Thursday, September 29, 2011

Short Sharp Shocked - Michelle Shocked



Short Sharp Shocked
Michelle Shocked
Mercury  834 924-1  
1988

I was a fan of Michelle Shocked in the early 90s but she dropped off my radar after the release of "Kind Hearted Woman."   It wasn't that I no longer liked her music, I just didn't notice it anymore, which is one of the consequences of going the independent route I suppose.  Over the summer I saw she had a local gig so I decided to check it out and see what she has been up to.  It was a fun show, she did a lot of the older tunes that I knew and I liked the newer stuff as well.  Much of her repertoire was drawn from this, her second album, and I liked the show so much that I pulled out this album for the first time in many years and gave it a spin.  It was the first record of hers that I bought and I mostly bought it because I was so taken by the cover photograph which shows her getting arrested at the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco.  I remember the Convention quite well, I had a summer job in the city at the time, but I didn't participate in the protests which practically paralyzed downtown, in fact I went to Russian River with my girlfriend to escape all the hubbub.  Given the cover photo and her punky haircut, I was expecting something militant and something rockish, so I was surprised when I first played it to find that the music was folksy and country-flavored as befits a woman from East Texas I suppose.  The only real rock song is her collaboration with the punk band M.D.C., the unlisted track "Fogtown" which is a description of the seedy underbelly of San Francisco.  This song first appeared as a folk song on "The Texas Campfire Tapes."  The only militant song is "Graffiti Limbo" which is about police brutality.  There is also a cover of Jean Ritchie's "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore" which has elements of social commentary to it but I think it is more of a lament than a protest song.  "If Love Was a Train" is a swinging, bluesy love song and "When I Grow Up" is a silly love song with a driving beat.  The lovely "Memories of East Texas," "V. F. D" and the rollicking "(Making the Run to) Gladewater" are unsentimental reminiscences of her life in Texas.  My favorite song is "Anchorage" which is about an old friend from Texas and the different paths their lives have taken since they left Texas.  It was the highlight of her live show for me.  Musically this is mostly tasteful country rock well-played and arranged by a solid bunch of musicians.  Shocked has a warm and inviting voice and the music is personal enough to keep me interested.  Recommended to fans of Lucinda Williams and Shelby Lynne. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Otis Blue - Otis Redding



Otis Blue
Otis Redding
Volt Records 412
1965 

What is Otis Redding's best studio album?  I know a lot of people pick "Dictionary of Soul" but "Otis Blue" gets my vote.  On only his third studio album, Redding takes on the heavyweights of soul and triumphs everytime.  His principal victim is Sam Cooke.  I admire Cooke but as a singer he can't hold a candle to Redding.  Redding takes "Shake" and makes it his own.  No one will ever top his version.  He also delivers an unbelievably moving performance of "Change Gonna Come" and makes the sappy "Wonderful World" sound sincere and convincing, no mean feat, just ask James Taylor.  He makes Mick Jagger seem like a naive kid with his classic cover of "Satisfaction."  He edges Solomon Burke on "Down In the Valley" and scores easy decisions over William Bell and the Temptations with his magnificent versions of "You Don't Miss Your Water" and "My Girl."  His version of "Rock Me Baby" is definitive with some brilliant guitar playing from Steve Cropper.  On top of all that he wrote three classic songs for this album.  The passionate "Ole Man Trouble" would be a career topper for many artists and it is the weakest of the three.  "I've Been Loving You Too Long," which Redding co-wrote with the great Jerry Butler, is pure emotion.  Redding was justly famous for his energetic performances, but he could deliver a slow ballad with incendiary power as well.  This song melts me every time I hear it.  I think "Respect" is one of the greatest songs in the history of soul, a landmark in the history of pop music in the 1960s.  Aretha Franklin's cover is the best version, but getting topped by the Queen of Soul isn't much of a disgrace and Redding's version is still pretty awesome in its own right.  This is a perfect record, every song is great.  My only complaint about it is the cover, no picture of Redding?  Did some marketing clown think putting a cute white chick on the cover would sell more records?  Despite the dubious packaging, the vinyl inside is pure gold.  This album established Redding as a true master, the greatest soul man of all time, arguably the greatest male pop performer of the 20th Century.  I know I'm prone to hyperbole, but I really mean it, I've never heard a greater male singer.  The man was an absolute titan.  Recommended for anyone who thinks that December 10, 1967 was just as much the day the music died as February 3, 1959.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Darker Days - The Connells



