Saturday, February 23, 2013

Recorded Live at Woolwich Coronet - The Damned

Recorded Live at Woolwich Coronet
The Damned
Cleopatra  CLP 2021

I bought this over the internet and was surprised and more than a little dismayed to find that this album comes with the paper insert above and a clear plastic record sleeve to hold it and the album (on green vinyl.)  You also get a patch and a little button, but I'd rather have a proper album sleeve, cheapskates.  The album contains the band's July 11, 1985 performance at the Woolwich Coronet in London.  Actually it has about half of the show, some of the missing tracks were released on the maxi-single of "Is It A Dream."  At the time the band was in its goth phase touring behind "Phantasmagoria" but this album sounds more punky than goth.  The band's line-up was Dave Vanian, Rat Scabies, Roman Jugg and Bryn Merrick with founding member Captain Sensible having recently departed for a solo career.  The record abruptly opens with "The Shadow of Love" off "Phantasmagoria."  The album has been edited to omit most of the applause and band banter between songs which I don't approve of.  Sometimes even the ends of songs have been cut off.  I prefer live albums to flow seamlessly.  The Damned reach back to "The Black Album" for a high energy performance of "Wait For The Blackout."   Next up is "Grimly Fiendish" from "Phantasmagoria."  It was my favorite song on that album and the live version is quite lively and punchy with a strong vocal from Vanian.  From "Strawberries" the band performs "Stranger on the Town."  For once Vanian's introduction of the song to the audience is not cut out, but there is an irritating edit in the middle of it.  This is my favorite cut on the album, the band kicks out the jams and it sounds like a live cut should sound, raw and exciting.  The side ends with "Smash It Up" off "Machine Gun Etiquette" which is my favorite of all their songs.  It retains the original mellow instrumental introduction section but I don't think it goes on as long as the studio version does before the rocked up part of the song kicks in.  It is very high energy and raucous, another high point on the record.  The B side opens with a cover of the Electric Prunes' "I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night" which Vanian dedicates to the opening act, the Fuzztones.  The group increases the tempo of the song, making it more punk than psychedelic.  I prefer the original but it is kind of fun.  Another cover song follows with Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life" which is also speeded up a little.  It isn't all that different than Pop's version but it lacks the infectious groove of the original.  They return to "Machine Gun Etiquette" for "Love Song" with more noisy rocking out.  The band's debut single "New Rose" is up next and it sounds pretty much like it did in 1976.  The album concludes with "Disco Man" off the "Friday 13th EP" although the actual concert featured three more songs after it.  One of the band members jokes that it is the last gig of the tour and the band is splitting up and then Vanian says they are going to do "Disco Man" in "the Val Doonican way" and indeed the first run through of the song's opening verse is horribly slow like some Vegas lounge act.  Fortunately that is just a joke and the band shifts gears and delivers a high energy performance that ends the album strongly.  I enjoy this record and despite the shoddy packaging I'm happy I have it.  The sound quality is fairly good and the band's performance is exciting.  Still I'm not sure I'd really recommend it.  As a general rule live albums are only for devoted fans, casual fans ought to stick with the studio versions which in this case are uniformly superior to the live versions here.  Recommended to fans of the Damned who think "Phantasmagoria" was too slow and moody.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Surrealistic Pillow - Jefferson Airplane

