Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Reprise Records MS 2103
I think the question with posthumous Hendrix is "are you still being ripped off if you know you are being ripped off?" I don't think any artist in pop music has been as ruthlessly exploited as Hendrix has since his premature death. He only released three studio albums in his lifetime, but I would guess at least 50 albums have come out since he died. It started with Warner Bros. and then MCA/Universal and now the Hendrix estate, all endlessly repackaging his outtakes and live recordings. I'm not complaining, I eat this stuff up. I've bought lots of these albums and never regretted a single one. Warner Bros. was the worst of the three as far as I'm concerned. They packaged the material shoddily and then compounded the offense by bringing in Alan Douglas to supervise the releases and he had the gall to tamper with the original tapes adding overdubs and erasing original backing tracks. This album fortunately pre-dates the Alan Douglas era. It was produced by Eddie Kramer who was the original engineer on many of the tracks. It is still kind of shoddy though. The title doesn't make much sense and there are no notes about the origin of the tracks. Also some of the tracks were clearly never intended for release. The album opens with a cover of Elmore James' "Bleeding Heart" from 1970 with Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell. It is a terrific song with a smoking hot solo from Hendrix. It sounds more funky than bluesy, he really makes it his own. It is one of my favorite songs on the album. It is followed by "Highway Chile" from 1967 performed by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. It is not an outtake but rather the b-side of the British single "The Wind Cries Mary" yet it was surprisingly never released in the United States. It is another great song, but it stands out from the rest of the album stylistically since it is so old. Reprise should have stuck it on "Smash Hits." "Tax Free" is an instrumental by Bo Hansson and Janne Karlsson recorded by the Experience during the "Electric Ladyland" sessions in 1968. I've never understood why Hendrix liked the song so much, I think it is kind of monotonous. On the plus side it does give him a lot of room to do his thing particularly in the manic rave-up at the end which is awesome. The medley of "Peter Gunn" and "Catastrophe" (a parody of Frankie Laine's "Jealousy") was recorded during a session in May 1970 with Cox and Mitchell. It is essentially a joke that was obviously never meant for public consumption. I like it, but I'm sure Hendrix would never have approved of it being released. The side ends with "Stepping Stone" which was originally recorded by the Band of Gypsys in 1969. This song was briefly released on a single as the b-side to "Izabella" but was quickly withdrawn. Hendrix was unhappy with the song and continued tinkering with it in 1970 and eventually replaced Buddy Miles' drum track with a new one with Mitch Mitchell which is the version that is on this album. Judging from a surviving potential track listing, Hendrix apparently intended to include the song on the "First Rays of the New Rising Sun" album that he was working on at the time of his death. The song is kind of messy but Hendrix plays up a storm on it. By the time he finishes my speakers are practically on fire. "Midnight" is an instrumental recorded by the Experience in 1969. It sounds like a jam, I doubt that Hendrix would have allowed it to be released although of course the guitar work is outstanding and I dig the heavy riff. "3 Little Bears" is another leftover from the 1968 "Electric Ladyland" sessions. It is nowhere close to release-ready, I find it kind of embarrassing. As Hendrix says at one point "this is really silly." I don't think it is worthless, but then again I even enjoy listening to the man tune his guitar. This is the censored version of the song with Hendrix's profanities mixed out. "Beginning" was recorded in July 1970 with Cox and Mitchell as part of the "First Rays of the New Rising Sun" project. The song is credited to Mitch Mitchell but on the "Woodstock II" album (where the song is listed under the title "Jam Back At The House") the song is credited solely to Hendrix which is probably closer to the truth. The song sounds unfinished but it has enough great riffs running through it to fill an entire Bachman-Turner Overdrive album and Hendrix's solos are dazzling. The final track,"Izabella," was also played at Woodstock and intended for "First Rays of the New Rising Sun. " It was recorded in 1969 by the band Hendrix used at Woodstock, Gypsy Sun & Rainbows. It is among my favorite songs from the "Rising Sun" sessions and I have no idea why Reprise waited so long to stick it on an album, especially since it was briefly released as a single. I would have put it on "The Cry of Love." Aside from "Highway Chile" it stands out as being the most polished and well-constructed Hendrix original song on the album. There is some excellent music on this album, I enjoy Hendrix's outtakes more than I like many of his peers' completed songs. However you can find most of the best tracks here on more intelligent and better packaged compilations. Recommended for Hendrix completists.
