Saturday, September 28, 2013

You Were On My Mind - Ian and Sylvia and The Great Speckled Bird

You Were On My Mind
Ian and Sylvia and The Great Speckled Bird
Columbia KC 31337

The end of the road for Ian and Sylvia Tyson after a long and wonderful journey.  Appropriately their final album was recorded at Toronto Sound in Toronto the city where they first met and began their career together.  They revived the name of their country-rock group, the Great Speckled Bird, for this album but only drummer N. D. Smart remained from the line up that recorded "The Great Speckled Bird" album.  The record gets off to a rousing start with a cover of Robbie Robertson's "Get Up Jake."  The Band recorded it for their album "The Band" but left it off the record and it was later a B-side on one of their singles.  Ian and Sylvia always had excellent taste in their choice of outside music to cover and this is no exception.  They give it a rollicking country-rock treatment with Ian delivering a thunderous lead vocal and Sylvia providing the sweet harmony vocal for the chorus.  I greatly prefer their version to the version by the Band.  Ian's "Old Cheyenne" is an evocative rodeo song, the sort of song Ian has always excelled at.  It is country-folk until the chorus where Peter Ecklund's trumpet kicks in, giving it more of a pop feel.  Sylvia sings lead on the joint Ian and Sylvia composition "Antelope" which is indeed about antelopes.  I find her plaintive vibrato-laden vocal very touching as she delivers her ecology-themed lyrics.  Sylvia also sings lead on her song "Miriam" which is one of the more unusual songs in the Ian and Sylvia catalog.  She is accompanied solely by a piano and a quartet of cellos giving the song a chamber pop sound as she sings about her lost friendship with the title character.  The traditional gospel song "Lonesome Valley" gets a funky country rock treatment notable for Jim Colegrove's big bass groove and some slinky guitar riffs from David Wilcox and Ben Keith.  The Tysons trade lead vocals on the verses and sing the chorus together backed up by harmonies from the band for a very energized and vigorous sound.  Side two opens with a new version of Sylvia's famous song "You Were On My Mind" which the duo first recorded on their classic 1964 album "Northern Journey."  The new version is a bouncy country rock version punctuated with some piercing steel guitar lines from Ben Keith and trumpet riffs from Peter Ecklund.  I can't say I prefer it to the original but it is definitely more lively.  Sylvia's "Joshua" is a traditional style folk song, although with Sylvia playing harpsichord and chimes it has a chamber pop feel to it.  Ian's "You're Not Alone Anymore" returns the album to country music.  Ian delivers a very robust and romantic vocal for this love song.  Ian also wrote "Salmon In the Sea" which is another ecology-minded ode to nature akin to "Antelope."  It is a folk song with a lovely combined vocal from the Tysons.  The joint composition "The Beginning of the End" is pure country with an emotional vocal from Ian and a beautiful harmony vocal from Sylvia.  It is a song about heartbreak and separation and I'm tempted to think it is about their impending break-up like "Everybody Has To Say Goodbye" on "Ian & Sylvia," but it lacks the personal quality of that song.  The song that I think most reflects the state of their marriage is the album closer, Sylvia's "Bill (Won't You Please Take Me Home)" which is my favorite original song on the album.  It is about a married couple who go to a party where the husband meets up with an old flame from the past.  She sees them dancing and realizes that he loves his old girlfriend more than he loves her.  The party in the song may be fiction, but the poignant quality of Sylvia's heartbroken lead vocal suggests to me that the feeling of loss she is expressing is real.  I find it very moving.  It is a powerful song that gives the album a strong finish.  I'm consistently engaged and entertained by this album, but it is bittersweet to me since it was their final record.  Since I first heard Ian and Sylvia as a teen, I've always felt a deep emotional connection to their music, they are among my very favorite pop artists.  I enjoy their solo records too, but they don't have the same resonance for me as their joint work.  The beauty, the idealism and the passion expressed in their work as a couple is inspiring to me and I'll always treasure their records.  This album is a very worthy addition to their wonderful catalog and I'm happy at least that they ended their partnership with such a fine record.  Recommended to fans of Gordon Lightfoot.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Boots - Nancy Sinatra