Surrealistic Pillow
Jefferson Airplane
RCA  LSP-3766

I have a long history with this album, although not with this particular copy.  I first encountered it via my stepmother's record collection.  I left that copy behind when I moved out and bought my own one soon after.  I first heard the Airplane on the first rock record I ever bought, the compilation "Get It Together."  It had the two hits off this album, "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love" both of which blew my adolescent mind.  I was about 14 when I heard this album and it instantly became one of my favorites.  I knew very little about the San Francisco Sound but I assumed this zonked out folk-rock must be what it was like.  Of course then I heard "Crown of Creation" and "After Bathing at Baxter's" not to mention the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service and realized this album was just the tip of the psychedelic iceberg.  It definitely seems a lot less exotic to me now than it did in my teens.  I still love it though.  It may be tame from a psychedelic standpoint, but for a folk-rock junkie like myself, it is among the very finest expressions of that genre.  The band introduces their dynamic fusion of folk-rock and psychedelia with the opening song, Jorma Kaukonen and Marty Balin's "She Has Funny Cars."  The song's construction, the vocal interplay between Grace Slick and Balin and the jangly guitar come straight out of folk-rock, but the hypnotic bass line from Jack Casady, Spencer Dryden's tribal style drumming and Kaukonen's guitar solo are pure acid rock.  The trippy lyrics seem to be about seizing the day and trying to relate to other people.  Slick brought Darby Slick's "Somebody to Love" to the Airplane from the Great Society who cut a version that was in a raga rock vein.  The Airplane increased the tempo and added slashing guitar chords giving it some hard rock power.  I've always loved the chemistry between Kaukonen and Casady on the song and Kaukonen's closing guitar solo is one of my favorites.  "My Best Friend" came from the band's original drummer Skip Spence who left to form Moby Grape.  It is a folky song with an idyllic feeling to it that reminds me of the Lovin' Spoonful.  The record slows down with the romantic ballad "Today" by Balin and Paul Kantner.  Balin sings the song with a lot of feeling and it is one of the most beautiful songs the band ever did.  The song is laden in reverb and gradually builds in strength as it goes along and Slick joins the vocal.  Jerry Garcia reportedly played the lead guitar riff.  The record gets even quieter with Balin's moody "Comin' Back to Me" which he sings solo supported by acoustic guitars and Slick on recorder.  It is a poetic and yearning statement about lost love that shows Balin's strength and sensitivity as a vocalist.  Side two opens with Balin's raucous "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds".  The song is a hippie diatribe in which Marty complains about the price of marijuana and people putting down his hair.  This hard driving song is one of the best rockers on the album and has a terrific solo from Kaukonen.  Kantner's "D.C.B.A-25" is one of my favorite songs on this album.  I used to play it over and over again as a teenager.  The dual vocal between Kantner and Slick is very compelling.  The song's evocative trippy lyrics foreshadow Kantner's work on "After Bathing at Baxter's" and Casady's melodic bass lines show why he was the best bassist in rock not named McCartney.  "How Do You Feel" was written by Tom Mastin and like "My Best Friend" it doesn't sound much like a typical Airplane song.  It is a poppy folk-rock love song most notable for the beauty of the joint vocal which resembles the Mamas and the Papas.  "Embryonic Journey" is an energetic acoustic guitar instrumental by Kaukonen.  "White Rabbit" is Grace Slick's psychedelic ode to "Alice in Wonderland" and it is another import from the Great Society repertoire.  In its earlier incarnation it was an uptempo raga-rock adventure.  This version is slower and far more dramatic as Dryden's martial drumming inexorably drives the song to its roaring climax.  I've heard it a gazillion times and it still sends me.  The album concludes with Balin's fabulous "Plastic Fantastic Lover" which I think is one of the best things he ever wrote.  The cascade of imaginative lyrics describing the artificial female of the title shows Marty at the height of his creative ability.  A relentlessly rocking song with a powerful beat, an irresistible bass riff and lots of howling psychedelic guitar work, it ends the album with a bang.  The song clearly signals the Airplane's future musical direction.  This classic album demonstrates why the Airplane was the best band to come out of San Francisco - great musicianship, great vocalists and great songwriting, none of their rivals could match their firepower.  I would argue that not only were they the best band ever to come out of San Francisco, but during the years that they made "Surrealistic Pillow," "After Bathing at Baxter's," "Crown of Creation" and "Volunteers" they were the best band in America, period.  This classic album belongs in every rock fan's collection.  Recommended to anyone looking to feed their head.      

