Friday, January 31, 2014

Dirty Water - The Standells

Dirty Water
The Standells
Tower ST 5027

Lately it feels like the obituary pages are dictating the direction of my blog.  I'm trying to get away from that but I hate the thought of not acknowledging the passing of Dick Dodd last November.  He was the drummer and lead vocalist for the Standells.  I've loved the Standells since I was in high school when I first heard them on the "Nuggets" compilation which featured their hit single "Dirty Water."  A couple of years later I was lucky enough to find a nice copy of this album for five bucks at a record store in Concord, a Bay Area suburb.  It was my first Standells album and it is still my favorite.  The album gets off to a strong start with "Medication" by Minette Alton and jazz pianist Ben Di Tosti.  It is a powerful rocker driven by a driving bass riff, a reverb-laden guitar line and a hypnotic organ drone.  It is the most psychedelic track on the record, it reminds me of the Electric Prunes at their best.  It is followed by a cover of Don and the Goodtimes' 1965 garage band classic "Little Sally Tease" which was written by Goodtimes member Jim Valley who would later join Paul Revere and the Raiders.  It is a high energy cover with a prominent bass line and some exciting organ work from Larry Tamblyn, but it can't match the raucous intensity of the original.  "There's a Storm Comin'" was written by the record's producer Ed Cobb.  The song has a rhythm and blues sound to it.  Next up is a cover of the Rolling Stones' "19th Nervous Breakdown."  The Standells closely follow the original's arrangement but fail to reproduce the manic quality the Stones gave their version nor can Dodd duplicate Mick Jagger's sarcasm and contempt.  Side one concludes with "Dirty Water" which was also written by Ed Cobb.  The song has a tremendously catchy riff played on guitar and organ as well as arguably Dodd's best ever vocal.  I find it amusing that a song that has practically become the Boston theme song was performed by a quintessential Southern California band that had never even been to Boston when they recorded it.  Larry Tamblyn wrote "Pride & Devotion" which is a romantic pop song with a folk-rock flavor.  "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White" is another great garage band song courtesy of Ed Cobb.  The song is driven by an insistent chugging riff and the cutting lyrics are delivered with a bit of a sneer from Dodd.  Somehow the song failed to become a hit but it is so good that the record company stuck it on the Standells' next album, "Why Pick On Me - Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White" as well.  The group offers up the garage band standard "Hey Joe" in an arrangement similar to that of the Byrds and the Leaves.  They play it as fast as any version I've heard with lots of energy and a great Dodd vocal, but I give the Leaves' hit version the edge for its superior guitar solo.  "Why Did You Hurt Me" was written by Dodd and the Standells' guitarist Tony Valentino.  The song starts out like a garage rocker with a pounding riff and then has a romantic pop passage in the middle before finishing with a rave-up.  It is kind of derivative, but it sounds great.  The album concludes with yet another Ed Cobb song, "Rari."  This is a memorable song propelled by a swirling organ line, a forceful lead vocal from Dodd and compelling background vocals.  It features a terrific raga-like instrumental break.  The song gives the album a strong finish.  This is the Standell's best album and one of the best garage band-style albums of the 1960s.  If it had a few more strong originals instead of familiar covers, it would have been among the best albums of 1966.  I still love it though and it has been one of my most treasured albums for more than 30 years.  Rest in peace Dick Dodd and thank you for your terrific music.  I just wish there was more of it.  He and the Standells deserved a better career.  Recommended to people who think that Paul Revere and the Raiders and the Monkees were more important than Hall and Oates (yeah I'm looking at you, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame voter bozos.)

