Saturday, March 25, 2017
Liberty LST 7034
My parents had no exotica records nor do I remember any of their friends playing this stuff at their parties. I suppose they were a little too young for it, by the time I came around this stuff was probably already considered passé. Bossa nova, samba or crooners were more their style. If my father wanted to hear something exotic, he put on Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. I grew up unaware of Martin Denny and probably would have gone to my grave without ever hearing him were it not for the lounge revival of the 1990s. What were once thrift store nuisances, suddenly became collector's items to hipsters. Exotica and lounge bins appeared in record stores stocked with over-priced Les Baxter albums. I didn't bite but when the fad eventually diminished, I ended up with a bunch of Capitol's "Ultra-Lounge" series of CD compilations when a friend who did bite, decided to pare down her CD collection and gave them to me. To my surprise, I actually liked most of the stuff on the comps which is how I ended up with this album, my first Martin Denny record which I picked up for a buck in a thrift store. Exotica collectors generally prefer the mono version of this album which was recorded in 1956 and released in 1957. The stereo album was re-recorded later to cater to the growing hi-fi market and cash in on the success of the single release of "Quiet Village." I'm happy enough with this version which sounds great. The album consists entirely of Asian and Polynesian flavored instrumentals driven by Denny on piano and Julius Wechter on vibes. The best song is "Quiet Village" which was originally recorded by exotica pioneer Les Baxter. The band adds exotic bird calls to the song and with its languid bongo rhythm track, it is a tiki classic. "Return to Paradise" is a cover of a Dimitri Tiomkin tune for the film of the same name. It is too sedate and stodgy for my taste. "Hong Kong Blues" is a cover of a Hoagy Carmichael song. It is incredibly corny and stereotypical, but I appreciate its energy. The Denny group returns to Les Baxter for a lively version of "Busy Port" that is one of the most exciting tracks on the album. Cyril Scott's "Lotus Land" gets a light jazz adaptation that is mostly successful. Side one ends with "Similau" by Arden Clar and Harry Coleman which gets the full tiki treatment, bongos, bird cries and bamboo sticks. It is one of my favorite tracks on the record. Side two opens with another robust Les Baxter cover, "Stone God." August Colon's strong percussion playing propels it forcefully and Denny and Wechter offer dynamic performances on top. Another winner. The group slows the pace for an atmospheric performance of Baxter's "Jungle Flower," which like all of the other Baxter songs on the record, was taken from Baxter's classic 1951 album "Ritual of the Savage." Asian musical cliches return for "China Nights" by Nobuyuki Takeoka and "Ami Wa Furi" by Gil Baumgart. They are followed by the dreamy and romantic "Waipio" by Francis Brown. The group tackles Baxter once more for the album closer, "Love Dance" which rehashes "Quiet Village" to give the record a strong finish. I enjoy this record, but I'm hesitant to fully recommend it. If I'm not in the right mood, it sounds like vulgar kitsch to me or even worse it puts me to sleep. Neither Wechter nor Denny had the musical ability to transcend the stereotypes inherent in this musical approach. Nonetheless when I'm feeling romantic or nostalgic, this record can push a lot of my buttons. Plus the cover photo is fabulous. Recommended as a soundtrack record next time you are drinking a Mai Tai on a warm summer evening.
