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.
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Columbia CS 9577
I became interested in Tim Rose when I read that Jimi Hendrix's version of "Hey Joe" was based on Rose's arrangement. Hendrix's version of that much covered song on "Are You Experienced" is my favorite so I wanted to hear its origin. That led me to Rose's debut album which proved to be interesting beyond "Hey Joe." I expected a folkie, but Rose was more of a rocker both in style and spirit. He is backed by a full band throughout the album including such notable musicians as Hugh McCracken on guitar, Bernard Purdie on drums and Felix Pappalardi on bass. The album begins with Rose's composition "I Got a Loneliness" which is a soulful rocker. Rose was typically a very emotional singer who sang with a lot of force and urgency. His voice had a lot of texture becoming rough and gravelly when he got all worked up. The album shifts gears dramatically with the emotional ballad "I'm Gonna Be Strong" which was written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and was a big hit for Gene Pitney in 1964. The song suits Rose's dramatic style although the old-fashioned string arrangement is at odds with the funky rock sound that is predominant on most of the album. "I Gotta Do Things My Way" was written by Rose and Richard Hussan who played bass on several tracks of the album including this one. This song features a welcome to the soulful rock sound of the opening track. It is driven by Hussan's rumbling bass line and Rose delivers the lyrics with a lot of passion. Rose wrote "Fare Thee Well" which is a moody slow rocker that builds in strength as it goes along. "Eat, Drink and Be Merry" is a cover of a 1955 Porter Wagoner song written by Celia and Sandra Ferguson. Rose's somber version is quite different from Wagoner's more maudlin mainstream country recording. Rose slows down the song and invests it with his usual urgency. It is a remarkable transformation from country to rhythm and blues that reminds me of Ray Charles' "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music." I think it is one of the best tracks on the album. Side one concludes with "Hey Joe" which is erroneously listed as if it were a traditional song, presumably so Rose could claim the songwriting royalties for it. Rose did transform the song quite a bit, it is totally different from the folk-rock versions that came before it. Hendrix's version is almost identical except that it is blessed with his incomparable guitar work and Hendrix's vocal was more subdued which I prefer. Nonetheless Rose's version of the song is very impressive and it is by far the album's highlight. Side two begins with Bonnie Dobson's classic "Morning Dew" on which Rose inappropriately claimed a co-writing credit for slightly changing the lyrics. Rose sped up the song and gave it a full rock treatment which probably inspired the Jeff Beck Group's version the following year on "Truth." I like the propulsive quality of Rose's version as well as its energy, but when I want to hear the song, I usually play the Grateful Dead's version from "The Grateful Dead" which I think is more emotionally effective. "Where Was I" was written by Norman Martin. It is an old fashioned dramatic pop ballad with a soaring string arrangement. I think Rose's vocal sounds melodramatic and strained. Rose wrote "You're Slipping Away From Me" which is a lot more satisfying to me. It has a chamber pop arrangement and a more nuanced and resonant performance from Rose. Rose claimed songwriting credit for "Long Time Man" but it is really the traditional African-American ballad "It Makes a Long Time Man Feel Bad" which I first heard on the debut album by Ian and Sylvia in 1962. I prefer the Ian and Sylvia version which has a more robust tempo, but I admire the way Rose dramatically transformed the song through a very creative arrangement that sounds swampy and funky. His vocal is very strong as well. The album concludes with "Come Away, Melinda" by Fred Hellerman and Fran Minkoff which has been covered by many singers including Harry Belafonte and Judy Collins although I've never heard as dramatic a version as the one that Rose delivered. The man had a real gift for arrangements. His passionate performance gives the album a strong emotional finish. I have a lot of respect for this album which deserves to be better known. Rose was an expressive singer and a superb interpreter of lyrics. He reminds me in that regard of Joe Cocker, although Rose was a better songwriter. I like the way the album maintains a consistent musical tone despite a highly eclectic selection of songs. It sounds particularly nice late at night when its moodiness and dramatic ambience are especially potent. I rarely see this record in the bins so I suspect it sold poorly and that people who are fortunate enough to have a copy tend to keep it. 1967 was such an incredible year for music, I suppose the record got lost in the avalanche of great albums that came out then. It is worth seeking out though, it holds up very well nearly 50 years later. Recommended to fans of Jake Holmes and Fred Neil.
