Saturday, December 20, 2014

Black Tambourine - Black Tambourine



Black Tambourine
Black Tambourine
Slumberland Records  SLR 111
2010

Enough with the Christmas records and the obituaries, I feel like rocking out.  I suppose some people might question my choice of Black Tambourine to rock out with, they were hardly Black Sabbath or Black Flag, but I like them better than either.  Their noisy, shoegaze inspired pop gets me bopping better than any punk or heavy metal band ever could.  This is an expanded version of the 1999 compilation album "Complete Recordings" and if you have that record you might be wondering if you need to upgrade.  Yes, you do.  It features 6 additional tracks, two demos and four 2009 recordings of songs from their original repertoire that they never recorded.  Plus it is on glorious vinyl in a handsome gatefold sleeve with lots of pics and a discography on the inner sleeve.  I was completely unaware of the group during their brief existence in the early 1990s.  When I heard them on college radio several years later, I fell for them hard.  The album opens with "For Ex-Lovers Only" off of their 1992 EP "Audrey's Diary."  The song is an unhappy conversation between a couple breaking up messily.  The discord in the song is reinforced by the band's noisy guitars roaring in the background.  "Black Car" is driven by more distorted guitar noise over which Pam Berry croons dreamy romantic lyrics about an inability to connect with her lover.  The song comes from the bands self-titled 1991 EP.  "Pack You Up" comes from the same EP and it is a forceful rocker over which the band adds layers of distortion.  The harsh music reflects the bitter and vindictive lyrics describing a nasty break up.  Next up is a cover of Love's classic folk-rock song "Can't Explain" from "Audrey's Diary."  The song is taken at a slower pace than Love's version but sounds somewhat similar aside from all the noise the band piles on top of the original riff.  "I Was Wrong" was recorded in 1990 but first appeared on "Complete Recordings."  It sounds more stripped down than the other songs, perhaps it was unfinished.  It is decidedly lo-fi, Berry's vocal is so murky I can't even understand what she is singing about.  The song is poppy and has a lot of energy, it reminds me of the Shop Assistants.  "Throw Aggi Off the Bridge" is my favorite Black Tambourine song and originally appeared on "Audrey's Diary."  Aggi evidently refers to Aggi Wright of the Scottish band the Pastels.  The song is a love song to Stephen Pastel encouraging him to get rid of Wright so he and Berry can be a couple.  The song is driven by a powerful bass riff upon which the band tosses some raucous guitar work.  The song features one of Berry's best vocals.  You'll never hear a more sweetly sung paean to murder.  I adore the Pastels and I find it immensely charming that the group wrote a song about them.  "Drown" has an old fashioned romantic pop style tune reminiscent of early 1960s girl groups.  The band tones down the noise a little to emphasize the beauty of the song, but although the song sounds romantic, the lyrics are a cool kiss-off to an ex-lover who left her but now wants to be with her again.  The song was on the 1991 EP.  "We Can't Be Friends" is very similar to "Drown" dismissing an ex-lover who wants to be friends.  It is a hard-driving slice of jangle pop with the usual cacophonous treatment that appeared on a 1992 compilation CD called "One Last Kiss."  "By Tomorrow" is another song off the 1991 EP.  It is a treat-me-right-or-I'll-leave you type song.  The song starts off with a subdued jangle pop sound and then erupts into a loud rave-up.  "Pam's Tan" was the first song that the band recorded.  It appeared on a Slumberland comp in 1989.  It is a short instrumental recorded without Berry.  According to the liner notes she was in England buying records at the time, my kind of gal.  It is followed by the demo versions of "For Ex-Lovers Only" and "Throw Aggi Off the Bridge" recorded in 1990.  The former track is more subdued than the release version but the demo of "Aggi" is spectacular.  It is at least as good as the release version, it sounds even more crazed and energetic than that version although I don't like that Berry's vocal is buried so deep in the mix.  The album concludes with the four new songs which blend in so seamlessly with the rest of the album that it is hard to believe they were recorded nearly 20 years after the original sessions.  "Heartbeat" is a fast paced, feedback laden cover of the Buddy Holly classic.  "Lazy Heart" has a dynamic bass riff propelling it forward with the guitars making a racket on top of it.  Even though these four new songs were recorded in professional studios, "Lazy Heart" sounds even murkier than the songs they recorded in their basement.  In true shoegaze fashion, I can't understand Berry's reverb heavy vocal at all.  The punchy, hard-rocking "Tears of Joy" isn't much clearer but I love it anyway.  It sounds like a cross between the Jam and the Primitives recorded underwater.  The album concludes with a cover of Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" which is a little less noisy than the other tracks although still pure dream pop.  It gives the album a nice elegant finish.  There you have it, a fantastic compilation of the best American shoegaze band.  If you have any appetite for this kind of music, I can't recommend this record enough.  It has spent a lot of time on my turntable the past few years and that is not going to change anytime soon.  Recommended to fans of Slowdive who wish they played faster.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Christmas Present....And Past - Paul Revere and the Raiders


A Christmas Present....And Past
Paul Revere and the Raiders
Columbia CS 9555
1967

I was sad to read about Paul Revere's passing back in October.  He is depicted on the back cover of this record looking back at the camera while the rest of the band faces away.  I suspect that was a reference to the back cover of "Sgt. Pepper" where another guy named Paul faces away from the camera while the rest of his band faces forward.  I was too young to catch the Raiders in their heyday when they were on TV all the time clowning around in their Revolutionary War outfits.  I started to like them when I heard "Indian Reservation" on the radio in 1971 when it was a big hit.  Eventually I heard their classic recordings from the mid-1960s and became a big fan.  They weren't fashionable or cool at the time but I didn't care.  I thought they were great and since nobody wanted their records they were cheap and easy to find.  Well not this one.  This one took a little digging and patience to get.  I certainly understand why.  It is easily the weirdest of their Columbia albums, I'm still not sure what they were trying to do.  It was offered as a Christmas album, they called it a present, but I would definitely not recommend that you put this one on to trim the tree or have a Christmas party.  It is a downer as we used to say.  "Jingle Bells" is the only traditional Christmas carol on the record and it is played for laughs.  It features guest vocalists Elaine Gibford and Paul Edward Connors who I have never heard of although Gibford was apparently in a movie in 1966.  They sing the song in a cartoonish old fashioned style and just repeat the chorus over and over against an increasingly rocked up musical backing.  The song breaks down at the end as the singers increase the tempo and go out of sync.  It is an interesting deconstruction of the song that reminds me of the Mothers of Invention.  The rest of the album consists of original songs by lead singer Mark Lindsay and the record's producer Terry Melcher.  The album opens with an introduction that establishes the irreverent tone of the album.  An announcer introduces a brass band described as a Salvation Army street band.  The band is slow to start, but eventually kick in with "Joy to the World" and continue to play even after the announcer tries to get them to stop so the record can continue.  The band reappears throughout the album playing brief snippets of Christmas classics in between the actual songs.  The first actual song is "Wear a Smile at Christmas" which is a music hall type of song that complains about people unhappily rushing about on their holiday errands.  At one point someone impersonates Lyndon Johnson urging his "fellow Americans" to smile at Christmas.  "Brotherly Love" is set to the tune of the English folk song "Greensleeves."  The song attacks hypocrisy and the lack of genuine feeling in people's pretense of goodwill to others at Christmas.  "Rain, Sleet, Snow" is a tribute to the postal service's efforts at Christmas delivered with a quasi-psychedelic treatment featuring strings and a heavy riff.  It is my favorite song on the album.  Side one concludes with "Peace" which is an instrumental played by strings.  They play a simple motif that is repeated over and over interspersed with occasional thunderclaps.  At least I think they are thunderclaps, maybe they are supposed to be explosions that would make more sense.  Side two opens with "Valley Forge" which begins with an announcer setting the scene as Christmas 1775 and noting that no resemblance is intended to any future conflicts presumably referring to Vietnam.  The song reflects the perspective of one of George Washington's disgruntled soldiers who doesn't understand what he is fighting for which sure sounds more like Vietnam than the Revolutionary War to me.  The song moves from a musical comedy type tune to a more rock based one with sleigh bells running through the song for an ironic effect.  "Dear Mr. Claus" is a music hall style song about a guy who wants a "real live doll" for Christmas.  He doesn't want her just for companionship, he needs her to wash the dishes as well.  "Macy's Window" is a description of typical Christmas vignettes that I believe are meant to express the lack of a true Christmas spirit.  This song is followed by "Christmas Spirit" which is another musical hall type tune that celebrates the Christmas spirit but the song is given an exaggerated, almost sloppy performance that suggest some sarcastic distance from the subject not unlike their version of "Jingle Bells."  The album concludes with "A Heavy Christmas Message" which is "who took the Christ out of Christmas."  It takes less than a minute to deliver the message but the song lasts about 4 minutes and 15 seconds.  There is a minute of near silence as the music is mixed so low as to be almost inaudible unless you crank up the volume.  Eventually it is faded up enough to hear some jug band style jamming with a prominent kazoo and then it is faded down for another minute of barely audible music.  It is kind of amusing but I have to admit I don't always wait for it to finish before I turn it off.  And there you have it, a not so merry Christmas with Paul Revere and the Raiders.  Looking at my description it sounds pretty awful, but actually I really like the record.  Its consistency of theme and technique as well as the device of linking the songs with the brass band elevate the whole above the parts.  It is what albums are all about.  The dynamics of this band are so fascinating.  Like the Monkees they combined comedy, crass commercialism and artistic ambition to create a train wreck of an album that still somehow works.  I would compare it to the Monkees' project "Head," a work designed to confound a teenybopper fan base while using the commercial clout of that fan base to create a personal statement.  People who dismiss Paul Revere and the Raiders as a lightweight group ought to give it a spin.  I say these guys were one of the best American bands of their era.  Recommended to fans of "The Beatles Christmas Album."

