Sunday, March 25, 2018

Colours - Ashley Eriksson

Ashley Eriksson
K Records KLP 245

I bought this from K Records' mail order service after I caught Eriksson opening for Mount Eerie at an art space in downtown L. A. in 2013.  She delivered a mesmerizing set that even kept the hipsters quiet.  I probably would have bought it eventually anyway because I'm a fan of her band Lake and have several of their albums.  This does not sound much like Lake even though two of Eriksson's bandmates play on the record.  The record begins with "March of the Conch" which is a slow keyboard driven instrumental that has a light, airy feel reminiscent of New Age type music.  "Why Are You So Helpless?" continues the gentle pace as Eriksson croons about unhappiness and repression using images from nature.  I like the way the song gradually builds in strength leading to a majestic finish.  "West of the Mountain" is a dreamy ballad that celebrates nature.  It is driven by a big bass line with chamber pop keyboard flourishes.  The record perks up with "Arguably" which is a bouncy tune that approaches sunshine pop.  The horns by Bill Kautz give the song an even brighter sound.  The lyrics praise love and friendship.  The record slows down again for "Ett Stilla Regn" which is a cover of a 1972 song by Swedish pop singer Ted Gärdestad.  Eriksson sings it in Swedish.  It is a song that uses a lyrical description of rain to describe the singer's feelings.  The weather imagery continues with "Good Storm" which equates storms with emotions.  The song is glacially slow with an ethereal feel to it.  "Colours" is another quiet song that has a cozy domestic feeling as she describes waking up in the morning.  It is rather twee, but I dig the lovely vocal.  Side two opens with "Bury the House" which has more energy than most of the tracks.  It has a repetitious structure that I find hypnotic.  "Mother Nature's Promise" is similarly simple and repetitive, like lethargic synth-pop.  "Sunset" returns to the serene dreamy sound of the songs on side one.  "Humming in the Dark" is propelled by an insistent piano riff that is suggestive of locomotion which is appropriate for a song about humming while walking in the woods.  "Organ Magic" is a relaxed instrumental with a slight exotica feel to it.  "In the Stubborn Eyes of a Demon" looks for hope and optimism in the face of evil.  The music is delicate and sensitive and gives the album a sweet finish.  If you are looking to rock out, this is definitely not your record.  It is introspective and subtle and requires patience to fully appreciate its charms.  I like to play it late at night or on rainy days when the abundance of nature imagery has extra resonance.  I find Eriksson's gentle voice to be very soothing and entrancing and she has created alluring soundscapes that enhance her voice's impact.  This is a beautiful album that provides a sublime and tranquil listening experience.  Recommended to fans of Lavender Diamond. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Ray Charles - Ray Charles