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Incorruptible Heart - Lavender Diamond

Incorruptible Heart
Lavender Diamond
Paracadute 9116-2  

Lavender Diamond is one of my favorite live acts, I saw them three times last year as they previewed the songs on this, their second full length album.  Their shows are always magical for me.  Picture some dingy bar/club near their Echo Park/Silver Lake homebase.  The room is full of hipsters, their faces illuminated by their smart phones as they blather away over the tunes spun by the DJ.  Then the band appears, looking more like a jazz trio than an indie rock band.  The giant piano player with a great shock of unruly gray hair, Steve Gregoropoulos, resembles a bouncer more than a musician, it is hard to believe those big hands can play with such grace and beauty.  The guitarist Jeff Rosenberg is always the best dressed dude in the room.  The diminutive drummer Ron Regé Jr. looks more like a comic book artist, which is exactly what he is when he's not pounding the skins.  Then Becky Stark steps up to the mike wearing one of her vintage-style party dresses.  She radiates innocence and sweetness.  You would think some Sunday school teacher on a date has wandered into this den of iniquity by mistake.  Over the din of hipster chatter she announces "We are Lavender Diamond" and then she gestures to the crowd and adds "and you are Lavender Diamond."  I wince expecting the cool cats around me to devour her alive, but then the band lurches into a song and Stark cuts loose with that amazing voice of hers and the audience becomes silent, entranced by the stunning beauty of the music.  I'm not a religious person, but seeing this band is like a spiritual experience for me, they renew my faith in the power of love which is Stark's primary message.  This is evident in the title and many of the songs on the band's new album.  The album opens with the electric piano intro that begins "Everybody's Heart's Breaking Now" and then Stark begins to croon about heartbreak and the end of the world.  The song like most of the album features a lot of reverb and a dense musical backdrop with multi-tracked keyboards and strings.  It is one of the loveliest songs on the album.  "Dragonfly" introduces the synth pop sound that recurs throughout the album much to my surprise.  I'm not sure I really approve but it does vary the texture of the music more than on their past records.  Stark sings of the ups and downs of love and notes with typical positivity that despite everything "this life is all so sublime."  The piano chords that introduce "I Don't Recall" remind me of Todd Rundgren's "Hello It's Me" until the funky Prince-style guitar riff cuts in.  It is a bit more uptempo and has a punchier rhythm track than most of the songs on the record which helps make it one of my favorites on the record.  Stark sings of missing her love with a voice full of heartbreak like she is channeling the ghost of Patsy Cline.  "Just Passing By" covers similar territory in a slow countryish tune with another aching vocal from Stark.  She starts singing huskily in a lower register before hitting the high notes in the chorus.  "Teach Me How To Waken" features more synth-pop but is otherwise an archetypal Lavender Diamond song as Stark announces that "love is the beginning and love is the end" which sums up her philosophy pretty well.  The song features a very dramatic arrangement and a typically powerful vocal.  In contrast to the wall of sound of the previous song, "Come Home" is more instrumentally spare, largely driven by acoustic guitar.  The song is a plaintive plea for the subject of the song to return to Stark as she describes all the sacrifices she has made in order for that person to return.  The nakedness of the song places the focus on Stark's vocal which is the way it should be.  Side two opens with "Forgive" which sees a return of the dense musical sound of most of the record.  The prominence of the drums in the mix gives the song extra oomph.  It expresses a typically Starkian message to "lift the weight from your heart" and forgive others so that you can live in love.  They up the beats per minute big time for the joyous "Light My Way" which is one of my favorite cuts on the record.  It is synth pop you can dance to, a cross between Blondie and New Order.  Naturally it is love that lights her way.  I wish they would do more songs in this vein.  "Oh My Beautiful World" is almost like a parody of a Lavender Diamond song as Stark gushes over and over how she loves her world.  The song features a simple tune suggestive of an early 1960s girl group like the Shangri-Las except for the weird instrumental breaks where she wails over a distorted synthesizer solo that sounds like a different song entirely.  In the jaunty "Perfect Love" Stark affirms her confidence that she will find her perfect love.  She is joined in the vocals by the album's producer, Damian Kulash Jr. of OK Go and I enjoy their chemistry.  If you listen closely you can hear Stark tap dancing.  The album's eclecticism continues with the love song "Everybody's Song" which is a mix of country and dixieland in the form of a slow waltz guaranteed to have you swaying as you listen to it.  The album concludes with "All The Stars" which I think is the most extraordinary song the band has ever done.  This majestic tune bolstered by soaring strings and gorgeous piano playing from Gregoropoulos provides the platform for an operatic flight from Stark that is mesmerizing.  When the band does the song live, the audience is stunned by its power, you can see their eyes bugging out and their jaws dropping.  I always get chills from it.  In contrast to the sunny sentiments expressed by most of the album, the poetic lyrics express an almost existential outlook on the world as Stark examines our place in the universe.  It is a great song, a testament to the potential power of pop music when it is played with intelligence and skill.  The wall of sound in this song almost convinces me that the band made the right decision to take this heavily produced approach on this record.  However having heard a lot of these songs live without all the fussiness on the record, I still have my doubts.  Stark's voice is so magnificent that she doesn't need all this support.  She provides the power.  I appreciate the experiment but I hope they don't repeat it.  Anyway with songs this good and a singer like Stark, not even Phil Spector could wreck this music.  I recommend it unconditionally to anyone looking to light their way through life. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Wild Thing - The Troggs

