Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Apple Records ST-3354
Last September I was surprised to see Jackie Lomax's obituary in "The New York Times." I was not surprised by his death but rather that he got a substantial obituary in that august publication. Of course the reason "The Times" took notice of him was his connection to the Beatles which was also the sole reason that I bought this record. It was released by the Beatles' record label (which I collect) and was produced by George Harrison. Harrison also played on it joining an all-star backing band that included Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Nicky Hopkins, Klaus Voormann, Hal Blaine, Larry Knechtel, Joe Osborne, Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause. Despite all that talent, it isn't a particularly good record. Lomax's songwriting is mediocre and he was not a strong enough singer to overcome the weak songs. My favorite tracks are the album's two singles, "New Day" and "Sour Milk Sea" both of which flopped on the charts. "New Day" was recorded after the original album sessions and was produced by Lomax and longtime Beatles assistant and roadie, Mal Evans. It was not on the original British issue of the album but was added to the American issue which was released a couple of months later than its British counterpart. It is a forceful tune bolstered by brass. "Sour Milk Sea" was written by George Harrison who must have been feeling particularly generous towards his fellow Liverpudlian in parting with a song that is better than several of his Beatles songs of the time. It is a hard rocking song that has a catchy chorus and some hot playing from the three Beatles, Clapton and Hopkins. It features Lomax's best vocal on the record. The lyrics reflect Harrison's obsession with his new religion, essentially a paean to transcendental meditation. The other tunes are less appealing. My favorite is "Is This What You Want?" which bears some resemblance to the Beatles' "I Am The Walrus." "The Eagle Laughs at You" is a noisy rocker that provides some much needed energy for the album. "Speak To Me," "Little Yellow Pills" and "You've Got Me Thinking" have good riffs and a nice soulful flavor but are undermined by Lomax's strained vocals which remind me of John Mayall (not a compliment.) I like the strings and piano on "Sunset" which has moody lyrics that are more distinguished than the pedestrian lyrics on most of the rest of the record. "Fall Inside Your Love" is a romantic ballad that suits Lomax's voice quite well. "Take My Word" is only notable for its synthesizer solo which I presume comes courtesy of Beaver and Krause. "Baby You're a Lover" and "I Just Don't Know" bore me. It is well-known that the artists on Apple Records (who were not the Beatles) were often victimized by the label's disorganization, poor marketing and lack of direction. That might have been the case with Lomax who seems to have had some talent, but I doubt any label or any amount of marketing would have been able to make this record a success. I find it listenable and sporadically entertaining but when it is over not much of it sticks with me aside from "Sour Milk Sea." That song and the green apple on the label are the only reason I keep this album. Recommended to George Harrison completists.
Saturday, December 21, 2013
Warner Bros. BSK 3484
Along with "A Very She & Him Christmas" I have been playing this album a lot this Christmas. I have had it since the 1980s but I have not played it much since then. I pulled it out because I have started listening to my Emmylou Harris albums again after seeing her perform a fabulous show with Rodney Crowell over the summer. It reminded me what a great singer she is and shame on me for not keeping up with her. My initial interest in Harris stemmed from her work supporting Gram Parsons and I found I liked her own albums too. I never really embraced this record though. My favorite Christmas music is secular and needless to say on this record the light in the stable is not Rudolph's nose. This record is all about Jesus, not Santa or chestnuts roasting on an open fire. The only secular song on this album is Tex Logan's "Christmas Time's A-Coming" which is my favorite song on the record. It is among the most country-style songs on the record with some fine pickin' on mandolin and banjo from Ricky Skaggs. Skaggs also enlivens a lovely performance of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" with his mandolin. I've never cared much for "Away In a Manger" but I have to admit that Harris' duet with Nancy Ahern on this song is gorgeous, the best version of this that I've ever heard with a terrific mandolin solo from Albert Lee. Rodney Crowell's "Angel Eyes" is not a Christmas song but it does fit in with the religious flavor of the rest of the album. Willie Nelson sings back up on the song, making it a bit less sappy than it might otherwise be. The side ends with an a cappella performance of "The First Noel" supported by Sharon Hicks and Cheryl Warren. My other favorite song on the record is A. L. Phipps' "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem" which is a traditional country style song with some tasty fiddling from Ricky Skaggs. "Little Drummer Boy" was my favorite Christmas song when I was a child, but now I just find it tedious. The song has the most robust instrumental arrangement of any of the songs on the record, which makes it a lot easier for me to listen to. "Golden Cradle" is a traditional Irish lullabye sung as a duet with Nancy Ahern backed only by Brian Ahern on guitar. This also isn't a Christmas song although with its lyrics describing an infant being watched over by angels in a cradle it is applicable to the baby Jesus and in that sense is consistent with the theme of the album. "Silent Night" is beautifully sung and tastefully played, one of the best versions I've ever heard. The album concludes with "Light of the Stable" by Steven and Elizabeth Rhymer. It was originally released as a single in 1975 and features stellar harmony vocals from Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Neil Young. It is not a particularly memorable song, but it sounds terrific and does give the album a strong finish. As Christmas albums go, this one has its limitations. My wife and son dislike it and I would not put it on for a Christmas party, but I like listening to it late at night while looking at the Christmas tree lights blinking. My Christian days are long behind me (thank God) but I still appreciate spiritual sincerity which this album has in spades. Plus it just sounds so lovely that I can't resist it, it is hard to believe these are the same tunes we used to butcher in church and elementary school. Recommended to people tired of the crass commercialism of Christmas.
Friday, December 20, 2013
She & Him
Merge Records MRG 424
This white vinyl record has been spending a lot of time on my turntable this holiday season. When I first read that Zooey Deschanel was making records with M. Ward I didn't expect much even though I like M. Ward's solo work. I assumed it was some movie star vanity project until I heard Deschanel's guest spot at the Living Sisters' Patsy Cline tribute concert at Disney Hall back in 2011. I was amazed by her powerful vocal, she sounded like a young Linda Ronstadt. I finally caught She & Him live over the summer when they played the Hollywood Bowl and I was equally impressed. They've completely won me over. This album features a nice mix of music. It has several traditional pop standards like "The Christmas Waltz," "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Sleigh Ride," "Silver Bells" and "The Christmas Song" It also has more contemporary rock Christmas tunes including NRBQ's "Christmas Wish" (which features Ward on lead vocal,) Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," Elvis' "Blue Christmas" and a pair of tunes from the Beach Boys "Christmas Day" and "Little Saint Nick." My favorite song on the record is the duet performance of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" which I know best in Dean Martin's lascivious version. Deschanel sings the seductive part traditionally assigned to male performers of the song to winning effect. It is a charming performance. The arrangements on the album are tasteful and spare, mostly Ward laying down reverb-heavy guitar licks augmented occasionally by some simple piano runs from Deschanel (as well as a ukelele on "Silver Bells" and "Little Saint Nick") and, on the uptempo numbers, drumming from Jim Keltner. This is the sort of Christmas record that appeals to me the most, traditional without being sappy as well as being cool while still being sincere. Deschanel has a warm, engaging voice and I find that listening to this record inevitably lifts my spirits. It brings back some of the magic of Christmas music that I felt listening to my parents' Christmas records as a child. I know I will be listening to it for many Christmases to come. Recommended to sentimental hipsters.
