Sunday, December 16, 2012

Mae in December - Mae West

Mae In December
Mae West
AEI  2104

It's that time of the year again, decorating the tree, hanging the stockings and plopping Mae West on the turntable for some yuletide cheer.  What, you don't think of Mae West when you think of Christmas?  Well think again my friend.  I received this as a gift a long time ago from someone who knew I liked records and old movies.  At the time I wasn't particularly thrilled about it, but it has become one of my favorite Christmas albums.  This is a reissue of the 1966 album "Wild Christmas" on Dagonet records recorded when West was 73.  It consists of 7 Christmas songs plus a cover of the Beatles' "From Me To You."  I have no idea what the latter has to do with Christmas but I'm the last guy who is going to complain about a Beatles' cover, every record should have one.  If you know anything about Mae West, you know you aren't going to be hearing "Silent Night" or "Noel" on this album.  She leans towards bawdier stuff.  The album kicks off with "Santa Come Up To See Me" which is a folk rock style tune.  She invites Santa to come up and see her some time.  She boasts that she has a present for him better than any that he can give, namely her good loving.  In the middle of the song she jumps up a couple octaves and sings so high you practically have to be a dog to hear her.  Next she covers Elvis' "Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me."  It is a jumpin' tune and she rocks pretty convincingly for a senior citizen.  Next up is the r&b classic "Merry Christmas, Baby" where she coos a "man under the mistletoe is worth two under the tree."  It is another strong performance, genuinely sexy.  The side ends with another Elvis cover, Leiber and Stoller's "Santa Claus Is Back in Town."  West is a decent rock singer, but she's better at the blues and this song suits her perfectly.  I like it just as much as Elvis' version.  "Put the Loot in the Boot, Santa" opens side two.  She advises Santa to put some "jack in the sack" if he wants to enjoy her company.  She'd like a uranium mine, but she'll settle for some some "cash on the sash."  A Christmas song celebrating prostitution, that's got to be a first.  She makes "From Me To You" a Christmas song by prefacing the song with a spoken introduction where she huskily announces that she has a Christmas present (love) for the listener that she will send "from Mae to you."  It's not the best Beatles' cover you will hear, but it may be the sexiest.  Over the top sexiness characterizes her cover of Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby."  Just as in "Put the Loot in the Boot, Santa" she wants some pretty pricey presents, a Dusenberg convertible for example, but this time she wants them because she has been good all year, not as a down payment for her company.  "My New Year's Resolutions" veers between folk-rock and an instrumental passage lifted from "Hang On Sloopy."  She sings the folk-rock section promising loving in the New Year and then she breathily recites her resolutions in the "Hang On Sloopy" section such as "I'm going to have goodwill toward men and the more men the more I will."  I've heard all sorts of Christmas records, traditional, sentimental, soulful and rocking, but I've never heard one quite like this.  With her cartoonishly overt sexuality, ageless enthusiasm and impeccable comic timing, she makes Christmas seem fun for adults not just the kiddies.  Try giving it a spin for your next Christmas party.  Recommended for lonely bachelors who dig cougars.   

Ravi - Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar
Capitol ST 10504

I was very sorry to see that Ravi Shankar died the other day.  I had thought about going to see his show in Long Beach a month or two ago, but I waited too long to get tickets and only really expensive seats were left.  So I went to play hockey instead and it turned out to be the last concert he would ever give.  Lesson learned for me.  Like many rock fans I became interested in Shankar because of George Harrison.  Harrison's use of the sitar and Indian influenced music appealed to me and seeing Shankar in "Monterey Pop" made me a fan.  I bought this record in high school and listened to it often.  I know that Shankar had mixed feelings about Western pop music fans' attraction to his music, it did become sort of a psychedelic cliche that did not really give the music the respect it deserved.  Even without Harrison's influence I would have come around to him eventually anyway because of his early association with the filmmaker Satyajit Ray.  I saw most of Ray's films in college and particularly admired the "Apu" trilogy which Shankar scored.  I can't even pretend to be an expert in ragas or Indian classical music nor in Shankar's massive discography which I've only heard a little bit of.  I don't know how this album rates in his oeuvre but I like it a lot.  I believe it came out in India in 1966 and got its American release two years later.  It features Shankar with Kanai Dutt on tabla.  Each side of the album features a single raga.  Side one is "Raga Abhogi-Kanada" which according to the liner notes is an evening raga of a spiritual character.  I don't really hear that.  Nor can I tell the difference between evening or daytime ragas.  This is classical music, but I listen to it like I listen to pop music.  There is a reason why this music appealed to hippies and it has nothing to do with classical scales or variations within formalized structures hundreds of years old.  This music is entrancing and soothing and its virtuosity is not all that removed from listening to a Jerry Garcia or John McLaughlin jam, no disrespect to Shankar intended.  This raga starts quite slow with Shankar playing elongated notes in the lower register and then moving into some slightly faster paced riffing in the upper register.  As the raga progresses, the tempo increases.  The energetic main theme is played over a steady drone from the strings underneath, almost as if Shankar is dueting with himself.  That relentless drone is a big part of this music's appeal to me.  The music continues to increase in speed particularly after the tabla joins in.  The final third is quite exciting with Shankar's frenzied fingers running through fast-paced variations on his sitar as the tabla races to keep up with him.  It reaches a powerful climax and then abruptly fades out.  Side two features "Raga Tilak-Shyam" which in contrast to the slow, exploratory beginning of "Raga Abhogi-Kanada" features Shankar jumping right into a very pretty melody supported by the tabla.  He runs through variations of the melody and introduces a second melody and interweaves the two for the rest of the song.  Although there are some vigorous and exciting runs in the latter part of the song, it lacks the intensity of side one although I think it is the more consistently stimulating of the two ragas and it also features a thrilling climax where Shankar really takes off with breathtaking virtuosity.  This man could really play and the world of music both classical and pop, East and West, is diminished with his passing.  I don't wish to demean this music by likening it to Western pop music, but if you like be-bop or jam rock this should be right up your alley.  Recommended to John Coltrane fans.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Magic Christian Music - Badfinger