Darker Days
The Connells
Black Park  BPR 001
1985

I was only vaguely aware of the Connells in the 1980s which is odd considering how much I loved jangle pop back then.  I read about them in rock mags and probably heard a song or two on the radio, but I didn't become a fan until the 1990s and then purely by accident.  A friend of mine worked on a film called "Bandwagon."  It was directed by a guy who was a drummer in an early version of the Connells and the movie was based on his experiences with the band.  The lead singer of the Connells, Doug MacMillan, had a prominent acting role in the film.  My friend invited me to a screening of the film and I really loved it.  I was so impressed by it that I started buying the Connells' records and fell pretty hard.  This was their debut album and it is an impressive one.  The group takes the jangly sound of folk-rock and marries it to power pop with irresistible results, track after track of catchy, propulsive pop bliss.  The opening track, "Hats Off," is a subtle attack on Ronald Reagan.  It never mentions him by name, it could apply to any likable dimwit stuck in the past.  It is one of my favorite songs on the album.  "Holding Pattern" is a more enigmatic song, it seems to be about confusion and inertia.  "Seven" is also vague with dreamy lyrics about a relationship.  "Unspoken Words" is an introspective song about perception and feeling.  "Darker Days (Version)" is my favorite song on the album and classic Connells.  With its driving beat and chiming guitars, MacMillan's emotional vocal and soaring background vocals, it takes hold of me and never lets go.  It is a song about escape and indecision.  "Much Easier" is another song of inertia and indecision, the lyrics on this album sum up the experience of being a confused young person so well that listening to this album makes me feel like I'm back in college again.  "1934" sounds different than the other songs presumably because it is written by guitarist/keyboardist George Huntley and the other songs are all written by Michael Connell.  I think is a about a prisoner awaiting his release in 1934.  "Brighter Worlds" is another mysterious song with a theme of escape.  The album finishes with the short instrumental "Dial It."  This album is very much a product of its time.  Aside from a couple of songs, the lyrical intent is hard to understand, the songs are vague but evocative, producing moods and impressions without revealing concrete meanings, typical of college rock in that era.  It is not as surreal as R.E.M. but it works in a similar way.  Lines stand out to me but overall the songs tend to disappear into a lyrical fog.  I do like that though, I find it stimulating.  Musically, it is delicious jangle pop, pure rock and roll cotton candy, light, sticky and sweet.  The songwriting is a little weak, there is a sameness to much of the music.  It sounds great while I'm listening, but most of it doesn't stay with me when the record is over.  They would have more memorable songs on their later albums.  Nonetheless it is a thoroughly enjoyable record, a very worthy debut album.  Recommended for fans of Let's Active and Game Theory.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

No Roses - Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band



No Roses
Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band
Antilles  AN-7017
1971

This is the 1976 American release of an album originally released on Pegasus in England.  I consider it one of the best English folk-rock albums and it was made by an all-star line-up of English folk performers including the "Liege and Lief" line-up of Fairport Convention minus Dave Swarbrick and Sandy Denny.  Ashley Hutchings (who had just married Collins) was the driving force behind the record which sounds a lot like his work with Fairport and Steeleye Span, but Collins herself had a long history as a progressive figure in English folk.  Her 1964 collaboration with Davy Graham "Folk Roots, New Routes" is a favorite of mine and is often cited as a pioneering work in liberating English folk from its traditional strait-jacket as is her 1969 album "Anthems in Eden" in which (in collaboration with her sister Dolly) Collins explored new instrumental settings for traditional music.  Still neither of those albums approach rock, which this album delivers in spades.  The album kicks off with the beat of the drums and Collins launches into "Claudy Banks" which is a familiar folksong about a man who unrecognized by his lover tests her fidelity by telling her that her boyfriend is dead and observing her reaction.  It sounds like Fairport Convention until the sax and bassoon kick in.  It is followed by the charming "The Little Gypsy Girl" in which the title character induces a wealthy squire to marry her.  It is driven by Tony Hall on the melodeon.  The stately "Banks of the Bann" follows with some beautiful piano lines from Dolly Collins.  It is about a poor boy in love with a wealthy girl whose parents reject him.  "Murder of Maria Marten" is an amazing song reminiscent of early Neil Young and Crazy Horse.  Three electric guitars rock out accompanied by a fiddle and a hurdy-gurdy supported by the rock solid rhythm section of Ashley Hutchings and Dave Mattacks.  Richard Thompson takes the lead supported by Simon Nicol and Quiver's Tim Renwick and the result sounds a lot like the Fairport classic "Sloth" from "Full House."  Collins' passionate vocal relates a dark ballad based on a sensational 19th Century murder case and the song alternates between chugging folk-rock and a mournful drone.  It is a true folk-rock synthesis and displays the full possibilities of the genre.  Side two opens with "Van Dieman's Land" which continues in a similar vein as Collins sings of poachers being exiled to Tasmania as punishment.  It has a solid folk-rock backing with pipes and a concertina adding instrumental color as well as an ophicleide.  "Just As The Tide Was A'Flowing" reminds me of the first Steeleye Span album, "Hark! The Village Wait," a resemblance heightened by Maddy Prior's presence as a harmony vocalist.  It is a sweet song about a bride who misses her sailor husband away at sea.  It sounds to me like phasing is applied to the concertina on the song and I'll bet that Hutchings got the idea from the Byrds.  Folk singing stalwarts Lal and Mike Waterson as well as Royston Wood of the Young Tradition join Collins on the hunting song "The White Hare."  It sounds more folk than rock as does the May Day dance song, "Hal-An-Tow."   Rock returns full force on the closing song, "Poor Murdered Woman" with the redoubtable team of Hutchings and Mattacks laying down a forceful rhythm track on which Nicol and Thompson pile on ringing guitar chords with Dolly Collins adding typically gorgeous piano lines and Dave Bland playing the concertina.  This tragic song of murder and class conflict gradually builds in intensity in the best Fairport style and Collins delivers one of her most emotionally powerful vocals.  The song gives me chills.  It is a great conclusion to a classic record, one of the most fully-realized and satisfying folk-rock records ever, it offers the best of both genres.  Recommended for fans of "Liege and Lief" and "Full House."  