Sunday, August 26, 2012
Ballad Of Easy Rider
Columbia CS 9942
I was very sorry to see that Neil Armstrong died. He was my hero when I was a kid. I followed the space program very closely and considered astronomy or astro-physics as a possible career choice up through high school. I don't have many memories of the 1960s but the moon landing is one of my most vivid ones. So to honor this great man, I decided to blog about the album that has my favorite pop song about him, "Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins," well actually it it the only pop song about him I'm aware of. I bought this album while I was in high school when it turned up in the used record store that my crappy suburban town briefly had. It was the first Byrds album that I bought that wasn't folk-rock and I was really disappointed by it. I like it much better now although I still consider it flawed for which I mostly blame Roger McGuinn. He only contributed a single song to the album which left a big void to be filled by a band that no longer had songwriters the caliber of Gene Clark and Gram Parsons or even David Crosby. Supposedly McGuinn was preoccupied with the stage musical he was working on and his lack of interest in the album is evident throughout. McGuinn's sole composition was not a new one, but rather a new recording of "Ballad of of Easy Rider" from the film "Easy Rider." The full band's recording supplemented by strings is superior to the movie version which was just McGuinn solo, but not as good as Fairport Convention's version. It is followed by John York's "Fido" which sounds nothing like a Byrds song. It is a mediocre song made worse by a dumb drum solo. York isn't that good of a singer but he sure beats Clarence White who sings the lead for the traditional hymn "Oil In My Lamp." It sounds a bit like George Harrison fronting Hot Tuna although I do like the guitar work on the song which enlivens the otherwise monotonous tune. Fortunately McGuinn is back behind the mike for "Tulsa County Blue" (listed as "Tulsa County" on the album.) It was composed by Pamela Polland and is one of the best songs on the album, very "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo." There is some fine picking from Clarence White supported by Byron Berline's fiddle playing and a nice harmony vocal from York who was also responsible for the suggestion to cover the song. The side concludes with McGuinn singing the traditional English folk song "Jack Tarr The Sailor." The song recalls McGuinn's folk roots and reminds me a bit of the Byrds' great cover of "John Riley" on "Fifth Dimension" in the way its rock and roll energy infuses the song with tension and drive. McGuinn's vocal is very powerful and I dig the fuzzed out heavy riff by White. Side two begins with the band's energetic cover of Art Reynold's "Jesus Is Just Alright" which flopped when it was released as a single for some reason. It is a really catchy and compelling song that takes full advantage of the band's instrumental prowess. It would later be a hit for the Doobie Brothers with a punchier arrangement that sounds like it was influenced by Santana. Up next is a cover of Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." The Byrds had attempted it back in their folk-rock days but didn't release it (you can find it on the Byrds box set.) This second attempt isn't any improvement, I greatly prefer the first try. The band delivers a slow, mournful country-rock take on the song, that is pretty but dull. Gene Parsons brought Vern Gosdin's "There Must Be Someone" to the album and sings lead. Reportedly McGuinn wasn't even at the session that produced the take and I believe it, it sounds nothing like a Byrds song. It is another dud. Parsons atones for this by writing the next song "Gunga Din" which is my favorite song on the album. The song has nothing to do with Kipling, it is an account of the Byrds' experiences in New York City. I was always puzzled by the song's title but I read in Johnny Rogan's book on the Byrds that Parsons says he picked the name because it worked as a rhyme which still seems weird to me. Nonetheless it a wonderful song with a soaring, uplifting chorus. It reminds me a bit of Glen Campbell. McGuinn reaches back into his folkie past for Woody Guthrie's "Deportee" which McGuinn had worked on for Judy Collins' "Judy Collins #3" album. The song seems like uninspired filler to me. The album concludes with "Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins" which came from Zeke Manners and Scott Seely. Producer Terry Melcher and McGuinn edited the song down to a single verse preceded by a countdown and some sound effects. The moon landing had occurred during the recording sessions for the album and since McGuinn shared my interest in space travel, he presumably wanted to acknowledge it. It was the final track recorded for the album and McGuinn was alone at the session. The song is practically a throwaway but I still find it kind of moving. Despite all its flaws this album was the last good studio album the Byrds would ever record. York was fired after the album and replaced with Skip Battin, a guy who was even worse at writing Byrds-style songs than York was. In his liner notes Peter Fonda says "whoever the BYRDS are is just alright" but he probably hadn't met Battin yet. Recommended to people who prefer "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" to the "The Notorious Byrd Brothers."