Monday, December 16, 2013
Columbia JC 35305
Over the summer I finally caught Willie Nelson live when he played a show at the Hollywood Bowl. He performed this album in its entirety backed up by his band and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. I would have been happier if he was performing "Shotgun Willie" or "Red Headed Stranger" as I have never been a fan of this album. When it came out I was a teenager with no appreciation for the classic pop standards and I regarded it as Nelson selling out to the mainstream. I eventually picked up a used copy because I was a fan of the man, but I didn't play it much. As I matured I came to like the standards, but even then when I wanted to hear them I was more likely to put on Sinatra, Tony Bennett or Ella Fitzgerald. However at the Bowl I found myself thoroughly enjoying Nelson's performances of these venerable tunes. He's not a great crooner, but he humanizes the songs and sings them with considerable grace and feeling. So I've started playing this album again and I have to admit I was completely wrong about it. The album opens with "Stardust" by Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish which introduces Nelson's style on the album, an intimate and understated performance of the song that focuses on the words of the song rather than the virtuoso technique of the singer. Aside from "Moonlight in Vermont" I've heard these songs countless times starting with my father's own record collection, yet for the most part Nelson's performances are the first time I've ever really listened to them and connected to them. Nelson's humble and respectful approach emphasizes the casual lyrical brilliance of these songs and their enchanting melodies are brought out by excellent arrangements from Booker T. Jones who also plays keyboards on the record. Unlike the full blown orchestral arrangements at Nelson's Bowl concert, Jones used a small number of musicians playing quietly in the background only emerging to fill the empty spaces in the song and to deliver compelling and tasteful solos that enhance the emotional appeal of the songs. On "Stardust" (and nearly all of the rest of the album) it is a tasteful harmonica and delicate guitar runs that provide the color to the song. Jones deserves a lot of credit for the success of Nelson's approach. This is particularly evident in Nelson's versions of Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell's "Georgia On My Mind" and Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies." I can't hear the former without thinking of Ray Charles' classic performance and the latter is inextricably linked to Al Jolson in my mind. Jones' minimalist arrangements and Nelson's radically different interpretation of the songs, quiet and wistful as opposed to Charles' passion and Jolson's exuberance, get me to listen to the songs as if I had never heard them before. This is also true of Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons' "All of Me" which I associate with Sinatra's swinging version and Alex North and Hy Zaret's "Unchained Melody" which I've heard a gazillion times via the Righteous Brothers' melodramatic Phil Spectorized recording. Nelson gets me to listen freshly to songs I've heard too many times. The exception to this is the opening song on side two, Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's "September Song" which is a song I've long loved and never grown tired of. I'm a big admirer of Weill and this is easily my favorite song on the record. I'm not all that crazy about Nelson's relaxed performance of Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields' "On the Sunny Side of the Street" which I prefer in Louis Armstrong's classic recording from the 1930s. John Blackburn and Karl Suessdorf's "Moonlight in Vermont" I only know from jazz instrumentals. My father had it on one of his Sinatra albums, but I never paid attention to it. Nelson's tender vocal opened up the song to me and it really sends me, such a great song. Duke Ellington and Bob Russell's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" is a song I know mostly from Ella Fitzgerald's classic cover. This song features a more sprightly vocal from Nelson than the rest of the record, but I don't think it is quite sprite enough. The song needs more energy. George and Ira Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me" is another song I've loved since the first time I heard it. Ella Fitzgerald has my favorite cover of it, but I like Nelson's take on the song nearly as much. It is the most emotionally compelling track on the album. I think the secret to the appeal of this album is its mixture of genres. The songs are indisputably sophisticated pop, but Nelson's vocals are country-flavored and the instrumentation is that of soft rock, folk and quiet soul. I could play this record after listening to a Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen album and it would not sound out of place. It is all covers but it sounds personal and heartfelt and that's what I'm usually looking for in a good album. Recommended to fans of Patsy Cline, another country singer who knew how to make a pop standard her own.
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
A mono pressing of Nico's debut album. I was watching a dvd of a Nico concert from much later in her career and after the show some college kid interviewed a bored Nico in her dressing room. He asked her why there were no songs from this album in her repertoire. Her response was something like they weren't her songs, although that did not stop her from performing in her concert all of the Velvet Underground songs she sang on their debut album. I know what she meant though, this record is completely unlike all her other records, it attempts to mold her into a pop chanteuse with commercial appeal. Good luck with that. The liner notes compare her to Mary Travers (which is ludicrous) but I think the real role model here for producer Tom Wilson and arranger Larry Fallon was Judy Collins. This record sounds a lot like the chamber pop and genteel folk rock albums Collins cut with Joshua Rifkin in the mid-1960s. That is practically the opposite of Nico's personal style which emphasizes minimalist rock and roll and moody drones. Despite Fallon and Wilson's meddling, the presence of Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison and John Cale both as musicians and as songwriters throughout the record still gives it the feel of an extension of "The Velvet Underground & Nico" although much less charged. The album begins however with the first of three songs written by Jackson Browne who had a romantic relationship with Nico for awhile. "The Fairest of the Seasons" was co-written with Gregory Copeland and features a delicate guitar accompaniment from Browne bolstered by strings. The song is typical of Browne as he verbosely considers commitment issues. If he were singing it I'd be bored, but the inherent drama in Nico's deep voice makes the song seem profound, even moving. The string arrangement is heavy-handed, but I think the instrumental color it provides greatly enhances the feeble tune. Browne also wrote "These Days" which has identical accompaniment. I'm no fan of Browne's own version of this song, it sounds phony to me, but Nico's worldly persona and the heavy grain of her vocal give the song the gravity and feeling it needs to overcome Browne's glib cleverness. It is one of my favorite songs on the album. "Little Sister" was written by John Cale and Lou Reed and its dark, romantic lyrics are more consistent with Nico's gothic persona. Cale's droning organ is also more in keeping with Nico's personal style although the song also features strings and a flute that apparently Nico found very upsetting. Admittedly the cheery chamber pop that results works against the dark tone of the song, but it does not bother me too much. This is more of a problem with John Cale's bleak "Winter Song" where the flute and strings are truly obtrusive and completely undermine the feeling of the rest of the song. This is unfortunate because the song is otherwise perfect for Nico. Side one ends with "It Was a Pleasure Then" by Cale, Reed and Nico. This is the song on the album that is truest to Nico's style. It is a minimalist tune featuring Nico solemnly intoning the gloomy lyrics with Reed noodling around on guitar emitting occasional shrieks of feedback and Cale brutally sawing away on his viola. No chamber pop on this one, it reflects both Nico's past with the experimentally minded Velvet Underground and the uncompromising and personal music she would make in the future. A great song. Side two opens with Reed and Sterling Morrison's "Chelsea Girls" which is based on the Andy Warhol film of the same name that Nico appeared in. It is the song that sounds most like Nico's work on "The Velvet Underground & Nico" aside from the string arrangement and flute which once again undermine the dark lyrics of the song. The song sticks pretty close to the film, but you don't need to have seen the film to understand the lyrics which are typical of the detached descriptions of decadence favored by Reed in songs like "Venus in Furs" and "Femme Fatale" and it ranks with Reed's best work from that period. Nico's vocal is mesmerizing, I wish I could erase the strings and flute from it, it would be a masterpiece. "I'll Keep It With Mine" was written by Bob Dylan another paramour of Nico's. According to her, he wrote the song about her and her baby and gave her an acetate of it to record. She waited too long though and Judy Collins beat her to it. It was also sung by Sandy Denny with Fairport Convention on their second album, "Fairport Convention." Nico's performance is surprisingly energetic, she sounds very inspired. Nico is a far more limited singer than Denny or Collins but I think this is the definitive version of the song. "Somewhere There's A Feather" is another Jackson Browne song which Nico sings with engaging enthusiasm. The optimism expressed by the lyrics couldn't be further from Nico's oeuvre, but she sounds very convincing crooning it and to his credit Browne manages to restrain his usual long-winded approach to write a direct and lovely song. "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams" was written by Lou Reed for the Velvet Underground. If you think Nico is a bad singer you should check out the Velvets' demo on the box set, "Peel Slowly and See" featuring John Cale on lead vocal. The song sounds dreary and lifeless in the Velvet's version, Nico's version is so much more vibrant and appealing. On this tune at least the string arrangement makes the song stronger. The album concludes with Tim Hardin's "Eulogy to Lenny Bruce." This song has a very minimal arrangement relying on the intimacy of Nico's vocal to carry the song much like most of her later solo work. The song is about Lenny Bruce who had recently died and the song decries his drug use which seems pretty ironic coming from Hardin, a longtime junkie who would also die from a drug overdose just like Bruce (and of course Nico herself was no stranger to drug addiction either.) I think this album is largely a betrayal of Nico as an artist, but I still like it. Yes it is over-produced, but the songs are terrific and suit her voice and persona extremely well. In contrast to the gloom and doom she projected on her later records, on this album Nico sounds lively, even charming at times. As a big chamber pop fan, I often like the sound of the record even when it works against Nico's vision. Besides the compelling quality in Nico's deep dramatic voice ultimately transcends Wilson's attempt to smother her with pretty music, her inner darkness can't be suppressed. Unlike her later records where the unrelenting gloom of the music can be wearying (to me at least), this album, with its dynamic tension between the singer and the music, is consistently interesting and stimulating. Recommended to people who prefer "Femme Fatale" over "Heroin."
