Monday, May 27, 2013

East Is East - Pepi Ginsberg

East Is East
Pepi Ginsberg
Park The Van  PTV 47

The first (and only time) that I heard a Pepi Ginsberg song on the radio I wondered if it was Lene Lovich making a comeback.  She has a rather unconventional singing style that caught my attention right away.  She swoops and soars around the music, gushing and slurring the words with her passionate and ebullient voice.  Back in the 1980s quirky New Wave female singers were as common as synthesizers but the kids nowadays seem to prefer conventional singers like Lana Del Rey which is probably why I never hear Ginsberg on the radio.  I liked her so much that I sought out her record and I'm glad I did.  This is her second full length album on Park the Van ( I don't believe that the first one was released on vinyl.)  The album opens with the aptly named "Shake This" which delivers a staccato guitar rift over a bouncy rhythm track punctuated by martial drum beats.  It is about making a change in a relationship.  "Lost River" is another propulsive tune with an exuberant vocal from Ginsberg.  It is a Dylanesque and poetic description of a journey.  Her language is very evocative, you can tell she has a literary background.  She slows things down a bit for "East is East" aside from the frenetic chorus.  The song is about finding direction both literally and metaphorically.  She delivers "Mercury Tide" over a simple pulsing tune that gradually builds in strength as she sings about surrendering to a love relationship.  Ginsberg abandons the funkiness that pervades side one for the more conventional sounding ballad "Coca Cola."  The lyrics are anything but conventional though, they are highly poetic and abstract.  I wish she provided a lyric sheet.  I believe this is another relationship song but it covers a lot more ground than that.  It is a very impressive song that reminds me a bit of Patti Smith.  Side two opens with "Gravity in 20/20" which is a choppy, pounding tune that looks back on a relationship.  "Navy and Sand" is one of my favorite cuts on the album.  It is a jumpy, funky song with abrupt shifts in tempo that reminds me of the early Talking Heads or Pylon.  It provides a framework for one of Ginsberg's most energetic vocals.  I think it is about love, although it is probably about more than that.  "Kid" is another bouncy, catchy song that manages to be very descriptive while remaining enigmatic.  I think it is about escape but maybe it is just about casual sex.  The spare arrangement of the folky "Coal To Diamonds" puts all the focus on Ginsberg's pretty vocal as she reminisces about a past relationship.  The album ends with the punchy "Summer Sick as Love" which evokes the sensations of summer while describing yet another past love.  As much as I like Ginsberg's literary style of lyric writing, I'd be happier if I knew what she was singing about more often.  I find myself getting lost in her lengthy descriptive passages which are colorful but ultimately obscure.  I would welcome a more direct approach at least some of the time.  The album carries me mostly because of the vocals.  The music is pleasant and engaging but not all that memorable, it is Ginsberg's voice that holds my attention and keeps me coming back to this record.  Hooray for quirkiness!  Recommended to people who wonder what it might sound like if Kate Bush imitated mid-1960s Bob Dylan.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Rock 'N' Roll - John Lennon