Friday, August 24, 2012
Slumberland SLR 153
I bought this from Roxanne Clifford after the band's show at the Bootleg Theatre earlier this year, probably the most enjoyable record purchase of my life, she's a real cutie. If I were a younger fellow I'd be crushing on her big time. It was a terrific performance. They followed Bleached who delivered a typically explosive set and I figured that there was no way they could follow that, but they delivered big time with a set that combined the primitive power of the Velvet Underground with the punky charm of the Vaselines and the pop smarts of the Shop Assistants. Awesome stuff. Their music jumped out at me when I first heard them on KXLU last year. Every time they played one of their songs I got all happy and excited. I bought the CD and loved it to death. It was in my car stereo for months. I loved it so much that I had to get it on vinyl. This band pushes all my buttons - cool girl singer with a British accent and a touch of snarkiness, jangly guitars, crisp drumming, and elaborate three part harmonies between guitarist Clifford, guitarist James Hoare and drummer Patrick Doyle. The album opens with their 2010 single, "Found Love In a Graveyard" which humorously recounts a cemetery romance with a ghost, sounding like a goth parody. It is full of hooks and an unstoppable beat. "Right Side Of My Brain" is a bit cryptic, it might be about depression or maybe the singer is just in a bad mood. "The Fountain" is a haunting song about a disintegrating relationship. The lyrics on this song are very poetic and moving. It is one of the best songs on the album. "Misery" is about just that, although for such a downbeat song, the music is almost joyous, with gorgeous harmonies and more juicy hooks. I find myself happily singing "misery got a hold on me" as if I were singing about a picnic in the park. The unhappiness continues on the irresistibly bouncy "Bad Feeling" in which Clifford sings about unsuccessfully trying to forget somebody who did her wrong. Side one concludes with "Stephen," a song about falling for a married guy. It is the most romantic song on the album and the music is more subdued, the pounding beat and rock and roll drive predominant throughout the side are replaced with a more idyllic and mellow sound. Side two kicks off with the band's ferocious second single, "Beachy Head." This pounding hard rock song is about a part of the English coastline, a giant chalk cliff that is popular with people wanting to commit suicide. It is a harsh song, but amusing as well. The highly propulsive "All Eyes On You" seems to be a put down of a narcissist. That song really rocks. It is followed by "The Box" which I believe is about a relationship where one person is more committed than the other. Perhaps because the song is written from the point of view of the person who just wants to have fun, the music is upbeat despite the unhappy nature of the song. It starts out sounding garage before becoming poppy with almost a surf-rock feel in its reverb drenched guitar solo and doo-wop style background vocals. "Wedding Day" is another fast paced rocker in which Clifford tells an ex-beau that she skipped his wedding because she knows he loves her more than his bride. This song is full of killer hooks. "Veronica Falls" is not about a waterfall but rather the fall of a girl named Veronica. It is a really pretty and atmospheric song, it reminds me of the Chills. I love the interplay between the guitars, particularly the cascading arpeggios at the end of the song which send me every time I hear them. The album ends with "Come On Over" which was the highlight of their live show for me, it was so devastatingly powerful it sent me into rock and roll ecstasy. The vinyl version is equally yummy. It starts off slow and majestic and then the band shifts into high gear and blows me away with a wall of sound. After rocking out for awhile they slow down for another soft, pretty section before taking off again to bring the song into another breakneck, roaring passage and then slowing down at the end for a lovely finish. The song's brilliant hard/soft dynamic reminds me of the Velvet Underground's "Heroin." Throughout the song Clifford invites the listener to come over and keep her warm although warning that when summer comes around again she'll probably be moving on. This band is not big on sentimentality that's for sure. It is a great song, piling up ringing guitars, throbbing bass lines, pounding drums and girl group-style woo-woo background vocals to create music that I find truly thrilling. If I had a band this is exactly the kind of music I'd want to create. This was my favorite album of 2011 and the best debut album I've heard in some time. The lyrics may be a bit simple and tongue in cheek, the sound may be a bit derivative, but I can't remember the last time a record gave me so much pleasure. The band has taken the best parts of a lot of music that I love and synthesized it into a concoction I find totally intoxicating. I can't wait for the next record. Recommended for fans of Heavenly who wish they had rocked a little harder.