Saturday, November 26, 2016
SGC Records SD 5001
I was surprised to see a large obituary for Carson Van Osten in the "LA Times" late last year. I figured that somebody there must be a Nazz fan, but when I read the obituary I discovered that he had a prominent career as a comic book artist, Nazz were hardly even mentioned. I only knew him as the bassist for Nazz, a group that I've loved ever since I first heard them on the "Nuggets" comp as a teenager. This was their debut album which I consider one of the best albums of 1968. It begins with "Open My Eyes" which is my favorite Nazz song. Like most of the songs on the album it was written by Todd Rundgren, the lead guitarist in Nazz. It is a dazzling hard rocking song with a driving beat that makes brilliant use of phasing to give it a psychedelic edge. The song blew me away when I heard it on "Nuggets" and it still thrills me whenever I hear it. It was a flop single, but I think it is better than 99% of the songs in the top 40 in 1968. "Back of Your Mind" is similarly riff-driven, it sounds like a more pop-oriented version of Cream. Rundgren delivers a hot guitar solo and Robert "Stewkey" Antoni's lead vocal has a winning urgency that makes the song memorable. "See What You Can Be" is soaring power pop reminiscent of the Left Banke. "Hello It's Me" was a hit for Rundgren when he recorded it as a solo artist in the early 1970s. This version is slower and features a less elaborate arrangement than the hit version but I like it almost as much primarily because of the strength of Antoni's vocal and Van Osten's melodic bass lines. Side one concludes with a group composition, "Wildwood Blues." The song is a full-on rocker driven by sizzling guitar work from Rundgren. One of the things I like best about the band is that they retain their pop smarts even when they get loud and raucous much like the Beatles. Side two opens with the delicate "If That's the Way You Feel" which features a string arrangement by Rundgren and a lovely vocal from Antoni. "When I Get My Plane" is delicious power pop that blends hard rock with superb vocal harmonies, it sounds like the Association jamming with the Who. "Lemming Song" is a straight ahead rocker propelled by Rundgren's howling guitar runs. The rave-up in the song's instrumental break is extremely exciting. "Crowded" was written by Antoni and Nazz's drummer Thom Mooney. It is the weakest song on the album although it is still pleasant to listen to. The album concludes with "She's Goin' Down" which is highly kinetic featuring Rundgren wailing on guitar and Antoni's frenetic organ work supported by Mooney's hyper-active drumming. It gives the record an energetic finish. I'll never understand why this band never became big. They had it all - they were attractive, featured quality songwriting, creative arranging, a fine singer and they could play up a storm. I've heard hundreds of albums from the late 1960s and this album is better than the vast majority of them. Did people really prefer Crosby, Stills and Nash, Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly or Blood, Sweat and Tears? I guess Nazz was out of touch with the zeitgeist of the era, championing pop values at a time when hippies just wanted to get down and get dirty. They missed out on a truly great album. Recommended to fans of Big Star and Badfinger.
Sunday, October 16, 2016
Atlantic 50 857
In the 1960s most of France Gall's best songs were written by Serge Gainsbourg. In the 1970s she married songwriter Michel Berger and began recording only his compositions. I don't think Berger was in Gainsbourg's league as a songwriter, but I think you can make a case that his work was more compatible with Gall as a performer as demonstrated by this record. The album opens with "Tout pour la musique" which describes people who are obsessed with music. As a music fan, I find it a little offensive, it makes fans sound like zombies or drones although the overall tone of the song is positive about music. The song has a reggae-style rhythm and a catchy chorus. Gall sings the song wonderfully particularly in the improvised section that closes the song. It is easily my favorite track on the album. "Les accidents d'amour" is about wanting to find love and happiness in the short time that we are alive. The song begins with a dramatic piano intro from Berger before slipping into a more mellow groove that again features a reggae-inspired rhythm track. Gall sweetly croons the song giving it a pronounced pop flavor. "La fille de Shannon" is about an Irish girl who loves with great passion. Gall's girlish vocal and the sugary pop sound of the music remind me of her 1960s work although Berger's arrangement is a lot more elaborate and artistic than was typical with those songs. "La prière des petits humains" describes the desire of people throughout a strife-torn world to live free from the chaos and violence inflicted on them by their fellow humans. The song rocks with a surprisingly funky sound in the guitar riff that drives it as well as the chunky rhythm line. Gall's vocal is bit too precious to deliver the bite in the lyrics and musical arrangement. "Résiste" urges the listener to resist a complacent, mundane existence, and to prove that we exist by actively seeking love and happiness. The song is disco-flavored rock with an effectively urgent vocal from Gall that is one of her best performances on the record. It is another one of my favorite cuts. "Amor también" offers a bland perspective on life which is seen as being alternately good and bad. I guess the point of the song is to persevere and seek love. The song has a reggae/world music sound to it and an ultra-poppy chorus. It is a bit too sugary for my taste, but Gall's terrific vocal makes it listenable for me. "Vahiné" is about a Polynesian woman who is encouraged by her father to follow her heart and find love. The song continues in the reggae vein with a relaxed vibe that suits its subject. "Diego, libre dans sa tête" discusses a political prisoner who is free in his mind. The music is dramatic and inspiring but although Gall's vocal is very pretty, I find it unconvincing. "Ceux qui aiment" suits her voice better and she delivers a strong performance. The lyrics contrast lovers with those who fill the world with turmoil and cruelty. The music alternates between the melancholy, gentle sound of the verses and the robust, punchy sound of the chorus giving the album a dynamic finish. I enjoy this record but I find it a bit dull compared to Gall's work with Gainsbourg. The songs are intelligent and well-crafted. Berger's humanism and romanticism reflect my persepective far more than Gainsbourg's cynicism and provocateur mentality, but I also find his songs rather monotonous and obvious particularly over the course of an entire album. We all know that love is good and life can be hard, no need to belabor the point. The album lacks the frisson and dialectical tension of some of those classic Gainsbourg recordings but Gall does sound happy and comfortable singing Berger's work. Her singing throughout the record is first rate and she displays lots of feeling and verve in her performances. Her voice makes the album worthwhile for me. Recommended to Francophile Cat Stevens fans.
