Saturday, February 25, 2012

What's New?: 2.25.2012 Part Two

Let the birthday record bonanza end!
Jim Hall — Commitment (1976)

Really strong stuff from Jim Hall's Horizon years.  I've been on the lookout for this album on the Horizon label for quite a while (the other one was reissued on CD and it's great; add to that that I'm a fan of the label anyway, there you go).  Really kind of a mixed bag, as you get straight post-bop stuff ('Walk Softly'), next to vocal numbers ('When I Fall in Love'), next to ambitious feature length productions that mirror his CTI efforts ('Lament for a Fallen Matador') and a straight acoustic Brazil-inspired number (the totally great 'Bermuda Bye Bye').  Kind of scattershot, sure.  But not a bad song in the bunch.

Modern Jazz Quartet — Blues on Bach (1973)

Alternating between themes inspired by Bach and the blues, this album has 'uncohesive' practically written on its cover.  What's here is great, but the sequencing is totally flawed.  I would have loved to hear the bluesier stuff on one side and the more third stream on the other.  'Blues in A Minor' and 'Blues in C Minor' are both eerie, long building numbers that find John Lewis soloing at his harmonic best, while 'Blues in (H) B' is the band at its easy swinging best.  Not one of their essential albums, but great if you're a fan.

Michael Hedges — Aerial Boundaries (1984)

If you hadn't guessed, I'm just really into acoustic music these days, and more specifically, acoustic guitar (mostly in an effort to familiarize myself with the greats and to inspire my own playing).  Because most of the acknowledged virtuosi of the instrument are considered folkies, I've explored that avenue quite a bit.  Besides Vini Reilly, I've not really ventured into the realms of more contemporary sounds.  So, being that he's commonly sighted as one of the best ever, I decided it was finally time.  I don't know why I let the "new age" tag scare me off for so long (I mean, Jon Hassell gets categorized there sometimes and he has no business in that section), but I did.  Oh well, no one's perfect.  Two minutes into the title track and I was sold.  It's tuneful, relaxing and melodic, but simultaneously, a display of technicality that's on par with the best.  The cover of 'After the Gold Rush' is a crowd pleaser for me, while the slow developing 'Ménage á Trois' doesn't sound all that dissimilar to David Sylvian's ambient work from around the time.  Very reminiscent of several things I already like quite a bit.  So, yeah, very pleasantly surprised.

Sahib Shihab — Summer Dawn (1963)

A long overdue CD reissue from the good folks over at the Schema boutique label Rearward (out of Italy; always doing good work).  The sextet on this album is actually a slice of the Clarke Boland Big Band (of which Sahib was a member) and it was recorded in Germany in the band's home environment by longtime producer Gigi Campi, so it's no surprise that the chemistry and vibe on this album are exceptional.  The core quintet of Sahib (on alto, baritone and flute), Ake Pearson (trombone), Francy Boland (piano), Jimmy Woode (bass) and Kenny Clarke (drums) is augmented by percussionist Joe Harris, who uses bongos and other hand percussions to color the songs with many wonderful shades and just generally give the album an unusual tone.  All five tunes are Sahib originals and while I knew all of them in differing versions, the performances here have more of a sense of unity.  'Please Don't Leave Me' is rendered in a very swingin', drawn out, light manner, while more conceptual material like 'Campi's Idea' just blows past most anybody else on the scene at the time.  This expatriate jazz has long been a sub-scene that's a bit hard to get into because the American labels seemed offended that American musicians on foreign soil didn't really care whether they recorded them or not (they generally had an easy enough time finding work without worrying about recording).  It's thanks to labels like Rearward that stuff like this is finally seeing a revival.  Sahib has long been one of my favorites and this album is one of his rarest on original vinyl, so it's nice that it's somewhat easier to come by.  It's certainly deserving.  Really wonderful, forward-thinking, but melodic stuff.