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Merry Christmas - The Supremes


Merry Christmas
The Supremes
Motown 638
1965

As Supremes albums go this one is mediocre, but as a Christmas record it is very good, one of my favorites.  I put it on while we were trimming the tree this year and it went over quite well.  It has a nice mix of secular and religious songs, standards and new songs and it captures the spirit of the season without being too sappy.  I have to admit that the first time I heard it I was very disappointed.  I was hoping for Motown-ized versions of the Christmas classics akin to what Phil Spector did with his Christmas album.  Most of these arrangements would be suitable for Andy Williams or the Lettermen, traditional easy listening pop.  Eventually I came around to realizing that was pretty much what I wanted, that's what I grew up listening to at Christmas and as a result I play this more at Christmas than the Spector album (even though I consider that a much better record.)  The standards are all pretty good aside from "The Little Drummer Boy" which I find tedious.  "White Christmas" and "Silver Bells" feature nice vocal arrangements.  "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" gets a big band arrangement and is most notable for Diana Ross' bizarre impersonation of Santa Claus.  "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" is one of the few tracks that sounds like a Motown song and is all the better for it.  It is my favorite cut on the album.  "Joy to the World" is given an energetic performance but I could do without the martial drumming and the mechanized tightness of the vocals.  I don't know why people consider "My Favorite Things" (from "The Sound of Music") to be a Christmas song but I'm not complaining too much because I like the Supremes' version quite a bit.  It has a swinging big band arrangement and features the persistent ringing of sleigh bells to try to make it sound more Christmas-like I suppose.  Ross' vocal is vibrant and the song is another one of my favorites on the record.  I like all of the newer songs to varying degrees.  The best one is Jimmy Webb's poignant "My Christmas Tree" which is about a woman spending Christmas alone and missing her lover who has left her.  Ross' vocal is moving and the song is full of expressive images typical of Webb's work.  I also like Al Capps and Mary Dean's "Little Bright Star" which is given a jumping Motown arrangement and features some strong vocal work.  "Children's Christmas Song" was written by Isabelle Freeman and Harvey Fuqua and it also has a Motown-style melody and arrangement.  The song is inane but extremely catchy, it sticks in my brain for days after I play it.  Diana Ross does a lot of talking in the song as she bosses around her younger brother Chico and Berry Gordy's three kids who participate in the vocal.  Her Christmas cheeriness sounds phony to me, but the song is so silly that I can't really blame her.  Ronald Miller and William O'Malley's "Twinkle Twinkle Little Me" is also pretty dumb. It is written from the perspective of the star on top of a Christmas tree.  It has a good Motown-style tune though and I dig the harmony vocals in support of Ross' lead.  Don Gustafson's "Born of Mary" has an evocative melody that sounds like it was lifted from a classic western.  The song has an ensemble vocal from the group.  It is not a memorable song but it sounds nice.  I think this is one of the better Christmas albums of its era.  I wish my parents had been cool enough to have had a copy, I think I would have loved it when I was a kid.  I think part of why I like it so much is that it reminds me of being a kid at Christmas time.  The exuberance and warm feelings that permeate much of this record brings out the holiday spirit in me.  Recommended to people who need to tame their inner Scrooge.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Just Another Diamond Day - Vashti Bunyan



Just Another Diamond Day
Vashti Bunyan
DiCristina Step04
1970

This is the 2004 re-issue of Vashti Bunyan's debut album originally released as Philips 6308 019.  When this album was originally issued, it hardly sold at all making it a pricey collectors item when people finally came to appreciate its excellence.  I became interested in Bunyan via her connection to Joe Boyd who produced this record.  Boyd was of course the manager/producer for the Incredible String Band, Nick Drake and Fairport Convention all of whom I loved.  I was really into the British folk rock scene and was dying to hear this album but I never could find a copy I could afford.  I was delighted when it was reissued and thrilled to hear that it was just as great as I had imagined.  I think it was one of the best records Boyd was ever involved with although I guess he does not agree since he devoted only a single page of his autobiography to it.  Rob Young in his marvelous survey of British folk music, "Electric Eden" focused almost his entire first chapter on Bunyan and the remarkable story behind this album.  In the late 60s Bunyan and her boyfriend, Robert Lewis, set off from Kent in a horse and wagon they bought from a gypsy (depicted on the gatefold of the album.)  They were heading north to Scotland to the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides where their friend Donovan had purchased some land to start a hippie commune.  Their plan to join the commune did not pan out and they ended up living in a primitive cottage on the nearby island of Berneray.  Bunyan composed the songs on this record during her arduous journey and while living on the island.  She recorded it while pregnant in late 1969 and when the album flopped upon its release the following year, Bunyan abandoned the music industry.  It would be 35 years before she would make another album.  Even if this had been the only album she had ever made, it would still insure her an important place in the history of British folk music.  It is an absolute masterpiece.  The record opens with "Diamond Day" which celebrates agrarian life.  The song features a lovely recorder and string arrangement from Robert Kirby who also did some of the string arrangements on Nick Drake's "Five Leaves Left" album.  "Glow Worms" continues the celebration of a natural life as Bunyan delicately croons about the world she observes around her on her journey.  The melody of "Lily Pond" sounds like it was derived from "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" which suits its fairy tale like lyrics nicely.  Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band plays Irish harp on the song bolstering its string sound.  "Timothy Grub" recounts the beginning of Bunyan's journey.  In the song she and Lewis are forced to leave their encampment by a pair of policeman.  They get picked up by a friend in his car but the car runs out of gas.  Stranded, they encounter a gypsy with a horse and wagon that they buy to continue their trip.  The song has a charming jazziness to the melody that reminds me of Nick Drake.  "Where I Like to Stand" was co-written with John James who plays a dulcitone on the album and painted the animals on the album cover.  He was also the friend with the car that ran out of gas mentioned in "Timothy Grub."  The song celebrates life by the ocean as Bunyan sings about watching the waves and the fishermen and enjoying the natural world around her.  A pair of Fairporters play with Bunyan on this song, namely Dave Swarbrick on fiddle and Simon Nicol on banjo and they enliven the simple child-like melody.  "Swallow Song" describes the passing of summer into autumn with the usual emphasis on the natural world.  The song features another evocative string arrangement from Robert Kirby.  Side one concludes with "Window Over the Bay" co-written with Robert Lewis.  The song is traditional sounding with only minimal accompaniment and the first verse sung acappella.  The song is another paean to agrarian life that sounds like it was inspired by life on Berneray.  This lovely song is one of my favorites on the album.  Side two begins with "Rose Hip November" which is about the changing of the seasons, autumn giving way to winter.  It also anticipates the birth of her son Leif.  This haunting song is another one of my favorites.  Williamson plays whistle and harp on this song which gives it a rich instrumental texture.  "Come Wind Come Rain" returns to Bunyan and Lewis' trip across the U.K. and traveling in the wagon in the winter elements.  The sprightly tune resembles "Lord of the Dance" by Sydney Carter which in itself was derived from the 19th Century dance tune "Simple Gifts" by Joseph Brackett.  Carter's song was covered by Donovan (on "H.M.S. Donovan") so perhaps Bunyan heard him play it and the melody stuck with her.  For what it is worth, I greatly prefer "Come Wind Come Rain" to "Lord of the Dance."  Nicol on banjo and Swarbrick on mandolin accompany the song to great effect.  Lewis co-wrote "Hebridean Sun" which looks forward to their arrival in the Hebrides and celebrates the first signs of spring.  Bunyan's intimate vocal on this song really sends me.  "Rainbow River" idealizes the life of a boy growing up on a farm enjoying home-baked bread and fresh fish from a river.  Robert Kirby's recorder arrangement enhances the idyllic feeling of the song.  "Trawlerman's Song" is another collaboration with Lewis.  It recounts the joy of a fisherman returning home to his family after being out at sea.  It has another wonderful intimate vocal from Bunyan.  "Jog Along Bess" is about Lewis and Bunyan's wagon, their horse Bess who pulled their wagon, and their dogs Blue and May who came along on their journey.  The jauntiness of the tune is bolstered by Williamson on fiddle.  The album concludes with "Iris's Song For Us" which Bunyan got from a pair of her Berneray neighbors, Iris McFarlane and Wally Dix.  It is a love song filled with images from nature.  It is very traditional sounding particularly since one of the verses is sung in Gaelic.  Swarbrick's fiddle adds to the traditional flavor of the song.  It gives the album a lovely finish.  I adore this record, but I imagine some people may find it excessively twee.  It could have easily been self-indulgent hippie hogwash, but Bunyan's immense talent and sincerity insures that it always rings true.  I'm drawn to Bunyan's sensitivity and the delicate expressiveness of her voice, it mesmerizes and relaxes me.  I find that this album sounds particularly wonderful late in the evening by candlelight or on a wintery afternoon staring out the window sipping a cup of tea.  Recommended to fans of the Incredible String Band who wish they weren't so noisy.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Night of Hunters - Tori Amos