Magic Christian Music
Apple ST-3364

This was the debut album by Badfinger unless you want to count the album they made under the name, The Iveys, in 1969.  Six of the tracks on this album were actually lifted from that earlier album although arguably they didn't select the right six.  "I've Been Waiting" in particular is better than nearly all the tracks they selected.  The British version of this album contains two extra tracks - what's up with that?  Apple records taking a page from the Capitol Records playbook and screwing American music fans?  You'd think after the way Capitol butchered the Beatles' albums that they'd be sensitive to that sort of tampering.  It was probably Allen Klein's idea.  Anyway if you can find an import copy of this album, that is probably the way to go, particularly since the two missing tracks, "Angelique" and especially "Give It a Try" are better than many of the tracks remaining on the album.  Another curious element to this album, is that although the band was a quartet only three of the members are depicted on the back cover.  The reason for that is probably that founding member Ron Griffiths had left the band after this record was recorded (to be replaced by Joey Molland).  Molland is mentioned in the text on the back but does not actually play on the record.  The only mention of Griffiths is in the song credit for his song "Dear Angie."  The most notable cut on the record is the opening track "Come and Get It" which was written and produced by Paul McCartney for the film "The Magic Christian."  It was a hit single for the band and fully displays McCartney's knack for writing insanely catchy pop fluff.  His original demo version was released on the Beatles' "Anthology 3" album and is practically identical to the Badfinger version, vocalist Tom Evans even sounds like Sir Paul.  It has the crispness and drive of McCartney's power pop songs with the Beatles.  It is followed by Evans and Pete Ham's "Crimson Ship" which also has a very McCartneyesque sound, particularly in the chorus, although it sounds more like Paul's solo work than the Beatles.  "Dear Angie" comes from the Iveys' album.  It is sung by Ron Griffiths and is a slow love song with a slightly retro feeling.  The pace increases with Pete Ham's rocking "Midnight Sun" which is driven by crunchy guitar lines.  Evans' majestic "Beautiful and Blue" with its strings and lush singing reminds me of the Bee Gees.  It is another Iveys cut.  The aptly named "Rock of All Ages" comes from "The Magic Christian" soundtrack and was written by Evans, Ham and drummer Mike Gibbins.  It is an all-out rocker with a 1950s influence that resembles McCartney's own efforts in that vein.  It is arguably the hardest rocker in Badfinger's Apple catalog and one of my favorite songs on the album.  Side two opens with "Carry On Till Tomorrow" which is another one of my favorites.  It is also from the movie soundtrack and was written by Evans and Ham.  It is a delicate song with a lovely string arrangement and pretty vocal harmonies but it also features a couple of noisy guitar breaks that disrupt its tranquil feeling.  The song is about always moving forward and not giving up, a rather noble message for an obnoxious film that is mostly about greed and degradation.  Ham's "I'm In Love" is an Iveys song with a bubblegum quality to it.  Ham also wrote the gentle and melodic "Walk Out In the Rain" which is about heartbreak.  Evans' "Fisherman" comes from the Iveys album.  It is a folk flavored song with charming pop flourishes.  Ham's "Knocking Down Our Home" sounds like it should be a rocker, but instead is a retro song with a fussy band arrangement over a bossa nova type rhythm.  It sounds like something you'd hear some guy croon in a music hall, the worst song on the album.  The album's final song, Evans' "Maybe Tomorrow," was the best song on the Iveys album.  It has a classic pop melody married to lyrics about surviving heartbreak.  It also reminds me a bit of the Bee Gees minus their sappiness.  Would have been a great song for Dusty Springfield to cover.  Despite its hodge podge construction this is an impressive debut album with several first rate songs.  Ham and Evans were both quality songwriters and the band's lush pop sound is very appealing to me.  The knock on Badfinger was that they sounded too much like the Beatles, but I don't consider that a knock, that's a virtue.  Recommended to people who's favorite Beatle was Paul.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Summer in Abaddon - Pinback

Summer in Abaddon
Touch and Go Records  TG237

I have an acquaintance at work who is really into indie rock, he knows a lot more about it than I do, so I tend to respect his opinions about new bands.  Several years ago he told me that his favorite band was Pinback which kind of shocked me.  I had heard them a few times on the radio and wasn't all that impressed.  His passion for the band prompted me to buy a couple of their CDs and I have to say they didn't knock me out.  I decided to give them one more try on vinyl which is how I ended up with this record.  At first I was irked by it.  The cover is thin and flimsy and for notes the record company just stuck the CD booklet in the sleeve, I hate that.  Despite that bad start, when I actually played it, I liked the record itself, it remains my favorite of their albums.  I finally understood my co-worker's enthusiasm for them.  The recording version of Pinback is Rob Crow and Armistead Burwell Smith IV who play all of the instruments and write the songs, they even record in their own homes, truly a DIY band but their records sound quite polished and professional.  This album opens with "Non Photo-Blue" which is driven by a chunky riff with almost a reggae-like feeling as it examines a romantic break up using computer metaphors.  Like nearly all of their songs, it has a dual contrapuntal vocal that I find very compelling.  Neither Crow nor Smith is a particularly distinguished singer but their voices blend together extremely well.  A moody slice of jangle pop with a powerful bass line, "Sender" is an impressive song even if I'm not sure what it is really about.  The language of the song is stunning as it describes alienation and desperation.  It is one of my favorite songs on the record.  Most of Pinback's lyrics are tough for me to understand, but they are always interesting even when I'm baffled by them.  "Syracuse" is one such song, I just have no idea what it means.  It is probably the first pop song in history to make reference to a monotube.  It has a simple repetitious riff, but builds in strength as it picks up speed and it uses its contrapuntal vocal structure to great effect.  "Blood's on Fire" is a little easier song to figure out.  It seems to be addressed to an anxiety-ridden old friend who has disappeared or died perhaps.  It has the extraordinary line "pacing a faceless maw somewhere vague" that just knocks me out.  Despite the anguish and tension in the lyrics, the music is slow and pleasant sounding, even poppy in places.  "Fortress" ends the side with jangle pop and more unhappiness as it depicts a difficult if not tortured relationship.  For a couple of guys from sunny and laid-back San Diego, Smith and Crow have a remarkably dark and anxious vision.  "This Red Book" is an enigmatic litany of angst with another great contrapuntal vocal structure and a surprisingly poppy sound, at times it reminds me of Paul McCartney.  "Soaked" uses a slinky groove to describe what sounds like a really bad evening.  "3x0" delivers its surreal lyrics with a soaring melody that is almost uplifting.  I'm not sure what the meaning is of a line like "your sentry men fall behind, into the sunspots we vanish away" but I find it really striking, just like the rest of the song.  "The Yellow Ones" features ominous apocalyptic imagery over a hypnotic tune driven by some lovely piano riffs.  "AFK" is the most extraordinary song on the album, the lyrics are stunning and the music is exciting and full of tension with many shifts in melody and texture.  First rate alternative rock.  It gives the album its title which judging from the grim imagery of the song seems to refer to a summer in hell (not in the literal sense.)  The song is loaded with travel metaphors of a trip gone bad and concludes with what I believe is a reference to the Slint song "Good Morning, Captain" which appropriately enough uses a shipwreck to convey similar impressions to those generated by "AFK."  It is a doom laden, yet propulsive ending to the album.  Pinback is never going to be one of my favorite groups, they are too obscure and insular to reach me on a deep level, but I've come to respect and admire them a lot more than when I first heard them.  By rock standards this is difficult music that requires a lot from the listener, but ultimately the reward justifies the effort.  Recommended to fans of early R.E.M..

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Beckies - The Beckies

The Beckies
The Beckies
Sire SASD-7519

This is the last album by the great Michael Brown, the creative force behind the Left Banke, Montage and Stories.  The record doesn't feature much of the chamber pop of the Left Banke, instead it is largely power pop, arguably the hardest rocking record that Brown ever made.  The group formed in 1974 after Brown left Stories and hooked up with three musicians from the Kansas City music scene, Scott Trusty, Mayo James McAllister and Gary Hodgden (the latter two were in Chesmann Square, a band that was huge in Kansas City but never broke nationally.)  Hodgden and Brown wrote all the songs on the album and Hodgden and Trusty handled the lead vocals.  They both have high, sensitive voices that remind me of Steve Martin's vocals for the Left Banke although neither are as good as Martin.  It opens with "Right By My Side (Etude)" which like all the songs on the record is a love song.  It features a driving beat, sparkling harmony vocals from Tommy Finn (ex-Left Banke bassist), pounding piano riffs from Brown and lots of ringing guitar lines, pure power pop bliss.  One of my favorite cuts.  "River Bayou" is a lot more delicate, driven by Brown's piano, strings and Hodgden's quavery vocal.  It sounds more like the baroque pop that Brown did with the Left Banke.  "Midnight and You" is a rocker sung by Trusty who is a more forceful singer than Hodgden.  Some nice stinging guitar lines on this song but the vocal harmonies and jangly rhythm guitar keep it in the power pop camp.  "Fran" returns to the sound of "River Bayou" - strings and piano.  It's a lovely song.  "Other Side Of Town" continues the slow/fast dynamic of the album mixing rollicking verses with a smooth harmonic chorus.  The song features prominent percussion and strings for a very rich sound.  "Song Called Love" is another rocker with Brown's energetic piano licks duelling with the guitar riffs and a soaring vocal from Trusty giving the song extra oomph.  It is another one of my favorites.  Side two begins with Brown pounding his piano on "Can't Be Alone" before being joined by the band for another fast paced song.  Hodgden's vocal sounds strained, he can't match the frenetic pace of the song.  "River Song" keeps up the fast pace and features some of Brown's most exciting piano playing.  "On The Morning That She Came" returns to chamber pop for a tale of a lost love.  It manages to be moving and emotional without being sappy, which has always been one of Brown's gifts as a songwriter.  "One of These Days" reminds me of Badfinger with its dense sound of shimmering harmonies, jangly guitars mixed with slide guitar licks, strings and cascading piano lines and a structure alternating sensitive verses with a hard-riffing chorus.  Hodgden's vocal even sounds a bit like Pete Ham.  It is archetypal power pop and another one of my faves.  "Run Jenny Run" is a rousing rocker that gives the album a strong finish.  This is such a good record, but it made little impact in its time.  When I think back to all the crappy music that was on the radio back in 1976, this record is infinitely superior to 99% percent of that stuff.  Michael Brown is truly one of the great lost talents of rock and roll.  He deserved a better career but I'm grateful for the few records that he left us - there is not a bad one in the bunch.  Recommended for fans of Big Star.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Rotting Slowly - The Curious Mystery