Judee Sill — Abracadabra: The Asylum Years (1971/1973)

This two disc compilation collects up Judee's only two albums (the self-titled and Heart Food).  I had the self-titled album years ago (that I purchased in the Tower Records liquidation sale on a whim), but I never really gave it a proper chance, as I just wasn't really in tune to this style of music, so I can honestly say I didn't remember anything about it.  The sound of this music fits right into the pleasant California soft rock that dominated its peers on the Asylum label on the surface.  But if you dig a little deeper and pay closer attention, you get two albums worth of baroque folk rock, with slight country leanings and a singer obsessed with multi-tracking her own harmonies and slipping in allusions to the bible and the struggle to make any sort of emotional connection in life.  The first album is fine and contains many great songs ('Crayon Angels' and the Graham Nash-produced 'Jesus Was a Crossmaker' are standouts) and the bonus material is fleshed out by a live performance that's nice, but inconsequential.  The real gem here is on disc two, which contains the entirety of the Heart Food album, plus a slew of bonus tracks that amount to almost an entire alternate version of the album.  It's an immaculately produced album in its original version, with many big orchestrations, multi-tracked vocals and just flat out remarkable arrangements (all handled by Judee; displaying the full range of her talents), so it's nice to know that something like 'The Donor' is just as chilling when it's performed solo.  But that initial version (obviously pretty influential) as the proper album closer is just bleak and beautiful and epic all at the same time.  And, you know, it should be pointed out that while the self-titled album had a few brief droopy moments, Heart Food at times sounds pleasant, but the ideas and words behind all the songs are just perpetually down.  This doesn't make for especially light listening, but it is somehow life-affirming to hear someone so obviously believing in the healing power of music.  And the songs are all incredibly written and executed (those layers of her voice just get me; they sound like they're coming from another solar system at certain points).  It is a shame she never made another proper album, and that she essentially faded into obscurity and died way too young, but Heart Food would've been a hard act to follow — however, it's an enduring classic piece of work in its own right.  Very timeless and rich music.  Easy to get lost in such clearly heartfelt material.

And again, a shout to Grassroots, without which, a portion of these finds would not have been possible.


What's New?: 2.25.2012 Part One

Let the birthday record bonanza continue to continue!  Yes, more finds from last week's haul at Grassroots' 25 cent vinyl sale.
Alice Coltrane — Eternity (1976)

I think Alice Coltrane's discography is actually pretty underrated.  She's abhorred by folks who blame her for turning John's later albums into a "mess" (you will acknowledge the quotes there, please).  But, she's also celebrated by the folks who were able to look past her connection, the faux "mysticism" and judge her own music as its own entity.  I am one of the latter.  And, like most of us, I'm continually impressed by her impeccable sense of melody amidst seeming chaos.  This album (her last for a major label for nearly thirty years) showcases her more accessible side.  But it is a bit uneven, as this is a case of ambition exceeding execution (how can any album with a rendition of Stravinsky and an eleven minute salsa workout really be cohesive, honestly?).  It's all over the place, as it finds Alice doing the extended small combo funk workouts  ('Los Caballos'), fully orchestrated pieces ('Spiritual Eternity' and a selection from 'Rites of Spring') or her trademark introspective-tinged quasi-religious chant jams (the downright incredible 'Om Supreme').  But still, I really love when she just plays harp unaccompanied on 'Wisdom Eye.'  Just has that really warm feeling to it.  Overall, yeah, she has better albums, but I'm definitely happy to finally have this one in my collection.  And, mixed bag or no, I highly recommend it to Alice fans.

America — View From the Ground (1982)

Yeah, this one isn't too good.  It mostly gets the score it does because of the song 'Never Be Lonely.'  That's a darn fine little jangly, vintage America number.  The rest of the album, though.  Yikes.  Otherwise, you're treated to the purely cheesy "delights" like the hit single 'You Can Do Magic.'  Their best work was behind them at this point.  Oh, dear.

Cal Tjader — Plays the Contemporary Music of Mexico and Brazil (1962)

Reacquisition.  I had this one on CD years ago (along with most of the Tjader catalogue), but ditched it in favor of who knows what.  Slowly getting all this Tjader stuff back, as I find it.  This one was secretly one of my favorites.  It's a little early to be among his sample and breakbeat favorites, but it's just outside of his Fantasy years, so there's a bit of that "looking out and beyond"-edness at play that makes for a really wonderful affair that isn't quite technical enough to be considered among the jazz elite of the time, but is also too sophisticated to be assigned into the easy listening bin, either.  There's slightly Latin overtones to the music (like with most of Cal's 60's output) and a really tuneful aspect going on that is just downright likable.  Have a listen to the multi-movement closer 'Chôro e Batuque' (featuring the great Laurindo Almeida on guitar) and dig it.

