Monday, December 7, 2015

Zappadan 2015

It's the most wonderful time of the year...

You can almost hear the percussion ringing out...

Happy celebrators singing 'round the fire...

"Did a vehicle
Come from somewhere out there
Just to land in the Andes?
Was it round
And did it have
A motor
Or was it Something Different?"
from Inca Roads, 1975

There's a swell version on YT right here. Happy Zappadan.
Keep your eyes open for miracles. We could always use a few.


Friday, November 13, 2015

Edgar Winter's White Trash Introducing Jerry LaCroix 1971

Strange things go on in the vinyl reissue sector. There are quite a few live outings that have been released on vinyl only (some of questionable quality, others pretty darn good, but basically bootlegs), and loads of reissues of major- and minor- label "classics". There are many audiophile quality (read over-priced) versions of truly great releases (how many versions of Blood On The Tracks do you own?) And there are oddball anomalies. Sometimes you can find reissues of everything except the one great record by a band or performer. And maybe it has more to do with the ease of licensing a given record than the actual quality.

All that said, I was still surprised to see this record receive new reissued vinyl status recently. I didn't think it was all that big when it came out. I always liked a few choice cuts, but never thought of it as a strong record from start to finish. My copy is 45 years old, and it's got a bit more surface noise than ideal, but I'll discuss it because it sounds fine. When I saw that it had been reissued, I went to listen to it again, and discovered it in the primary stacks (some records don't fit in the stereo room), having never been moved to secondary storage, a pretty good sign for a record I bought new 45 years ago.

And the more I listen, the less surprised I am that it got reissued. It's not perfect or anything like that, but it is a special treat in several ways. LaCroix brings a gospel flavor to the recording that shines on Save The Planet and Give It Everything You Got. The band itself is a drums, bass, guitar rhythm section plus Winter's vocals, keyboards and sax and three more singer/horn players (including LaCroix). So you get these great back-up vocal choruses and a four man horn section, whatever you want for the song. The record includes Winter's classic, autobiographical Keep Playin' That Rock "N" Roll, and the soulful ballad Dying To Live. There's blues, gospel, soul, and that unique seventies horn-rock thing that Chicago, Tower of Power, and Ides of March did so well. If there's a down side, the lyrical content quality dips in a few places, and not every song works like the best of them.

That sounds like nit-picking even to me. I'm on my third recent time through it as I write this, and I just keep remembering more and more of what I like about it. It is definitely of more consistent quality than I had remembered. This is not the Edgar Winter of Frankenstein fame, and that's a good thing about it. A rock-hot soul stew drenched in horns. Coming strong out of Texas and Louisiana to a record player near you. Just in time for your holiday shopping.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Bob Dylan Shadows Of The Nght 2015

So here we have Bob Dylan's tribute to Frank Sinatra. It is, on some level, everything the rave reviews say it is. Dylan pays loving homage to a style of music that came before his own. He inhabits the lyrics, caresses them from his lips, with some shockingly good singing. The use of his own touring and recording band works out just fine. The only problem is that it is dull and boring, every arrangement more lifeless than the one before.

Rolling Stone gave it four stars (out of five, not ten).

The Guardian gave it five stars and called it "an unalloyed pleasure".

The Telegraph gave it five stars and called it "extraordinary".

AllMusic gave it four stars.

Washington Square gave it a 9/10 and finished the review with "When Dylan flexes and fires on all cylinders like this, nobody else has a chance."

That last guy couldn't possibly have been listening to the same CD that I was.

Pitchfork gave it a more realistic 6.2/10, and noted quite accurately "Say what you want about Sinatra, but at least the man could swing." Dylan can sometimes swing, too, but there's none of that here. They also said  "Shadows in the Night may pose some compelling questions for the Bobophiles who scrutinize every line and every word of every Dylan song, but for the more casual, less obsessive listener, it can be a bit of a snooze." To which I say Amen.

Dylan sings these songs really very well, with nuance and emotion. He sings as well, or better, than we could have ever expected. These lovely melodies are enhanced regularly by pedal steel guitar that is just perfect for the occasion. But these ballads (every song) move at glacial speed, making the thought of a dirge sound snappy. I get the whole moody thing, but unless it's two am and you're already depressed, I'd skip this one.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

JD McPherson Let The Good Times Roll 2015

The audacity. The record is called Let The Good Times Roll, and there's a title cut, and it is an original JD McPherson composition, not a cover song.

In fact all of the songs are McPherson originals, and all of them draw heavily on 1950s R&B, rockabilly, and rock 'n' roll. The songs are in many ways the champ here, because it takes skill to make music this derivative and still have it sound fresh and new.

