Monday, December 22, 2014

Elton John 17-11-70 1971

I've pulled this little gem out an unusual number of times in the recent past. Unique in Elton John's output, it was recorded live in a studio with a small audience for radio broadcast, and includes only the core band of John, Dee Murray (bass) and Nigel Olssen (drums).

It is the interplay of this tight outfit, and Elton's rocking piano, that make the record so special. Elton still had plenty to prove at this point. His songwriting was never a question, but this was his first American tour, and the band plays like it is now or never. Murray's bass lines are all over the place, almost a bass/lead instrument, and Olssen's drumming is equally wild and ferocious. And Elton plays like a man simultaneously possessed by Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Piano can rock. Here's all the proof you need.

Take Me To The Pilot starts things off in fine form, followed by Honky Tonk Woman, on which the trio sings some knock-out harmonies, and John rips the piano to shreds. The slow burner Sixty Years On turns incendiary, and Can I Put You On keeps the rocking front and center. Side two features an eighteen-minute Burn Down The Mission, that includes bits of Arthur Crudup's My Baby Left Me and The Beatles Get Back.

Elton never did this same thing again, and a little over a year later, guitarist Davey Johnstone was a full-time band member. John's live performances became more sophisticated, but never really recaptured the raw power of this dynamic trio.   

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Zappadan 2014 again Imaginary Diseases 2006 and You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. I 1988

During the previous two Zappadan celebrations, I've discussed recent acquisitions of Zappa releases. This year didn't contain the revelations found in either Wazoo or Orchestral Favorites, but I did add to the stacks with the two in the title.

Imaginary Diseases is a good Zappa release in a number of ways. It is a live recording of the 1972 10-Piece Band, or as it is often known, the Petite Wazoo.This band followed hot on the heels of the 20-piece Grand Wazoo featured on the aforementioned Wazoo release. Nine of the members of this unit also played in the previous larger one.

The disc contains some fine recordings, all instrumentals, that cannot be duplicated elsewhere. The 6-man horn section gets heavily involved right away on Rollo, while Been To Kansas City In A Minor rocks a fairly regular blues under smoking solos on trumpet, guitar, and trombone. Farther O'Blivion again features horn charts and solos, and at 16 minutes, covers a lot of ground. D.C. Boogie is mostly guitar solo, and it's a good one. Imaginary Diseases and Montreal both feature more guitar than horns, and they keep your attention. After the Grand Wazoo, the Petite Wazoo is less amazing. But there is no denying that these are some very hot performances.

Recommended then for the already deep into Zappa type. Might not be for the uninitiated.

No one really needs YCDTOSA Vol. I all that much. Disc one is filled almost entirely with inane humor.  Let's Make The Water Turn Black/Harry You're A Beast/The Orange County Lumber Truck from the 1969 original Mothers line-up is three minutes of perfection. There are good versions of I'm The Slime and Big Swifty from the 1973 band featuring George Duke and Ruth Underwood. That's three tracks out of fourteen. The second disc almost has to be better, and it is. Two more tracks from 1969 (Plastic People  and Oh No).  A version of The Torture Never Stops from the 1977 band featuring Adrian Belew on guitar would be indispensable were it not for so many other good versions of the song. Fine Girl and Be In My Video are always good. The recordings of Frank's eighties bands are less distinguished, and maybe some of the material is weaker. There's some priceless stuff for the obsessed, but as a CD to sit and listen to, it doesn't hold up. Without getting too negative, Vol. II (The Helsinki Concert) is where this series really starts.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Zappadan 2014

December 4 - December 21
Seventeen days devoted to the celebration of all things Frank Zappa.

American Composer.
Band leader.
Family man.
Music producer.
Film maker.

Sixty-two albums during his lifetime. From the first, Freak Out! in 1966, to the last, The Yellow Shark in 1993 (both masterworks), with many a strange side trip along the way. In fact, those two might be a pretty good introduction to Zappa's music. Or just something to do during Zappadan.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bobby Hutcherson, David Sanborn, Joey DeFrancesco, featuring Billy Hart Enjoy The View 2014

Bobby Hucherson is a fabulous vibes player. I do love vibes. David Sanborn has been associated with some fairly lightweight jazz in the past, but that is certainly not the case here. Billy Hart is a veteran drummer with finesse and skill. Joey Defrancesco plays the organ as well as anyone, and is also a veteran of countless gigs and recordings.

Put the four together and you get a class outing by any measure. Pack it all onto two slabs of pristine vinyl, and you get great sound along with fine playing.

As I mentioned, this isn't what would classify as smooth jazz. These guys are the real deal, and we get a mix of melodic, mellow cuts and and some intense, challenging tracks as well. Everyone gets a chance to solo, but they also support each other with beauty and cohesiveness. Sanborn gets downright wiggy on several cuts. Hutcherson is on fire throughout, and DeFrancesco is my new favorite jazz organist. Hart just sits at the kit and patiently delivers a driving force or a light groove as the song requires. Hutcherson, Sanborn and DeFrancesco all get writing credits, and the material is top notch.

Got a jazz lover with a turntable on your holiday shopping list?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

St. Vincent St. Vincent 2014

Last week I went to the record store with no ideas and came home with this St. Vincent record. I had heard her record with David Byrne, and I didn't like it, but I haven't really liked much of Bryne's post-Talking Heads material, so I didn't hold it against St. Vincent (Annie E. Clark). It is admittedly a pretty strange choice for me, but I'm warming up to it, and it seems so very modern. I'm generally opposed to synth bass, but with St. Vincent's interesting and challenging guitar playing, her odd yet alluring voice, and her talent for melody, well, I'm quite into it.

I don't usually go for quirky, but the more I hear this gem, the less unusual it sounds. There's a pop sensibility here that's not far below the surface. There's also an eighties-styled keyboard sheen that usually gets in the way (at least for me), that works so well with her vocals that it's hard to argue with.

Most of it rocks pretty hard. Her distorted guitar tones and almost crystalline voice carry these interesting compositions, and the strange lyrics add another layer. So what does it sound like? I guess if you crammed a more detached Kate Bush into King Crimson with just a touch of the Cars and Prince you'd get pretty close. There, that'll have you running out to get it.

Samples probably won't let you really hear the record. It's a cohesive whole, with a consistent sound throughout that rewards repeated listening. I took a chance and found a good one. I love when that happens.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Van Morrison Back On Top 1999

This has been the best fall in Northeast Ohio in many many a season. And what that means is color. Rust, gold, orange, red, yellow, all mixed with the green hold-outs, and bright sunny days to put those colors on full display. It is a wonder more people don't just drive off the road in awe of this natural expression of God's magnificence, like Thomas Cole and Fredrick Church captured in their brilliant landscapes. Breath-taking beauty just for being on the planet with your eyes open, and a few moments to just look.

The Cleveland Museum of Art has a special exhibit on Fredrick Church's Twilight in the Wilderness that is a must to see if you're a 19th century landscape aficionado. Or if you just like art, I suppose. Go there now. It's only there until January 25, 2015, and time can slip by so easily if you don't make a point to go.

What's this got to do with Van Morrison? Well, on Back On Top, a record that clearly is undeserving of it's own title, Van came through with When The Leaves Come Falling Down, a loving ode to Fall that Van presents with a fine lyric and reverent melody. It's got that minor-key melancholy, because Fall can only lead to Winter, but right now everything is full of wonder and beauty. The song is also available on The Best Of Volume 3, or as a download on iTunes (which is still sucky mp3). Or maybe at your library.

Follow me down, follow me down, follow me down
To the place between the garden and the wall
Follow me down, follow me down
To the space between the twilight and the dawn

And as I'm looking at the colour of the leaves, in your hand
As we're listening to Chet Baker on the beach, in the sand
When the leaves come falling down,
Whoa in September, when the leaves come falling down
Oh when the leaves come falling down
Yeah in September when the leaves come falling down

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Lucinda Williams Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone 2014

I'm a pretty big fan of Lucinda Williams and have followed her work throughout her career. Her Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is one of the best Folk/Rock/Americana records ever made, and a high water mark for her. She followed that with the somewhat softer Essence 2001 and the impressive A World Without Tears 2003.