Tom Rush — Wrong End of the Rainbow (1970)

Another good one from Tom's Columbia years.  The title track is definitely a nice one, featuring one of the most underrated breaks and redemptive key changes I can recall.  'Merrimack County' showcases the great melding of Tom's folky past with the more MOR stance of this era.  'Riding on a Railroad' is an updated train song that possesses a great building quality that the best songs from this string of Tom's albums have.  Overproduced, maybe, but it always works in the best interest of the songs.  'Starlight' is the highlight here, as it exemplifies how Tom was able to achieve this incredible soulfulness during these years.  Really strong stuff and to have it end with the gospel-tinged 'Gnostic Serenade' is just completely appropriate.  More excellent work from a guy that just seemed unable to fail at this point.

More coming.


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What's New?: 2.22.2012

Let the birthday record bonanza continue!

Cowboy Junkies — The Trinity Session (1988)

I guess if you're only going to own one Cowboy Junkies album, this is the one to get.  From the very start, 'Misguided Angel' comes in and it melds together so many easily audible influences so seamlessly that it's difficult to say just how unique this must have sounded in the late 80's.  Just have a look at this Tonight Show performance.  Does that seem like 1989 to you?  Me either.  And yet, there they were.  That's obviously their cover of the Velvet Underground's 'Sweet Jane' but elsewhere, we get an Elvis song and then a serious revision of Patsy Cline shows up at the very end.  And, at that point, you know, it's like, where did these people come from?  There were others onto the same sort of dark undertone in the world of twangy music, but the synthesis achieved here was unmatched at that point.  It's always fun when a band comes out and you can pinpoint all of their influences within seconds, but no other contemporary band sounds anything like them.  Wish I would've been aware at the time, because I would've been a huge fan.

Dusty Springfield — Dusty in Memphis (1969)

One of my favorite singers of all time.  Just the sound of her voice makes me smile.  I've had this album in other forms previously, but this deluxe edition from 1999 (in which the bonus material eclipses the proper album) is the definitive version.  Backed by the classic vocal group the Sweet Inspirations and featuring the best of the Memphis session players, the original album is simply one of the best pop soul albums of its era.  One of the greatest side one/track ones ever kicks things off and that's pretty much a perfect indicator of the rest of the album.  A stone cold classic and then one of the weirdest songs to ever be a hit gets a rendition and the proper album is closed out with another classic and that's just the beginning.  The bonus material is fleshed out by single b-sides, outtakes and even more sessions Dusty cut in American soul hotspots a couple years after the fact.  'Goodbye' is an early Gamble and Huff/Sigma Sound gem, to be completely sure, while her rendition of 'You've Got a Friend' is a strong rendition recorded in early 1971.  Overall, it's just a testament to how much Brits worshiped American music in the 60's that this album even got made.  One of the great documents of the meeting of the minds that was happening in the late 60's.

Thin Lizzy — self-titled (1971)

Thin Lizzy's first album is an odd mixture of post-electric blues, folky Irish textures and that undeniable Lizzy slant of thoughtfully rocking out.  The opener 'The Friendly Ranger at Clontarf Castle' is a weird, half spoken venture through a post-Dylan stream of consciousness and the resonating tunefulness that was to come.  Wah-wahed out psychedelic guitar tones and a surprising restraint in the arrangement and, before you know it, 'Honesty is no Excuse' comes in like a total winner.  And, before you know it AGAIN, 'Diddy Levine' makes a mockery of any contemporary attempts at an actual buildup in a pop song.  'Look What the Wind Blew In' points towards the band's rockin' future and the proper album closes out with the thoughtful extended piece 'Remembering (Part One).'  I picked up the expanded edition of the album from 2010, so it features the New Day EP also from 1971 and a batch of revised tracks from 1977 (inexplicably featuring the one and only Midge Ure).  Among these extras, 'Dublin' (from the New Day EP) stands as one of the band's best ballads.  'Remembering (Part Two): New Day' is a really uplifting rocker, while 'Old Moon Madness' seems to anticipate no-wave in its frenetic pace and chaotic riffs that don't make sense until halfway through the song.  The 1977 re-recordings are generally more rocked up.  'Honesty is no Excuse' just seems to be a great song, no matter the rendering and it's probably my favorite of the revisions here (the power-ballady stance that 'Dublin' takes on, for instance, just doesn't hit as hard).  Overall, this must've sounded like a complete anomaly when it first came out.  I'm along the thinking that it's actually among the band's best albums, especially in this expanded edition.

