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 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 Airplane, the Grateful Dead, 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 kind of 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."
Saturday, September 3, 2016
Warner Bros. BSK 3366
Prince's second album, which he produced, arranged and performed all by himself. This was the first Prince album that I bought. I picked it up used in the mid-1980s at Aron's Records here in Los Angeles back when they were still on Melrose. I became intrigued with Prince when I read reviews of his early records which basically described him as a sexually obsessed one man band. I loved his singles "1999" and "Little Red Corvette" as well as the songs from "Purple Rain" and decided to check him out even though I was really strapped for cash being an impoverished graduate student at the time. I was a little disappointed by it at the time, but I came to appreciate it more with repeated playing. It opens with "I Wanna Be Your Lover" which is a steamy come-on song. The song has a funky groove and a lascivious vocal from Prince as well as a lengthy synth driven instrumental break perfect for hitting the dance floor. Listening to it now I'm struck by how stripped down the production sounds compared to the denser sound and richer instrumental palette Prince favored later in his career. I still like it a lot though, it is one of my favorite cuts. The dance beat continues with the dynamic "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad" in which Prince complains about being mistreated by his lover. Despite the whiny lyrics, the music is punchy and exuberant with a smoking hot guitar solo. "Sexy Dancer" is a disco song driven by staccato guitar riffs reminiscent of James Brown's work, a technique Prince used throughout his career. It also contains a jumping piano solo. It is a slight song but it gets me moving. The record slows down for "When We're Dancing Close and Slow" which is the most overtly erotic song on an album that features practically nothing but sexy songs. Despite the highly charged lyrics I find the song dull largely because of Prince's subdued vocal and the lethargic music. Side two opens with "With You" which is a sentimental love song. It is another slow jam that I think could use a little more musical heat. That is certainly not a problem for the hard rocking "Bambi" which as you can probably guess is not about the Disney movie. In the song he admonishes his lover for wanting to be with another woman instead of him. The song has a strong riff and lots of vigorous guitar noise which makes it another one of my favorite tracks. The record slows down again for "Still Waiting" which finds Prince lamenting his inability to find love. The song has a classic soul sound to it and a winning vocal from Prince that reminds me of Curtis Mayfield. Next up is "I Feel For You" which was later a giant hit for Chaka Khan. I greatly prefer her far more kinetic and passionate version, but Prince is definitely convincing delivering lines like "I wouldn't lie to you, baby it's mainly a physical thing." The song exemplifies the shortcomings of the DIY stripped down sound of the record, but it is such a great song that it still stands out as the best track on the album. The album concludes with "It's Gonna Be Lonely" in which he worries about his lover leaving him. The song starts slow and builds in strength giving the record a solid finish. It is a remarkably good second album from a guy who was barely 21 years old when it came out. Of course he would get a lot better on subsequent records, but there is plenty of evidence of his genius scattered throughout the record. I think you can make a case for Prince being the most talented pop music artist of his generation. His mixture of soul and rock was genuinely innovative and exciting. He was remarkably consistent, producing compelling and interesting music throughout his career which makes his premature demise all the more lamentable since he undoubtedly had much more wonderful music still in him. One of his rivals liked to call himself the King of Pop, but if you ask me Prince was the real royalty in pop music. Recommended to Marvin Gaye fans who think he was too celibate.
Thursday, August 4, 2016
Magic Marker Records MMR012
The debut album by Dear Nora is my favorite record by Katy Davidson. It was recorded when Dear Nora was an actual band as opposed to a Davidson solo project like the later Dear Nora albums and her work as Key Losers. Davidson still wrote all the songs but the rhythm section of Marianna Richey and Ryan Wise provides some welcome oomph to her songs and I appreciate Richey's harmony vocals as well. It was produced by Amy Linton of the Aislers Set in her basement and with its reverb laden sound it reminds me of their albums. The album begins with "Rollercoaster" which is a languid song driven by Davidson's jangly guitar and a prominent bass line from Wise. As is typical of many of the songs on the album, the lyrics are simple and repetitive. The propulsive "'Round and 'Round" is my favorite track on the record. It is one of the hardest rocking songs Davidson has ever done and shows off the advantages of the rhythm section and Richey's vocal support. "Since You Went Away" is a self-examination song in which Davidson examines her faults which caused her to lose a friend or lover. The song sounds like sunshine pop with its catchy melody bolstered by surf guitar style riffs from Wise and Davidson and strong harmonic support from Richey. "You Looked Like a Portrait" features energetic guitar work from Davidson but unfortunately no rhythm section. The song sounds naked without it. Wise and Richey return for "When the Wind Blows" which