Friday, February 24, 2017
Radio Pulsebeat News News Documentary #2
I enjoyed Ron Howard's recent documentary on the Beatles touring days although I didn't learn anything new and it wasn't particularly insightful. I think Albert Maysles' documentary on the first tour is the best portrait of this time. For me the highlight of the screening was watching the Shea Stadium concert film on the big screen with good sound. That was fantastic. All the hoopla about the movie inspired me to pull out this record which attempts to document the Beatles' first visit to the United States. It is presented and narrated by Ed Rudy who was a journalist who accompanied the Beatles on their trip. Rudy seems to like the group and is consistently enthusiastic, but he has nothing interesting to say about Beatlemania and generally ignores the music, he is mostly attracted to the mass hysteria they generated. Side one is a 22 minute assembly of sound bites from the tour mixed with a bunch of promos for Rudy by the Beatles as well as roadie Mal Evans, Lennon and Harrison even label Rudy "the fifth Beatle." There are numerous snippets from the Beatles' first press conference in New York and Rudy interviews some fans as well. Despite traveling with the band, Rudy doesn't get much face time with the group. Initially the longest conversations he gets are with Mal Evans and road manager Neil Aspinall. He also wastes some time talking to a twit from the British Embassy. In Washington D.C. Rudy gets some muffled comments from a Beatle who he claims is John Lennon, but it sounds like Paul McCartney to me. He also has an amusing conversation with Ringo Starr at the British Embassy party in Washington regarding his sex appeal. Near the end of side one, on the plane flying back to New York after the Miami visit, Rudy finally gets some quality time with the band and their handlers. On side two there is a fifteen minute telephone interview with George Harrison. Predictably the sound quality is not good, but it is a nice conversation. The "quiet Beatle" is surprisingly loquacious. He and Rudy discuss the fan reaction on the tour, the Beatles' sound, the origin of the group's name, Beatle haircuts and fashions, mods vs. rockers, Harrison's personal ambitions, dating, friendships with the other Beatles and musical influences (Rudy astutely compares them to Buddy Holly and the Crickets.) At one point Rudy refers to "Johnny" Lennon and asks if Harrison ever calls him "Jack" Lennon, which cracks me up. This record is worth buying for side two alone. I enjoy the entire record aside from Rudy's relentless self-promotion. Even though it contains virtually no music at all, I still prefer it to Capitol Records' vinyl documentary of the Beatles on "The Beatles' Story." This album is easy to find and generally not expensive (I bought my copy in a thrift shop for $2.) Recommended to Beatlemaniacs whose favorite Beatle is George.
Saturday, February 18, 2017
Paul Revere and the Raiders
This is a 1966 reissue of the Raiders' second album on Sande Records originally released in 1963. The original has different cover art but an identical track selection and running order. Over the holidays I paid a visit to my aunt and uncle who live up in the redwoods in Northern California. At one point my aunt mentioned having traveled around the Pacific Northwest with a rock band in her younger days. I was immediately interested in this tidbit and pressed her for more details. When she said they were Paul Revere and the Raiders I was flabbergasted. She said she was dating one of the guys in the band. I asked his name and when she replied Mark Lindsay I went nuts. My aunt dated Mark Lindsay, I still can't believe it. She was unimpressed about all of this. Mark was a nice guy but she didn't think the band was all that special and she disliked Revere. This was of course before the band became famous, back when they were a struggling group working in small venues playing music like the songs on this album. I pulled out this record when I got back home and listening to it, I can understand my aunt's lack of enthusiasm. I really enjoy the record, but there is not much here that suggests the band's meteoric rise once they signed with Columbia Records. They sound like a bar band, albeit an extremely good one with excellent taste in material. Many of the songs are very well known covers. Their version of Big Joe Turner's classic "Shake Rattle and Roll" is highly energetic driven by Revere's hot organ riffing. They wisely avoid going up against Elvis by turning "Don't Be Cruel" into an instrumental that features Revere on organ dueling with Lindsay on sax with Lindsay winning. Their rocking version of Bill Doggett's hit instrumental "Honky Tonk" is excellent, one of the best versions that I've heard. Unfortunately there are also pedestrian performances of "So Fine" and "Hey Baby" that are less entertaining than the hit versions by the Fiestas and Bruce Channel. Their uninspired version of Hank Ballard's "Work with Me Annie" isn't much better aside from Revere's dynamic piano solo. The less famous covers include a punchy version of Ray Sharpe's "Linda Lu" that showcases Lindsay's charisma as a singer. The Delmore Brothers' country classic "Blues Stay Away From Me" is transformed into a high energy instrumental that makes it nearly unrecognizable. It is one of my favorite cuts on the record. Larry Bright's "Mojo Workout" suits the band's sound extremely well. They increase the tempo and Lindsay's gritty vocal gives the song plenty of oomph. It is another one of my favorites. Dave "Baby" Cortez's "Rinky Dink" is a vehicle for Revere to show his chops although Lindsay steals the spotlight with a brief but smoking sax solo. Their version of "Irresistible You" seems to be taken from the Bobby Darin version and Lindsay shows he can swing just as well as Darin with one of his strongest vocal performances on the album. The one original track on the album is "Crisco" (also known as "Crisco Party") and it is easily the best cut on the record. The record is worth buying for it alone. It is a frat-rock classic with a lascivious vocal from Lindsay that has future rock star written all over it. It is about boys, girls and a whole lotta Crisco and you can figure out the rest. Did kids really do stuff like this back then? I'll have to ask my aunt about that next time I see her. This album is too derivative to be essential, but it is a lot of fun and a terrific record for a toga party. Recommended to fans of the Wailers and the Kingsmen.
