Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Is This What You Want? - Jackie Lomax

Is This What You Want?
Jackie Lomax
Apple Records ST-3354

Last September I was surprised to see Jackie Lomax's obituary in "The New York Times."  I was not surprised by his death but rather that he got a substantial obituary in that august publication.  Of course the reason "The Times" took notice of him was his connection to the Beatles which was also the sole reason that I bought this record.  It was released by the Beatles' record label (which I collect) and was produced by George Harrison.  Harrison also played on it joining an all-star backing band that included Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Nicky Hopkins, Klaus Voormann, Hal Blaine, Larry Knechtel, Joe Osborne, Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause.  Despite all that talent, it isn't a particularly good record.  Lomax's songwriting is mediocre and he was not a strong enough singer to overcome the weak songs.  My favorite tracks are the album's two singles, "New Day" and "Sour Milk Sea" both of which flopped on the charts.  "New Day" was recorded after the original album sessions and was produced by Lomax and longtime Beatles assistant and roadie, Mal Evans.  It was not on the original British issue of the album but was added to the American issue which was released a couple of months later than its British counterpart.  It is a forceful tune bolstered by brass.  "Sour Milk Sea" was written by George Harrison who must have been feeling particularly generous towards his fellow Liverpudlian in parting with a song that is better than several of his Beatles songs of the time.  It is a hard rocking song that has a catchy chorus and some hot playing from the three Beatles, Clapton and Hopkins.  It features Lomax's best vocal on the record.  The lyrics reflect Harrison's obsession with his new religion, essentially a paean to transcendental meditation.  The other tunes are less appealing.  My favorite is "Is This What You Want?" which bears some resemblance to the Beatles' "I Am The Walrus."  "The Eagle Laughs at You" is a noisy rocker that provides some much needed energy for the album.  "Speak To Me," "Little Yellow Pills" and "You've Got Me Thinking" have good riffs and a nice soulful flavor but are undermined by Lomax's strained vocals which remind me of John Mayall (not a compliment.)  I like the strings and piano on "Sunset" which has moody lyrics that are more distinguished than the pedestrian lyrics on most of the rest of the record.  "Fall Inside Your Love" is a romantic ballad that suits Lomax's voice quite well.  "Take My Word" is only notable for its synthesizer solo which I presume comes courtesy of Beaver and Krause.  "Baby You're a Lover" and "I Just Don't Know" bore me.  It is well-known that the artists on Apple Records (who were not the Beatles) were often victimized by the label's disorganization, poor marketing and lack of direction.  That might have been the case with Lomax who seems to have had some talent, but I doubt any label or any amount of marketing would have been able to make this record a success.  I find it listenable and sporadically entertaining but when it is over not much of it sticks with me aside from "Sour Milk Sea."  That song and the green apple on the label are the only reason I keep this album.  Recommended to George Harrison completists.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Light of the Stable - Emmylou Harris

Light of the Stable
Emmylou Harris
Warner Bros.  BSK 3484

Along with "A Very She & Him Christmas" I have been playing this album a lot this Christmas.  I have had it since the 1980s but I have not played it much since then.  I pulled it out because I have started listening to my Emmylou Harris albums again after seeing her perform a fabulous show with Rodney Crowell over the summer.  It reminded me what a great singer she is and shame on me for not keeping up with her.  My initial interest in Harris stemmed from her work supporting Gram Parsons and I found I liked her own albums too.  I never really embraced this record though.  My favorite Christmas music is secular and needless to say on this record the light in the stable is not Rudolph's nose.  This record is all about Jesus, not Santa or chestnuts roasting on an open fire.  The only secular song on this album is Tex Logan's "Christmas Time's A-Coming" which is my favorite song on the record.  It is among the most country-style songs on the record with some fine pickin' on mandolin and banjo from Ricky Skaggs.  Skaggs also enlivens a lovely performance of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" with his mandolin.  I've never cared much for "Away In a Manger" but I have to admit that Harris' duet with Nancy Ahern on this song is gorgeous, the best version of this that I've ever heard with a terrific mandolin solo from Albert Lee.  Rodney Crowell's "Angel Eyes" is not a Christmas song but it does fit in with the religious flavor of the rest of the album.  Willie Nelson sings back up on the song, making it a bit less sappy than it might otherwise be.  The side ends with an a cappella performance of "The First Noel" supported by Sharon Hicks and Cheryl Warren.  My other favorite song on the record is A. L. Phipps' "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem" which is a traditional country style song with some tasty fiddling from Ricky Skaggs.  "Little Drummer Boy" was my favorite Christmas song when I was a child, but now I just find it tedious.  The song has the most robust instrumental arrangement of any of the songs on the record, which makes it a lot easier for me to listen to.  "Golden Cradle" is a traditional Irish lullabye sung as a duet with Nancy Ahern backed only by Brian Ahern on guitar.  This also isn't a Christmas song although with its lyrics describing an infant being watched over by angels in a cradle it is applicable to the baby Jesus and in that sense is consistent with the theme of the album.  "Silent Night" is beautifully sung and tastefully played, one of the best versions I've ever heard.  The album concludes with "Light of the Stable" by Steven and Elizabeth Rhymer.  It was originally released as a single in 1975 and features stellar harmony vocals from Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Neil Young.  It is not a particularly memorable song, but it sounds terrific and does give the album a strong finish.  As Christmas albums go, this one has its limitations.  My wife and son dislike it and I would not put it on for a Christmas party, but I like listening to it late at night while looking at the Christmas tree lights blinking.  My Christian days are long behind me (thank God) but I still appreciate spiritual sincerity which this album has in spades.  Plus it just sounds so lovely that I can't resist it, it is hard to believe these are the same tunes we used to butcher in church and elementary school.  Recommended to people tired of the crass commercialism of Christmas.

