Friday, April 26, 2013
Columbia SCX 6063
Over Under Sideways Down
Epic LN 24210
Depending on your opinion of "Little Games," this was arguably the only legitimate studio album the Yardbirds ever produced which is surprising considering how many years the band was around and how influential they were. I have both the British version and its inferior American counterpart. The British one is sometimes referred to as "Roger the Engineer" because of the caption of rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja's cover drawing. Dreja's drawings also appear on the back cover along with humorous liner notes by drummer Jim McCarty - my favorite is "It has often been said that Jeff Beck is one of the leading guitarists in the country, and I'm inclined to agree with him." The Epic release dropped the drawings and the liner notes in favor of the silly picture of the band on the cover and a dull publicity blurb on the reverse. They also dropped two songs, "Rack My Mind" and "The Nazz Are Blue" which are definitely not superfluous tunes on the original release. So why do I have the Epic album? Partly as a stupid collector thing - the Yardbirds are one of my favorite bands. Mostly though because the mono version of the album has some different mixes of the songs. It is an impressive album, entirely self-penned by Dreja, McCarty, Beck, vocalist Keith Relf and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith who also doubled as producer on the album (with Simon Napier Bell.) From an instrumental standpoint the Yardbirds were one of the most progressive and exciting groups to come out of the British Invasion, but early in their career they were completely dependent on outside songwriters for their material. That plus Relf's weak vocals kept the group from being a top tier group, but once they started writing their own songs the group took off. No one is going to mistake these guys for Lennon and McCartney or Ray Davies but the songs on this album are eclectic and appealing. The record opens with "Lost Women" ("Lost Woman" on the U.S. release) which is one of the best songs on the album. Although the band takes songwriting credit, the song is actually a slightly reworked version of the Snooky Pryor song "Someone To Love Me" which had been in the live repertoire of the band when Eric Clapton was in the group. The lyrics have been changed into a banal diatribe against a woman, which is all too typical of the band's oeuvre - when it comes to misogyny they are almost as bad as the Rolling Stones. Musically though, it is extraordinary with Beck playing slashing chords over a dynamic bass riff - a blueprint for a decade of hard rock and heavy metal to follow. There is a rave up with Relf on harmonica and Beck on guitar doing a call and response segment followed by a great feedback riddled guitar solo with Relf blowing like crazy on top that is unlike any rock record of its time. There is an exciting outtake of this song released under the title "Someone to Love" that features an even longer instrumental solo where Beck essentially invents psychedelic guitar playing. Truly a landmark in hard rock history. "Over, Under, Sideways Down" was the single off the album. It is a highly propulsive tune with Beck's frenzied fuzzed out riffing capturing the confusion and mania described by the lyrics. The rave up at the end is wonderful. "The Nazz are Blue" is lifted from Elmore James' "Dust My Broom" and features Beck on lead vocal demonstrating that he is an even weaker singer than Relf. His guitar playing however is smoking hot - some of his best work with the band. It is outrageous that Epic chose to omit this from the album. Beck plays some stinging licks on "I Can't Make Your Way" as well, unfortunately they are buried too deep in the mix to make their full impact. The mono version on the U.S. album has a drum beat at the beginning of the song that is missing from my U.K. stereo version. "Rack My Mind" is derived from Slim Harpo's "Baby Scratch My Back", when it comes to ripping off old bluesmen, the Yardbirds were practically as bad as Led Zeppelin. Thanks to Beck's stinging guitar lines, the Yardbirds' version is more exciting than Harpo's cut. "Farewell" is an arty song with mildly pretentious lyrics describing a depressing vision of life culminating with the narrator's withdrawal from the world and suicide. It features a child-like tune plunked out on piano by Dreja. If poetic lyrics aren't your cup of tea, then "Hot House of Omagararshid" is the song for you. It is arguably the stupidest song the band ever did, consisting of the phrase "ya ya ya" endlessly repeated over a bubbly musical background. The song becomes a little more interesting at the end when Beck starts playing. The mono version on the U.S. album features a completely different guitar solo that is a lot more impressive than the one on the U.K. album even if it does sound like it was recorded for an entirely different song. The instrumental "Jeff's Boogie" is based on Chuck Berry's "Guitar Boogie" but I don't think there is any question that Beck completely shreds the original. It is one of my all-time favorite Yardbirds cuts. "He Always There" is a catchy rocker driven by Beck's fuzz guitar which goes wild at the end. The U.S. mono version has a longer fade out so you get to hear more of Beck's howling solo. Like "Farewell," "Turn Into Earth" is another slow gloomy track with pretentious lyrics poetically describing the narrator's depressed state. The song would be better if Beck's guitar playing wasn't buried so far down in the mix as to be practically inaudible. On the mono version, the drum