Tuesday, October 9, 2012

What's New?: 10.9.2012

The Blue Sky Boys — Bluegrass Mountain Music (1940's/1950's)

It says "bluegrass" on the label, but it sounds more in the line of harmony country to me.  This two record, twenty song set was picked up on the cheap just because of what it is.  Which is to say: a mammoth introductory document of a long-forgotten country music combo.  And first things first here: jeez, these songs are all kinds of inappropriate!  Many tales of murder, debauchery and just plain old not gettin' along are recounted here, many times over.  'Down on the Banks of the Ohio' is about as sociopath as they come.  And that's a recurring theme here: pleasant music until you actually pay attention to the words, which is when you just kind of put your head in your hands and marvel at the dynamics at play.  While, on the other hand, there's a balladry and sense of sheer beauty at play here that isn't completely happy, but seem to be aware of much past the material's inception.  All in all, it doesn't seem to fully compute.  And yet, it works.  Really lovely, rootsy, folky stuff.

Leo Kottke — Ice Water (1974)

This album begins with, and I'm completely honest here, one of the greatest ever side one/track one's of all time.  'Morning is the Long Way Home' is the sort of uber-introspective, faux-Bob Dylan number that Leo's vocal music seemed to propose all along.  He achieved it here.  Whoo boy, did he ever.  It combines Leo's unmatched fretting skills head-on with his whimsically world-weary point of view and the results are just pure magic.  I'm not even kidding when I say it has, this quickly, become one of my favorite songs ever.  The rest of the album is a grab bag of mid-70's guitar virtuoso Leo and mid-70's folk-rocker Leo.  The instrumentals are among his best, the vocal numbers (outside of the first track) are mid-grade.  The ethereal, album closing 'A Child Should be a Fish' is not only a few years ahead of its time in the long run (though right on par with John Martyn's indulgences of the time), it points directly towards his very next move.

Leo Kottke — Dreams and All that Stuff (1974)

An all instrumental album, for the first time in a few years. It's just an odd-sounding piece of work. Have a gander at the cover art. And yeah, it sounds kind of like that. Leo sits alone with just his guitar for the first time in a long time and plenty o'newstuffs hits his cerebral cortex. The songs have multi-movements, float in and out of one another and just generally coexist. Just have a listen to 'When Shrimps Learn to Whistle' to get an idea of what I mean. I too, scoffed at the synths and studio polishings at first. But, when that change up hits, that's just when it becomes clear that he's kind of joking. But, also not. It's such a blurry album of brilliance, it's hard to see where the jokes stop and and the seriousness begins. Is there even a distinction with Leo? Who cares? This album seems to be forgotten. Shame, that.

Kraftwerk — Radio-Activity (1975)

One of the most influential albums of all time, plain and simple. Can you believe that the title track from this album predated the punks?  Not to mention, without its existence, one of my favorite albums of all time wouldn't have come to fruition.  The idea that the word "radioactivity" could be reclaimed as a manifesto for people wanting to use music as form of rebellion against the system that had made "radioactivity" something of notoriety in the first place — well that, my dear friends, is why I like music.  It's conceptual as hell, all the songs bleed into one another, Depeche Mode totally ripped it off too and a lot of its original lyrics were left sung in German.  Through it all, there is something screamingly human about this music.  So, there.  Kraftwerk's best album? 

Cal Tjader — Breeze From the East (1963)

The other of Tjader's "eastern" themed albums in the 60's.  It's just as good as the other one, actually.  A bit funkier overall.  The guitar-accented version of 'Leyte' here is nice, as is the gorgeously floating 'Fuji.'  There's a kind of weird version of 'Poinciana' at the end, too.  Not much else to say, except that it's highly recommended for Tjader fans.  Really have a hard time finding much to dislike about this music.

Bob Dylan — Nashville Skyline (1969)

I know it's cool to sing the praises of this album beyond all reasoning, being that Johnny Cash is involved.  And yet, I kinda sorta feel like he ruined 'Girl From the North Country.'  It's still a good song, but Bob's initial version just blows it out of water with such ease, in every aspect.  The rest of the album finds Bob struggling to be himself again.  He went off to Europe, got his head all out of whack and it took him returning to his country roots to get back to being great again.  This was his first step.  'I Threw it all Away' has shades of the Bob that was forthcoming and it's all self-reflecting greatness.  I should say that I've always hated 'Lay Lady Lay' even though it's probably the most well-known tune on this album.  Just don't dig it, whatsoever.  Decent transitional album, though

Fiona Apple — The Idler Wheel. . . (2012)