Although McPherson's voice is a very strong asset as well. A high tenor that verges on scream on the ravers, it is a fine instrument. He's clearly got conviction behind his musical beliefs, and he never tries to sing like anybody but himself.

And the band, and the arrangements. Simple almost to a fault. Almost. Or this is the distillation of 50s rockabilly down to the most primal, necessary elements, and nothing else. Everything needed to define the genre without further embellishment. Sparse arrangements often dropping down to only three of the five musicians (drums, bass, piano/organ, sax, and McPherson's own primal guitar), the record sounds like a rockabilly version of The Velvet Underground's spare, primal The Velvet Underground from 1969.

The title track is a swinging rocker. Bossy follows with rockabilly a la Dwane Eddy tremolo guitar, and McPherson's near scream. The bluesy R&B of Its All Over But The Shouting is driven by honking sax. McPherson's simple lead guitar works, but here, and in a few other spots, I find myself wondering what this band might sound like with a really hot guitarist. McPherson is talented and very tasteful. Sort of George Harrison as opposed to Jimmy Page.

Bridgebuilder is a weepy 50s-style ballad, and McPherson again sings it to the ground. It Shook Me Up follows, and updates the sound of a classic Little Richard screamer with a twangy lead break and fine vocal. The basic party R&B of Head Over Heels ends side one on a high note, with a brilliant arrangement of very simple parts into a primal, stomping rocker.

Again perfecting the sparsest shell of rockabilly style, Shy Boy rocks. All tremolo guitar and howling chorus, You Must Have Met Little Caroline consoles those lost to the title heartbreaker. Precious is an atmospheric ballad that recalls John Hiatt's best writing, while Mother Of Lies struts a fast walking blues and finally, a guitar break with a touch of wild abandon.

The record closes with a final Little Richard/Buddy Holley rave-up, Everybody's Talking 'Bout The All-American, that like so many of these songs, sounds vaguely familiar, and yet not. McPherson has an uncanny ability to draw from without taking from the 50s forms he so clearly admires.

It is as derivative as it is uniquely new. The guy can sing, and he can write. He's got this great band that plays only what is needed and absolutely nothing more, and it is all part of the plan. If any of this sounds like your cup of tea, you owe it to yourself to hear it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Don Dixon 1985-2013

Don Dixon has given us many audio joys over the years, producing his wife Marti Jones' fine output as well as many others, including REM , Marshall Crenshaw, Tommy Keene, Guadalcanal Diary, and Smithereens. He has produced over 100 recordings by many diverse artists. And he's made a series of records himself.

His debut was 1985's Most Of The Girls Like To Dance But Only Some Of The Boys Like To, a collection of demos and new tunes performed with members of Arrogance, Dixon's band from 1970 to 1983. It includes the college radio "hit" Praying Mantis, Dixon's ode to dangerous love, and one of his great ones. The title cut, Girls L.T.D., as well as Just Rites and Southside Girl show Dixon capturing the teenage zeitgeist with great rhythm, lyrics, and production. Skin Deep is a fine Nick Lowe cover, with a perfect Mitch Easter lead guitar and fine group vocals. Other highlights include an early version of Renaissance Eyes (done just a tad too fast) and Talk To Me, an ideal example of Dixon's syncopated, funky bass lines. Overall one of Dixon's finest.

Romeo At Julliard 1987 is a bit better produced, and Dixon spreads out a bit beyond the power-pop of the debut. It also is the first time that he includes the assistance of Marti Jones on vocals and guitar, percussionist extraordinaire Jim Brock, and one of my favorite guitarists of all time, Jaime Hoover, all of whom will contribute greatly to the quality of Dixon's work for years to come. Highlights include Borrowed Time (Dixon's vocal rasp to good effect), Your Sister Told Me (solid rocker), Heart In A Box (twisted lyric and great arrangement), February Ingenue (smoking Hoover guitar), Cat Out Of The Bag (bluesy rock swagger), and Cool (from Westside Story, done up with a five-piece horn section and another creative arrangement). There's a few weaker ones, but it is another very strong outing.

Then we come to what is Don Dixon's finest, most fully realized solo effort, EEE 1989. A combination of great Dixon songs, well-chosen covers, some big production numbers, and some great rockers, this really is the one. Oh Cheap Chatter is a great song about the hazards of being in love with a girl that thinks you're her best friend. John Hiatt's Love Gets Strange gets a fine reading with lots of percussion and great horns. Dixon's soulful rasp does unusually great work on At The Dark End Of The Street, a perfect fit between song and singer. I Can Hear The River is a gospel choir-assisted rocking ode to water, and Calling Out For Love is another classic from the pens of Dixon and Marshall Crenshaw. Sweet Surrender is a sweet, sad ballad that ends the record featuring Jim Brock's fabulous percussion. Song for song, his finest hour on record.