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Call of the West - Wall of Voodoo



Call of the West
Wall of Voodoo
IRS  SP70023
1982 

I saw a Stan Ridgway show over the summer.  I was actually going to see Michelle Shocked who was opening for him but I stuck around to check out his act.  I've never been a fan, in fact I used to find him kind of irritating so I was pleasantly surprised to find that I really enjoyed the show.  He is an entertaining, even compelling performer.  So I dug out this record and gave it a spin.  Basically the only reason I have it is that I was a big fan of IRS Records back in the New Wave days and I would buy practically any record they put out.  I bought this but didn't like it all that much, mostly because I was annoyed by Stan, or as he called himself back then Stanard, Ridgway's voice which I would describe as a cross between David Byrne and Fred Schneider filtered through Ian Curtis.  I find as he has gotten older the voice suits him or maybe I'm just more open to his mannered style of singing.  This record appeals to me now, I have a bigger problem with the 80s synth pop sound on it than I do Ridgway's singing.  The best song on the album is the most famous song in his repertoire, the New Wave classic "Mexican Radio."  Like many of the songs on this album, it has a bit of a film noir feel to it which has been a popular motif with Ridgway throughout his career.  This song is insanely catchy, hear it once and you will hear it forever.  The film noir influence is very pronounced on "Lost Weekend" which sounds better live where Ridgway gives it a more dramatic interpretation than on this album.  Like a lot of Ridgway's best songs it has a strong narrative, his music has a cinematic feel to it.  This is particularly true of the excellent closing song, "Call of the West."  This epic song is influenced by westerns and also captures the desolation of the Southern California desert were Ridgway was born.  It features one of Ridgway's best vocals.  The western influence is very strong on the instrumental "On Interstate 15" which is the road that goes from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.  It sounds like a psychedelic western soundtrack.  "Factory" opens with a howling harmonica reminiscent of a Morricone spaghetti western soundtrack, but the song that follows is a dark tale of modern life, part film noir and part suburban nightmare.  "Hands of Love" reminds me of the Talking Heads, a bouncy observation of ordinary everyday weirdness.  "Tomorrow," "Look at their Way," "Spy World" and "They Don't Want Me" are lively tunes with that big New Wave beat but full of atmosphere and sardonic lyrics, intelligent music you can dance to.  This record sounds better than a lot of records from that era and I think Ridgway deserves credit for that.  He has so much enthusiasm and drama in his singing style, it gives feeling and resonance to his synth pop.  The band is strong as well, they play with taste and restraint, virtues in short supply in the pop music scene in the early 1980s.  Recommended for Talking Heads fans who dig Sergio Leone.   