pattern that introduces the song goes on a few seconds longer than on the U.K. stereo version. "What Do You Want" is a powerful rocker with more fiery Beck guitar playing throughout and a feedback drenched rave-up at the end that ends way too soon. It another one of the best cuts on the album. "Ever Since the World Began" starts out slow and gloomy like a retread of "Still I'm Sad" lamenting human greed, then it abruptly shifts gears to become a jaunty rocker with a driving bass line and a repeated chorus of "you don't need money" - an apt motto for this hard luck band that never really got their due. I think during his tenure with the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck was the best guitarist in rock something that is amply demonstrated with his brilliant work on this album. Through his playing Beck transforms these mildly interesting songs into some of the most extraordinary music to come out in 1966 - and there was a heck of a lot of great music that came out that year. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that the Yardbirds with Jeff Beck were at the forefront of the invention of heavy metal and psychedelic rock. I suppose that after nearly 50 years since its original release, the kids might find this record kind of tame, but I still think it sounds terrific. I remember hearing it for the first time back in the late 1970s and being blown away. I found it infinitely preferable to Aerosmith or Blue Oyster Cult or any of the other hard rock bands that followed in its wake. It still sounds fresh and exciting to me. Recommended to people who think "The Train Kept a-Rollin" is a better song than "Welcome to the Jungle."
Saturday, April 20, 2013
Reflections in A Crystal Wind
Mimi and Richard Fariña
Vanguard VSD 79204
I recently finished reading Richard Fariña's semi-autobiographical novel about college life, "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me." I'm probably too old now to fully appreciate the novel, but I'm sure I would have been crazy about it back in my 20s. Fariña seems to have been influenced by Kesey and Kerouac who were among my favorite writers back then. Now I find the protagonist's narcissism and misogyny annoying, but the novel is well-written and imaginative. It prompted me to pull out the two albums he did with his wife prior to his death in 1966. Their first one, "Celebrations For a Grey Day," is my favorite of the two, but this one is not far behind. They are both full of stimulating and entertaining music. This one has more folk-rock than its predecessor with four tracks featuring an electric guitar, keyboards and a rhythm section. "Hard-Loving Loser" is my favorite of the four. It is a rollicking song reminiscent of Dylan's folk-rock songs on "Bringing It All Back Home" with an instrumental rave-up at the end. The song's protagonist resembles the hero of Fariña's novel. "Sell-Out Agitation Waltz" and "House Un-American Blues Activity Dream" use the propulsive force of rock and roll to add urgency to the torrent of politically charged imagery Fariña unleashes in the songs. Both songs are duets that show that Richard and Mimi can do folk-rock vocals more effectively than most of their folkie peers. "Mainline Prosperity Blues" is an ode to dope-induced idleness and dropping out that shows that the blues wasn't Richard's forte as a vocalist. I'm a rock guy, but my favorite songs on the album are the folk songs. I think the best one is the traditional sounding "Bold Marauder" which is a dark depiction of violent menace sung as a duet by Richard and Mimi. "Reflections in a Crystal Wind" is also a duet but it is the polar opposite of "Bold Marauder." It is a highly poetic examination of love and separation with a cheerful melody. "Raven Girl" is another traditional sounding song sung as a duet. The sinister yet romantic imagery in this gothic song is very impressive, I think it is one of their best songs. Mimi has a lovely lead vocal on "A Swallow Song" which is dedicated to her sister Joan Baez. The courtly sounding music of this song appears to have been lifted from an old Ladino song called "Los Bilbilicos" which Fariña's first wife Carolyn Hester recorded on her 1962 album, "Carolyn Hester" although Fariña wrote new lyrics for the song. The album concludes with the gentle "Children of Darkness" which is about finding comfort in love and companionship when violence and confusion rages around the world - which sums up the 1960s pretty well I think. There are also four instrumentals on the album, my favorite of which is "Dopico" which is a fusion of Middle Eastern and Caribbean influences which is very dynamic and energized. "Allen's Interlude" also has a Middle Eastern sound. It was named for the psychedelic artist Allen Atwell. "Miles" was named for Miles Davis for reasons that escape me since it sounds more like carnival music than jazz. "Chysanthemum" features some lovely exchanges between Mimi on guitar and Richard on dulcimer. I'm a big fan of the Fariñas and I think their two albums are among the best records of their era. They brought the integrity, intelligence and personal quality of 1960s folk music to the accessibility and energy of rock with great artistic success. I think their two albums need to be included with the work of Dylan and the Byrds as being among the most significant folk-rock achievements. Listening to these wonderful records I can't help but wonder what the Fariñas might have gone on to accomplish had Richard not taken that fatal motorcycle ride that silenced one of the great original voices in popular music. Recommended to people seeking intelligence in pop music.
