Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Royal We - The Royal We


The Royal We
The Royal We
Geographic GEOG31LP
2007

I got all excited when I learned that Roxanne Clifford and Patrick Doyle had been in this Scottish group prior to forming Veronica Falls.  Unfortunately this band does not sound much like Veronica Falls, they play slightly retro dance pop reminiscent of Neverever which makes sense since that band's leader Jihae Meek was the lead singer of the Royal We (then using her maiden name Jihae Simmons.)  When I first played this record I was really disappointed, but with repeated spins I started to appreciate it.  I do like Neverever, just not nearly as much as Veronica Falls which was my favorite band before they broke up.  The album gets off to a quiet start with "Back and Forth Forever" which is an acoustic love song driven by Clifford on ukelele.  The record shifts into gear with the jumping "All The Rage" which the band released as a single.  It is a wonderfully poppy dance song that showcases Simmons' charisma with forceful background vocals from Doyle and Clifford that are as close as this album ever gets to the Veronica Falls sound.  "That Ain't My Sweet Love" continues in a similar rocking vein although without the catchy pop hooks.  Side one concludes with "Three Is a Crowd" which pumps up the sound of 1960s girl group pop to provide a framework for Simmons to vent her spleen.  Joan Sweeney's violin adds some flavor to the band's sound.  "I Hate Rock N Roll" also sounds like an update on 1960s pop and once again Sweeney's violin saves the song from blandness.  "Willy" allows Clifford more space as a romantic counterpoint to Simmons sardonic vocal which I find very welcome.  "French Legality" is a propulsive track driven by a compelling guitar riff that gets me bopping.  Simmons vocal is very strong and builds in strength until she is screaming at the end.  This is my favorite track after "All The Rage."  "Wicked Games" is a cover of the Chris Isaak song taken at a much faster tempo than the original.  Simmons rejects the sensitivity and yearning of Isaak's original vocal in favor of a more bitter and cynical approach.  I don't really approve, but the song is very compelling and gives the album a stirring finish.  This record shows a lot of promise although it was probably for the best that the band broke up.  Veronica Falls might have benefited from a more charismatic lead singer like Simmons, but I think Clifford's more diffident style suited that band's introspective approach.  Simmons is too exuberant and distracting, she needed a different band that would showcase her unbridled personality.  This is still a very enjoyable record and I think the tension between the Simmons and the Clifford/Doyle styles is one of the more stimulating elements of the album.  Recommended to fans of Blondie.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

The Season for Miracles - Smokey Robinson and The Miracles


The Season for Miracles
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
Motown 5253ML
1970

This is a reissue of the second Christmas album released by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles which was originally issued on Tamla as TS307.  I put it on to trim the tree this year and found it very pleasing.  It features an engaging mix of original songs and traditional carols.  The traditional carols are given Motown style arrangements with strong rhythm sections over which the Miracles deliver typically dynamic vocal arrangements with stimulating harmonies.  I particularly like the driving performance of "Go Tell It On The Mountain."  They also offer up lovely performances of combined melodies of "Deck the Halls" with "Bring a Torch, Jeannette Isabella" and "Away in a Manger" with "Coventry Carol."  "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is given a jazzy arrangement by Wade Marcus that features terrific ensemble singing by the group.  It is one of my favorite tracks.  In contrast the sappy arrangement of Mel Torme and Robert Wells' classic "The Christmas Song" leaves me indifferent despite the gorgeous vocals.  "Jingle Bells" is basically indestructible and easily survives its Motownization.  Among the original songs the most striking one is "A Child is Waiting" by Joe Hinton and Patti Jerome.  It is not a Christmas song, but rather a song endorsing adoption, but with its generosity of spirit and heart-warming message it fits in well with the rest of the album and gives the record an uplifting finish.  The originals also include two songs by Stevie Wonder and Syreeta Wright.  "I Can Tell When Christmas is Near" is the better of the two.  It is driven by a catchy piano riff and features a lively performance by the group.  "It's Christmas Time" is also piano driven but is more sedate emphasizing Robinson's sensitive vocal.  It recounts the events around the birth of Jesus.  Robinson wrote "I Believe in Christmas Eve" which is also a religious song but has enough of a pop flavor that I still find it very appealing.  Ron and Deborah Miller's "The Day That Love Began" previously appeared on Stevie Wonder's 1967 Christmas album.  I find the song corny and don't really care for either version but I give the edge to Wonder for a more convincing vocal.  "Peace on Earth (Goodwill Toward Men)" by Jimmy and Ann Roach is the most undistinguished of the original songs but it is still pleasant to listen to.  The absence of any real standout songs keeps this album from being an essential Christmas record and I would prefer more secular Christmas songs, but this is still a very worthwhile record that should appeal to most fans of the group.  Recommended to religious Motown buffs.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Really Really Happy - The Muffs


