Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Folk 'n Roll - Jan and Dean

Folk 'n Roll
Jan and Dean
Liberty  LST-7431

I picked up a virus or something up in Tahoe and it really hammered me.  I was sick for more than a week.  When I'm sick I don't listen to records aside from comedy records, which is a genre that fits this album pretty well.  With the possible exception of "Pop Symphony No. 1," I consider it the worst Jan and Dean album although in Dean's defense he's hardly even on it much.  As I understand it, Torrence was opposed to Jan Berry's attempts to move away from the "fun" songs that made the group famous in an effort to achieve pop relevance.  I'm all for pop relevance, but I'm with Dean on this one.  Berry was not Brian Wilson.  He was a good arranger, but when it comes to grandiose pop statements, he was kind of a dope.  If you don't believe me check out "The Universal Coward" which was Berry's answer to Buffy Sainte-Marie's classic "Universal Soldier."  In the song Berry assails an anti-war protestor for joining the protests at Berkeley.  He calls him a "communist," a "knave" and a "defector" for not realizing that the U. S. needs to be the "watchdog of the world."  At last the Domino Theory reaches rock and roll with the first right-wing folk-rock protest song.  Dean objected to the song so Berry put it out as a solo single.  As much as I hate this stupid song, musically I think it is one of the better songs on the album with its wall of sound style backing track although Berry's tuneless vocal is just awful.  Despite its title most of the album is not folk-rock, but rather the typical pop-rock that Jan & Dean featured on their earlier albums.  The other folk-rock songs on the record are mostly lame covers.  The duo blatantly imitate the Turtles' arrangement of "It Ain't Me Babe" and the Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn" with incredibly lackluster results.  Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction" gets sung by Berry in a gravelly voice like McGuire's and is done surprisingly straight except that Berry takes the opportunity to pointedly substitute "Watts, California" for "Selma, Alabama" in the final verse.  The only good folk-rock song on this album is P. F. Sloan and Steve Barri's "Where Were You When I Needed You" which would later be a hit for the Grassroots.  Sloan and Barri (Sloan was also responsible for "Eve of Destruction") worked a lot with Jan and Dean on their earlier albums.  They also wrote "I Found A Girl" which is classic Jan and Dean, easily the best song on the album.  With its bright melody and catchy harmonies, it recalls their love, surf and car tunes of the past.  It was a top 40 single that pre-dates the album.  "It's A Shame To Say Goodbye" is a sappy ballad by Don Altfield and Berry's girlfriend and frequent collaborator Jill Gibson (she co-wrote "The Universal Coward") that is reminiscent of the duo's early pre-surf days.  Berry's songs (mostly co-written with George Tipton and Roger Christian) are a mixed bag.  "A Beginning From An End" is a death-rock song inspired by "Dead Man's Curve."  It is about a guy whose daughter reminds him of his wife who died in childbirth.  It has an elaborate arrangement and a memorable melody, but is too maudlin for my taste.  "I Can't Wait To Love You" has some folk-rock style jangly guitar, but the tune is staight Beach Boys-style pop.  Then there is the silly "Folk City" which is of course derived from "Surf City" and "Drag City."  The lyrics (which have numerous Dylan references) are pretty funny and in case you were wondering, yes there are two girls for every boy in Folk City also.  The album is completed by a pair of useless covers.  The duo clown their way through "Hang on Sloopy" in what is perhaps the worst of the gazillion versions of that song that came out in the 1960s.  The Beatles' "Yesterday" is sung beautifully and sincerely by Torrence, but it is still just filler.  I guess with a couple of good songs this album is not a disaster, but I rarely play it even though I'm a folk-rock nut and a fan of Jan and Dean.  It's good for a few laughs.  Recommended for conservatives who like folk-rock.       

