Saturday, January 20, 2018
Polydor 2424 146
Back in 2013 my family was up in Montreal on vacation. After dinner my wife and I took a stroll and came upon a giant street party in the big plaza downtown. There was lots of dancing and music along with large cartoonish figures acting out some sort of story. I found it baffling but fun. I did figure out that it was a tribute to Félix Leclerc who I had never heard of. I looked him up when I got back to the hotel and learned he was a French-Canadian pop singer who was a cultural hero and ardent supporter of Quebec nationalism. A few months later I came across this album in a bin of French vinyl at a record store and bought it. Leclerc croons in the French chanson style and has a warm, smooth voice. The music is most interesting to me for its political edge as is evident with the opening track, "L'encan" which is a biting satire of Canada's natural resources and cultural treasures being auctioned off to the rich including a dig at American interlopers. The song has a carnival feel to it and Leclerc speaks the lyrics more than he sings them. "Chant d'un patriote" takes the point of view of an armed rebel attacking his monarch presumably a reference to the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837 in Quebec. The stirring guitar strumming and martial drumming convey a feeling of patriotic urgency which enhances Leclerc's passionate vocal. It is one of my favorite tracks on the record. My French isn't good enough to figure out the poetic "Comme une bête" which features a series of metaphors which I believe are meant to convey feelings of loneliness and loss. The music is romantic with evocative use of strings. "La complainte du phoque en Alaska" is a cover of a song by Michel Rivard. It is about a lovelorn seal that has lost his blonde lover or something like that, which apparently is meant to convey the author's own feelings about losing his lover. The song has a music hall flavor that suits Leclerc well. I don't really get "L'ancêtre" which seems to be an homage to his ancestor although there are probably some metaphoric or poetic overtones that escape me. Leclerc's vocal is very spirited on this track. Side two opens with "Les poteaux" which is a humorous song about utility poles. It is another music hall style song. "Le dernier point" was written by Jean-Luc Juvin. It is a dramatic song full of poetic imagery. "Sors-moi donc Albert" expresses the frustrations of a woman imploring her spouse or lover to take her out on a date. It has a cabaret feel to it with jazzy overtones. "Fatalité" is a lively folk-style song. "Un an déja" addresses a recently deceased friend. He inquires about conditions in the afterlife contrasting it with dissatisfaction with current conditions some of which seem specific to life in Quebec. The music is very subdued as Leclerc recites the lyrics rather than singing them. The album concludes with the brilliant "Le tour de l'ile" which describes L'Île d'Orléans where Leclerc lived in Quebec. He describes the beauty and charm of the island, as well as its exploitation by the government and outsiders (including another dig at the United States.) He compares the island to France and asserts his support for French-Canadian sovereignty in Quebec. It is a beautiful song bolstered by a sensitive string arrangement and a robust, yet tender vocal from Leclerc. It is my other favorite track on the record and gives the album a powerful finish. I don't have the language skills or cultural awareness to fully appreciate Leclerc's work. I like the music, but I'm mostly drawn to this record by Leclerc's vocals. I find his phrasing and the timber of his voice very pleasing and he is able to reach me emotionally even when I'm not sure what he is singing about. I also appreciate the personal and poetic quality of his songwriting despite my limited understanding. Recommended to Francophile Leonard Cohen fans.
