Saturday, June 30, 2012

Desert Wasn't Welcome - French Quarter

Desert Wasn't Welcome
French Quarter
Off Tempo OFF009

I saw a terrific show down at the Speakeasy in Long Beach earlier this year.  It featured my faves, the Finches and Key Losers as well as a promising new group called Pageants featuring Rebecca Coleman formerly of Avi Buffalo.  The headliner was Stephen Steinbrink who I wasn't all that familiar with.  I noticed this large odd-looking fellow who looked like a goofy high school jock helping set up the stage for the Key Losers and I thought "Oh wow, Katy found herself a roadie."  I was surprised when he strapped on a bass and started playing stunningly melodic bass lines behind her while contributing some gorgeous background harmony vocals.  After her set finished, I was even more surprised when this guy tied a scarf around his head like a Russian babushka and took to the stage to deliver a mesmerizing set of sensitive and beautifully sung songs.  You rarely see a rock show where everyone is silent, staring raptly at the performer, but this was one such show.  I was really impressed.  Steinbrink is the leader of French Quarter and this is their latest LP which I bought from K Records mail order.  The album opens with my favorite song on the record, "Goodbye Alligator Skin."  Some people think of Indie Rock as being arty or inaccessible, but really this song ought to be on the radio.  It has a lovely synthesizer line running through it, a good beat and a sweet pop feel to it despite its sardonic lyrics.  Steinbrink sings in a high, delicate voice which seems incongruous when you look at him, but it is totally convincing on record.  It is followed by "Unemployed Minor" which has a sparer arrangement.  I really enjoy the guitar/piano interplay in the instrumental breaks which are very energetic.  Steinbrink's bandmates, Preston Bryant and Chase Kemp, share composition credit on "Dead Flowers."  It is a moody song with a wonderful guitar workout from Steinbrink that reminds me a bit of Television.  He's an imaginative player and his solos are very clear and fluid.  "Lucky Passing Dream" is another lovely pop song.  It is light and airy with a compelling hook.  With its romantic lyrics, its strong bass/percussion foundation and its elegant guitar riffing on top, one can almost imagine it on a Fleetwood Mac album in the late 1970s.  Classic rock does seem to be an influence on Steinbrink, but in his hands it sounds fresh and modern.   Side A ends with "Checks & Balances" which is an uptempo song with a driving beat.  It is about as close as French Quarter comes to rocking out but in keeping with the band's style it is always very melodic.  Side B opens with a weird little instrumental called "50 Lashes."  "I Want A New Friend" is my second favorite song on the record.  I love the chiming folk-rock style guitar work.  It is a majestic tune with a classic rock flavor although I can't really think of any classic rock group that would write a song about finding a friend without trying, Steinbrink's lyrics are typically idiosyncratic.  "Red State" is about living in a conservative state (in Steinbrink's case Arizona) and experiencing personal freedom outside it.  It is another sweet, poppy sounding song that sounds like it should be on the radio.  "Soul Mates" is the only non-original on the album.  It fits in well with the other tunes although the lyrics are a lot more direct than Steinbrink's typically are.  "Creosote" is a quiet, introspective song that chronicles Steinbrink's thoughts while staying home.  It sounds precious and twee, but the low key vocal gives it a little weight making it seem more substantial.  The album ends with the group composition "Got Ideas."  It has a slight Latin flavor to it and a little bit of funkiness as well.  It gives the album a strong finish.  I like this record a lot and play it often.  Musically the group is very strong, if I have any complaint, it is that the lyrics can be pretty obscure.  Steinbrink comes up with a lot of interesting, poetic imagery, but the songs' lyrical impact is muted generally.  Recommended for fans of Pinback and Low. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Friends - The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys
Capitol  ST 2895