Ray Charles
Ray Charles
Atlantic 8006

When Atlantic Records put out their wonderful CD box set of Ray Charles recordings for the label, they called it "The Birth of Soul" which seems accurate to me.  If anyone invented soul music, it was Ray Charles.  However the music on this album is mostly rhythm and blues, although it is labeled rock and roll on the cover and the liner notes describe Charles as a blues singer.  This was Charles' first album on Atlantic although it is basically just a compilation of his past singles for the label.  The earliest track is the classic "Mess Around" which was recorded and released in 1953.  The song was written by Ahmet Ertegun under the pseudonym A. Nugetre.  Charles lights up this smoking boogie-woogie song with his ferocious piano playing and a red hot vocal.  It is one of the most exciting recordings that he ever made.  The b-side of the single was Charles' own "Funny (But I Still Love You)" which is a bluesy torch song.  Charles' singing and playing make it memorable and I like the romantic guitar solo as well.  Lowell Fulson's "Sinner's Prayer" was originally the b-side of the 1954 single "It Should've Been Me."  It was recorded at the same session that produced "Mess Around."  It is a blues song with an authoritative vocal from Charles backed up by his typically dynamic keyboard work.  The self-penned "Don't You Know" was also a 1954 single.  It is a slight song but Charles sings his heart out on it in addition to delivering an energetic piano solo.  The song was paired with Charles Calhoun's "Losing Hand" which is a slow blues propelled by Charles' piano runs.  Charles wrote "I Got a Woman" which was a big hit single in 1955.  It is arguably the definitive recording of Charles' rhythm and blues period, an absolutely perfect song that exemplifies all the best qualities of the genre.  Its flip side was "Come Back Baby" which was credited to Charles although it was actually written by Walter Davis who recorded it in 1940.  It also was a hit and deservedly so.  Charles' vocal is incredibly expressive, a landmark in the development of soul singing.  Charles' "A Fool For You" was a 1955 single.  It also has a stirring vocal that enables this otherwise pedestrian song to carry a lot of weight.  Charles wrote the b-side "This Little Girl of Mine" which is a jumping rhythm and blues cut.  Renald Richard's "Greenbacks" came out in 1955 as well.  It reminds me of the jazzy recordings Charles made prior to signing with Atlantic when he was aspiring to be the next Nat King Cole.  Henry Glover's "Drown In My Own Tears" was a hit single in 1956.  Charles' bluesy vocal is rich with feeling, truly stunning.  It gives me goosebumps.  The single was backed with Charles' "Mary Ann" which has a Latin sound to it which gives it extra swing.  Charles' magnificent "Hallelujah I Love Her So" also came out in 1956.  The song reveals Charles phenomenal growth as an artist, as he moved beyond a traditional rhythm and blues sound into his own unique style combining blues, jazz and gospel, the nascent sound of soul.  Charles' "Ain't That Love" was the most recent single on the album.  It was recorded in late 1956 and released early in 1957.  It is the song that most approaches soul particularly in the gospel inspired interaction between Charles and the background singers although the sax solo is still pure rhythm and blues.  This song foreshadows the sound that Charles would further develop on his later Atlantic recordings.  If you have any interest in the transition from rhythm and blues to soul, this is an essential record.  Half of it is sheer genius and the remainder is outstanding.  There has never been a better pop singer than Ray Charles.  This music is not only important and influential, it is also endlessly compelling and stimulating.  I've played it countless times and it never loses its appeal.  Recommended to fans of Aretha Franklin. 

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Angelic Swells - Neverever

Angelic Swells
Slumberland Records SLR 117

I first became aware of this band when I caught them opening for Veronica Falls at the Bootleg Theater several years ago.  I loved their set.  Lead vocalist Jihae Meek was extremely charismatic and put on a great show.  Afterward I wasn't sure how good the music really was though, I might have just been swayed by the theatrics.  So eventually I bought their debut album to see if they were as good as I remembered.  The short answer is "not really" but I like the album anyway.  All but one of the songs were written by Meek and her guitarist husband Wallace Meek.  They are mostly retro in style and content as is immediately evident in the opening track "Here Is Always Somewhere Else."  It begins with the melodramatic sound of thunderclaps and rain before lurching into a lovely romantic ballad that could have been recorded by Timi Yuro if she knew some guys with jangly guitars.  "Blue Genes" increases the tempo but remains rooted in the girl group era sound although I can't recall any early 60s group ever singing about incest.  The song is indeed about a brother and sister who are in love with each other.  It was originally recorded as a single by the Meeks' previous group, The Champagne Socialists.  "Coconut Shampoo" is an ultra-poppy rocker about horny teenagers.  The Beach Boys style oohs in the chorus put the song over for me.  "Now" is a cover of the Plimsouls' classic song.  Neverever slows down the song and mutes the rocking edge of the original making the song sound prettier and more romantic.  I would not say that I prefer it to the original, but this version suits Meek's voice extremely well and she delivers a winning performance.  "Young Runaways" mixes New Wave power pop and girl group vocals to deliver another ode to teenage lust and cruising.  It was originally the b-side of The Champagne Socialists' single.  Side two begins with the oddball "Cowboys and Indians" about cowboy and Indian lovers on a murderous rampage.  This rocking song is driven by dense percussion reminiscent of Bow Wow Wow.  "16th Wonder" is a dramatic shift in tone and style.  It is a romantic song about teenage heartache featuring jangly guitar and Laena Myers-Ionita's lovely violin lines.  It gives Meek a great opportunity to showcase her vocal ability.  Rock and roll vulgarity returns full force with "Bitch Boys" which is silly fun.  The verses of "Teardrop Tattoo" sound like they were lifted from "A Teenager in Love" by Dion and the Belmonts and the ooh-wee-oohs in the break are straight doo-wop.  Meek sings about being threatened with murder by a jealous boyfriend although she seems surprisingly okay with it, even describing it as "true romance."  "Young and Dumb" sounds like Lesley Gore crossed with Motown.  As you can probably guess from the title it is another tale of ill-fated teenage love.  The album concludes with "Underwater Ballet" which is about a guy drowning himself in the ocean for love who changes his mind a little too late.  It is a driving, pounding song with a thick sound that reminds me of Best Coast.  I love 1960s pop, Motown and girl groups so I have no problem with Neverever's derivative sound, I just wish the songs were more memorable.  I enjoy all of them while I'm listening but very few of them stick with me after the record is over.  "Now" is easily the best song on the album and they didn't write it.  I do appreciate the cleverness of the lyrics and Meek's singing is very appealing which is reason enough for me to give the album an occasional spin.  Recommended to fans of early Blondie.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Eight Miles High - The Golden Earring