Thursday, January 26, 2017
This one goes out to the new President, congrats on breaking Nixon's long standing record for inaugural dissent protests. I have only hazy memories of the 1972 election and all I remember from the 1968 one is my elementary school classroom's mock election which Humphrey won. If I had been a teenager back then, I would probably have been freaking out just as much as progressives are now, if not more so. Nixon after all was sending kids to die in Vietnam. The protest movement against Nixon naturally extended into rock music resulting in some fine records. I don't think any were better than this one though. This album seethes with anger and rebellion. This is evident in the fiery opening song, "We Can Be Together" by Paul Kantner. With the first verse the sweetly crooned "we can be together, ah you and me" it sounds like a love song, but it is soon evident that this song is urging the counter-culture to unite in violent revolution with lines like "up against the wall, motherf*cker" and "we are forces of chaos and anarchy." When I was younger I thought the song was too extreme and an over-reaction, but I have to admit nowadays I feel a lot more sympathetic to its message. Musically the song is superb, alternating hard rock and more harmonic passages tied together by Jorma Kaukonen's stinging guitar riffs and enhanced by Nicky Hopkins' dynamic piano work. "Good Shepherd" is basically a Hot Tuna song sung by Kaukonen and notable for the interplay between his guitar and Jack Casady's rumbling bass lines. It is a laid back folk-rock interpretation of a 19th Century hymn. It is quite a contrast from "We Can Be Together" and I've always felt it sounded out of place on the album although the religious lyrics are not incompatible with the theme of the album with their emphasis on avoiding the evil and corruption in the world. The bucolic spirit of this tune continues with "The Farm" which is a country rock song by Kantner and Gary Blackman. The song is a tongue in cheek gotta-get-back-to-the-country type song so popular with hippies at the time. The song features Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar and offers harmony support from the pioneering all-woman Bay Area rock group, the Ace of Cups. Side one concludes with Grace Slick's "Hey Fredrick" which clocks in at 8 and a half minutes. The song combines a massive ponderous riff with softer passages driven by Nicky Hopkins' lyrical piano playing over which Slick intones the surreal lyrics with sensuous heaviness. The song drifts into a lengthy jam where Hopkins and Casady are particularly effective. Side two opens with Kaukonen's "Turn My Life Down" which is a poppy rocker that recalls "Surrealistic Pillow" to me. The song expresses disillusionment and confusion. It features a strong lead vocal from Marty Balin bolstered once again by the Ace of Cups. Stephen Stills rocks out on organ and the band's future drummer Joey Covington plays congas enhancing the instrumental pallette of the song. "Wooden Ships" was written by Kantner, Stills and David Crosby and was also recorded by Crosby, Stills and Nash. I prefer the Airplane's version which boasts a superior vocal and a much better instrumental arrangement including outstanding contributions from Kaukonen and Hopkins. The track is stirring and powerful and impressed me greatly when I first heard it as a teenager. It is a post-apocalyptic song that describes escaping the carnage of America on a ship and foreshadows the themes Kantner would develop more fully on "Blows Against the Empire." Slick and Kantner's "Eskimo Blue Day" has a similar epic feel to it although with Gracie at the helm it is predictably less idealistic and more sardonic and surreal in its imagery. Slick's authoritative vocal and the swelling and turbulent music churned out by the band behind her makes this one of my all-time favorite Airplane cuts. Country rock returns with Spencer Dryden's "A Song For All Seasons." It is a shambling, lackadaisical track aside from Hopkins' honky-tonk piano but I like the humor in the autobiographical lyrics. "Meadowlands" is Slick's brief organ performance of a classic Soviet propaganda song. The album ends with Balin and Kantner's rousing call to revolution, "Volunteers." The song erupts with blistering guitar lines from Kaukonen and dueling pianos courtesy of Slick and Hopkins. One of the best political songs ever to come out of rock and a nice finale for Balin's last songwriting contribution to the band he founded. "Volunteers" was the last great album the Airplane recorded, things went swiftly downhill from here for the best American band of the late 1960s. The singing of Balin, Slick and Kantner is tremendously powerful and the band was at the peak of its instrumental prowess. This album is passionate and vibrant and full of the spirit of the era. Despite its topical urgency and political message, the album still sounds relevant to me, particularly since history is apparently repeating itself. Recommended to people who think "alternative facts" are lies.