Sunday, November 24, 2013
The Guess Who
As a teenager I was a fan of these guys, I even liked "Clap For The Wolfman," a song that now makes me wince. This was my favorite of their studio albums although I rarely listen to it (or any of their other records) anymore. I can't remember why I liked them so much back then but I've always been a sucker for a good riff which was guitarist Randy Bachman's forte. He left after this album eventually forming the riff-happy Bachman-Turner Overdrive another band I really liked back then. The album kicks off with the title track which was a massive hit. I loved the song as a kid, such a compelling riff, but the grown-up me has problems with its misogyny and anti-American lyrics. As I've mentioned in past posts, I'm a huge Canadaphile. I love it up there in the Great White North, but I still resent it when a bunch of jackasses from Winnipeg come down here and start ragging on the people buying their records and making them rich. Furthermore blaming women for the American military industrial complex and institutionalized poverty makes as much sense as blaming Haiti for global warming. This is an obnoxious song that makes the band sound like a bunch of sexist yokels. Unfortunately it is also insanely catchy and powerful which has kept it on classic rock radio for more than 40 years. The entire band gets songwriting credit for "American Woman," but the next song "No Time" is written by Bachman and lead vocalist Burton Cummings who paired up to write all the rest of the songs on the album except "Humpty's Blues" which is another group composition. "No Time" is less offensive than "American Woman" but just as obnoxious. It is a callous kiss off to a lover of the so-long-babe-I-gotta-ramble variety only crueler. Despite its vicious tone the song is melodic and musically pleasant with another catchy riff that helped make it the second hit single off the album. "Talisman" is a respite from riffs and misogyny. It is a slow moody song played on an acoustic guitar with a piano emerging at the end playing some lovely lines. Its trippy lyrics represent the point of view of Native Americans. Bachman's "No Sugar Tonight" is blended with Cummings' "New Mother Nature" to close out the first side. This is my favorite part of the album. I've always liked the little acoustic guitar run that opens the song and reappears in the segue between the two songs. The rest of the tune is driven by hard rock riffing. The sugar in Bachman's song refers to sex and Cummings' tune is more about dope than ecology. Side two kicks off with Bachman's "969 (The Oldest Man)" which is an instrumental. It starts out rocking with plenty of bluesy guitar runs and then slows down for a flute solo from Cummings. It is kind of weird but I like it and at least there are no dumb lyrics to annoy me. "When Friends Fall Out" has the same odd heavy/light dichotomy. Most of the song is driven by a slow heavy riff played on a fuzz guitar but the center and end of the song revert to a very poppy and melodic passage reminiscent of the Association. "8:15" is a fast tempo song with a hard driving guitar line and a percussion-based instrumental break in the center and at the end. The song's alluring mixture of rock power and pop accessibility provide me with a clue of why I liked these guys so much back in the 1970s. "Proper Stranger" features a return to heaviness with a sluggish fuzzy riff and a get-down growling vocal from Cummings as he intones feelings of alienation and confusion living in the big city. Time to get back to Winnipeg, kid. The album ends with the heaviest tune of all "Humpty's Blues" which is a straight blues dominated by Cummings' screechy vocal and harmonica playing supported by a lethargic guitar solo. At the end of the song there is a brief reprise of the acoustic part of "American Woman" from the beginning of the song which has a nice bookend effect for the album. I'm starting to remember why I used to like this record and this group, they definitely knew how to rock a riff and had enough pop smarts to stand out among the bland hard rock of the early 1970s. If the lyrics on this record were smarter (or nicer) I'd probably still be playing it. Recommended to Steppenwolf fans who have issues with their girlfriends.
Friday, November 15, 2013
I've never liked Jackson Browne yet somehow in the past few years I've seen him live three times and enjoyed his performance each time. I saw him cover Warren Zevon at a Dawes show, I saw him cover the Everly Brothers with Jenny Lewis and the Beach Boys with Dawes at the tribute to Glen Campbell at the Hollywood Bowl and most recently I saw him do a guest spot with My Morning Jacket down in Irvine. He did a Dylan song and "Late for the Sky" off this album. Having the best live band in the world back up Browne is like hiring Wolfgang Puck to make the pizza for your little kid's birthday party, but boy did it sound great. Despite all this I haven't changed my mind about Browne, I still find him kind of boring. I was a teenager during his heyday and despised him, lumping him in with James Taylor and the Eagles and that whole 1970s singer/songwriter scene as well as the laid back Southern California country rockers that I blamed for ruining rock. That was unfair to him, he was more talented than those guys and when I was in college I softened a bit and bought some of his albums in bargain bins and garage sales. Most of them now sit on my purgatory shelf while I decide whether I really want to keep them. The only one I ever liked much was "Running On Empty" because it was relatively rough and even rocked a little. However if I had to name his best album, I'd probably select this one even though I rarely play it. The most striking thing about it is the cover which I think is one of the best ones of its era. Browne's biggest asset is his lyric writing which is evident in the opening track, "Late For The Sky" which is the best song on the album. It is a stunning portrait of alienation and a disintegrating relationship delivered with a mournful country rock tune. I don't think Browne is a good singer, but in this case he expresses considerable feeling and I find his performance more moving than usual. David Lindley's guitar solo is very expressive as well. "Fountain of Sorrow" covers a lot of the same ground but it is not quite so bleak. The song is more uptempo as well, pushed along by Jai Winding's energetic piano lines. Browne's vocal is typically bland, I have to force myself to pay attention to the words. The song goes on too long, I lose interest before it peters out. "Farther On" is very introspective as Browne examines the role of music and dreams in his life and persistence in the face of perpetual failure. It is a lovely song, but it hardly has any tune and is largely carried by Browne's vocal which just makes me wish someone else was singing. Side one ends with "The Late Show" which is another relationship song that stresses the importance and difficulty of relating to another person with honesty and openness. It is more mournful country rock, but Browne's dreary vocal makes the song sound more whiny than confessional. The Eagles-ish harmonies from the background singers (who include J. D. Souther and Don Henley, yuck) don't help any. Side two kicks off with the only song on the album that could be considered a rocker, "The Road and the Sky." The song uses the metaphor of a road trip to examine themes of fulfillment and freedom. It is propulsive enough to keep me from getting bored and even has a little guitar noise. It figures that the most musically stimulating song on the album is also the shortest one. "For A Dancer" is a eulogy for a dead friend that touches on the meaning of existence as well. It has one of the better melodies on the record and a lovely fiddle solo from Lindley, but it is ultimately undermined by Browne's dull vocal. "Walking Slow" is a light song by Browne's standards in which he takes a stroll feeling good although he also takes a little time to mention his relationship troubles as well. It has an appropriately punchy and jaunty tune, but Browne's vocal is hopelessly stiff. The album finishes with "Before the Deluge" which is a depressing song about the futility of human life in the face of the apocalypse as well as the disillusionment of youthful hippie idealism as his generation grows older with a little ecological rage thrown in as well. Musically it is the usual tedium until the final section where the chorus and Lindley's fiddle give the song some much needed vitality. I admire Browne's songwriting ability, he writes intelligently and expresses himself with vulnerability and sincerity, but as a performer, I just can't relate to him. I think the decisive cross-references with Browne are Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon. Mitchell also writes deeply personal and highly poetic songs often with minimal musical accompaniment but she is a world class singer who can bring out the feelings in the words. Paul Simon isn't that much more expressive as a singer than Browne, but he writes memorable melodies that enhance his songs which is something that Browne can't do with any consistency. Recommended to Bruce Springsteen fans who like his slow songs better than his fast ones.