Aztec Two-Step — self-titled (1972)

One of the best albums of all time.  Don't care what anybody says.  It's a folk-influenced soft rock masterpiece from the peak of the entire scene.  Let me back track briefly:  I was getting pretty disillusioned with rock music in general a few years ago when I heard about an album that was supposedly the perfect synthesis of the best of 70's pop, while retaining a perfectly modern slant.  I was just into anything that was mostly acoustic based, so I bought it from the Sub Pop store.  While I waited, I did some digging on allmusic and just sampled a bunch of things.  I somehow came up with these dorky looking guys as a point of interest and headed off to the wrecka sto to hit the bins.  I picked up this album expecting to not really get much out of it, all the while anticipating that other thing in the mail.  Well, gotta be honest here: Aztec Two-Step stole the spotlight.  The Fleet Foxes album is definitely in a similar vein and an album I go back to very often (even to this day), but this Aztec Two-Step album just has the whole package.  The two albums will forever be linked in my mind.  Aztec Two-Step is just this cult behemoth that I never would have guessed would be anywhere near as good as it is.  'Baking' is a corny album starter, but immediately, it goes into 'Killing Me' which should be clue enough that this is no ordinary 70's pop album.  It has a stark, almost gothic, quality to it in places.  It's not a downer of an album, but more contemplative.  Just a really resonating aspect at play here.  Very genuine.  The Jack Kerouac tribute 'The Persecution and Restoration of Dead Moriarty' is not nearly as stuffy as the concept might propose.  'Prisoner' is just resonating purity.  The introspective tone, the rewarding change-up; god, I love it.  'Cockroach Cacophony' is the sort of solitary-minded, introspective meditation that is just rare in the sense that it's both tuneful and resonating.  The last song on the album is 'Highway Song' and it's just appropriate by that point.  How could a first album by any band be this mature and world-wise?  This is one of the greats, that's for sure.  An absolute American-made classic.  I initially bought it on an old used-up vinyl copy (that left something to be desired as far as fidelity was concerned), but was gifted this 2008 CD reissue on the Collectibles label (always a dependable name) from one of the best people I will ever know.  Thank you to all involved.  This is why I keep scouring used record bins.  Sidebar: this is worthwhile, too.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What's New?: 2.21.2012

Let the birthday record bonanza begin!  I should say that a good chunk of this haul was courtesy of the 25¢ record sale over at Grassroots.  Yes, they have gems of this calibre all the time.

Leo Kottke — Mudlark (1971)
Wow, why did I skip the Leo Kottke for so long, again?  It's like this wonderful conglomeration of John Fahey-inspired acoustic instrumental music meets the more whimsical aspects of British folk rock.  When that first track, 'Cripple Creek' kicks in with the drums, it's an eyebrow-raising moment.  The tunefulness, the speed of his playing. . . just, wow.  The extra folky rendition of 'Eight Miles High' as a follow up just seals the deal: badassery of the highest order.  I've read a lot of criticisms of Leo's vocals, but I honestly don't mind Leo the singer (and I should say that, after digesting this initial batch of introductory albums, I do prefer his guitar playing to his singing).  I don't quite know what to consider Leo after getting into his music.  Is he folk?  Is he rock?  Is he jazz?  I have no idea.  'Hear the Wind Howl' is the highlight off of this album.  

Leo Kottke — Greenhouse (1972)
Wow, 'Tiny Island' is an excellent song, isn't it?  Wow.  That thing is just an introspective masterpiece, isn't it?  I have to be honest: I never anticipated such an emotionally weighty song from a Leo Kottke album.  Seriously, I don't know how he does it.  The album starts off with the jumpy solo guitar instrumental 'Bean Time' and then launches into 'Tiny Island' like nothing special at all.  The rest of the album contains pretty much a repeat of the formula for what made Mudlark so great: solo instrumental tune here, quirky vocal number there, excellent execution all around.

Leo Kottke — My Feet Are Smiling (1973)
A live recording.  And it's clear right up front that Leo is an earnest dude.  After a great little slide intro, he stops suddenly and blurts out, "Boy, I blew that!" and then launches into 'Hear the Wind Howl' amidst audience laughter.  The slower, more meditative pieces 'Easter' and 'The Fisherman' are uniformly excellent and, as a live album is supposed to do, it paints the picture of the artist as the people's champ, unafraid to appear venerable.  Really hard to not get on board with that.