Rotting Slowly
The Curious Mystery
K Records KLP206

I was sorry to see that The Curious Mystery broke up last September after releasing two albums on K Records.  I'm a big fan of K Records.  If the price is right I'll buy anything on their label and so far that has worked fine, I've never heard a bad record from them.  This is no exception.  I didn't know very much about The Curious Mystery when I bought it a couple of years ago.  I loved their name and the album cover and that was enough for me.  Shana Cleveland, who played various string instruments in the band, wrote and sings "The Preparations" which is a slow moody song punctuated by the clang of a jangly guitar over the dirge like background music.  The song seems to be some sort of apocalyptic relationship song.  I"m not really sure what she is preparing for, but it doesn't sound good.  Cleveland strums an autoharp on her "Black Sand" which starts out slow then picks up speed as it rolls along and ends up rocking quite forcefully with a great guitar jam at the end.  The lyrics of the song provide the album title.  I find the song pretty enigmatic, I pick up images of ennui and escapism which suit the melancholy yet restless tune quite well.  Whatever her point is, Cleveland sings it with a lot of urgency.  Guitarist Nicolas Gonzalez wrote the comparatively jaunty "Teeth of All Types" which he sings.  He emotes less than Cleveland, delivering the song in a laconic drawl.  Despite the title, there are no dental references in the song which seems to describe an extremely lethargic slacker.  The song segues seamlessly into Gonzalez's "Go Forth & Gather" which begins with an autoharp solo from Cleveland, that's not something you hear every day on an alternative rock album.  Although it is traditionally a folk instrument, I find the band's use of it contributes to their eerie, melancholy sound.  In Cleveland's hands it doesn't sound folky at all.  She sings the lead on this one and provides a dreamy yet expressive vocal.  The song is another slow one but the rhythm section gives it some punch.  In the lyrics I hear the usual ennui and angst as well as references to a dysfunctional relationship.  Cleveland's "Gone In Time" starts slow again for a lengthy instrumental intro, but rocks out when Gonzalez starts singing.  It slows down again at the end for some more jamming to close out the side.  I have no clue to what the song is about, but it appears to involve more dread of the future which seems to be a favorite theme of the group.  Side two begins with the raga-like guitar intro to Gonzalez's instrumental "Nicaragua."  It builds in tempo and force becoming a frenetic display of the band's virtuosity.  Gonzalez's "Strong Swimmers" keeps up the fast pace.  His nasally vocal can't match the power of the song which is the most powerful rocker on the album.  The interplay of the guitars riffing on top of the pulsing rhythm section is really exciting.  It is one of my favorite cuts on the record.  The song uses the metaphor of swimming to describe negotiating the turmoil of a relationship.  Gonzalez also wrote "Outta California" which starts out chugging and then slows way down when Cleveland takes the mike.  She's a strong enough singer to make the song interesting even when it is so slow that the melody is practically disintegrating.  After she's done the song picks up the pace again until the end.  I think the song is about escape although I'm not sure what they are running from.  It sounds like they are moving just to be moving.  Cleveland's "Its Tough" could use some of that movement, it just crawls along.  The music stops and starts as Cleveland slowly intones the lyrics.  In the middle of the song her vocal gets distorted until it sounds like a cross between Frankie Valli's falsetto and a cat howling.  The song features Cleveland vaguely complaining about how difficult her life is.  Cleveland also wrote the album's closing song "Wrong Way," which fortunately for me ups the beats per minute.  Cleveland and Gonzalez share the vocal on the song which employs travel imagery to describe a relationship.  It has a bit of a Middle Eastern sound to it and I really dig the guitar work on it.  It borders on being psychedelic, at times it reminds me of Quicksilver Messenger Service.  The song is another one of my favorites and provides a strong finish for the album.  This is such a good debut album that I'm really bummed about the group breaking up.  I have to admit at times their songs are a little too slow for my taste, but I admire their commitment to guitar noise as well as the somber and melancholy tone that pervades their vision - I just eat that sort of thing up.  The Curious Mystery had a distinctive sound and a quality lead singer in Shana Cleveland.  I think they had a lot of promise.  They lasted seven years which I guess is pretty long in band years, but I'll definitely miss them.  I really regret not seeing them live when I had the chance.  Recommended to fans of Low and Mojave 3 who wish they'd kick out the jams once in awhile.     

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Country Wine - The Raiders

Country Wine
The Raiders
Columbia KC 31106

This album marks the end of Paul Revere and the Raiders' long ride with Columbia Records aside from a few more unsuccessful singles.  It is also essentially the end of the group as a relevant band.  Mark Lindsay would never make another album with the group, although Paul Revere would hire a new bunch of Raiders and continue as an oldies act for decades to come, kind of a sad end to one of the best commercial American bands of its era.  I wish I could report that the band's final album was a worthy finish to a fine career, but alas it is nothing of the sort.  It is not terrible, just ordinary and dull, easily the worst of their Columbia albums.  Even the cover art is boring (although Mark's moustache on the front cover is kind of funny.)  Side one (entitled "upside") is the only part of this record that I listen to much.  The album begins with "Country Wine" which was a flop single.  The song was written by Edmund Villareal and Wanda Watkins who were in the 1960s group The Joint Effort who released a great psych-pop single "The Third Eye."  "Country Wine" sounds nothing like that song, it is very commercial pop bordering on bubblegum, you could imagine the Grassroots doing the song.  It is catchy and fun but as lightweight as a feather.   Mark Lindsay's "Powder Blue Mercedes Queen" was the other flop single off the album.  It is heavier, driven by a big rocking riff.  It sounds like a lighter version of Mountain.  It could be an ode to a hot car or a groupie, it works either way.  Bob Siller's "Hungry For Some Lovin'" features a notable resemblance to the band's classic single "Hungry" from their glory days which may be what attracted Lindsay to the song.  It is a hooky rocker punched up with some brass, it reminds me of the Guess Who.  John D'Andrea and John Porter wrote "Baby Make Up Your Mind."  D'Andrea was the group's musical arranger and he's given the song an elaborate arrangement with prominent brass.  It is more catchy commercial pop, very enjoyable if you are into that sort of thing.  Lindsay and bassist Keith Allison wrote "Take A Stand" which is my favorite song on the album, really the only song on the album that lives up to the standards of their classic work.  It is in the heavy, hard rock style the band began to explore in the latter part of their career with a nice growling, get-down vocal from Lindsay.  It features a modest political theme urging the listeners to get involved and stand up for what they believe in.  The song provides some hope that the Raiders still have something to offer, but side two (aptly entitled "downside") proves otherwise.  It opens with "Where Are Your Children."  It is a sappy song criticizing neglectful parents, it reminds me of Lindsay's solo work.  The sappiness continues with Scott English and Larry Weiss' "Ballad of the Unloved."  They also wrote the American Breed's "Bend Me Shape Me" but the song is more like another song English co-wrote, Barry Manilow's "Mandy."  That is not a compliment.  It gets worse with Alan O'Day's "American Family."  It veers pretty close to easy listening in style with banal lyrics about domestic turmoil and staying together despite it all.  John D'Andrea arranges up a storm so the song sounds kind of pretty but I still hate it.  Things improve with Allison and Lindsay's "Golden Girls Sometimes."  It is still kind of sappy but at least it is about a woman rather than some pretentious statement about loneliness or the decline of the American family.  Also it features a return to rock (albeit soft rock) it even has some cowbell.  The album ends with Lindsay's "Farewell to a Golden Girl" which is a lot like his 1966 song "Melody for an Unknown Girl," an instrumental with some recitation only instead of a sax the melody is played on what I think is a glockenspiel or something like that.  It is definitely different and sounds lovely but it makes for a lackluster finish to the album as it just sort of peters out, kind of like the Raiders' career I suppose.  So one side is pretty good and one side is pretty bad which basically adds up to zero.  It is a depressing finish to a band that made a lot of terrific music.  I like side one enough to feel okay about having the record, but I'm a big fan.  I imagine most non-fans will feel differently.   Recommended to Paul Revere and the Raiders completists.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Colours of the Dawn - The Johnstons

