Saturday, March 30, 2013

Waiting For Something To Happen - Veronica Falls

Waiting For Something To Happen
Veronica Falls
Slumberland SLR 185

No record released in the past few years has given me more pleasure than "Veronica Falls" the 2011 debut album by Veronica Falls.  I could hardly wait for their next one and bought it the day it came out.  I love it.  This band absolutely slays me.  I saw their show at the Troubadour last Friday and it was pure rock and roll magic.  From the opening number "Tell Me" off the new record to their brilliant encore cover of Roky Erickson's "Starry Eyes" they had me wrapped around their fingers.  I could go on and on gushing about how I loved their show, but instead I'll gush about the new record.  It basically adheres to the sound and style of the debut although none of the new tracks rocks as hard as "Beachy Head" or "Come On Over."  With their second album there is more of an emphasis on pop over power (although they made the new songs rock in concert.)  Like the debut, the album sounds great - dueling jangly guitars, crisp drumming and those wonderful three part harmonies from Roxanne Clifford, James Hoare and Patrick Doyle, all of which make this record endlessly enjoyable.  I've been playing it over and over and I'm not even close to being tired of it.  It opens with the highly propulsive "Tell Me" which has a surprising raga rock feel to it.  I find the guitar interplay between Clifford and Hoare quite thrilling to listen to.  The band's debut had a bit of snark to it, but this album feels more sincere and heartfelt.  This song seems genuinely romantic with its emphasis on honesty and sharing.  I like the new outlook.  "Teenage" is an ultra-poppy song laden with hooks and jangly guitar featuring a very sweet lead vocal from Clifford.  It is a charming evocation of teenage romance with an irresistible offer of a late night drive listening to the music I like.  It doesn't make me feel like a teenager again (thank God) but it does make me feel younger.  "Broken Toy" is about two emotionally damaged people trying to connect.  I can relate to the song, it really touches me.  It is a fast paced song that showcases the group's ability to fuse pop songcraft with a hard-driving rhythm that is extremely appealing to a power pop junkie like me.  I love the jangly guitar solos on this song.  In "Shooting Star" Clifford sings about looking for a sign or some direction and asking the subject of the song to help her out.  The song is slower than most of the tracks on the album, which makes the beauty of the band's three part harmonies more noticeable.  This band sounds terrific slow or fast.  My favorite song on the album is "Waiting For Something to Happen" which is like the flipside of "Shooting Star" in that Clifford challenges the subject of the song to stop being passive and show some initiative.  It is another song I strongly relate to.  It is an uptempo power pop song that is loaded with hooks.  My other favorite song on the record is a rocked up slice of jangle pop, "If You Still Want Me."   It reminds me of early R.E.M. which is about the highest compliment I can make.  It depicts another troubled relationship in which Clifford asks "if you could have me, would you still want me?"  Side two opens with the loud feedback that precedes the love song "My Heart Beats" which is a return to the straight ahead rock attack of their debut.  Doyle's forceful drumming is an integral part of the Veronica Falls sound, if I were a drummer I would want to play exactly like him.  He delivers such a relentless beat, I can't sit still while I'm listening.  "Everybody's Changing" is a slower song full of pop sweetness.  It is about being true to yourself and moving forward.  The rocking "Buried Alive" is the oddest song on the album, its striking lyrics evoke the goth imagery the band played around with on their debut.  Clifford sings "I wanna get sick, I wanna catch everything you've ever caught" which is not a sentiment you hear very often.  "Falling Out" is a pretty jangle pop song about trying to keep a relationship going.  The chorus on this song really sends me.  "So Tired" is a pounding rocker that finds Clifford looking for change, something different from what she already knows.  "Daniel" is a slow, heartfelt plea for the lover in the song to remain with the singer.  It is a delicately lovely and moving song.  The album concludes with "Last Conversation" which is about moving on and finding happiness.  I find it very inspiring and uplifting, a nice way to end the record.  I know right now that this is going to be my favorite record of 2013.  I'm just crazy about it.  I'm impressed by the band's growth as songwriters, the lyrics are getting more complex and personal, and the songs are full of pop craft and inventiveness while retaining their rock power.  This is a flawless record and it leaves me hungry for the next one.  I love the album cover too, I would have bought it for that alone even if I had never heard of the group.  With two wonderful albums under their belt, I guess it is time for me to accept that Veronica Falls is now my favorite band.  Recommended to fans of the Shop Assistants and Lush.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Bob Dylan In Concert: Brandeis University 1963 - Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan In Concert: Brandeis University 1963
Bob Dylan
Columbia 88697-84743-1