Eight Miles High
The Golden Earring
Polydor 2485 113

This is a late 1970s/early 1980s Dutch re-issue of Golden Earring's fifth album.  Like most Americans I first became aware of the band when "Radar Love" became a hit here in 1974.  I had just started to listen to the radio a lot and it was one of my favorite songs of the time.  I liked the song so much that I eventually bought "Moontan" which is the album it was featured on.  I figured that was all the Golden Earring I would ever need.  Many years later I learned that Golden Earring had been around long before I had ever heard them.  Their career dates back to the early 1960s.  I bought a CD compilation of their 1960s singles in the Netherlands and liked it although it is pretty derivative of British Invasion style pop.  It made me interested enough in the band to buy this album when I came across it in a record store.  I might have bought it even without knowing anything about the band simply because I was intrigued by their side long cover of the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" which is one of my all-time favorite songs.  The record opens with bassist/keyboardist Marinus Gerritsen's "Landing" which is a heavy organ driven rocker that reminds me of a cross between Iron Butterfly and Deep Purple.  I'm a sucker for a good riff and I dig the song's heaviness.  The lyrics are trippy and enigmatic.  The remaining songs on side one were written by guitarist George Kooymans.  "Song of a Devil's Servant" opens with a lengthy instrumental passage featuring flute runs by lead singer Barry Hay.  Sieb Warner contributes some Indian style percussion as well.  The song initially sounds like the Moody Blues, but then the band begins rocking out with a Jethro Tull-like riff.  The song is about a guy who sold his soul to the devil.  Hay isn't a strong enough singer to hold his own against the band's forceful sound, he sounds strained at times.  "One Huge Road" is a straight ahead rocker.  It features another booming riff and lots of energetic guitar noise.  Kooymans takes the mike on this track but he isn't any more effective than Hay.  Despite the song's heaviness it also has an agreeable poppiness to its sound.  That is largely absent from the pounding dreariness of "Everyday's Torture."  It reminds me of Led Zeppelin's cover of "Dazed and Confused."  The torture in the song refers to unrequited love and heartbreak although the lyrics are so awkward that they have little impact.  Side two consists of the band's extended workout on "Eight Miles High."  The song begins with a subdued, jangly sound that adheres closely to the original song's arrangement.  It drifts away from that in the instrumental break with some raga-ish guitar noodling that gradually gains in strength and volume leading into a more highly charged riff-driven instrumental passage that has little resemblance to the original version of the song.  Regrettably that gives way to Warner's drum solo which goes on way too long.  Gerritsen then joins him for an extended bass solo that isn't much better but restores a little of the song's momentum.  Finally the guitar returns and the band lurches into some energetic jamming that eventually after a brief pause evolves into a riff that sounds like it was lifted from Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive."  From there the original Byrds song at last reappears leading to the songs rather abrupt conclusion.  I have to admit the first time I played this track I was really disappointed.  I like it better now although I still think the drum and bass solos are boring.  You should check it out if you are a fan of the original song.  The album itself is too derivative and lyrically weak to be essential, but it is worth looking for if you like late 1960s hard rock and appreciate a good riff.  Recommended to fans of Humble Pie and Free.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Le tour de l'ile - Félix Leclerc

Le tour de l'ile
Félix Leclerc
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

Psychic Psummer - Cave

Psychic Psummer
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

New Skin for the Old Ceremony - Leonard Cohen

New Skin for the Old Ceremony
Leonard Cohen
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 is 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.