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.