Friday, September 16, 2011

Five Leaves Left - Nick Drake



Five Leaves Left
Nick Drake
Antilles  AN-7010
1969

I recently read Patrick Humphries' biography of Nick Drake.  It is not a fun read but worthwhile if you are a Drake fan.  I had all kinds of questions about the man, but after reading the book he remains a cipher to me.  Apparently no one ever really understood him or his problems.  I became interested in Drake through Fairport Convention.  In my late teens I was obsessed with Fairport and after exhausting the original albums I branched off into their various offshoots.  Drake wasn't technically an offshoot, but he was discovered by Ashley Hutchings, was managed and produced by Joe Boyd (who performed the same function with Fairport) and various Fairporters played on his first two albums.  This is the American version of Drake's debut album released on Island Records' subsidiary label Antilles in 1976.  The original Island release in the U. K. featured a gatefold cover with a different back cover.  The picture on the back cover here was originally in the gatefold and the front cover of the Island release was a lighter shade of green.  This album was not released in the U. S. during Drake's lifetime although a few of its tracks appear on a rare comp entitled "Nick Drake" that was the only American release of his music while he was alive.  One of the things that impressed me in the book was Island's treatment of Drake.  Even though he refused to tour and did almost no publicity for his records, they kept him on their roster, gave him complete creative freedom and kept his records in the catalogue despite dismal sales.  What American record company would have done that in the 1970s?  Kudos to Island and Chris Blackwell!  I bought this album around 1980 in Berkeley.  I really wanted the "Fruit Tree" box set which was released around that time, but as a starving student, it was out of my price range.  I was enormously impressed by this album when I first heard it and it has remained a favorite ever since.  The album opens with "Time Has Told Me" which is a fatalistic love song which with hindsight seems revealing of his mentality both in its passivity and references to mental unease.  Drake's acoustic guitar playing is very distinctive and lovely on this song.  According to Humphries, Drake achieved his unique style through unusual tunings and a complicated picking style.  He is supported by Richard Thompson on electric guitar although he seems superfluous considering the richness of Drake's own playing.  "River Man" is one of Drake's best known songs.  It has a haunting melody and enigmatic lyrics.  I'm not crazy about the string arrangement, Drake would later complain about the over-production on his first two albums and I can see his point listening to this song.  "Three Hours" is one of my favorite songs on the album.  It has a Middle Eastern feel to it and a dazzling guitar performance from Drake as well as one of his most compelling vocals.  According to Humphries, the song is about a school friend of Drake although the song is enigmatic enough to apply to anyone looking for escape.  On "Way To Blue" Drake is accompanied only by a string arrangement by his college friend Robert Kirby.  In this case I think the strings do enhance the yearning quality of the song.  The lyrics describe someone seeking something, enlightenment or some sort of fulfillment.  Again with hindsight it is tempting to see it as a more personal song than it probably really is.  The A side concludes with "Day Is Done" featuring Kirby's strings along with Drake on guitar.  As with many of the lyrics on the album, Drake uses nature to express his reflections on people and their lives.  It is a beautiful, but gloomy song that describes an existential perspective on the insignificance of our daily lives.  I love "'Cello Song" which features more splendid guitar work from Drake supported by a hypnotic bass riff from Danny Thompson (of Pentangle) and lovely cello passages courtesy of Clare Lowther.  From an instrumental standpoint, I think it is the best song on the record.  Lyrically it is yet another song about transcendence and escape.  "The Thoughts of Mary Jane" is the most upbeat song on the record.  The title character is a bit twee, but it is a relief from the dark tone on most of the other songs.  I particularly like the high tempo guitar passage at the end, Drake's version of a rave-up perhaps.  The jazzy "Man In the Shed" continues the upbeat feeling musically with some propulsive piano support from Paul Harris and typically strong bass lines from Danny Thompson.  The lyrics are peculiar, almost silly, although the line "please stop my world from raining through my head" has a lot of resonance considering Drake's future mental problems.  "Fruit Tree" is one of Drake's more famous songs and deservedly so.  His musings on the transience of fame and particularly on posthumous fame foreshadows Drake's career although he couldn't possibly have known it as the time.  Humphries' bio suggests that his lack of success was one of the prime contributors to Drake's mental illness and "Fruit Tree" indicates that it was a subject of considerable significance to Drake.  This melancholy song features another very effective string arrangement from Robert Kirby that greatly enhances its emotional impact.  The album concludes with "Saturday Sun" which has a jazzy arrangement with Drake on piano and Tristam Fry on vibraphone.  The lyrics speak of confusion and missed opportunities, I can hardly resist applying them to Drake's life although I imagine that Drake was just making general observations about life.  I'm constantly tempted to filter this album through the myth of Nick Drake that has grown around him since his death, but this album was written and recorded before his mental illness took hold of him, back when he was essentially a normal person albeit a withdrawn and shy one.  When I first bought this record, I felt Drake was a kindred soul, his lyrics really spoke to me, but now I'm mostly just drawn to the music.  I still admire some of his words and his evocative imagery but I don't relate very strongly to his perspective.  I think that is just part of getting older.  When I was in my teens and twenties, I had lots of confusion and bewilderment about life and my place in the world, which is now largely gone.  Lyrically I relate more to grizzled veterans like Richard Thompson, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan now.  But I will always have a soft spot for Drake, I spent many melancholy evenings spinning this album and feeling reassured that someone understood the way I felt back then.  He has become such a popular artist, loved by so many people, it is heartbreaking to think that he died in such obscurity, feeling like an abject failure.  Recommended for mixed-up college students.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Amboy Dukes - The Amboy Dukes