Rock 'N' Roll
John Lennon
Apple SK 3419

Last year I finally got around to reading Philip Norman's epic biography of John Lennon.  I've had it for years but could not bring myself to read it, partly because it is so freaking long (more than 800 pages) but mostly because I was afraid of what I might learn about my longtime hero.  Having read lots of Beatles books (including Norman's own excellent one) I knew Lennon was no choirboy and I was worried about reading things that might make me think less of him.  In actuality I came away from the book feeling even better about Lennon as a person.  Norman paints a sympathetic portrait of the man, he doesn't shy away from his bad behavior but puts it in context and I found myself respecting and liking Lennon more than ever.  It is a very informative book, I finally learned the backstory of this album which has always puzzled me.  I assumed that Lennon was returning to his roots in search of inspiration, but in fact the motives behind the album were a lot crasser.  Record mogul Morris Levy, a guy I've always despised for stealing copyrights and exploiting artists, sued Lennon for the resemblance of "Come Together" to Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" which he owned.  As part of the legal settlement Lennon agreed to record three songs from Levy's massive publishing catalog of oldies.  Lennon decided to make an entire album of oldies and brought in Phil Spector to produce.  Spector in full maniac mode made the sessions difficult even firing a gun in the studio and eventually walked off the project taking the master tapes with him.  Lennon took a break and recorded "Walls and Bridges" and then resumed the project without Spector, recording most of the album from scratch although the Spector tracks were eventually recovered and a few of them made the final album.  Prior to release Lennon gave a rough mix to Levy who promptly bootlegged it on an album sold on television.  The story behind the album is a lot more interesting than the album itself which consists entirely of well-known oldies given mostly faithful interpretations by Lennon.  He performs with affection and enthusiasm, there is no doubt that he loves the music and is good at it, but the album seems like a waste of time to me.  Back when it came out, I was very disappointed by it.  The Beatles had done such a great job energizing the many oldies they covered early in their career and they had recorded songs that weren't necessarily big hits or really well-known.  This album would be better I think if it had a few obscure or lesser known songs on it.  Instead just about every song is a famous classic.  I like it better now than I did back in the 1970s but I still don't play it much.  My favorite cut is his version of "Stand By Me" which comes close to besting Ben E. King's original thanks to Lennon's passionate vocal and a robust arrangement.  I'm charmed by his heartfelt performance of Lloyd Price's "Just Because" which benefits from a spoken intro and conclusion by Lennon.  I wish there was more of this informal quality to the album which is entirely too slick for my taste.  I also like his punchy version of Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame" although Cheap Trick's cover a few years later is better.  The most interesting track is a reggae influenced re-working of "Do You Want To Dance" which revitalizes the song the way a good cover should.  On the negative side there is a lackluster medley of Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home To Me" and "Send Me Some Lovin'."  Lennon's uninspired take on Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya" is even weaker.  I think the rockers mostly come off the worst on the album.  "Be-Bop-A-Lula," "Ready Teddy/Rip It Up," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Slippin' and Slidin'," and "Bony Moronie" lack the manic intensity and urgency the Beatles would have brought to them (if you don't believe me listen to the Beatles' Star-Club recordings or the BBC sessions.)  Lennon's vocals are undermined by the lifeless, polished arrangements delivered by the studio pros backing him.  The songs remind me of Sha Na Na which is not a compliment.  The exceptions are "Peggy Sue" which slavishly imitates the Buddy Holly original and the Spectorized cover of "You Can't Catch Me" which thanks to the noisy arrangement and Lennon's crazed vocal I prefer to Chuck Berry's original.  It really captures the energy that makes early rock and roll so exciting unlike most of the rest of the album.  I think the best thing about the album is the cover photo of Lennon taken by Jurgen Vollmer during one of the Beatles' visits to Hamburg.  It says more about rock and roll than the music on the album.  One thing that really strikes me about the record now that I didn't notice when it came out is how 1970s the thing sounds, more "Crocodile Rock" than "Rock Around the Clock."  Since I don't really dig the 1970s I don't think that is a good thing, but I suppose it beats pure imitation.  Recommended to people who think it would be cool if Jerry Lee Lewis jammed with Steely Dan. 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

West - Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams
Lost Highway  B0015615-01