Colours of the Dawn
The Johnstons 
Vanguard VSD 6572

I bought this about a year ago in a Pasadena record store.  This is the 1971 American release of the 1970 British album on Transatlantic Records that features a different cover, a different running order and one less song than the Vanguard version.  This was their fifth album overall and their second American release.  This group's career trajectory is emblematic of the weirdness of the 1960s.  They were originally a family group performing traditional Irish folk music that gradually moved into contemporary folk and pop music ultimately recording a song supporting Angela Davis, the lead track on this album -- talk about your long, strange trips!  Along the way the band shed Johnstons until Adrienne Johnston was the only Johnston left and acquired new members  Mick Moloney and Paul Brady.  Perhaps the key figure in this album is the producer Chris McCloud, who was Adrienne's husband and who wrote or co-wrote several songs on the album including "Angela Davis."  McCloud was an American who took over the management of the group and supposedly exploited them to achieve his own financial and artistic ambitions.  He was reportedly a rather nefarious, almost sinister figure who has even been accused of being responsible for his wife's premature death in 1981.  He has been blamed for Moloney's departure from the band after this album and Brady has subsequently made disparaging remarks about him as well.  The album opens with "Angela Davis" which is a heavy handed protest song.  In his liner notes McCloud connects the song to the Irish tradition of rebellion songs, but I suspect it has more to do with McCloud seeking publicity and perhaps a connection to the radical left in the United States.  The group's vocal is very stirring though and they sing it like they mean it.  Gordon Lightfoot's "If I Could" is more satisfying to me with some enjoyable guitar picking in the solos and a wistful vocal from Moloney.  McCloud and Brady's "I'll Be Gone In the Morning" sounds very West Coast folk-rock, Brady's lead vocal and Johnston's harmony vocal reminds me a bit of the latter day Youngbloods or Moby Grape and the rich instrumental backing of the song is exactly why folk-rock was invented, it adds intensity and propulsion to the song.  The group's cover of Leonard Cohen's "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy" is faithful to the original with a lovely, muted vocal from Johnston and a dense acoustic guitar sound in the backing track. The side ends with "Aiseiri" which was not on the English version of this album.  It is another protest song co-written by Johnston, McCloud and Moloney.  The title is an Irish word meaning something like to rise again as in revival or resurrection.  McCloud says it meants "uprising" as in "a day of reckoning for The Man" and the lyrics address international revolution from Chile to Rome to Chicago with lots of pointed digs at American imperialism and the Presidency, McCloud has a pretty big axe to grind.  Although the lyrics are overtly polemical, there is some poetic imagery and Moloney's vocal is so passionate that I find the song quite powerful especially since it is coupled to an anthemic, traditional style tune.  It is one of the best songs on the record for me.  Side two opens with McCloud and Brady's "Colours of the Dawn" which is an anti-war song.  Like most of McCloud's lyrics, the song is melodramatic and heavy-handed.  It sounds like a traditional song though, particularly in Moloney's mandolin lines.  Peggy Seeger's "Hello Friend" deals with racism and labor struggles.  It is the folkiest song on the record, with its multi-part vocal harmonies it reminds me a bit of the Seekers.  Brady's "Brightness, She Came" is more in a contemporary vein.  Freed from McCloud's heaviness he delivers a jazzy, impressionistic song reminiscent of Nick Drake or Tim Buckley.  It is another one of my favorites.  Johnston sings lead on McCloud's "Crazy Anne" which is a gentle hippie anti-conformity and escapism type song.  In his notes McCloud suggests that the song is about Adrienne Johnston.  The side concludes with Ian Campbell's "The Old Man's Tale" which is another traditional sounding song which chronicles working class struggles against fascism and labor oppression through the 20th Century.  It is an impressive song with some wonderful guitar/mandolin interplay.  I'm a big believer in music that makes a statement and I value personal expression in pop music, but I have to admit that I'm not all that comfortable with the political perspective on this album.  It is not that I'm opposed to their viewpoint, it just seems forced and unnatural to me.  Part of it just may be me being weirded out by McCloud and what I've read about him which isn't really fair, but I think much of it is that I don't like getting preached to.  When Phil Ochs sings a protest song, I feel like he's communicating with me, but when the Johnstons sing "Angela Davis" I feel like I'm being lectured to.  Is this better than performing traditional songs like "The Lark in the Morning" like they did earlier in their career?  I don't know, you could probably make a case that both are equally lacking in authenticity.  I do know that this record sounds wonderful, chockful of excellent playing and singing.  If you dig Anglo-American folk rock you will probably find much to like here.  Recommended to people who think that Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" is a better song than his cover of "See That My Grave is Kept Clean." 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Present Tense - Shoes

Present Tense
Elektra 6E-244

I was shocked when I saw that Shoes had released a new album this year, "Ignition."  I had no idea they were still together.  They last released a new album in 1994, that is quite a gap.  It doesn't look there will be a vinyl version of "Ignition" so I won't be writing about it here but I'm impressed that they are still at it and I will be buying the CD at some point.  Anyway in honor of the band's return to action, I pulled out their second album, (not counting private pressings) "Present Tense."  I discovered the band many years after this record came out when I got into power pop in the 1980s.  All the songs are written by various combinations of guitarists Jeff Murphy and Gary Klebe and bassist John Murphy who have such homogenous styles and themes that it is tough for me to distinguish between their songs.  Nearly every song is an unhappy love song, most of which feature the singer ragging on his girlfriend.  A line from "Every Girl" sums up their basic theme, "every girl I've ever had, has treated me so wrong."  The most ambitious song, "Three Times," is a suite with each of the three songwriters contributing a separate section, the first section features a girl breaking up with the singer, in the second part the singer wants to break up and in the final section he wins the girl by dominating her.  That basically encompasses all of the band's themes on the record.  A steady stream of this stuff over the course of the album comes pretty close to misogyny, particularly on a song like "Cruel You" where the singer pulls a gun on his unfaithful girlfriend hoping she'll beg for her life whereas she remains unfazed because she has so little respect for him.  Maybe they've just had a lot of bad luck with the ladies, but I think they probably have issues.  I find their whining a bit wearying after awhile, it is a good thing that the music is a lot more upbeat than the lyrics.  "Tomorrow Night" opens the album in classic power pop style with propulsive drumming, jangly guitar lines alternating with power riffs and melodic vocals supported by harmony vocals.  It is my favorite song on the album, pure pop candy.  "Too Late" has more enticing vocal harmonies and a big hooky bass riff.  "Hangin' Around With You" has a chugging sound and punchy style suggestive of the Cars although the ebullient chorus is pure Shoes.  "In My Arms Again," "Somebody Has What I Had," "Now and Then," "I Don't Miss You," "Cruel You" and "I Don't Wanna Hear It" are riff driven rockers with strong beats and power pop amenities, right in my wheelhouse.  "Your Very Eyes," "Every Girl" and "Three Times are more subdued, with their jangly guitars and pretty vocals they sound a bit like Badfinger.  Musically this record is flawless, I enjoy every song and I love the band's sound.  I just wish they liked their girlfriends more.  Recommended to fans of the Knack.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Shame Shame - The Magic Lanterns