I took my kid to see Bob Dylan at the Hollywood Bowl last fall.  I say "see" but it was more like "hear" since Dylan refused to allow the Bowl's cameras to be trained on him for the the big screen projections on the side of the stage.  Unless you were in the pit, you could barely see him especially since Dylan also kept the stage lights dim so all you could see was a shadowy figure scurrying back and forth from the piano to the front of the stage.  The music was terrific but Dylan barely said a word to the crowd and when he did you could hardly understand his hasty mumbles.  There was a time when Bob wasn't so bashful.  I enjoy hearing his early concerts where he actually deigned to acknowledge his audience and even tell a few stories.  This show was discovered in the collection of the critic Ralph J. Gleason.  It dates from a folk festival at Brandeis University on May 10, 1963 just a few weeks before the release of his breakthrough album, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan."  Side one starts with a song from that album, "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance."  The recording starts in the middle of the song.  It is a charming folk blues derived from a 1920s recording by Henry Thomas.  It is followed by "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues," the first of three talking blues songs on the album, which is two too many for me.  This is my favorite of the three.  It presents the viewpoint of a paranoid right-wing fanatic with considerable humor.  It was supposed to appear on "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" but was yanked by record company weasels following the controversy that surrounded Dylan's attempt to perform it on "The Ed Sullivan Show" which was vetoed by CBS television weasels.  You can hear the studio version on the first "Bootleg Series" collection.  Next up is "Ballad of Hollis Brown" which appeared on his third album, "The Times They Are a-Changin'," and which I think is one of the best of his early songs.  It tells the grim tale of a South Dakota farmer who kills himself and his family over despair about his hopeless poverty.  The incessant guitar riff and the apocalyptic imagery of the song foreshadow Dylan's classic "All Along the Watchtower."  The side closes with a powerful performance of "Masters Of War" which also appeared on "Freewheelin.'"  I find many of Dylan's protest songs to be heavy-handed and dated, but this one holds up really well, unfortunately it is still very relevant.  I really dig its venomous tone.  It deservedly gets a rousing response from the audience at this show.  Side two opens with another "Freewheelin'" song, "Talkin' World War III Blues."  The song is a humorous look at a post-nuclear apocalypse.  "Bob Dylan's Dream" is yet another tune from "Freewheelin'" and is set to the melody of a traditional English folk song.  Its poignant and autobiographical tone sets it apart from a lot of Dylan's early songs and it is one of my favorite songs from that era.  Dylan sings it with a lot of feeling in this performance.  The album concludes with "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues" which was an outtake from the "Freewheelin'" sessions which eventually appeared on the first "Bootleg Series" collection.  It is the oldest song on the album dating back to 1961.  Dylan introduces the song by telling the story of the failed picnic that inspired the song.  The song has some humor, but it is pretty slight.  He had so many other better songs by this point, I'm surprised that he still included it in his performance repertoire.  The audience seems to like it though.  I'm really happy with this record.  I dig the retro art work and the high quality pressing.  The sound quality of the original recording is excellent and the performance has a lot of feeling and intimacy.  It is just Dylan with a harmonica and an acoustic guitar but it still sounds rich and satisfying.  It is a very worthy addition to his amazing catalog.  Columbia keeps cranking out these archival Dylan recordings and I've yet to hear one that wasn't really worthwhile.  I hope there are many more still to come.  Recommended to people who love "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan."

