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.