Night of Hunters
Tori Amos
Deutsche Grammophon  B0015900-01
2011

If ever there was a pop music artist worthy of recording for the venerable classical music label Deutsche Grammophon, it is Tori Amos.  She approaches her music with extreme seriousness and on this album each song is inspired by the work of a classical composer.  Furthermore her principle instrument is a Bösendorfer grand piano and on this particular album she is backed by classical instrumentation throughout.  When I saw her perform at the Orpheum in support of this record she was backed by a string quartet, but on the record she is also supported by woodwinds.  The result is the most sonically impressive and arguably most ambitious record of her long career.  It is beautifully recorded and it sounds fantastic on vinyl.  It is a concept album that analyzes a disintegrating relationship from a mystical perspective.  The opening track, "Shattering Sea," is inspired by a piece by Charles-Valentin Alkan.  The song is driven by a dynamic piano riff as Amos looks around at the aftermath of a fight with her lover.  The evocative language of the song and the powerful music compare favorably with her best songs.  "Snowblind" is taken from a work by Enrique Granados.  In this song Amos encounters Anabelle, a magical creature who appears to her in the guise of a fox.  Anabelle invites her to travel into the past to see a past incarnation of herself and her lover.  Anabelle is portrayed by Amos' daughter Natashya Hawley whose voice blends well with Amos' voice in their duet.  "Battle of Trees" comes from Satie.  The song depicts the events of 3,000 years ago in which Amos and her lover engage in a battle in Ireland against magical forces using language.  The song is a bit too fey for my taste, however it is such a beautiful song that I don't mind.  She could be singing gibberish and I'd still be entranced.  Amos and her lover lose the battle and take flight upon the sea in "Fearlessness."  Dark magical forces stir up doubt in her lover and drive them apart.  She returns to Granados again for this song and the interaction between her turbulent piano lines and the orchestration is very stirring, musically creating the sensation of a storm at sea.  It is one of my favorite tracks on the album.  She created "Cactus Practice" from a nocturne by Chopin and it is another duet with her daughter.  In this song she encounters Anabelle in the form of a goose.  They discuss the conflicts between Amos and her lover and Anabelle induces her to drink a potion produced from a cactus in order to more clearly perceive her situation.  The result is described in the somber "Star Whisperer" which is derived from a Schubert piano sonata.  The song uses the natural world to create foreboding and depict alienation as discord rises between her and her lover.  The song features more dynamic interaction between the piano and the orchestra that validates Amos' decision to employ classical musical themes in her work.  "Job's Coffin" sees the return of Anabelle in the form of a fox.  The song invokes nature once more as the stars look down upon the earth to observe the self-destructive power struggle between the sexes.  Anabelle tells Amos that she must consult the Fire Muse to put her life back in order and regain her strength.  "Job's Coffin" is inspired by her following song "Nautical Twilight" which comes from a song by Felix Mendelssohn.  In this song Amos laments that she left her world to follow her lover and thus lost the force of which she is made.  She complains of the obsessions that consume her lover and drive them apart.  "Your Ghost" is based on a piece by Schumann.  The interplay between Amos' piano and the string quartet is particularly compelling in this delicate and bewitching song.  In this song she is addressing the memory of her lost love.  She continues to ruminate on her lost lover in "Edge of the Moon" which comes from a Bach sonata.  The latter portion of the song is very kinetic and Amos double tracks her vocal to great effect.  "The Chase" is derived from Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."  Anabelle returns once more (as a goose) and she and Amos sing about the relationship between the hunter and the hunted and the duality of the two within people, particularly as symbols in the relations between the sexes.  Amos at last meets the Fire Muse (sung by Kelsey Dobyns) in "Night of Hunters" which was created from a Gregorian chant and a sonata by Scarlatti.  The song is loaded with religious and mystical language as it further explores the symbolism of the hunter/hunted dynamic among people.  Amos again invokes the image of constellations (the Pleiades this time) watching over the human race as the Fire Muse and Amos discuss the dark forces that corrupt people.  She takes up Bach again for "Seven Sisters" which is an instrumental featuring her piano and an oboe played by Andreas Ottensamer.  It is a lovely passage of music.  The album concludes with "Carry" which was inspired by a prelude by Debussy.  In this majestic song, Amos celebrates the contributions that the people she has loved have made in her life.  She realizes that although they have left her, she will always remember them, "they carry on as stars looking down as Nature's Sons and Daughters of the Heavens."  It is an uplifting finale to a rather dark record.  I'm not normally drawn to mysticism or spirituality, but I find Amos' use of them in her libretto to be effective.  They give her tale depth and resonance and I also admire her symbolic use of the natural world.  One rarely finds such artistry and intelligence in pop music and that is just the lyrics.  The music itself pushes the boundaries between pop and classical music utilizing the best elements of both.  I love this record, I think it is Amos' best album since "Under the Pink."  I respect her for taking chances and exploring new avenues in her work so late in her career.  Kudos to Deutsche Grammophon for recognizing Amos's special gift and encouraging her to express it.  Recommended to Leonard Cohen fans who dig Schubert and Tolkien.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Sunflower - The Beach Boys