Really Really Happy
The Muffs
Sympathy for the Record Industry  SFTRI 749
2004

I was listening to "She Rocks" on KXLU a few weeks ago when I heard them play a bunch of Muffs songs to open the show.  At first I was delighted, but then I realized this could not be good unless Kim Shattuck was there with them in the studio.  Alas that was not the case, she had died of ALS and they were playing a tribute to her.  I was shocked.  I had just seen her and the Muffs at a show a few years ago where Shattuck performed with her usual exuberance and vitality.  ALS seems a particularly cruel disease for someone who was such a dynamic and energetic person.  Even as she was dying she had the will and determination to complete the final Muffs album which I find touching and inspiring.  This was the Muffs' fifth album.  My favorite record of theirs is "Blond and Blonder" but I don't have it on vinyl.  I love this one almost as much though, so I think it is a worthy record for a tribute to her.  It is more subdued than the first four albums, more power pop than pop punk with a cheerful feel to it as reflected in its apt title.  Long time fans might miss the force of the earlier albums, Shattuck rarely even cuts loose with any of her trademark screams.  I find it charming myself and appreciate her attempt to change her style without sacrificing her integrity.  She delivers 17 delightful pop songs that make me feel really really happy just as advertised.  There are several songs in the familiar Shattuck style - noisy, fast-paced, riff driven songs like "Freak Out," the ebullient "Really Really Happy," "The Whole World," the frenetic "By My Side" and the scream-laden "Oh Poor You."  There is a more pronounced pop feeling and melodic sound to "A Little Luxury," "How I Pass the Time," "I'm Here I'm Not" and one of my favorite cuts, "My Lucky Day" with its exhilarating "wooo's" driving it home.  Numerous songs have a traditional, retro pop sound like "Something Inside," "Everybody Loves You," the doo-wop flavored "Fancy Girl," and the girl group sounding "Slow." I really like the bouncy "Don't Pick On Me" which sounds like a Monkees or Raiders cover.  "And I Go Pow" has a similar garage band sound to it.  "My Awful Dream" is the most unique song on the record and one of the more unusual songs in the Shattuck catalog.  It is an acoustic performance that showcases the expressiveness of Shattuck's voice as she croons the angst laden lyrics.  It even features a harmonica solo.  I love it.  The album closes with the introspective "The Story of Me" in which Shattuck examines the contradictions within her but seems to be happy with who she is which sums up this album rather nicely.  As much as I love the earlier Muffs albums, I have to admit that this one appeals to me more in many ways.  I was quite taken by the ferocious energy and youthful humor of the debut album and "Blond and Blonder" back in the 1990s, but now that I'm older I'm appreciative of the maturity and sensitivity of Shattuck's music on this album.  No one is ever going to mistake her for Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen, but there is a grace and purpose to her lyrics on this album that I find engaging.  Although pop appeal has always been apart of her style, I greatly enjoy the more pronounced melodicism on this album.  The growth displayed on this record makes her premature demise even sadder for me.  I would have loved to hear what directions her music would have taken as she grew older.  She was such a special artist, so bold and creative, I'm really going to miss her.  Recommended to fans of Cub.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