In 1992, (If) I'm A Ham, Then You're A Sausage was released, a fine best-of collection from the first three with a live version of Renaissance Eyes that betters the original and a one-off from a movie soundtrack. The best of Dixon's rocking era is right here. For the most casual fan, it is the cream of the crop. That said, there is much to like in Don Dixon's work after this, too. But for concentrated rocking fun, it is hard to beat. Close on the heals of Ham came The Chi-Town Budget Show 1993, a live document of Dixon's tour with Marti Jones and The Woods. The show starts with Don and Marti doing a couple of acoustic numbers. They are then joined by The Woods, and we get tight live readings of many of the early fan favorites, including, of course, Praying Mantis. It is mostly a fan's document, but it's fun, the band is hot, and the recording is good.

1995's Romantic Depressive is the beginning of a change in Dixon's music away from the power-pop rockers of the first three records to something of a more folk-rock mode. Dominated by mid-tempo and slower songs, there are great songs here, and the production values are high, but there's a clear shift away from Dixon's rockier side. Saved from slow tempos only by opener Righteous Side Of Love (a big loud rocker), the record features Giving Up The Ghost (a great sad lyric and fine melody), Good Golly Svengali (a slinky instrumental), and 25,000 Days (harmonies, guitar, lyric). Again, there's some fine stuff here, but I can't help but want for more energy. The Invisible Man 2000 takes the lack of energy in Romantic Depressive and multiplies it. It also has a less produced, low-budget feel to it that hasn't been heard before. I don't mean that it has none of Dixon's fine production flourishes, but the acoustic folky songs are prevalent, and there is a dark feel to the mood overall. Do So Well is a fine February Ingenue rewrite, and Tax The Churches is a rocking rant, but after that the energy drains away pretty fast. When I Woke Up and Invisible & Free are good efforts.

Note Pad #38 is a terrific return to form in 2001, but it is also a collection of demos and one-offs Dixon recorded over a period of time (like the debut), so some of this material has been aged. Two versions of (If I Could) Walk Away, and both are great. The rocking version that opens the record is accompanied by Test (a father's advice to his daughter on boy shopping), Wise Up, (slinky rocker with a funky arrangement), Girl With A P.O.V. (great hook in the chorus), and Betty Lou Got A Tattoo Too. Dixon tries his hand on Inside These Arms, and while he can't better the wife's version from Match Game, it plays well as a slow ballad. The definitive live version of Praying Mantis, with horn section and tight playing (Dixon, Jones, Hoover, Brock, Todd Wilhelm), closes out the record.

The Entire Combustible World in One Small Room 2006 is again plagued by the slow acoustic numbers, but most of it is interesting and well written and recorded. In Darkness Found is a catchy number, and Roommate does a pretty good approximation of Most Of The Girls..., while Secret Room returns to EEE territory to good effect. Marti's vocal on Room With A View is excellent. Not a great one, but there are some very real treats. The theme of rooms is an intriging idea, and Dixon holds it up through the whole record.

2008 finds two very different releases from Dixon. The first is Don Dixon and Marti Jones' download-only Lucky Stars. Five instrumentals interspersed with six vocal numbers (five by Marti), all very sweet, acoustic guitar-led folk, it is a fine thing in its way. Subtitled Lullabies For Old Souls, it delivers on that promise. The songs are good, if a bit twee, and the instrumentals allow Dixon to play around with ideas that are, within the context of the record, quite enjoyable. The other 2008 release is The Nu-Look by Don Dixon and the Jump Rabbits (Jaime Hoover and Jim Brock, Dixon's long-time studio and touring band). Most of the songs are well-chosen covers, and the power trio setting makes for some serious rocking. Three Hundred Pounds Of Joy is a great blues with smokin' hot guitar. The Night That Otis Died is a loving tribute to the great Otis Redding. There's a sexy/pretty pop song in Take A Walk With Me. Sputnik and Skinny both just ooze Jaime Hoover's best work with the Spongetones, and are classic power-pop. Amplifier and Six Pack bring more great syncopated, riff-heavy rock and roll. For the last look at Dixon the rocker, this record is perfect. There's a few soft spots, so not literally perfect, but a blast of a rocking record.

Don Dixon Sings The Jeffords Brothers was released in 2010. It is nothing except a great pop-soul record Carolina style. Really a delight. There is plenty of new "old school" soul out there, but this one deserves to be among the first-mentioned. The Jeffords Brothers have a feel for soul music that Dixon massages into gold. From 2006-2013, Dixon produced (and played and sang on) three records by Dip Farrel and the Truetones, all with songs from the Jeffords, and similar quality to this release. Dixon sings a cameo or two, but Dip is the featured vocalist.