The Amboy Dukes
The Amboy Dukes
Mainstream  S/6104
1967

I first heard the Amboy Dukes on the "Nuggets" comp shortly before Ted Nugent's rise to stardom with "Cat Scratch Fever."  Nugent became extremely popular at my high school but not with me.  I've never liked his solo work and the more I knew about him, the less I liked him.  There's no denying though that the man can shred and I like the first three Amboy Dukes albums which thankfully do not sound much like his solo records.  This is the Dukes' debut album.  It opens with a cover of Big Joe Williams' "Baby Please Don't Go" that is based on Them's classic version of it.  This song appeared on the original "Nuggets" comp and deservedly so.  It is one of their best performances.  No matter how many stupid things Nugent says, plays or does, I'll always have some respect for him because of this song.  The band lays down a solid rhythmic groove and Nugent goes to work on top of it with some really spectacular licks, he even quotes Jimi Hendrix at one point.  Yes he's a show-off, but he's got the chops to back it up and his exhibitionism can be fun.  One thing for sure about Nugent, he is nothing if not confident.  He displays this on the next cut, a cover of Cream's "I Feel Free."  Nugent takes on Eric Clapton and holds his own.  I still prefer Cream's version, mostly because of the strength of the rhythm section on the original.  Nugent and rhythm guitarist/vocalist Steve Farmer contribute "Young Love" and "Psalms of Aftermath."  The former is banal practically bubblegum-like although Nugent plays up a storm, the latter is mediocre psychedelia complete with a sitar and pretentious biblical lyrics about the history of man from creation to the apocalypse, it reminds me of Eric Burdon and the Animals at their worst.  The album picks up with the rocking group composition "Colors" which sees the return of Nugent the axe hero.  It has a strong riff and mildly psychedelic lyrics.  Side two begins with another cover, "Let's Go Get Stoned."  It sounds like something you'd hear from a bar band, albeit one with an excellent guitarist.  Farmer and Nugent's "Down on Philips Escalator" is a nice pop psychedelic song with smoking guitar work from the Nuge.  It is my favorite of the originals on the album.  Farmer's waltz-like "The Lovely Lady" has a chamber pop feel to it, it reminds me of Ars Nova which seems like a weird comparison to make for a band led by Ted Nugent.  I like Rick Lober's keyboards and Nugent's delicate cascading guitar runs.  Farmer and Nugent's "Night Time" is a straight ahead rocker driven by a heavy bass line from Bill White with an exciting rave-up courtesy of Nugent.  The Dukes turn to the Who for their final cover, "It's Not True."  It doesn't stray far from the original with T. T. Palmer making a ruckus at his drum kit and Nugent laying down feedback ridden guitar lines over Lober pounding away at the piano à la Nicky Hopkins.  The album ends with "Gimme Love" from Farmer and Nugent.  It is another straight ahead rocker with killer riffing from Nugent that helps the album finish strong.  The Amboy Dukes were basically an ordinary garage band with an extraordinary guitarist.  Their debut album is competent and mostly enjoyable, but it would be utterly forgettable without Nugent's blistering guitar work.  The man was a formidable talent right from the beginning and I think if the band had had better songwriting it probably could have reached the upper echelon of American rock in the 1960s.  Recommended for Shadows of Knight fans who wish the band had a killer guitarist. 

Live Dead - The Grateful Dead




Live Dead
The Grateful Dead
Warner Bros.  2WS1830
1969 

Was this the first live double album in rock?  I can't think of an earlier one.  I suppose it is only fitting that the Dead would invent the live double, which would become so ubiqutious in the 1970s.  I don't really blame them for the likes of "Frampton Comes Alive" and the other live doubles that followed this album.  It is not like the Dead invented ripping off fans or padding the catalogue to get out of a record contract.   Most Deadheads regard the live album as the ideal vehicle for the Dead's music aside from attending the concert in person and boy have these guys released a lot of live albums, more than 50 of them I think at this point.  Despite the deluge of live Grateful Dead records in the CD era (they've released far more records since Jerry Garcia died than they released in their 18 year lifetime as a recording band) this is my favorite live album by the Dead even though the concerts that produced it have been released in greatly expanded versions on CD.  For me it is just the right length and I also admire the album cover art.  I first encountered this album in my electronics class in high school around 1975.  Basically I just encountered the album cover (which I instantly loved) but it would be a few years before I would actually hear the record.  There was a stereo in my class but no one ever played the record (although some jackass did bring in "Frampton Comes Alive" and played that on the class stereo at one point, ick.)  The Dead were not popular at my high school for some reason, even though they were hugely popular in the San Francisco Bay Area where I lived.  I didn't know anyone who liked them except adult teachers.  My school was new and there were lots of young teachers, ex-hippies and fellow travelers like my electronics teacher.  I greatly admired him, he worked as an electrician for Bill Graham for many of his concerts and when he was in the mood he would tell us stories about the Bay Area rock scene.  He knew lots of people in it, including members of Santana and Quicksilver Messenger Service and he brought Journey to play at our school before they became famous.  This teacher had a big influence on me, through him I realized that adults could be hip, that smart people could be involved in rock, and that the 1960s were cool.  At the time he was the coolest adult I knew.  Thanks Mr. Farrow, I will always be grateful that I was in your class.  But getting back to "Live/Dead," I most like the Dead's music from the 1960s even though a lot of Deadheads feel their best period was the early 1970s.  I think the band peaked in 1968/1969 and that is well represented on this classic album.  Side one begins with a 23 minute long performance of "Dark Star" from a February 1969 show at the Fillmore West.  "Dark Star" is a slight song with some of the trippiest lyrics in the Dead canon.  It basically served the Dead as a framework for some extensive improvised soloing from Jerry Garcia.  It is the quintessential song of the early Dead and gets a robust performance here with a strong vocal from Garcia and some exciting bass/guitar interplay between Phil Lesh and Garcia.  Deadheads like to debate which performances of "Dark Star" are the best and I certainly haven't heard enough of them to enter the debate, but I'm partial to this one even though it is rather modest compared to the epic versions of the 1970s.  It was the first version I ever heard and it is still the one that comes to my mind when I think of the song.  It is a classic landmark in San Francisco psychedelia.  It is followed on side two by an almost equally great version of "Saint Stephen" from the same concert.  It has another strong vocal and very vigorous playing.  I really haven't a clue to what this song is about although the lyrics are full of imaginative imagery.  Robert Hunter's writing at this time was pretty surreal and frankly rather obscure as well, almost as bad in this regard as Keith Reid's although not as irritating.  This is also true of "The Eleven" which follows in a seamless segue, maybe you have to be stoned to know what an "eight sided whispering hallelujah hat rack" means.  This song was recorded at the Avalon Ballroom in January 1969.  It is an exciting and frenetic performance, anyone who thinks the Dead were laid back hippies noodling around has never heard this record.  The 60s Dead really rocked.  At the end of the song you hear the Dead moving seamlessly into the 15 minute long "Turn On Your Love Light" that takes up all of side three.  The technology of vinyl can't handle the Dead's elongated performances.  The energy of "The Eleven" is carried over into this powerful performance which is sung by Pigpen with considerable passion.  I'm not the biggest fan of the Dead's forays into rhythm and blues, but this is definitely a winner.  After three incendiary sides, things slow down on side four with a cover of Rev. Gary Davis' "Death Don't Have No Mercy" recorded at the Fillmore West in March 1969.  It is a slow blues that gradually builds in intensity and features a terrific vocal from Garcia as well as a majestic guitar solo.  The side concludes with the trippy instrumental "Feedback."  It is pretty out there, not a constructed song, more of a free-form jam without drums and with lots of feedback and weird keyboard sounds courtesy of Tom Constanten.  I'm not a big fan of it, but I find it listenable for the most part although it is definitely not rock.  There is 36 second coda of the group singing "We Bid You Goodnight" to finish the album with a bit of warmth.  Thus concludes one of the great live albums in rock history and in my opinion the Dead's best moment on vinyl.  Recommended for people who think of the Dead as a bunch of stoned dinosaurs lumbering their way through "Casey Jones" (which is basically how I regarded them back in high school) - you should give this a spin and become enlightened.  The 1969 Dead were a true kick-ass rock band. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Best of Dolly Parton - Dolly Parton