Friday, January 24, 2014

Cowboyography - Ian Tyson

Ian Tyson
Sugar Hill Records SH-1021

This is the 1987 American release of the Ian Tyson solo album originally released on Stony Plain Records in Canada.  I have been reading Tyson's memoir "The Long Trail."  I was primarily interested in reading about Ian and Sylvia, but Tyson has very little interest in that period of his life and career as it is confined to a little more than a chapter.  Most of the book is devoted to his childhood, his solo career and most particularly his experiences with horses.  He distances himself from Ian and Sylvia suggesting that it was not really his style or vision, observing that "our duo was based on Sylvia's concept of harmony."  I was not happy reading about his ambivalence about that music, because I idolize Ian and Sylvia and treasure their albums.  This is the album Tyson seems most proud of and I like it too, but I would not trade it for any of my Ian and Sylvia albums.  As you can probably tell from the title, the record is about cowboys and their lives and beliefs, something Tyson greatly identifies with.  The record opens strongly with "Navajo Rug" which Tyson co-wrote with the country singer, Tom Russell.  In the song, Tyson reminisces about a love affair with a diner waitress that took place on the titular rug.  It has a jaunty tune and a warm vocal from Tyson.  Ian and Sylvia cut a folk rock version of "Summer Wages" in 1967 on "So Much For Dreaming" and then a country rock version in 1971 on "Ian and Sylvia."  Tyson delivers a straight country version of it on this album.  I prefer the 1971 one myself but I don't mind him taking another crack at it, it is one of the best songs he ever wrote.  The fiddling on this tune is very pretty.  "Springtime" is a detailed description of life on his ranch and in the cattle country on the eastern slope of the Canadian Rockies up in Alberta.  In "Fifty Years Ago" Ian sings about a guy nostalgically recalling a youth spent busting broncos and wooing the prostitute he was in love with back then.  It is an upbeat song driven by some lovely piano lines.  Tyson slows things down for the similarly themed "Rockies Turn Rose" in which the subject of the song finds himself in Texas missing the girl he once loved up in Calgary.  Tyson's evocative vocal reminds me of the great Lefty Frizzell.  The side concludes with "Claude Dallas" written by Tyson and Tom Russell.  It is based on a true story in which a poacher, Claude Dallas, murdered two game wardens in Idaho and then escaped from prison after being convicted.  The song is sympathetic to Dallas and suggests that he may not have been in the wrong.  I suppose that might be true, aside from Dallas the only guys who really know what happened are dead.  Nonetheless my sympathies are with the families of the men Dallas murdered, I have no use for songs that glorify criminals.  I don't care for the lyrics, but musically this is one of the best songs on the record.  It has a compelling melody that gives it a lot narrative drive.  Side two opens with "Own Heart's Delight" which Tyson wrote about his second wife, Twylla, and their life together on his ranch.  It is a romantic song sweetened with lyrical steel guitar and fiddle lines.  "The Gift" was inspired by a painting by Charles Marion Russell that Tyson viewed in the Montana state capitol building in Helena.  The song celebrates Russell's life and his art.  In "Cowboy Pride" he admonishes a fellow cowboy who has left his wife and ranch to run off with an underage waitress to go back home.  He attributes his behavior to his "cowboy pride" but it sounds more like a mid-life crisis to me.  There may be a little autobiography in this song, Tyson did a little wild living in his 40s and Twylla was 17 when he met her in a bar where she served the food.  The tune is a little too mellow for my taste, but it gives Tyson plenty of opportunities to display the wonderful resonant tones of his voice.  "Old Cheyenne" is about rodeos and bull-riding.  It is another remake, dating back to the final Ian and Sylvia album, "You Were on My Mind."  I prefer the original which is more uptempo, but I think Tyson sings better in the remake.  The rider in this song is shaken after seeing his friend get killed riding a bull and he's looking for his lover's help to get out of that life.  Tyson sings the song with a lot of feeling and Adrian Chornowol's piano playing at the end of the song gives the song a graceful finish.  The album ends with "The Coyote & The Cowboy" in which a cowboy compares his life with that of the coyote with the coyote coming out on top.  The song is done as a quasi-live sing-a-long with plenty of comments and noises from the audience.  It ends the album on a warm, light-hearted note.  This is a very likeable record with a consistent theme and tone that I find very appealing, that is one of things I like about albums.  It is almost a concept album in that regard.  Musically I like my country music to be a little rawer and have more bite, this is kind of slick, but Tyson is such a great singer that he can deliver some of the punch that the music lacks.  Recommended to people who think that if a country singer wears a cowboy hat, he ought to know something about being a cowboy.  I doubt that there are any in Nashville that know more about it than Tyson. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Nice Guys - The Everly Brothers