Nancy Sinatra
Reprise RS 6202

Last month I saw Wilco down in Irvine as part of Bob Dylan's Americanarama tour.  When they announced they had a special guest I was expecting some local country rocker, but instead I was flabbergasted when Nancy Sinatra walked out.  She slayed the crowd with performances of "Bang Bang" and "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'."  We all sang along with the latter tune, a testimony to its iconic pop culture status.  I'm a fan of the song and Sinatra, but I have to think that if her father hadn't been the most famous singer in the world who happened to have his own record company, she probably would never have had a career.  She is a competent singer but she doesn't have her Dad's pipes and she bounced around awhile without success before Lee Hazlewood rescued her.  Hazlewood produced the album and wrote just about all of the good songs in her career.  He wrote the three best songs on this album that aren't covers, "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'," "I Move Around" and "So Long Babe."  The best is of course "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" which is one of the great songs of the era.  Its quasi-feminist message of standing up to a bad lover and Sinatra's insolent vocal have always had a lot of resonance.  The music is irresistible from the first notes of its opening descending bass riff.  The rhythm section drives the song forcefully and the song gradually builds in strength as the horns kick in.  It is one of the songs that define the mid-1960s for me.  "I Move Around" is a nice folk-rock type song about a woman traveling around aimlessly after seeing her lover with another woman.  I like the vocal but I could do without Billy Strange's heavy handed horn arrangement which sounds like something Sinatra's father would have used.  "So Long Babe" was a flop single in 1965, but it deserved more success.  It is another folk-rocker with a lot of pop appeal that reminds me of Jackie DeShannon.  The song is a tender farewell to a failed music performer.  The rest of the album consists of covers of contemporary hits except for "In My Room" and "If He'd Love Me"  "In My Room" was adapted by Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss from a Spanish song by Joaquin Prieto entitled "El Amor."  It is a grandiose, melodramatic song with a strong Spanish flavor to it.  It has her best vocal performance on the album, but I don't think her voice is quite strong enough to do it justice.  There is a superior version of the song on the Walker Brothers' album, "Portrait" which was released a few months after this record.  "If He'd Love Me" was written by Miriam Eddy who was married to Duane Eddy and would later become a well-known country singer under the name Jessi Colter in the 1970s.  It is a plaintive pop ballad that is at odds with the tough girl image projected by the rest of the album.  She sings it with a lot of feeling and though the song is overwhelmed at times by the heavy-handed arrangement, I like her interpretation's sensitivity.  The covers are a mixed bag.  She gives "As Tears Go By" a cocktail jazz interpretation which is perhaps not a bad idea considering the false worldliness of the lyrics, but I think her vocal lacks feeling.  There are two Beatles covers. The horn driven version of "Day Tripper" reprises the downward bass line from "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'."  The song's arrangement sounds too Vegas-like for my taste but the song does suit her voice and tough girl persona really well.  "Run For Your Life" is one of the most obnoxious and misogynistic songs in the Beatles' catalog.  I've never liked it much.  She changes the gender so that the creepy stalker-type singing it is now a woman.  I don't think that makes it a better song, but it does make it more compelling to me.  She sings it very convincingly.  Her cover of Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe" is clearly modeled on the Turtles' folk-rock hit but I don't like it nearly as much.  The horns are obtrusive and her vocal sounds stiff and insincere even though the theme of the song suits her persona.  She does better with the less demanding cover of the Knickerbockers' "Lies."  Her version lacks the frenzied intensity of the original, but it is grittier and is delivered with gusto.  I would like it better though if the twangy guitar was higher in the mix and the horns toned down.  Lew DeWitt's "Flowers on the Wall" was a big hit for the Statler Brothers.  The song was clearly written from a male perspective but Sinatra changes the gender which makes the song more interesting.  She sings it very effectively and it is my favorite of the covers.  There are way too many covers on this record for me to consider it a good album, but it is fun and entertaining to listen to.  I think its greatest significance lies in its attitude.  After decades of riot grrls and female punk rockers, the record may seem pretty tame to the kids, but there were not a lot of rock albums like this being made by women in the mid-1960s.  It's aggressive in-your-face stance is pure rock and roll even when the music isn't.  Sinatra's tough and sexy persona paved the way for generations of female rockers to come.  Recommended to Jackie DeShannon fans who wish she wasn't so nice.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Ian & Sylvia - Ian and Sylvia