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

In My Mind - Dave Nordin

In My Mind
Dave Nordin
Specifications Records  5046

I imagine many of you are aware of all the ruckus that NPR intern stirred up when she mentioned having tens of thousands of MP3s on her computer that she never paid for in a blog post celebrating the death of physical music.  I've stated my position on this in past posts so I won't go into it here although I'm not sure whether I'm more mortified that she has happily stolen so much music or that she is willing to settle for crappy sound quality in the music she claims to love so much.  The intern, Emily White, dreams of a service that will provide all the music in the world conveniently delivered via the electronic interface of her choice.  It would indeed be terrible if she had to leave her cozy home and shlep down to some dingy record store and touch icky records and CDs, the horror.  She will probably get her wish, but I wonder where that leaves records like Dave Nordin's.  When us dinosaurs with turntables die off, who is going to play this guy's music?  Assuming he makes it into the grand library of music, when you have millions of songs at your fingertips, why bother looking for one of Nordin's?  I have this record because I'm a collector and I play it because I bought it.  I only know about this record because I saw it, a physical copy sitting in a box of records one of my colleagues at work wanted me to buy.  My initial reaction to seeing the drawing of the hippie lothario on the cover was basically "eew!"  I stuck it back in the box, but then I had second thoughts and looked at it more closely.  It was obviously a demo or a vanity pressing so it had to be rare and when I examined the song titles they sounded trippy so I took a chance since I knew I'd never see another copy.  As a collector it is exciting to me when I see a record I've never seen before and it is exciting to listen to a rare record that I've discovered.  When you have access to all the songs ever, it is a different experience.  It may be illogical or even perverse, but to me the collecting experience is a valuable part of my overall musical experience.  I'm not going to make any grand claims that this is some lost masterpiece, but it is a worthwhile record and I'm happy to have found it.  I know nothing about Nordin but I assume that he was based in the San Francisco Bay Area since the record label that released the album was located in Marin County.  The album consists solely of Nordin singing while accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. The album opens with "And Roses" which is a cascade of hippie-type imagery heavy on descriptions of idyllic nature that reminds me of the Youngbloods.  "The Feeling" is an energetic tune in which he and his girlfriend take a romantic trip to the country in search of freedom, a theme that ought to be familiar to any connoisseur of late 1960s rock.  "Voyage" opens with a display of Nordin's guitar skill before he starts singing about a voyage of the mind with the apparent aid of some illicit substances.  "Once There Was A Time" is a short introspective song of confusion with tricky wordplay.  "Billy" is about a junkie and his demise.  It is a grim song but I dig the frenetic, raga-ish guitar work.  Side one concludes with "Rosemary" a striking song about a girl in his mind.  It is very much in a psych-folk vein.  "Old Joe" starts side two off with more trippiness with lines about touching the sky and raindrops making love to his face.  More nice picking from Nordin on this one.  "Maryjane" refers to the herb rather than a girl.  It describes the interesting perceptions acquired from "burning leaves."  "You Make Me Feel Like Someone" is a sunny love song with a euphoric vocal from Nordin.  "All Strung Out Again" sounds like it ought to be another drug song, but it is actually a romantic love song given a passionate almost florid vocal from Nordin.  "Pinball" is also about love, although it is more observational than personal regarding love as a sort of game.  There are some really pretty guitar lines on this one. The album concludes with "This Thing of Ours" which is about making a new start with his girlfriend.  Nordin's lyrical style emphasizes a lot of outlandish imagery "strawberry skies" "eyes like windows" and so forth which often comes close to being bad poetry.  Fortunately song lyrics aren't poetry and when accompanied by Nordin's charismatic singing and vigorous guitar playing, most of the songs work pretty well.  There is a lot of trippiness running through this album and if you hate hippie bullshit you'll probably have a tough time with Nordin.  I eat this stuff up and I really dig the record.  It sounds great late in the evening and I imagine if you are buzzed it sounds even better.  I think Nordin was genuinely talented and it would be nice to see this record get reissued, so he might finally get some of the attention he deserves (assuming he's still alive out there somewhere.)  Recommended to fans of Pearls Before Swine.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Clouds - Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell
Reprise RS 6341

I didn't like Joni Mitchell when I was a teen.  She was in her jazz phase back then and I disliked jazz and I was irritated by her singing style.  It took a college girlfriend to show me the light.  She was a lot more mature and worldly than me and I was easily swayed by her opinions.  She loved Mitchell and had a lot of her records.  She played me this one and I fell for it hard.  By my request we listened to it a lot when we were at her house.  Our relationship didn't last all that long, but my relationship with Mitchell's music has never ended.  Nowadays I'd probably pick "Blue" as my favorite of her records, but I still have a sentimental attachment to this record.  When I spin it, it takes me back to those heady days back at Berkeley, sitting on pillows on the floor, sipping wine, staring at candles and listening to Mitchell's voice come out of the speakers.  At the time it was the most romantic experience I had ever had.  Such a great record.  On the surface it seems like a simple contemporary folk record, just Mitchell and an acoustic guitar, but I don't think there had ever been a folk record like this one when it came out in 1969.  Even though this pre-dates Mitchell's jazz period, she still approaches the songs like a jazz singer.  I've never been able to sing along with her, not only is she way out of my range but she goes in so many directions when she sings, the songs are full of surprises.  Such an amazing voice, even now when I spin this record having heard it so many times, I still find her singing thrilling.  Her voice cuts right through me and it fills me with emotion.  She's also a brilliant lyricist, the songs are full of evocative imagery and poetic expressions.  The album begins with the exploratory opening guitar chords of the deeply romantic "Tin Angel" which deals with a new love.  The upbeat "Chelsea Morning" is an extraordinarily atmospheric song about spending the day with a lover.  It is one of my favorite songs on the album.  I first heard it on Fairport Convention's debut album where it greatly impressed me.  "I Don't Know Where I Stand" was also covered by Fairport on their debut.  It is about being in an early stage of a relationship where she still doesn't know the extent of her lover's feelings for her.  "That Song About The Midway" is a haunting song that uses gambling metaphors to describe the risks of romance.  It has a brilliant vocal, one of my favorites on the record.  Side one ends with "Roses Blue" which criticizes a woman who has become a mystic offering prophesies of the future.  "The Gallery" is another one of my favorite songs on the album.  It uses painting as symbolism for love affairs.  The imagery in this song blows me away.  Mitchell double tracks her vocal on the chorus to great effect.  "I Think I Understand" uses the imagery of a journey to discuss confronting fear.  "Songs to Aging Children Come" has another double tracked vocal as Mitchell duets with herself.  It is a gorgeous song that uses hippie-ish, fairy tale imagery to analyze aging and being open to life's wonder and beauty.  "The Fiddle and The Drum" is the most conventional song on the album.  It is an anti-war song, not as heavy handed as most protest songs but more direct than the other songs on the album.  She sings it a cappella which adds to its gravity.  It is easily my least favorite song on the record.  The album concludes with "Both Sides, Now" which is widely known from Judy Collins' hit chamber pop version.  Her sugary version stands in stark contrast to Mitchell's unadorned take on the song which restores its seriousness.  It is the "Rashomon" of pop songs, exploring the way clouds, love and life change according to perspective and experience.  It combines the simplicity of a great pop song and the resonance of truth.  This record is such a special record to me, I've loved it for so long.  Listening to it is like a time machine, it takes me back through the decades to remember some very happy times.  But my love for this record is not merely nostalgia.  I consider it a masterpiece and I'm firmly convinced that Joni Mitchell is a pop music titan, one of the absolute greats whose music will live forever.  Only a handful of artists in any medium have ever spoken to me with so much feeling.  I'll treasure her records as long as I live.  Recommended for lovers in need of a soundtrack.