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
The Cost of Living
Jason Webley was just a name to me until I saw him open for Amanda Palmer at her Halloween show at the El Rey last year. He put on an amazing show that had the crowd doing odd things with carrots and spinning around like little children, well you had to be there, it was a lot better than it sounds. I was knocked out by his showmanship and charisma. Afterwards I realized that I was not sure whether his music was all that good or if it had just been theatrics that had impressed me. Listening to this record, I know that the music was indeed good. My favorite songs are the three up-tempo numbers with a prominent gypsy flavor. "Ways to Love" alternates between a rollicking tune and a slow section with a gorgeous string riff that sticks with me long after I'm done listening to the album. Webley and his violinist, L. Alex Guy, have a real knack for coming up with impressive string motifs that enrich the songs. The song describes a rough but effective upbringing. "Little Sister" gets me bopping although it is one of the darkest songs on the album with its theme of incest and destruction. It makes me think of Amanda Palmer, particularly since it has a bit of a cabaret feel to it. It is based on a musical theme by the Czech singer/accordionist Jana Vebrova. "There's Not A Step We Can Take That Does Not Bring Us Closer" uses a fast/slow dynamic featuring the hardest riff on the album alternating with the string/horn section delivering sumptuous, majestic musical passages. Webley shouts out lusty and passionate lyrics like a sergeant delivering orders. This song was the highlight of his show for me. The other songs on the album embrace a wide variety of styles. "Still" opens the album. Like several of Webley's songs, it starts slow and builds in strength as Webley adds instruments and sings more forcefully. It has some of the best lyrics on the album as he describes a romance where the flame has gone out. "They Just Want" reminds me of latter day Leonard Cohen with its moody music and darkly romantic lyrics. There is more evocative string work on this song. "Clear" sounds more like early Cohen with its driving, relentless acoustic guitar riff and its poetic lyrics depicting a disintegrating relationship. "Raise Them Higher" calls to mind Gordon Lightfoot particularly in the resonant timber of Webley's voice and the catchy chorus. This song offers another memorable string riff. "Meet Your Bride" finds Webley delivering the lyrics in a gravelly drawl that makes me think of Bob Dylan's recent work. Webley sings about having extremely ambivalent feelings about one's wife and the song builds in intensity until he is howling the words like Tom Waits. "Almost Time To Go" and "Disappear" are quiet ballads. They are pretty songs with poetic lyrics of mild recrimination and regret. I don't think Webley is quite a strong enough singer to really put them over. He has a nice voice, but it is not all that expressive on slow songs, the songs seem a little empty. He does better with "Back To You Again" where he pulls out his Gordon Lightfoot voice again to deliver a song about release and acceptance. This is a very enjoyable album with intelligent lyrics, a theatrical atmosphere and some exotic Eastern European flavor. If you are into colored vinyl, this is a really good one. The vinyl is black infused with a bright orange design that resembles solar flares. Very cool. The whole album package is very attractive. Recommended to fans of Gogol Bordello who wish that Eugene Hutz didn't have such a strong Ukrainian accent.
Monday, August 6, 2012
Big Brother and The Holding Company
Big Brother and The Holding Company
I have no memory of Janis Joplin while she was alive. The first time I can recall hearing her was on an 8-track tape that my father had of her "Greatest Hits" album. I'm not sure why he had it, it certainly wasn't his type of music, I suppose he liked "Me and Bobby McGee." He never played it, but then he pulled it out for a party once and I was blown away. I remember one of his guests saying that Joplin would be a good singer if she didn't scream so much whereas I was enraptured by her passion. I didn't like her solo stuff so much, but the cuts with Big Brother and the Holding Company really impressed me particularly "Summertime," "Piece of My Heart" and the ferocious live version of "Down on Me." I'd never heard anything like it, even the Jefferson Airplane couldn't match the raw psychedelic power of these recordings. I listened to this tape a lot until I was able to buy my own copy of "Cheap Thrills" which instantly became one of my favorite albums. My feelings haven't changed much since then. I still love Big Brother and think Joplin made a mistake when she left them. Her solo recordings pale in comparison to the acid rock roar of Big Brother at their best. I was lucky enough to see Big Brother live when they reunited to play the Tribal Stomp in Berkeley in 1978 just a few years after they had broken up. Kathi McDonald took Joplin's spot and did a fine job. It was a fabulous show, the band was loud and freaky and I loved them. It is the closest I've ever come to witnessing the San Francisco acid rock experience that I missed out on because of my youth to my eternal regret. This album was Big Brother's debut which I bought used in Berkeley around 1980. It is disappointing compared to "Cheap Thrills" because the band and Joplin seem so subdued. I don't think it is their fault, I've heard live versions of most of the songs on here from 1966/67 on various bootlegs and archival recordings and they sound much more powerful. I suspect their record producer made them tone down their approach and recorded them poorly as well. The sound of the band is thin, almost