Ian & Sylvia
Ian and Sylvia
Columbia C 30736

There are no bad Ian and Sylvia albums.  If you are a fan of the duo, you should buy all of them, but I wouldn't make this one a priority.  It is actually not all that easy to find since it did not sell much when it was originally released.  It was their first album for Columbia Records and the penultimate studio album in their career.  The duo had moved from folk and folk-rock to a more country rock sound that suited them extremely well although they did not abandon their folk roots completely.  The album opens on a positive note with David Wiffen's "More Often Than Not."  Wiffen also wrote one of my favorite Tom Rush songs, "Driving Wheel."  It is a sparkling country-pop tune sung by Ian with vocal sweetening from Sylvia that describes the life of a musician on the road.  It is a terrific song, one of my favorites on the album.  The album takes a nose dive with the sappy love song, "Creators of Rain."  It is credited to Smokey which is a pseudonym for a guy named Larry Mims who had recorded it with his sister back in the 1960s under the name Smokey and his Sister.  Ian and Sylvia sing it beautifully but it is still a crummy song and the corny string arrangement doesn't help it any.  According to John Einarson's book on Ian and Sylvia, Columbia Records executive Clive Davis forced them to record the song against their will which I can easily believe since Ian and Sylvia normally have unfailingly excellent taste in covers.  The album rebounds with Ian's "Summer Wages" which is a remake of a song he recorded back in 1967 in a folk-rock version for "So Much For Dreaming."  I don't know why he chose to record it again, but I have to admit that the country flavored version on this album is more satisfying.  Ian sings it with a lot of feeling and Sylvia's harmony vocal on the chorus is divine.  The song is about bumming around and the transience of love narrated with very evocative imagery.  I think it is one of Ian's best all-time songs and it is my favorite song on the album.  Sylvia sings lead on her composition "Midnight" which is a slow bluesy love song.  Her sensuous vocal really sends me and there is a nice sultry guitar solo from David Wilcox as well.  Ian and Sylvia co-wrote "Barney" which is a gut-wrenching autobiographical account of him shooting his favorite horse to put it out of misery.  It has a stark arrangement, largely driven by Sylvia's piano playing that puts all the focus on Ian's heartbreaking vocal.  It is an incredible song, one of the most moving and powerful songs in their long career.  Side two kicks off with Ian's "Some Kind of Fool" which is a charming country rock love song forcefully sung by Ian.  Ian's "Shark and the Cockroach" is a goofy country-rocker with a swamp rock flavor that features a gritty vocal from Ian embellished with some yodels.  Next is a cover of John Dawson's "Last Lonely Eagle" which appeared in a superior version on the debut album by the New Riders of the Purple Sage.  Ian and Sylvia sing it as a mournful duet with sparse accompaniment with a little instrumental color coming from Weldon Myrick on steel guitar.  Of course Ian and Sylvia sing it great, I'd listen to them sing just about anything but I still find the song kind of boring.  I don't really care much either for "Lincoln Freed Me" which was written by singer/songwriter David Patton.  As you can probably tell from the title it is written from the point of view of a freed slave.  Ian and Sylvia duet on this as well accompanied only by David Wilcox on guitar.  It galls me to write this, but I prefer the version by Joan Baez on "Blessed Are..." not because she sings it better than them (as if!) but because of the more elaborate instrumental arrangement on her version.  Sylvia takes a solo turn on Bert Jansch's "Needle of Death."  It also only features Wilcox on guitar for instrumental support but it is such a strong song that it really doesn't need anything more than that.  Sylvia sings it with a lot of feeling and this is one of my favorite versions of that oft-covered classic.  The album concludes with Sylvia's "Everybody Has To Say Goodbye" which is about breaking up.  It is a majestic tune driven by a strong organ line and some tasteful strings.  The heartbreaking lyrics are so strong and vivid I feel like Sylvia must be writing from her heart envisioning the imminent end of her marriage and partnership with Ian.  I've loved Ian and Sylvia since I was a teenager, it really tears me up to listen it, almost as if I were listening to my own parents breaking up.  It provides a beautiful and emotional conclusion to the album.  This album is too spotty to rank with the best Ian and Sylvia albums but it still features some of the best music they ever did.  I would include the remake of "Summer Wages," "Barney" and "Everybody Has To Say Goodbye" among their very best songs and the album is worth seeking out just for them.  Aside from "Creators of Rain" even the weaker songs have much merit.  Ian and Sylvia may have been nearing the end of their road together, but this album shows that they still had plenty of vitality and creativity.  It deserved a better fate, it was largely ignored upon its release failing to even crack the top 200 albums chart in sales.  I like it better than a lot of the other albums that came out in 1971 and recommend it to anyone who values emotional honesty in music.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Swoon - Silversun Pickups