Friday, March 22, 2013

(pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd) - Lynyrd Skynyrd

(pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd)
Lynyrd Skynyrd
MCA 363

Yikes another classic rock entry, I guess I'm turning into an old fogey.  I was watching a DVD compilation of "The Old Grey Whistle Test" (that DVD series is excellent by the way) and I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd deliver a thrilling performance of "Free Bird."  It really got me bopping.  The song has basically become a joke punchline, but I still love it as much as I did when I was a teen.  I first became aware of Lynyrd Skynyrd in the 7th grade when I was living in Salt Lake City.  My best friend was a fellow outcast named Billy Jo.  He had just moved there from the south.  I had just come from California and we both hated our new hometown.  We bonded over our alienation from the local culture.  I was into the Beatles and not paying attention to contemporary music very much, Billy Jo liked these guys.  "Sweet Home Alabama" was his personal theme song just as "California Dreamin'" was mine.  I came to like his song as well.  I moved back to California and lost touch with Billy Jo but I still liked his favorite band and bought this album when I was in high school after hearing "Free Bird" on the radio.  It was their debut album and to my mind one of the best debut albums of its era.  It opens with "I Ain't The One" by lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Gary Rossington.  It is the familiar pop music tale of a guy running away from his girlfriend when she wants to get married.  In classic southern rock fashion it is driven by a catchy guitar riff with a funky rhythm track.  This band had two lead guitarists and they play up a storm.  Thematically "Tuesday's Gone" is pretty similar except this time it is the girlfriend who wants to be free.  It was written by Van Zant and the band's other lead guitar player, Allen Collins.  The tune is a lot slower and I miss the propulsive guitar noise of the previous track, but Van Zant's vocal is very expressive.  It runs about seven and a half minutes and I lose interest way before that.  Nonetheless it is one of the prettiest songs they ever did.  Van Zant and Collins also offer up "Gimme Three Steps" about a guy who is dancing in a bar with a lady when her boyfriend shows up with a gun.  This song features a return to rocking riffs and guitar noise.  The song's humor and funky underbelly make it a real winner.  Rossington and Van Zant close out the side with the majestic "Simple Man" in which a guy is advised by his mother to lead a simple moral life and to remember that God is watching from above.  As a cynical city slicker I don't really dig the language of the song, but I can relate to it and I appreciate the heartfelt way Van Zant sings it.  Unlike a lot of hard rock bands, these guys still retain their power when they slow things down and the pounding riff that runs through the chorus is very effective.  Side one is practically flawless, four memorable songs that vary in tempo and style but which flow together very naturally.  This is why I dig albums.  Side two is a bit of a let down in comparison.  It starts with the country-flavored social protest song "Things Goin' On" by Van Zant and Rossington.  Billy Powell's honky tonk piano solos are the most interesting part of the song for me.  "Mississippi Kid" is a collaboration between Van Zant, the album's producer Al Kooper and drummer Robert Burns.  It is a retro country blues style song about a gunslinger on his way to Alabama to pick up his girlfriend.  It is derivative to be sure, but I still enjoy it.  Rock returns for "Poison Whisky" by Van Zant and Ed King who plays bass on the album, but who would become the group's third guitarist on future albums.  King was the most unlikely member of the band.  He was no good ol' boy but rather a Californian who had been in the 1960s pop-psych band, the Strawberry Alarm Clock.  The song is another riff driven tune that advises against frying your brain with bad whisky.  It sound generic, the weakest song on the album.  It is followed by the album's final song "Free Bird" by Collins and Van Zant.  If you are a white suburban kid of my generation you have heard this song a gazillion times.  It is a banal song from the so-long-babe-I-gotta-ramble school.  I find it kind of obnoxious in that regard.  Musically though it is magnificent.  Structurally it is in two parts, a slow haunting ballad sung with a lot of feeling by Van Zant which is dominated by mournful slide guitar lines from Rossington followed by a fast paced hard rock workout featuring a thrilling and seemingly endless guitar solo from Collins that will provide a challenge for you air guitarists out there and which will strain your fingers if you tackle the song in "Rock Band."  The song goes on for nine minutes on the LP and it fades out with the band still going full throttle which I think is a mistake.  When you hear live versions of the song, it is more satisfying to hear the song driven to its conclusion no matter how long it takes.  Poke fun if you like, but this song is what rock is all about, screaming guitars, fast paced beat, pounding drums, relentless drive, it is so full of energy and vitality it makes you feel good to be alive.  When I get tired of hearing this song, it will be time for me to check out.  Lynryd Skynryd were truly one of the best bands of their era.  It was a time when hard rock bands were a dime a dozen, but they stood out by virtue of their superior songwriting and their intoxicating blend of country, Memphis soul and straight ahead rock and roll.  So much of the music of that time sounds stale and lifeless to me, but this band still pushes all my buttons.  I grew up in the 1970s largely hating the decade, but I have to admit that if the decade produced a few albums as good as this one, it couldn't have been all bad.  Recommended to children of the 1970s who are tired of boomers telling them how great the 1960s were.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Riot On Sunset Strip - Original Soundtrack