Friday, December 20, 2013

A Very She & Him Christmas - She & Him

A Very She & Him Christmas
She & Him
Merge Records MRG 424

This white vinyl record has been spending a lot of time on my turntable this holiday season.  When I first read that Zooey Deschanel was making records with M. Ward I didn't expect much even though I like M. Ward's solo work.  I assumed it was some movie star vanity project until I heard Deschanel's guest spot at the Living Sisters' Patsy Cline tribute concert at Disney Hall back in 2011.  I was amazed by her powerful vocal, she sounded like a young Linda Ronstadt.  I finally caught She & Him live over the summer when they played the Hollywood Bowl and I was equally impressed.  They've completely won me over.  This album features a nice mix of music.  It has several traditional pop standards like "The Christmas Waltz," "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Sleigh Ride,"  "Silver Bells" and "The Christmas Song"  It also has more contemporary rock Christmas tunes including NRBQ's "Christmas Wish" (which features Ward on lead vocal,) Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," Elvis' "Blue Christmas" and a pair of tunes from the Beach Boys "Christmas Day" and "Little Saint Nick."  My favorite song on the record is the duet performance of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" which I know best in Dean Martin's lascivious version.  Deschanel sings the seductive part traditionally assigned to male performers of the song to winning effect.  It is a charming performance.  The arrangements on the album are tasteful and spare, mostly Ward laying down reverb-heavy guitar licks augmented occasionally by some simple piano runs from Deschanel (as well as a ukelele on "Silver Bells" and "Little Saint Nick") and, on the uptempo numbers, drumming from Jim Keltner.   This is the sort of Christmas record that appeals to me the most, traditional without being sappy as well as being cool while still being sincere.  Deschanel has a warm, engaging voice and I find that listening to this record inevitably lifts my spirits.  It brings back some of the magic of Christmas music that I felt listening to my parents' Christmas records as a child.  I know I will be listening to it for many Christmases to come.  Recommended to sentimental hipsters.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Stardust - Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson
Columbia JC 35305