Monday, April 15, 2013
Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers
Columbia CS 9418
I've mentioned in some of my posts on the Byrds how much I admire Gene Clark. He was my favorite member of the group and I'll always despise David Crosby for being such a jerk to him while he was in the band. I think he was a better singer and songwriter than Crosby or McGuinn. I like Clark's solo records as well and this is my favorite, one of my most treasured records, an original pressing of his debut album. It features two of his former bandmates as a rhythm section, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke in addition to Glen Campbell, ex-Leaves Bill Rinehart and future Byrd Clarence White on guitar and Leon Russell on keyboards. Vern and Rex Gosdin provide back-up vocals and somehow end up with co-billing on the album, apparently because Clark's manager Jim Dickson wanted to plug his other clients, the Gosdins. The album opens with the chamber pop, "Echoes" which is one of the most extraordinary songs Clark ever wrote. The song is poorly served by Leon Russell's fussy arrangement but the lyrics are brilliant. Most of Clark's songs with the Byrds had been some sort of love song which makes the Dylanesque poetic impressionism of this song all the more striking. I picture Clark strolling along the Sunset Strip pondering his current situation ending up at the Byrds's former haunt The Whisky a Go Go (the woman mentioned in the song, Regina, was a dancer there.) The imagery of the song really sends me and shows his growing depth as an artist. "Think I'm Gonna Feel Better" is a return to the themes and folk-rock sound of Clark's work with the Byrds not that there is anything wrong with that. The jangly country rock of "Tried So Hard" is immensely appealing to me. I've loved this song ever since I first heard Fairport Convention's cover version on "Heyday." Clark's own version is even better with a heartfelt vocal ably supported by the sweet harmonies of the Gosdins. The lyrics which describe dealing with heartbreak are evocative and moving without being maudlin. I think this is one of the best songs Clark ever wrote. I never get tired of hearing it. "Is Yours Is Mine" is more Byrdsian folk-rock. It sounds like it is about a girl, but it makes me think of his departure from the Byrds as well. "Keep On Pushin'" is another country rock song with lots of jangly guitar and a propulsive beat. Hillman's throbbing bass drives the song which is about encouragement and commitment. "I Found You" has a catchy guitar rift and loads of hooks that make it another of one of the more memorable songs on the record. Side two opens with "So You Say You Lost Your Baby" which opens with some promising stinging guitar lines before Leon Russell's string arrangement kicks in. Once again I think Russell's orchestration is obtrusive and distracting, nearly ruining one of the best songs on the album. Fortunately the song is strong enough to push through the orchestral syrup with a terrific emotional vocal from Clark leading the way. The lyrics are very poetic with lots of great imagery and the melody is very compelling. "Elevator Operator" is a riff driven garage rocker. The song is slight lyrically if not inane, but it does provide some rock and roll energy. "The Same One" is a haunting folk-rock song with an emotional Clark vocal. Nobody in rock does heartbreak better than Clark. He had the ability to describe the sensation of loss and longing without wallowing in sentiment and self-pity. "Couldn't Believe Her" is another riff-driven rocker with plenty of energy. The album concludes with the country rock "Needing Someone" which is about trust and finding direction. The Gosdins' vocals are mixed way too high, I can barely hear Clark's vocal over them. It is still a good song though and it ends the album on an upbeat optimistic note. This is such a wonderful record, it is hard to believe that it was a flop. I suppose it got lost in the shuffle with all the great albums that came out in 1967. You could argue that its emphasis on folk-rock was dated, but I don't accept that. I think the record is timeless. Aside from Leon Russell's heavy-handed arrangements on "Echoes" and "So You Say You Lost Your Baby" my only complaint about this record is that it is too short, not even a half hour long. It is full of great singing and memorable melodies, every song is good and several are great. If you are a fan of the Byrds, it is a must-have record. Recommended to people who think that Clark's "Here Without You" is a better Byrds song than Crosby's "Mind Gardens."
