I'm so far behind, I had genuinely forgotten about some of these. Let's get into it. . .
It's been a long time going that I've not really had any solo Bert Jansch albums in my collection. Secondhand copies are downright unheard of around here (and yet, for some reason, John Renbourn albums popping up frequently is the status quo). So, if I'm going to have to resort to getting the albums on reissue, I'm glad the Drag City label is handling them with such care (how else would they handle them, after all?). This, I guess, was supposed Bert's big venture into the California soft rock scene, but it's only slightly leaning in that direction. With instrumentals like 'Chambertin', the mildly bluegrassy 'Cluck Old Hen' (featuring the great Klaus Voorman on bass!) and the graceful 'Traveling Man', it's still more British folk than anything. There are a few songs where there is a full band backing, but it's largely just Bert's voice and some strings of some sort. Bert's guitar playing throughout is just as good and technically amazing as ever. The album was produced by Mike Nesmith (of the Monkees), which might seem like the mother of all mismatches, but the sound is intimate and sparse, upping the emotional ante of tunes like 'Of Love and Lullaby' and 'Needle of Death.' It does have a tone about it of artistic purity and victory, which despite the weight of some of the material, makes for a really special listen. Only other Bert album I have is A Rare Conundrum and this one edges that one, ever so slightly. Two for two, Bert.
Van Der Graaf Generator — H To He, Who Am The Only One (1970)
It's proggy, sure. But there's something about this album that doesn't seem to really fit in with other prog of the time. I think it has something to do with the unwavering tempos (deadly slow, they are) and the actually catchy vocal melodies. It's actually very pleasantly reminiscent of Pink Floyd's more contemplative material. Check out 'House With No Door' for a good idea of what's going on here. There is a very trippy, spacey tone to this music. The kind that seems a little cliched to bring up when discussing prog, but it actually does feel like these songs create a mini world of their own sometimes. Definite headphone music. For deep thinkers and slow walkers. Robert Fripp guests on a track. And hey, they were from Manchester! Good stuff.
Dexys Midnight Runners — Too-Rye-Ay (1983)
Yeah, this album is unfairly judged. Where Don't Stand Me Down was an ignored masterpiece, Too-Rye-Ay was enormously popular because. . . well, do I even need to tell you? Because of this era-defining song and video, that's why. But honestly, what if I told you 'Come On Eileen' was actually one of the most socially uplifting songs of the 80's? I, too, thought it was just a song about a guy wanting to score for several years. But it's not. It's about taking the crappy hand that you're dealt and telling it to go to hell and taking control of your life. In the midst of Thatcher-era Britain, Kevin Rowland told synthesizers and drum machines to fuck off, got banjos and accordions into the arrangement and wrote lyrics like this: "These people 'round here / With their beat down eyes sunk in smoke dried faces / They're resigned to what their fate is / But not us / We are far too young and clever" It's been assigned to novelty one hit wonder status for too long. I'm officially reclaiming it here and now as one of the greatest successes in pop music history in terms of being obtuse and artsy, while simultaneously being irresistibly catchy. To say it's a good song seems almost like an insult. It's a song that should be sang for years to come whenever someone overcomes any sort of odds. I roundly assert it "Fuck yeah!" status. What about the rest of the album? It musically sounds a lot like some of Van Morrison's albums from the early 70's. And I don't just say this because there's a Van Morrison cover here, but it seems like Kevin Rowland was going for a genuine and convincing melding of the traditional Irish folk melodies he grew up with and the American soul music he romanticized. The album's leadoff song 'The Celtic Soul Brothers' is pretty damned believable in this respect, while 'Plan B' points the way towards the next album. Like Don't Stand Me Down after it, Too-Rye-Ay has next to no electric instruments and a banjo or accordion on nearly every song. It's just striking how unique this band was considering the pop music climate of the time and how they've simultaneously been lumped in with that crowd in retrospect (especially here in America). They're wonderfully unique though. More than I had ever imagined. This CD reissue from the 90's has a wealth of live performances and b-sides as its bonus, all of which properly set the table for the masterwork, Don't Stand Me Down, that was to follow.
Stereolab — Switched On (1991)
Some of the Lab's earliest recordings are found here. This is striking stuff, when you consider the date. Because they've become such an institution, it's easy to overlook just how different Stereolab was when they began. Just turn your brain off and have a listen to the album's first track. And yeah, they do that for the whole album. Like all early Lab stuff, it is very much mining one groove for all it's worth. But nobody sounded like this at the time, so that's okay. It is kind of noisy, but in that great, warm, buzzing Stereolab sort of way that feels toned down a bit. Hard not to love, actually.