2010 also saw Music From Robert Creep & Other Instrumentals, a download only release, and a bit of an odd bird. More of the movie music instrumentals/occasional themes heard on Lucky Stars, but also more developed ideas. And a few that rock. It is interesting to hear, and shows that Dixon can do more and still be, well, interesting. Not to be confused with what most people might expect from Dixon. But when you get over that, it still sounds like Todd Rundgren when his ideas don't coalesce into a whole. And I still like it quite a bit.

2011 brought another Marti Jones and Don Dixon release, Living Stereo. Unlike the previous Lucky Stars, this one is a proper CD release, and for the first time ever, a proper duets record for Don & Marti. It's just a load of fun. Feels Like 1972 gets a big production from Don, That Scorching Song has fantastic harmonies, and Trouble Is As Trouble Does features the amazing Mr. Brock's percussion. It's mostly a folky record, but they do it so well. Hanging My Laundry, Walk Outside, and Why, Why, Why all display special qualities. And then there's Marti's reading of These Arms Of Mine, and she just nails it with beauty and reverence.

Finally there is Dixon's latest, High, Filthy and Borderline 2013. For the most part, folk has replaced rock, even when some of the material could use a kick in the butt. There's still solid songwriting in Torpedo Road, Seraphina, and A Promise On The Sole Of My Shoe, and some rock on My Felon Girlfriend and Love Is All Attitude. It sounds good, but also could have benefited from more production. Some of it sounds just too casual. Too much just acoustic guitar. So not a high water mark, but some strong material mixed with some undercooked tracks.

I've had the great pleasure to see live shows with Dixon and Jones many times, including many nights with Dixon, Jones, Hoover and Brock, and their live show is always a blast. In that the two reside in Canton, Ohio, all of the tours either begin or end with a Cleveland show. If you get a chance to see them live, you'll have an unusually fine time.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Ry Cooder Manuel Galban Mambo Sinuendo 2001

Manuel Galban starred in Buena Vista Social Club 1998, Ry Cooder's movie and recording collaboration with some of the stars of Cuban music's glorious past. I liked Buena Vista Social Club enough, but this 2001 follow-up collaboration is even better. Galban's technique, thick with effects, melodic and sneakily jazz-pop, is unique in all of guitar stylists. He's really like nothing you've ever heard. Lind of like Duane Eddy grew up in Cuba playing in jazz bands. The record is all instrumental except for one song, and the freedom of this small combo allows some of the most beautiful guitar interplay to unfold naturally and gracefully. Cooder is a consummate duet partner, and Galban, well, we're just lucky to have this document of his fascinating approach to the instrument.

Ry Cooder himself probably said it best when he said "Galbán and I felt that there was a sound that had not been explored, a Cuban electric-guitar band that could re-interpret the atmosphere of the 1950s with beauty, agility, and simplicity. We decided on two electrics, two drum sets, congas and bass: a sexteto that could swing like a big band and penetrate the mysteries of the classic tunes. This music is powerful, lyrical, and funny; what more could you ask?"

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

George Benson The Other Side Of Abbey Road 1970

There are plenty of reasons you haven't heard this LP, but that doesn't make it a forgettable record. No, far from it. One reason might be that the record came out within a year of Abbey Road itself, which didn't (initially) give one time to appreciate the new perspective Benson brings to this now-classic material. Another reason was that Benson was not yet the household name he would become in the mid-seventies as an early progenitor of smooth jazz. And I suppose the necessity of a jazz interpretation of the songs from Abbey Road seemed every bit as essential then as it does now. But now we have time, history, and perspective to clarify our insight into this rare jewel.

Side one opens with harpsichord-accompanied string quartet on Golden Slumbers/You Never Give Me Your Money, a recurring motif throughout the record, which encompasses big-band arrangements, small combo jazz, and the aforementioned Baroque jazz, with Benson's mellifluous baritone vocal stylings. Because/Come Together is funk all the way from the Hubert Laws flute to Benson's guitar and the magnificent horns, topped by a a fine sax solo. And all bookended by the string quartet. Oh! Darling wraps side one with Benson singing it to the ground, and then ripping a sweet guitar break. Inspired.

The string quartet/piano/vocal combo opens side two with Here Comes The Sun, and it's fine. Then I Want You (She's So Heavy) becomes a sly, funky, riff-rocker until Benson just shreds blues to close it down. Something returns once more with the string quartet, with fine supplemental guitar and flute. The guitar-led big band of Octopus' Garden may be the set's best surprise, and then The End is played as a fast-paced big band arrangement with fiery percussion and smoking guitar.