My Tennessee Mountain Home - Dolly Parton




My Tennessee Mountain Home
Dolly Parton
RCA APL1-0033
1973

I bought this several years ago in an antique store in Jamestown, ND - the home of the World's Largest Buffalo (it is a giant statue.)  I sometimes buy country albums from the 1970s for artists I really like even though almost all of them were primarily singles artists.  If I were smart I'd just buy compilations.  The two big exceptions to that are Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton.  Since they mostly wrote their own material, their albums have a higher quality than the single plus filler formula most of their peers employed.  Parton made many fine albums in the 1970s but this is my favorite.  It is a concept album focused on her childhood.  The cover of the album depicts the house she grew up in and there is a picture of the home she was born in inside the gatefold along with pictures of her as a child as well as some family members.  It also has liner notes written by her father and mother.  The album begins with "The Letter" in which she recites a touching letter she wrote home when she first came to Nashville in 1964.  The only music is a harmonica playing "Home Sweet Home."  "I Remember" is a heartfelt tribute to her parents.  It is enhanced by her gift for evocative descriptions.  "Old Black Kettle" is a lively tune that describes cooking with the kettle of the title and provides a rosy picture of growing up in the country.  "Daddy's Working Boots" as you probably can guess pays homage to her hard-working father.  Parton has always had a way with symbols and metaphors and the boots serve that function in this song.  "Dr. Robert F. Thomas" is an ode to the doctor who delivered her as a baby.  The song celebrates his good deeds and perseverance as a country doctor.  Side one concludes with "In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)" which is a remarkable song that vividly describes her hardships growing up with mixed feelings of nostalgia and relief as reflected in the chorus when she sings "no amount of money could buy from me the memories that I have of then, no amount of money could pay me to go back and live through it again."  The song is an old song that she originally released as a single in 1968 but it fits the theme of the record so well it is hard to blame her for wanting to re-record it for this album.  On a record suffused with nostalgia, it provides some much needed realism.  Side two begins with "My Tennessee Mountain Home" which was the single off the album.  It is an idealized vision of her childhood that has great resonance.  Its emotional impact is a testament to her genius as a songwriter and a performer and it is one of my favorite songs in her enormous catalog.  "The Wrong Direction Home" describes how she misses her mountain home.  In "Back Home" she joyously does return home.  "The Better Part of Life" is more nostalgia enlivened by her richly expressive remembrances.  "Down on Music Row" recounts her early experiences in Nashville.  The story she tells is very detailed and celebrates RCA which is a little misleading since she did not sign with RCA until years later.  Still it makes for a happy ending and gives the album some satisfying closure.  I have to admit that the sentimentality and nostalgia that permeates this album would probably annoy me in the hands of a lesser artist.  Parton's skill with imagery and her incomparable sincerity as a vocalist are able to convince a city-slicker like me that she really did have a wonderful childhood growing up impoverished in the country.  It also helps that her musical accompaniment is so tasteful and subdued, allowing her voice and the lyrics to convey the feelings in the song.  She is so full of love for the subjects of her songs, that she charms me and persuades me of the truth of her vision.  This is a flawless album that is essential for Parton fans and recommended to anyone looking for a little warmth and affection to brighten up their lives.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Aretha Live at Fillmore West - Aretha Franklin