When the Beach Boys announced that they were reuniting for a 50th anniversary tour, my initial reaction was shock followed by dismay.  I love their music, but I don't love Mike Love.  I've read lots of books and articles about the band and none of them have ever had anything flattering to say about Love, indeed he often comes across as a villain, Brian Wilson's merciless nemesis.  I can see Al Jardine and Love burying the hatchet despite their recent animosity, they both want the money.  But I can't fathom why Brian would want to share a stage with these guys, I've seen his solo shows, he definitely doesn't need them and I doubt that he cares about the money.  I hope his decision stems from some sense of loyalty to his ex-bandmates and perhaps a desire to celebrate his accomplishments and that he hasn't been coerced into doing it by Love.  I skipped the local shows but I heard they were pretty good.  I don't care though, nothing could induce me to pay money to watch Mike Love on stage.  Aside from Brian the only Beach Boy I have much affection for is Dennis Wilson and of course he definitely isn't going to be there.  Dennis is very much present on this album however and happily for me Mike Love is hardly on it at all.  Love was in India with the Beatles seeking enlightenment from the Maharishi.  Love has some co-composer credits on several songs but only sings on two songs for a total of less than three minutes of music.  This was the Beach Boys' third studio album after the "Smile" debacle (which Love deserves a lot of the blame for according to Domenic Priore's book on "Smile.")  It is a modest album, extremely skimpy, but I'm fond of it.  Brian is still contributing at this point, in fact he has a credit on every song aside from Dennis' two songs.  The album begins with the 38 second long "Meant For You" which introduces the theme of love and serenity that permeates the album.  It is sung by Love who then disappears for the rest of the side.  It is followed by the only major song on this album, the title song "Friends."  It was written by the three Wilson brothers and Al Jardine.  How appropriate that Mike Love is missing from a song about the value of friendship and supporting each other through good times and bad.  Carl Wilson sings a strong lead with gorgeous back-up support from the others.  The basic tune is a waltz with lots of musical flourishes on top.  The song has a rich instrumental sound and a complex arrangement.  It could easily be mistaken for an outtake from "Smile."  "Wake The World" is a simpler song but it has a charming horn line and elaborate vocal arrangements.  Too bad it is such a short song although given how simple-minded the lyrics are, perhaps it is just as well.  The soulful "Be Here In The Mornin'" features processed vocals which is unusual with The Beach Boys.  The lyrics are again very simplistic.  The jaunty "When A Man Needs A Woman" is about starting a family and has a very appealing vocal from Brian.  "Anna Lee, The Healer" is a collaboration between Brian and Love and name-checks Rishikesh, the location where the Maharishi had his ashram.  It is more stripped down then most of the songs on the record as it is largely driven by a solid piano riff and it is more spirited than most of the album.  Dennis has the next two songs.  "Little Bird" is the second best song on the album.  It celebrates nature's harmony and is sensitively sung by Dennis.  It is a beautiful song and quite moving.  The philosophical "Be Still" is more of a drone with another fine vocal from Dennis.  I'm impressed by the depth and feeling Dennis brings to his music.  After this album Dennis' songs would repeatedly reveal the quiet intelligence that burned within him and I would say that after Brian he was the best songwriter in the group.  The aptly titled "Busy Doin' Nothin'" is a solo contribution from Brian that describes a day in his life.  It gives insight into his mindset at the time.  Musically it reminds me of Antonio Carlos Jobim and it has a musical simplicity that suits it well.  The album concludes with "Transcendental Meditation" essentially a commercial for the Maharishi although fortunately he is never mentioned by name.  It is a silly song but I dig the horns and the lively melody.  There are two instrumentals on the album as well.  "Passing By" features some wordless vocalizing from Brian and sounds like a work in progress.  "Diamond Head" is Hawaiian flavored and reminds me of the exotica lounge music of Martin Denny.  It is an elaborate production but I don't feel like it fits in well with the rest of the album.  "Friends" is basically a transitional album.  My favorite Beach Boys albums are "Pet Sounds" and "Smile."  I like Brian's fanciful pop confections and the big elaborate production numbers of their classic period.  This album moves away from that.  It points in the direction the band would follow for the next several years as they entered their hippie phase singing about being true to nature instead of your school and exploring spirituality and self-awareness with a more direct and mellow style of music.  "Friends" is about personal fulfillment and being at one with the world.  I appreciate the spiritual character and tranquil feeling of the music, but it is too relaxed for my taste.  The banality of so much of this album seems like a reaction against the brilliant wordplay that Van Dyke Parks brought to "Smile."  I don't approve of that, yet I can't resist the charm and good vibes of this record.  It makes me feel good.  Recommended to people who like yoga better than aerobics.   