If there's a complaint to be made of her work since the turn of the century, it is that her records include too many slow songs. Her lyric writing has never dipped far, but the languidity of her recent work on West 2007 (the worst offender), Little Honey 2008, and Blessed 2011 was just a bit too much. All of them include the occasional rocker, but the rockers aren't always up to par, and there aren't enough of them. The slow stuff is good, and she has fabulous instrumental backing, including long-time guitarist Doug Pettibone, as well as Bill Frissell and Greg Leisz (two of the best atmospheric guitarist anywhere). But there are a lot of slow tunes.

So now here comes a new, two-CD set. To say I was apprehensive is an understatement, because two CDs of her slow introspection sounded like a bad idea. But what we get this time has more energy than any of her releases since Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, and that (and a mess of great songs) makes this the best record she's made in a long time. Not only that, Lucinda is happily in love, and there are even some upbeat sentiments on the table (a rarity in her work). Break-ups and misery have always made for fine songs, but it certainly isn't necessary.

Protection, Burning Bridges, East Side Of Town, West Memphis, Foolishness, Stand Right By Each Other, Walk On, and Everything But The Truth are all mid-tempo at least, and we have a nice balance of rockers, blues, and quieter material. A nine-minute cover of J.J. Cale's Magnolia ends the record in a magnificently deep slow groove, presenting some downright gorgeous guitar interplay.

If, like me, you've been a bit disappointed in Ms. William's recent work, the wait is over. At 61, Lucinda Williams has made her best recording in years.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Hiatus of sorts


It has been five years that I've been writing this blog. During that time I have made a conscious effort to publish at least 4 times per month or more, and I've generally achieved that goal. There have been about 30,000 visits to the site during that five years (with an error of up to 50-80% in either direction), but not all of those visitors actually read anything. There are at least three people that have followed the blog, and several (or quite a few?) more that are regular readers. Thanks especially to you.

I want to also thank ChrisGoesRock, whose blogroll has given my blog more traffic than any other source. Hat's off to Willard's Wormholes and Brady Bonk's Ketchup Is A Vegetable, other blogrolls that have helped sustain traffic of late. And thanks to Dan, too, for your comments and your own blog.

I'm not completely signing off. I'll have to do some Zappadan blogging in December, and I'll pick it up when I feel like it. I'm just saying that the promise to myself (and you, if you've read this far) is mostly over. I've had another writing project in mind for a long time. Maybe in the future there will be an radiation physics book.

Thanks again sincerely to anyone who ever read a posting. I really appreciate it.

Here's ten records that I highly recommend:
Allen Toussaint The Bright Mississippi 
Bruce Cockburn Breatfast In New Orleans, Dinner In Timbuktu
Boz Scaggs Come On Home
The Clash London Calling
Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham Live-Moments From This Theatre
The Detroit Cobras Life, Love, And Leaving
Matthew Sweet Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu
Vampire Weekend Contra
Shelby Lynne I Am Shelby Lynn
Eric Hutchinson Moving Up Living Down

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Sloan Commonwealth 2014

Sloan have a new one out. This band is interesting in several ways:

They're Canadian. This is hardly big news these days, but hey, it's still pretty cool to be Canadian. And they are HUGE in Canada.

The same four people have been in the band since its inception in 1991. This is particularly unusual, especially given that...

All four are multi-instrumentalists, songwriters, and singers. Every one of their records includes songs written by all four members. This is the most egalitarian rock band on the planet.

This new one is a doozy. The double LP set has one side written by each member.

Jay Ferguson's first side reveals him as the most Beatles-influenced member of the band. His work has been consistently stellar throughout their career. And I don't mean he mimics the Beatles, instead the band often sounds like if the Beatles had been 20 in 1991 when they met in college. They're that good, and so are his songs.

Side two features Chris Murphy, and Murphy brings diversity of style and pop sensibility to every track. All of them have really produced strong material for this record.

Patrick Pentland's side rocks harder than the rest, and the power-pop label applies at least a few times. Pentland gets the most out of the strength of two guitars, bass, and drums, straight ahead hard rocking, and gives a nice balance to the (usually) less hard rocking Ferguson and Murphy. There's even a few psych and prog moments.

Finally, Andrew Scott delivers a 17-minute medley/suite/collage that caps the record off with style, panache, and daring. The suite features at least a few moments from past records as it defines the term musical amalgamation. But it starts with several minutes of what can most favorably be called musique concrete, and it's still 14 minutes long after that. I've heard it through at least three times, and I like most of it. You'll probably listen to the fourteen other songs more often than this one.

But the usual beauty of a Sloan record is to have these four voices heard, all mixed together and bouncing off each other, and some people are going to miss their musical democracy for this more deconstructed Sloan. I'm not having that problem, and if I did I guess I'd hit shuffle play. It is very good Sloan.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Spoon They Want My Soul 2014

I've been listening to this record a lot since it arrived recently. I think it is their best effort yet, and that is very high praise given the quality of their recent work.

In case you're not familiar with Spoon, let's review. A quirky, punkish indie band releases two relatively lo-fi records in the later 90's to generally good reception and limited sales. 2001 and 2002 see them release Girls Can Tell and Kill The Moonlight on the trendy Merge label, and both are successful with the critics and begin to see more sales. The band tours more, and the buzz builds. By the time of Gimme Fiction 2005, they hit big, score a #1 in the indie charts, and repeat in 2007 with Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. 2010's Transference makes it to #2, and they are by any measure a big deal.

Since Kill The Moonlight their records have become more and more accessible, with better production, nice instrumental arrangements and embellishment, and a little less sneer in Britt Daniel's vocal delivery. The path of their progression reminds me a bit of XTC- from punk to melodic modernism, and they have become as interesting in their own way as XTC was in their 80s heyday. Daniel's songs have improved significantly in melody and intricacy, and the band has solidified around Daniel, with relatively few personnel changes in the last nine years except for the recent addition of a second guitar/keyboardist, making the touring quintet capable of reproducing their studio work in the live setting.

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and Transference set a very high bar. The four-year wait was worth it. Daniel has written his best set of songs yet, without letting go of his quirks, but definitely favoring his recent melodic bent. There's even some arena rock here, and some perfect pop. But it still sounds like Spoon. I was going to take it track-by-track, but I struggle with describing what they sound like. I guess if you took The Shins and The Clash and Beck and Modest Mouse and threw them in a blender, you might get close. But Daniel's songs, lyrics, and approach to songcraft seem uniquely his own, and that makes this band something special indeed.

You can put this one on and listen to the whole thing. In fact, that is by far the best way to hear it. Somebody thought long and hard about the sequence. It is a cohesive effort, and there are really no weak songs.

If you've been following the band and like their recent work, you won't be disappointed. If you're new to Spoon, start here. After you fall in love with it, go get Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Eva Cassidy Live At Blues Alley 1996

Eva Cassidy's Live At Blues Alley from 1996 is a wonderful record featuring Cassidy's fine band as well as her magnificent vocals. Something of a folk-jazz-pop hybrid, Cassidy's song selection is impeccable, and she invests herself fully in every song, and in the process, gives unique  and stellar performances of classics such as Stormy Monday, Bridge Over Troubled Water, People Get Ready, and Take Me To The River. Her version of Tall Trees In Georgia is achingly beautiful, and the studio version of Oh, Had I A Golden Thread added to the end of the record is breathtaking.

She had an amazing voice, full of emotional gravitas, and pitch-perfect to boot. The arrangements are quite good, and the band, if not all-stars, plays with style and professionalism. It is a CD you should own if you're into the plethora of jazz-pop chanteuses available these days. It is special good.

Then tragedy struck, when 2 months after the CD came out, she died at age 33 of melanoma. 

Her family and producer-bassist Chris Biondo then released Eva By Heart in 1997, a studio record that contains songs that had been mostly, if not fully, completed by Cassidy before her death. It's pretty good, but does not contain the perfect set of songs found on Live At Blues Alley, and some of them sound more like demos than competed projects.