On the spur of the moment I went to a Lucinda Williams show on Thanksgiving Eve two years ago at the El Rey.  I was impressed by her exuberance and vitality in concert those aren't qualities I tend to associate with her recorded music which seems deeply personal and emotional, full of vulnerability and sadness.  That is certainly the case with "West" her 8th studio album.  "Are You Alright?" opens the album.  It sounds like it is directed at a lost lover or friend.  She delivers the song with the laconic moan of a vocal that is her trademark.  "Mama You Sweet" seems to be about her grief over the death of her mother - the album is dedicated to the memory of her mother and aunt.  Considering the misery in the lyrics - she practically makes grief sound like childbirth - the music is surprisingly mellow and pleasant, only the achy quality of Williams' vocal reflects the tone of the lyrics.  "Learning How To Live" sounds upbeat musically but it is also about loss, in this case the loss of a lover and trying to recover from heartbreak.  She concludes this cheerful side of music with "Fancy Funeral" which is a slow song that says it is better to save your money for practical everyday needs than to spend it on an expensive funeral that is not going to bring your lost one back.  Side two opens with "Unsuffer Me" which is one of my favorite tracks.  It has howling guitars and a slow heavy rock beat reminiscent of Neil Young as Williams sings of her desire for a lover to liberate her from her state of unhappiness which she equates with physical bondage.  She has always been good with evocative metaphors and descriptions.  I find her raw vocal very powerful.  "Everything Has Changed" in contrast is a gentle folky song that describes how her perception of the world has changed now that she has lost her love, joy and faith.  It is a pretty depressing song.  The side concludes with another of my favorites, "Come On."  This rocked up attack on a former lover who couldn't give her an orgasm is full of energy and anger, a welcome change from the melancholy tone of most of the album.  Side three begins with "Where Is My Love."  The song features some plaintive string lines but it is basically a sweet song in which she speculates about what her lover is doing.  Williams' raspy vocal has a lot of warmth.  The moody folk-rocker, "Rescue" starts out describing all the things a lover can't do for you, but concludes by hopefully acknowledging what a lover can do for you with the charming line that he "can tie some ribbons in your hair and show you that he'll always care."  I really like this song, it reminds me a bit of Sandy Denny's group, Fotheringay.  "What If" lists a lengthy series of unlikely events leading up to the last unlikely event, the payoff line "and we'd love one another in equal amounts."  Ouch.  It is a slow majestic country tune that benefits from a pretty string arrangement and Williams' wistful vocal.  Side four starts with the nine minute long "Wrap My Head Around That," an epic rant in which Williams vents her spleen at an ex-lover.  It is a remarkable song with a slinky hypnotic groove over which Williams sings and chants her vindictive lyrics.  It's a bit repetitious but it is so dramatic and compelling that I don't get bored, plus the band behind her really cooks.  "Words" also seems to be directed at an obnoxious ex-lover but it is mostly about the solace and joy she gets from writing songs.  In keeping with the positive feeling of the song, the folk-rock tune is upbeat and propulsive.  The album finishes with the lovely "West" which is a hopeful love song.  "West" is such a personal and honest album, it is almost uncomfortable to listen to, like overhearing two lovers quarreling next door.  It is made tolerable, even enjoyable by the music.  Williams may not be the most technically proficient singer around, but she sings with so much feeling and sincerity that I find her voice enormously appealing.  The band behind her is terrific and the album is intelligently produced by Hal Willner who I consider one of the best producers around.  This album is part of the series of albums Lost Highway re-issued to commemorate their 10th anniversary.  I have several of those albums and find them uniformly excellent.  It is pressed on clear vinyl in a handsome album package.  If you are a Lucinda Williams fan it is well worth seeking out, the woman's voice was made for warmth and vibrancy of vinyl, the next best thing to hearing her live.  I have to admit that when the sun is shining and everything is hunky dory, this is not the album I reach for.  However if it is late at night or I'm feeling blue, this album sounds great.  It is like commiserating with an old friend.  Recommended for fans of Tori Amos who wish she was a cowgirl.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Two of a Mind - Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan

Two of a Mind
Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan
RCA LPM-2624

I picked this up in Yreka which is a small town off Interstate 5 near the Oregon/California border.  We often stop there on our way to Oregon to have lunch.  It has a small historic downtown that dates back to when the town was a gold rush boomtown.  I was wandering around there after lunch a couple of years ago and went into a thrift store and checked out the vinyl.  I wasn't expecting to find much, maybe some vintage country records but instead I found this.  I'm a big fan of Gerry Mulligan and buy anything he's on.  Desmond I like okay but I don't go out of my way to hear him.  I think Mulligan performs best when he is partnered with someone who will push him a little, like Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk.  Desmond's approach is too similar to Mulligan's classic style, if they weren't playing different horns I'd hardly be able to tell them apart at times.  They complement each other very well, but the results are more entertaining than challenging, but what the heck sometimes you just want to have fun.  The two men are backed up by bassists and drummers, but as with Mulligan's classic quartet with Chet Baker there is no piano.   The album opens with "All The Things You Are."  Desmond and Mulligan introduce the song trading lines until Desmond takes a lengthy swinging solo which is followed by Mulligan's solo which seems tentative at first but picks up steam as he goes along.  The song concludes with the two playing contrapuntal lines bringing the song to an energetic finish.  There must be a thousand jazz interpretations of "Stardust" around and Desmond and Mulligan's take on the song isn't particularly interesting although it is lovely and Mulligan's solo is romantic and full of feeling.  Desmond's solo is fluid but sounds cold and technical by comparison.  Once again the two men join in to play contrapuntally at the conclusion of the song.  Desmond composed "Two of a Mind" which concludes side one.  It is an uptempo, driving tune with some spirited playing from both men.  It gets me bopping and is one of my favorite tracks on the album.  Mulligan composed "Blight of the Fumble Bee" which according to the liner notes was named by Mulligan's girlfriend, the actress Judy Holliday, after hearing a playback in the control room.  It is classic Mulligan as he takes a simple riff and expounds on it in a thrilling solo.  Desmond's solo sounds more like empty virtuosity to me, it swings but it lacks Mulligan's manic drive and intensity.  The frenetic contrapuntal playing that concludes the song features a riff on "Flight of the Bumble Bee" which presumably inspired the song's odd title.  My favorite cut on the record is "The Way You Look Tonight" which is dynamic and exciting with some terrific contrapuntal passages.  At the end of the song, Desmond overdubs a third saxophone line creating a dense and vibrant be-bop sound that really sends me.   Mulligan's solo is smoking hot as well.  "Out of Nowhere" is also a swinging tune with another powerful Mulligan solo.  The kinetic contrapuntal playing at the end of the song would give the album a strong finish except that the song abruptly shifts at the finish into a brief slow jam that is crudely faded out, almost as if they were starting a new song and then changed their minds.  The tight arrangements and contrapuntal playing are typical of Mulligan's style so his fans should really enjoy this record.  People who are accustomed to hearing the cool cerebral jazz Desmond played with the Dave Brubeck Quartet may be surprised to hear how effectively he can blow hot when the opportunity arises.  Recommended to fans of Mulligan's quartet with Chet Baker.