Over the summer I finally caught Willie Nelson live when he played a show at the Hollywood Bowl.  He performed this album in its entirety backed up by his band and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.  I would have been happier if he was performing "Shotgun Willie" or "Red Headed Stranger" as I have never been a fan of this album.  When it came out I was a teenager with no appreciation for the classic pop standards and I regarded it as Nelson selling out to the mainstream.  I eventually picked up a used copy because I was a fan of the man, but I didn't play it much.  As I matured I came to like the standards, but even then when I wanted to hear them I was more likely to put on Sinatra, Tony Bennett or Ella Fitzgerald.  However at the Bowl I found myself thoroughly enjoying Nelson's performances of these venerable tunes.  He's not a great crooner, but he humanizes the songs and sings them with considerable grace and feeling.  So I've started playing this album again and I have to admit I was completely wrong about it.  The album opens with "Stardust" by Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish which introduces Nelson's style on the album, an intimate and understated performance of the song that focuses on the words of the song rather than the virtuoso technique of the singer.  Aside from "Moonlight in Vermont" I've heard these songs countless times starting with my father's own record collection, yet for the most part Nelson's performances are the first time I've ever really listened to them and connected to them.  Nelson's humble and respectful approach emphasizes the casual lyrical brilliance of these songs and their enchanting melodies are brought out by excellent arrangements from Booker T. Jones who also plays keyboards on the record.  Unlike the full blown orchestral arrangements at Nelson's Bowl concert, Jones used a small number of musicians playing quietly in the background only emerging to fill the empty spaces in the song and to deliver compelling and tasteful solos that enhance the emotional appeal of the songs.  On "Stardust" (and nearly all of the rest of the album) it is a tasteful harmonica and delicate guitar runs that provide the color to the song.  Jones deserves a lot of credit for the success of Nelson's approach.  This is particularly evident in Nelson's versions of Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell's "Georgia On My Mind" and Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies."  I can't hear the former without thinking of Ray Charles' classic performance and the latter is inextricably linked to Al Jolson in my mind.  Jones' minimalist arrangements and Nelson's radically different interpretation of the songs, quiet and wistful as opposed to Charles' passion and Jolson's exuberance, get me to listen to the songs as if I had never heard them before.  This is also true of Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons' "All of Me" which I associate with Sinatra's swinging version and Alex North and Hy Zaret's "Unchained Melody" which I've heard a gazillion times via the Righteous Brothers' melodramatic Phil Spectorized recording.  Nelson gets me to listen freshly to songs I've heard too many times.  The exception to this is the opening song on side two, Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's "September Song" which is a song I've long loved and never grown tired of.  I'm a big admirer of Weill and this is easily my favorite song on the record.  I'm not all that crazy about Nelson's relaxed performance of Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields' "On the Sunny Side of the Street" which I prefer in Louis Armstrong's classic recording from the 1930s.  John Blackburn and Karl Suessdorf's "Moonlight in Vermont" I only know from jazz instrumentals.  My father had it on one of his Sinatra albums, but I never paid attention to it.  Nelson's tender vocal opened up the song to me and it really sends me, such a great song.  Duke Ellington and Bob Russell's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" is a song I know mostly from Ella Fitzgerald's classic cover.  This song features a more sprightly vocal from Nelson than the rest of the record, but I don't think it is quite sprite enough.  The song needs more energy.  George and Ira Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me" is another song I've loved since the first time I heard it.  Ella Fitzgerald has my favorite cover of it, but I like Nelson's take on the song nearly as much.  It is the most emotionally compelling track on the album.  I think the secret to the appeal of this album is its mixture of genres.  The songs are indisputably sophisticated pop, but Nelson's vocals are country-flavored and the instrumentation is that of soft rock, folk and quiet soul.  I could play this record after listening to a Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen album and it would not sound out of place.  It is all covers but it sounds personal and heartfelt and that's what I'm usually looking for in a good album.  Recommended to fans of Patsy Cline, another country singer who knew how to make a pop standard her own.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Chelsea Girl - Nico