The Best of Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton
RCA  LSP-4449
1970 

Earlier I blogged about a 1975 Parton album also entitled "Best of Dolly Parton"  This one was released 5 years earlier and covers the period of 1968 to 1970 when Parton was first becoming a country star.  The songs are not as famous as the ones on the 1975 album but it is still an excellent record.  I recently saw Parton's show at the Hollywood Bowl.  She is a great entertainer, her versatility is amazing.  She covered Katrina and the Waves, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Sly and the Family Stone, Ike and Tina Turner, Miley Cyrus and rapped as well.  Actually the rap was pretty embarrassing but the covers were surprisingly good.  However I would have preferred it if she had done more country music.  She did perform a bunch of the classics from the 1975 comp, but only one from this one, "Mule Skinner Blues."  That's too bad because there are plenty of songs on here that are just as good or better than the pop songs she did at her show.  This album kicks off with her version of Jimmie Rodgers' "Mule Skinner Blues" which was a big country hit for her in 1970.  She changed the lyrics a bit to make it more personal and she gives a very robust performance.  It is a lot of fun to listen to and yes she can yodel just fine.  It is followed by my favorite song on the record, the moving "Down From Dover" also from 1970.  I consider it the best song of her early work.  It tells the story of a pregnant girl abandoned by her boyfriend and her parents who eventually gives birth to a stillborn baby.  Pretty grim stuff but not untypical of the dark themes that she explored in her music early in her career and to Parton's credit the song is never maudlin, her narrator always keeps her dignity.  It is a haunting song driven by a strong bass line with a heartbreaking vocal from Parton, her quiet desperation reminds me of "Jolene."  The gloom continues in "My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy"  about a New Orleans prostitute missing the boyfriend she left back in Tennessee.  It is an amazingly poignant song, no matter how melodramatic her lyrics may be, Parton always manages to infuse them with sincerity.  There is no relief in "In the Good Old Days" which recalls her childhood hardships with an unrelenting stream of harrowing details.  It is like the dark flipside of her later hit "My Tennessee Mountain Home" without the optimism and nostalgia.  It gives some hint of the forces that drive her.  The jaunty tune for "Gypsy, Joe and Me" suggests that it will be more cheerful, but instead she narrates the deaths of her dog, boyfriend and finally herself.  You would think this stream of tragic songs would be hard to listen to, but Parton's indomitable spirit permeates each song and makes them almost life affirming in their effect.  She recognizes life's tragic side, but is determined to go forward with a positive outlook.   Side two begins with her cover of "In the Ghetto."  Her version is more subdued than Elvis' hit version but she stills sings it with plenty of feeling.  The feminist "Just Because I'm A Woman" is my other favorite song on the record.  It criticizes the double standard and Parton's passionate vocal really sends me.  It is a terrific song, among her very best.  "Daddy Come and Get Me" is another dark song.  The narrator pleads for her father to come rescue her from the mental hospital that her unfaithful husband has committed her to.  It is a bit over the top, but Parton manages to keep it from sounding too ridiculous with her powerful vocal.  I like her version of "How Great Thou Art" almost as much as Elvis' version but I dislike the corny choral background arrangement that intrudes on the beauty of her vocal.  The album finishes strong with the upbeat "Just The Way I Am" which celebrates her uniqueness and her refusal to conform to the expectations of others.  It makes me want to give her a hug.  This album showcases that Parson was a gifted songwriter with a terrific voice, even at this early stage in her career.  This collection is not quite up to the standard of the songs on the classic 1975 compilation, but it is still essential music that anyone who is interested in pop music ought to hear.  Recommended for people who think that "Jolene" is a better song than "9 to 5."   