Wild Thing
The Troggs
Atco 33-193

Here's a post to honor Reg Presley who died of cancer on the 4th of this month.  Presley was the lead singer and main songwriter for the British band, the Troggs.  This was their debut album which was also released with an identical song selection but different cover art on Fontana Records the same year.  The British version of this album has a lot more cover songs on it and is a lesser album in my opinion.  The best song on the album (and the best song the Troggs ever did) is "Wild Thing" written by Chip Taylor.  The song is an eternal rock classic, with lascivious lyrics crooned over a superbly heavy riff and weirdly an ocarina solo.  I'm fond of Hendrix's famous cover version, but this is still the definitive performance.  Its raw primitive power and inherent stupidity basically defined the Troggs as a band, but unfortunately they never were able to top this immortal single.  Most of the songs on the album are in a similar vein with power riffing and relentless beats supporting simple repetitive lyrics.  Among the best of them are the fuzz-laden "From Home," "Lost Girl" with its sizzling garage-style guitar solo, Shelby Singleton's 1950s rock and roll style "Evil" and the hard rocking "Your Love" which rips-off the Kinks.  The album's other hit single is the catchy "With A Girl Like You" which is also constructed around a simple riff, but has more of a pop flavor and a smoother sound.  "Our Love Will Still Be There" has a similar sound minus the catchy hook.  There are also some lightweight pop songs like "Hi Hi Hazel," "Jingle Jangle" and "When I'm With You" which don't play to the band's strengths but provide a little variety to the incessant pounding of the rest of the record.  This is a dumb record but it is a lot of fun and it totally rocks.  I would not be happy if all rock were this idiotic, I need John Lennon and Bob Dylan, but I'm grateful for guys like Reg Presley as well.  He may not have been a great artist, but he understood the Dionysian hedonistic essence of rock as much as anyone and I mourn his passing.  Recommended to people who like the Ramones better than the Talking Heads.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Chet Baker & Strings - Chet Baker