Sunflower
The Beach Boys
Brother Records/Reprise Records RS-6382
1970 

Over the summer I went with my family to the Ventura County Fair.  The price of admission to the fair included admission to the show in the evening which is how I found myself watching a concert by Mike Love and his Beach Boys imposters.  There is no way I'd ever pay money to watch Mike Love perform and I wasn't even sure I wanted to see him for free, but my wife and son insisted on staying for his performance so I went and to my surprise I enjoyed it.  If nothing else Love knows how to please a crowd and unleashed a slew of popular Beach Boys classics plus well-chosen covers like "Surf City" and "California Dreamin.'"  Love's nasal whine was in fine form and he showed impressive enthusiasm.  He had a solid back-up band which featured some good singers to take the place of Carl and Brian Wilson.  He definitely needed them because his two "Beach Boys" were basically window dressing.  Bruce Johnston can't sing anymore, his performance on "Please Let Me Wonder" was appalling and David Marks is, well, David Marks.  There were a few departures from the stream of hits such as Love's self-serving tribute to George Harrison, "Pisces Brothers."  The most notable one came from special guest John Stamos.  Stamos sat in for several numbers and had more charisma and a greater passion for the music than any of the hired guns on stage.  As a tribute to Dennis Wilson, Stamos delivered a heartfelt and moving performance of "Forever" off this album, easily the highlight of the show for me (Stamos previously recorded the song with the Beach Boys on "Summer in Paradise.")  "Sunflower" is my favorite of the Beach Boys' post-Capitol albums.  It was a flop when it came out, but I think it has aged well, in large part because of Dennis' strong contribution.  He opens the album with "Slip On Through" which is a love song.  Dennis sounds more like a rock singer than anyone in the band, his voice is gritty but still capable of delicacy.  The song is propulsive and bolstered by excellent back-up singing.  Brian delivers another strong song with "This Whole World" which is sweetly sung by Carl.  It is extremely poppy in the familiar Beach Boys' style but the vaguely hippie-ish love-is-everywhere lyrics are more characteristic of the Beach Boys in the late 1960s.  "Add Some Music to Your Day" is by Brian, Joe Knott and Mike Love.  The song is about the value of music in everyday life and its uplifting properties.  This extremely catchy and buoyant tune demonstrates this with brilliantly arranged and exhilarating vocal harmonies.  It is a classic Beach Boys song and its failure to become a hit single is more a reflection of the crappy state of pop music in 1970 than the quality of the song.  Dennis returns with "Got to Know the Woman" which has a harder rock edge than a typical Beach Boys song and a soulful flavor as well.  The song describes meeting a woman and immediately falling for her.  "Deirdre" is by Bruce Johnston with some help from Brian.  Like most of Johnston's songs it is kind of sappy and his wimpy vocal doesn't help much, but the song has some nice vocal harmonies that make it listenable and even enjoyable in the chorus section.  Side one concludes with "It's About Time" by Dennis, Al Jardine and Bob Burchman.  The song is about someone who has been creatively frustrated but who then discovers his artistic voice and seeks to make the world a better place with his work.  I always assumed it was an autobiographical song for Dennis, but then I read that the lyrics were Burchman's.  Nonetheless the song seems to have had a lot of resonance for Dennis and he set it to music with a rocked up tune that is bursting with energy befitting the ebullient lyrics.  The song features an excellent vocal from Carl that expresses the passionate nature of the song.  Side two gets off to a rocky start with Johnston's "Tears in the Morning" in which he whines about his wife leaving him to find fulfillment in Europe.  Hard to blame her listening to the stream of self-pity running through this dreary song.  It is easily the worst song on the album.  Things improve with Love and Brian's "All I Wanna Do" which is a bland love song crooned by Love.  The song benefits greatly from a strong vocal and instrumental arrangement reminiscent of "Pet Sounds" that makes it seem more distinguished than it really is.  Dennis' "Forever" which he wrote with Greg Jacobson is another album highlight for me.  It is a gorgeous love song sung by Dennis and the slight roughness in his vocal keeps it from being sappy or phony.  It feels completely sincere and I find it one of the most touching songs the Beach Boys ever did.  It has a memorable melody and more excellent background vocals to help make it a real winner.  Brian, Carl and Jardine's "Our Sweet Love" continues in a similar vein.  It is another tender love song boasting a typically gorgeous vocal from Carl.  It uses strings and lovely background vocals to create a fabulous romantic sound that really sends me.  It is followed by Jardine and Brian's "At My Window."  The song is about seeing a sparrow outside a window and features a verse spoken in French for reasons that escape me.  Although the theme of the song is typical of the interest in nature expressed in many of the band's songs of that period, it still feels like filler to me, albeit beautifully arranged and sung filler.  The album concludes with the weirdness of Brian and Love's "Cool, Cool Water."  The song sounds like a "Smile" outtake and that is almost what it is.  It was derived from "Love to Say Dada" from the "Elements" section of that album.  The original version was largely an instrumental aside from the repeated words "water" and "wah-wah."  "Cool, Cool Water" retains most of that song's melody and expands the chant to become "have some cool, cool water."  There is also a trippy instrumental passage in the center that is followed by some new inane lyrics that sound like the work of Mike Love to me, such as "cool water is such a gas."  I still really like the song though.  The vocal arrangement is wonderful and the melody is soothing and it gives the album a mellow finish.  This record seems almost miraculous to me.  With Brian withdrawing into his own little world and only a minimal contribution from Mike Love, Dennis Wilson stepped up and filled the void magnificently.  His four songs are all terrific and are the backbone of a record that is only two mediocre Bruce Johnston songs away from being an absolute masterpiece.  I love this record and it is one of the Beach Boys albums that I play the most.  I like its maturity and the emphasis on love that permeates the record.  It sounds fabulous and is full of interesting touches that keep me from ever getting bored with it.  It was one of the best albums of 1970 and the last truly great album the Beach Boys ever made.  Recommended to people who like "Surf's Up" better than "Surfin' U.S.A."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Isle of View - Jimmie Spheeris


Isle of View
Jimmie Spheeris
Columbia  C 30988
1971

I picked this up at a flea market a few years ago for a couple of bucks.  I'd never heard of Spheeris, I was attracted to the album by its striking cover design (my photo does not capture its vibrancy.)  I flipped it over and saw the hippie dude on the back and thought that maybe the record was psych-folk and decided to buy it.  When I gave it a spin and heard the sensitive singer-songwriter music it contained I was disappointed.  That was more a reflection on my false expectations than the quality of the music.  After a few spins the record grew on me and I came to like it.  This was Spheeris' debut album.  He released four albums prior to his premature demise in a traffic accident in 1984.  He was only 34.  None of his albums achieved much commercial success, his biggest claim to fame is that he was the brother of the film director Penelope Spheeris.  That may be unfair but it is understandable.  His music is introspective and subdued compared to his more successful singer-songwriter peers.  It lacks the exuberance of Cat Stevens and Elton John, the pop smarts of Paul Simon and Carole King, the passion of Laura Nyro and Tim Buckley or the poetic intensity of Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.  As befits an album which has a title that sounds the same as "I love you" most of Spheeris' songs are romantic love songs with abundant poetic imagery.  This includes "The Nest," "For Roach," "Seeds of Spring," "I am the Mercury," "Let It Flow," "Come Back" and "Esmaria."  My favorites are "The Nest" which benefits from a dramatic musical setting and the atmospheric "I am the Mercury" which features an exhilarating conclusion with Spheeris' vocal soaring into falsetto territory.  Both songs are boosted by tasteful string arrangements by David Campbell.  "Esmaria" is an odd song, most of it is slow and sappy but in the middle it comes to life with a brief country rock rave-up before lapsing back into somnolence.  The other love songs are pleasant, but I don't find them memorable or stimulating.  "Monte Luna" is more abstract and overtly poetic.  It celebrates nature which seems to have been a significant theme for Spheeris.  Even his love songs are permeated with poetic images drawn from the natural world.  It is the prettiest song on the album and another one of my favorites.  "Long Way Down" is the only non-original on the album.  It was written by Lee Calvin Nicoli who plays bass, flute and guitar on the album.  Nicoli's lyrical approach is a lot more direct than Spheeris' style and the song is more dynamic with tempo shifts and a more pronounced beat than most of the other songs on the record, it even has a riff at times.  I wish there were more tunes like it on the album.  "Seven Virgins" is Spheeris' one attempt at a rocker and it is the oldest song on the album featuring a 1969 copyright.  It is a straight ahead hippie boogie type song with relatively hedonistic lyrics for Spheeris.  I don't think it is particularly good and it stands out like a sore thumb among the sensitive love songs on the record, but it is what the record needs more of.  It is vulgar, propulsive and features some stinging guitar licks all of which are more important to me more than nature metaphors and tender romantic crooning.  That is not to say that I don't like this record.  Even though I don't have much of an affinity with this type of music, when I'm in the right mood I enjoy listening to it and I respect its intelligence.  You could do a lot worse with singer-songwriters in the early 1970s.  Recommended to fans of Eric Andersen and Jesse Colin Young.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Texas Campfire Tapes - Michelle Shocked