Is there such a thing as prog-pop?  Has Fiona invented it?  Because, jeez.  What an impenetrable mess this album is.  Just like her past greats.  This one, though, has kept me at bay for some months now.  I mean, I think I get it.  But, just when I think I do, something else will hit me and throw everything back to step one.  Everything about this album is just the work of an absolute master.  The way she polyrhythmically phrases her vocals, the musical twists and turns, the big ideas being passed off as supposed toss-offs of nonsense pop songs — it's all too much.  Does it sound like pure singer songwriter awesomeness?  Yes, absolutely, of course, why wouldn't it?  How silly of you to ask!  But, when you dig into that deeper level, is there a whole 'nother level of something going on here?  Uncomfortably, yeah.  Seriously, how is she still able to sound like her first album?  But way better?  Naivety times infinity.  Is it real?  Is it fake?  Who knows?  For all of the album's memorable lines and singable tunes —exhibit A: "Every single night's alright!", exhibit B: "You you you you", exhibit C: "How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?", exhibit D: "There's nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key", exhibit E: "If I'm butter, if I'm butter. . .!!!!"— I feel absolutely lost when it's over.  I kind of feel like Fry in that episode of Futurama.  I wake up, all emotionally sticky and confused.  Did I miss something good?  Talk to me about this album again in about five years and I'll have some more tangible thoughts for you.  In the meantime, is she the contemporary Joni Mitchell?  We says yes.

Dexys Midnight Runners — Don't Stand Me Down (1985)

That's a fiver there, buddy. And this is, like, a high five, if such a thing exists.  I can't even say how much I've struggled with this band.  By all accounts, I should have loved them years ago.  And yet, here I am, getting introduced to them through their "difficult" third album and absolutely not understanding why it wasn't an across the board smash to the point of getting tears while listening to it now.  Kevin Rowland was so obsessed with Northern Soul to the point that he felt like the British had come to appreciate those records more than any American ever had. So, in a way, he felt like he should make a proper British Northern Soul album for British people who appreciated Northern Soul records. And, to say that he exceeded would be an understatement. The second half of 'This is What She's Like' is just pure magic and a rare instance of a band leader directing his band simply for the sake of the audience's delight.  There are no synthesizers on this album, no drum machines and next to no electric instruments (some electric bass and amplified guitars here and there and, a good ol'Hammond B-3 — what Northern Soul record would be complete without it, after all?).  But actually, nothing to indicate that this album was made in 1984.  And guess what?  People hated it.  Fuck these whiteboys wanting to sound black.  Sad.  What I hear now is a musician at the top of his game, flailing and wailing out of creative control to the point that he created a piece of music so outside of its time that it was destined to flop.  Channeling Otis Redding as much as Ian Curtis in the resonance of his delivery and his words, Kevin Rowland created one of the best albums that's actually pretty much unheard in the past fifty or so years.  I hate to fuel the seeming cash grab that surrounds second hand copies of this now very out of print album (I paid $20 for this semi-good condition used vinyl copy), but it does deserve to be heard.  I just can't get over how genuine it all sounds.  I love it now.  Can't imagine how good it will sound in five years' time.

Kevin Rowland — The Wanderer (1988)

And yeah, Kevin then tried to go completely contemporary.  Drum machines, synths, the whole deal.  I guess this is another one where it would be best to get back to me in a year or seven.  Because, right now, this sounds like he's ripping off the Style Council when they were the ones that ripped him off —and crapped it up a few notches— in the first place (and don't get me wrong, I love tSC, but sheesh).  Nothing on this album lives up to the idiosyncratic potential of Don't Stand Me Down.  Very disappointing right now.

Big Country — Steeltown / Where the Rose is Sown 12" (1984)

You know, I've known their first album for a few years now —a successful bargain bin chance taken— and it's slowly become one of those great albums that everybody has seen and knows about but that has sadly not endured past its initial popularity.  So, when they released another album that was basically a redux of the first one the very next year, it left a bitter taste in a lot people's mouths and, in the long run, folks just plain old lost interest.  Here's a secret though: Steeltown is actually the better album of the band's initial run.  Seriously, the power, the continuity and the seamlessness of the whole thing are just better than on the Crossing.  It's still Big Country doing big echoey riffs, big hooks and seriously impassioned vocals.  But it's just a lot better on this album.  There is a bit more of a heavy-heartedness to the material here, so even the big triumphant single 'Where the Rose is Sown' has that singular melancholy vibe to it.  For all the fist-pumping and comforting "everyman"-edness at play here, this is not exactly tons of fun as far as the subject matter is concerned.  Just have a listener to the album closer 'Just a Shadow' for a moment of unsure brilliance.  Also scooped the 12" single for 'Where the Rose is Sown' (featuring the ace extended mix in full 45rpm beauty).  Couple of b-sides to be found, and all's well.  Seriously good stuff; right there with what the Chameleons, u2 and the Sound were doing at around the same time.

Lou Reed — Rock 'n' Roll Animal (1974)

Ahahahahaha, this album actually sucks. The Velvet Underground was not a glam band, Lou. So guess what happens when you try to make that material into glam songs? They're pretty boring and downright suck! Jeez. All the rockist views about this being good. I've read those for years. Six bucks, wasted. Just awful. The antithesis of what many of these songs initially stood for. Man, fuck this album.


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