The horn charts throughout are glorious. The cast of musicians is top drawer, with Hubert Laws, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Bob James, Ron Carter, and many more. It may all be a bit too much "of it's time", but it still sounds fresh today, especially if you happen to be hearing it for the first time (or the first time in a long while).

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Calexico Edge Of The Sun 2015

Well, Calexico is on a roll. This one continues the development pattern of Algiers, and ups the game even from that fine work, with perhaps a tad more energy, and again with the great songs.

The driving Tex-Mex-Jayhawks of Falling From The Sky kicks it off in fine style. The spooky minor key melody of Bullets and Rocks follows with excellent harmonies. Lost love features in the ballads When Angels Played and Moon Never Rises, and the later includes a fine female vocal duet with Carla Morrison. More of the moody Southwestern thing they do so well is on display on Tapping On The Line, World Undone, and Follow The River. Miles From The Sea has a fine string arrangement and Baroque-pop sound. Their love of Ennio Moricone is fully expressed in the cinematic instrumental Cayoacan. Cumbia de Donde has a Spanish-trance groove that sucks you in, and the uptempo Beneath The City Of Dreams enhances its dark story with super horn charts. The piano-driven country ballad Woodshed Waltz swings its sadness to the title dance beat.

It may be telling that the band listed on the sleeve includes eight members as opposed to just Burns and Convertino. It is their usual convention for just the two of them to be separated from the rest of the players by at least an empty line. Additionally, Sergio Mendoza (multiple instruments, vocals) assists with songwriting and production, and that may have helped to keep things fresh and new. Mostly, though, it sounds like the work of a band, and not just two guys with help. They're touring as a seven-piece, and the early results should make you want to catch the tour when they come your way.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Julia Fordham Porcelain 1989

Besides being an amazing photo shoot of a cover, Julia Fordham's Porcelain is a breathtakingly lovely recording, jam packed with great songs. I was looking for something I hadn't heard in a while, and stumbled upon this sumptuous record. Fordham writes these lovelorn melodies and sings these intimate lyrics with her crystalline voice. They are near perfect sophisticated pop-rock gems. The songs and arraignments are splendid, really.  

Her early records into the nineties all contained a few great songs each. And the rest of the material was hardly slouch, but Porcelain holds up pretty much in it's entirety. So does The Julia Fordham Collection 1998, an unassailable best-of disc with the cream of the crop of her first five releases.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Fleetwood Mac 1970-1974

From 1966 to 1969, Fleetwood Mac was a blues-based rock band headed by Peter Green on guitar and vocals with Jeremy Spencer, also guitar and vocals, Mick Fleetwood's drums and John McVie on bass. Danny Kirwin's guitar and vocals were added to the line-up for their third LP Then Play On in 1968. Green left the group he founded in 1969. Between Green's departure and the 1975 arrival of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac went through multiple line-up changes, with different personnel on all but two of the six records they released during this middle period.

Kiln House 1970 was recorded by Kirwin, Spencer, Fleetwood and McVie, with an uncredited Christine Perfect/McVie on keyboards and vocals. Jeremy Spencer left after Kiln House, to be replaced by American Bob Welsh, and Christine McVie became an official member. Future Games 1971 introduced Welsh's spacey, mystical rock songs, and also premiered Christine McVie's romantic balladry, which would become a stable for the band, with Show Me A Smile. The record garnered Fleetwood Mac a fair amount of FM radio play in America, even while the English reaction to their new distance from the blues was not well received .

The same line-up completed Bare Trees 1972, and again the record was neglected in the UK, and made it's way into the top 100 in the US. Strong songs from all three writers (Welsh, Kirwin, McVie) help fortify the record. Future Games and Bare Trees both benefit from the guitar interplay between Kirwin and Welsh, some fine jamming and riffing going on.

1973 saw two relatively unfocused releases from the band in a period of transition. Kirwin was dismissed during the tour in support of Bare Trees, and for Penguin, Bob Weston on guitar and Dave Walker (ex Savoy Brown vocalist) were added to the line-up. Penquin is probably their weakest outing since the band's inception, and is only saved by two of Christine McVie's better love songs, Remember Me and Dissatisfied. After Dave Walker left, the remaining five made Mystery To Me, and it's another weaker one, but not without redeeming moments in Welsh's Somebody and Hypnotized (which got considerable FM radio play) and McVie's Believe Me.

Heroes Are Hard To Find 1974 was made by the quartet of Welsh, McVie, Fleetwood and McVie, and was their first record to break into the top 40 Billboard album charts. The album holds up pretty well even today, and is clearly the precursor to the so-cal rock lite classics that are right around the corner. Welsh and McVie each contribute strong material, and a successful tour helped sell the record more than any before it. The title track and Welsh's Silver Heels are standouts, as is Come A Little Bit Closer by Christine McVie.