Monday, May 6, 2013

George Jones & Gene Pitney - George Jones and Gene Pitney

George Jones & Gene Pitney
George Jones and Gene Pitney
Musicor MS 3044

The recent passing of George Jones wasn't a big surprise to me.  Having read his autobiography, I'd say that the bigger surprise was that he lived as long as he did.  He was one of my favorite country singers, but I only have a tiny portion of his discography, mostly compilation albums.  My favorites are the duet albums he did with his wife, Tammy Wynette, they had a lot of chemisty together.  He also made some nice music with Melba Montgomery in the 1960s.  I think his most unusual duet partner had to be this guy though, pop star Gene Pitney.  I suppose Musicor was trying to expand Pitney's audience beyond teenyboppers with this album much like his forays into Italian music and easy listening crooner stuff.  It works better than you might think, with his high quavery voice Pitney assumes the role that a female singer would have taken opposite Jones' rougher deep voice.  The record is hampered by the selection of the songs which leans heavily on covers of earlier country hits, but the quality of the singing is first rate.  I do find the album a bit maudlin, there are a lot of slow tear-jerkers.  I prefer Jones when he is singing uptempo songs like "White Lightning" or "Why Baby Why."  The only song in that vein on this record is a cover of Faron Young's "I've Got Five Dollars and Its Saturday Night" which was a top 20 country hit single for the duo.  It is my favorite cut on the album although I have to admit that Jones sounds a lot more convincing singing about hell-raising than Pitney does.  My other favorite songs are a couple of songs that Jones sings solo which were released as the A and B side of a single in 1965 that reached the 9th spot on the "Billboard" country chart.  The songs are "Wearing My Heart Away" which was co-written by Jones and "Things Have Gone To Pieces" which was written by Leon Payne and recorded by Johnny Cash back in 1959.  The latter song offers such a string of woes that it is likely to leave you feeling better about your day no matter how bad it was.  I also like the jaunty "I've Got a New Heartache" which was a 1956 hit for Ray Price and Dorsey Dixon's classic "Wreck on the Highway" which is the oldest song on the album dating back to the late 1930s.  It was made famous by Roy Acuff in the 1940s.  Religious songs were hardly Jones' forte, but the song has a more authentic feel to it than anything on the album.  The duo also cover Bob Wills' wonderful "My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You" which was a big hit for Ray Price.  Pitney's harmony vocal on this one really sends me.  All the other songs are engaging, although not particularly memorable.  "I'm a Fool To Care" was a hit for Les Paul and Mary Ford and later for Joe Barry.  "Sweeter Than The Flowers" had been a hit for Moon Mullican back in the 1940s and was later a single by the Stanley Brothers.  "One Has My Name" also goes back to the 1940s and was recorded previously by the song's co-writer, Eddie Dean as well as Jimmy Wakely and Bob Eberle.  I'm not crazy about the song, but it has some of the most effective vocal interplay between Pitney and Jones on the album with Pitney's high voice harmonizing so well with Jones' vocal that I find myself almost thinking he is a woman.  "Don't Rob Another Man's Castle" was a hit for Eddy Arnold in 1949 as well as Ernest Tubbs with the Andrews Sisters.  Pitney has a couple of solo songs.  "I Really Don't Want to Know" was also covered by Les Paul and Mary Ford as well as Eddy Arnold back in the 1950s.  Pitney takes this kind of creepy song about a guy who is insecure about his girlfriend's past lovers and makes it sound like a romantic teen ballad with his emotional vocal.  "Born to Lose" was a big hit for Ted Daffan in 1942 but I think the definitive version is the cover by Ray Charles and Pitney doesn't come close to challenging him.  Given the paucity of new songs or original material on the album, its major appeal is the novelty of Pitney and Jones singing together which is more than enough for me.  I'd listen to Jones sing just about anything with anyone, the man was one hell of singer.  He sings with such feeling and strength, he makes even the corniest song sound real.  Recommended to people who recognize that pop music has just lost a titan of a singer.