Saturday, September 3, 2011

James Taylor - James Taylor




James Taylor
James Taylor
Apple  SKAO 3352
1968

One of the local classic rock radio stations here runs a live concert recording segment each weeknight.  I happened to tune in the other night while driving around and heard that the artist was going to be James Taylor.  Perversely I decided to listen a bit even though I can't stand his music.  I could just picture him hunched over the mike, that gaunt bony face, the bald forehead gleaming under the lights as he croaked out his tunes in that lazy drawl of his, the horror, the horror.  I've disliked Taylor since I was a kid back when he and Carly Simon were the royal couple of singer-songwriters.  I still remember my intense chagrin when they covered "Mockingbird" in 1974.  It had been a childhood favorite song of mine, but after Taylor and Simon got through with it, it was ruined for me forever.  I don't even want to talk about his horrible cover of Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It is."  I don't think Taylor is without talent, but as a performer he is soooo boring.  Nonetheless there on my record shelf sandwiched between Howard Tate and Koko Taylor sits this album.  That fellow on the cover with the long hair, peach fuzz mustache and the psychedelic tie, that is indeed Sweet Baby James.  Who would ever have thought that this pretty boy hippie lothario would someday turn into Ichabod Crane?  There's a cautionary tale for you!  So why do I have this record?  Well if you haven't noticed already, I'm a Beatlemaniac.  I not only collect all Beatle-related vinyl, but I collect Apple Records as well and Taylor's debut album was delivered by Apple.  It arrived in the United States in 1969 a few months after its British release.  Despite my disdain for Taylor's work, I have to admit I do like this record and not just because it has a picture of an apple on the inner label.  Some of Taylor's admirers criticize this record's production, in particular the heavy use of strings but for me that is its saving grace.  I really like Richard Hewson's string arrangements, I think they add beauty and depth to Taylor's otherwise bland songs, they give them a chamber pop type feel.  The songs are linked by little musical interludes most of which are provided by Hewson and I think that is a plus as well, I like when songs blend together seamlessly, I feel like it adds to the groove produced by the album sequencing.  It seems weird to discuss groove with Taylor, if there was ever a guy who doesn't groove it is him, really he doesn't even rock.  His forays into rock on this record, namely "Knocking 'Round the Zoo" and "Night Owl" are the least effective performances on the album.  He sounds feeble on them.  That is unfortunate because "Knocking 'Round the Zoo" is one of his best songs, with striking lyrics describing his experiences in a mental hospital.  His attempt at the blues, "The Blues Is Just a Bad Dream," is just as bad, it sounds almost like a parody.  "Don't Talk Now" is almost rock, it has a riff and some rhythmic drive, but not so much that it strains Taylor's singing ability.  I particularly like the harpsichord on it.  Taylor's real forte is folk-pop as best represented by "Carolina in My Mind" which is my favorite Taylor song of all time.  It has an unusually strong melody for Taylor and his wavery voice enhances the plaintive quality of the lyrics.  It features the most elaborate instrumentation on the record including some guy named Paul McCartney on bass.  "Rainy Day Man" is another fine song with Taylor's strongest vocal on the album.  Being a junkie, its drug theme apparently stirred more passion in him than the love stories on most of the other songs.  I also like "Sunshine Sunshine" which is a sensitive song given added weight by a string quartet and a harp.  "Something In the Way She Moves" is just JT and his guitar, the only unadorned song on the album, but it is such a strong song that it still has considerable power.  "Taking It In" is surprisingly effective sunshine pop.  On the negative side "Something's Wrong" and "Brighten Your Night With My Day" are as boring as most of his future oeuvre.  The traditional song "Circle Round The Sun" would probably be just as dull were it not for the orchestral kick-in-the-pants it gets from Richard Hewson.  This album foreshadows Taylor's future as an artist.  He has a knack for writing personal songs that have considerable resonance but he is an extremely limited performer.  I don't think he's much of a singer and he can't rock.  He is very dependent on his musicians to flesh out his weak sound.  This album largely succeeds in that regard.  If it was just JT and his guitar or a bunch of L.A. session musicians, I doubt that I would ever play it except to hear "Carolina in My Mind."  Recommended for people who prefer Judy Collins over Carly Simon.  