Monday, January 16, 2017
Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Cotillion ELP 66666
This is a live recording of ELP's version of Modest Mussorgsky's classical opus recorded at Newcastle City Hall on March 26, 1971. It was released in England in 1971 but ELP's American record company initially rejected it and its American release was delayed until 1972. I had been planning a post in honor of Keith Emerson after he committed suicide last year. I was planning to do an album by his previous band, the Nice, which I like better than ELP, but I changed my mind following the recent passing of his bandmate Greg Lake. I've made fun of ELP and this album in particular in some previous posts, but I was actually a fan of Emerson as a teenager. I loved the Nice and liked the first ELP album as well. This one not so much, but I've never considered getting rid of it in the many years I've owned it. Reading his obituary I was surprised to find that Emerson was living in my hometown of Santa Monica when he died. There are loads of British ex-pats here but somehow Emerson seemed so European to me that it was hard for me to imagine living next to him out here in sunny SaMo. In one of the obits I read, his girlfriend mentioned that he never listened to rock music, only jazz and classical. That I found easy to believe. Even back in the Nice I sensed that Emerson felt that rock was beneath him. Not unlike Frank Zappa, I got the feeling he was pandering to his fans presumably for commercial reasons. In that regard this album is emblematic of his career. I'm sure Emerson was skilled enough to have recorded a straight performance of Mussorgsky's original work but that would have sold a tiny fraction of what this "rock" version of it did. The album begins with "Promenade" which was taken straight out of Mussorgsky's original composition. It features a distinctive melody that was used throughout the original work to link together some of the movements. Emerson plays it on the big pipe organ in the hall. "The Gnome" was also taken from Mussorgsky and adapted by ELP's drummer Carl Palmer. His main contribution seems to be adding a bombastic drum track to the piece as well as a mercifully brief drum solo. Like the original piece, it is gloomy and ominous. The work proves surprisingly suitable for the heavy rock treatment given to it by ELP. I imagine Mussorgsky would have been appalled, but I like it. Emerson switched to an electric organ and a synthesizer for this track and I enjoy his frenetic noodling. Next Emerson plays a subdued version of "Promenade" on his organ and Greg Lake takes to the microphone to gently croon the words he composed for it which are basically quasi-mystical nonsense about life's journey. Lake expounds further on this theme for his original song "The Sage" which is him and his acoustic guitar. The song sounds a bit like a courtly, Renaissance air crossed with a traditional English folk song although the lyrics are pure hippie bullshit reminiscent of the trite philosophizing of the Moody Blues. Emerson changes the tempo dramatically with his high energy adaptation of "The Old Castle" which was the second movement in Mussorgsky's original work. The sensitive romantic character of the original piece is completely obliterated by Emerson's intense bludgeoning of assorted electric organs and synthesizers but it is entertaining. It segues seamlessly into the pompously titled group composition "Blues Variation" which is an Emerson-dominated jam that is easily my favorite track. It really cooks, which is something pretty rare in ELP recordings. Side two begins with a reprise of the "Promenade" theme played forcefully by the full band. They then run through "The Hut of Baba Yaga" at breakneck speed. This was the ninth movement in Mussorgsky's original work. This is followed by another group jam entitled "The Curse of Baba Yaga" which features more blistering keyboard runs from Emerson. It is followed by a brief return to "The Hut of Baba Yaga" before moving into the tenth and final movement of Mussorgsky's opus, "The Great Gates of Kiev." In the original work this piece is stately and triumphant, but ELP instead go with a full throttle attack featuring Lake bellowing out more of his