Sunday, April 7, 2013
Bobbie Gentry & Glen Campbell
Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell
I picked up this album last year after hearing it mentioned at the tribute to Glen Campbell concert at the Hollywood Bowl last summer. I went to the show on the spur of the moment. My mom was a fan of Campbell and we watched his variety show on television when I was a kid, but I had never followed his career very closely. Given that the show was part of his farewell tour, I knew this was my last chance to see him and I liked some of the artists in the tribute portion of the show, so I went. At first I regretted going when I saw that I was surrounded by old people. Usually when I go to a show, I'm one of the old people so that was pretty weird. Courtney Taylor-Taylor of the Dandy Warhols came out to start the show and did some Monkees and Beach Boys songs that Campbell had played guitar on as a session man. When the geezers around me saw him strut out and deliver the songs in his typical lugubrious drawl, they were practically apoplectic. He was followed by Lucinda Williams who did a few Campbell songs in her own inimitable style which resulted in the codger behind me loudly proclaiming that she couldn't sing. Then Kris Kristofferson hobbled out and croaked out a few Campbell cuts that he could barely remember the words to and all the seniors were ecstatic - at last someone they could relate to. At that point I really regretted coming, but fortunately the show picked up after that with Jenny Lewis and Dawes doing some fine work and of course the man of the hour himself delivering a remarkable show. He can still play guitar like a virtuoso issuing lightning fast runs with seemingly effortless ease. He can still sing remarkably well too, it is hard to believe that Alzheimer's disease has him in its grip. He went through his back catalog and delivered a life affirming and inspiring show. I was very impressed. Earlier in the evening Jenny Lewis and Jackson Browne did a cut from this album, "Let It Be Me," which Browne mentioned was from a duet Campbell did with Bobbie Gentry. This was when I became aware of this record. I like duet albums so the next time I was in a record store I looked for it and bought it. It isn't a very good record and pretty skimpy on top of that with 11 cuts running well under 30 minutes - typical Capitol Records. Gentry and Campbell don't have a lot of chemistry and he is a lot better singer than she is. I like her low husky voice, but her range limitations and lack of emotion are really exposed next to Campbell's full-throated ability. The man has the power to blow the doors off the barn and he hits the high notes a lot easier than she does. On most of their duets, I wish he would just sing the lead and let her supply the harmony. Most of the songs are pretty pedestrian but listenable aside from the music hall style "Terrible Tangled Web" which I hate. "Gentle on My Mind" sounded a lot better when Campbell sang it by himself and I do not need to hear another version of "Little Green Apples" - heck I really don't want to hear any version of that song. "My Elusive Dreams" sounded better when Tammy Wynette sang it with David Houston. The cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair/Canticle" is pretty much as awkward and weird as you'd expect but to his credit Campbell does sing his part very convincingly. A few songs on the album do stand out for me. Campbell's "Less of Me" was one of my favorite cuts on the Everly Brothers' "Roots." This version is nearly as good but is undermined by the overblown arrangement. He also wrote "(It's Only Your) Imagination" which is slight but enjoyable. I like Gentry's own laid back love song "Mornin' Glory" which is full of domestic charm. Margo Guryan's "Sunday Mornin'" does the same thing a whole lot better though, it is my favorite cut on the album although if I wanted to hear it, I'd be more inclined to play Guryan's own version. The above mentioned "Let It Be Me" is best known in the Everly Brothers' classic version and this version is not going to change that although it has its moments. I guess there are enough decent cuts that I don't mind having the record and I like the cover photo - you can't see it very well in my picture but Campbell is sporting a peace symbol on his necklace - groovy! Campbell was a multi-faceted and abundantly talented performer, I wish I had appreciated him more during his heyday. Recommended to people who don't believe that Campbell was a terrific singer.