Saturday, October 1, 2016
Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship
My belated tribute to the late Paul Kantner. This was his first solo album, despite the co-credit this group bares little resemblance to the group Kantner formed later in the decade that shared the moniker Jefferson Starship. I've admired Kantner for many decades. I became a huge fan of the Jefferson Airplane in my early teens just after the band had broken up. I liked the first few Jefferson Starship albums as well. I picked this record up in the early 1980s. It is a reissue, original pressings were gatefold albums. I didn't like it too much at first, but that has changed through the decades and now I prefer it to the post-Marty Balin Airplane and Jefferson Starship albums as well. Kantner gets top billing on the record but it is very much a collaborative effort with musical and songwriting support from his bandmates most notably Grace Slick. The album also features other members of the Bay Area rock aristocracy including support from the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service as well as David Crosby and Graham Nash. The album begins with "Mau Mau (Amerikon)" by Kantner, Slick and Joey Covington. It is an anti-establishment diatribe about fighting the power with sex, drugs and rock and roll. It takes pointed jabs at Reagan and Nixon and would have fit very nicely on the Airplane's "Volunteers" album. This hard rocking raucous song is the track on the album that sounds the most like classic Jefferson Airplane which is probably why it is also my favorite song on the album. The album makes an abrupt change in tone with a cover of Rosalie Sorrell's "The Baby Tree" which is a light-hearted song about an island where babies grow on trees. The song just features Kantner singing and playing banjo. Kantner's "Let's Go Together" is another anti-establishment song about hippies banding together to "wave goodbye to Amerika" and found their own idealistic society which is the main theme of the album. The song continues in the folkie vein of the previous tune with Jerry Garcia taking over on banjo. The song is given extra propulsion by Slick on piano and Bill Kreutzmann on drums. Slick duets with Kantner on the song. It also would have fit well on "Volunteers" and is another one of my favorite tracks. Side one concludes with "A Child is Coming" by Kantner, Slick and Crosby. The song was presumably inspired by the impending birth of Kantner and Slick's daughter China and expresses Slick's wish not to "carry the government's child." They want to get back to nature to escape the indoctrination process of "Uncle Samuel." This is another folk-style track and with Crosby joining Slick and Kantner on the vocals it reminds me of Crosby, Stills and Nash which is not necessarily a compliment, although the three part vocal harmonies are very striking. My favorite part of the song is Jack Casady's thunderous bass lines. The second side of the album is a suite of songs entitled "Blows Against the Empire." The first song is Slick's "Sunrise" in which she tells "civilized man" to go ahead and die since he is not needed or wanted anymore. Slick sings the song like she is calling the faithful to prayer. She double tracks her vocal making it more powerful. Again Casady is the star of the song with his dazzling bass work. "Hijack" is by Kantner, Slick, Marty Balin and Gary Blackman. It anticipates that a starship capable of traveling through the universe will be built by 1990 and urges the counterculture rebels to hijack it and escape to another world. Slick and Kantner duet on the song which is largely driven by Slick's dynamic piano work. "Home" is a brief abstract instrumental attributed to Kantner, Phill Sawyer and Graham Nash (it really took 3 guys to come up with a 37 second song with no melody?) Kantner and Crosby wrote "Have You Seen the Stars Tonite." The song takes place on the stolen starship and is a paean to a hippie utopia. This hypnotic and slightly trippy song is again driven by Slick's piano with additional instrumental color provided by Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar. It is my favorite track on side two. "X M" is another short abstract instrumental credited to Kantner, Sawyer, Garcia and Mickey Hart. It sounds like a spaceship taking off. The concluding song, "Starship," is by Kantner, Slick, Balin and Blackman and it again encourages the hippies to escape on the starship. The song is a stirring rocker featuring some Grateful Dead-like guitar runs from Garcia and more compelling piano work from Slick. Slick and Kantner duet on the song with harmonic support from Crosby and Nash. The song just peters out at the end, but otherwise gives the album a dramatic finish. Although Kantner deservedly gets top billing, Grace Slick's contribution to the album is immense. It would be much less interesting without her. In many respects the album can be seen as part of a counter-culture trilogy with the Airplane's "Volunteers" and Slick and Kantner's "Sunfighter" which I think represents the peak of Slick and Kantner's creative partnership. When I first heard this album I dismissed it as hippie hokum, but I think that is unfair. Kantner was a true believer and though I find his ideas dubious at best, I admire his passion and commitment. The hope and innocence in this record touches me. I think the album holds up better than a lot of the other political music from that era. Musically it is superb, it may lack the fire of the Airplane when it was in full flight, but I still find it invigorating and captivating. Rest in peace Paul Kantner, in my mind you will always be flying high. Recommended to fans of "Volunteers" and "Sunfighter."
