Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Kinks Muswell Hillbillies 1971

On this, their first for RCA after leaving Reprise, Ray Davies moves the focus of his keen eye for detail from the English middle class a step down to the English working (and not-working) class. And while the title might make you think this is the Kinks' country record, it isn't. It has some Americana overtones, with much acoustic rhythm guitar, a horn section right out of New Orleans, and a warm, earthy sound reminiscent of The Band records of the same era.

The first side is all good. 20th Century Man leads off, and acts as an overture for the record's theme of a world gone crazy with over-modernization. The horns light up Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues. Holiday is a music hall-styled shuffle that celebrates a small life's very small pleasures. Skin And Bone finds Ray lamenting his woman's diet, and Dave brings a killer guitar riff. Alcohol, set to a New Orleans funeral dirge/march warns dramatically of "Oh! Demon Alcohol", and Ray knows his way around the topic. Complicated Life ends the side, and it is just one of Ray's great songs."Gotta stand and face it, life is sooo complicated".

Side two dips a bit in quality, about half of it holds up. Here Come The People In Grey is a chugging rocker. Dave's guitar is hot, and it sounds like a lost Faces song in the best of ways. Oklahoma USA is sweet, and foreshadows Ray's interest in Hollywood that will take shape on their next record, 1972's Everybody's In Show-biz. Muswell Hillbilly wraps the record up on a high musical note, with an irresistible Davies chorus and some good country-sounding guitar. But Have A Cup Of Tea is trite both musically and lyrically, Holloway Jail is an overly simple blues, and Uncle Son is just slow and depressing.

For the most part, a good Kinks record. It's always nice when one side is particularly strong and can be played all the way through. I have always liked it, especially for the warm sound, the horn arrangements, and some funny and heartfelt songs.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Detroit Cobras Life, Love, And Leaving 2001

Garage rock never sounded better. Two guitars, bass and drums, and a great singer with just a little snarl in her voice. Rachel Nagy sounds dangerous and sexy. And she nails it every time. It's not a pretty voice, but she is dedicated to getting the feeling of these songs right, and she sure does.

The band pounds it out behind her, fast and capable. Rhythm guitarist Maribel Ramirez sings back-up with fervor. Solid drums and bass from Damien Lang and Eddie Harsch. Rocking lead guitar by Dante Aliano. Actually there's almost no lead guitar breaks in any of the songs. Thrashing chords are all that's needed.

Other than Nagy, the secret ingredient is the material, all covers, and all meticulously chosen from fifties and sixties soul, R&B, pop and rock chestnuts. Most of them you've maybe heard, but they always find some lost classics. All presented in simple, straight-ahead arrangements that feature Nagy's unmannered singing and undistilled attitude.

They're just like the garage band down the block, only better. The only thing that comes close is their debut, Mink Rat or Rabbit from 1998.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Connells Still Life 1998

The Connells produced this perfect slice of rock and roll. I don't know how or why or where they came from. I must have read a review somewhere that caused me to buy this gem. I never looked back. It is, for me at least, a perfect rock record. There aren't that many.

The big mid-tempo rocker Dull, Brown And Gray kicks things off in fine style. The Leper has some great guitar work, and there's a Stones/Petty/Springsteen vibe throughout this song and many others. Bruised is another mid-tempo gem with an amazingly hooky chorus and a fine guitar riff. Curly's Train offers a brief respite from hard rocking with country-swing-pop featuring jangly piano to good effect. Gaunlet features mellow verses and a big ballad chourus, and sweet lyrics. "If you stick around this time, you might be somebody, I'll even watch the van for you while you play". Glade is another good solid rocker with multiple vocal parts and a crazy rockin' break. The first half ends with Soul Reactor, a med-tempo rocker that sounds like Nils Lofgren at his best, and features a three-guitar lead break that is smoking, and another great chorus.

The title track brings Tom Petty to mind, and the chorus has a poignant catch in "But this still life has it's virtues". Crown is just mid-tempo heaven with a big guitar sound reminiscent of Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend album. Circlin' is a quick-paced Stonesy rocker with entertaining guitar interplay and yet another hook-filled chorus! You have to like the title of Gonna Take A Lie, and it lives up to the expectations with hard fast rock and a great chorus. I know I keep saying it. But this record contains nothing but fantastic choruses on every song. Queen Of Charades is a sweet, gentle ballad that sounds like the it should be the last song, until Pedro Says brings the instrumental equivalent of the chillin' closing credits music after an in-your-face soundtrack.