Riot On Sunset Strip
Original Soundtrack
Tower  T 5065

This album is popular with collectors because of the songs by the Standells and the Chocolate Watch Band.  There is no doubt that they have the best songs on here but the rest of the record is not without interest.  The album opens with the great title song by the Standells which they also perform (or lip synch anyway) in the movie.  It is one of their best songs and also appeared on their album "Try It."  It is driven by a killer guitar riff and a relentless beat.  The lyrics describe the titular riots and are full of teenage angst and alienation.  Great stuff.  It is followed by "Sunset Sally" by the Mugwumps which is a different group than the one Cass Elliott was in prior to joining the Mamas and the Papas.  It is an old timey, variety show type tune akin to the Sopwith Camel or Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band.  It's not really my cup of tea.  Next up is "The Sunset Theme" which is a surf-rock style instrumental by the Sidewalk Sounds, a studio band Mike Curb assembled that also performed for the film "The Wild Racers."  It is generic but at least it rocks.  "Old Country" by Debra Travis comes next.  She is listed in the movie credits as Deborah Travis, I'm not sure which spelling is correct.  As far as I know this is the only song she ever recorded.  It is a pretty folk song with just her vocal and an acoustic guitar.  The side ends with the best song on the album, the Chocolate Watch Band's "Don't Need Your Lovin'" which the band performs in the film.  It is the highlight of the film for me.  You hear stories about how great they were live and even if they are only lip-synching the segment, you can still perceive how charismatic front man Dave Aguilar was and how cool the rest of the band members were.  The song is a ferocious rocker that reminds me of the Rolling Stones.  Aguilar's urgent, passionate vocal and the howling guitars make this a garage classic.  Side two opens with "Children in the Night" by Mom's Boys, the Paul Wibier fronted group that is generally believed to be the band that performed as Max Frost and the Troopers for the film "Wild in the Streets" and the album "Shape of Things To Come."  It is an atmospheric folk-rock tune with a solid rocking beat.  It is the best tune on the album not by the Chocolate Watch Band or the Standells.  Wibier's high quavery vocal reminds me of Arthur Lee.  The Sidewalk Sounds reappear with "Make the Music Pretty" which is a sugary tune in a sunshine pop style.  It is too sappy for my taste.  The Standells make their second appearance with the folk-rock style "Get Away From Here."  They are also seen in the movie doing some of this song.  It is a bit of a departure from their normal sound, it is very melodic and moody, I really like it.  Some guy named Drew delivers a song called "Like My Baby" which is shamelessly lifted from the Byrds' version of Dylan's "Spanish Harlem Incident" on "Mr. Tambourine Man."  The album concludes with the Chocolate Watch Band doing "Sitting There Standing" which they also perform in the movie.  The song is a rip-off of the Yardbirds' "The Nazz are Blue" from their "Yardbirds" album, but it is so smoking hot that I'm not complaining.  The group plays the song full throttle with lots of sizzling guitar work.  It ends the album with a bang.  I like this album but I have to admit that this is a pretty skimpy record that doesn't even have all the best music from the film.  I particularly miss the Enemys' performance of "Jolene" an excellent garage rocker which they perform in the film.  As far as I'm aware, it never appeared on record and it would have been one of the highlights of the album.  I think the band was contracted to MGM so presumably Tower was too cheap to license the song from them.  I would also have included the psychedelic soundtrack music used for the acid trip scene.  It is kind of cheesy but it sure beats the Sidewalk Sounds.  Despite its shortcomings, I think the album is worthwhile.  You get 4 classics by the Standells and the Chocolate Watch Band, three of which never appeared on their original albums, plus a solid contribution from Mom's Boys.  I dig "Old Country" too even though it doesn't fit in very well with the other songs.  The rest of the music is forgettable but not unpleasant.  6 good songs out of 10 is a pretty decent ratio for a mid-1960s album, especially a soundtrack.  Recommended to garageheads who hate CDs.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Undead - Ten Years After

