Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Pour Down Like Silver - Richard and Linda Thompson

Pour Down Like Silver
Richard and Linda Thompson
Island Records ILPS 9348

I had the good fortune to catch Richard Thompson close out his Electric Trio tour at the Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood last May.  It was a real treat to see the great man rocking out with a power trio - I'm not kidding about that, they even did a convincing cover of Cream's "White Room."  He also reached into the past to perform "For Shame of Doing Wrong" off this album.  It was his fourth album after leaving Fairport Convention and his third album as a duo with his then wife, Linda Thompson.  It was the second album of Thompson's that I bought, I picked it up in an import bin at a Berkeley record store around 1980.  When I saw the cover, I was shocked.  I had read that the Thompsons had embraced Sufism, but I didn't know exactly what that was.  Then I saw this album and there was my hero looking more like a blue-eyed Arab mystic than an English rocker.  I was pretty dismayed.  I wasn't anti-Muslim (although with the Iran hostage crisis still fresh in my memory I wasn't particularly pro-Muslim either) but I was trying to shake loose from my own religious upbringing and here was my idol jumping off the deep end into religious zealotry.  It upset me nearly as much as Dylan's recent (at the time) conversion to Christianity.  I bought the album anyway and when I gave it a spin I was reassured because it sounded a lot like Thompson's secular music.  It is permeated with religious spirituality but contains no overt religious references.  There is no trace of the preachiness or sanctimony that made Dylan's Christian records so hard to swallow.  In fact the opening number "Streets of Paradise" would fit quite comfortably on his earlier albums "Hokey Pokey" or "I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight."  It is driven by a slow stately riff powered by the Fairport rhythm section of Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks and colored by John Kirkpatrick's accordion runs.  The song is full of Thompson's typically sardonic humor as he sings about a poor man contemplating his future in paradise.  "For Shame of Doing Wrong" is a heartbreak song sweetly sung by Linda.  The song's downbeat lyrics are countered by an upbeat, almost cheerful melody.  Kirkpatrick dominates the song until the end where Thompson lays down some tasty guitar licks that end all too soon for my liking.  "The Poor Boy Is Taken Away" is the grimmest song on the album.  It is a bleak heartbreak song full of hopelessness achingly sung by Linda with minimal instrumental color aside from Thompson's mandolin and acoustic guitar.  Side one ends with the magnificent "Night Comes In" which is one of the more spiritual songs on the album.  It is full of evocative imagery and deep feeling but there is no explicit mention of a deity.  Thompson's heartfelt vocal expresses feelings of redemption but it is vague enough that the redemption could just as reasonably be coming from love as it could from religion.  It features Thompson's most impressive guitar playing on the record.  He starts out playing lovely decorative figures but as the song builds in strength he picks up energy delivering heavier runs.  It reminds me of his great work on "Sloth" on Fairport's "Full House."  (There is a tremendous live version of "Night Comes In" on his "Guitar, Vocal" album.)  Side two kicks off with "Jet Plane in a Rocking Chair" which is easily the most upbeat song on the record, a joyous love song that is rather unusual in Thompson's typically dark oeuvre.  The charming lyrics are jointly delivered by Richard and Linda and the tune features more instrumentation than most of the other songs on the album.  The comparatively stark "Beat The Retreat" is more typically Thompsonian.  It is a song of defeat and surrender.  I presume that Thompson is singing about returning to his God, but again the song is vague enough that it could be interpreted to mean returning to a loved one or a family.  There is no trace of piety in "Hard Luck Stories" which is vintage Thompson as he rips into a whining acquaintance with great vigor and humor.  It is one of the nastiest songs he's ever written.  Linda delivers the lyrics with plenty of invective that is slightly leavened by the amiable melody led by Kirkpatrick's perky accordion playing.  Religion returns for "Dimming of the Day/Dargai" which ends the album on a somber note.  "Dimming of the Day" features a powerful, emotional vocal from Linda supported by spare instrumentation that focuses one's attention on her quavering voice.  The lyrics express neediness and a desire for support in highly poetic terms.  They are clearly directed at a person, but I suspect that Thompson is finding his solace in a higher power.  The song is linked to "Dargai" which is a gorgeous solo guitar instrumental that is credited to Thompson on the album, but it is adapted from a mournful fiddle tune by Scottish composer James Scott Skinner.  It provides a somber, but beautiful coda for the album.  I think this is one of Thompson's best albums although it can't match the consistent greatness of "I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight" or the drama and dynamic tension of "Shoot Out The Lights."  It is subdued but all the music is memorable and I don't think Thompson has ever made such a heartfelt and plaintive record.  I'm not spiritual but I respect spirituality in others when it is sincere and intelligent and it doesn't get much more sincere and intelligent than this.  This album has an aura to it, it is remarkably atmospheric and moving.  It also has a feeling of finality to it.  After recording this album the Thompsons withdrew from the commercial music world and lived on a Muslim commune in England.  It would be three years before they would release a new album.  Recommended to people who think that "John Wesley Harding" is a more spiritual album than "Slow Train Coming."

