Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Bob Dylan Tempest 2012

You might not have noticed, but Bob Dylan's been on a bit of a roll the last ten years.

Dylan's work in the 60s and 70s was mostly laudable with only a few ill-chosen missteps (Self Portrait and 1973's Dylan come to mind), and many outright classics. Too many to name. A remarkable consistency overall.

Then throughout the 80s and early 90s he managed to follow one weak record with another. Of course there are some gems (songs, not whole albums) in the mix, but not enough.

Then in 1997 he released Time Out Of Mind to rave reviews as his return to great work. I'm less enthusiastic about that one, mostly due to Daniel Lanois' production, but Dylan was clearly getting his groove back.

In 2001 and he self-produced Love and Theft. This time there's no hesitation on anyone's part, Dylan is firing on all cylinders. And Modern Times in 2006 is equal to its predecessor. Full of blues, rock, country, and old-fashioned vaudevillian story songs, both are really very fine work, equal to his best. If you have any interest in Dylan, they are both must-hear.

Together Through Life 2009 didn't quite sustain the same high water mark, but it had its moments.

And now there is Tempest. This one's not quite Love and Theft or Modern Times either, but it's a good record, and it shows another side of Dylan. It's mostly a dark side. Duquesne Whistle kicks it off, a fast bluesy shuffle. Narrow Way and Early Roman Kings rock basic blues a la Highway 61, and Pay In Blood is a classic mid-tempo Dylan song structure with interesting changes. Dylan explores aging in the country-folk ballad Soon After Midnight and the hypnotic riff of Long And Wasted Years. Tempest is a fourteen-minute rolling rhythm that recalls 1978's Changing Of The Guards while telling the story of the Titanic on its way down.

Tempest can be challenging. Scarlet Town and Tin Angel are 7- and 9-minute dirges that a talented band tries, and almost succeeds, to keep interesting. Tin Angel has a lyrical darkness of biblical proportions. The closer Roll On John is a slow ballad that has a nice chorus and little else. Hey, 7 out of 10 is pretty darn good.

These last four records since 2001 have been recorded by his touring band, with Dylan producing. There's been personnel changes, but they are always tight, and the band includes some serious talent. Dylan's voice is little more than a rasp these days, but he can still write a lyric, and he's still got something to say.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Erin McKeown Beachland Tavern, January 24, 2013

I saw Erin McKeown last night at the Beachland. The 12-degree weather kept a few folks home, but fifty or so hearty souls made it, and the show was a delight.

McKeown was promoting her stellar new record, Manifestra, which had been released nine days earlier, and she did quite a bit of it. The record explores politics, both national and personal, and Baghdad To The Bayou (which she wrote with Rachel Maddow), Histories, Proof, The Politician ("If nobody knows, Tell me what's the crime?"), Manifestra and The Jailer were consistently good. This new one might just be her best yet.

She did plenty of older material as well, going all the way back to Distillation 2000 for Queen Of Quiet. Slung-lo and Lucky Day from Grand 2003, Aspera and We Are More from We Will Become Like Birds 2005, and Santa Cruz, You, Sailor, and The Lions from 2009's Hundreds Of Lions, all done with cool arrangements and a super tight band.

Everything was great. Her voice was perfect, her minimalist band (Marc Dileo on drums and Matt Douglas on alto and baritone sax and keys, and her own guitar and keys) made unusually full arrangements out of everything. The baritone sax filled in so that you never missed a bass player. The mix was great, the PA wasn't too loud, and most of the crowd shut up and listened. A fine songwriter, singer, and guitarist gave her all, and gave a highly entertaining performance. 

Go see her if she's coming your way- her upcoming shows in Scotland, the UK, the US midwest and west coast are listed here. You can listen to lots of her music at that same link. And you can buy Manifestra, there, too, available in CD, vinyl and download formats. It's wonderful, trust me (go listen).

I suppose there's plenty of fine artists that should be bigger stars than they are. Erin McKeown is a perfect example.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook 1956

Ella Fitzgerald surely could sing. Cole Porter wrote many a great song. The arrangements by Buddy Bregman are excellent. Thirty-two songs recorded in four days. Given the product they produced, it is quite a feat.

Fitzgerald forgoes the scat singing, and seems to casually throw off these astounding performances. It all sounds effortless, and yet magnificent. Like Sinatra at his best; casual, easy-going, and, well, perfect. Proving that the best performers always make it look, or sound, easy.