Friday, November 8, 2013
I saw the Go-Go's play at the Hollywood Bowl last summer. It was the classic line-up minus Kathy Valentine who had injured her wrist and could not perform. Alas since then she has been kicked out of the band. It was a terrific show, I had a great time but I was disappointed that they only did one song from this album, "Head Over Heels." I can't blame them for concentrating on their first two albums for their set list, they were the two that were big hits. I think this album, their third, is easily their best one though. I was not initially a fan of the band. When "Beauty and the Beat" was released and "We Got The Beat" was all over the radio, I dismissed them as bubblegum. My sister loved them though and bought the album. I heard her playing it and I started to like it. Soon I was a fan too. What was there not to like? Five attractive women playing uptempo New Wave flavored pop with clever lyrics, that was right in my wheelhouse. I bought and enjoyed their first two albums, but this was the album that really made me fall for them, just in time for them to break up unfortunately. "Talk Show" impressed me immediately with its rocked up sound while still retaining the band's pop sensibility. It is loaded with hooks and musical appeal. It always makes me happy when I listen to it even though it is easily the most unhappy album they ever made. It kicks off with Charlotte Caffey and Kathy Valentine's "Head Over Heels" which was the big hit single off the record. It is a sparkling tune driven by an insistent keyboard riff and a hard driving bass line with noisy guitars on top. It is loaded with pop appeal but the lyrics are dark and express confusion and desperation which seems an accurate reflection of the group's state of mind at the time with the band heading for a break up and drug problems taking their toll as well. It is my favorite Go-Go's song, I played it over and over when I bought this record. Caffey and Jane Wiedlin wrote "Turn To You" which was the other top 40 single on the record. It is another riff-driven rocker with an urgent, rough vocal from Belinda Carlisle with catchy back-up vocals from the group. It has a relentless beat that gets me bopping and features one of the best guitar solos in the band's catalog. It is another big favorite of mine. Despite its hard rocking sound, the song is a poignant plea to a lover to let her into his heart. The big beat continues with Gina Schock and Valentine's "You Thought" which has that synth with big drums sound so popular in the 1980s (much to my chagrin) but fortunately it also has loud guitars too. The song is about communication problems in a deteriorating relationship and it demonstrates the group's growth as lyricists with a lot of evocative imagery. The communication breakdown persists with Valentine and Wiedlin's "Beneath the Blue Sky" which features the great line "I think we're sharing the same lies." This song features another terrific guitar solo on top of a soaring melody that makes this song a real winner for me. Side one concludes with Wiedlin's moody "Forget That Day" which is about being deceived by a lover who loves someone else. Carlisle's plaintive, heartfelt vocal is very expressive. Side two opens with the powerful guitar riff and crisp drumming that drives "I'm the Only One" which Valentine wrote with Carlene Carter and Danny Harvey of the Rockats. This high energy song features more delightful vocal harmonizing from the band in support of Carlisle. It is another song about misunderstandings in a love affair. "Yes or No" is a collaboration between Wiedlin and Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks. The song was released as the third single off the album but it flopped, although not for lack of musical quality. It has a hooky bass line and a catchy chorus that has hit single written all over it. Lyrically it recalls the earlier Go-Go's records with its love 'em and leave 'em ethos as the narrator tries to get a guy to dance with her no strings attached. Wiedlin's optimistic "Capture the Light" is about trying to stay positive and avoiding dark thoughts. Once again jangly guitars and tight drumming result in a very appealing musical concoction. Schock and Wiedlin's "I'm With You" is about the unhappiness of being away from the one she loves presumably because of a tour. Carlisle sings the words with a lot of feeling and the group substitutes a steady groove in place of the rocked up sound on most of the record to reinforce the desperate sadness that permeates the song. The album concludes with Wiedlin, Valentine and Caffey's remarkable ballad "Mercenary." It opens with martial drumming and delicate guitar strumming gradually picking up steam as it builds to the emotional chorus. It is a heart-breaking song about a girl who uses a guy and his unhappiness as a result delivered by Carlisle in one of her best ever vocals. It gives the album a moving finish full of depth and tenderness. Scoff if you will, but I say this is one of the best albums of the 1980s. It obliterates the persona of the Go-Go's as cartoonish party girls with its sensitivity and heartfelt honesty. Its powerful rock sound displays the group's punky roots and musical chops. This album sounds great and it has hardly aged a bit. I find it endlessly appealing and stimulating. Recommended to Bangles fans who wish they weren't so hung up on the 1960s.
Saturday, November 2, 2013
Decca Roots 2
Here's a post for Halloween. Just kidding, aside from their name, the Zombies with their tender and romantic records could hardly be farther from the spirit of Halloween. I saw them give a wonderful show at the Troubadour back in September. Well they were calling themselves the Zombies but it was really just Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent with some side men one of whom was Jim Rodford so they could have just as accurately called themselves Argent (they actually did perform "Hold Your Head Up.") Although Blunstone looks more like a head master nowadays, he still sings with the angelic voice of a schoolboy. He looks great compared to Argent and Rodford though who are definitely showing their age. It was an old crowd too, it was the first time I've been to a show where everyone rushed up to the balcony to get one of the few seats available because no one wanted to stand. I was well back in line and I still got right up front in the pit. I'm glad they are still working, they've been one of my favorite groups since I was a teenager. As I mentioned in my post on "Time of the Zombies" the box set of "Zombie Heaven" has rendered all Zombies compilations obsolete and this one is no exception, all of it is on the box. Of course the box is a bunch of CDs and this is vinyl so it has value to me. I was thrilled when I found it at Aron's Records back in the 1980s. Although the liner notes claim that 10 of the 16 songs on the album had never been released on an LP prior to this album, they are referring to England (this is an import.) This claim is untrue since one of those 10 tracks ("I Remember When I Loved Her") appeared on the Zombies' English debut album, "Begin Here." In the American market 4 of the non-album tracks on here are on "Time of the Zombies" and 2 others appear on the London Records compilation "Early Days." Since the album consists largely of the Zombies' Decca singles, the later See For Miles Zombies singles collection has almost all of it as well. Be that as it may, I'm still glad I have it since I don't have the See For Miles compilation. Side one is wonderful. It kicks off with their 1964 classic hit single "She's Not There" and its B-side the Beatlesque "You Make Me Feel Good" which is so good it sounds like it could have been an A-side in its own right. It has a brief bit of studio noise before it starts which I haven't heard on any other recording of the song. Their 1964 follow up single "Leave Me Be" is next. The single flopped but I think it is a great song, one of my favorites in their catalog. I like the contrast between the delicate verses and the driving chorus led by Argent's dynamic organ line. "Indication" from 1966 tanked as well but it is another excellent song. It is one of the hardest rocking songs they ever did and the organ and guitar interplay at the end of the song is very exciting. Although the liner notes indicate the 2.07 running time of the abbreviated American version of the single, this is the full length 2.59 version of the song. "How We Were Before" was its flip side. It is the sort of delicate, wistful song the Zombies excelled at and unlike most of their songs it is guitar driven with bongos providing percussion. It is one of the few Zombies songs written by Colin Blunstone as opposed to Chris White or Rod Argent. "I Remember When I Loved Her" is in a similar vein, a quiet, sad song full of atmosphere. It was the B-side of a 1965 U. S. single in addition to its appearance on "Begin Here." "Is This The Dream" was a 1965 single. It is a punchy, uptempo tune with a strong vocal from Blunstone and a brief but powerful electric piano solo from Argent. It reminds me of the Animals. The side concludes with "Woman" which was the B-side of "Leave Me Be." It is a propulsive riff-driven tune with an energetic organ solo from Argent as well as one of Paul Atkinson's best guitar solos. Side two opens with the Zombies' other hit single for Decca, "Tell Her No" released in January 1965. Blunstone's vocal really sends me on this one. "Whenever You're Ready" was an unsuccessful single from 1965, but it deserved a better fate. It has that special Zombies mixture of tenderness and power with a strong melody and plenty of instrumental force. It is followed by its B-side, "I Love You" which was a hit for the American group the People in 1968. I like the Zombies' version much better, particularly Blunstone's vocal. It is followed by the only non-singles on the record, "Summertime" and "I Can't Make Up My Mind" which appeared on "Begin Here" in 1965. "Summertime" is also on the group's American debut album, but as far as I am aware "I Can't Make Up My Mind" was never on vinyl in the United States. "Summertime" is the Gershwin classic that has been covered countless times but the Zombies' jazzy version is one of my favorites with a fabulous breathy vocal from Blunstone and a terrific piano solo from Argent. It was one of the highlights of their show at the Troubadour. "I Can't Make Up My Mind" has a weird bit of studio chatter at the beginning of the take. It is a moody song driven by a melodic jangly guitar riff that is one of my favorite songs on "Begin Here." "Remember You" was a single from the soundtrack for the movie "Bunny Lake is Missing." It was an A-side in England, but in the U.S. it was the B-side to the other song from the film "Just Out of Reach" which was left off this album for some reason. I actually prefer "Just Out of Reach" myself but "Remember You" has its virtues, in particular its jazzy rhythm and some memorable piano work from Argent. "Gotta Get A Hold of Myself" was the Zombies' penultimate single for Decca in 1966. I don't believe this was ever released in the U.S. on vinyl. It was written by Clint Ballard Jr. (who wrote the Hollies' hit "I'm Alive") in collaboration with Angela Riela and had been a single for Dee Dee Warwick in 1965. The group manage to make it sound Zombieish but it depresses me that they felt compelled to do covers to try and get a hit and it didn't even work. "The album concludes with another cover, the final Zombies Decca single, "Goin' Out Of My Head" from 1967 which also went unreleased in the American market. I like it better than the hit version by Little Anthony and the Imperials, if only because it is less melodramatic. It decidedly isn't very Zombieish, the flip side "She Does Everything For Me" (not on this record alas) is much better. It was a disappointing finish to their run at Decca. It is hard to believe that a few months later they would be recording "Odessey and Oracle" creating the best music of their career. I'm not sure what the point of this record was, as a singles collection it is missing several tracks and as a greatest hits on Decca record it has the very obvious omission of "She's Coming Home." Nonetheless I'm happy to have it. When I bought it I hadn't heard many of the songs on it and even now I still enjoy listening to it. It sounds great, nine of the tracks are in mono and it is a quality pressing. Aside from "Goin' Out of My Head" every track is good and many are great. Recommended to Zombie fans who prefer vinyl over CDs.