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Oh! Pleasant Hope - Blue Cheer

Oh! Pleasant Hope
Blue Cheer
Philips PHS 600-350

This was Blue Cheer's sixth and final album (at least until they reunited in the 1980s.)  Fans of their debut, "Vincebus Eruptum" would hardly recognize this record as being from the same group and in truth, it wasn't really the same group.  The power trio that recorded the primitive and insanely loud hard rock of the debut was replaced by a quartet playing mellow Bay Area hippie rock.  Only bassist Dickie Peterson remained from the original lineup.  Most of the record was written by new members Gary Yoder (guitar and vocals) and Norman Mayell (drums, sitar and guitar).  I greatly prefer the debut record, but having grown up with this sort of hippie nonsense I have more of a taste for it than most people and thus I enjoy some of this record.  My favorite track is the title track by long time associate of the band, Richard Peddicord.  It is a country-flavored paean to marijuana, dreaming of the day when "grass will flow like wine."  It reminds me a bit of the Band and is the only song that sticks with me when the record is over.  Peddicord also contributed "Money Troubles" to the album.  It is a far lesser song only notable for its San Francisco Sound style guitar runs.  I do like Dickie Peterson's sole songwriting contribution to the album, "Heart Full of Soul" which bares no resemblance to the Yardbirds' classic hit.  It is the only song that reminds me of the debut record.  It is a straight ahead rocker driven by Peterson's throbbing bass riff and Ralph Kellogg's organ.  It is kind of generic and could use more guitar noise but it still holds my attention.  "Hiway Man" by Yoder, Mayell and Gary Grelecki is a nice propulsive country rocker but I dislike its lyrics about a Confederate renegade thief.  Yoder and Grelecki are also responsible for the pedestrian rocker "Believer" and the mellow "Traveling Man" both of which bore me.  Norman Mayell doesn't fare much better.  He breaks out his sitar for the religious themed "I'm The Light" (written with Kent Houseman) which goes on for more than 5 seemingly endless minutes of hippie bullshit.  His solo composition "Ecological Blues" is a polemical folk-blues sung by Peterson in an irritating gravelly voice like he's trying to imitate an old blues man.  Ralph Kellogg wrote "Lester The Molester" which is a folk-rock boogie that sounds a bit like the Grateful Dead.  The lyrics are pretty dumb but it is a lot livelier tune than most of the album.  I can't really endorse this album, but I have to admit that I generally enjoy it when I give it a spin as long as I don't pay close attention to it.  It probably sounds better if you are buzzed.  Recommended for fans of the Youngbloods' Warner Bros. albums.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Neon - The Cyrkle