Aretha Live at Fillmore West
Aretha Franklin
Atlantic SD 7205
1971

This was the first Aretha Franklin album that I owned.  I bought it as a teenager in the used record store that briefly existed in my suburban home town.  It was a small enough store that I could go through all the records in the pop music bins which is how I noticed it.  My taste in soul back then was more Motown than Atlantic.  I was familiar with Franklin's big hits but I was not yet a fan.  This album totally changed that, but I originally bought it primarily because it was recorded at the Fillmore which I was obsessed with at the time.  It is still my favorite of Franklin's live albums.  It was re-released in a greatly expanded version on CD covering all three of her nights at the auditorium including King Curtis' performances.  I'm sure it is wonderful but I'm happy with this smaller sampling.  It is a flawless album, over forty-five minutes of greatness.  The vinyl version kicks off with her explosive performance of "Respect" taken at a much faster pace than her classic single.  It is an amazingly energetic performance that blows me away every time I hear it.  At the end of the song Franklin promises the audience that they will enjoy her show as much as any they have ever seen.  It is a bold promise but I think she delivered.  She changes pace with Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With" which she slows down and makes sound like a gospel song.  It is a brilliant interpretation that I greatly prefer to Stills' own version.  She also makes Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" sound like a hymn.  She sings it with such feeling and passion, she absolutely slays me.  I like the original but it sounds stilted and phony in comparison.  The most remarkable cover on the album is her uptempo performance of the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby."  Supported by propulsive back up vocals from the Sweethearts of Soul, Franklin utterly transforms the song into an exciting and upbeat workout.  Curiously she sings the song in the first person which makes it seem more personal.  I think the Beatles' melancholy version is more suitable for the lyrics, but Franklin's cover is a lot more fun.  Her biggest challenge on the record is taking on David Gates' sappy "Make It With You."  I've always loathed the original single by Bread.  It is a testament to her genius that she makes this lightweight song seem powerful and meaningful with her heartfelt performance.  Side one concludes with a lively version of "Don't Play That Song" which was a hit for Ben E. King in 1962.  Franklin covered it on her album "Spirit in the Dark" in 1970.  I am a fan of King and like his version, but when Franklin covers a song, it becomes hers.  Side one is devoted to showing the hippies that she can beat them at their own game with her absolute dominance of some of their classics.  Side two showcases her own music.  It opens with her and Ted White's "Dr. Feelgood."  It is a slow, smoldering blues that gradually builds in strength leading to some explosive vocal pyrotechnics that take my breath away.  It is a sensual song but at the end she takes the audience to church with her incredible spirit.  Which is an appropriate segue for her performance of "Spirit in the Dark" which is her spiritual ode to the power of music.  It is an incredibly compelling performance and just when you think it can't get any better than this, she brings out Ray Charles, literally her only peer in soul singing.  What a thrill it must have been for the audience to see the King and Queen of Soul together on that stage.  Charles slows down the tempo for a funky interpretation of the song featuring a dazzling call and response with Franklin.  Then Charles takes Franklin's place at the electric piano and delivers a smoking piano solo that gets me bopping.  Charles resumes singing and rouses the crowd with his mesmerizing gospel style vocal.  At the end of the song Franklin proclaims him to be "the Reverend Righteous Ray" to which I can only reply "Amen!"  When I heard this song as a teenager it instantly converted me into a fan of soul music.  I had never heard anything like it and it still thrills me all these years later.  This album is a must buy just for that song alone.  The record comes back to earth to conclude with her robust vocal on Ashford and Simpson's "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)" which had been a hit for Diana Ross the year before and I suspect she picked it just to show Ross who is the boss.  What a show!  The band is excellent and Franklin is inspired.  I wish I could have been there.  This is one of my favorite live albums.  It has so much feeling and atmosphere, it is everything a good live album should be.  I consider it one of her essential recordings.  It fully displays her unparalleled skill as an interpreter and the boundless expressiveness of her voice.  Recommended to fans of Ray Charles, her only rival when it comes to the soulful interpretation of pop music.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