We all know what happened next. Welsh quit, and very shortly after, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks were added to the line-up. That band made two classic rock FM radio staples, Fleetwood Mac 1975 and Rumours 1977. The five are back together and touring again in 2015. Other than those classics from 1975 and 1977, their recorded output has been a mixed bag, with Buckingham, McVie, and Nicks each out of the picture at various times. In fact, these records from 1970-1974, especially Kiln House, Future Games, Bare Trees, and Heroes Are Hard To Find, are in my view much more interesting than any of their post 1977 output.

Monday, April 27, 2015

12 Best

I just stumbled on a document I wrote in 2007. I believe I wrote it in response to a challenge put forth by one of the magazines I was reading to name the 12 best records to encapsulate American music. I went with a contemporary approach.

Marti Jones Live At Spirit Square
Maybe the single best live pop record ever. Great songs, great band, great recording. Marti’s lovely alto, producer-husband Don Dixon on bass and songwriting. Jaime Hoover proves himself to be one of the most remarkably skilled guitarists ever.

Spirit The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus 
A wonderful summation of the west coast psychedelic sound, with Beatles woven throughout.

Swan Dive Swan Dive
What do you get when you combine the pop of Bacharach, the girl group sound of the sixties, and contemporary production values? 

NRBQ  At Yankee Stadium
The single best studio recording from America’s answer to whatever question you had in mind, and the most fun you’ll ever have seeing a live band.

Santana Caravanseri
Latin, jazz-rock fusion, southern California style. All of the first four are classics, but no one else ever made a record quite like this one.

Cassandra Wilson Blue Light ‘Til Dawn
The bayou, native influences, the blues, jazz, and the sultry tones of one of today’s finest voices in jazz, even if she’s not the flavor of the month right now.

Jackson Browne Jackson Browne (Saturate Before Using)
There are lots of good examples of the perfect singer-songwriter record. This one’s mine.

James Brown Star Time
Ok, it’s four CDs, but it’s also the only perfect James Brown purchase available. Absolutely essential all the way through, and (almost) everything you need. Also stands out as the best single-artist four CD set ever, by a pretty fair margin.

Marcia Ball, Erma Thomas, Tracy Nelson Sing It
What can I say about this record? A little blues, a little soul, a little R&B, and a rollicking party tune or two. Three great women more people should have heard a long time ago.

The Neville Brothers Neville-ization
Never able to capture it all in the studio, these two nights at Tipitina’s are what the Neville Brothers are all about. Smokin’ hot band at the top of their form for the hometown crowd.

Frank Sinatra Classic Sinatra
Ah, Sinatra’s thirties during our perfect 1950s. Lots of hits, nicely mastered to CD. Sinatra is in peak form, still with the power of a young man, but having learned just exactly how much of it to use at any one time.

Bill Frisell Good Dog, Happy Man
What can you say about country-bluegrass-jazz fusion? Lots of things of course, but for sure it’s American.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Little Richard Here's Little Richard 1957

The search for the holy grail of the Birth of Rock and Roll will take you to early sides by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Going further back pulls in The 5 Royals, Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, and a host of others. But no one should give you any grief for including Little Richard's Tutti Frutti in the mix. And many other tracks from this fine debut long player from Little Richard, including True Fine Mama, Ready Teddy, Long Tall Sally, Rip It Up, and She's Got It.

Little Richard Penniman recorded a few sides in 1952 and 1953, but the bulk of his rock and roll fame was produced for Specialty records from 1955-1957. And everything he recorded for Specialty was released as singles. This collection of A and B sides recorded in 55 and 56, and released while Richard was still recording for the company, is as good as early rock and roll gets, and Richard is completely on fire. Known for his wild performances, you get the idea loud and clear on these studio tracks. Specialty released two other LPs, both after Pennimen left the company, and the rest of his early hits are included on those LPs, Little Richard 1958 and The Fabulous Little Richard 1959.

There's many CD compilations for Little Richard, but the Specialty recordings are really the crux of the matter. So much so that he re-recorded much of this material at least twice later in his career (those recordings are bested by the originals, even if they offer improved- and stereo- sound). Little Richard had a long and strange career, bouncing back and forth between gospel and rock and roll, with one comeback after another, but it was always his seminal fifties sides that made him awe-inspiring. This one (or a compilation of his Specialty hits) and his outstanding 1970 comeback, The Rill Thing, are some of his finest moments.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Sound of Music, The Sound of Sound

Audiophiles are regularly accused these days of being overly obsessed with the gear, and less interested in the music. I like to think I stay mostly focused on the music, but I do love cool looking boxes. I do worry sometimes that the idea of just sitting and listening to music, and not doing anything else, is foreign to most people these days. But then I'm never alone when I visit the orchestra and hear live music for almost two hours, and we mostly sit still.