Shame Shame
The Magic Lanterns 
Atlantic SD 8217

I guess I would call this a mistake although I'm not sorry I have it.  I picked it up in a flea market years ago not knowing much about the group.  Kids nowadays have continuous access to the internet, but back in the dark ages we had to wing it.  I looked at this album in the bin without any way of checking it out.  I bought it because I dug the cover, the name of the band and the liner notes which said they were a British band from the late 1960s.  Weird as that may sound today, I bought a lot of records that way.  I actually enjoyed that more than hearing a preview and reading about a band on the net, the way I generally do now.  Records are too expensive to take risks anymore.  This was only a few bucks so I bought it, mostly because of the cover which bares a curious resemblance to the cover of the debut album by Stephen Stills' group Manassas who also recorded for Atlantic.  I expected a hip group playing hard rock like the Pretty Things or psych-influenced English rock akin to Kaleidoscope.  Instead I got this album of commercial pop with a slight soul influence, the British version of the Grassroots.  Actually I missed an obvious clue to the nature of this album in the credits, namely that none of the band wrote any of the songs.  How many good bands in 1969 were totally dependent on outside songwriters?  So I goofed.  I was disappointed at the time, but I like this record better now that I realize its limitations and have lower expectations for it.  The best song is the hit single "Shame Shame."  It is a catchy tune with a big beat and a weird guitar sound that sounds like a fake sitar and some punchy brass support.  It was arranged by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.  Jones also arranged the bubble-gummy "Give Me Love" and "Highway of Dreams."  I find his arrangements excessively fussy for such slight songs.  My other favorites on the album are the comparatively gritty ""Missing Out On You" and "Out In the Cold Again" which have a blue-eyed soul feeling suggestive of the Box Tops.  The other songs I like are "Impressions of Linda"  which is a nice bit of sunshine pop reminiscent of the Tokens, "Brunette Lady" which has a country flavor to it and Mann/Weil's "Feelings" which is sappy but pretty.  On the negative side "Never Gonna Trust My Heart Again," "Sarah Wear a Smile" and "Pussy Willow Dragon" are mundane mainstream pop that could have been done by Tom Jones or some cabaret singer.  "When the Music Stops" is corny Euro-pop that sounds like something more suitable for Sandie Shaw or Cilla Black.  I don't really need this record, I mostly keep it for "Shame Shame," but I have no plans to get rid of it.  It is just likeable enough that I enjoy it on the rare occasions that I take it for a spin but if I pay close attention to it I get bored.  If you have an appetite for mainstream pop you will probably find stuff you like on it.  Recommended for fans of Marmalade.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

How It Was - The Great Society

How It Was
The Great Society
Columbia CS 9702

The second of the two albums that Columbia issued of the Great Society, trying to cash in on the success of the Jefferson Airplane and Grace Slick.  It is a shame that this music was tied to a shoddy bit of record company chicanery because this is first rate music in its own right.  This may be presumptuous of me since I didn't see these bands live, but on the basis of the archival recordings I've heard, I'm inclined to believe that the Great Society might have been the best band in San Francisco in 1966.  They had a great lead singer, a very creative guitar player and terrific songs.  Both of the Columbia albums are full of dynamic and innovative music.  The first album was derived from a 1966 concert at the Matrix in San Francisico.  This album contains the remainder of that concert as well as a track ("Father") that reportedly comes from a gig at California Hall in San Francisco.  Side one opens with "That's How It Is" by David Miner who played rhythm guitar in the group and was originally co-lead vocalist of the band with Grace Slick before she inevitably took command.  This song was reportedly Autumn Records' choice for the band's first single but was rejected by the band's leader and lead guitarist Darby Slick for being too happy, ha-ha.  It is a catchy song with upbeat lyrics, more commercial sounding than most of the band's oeuvre.  It has a very winning vocal from Grace supported by Miner.  I'm not sure why Columbia opted to leave it off the first album, maybe because Grace cracks up at the beginning of the song.  Darby's "Darkly Smiling" is more typical of the Great Society's sound and I think it is one of their best songs.  It has a Middle Eastern flavor to it, both in its guitar riff and Grace's stunning vocal.  It is a very psychedelic song, I guess it is about death.  It is hard to imagine Grace covering a Nat King Cole hit, but that is exactly what comes next with "Nature Boy."  Of course the song is hardly typical crooner material, it has a remarkably mystical flavor for its era.  Grace sings it very convincingly.  The song features a lovely flute solo from band's bass player Peter van Gelder which evolves into a duet when Grace joins him on her recorder.  The side ends with another Miner song, "You Can't Cry."  Miner sings lead but Grace joins in at the end and blows him away.  It is a straight ahead rocker with a driving organ riff and some stinging guitar licks.  Side two begins with Miner's "Daydream Nightmare" which has a surreal title but is just a song about a guy leaving a girl who's done him wrong.  It has a raga rock opening with a hypnotic bass and guitar riff supplemented by Grace playing her recorder like she is trying to charm a cobra.  The song then goes into rocker mode for awhile before going raga again at the end for Darby's guitar solo and some more snake charming from Grace.  It is another one of my favorites on the album.  Darby's "Everybody Knows" is another my lover-did-me-wrong song.  It is a straight ahead rocker with a folk rock flavor until the guitar solo which sounds psychedelic.  Darby and his brother Jerry (the bands' drummer and Grace's husband at the time) penned "Born to be Burned."  It is a moody song with a compelling bass riff and a powerful vocal from Grace.  Darby has a lengthy guitar solo that sounds raga-influenced.  "Father" is an instrumental notable for van Gelder's frenetic saxophone work which mixes raga with jazz.  The song starts with a quiet surf-style guitar riff but builds in velocity and strength leading up to a fabulous incendiary guitar solo from Darby that finishes with a full band rave up that is terrifically exciting.  It is the most psychedelic track on the album and proof of the band's instrumental prowess and originality.  Being a huge Airplane fan, I can't really complain about Grace jumping ship when Signe Anderson left the Airplane, a lot of great music resulted from that merger.  By all accounts the band was on the verge of breaking up anyway because of Darby Slick and van Gelder's desire to travel to India to study the sitar (van Gelder would actually become a skilled sitar player and performer of Indian classical music.)  Nonetheless when I play this record I wonder what might have resulted if they had stuck together for a while.  I think it would have been something special.  Recommended to Jefferson Airplane fans who dig Ravi Shankar.  

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion - The Incredible String Band

The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion
The Incredible String Band
Elektra EKS-74010