Friday, December 29, 2017
Important Records IMPREC247
I bought this strictly on the basis of its cover. Well that and it was really cheap. I didn't even bother to look the band up, I knew a record with this crazy a cover had to at least be interesting, if not actually good. I had never heard of Cave and I still don't know much about them except that they are based in Chicago and one of the guys calls himself Rotten Milk. The record opens with "Gamm" which begins with a slow drone before erupting into a heavy psych instrumental. It is exactly what I hoped this record would be like. "Made in Malaysia" has some lyrics that I can't decipher and has a more straight ahead heavy rock approach although the instrumental break is pretty trippy. I dig the vaguely Middle Eastern riff and the kinetic energy driving the song. Side one concludes with the far more spacey "Encino Men." It features a hypnotic rhythm track over which someone is noodling away on a synthesizer. There is also some sporadic garbled singing with heavy reverb. It reminds me of "A Saucerful of Secrets" era Pink Floyd given a dub re-mix. Side two begins with "High, I Am" which follows a similar formula but is far more dynamic and exciting. "Requiem for John Sex" is presumably a tribute to the cabaret singer of the same name. It begins with a jumpy disco-like groove that evolves into a spectacular rave up with synth and guitar cacophony over a relentless pounding rhythm track which is my favorite musical moment on the record. It runs for more than 6 minutes but I wish it was twice as long. It reminds me of Can at their finest. "Machines and Muscles" unfortunately reminds me more of Kraftwerk. It is driven by a mechanical rhythm track with poppy synth runs on top. It is my least favorite song, but it does give the record an upbeat finish. Despite the last song, I'm really happy with this album. I paid peanuts for it, but it is extremely worthwhile and pushes a lot of my buttons. This is one of my favorite things about record collecting, the thrill of discovery and the reward of taking a chance on an unknown record. Logically I ought to research every purchase, but that is no fun for me. I'd rather just get burned once in awhile. A happy find like this terrific record more than makes up for the occasional dud. Recommended to Dead Meadow fans who dig krautrock.
Saturday, November 25, 2017
Columbia KC 33167
As I often do when one of my musical idols dies, I listened repeatedly to my Leonard Cohen records last year following his passing. My favorites have always been the first two, "Songs of Leonard Cohen" and "Songs from a Room," but pulling this record out after not listening to it for at least a decade, I was struck by how good it sounded. I ended up playing this and his final record "You Want It Darker" the most and a year later I'm still playing them. I don't have the will to blog about his final record so I'm doing this one. When I saw Cohen during his last tour, I had a feeling I'd never see him again. Although he delivered a powerful and lively show, I could perceive his fragility. In contrast one of the things I like about this album is that it is so robust and full of vitality. It sounds like a man at the peak of his powers. This is evident right from the start with "Is This What You Wanted." Cohen delivers the humorous lyrics with vigor and the bass-driven music sounds almost funky particularly when the soulful back up singers join in. "Chelsea Hotel #2" is a return to the folky introspective sound of Cohen's earlier albums. It is deservedly one of his best known songs with its striking imagery and confessional nature. I would probably like it better if Cohen had not revealed that it was about Janis Joplin. To me that makes it seem kind of tawdry like he was violating her privacy. Plus I think it diminishes the poetic power of the song by grounding it in a specific reality. It still a brilliant song though. The album regains energy with "Lover Lover Lover" which has a dynamic rhythm track and an urgent vocal from Cohen. "Field Commander Cohen" features self-referential lyrics full of evocative language. It is one of my favorite cuts on the album and its power is enhanced by a sensitive arrangement that makes excellent use of strings. "Why Don't You Try" has a slightly jazzy feel to it that complements Cohen's warm, relaxed vocal. Side two opens with "There is a War" which is a turbulent song with cutting lyrics. The music has an insistent rhythm that heightens its impact. "A Singer Must Die" is another self-referential song that features an impressively nuanced and sensitive vocal from Cohen that really gets to me. "I Tried to Leave You" also features a gripping vocal from Cohen backed by a subtle jazz-tinged musical arrangement. Cohen may not have been a technically skilled singer, but he knew how to put over a song as good as any torch singer. "Who By Fire" has some of the most fascinating lyrics on the record supported by a compelling melody that makes it one of the stronger tracks on the album. "Take This Longing" is one of my all time favorite Cohen compositions. The lyrics are extraordinarily beautiful and Cohen's vocal gives me chills. It is all the things I loved about Cohen: intimate, emotional, incisive, honest and romantic. Truly a great song. It would be a majestic conclusion for the album but Cohen had the winning irreverence to finish with "Leaving Greensleeves." It features a raw and gritty vocal from Cohen as he delivers sly, humorous lyrics about the end of a relationship. I love the cynical line "I told my lies to lie between your matchless thighs." Now that's poetry, ha-ha. This is such a wonderful album. Every time I play it I find myself missing Cohen even more. He was one of my favorite artists and I'm so grateful for the albums he left us. They will always be among my most treasured records. Recommended to fans of Joni Mitchell.