Cal Tjader — San Francisco Moods (1958)
Pure class from Cal's Fantasy years.  When he's not playing piano (a first for Cal on this album; and he's actually a rather decent player), the harmony is filled out by Eddie Duran on guitar.  Always a sucker for ballads and headier material, I prefer the more thought provoking numbers like 'Coit Tower' and the multi-movement seven minute album closer 'Grant Avenue Suite.'  Rare to hear an entire album these days inspired by a specific locale (needless to say, one that the listener can easily acquaint themselves with).  And, furthermore, to hear that locale rendered such a great (and beautiful) audio tribute, even though it's seriously in contrast with my own impression of the place, is a really impressive feat.  I guess it helps to adjust your mind to 1950's San Francisco in order to appreciate the album (though, that's not really necessary, as the music is self-evidently good).  

Bert Jansch — A Rare Conundrum (1977)

I've delved plenty into the John Renbourn discography over the years, mainly out of convenience, and I've always said that I would scoop up a Bert album with Superman quickness if I ever saw one.  That day finally came and I made good on my promise to myself.  To be up front about the whole thing: I expected nothing more and nothing from a Bert Jansch album than what I got here.  'The Curragh of Kildare' sums things up just about as good as anything could.  A number than runs through many acoustic shadings and paints the picture of our storyteller as a traditionalist who has been preserved for about the previous fifty or sixty years.  Just love that sound.  Instrumentals or full-on folk rock tunes; doesn't matter.  Everything is excellent.  The whole thing is tuneful as hell and when it hit the introspective monster 'Looking for a Home' I knew I had hit paydirt.  Just, man. . .  everything I hoped for from a Bert album.

Lindisfarne — Back and Fourth (1978)

I have a couple other Lindisfarne albums from the early 70's and I like them just fine.  They were actually considered pretty new and hip at one point from what I understand.  I guess, from reading up on them,  this was their "comeback" album, as the group had been dormant for a few years previous.  To me, it sounds quite a bit removed their initial folk pop and more in tune with the soft rock scene of the time.  It's not especially good nor bad, but it is nicely presented — and maybe that was the point.  'King's Cross Blues' is the most reminiscent of their earlier albums, but I actually don't mind the softer rock direction that this album takes on.  I mean, it's strummy and kind of faceless, but it's certainly not gimmicky or poorly played.  Yeah, the earlier albums were better, but this is hardly an album to be skipped if you liked those records.

Poco — DeLIVErin' (1970)

"Let's here it for the good guys!" is the introduction of the band on this live album.  I've had the first few Poco albums for some time now, but I've gone back to them recently because of current interests.  As much fun as this album makes them sound, it's essentially just a live album (and, while you will probably enjoy it eventually, you're much better served by the studio albums).  That being said, the rendition of 'Kind Woman' is probably closer to what Richie Furay had initially intended than what Buffalo Springfield did with it (even though their initial version is good too).  Overall, I can't say this isn't an essential album for Richie Furay fans — the medley at the end of side one is a crowd-pleaser of the highest order and worth it on its own.

The Pentangle — Open the Door (1985)

I saw this in the rack and didn't recognize the cover, so I figured it must be a compilation.  Looking at the back, I didn't recognize a single song title, so I investigated the liner notes.  Yes, it's a reunion album, of sorts (everyone except John Renbourn is on board — his replacement is the more than competent Mike Piggott).  When I saw this, I was skeptical and just figured it would be a collection completer of an album.  When it kicks off with 'Open the Door' I thought it must be a fluke.  By the time it hit 'Child of the Winter', I knew I had been wrong all along.  That has quickly, and fairly easily, become in my top five songs the band ever did.  They follow it with appropriately Durutti Column-esque instrumental 'The Dolphin' and I'm sold.  Even though John's not around, the whole album is done in the same vein as the band's classic run in the late 60's and early 70's.  Really had no idea a seemingly second tier album by these guys could be just as good as anything from their prime.

Tom Rush — The Best of Tom Rush (early 70's)

This should be titled "The Best of the Columbia Years" because it ignores Tom Rush's output up until 1970.  No complaints otherwise, though, as this is a fine introduction to his now completely (and unjustly) forgotten 70's work.  He is not very folk on these recordings.  Instead, his output from this era kind of uses the middle period Bob Dylan albums as a jumping off point for a sort of folk-informed soft rock.  At its best, it reaches these absolutely sublime mellow moments that sound pretty darn good to me these days.  I already had an album of his prior to this find, but this collection really laid it out there just how much I was missing.