Ten Years After
Deram  DES 18016

When I saw Alvin Lee's obituary last week, I immediately flashed back to all the time I spent in high school playing air guitar to Ten Years After's famous performance of "I'm Going Home" on the "Woodstock" soundtrack album.  To this day I can mentally recall his epic solo by heart.  It was one of my favorite cuts on that album and my favorite part of the movie.  I dug the band in high school but then I started to pay attention to the words of Lee's apathy anthem "I'd Love to Change The World" with its homophobic slurs and complaints about taxing the rich and decided I didn't like him very much anymore.  I do still like this album though from its psychedelic cover to the highly charged blues-rock inside.  I consider it one of their best records.  It was their second album, recorded live at Klooks Kleek in London.  After a brief introduction the band jumps into the swinging "I May Be Wrong, But I Won't Be Wrong Always" with plenty of Lee's trademark lightning fast guitar runs.  Lee was not nearly as imaginative as the top line guitarists of his era, Jimi Hendrix, Peter Green, Eric Clapton, Jerry Garcia, Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page, but his energy and fluidity are impressive.  There is also an organ solo from Chick Churchill and a bass solo from Leo Lyons which seem pedestrian next to Lee's playing.  My biggest knock on the song and the band is that Lee isn't much of a singer, when he tries to get down and get bluesy, he sounds strained.  Fortunately there isn't much singing on the song which goes on for nearly 10 minutes, it is mostly a framework for the extended soloing.  The side concludes with a fast-paced workout on Woody Herman's "Woodchopper's Ball."  This time there is no singing to get in the way of Lee's frenetic fretwork.  It is a dazzling performance.  Churchill takes a lengthy organ solo that is quite engaging but it sounds like it is in slow motion in comparison to Lee.  I could do without Lyons' bass solo which stops the song dead, but Lee's final solo brings the song back to life and he practically has my speakers smoking with his incendiary licks.  Great stuff.  Side two opens with "Spider In Your Web" which is a slow blues that exposes Lee's weak vocals.  Since speed is the essence of Lee's style, this slow tune works against his assets as a guitarist not that the slow tempo stops him from unleashing a torrent of notes but they sound forced and showy.  The more stately pace does give Churchill space to stretch out a little for his solo which I find more convincing than Lee's.  Next up is an instrumental version of "Summertime" which is taken at a faster tempo than normal.  It sounds sort of jazzy and I like it, but it is ruined when it evolves into "Shantung Cabbage" which is the name given to Ric Lee's crappy drum solo which seemingly goes on forever.  The album concludes with "I'm Going Home," the song the band made famous in "Woodstock."  It is a tad slower than the "Woodstock" version but it is tighter and less bloated as well.  It is a thrilling performance and gives the album a rousing finish.  Admittedly this is pretty simple stuff, repetitive blues based riffs with minimal variations and banal lyrical content, Lee's hyper-active playing is the only thing that makes it exciting, if not interesting.  I generally only reach for it when I want to bop around mindlessly, it does get me going that's for sure.  Recommended to air guitarists looking for a challenge.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Déjà Vu - Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Déjà Vu
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Atlantic SD 7200