It Hurts To Be In Love - Gene Pitney


It Hurts To Be In Love
Gene Pitney
Musicor MS3019
1964

Gene Pitney was basically a singles artist.  If he ever recorded an essential album, I have not heard it.  His albums generally contain a hit single or two and a bunch of filler so most people who are not big fans should probably just pick up a compilation.  I'm a moderate fan but I like Pitney's voice enough to pick up his albums when I run across a bargain.  Since his records are relatively easy to find and generally not expensive, I've ended up with a bunch of them.  I rarely play them but I enjoy them when I do.  This is my favorite of the ones in my collection.  The album begins with a bang with Pitney's soaring melodramatic performance of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil's "I'm Gonna Be Strong" which was a top ten single for Pitney.  The song showcases Pitney's range and strength as a singer, but it is a little over the top for my taste.  My favorite version of the song is Jackie DeShannon's cover of it on "This is Jackie DeShannon" and I also prefer Tim Rose's performance of the song on "Tim Rose."  It is followed by "Walk" by Howard Greenfield and Helen Miller which is a charming, jaunty song that lightens the mood of the record.  Van McCoy's "I Love You More Today" is a pedestrian and sappy country-flavored ballad that Pitney makes listenable with his emotional vocal.  The record picks up again with the upbeat and poppy "Who Needs It" which was written by the successful British songwriting team of Len Beadle and Robin Conrad (a pseudonym for Peter Callender.)  It has a British Invasion sound and is one of my favorite tracks on the album.  "Follow the Sun" was composed by Peter Udell and Gary Geld who wrote Brian Hyland's big hit "Sealed With a Kiss."  The song has a rhythm and blues sound to it which Pitney bolsters with his robust vocal.  "Lips Are Redder On You" was written by legendary British producer Joe Meek.  It is a cheerful poppy song that Pitney puts over with ease.  Side two opens with another Greenfield/Miller composition "It Hurts To Be In Love" which was a top ten single for Pitney.  The song was originally intended for Neil Sedaka and Pitney recorded his version over the original Sedaka backing track, I think I still hear Sedaka on the background vocal.  It is an extremely catchy and appealing song, one of my all time Pitney favorites.  Al Kooper wrote "The Last Two People on Earth" with Bob Brass and Irwin Levine.  Blues Project fans should not get too excited, the song is utterly mediocre although the science fiction theme is kind of interesting.  The main reason I bought this album was to hear "That Girl Belongs to Yesterday" which was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.  The song was deservedly a hit single in England where it was the first Jagger/Richards song to crack the top ten.  The song sounds nothing like the Rolling Stones, but its dramatic character is perfect for Pitney's emotional style.  It is my favorite track after the title cut and the album is worth buying for it alone.  "E se domani" is an Italian song written by Giorgio Calabrese and Carlo Alberto Rossi.  I presume this is the same version that appeared on Pitney's Italian language album "Gene Italiano" released earlier in the year although I have no idea why it was stuck on this album as well.  This old-fashioned song is fine if you like that sort of thing but it does not fit in with the rest of the record at all.  "Hawaii" is another Kooper/Brass/Levine composition.  I would not say it is better than "The Last Two People on Earth" but it is a lot more fun.  The album concludes with "I'm Gonna Find Myself a Girl" by Ray Adams, Elaine Adams and Valerie Avon who were in the English pop group, The Avons.  It is a subdued but enticing love song that features a double tracked vocal from Pitney that reminds me of the Everly Brothers.  It gives the album a pleasant finale.  Six of the twelve tracks on this record are memorable and worthwhile which is a good ratio on a pop album in the mid-1960s.  As a result I play this album as much as I play my Pitney compilation album.  If you are a Pitney fan, it is well-worth seeking out and probably would appeal to most fans of pre-Beatles pop music.  Recommended to fans of the early Warner Bros. Records era Everly Brothers.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Rocking the World - Earth Quake


Rocking the World
Earth Quake
Beserkley  JBZ-0045
1975 

"Rocking the world?"  Rocking California is more accurate.  This is a live album drawn from shows this Bay Area band played in California.  They played my high school back in the mid-1970s.  I did not go largely because I had never heard of them, but judging from this album I missed a good show.  The record consists mostly of covers which is probably part of why they never became popular outside of their home turf.  Their three original songs are weak in comparison.  "Power Glide Slide" is the best of the trio.  It features a lumbering heavy riff laid over a straight ahead boogie that helps disguise that the song is otherwise so undistinguished.  It glides into a frenetic rave up that is straight out of the Yardbirds' playbook and must have been exhilarating to see live.  The similarly riff-driven "Mr. Security" is a generic rocker that is entertaining but forgettable.  I find "(Sitting In the Middle of) Madness" to be tedious but the crowd seems to dig it, maybe you had to be there.  They may not have very good songwriters, but the group did have excellent taste in cover songs.  The record kicks off with a high voltage interpretation of Bobby Troup's "Route 66" which is one of the best versions of this much covered song that I have ever heard.  They load up the song with guitar noise and a relentless driving beat that gets me bopping.  Their version of the Easybeats' "Friday On My Mind" suffers from weak vocals.  John Doukas' lead vocal is labored and screechy and the band's background vocal is feeble.  Musically they transform the song from power pop to an energetic boogie which was probably fun to see live but I don't really approve of the changes.  The band sticks pretty close to the original arrangement of the Small Faces" "Tin Soldier."  Vocalist Gary Phillips can't match Steve Marriott's performance, but he gives it a solid effort.  The song is too similar to the original to be interesting, but I adore the original so I'm not complaining.  The band kicks out the jams on the Velvet Underground's "Head Held High."  It is really exciting and must have been thrilling to see live.  I consider it the highlight of the album.  The final cover is the Electric Light Orchestra's "Ma Ma Ma Belle."  Bassist Stan Miller takes the lead vocal but he isn't up to the challenge and often sounds strained.  I like the band's raucous work out on the tune though, it is much more lively than the original.  It gives the album a dynamic finish.  I enjoy this album but I don't play it very often.  It is basically the 1970s equivalent to a garage band album.  Nonetheless I admire the band's commitment to full-throttle rocking out which was an all too rare commodity back then unless heavy metal counts.  Recommended to fans of the J. Geils Band and Faces.