I have been reading "Electric Eden," Rob Young's excellent survey of the English folk scene in the 1960s and 70s (actually he goes all the way back to the early 20th Century and Cecil Sharp.)  The ISB figure very prominently in his history which prompted me to give this a spin.  I was a big fan of the ISB from my teens into my twenties when I had a healthy appetite for hippie bullshit and when it comes to hippie bullshit nobody can sling it as well as these guys.  These guys were the real deal, they make the Grateful Dead look like corporate bankers.  They embraced communal living, anti-materialism, psychedelia, magic and getting back to nature and turned it into art.  Even if I didn't like the band, I probably would have bought this album anyway simply for its wonderful title and amazing cover, one of the great psychedelic covers of all time.  It was designed by Simon Posthuma and Marijke Koger, who will be familiar to Beatlemaniacs for their association with Apple under the name The Fool.  I had this record on display in my room for many years.  On this album the ISB is just Robin Williamson and Mike Heron playing an assortment of instruments supported by future Pentangler Danny Thompson on bass and future ISB member Licorice providing background vocals.  The album begins with Heron's "Chinese White" which sounds like a drug reference (it actually refers to a shade of paint) but if there is any drug involved in this song it is acid not heroin.  The lyrics are trippy but with all the references to hugging rainbows and magic Christmas trees there is a strong back to nature element to the song as well.  The music sounds very Middle Eastern courtesy of Williamson's bowed gimbri and the vocals are all over the place.  It is an extraordinary song, it almost sounds like they are making it up as they go along.  It establishes the exotic nature of the ISB at their best.  In contrast Williamson's "No Sleep Blues" is more like a conventional folk song with some Eastern touches in its string sound courtesy of a sitar.  It is about insomnia with vivid references to the hovel he was living in, but there are also various fanciful elements as well including lines like "the size of the future declared itself no part, aloof like a Sultan in the autumn of your heart."  The sitar is also evident on Heron's "Painting Box" which is a love song, albeit one with talking fishes and baby raindrops.  There is a nice flute solo from Williamson and Licorice's back-up vocal enlivens the song.  Williamson's "The Mad Hatter's Song" seems to me to be one of those gotta-get-back-to-the-country type songs so popular with hippie rockers delivered in the ISB's usual inimitable manner, a torrent of weird and obscure imagery.  It is another droning, unstructured song with lots of twists and turns.  It mixes honky tonk piano and sitar, these guys are nothing if not eclectic.  It is one of my favorite songs on the record.  Nobody was making songs like this in 1967 (or any other year probably,)  it is truly magical.  Heron makes friends with a talking cloud in "Little Cloud" which has an escapist theme.  The song is a sprightly folk song with prominent percussion driving it along.  Williamson closes out side one with "Eyes of Fate" which I think is about perception or as he puts it "you see what you see, you see seldom what is."  The music on this song is much starker, just guitars playing flamenco style riffs and the chanting in the background vocal sounds almost medieval.  In contrast to the sunny, exotic disposition of most of this album, this song is dark and moody befitting it's more serious and gloomy lyrics.  Williamson opens side two with "Blues for the Muse" which is about the importance of playing guitar in his life and the need to make the most of your life before its inevitable termination.  The song sounds sort of like a blues particularly with Heron's harmonica dominating the sound, but it is hardly the sort of blues you are going to hear on a Muddy Waters album.  On the folk-style "The Hedgehog's Song"  Heron sings about his inability to commit to a steady relationship with a woman because of a song that a hedgehog sings to him.  No really that's what it is about, whenever he is about to tie the knot, the hedgehog's song stops him.  A truly goofy song that Heron sings tongue-in-cheek.  Williamson's "First Girl I Loved" is the most conventional song on the record as he reminisces about a teenage love affair that continues to haunt him long after it has ended.  Musically it is anything but conventional as the tune shifts around restlessly and Williamson singing all around the scattershot melody.  Heron's "You Know What You Could Be" is another song about illusion and perceiving the truth.  It is an energetic folk song with the boys playing up a storm particularly in the Middle Eastern style instrumental passage at the end.  In Williamson's "My Name Is Death" a woman unsuccessfully attempts to bribe death for a few more years of life.  In keeping with the somber theme of the song, the music has a very spare arrangement, just Williamson and his guitar.  He sounds like a troubadour from centuries past.  The album returns to an upbeat tone with Heron's "Gently Tender" which is another oddball lovesong that relies heavily on nature imagery.  The song is percussion driven with a rich instrumental palette led by Willliamson's flute playing.  The album ends with Williamson's "Way Back In the 1960s" which is set in about 2034 after World War III and Williamson has become a millionaire and moved to Paraguay.  He reminisces to his grandchildren about the days in the 1960s when people ate real food, made their own amusements and listened to Bob Dylan.  Given the ISB's obsession with getting back to the simpler ways of the past, it figures that their sci-fi song would be looking back at the good old days of the 1960s.  It is a rollicking tune with a bluesy flavor, another one of my favorite songs on the album.  I suppose you could say that the themes of this album are pretty dated, kids nowadays embrace technology rather than nature and the simple lives of our ancestors.  Being an old dude with a fondness for hippies, I'm more sympathetic to the ISB's vision than most people I suppose, but even I don't listen to them all that much anymore.  Still when I'm in the right mood, I can spin this record and still feel the magic.  Recommended to Donovan fans who like "Atlantis" better than "Mellow Yellow."

Post Script: In the movie "Pirate Radio" one of the DJs on the sinking radio ship attempts to save his precious copy of this album from the rising water.  Another DJ pulls him from the water, grabs the album, pronounces it to be lousy and tosses it in the ocean.  Hilarious.  This pretty much sums up why that is such a crappy movie.  That plus the boatload of vinyl they sacrificed to make this idiotic film, which pains me even more than the time I wasted watching it.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Port of Morrow - The Shins

Port of Morrow
The Shins
Columbia 88691-926701

It is mid-September and I still haven't blogged about a record from this year.  I'm so far behind on my backlog that I haven't even blogged about all the records I liked from last year.  I've been sitting on this one for months already.  It is one of my favorites of the year so far.  I guess the Shins never changed my life, but they did definitely make it better.  "Oh, Inverted World" and "Chutes Too Narrow" have long been two of the handful of albums that I turn to when I'm feeling down and need a lift.  The Shins were a band I strongly connected with on an emotional and intellectual level.  Thus I was really unhappy a few years ago when I heard that James Mercer had fired his band mates in the Shins or chose to go in a different musical direction depending on whose perspective you believe.  Nonetheless there was no question that Mercer was the creative force in the band and I had high hopes for his new projects which his excellent music with Broken Bells confirmed.  I was surprised and a little dismayed when I heard that Mercer had signed with a major label (Columbia) and formed a new version of the band.  My initial thought that it was kind of a dick move akin to Axl Rose and his version of Guns N' Roses.  I have a lot of respect for Mercer's talent so I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.  I think that this album is as good as the other Shins albums although admittedly only one of the new Shins actually appears on the album, drummer Joe Plummer, who appears on about half the tracks.  Mercer's principal collaborator on the album is Greg Kurstin of the Bird and the Bee who co-produced the album and plays multiple instruments on it.  The album begins with "The Rifle's Spiral" which appears to be about a suicide bomber.  Mercer is one of the best lyricists in alternative rock and this song's brilliant imagery and language is proof of that.  With Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss pounding the skins the song has a lot of drive and Kurstin fills out the song with loads of synth sounds.  The whirling force of the music and the space age sound effects running through it reflect the frenzied thoughts of the terrorist in the song.  "Simple Song" is a charming and romantic love song.  The line "you know things can really get rough when you go it alone" makes me think of the break-up of the original Shins although in the context of the song, it is more likely a reference to being single.  Weiss' muscular drumming again forcefully propels the song along its course and it has a soaring, upbeat melody that made it the natural choice for the single off the album.  Mercer's vocal is very passionate and uplifting.  It is anything but a "simple song," I think it is one of the best songs Mercer has ever done.  "It's Only Life" offers the title advice to a friend going through some problems.  I don't mean to make light of anyone's existential crisis, but if your biggest worry is that "time will wash every tower to the sea," you should count your blessings.  The song shows off Mercer's great range as a vocalist.  He starts out low and then takes off into the upper register where he is so effective.  "Bait and Switch" picks up the pace again with a highly propulsive tune about a guy whose peaceful solitary existence gets disrupted when he takes up with a wild girlfriend whose allure he can't resist.  The song's potential misogyny is leavened by Mercer's typically clever descriptions and metaphors.  Side one ends with "September," another lyrical love song in which Mercer acknowledges his shortcomings and his appreciation that his lover perceives his good qualities and that she brings him happiness.  This slow, romantic song with a slight exotica flavor is the tune on the album that most resembles the classic Shins sound.  It would fit comfortably on any of their previous albums.  "No Way Down" is surprisingly political and polemical in its tone.  Mercer addresses the economic inequities in the world.  With pointed references to Asian wage slaves and the upper crust elite over here, Mercer doesn't beat around the bush.  The song sounds like it was inspired by the Occupy movement.  It has a strong beat and is sonically rich, it really jumps out of the speakers.  It is one of my favorite songs on the record.  "For A Fool" in contrast is slow and languid as Mercer describes the aftermath of a bad relationship and trying to get over the resulting heartbreak and humiliation.  The song features some of Mercer's most emotional and soulful singing.  "Fall of '82" is a song in which Mercer expresses his gratitude to his sister for helping him get over a dark period in his life in 1982 and helping to make him the person he became.  It is a remarkably personal and revealing song that I find very touching.  In keeping with its theme, the song has a retro flavor that brings to mind 1970s era pop to me.  "40 Mark Strasse" is about a German girl from an unhappy home who sleeps with American soldiers and a boy who wants to save her from that life.  This song features a complicated multi-tracked vocal performance from Mercer that gives a lot of beauty and depth to an otherwise ordinary tune.  The album concludes with the title cut which is a grim song about the evil in the world and the falseness of perceptions that we as humans are different from the rest of nature.  I think he is directing his observations towards religions and other beliefs emphasizing the moral superiority of specific people.  Mercer sings in two different octaves so it sounds almost like a duet.  It is a remarkable song that ends the album in a majestic manner albeit one that I find a bit depressing with lines like "there are flowers in the garbage and a skull under your curls."  I agree with Mercer's perspective but I don't really want to be reminded about "the bitter mechanics of life."  I consider James Mercer to be one of the major talents in contemporary rock and I'm happy to report that my worries about him stumbling on some ego trip have been alleviated by this excellent album.  It is clear that despite signing to a major label, Mercer's vision is uncompromised and his music is as strong as ever.  Long live the new Shins whoever they are!  Recommended to fans of the old Shins.   