Sunday, October 15, 2017
Tee Pee Records TPE-101
I first became aware of this band when I saw them open for X a few years ago. I was mesmerized by their psychedelic soundtracks for imaginary spaghetti westerns and picked up this album soon after. It doesn't come close to the excitement of their live act, but I still enjoy it immensely. According to the liner notes this music was conceived by band member Kirpatrick Thomas between 2002 and 2006 for a movie that did not yet exist. In 2007 the film was finally made featuring members of the band and their rock band buddies and this album was released as an actual soundtrack. The movie is a nihilistic spaghetti western most notable for featuring more hipsters than horses. The acting is amateurish but the film is enjoyably trippy at times. The music is easily its best feature. The record opens with "In the Beginning..." which features some of the narration from the film by the veteran actor Joseph Campanella. The film features lots of expository narration to make up for its incoherent storytelling. The music begins with "Titoli" which is obviously derived from Ennio Morricone. It features twangy guitar lines and martial drumming. A drum machine kicks off "The Legend of God's Gun" which also features a synthesizer while still retaining a rock sound. It reminds me of the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre (several members of Spindrift were formerly in the latter group.) There is some wordless vocalizing in the background as Campanella provides more narration. "Conversation with a Gun" is the most conventional song on the record. The song has a country-western flavor and is sung/spoke by Kirpatrick Thomas. It is the only cover song on the record, having been written by Johnny Bond back in the 1950s. The song is indeed a conversation between a killer and his gun. "Preachers Theme" returns to Morricone for inspiration. It begins with some atmospheric acoustic guitar work, before the percussion and vocalizing join in creating a more dramatic sound. At the end it even features some chanting that is blatantly copied from Morricone's scores for Sergio Leone. "The New West (Instrumental)" is my favorite track on the record. Its jangly reverb laden guitar lines evoke both spaghetti westerns and surf rock. The music is moody and majestic with some psychedelic overtones. The band has recorded a version of the song with vocals, but I prefer the instrumental version. "Speak to the Wind" opens the b-side in a similar vein but with less intensity. "Organ Fugue in DM Op. 42" sounds out of place on the record. It makes more sense in the movie where it accompanies the church scene. It starts out with some noodling around on an organ, then halfway through the rest of the band join in and turn it into a rock song. "Burn the Church" is a raucous percussion driven workout that is the wildest song on the record. I dig its manic energy and psychedelic sound. Things slow way down for "Greenhorn's Introduction" which returns to a loping spaghetti western sound. Near the end the band ratchets up the velocity for a dynamic finale. "Girlz Booze and Gunz" similarly begins with more stately spaghetti western soundtrack music before a frenzied rave up kicks in. "Blessing the Bullets" starts solemn and ominous growing gradually in force before seguing into the straight ahead rock sound of "The Scorpion's Venom." It is a propulsive riff driven tune with synth runs layered over it creating a shoegaze like sound. It is my other favorite cut and ends way too soon for my liking. The album concludes with "Indian Run" which is a high speed rocker with fake Native American chants, tribal drumming and lots of noisy guitar. It ends the record with a bang. One could criticize this record for being so derivative, but not me. I'm a big fan of Ennio Morricone, but I play this album more than I play any of his. Its fusion of spaghetti western electric guitar drama and crazed rock and roll energy is enormously appealing to me. Recommended to fans of the first two Quicksilver Messenger Service albums.