Monday, April 1, 2013
London LL 3423
I was watching Jean-Luc Godard's film "Made in U.S.A." the other day and I was surprised to see Marianne Faithfull appear in the lengthy bar scene where she sings an a cappella version of her big hit "As Tears Go By." I was surprised because I've seen the film before and somehow failed to remember that she was in it and also because I read her autobiography last year and she made no mention of the film at all. I worship Godard so I find it somewhat shocking that she ignored him while describing every junkie she ever hung out with - it is a very candid book. I learned a lot reading it. I always figured she was some sweet innocent schoolgirl led into a life of vice by Mick Jagger, but she claims just the opposite. She presents herself as being a lot more decadent than him and seems to take pride in her prodigious drug abuse. It is not a pleasant book to read, but it is quite compelling. She makes mostly disparaging remarks about her early music career, which I understand, she was largely a puppet being manipulated by managers and producers, but I like those early records that she is so dismissive of. This was her debut record in the United States. It is a mix of pop and folk-pop with a chamber pop flavor. It features 3 top 40 singles, "As Tears Go By," "This Little Bird" and "Come and Stay With Me." "As Tears Go By" was the earliest, recorded when she was 17 years old. It was written by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Andrew Loog Oldham. I've always thought the song was kind of phony, full of fake worldliness that sounds particularly ridiculous coming from a teenager. The song is overproduced as well, I prefer the a cappella version in the movie. There is also a superior version that she recorded in 1966 for the B.B.C. (available on her CD "Live at the BBC.") I still prefer her original version to the one recorded by the Rolling Stones however, Jagger sounds even phonier singing it. Jackie DeShannon wrote "Come and Stay With Me" which is my favorite song on the record, perhaps my favorite song of her entire career. It is catchy folk-pop that is enhanced by the plaintive quality of Faithfull's voice. Her vocal really sends me. In association with Jimmy Page, DeShannon also contributed "In My Time of Sorrow" which is another one of the best songs on the record. "This Little Bird" is a lovely song by John D. Loudermilk which has a wistful quality that suits Faithfull's girlish voice quite well. That is not the case with her chamber-pop cover of the Beatles' "I'm a Loser" which sounds strained and unconvincing. I like her version of Malvina Reynolds' protest song "What Have They Done to the Rain" better than Joan Baez's version on "Joan Baez In Concert Part 1" but it is also unconvincing, she sings it too delicately. Bacharach/David's "If I Never Get To Love You" suggests that gentle, romantic pop was her real forte, I find her vocal on it very effective. This is especially true of her stunning version of David Whitaker's "Plaisir d'Amour." The song is kind of corny but right in her wheelhouse, she sings it with so much emotion that she knocks it out of the park. It is my second favorite song on the album. She also does extremely well with two other pop songs, the lovely "He'll Come Back To Me" by Mike Leander, Claude-Henri Vic and Robert Gall (father of my big fave, France Gall) and "Paris Bells" by Jon Michael Burchell (who played guitar for Faithfull under the name Jon Mark and later formed the group Mark-Almond.) Both these songs suit her voice and style perfectly and she delivers them with considerable feeling. Faithfull wrote one song on the album (in collaboration with Barry Fantoni) "Time Takes Time." The song is kind of melodramatic and pretentious but it is more interesting than most of the songs on this album. Unfortunately it is a bit outside of Faithfull's range, it needs a stronger singer. I still like it though. I imagine some modern listeners will find this record sappy and old-fashioned. I'm not all that happy with some of the arrangements, but I think the songs are well-chosen and I appreciate the sensitivity that Faithfull brings to her interpretations. Fans of her more recent work who are accustomed to her ravaged rasp of a voice will hardly recognize the angelic, girlish voice she had at the beginning of her career. Her latter day work is certainly more personal and satisfying than her early pop songs, but when you compare her to her peers in mid-1960s Anglo-American pop, I think she comes off quite well. I've listened to this album a lot through the years and I still find it very engaging. Recommended to fans of Mary Hopkin.