Sunday, June 17, 2012

With The Beatles/Meet The Beatles - The Beatles

With The Beatles
The Beatles
Parlophone  PCS  3045

Meet The Beatles
The Beatles
Apple ST 2047

Meet The Beatles
The Beatles
Capitol T 2047
A post for Paulie on the eve of his 70th birthday, ouch.  I haven't heard any quotes from Sir Paul about the occasion but I hope he's happier about it than I am.  Frankly I'm appalled.  I can't believe that my idol is as old as my grandfather was when I first became a Beatles fan.  McCartney seemed eternally youthful back then and I couldn't imagine that ever changing. The idea of a 70 year old rocker would have seemed ludicrous to me.  Elvis was only in his 30s at the time and I thought he was old!  Of course nowadays geriatric rockers are common place, but none of them look as good as McCartney and I don't know that any of them sound as good either.  I can only hope I'll have half of his spirit and vitality when I'm that age, assuming I ever make it that far.  Part of me still believes in "hope I die before I get old."  As I look back through the fog of time at my long history with the Beatles, I can still dimly recall my earliest memory of the band.  It started with "Meet The Beatles" some time when I was about 9 or 10 living in Walnut Creek, a suburb of San Francisco.  My parents had no rock records at the time, but my best friend who lived across the street had a slightly hipper mom with a small record collection.  My favorite at first was her Trini Lopez record which we used to listen to often.  Eventually I got tired of "Lemon Tree" and we tried "Meet The Beatles."  I have to confess I was not an instant fan of the record, but I did fall hard for "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and I made my friend play it over and over.  The thrill that song gave me remains one of my most vivid memories of that period.  A few years later as a young teen, I would acquire my own copy of the album which is the Apple re-issue depicted above.  Then in my 20s I acquired the British version of the album, "With The Beatles," which I prefer to its American counterpart.  Finally I picked up an original pressing mono Capitol issue, because I really dislike the stereo mix on the record.  For the most part the vocals and overdubs are in one channel and the instrumental track is in another.  That's good for karaoke but it is really irritating to me when I listen to the album with headphones.  So even though my Apple pressing is mint I listen more to the Capitol pressing despite it having some surface noise.  The Parlophone album has 14 tracks.  The butchers at Capitol dropped five of the tracks and added the hit single "I Want To Hold Your Hand" plus its flip side "This Boy" and "I Saw Her Standing There" from the British "Please Please Me" album which Capitol had deigned unworthy of release in the United States.  All three are great songs, but none really belong on this album.  For some stupid reason Capitol added a bluish tint to the classic cover photo which I find creepy and replaced Tony Barrow's excellent liner notes with some publicist's hype.  I love "Meet the Beatles" for my history with it and I'll never part with it, but if you only need one version, "With The Beatles" is definitely the one to get.  I think you can make a case that "With The Beatles" was the best rock album ever at the time of its release, it's only serious competition being Buddy Holly's albums, the Everly Brothers' albums for Cadence and maybe Elvis Presley's first two albums.  Most rock albums up to this point consisted of a hit single and a bunch of mediocre filler.  "With The Beatles" is a quality listening experience from beginning to end.  It helped transform rock from a singles medium to an album medium.  It consists of seven Lennon-McCartney songs, one from George Harrison and six cover songs.  "All My Loving" is the only truly great Lennon-McCartney song on the album with its propulsive drive and ringing guitar sound, it foreshadows the greatness of the songs on "A Hard Day's Night."  "All I've Got To Do" and "Not A Second Time" boast terrific heartfelt Lennon vocals and demonstrate his growing depth as a songwriter.   "It Won't Be Long" is a bit too derivative of "She Loves You" to be a first rate song, but it is still very enjoyable.  "Little Child" is a slight song, but it rocks out nicely and I dig Lennon's harmonica work.  "I Wanna Be Your Man" is another rocker that makes a great vehicle for Ringo's raucous vocal.  "Hold Me Tight" is a mundane song redeemed by a solid beat and a winning if slightly sloppy vocal from McCartney.  Even the weakest of their songs have so much appeal to them.  Harrison's "Don't Bother Me" is astonishingly good considering that it was his first recorded song.  It has a compelling guitar riff and a rich percussion background.  Its grouchy lyrics establish Harrison's persona right from the start of his career.  I think it is one of his best ever songs and I still prefer it to any of his solo recordings.  The Beatles' taste in cover tunes was impeccable and several are among the strongest tracks on the album.  The band takes on Motown three times and wins every time.  Lennon's passionate vocal carries the day on "Please Mister Postman" and "You Really Got a Hold On Me."  The group's incendiary cover of "Money" is definitive and an eternal rock classic.  The group also delivers a blistering take on Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" but the song is undermined by Harrison's weak vocal.  It would have been so much better if John or Paul had sung it.  Harrison does a little better with the Donays' "Devil In Her Heart" although his vocal still sounds a bit strained in places.  "Till There Was You" is another one of those sentimental ballads that McCartney is so fond of.  I love Paulie, but this is my least favorite track on the album.  Surprisingly this Broadway show tune was a regular part of their repertoire back in Hamburg and though I'm not a big fan of it, the eclecticism it displays is a crucial ingredient in McCartney's long-lasting appeal.  His broad taste in music, from classical to experimental to Little Richard to Buddy Holly to Tin Pan Alley schmaltz, has given him so much depth and so many tools to work with, and has made him such an interesting and exciting musician.  Through the years he's come up with a few songs that have made me cringe, but the man has been recording classic records and exploring new musical territory for 50 years now and at 70 years old he can still deliver a show that will knock your socks off.  Happy Birthday Sir Paul, you are truly a titan in popular music history.  Recommended for everybody young and old who appreciates quality pop music. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Fantasia Lindum - Amazing Blondel