The Cyrkle
Columbia CS 9432

As a younger person, I was a fan of the Cyrkle's debut album which features their two hit singles, "Red Rubber Ball" and "Turn Down Day."  I still like it, although it is a bit too sugary for my taste nowadays.  This is their second album which is less sugary although it doesn't stray too far from the folk-rock/sunshine pop of their debut.  It flopped when it came out and when I first got into record collecting I often used to see cut-out copies of this in the bins so obviously nobody wanted it, but I think it has its merits.  The only song I really dislike is "Problem Child" which sounds like something you'd hear in a Broadway musical or music hall.  It was written by Toni Wine and Carole Bayer who would later become famous as Carole Bayer Sager and write a bunch more songs that I don't like either.  My favorite song is "Don't Cry, No Fears, No Tears Comin' Your Way" which is a hard driving folk-rocker with mildly psychedelic overtones (including a sitar) written by band members Tom Dawes (guitar/bass/sitar) and Don Dannemann (guitar.)  Dawes and Dannemann also wrote the jangly "Our Love Affair's in Question" which is nearly as good and "Weight of Your Words" which is pedestrian folk-rock.  Paul Simon and Bruce Woodley (of the Seekers) wrote "Red Rubber Ball" and offer "I Wish You Could Be Here" this time around.  It was a flop single for the band and it is easy to see why it tanked.  It is too low-key to make much impact on the radio, but I like it a lot, it is melodic and has that collegiate earnestness characteristic of Paul Simon's early work.  Susan Haber wrote the other single on the album (also a flop), the bouncy chamber pop flavored "Please Don't Ever Leave Me."  It recalls the sugariness of their debut album.  Chip Taylor's "I'm Not Sure What I Wanna Do" is also in a sunshine pop vein, it reminds me of the Monkees.  Fans of the Cyrkle's debut album will probably like these two songs the most.  The rest of the album is mostly filler.  There is a cover of Ricky Nelson's "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.  I like the upbeat poppiness of this arrangement, I never would have guessed it was a Bacharach/David song hearing the Cyrkle's version which I prefer to Nelson's.  Their sitar-driven chamber pop cover of the Beatles' "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You" isn't nearly as successful.  It sounds awkward and pretentious to me although there is no denying that it is unusual.  "Two Rooms" by the band's drummer, Marty Fried and "The Visit (She Was Here)" written by Bodie Chandler and Edward McKendry are soft rock akin to the Association.  They bore me.  Despite its flaws, I find this album's blend of folk-rock and sunshine pop to be appealing and I think fans of either genre will find stuff to appreciate here.  Recommended to fans of the Sunshine Company. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Wadsworth Mansion - Wadsworth Mansion

Wadsworth Mansion
Wadsworth Mansion
Sussex SXBS 7008

When I was a kid I really liked this Rhode Island band's lone hit single "Sweet Mary" which I heard on the radio.  When I stumbled across their album many years later, I bought it, happy to finally have my own copy of the song.  I was disappointed when I actually gave it a spin, the song seemed a lot less vibrant than I remembered.  I chalked that up to the folly of youth until I heard the single again and realized it was different from the album version.  I'm not sure if they used a different take, but the single has instrumental overdubs and the vocals sound like they are higher in the mix.  The single is punchy and exciting, the album version sounds heavy and slow although in truth the songs move at about the same pace.  The ending is different as well, although curiously there are also two different endings for the single version, one fades out and one ends abruptly with a brief instrumental flourish on guitar and piano.  The album ends with a longer and different flourish on guitar followed by an elongated piano flourish and then some light applause.  I don't think there is any question that the single version is superior, but the album version has grown on me a bit, it has a sludgy quality I kind of like.  If you've never heard the song, it is a riff-driven rocker with a swampy groove and elaborate, almost doo-wop style vocal harmonies, sort of like Creedence Clearwater Revival crossed with the post-Capitol Beach Boys.  It is a simple song about a guy returning to his girlfriend back on the farm.  It was written by the band's lead vocalist and keyboard player, Steve Jablecki who also wrote most of the songs on the album with some assistance from his bandmates; Mike Jablecki (drums), John Poole (bass) and Wayne Gagnon (lead guitar.)  Nothing else on the album comes close to "Sweet Mary" most of it is generic early 70s rock.  The album sounds bland, there is very little variety in the instrumentation or musical texture, it could use more of the overdubs that brightened up the single version of "Sweet Mary."  My favorite song after "Sweet Mary" is "Let It Shine," an upbeat hippie-flavored song.  Some of that good feeling extends to "Havin' Such A Good Time" which has a weak melody, but a joyous chorus.  "City Gardner" [sic] is another nondescript tune redeemed by a catchy chorus.  "I Like It" is a solid, hard rocking tune reminiscent of Sugarloaf.  It really cooks.  "Long Haired Brown Eyed Girl" is the only song not written by a band member, it is credited to Leo Genereux who was in a fellow Rhode Island band called Benefit Street.  Oddly enough, considering its New England origin, it is a pretty convincing slice of southern boogie, not particularly good but it does rock.  "Michigan Harry Slaughter" is a blatant retread of "Sweet Mary" but without the hooks or the charm.  "Queenie Dew," "She Said She Would," and "Goodbye" bore me.  Is this album worth seeking out?  Probably not unless you are really into the 1970s.  Most people should just pick up the 45 of "Sweet Mary."  Recommended to fans of the Doobie Brothers.