Monday, September 4, 2017
Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks
Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks
Epic Records BN 26464
The first and only time I saw Dan Hicks play live, I did not know who he was. It was at the Tribal Stomp in Berkeley in 1978 which was a 1960s reunion show that the Family Dog sponsored featuring bands who played at the Avalon Ballroom. Hicks does not appear in my program from the event, I imagine he was added at the last minute presumably acknowledging the important role of his previous band, the Charlatans, in the history of the Family Dog. He appeared at the beginning of the show following the poetry readings that opened the day's events. He did a short acoustic set that I don't remember very well although I think I enjoyed it even though it wasn't the type of music that I liked back then. Years later I would become a fan of the Charlatans and bought their only album "The Charlatans" (which Hicks does not appear on) as well as the CD of their unreleased recordings "The Amazing Charlatans." I also bought a few of Hicks' own albums of which this is my favorite. It was his debut album and features a typically old-fashioned cover from Globe Propaganda. The music matches the cover. Although the record is entirely self-penned by Hicks, it mostly sounds like it was written in the 1940s or 1950s. It is mostly western-swing with a little jug band, country and rhythm and blues mixed in. It is hardly typical of San Francisco rock in 1969, it is a stretch even to call this "rock". However it is reminiscent of the early Charlatans' sound. It opens with the mellow sounds of "Canned Music" which humorously examines the difference between live and recorded music with the singer losing his girlfriend to the drummer of a band when he takes her to a live show. Hicks sings lead but Sherry Snow and Christina Viola Gancher sing much of the song and are more fun to listen to. Hicks' voice is fine, but it is undistinguished and lacking authority. "How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away?" is one of Hicks' best known tunes and it was one of the songs he did at the Tribal Stomp. The Charlatans recorded an earlier unreleased version of this song which appeared eventually on "The Amazing Charlatans." It is a funny and catchy song driven by Sid Page's fiddling. Jaime Leopold's pulsing bass lines give the song plenty of thrust and the women's vocal contribution compensates for a pedestrian Hicks vocal. The moody "I Scare Myself" reminds me of It's A Beautiful Day, perhaps not a coincidence since Hicks played with David LaFlamme in an earlier version of the Hot Licks. The song begins with a romantic Spanish-style guitar line before the vocals and violin join in. Hicks' vocal shows surprising strength although he can't quite put it over the top. The lyrics are a little silly, it almost sounds like a Zappaesque parody of a romantic song, but the atmosphere of the song makes it utterly convincing. It is one of my favorite songs on the album. "Shorty Takes a Dive" is a sloppy but charming song with goofy lyrics and a clownish performance from Hicks. "Evenin' Breeze" is a jumping western swing tune with pleasing call and response vocals from the ladies and Hicks. Side two begins with "Waitin' for the '103'" which is hampered by Hicks' vocal shortcomings. It still chugs along nicely and the women's vocals and Jon Weber's guitar help the song reach a satisfying conclusion. "Shorty Falls in Love" is a frenetic tune with smoking contributions from Weber and Page. Hicks lets the ladies take charge of the vocals and they deliver big time. This song gets me hopping. "Milk Shakin' Mama" is a swinging ode to a woman working at a soda fountain. The lyrics are clever and the groove is irresistible. "Slow Movin'" is exactly that. I like the violin and the lovely harmony vocal from the ladies, but otherwise I find it dull, especially after the energy of the preceding numbers. "It's Bad Grammar, Baby" is the closest the album comes to rock. It is a fast-paced song featuring dynamic guitar work from Weber. Gancher and Snow blow away Hicks with their vocals. With a different arrangement one can easily imagine a band like the Flamin' Groovies or Creedence Clearwater Revival turning it into a retro rocker. "Jukies' Ball" goes way back into the past for a swinging workout that gives the album an exuberant finish. The song is about a wild party at a juke joint and the music is highly energetic. It is another one of my favorite tracks. This is a very enjoyable album that invariably makes me feel good. For a record with practically no percussion it is surprisingly propulsive. One could criticize it for being derivative, but since the music is consistently engaging and the lyrics mostly entertaining, I'm not going to complain. If nothing else it sounds different than just about every other record coming out of San Francisco in 1969. It makes me wish I had been more appreciative of Hicks' performance back at the Tribal Stomp. Hicks died of cancer last year so I'm never going to have a chance to see him live again. At least I still have his "canned music" which is very fine in its own right. Recommended to hipsters who dig Bob Wills.
Saturday, July 29, 2017
Tout Seul dans la Forêt en Plein Jour, Avez-Vous Peur?