Chet Baker & Strings
Chet Baker
Columbia CL 549

I picked up this vintage pressing at a garage sale.  I first encountered Chet Baker via Gerry Mulligan.  I'm a big fan of Mulligan so naturally I investigated his famous pianoless quartet with Baker on trumpet.  I really liked those recordings but I wasn't all that impressed by Baker.  Then I saw Bruce Weber's 1988 documentary on Baker, "Let's Get Lost."  He seemed like a jerk but there was no denying he had some kind of magnetism as a young man.  The film sparked renewed interest in Baker and his records were reissued.  It seemed like every time I went to a party back then, whether it was thrown by a middle-aged comic book writer or a thirtyish female film producer, Baker would show up in the music mix.  I bought a few records myself which I generally liked although I'll never understand how this guy beat the likes of Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown in the 1954 "Downbeat" poll for best trumpet player.  This is my favorite of his albums, although I must admit I've only heard a portion of his large discography.  The concept of the album is to pair Baker and a small jazz combo (Zoot Sims, Bud Shank, Russ Freeman, Shelly Manne and Joe Mondragon) with an orchestra.  The album's opening song, "You Don't Know What Love Is," begins with a string flourish that sounds kind of corny and makes me expect some muzak, but then Baker starts to play an achingly beautiful horn line that transforms the song completely.  He's not the most technically accomplished player, but what a sweet tone.  "I'm Thru With Love" is more uptempo and swings a little.  Russ Freeman's piano solo is my favorite part of the song.  "Love Walked In" features Baker exchanging lines with Sims on tenor saxophone reminiscent of his work with Mulligan.  After a slow introductory section, the song jumps into a fast paced section with terrific blowing from both men.  "You Better Go Now" has an arrangement by Jack Montrose that allows Baker to showcase his lyrical side and the interplay with the strings pays off strongly on this cut.  Despite a somewhat corny arrangement from Marty Paich, "I Married An Angel" still features some very lovely playing from Baker and a melodic solo from Sims.  The side finishes on a swinging note with the uptempo performance of "Love" with smoking solos from Baker, Freeman and Bud Shank on alto saxophone.  This is one of my favorite cuts on the album.  Side two opens with "I Love You" with Shank and Baker carrying the tune which is another slow pretty one.  Shorty Rogers' arrangement of "What a Diff'rence a Day Made" again recalls the Mulligan Quartet as Shank and Baker interweave their instruments around each other.  It is another one of my favorites on the album.  Rogers also arranged "Why Shouldn't I" in which the orchestra provides a lovely framework for some mellow blowing from Sims and Baker.  The pace increases for Jack Montrose's composition "A Little Duet" in which Baker and Sims really go to work for some swinging playing.  It is the best cut on the album for me.  I really dig the dynamic contrast between the beauty of the orchestral accompaniment and the hot playing of the horns.  Russ Freeman composed "The Wind" which is an evocative moody number that is greatly enhanced by the string arrangement by John Mandel.  The album concludes with Shorty Rogers' propulsive "Trickleydidlier" which ends the album on an upbeat note with strong solos from Baker and Sims.  I think Baker's strength as a player was the beauty of his tone and his lyricism both of which are enhanced by orchestral support.  The orchestration is rarely obtrusive or heavy-handed and the album is notable for its consistency of mood and feeling.  It is so lovely and warm, that I suspect that even people who don't like jazz would probably enjoy it.  Recommended for a romantic evening at home with your special someone.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Wonderwall Music - George Harrison