Stereolab — Aluminum Tunes [Switched On Volume 3] (1994-1997)
As the Switched On series became a regular thing, it got bigger. This culminated in the two disc third volume. This one is twenty five songs and two hours of peak period Groop. The related material and b-sides from Mars Audiac, Emperor and Dots is all here and it's all pretty damn good. And, for the most part, this is all new material. Really the only repeat here is the Wagon Christ remix of 'Metronomic Underground', which is so good and unique from the original, it doesn't matter (and hell yeah, that's a Turtles sample in there!). At this point, Stereolab had become a brand name, so their sound is firmly cemented — that is, loungey noise pop. And it's almost scary how easily two hours will slip by when you play it. It does feel a bit more electronic than their albums of the time were, so that alone makes it worth a listen. Some of it ranks among their trippiest material, as well.
Arthur Lyman — Taboo Vol. 2 (1960)
This initially came to my attention because David Axelrod was rumored to be the album's producer. There are not production credits listed, but Axe was an in-house producer for the Hifi Jazz label at the time and he has talked about recording this album in several interviews. This was, of course, a few years before Axe was an artist in his own right, so it sounds like an Arthur Lyman album, more or less. Plenty of silly "exotica" overtones and campy flourishes in the arrangements. Previews available here. For a dollar at the thrift store, I'm not really mad at this one. I can cross another record off my David Axelrod checklist.
John Fahey — The Yellow Princess (1969)
And yeah, John Fahey is just about to consume my soul these days. This album is considered one of his all time classics and it's easy to see why. Just have a listen to the title track here and. . . uhh, yeah. That's pretty much what I'm all about these days. The whole album is that good. Couple songs have a full band backing (this and that), one song is weird Fahey and the last two songs are multi-movement introspective epics. Really inspiring that a guy can sit there with six or twelve strings and just. . . create. I used to have a lot of Fahey albums, but never this one. 'Tis good.
Cal Tjader — Cal Tjader-Stan Getz Sextet (1958)
A part of me does not like Stan Getz. Just a small part. But it is feverishly strong. Why this is, I don't know or understand. Something to do with his critical comments about Miles Davis. I don't know, honestly. Because, everything I hear from his 50's and early 60's stuff is awesome. Already getting back into Cal Tjader, but this album has made me reevaluate my view of Stan as well. I mean, this is pretty badass, no matter how you slice it. The waltz 'Liz Anne' is definitely the highlight because I love the way Cal and Stan play off the time signature. Might sound corny to say so, but I feel like I can hear them smiling. Vince Guaraldi and the legend himself, Scott LaFaro, are in the band on this one, along with ace guitarist Eddie Duran. You can tell everybody was smiling a lot during these sessions. Just great stuff.
Cal Tjader — At Grace Cathedral (1976)
Funky funky Cal from the 70's. This was actually a last minute stand-in performance by Tjader for his recently deceased friend Vince Guaraldi, who was scheduled to perform. Considering that weighty circumstance, you'd think the program would be a little less lively than it is — but no, Cal knew that the time was right for something invigorating and life-affirming. Side one is just two long workouts: Cal's original 'I Showed Them' and a really groovy version of Milt Jackson's 'Bluesology.' The highlight though, appropriately, is the band's medley of Black Orpheus, which Cal dedicates to Vince. A wonderful rendition of 'Body and Soul' and we're done. This is from Cal's often neglected mid-70's Fantasy period, but the band is completely ace. The lovely, floating melodic leads from Cal on vibes and Lonnie Hewitt on Fender Rhodes electric piano make the album sound like a wash of dreamy improvisation. A really happy and celebratory album.
Jethro Tull — Stand Up (1969)
A grizzly and buzzingly melodic bluesy album from the Tull here. The first song is the crunchy, cascading waltz 'A New Day Yesterday' which perfectly captures the reflective, unsure mood of the late 60's. There's definitely a slant towards the folkiness that would become an integral part of their sound here. The observational narrative 'Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square' into the Bach meets funk rock of 'Bourée' should be clue enough that this band was kinda sorta all about blowing the walls straight down in these days. Not everything is a complete success, but it sure as hell is listenable. And then, of course, there's 'We Used to Know.' Which is clearly a brilliant song. There's another song that sounds like it, maybe you've heard it, as well? They would do great things, shortly. This is a nice table setter for those things. If you like Aqualung, you'll like this one too.
Prefab Sprout — Steve McQueen (1985)
Known as Two Wheels Good in good ol' merckah (a nation of defensive bitches; let's just be honest), this album was Prefab Sprout's second. As they were pretty much demigods of British jangle at the time —the second wave following the Smiths and Aztec Camera— I have no idea how I've made it this far in my life without hearing such perfect pop gems like 'Bonny' or 'Goodbye Lucille #1.' Really right there with the best of the British indie of the time. Just such a timely and appropriate album for me right now. A bit cheesy at times, but in that great nostalgic way that kind of earns points, actually. Oh, dear: yeah, it's really good.