The compilation Songbird, released in 1998, contains tracks from Blues Alley, Eva By Heart, and her signature Over The Rainbow from her 1992 duets record with pianist Chuck Brown, The Other Side. Like most decent compilations, it is a good record, and rivals Blues Alley as the one to have if you only have one.

Since 2000, her family has worked hard to tarnish her beautiful image by releasing every speck of recorded material they could find. Some of it is not bad, and there was probably a decent live CD to be found in the recordings made at Pearl's, King Of France Tavern, and the left-overs from the Blues Alley sets. But instead they doled out those tracks, mixed with demos and toss-offs, over the course of no less than five CDs and two more compilations from 2000-2012. The woman who completed two CDs in her lifetime (Live At Blues Alley and The Other Side with Chuck Brown) now has no less than six additional original CDs and three compilations all released after her untimely death. Only Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley have had more posthumous releases. So shame on her family for bilking the public that fell in love with their daughter with second-rate material over the course of the last decade.

Live At Blues Alley is indispensable. Songbird is a fine collection. After that, caveat emptor.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Dr. John Mos' Scocious The Anthology 1993

There have been some fine Dr. John CDs since this collection, and I'm comfy recommending Goin' Back To New Orleans 1992 (probably his strongest single album), Duke Elegant 1999, and Creole Moon 2001.

But this fine 2-CD set from Rhino in 1993, which is heavily tilted to his 1968-1975 period, is priceless. Although none of the individual records was completely great, this collection with 3-5 tracks from each of the eight records made in the aforementioned era is unquestionably completely great. Add to that a nice selection of early sixties singles that Mac Rebenack was featured on, and a few tracks from his eighties solo piano outings, and you've got a killer collection, and a pretty good encapsulation of the modern New Orleans gumbo of jazz, funk, and swamp-rock. The good Doctor distilled everything into his thick stew- James Booker, Nevilles, Preservation Hall, and a fat slab of voodoo. And during this uniquely commercial period, he penned a number of classic songs, all included here.

By the late sixties Dr. John had been around the block twice, and he knew the studio and the stage. His best work is eclectic and eccentric and electric- and funky. His gruff voice, his songwriting, and his classic New Orleans piano, incorporating Professor Longhair and Fats Domino, and everyone in between, is a nice set of skills. It seems a shame now that he didn't break bigger, but it hasn't hurt his longevity. His most recent, a tribute to Louis Armstrong, was released this year.

This one is out of print, but Amazon has used sets for $15-20. It comes with a pretty good book, too.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Al Kooper White Chocolate 2008

Al Kooper has had a long and successful career in rock and roll. From his first hit (Short Shorts) as a 14 year old in 1958 with The Royal Teens, to his latest solo release, White Chocolate 2008, Kooper's work has been both eclectic and highly entertaining.
Here's a brief list of Al Kooper moments in musical history:
Wrote This Diamond Ring, a hit for Gary Lewis and the Playboys.
Played organ on Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone.
Was a founding member of The Blues Project.
Was a founding member of Blood, Sweat and Tears.
Produced and played on Super Session in 1968 with Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills, the first-ever "jam" album.
Played piano, organ and horn on The Rolling Stones' You Can't Always Get What You Want.
Recorded seven solo records from 1969-1977.
Produced and played on the first three Lynyrd Skynyrd albums.
Taught composition and recording production at Boston's Berklee College of Music.
And much, much more.

Since 1994, Al has had quite a renaissance, and has released four particularly fine records. 1994 saw ReKooperation, an all-instrumental soul-jazz-rock record full of great versions of classics and a few Kooper originals.

Recorded in 1994 for Al's fiftieth birthday, and released in 1995, Soul Of A Man: Al Kooper Live is a tremendous career overview/live best-of that sees Al playing with original members of Blues Project and Blood, Sweat and Tears, as well as the ReKooperators during a three-day stint at New York's Bottom Line.

2005 saw the release of perhaps Al's best solo outing ever, the fantastic Black Coffee. Eclectic as always, but this one is a perfect mix of what Al Kooper does best. Seven of the tracks feature The Funky Faculty, a group of his colleagues from Berklee College, and a super hot band. My Hands Are Tied and Going, Going, Gone rate with Al's best songs, and the whole CD is flawless. Al's singing, playing, arranging and producing firing on all cylinders. The CD booklet also contains an Al Kooper timeline that reviews his entire career.

Al followed Black Coffee with the nearly equal White Chocolate in 2008. Members of The Funky Faculty and ReKooperators (and other famous guests) return to help , and Al again assembles a batch of fine originals and carefully chosen covers.

All four of the 1994 and later CDs are well worth owning, and outshine much of the contemporary competition.

Al also has a weekly blog post over at the Morton Report called New Music For Old People, where Al, the consummate musicologist, helps the elderly discover musical gems.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Parthenon Huxley Thank You Bethesda 2013

There is a power pop thing going on here for sure, but there's also that perfect pop rock record ala Fountains Of Wayne's Welcome Interstate Managers. There are comparisons galore (Sloan, Crenshaw, The Hang Ups, Tim Easton), but Huxley makes it all his own. This is a genre that is derivative by nature, so when an artist can stay within a style and yet express himself so clearly, well, you should pay attention.

Huxley is certainly no newcomer, having made solo discs and produced and written songs for other artists since 1988. He's had a way with a hook from the beginning. A particularly strong songwriter, an above average singer, a hot shit guitar player: what else is there? Well, his arrangements are always interesting.

The hard-rocking title track kicks things off in fine style, a tribute to either nature or hallucinogens. Angelino is a fine riff rocker with a funny "becoming a star" lyric. Luckiest Man is a sweet love ballad that is neither cloying or trite. Buddha, Buddha has a fun lyric hung on a terrific song structure, and three great guitar leads, two from hot shot guests. And a fine Wurlitzer break from Daniel Clarke. Long Way To Go is a lonely road song that leads into a hot lead guitar.

Beautiful shuffles in for a nicely different take on a classic love song theme. A long look back at the thrills and chills of real life is the mid-tempo Roller Coaster, and it includes some super guitar from Huxley and another shining moment from keyboardist Clarke. A Feeling That Won't Fade Away is an airy, acoustic guitar driven soft rock that is a pleasant surprise. Huxley takes on everyone's reference, The Beatles, with Love Is The Greatest Thing, and manages to turn a Beatlesesque intro into a gutsy guitar rocker with a first rate hook-filled chorus. The CD ends with the closing ballad Turn The Soil, another long look at aging that is written to perfection.

The real difference here is the consistent song quality. Well, that and Huxley's many exceptional skills. Huxley has given us a CD that doesn't require any track skipping. Put it on and play the whole thing. An album, the old fashioned way.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Karrin Allyson In Blue 2002

There's been other just as recommendable Karrin Allyson records in the last twenty years, but none has found the perfect fit between songs and songstress as this one. And the band is choice, too. Mulgrew Miller (piano), Lewis Nash (drums), Peter Washington (bass), Danny Embrey (guitar) and Steve Wilson (saxophone) are all top notch, and Nick Phillips' production is flawless.

The songs are themed around the the album's title, but these aren't just torch songs. There's spritely work here, but it is all in the service of a late-night blues vibe that cooks like crazy and works consistently. Songs by Oscar Brown, Jr., Mose Allison, George and Ira Gershwin, Joni Mitchell, and Bobby Troup all share a perfect frame within these casual yet deep arraignments, and Allyson's subtle yet powerful delivery.

If you're unfamiliar with Karrin Allyson, you've missed one of today's finest jazz interpreters. She's got it going on in a serious way, with real jazz cred, and an approachable style that's as comfortable as an old shoe. Then it gets into you, and you're transported to a dark room late at night, and she's signing just for you.

After twelve years on the stereo, it still sounds fresh every time.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Peter Tosh Equal Rights 1977

Anybody can make a list. Top ten, even top five (which is clearly a better choice than ten). I'm talking about going out on a limb here. Best Reggae record ever.

Now I know I should pick a Marley album, although for me number two is probably The Heptones Night Food, then maybe either a Marley record or Bunny Wailer's Blackheart Man. But when it comes right down to a perfect example of the Reggae form, Peter Tosh's Equal Rights is the bomb.