Monday, September 10, 2012

Even Born Again - Sarah Jaffe

Even Born Again
Sarah Jaffe
Model Citizens Entertainment  MCE 004

I picked this up at a show at the Mayan Theater where Jaffe opened for the New Multitudes show.  I had never heard of her prior to the show, but she blew me away with her intensity and her strong voice.  When I went to the merch table I was drawn to this album right away with its lovely artwork by Melanie Gomez.  It is nice inside the sleeve as well with marbled vinyl and a cute insert with an illustration of the girl in the yellow dress on the cover.  This six song mini-album was Jaffe's debut recording.  It opens with "Even Born Again" which uses Christian language to analyze a love affair.  The song begins quietly with Jaffe singing softly over an acoustic guitar and gradually builds in strength as she is joined by strings and a rhythm section.  The "Black Hoax Lie" is about heartbreak and her aching vocal strongly conveys the emotion behind the song.  It effectively uses strings to add feeling to the music.  "Adeline" is just Jaffe and her guitar.  The nakedness of the arrangement puts all the focus on Jaffe's throbbing vocal as she sings of a tormented love story.  "Under" is a moody rocker in which Jaffe asserts her independence.  The distortion in the vocal and the song's sustained tension really make it jump out at you.  "Two Intangibles Can't Be Had" is another stripped down song that relies on Jaffe's voice to deliver its power.  The lyrics examine ambivalence in a relationship in terms of being drawn to one's lover yet wanting to be alone too.  "Backwards/Forwards" expresses similar ambivalence and confusion regarding a love affair.  Sounds like the gal has issues.  The song has a more complicated vocal structure with double tracking as well as a background vocal from Jonathan Clark who also adds a second guitar.  There aren't a lot of singers around who hold my attention with such minimal arrangements and bare bones song structures, but Jaffe does it easily.  There is a raw, almost gravelly quality to her voice that really grabs me and she excels at imbuing a song with tenderness and feeling.  I value authenticity, edginess and emotional honesty in singer-songwriters and Jaffe has that in spades.  Recommended to Lucinda Williams fans.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Second Album - Curved Air

Second Album
Curved Air
Warner Bros.  WS 1951

I learned about Curved Air from the Logan/Woffinden "Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock" which was extremely influential on my early record collecting.  The book has a British perspective which is a good thing as far as Curved Air is concerned since they never made any impact over here.  To this day I don't think I've ever heard them on the radio and I rarely see their albums in the record bins.  I guess American prog-rock fans preferred to listen to Keith Emerson butcher the classics than to listen to Sonja Kristina Linwood sweetly crooning this band's pop-oriented version of arty rock.  The songwriting on this album is divided evenly with Linwood and the band's violinist Darryl Way writing all of side one and Francis Monkman (guitar and keyboards) writing the three songs on side two.  "Young Mother" establishes the band's prog credentials right off the band with Way sawing away at his electric violin while Monkman goes nuts on his synthesizer.  The narrative portion of the song gives way to a lyrical instrumental passage with a soaring synth line that I find exhilarating.  The song is a statement of independence.  Bassist Ian Eyre joined Linwood and Way in writing "Back Street Luv" which was a hit in England and should have been here too.   Linwood sings of the perils of romance in a cool, reserved voice, she reminds me of Fairport Convention's Judy Dyble crossed with a young Marianne Faithfull.  The song features a more stripped down sound than most of the record, it sounds like a conventional pop record.  It has a strong hook and features hard rock heaviness in the verses contrasting with the lightness of the chorus.  I consider it one of the best songs of its era.  Art rock rears its fearsome head with "Jumbo" which is entirely synth and string driven.  Linwood's icy vocals suit this ponderous song quite well.  The title appears to be a reference to the jet plane the singer is flying home on.  Straight ahead rock returns with "You Know" which I think is about the double standard among the sexes.  The song has a heavy riff and even a couple of guitar solos.  Side one ends with one of the artiest songs on the album, "Puppets" which is some sort of allegory about free will and conformity I believe.  Linwood lifelessly intones the lyrics as if she were a puppet herself with Way's piano offering most of the instrumental color.  Side two's opener, "Everdance" wakes me up again.  It is another allegorical song about the roads people choose in life.  It is a fast-paced, riffing rocker with a Middle Eastern flavor particularly in Way's violin lines.  I can't believe I'm actually writing this, but I dig the dynamic interplay between the violin and Monkman's synth.  "Bright Summer's Day '68" sounds like the title of some lyrical paean to hippie bliss, but it is instead a satirical portrait of a dysfunctional family.  It is another rocker with a light, poppy chorus that ends with a surprising amount of guitar noise in the concluding instrumental passage.  Then comes the grand finale, the nearly 13 minute long "Piece of Mind."  With its shifting tempos, multiple musical themes, lengthy instrumental passages and numerous keyboard and string solos, the song is easily the most proggy one on the album, it sounds like the Nice jamming with It's a Beautiful Day.  The song is about madness, nightmares, distorted perception and despair and is just as awkward and pretentious as you might expect, Monkman even name checks Berlioz's "Harold in Italy."  Linwood can't do much with these lyrics although she gives it a game try.  I doubt that even Sandy Denny could make me care about these words.  Despite all that, I like the song, some sections of it are quite engaging.  I just wish the song had a stronger finish than just petering out the way it does.  Nonetheless if there has to be prog-rock, let it be like this.  This is a very underrated album, one of the better albums of the early 1970s.  The pop sensibility that Curved Air applied to progressive rock resulted in some complex yet enjoyable music.  I'll take a good hook and a solid riff over a rock symphony anytime.  Recommended for prog-rock fans looking for something a little sexier than their usual fare.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Tape From California - Phil Ochs