Nice Guys
The Everly Brothers
Magnum Force Records  MFLP-1028

Yet another obituary to acknowledge.  There have been so many lately I can't keep up, but Phil Everly's passing was particularly painful for me.  I've been a huge fan of the Everly Brothers since I was a teenager.  They were the first artists from the classic rock and roll era that really engaged me and between vinyl and CDs I have just about all of their albums.  Their music with its sublime vocal harmonies has given me countless hours of pleasure.  I have been playing their albums this past week in memory of Phil.  My favorite is "Roots" which I have already blogged about and which is one of my all time favorite albums.  The one I listened to the most this week though was this one.  It is a British compilation album of unreleased material from the Everlys' years at Warner Bros. Records which encompassed the entire decade of the 1960s.  It was the second such album ("The New Album" preceded it in 1977) and it is full of fine music that deserves to be heard.  The album was clearly a labor of love released on Everly fan Nigel Molden's rock and roll specialty label, Magnum Force.  Unfortunately it contains no information about the songs, no dates or musicians, sometimes not even a songwriter.  For that information I turned to Robin Dunn's excellent Everly discography.  The album opens with "Trouble" from 1963.  It is a rocking tune that bares some resemblance to "Wake Up Little Susie" except that this time the trouble is deserved.  It is one of my favorite songs on the record, I especially dig the wailing harmonica running through the song.  "What About Me" is a Gerry Goffin/Carole King composition from 1962 that Bobby Vee recorded the following year.  It is a propulsive little song which, like so many of their songs, is about heartbreak.  The album jumps forward to 1969 for "From Eden to Canaan" (listed as "From Eden to Cainin" on the record.)  It is a slow country rocker with a fabulous harmony vocal from Phil on the chorus.  It is such a beautiful song, I can't understand why it was never released.  The song was written by Robert J. Kessler and Robert William Scott.  Another Goffin/King song is next.  "Chains" was recorded in 1962 prior to the hit version by the Cookies that was released later that year.  It is perfect for the Everlys' sound and it has hit single written all over it (although I could do without the chain sound effects) so I'm baffled as to why they let the Cookies have the hit instead.  "Meet Me In The Bottom" is a rare foray into the blues by the Everlys.  Its songwriting credit is listed as Everly on the record but it is actually the Willie Dixon song that Howlin' Wolf recorded as "Down In the Bottom" in 1961.  The Everlys recorded it late in 1968.  It has some fine guitar picking in the breaks and the Brothers are backed up by a gospel style chorus that adds a lot of oomph to the recording.  "In The Good Old Days" is a Dolly Parton song that she released as a single in 1968 (I wrote about her version in my post for "The Best of Dolly Parton.")  The Everlys' version dates from late 1968. I prefer the Parton recording but the Everlys' country roots serve them well in making the song convincing.  This song also features support from a gospel style chorus, but this time I find it obtrusive.  Side two opens with "Nice Guy" (listed as "Nice Guys" on the record) which is yet another Goffin/King song that the Everlys recorded in 1962.  In the liner notes for the box set "Heartaches & Harmonies" Don Everly dismissed the song as "formula" but I think that is a bit harsh.  I consider it a terrific song, another one of my favorites on the record.  It is a return to the sound of their classic recordings for Cadence Records, it even has the acoustic guitar riff from "Bye Bye Love."  Perhaps this return to the past is what Don found objectionable but it works for me.  It has fun lyrics about nice guys finishing last in love.  "Stained Glass Morning" is a Scott McKenzie song that the Everlys recorded late in 1969.  The song is a maudlin tale of a dead soldier's funeral that is over-produced but it has a very strong vocal that redeems it somewhat.  It is by far the worst song on the record.  "Dancing On My Feet" is a different take of the 1962 Phil Everly composition that first appeared on "The New Album."  It is an amusing song about how his dance partner keeps stepping on his feet.  It would have fit in great on "Instant Party" where it would have been one of the best songs on the album.  It is followed by a fantastic version of the Buffalo Springfield classic "Mr Soul" by Neil Young that dates from late 1968.  The song is taken at a much slower pace than the supercharged version by the Springfield.  It has a mix of country and soul elements and a low key vocal that makes the lyrics really stand out in all their surreal brilliance.  It is an inspired reworking of the song that makes it sound moody and menacing.  "Don't Ya Even Try" (listed as "Don't You Even Try" on the record) is by Phil and Don and was recorded in late 1964 during the sessions for their "Rock 'N' Soul" album.  Its Bo Diddley style beat and guitar riff would have made it perfect for the rock and roll covers laden "Rock 'N' Soul" and it is such a good song that I'm guessing the main reason it was left off the album was because of the Everlys' bitter songwriting royalty dispute with Acuff-Rose.  Too bad, it would have made that album better.  I think the same could be said for the final song on the album, the joint Everly composition "Kiss Your Man Goodbye" which was first attempted during the "Rock 'N' Soul" sessions.  The version on this album is the second attempt recorded in England in mid-1965.  It is a rocking song that seems influenced by the British Invasion sound which is ironic considering how much the Everlys influenced English groups like the Beatles, Hollies and Searchers.  It is driven by lots of noisy guitar and features a fine joint vocal from Phil and Don.  It deserved a better fate than being shelved.  I guess it is a testament to the Everlys' greatness (and perhaps Warner Bros. Records' incompetence as well) that this outtakes album is so good, easily as good or better than many of their official Warner Bros. albums.  If you have deep pockets you can find all of this music on the massive CD box sets that Bear Family issued of the complete Everly Brothers recordings on Warner Bros. Records.  Personally I think the Everlys sound best on vinyl so I'm really happy I was able to find a copy of this wonderful album.  It reminds me of Phil Everly's great legacy to his fans and his monumental place in the history of American music.  Recommended to fans of vocal harmonies in pop music.  There will never be anyone better than these guys. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Tony's Greatest Hits Volume III - Tony Bennett