Friday, September 2, 2011

Northern Journey - Ian and Sylvia



Northern Journey
Ian and Sylvia
Vanguard  VSD-79154
1964

Ian and Sylvia's third album.  I first discovered Ian and Sylvia via the We Five's cover of Sylvia Fricker's "You Were On My Mind."  My stepmother had the first We Five album, "You Were On My Mind," and I listened to that one song many times as a teenager.  I became curious about the original and sought it out.  I started with an Ian and Sylvia comp but the song first appeared on this album which I picked up a few years later.  After Dylan, Ian and Sylvia are my favorite folkies, at least as far as North America is concerned.  There are many reasons for this, starting with my obsession with Canada.  Their albums feature many songs about Canada and listening to them made me yearn to visit the great white north.  Secondly, Ian and Sylvia had excellent taste in songs and were both good songwriters also.  I believe that all of their Vanguard albums are worthwhile.  They were talented singers as well, Ian Tyson has one of the best voices in North American folk music, I think only Tom Rush comes close and Sylvia Fricker is a brilliant harmony singer, that vibrato in her voice always sends me.  Finally, I have to admit, I had a crush on Sylvia Fricker.  When I saw her picture on the comp I bought, I was instantly smitten.  As a youth I totally idealized her and what I thought she and Tyson represented - integrity, bohemia and the true north strong and free.  According to the album's liner notes the album title reflects the folk scene in Canada or more particularly the way Anglo-American songs traveled there from England and the United States.  Many of the songs are either about Canada, from Canada or collected in Canada.  The album begins with "You Were On My Mind."  When I heard the We Five version (which altered the lyrics) I thought it was about a depressed person who was cheered up thinking of her love, but my error became clear when I heard the Ian and Sylvia version and realized that the narrator is depressed because she is heartbroken, she is trying to forget the person on her mind.  Despite the sad subject matter, I'm always elated when I hear this song, it makes me feel good to be alive.  The lyrics sound like a blues song but the music is almost joyous.  There is a rich string sound in the performance which features two guitars, a bass and Fricker on autoharp.  This is characteristic of most of the album aside from the autoharp.  All but one of the songs features a bass and most of the songs feature a second guitarist.  The resulting richness of sound is very appealing.  My two other favorite songs were both written by Tyson.  "Some Day Soon" is a classic song about a girl in love with a rodeo performer.  It is set in the United States, but given Tyson's background in rodeo I would assume that the song is a little autobiographical as well.  With no less than three guitars and a bass it has a very dynamic sound and boasts a terrific duet vocal.  It would later be a minor hit for Judy Collins although I greatly prefer this version.  Tyson's other song is "Four Rode By" which describes the exploits of the criminal McLean gang in British Columbia in 1879.  The song is mostly neutral in its perspective, ignoring the various social and political aspects of the events.  It is a very propulsive tune with some stirring guitar work from John Herald.  The remaining songs are all traditional.  I particularly like the compelling "Nova Scotia Farewell" which is about the hardships of the life of a sailor.  The mournful dirge, "Brave Wolfe" recounts the batttle of Quebec between the French and the British in 1759 and celebrates the valor of James Wolfe, the British general killed in the battle.  "The Moonshine Can," another Canadian folk song on the album, could not be more different than "Brave Wolfe."   It is a frenetic tune recounting moonshining activities in Newfoundland and features some fast-paced picking from Monte Dunn on mandolin and John Herald on guitar.  The haunting ballads "The Jealous Lover" and "The Ghost Lover" feature subject matter typical of Anglo-American folk music.  Anyone who is familiar with the Child ballads will recognize their tales of the man who kills his true love mistaking her for someone else and the dead lover who pays one final ghostly visit to his love.  "Green Valley" also covers familiar territory, that of the young woman wronged by a false lover, but it is apparently unique to Canada and Ian and Sylvia credit the New Brunswick traditional singer, Marie Hare, as their source for the song.  The song is given a charming country treatment with Dunn's mandolin providing much of the instrumental color.  Although collected in Nova Scotia, "Captain Woodstock's Courtship" is an old Scottish ballad that Child included in his anthology.  It is an amusing series of riddles sung by Fricker and responses sung by Tyson.  For an old folk song, it is kind of sexy.  The remaining songs are less connected to Canada.  The acappella performance of "Texas Rangers" and the lively gospel tune "Swing Down, Chariot" are obviously American and "Little Beggarman" is a rollicking Irish tune that the duo picked up from Tommy Makem.  They are all good songs but I don't see how they fit into the concept of the album except perhaps as a display of the diversity of music popular in Canada.  I love this record, this music has been the soundtrack for many of my Canadian road trips.  Recommended to people who'd rather make a journey to Halifax than Hollywood.