow Shark in 1993. The London Symphony Orchestra records were good, but this set has a certain rightness to it that is irresistible. The Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra does Zappa proud. The vinyl is warm and friendly.

I didn't think I needed it because I had all but one of the songs on the CD version of Lather. But when I found the vinyl in a used record store, I jumped on it. It was a great idea. I highly recommend the record to anyone who wants to hear Frank's most accessible version of his orchestral compositions. It's hard not to like. Or you'll think I'm crazy. It's not Mozart.

Those are the two Zappa records I added to the stacks this past year; one great, one, well, you know, something else.

For you insatiable Zappadan enthusiasts, I've written a quite a bit about Zappa here at the blog before:
Zappadan 2009- My first Compilation
Zappadan 2009- The 1988 tour CDs
Zappadan 2010- My Favorite Zappa records
Zappadan 2010- My second Compilation
Zappadan 2011- LSO Vol. 1 and 2
Zappadan 2011- Orchestral Music
Chunga's Revenge
The Grand Wazoo 
One Size Fits All