Ella goes deep on Porter's beguiling songs. Porter wrote songs of depth that you can hum along to. Fitzgerald sings these familiar songs so well that quite a few of them are the definitive versions of oft-recorded gems.

Maybe you don't like Ella Fitzgerald. It sounds odd, but I suppose it is possible. That would be the only reason to avoid this record. Even then, this might change your mind. Maybe you really don't know much or haven't heard much Ella Fitzgerald. Here's a fine place to start.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Mood Elevator Married Alive 2003

What a swell title, Married Alive. Not that you have to share the sentiment, but it's great wordplay. And it's a top notch power-pop record from one of the genre's finest.

 The record includes some magic rocking moments with Boycott, Watch Your Girl, Guilty, Long Hard Look, Best Kept Secret, and Something I Need. All of them move forward in a hurry, and they're filled with hooks and melodically familiar melodies that are hard not to like, or just dance to.

But the slower material is just as good. The songwriting, by Chris Plum with help from producer, engineer and band member Brendan Benson is excellent throughout. The theme is pretty obvious from the record's title, but Plum takes love on from many angles, and does them all justice. The closer, At The Wedding, is sweetly touching.

Big Star, Nick Lowe, a touch of Squeeze. Occasionally Spongetones or Rooney or Sloan. If power-pop is in your wheelhouse, these guys will light up the joint. The band is tight, the sound is clean, the songs and singing are excellent, and Benson has produced enough to know what the songs need to keep them interesting and varied. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Lindsey Buckingham Law And Order 1981

After making Fleetwood Mac's infamous Tusk in 1979 and touring the record for a year and a half, Lindsey Buckingham was ready for some guilty pleasures.

Buckingham plays almost all of the music on the record, and there are some great moments. The opener, Bwana, is fast-rocking pop that's full of funny noises and Buckingham's unnaturally high voice (sped up tape, maybe?). The single, Trouble, follows, and it could have been a big hit for Fleetwood Mac if it wasn't the hit single from this record. On the strength of Trouble, this became Buckingham's best selling solo work. It's a beautiful mid-tempo falling-in-love ballad.

There are other moments that have redeeming qualities. The Beach Boys styled vocal arrangements on Mary Lee Jones, September Song and Shadow Of The West keep some of the slower material interesting. I'll Tell You Now recalls both carousel music and Todd Rundgren, both in good ways. That's How We Do It In L.A. and Love From Here, Love From There at least offer some humor with their light pop-rock.

The pitiful attempt at country on A Satisfied Mind (both musically and lyrically banal), the hollow rock of Johnny Stew, and the shallow doo-wop of It Was I detract from an otherwise interesting project.

Buckingham would return with a more fully realized version of his experimental side with Go Insane in 1984, and with the unified, near-perfect pop-rock statement of 1992's Out Of The Cradle. You could hear much of that potential right here.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Nat King Cole After Midnight 1957

There are quite a few great Nat King Cole records, but this one from 1957 might be the most indispensable.

A consummate singer, smooth, yet still deeply emotive, Cole became a pop/jazz icon, and had quite a few hits in the 50's and early 60's until his untimely death in 1965.

His "pop" vocal records with Nelson Riddle, Billy May, and many other popular arrangers of the day were his bread and butter during the last fifteen years of his life.

But he got his start as a piano player in the forties in the fairly unique piano, bass and guitar King Cole Trio. His early instrumental work is highly regarded, and he only began singing on record in the early 50's.

This little gem is Cole at piano with bass, guitar, and drums, plus four different soloists rotating through the set on sax, trumpet, trombone, and violin. The small band and clean recording set up Cole's rich vocals and sweet piano styling. The band is both hot and relaxed in a truly magical way.

The song list is notable for its quality. Just You, Just Me, Sweet Lorraine, Caravan, It's Only a Paper Moon, Blame It on My Youth, and Route 66 all receive stellar treatments, but everything is great. The bonus tracks released on the 1987 "Complete Sessions" CD are equal to the ones originally released. How anyone could leave I Was A Little Too Lonely and Two Loves Have I off of the original record is hard to imagine.

I like his singing with orchestra, but this is a unique session for Cole, and a wonderful display of all of his considerable talents. Not to be missed.