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Sub Pop SP 834
This is the double-album expanded reissue version of Nirvana's debut album originally released in 1989 on Sub Pop as SP 34. It is pressed on white vinyl. The original album is on one LP and there is a second LP of a live show at the Pine Street Theatre in Portland from February 9, 1990. There is also an album size booklet full of vintage photos of the band from the late 1980s and some reproductions of contracts, record sleeves and other record company ephemera. I first obtained this album on a CD which I purchased after hearing "Nevermind." I'm embarrassed to admit that I did not pay any attention to Nirvana prior to their rapid rise to fame and was not even aware of this record upon its original release. At the time I was working two jobs and writing my Ph.D. dissertation so I did not have much time for music. Also I was bummed out about the demise of the vinyl record which greatly diminished my interest in music collecting at the time. I think if I had heard "Bleach" when it was first released, I would have been very impresssed. Record collector extraordinaire Kurt Cobain synthesized all sorts of disparate influences to come up with a hard rock sound that pushes all my buttons. The album kicks off with the hard-riffing "Blew." The lyrics are simple and a bit obscure, but introduce the negative vibe that pervades the record reinforced by Cobain's tortured vocal. "Floyd the Barber" is a perverse spin on "The Andy Griffith Show" driven by a primitive, pounding riff reminiscent of pop-metal bands like Kiss or AC/DC. "About a Girl" was written about Cobain's girlfriend and is the most pop oriented song on the album. It is my favorite track on the album. It is a love song, but it is a pissy love song, no straight ahead romance for this dark record. According to Charles Cross' bio on Cobain, Kurt listened to "Meet the Beatles" three hours straight prior to composing the song which might account for some of its melodic flavor. "School" is a return to hard rock with a killer riff and Cobain screeching about not having recess at school. The lyrics are dumb and repetitive but the song is so highly charged that they are still amazingly effective. It is a testament to the breadth of Cobain's musical tastes that he selected Nirvana's cover of the obscure "Love Buzz" by Shocking Blue (originally released on "At Home") and made it his own. The song is driven by Krist Novoselic's hypnotic Middle-Eastern flavored bass riff over which Cobain drapes layers of distorted guitar noise and fast paced runs. His vocal sounds slightly goofy adding some much appreciated humor to the record. This is my other favorite track on the album. It is followed by the ultra-heavy sludge of "Paper Cuts" which is for me the creepiest song on the record. Cobain sings of being imprisoned by some maternal figure. It has vivid details of his degradation and is unrelenting in its evocation of misery. The side concludes with the punky "Negative Creep" which is full of primitive energy. Side two opens with "Scoff" which is driven by a heavy power riff as Cobain howls for alcohol in between scathingly reproachful and nihilistic lyrics. "Swap Meet" sounds like a heavier version of the classic Nirvana track "Sliver." I believe Cobain is mocking hippies in the song. "Mr. Moustache," "Sifting" and "Big Cheese" ridicule authority figures. "Mr. Moustache" is a fast-paced punk-style tune, "Sifting" is lumbering and metallic and "Big Cheese" is grungy. The punk influenced "Downer" is vaguely political, but mostly it is Cobain venting his spleen. I suppose that is true of most of the album, it is full of anger and negativity. The live album comprises six songs from "Bleach" namely "School," "Floyd the Barber," "Love Buzz," "Scoff," "About a Girl" and "Blew." I particularly like the noisy and raucous version of "Love Buzz" which blows away the studio version and the passionate interpretation of "Scoff." It is the non-album tracks that make this live album special though. It features a throat-shredding performance of "Dive" from the "Sliver" single which is one of the highlights of the show. There is also a terrific work out on "Spank Thru" which saw its first official release on the "Sub Pop 200" compilation. There is a rocking cover of the Vaselines' "Molly Lips" which appeared on "Hormoaning" and "Incesticide" in a performance recorded for John Peel's radio show. There is a punchy version of "Sappy" with an exciting hoarse vocal from Cobain. The song made its first official appearance as an unlisted track on the "No Alternative" compilation album. There is also an energetic performance of "Been A Son" from the "Blew" EP. The live album has excellent sound quality and the band plays with a lot of power and enthusiasm. It makes the purchase of the deluxe version of this album worthwhile, I'm really glad to have it. Nirvana fans of course already have the original album, but I think this upgrade is worth the expense. If you are not a Nirvana fan, this is a great place to start. Unlike a lot of records from that era, it has hardly aged at all, after 24 years it still sounds fresh and exciting to me. With this record, Cobain drove a stake through the heart of the 1980s and anyone who suffered through that decade ought to be grateful. Recommended to people who think it is better to burn out than to fade away.