Tony's Greatest Hits Volume III
Tony Bennett
Columbia CS 9173

I was up at my father's house for Christmas which meant a steady diet of crooners like Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra on his stereo.  When he was younger my dad listened to some contemporary music, but now that he is elderly he sticks to the favorites of his youth.  When I was a teenager I disliked this sort of music, but now that I'm a whole lot older I like it better although I very rarely listen to it.  The one exception to that is the great Tony Bennett.  He is easily my favorite singer of pop standards.  I was lucky enough to catch him at the Hollywood Bowl over the summer backed up by a small jazz combo and it was a tremendous show.  Even at 87 years old the man is still a fantastic performer with a strong voice.  I first became aware of Bennett as a child via this record in my father's record collection.  This isn't his copy, I purchased it about 10 years ago.  I can't say I was really drawn to this music when I was a kid, but rather I was attracted to the album cover which features a dramatic photo by Richard Avedon.  The only song that appealed to me back then was "(I Left My Heart) in San Francisco" which was a 1962 top twenty single for Bennett.  I grew up in the Bay Area and was born in the City by the Bay so the song has a lot of resonance for me.  They play it at AT&T Park after Giants games and whenever I hear it there it makes me happy.  I've heard the song many times but I never get tired of it.  Bennett's vocal is so tender and resonant, it fills the room with warmth when I play it and it has a tasteful arrangement led by Ralph Sharon's delicate piano lines.  Sharon carries the weight on "I Wanna Be Around" as well which was another top twenty single in 1963.  Bennett tempers the vindictive nature of the song with his customary sensitivity.  Antonio Carlos Jobim's bossa nova classic "Corcovado" (listed here with its English title "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars") appeared on Bennett's 1963 album "I Wanna Be Around."  There are many versions of this song, but this is my favorite.  It is driven by an acoustic guitar and Sharon's jazzy piano tinkling supplemented with a restrained string accompaniment and Bennett delivers an atmospheric and romantic vocal.  "When Joanna Loved Me" was an unsuccessful 1964 single but it deserved a better fate.  It is one of my favorite cuts on the album.  Sharon's piano lines are superb and the yearning in Bennett's voice really sends me.   "The Moment of Truth" comes from Bennett's 1963 album "This Is All I Ask" and was also a flop single.  It has a jazzy arrangement and a swinging vocal from Bennett, easily the most dynamic track on the album although the song itself is pedestrian.  It still beats "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)" which was a top 40 single in 1964.  It is a melodramatic show tune with a sappy arrangement.  Bennett's soaring vocal is magnificent but this sort of song is not my cup of tea.  Side two kicks off with "The Good Life" which is one of Bennett's best known songs.  It was a top twenty single in 1963.  The string arrangement on the song is a bit obtrusive, but Sharon's piano is perfect as usual and Bennett sings the song with a lot of feeling.  I admire the understated lyrics which endorse love over the materialism and trendiness of "the good life."  Bennett's 1964 performance of  "A Taste of Honey" is my favorite of the many versions of that classic song, I even prefer it to the version by my beloved Beatles.  Dick Hyman's arrangement is subtle with jazz inflections and Bennett's vocal is very expressive.  Gordon Jenkins' "This Is All I Ask" is a reflective ballad that was released by Bennett in 1963.  It is a beautiful song with a nice intimate feel in its arrangement.  "Once Upon A Time" is another corny show tune from 1962.  It was the flip side of the "(I Left My Heart) in San Francisco" single.  Bennett sings his heart out making a phony song surprisingly moving.  "The Best Is Yet To Come" is best known in Frank Sinatra's swinging version with Count Basie but Bennett recorded it first on his 1962 "(I Left My Heart) in San Francisco" album.  I prefer Bennett's version.  Sinatra's brashness and bravado generally alienate me, I like Bennett's more sensitive and restrained style.  He moves me in a way that Sinatra rarely was able to achieve.  "If I Ruled the World" is yet another show tune, a big overblown ballad that was a top 40 single in 1965.  I hate the background choir and the heavy handed strings.  I wish I could erase them and just have the Ralph Sharon trio back up Bennett, the song would be much more enjoyable for me.  Bennett sings great of course, but it is by far the song I like the least on the album.  Despite the weak finish, I still love this record.  If I had to limit myself to a single Bennett album, this would be my pick.  I'm a rock and roll guy, I do not have an affinity for this sort of music, but Bennett reaches me just as effectively as John Lennon or Bob Dylan do.  For me, Bennett is the best male singer of his generation.  For more than 50 years he has been making wonderful records.  His impeccable taste and sensitivity combined with a fabulous voice and a remarkable work ethic have resulted in a body of work that will probably never be surpassed.  Recommended for a romantic candlelit dinner.