It opens with Tosh's version of Get Up, Stand Up, and this version wins on perfect hypnotic reggae rhythm and Tosh's soulful baritone. Downpressor Man follows, and it's another deep groove. I Am That I Am does it again, and then Stepping Razor finishes side one with an incredible quick-paced reggae with a threatening lyric that Tosh dares you not to believe, over a rhythm laid down by Sly and Robbie that is sheer perfection. "If you wanna live, treat me good, I'm like a stepping razor, I'm dangerous."

Side two breaks with Equal Rights, a slow jam with a fine political message, and another deep groove. The thing that makes this record so good is the instrumentation and the abundant talent and focus of the players. Tosh seems to evoke inspired performances from the entire troupe, and the little percussion effects everywhere and harmonies add layers on top of the already thick reggae stew. The band is built around Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare's rhythm, with Al Anderson's guitar and Tyrone Downie's keyboards, and Bunny Wailer singing backups. Skully's additional percussion is perfect. African, Jah Guide, and Apartheid all continue the high quality (and politically charged) songwriting, singing and musicianship, making this a rare Reggae (or any other genre) record indeed, without a single weak track.

The grooves are as deep as James Brown's funk at it's seventies best. The recording is super. The sound is great. Tosh made some great records after this, and before with the Wailers, but this is the pinnacle of his work, and at least in my view, the best Reggae record ever.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Trout Mask Replica Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band 1969

Over at My Husband's Stupid Record Collection, Sarah has gotten to Trout Mask Replica, the poor girl. There has been so much written about this record, and its genius, it is really very hard to believe.

I don't have much to add. If this record is a monumental leap forward into deconstructed, Dada-esque noise rock, so be it. That doesn't make it listenable, even as an academic study.

If it is a masterpiece, I don't get it. This can happen with any art form, and even within the music domain, there are other masterworks that elude my understanding.

Here's my take. The singer isn't very good. The rhythms change so often and so shockingly that they are almost impossible to keep up with, leaving the listener without an actual rhythm to follow. Forget melody. There are some, but they are unconventional at best. It might be hard to play music this bad, but I'm still unimpressed.

The best use of this record is to polarize people who are interested in music. Somewhere between "If you understood this music better you could appreciate it", and "Turn that crap off" lies the truth. Me, I turned that crap off a long time ago.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

David Crosby If Only I Could Remember My Name... 1971

David Crosby's solo debut has been hailed as a classic despite it's tepid initial sales and lackluster reviews. Today it stands as worthy, in some ways, of both the hype and the detractors.

There are vocal harmonies to die for, with Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell standing out. A fine blend of Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Santana members providing solid backing and a few great jams. There's Crosby's writing, and this record contains examples of his better work, as well as some of the more slight. Dead-styled jams with a particularly hot Jorma Kaukonen, and Crosby's own rhythm guitar style that is at least unique, and perhaps also outstanding, and which frequently defines the jammy songs. Trippy, wordless vocals on two whole songs.

It is very much of it's time today. But if you can get through Music Is Love's sappy sentiment, and you should, because the vocals and the arrangement are spectacular, then the rest of side one is solid. Side two is hard to take by most standards. There are of course beautiful vocals, but in the service of pretty weak material.

So one great side. Not bad, really, but not quite a classic. It was very well made, and the recording is very nice. And Crosby is an exceptional singer. The good stuff is worth it, at least for some. And then there's that rare mix of Garcia and Kaukonen playing guitar together.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Spinning (45 rpm) Vinyl

The other night, as I am wont to do, I sat down, turned it up, and listened to music on vinyl. The first song was James Brown's Funky Drummer, the nine-minute extended version from In A Jungle
Groove 1986. The next thing that caught my eye was an XTC 45 rpm single of Senses Working Overtime and an unusually funky Egyptian Solution (homo safari series no. 3), which finds a unique cross-roads between James Brown and Can. Since the turntable was set for 45, I sought out selections in the format.

If LPs sound better than CDs (and they do), then 45 rpm is better still. Compared to LP, the fidelity of 45 is very high, sort of like red-book CD compared to SACD, DVD-A, or high-resolution files, all of which have the potential to sound just as good as analog.

Next up was Stevie Ray Vaughn's Pride And Joy from the Analog Productions pressing of a Canadian TV special performance with Albert King. Super-hot performance made even better by a fine recording. After that were several cuts from The Anthony Wilson Trio's Jack Of Hearts. Wilson has released most of his records on vinyl, and several of them, like this, in 45 rpm. Wilson is a fantastic guitar player and is always surrounded by only the best support. Groove Note's pressing on fat slabs of vinyl sounds incredible.

After that, it was 7-inch singles. Revolution by The Beatles (wow), the Supremes' You Can't Hurry Love by the Stray Cats (the b-side of Rock This Town), John Lennon's Stand By Me (a superb Japanese pressing), and an early Nick Lowe single of Goffin and King's girl-group
classic Halfway To Paradise, which is both funny and perfect. Graham Parker's live White Honey and Soul Shoes from the Hold Back The Night single followed, and then Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings' I Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Is In. Oh yeah, today's finest soul outfit takes on Kenny Rodger's foray into psychedelic music. Priceless.

I don't own many seven-inch singles, or many 45 rpm twelve-inch LPs like the Albert King or the Anthony Wilson, but they sure are fun to hear. I don't want to hear great recordings of mediocre performances, but all of the above are great performances made all the better by quality sound.

Friday, June 20, 2014

NRBQ, Beachland Ballroom, June 19, 2014

This is the newest iteration of NRBQ with founder and keyboardist Terry Adams, guitarist Scott Ligon, bassist Casey McDonough and drummer Conrad Choucroun. I was skeptical, but other than Joey Spampinato's sweet voice, this version of the band lacks nothing up against the post-1994 line-up.

And they were a blast. The show's first hour was heavy on songs from their new release Brass Tacks, and based on this show, it might just be a fine record. The second half was a non-stop romp through the classic NRBQ songbook. Choucroun and McDonough laid down a sold rhythm, and Ligon knows his way around the Telecaster, and is a talented singer and songwriter. And then there's Terry Adams. He's crazy, funny, and a great showman. He's also the best rock and roll keyboard player on the planet. The guitar-like tone he gets from his clavinet and his jazz approach are like no one else. No one ever.

I'll always miss those awful Tommy Ardolino vocal appearances, rest his soul. I wasn't sure Adams should have revived the NRBQ name, but they do the legacy proud.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Analog vs. Digital

I've waxed on this issue several times before, but I can't say I've allowed myself the extemporaneous approach deserved by this topic.

I was really P.O.ed when I recently found out that they released the Beatles In Mono on vinyl, cut from the original analog tape masters. I already bought the damn CDs. I just knew they'd do it. Why didn't I wait?

My CD player has been being repaired off and on for two months, so I've spent plenty of time with vinyl recently. I can play CDs on the Marantz CD Recorder, but the Cambridge Audio 840 C is sorely missed for it's sweet, almost analog-like up-sampled sound, and it's DAC functions that make the iPod sound like a true source component.

I'm surprised to say that my stereo consists of the same stuff it did almost five years ago. I really like the equipment I've got. What more do I need? I'm looking at a possible turntable upgrade.
I can barely tolerate listening to music on any mP3 format. Even the "improved" mP3 on iTunes. CD quality varies dramatically depending on engineer, recording, mixing and mastering. Some "Red Book" CDs can be very excellent in their sound, but they rarely rival the vinyl, if there is also a vinyl pressing.

I had a SACD player for a while, and I liked hi-res. Blue-Ray and DVD-A offer similar potential. Hi-res downloads are widely available. I can't really download at speeds commensurate with hi-res audio, and frankly, I have plenty of source material.

I don't care at all about more than two channels.

I think tube amps sound better than solid state, everything else remaining equal. Vinyl over any digital format.

Crap. I might even end up with a phone before it's over.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Utopia Another Live 1975

Rundgren used Utopia for his more prog leanings, especially early on. This, their second release, includes three new songs on side one and a few hits and covers on side two. This early version of the band includes three keyboardists, and is quite different from the four-piece outfit that Utopia would become.