tinny. There isn't much acid rock on this album, it is mostly blues and folk-rock. I think the best song on the album is "Down On Me" which is a traditional blues arranged by Joplin in a blues-rock style. The theme of the song obviously struck a chord with Joplin and the band delivers a punchy musical backing despite the almost total lack of bottom in the mix. There are several thunderous live recordings of this song that are quintessential Big Brother. Joplin's self-penned "Intruder" is another excellent song and of all the songs on the album it sounds the most like the San Francisco Sound as well as coming closest to the sound of Big Brother live. Joplin also delivers strong performances on "Bye, Bye Baby" and the bluesy "Call On Me." Both songs play to her strengths as a singer being full of feeling with a little bite on top of them. Even with the tame arrangements on this record Joplin's vocal power is always evident on these songs. "Women Is Losers" is a weaker song also in a blues vein, but it gives Joplin a lot of space to express herself and she delivers a very dynamic performance. The band got "All Is Loneliness" from a street musician named Moondog and it is one of the oddest songs in their catalog. The songs opens with a raga-like guitar drone and a hypnotic guitar riff as the boys and Joplin sing staggered harmonies consisting of the title phrase. Then Joplin goes to work with a couple of verses delivered with typical fire. Then the song ends as it begins. It's weird but I really dig it. Casual Joplin fans would probably be surprised that she doesn't sing lead all through the album, but Big Brother was a real band, not just her backing band. Four of the songs feature leads by other band members. I believe James Gurley is singing lead on his composition, the country-flavored "Easy Rider." He's not much of a singer, but it is a charming song and I've always loved the bit at the end when he starts imitating Joplin's vocal style and she cracks up. "Light Is Faster Than Sound" is the most overtly psychedelic song on the record and has an exciting guitar solo. Peter Albin is singing lead, but he doesn't have the range to deal with the rave up section, it makes me wish that Joplin was singing. Albin does a better job on the group composition "Blindman" which is a catchy folk-rock song with a strong hook. He sings lead on his composition "Caterpillar" which is a really silly song, but with a lot of pop appeal and it rocks too. This album isn't up to the standard of "Cheap Thrills" but it is still a very worthwhile debut album, that is full of charm and interesting music. Too bad it doesn't have a little more distortion and volume, but it is not lacking in inspiration or feeling. Big Brother and the Holding Company have been overshadowed by Joplin and they've never received the respect they deserve. The late James Gurley was a freaking wizard of the guitar, I adore his solos. Screw any rock critics who say that these guys couldn't play, let them go listen to their Emerson, Lake and Palmer records. This band had heart, passion and style which ultimately means a lot more in rock. I greatly admire this band, they had an original sound and their music went to places that few other bands ever went. Recommended to people who prefer "Ball and Chain" to "Me and Bobby McGee."
Saturday, August 4, 2012
Having heard Surfer Blood a couple of times on college radio, I had a picture of them in my mind as being some sort of hipster indie rock band. When I saw them live at the Getty last year, I was really surprised. They were so clean cut and young, they looked more like a group of collegiate Young Republicans than a rock band. Then they started to rock and I saw that images can indeed be deceiving. They delivered a high energy performance, John Paul Pitts can really shred. I was so impressed that I bought this EP when it came out last fall. It is a really nice package. It comes on teal colored vinyl with a bonus live DVD of a gig in Brooklyn. There are four songs on side one and a couple of remixes on side two as well as additional remixes of all the songs available for download including three by Sune Rose Wagner of the Raveonettes. If you count the downloads, there are 11 songs altogether. I'm not into remixes but I'm happy to have them. The four songs that constitute the EP are all really good. They are basically guitar-driven, power pop. My favorite is the fast-paced single, "Miranda." It is about a guy trying to hang onto a disintegrating relationship. It is such a catchy and accessible song, it ought to have made it on to commercial alternative rock radio. Why do people like hearing the same old Foo Fighters and Green Day songs over and over, this is so much better. "I'm Not Ready" is nearly as good. It is loaded with hooks and a steady beat. It dissects a bad friend. "Miranda" segues directly into "Voyager Reprise" via a stimulating guitar break. It is a propulsive song in a similar style to "Miranda" that describes feelings of confusion and repression. The final song, "Drinking Problem" is less super-charged than the other three songs. It features a multi-tracked vocal from Pitts, a lengthy feedback passage and a steady compelling beat. It describes another bad friend. The flip side has Totally Sincere's re-mix of "Voyager Reprise" which substitutes more pronounced percussion and bass for the guitar riffs of the original. I don't approve, but it is definitely better for dancing. It is followed by Speculator's re-mix of "Drinking Problem" which brings the song's feedback to the front of the mix with a heavier rhythm track. This one I like quite a bit. Surfer Blood may not be the most original band around, but I really enjoy this EP and I have been playing it a lot. Recommended to fans of the Posies and Sloan.