is another bouncy sunshine pop song. "Springtime Fall" is a quiet song with some of the best lyrics on the album. Its introspective character is typical of the thematic sophistication of Dear Nora's later work. Side two continues in a similar vein with "I'm Turned Inside Out" which is another subdued sensitive song of self-examination that references the changing of the seasons. The record picks up speed with the ebullient "Everyone's the Same" which is a goofy song about unrequited love that gets me bopping. This is another one of my favorite tracks. "Early to Bed" is another gentle song with a classic pop sound that evokes early 1960s girl groups. "Number Twelve" is a lethargic instrumental. It picks up a little energy as it goes along, but it doesn't really go anywhere. It sounds like a backing track missing its vocals. I find it mildly engaging because I have a thing for jangly guitar lines. "From My Bedroom Window" is a simple song with a repeated refrain about being watched through a window. It starts quiet and slow before exploding into the most raucous song on the album. The album abruptly shifts gears with the delicate "A Lullaby." It is a very short, but sweet love song that gives the album a tender finish. From a strictly artistic standpoint this is arguably Davidson's weakest album. With its lightweight lyrical content and power pop sound, it resembles Dear Nora's early 7" records more than Davidson's later Dear Nora records which are more personal and idiosyncratic and her recordings as Key Losers which are far more musically sophisticated. She has certainly grown as an artist and I admire that. However this record makes me happy whenever I play it which isn't really the case with "Mountain Rock" or "California Lite." Some listeners might find it excessively precious and twee, but I dig that, especially when it is accompanied by jangly sunshine pop. Davidson has obvious chemistry with Marianna Ritchey and I wish they'd work together more. I'm also a fan of their CD as Lloyd and Michael, "Just as God Made Us." This album is recommended to fans of Ladybug Transistor and the Aislers Set.
Saturday, July 16, 2016
Epic BN 26167/LN 24167
The top picture depicts a counterfeit copy of this album that I bought in Berkeley in the early 1980s. I was pretty green back then, I could tell it wasn't an original copy because of the sleeve which was thin like an 80s sleeve not heavy like 60s albums. Also it was far less expensive than what originals normally sold for. However the record had what appeared to be an authentic Epic label so I assumed it was some sort of reissue. I had seen plenty of bootlegs by then but they were always shoddy looking, so it never occurred to me that this was a bootleg. Years later I acquired a mono original. It is a little worn but it still sounds better than the counterfeit which is a decidedly inferior pressing. I probably ought to just get rid of the fake one but it amuses me to be reminded of my youthful folly. This was the Yardbirds' debut album in the United States. It has no U. K. equivalent being cobbled together from singles, an EP and a couple of unreleased tracks. Although Jeff Beck is depicted on the album cover and discussed in the liner notes, he only appears on 3 tracks (from the EP.) The rest of the tracks feature Eric Clapton on lead guitar. He left the band when they shifted from blues to a more commercial pop-oriented sound as represented by the Graham Gouldman penned title track which was the group's first hit single. I am a big fan of that song, it was the song that made me fall for the band when I heard it on an oldies radio station as a young teenager. It is extremely catchy, driven by typically crisp drumming from Jim McCarty with a dramatic shift in tempo in the middle. It is augmented by bongos and Brian Auger on harpsichord which expands its instrumental texture. It is a brilliantly produced, classic single. My two favorite tracks both feature Jeff Beck. The band's cover of Mose Allison's "I'm Not Talking" is breathtaking. Beck practically invents hard rock guitar in the song with a devastating riff and two smoking hot solos that leave me saying "Eric who?" The interplay between Beck and the rhythm section is thrilling and gets me going big time. I think this was the most exciting rock song ever recorded at that point and it still sounds fantastic fifty years later. The band employs the same formula for Keith Relf's bluesy "I Ain't Done Wrong" which has more dazzling guitar work from Beck including a spectacular solo and a dynamic duet with Relf's harmonica. Nobody in rock was making music like this before Beck joined the Yardbirds. You can literally hear a new style of rock being created. Nothing else on the album comes close to these three tracks. The best of the remaining songs is a cover of Calvin Carter's "I Ain't Got You" which features what I consider Clapton's best studio solo with the Yardbirds. It is a hard driving performance and my favorite version of this much covered song. It was originally the b-side of the group's "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" single which is also on this album, but it should have been the a-side since it a much better record. "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" is too slick and poppy for my taste, I prefer the rawer live version of this song on "Five Live Yardbirds." The song only comes to life during Clapton's all too brief Chuck Berry-style guitar solo. Billy Boy Arnold's "I Wish You Would" was the band's first single. It was a flop but I think it deserved a better fate. It is an energetic song driven by an urgent guitar riff with a frenetic harmonica solo from Relf in the instrumental rave-up. The b-side of that first single was "A Certain Girl" which