Chelsea Girl
Verve V-5032

A mono pressing of Nico's debut album.  I was watching a dvd of a Nico concert from much later in her career and after the show some college kid interviewed a bored Nico in her dressing room.  He asked her why there were no songs from this album in her repertoire.  Her response was something like they weren't her songs, although that did not stop her from performing in her concert all of the Velvet Underground songs she sang on their debut album.  I know what she meant though, this record is completely unlike all her other records, it attempts to mold her into a pop chanteuse with commercial appeal.  Good luck with that.  The liner notes compare her to Mary Travers (which is ludicrous) but I think the real role model here for producer Tom Wilson and arranger Larry Fallon was Judy Collins.  This record sounds a lot like the chamber pop and genteel folk rock albums Collins cut with Joshua Rifkin in the mid-1960s.  That is practically the opposite of Nico's personal style which emphasizes minimalist rock and roll and moody drones.  Despite Fallon and Wilson's meddling, the presence of Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison and John Cale both as musicians and as songwriters throughout the record still gives it the feel of an extension of "The Velvet Underground & Nico" although much less charged.  The album begins however with the first of three songs written by Jackson Browne who had a romantic relationship with Nico for awhile.  "The Fairest of the Seasons" was co-written with Gregory Copeland and features a delicate guitar accompaniment from Browne bolstered by strings.  The song is typical of Browne as he verbosely considers commitment issues.  If he were singing it I'd be bored, but the inherent drama in Nico's deep voice makes the song seem profound, even moving.  The string arrangement is heavy-handed, but I think the instrumental color it provides greatly enhances the feeble tune.  Browne also wrote "These Days" which has identical accompaniment.  I'm no fan of Browne's own version of this song, it sounds phony to me, but Nico's worldly persona and the heavy grain of her vocal give the song the gravity and feeling it needs to overcome Browne's glib cleverness.  It is one of my favorite songs on the album.  "Little Sister" was written by John Cale and Lou Reed and its dark, romantic lyrics are more consistent with Nico's gothic persona.  Cale's droning organ is also more in keeping with Nico's personal style although the song also features strings and a flute that apparently Nico found very upsetting.  Admittedly the cheery chamber pop that results works against the dark tone of the song, but it does not bother me too much.  This is more of a problem with John Cale's bleak "Winter Song" where the flute and strings are truly obtrusive and completely undermine the feeling of the rest of the song.  This is unfortunate because the song is otherwise perfect for Nico.  Side one ends with "It Was a Pleasure Then" by Cale, Reed and Nico.  This is the song on the album that is truest to Nico's style.  It is a minimalist tune featuring Nico solemnly intoning the gloomy lyrics with Reed noodling around on guitar emitting occasional shrieks of feedback and Cale brutally sawing away on his viola.  No chamber pop on this one, it reflects both Nico's past with the experimentally minded Velvet Underground and the uncompromising and personal music she would make in the future.  A great song.  Side two opens with Reed and Sterling Morrison's "Chelsea Girls" which is based on the Andy Warhol film of the same name that Nico appeared in.  It is the song that sounds most like Nico's work on "The Velvet Underground & Nico" aside from the string arrangement and flute which once again undermine the dark lyrics of the song.  The song sticks pretty close to the film, but you don't need to have seen the film to understand the lyrics which are typical of the detached descriptions of decadence favored by Reed in songs like "Venus in Furs" and "Femme Fatale" and it ranks with Reed's best work from that period.  Nico's vocal is mesmerizing, I wish I could erase the strings and flute from it, it would be a masterpiece.  "I'll Keep It With Mine" was written by Bob Dylan another paramour of Nico's.  According to her, he wrote the song about her and her baby and gave her an acetate of it to record.  She waited too long though and Judy Collins beat her to it.  It was also sung by Sandy Denny with Fairport Convention on their second album, "Fairport Convention."  Nico's performance is surprisingly energetic, she sounds very inspired.  Nico is a far more limited singer than Denny or Collins but I think this is the definitive version of the song.  "Somewhere There's A Feather" is another Jackson Browne song which Nico sings with engaging enthusiasm.  The optimism expressed by the lyrics couldn't be further from Nico's oeuvre, but she sounds very convincing crooning it and to his credit Browne manages to restrain his usual long-winded approach to write a direct and lovely song.  "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams" was written by Lou Reed for the Velvet Underground.  If you think Nico is a bad singer you should check out the Velvets' demo on the box set, "Peel Slowly and See" featuring John Cale on lead vocal.  The song sounds dreary and lifeless in the Velvet's version, Nico's version is so much more vibrant and appealing.  On this tune the string arrangement makes the song stronger.  The album concludes with Tim Hardin's "Eulogy to Lenny Bruce."  This song has a very minimal arrangement relying on the intimacy of Nico's vocal to carry the song much like most of her later solo work.  The song is about Lenny Bruce who had recently died and the song decries his drug use which seems pretty ironic coming from Hardin, a longtime junkie who would also die from a drug overdose (and of course Nico herself was no stranger to drug addiction either.)  I think this album is largely a betrayal of Nico as an artist, but I still like it.  Yes it is over-produced, but the songs are terrific and suit her voice and persona extremely well.  In contrast to the gloom and doom she projected on her later records, on this album Nico sounds lively, even charming at times.  As a big chamber pop fan, I often like the sound of the record even when it works against Nico's vision.  Besides the compelling quality in Nico's deep dramatic voice ultimately transcends Wilson's attempt to smother her with pretty music, her inner darkness can't be suppressed.  Unlike her later records where the unrelenting gloom of the music can be wearying (to me at least), this album, with its dynamic tension between the singer and the music, is consistently interesting and stimulating.  Recommended to people who prefer "Femme Fatale" over "Heroin."