The Texas Campfire Tapes
Michelle Shocked
Mercury 834 581-1
1986

I was mortified and mystified when I read in the newspaper how Michelle Shocked committed career suicide by allegedly making homophobic comments and denouncing gay marriage on stage in San Francisco of all places.  As a result of the controversy her tour was cancelled and a bunch of journalists who probably had never even heard of her dragged her through the mud for a while until they lost interest.  I was flabbergasted by the whole thing for several reasons.  Firstly I had recently seen her in concert myself and she seemed completely normal.  Secondly I had no idea she had become a born again Christian, I basically thought of her as a left-wing activist (she made a lot of comments about the Occupy movement at the show I saw.)  Finally I always thought she was a lesbian herself.  I despise homophobia and I don't condone her remarks although I'm not entirely sure exactly what she said.  I've read descriptions of the event and excerpts of her stage patter and it does not make much sense to me.  I think I get what she was trying to say though and I do believe it was just a case of miscommunication and a misguided attempt at ironic humor.  I don't believe she meant any harm and though I find her explanations confusing, I accept her apologies.  I'm a fan of her work and I'm not going to dismiss it on the basis of her saying some stupid things at a show.  This album is one of my favorites.  The record is taken from a tape recorded on a Sony Walkman as Shocked ran through some of her songs accompanied only by her acoustic guitar while sitting at a campfire on the grounds of the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1986.  You can hear the persistent chirping of crickets throughout the recording as well as the occasional passing car or truck.  The album begins with the moody "5 a.m. in Amsterdam" which is about being alone in Amsterdam and hearing the church bells toll.  The mood brightens with the rollicking "The Secret Admirer" which dissects a sex symbol with a "sweet little asset."  Shocked says that the next song "The Incomplete Image" sounds unfinished but she calls it finished.  It alternates a lively instrumental section with quasi-spoken verses about a couple of vagabonds, one male and one female.  Shocked introduces "Who Cares?" as her most recent song.  It is a narrative of a visit to a spooky ghost town with Shocked picking out a compelling, atmospheric melody on her guitar.  The swinging "Down on Thomas St." is about a jazz club.  The jazzy mood continues with "Fogtown" which paints a dark portrait of San Francisco.  It describes the seedy nightlife of the city and the story of a hooker who dies from a heroin overdose.  It is one of my favorite songs on the record.  Shocked re-recorded the song as a rocker on her subsequent album "Short Sharp Shocked."  Shocked introduces "Steppin Out" by describing how she worked at a "non-commercial" radio station in Amsterdam where she wrote this song for a program about the reasons why people go out.  The song has an uptempo folk-blues flavor to it.  "The Hep Cat" is another one of my favorite songs on the album.  It is a jazzy, retro style tune and Shocked's sexy vocal is full of charm and personality as she describes her attraction to the cool cat of the title.  Shocked introduces "Necktie" as being an older song.  It is a jumping tune that reinforces the axiom about clothes making the man (or woman.)  I like the line about cultured pearls being "the kind that sips lots of tea and reads lots of poetry."  Shocked keeps up the fast tempo as she jumps right into "(Don't You Mess Around with) My Little Sister."  It is a rock and roll style song about her sister who is "a real gone twister" but too young for boys to mess around with.  She slows down for "The Ballad of Patch Eye and Meg" which is about an old sailor who tells tall tales but won't talk about the woman he loved.  The album concludes with "The Secret to a Long Life (Is Knowing When It's Time to Go)" which is a narrative ballad about an outlaw on the run in the old west.  The song sounds pretty worldly for a 24 year old.  That is true of the entire album, it has a timeless, folksy quality that seems way beyond her years.  I find listening to the album to be soothing and relaxing.  If you turn the lights down low and spin the record, Shocked's engaging and intimate performance will almost make you feel like you are sitting at that campfire next to her.  I defy anyone to play it and then proclaim that Shocked is a bad person who should not be allowed to perform.  Recommended to people who like to listen to demos.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Two Steps From the Middle Ages - Game Theory


Two Steps From the Middle Ages
Game Theory
Enigma Records  7 73350-1
1988

I only recently learned of Scott Miller's death last year from a fellow blogger (thanks, reselect.com.)  If there was any justice in pop music, Miller would have been on the cover of "Rolling Stone" when he died.  I think he was one of the great talents of his generation and his bands Game Theory and the Loud Family made a lot of music that I treasure and which hardly anyone ever heard.  Game Theory's album "Lolita Nation" got great reviews but it didn't sell much and as a result became a pricey rarity for power pop aficionados.  Miller never got his due, on this record you might notice that it is producer Mitch Easter whose name is on the promotional sticker on the cover of the album.  I myself did not discover Game Theory until the 1990s by which time they had broken up.  This was the first Game Theory album that I bought (on CD) and later I was lucky enough to find a sealed copy on vinyl.  It was the final Game Theory album and some fans dismiss it as being weaker than the others, but I'm not in that camp.  Sure it is not as great as "Lolita Nation" but what is?  This album thrilled me when I first heard it and I still love it.  The album kicks off with the high energy "Room for One More, Honey" which is driven by a big drum beat and jangly guitars in the best power pop tradition.  It is sung by Miller and guitarist Donnette Thayer whose voices complement each other well.  The song takes place on a plane with a couple immigrating to Asia and wondering what lies ahead.  "What the Whole World Wants" sounds very 80s with its big drums and synth sound.  Miller's sneering vocal expresses dissatisfaction with everyday life and its expectations.  "The Picture of Agreeability" is a short song featuring only piano and synthesizer in which Miller expresses a desire to conform and not be viewed as a disappointment.  "Amelia, Have You Lost" is a beautiful song in which Miller describes a disintegrating relationship.  His high, sensitive vocal is extremely expressive.  The man was a terrific singer with a voice that conveys sadness as well as anyone in alternative rock.  There are some lovely guitar lines in this song as well.  Next is the wonderfully titled "Rolling with the Moody Girls" which is a supremely catchy and poppy song, one of my favorites on the record.  Miller sings about the rich girls of the title who are home from boarding school ready to make trouble.  A verse from the song provides the album with its title.  "Wyoming" is another one of my favorites, actually one of my favorite Game Theory songs period.  It is an evocative bit of jangle pop sung as a duet by Miller and Thayer.  The lyrics examine the complex relationship between growth and missing what one leaves behind.  I love the line "I know that every night you lie and stare at the ceiling till you start believing it's the sky."  Among his many talents, Miller was also an outstanding lyricist.  The side ends with the infectious power pop song, "In a Delorean."  This fast-tempo tune gets me bopping big time and the chorus is pure pop bliss worthy of the Go-Gos.  The lyrics examine youthful folly and learning from one's mistakes.  This track is also one of my faves.  Side two features more bouncy power pop with "You Drive" which is a song about lost youth and growing up.  "Leilani" name checks Donovan, Douglas Fairbanks and Clint Eastwood in a song about a girl living a theatrical, make-believe life.  It is a slow jangle pop song with a Beatlesque feel to it. "Wish I Could Stand or Have" expresses conflicted feelings about being dependent on a lover.  The song features acoustic guitar prominently in its sound and a raga rock guitar solo that makes it stand out among the 80s style music on the rest of the record.  It is another one of the best tracks on the record.  The synthesizer and big drums are back for "Don't Entertain Me Twice" which dissects a troubled relationship with a deceitful, thrill-seeking woman.  The bitter invective and word play in the lyrics are worthy of Elvis Costello.  Organ drives "Throwing the Election" instead of the usual synthesizer much to my approval.  It is a brilliant song in which Miller uses an array of metaphors to convey disillusionment with his lot in life and a messed up relationship.  Great stuff.  The album ends with "Initiations Week" which features just acoustic guitar and a high, quavery vocal from Miller.  It is quiet, delicate music in counterpoint to lyrics expressing seething resentment and rebellion.  This is such a terrific record, it is smart, charming and endlessly appealing musically.  Miller could toss out hooks with seemingly effortless ease and invested his music with genuine emotion.  In a crappy musical decade that featured a lot of formulaic music, superficial glitz and crass commercialism, Game Theory's music shines like a beacon with its intelligence, integrity and insight.  Recommended to fans of the dB's and Let's Active.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Colour Trip - Ringo Deathstarr


Colour Trip
Ringo Deathstarr
Club AC30  AC308021
2011

This is the debut full-length LP by the Texas band Ringo Deathstarr pressed on avocado-green vinyl.  I was initially attracted to the band because of their fabulous name but when I heard some of their music on KXLU, I became an instant fan.  They could have called themselves "The Beatles Suck" and I still would have bought this record.  The band's mixture of psych and shoegaze is right in my wheelhouse and I play this record a lot.  It gets off to a strong start with the noisy "Imagine Hearts."  Bassist Alex Gehring has a lovely voice but I can barely hear her over the band's raucous playing.  Guitarist Elliott Frazier takes the mike for "Do It Every Time" which is a hard rocking song about breaking up.  Gehring and Frazier share vocals on "So High" which is a high energy, poppy song that reminds me of Heavenly and Talulah Gosh.  It is one of my favorite tracks on the album.  I think it is about getting high on love.  "Two Girls" is a dreamy slice of shoegaze reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine.  Frazier croons the psychedelic love song "Kaleidoscope."  Side one ends with the aptly named "Day Dreamy" which features another lead vocal from Frazier.  Like "Kaleidoscope" it also features some trippy lyrics, but it is a considerably slower tune, being more of a drone.  I think this group is more effective at high velocity.  The song has its moments though and I particularly like the line "she was just a teardrop, I was just a waste of time."  Side two gets off to a thunderous start with the pounding "Tambourine Girl" which is sung by Frazier.  The song is a paean to the title character and features a nice slow/heavy versus fast/poppy dynamic that I find very stimulating.  It is another one of my favorite cuts.  Guitar noise carries the day on "Chloe."  I can't understand most of what Frazier is singing about but I gather that he digs the girl of the title.  I find Frazier's breathy vocal on "Never Drive" even harder to decipher aside from his desire for someone to kiss him.  It is a hard rocking cut that reminds me of the Jesus and Mary Chain.  "You Don't Listen" is about a disintegrating relationship due to communication issues.  It is another rocker sung by Frazier.  The side ends with "Other Things" which is a who-needs-money-when-we-have-each-other type song.  The band slows down the tempo from their usual high speed pace and tones down the guitar noise as well enhancing Gehring's languid vocal.  The usual knock on Ringo Deathstarr is that they are too derivative and unoriginal.  I can't argue with that, but it doesn't bother me.  I love the music that inspires them and can never get enough of it.  The songwriting is more of a problem for me.  I don't mind the banality of the lyrics so much (especially since I can rarely understand them) but I think the band could benefit from stronger melodies and more variety in their music.  As much as I enjoy listening to their songs, not many of them stick with me when the record is over.  On the plus side, I love their sound and the instrumental textures they produce.  This record consistently excites me and gets me bopping.  Recommended to fans of Black Tambourine.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Reality...What a Concept - Robin Williams