The new songs all feature Todd's spiritual/searching lyrics; reincarnation, karma, and enlightenment. Another Life kicks things off with an impressive jazz-rock-prog-fusion display of complex arrangement and skilled playing. The Wheel follows, an acoustic number with folk leanings, featuring a sweet melody and Roger Powell's trumpet. The Seven Rays ends the first side, and is a keyboard-heavy rock anthem with crazy time signatures and turn-on-a-dime changes reminiscent of Yes, or even Zappa.

Side two opens with more prog-jazz and fine keyboard and guitar interplay on Intro/Mister Triscuits. Then comes the fast and furious Something's Coming (from West Side Story), and it is a good version of the Bernstein/Sondheim classic. Heavy Metal Kids follows, and is a perfectly good take on one of Todd's lesser songwriting efforts. The band then does a passable cover of the Move's Do Ya, and closes the set with Just One Victory, a perfect show closer, even if it is bettered by the original on A Wizard/A True Star.

Not a great record by any measure, but one of the better Utopia outings. There are some fine moments, most notably Another Life and The Wheel.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Rolling Stones Singles Collection: The London Years 1989

The Rolling Stones have made a zillion compilations, and they all hold some purpose, I suppose. This one is exceptional for several reasons. In no specific order, those reasons are:

1. This set is the collected singles (including quite a few rare B-sides) from 1963-1969, arguably the band's most interesting period of growth and change. The less familiar tracks are almost all good.

2. Although digitally remastered, the sound of the 4-LP set is excellent. I'm sure the CDs sound good, too. (The LP set goes for big bucks on the used market, so if you see one at a garage/boot sale, snatch it up!)

3. The set comes with a good book that includes lyrics and fairly complete recording information.

4. Brian Jones.

5. If you're a Stones fan, you need to own the four complete albums that came out right after this collection ends (Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile On Main Street). These four represent the pinnacle of their work. If you don't feel that you need the entirety of the earlier albums, well, that is exactly why this set is so perfect.

6. Everything after 1972 has been flawed in some way. I know there are some records that the faithful would claim equal to their first decade's output, but I would respectfully disagree.

7. Their early work is fascinating. They were the bad boys to The Beatles cuteness.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Looking Into You A Jackson Browne Tribute Various Artists 2014

Jackson Browne wrote and performed these songs the first time. This time, someone else gets a chance. That's the usual trip on these tribute projects, and it''s the same here. So, how does this one stack up, given the monumental bias against these things?

Only so well. If you generally think that these tribute records are a sorry excuse for the originals, you'll get no argument here. There are, of course, some fantastic versions of a great songwriter's repertoire. There has to be. So we can nit-pick the lesser works, or we can fall head over heals for the fine renditions. Score-wise, this set suffers, and there's more misses than hits, but the high points are probably enough for the faithful.

The big moments are: Don Henley's opening These Days, Indigo Girls' Fountain Of Sorrow, Springsteen's Linda Paloma, Ben Harper's Jamaica Say You Will, And Lucinda Williams' The Pretender. After that, there's eighteen more songs on the two-CD set. How many of those are needed?

I've been waiting for this release. I wanted it to be great. Too many stripped-bare versions soften the impact, and even the one Browne rocker, Running On Empty, gets slowed down for the version here. He may be the last great singer-songwriter, but come on, let's give him some energy. There are too many artists that just do a simple cover of Browne's original, and not enough chances taken. And then when someone has the moxie to reinterpret one of the songs, the result is again disappointing.

There are bright spots. Karla Bonoff puts out a fine Something Fine, and Venice delivers a breathtaking For A Dancer. Shawn Colvin's Call It A Loan is lovely. It's hard not to like Eliza Gilkyson's Before The Deluge, but is it even the equal of Browne's original? Not really.

Are there enough good ones to make it worth it? Not this time.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Vampire Weekend Modern Vampires of the City 2013

I should have been telling you how great this record is about a year ago when it first came out, but instead of just buying the thing, I decided to check out the samples on Amazon or iTunes, one of them.

If I had purchased the CD or the vinyl, I'd have told you that while the record seems to have less to offer than 2010's amazing Contra at first listen, it really grows on you after just a few more spins.

Like Contra, there's interesting, sometimes Afro-centric rhythms, and Ezra Koenig's bright high register and intelligent lyrics. Like Contra, there's great melodies, fine playing and arranging, varied tempos and ideas. They just seem so much smarter than the average bear. In contrast to Contra, there's just a little less pop sparkle. But it is replaced with deeper ideas that linger longer, and reward multiple listenings. It is a very fine piece of work, indeed. Five stars, ten stars, whatever the scale is.

I'd be telling you how great it is.

A year ago.

Instead, I just listened to the samples, and I didn't think much of the record.

So the moral of the story is don't trust samples.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Both, Beachland Ballroom, Cleveland, May 8, 2014

The Both are Aimee Mann and Ted Leo (and drummer Matt Mayhall on this tour), and it is an unusual, and unusually successful, meeting of musical minds. Mann, whose moody singer-songwriter work has pleased fans for years, hasn't rocked very hard since her second release, I'm With Stupid, way back in 1995. She continues to write fine songs, but one could argue that she's needed a kick in the pants for a while now. Leo, a talented writer, singer, and guitarist who has worked primarily in the punk/hardcore genre, could use some of the intelligent pop sensibility Mann brings to her writing. Voilà, the two make each other better.

They have collaborated on a new record, The Both, which was released just recently, and which shows how well they complement each other. The songwriting strengths of each assist the other, but the big surprise is how well they sing together. Vocally, it is hard to think of a better duet team. Their harmonies are spot on, and their vocal tones work especially well together. Ted Leo has a remarkably supple high register, and sometimes they produce that spine-tingling effect typically reserved for harmonizing sisters. It's special.

They performed the entirety (I think) of the new record, along with a couple of Leo solo tunes and a few of Mann's, including a version of Til Tuesday's Voices Carry during the encore. Leo is an interesting guitarist, and he gets some funky tones out of the instrument. His solos are quite good, even if they begin to sound the same after a bit. Mann's bass is always tasteful and precise, and Mayhall is a rock solid drummer. Mann clearly enjoys being in an actual band, and would run to center stage to do rock poses with Leo during his solos. It was cute.

The record is quite good, but it is a real collaboration, and not an Aimee Mann or a Ted Leo record. That's a good thing. The show was even better than the record, even without producer Paul Bryan's keyboard embellishments. They bantered quite a bit between songs, and there was too much time spent on this activity. But while it slowed the show's pace, it didn't take away from a robust and rocking good time. And they were occasionally funny.

The Beachland is a great room, intimate without being tiny, but the sound is often terrible. The guy at the soundboard for this show put out the best sound I've heard at the Beachland at a loud rock concert. Yes, the bass was overly hot, as usual, but everything was listenable (and audible), and the vocals were surprisingly clear and clean. Even at the end of the show, he didn't turn the volume up needlessly (a stupid pet trick that deaf sound mixers pull all the time). It was loud, but never painfully so, and the mix was good. Too bad this guy doesn't work for the Beachland Ballroom, because most rock and roll sound people are sonic imbeciles.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Simon Townsend Sweet Sound 1983

This is Simon Townsend's debut from 1983. I've never heard any of the five or six other ones he made after this, but on the evidence here, I won't be seeking out any additional Simon Townsend experiences.

Big brother Pete Townsend produced, and played on it. Simon is a passable singer, and he can cobble together a decent rock song with an occasional hook. It's got that eighties sheen on it, but that is just a mark of the times.

I'm not a big lyric guy, and sometimes I can barely make them out. No such problem here, the words are delivered with fine elocution. But they have to be some of the worst song lyrics I've ever heard. Some of the bands in Cleveland's high school rock-off have markedly better lyricists. I can't even begin to explain how bad they are. Here, try this out:

You can see thru the haze
On dull or sunny days
You can see anything
It's all up ahead, in your head...

Take escape from the maze
Living young and funny days
You can have everything
It's all up ahead, purple red

It only gets worse.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Continental Drifters Continental Drifters 1994

The Continental Drifters were a fabulous band that made multiple great recordings that somehow went largely unnoticed. There's no logical reason for it. They had several fine songwriters, three or four lead singers, former members of The Cowsills, The dbs, Dream Syndicate, and The Bangles, and a rich blend of rootsy Americana, New Orleans swamp rock, and intelligent pop songcraft.