Wonderwall Music
George Harrison
Apple ST 3350

This is generally considered to be the first Beatles solo album, released just a few weeks prior to John and Yoko's "Two Virgins."  It is the soundtrack to a film called "Wonderwall" which I've never seen so I can't really say how effective it is as movie music, but as a pop record I find it disappointing.  The album consists almost entirely of instrumental music which means Harrison doesn't sing on it (thank God.)  Much of the music is Indian in nature, the rest is an assortment of Western style music.  My initial interest in the album stemmed from the tracks recorded in Bombay.  Unlike many Beatlemaniacs, I'm very fond of the three Indian style tracks Harrison recorded for the Beatles, "Love You To," "Within You Without You" and "The Inner Light," in fact I'd rather listen to them than his two big hits "My Sweet Lord" and "Give Me Love."  I expected the Indian tracks on here to be more of the same, a sort of a pop/Indian hybrid, but they definitely aren't pop.  I don't know enough about Indian music to judge this stuff, but it is much less dynamic than the music I've heard Ravi Shankar play.  I don't blame the musicians, the sarod player Aashish Khan is a world-renown virtuoso.  I'm sure the fault lies with the simple little riffs and ditties that Harrison has composed for them.  The Western music is not much better.  I realize that soundtrack music is generally intended to be unobtrusive (which is why I tend to avoid it on record) but Harrison's tunes are undistinguished even by those standards.  The album begins with the Indian musicians doing "Microbes" which is a slow droning number.  It is back to London for the keyboard driven "Red Lady Too" which sounds like chamber pop.  "Tabla and Pakavaj" is, as you might guess from its title, largely percussive in nature.  "In The Park" consists of a sitar and a sarod playing some slow and repetitive runs that never really go anywhere.  "Drilling a Home" is a goofy ragtime type number featuring a piano and horns.  It reminds me of the soundtrack to a "Benny Hill Show" skit.  "Guru Vandana" sounds like the same kind of silly tune played on Indian instruments.  "Greasy Legs" starts as a drone and then moves into some aimless keyboard noodling. "Ski-ing and Gat Kirwani" starts out as a rock jam constructed around a heavy riff with some guitar shredding that I assume is courtesy of Eric Clapton (credited as Eddie Clayton) before shifting halfway through the cut into a sprightly Indian segment with some fast paced sarod runs from Khan - easily the best cut on the album.  "Dream Scene" features some uncredited vocalists singing in Indian over a tranquil droning background which then shifts into a more frenetic instrumental section which then gives way to Western music with some jazzy horn stuff and finally a cacophony of horns and sound effects that is mildly psychedelic.  It is a truly weird tune, must be quite a dream sequence. "Party Seacombe" is a rock number reminiscent of the Beatles' "Flying" from "Magical Mystery Tour" only not as good, I find it monotonous.  I assume the title is an homage to the comedian Harry Secombe.  It is back to Bombay for "Love Scene" which is the track that sounds the most like the Indian style songs Harrison did with the Beatles.  There isn't much of a tune, and the runs that Harrison composed for the musicians aren't very interesting, but the music has some propulsion and would probably sound pretty nice in the background at an Indian restaurant.  "Crying" sounds like Indian instruments weeping, very irritating.  "Cowboy Museum" bares a suspicious resemblance to the "Soon Be Home" section of the Who's "A Quick One While He's Away" with a little "Happy Trails" thrown in.  "Fantasy Sequins" is dreary Indian droning.  "Glass Box" is a nice mix of Indian droning and Western style riffing and percussion.  I wish more of the record sounded like this.  "On The Bed" features the Indian musicians going to work on a simple theme with some fast paced playing that is over way too soon for my liking.  It figures that one of the best tunes on the album only lasts a minute.  "Wonderwall to Be Here" is sappy Western style piano music that could be the soundtrack to a television soap opera.  "Singing Om" is exactly that from some uncredited vocalists over a lugubrious organ drone.  The problem with a lot of soundtrack albums is that they were assembled to satisfy the needs of a movie with all its corresponding shifts in mood and texture.  It doesn't serve the flow of a well-programmed record album.  The problem is exacerbated on this record by alternating between Indian music and Western music.  It does not make for comfortable listening.  Even with more sympathetic programming, this is not going to be a good record, but it has its moments and the synthesis of Western and Indian style that Harrison occasionally achieves is genuinely stimulating.  I suppose he might even deserve some credit as the precursor to Bhangra style music.  Recommended to Beatles fans who sort of dig Indian music but have short attention spans.