Reality...What a Concept
Robin Williams
Casablanca  NBLP 7162
1979

A post for the late Robin Williams.  I think the three greatest comedians of my youth were Richard Pryor, Steve Martin and Robin Williams.  They hit their prime while I was in high school and college and entertained me countless times.  What I especially liked about them was that they were not only funny, but they made me think as well.  Although I liked some of Williams' movies as well as his television series "Mork and Mindy" I think that scripted entertainment was not Williams' strength even though he was a fine actor.  I liked him best in situations where his manic imagination and improvisation skills could run free, namely stand-up comedy and appearances on talk shows.  This was Williams' first record album, taken from stand-up performances at the Copacabana in New York City and the Boarding House in San Francisco.  Of course records can't capture the visual side of Williams' humor, but his routines still come across pretty well.  The record opens with some bantering with the audience before launching into "Nicky Lenin" featuring Williams' Russian impersonation which is one of the funniest routines on the record.  It concludes with some rapid fire random jokes including a reference to Fritz Lang's film "M" (which nobody in the audience gets) followed by his fabulous Martian haiku "red sand between my toes, summer vacation in outer space" as well as some other weird poems which provoke the comment that provides the album's title "wow reality what a concept."  Fabulous stuff, Williams at his best.  "Pop Goes The Weasel" is an extended routine parodying "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" with Mr. Rogers as a maniac and "Firing Line" with William F. Buckley analyzing "Goldilocks."  I don't find it very funny but it is engaging just experiencing the weird tangents Williams' mind goes to as well as hearing his excellent impersonation of Buckley.  "Kindergarten of the Stars" pokes fun at privileged rich kids.  It is a funnier bit and has more great voices.  "A Touch of Fairfax" finds Williams impersonating a crabby, old Jewish man selling girlie magazines and snorting cocaine.  It is really funny and over way too soon.  Side one ends with "Reverend Earnest Angry" in which Williams portrays a southern preacher.  It is mostly lame and goes on way too long, maybe you had to be there to appreciate it.  It is funny though when a guy in the audience wants to kiss Williams and he starts riffing on homosexuality.  Side two opens with the highlight of the record, the amazing "Shakespeare (A Meltdowner's Nightmare)."  Williams asks the audience for some topical subjects to improvise around.  Someone suggests Mork which makes Williams react in comical horror.  Eventually he gets the topics of the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster and Studio 54.  Williams proceeds to make up a Shakespearean style play constructed around the topics with lots of funny detours on the way.  It is classic Williams, such a brilliant comic mind.  "Tank You, Boyce" is a short bit with Lawrence Welk talking jive talk.  "Roots People" is an absurdly condensed version of the mini-series "Roots."  "Hollywood Casting Session" features a bug auditioning for Kafka's "The Metamorphosis."  "Come Inside My Mind" is a crazy trip inside of Williams' mind as he argues with himself about how well his routine is going.  Williams' manic bravura performance is another album highlight for me.  The album ends with "Grandpa Funk" in which Williams portrays an old man in some post-apocalyptic future reminiscing about the past.  It is a rambling routine but consistently entertaining, occasionally even hilarious and concludes with a touching homage to Lord Buckley where he quotes his statement "people they're kind of like flowers, it's been a privilege walking in your garden."  For me it is a poignant moment.  The privilege was mine as well.  I think we were all blessed that Williams chose to walk in our garden and nurture us with his wit and imagination.  He was a unique talent and I'm grateful for the time he shared with us.  Recommended to surrealists with a sense of humor.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

FSM's Sounds & Songs of the Demonstration - Various Artists


FSM's Sounds & Songs of the Demonstration
Various Artists
FSM-Records  FSM 4
1965 

This is the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement at Cal.  In September 1964 the University banned political advocacy by students on University property, an action that was primarily directed at student groups supporting the Civil Rights Movement.  The students challenged the ban which resulted in arrests, mass protests and acts of civil disobediance throughout the autumn of 1964 until the University finally gave in and sanctioned political activity on campus which paved the way for the massive anti-Vietnam War rallies later in the decade.  I don't remember any of this stuff, but I grew up in the shadow of it living near Berkeley.  I first saw the campus as a young teen when my science class in Alameda made the short trip over to Cal for computer classes.  I loved the campus and was fascinated by the long-haired graduate students who taught us.  When I got to high school, I learned about the 1960s and the student movement and Cal became an obsession with me.  It was the only college I applied to and I was thrilled to go there.  Of course it was a different place by then, but you could still find traces of the past from the hippies in Peoples Park to the Marxists manning tables near Sather Gate.  Professors reminisced about having classes disrupted by tear gas wafting in through the windows.  There was even an occasional rally on the steps of Sproul Hall.  I participated in a die-in protesting the reinstatement of Selective Service Registration and I have to admit that I felt pretty silly lying on the ground pretending to be dead.  The great orator of the Free Speech Movement, Mario Savio, spoke at another rally I attended and lambasted us for being so passive and apathetic.  Neither the first nor the last time I heard a baby boomer diss my generation, but alas he was essentially correct.  We protested Reagan's policies in Central America and the University's refusal to divest its investments in companies doing business with South Africa, but there wasn't a sense of urgency or the drama of the 1960s.  Oh well at least I got a good education and didn't have to dodge riots on my way to class.  I picked up this FSM artifact from a record store in Los Angeles.  One side of the record features a narrator describing the events of the Free Speech Movement with lots of recorded sound excerpts of seminal events.  The other side is a bunch of topical folk songs about the events.  I like the spoken word side the best.  It opens with Joan Baez addressing students at the Sproul Hall sit-in at the beginning of October 1964.  It fades out as she begins to sing Dylan's "With God on Our Side."  There is some dramatic coverage of the police attacking the demonstrators followed by a recording of Jack Weinberg being arrested and a terrific speech from Weinberg denouncing the University as a "knowledge factory" that treats the students as "products."  There are numerous recordings of the students surrounding the police car holding Weinberg making speeches and singing.  This constitutes the bulk of the side.  This segment concludes with Mario Savio reading to the protestors the terms of the agreement that resolved the first sit-in.  The side abruptly ends with the narrator describing the subsequent breakdown in talks with the administration which lead to the December sit-in at Sproul Hall that resulted in the arrest of 800 protestors.  Regrettably there are no sound excerpts for this at all, although some very dramatic ones exist including Savio's famous speech about fighting "the operation of the machine."  The narrator briefly mentions the subsequent strike that shut down the University but the record ends with the conflict unresolved.  I suppose the record was rushed out to encourage the protestors which makes it an interesting historical artifact, but leaves it unsatisfying as a historical narrative.  The music side of the album can't match the drama of the documentary side.  The songs are amateurish for the most part aside from Dan Paik's contributions.  Paik was a real musician who was in an early line up of the Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band and who introduced Barry Melton to Country Joe McDonald resulting in the birth of Country Joe and the Fish.  Paik's songs are "Join the FSM," "Man Takin' Names" and "Womb with A View" which he sang with fellow activists Barry Jablon and Susan Chesney.  Paik's songs aren't very original but he sings them with a lot of enthusiasm and he has a compelling voice.  "Womb with a View" is the best of the trio, it has a lot of drive and funny lyrics.  The song pokes fun at the University Administration's paternalistic and patronizing attitude towards student activism.  Paik also co-wrote "Lesson of Berkeley" with Richard Schmorleitz who sings the song.  Unfortunately Schmorleitz's singing is much weaker than Paik's.  The song is lifted from "Streets of Laredo" and features some of the most heavy-handed lyrics on the record.  There are two talking blues songs, Dave Mandel's "Battle of Berkeley Talking Blues" and Dave Genesen's "Free Speech Demonstration Talking Blues."  Mandel's song is amusing but suffers from his weak singing.  Genesen was obviously a big Dylan fan and he shamelessly imitates him throughout the song.  His lyrics are clumsy at times but I still enjoy them for their wit and cleverness.  Lee Felsenstein's "Put My Name Down" is taken from Woody Guthrie's "Hard Travelin.'"  Felsenstein isn't much of a performer and the songs lyrics are often awkward.  Felsenstein later became an important computer engineer which was probably a better career choice judging from this song.  Richard Kampf's "Hey Mr. Newsman" benefits from Paul Gilbert's frenzied harmonica playing and I like Kampf's drawled vocal which reminds me of Country Joe McDonald.  The song puts down the media's biased coverage of the Free Speech activists. The side ends with Kevin Langdon's "Bastion of Truth" which I like the least of all the songs.  Langdon has a nice voice, but his song is slow, humorless, and oppressive to me.  These songs are so topical that they probably won't be of much appeal to people unfamiliar with Free Speech Movement unless they have a strong appetite for left-wing folk songs.  The documentary side will probably appeal to anyone interested in the 1960s.  Recommended to fans of early Phil Ochs.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Music From Big Pink - The Band