This is their debut (an earlier 1993 recording wasn't released until 2003, and that was a different line-up), and it's shockingly good for the first time out. With five different band members writing songs, you get their best work, plus some very well selected covers.

They do Gram Parson's Song For You, Michael Nesmith's Some Of Shelly's Blues, The Box Top's Soul Deep (a great choice, and a perfect version), and Goffin-King's (and Dusty Springfield's) I Can't Make It Alone. It's a brilliantly esoteric mix, and they put a unique stamp on every one of them. The originals are all top quality, too.

Susan Cowsill and Vicki Peterson are an interestingly rough mix, and Cowsill is especially expressive in an raw, edgy, angry way that cuts right to the bone. Peter Holsapple and Carlo Nuccio are both good singers and songwriters. The band is all so talented and they work so well together, it had to be a huge hit. But of course it wasn't.

The band went on to make two more near-perfect studio records, Vermilion 1999, and Better Day 2001, and a Sandy Denny/Richard Thompson tribute called Listen, Listen (and you should), also in 2001, on the German Blue Rose label, that apparently is something of a collectable, gauging by the outlandish used CD prices.

I like them all, but none more than this debut.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, The Rubinoos, Cleveland, Ohio March 20, 1979

I was at the Cleveland Agora for this particular show. The Rubinoos opened the show with their perfect so-cal sunshine. They covered Beatles, Eric Carmen, and Tommy James. And their originals were terrific. Great power-pop, and they were a very tight unit. A great overlooked band for any Raspberries fan.

Costello and the Attractions were the most well-managed chaos I've ever seen. Spitfire songs pouring out for an hour at 3 minutes each. No chatting, no introductions, just in your face rock & roll, full steam ahead. Their latest was Armed Forces, so they did some of that and plenty from This Year's Model as well. And Alison of course. They were also an extremely tight band. And loud. I don't remember all the songs, but I remember loving all the songs. The period from 77-79 was very fertile ground for Costello, he was writing so well. The Attractions were blazing hot. I went with a musician friend of mine, and for us the double bill was Valhalla.

Anyone into a hobby or pastime tends to develop those dreaded best-of lists that simultaneously clutter and tidy-up the world of discourse. Anyone into music has a few shows, or maybe even a lot of them, that were magical nights when music, performance, history, attitude, timing, astrology, love, a sound guy that can still hear, harmonies and chiming guitars all came together at the just perfect moment. Top Ten Live Shows ever.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Natalie Maines Mother 2013

Natalie Maines released this debut solo rock CD last year to generally positive reviews.

You'll remember Maines as the lead voice of The Dixie Chicks, whose four studio albums represent some of the best contemporary country music released in the last twenty years. The same band with the authentic instrumental talents and exceptional harmonies of sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison. And Maines' perfect country pipes, with a touch of nasal twang and an abundance of Texas heart.

And now, with Dixie Chicks on indefinite hiatus, Maines comes up with a rock record. I have to admit that the idea sounded a tad misguided to me, just because she really is so very good at country music. But I looked forward to hearing that voice, and figured she deserved a listen.

Positives: She can still sing, and she sounds great. She can apply her voice to rock better than I thought she might. Dan Wilson's sentimental Free Life gets a good reading, and the Gary Louris co-write Come Crying To Me is a good mid-tempo rocker.

Negatives, to varying degrees: Produced by Ben Harper and Natalie Maines. Song selection. Ben Harper and band provide instrumental and vocal backing on all of the tracks.

Why have Ben Harper produce? Or maybe the question is: Why have Ben Harper produce the entire record? She could have used more help, if only to add some diversity to the whole affair. I could think of any number of producers that could have helped. Harper and band do an OK job, but it's a middling rock record at best. You have to put some of that on the producers to a degree, especially when the artist isn't a songwriter.

The song selection is questionable. There's plenty of big arena choruses, and she can sing them, but the sensitive beginnings of those anthems all sound way better in her voice than the big rock that they become. Harper's Trained is a funky duet that is formulaic, and his Take It On Faith that closes the record is overblown. Covers of Pink Floyd and Eddie Vedder sound like she's trying too hard to do everything, but the band and the production make everything sound the same anyway. Marc Olsen and Gary Louris' I'd Run Away is a great song, but to compete with the Jayhawks' original, she sure could use Martie and Emily on the harmonies, as opposed to herself and Harper.

I know I have to accept that it's a rock record and take it as that, without comparing it to the Dixie Chicks output, but that is hard. The Chicks made very very good country music, and the three voices blended so incredibly. They were immaculately produced by first rate producers, and there were very few, if any, really weak songs. Any time anyone judges a new record, the artist's past work can't be entirely neglected.

This is a good rock record, solid and worth hearing, but certainly not a great one. You won't be listening to it years from now, it just isn't that record. The singer has a great voice, though.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Mother Earth Living With The Animals 1968

Besides the roots blues of Tracy Nelson's rare 1964 debut Deep Are The Roots, this would be Tracy's introduction to most listeners. Sharing a splendid blues band with R. P. (Phillips) St. John and his strange blues-based psychedelic tripitude, Nelson nevertheless shines.

The band doesn't hurt. Mark Naftalin (piano), ex of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Toad Andrews (guitar), George Rains (drums), and Bob Arthur (bass) are a solid rhythm section, and St. John's harmonica, a full horn section, three back-up singers, and a guest appearance by Michael Bloomfield supply more than enough good music.

The Tracy Nelson lead vocals are all solid blues and R&B, and she sings everything with her magnificently powerful voice. The record features the original recording of her self-penned classic, Down So Low, and it is a jaw-dropping performance. Memphis Slim's Mother Earth is scorched to the ground by Nelson's voice, as is Allen Toussaint's Cry On. I Did My Part has Tracy firing off some hot dance-floor R&B, and It Won't Be Long follows suit. Great horn arrangements and Naftalin's piano are consistent highlights. Her ambitious Goodnight Nelda Grebe... is a complex arrangement and slightly awkward rhythm, but it delights also.

Then there's the R. P. St. John material, and that is hit-and-miss. Some of the misses are pretty bad. Marvel Group, with its Stan Lee inspired lyrics, is funny and spacey, and his Living With The Animals features harmonica and violin in a odd old-time blues setting that is either richly colored or trite bunk. You'll have to pick, I can't decide. His vocal on My Love Will Never Die is saved by great ensemble playing and nuclear horn charts. There's little redeeming The Kingdom Of Heaven, a major space-out that ends the album on a less-than-stellar note.

But if you're here at all, it is definitely for some of Tracy Nelson's earliest work, and not too surprisingly, it is as good as her best. A mere twenty-four when this was recorded, its hard to believe the depth her voice evokes. But not if you've heard her before. Quite possibly the best blues singer of her generation, but at least one of the better white female blues singers of any generation.

The record is "of its time" most certainly, but they were doing some interesting blues in San Francisco in the sixties. Here it is.

Remarkably the record is widely available in used vinyl and new CD. You also can't go wrong with The Best Of Tracy Nelson/Mother Earth, a fine 1996 CD release, also available as a download, that collects much of Tracy's best work throughout the late sixties and early seventies.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Drive-By Truckers English Oceans 2014

For the first time ever, Mike Cooley splits songwriting duties almost down the middle with Patterson Hood. It may well be their best effort to date. Coincidence? I don't think so.

And it's not like I think Cooley's such a hotdog songwriter, but he definitely rises to the occasion, and holds up his end of the bargain. He has always offered his Stones antidote to Hood's Neil Young, and with more of his songs, there's a very good balance. We also get more consistently strong songs from Hood as well, maybe because the weaker ones weren't needed this time.

Since 2011's Go-Go Boots, the band lost bassist Shonna Tucker, and also guitarist John Neff, and replaced her with new bassist Matt Patton. Longtime drummer Brad Morgan is in fine form, and Jay Gonzalez plays keyboards and sometimes takes up the third guitar role left by Neff. We have a tight little five-piece firing on all cylinders.