Sunday, October 27, 2013
The Velvet Underground
By an eerie coincidence I was listening to this album this morning when I started my laptop and opened the Yahoo homepage and saw a picture of Lou Reed. A chill ran through me even before I read the text, I knew that he must be dead. There he was singing on my turntable as I read about his death. Ironically the first time I ever heard of Lou Reed was when I was a freshman in high school sitting in Electronics class and a couple of stoner girls asked our hip teacher, Mr. Farrow, if he had heard that Lou Reed was dead. He was of course very much alive back then. The girls spoke of Reed as if he were some rebel junkie, which I guess was not too far from the persona he had cultivated. I was just becoming aware of underground culture and was intrigued by their conversation. Soon I had some rock reference books and learned about Reed and the Velvet Underground. I bought "Transformer" but was kind of lukewarm in my reaction to it. But then I picked up "The Velvet Underground & Nico" and it blew me away. I loved the Velvets from that moment and I managed to track down all of their records and listened to them all the time. I was far more interested in the Velvets than Reed's solo career but as I got older I came to admire his solo albums and acquired most of them. It is a very impressive body of work, consistently interesting and adventurous. The Velvets are still one of my favorite groups and I dutifully collect their archival recordings of which there are now quite a few. This one comprises the acetate they cut at Scepter Records Studio in New York, financed and "supervised" by Andy Warhol and Norman Dolph, a former record company executive. It was discovered by a record buff at a New York City flea market where he bought it for 75 cents, perhaps the greatest used record score of all time. Six of the nine tracks on here were re-mixed and used by Verve for the Velvet's debut album, "The Velvet Underground & Nico." The other three tracks, "Heroin," "Venus In Furs" and "I'm Waiting for the Man" were re-recorded for that album. The acetate version of "Heroin" is nearly a minute shorter than the Verve version and is less noisy although otherwise the arrangements are similar. I think the re-recorded vocal is more expressive than the acetate one. The acetate version of "Venus in Furs" is also shorter than the release version but otherwise they are similar and I don't see that the Verve version is any big improvement over the acetate track. The acetate "I'm Waiting for the Man" however pales in comparison to the supercharged release version. Not only is the Verve re-recording a lot punchier but it boasts a superior, more effusive vocal from Reed. The version of "European Son" on the acetate goes on for more than a minute longer than the official release version. The acetate version of "All Tomorrow's Parties" features Nico's vocal on just a single track as opposed to the double-tracked lead vocal on the Verve release. The double tracked vocal is certainly stonger and heavier, but I like the more plaintive quality of the acetate recording. The acetate's version of "I'll Be Your Mirror" is missing the backing vocal of "reflect what you are" at the conclusion of the song. The backing vocals in "Femme Fatale" are different too. On the acetate you hear more voices, on the Verve version Lou Reed's backing vocal is higher in the mix and the recording has more reverb. The acetate "The Black Angel's Death Song" and "Run Run Run" sound practically identical to the release versions to me aside from very slight variances in the mixing, most notably because the acetate is a mono mix. "The Velvet Underground & Nico" is definitely a more professional sounding record, it jumps out of the speakers more forcefully than the acetate recording does, but as someone who has heard the Verve record countless times, the unpolished mixes on the acetate offer a chance to hear these classic songs from a fresh perspective. I should note however that on the quieter recordings like "I'll Be Your Mirror" or "Femme Fatale" you can hear noticeable surface noise since the album is recorded from the acetate record which apparently has some wear. Unless you are a big fan you probably don't need the acetate recordings, just stick with "The Velvet Underground & Nico." Recommended to people who believe that rock and roll lost one of its greatest masters today, a man who was a true original and a genuine artist who profoundly elevated the genre.
Saturday, October 19, 2013
The Best of Ian & Sylvia
Ian and Sylvia
Is this really the best of Ian and Sylvia? Of course not, anyone who is even a casual fan of the duo knows that the best of Ian and Sylvia was recorded for Vanguard Records. If you read the fine print on the back cover you will see that this double record set repackages Ian and Sylvia's two albums for Columbia Records, "Ian & Sylvia" and "You Were On My Mind." Neither album sold many copies, so presumably some weasel at the record company decided to recoup the losses by deceptively marketing the albums as a greatest hits package. Being a huge fan of Ian and Sylvia, I knew this was a rip-off when I bought it, heck that is part of the reason I bought it. I like to collect examples of the major record labels' greed and evil chicanery. Mostly I bought it because it was really cheap and when I found it in a Pasadena record store many years ago, I had yet to acquire a copy of "You Were On My Mind." I figured I would buy it and then discard it when I finally did acquire a copy of "You Were On My Mind." However when that finally happened, I found that I didn't want to part with it, just one of those irrational collector things. The album is not entirely without value to someone who has the two Columbia albums already. Bob Palmer's lengthy liner notes are quite good and you get a bunch of leftover photos from the photo session for "Ian & Sylvia," but really I just keep it because I'm a completist. I've already blogged about the two Columbia albums, so I won't rehash them here, but even though this music is marginal compared to the classic Vanguard albums, it is still worth having, especially if you like country rock. If I was making up a double record set of Ian and Sylvia's best recordings, I'd probably try to squeeze on a few of the Columbia tracks, in particular the remake of "Summer Wages," "Barney," "Bill (Won't You Please Take Me Home)," and especially "Everybody Has To Say Goodbye." Recommended to Ian and Sylvia fans who can't find copies of "Ian & Sylvia" or "You Were On My Mind."
Friday, October 11, 2013
The UK and American versions of the debut album by the Kinks. The Kinks have been one of my favorite groups since I first heard them in 1973 on the compilation album "Get It Together." I've wanted to do an entry on them for awhile but I haven't been able to decide on an album, so I opted to just start at the beginning. I have the UK version of the record (which was originally released in 1964 on Pye Records in England as NPL 18096) in a Spanish stereo reissue that I bought in Berkeley and an original mono pressing of the American version. Actually even though the inner label on the Spanish record says stereo, the record still sounds like mono to me. The mixes on both albums appear to be identical, although the Reprise seems to be a superior pressing. The two versions are similar aside from the Reprise edition missing three tracks on the Pye version, "I Took My Baby Home," "I'm A Lover Not a Fighter" and "Revenge." The Reprise version has slightly better liner notes and a nice picture of the group on the back cover, other than that I don't think there is any good reason to have it except as a dumb collector thing which is why I have it. The record is unique among Kinks albums in that more than half of it was written by someone other than Ray Davies. Davies has six compositions on the album, two of which are first rate. "You Really Got Me" is of course an eternal rock classic. I've loved it since I was a teen. I still remember my outrage when a classmate in physics class in high school played me a tape of Van Halen's cover version which I regarded as sacrilege. The song's explosive heavy guitar riff and Dave Davies' raucous guitar solo are hard rock landmarks and Ray's urgent, desperate vocal adds to the recording's intensity. It still sounds powerful nearly 50 years after it was recorded. "Stop Your Sobbing" is a more sedate but catchy tune that is the only song on the album that hints at Davies' future as a pop craftsman although it isn't as good as the Pretenders' cover version. As for Davies' other songs, "So Mystifying" is primitive but fun, I like the jangly guitar riff. "I Took My Baby Home" is a very poppy, almost bubblegum type tune that sounds more like Jan and Dean than a Kinks song. The only thing I find interesting about it is Ray's harmonica playing. "Just Can't Go To Sleep" sounds like a girl group type song and the chorus seems to be aping the Beatles with "no no no" replacing "yeah yeah yeah." "Revenge" is a simple and very short instrumental that Davies co-wrote with the band's manager, Larry Page. It is probably the most undistinguished song Davies ever wrote. There are two numbers by the album's producer, Shel Talmy, which are easily the worst songs on the record. The inane "Bald Headed Woman" sounds like Talmy just made it up at the session. It is boring until the rave-up at the end. "I've Been Driving on Bald Mountain" (Talmy seems to have had a thing about hair loss) is just as bad, it sounds like the same song played a little faster. It is a dumb and repetitious song that is sheer tedium to listen to. Too bad Reprise didn't choose to leave these two off their version of the album, that would have made it better than the Pye version. The rest of the album consists of covers. My favorite of the covers is the band's frantic version of Chuck Berry's "Beautiful Delilah" which is full of energy, has an effectively sloppy vocal and features a manic guitar solo. The band also tackles Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business" but their performance here is less exciting. It pales in comparison to the Yardbirds' version of the song on "Five Live Yardbirds." That same Yardbirds album also offers a superior version of Slim Harpo's "Got Love If You Want It." The Kinks version is uninspired, although I do like the two rave-ups. There is a rocking version of Bo Diddley's "Cadillac" that gets me bopping. "Long Tall Shorty" is a cover of a song by Tommy Tucker. It a rhythm and blues tune with crude, boasting lyrics that sound unconvincing coming from Ray Davies although he makes a game effort practically croaking out the lyrics trying to sound tough. Ray does a little better with "I'm A Lover Not a Fighter" which is a cover of Lazy Lester's 1958 single. This tune is highly propulsive and Ray's scratchy vocal is delivered with gusto. The Kinks would never have made it as a rhythm and blues band, but at least they had good taste in covers. This is the worst Kinks album of the 1960s, but that is as it should be. They just got better and better as the decade went on. The one thing that stands out for me on this album is its vitality and energy. When I saw Ray Davies last year at the Wiltern, those were the two qualities that impressed me as well. There on stage was a 68 year old man rocking with passion and vigor, his indomitable spirit was still present after all these years. I consider Davies a brilliant pop craftsman, one of the great songwriters of his era who writes with intelligence and artistry, but inside him beats the heart of a true rock and roller as is evident on this album. Recommended to people who prefer the Animals over the Zombies.