I have been reading Jimmy McDonough's excellent biography of Neil Young, "Shakey."  Through it I've learned more about CSN&Y than I ever wanted to know.  They all come off pretty badly in the book which confirms what I always suspected about them.  I figured they were all about the money and the egos although I'm not sure that applied to Young.  Even after reading the book, I don't understand why Young got mixed up with these guys nor can I figure out the love/hate thing he had with Stephen Stills.  When I was a budding young record collector growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, these guys were like rock royalty there.  They were always on the radio and their tours were major events.  I remember a couple of guys in high school discussing Stephen Stills as if he were a major artist like Bob Dylan.  I didn't like them at all.  Their hits irritated me and I thought their segment in "Woodstock" was torture but I didn't have enough faith in my critical judgment yet to go against the mainstream.  I figured I must be missing something if everyone thought they were so great.  After all I loved the Byrds and the Buffalo Springfield, so how could this be bad?  So despite my misgivings I dutifully purchased a used copy of "Déjà Vu."  One look at the cover could have told me I was in for trouble.  Young is hiding in the background dressed like a gambler ready to fleece me.  Stills is wearing a Confederate army uniform - peace, man.  Graham Nash and David Crosby look like guest stars on "The Beverly Hillbillies."  The whole package with its fake leather cover and gilt lettering reeks of excess and pomposity.  The sidemen, Dallas Taylor and Greg Reeves, are given co-billing and figure prominently in the gatefold photographs like "we're all brothers, man" although according to McDonough the big four basically treated them as hired hands.  The album opens with some promise with Stills' "Carry On."  The song is a propulsive tune about bouncing back from heartbreak and benefits from Stills' biggest strengths as an artist, dynamic shifts in melody and texture and lots of stinging guitar lines.  The album takes a nosedive with Nash's country-rock "Teach Your Children."  Even Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar can't rescue this song from its idiocy.  This guy thought the Hollies were lightweight?  Somehow this became a top 20 hit, but I've always loathed it.  It gets worse with Crosby's "Almost Cut My Hair" - don't worry Dave it is going to fall out anyway.  Crosby boasts about being a counter-culture rebel and his smug stupidity infuriates me.  Although there is lots of invigorating guitar noise on this track, I find it practically unlistenable.  Have another snort, David, you are a real hero.  At this point I'm ready to smash this record to bits, but then Neil Young shows up to redeem it with the brilliant "Helpless."  This slow, mournful autobiographical song is one of the best things Young ever wrote and it easily trumps every song CSN&Y ever did.  The side ends with a rocking version of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" which I think is the worst song she ever wrote.  CSN&Y demonstrate that if you play it fast and loud it doesn't sound as silly which I consider to be an eternally true rock and roll axiom.  Side two begins with "Déjà Vu" which is Crosby's second contribution to the album.  It is a big improvement over his first one, but then again 4 minutes of silence would have been an improvement too.  It is kind of a trippy tune in which Crosby wonders what's going on, probably a common problem for a guy with a big league dope habit.  Graham Nash demonstrates his consistency with his second tune, the incredibly inane "Our House."  The song was supposedly inspired by his domestic bliss living with Joni Mitchell.  I'll never understand how a genius like Mitchell ever hooked up with this vapid guy, I guess it is true that opposites attract.  The song is insidiously catchy and annoying.  Stills restores the album's dignity with the acoustic "4 + 20" which finds him solemnly feeling sorry for himself.  You can tell he's serious because he doesn't let Crosby and Nash sing with him.  Once again it is up to Young to lift the album above the navel contemplations of his partners.  "Country Girl" is a suite of 4 songs that describe his attraction to the title character although the song covers a lot more territory than that thanks to whole bunch of enigmatic yet evocative metaphors that Young sprinkles throughout his narrative.  The song is overproduced but I still find it just as enthralling as I did when I was a teen.  Young is so much more talented than his three partners, it is like Willie Mays playing on a beer league softball team.  The album finishes with the only collaboration on the album, Stills and Young's "Everybody I Love You."  It is little more than a throwaway about opening yourself up to love but it is still better than most of the rest of the record.  Stills supposedly wanted Young in the group so he would have someone to play with since Nash and Crosby weren't real musicians.  When I listen to the dueling guitars and soaring vocals on this hard rocking cut I do finally get a sense of why they might have thought this band was a good idea.  Still it is pretty slim pickings for a record that is supposedly a classic album - 2 great Neil Young songs, 1 good Stephen Stills song, 1 fun Stills-Young song and a whole bunch of hippie hogwash.  Recommended for people looking for something to play to annoy their roommates, sure worked on my family. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Bleecker & MacDougall - Fred Neil