Tom Rush — Tom Rush (1965)

And, like I said, that collection doesn't paint the whole picture.  This is a straight acoustic folk album, with a serious blues overtone.  There's no original tunes here, but the arrangements on tunes like 'Long John', 'The Cuckoo' and 'I'd Like to Know' are informative and fresh at the same time.  However, the winner here is eight minute epic rendition of Bukka White's 'Panama Limited.'  The tune is enjoyable as hell anyway, but Tom's guitar playing is absolutely stellar through the whole thing.  This just seems like music from another world to me right now.  Completely enthralling music.


Thursday, February 9, 2012

What's New?: 2.9.2012

The classic rock binge continues. . .

Steely Dan — Can't Buy A Thrill (1972) and Gaucho (1980)
That's four stars a piece.  I've always known Steely Dan's hits and have never really bothered with them past that because I've felt like they were too polished and too stuffy for me.  This sounds ridiculous coming from an America fan, I know.  Well, time passes, we all change.  Had a chance to grab some pristine vinyl copies of these two albums and I decided to go for it.  I mean, I figured, this is a pretty darn good way to start off: the first album they put out and the last album they put out before their retirement.  Can't Buy A Thrill contains the two big hits 'Do It Again' and 'Reelin' in the Years' and that's basically "Classic Rock 101."  If you have a classic rock station in your locale, turn it on and within thirty minutes, the odds are very high that you'll hear one of those songs.  'Do It Again' in particular is a nice one.  A flanged out Fender Rhodes electric piano vamp dominates the tune's nearly six minutes and Donald Fagen's lead vocal is just as icy as the riff and it makes for one of the most confrontational side one/track ones I've ever heard (seriously, how was this a hit?).  The jangly (very America-esque, actually) 'Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)' is my favorite tune on the album.  The whole thing is very 'early soft rock', actually.  It does have a nice "studio jazz" sheen to it that I think is worthwhile, because the Los Angeles studio scene was just about as good as ever in the early 70's.  The tunes are certainly catchy, despite the presentation.  Where that first album seems polished for the time, Gaucho, on the other hand just surpasses it in terms of sheen.  I guess it's why Steely Dan's popularity has endured: anymore, they are, essentially, a smooth jazz band with intelligent vocals (I'm not trying to use the label "smooth jazz" as an insult here, as I happen to be a hugely unapologetic John Klemmer fan).  Musically, this album reminds me very much of what people like Joe Sample and John were doing at the time.  'Babylon Sisters' is case in point.  The musical backing is firmly planted in the smooth jazz scene of the time, but the vocal melody breaks the mold and takes the song out of a meandering groove.  Elsewhere, Mark Knopfler shows up on 'Time Out of Mind' which is fun.  The album ends with 'Third World Man' which is a representative piece for the whole album: its initial appearance is smooth and groovy, but a closer inspection to the lyrics and the chords and the tune almost seems too smart for its own good.  Don't get me wrong, I like this stuff and I plan on digging deeper, but this kind of thing only reinforces my initial view of the band: they probably sat around a lot and said to eachother, "Hey man, we're smart" and everybody else laughingly agreed.

Thin Lizzy — Night Life (1974)
Slowly completing the Thin Lizzy collection.  Something about this band that I can't deny.  Sure, they rock out and get into all kinds of silly "RAWKSTAH" poses at times, but I'm slowly starting to consider Phil Lynott up there with my favorite lyricists (in the company of people like Morrissey and John Martyn — yeah, he's that good).  I've seen a lot of people (even George Starostin, of all people!) call this the band's sellout album — presumably because it's so uncharacteristically mellow.  There's definitely a couple rockers here, and they're good, but they take a backseat to the mellower material that dominates the album.  'She Knows' is the opener and I can't think of a better representative piece for this album.  I mean, many Lizzy tunes have audible acoustic strumming in them, but I don't think any other album has that acoustic strummer as the opener.  'Still In Love With You' is the album's highlight and it puts forth one of those songs that, no matter how many times you hear it, you just get into it more with every play.  It was covered recently by Sade, to give you an idea of its endurance.  Elsewhere, 'Banshee' is a rare instrumental from the band,  while 'Dear Heart' paints the picture of the band as the great lost soul rockers.  Like I said, this is mellow stuff for these guys, but that's why it appeals to me the most.  I've always preferred the slower, more introspective side of the band and this album is the purest concentration of that side of them.  Gorgeously thoughtful rockers, those Dublin boys were.  And that's the clearest on this album.