Friday, October 4, 2013
El Perro Del Mar
The Control Group CGO040
El Perro Del Mar is the nom de disque of the Swedish singer/musician Sarah Assbring. This was her American debut album. She produced the album, wrote all but one of the songs, and played almost all the instruments on the record. She has a high, gentle voice and like many Swedish indie rockers, she sings in English. I'm into female indie rock and Swedish indie rock so I bought this solely based on the descriptions of the record that I read in reviews. "Candy" opens the album. It is a slow song largely driven by keyboards and features repetitive lyrics about buying candy for herself, apparently as a gesture of doing something for herself rather than trying to please other people. "God Knows (You Gotta Give To Get)" is a poppier, faster paced song that reminds me of Lavender Diamond. It is even more repetitive than "Candy" consisting largely of the phrase "you gotta give to get back" which is the message of the song. It gets a little extra instrumental oomph courtesy of some saxophone riffing from Alexander Nilsson. "Party" is one of my favorite songs on the record. It is more guitar oriented and features an emotional vocal from Assbring imploring the subject of the song to go to a party with her. Again the lyrics are minimal with lots of repetition. "People" is a song about alienation with a gorgeous heartfelt vocal including some doo-wop style background singing that goes against the grain of the otherwise downbeat song. It is another one of my favorites. "Dog" is a remarkable song in which she equates her lover's feelings for her with his feelings for a dog. She brings in a drummer, Nicolas Janco, for "It's All Good" resulting in the most propulsive and upbeat song on the album. It is the indie pop equivalent of sunshine pop loaded with "la la la's" in the chorus and positive lyrics about moving forward and not looking back. Side two opens with "I Can't Talk About It" which is about her making changes in her life that she can't talk about, which she repeats over and over. It seems like a ridiculous idea for a song, but I find it amusing. Her vocal is a bit rougher, almost soulful in places. "Coming Down The Hill" is yet another song with minimal lyrics in essence that she is coming down the hill with the good news that she no longer has the blues for the person the song is addressed to. It also features a sunshine pop flavor. "This Loneliness" is another one of my favorites. With its ethereal keyboards and plaintive vocal, I find it very touching and the lyrics, which describe her relationship with loneliness, are comparatively more complex than the rest of the record. Unlike most of Assbring's songs, this one builds in strength and ends with some force. The album's sole cover is Dorsey Burnette and Joe Osborn's "Here Comes That Feeling" which was a UK hit single for Brenda Lee in 1962. With a pulsing organ line and Nilsson's honking sax driving it, the song does have a retro feel to it, but the lyrics about loneliness and rejection fit right in with the rest of the album. The album concludes with two bonus tracks. "Shake It Off" is another very repetitive song in which she asserts her independence to contradict herself. "Hello Goodbye" is a jaunty acoustic guitar driven song that consists of the words "a girl" "a boy" "hello" "goodbye" repeated over and over in various combinations until the end when "pa pa pa's" take over. It sounds dumb but it works. The song reduces to the bare minimum what most songs are about. I really like it. Normally the lyrical minimalism and repetition on this album would irritate me or bore me, but there is a rightness to the lyrics that I find satisfying. It helps too that Assbring has such an affecting voice, she gives the words additional depth and feeling. I like the intimate quality of the record and its directness. Despite the paucity of instrumentalists on the album, it has a rich and varied sound reminiscent of another one woman band, Bachelorette although not as extravagant. The sunshine pop and doo-wop inspired harmony vocals also add to the richness of the album's sound, Assbring is a very fine vocal arranger. The album is melancholy without being gloomy, delicate without being wimpy, personal without being narcissistic. It is one I play a lot. Recommended to Julee Cruise fans who wish she sang faster.
Saturday, September 28, 2013
Ian and Sylvia and The Great Speckled Bird
Columbia KC 31337
The end of the road for Ian and Sylvia Tyson after a long and wonderful journey. Appropriately their final album was recorded at Toronto Sound in Toronto the city where they first met and began their career together. They revived the name of their country-rock group, the Great Speckled Bird, for this album but only drummer N. D. Smart remained from the line up that recorded "The Great Speckled Bird" album. The record gets off to a rousing start with a cover of Robbie Robertson's "Get Up Jake." The Band recorded it for their album "The Band" but left it off the record and it was later a B-side on one of their singles. Ian and Sylvia always had excellent taste in their choice of outside music to cover and this is no exception. They give it a rollicking country-rock treatment with Ian delivering a thunderous lead vocal and Sylvia providing the sweet harmony vocal for the chorus. I greatly prefer their version to the version by the Band. Ian's "Old Cheyenne" is an evocative rodeo song, the sort of song Ian has always excelled at. It is country-folk until the chorus where Peter Ecklund's trumpet kicks in, giving it more of a pop feel. Sylvia sings lead on the joint Ian and Sylvia composition "Antelope" which is indeed about antelopes. I find her plaintive vibrato-laden vocal very touching as she delivers her ecology-themed lyrics. Sylvia also sings lead on her song "Miriam" which is one of the more unusual songs in the Ian and Sylvia catalog. She is accompanied solely by a piano and a quartet of cellos giving the song a chamber pop sound as she sings about her lost friendship with the title character. The traditional gospel song "Lonesome Valley" gets a funky country rock treatment notable for Jim Colegrove's big bass groove and some slinky guitar riffs from David Wilcox and Ben Keith. The Tysons trade lead vocals on the verses and sing the chorus together backed up by harmonies from the band for a very energized and vigorous sound. Side two opens with a new version of Sylvia's famous song "You Were On My Mind" which the duo first recorded on their classic 1964 album "Northern Journey." The new version is a bouncy country rock version punctuated with some piercing steel guitar lines from Ben Keith and trumpet riffs from Peter Ecklund. I can't say I prefer it to the original but it is definitely more lively. Sylvia's "Joshua" is a traditional style folk song, although with Sylvia playing harpsichord and chimes it has a chamber pop feel to it. Ian's "You're Not Alone Anymore" returns the album to country music. Ian delivers a very robust and romantic vocal for this love song. Ian also wrote "Salmon In the Sea" which is another ecology-minded ode to nature akin to "Antelope." It is a folk song with a lovely combined vocal from the Tysons. The joint composition "The Beginning of the End" is pure country with an emotional vocal from Ian and a beautiful harmony vocal from Sylvia. It is a song about heartbreak and separation and I'm tempted to think it is about their impending break-up like "Everybody Has To Say Goodbye" on "Ian & Sylvia," but it lacks the personal quality of that song. The song that I think most reflects the state of their marriage is the album closer, Sylvia's "Bill (Won't You Please Take Me Home)" which is my favorite original song on the album. It is about a married couple who go to a party where the husband meets up with an old flame from the past. She sees them dancing and realizes that he loves his old girlfriend more than he loves her. The party in the song may be fiction, but the poignant quality of Sylvia's heartbroken lead vocal suggests to me that the feeling of loss she is expressing is real. I find it very moving. It is a powerful song that gives the album a strong finish. I'm consistently engaged and entertained by this album, but it is bittersweet to me since it was their final record. Since I first heard Ian and Sylvia as a teen, I've always felt a deep emotional connection to their music, they are among my very favorite pop artists. I enjoy their solo records too, but they don't have the same resonance for me as their joint work. The beauty, the idealism and the passion expressed in their work as a couple is inspiring to me and I'll always treasure their records. This album is a very worthy addition to their wonderful catalog and I'm happy at least that they ended their partnership with such a fine record. Recommended to fans of Gordon Lightfoot.