Silversun Pickups
Dangerbird Records  DGB035V

This is the deluxe version of the band's second album.  I normally avoid that sort of thing, but I found this at a price below what the album itself was selling for at the time, so I jumped on it.  I believe it originally cost around 80 or 90 bucks which is absurd.  The deluxe version comes in a box (first two pictures above) and includes the double record gatefold album (next three pictures), a booklet (bottom picture) that features pictures of the band and lyrics, a t-shirt, some buttons and stickers, and a lithograph of the cover art for the album (all of the art work is taken from paintings by Darren Waterston.)  Although they are a local band, I did not catch them live until they were already an established act to my subsequent regret.  I first became aware of them when I saw them on a local music show and then saw the video for "Well Thought Out Twinkles" which blew me away.  When I did finally see them live I knew they were the real deal, it was a thrilling show.  This is my favorite of their three full length albums.  Side A opens with "There's No Secrets This Year."  It is a break-up song in which the protagonist explains why he is leaving.  The song is typical of the band's sound - an insistent and distorted guitar riff, Brian Aubert's urgent, breathy vocal, Christopher Guanlao's hyperactive drumming and a hypnotic, pulsing bass line from Nikki Monninger.  The relationship troubles continue with "The Royal We" which uses imagery of war and violence to describe an impending break-up.  The song starts slow, driven by the drone of Joe Lester's synth, but then the drums kick in and the song rocks out big time with lots of guitar and synth noise and a passionate vocal from Aubert.  It is one of my favorite songs on the album.  Side B begins with "Growing Old is Getting Old" which is about growing old comfortably and gracefully.  The song is driven by a melodic bass riff from Monninger with atmospheric synth work from Lester.  Then the song shifts gears about two thirds of the way through with an exciting rave up that carries the song to its finish.  The side concludes with "Nice To Know You Work Alone" which is another break-up song with some very evocative lyrics, very powerful.  The hard rocking verses are driven by steady riffing from Aubert's guitar and Monninger's bass, but the more melodic chorus is dominated by the ethereal sounds from Lester on his synthesizer and a string section. Their big hit off the album "Panic Switch" is the opening track on Side C.  It is an extraordinary song laced with anxiety and desperation.  It is enigmatic but I believe it refers to another deteriorating relationship.  It features a killer bass riff from Monninger which propels the song with relentless energy supplemented by Guanlao's manic drumming.  I've heard this super-charged song countless times and I still find it mesmerizing.  It is my favorite of all their songs.  There are more love woes in "Draining" which is about being exhausted by a bad relationship.  This is a slower and moodier tune with a pretty instrumental passage in the middle.  Slow or fast, the Silversun Pickups' music is always compelling.  They ramp up the energy again for "Sort Of" which also features love problems, but it has a slightly more optimistic tone as Aubert urges his lover to keep reaching for him.  Musically it resembles "Panic Switch" with another fabulous bass riff and sustained musical tension.  Side D starts with "Substitution" which is full of bleak imagery as the song describes outside forces that threaten his relationship but there is some hope as Aubert offers his lover his supply of stones to throw at their detractors.  The song has a lot of guitar noise but it is poppy and upbeat as well which reinforces it's more positive spirit.  "Catch and Release" uses fishing metaphors to grimly describe a seduction.  It is another slow, moody song whose melancholy feeling is accentuated by mournful string passages.  "Surrounded (or Spiraling)" is the darkest and bitterest song on an album full of dark, bitter songs.  It is a devastating portrait of a relationship that has turned into "our little hell."  The song describes the downward spiral of a relationship from its promising beginning to lies and recriminations.  It is a noisy, rocked up song with a desperate vocal from Aubert that provides a fittingly gloomy and intense finale for an album that examines the ugly side of love with unrelenting confessions of despair and an almost masochistic honesty.  Despite the downbeat subject matter, I find the album exhilarating to listen to.  The music is so energetic and sincere that it is very emotionally stimulating which I think is a quality lacking in a lot of alternative rock.  The lack of irony and the commitment to self-expression and truth on this album is something I respect and admire.  I consider this to be one of the best albums of the past decade, there is not a mediocre song on it and it features a consistently high level of musical and lyrical creativity.  Recommended to anyone who has ever been in a bad relationship.