silly lyrics with Emerson maniacally raising a ruckus in support. Near the end the band finally slows down and Mussorgsky's majestic music emerges to back up verses like "there's no end to my life, no beginning to my death, death is life." Ugh! When the music finally finishes, the audience erupts in thunderous applause and if I had been there perhaps I would have too, it is perversely impressive. The band returns to encore with a high octane performance of Kim Fowley's ludicrous Tchaikovsky adaptation "Nutrocker" which gives the album a winningly irreverent finish. I ought to hate this record, it is one of the most pretentious pop albums ever and a vulgar travesty of Mussorgsky's original work. It goes against all my beliefs of what good rock music should be. Nonetheless I do find it listenable and even sporadically enjoyable, mostly because Emerson was such a dynamic keyboard player. He may not have been interested in rock, but he was good at it as a performer. Also I find some charm in the dialectic collision between the refined art of classical music and the crudity of heavy rock. The results are often ridiculous (especially when Lake is singing) but there are times when the frisson between the two is engaging to me. This record never bores me which is more than I can say about Yes, Genesis, or even post-Barrett Pink Floyd. You could definitely do worse when it comes to prog-rock. Even if you hate this sort of thing, you ought to hear it at least once, if only to marvel at Keith Emerson's skill and shameless audacity. I'm going to miss him. Recommended to classical music fans who dig Jerry Lee Lewis.
Friday, December 30, 2016
Capitol ST 2978
I bought this a couple of years ago when I became interested in Campbell after seeing him perform at the Hollywood Bowl. It turned out to be a dud. Campbell sings fine but the arrangements by Al de Lory are sappy and uninspired. There is a mix of Christmas classics and newer songs including two brand new ones by the redoubtable team of Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen. Unfortunately they are among the worst tracks on the album. "Christmas is for Children" is tediously slow and a bit inane in its description of adults becoming kids again on Christmas day. "It Must Be Getting Close to Christmas" is a little better although I hate the heavy-handed strings and the choir. The song is about how children behave better as Christmas draws near. The melody is more lively and memorable although the song is never going to compete with the classic Christmas carols. My least favorite track is Howlett Smith's "Little Altar Boy" which was a minor hit for Vic Dana in 1961. It is a maudlin song about a guy asking an altar boy for help in finding redemption from God. The song suggests that altar boys are pure and holy, which as a former altar boy myself, I think is a dubious assertion. The song is not really a Christmas song and I loathe it although Campbell sings it with a lot of feeling which is the only thing that makes it bearable for me. "There's No Place Like Home" isn't a Christmas song either, but Sammy Cahn wrote some new lyrics to make it one. I hate the schmaltzy arrangement but I can't deny that Campbell sings it beautifully. The standards are better but still underwhelming. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is probably the best of them. The arrangement is pedestrian but the song suits Campbell pretty well. His performances of "Blue Christmas" and "The Christmas Song" are surprisingly lackluster and pale in comparison to the classic recordings by Elvis and Nat King Cole. I believe Campbell's version of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" is even slower than Bing Crosby's version and sounds lifeless in comparison. I'm unfamiliar with "Christmas Day" by Jimmy Holiday and L. White which has a 1963 copyright. It is a nice song although I'd like it a whole lot better if Campbell sang it at a faster tempo. Predictably the two best tracks are the country songs where Campbell seems most comfortable. Roger Miller's "Old Toy Trains" is easily my favorite track on the album. It is by far the most dynamic and lively performance that Campbell gives on the album. Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper" is a great song although I prefer Nelson's own versions, especially the one he cut in 1979. Are three good cuts enough to make an album worthwhile? Probably not, especially when there is also a stinker like "Little Altar Boy" on it. I'm not sorry I have it, but I'm not going to suggest you look for it unless you are a big Campbell fan. Recommended for people who don't have many Christmas albums.