There has long been an argument among those as interested in arguing as they are in music, about what a music playback system is supposed to do in your home. One raison d'etre of a home music system is to bring the experience of live music into the home (this may well be the unachievable goal). Another is to be faithful to the sound of the original recording (wherever that may have happened). Another is to duplicate the movie theater experience. And yes, for some, it's to provide pleasant background music.

Art Dudley, whose writing I like at least as much as Carl Hiaasen's or Kurt Vonnegut's, wrote another great Listening column in Stereophile in February, and while it gets pretty seriously technical, it also gets to the core of the tube/solid state debate in a clearly biased (it's not always a bad thing), yet still scientific way. Dudley discusses the various types of distortion present in music systems, and how the ones made by simple tube amplifiers are, to him, the least objectionable, and in some ways, may even enhance the listening experience. And Dudley answers the question of what a stereo should do, with elegance and élan. I don't care so much for all the technicalities, but the end result that tube electronics sound better than solid state certainly resonates with me.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not dissing anyone's solid state electronics. Taste is taste. I also believe that when you get to the very expensive stuff, the tubes vs. solid state debate becomes moot, and there are remarkable products that anyone could enjoy in both categories. But in the lower- and mid-level products, there are very real differences, and more watts is not always the answer.

Of course it all has a lot to do with what you want from you music delivery system, and all the other priorities in your life as well. My answer to what your stereo should do is whatever you want it to, and make you happy. It is, after all, a product. As Paul Butterfield once sang, "Take your pleasure where you find it."

OK I'm done.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Bill Evans The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings 1961, 2014

Why (or why not) do you need (or want) this four-record vinyl set?

The four records here include everything that was recorded (and survives) on that fateful day in 1961 when Evans and company played four sets, and it all got recorded. These recordings went on to become two classic jazz albums that have never been out of print since their 1961 release (!), Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debbie. The recording represents for many the pinnacle of Evans' work, even though he enjoyed popularity and success until his death in 1980. Evans is most famous for developing and expanding the language of the piano trio, and this trio, with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums, is credited with redefining that language forever. Add to the facts that LaFaro died in a car crash shortly after this recording, and you get a slice of history that cannot be repeated.

Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debbie are both available in excellent reissued vinyl versions, so this set either needs to be better sounding than those records or offer something unique in the tracks that haven't appeared on vinyl previously. All of the tracks here were released in 1991 on the 12 CD set The Complete Riverside Recordings except for the incomplete first take of Gloria's Step, but that means buying 12 CDs of material that many Evans fans own much of already. You can also get all of this material on a 3 CD set with the same name from 2005. And you can also buy the CD reissues with bonus tracks of the two aforementioned releases, and get all but two of the tracks here. But this is the only way to get the whole enchilada on vinyl.

The original two-track tapes required some editing that could not be done without damaging the tapes. So when the 2005 CD version was produced, the music was transferred to digital for editing, and these vinyl pressings are made from those digital files. Surprisingly, in 2005 the tapes were digitized at 44 kHz (standard CD resolution) instead of a higher sampling rate, and it certainly begs the question of how much better this music could have sounded if digitized in a higher quality transfer. All that said, the vinyl here sounds very good. The pressing quality is exceptional, with less surface noise than I may have ever heard on any vinyl. Ever. If there is a small amount of digital hash/edge to the piano, you're going to have to turn it up very loud to hear it. And here's the kicker- digital transfer aside, this version is closer to those original two-track tapes than any of the reissued vinyl versions out there, which were sourced from mixed down masters that could only be second generation copies at best. And what this means is that Scott LaFaro's bass sounds better than it ever has on vinyl in the past. If you know these recordings, the bass has always been well presented, so the improvement isn't night and day, but it seems quite real to my ears. And the interplay between Evans and LaFaro is essentially what has made this one of the great moments in Evans' career, and in all of jazz history, for many an aficionado.

Add to that the alternate takes and never-released tracks available on vinyl for the first time, and you have something very special indeed. Do you need this if you already own Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debbie? I can't tell you. For me, having more from this trio in my collection is well worth it. The additional music is in many ways the equal of the tracks released on those two fine original releases, but I doubt I would have purchased it myself (I received the box as a birthday gift). Having now heard it though, I would certainly have purchased it for myself. Especially because of the particularly excellent pressing job and overall sound quality.

The box comes with a decent book, and a nice poster-type thing. The packaging and presentation is fine, although it's not the reason to buy. You have to want this music, and you have to want it on vinyl, because you can get it all on the CD version for less.