Sunday, September 22, 2013
Reprise RS 6202
Last month I saw Wilco down in Irvine as part of Bob Dylan's Americanarama tour. When they announced they had a special guest I was expecting some local country rocker, but instead I was flabbergasted when Nancy Sinatra walked out. She slayed the crowd with performances of "Bang Bang" and "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'." We all sang along with the latter tune, a testimony to its iconic pop culture status. I'm a fan of the song and Sinatra, but I have to think that if her father hadn't been the most famous singer in the world who happened to have his own record company, she probably would never have had a career. She is a competent singer but she doesn't have her Dad's pipes and she bounced around awhile without success before Lee Hazlewood rescued her. Hazlewood produced the album and wrote just about all of the good songs in her career. He wrote the three best songs on this album that aren't covers, "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'," "I Move Around" and "So Long Babe." The best is of course "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" which is one of the great songs of the era. Its quasi-feminist message of standing up to a bad lover and Sinatra's insolent vocal have always had a lot of resonance. The music is irresistible from the first notes of its opening descending bass riff. The rhythm section drives the song forcefully and the song gradually builds in strength as the horns kick in. It is one of the songs that define the mid-1960s for me. "I Move Around" is a nice folk-rock type song about a woman traveling around aimlessly after seeing her lover with another woman. I like the vocal but I could do without Billy Strange's heavy handed horn arrangement which sounds like something Sinatra's father would have used. "So Long Babe" was a flop single in 1965, but it deserved more success. It is another folk-rocker with a lot of pop appeal that reminds me a bit of Jackie DeShannon. The song is a tender farewell to a failed music performer. The rest of the album consists of covers of contemporary hits except for "In My Room" and "If He'd Love Me" "In My Room" was adapted by Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss from a Spanish song by Joaquin Prieto entitled "El Amor." It is a grandiose, melodramatic song with a strong Spanish flavor to it. It has her best vocal performance on the album, but I don't think her voice is quite strong enough to do it justice. There is a superior version of the song on the Walker Brothers' album, "Portrait" which was released a few months after this record. "If He'd Love Me" was written by Miriam Eddy who was married to Duane Eddy and would later become a well-known country singer under the name Jessi Colter in the 1970s. It is a plaintive pop ballad that is at odds with the tough girl image projected by the rest of the album. She sings it with a lot of feeling and though the song is overwhelmed at times by the heavy-handed arrangement, I like her interpretation's sensitivity. The covers are a mixed bag. She gives "As Tears Go By" a cocktail jazz interpretation which is perhaps not a bad idea considering the false worldliness of the lyrics, but I think her vocal lacks feeling. There are two Beatles covers. The horn driven version of "Day Tripper" reprises the downward bass line from "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'." The song's arrangement sounds too Vegas-like for my taste but the song does suit her voice and tough girl persona really well. "Run For Your Life" is one of the most obnoxious and misogynistic songs in the Beatles' catalog. I've never liked it much. She changes the gender so that the creepy stalker-type singing it is now a woman. I don't think that makes it a better song, but it does make it more compelling to me. She sings it very convincingly. Her cover of Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe" is clearly modeled on the Turtles' folk-rock hit but I don't like it nearly as much. The horns are obtrusive and her vocal sounds stiff and insincere even though the theme of the song suits her persona. She does better with the less demanding cover of the Knickerbockers' "Lies." Her version lacks the frenzied intensity of the original, but it is grittier and is delivered with gusto. I would like it better though if the twangy guitar was higher in the mix and the horns toned down. Lew DeWitt's "Flowers on the Wall" was a big hit for the Statler Brothers. The song was clearly written from a male perspective but Sinatra changes the gender which makes the song more interesting. She sings it very effectively and it is my favorite of the covers. There are way too many covers on this record for me to consider it a good album, but it is fun and entertaining to listen to. I think its greatest significance lies in its attitude. After decades of riot grrls and female punkers, the record may seem pretty tame to the kids, but there were not a lot of rock albums like this being made by women in the mid-1960s. It's aggressive in-your-face stance is pure rock and roll even when the music isn't. Sinatra's tough and sexy persona paved the way for generations of female rockers to come. Recommended to Jackie DeShannon fans who wish she wasn't so nice.
Saturday, September 21, 2013
Ian & Sylvia
Ian and Sylvia
Columbia C 30736
There are no bad Ian and Sylvia albums. If you are a fan of the duo, you should buy all of them, but I wouldn't make this one a priority. It is actually not all that easy to find since it did not sell much when it was originally released. It was their first album for Columbia Records and the penultimate studio album in their career. The duo had moved from folk and folk-rock to a more country rock sound that suited them extremely well although they did not abandon their folk roots completely. The album opens on a positive note with David Wiffen's "More Often Than Not." Wiffen also wrote one of my favorite Tom Rush songs, "Driving Wheel." It is a sparkling country-pop tune sung by Ian with vocal sweetening from Sylvia that describes the life of a musician on the road. It is a terrific song, one of my favorites on the album. The album takes a nose dive with the sappy love song, "Creators of Rain." It is credited to Smokey which is a pseudonym for a guy named Larry Mims who had recorded it with his sister back in the 1960s under the name Smokey and his Sister. Ian and Sylvia sing it beautifully but it is still a crummy song and the corny string arrangement doesn't help it any. According to John Einarson's book on Ian and Sylvia, Columbia Records executive Clive Davis forced them to record the song against their will which I can easily believe since Ian and Sylvia normally have unfailingly excellent taste in covers. The album rebounds with Ian's "Summer Wages" which is a remake of a song he recorded back in 1967 in a folk-rock version for "So Much For Dreaming." I don't know why he chose to record it again, but I have to admit that the country flavored version on this album is more satisfying. Ian sings it with a lot of feeling and Sylvia's harmony vocal on the chorus is divine. The song is about bumming around and the transience of love narrated with very evocative imagery. I think it is one of Ian's best all-time songs and it is my favorite song on the album. Sylvia sings lead on her composition "Midnight" which is a slow bluesy love song. Her sensuous vocal really sends me and there is a nice sultry guitar solo from David Wilcox as well. Ian and Sylvia co-wrote "Barney" which is a gut-wrenching autobiographical account of him shooting his favorite horse to put it out of misery. It has a stark arrangement, largely driven by Sylvia's piano playing that puts all the focus on Ian's heartbreaking vocal. It is an incredible song, one of the most moving and powerful songs in their long career. Side two kicks off with Ian's "Some Kind of Fool" which is a charming country rock love song forcefully sung by Ian. Ian's "Shark and the Cockroach" is a goofy country-rocker with a swamp rock flavor that features a gritty vocal from Ian embellished with some yodels. Next is a cover of John Dawson's "Last Lonely Eagle" which appeared in a superior version on the debut album by the New Riders of the Purple Sage. Ian and Sylvia sing it as a mournful duet with sparse accompaniment with a little instrumental color coming from Weldon Myrick on steel guitar. Of course Ian and Sylvia sing it great, I'd listen to them sing just about anything but I still find the song kind of boring. I don't really care much either for "Lincoln Freed Me" which was written by singer/songwriter David Patton. As you can probably tell from the title it is written from the point of view of a freed slave. Ian and Sylvia duet on this as well accompanied only by David Wilcox on guitar. It galls me to write this, but I prefer the version by Joan Baez on "Blessed Are..." not because she sings it better than them (as if!) but because of the more elaborate instrumental arrangement on her version. Sylvia takes a solo turn on Bert Jansch's "Needle of Death." It also only features Wilcox on guitar for instrumental support but it is such a strong song that it really doesn't need anything more than that. Sylvia sings it with a lot of feeling and this is one of my favorite versions of that oft-covered classic. The album concludes with Sylvia's "Everybody Has To Say Goodbye" which is about breaking up. It is a majestic tune driven by a strong organ line and some tasteful strings. The heartbreaking lyrics are so strong and vivid I feel like Sylvia must be writing from her heart envisioning the imminent end of her marriage and partnership with Ian. I've loved Ian and Sylvia since I was a teenager, it really tears me up to listen it, almost as if I were listening to my own parents breaking up. It provides a beautiful and emotional conclusion to the album. This album is too spotty to rank with the best Ian and Sylvia albums but it still features some of the best music they ever did. I would include the remake of "Summer Wages," "Barney" and "Everybody Has To Say Goodbye" among their very best songs and the album is worth seeking out just for them. Aside from "Creators of Rain" even the weaker songs have much merit. Ian and Sylvia may have been nearing the end of their road together, but this album shows that they still had plenty of vitality and creativity. It deserved a better fate, it was largely ignored upon its release failing to even crack the top 200 albums chart in sales. I like it better than a lot of the other albums that came out in 1971 and recommend it to anyone who values emotional honesty in music.