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.