Monday, September 5, 2016
United Artists UAS 5185
This is the soundtrack to a documentary about the Summer of Love in San Francisco in 1967. The film follows the flower child depicted on the back cover of the album as she wanders through hippie San Francisco taking in the various scenes. The film covers all the usual stuff: communes, free love, psychedelic ballroom concerts, outdoor festivals, drug trips, the Diggers, runaways, panhandlers etc. It is a curious mixture of a true believer manifesto and an exploitation film. It features earnest statements of purpose along with extended simulations of drug trips and lots of female hippie nudity. I find it fascinating as I've been obsessed with the subject matter since I was a teen growing up in the Bay Area in the aftermath of the hippie era. The film also boasts a killer soundtrack although not all of the music from the film makes it onto the record. It omits live performances by Country Joe and the Fish and Dan Hicks of the Charlatans. Most regrettably it also does not include a wonderful and all too brief clip of the pioneering female rock group Ace Of Cups performing their song "Stones" at an outdoor concert. I originally bought the record because I wanted the two cuts by Quicksilver Messenger Service, neither of which appeared on their debut album. Both cuts were part of the early Quicksilver repertoire and can be heard on several of their archival live releases. I'm a big fan of their cover of Buffy St. Marie's classic anti-drug song "Codine." I find it amusing that my favorite version of this song was performed by arguably the druggiest band in San Francisco. The group pounds out the song's riff with great vigor and David Freiberg delivers the words with gut wrenching anguish. Extraordinary. Nearly as good is the band's cover of Anne Bredon's "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You." There are lots of covers of this song, but this is easily my favorite. It is hard driving with slashing guitar chords and a passionate joint vocal by Freiberg and Gary Duncan. The band is seen performing the song in a ballroom in the film. The record is worth owning for these two songs alone, but the rest of the album has much to offer as well. The Steve Miller Band has three songs none of which appeared on their albums for Capitol. The best is a frenzied cover of the Isley Brothers' "Your Old Lady" that features smoking hot guitar work from Miller and James Cooke supported ably by Jim Peterman on organ. It is one of the most exciting tracks that Miller has ever recorded. The band is seen performing the song in a ballroom in one of my favorite scenes in the film. The Miller Band also perform a cover of K. C. Douglas' "Mercury Blues" which is another jumping track with blistering blues guitar licks. Their third song is the instrumental "Superbyrd" which is pleasant, but forgettable, by far the weakest track on the record. The remaining three songs are by Mother Earth. "Revolution" was co-written by the film's director Jack O'Connell. It is a didactic song that stresses the themes of the film. It doesn't sound much like a typical Mother Earth song, but the band gamely gives it a jazzy interpretation that I find engaging and Tracy Nelson sings the awkward words very convincingly. The band fares better with Danny Small's "Without Love" which was a hit for Clyde McPhatter in 1957. The song's gospel style plays to Tracy Nelson's strengths and she knocks it out of the park. Percy Mayfield's bluesy "Stranger in My Own Home Town" is well suited for the band but suffers from an inadequate vocal by Powell St. John. With only 8 tracks this album is a bit skimpy even by 1960s standards but with five must-have tracks on it, it is well worth seeking out, particularly for fans of the San Francisco Sound. Recommended to fans of "Monterey Pop."