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
The New Possibility: John Fahey's Guitar Soli Christmas Album
Takoma TAK 7020
This is a reissue of John Fahey's Christmas album dating from the period when Chrysalis owned and distributed the Takoma label in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I gave it a spin while I was trimming the tree this year. Fortunately I was alone at the time or I'm sure my family would have demanded something else. Fahey is definitely not for everyone. I'm a fan but there are times when I have no patience for his highly structured and deliberate guitar work, not to mention the lethargic tempos he often employed. On this album Fahey takes a bunch of mostly familiar Christmas classics and renders them in his distinctive folk-blues style. They are all fine, but my favorite track is not a carol but rather derived from an obscure hymn by John Henry Hopkins. It is entitled "Christ's Saints of God Fantasy" and while all the rest of the cuts on the album are short (generally under three minutes) this is a ten minute long extravaganza that features Fahey's most invigorating picking on the record. The song begins with an ethereal sound which gradually shifts into a more dynamic passage with more fast-paced playing than is typical with Fahey. The song shifts gears again as Fahey switches to a more measured and stately approach to the tune before jumping into a lively country-flavored style. There is another tempo change and Fahey slows the song down and heads back into the mesmerizing music from the beginning. Truly a remarkable track that allows Fahey to spread his wings and show the full range of his musical skill. My other favorite cut is a country-blues style performance of the traditional African-American spiritual "Go I Will Send Thee" where Fahey's robust style of playing brings out the feeling of the song admirably. I also like Fahey's adaptation of the 16th Century German hymn "Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming" which mixes ancient and modern creating a delightful hybrid. "Auld Lang Syne" is of course more of a New Year's Eve song than a Christmas song. Fahey plays it at a glacially slow pace that reveals the beauty of the tune to me for the first time. The Christmas classics are less interesting to me but I like them all. My particular favorites are a bluesy take on "Silent Night" that features interesting tuning and an evocative slide guitar sound. On some tracks like "The Bells of St. Mary's," "What Child is This?" and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" he slows down the songs so much that they almost become abstract despite their familiarity which I find appealing. On his medley of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "O Come All Ye Faithful" Fahey adds a jaunty contrapuntal melody to the familiar songs giving the track a charming country flavor. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman Fantasy" also begins with a country style arrangement that is just a starting point for an extended deconstruction of the song by Fahey. It is another track that I admire. You may notice that there are no secular Christmas songs on this record. Fahey apparently did not approve of Santa Claus. The original pressing of this album featured liner notes by Fahey in which he explained the title of the record and his motivations in recording it. "The New Possibility" came from an term by the German theologian Paul Tillich referring to the birth of Jesus as "the gift of reconciliation between God and man." In his notes Fahey rejected the commercialism and pagan aspects of Christmas and stressed his attempt to musically celebrate and rejoice in the birth of Christ. Personally I kind of like the pagan side of Christmas, but I respect Fahey's perspective and even sympathize with it even though I am no longer a believer myself. When it comes to spiritual Christmas albums this is one of the best ones I've ever heard. It is completely lacking in displays of sanctimonious piety and stuffiness nor is its religious expression heavy-handed and preachy. Fahey brings out the feeling in the music without beating the listener over the head with it. The music is refined and elevated, no trace of the vulgarity of most commercial Christmas records. However Fahey's playing is so tasteful and lovely that even a hardened atheist is likely to find pleasure in it. Recommended for a New Age Christmas party.