And that may be the key. This band has been as sprawling and uneven in its personnel as its big ideas and large statements. It is a glorious mess at its best. But the focus on the two mainstay writers, the tight guitar interplay (sometimes down to just two guitars), and the continuation of the lyrical theme of the seedy underbelly of humanity that has been their hallmark, all make this the most focused Drive-By Truckers release yet.

Cooley's Shit Shots Count opens the record with a Stones-y rocker and a killer lead guitar. Hood follows with his When He's Gone, a Neil Young tribute to the classic love-hate relationship. There's a fair amount of country-rock here as well, more so than recent records anyway. Both Primer Coat and Pauline Hawkins dissect female dysfunction in country rhythms. The Part Of Him's politician bashing and the fast-paced country shuffle of First Air Of Autumn run the same vein.

Natural Light is about as close as Cooley gets to a love song, a countrified swagger with great guitars bouncing off Gonzalez' piano. Gonzalez shines again on Hood's Hanging On, with chiming keyboards over Hood's tale of just getting by.

Finally, there are the anthems. No Drive-by Truckers record can be without them. The country dirge of When Walter Went Crazy works perfectly with Hood's cinematic powerhouse lyric. The final track, Grand Canyon, an ode to their longtime assistant Craig Lieske, is the big rock ballad that perfectly wraps a great record.

Maybe the lack of friction between Hood, Cooley, and a third writer (Tucker, and before that, Jason Isbell) is good for this band. Maybe this is the band they were meant to be, distilled down to its core components. Or maybe we just needed a few more Mike Cooley songs.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

20 Feet From Stardom DVD 2013

This is a fine little documentary of several great background singers, each who contributed wonderful sounds to other artists' recordings.

The singers themselves are interviewed both in archival footage and today. Springsteen, Sting, Mick Jagger, and Stevie Wonder offer the stars' take on, and appreciation of, the background vocalists.

The singers also get to tell their own stories, and most of them are heartwarming and sweet, despite hard times. Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Stevvi Alexander, Claudia Lennear, and Cissy Houston all get their due. Several of them recorded solo projects, usually with less than great commercial success, and several talk frankly about wanting to deliberately stay in the background.

Where I beg to differ with the movie is the inclusion of Darlene Love in too much of the movie's time. Love is indeed a fine singer, and has done her share of background work, but first she was a lead vocalist. Shame indeed that the wacked Phil Spector choose to bill her best work as the Crystals, but hey, this is not the time nor the place. The movie get's sucked into Love's personal crap, and that is too bad.

It's well worth ninety minutes of your time, despite its flaws. There's good music, and some old footage of David Bowie that's fun to see. The women are remarkable singers all, and Lisa Fischer does some stuff with her voice that is hard to believe, even as you see it before your very eyes.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Paul Rodgers The Royal Sessions 2014

Summary: English classic rock voice (Free, Bad Company) goes to Memphis to record a set of sixties soul covers in a famous studio (Royal Studios), home to highly regarded seventies soul label Hi Records, and recording locale for many sixties and seventies soul greats.
Additional details: The band includes musicians that played on the previously mentioned original recordings.

There are four Otis Redding covers. That's just looking for trouble, since no one EVER improves on the Otis Redding version of anything. Except maybe Aretha.

The arrangements are super-tight. This could go up or down in its effect on the overall evaluation.

If you liked that last Boz Scaggs record, this is very similar. Great horn charts. Beautiful backup singers on several tracks. Lovely, warm recording venue with theoretically wonderful vintage equipment (no doubt augmented these days). Rodgers has a nice rough edge to replace Scaggs' smooth croon.

I never really considered Rodgers as a soul singer. There really was no need, he was so splendid at bluesy rock swagger.

His voice has held up quite well. He has lost perhaps a little power (and only a little), but not much range. His tone is the same as his younger self, and that's pretty cool.

Song selection is pretty solid. Not surprisingly, Rodgers does some of his best work on the bluesier numbers like Down Don't Bother Me and Born Under A Bad Sign. I Can't Stand The Rain is a weird choice, but it comes off better than I would have thought. Walk On By gets a 7-minute treatment almost worthy of an Issac Hayes solo record.

A few songs don't work so well. It's Growing and Any Ole Way sound like talented bar band covers, but from the less-energized first set of the night. 

Conclusion: Mostly quite good with only a few weak performances, but still better than the majority of genre cover sets. Most of the time the band sounds like they're into it, and when they're hot, it is very good. Rodgers does better than might be expected in the soul setting, and his voice is still an impressive tool. You probably need to like both Rodgers and old soul music.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Stephane Grappelli Satin Doll 1975

A month or so ago I'm visiting my brother and it's almost dinner time, and I randomly reach into his record collection and pull out this record. I'd never seen it, and my brother barely remembered it being in his collection.

Dinner was fabulous, and we ended up listening to all of this captivating record. It was a great time. After a delightful visit with my brother and sister-in-law, I took the two-LP set home to spend some time with it.

It is an unusual Grapelli record for three reasons. It eschews the usual references to Grappelli and Django Reinhardt's Hot Club of France recordings, and is fully updated to the times (the seventies) within the context of a classic jazz quintet. Also unusual for Grappelli is a record made up entirely of the great American songbook of classics. And the addition of hot jazz organ to the ensemble on at least half the record presents an interesting juxtaposition to Grappelli's sizzling violin.

The band is impeccable. Kenny Clarke drums, Guy Pederson bass, Jimmy Goutley guitar, Marc Hemmeler piano, Eddy Louiss organ. Produced with skill in France by Arnauld Froberville. I don't recognize the names either, except for Clarke, but they laid it down on this one. Grappelli is so relaxed, and yet on fire consistently, it is a marvel. To hear him take on the classic jazz songbook is a treat, and everything gets a joyous treatment. They may have been hard at work, but they sound like they are having a grand time. Everyone shines on their solos as Grappelli generously shares the spotlight. And it swings.

It was a lucky find when I stumbled across it, and I'm the better for it. The record is available in CD and used LP formats for reasonable prices. My brother's almost forty-year-old LP was pristine after I cleaned a few fingerprints off it, and sounds incredible. Grappelli, of course, is widely regarded as the greatest jazz violinist ever, and this one won't change anyone's mind.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Wild Tchoupitoulas 1976

The Wild Tchoupitoulas were a Mardi Gras Indian troupe from uptown New Orleans who participated in the alternative parades on Fat Tuesday. Their leader, Big Chief Jolly George Landy was uncle to the musical Neville brothers (not yet a band under that name) and asked the boys to help the tribe out on a recording of some of their "native" parade songs. The Meters (New Orleans' funky version of Booker T & The MGs) provided the musical setting, and none other than Allen Toussaint produced.

It is a rare one-off that works on so very many levels. But mostly it is grand party music. A blend of swampy New Orleans second line, calypso, and reggae styles keeps focus on the rhythm. If you can sit still, you have Weekend At Bernie's disease. The lead vocals of the elder tribesmen, the tongue-in-cheek hilarity of the Indian battle songs and boasts of the tribe's superiority give the whole event the feel of a true parade atmosphere.

With supportive and complementary musical accompaniment, multiple percussionists, and gang vocal call-and-response all adding to the party vibe, this one cooks. Several future Neville Brothers classics are first heard here, including Brother John and Hey Pocky Way. The highlight for me has always been Meet The Boys On The Battle Front, with that title line followed by "Oh the Wild Tchoupitoulas gonna stomp some rump". The ass they kick will be your own. It's funky as you can be.

Oh, and by the way, girls like this record a lot.

Monday, February 24, 2014

A Day at the Audio Store

I had a special experience last Saturday when I wandered into Paragon Sight and Sound in Ann Arbor. It was early afternoon, and there were no other customers, and the very nice sales staff allowed me to sit and listen to these Wilson Audio Sasha 2, $29,000 speakers. I walked into this lovely listening room, and the young lady asked me if I'd like her to turn it up. They were readying these speakers for their north American debut at a special event later this week. I asked if I could listen to my own music (I just happened to have a CD with some favorites), and she said sure.