The Byrds — Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)
Half the band quits, Roger McGuinn gets Gram Parsons on board, heads off to Nashville and decides to go country, godlike results ensue.  Many accolades have been thrown at this album in the last decade or so and, I have to admit, when I first heard it at the turn of the century, I didn't get it.  It was all twang, no tune in my ears.  This isn't an album that sounds "cool" when you're 21.  I mean, is it country?  Hell yeah, it is!  In a totally cherrypicking, "This is what we think country music sounds like" sort of way.  But, yeah, for the average rock fan, it's very country.  Their Dylan cover this time out is 'You Ain't Going Nowhere' and that's just it right there, isn't it?  Take that Dylan tune, juice it out and make it something else entirely and that's why the Byrds are exceptional.  I mean, honestly.  Did twanging up that thing occur to anybody else?  The pedal steel, the electric bass.  They manage to outdo Bob Dylan (again).  Chills.  The version of William Bell's 'You Don't Miss Your Water' is excellent (even if it's not better than the original) and it builds a successful bridge between soul and country music that has long existed, but that a lot of listeners just seem to ignore.  'Hickory Wind' is the one that people seem to go back to the most from this album and it's a good one, for sure.  'Blue Canadian Rockies' strikes me as a sleeper hit on the album.  'Nothing Was Delivered' is the most Byrds-esque song on the original album and when that four-to-the-floor beat hits during the chorus, it's just pure brilliance.  I picked up the two disc, thirty-nine track, two hour long deluxe edition on CD because it just felt right.  The extras are overwhelming, I will say right now.  Among them, 'Pretty Polly' is probably the most reminiscent of previous Byrds material.  'Lazy Days' appears in two versions, both of which are very previous-Byrds-esque.  A handful of songs by the International Submarine Band (the band that Gram Parsons was in prior to being invited into the Byrds) show up and, I have to say, they are much less country than I was anticipating.  I mean, 'Sum Up Broke' sounds nearly like a Nuggets outtake.  All of the rehearsals and demos for the proper album are good for just sustaining the initial vibe that Sweetheart possesses, but are ultimately only for dorks like me.  But still, the first two-thirds of this thing is ace.  It just feels like honest expression and genuine inspiration.  One of those rare classic albums that truly gets better with age.  Can't say enough good about it.


Saturday, February 4, 2012

What's New?: 2.4.2012

Beatles solo albums. . .

Ringo Starr — Beaucoups of Blues (1970)

Ringo's country album!  I love Ringo because he just doesn't seem to care.  He'll just go up to anybody and ask them to be in his band because he knows they'll probably say yes based on one fact alone: he was a Beatle.  No joke — this thing was recorded in Nashville with some of country music's top session players of the time.  And I really don't get the feeling that Ringo didn't mean any of this 100%.  Just have a listen to 'Without Her' and try not to get into it.  Yeah, it's not the greatest thing ever, but it's a darn good rendition of the tune.  Classy production throughout the whole thing and even a totally righteous Vietnam protest song on 'Silent Homecoming' at the end make for a pretty fun album.  Sure, I wouldn't ever have listened to anything like this had Ringo not been in the Beatles, but isn't that the beauty of solo albums?

John Lennon — Mind Games (1973)

Probably the Lennon album that is most unjustly forgotten.  The title track is one of his best tunes and, despite being produced and arranged by John himself, sounds totally like one of his Phil Spector-helmed ballads.  Along similar lines, 'Aisumasen (I'm Sorry)', 'Out of the Blue' and 'You Are Here' strike me as some of his best love songs, just because of their relative unfamiliarity.  There are some of those weirdly poppy/arty Lennon songs that pop up occasionally here too on 'One Day (At a Time)' and 'Intuition.'  I expected to hate this one, honestly.  It's pretty unarguably strong, after really sitting with it.