It's classic. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Del Amitri Some Other Sucker's Parade 1997

Image the hard-rocking power-pop of Cheap Trick with brains, better songs, and smart, personal lyrics. Or Matthew Sweet's big crunchy guitars and harmonies strapped to relationship woes, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse. Bleak never sounded better.

The fast rocking Not Where It's At (kicking things off in style, she's looking for someone he's not), Some Other Sucker's Parade (time for bad luck to pick someone else), Won't Make It Better (some things just can't change, for instance you), Medicine ("Sometimes it's the medicine itself that makes the pain"), Funny Way To Win (riffing guitars), and Life Is Full (the fool who has everything under control) all feature big loud guitars, fine organ, hot drumming, intricate harmonies, catchy choruses, and smart, if rather down lyrics.

High Times and Cruel Light of Day examine excess from a knowing, personal level, and both rock hard and have fine lyrical turns.

The ballads include What I Think She Sees (a woman in love with an incorrect vision of her man), No Family Man (more relationship issues), Through All That Nothing (a sweet, melancholy love song), and Lucky Guy (the tale of the lucky cheater, who gets what he wants, but is "unlucky for some").

The band is smoking hot. Justin Currie and Iain Harvie write and sing great melodies and harmonies, the guitar interplay is top notch, the songs are consistently strong. The production is clean and relatively simple (they were supposedly trying to capture a live sound), with limited instrumental overdubs.

I don't know if your results will be the same, but it goes on a fairly short list of near-perfect records in my book.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Forty-Part Motet, Janet Cardiff, Cleveland Museum of Art

I visited the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) last week to hear Janet Cardiff's remarkable Forty-Part Motet, installed in the Reid Gallery among Italian Baroque masterpieces.

The motet is a 16th century choral piece written for forty voices by Thomas Tallis entitled Spem In Alium (In No Other Is My Hope). The fascinating thing about the work is that each of the forty voices was recorded separately and each single voice is assigned to one speaker only. The speakers are B&W model DM303 on stands, and are organized in a circular array around the gallery, in eight groups of five voices each (as was apparently intended by Tallis himself). You can stand in the center of the choir, or move around and get different perspectives, including experiencing the piece from any one singer's location.

It is a pretty piece of music, very ethereal. Heard in this unique presentation, it is moving. The concept is fascinating, and the idea of a forty-speaker system brings a whole new meaning to surround sound.

The piece has been touring the world since it's creation in 2000. If it comes your way, you really should go hear it. It will remain at CMA until July 7, 2013. If you're anywhere nearby, you must go. And make reservations for lunch at Provenance, CMA's new upscale restaurant. The food is art, too.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Calexico Spiritoso 2013

Calexico's latest studio record, Algiers, came out just last September, so this live record is a bit of a surprise. And a very pleasant surprise at that. 

The record was recorded live in Austria and Germany last summer while the band was touring Europe. The exciting news is that both concerts were recorded with symphony orchestras (Radio Symphonic Orchestra Vienna, and Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg), which adds a significant depth to the already cinematic scope of Calexico's work.

Four of the songs are from the then forthcoming Algiers, and the rest is drawn from Calexico's back catalog. The vinyl features ten songs, and the CD has twelve (a copy of the CD comes with your vinyl purchase). The sound is very good, and the orchestral backing is lush and appropriately recorded. The band is up front, but the orchestras add much to Calexico's sound.

If there's a complaint about Calexico, it is their frequent lack of energy. Many of their songs are sad, slow, minor chord works that either plod along or slyly invite you into their intimacy, depending on your personal reception of the music. When they do rock, it is exciting but rare. Many of their more upbeat material is Spanish in nature, songs that spring from their obvious love of Ennio Morricone's spaghetti Western soundtracks and southwest/Mexican music. The song selection here does nothing to change this, featuring more downbeat material than upbeat.

Disclaimer out of the way, if you like this band, hearing them with orchestral support is a very good thing. Joey Burns and John Convertino's compositions occupy a unique place in modern music, a folky, southwestern-Mexicali, country, post-rock blend that is consistently inspired. Their gentle melodies draw the listener into their world, and the blend of styles that is the basis for their own sound resonates in a way that makes it impossible to tell you who they sound like. They sound like Calexico.

You can hear several songs on their website Casa de Calexico. They also have many You Tube videos, including much of this new record. Check them out. They are an interestingly different band.