K Records KLP 172
Woelv was the nom de disque of Geneviève Castrée who died far too young a little over a year ago of cancer. She was a French-Canadian artist, poet and author who also recorded some strikingly memorable music. This beautiful record features a 60 page album sized booklet with the lyrics of the songs (which are sung in French) along with translations in English and multiple other languages, illustrations by Castrée and some additional texts that reflect the theme of the record which is anti-war and questioning the American obsession with violence and power. There are no musician credits on the album (aside from background vocalists on "Sang jeune") so I assume it is performed solely by Castrée and her husband Phil Elverum, the percussion and drone of some of the tracks is reminiscent of Mount Eerie and the Microphones. The album opens with "Drapeau Blanc" ("White Flag") which poetically describes the violence of children having a snowball fight and Castrée's own desire to escape war. The song begins as a delicate folky song with a gentle double-tracked vocal from Castrée that sounds appropriately child-like. Then the percussion kicks in and Castrée belts out the lyrics driving the song to a very forceful conclusion. "La fille qui s'est enfermée dans la salle de bains" ("The Girl Who Locked Herself in the Bathroom") presents evocative images of domestic violence and more thoughts of escape. This short a cappella song uses multiple vocal tracks to create a complex vocal arrangement. "(Réconciliation)" is about reconciling all the stages of one's life from birth to old age. It is a folk-style song with a nice harmony vocal from Elverum. "Deux coqs" ("Two Cocks") chronicles a pair of sparrows who begin fighting like roosters until they blind each other. It is a short song driven by a bass guitar and an insistent and breathy vocal by Castrée. "La petite cane dans la nappe de pétrole" ("The Young Female Duck in the Puddle of Petrol") uses the metaphor of a duck stuck in oil to describe the oppression of self-destructive relationships. The song starts out like a folk song with a Spanish flavor before the percussion emerges to provide a thunderous droning backdrop to Castrée's wailing multi-tracked vocal. This powerful song is one of my favorite tracks on the record. "Au viol!" ("Rape!") begins by explaining how to tame a female wolf in the first verse and then in the second verse Castrée describes what sounds like an emotional and personal violation using the language of physical rape. The song is driven by a repetitive and compelling piano riff over which Castrée sensitively croons and hums. "(Arrogance)" is a very brief song that returns to the escape imagery of "Drapeau Blanc" but with a more optimistic conclusion. It sounds very naked compared to the previous tracks, just guitar and voice which places all the emphasis on the stark lyrics. "La mort et le chien obèse" ("Death and the Obese Dog") examines the hypocrisy of people who embrace religion yet condone military action and who lavish food on their dogs while children elsewhere starve to death. This is another bass-driven song with a multi-tracked breathy vocal, but this time Castrée adds screamed howls in the background which enhance the feeling of menace and misery within the song. "Sous mon manteau" ("Under My Coat") was derived from sentences from "The Koran" which Castrée translated from Arabic into French. The song is highly poetic and the accompaniment is gentle and folky with a childlike vocal from Castrée that complements the simplicity in the lyrics. Side two opens with "Sang jeune" ("Young Blood") which is another overtly poetic composition that laments the violence of young people. The song begins with a slow sinuous tune with an Asian feel to it, before becoming more energetic via a driving percussion track and background vocalists giving the song extra weight. This is another one of my favorite songs. "L'Homme qui vient de marcher sur une mine" ("The Man Who Has Just Stepped on a Landmine") despite its grim subject matter is a dazzling display of Castrée's poetic gifts as she decribes the final moments of a victim of a landmine. It starts out sounding like a Middle Eastern dance tune before settling into a languorous drone. "Tout seul dans la forêt en plein jour" ("Alone in the Forest in Broad Daylight") combines a soundscape with a song. It begins with a tranquil folk song that compares nervous violence-prone people with the calm of being alone in the forest asking which one do you fear more. Gradually a soundscape emerges underneath the song. Castrée had been living in the woods near a military base and set up a microphone to record the transition from jets landing to frogs croaking as evening sets in. The soundscape continues after the song ends providing an atmospheric conclusion to the record. I really love this album, I consider it a masterpiece that ought to be better known. It was created with such care and authority, it is so satisfying as a work of art. The combination of the artwork in the book, the poetic lyrics, the cohesive vision and the musical sensitivity make it an intensely engaging experience in a manner more common with high art than pop music, if you will pardon me getting pretentious, something akin to a Gesamtkunstwerk. I don't mean to imply that this record is difficult or snooty. It is very enjoyable and accessible on a casual level, but unlike most pop records, if you go deeper into it you will be rewarded. Castrée's message is not particularly profound or intellectual, in truth it is not all that far removed from Melanie or Cat Stevens, just expressed in a more poetic and subtle manner. What I particularly like about the album is Castrée's willingness to open herself up and to express her concerns with emotional honesty and commitment. So many of the kids I hear in the indie rock scene nowadays seem so reserved and ironic, they are too cool to reveal themselves. I find it refreshing to experience a musical artist willing to share her feelings and fears openly without barriers, one with ambition who wants to create a meaningful work that goes far beyond having a nice beat that you can dance to. I feel bad that Castrée died so young, but I also feel bad that such a gifted and sensitive artist has been silenced. It makes me treasure this album even more knowing there will never be another like it. Recommended to fans of Joanna Newsom and Mount Eerie.
