Saturday, October 1, 2011

What's New?: 10.1.2011

Cat Stevens — Foreigner (1973)

Filling up holes in the old Cat Stevens collection. Like all of his previous albums, this one's good, but not quite as good as the one that came before it. Still love the big budget folk rock production and his undeniably passionate performances throughout. The whole of side one is taken up by the now infamous 'Foreigner Suite' which features four regular old Cat Stevens songs (good ones, too) that are segued by doodly little instrumental half-songs. I love that sort of unnecessarily ambitious crap. The final song has the (now hilarious) little Joe Satriani/Coldplay bit — not an album highlight, but worth a mention for comedy's sake. Side two of the album just carries along in the same manner but it just doesn't sound as interesting without the willfully artsy aspect that side one has. The album closing song '100 I Dream' has got to be one of the single most uplifting songs ever. Take one look at some random lyrics: "Pick up the pieces you see before you, don't let your weaknesses destroy you." A sparse folk rock backing that mirrors his earlier triumphs and a multi-tracked harmony vocal and the deal is sealed. Good stuff.

Dave Brubeck — We're All Together Again for the First Time (1972)

The title is presumably a reference to Dave, Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan. It is absolutely top tier post-bop from a time when the stuff was frowned upon and in short supply. I don't know what it is, but Paul Desmond just sounds on fire throughout. Gerry Mulligan's composition 'Unfinished Woman' is a soul jazz rave-up — gosh dang, it's good. The Desmond feature on 'Koto Song' is hauntingly beautiful. Rhythm section of Jack Six on bass and Alan Dawson on drums is completely sympathetic to the dynamite frontline they're backing. There's even a super long rendition of 'Take Five' and Dave finishes the live set (recorded at two different dates in late 1972) with a solo reading of 'Sweet Georgia Brown' — completely appropriate, seeing as how it's very obvious that everyone involved was having a blast. Solid stuff. I need to explore Brubeck properly.

Cal Tjader — Several Shades of Jade (1963)

Really sweet find at a thrift store on this one. I did have this album, years back, on this two-fer CD. Overall, it looks a lot more gimmicky from the outside than it actually is. Because, for the most part, it's just Cal Tjader's group playing what they played, but with augmentation from a tastefully Lalo Schifrin-arranged orchestra. I actually didn't remember much of this album from previously, and that's surprising. Because it's actually really worthwhile. I mean, something like 'Song of the Yellow River' is just about as ahead of its time as something might get. Overall, this is probably one of the Cal Tjader albums most folks might guess is pure cheese — but after properly reassessing, I'd say it's among his best.

Prince — Prince (1979)

Sure, not his most enduring material, but there's a charm to the two early Prince albums. It's a brand of semi-disco R&B/funk that just doesn't really sound like anybody else. Because, while Lakeside and Slave were conceiving songs entirely in the studio, Prince was still writing in his bedroom. Hence, you get introspective seven minute things like 'I Wanna Be Your Lover.' It doesn't have the standouts that his first album had, but it does hang together a little better overall as an album. It has a very dated late-70's vibe to it that I must confess I like. A time when recording studios were a church of sorts and even a lesser Prince work like this one was still treated like a goldmine. Dah well, the record's good, but far from his best.

The Band — Music from Big Pink (1968)

The (other) album that the Basement Tapes begat. There's just something about this album that you feel. I can't really articulate it — but this is powerful music. I think it was George Starostin that said (or at least, he was the first person who proposed the idea as I knew it) that nobody really knows what these guys are talking about, but they are talking about some serious shit. And that comes through in this music. It's an epic collision of old meets new. Old timey ideals and ethics meet a newly discovered rocker interest in folk music and you get music that proposes something completely timeless — rare for rock music. I know it's the hit and the song that everybody knows, but I can still remember the first time I heard 'The Weight.' It is a godlike moment in music and one of my favorite songs of all time. Levon Helm's vocal performance is just about as good as it gets in my book. With my interest in Fleet Foxes reaching its most fervent phase, it's nice to go back and hear the roots. Jesus, this album is good. Makes me feel warmer just thinking about it.

The Zincs — Moth and Marriage (2001)

The Zincs' debut album is a sparser presentation of what they would become. For the most part, it's a dual jangly strummy guitar arrangement of esoteric pop songs. This one is a bit more acoustic-based than the albums that would follow, but despite the sparse presentation, the songs are just as good. There really aren't any standouts —besides Jim Elkington's bizarre lyrics— and that plays to the album's advantage, because it demands a full listen every single time. I guess this ultimately plays up Elkington's slant towards British folk rock because it does have the feeling about it that it's about the greater statement than its individual parts. Hard for a guy like me to dislike such willfully tuneful and strummy music.

Cocteau Twins — Four-Calendar Café (1993)

It sounds absolutely fine now, but I can only imagine how disappointing this must have been coming after Heaven or Las Vegas. In retrospect, it can be looked at as a very cliched stock Cocteaus sound. That sounds great these days because the band has been defunct for so long, but at the time, it must have bruised a few longtime fans' hearts. Still, Cocteaus doing "Cocteaus" is better than nothing. This album is notoriously subdued and lowkey in its production, but that actually plays to the success of mellower songs like 'Oil of Angels', 'My Truth' and the especially vintage-sounding number 'Essence.' Overall, not their best, but still a darn fine album.

Cocteau Twins — Head Over Heels/Sunburst and Snowblind (1983)

And straight back into the classics and my Cocteaus collection is complete. You can't fault albums like this. Sure, the band did better songs, but does this not hang together like a total masterpiece? 'Sugar Hiccup' is one of Robin Guthrie's most inspired moments, while 'Musette and Drums' creates the sort of building quality that most bands can only dream of. Yeesh, I mean, sure they were totally onto something new here —and would arguably repeat themselves for the rest of the 80's— but who cares when they were doing it this well? When you're in the zone, you want to stay there. And this is where theirs started.

Mojave 3 — Spoon & Rafter (2003)

After digesting —and really liking— Ask Me Tomorrow, I decided one was not enough, so I found this album used. I purposely went for this one because the first song is 'Bluebird of Happiness'. It's the only Mojave 3 song I've heard that's as good as —or, indeed, better than— Slowdive. A nine minute epic that channels Neil Young via-shoegaze, it's one of Neil Halstead's best songs ever. I just wish all of Mojave 3 was as good. The rest of the album does follow suit, in a matter of speaking. There are some twangy little ditties that toe the line between sleepy country rock and dreamy folk, but none of them have that insanely realized balance of emotion, intensity and restraint that that first track has (as the only sane person in the room asks, "What does?"). It's a lovely little album after the initial shock up front. But, I have to admit, without that first track, I would have scored the album significantly lower.


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