is not particularly memorable although I enjoy its call and response structure as well as Clapton's noisy guitar solo. "Got to Hurry" was the b-side to "For Your Love." It is a lumbering blues instrumental dominated by Clapton's sterling guitar work that foreshadows his future work with John Mayall. "My Girl Sloopy" would later be a massive hit for the McCoys under the title "Hang On Sloopy." The song doesn't sound like a Yardbird's song and their version isn't very convincing, particularly in Relf's awkward vocal. Jeff Beck's guitar runs make the song listenable and the group does manage to cram four rave-ups into the song. The group's cover of the Shirelles' "Putty (In Your Hands)" isn't really a Yardbirds style song either. I've read that Jim McCarty claims that the group recorded this song and the cover of Major Lance's "Sweet Music" to appease Clapton who thought they would be better singles than "For Your Love." I find it hard to believe that Clapton had such bad taste and in any case both songs were recorded before "For Your Love." Neither song was originally released in England which is hardly surprising. "Sweet Music" was one of the worst recordings the group ever made and it severely exposes Relf's limitations as a vocalist. It was produced by Manfred Mann and it probably would have been better suited to his own group. I love every Yardbirds album that I own and this one is no exception but I'm hesitant to recommend it. You can get all the essential tracks here on compilation albums and not have to suffer through "Sweet Music." On the other hand the record is historic and I love the cover. I'm so fond of it that I can't even bring myself to get rid of my counterfeit copy. The record has an aura to it that you don't find on most comps for which I recommend it to passionate Yardbirds fans.
Sunday, July 3, 2016
Sub Pop SP 550
The debut album by the Shins is one of my all time favorite albums. I can't believe it is already 15 years old, it stills seems so fresh to me. The first time I heard the band was when I heard "New Slang" on the radio while driving to work. It astonished me so much that I pulled over to listen to it more closely. People make fun of that scene in "Garden State" where Natalie Portman tells Zach Braff "New Slang" will change his life but I get what she means (even though I also hate that scene.) As was the case with Belle and Sebastian (who I fell in love with around the same time) I felt a strong personal connection to the Shins. For awhile these two bands were the soundtrack to my life. I listened to them all the time and when I wasn't listening to them I still heard their songs in my head. All the songs on this record were written and sung by James Mercer. The album begins wonderfully with "Caring is Creepy" which is an enigmatic song expressing alienation and unhappiness. The song has a soaring melody driven by cascading keyboards and jangly guitar runs over which Mercer sensitively croons the words. "One by One All Day" features the line that gives the album its title. It is an evocative description of coming of age in a rural setting. It is a rollicking song with a lot of propulsion that strongly appeals to me. The music shifts dramatically for the languid melody of "The Weird Divide" which poetically reminisces about a past relationship. The oddly titled "Know Your Onion!" recalls adolescent alienation and unhappiness. I like the reference to favorite records and books being Mercer's only fun back then, I felt quite similar feelings for awhile as a teenager. It features a punchy rocked up tune with a ebullient pop sound to it. "Girl Inform Me" is a charming and neurotic love song that evocatively captures the anxiety of a new relationship. It is irrestibly catchy jangle pop that fills me with joy whenever I hear it. Side two opens with "New Slang" which expresses alienation from a town and frustration with an unrequited love in stunningly poetic verses that have always enraptured me. It is a simple folk rock song but I find the melody haunting and mesmerizing. Mercer's poignant vocal moves me immensely. I consider it is one of the best pop songs I've ever heard. "The Celibate Life" dissects an unfaithful girlfriend. It is another captivating jangle pop tune that makes me feel good to be alive. "Girl on the Wing" looks back wistfully at a disintegrating relationship. It is a choppy rocker smoothed out with power pop sweetness that gets me bopping. "Your Algebra" is a mysterious and slightly sinister song with an appropriately creepy melody that stands out sharply from the other tunes on the record. It concludes with an odd coda featuring spooky keyboard music and children's voices and laughter. The album returns to its normal sound with "Pressed in a Book" which is a prickly song that describes the tension between friends. It is jaunty power pop with a pounding riff driving it. The album ends with "The Past and Pending" which is a devastating account of a break-up loaded with powerful metaphors. It is a gentle tune with a delicate arrangement. It gives the record a sensitive and emotional finish. Thus concludes an absolutely perfect record, an album that I consider to be a masterpiece. Lyrically and musically it pushes all my buttons, I find it endlessly listenable. I wish it had been around when I was an unhappy adolescent, it would have been my Bible. For better or worse I'm far removed from that, but I remember it well and I think that is why the album still resonates strongly for me. I'm always drawn to personal music and the way Mercer poured his heart out and drew from his experiences and alienation to create his songs is tremendously compelling to me. To me that is what good art is all about. Recommended to fans of early Belle and Sebastian.