You probably don't have a friend as good as the friend that gave it to me. If after reading this, you wish you had a friend like mine, but you know you don't have that kind of friend, you'll just have to buy it for yourself.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Heather Myles

Maybe you're like me, and today's country music leaves you confused and unhappy.

Maybe you like country music, but it isn't what you hear when you hear Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, or Sugarland.

Maybe you'd like to hear one contemporary country artist that respected the legacy of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, and the honky-tonk, Bakersfield sound.

Look no farther than Heather Myles, who would be a huge star if country music radio still played country music, without the pop and eighties-rock influences that have morphed country into the slick product it has become today.

Myles got started in the early nineties with Just Like Old Times 1992 and Untamed 1995 on High Tone Records. You can hear her talent, but both records are a little underproduced, and her songs are not quite as perfect as they will become. The two records' best material was reissued on Rum & Rodeo in 2005.

Starting in 1998, Myles has produced three fine country records. Highways And Honky Tonks 1998, Sweet Talk And Good Lies 2002, and In The Wind 2011 are all non-stop gold. Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, and Willie Nelson have all made guest appearances, in case she needed any additional credibility. She writes almost all the songs, and they are consistently great, with traditional country values (lovin', drinkin', cheatin') and solid, catchy country choruses. There are no strings and no synthesizers, just good old honky-tonkin' country music. And she has a fabulous, strong voice with just enough twang to feel the heartache, and just enough power to know she ain't fooling around.
Highways And Honky Tonks might be the best place to start. It might have the best collection of songs, but you can't go wrong with any of the three of them. Treat yourself to the real deal.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Bette Midler It's The Girls! 2014

Bette Midler is a fine vocal talent that has been wasted on middling material and just plain wrong production for much of her career. That hasn't stopped her from winning Grammy's and having big hit singles, but it has made much of her material come off as product, and pretty standard product at that. Of course, things got started in fine style with her stellar 1972 debut, The Divine Miss M. But the soundtrack work, and much of Arif Marden's later productions left me wanting. I came to think of her as an actor (and a darn good one) as much as a singer. Then there was that last Carson show when she serenaded him with One For The Road. I mean, you almost have to love her even if her recordings seemed so, I don't know, schlocky.

What made The Divine Miss M so great were the songs, many of which would fit right in with this new recording. There were girl group sounds all over Miss M, with Chapel Of Love and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. And there wasn't any padding on the record.

Well, I'll save you any suspense and just tell you that Bette Midler has finally made The Divine Miss M Part 2. It is a delight to hear Midler tackle these fabulous, and mostly true to the original, girl group classics. The song selection is spot on, with plenty of obvious choices, but also some rarities. When the songs get new arrangements, they're really great choices, like the slow, heartfelt version of Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow. Heartfelt is a good choice of words, really, because Midler sounds more invested in this material than she ever has sounded. Wow.

Be My Baby, One Fine Day, Tell Him, Baby It's You, He's Sure The Boy I Love, You Can't Hurry Love, all done just different enough from their sixties originals to sound fresh. The tracks from the forties "original" girl groups are particularly fine, with The DeCastro Sister's close harmony version of Teach Me Tonight just breathtakingly beautiful.

I didn't really care much if there was ever going to be another great Bette Midler recording, and I certainly didn't expect it. What a lovely surprise!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Grapes Of Wrath These Days 1991

A fairly successful eighties folk-rock band from Canada, The Grapes Of Wrath presented a somewhat harder rock sound on These Days than they had previously displayed. While critics and fans may have been less than thrilled with the direction change, the two singles still charted higher than any of their previous efforts.

And today, the CD comes off like some lost classic jangle-pop gem. The two singles, I Am Here and You May Be Right are both timeless mid-tempo rockers packed with melody, great hooks, fine vocals, and hot guitar.

And the whole thing holds up surprisingly well. The songs are strong, the lyrics worthy, and the band is talented. It turned out to be their swan song after an EP and three other CDs throughout the eighties. I think they went out on a high note.

Most of the band continued to play through the nineties as Ginger, and they reformed for new releases in 2000 (Field Trip) and again in 2013 (the solid High Road). But their strongest moment may have been These Days. It was a nice change of pace in 1991, and a delightful treat today.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The battle with loudness at live performances

There's some fairly recent science that supports what many of us have believed for a long time, that is, that Most Rock 'N' Roll Bands Play Too Loud.

Especially the bass and bass drum, which almost always seem too loud in the mix compared to everything else. And it seems to get worse as the night progresses.

This could be due to an already deaf sound guy.

It could also be quite purposeful, to make sure your chest rattles with the beat. That way you know it's really rock 'n' roll.

And the "get louder as the set progresses" deal could also be individual band members slowly creeping their volumes up until it's all just too much.

Or it could be alcohol. Follow that link to read an interesting article (and comments) supported by this research.