Bleecker & MacDougal
Fred Neil
Elektra EKS 7293

Like a lot of people I heard about Fred Neil long before I actually heard him.  The first song of his that I heard was Nilsson's cover of "Everybody's Talkin'" but I only became interested in him when I realized that Jefferson Airplane had recorded not one but two songs inspired by him - "House at Pooneil Corner" and "Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil."  I started noticing more songs by him, the Airplane and the Youngbloods covering "Other Side of this Life," It's A Beautiful Day doing "The Dolphins," H. P. Lovecraft recording "That's The Bag I'm In" and many others.  I liked all these songs so I figured I should check out the man himself.  It took awhile though to track down one of his LPs, he was never all that successful and his records were out of print.  This was the first one I bought and it is still my favorite.  The album kicks off with the rollicking "Bleecker & MacDougall" with John Sebastian blowing up a storm on his harmonica.  The song features him standing at that intersection, the center of the New York folk scene, wanting to go home to the girl who loves him.  The song's simplicity combined with its expressiveness sums up much of Neil's appeal to me.  He conveys a strong feeling with grace and economy.  The song reminds me of the Lovin' Spoonful.  Neil was a folkie but he had a bluesy streak in his music which is evident on "Blues On the Ceiling" and "Sweet Mama."  "Little Bit of Rain" is one of the best songs on the record, a heartfelt folk song about remembering the good times rather than the bad after a relationship is over.  "Country Boy" is uptempo country blues and is given a lot of energy from Sebastian's frenetic harp blowing.  "Other Side to This Life" is my favorite of all of Neil's songs and judging from all the covers of it back in the 60s, I'm not alone in that opinion.  It is a classic folk-rock song but Neil's version is more folk than rock which is why I prefer the cover versions, especially the Airplane's one which has a lot more propulsion.  Nonetheless Neil's husky voice imparts a lot of feeling to the song and the folk treatment gives it a pleasant sense of intimacy.  The song's lyrics speak of aimlessness and a search for direction, which seems like a very 1960s theme to me and I recall getting a lot of resonance from it back when I was in college with a similar outlook on life.  "Mississippi Train" rocks out more than most of the songs on the album and is given a big push from Felix Pappalardi on bass and Pete Childs on electric guitar with Sebastian once again wailing away on his harp.  Side two opens with "Travelin' Shoes" which is also a folk-rock tune.  "The Water is Wide" is a traditional song that has been traced back to Great Britain centuries ago.  Neil's slow, aching version of this tale of the inconstancy of love sounds contemporary and it is the loveliest song on the album.  Neil returns to the blues for "Yonder Comes the Blues."  "Candy Man" is a jumping tune with a warm vocal from Neil.  It is another one of my favorites on the album.  "Handful of Gimme" is a slow country blues with more terrific support from John Sebastian.  "Gone Again" is a folk-rock song with one of Neil's best vocals, he reminds me of Ian Tyson on this song.  It gives the album a strong finish.  Listening to this album, it is easy to understand why people back in the 1960s were so knocked out by Neil.  I've heard a lot of 1960s folk albums but very few not by a guy named Dylan are this lively and consistent.  It doesn't sound dated or academic, it is still meaningful and engaging.  Neil was a good vocalist and an excellent songwriter well worth investigating if this sort of music appeals to you.  As a Lovin' Spoonful fan I'd like to acknowledge John Sebastian's immense contribution to this album, his harmonica provides almost all of the instrumental color, this would be a much duller album without him.  Recommended to Tom Rush fans.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Beach Boys Today! - The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys Today!
The Beach Boys
Capitol  DT 2269