Music From Big Pink
The Band
Capitol ST 2995
1968

I was watching Bob Dylan's show down in Irvine last year which was part of his Americana Tour and got to thinking that there was probably no more anonymous job in music than playing in Dylan's back-up band.  Bashful Bob keeps the lights down low when he plays and refuses to allow cameras to broadcast his set.  He has his boys all in matching outfits and doesn't bother to introduce them to the audience.  I could have run into any of them in the parking lot and would not have had a clue I'd been watching them on stage.  I guess playing with Dylan is its own reward.  I'd happily do it if I were good enough.  Near the end of his set, Dylan brought out Jim James and Jeff Tweedy and they all launched into a moving cover of the Band's "The Weight" which reminded me that there was at least one Dylan back-up band that wasn't anonymous at all.  The Band was widely revered in the Bay Area when I was growing up there and that was where they chose to end their career as documented in the film "The Last Waltz."  I remember all the hoopla about that show which puzzled me at the time.  I did not understand all the fuss about the group, I thought they were kind of boring.  The group was celebrated as being a return to the roots of rock when they came out with this album in 1968, a reaction against the excesses and pretensions of the psychedelic era.  I on the other hand adored the psychedelic era and disliked the unadorned simplicity of this music.  Although I still prefer psychedelic music to roots rock, I've come to admire this album as I've gotten older particularly after I became a fan of country and folk music which informs so much of their sound.  My copy of the record is a British import because I have a collector's fetish thing for imports.  I should have bought the domestic version though because that is a gatefold cover that has pictures of the band and the pink house that inspired the title of the record.  One of these days I'll pick up one.  This is my favorite album by the Band.  It opens brilliantly with "Tears of Rage" by Dylan and Richard Manuel (uncredited on my copy of the record.)  I love the version Dylan cut with the Band on "The Basement Tapes" but this is the definitive version of the song.  Manuel's tortured vocal is so powerful as he expresses the "King Lear" inspired lyrics of parent-child discord, so resonant of the generational conflicts that helped fuel the fires of the 1960s.  The Band somberly plays the tune like they are performing at a funeral, yet still imbue the music with passion.  They pick up the pace for Robbie Robertson's "To Kingdom Come" which features some sizzling guitar work from Robertson.  The lyrics feature the Biblical influence that permeates the imagery of the album but the song is largely a secular tale of moral ambiguity and karma.  Manuel's "In a Station" is a keyboard driven oblique love song.  I have no idea what Robertson's "Caledonia Mission" is about but is sounds pretty nice, a countryish tune with a forceful chorus.  Side One concludes with one of the Band's best known songs, Robertson's "The Weight."  I have to confess I disliked the tune as a teen.  I did not understand what they trying to say in the song and I was repelled by the roughness of the vocals.  I'm still not really sure what it is about, but I've come to admire the song as much as most people do.  The song offers a series of vignettes of small town Southern life liberally sprinkled with Biblical references that make the song seem deeper than it really is.  The powerful Gospel influenced music adds to the gravity of the song as well.  It is a great performance, but my favorite version of the song is the one by Aretha Franklin on "This Girl's in Love with You."  Side two opens with Manuel's "We Can Talk" which features Manuel, Danko and Levon Helms sharing the vocal.  The song sounds silly to me but it does benefit from a strong rhythm and blues style melody.  "Long Black Veil" was originally a hit for Lefty Frizzell who has my favorite version of it.  I'm not a big fan of the song, I think it is maudlin and contrived.  It is sung from the point of view of a dead guy who preferred to be executed rather than reveal that he'd been making love to his best friend's wife at the time of the murder he was convicted of.  The Band solemnly play the song at a lethargic pace that makes it even more oppressive to listen to.  Robertson's "Chest Fever" opens with a fancy organ solo that sounds like prog rock but fortunately that leads into a heavy riff that drives one of the hardest rocking songs on the album.  The song is about a guy with woman trouble.  The energy level plummets with Manuel's "Lonesome Suzie" which is a glacially slow ballad about an unhappy woman who needs a friend.  Manuel's plaintive vocal is the only thing I like about the song.  There are lots of covers of "This Wheel's on Fire" (listed as "Wheels on Fire" on the sleeve of my album) but this one is my favorite.  The song was written by Dylan and Rick Danko (who is uncredited on my record) and dates back to "The Basement Tapes" sessions.  Danko's vocal gives the song a feeling of urgency supported by the group's robust playing.  The lyrics are typically full of the evocative language and imagery of Dylan in the 1960s.  The record concludes with Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" which in the hands of the Band sounds like a gospel song.  Manuel's high quavery vocal is very effective and it gives the album an emotional finish.  In retrospect it was not a good omen for the future of the Band that three of the four best songs on the record were written by Bob Dylan.  I feel like they did their best work collaborating with Dylan.  On their own, their songwriting was their weakness.  They could play and sing great, but aside from their follow-up album "The Band," their albums were hampered by pedestrian songwriting, especially as Manuel's output diminished.  However on this album, the group is terrific.  The record is loaded with good songs and strong performances.  This album has aged very well, it still sounds like a classic album, heartfelt, authentic and full of integrity.  Recommended to fans of Wilco and Ryan Adams.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Le Pop: Les Filles - Various Artists


Le Pop: Les Filles
Various Artists
Le Pop Musik  LPM 20-1
2008

I am a big fan of French pop in the 1960s and early 1970s but I haven't kept up with their music scene since then.  What I've seen in French films and the occasional TV show (my wife used to subscribe to a French cable channel) did not make me think I was missing much.  However when I stumbled across a bargain-priced copy of this album, I picked it up to see what was going on over there.  It is part of a series of albums issued by a German record company that survey contemporary French music.  This one offers a generous sampling of 16 tracks focusing on female singers.  I'd only heard of two of them prior to buying this album - Coralie Clément who I know as an actress and Mélanie Pain who I know from the group Nouvelle Vague which I am a fan of.  My favorite track is Poney Express' "Paris de Loin" which is pure indie rock driven by a great bass riff.  It has a lot of pop appeal and it gets me bopping.  The group is a duo featuring Ana Berthe on vocals and Robin Feix on bass.  My other favorite song is Fredda's "Barry White" which features a slinky vocal over a hypnotic melody as she recalls her youth dancing in discos in Marseille.  I also really like Barbara Carlotti's "Mademoiselle Opossum" which benefits from a propulsive rhythm track and some sensuous horn work that supports her alluring vocal.  Coralie Clément sweetly croons "So Long Babylone" over a chunky rhythm track and a charming ukelele riff.  The song was written and produced by her brother, Benjamin Biolay.  Mélanie Pain's "Celles de Mes 20 Ans" sounds nothing like her work with Nouvelle Vague.  It is poppy folk-rock that her breathy vocal invests with feeling.  "Je Ne Te Quitterais Jamais" by a duo called Doris Park is a lovely, atmospheric song delicately sung in French and English by the group's lead singer, Maria Törnqvist who is Swedish.  "Cupide et Stupide" by Austine is charming twee indie pop with a jaunty melody that makes me happy as I listen to it.  The liner notes compare the song to Belle and Sebastian, but I think Camera Obscura is a more accurate comparison.  "Les Hasrads" by C++ is perhaps the most interesting track on the record being a swinging smorgasbord of 60s pop and synth pop driven by surf guitar and proggy mellotron over which Charlotte Gérand coolly sings.  Several tracks sound like traditional French pop most notably Loane's waltz-like "Petit Bonheur," Maud Lübeck's low-key "Le Parapluie,"  Marianne Feder's jazzy "Toi Mon Indien" and best of all Marianne Dissard's "Les Draps Sourds" which mixes Chanson with Western Swing, it sounds like Edith Piaf performing with Bob Wills.  She seems to be singing about an orgy, I wish my French was better, ha-ha.  There are a few duds on the album.  Constance Amiot's "Clash Dans le Tempo" is mild-mannered French hip-hop that bores me.  Julie B. Bonnie's "Bonjour Monsieur" is a collaboration with Kid Loco.  It has a strong beat but I find it monotonous.  Françoiz Breut has a beautiful voice but her New Age-ish "2013" is tedious to me.  According to the liner notes, Jeanne Cherhal's "Si Tu Reviens J'Annule Tout" is "scandalous" because it is based on a message that Nicholas Sarkozy sent to his ex-wife prior to marrying Carla Bruni.  Maybe you have to be French to find that shocking, I just hear a dull ballad.  Aside from Poney Express' track there is nothing on here that knocks my socks off, but I like just about every song although not enough to run out and buy a bunch of French records.  It rarely rocks, but it rolls pretty well and has a nice mellow vibe to it.  Recommended to Francophiles who dig Isobel Campbell and El Perro del Mar.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Above Ground Sound of Jake Holmes - Jake Holmes