John Lennon — Shaved Fish (early 70's)

A collection that I had heard a good chunk of previously, but it does contain some key album tracks and non-album singles, so it was a good cost-effective way of getting some of that stuff.  As an initial knee-jerk reaction —and even though I'd heard it before in passing— 'Cold Turkey' strikes me as one of the most badass things to come out of the entirety of the Beatles family tree of music.  After a short intro of 'Give Peace a Chance', the album launches into that sonuvuhgun like it's not even trying to be a 'best of' collection (which it most certainly was supposed to be).  The very next track is 'Instant Karma!' and, at that point, it's like, yeah, I know he's super popular and generations upon generations will worship him without even understanding why he was so important, but I'm just thinking in my own head, "This guy could write ANYTHING and be good at it."  And the big thing here is: he meant every single word.  There's other great stuff here, but it doesn't really hang together as an album too well.  But, then again, it wasn't supposed to. One of the greatest songs of all time ('Imagine') going straight into John's pseudo-Bowie disco ramblings ('Whatever Gets You Thru the Night')  is par for the course here, so if you just set aside any hopes of a really profound album, you'll get a great overview of John's career up until this point.  '#9 Dream' is one of the album's final songs and, boy does it sound great right now.  Again, I knew it in passing before, but coming through my stereo now, it's just clicking.  A shame that history's written off Lennon between Imagine and Double Fantasy, because he really did do some great stuff in those interim years.  This one shows up in dollar bins 'round these parts.  Don't hesitate to grab it.

Paul McCartney — McCartney (1970)

I've fallen victim for too long to the thought that Paul was the weak link in the Beatles.  He was an adequate bass player, maybe a campy singer and had a penchant for sappy tunes.  But you know what?  When he was first getting away from the band, he was just concerned with domestic life, simple pleasures and no nonsense tunes (okay, maybe a bit of nonsense).  Pure jangly pop gems like 'Every Night' illustrate this perfectly.  And while I don't like his favoring of the epithet "mama" (which he uses a lot over the course of these first few albums) I can't dislike such a fine tune.  'Junk' is one of the most melodically rich songs he ever did, Beatles or otherwise.  Definitely the album's highlight.  The album does have a bit of a tossed-off quality to it, as most of the songs are short and have simple lyrics (in fact, the two longest songs are instrumentals [the breakbeat classic 'Momma Miss America' and the strangely fitting closer 'Kreen-Akrore']), but as this was just McCartney sitting around throwing out ideas that were (probably) rejected from the Beatles, it's a darned good album that hangs together inexplicably well.  'Maybe I'm Amazed' is the one that people remember from this album and it's a good proto-power ballad.  Overall, I find that, while there are definitely good songs here, the whole is, without question, greater than the sum of its parts.

Paul McCartney — Ram (1971)

Damn Ram!  Somebody wrote an obnoxious review of this album that I read and it put me off listening to the thing for years.  Finally putting it aside after realizing I've been upset by somebody's comments before I find this album that's just sheer pop exuberance.  Every last song is catchy as hell.  And it kind of rocks out a little.  The title track is one of the album's quieter moments and one of Paul's best, complete with a totally ace multi-tracked vocal arrangement (and a whistle solo!).  'Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey' sounds straight out of the Abbey Road outtakes (and yes, that's Paul on proto-beatbox!) while 'Long Haired Lady' is the sort of sappy love song that seems to be a McCartney cliche.  'The Backseat of My Car' is, musically, probably the most ambitious thing Paul did in these days.  Shifting arrangements and many layers of thought-out harmonies, it's a moment of pure earnestness and melodic brilliance from a one man band firing on all cylinders.  He rarely sounded this genuinely happy ever again.

Wings — Wild Life (1971)

This album definitely sounds just as tossed off as his first solo album.  But because he was sitting around with a group of musicians for the first time since the Beatles, it has a very jam session quality to it.  Many of the songs might be seen as stupid or half-baked by some people, but I don't know.  It all feels very genuine to me.  I just like that it documents a series of recordings where Paul was probably sitting around telling Denny Laine things like, "No, play it like I would play it!"  The first two tracks are the soul rock jam 'Mumbo' (which finds Paul mostly shouting the same two lines over and over again) and the Linda-sung blues vamp 'Bip Bop' so that should give you an idea of what's happening here.  The cover of 'Love is Strange' is nearly reggae-fied, but things don't really get started until the title track closes out side one.  A dense metaphor via a seriously stoney psych-blues jam and one of Paul's best vocals ever ("aminals" and all) seals the deal for me: this album is serious business after that.  The content soft rockers 'Some People Never Know' and 'Tomorrow' point the way towards the band's future, while 'Dear Friend' is, hands down, no buts about it, one of McCartney's most affecting songs.  Never thought I'd actually dig a Wings album.  But, then again, I never thought I'd come to the realization that, at least in these initial years, Paul had the most consistent run of any of his former bandmates.