Tape From California
Phil Ochs
A&M  SP 4148

Here's a Labor Day post for one of the most ardent unionists in American rock music, Phil Ochs.  This is my favorite Ochs album in which, as the liner notes say, Ochs drops us "a line from the beautiful people coast."  It is a satiric yet heart-felt album that represents Ochs at the height of his creative power.  The opening song "Tape From California" is one of the best songs Ochs ever wrote.  It uses a propulsive folk-rock structure with a piano and a harpsichord layering a chamber pop melody line on top while Ochs sweetly croons stunningly surreal and evocative lyrics.  It captures the anxiety and craziness of the late 1960s as well as any song you will ever hear.  It is followed by "White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land" which is a scathing anti-Vietnam War song.  The song is a return to Ochs' folk roots in style and content although it is less overtly didactic and more poetic than his earlier work.  It is mostly just Ochs and his acoustic guitar with some brass overdubs.  "Half a Century High" rips television regarding it as a quasi-drug that distorts perception and reality.  It returns to the sound of "Tape From California" mixing folk-rock with chamber pop courtesy of a harpsichord.  "Joe Hill" is another folk song which describes the life and death of the labor hero.  It is a different song than the Alfred Hayes/Earl Robinson song that Joan Baez sang at Woodstock.  It is a lot longer and more detailed, an epic narrative ballad.  Ochs and Ramblin' Jack Elliott play guitar on the song.  Side one ends with "The War Is Over" which is yet another folk-rock/chamber pop hybrid with an elaborate arrangement and supplemented by brass and winds.  At the end of the song the band plays the theme from Ochs' "I Ain't Marching Anymore."  This is a classic protest song in which Ochs attacks the Vietnam War to the point of likening it to America committing suicide and urging the opposition to declare the war over, in essence beating John and Yoko to the "war is over if you want it" idea.  It is a very powerful and inspiring song that Ochs sings with a soaring optimistic vocal.  This brilliant song transcends agit-prop to achieve anthemic status.  Side two opens with "The Harder They Fall" which has strings and a piano giving it a chamber pop flavor.  The song uses nursery rhyme characters to make cynical and bitter observations about contemporary life.  It is a bit heavy-handed for my taste but he certainly lands a lot of punches.  It is followed by 13 minutes and 15 seconds of "When In Rome" in which Ochs takes a sociopath on a journey through the decadence of contemporary American society which is pointedly compared to the fall of the Roman Empire.  It is a grim song but Ochs' vivid imagery and poetic language make it really compelling.  It is just the man and his guitar but I find the song completely gripping.  Ochs follows this hellish song with the sweet chamber pop of "Floods of Florence."  The song appears to be about the transience and fragility of art and mentions the silent film director D. W. Griffith which surely must be a rock first.  Ochs would learn about the transience of art first hand in a few years when his career would go into a nosedive, but fortunately for those of us who admire him, his work would grow in stature after his tragic death.  This marvelous album really captures the 1960s for me.  What I find interesting about it, is the dynamic between the anger and turmoil in the lyrics and the beauty and lyricism of the music.  In contrast to other 1960s politically charged albums like "Volunteers" or "Kick Out The Jams" where the music is loud and abrasive, this album is almost soothing in its sound.  The other thing I find impressive about it, is that although on the surface Ochs expresses anger and anguish about the state of the world, his basic decency, idealism and patriotism is always evident beneath the surface.  The man clearly loved America and what it is supposed to represent.  Recommended for people who think that there is more to patriotism than waving a flag and blindly following leaders.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

30 Nostalgia Hits - The Beatles

30 Nostalgia Hits
The Beatles
Wizardo 102-232

I know the Beatles and their heirs are as rich as Croesus and probably don't give a damn, but it is amazing how poorly the Beatles catalog is being exploited.  How is it possible that "Sgt. Pepper" is not available on vinyl or any other original Beatles album besides "Abbey Road" for that matter?  The Ventures and Dick Dale currently have more vinyl in print than the greatest band in the history of the universe.  Have they seen what used Beatles vinyl is going for nowadays?  These guys should take lessons from the Jimi Hendrix estate, that bunch could squeeze blood from a turnip.  Put me in charge Sir Paul, I'll fix that for you speedy quick.  My first act would be to reissue the entire catalog on vinyl using the original art work and Parlophone sequencing and in mono editions as well when applicable.  I'd issue "Let It Be" in the Glyn Johns mix and sequencing and I'd put out bonus LPs of the best outtakes from those sessions.  I'd issue all the BBC sessions in their entirety.  I'd reissue "The Beatles Christmas Album."  I'd issue the Hollywood Bowl concerts in their entirety, not cherry picking through them like Capitol did.  I'd put out a bunch of other concerts as well, certainly all the ones that have decent sound as well as the historic ones like Shea Stadium and Candlestick Park.  I'd put out the Kinfauns demos and the Decca audition tape.  I'd issue DVDs of the Shea concert and "Let It Be."  I'd even release the Saturday morning Beatles cartoon series.  In short I would put the bootleggers out of business and Beatlemaniacs would not have to rely on crummy bootlegs like this to get their fix.  Actually by bootleg standards this isn't all that crummy.  It is a two record set generously filled with tunes (29 not 30 as advertised) and it is a decent pressing from good sources.  Record one is the 1964 Hollywood Bowl concert.  It runs without interruption and includes the stage patter which is how I recognize what it is, since the record has no notes aside from the song listings.  You can hear some of the same patter on the official Capitol release of "The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl."  This doesn't sound nearly as good as the Capitol version, but it is not bad and at least the whole show is here.  The set list is: "Twist and Shout," "You Can't Do That," "All My Loving," "She Loves You," "Things We Said Today," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Can't Buy Me Love," "If I Fell," "I Want To Hold Your Hand," "Boys," "A Hard Day's Night" and "Long Tall Sally."  It is a tremendously exciting performance, I wish I could have been there.  This concert alone justifies this record's existence.  Record two is more dubious.  Side one and the last two tracks on side two are devoted to the Beatles' June 30, 1966 concert in Tokyo.  The entire concert is included except for "Nowhere Man" for some reason, that's probably the missing 30th song.  This concert is well-known among Beatlemaniacs as it has been heavily bootlegged.  It was recorded for broadcast by Japanese television so it has really good sound quality and there isn't a lot of screaming since apparently the Japanese crowd was too polite to scream a lot during the songs.  The concert has a bad reputation among Beatle buffs because the Beatles perform rather sloppily although I believe most of the songs sound okay although Harrison's vocal and the guitar solo on "If I Needed Someone" are laughably poor.  Personally I prefer the Tokyo show from July 1, 1966 which also was professionally recorded, I think that performance is a little better even though Lennon forgets the words to "Nowhere Man."  Regardless, there aren't many quality tapes of the 1966 tour so I still think this is worthwhile.  The set list is "Rock and Roll Music," "She's A Woman," "If I Needed Someone," "Day Tripper," "Baby's In Black," "I Feel Fine," "Yesterday," "I Wanna Be Your Man," "Paperback Writer" and "I'm Down."  The record is fleshed out with some miscellaneous unsourced songs.  "Ain't She Sweet" appears to be the version from the Tony Sheridan session which was released on Polydor.  I don't think it is particularly rare, I don't know why it would be bootlegged.  "P. S. I Love You," "There's A Place," and "Misery" appear to be pirated off the Beatles' debut album which is both heinous and stupid.  "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" appears to be the 1965 BBC session for "The Beatles (Invite You To Take A Ticket to Ride.)"  It is a smoking hot version that is arguably better than the version on "Help!".  "This Boy" and "From Me To You" are from the band's second appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964.  This is obviously still stealing, but at least it is useful stealing, ha-ha.  I'm not going to defend a bootleg especially one that pirates legitimate releases, but until the Beatles put out some of this stuff themselves, fans are going to want this stuff in some format.  The Hollywood Bowl concert is an essential recording and the Tokyo one is interesting too.  You can find them on better bootlegs though.  I see this one selling for a ridiculous amount sometimes and it just isn't worth it.  Recommended to idle executives at Apple looking for a reissue project, I mean really is it so hard to find something to do? 

Post Script:  I guess the Apple boys were reading my blog, because a few weeks after my screed, they announced the release dates for the vinyl reissues of the Beatles catalog.  I know that these records have been in the works for ages, I'm glad it just took a little push from me to get them finally finished, ha-ha.  I don't really need them, but I'm glad they are coming out and I may pick up a couple at some point to see if they really sound any better than the originals, but I'll probably just wait for the mono versions which will supposedly be coming out next year.