Thursday, April 27, 2017
The Halifax Three
Several years ago I was browsing through the new arrivals bin at Boo Boo Records in San Luis Obispo when this record caught my eye. I was initially attracted to it by the group's name because I'm interested in Canadian folk music and also because I'm a fan of the title track. Looking at the cover I realized one of the guys looked familiar and after a moment I realized it was Denny Doherty of my childhood faves, The Mamas and the Papas. So I bought it not expecting much, but I have no regrets. The group was basically a knock-off of the Kingston Trio with a similar sound featuring an emphasis on three part harmonies. Doherty did most of the lead vocals along with Pat La Croix and Richard Byrne did all the arrangements as well as playing guitar. The record begins with Jesse Fuller's "San Francisco Bay Blues" which they deliver in a slick corny style that reminds me of a barbershop quartet or something you'd see in a variety show. The record improves with a dramatic arrangement of the traditional work song "Rocks and Gravel." My favorite version of this song is the one by Ian and Sylvia on their debut album, but this one is nearly as good with some wonderful vocal harmonies. "Little Sparrow" is another traditional song also known as "Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies." There are numerous recordings of this song, but this one is quite pretty with another strong vocal arrangement. "San Miguel" was written by Jane Bowers and it was previously recorded by the Kingston Trio. This version has a beefed up vocal arrangement that makes it more romantic and engaging. Their version of Mike Settle's "Sing Hallelujah" likewise benefits from dynamic vocal harmonies. Side one ends with the much covered traditional song "East Virginia." The group's version sounds like the one Joan Baez cut on her debut album. They are both moody and atmospheric although I'd give Baez the edge for being more expressive. Side two opens with "I'm Gonna Tell God" which is credited to Bob Gibson who recorded it with Hamilton Camp but it is actually derived from the old spiritual "The Welcome Table." The trio offers up a lively performance, but gospel music wasn't their strength, they don't sound convincing. "Rubin Had a Train" is a traditional song that has been recorded by a lot of bluegrass groups under the title "Reuben's Train." The group gives a fast paced rendition that is one of my favorite tracks on the record. The record slows down for "A Satisfied Mind" by Red Hayes and Jack Rhodes which was a big hit for Porter Wagoner. I prefer his version as well as the one by the Byrds on "Turn! Turn! Turn!" although the vocal on this track is very lovely. "The Man Who Wouldn't Sing Along with Mitch" is the kind of novelty folk song that the Kingston Trio used to record such as "M. T. A.". It is the most commercial track on the record and was released as a single. I dislike it enormously. The trio atones for it with the classic traditional folk song "The Great Silky" which is one of my favorite Child ballads. There are better versions around, but I find this one melodic and appealing although lacking in the haunting quality that Joan Baez gave it on her second album. "He Call Me Boy" was written by Richard Byrne, the only original song on the record. It is extremely derivative being a fake slave ballad but it has a dramatic sound that at least gives the record a stirring finish. Obviously this is a minor record that will likely only appeal to folk buffs but if you like the Mamas and the Papas and in particular Denny Doherty's voice as much as I do, you may want to pick this up if you stumble across a cheap copy. The material is mostly ordinary but the singing is first rate. Recommended to Kingston Trio fans.