The Above Ground Sound of Jake Holmes
Jake Holmes
Tower T 5079
1967

I first heard Holmes' most famous song (if you don't count his commercial jingles and I don't) on "Live Yardbirds."  That song "Dazed and Confused" was retitled "I'm Confused" by the Yardbirds for their epic workout on the song which is one of the highlights of their album.  If I had been a Led Zeppelin fan I probably would have heard it first on their debut album which has always been a lot easier to find than "Live Yardbirds."  On the Yardbirds' record the song carried no composition credit but when Led Zeppelin released it it had Jimmy Page's name on it.  Sure he monkeyed around with it, but this is still plagiarism.  Holmes got a raw deal from Page and I'd say he got a raw deal from music history as well.  He ought to be remembered for more than being a footnote in Led Zeppelin's career.  This album is worthy of recognition in its own right.  Holmes displays his talent right from the first track on this record, "Lonely."  Holmes is accompanied throughout the album by Ted Irwin on electric guitar and Rick Randall on bass and on this track the two really shine.  Irwin's frenzied raga-style runs on top of Randall's pulsing bass is tremendously exciting and gives this jazzy song great intensity and power.  It is my favorite track after "Dazed and Confused."  "Did You Know" is a more conventional mellow love song although it still has a slightly jazzy feeling reminiscent of Nick Drake.  Holmes ups the tempo for the rocking "She Belonged to Me" in which he describes a girlfriend.  Irwin's high velocity strumming propels the song nicely.  "Too Long" is a moody song about two friends who have grown apart.  The delicate interplay between the two guitars and the melodic bass lines gives the song a lot of atmosphere and feeling.  Side one concludes with "Genuine Imitation Life" which was improbably covered by the Four Seasons a few years later.  The song is a grim diatribe about hypocrisy, selfishness and the inability of people to relate to each other.  I find the song kind of pretentious although it is interesting and the music is first rate especially Randall's bass work.  Side two opens with "Dazed and Confused."  I appreciate the thunder and energy that Page brought to his bombastic interpretation of the song with both the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin, but I think Holmes' more subdued take of the song serves it best.  The narrator of the song is dazed and confused because of a love affair and the uncertainty he feels about his relationship.  Randall's descending bass riff drives the song and Irwin has an exciting psychedelic-style guitar solo.  The ending of the song with Holmes' crazed strumming of his acoustic guitar on top of the throbbing bass and clanging electric guitar chords is quite thrilling and ends way too soon for my liking.  Holmes shifts gears dramatically with "Penny's" which is a low-key jazzy tune with a little scat singing from Holmes in between the verses about the woman of the title.  The jazz sound is even stronger on "Hard to Keep My Mind On You" which was influenced by Dave Brubeck according to Holmes in the liner notes.  It has a fast tempo in 5/4 time and is a swinging tune in which the singer tells his girlfriend how easily he gets distracted from her when he sees other girls.  I imagine that conversation probably didn't go very well, but you'd never know it from the sunny nature of the tune.  "Wish I Was Anywhere Else" has a slight chamber pop sound to it with its fast paced baroque style guitar runs.  The song is about being forced to engage in a conversation with a person you can't relate to.  The album concludes with "Signs of Age" which is about the relativity of age depending on one's perspective.  He speaks much of the song rather than singing it and the music is laid-back and meandering.  Easily my least favorite track on the album.  It is a disappointing finish but it does not diminish the impact of the album very much.  I love the personal and introspective quality of the lyrics and the music is consistently engaging and stimulating.  1967 was such a fantastic year for music, it is easy to see why this album was overlooked at the time but it deserved a better fate.  Its intelligence and integrity should appeal to anyone who values personal expression and individuality in pop music.  Recommended to fans of Tim Buckley.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Johnny Winter And - Johnny Winter And



Johnny Winter And
Johnny Winter And
Columbia C 30221
1970

Here's a post for the late Johnny Winter.  Winter started out playing the blues and finished his career as a bluesman, but for a little while in between he was a pretty fine rocker.  I have some of his blues records and I like them fine.  The guitar work is outstanding and the singing is, well, less than outstanding.  This however is my favorite Winter record and it is pure 1970s hard rock.  It resulted when Winter joined three of the four McCoys to form Johnny Winter And.  I'm a big fan of the McCoys' two Mercury albums in the late 1960s and they bring a lot to this record both in terms of instrumental support and songwriting.  The record kicks off with Winter's hard riffing "Guess I'll Go Away" driven by the dueling guitars of Winter and Rick Derringer who rock out big time.  Fabulous!  Mark "Moogy" Klingman's "Ain't That a Kindness" is less exciting being more in a laid-back southern rock vein.  It is followed by an unlikely cover of Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi's "No Time to Live" off of the second album by Traffic.  Thanks to the guitar interplay between Derringer and Winter it is better than one might expect, although it sounds more like the McCoys to me than Winter.  It is followed by Derringer's classic "Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo" which would later be a hit single for Derringer when he released his own solo version of it in 1973.  I think it is one of the best hard rock songs of its era and I love both versions although I think Derringer's is more forceful.  Lots of great guitar riffing on this one and the crude lyrics are pure rock and roll.  The band's drummer, Derringer's brother Randy Z (Zehringer), provided "Am I Here?" which is another track that sounds more like the McCoys than Winter with its quasi-existential romantic lyrics and its folk-rock style.  I really like the song, it would have fit great on "Infinite McCoys" and it makes a nice change of pace for this record.  Things return to normal with Derringer and Robyn Supraner's "Look Up" which is another riff-driven rocker with a southern rock sound to it.  It is a bit generic but it rocks and features plenty of guitar action.  Side two kicks off with Winter's "Prodigal Son" which is yet another riff-driven rocker with more of a rhythm and blues feel to it and some smoking hot guitar solos.  Derringer's "On the Limb" is more southern rock with a nice dual vocal from Winter and Derringer.  Allan Nicholls and Otis Stephens' "Let the Music Play" offers another respite from the relentless rock attack of the record.  It is slow and soulful with more of a pop flavor than the rest of the record although it still boasts a killer guitar solo.  Winter's "Nothing Left" is a generic blues rocker distinguished only by the quality of the playing which I have to admit is pretty high.  The album concludes with Derringer's "Funky Music" which is not very funky, but rather another southern rock guitar workout.  The song is ordinary but the guitar work is some of the best on the album and this is an album with a lot of great guitar on it.  Unfortunately it fades out with the boys still jamming up a storm much to my annoyance.  That's a minor complaint for an otherwise first rate record.  The songwriting isn't quite strong enough for it to be a truly great record, but as far as hard rock goes in the 1970s, there are not a lot of albums better than this.  The playing is fantastic, an aural orgy for connoisseurs of guitar noise.  The partnership between Winter and the McCoys benefited both parties.  The McCoys brought their pop sensibility and a strong second guitarist for Winter to engage with and Winter gave them a grittier sound and a stronger rock identity.  Winter was one of the greatest guitarists in rock history and this album is a magnificent example of the talent we have lost with his passing.  Recommended to fans of Lynyrd Skynyrd.