But there's so much more. The source was a four-chassis box from dCS that included a CD transport, a DAC, a master clock, and
an upsampler, the four carrying a retail price of right around $108,000. Yeah, I know. Add to that the magnificent and beautiful Dan D'Agostino Momentum preamplifier ($32,000) and twin monoblock power amplifiers ($52,000/pair), and you've got $220,000 worth of stereo. I'm sure there were some crazy expensive cables being used.

What did that sound like?

Maybe right now we have to talk about value, even before the actual sound. I can't buy this stuff, and if I could, heck, I might. But I'd do so with the full understanding that I blew by the point of diminishing returns hundreds of thousands of dollars ago. Did it sound 27 times better than my own system? No way. But it did sound a lot better. I'm pretty sure you could get 98% of this sound for a tenth of the price. But maybe not all of it.

If I had a ridiculous ton of money I still wouldn't buy a Lamborghini or a yacht. Everyone has different priorities. But I might build a special room to listen to some crazy good music system.

And that is exactly what this sounded like. Deep bass, but never overemphasized, and never creeping into that low midrange area that makes Guy Clark sound chesty. Beautiful, searing guitar from Carlos Santana on The Song of the Wind from Caravanseri, but never edgy or too bright. Jane Monheit's Besame Mucho was pure tone perfection. Harry James Big Band's classic Corner Pocket was brassy and in your face, with dynamic range to spare. And The Emerson Quartet's 1st Movement of Hayden's Quartet in G Major was drop-dead stunning. The organ trills near the end of Elvin Bishop's Rock My Soul never sounded more intense, yet somehow relaxed at the same time.
The speakers were unflappable. The difference when you get to the top of the breed is the dynamic range capabilities, and the retrieval of sound you never even knew existed on your recordings. I'd heard Wilson Audio products years ago at an audio show, but this set-up and room were vastly superior, and I wondered how anyone could ask for more from a playback system. I've heard other great systems, and I'd say some of them were this good. But not better in any perceivable way.
No doubt the entire system was working together. The sound from the dCS digital source was so pure, so clean, so specific in its detail retrieval as to be shocking. The D'Agostino gear produced whatever push the music needed to be fully realized by the magnificent speakers, and is some of the most gorgeous stuff known to man. Swiss watch legendary. Clean, unlimited power, effortlessly provided in a nanosecond at whatever level is needed.

Or it just sounded like a blast, and if you heard it, you'd love it. Many thanks to the kind folks at Paragon for letting me experience it.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Tift Merritt Traveling Alone 2013 Kim Richey Thorn In My Heart 2013

Yep Rock Records has quietly entered the audiophile vinyl market 
with these two releases. Honestly I don't know if they've done it before, but both of these records are double LPs pressed at 45 rpm. For those not up to speed in the vinyl department, 45 rpm sounds considerably better than 33 1/3 rpm. Not just a little better. The 45 rpm 12-inch format has previously been reserved for the overpriced audiophile reissue market.

And so it is curious that Yep Rock put these two out with no fanfare. They just call them LPs on their web site, with no mention of their being pressed at 45 rpm. And vinyl isn't coming back. Yeah, right. Yep Rock lists 320 different CD releases on their site, and almost half that many on vinyl. Their artist roster is quite varied, with interesting acts from the 70s, 80s, 90s, and today.

Still I'm boggled by the stealth 45 rpm release. Why not tell the
world. They both sound great. Clean, black backgrounds, and
gloriously rich, organic tones. Both records stand firmly in the adult-contemporary-country-singer-songwriter-alt-Americana camp, whose audience is just the kind of geezer that wants to buy a record that sounds that much better than any old record. But then maybe it would seem too elitist to sell to a younger crowd that might just also like these artists.

Whatever the reasoning, it's an interesting development. I haven't spent enough time with either record to really review them, but I like what I've heard so far. And I can tell you that they both sound fabulous. I know that doesn't mean much if the performance isn't there, and I agree, but these are both interesting artists you should maybe already know about. And if you have a turntable, you might just consider finding out what even better sounds like. Or maybe you should buy a turntable, and one of these records (or an old Quadrophenia album in the used bin).

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Brian Auger's Oblivion Express Closer To It! 1973

Smack dab on top of it is more like it. Driving rhythms powered by drums and congas almost a la Santana, solid bass and rhythm guitar, Auger's smoking hot organ, multitracked vocals; it all adds up to some fine jazz-soul-rock fusion.

Whenever You're Ready kicks things off with hippy vibe lyrics, multiple hot organ solos, and a spooky percussion and moog break. Happiness Is Just Around The Bend follows with spritely pop-jazz featuring Auger on electric piano. Light On The Path is a driving jazz-rock instrumental that cooks.

On Gene McDaniels' Compared To What the funk serves this band well and they jam it out for eight minutes. Auger's vocals work especially well. Marvin Gaye's Inner City Voices is soulful and funky again, and Voices Of Other Times, featuring a spacey vocal and at long last, a lead guitar break, closes out the record.

As jazz-rock fusion goes, it is both smoother and better than most. Auger was always closer to jazz than most rock organ players, and forty years later he's still touring, playing this material live with his most recent incarnation of the Oblivion Express.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Bob Dylan Another Self Portrait 2013

In June 1970, Bob Dylan released Self-Portrait, his tenth studio record, and far and away, his worst record ever (at the time). There have been some contenders to the title since then, including 1973's Dylan, a hobbled together mess released by Columbia after Dylan left the label, and several of Dylan's mid-eighties records that suffered from lousy material and crappy updated eighties glossy sound.

Now, for some unknown reason, the tenth record in Dylan's Bootleg series of lost treasures and live outings is this reevaluation of Self-Portrait. Greil Marcus' review of the original two-record set of mostly covers of old folk, country and pop tunes began with the line "What is this shit?" In a remarkable fit of revisionist history, Marcus himself writes the liner notes to this grab bag of outtakes and alternate versions as though they are manna from heaven, and not the early demos of the worst crap Dylan ever pooped onto the music scene.

Half of this new release is made up of the early, pre-overdubed rough tracks and outtakes from Self Portrait recorded by Dylan, David Bromberg, and Al Kooper. These rough tracks were then sent to Nashville to be overloaded with additional music in an attempt to turn them into something worthy of Dylan's name. It didn't work. The rough tracks here may be marginally interesting, and perhaps "better" than the overdubbed original release, but they are still rough tracks from a terrible record.

The other half is a mix of rough and alternative tracks for New Morning (the quality follow-up to Self Portrait recorded during the same period), a few needless live tracks from the Isle of Wight festival in 1969, and some demos from around the same time.

I've never been a big fan of the extra bonus tracks that show up on CD reissues of older vinyl records. The outtakes, demos, and rough cuts that are meant to reveal the process, or illuminate the intention of the original rarely do much for me. As I've said before, the producer's job is to keep the weak stuff off the release.

And so now we have Another Self Portrait. It is the scraps left over from a completely forgettable record. The trash of trash. Even the most Dylan-obsessed fanatic will regret parting with hard-earned dollars for this one. You've been warned.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Maceo Parker Soul Classics 2011

Maceo Parker does it again. A while back I raved about Maceo's Roots & Grooves, a live recording from 2008 with Germany's WDR Big Band. This time out, Maceo returns to Germany and another live recording with the famed WDR Big Band, this time bringing Christian McBride on bass and Cora Coleman-Dunham on drums along for the ride.

Soul Classics is just that. James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Issac Hates, Aretha Franklin, Larry Graham, and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes all get the Maceo Parker treatment. He's become a compelling singer, and always gets into it, soulful and funky as you wanna be.

His sax playing is melodic and strong, with that soulful tone he's had since his mid-sixties debut with James Brown. The WDR Big Band plays flawlessly, and delivers a big brash sound that suits Maceo. They clearly inspire him to fine work. The arrangements are super-hot, and everyone plays like their souls are at stake if they aren't fully invested in every note. Every single note. Cora Coleman-Dunham's drumming deserves special mention.

A consummate pro that just gets better with age, the sixty-eight-year-old Parker is indefatigable. The recording is clean, the band is tight, the song selection is hot, and Maceo puts his funky stamp on everything.