In my post on "Surrealistic Pillow" I loftily declared the Jefferson Airplane to be the best American band of the late 1960s which got me to wondering who was the best American band before them.  As much as I love the Byrds, I'm pretty certain it was this band.  This may have been the best American rock album ever at the time of its March 1965 release although Bob Dylan would challenge that a few weeks later with the release of his first rock album, "Bringing It All Back Home."  It was the first great Beach Boys album and began a string of remarkable albums and singles that established Brian Wilson as a pop genius culminating with "Smile" and Wilson's subsequent mental breakdown.  The album's A-side is devoted to uptempo commercial pop and the B-side features quieter, more introspective pop songs that foreshadow "Pet Sounds."  It opens with a cover of Bobby Freeman's "Do You Wanna Dance?" which was a hit single for the group.  Dennis Wilson delivers a strong lead vocal and the elaborate arrangement is clearly inspired by Phil Spector although the guitar break is pure surf rock.  I consider this the definitive version of this much covered song.  For "Good To My Baby," "Don't Hurt My Little Sister" and "When I Grow Up," Brian and Mike Love trade vocals throughout the songs.  I like the dynamic contrast between Love's nasal whine and Brian's angelic choir boy voice which I think opens up the songs.  All three songs are catchy and creative, clearly indicating Brian's growth as a writer.  I particularly like "When I Grow Up" with its sparkling harpsichord riff and its sense of innocence and wonder.  The song was a top ten single for the group.  Al Jardine sings lead on "Help Me Ronda" which the band would re-record for a punchier and faster single version that is superior to this one.  The song fades in and out at the end in an irritating manner.  Love sings lead on "Dance, Dance, Dance" which was written by Brian and Carl Wilson.  It is driven by a terrific guitar riff and although the lyrics are inane the song is so propulsive I hardly notice.  The song provided yet another hit single for the band.  Side two opens with "Please Let Me Wonder" which was co-written by Mike Love and Brian and again they trade vocals on the song.  It was arguably the most beautiful song they'd done at this point, one of my all time favorite Beach Boys songs.  The touching lyrics are expressed with a lovely melody and a yearning vocal that really sends me.  "I'm So Young" is a cover of a 1950s doo-wop song but it covers some familiar Brian Wilson territory with its too young protagonists wishing they were old enough to get married.  Brian arranges up a storm on the reverb laden song with gorgeous vocal harmonies behind a stunning lead vocal from Brian.  Brian's "Kiss Me, Baby" features Brian and Love trading vocals again.  It is another song with elaborate vocal arrangements that are like sonic cotton candy - light and sweet.  Brian sings "She Knows Me Too Well" brilliantly and the contemplative lyrics are worlds beyond the surf and car songs from earlier in his career.  It is one of the best songs on the album.  "In the Back of My Mind" is one of the weaker songs on the album hampered by a lackluster vocal from Dennis and a forgettable melody.  The album ends with a thud with the stupid "Bull Session with the 'Big Daddy'."  It is not a song but rather a mercifully brief interview between the group and journalist Earl Leaf.  The group argue over food and discuss their European tour with Brian giving a shout-out to some flunky from Capitol Records.  Not only is it boring, but its vapidity undermines the sensitivity and beauty of the songs that preceded it, an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise near perfect album.  The astonishing growth displayed by Brian Wilson on this album put him in elite territory with Dylan and Lennon and McCartney as the most important trailblazers in pop music in 1965.  For most pop artists this would have been a career topping achievement but for Brian it was only the beginning.  Recommended  for those who value youthful romanticism over jaded cynicism.