Fantasia Lindum
Amazing Blondel 
Orizzonte ORL 8302

I've been neglecting the blog lately.  I've been obsessed with the Los Angeles Kings' amazing Stanley Cup playoff run.  I haven't been listening to records much, instead I've spent all my free time on hockey blogs and internet forums not to mention watching the games.  It has been an incredibly exciting experience for us Kings fans.  But now it is over, we've celebrated and had our parade and I can get back to music.  I picked this up last year at a record store in Pasadena.  It is an Italian re-issue of the 1971 Island LP (ILPS-9156) and I believe it dates from the late 1970s.  I had never heard of the group prior to spotting it in the bin.  It looked interesting and I have a lot of respect for Island Records, so I took a chance on it figuring that I wasn't likely to see another copy of it any time soon.  I assumed it was some sort of folk-rock akin to the Pentangle, but when I played it, it sounded more like John Dowland than John Renbourn.  I don't have a problem with that, I have a record of Dowland's music that I like, but I don't play it nearly as much as I do my Pentangle records.  This certainly isn't folk-rock or any other kind of rock for that matter.  Basically it features modern recreations of courtly Renaissance music mostly using acoustic instruments from that era such as lutes, recorders and harpsichords.  Most of the album is composed by John David Gladwin who is also the lead vocalist.  I find his singing weak and annoying, he sounds like a prissy version of Dave Swarbrick with a sore throat.  The songs aren't that strong to start with and would greatly benefit from a more distinguished singer.  Side one consists entirely of the title tune, which is a song suite devoted to Lincolnshire where the band grew up.  Songs alternate with dance music and instrumental themes.  I like the instrumental passages best, but I must admit that the song "Swifts, Swains and Leafy Lanes" is a catchy song that sticks with me after the record is over.  "Celestial Light" on the other hand I can hardly endure.  It is a sappy ode to Lincoln Cathedral that I find tedious.  Side two opens with "Toye" which is a love song with pseudo-Elizabethan lyrics and a compelling melody.  I think it is one of better songs on the album, it reminds me of a wimpy Jethro Tull.   Gladwin's "Safety In God Alone" is the sole song on the album that sounds contemporary and it is the one I like the least.  It is a hippie folk song with heavily religious lyrics, yuck.  The Renaissance returns with "Two Dances," which consists of a pair of instrumentals.  The first one is "Almaine" which is lead lutist Edward Baird's sole composition on the album.  It is a lovely short piece that is followed by the sprightly "For My Lady's Delight" which is indeed delightful.  Gladwin returns to the mike for "Three Seasons Almaine."  It is the band's most satisfying foray into Renaissance style music.  If I heard it on a Nonesuch Renaissance music compilation I'd fully believe it was from that era.  From the lyrics to the instrumentation and the song construction it is completely convincing.  For most of this album I have my doubts about the band's approach, but on this one song, I can see some validity in their efforts.  The album concludes with the sole composition by the band's keyboardist and wind player, Terence Alan Wincott.  It features drumming from Traffic's Jim Capaldi, but alas it does not rock.  It is a droning instrumental that is the most dour tune on the album.  I look at the cover of this album with the three lads posing as if Rembrandt were painting them and marvel at the utter weirdness of this band.  I know a lot of hippies were looking to the past for inspiration, the Incredible String Band comes to mind, but the idea of slavishly imitating 400 year old musical styles seems crazy to me.  At least it's different I suppose.  I greatly prefer the approach of Ashley Hutchings, infusing the vitality of rock and electric instruments to traditional music while respecting its values and authenticity.  The dynamic quality of his hybrid creations is sadly lacking on this album.   I do enjoy most of this record but it does seem pointless to play it when I could be listening to the real thing performed by an ancient music consort.  Recommended for people looking for a soundtrack for their next road trip to a Renaissance Faire.