Friday, March 28, 2014

Guantanamera - The Sandpipers

The Sandpipers
A&M SP 4117

I was watching the old movie "Penny Serenade" a while back.  It is pretty sappy but I love the narrative device used to construct the movie.  In the film Irene Dunne plays a record collector whose marriage to Cary Grant is heading towards a break-up.  She is packing up to leave him when she comes across her album of 78s.  She pulls them out and starts playing them.  Each 78 represents a different period in her relationship with Grant and the music triggers a series of flashbacks that tell their story.  How would that work nowadays?  Is she going to whip out her smart phone and start reminiscing about how she downloaded this song on her honeymoon and so forth?  Yecch.  I come after the 78 era, but I could definitely do this with my LPs.  In fact several of my posts are autobiographical in nature because so many of my favorite records are deeply connected to my memories of the past.  In my version of "Penny Serenade" this album would probably kick off my story.  It is the earliest music album I can remember being a fan of.  My father had this record and given that his collection was devoted to crooners and mariachi music, it was the closest thing he had to a rock record when I was a child.  My father only played side one, he liked the title song.  Even after all these years I still have side one memorized in my head I heard it so many times back then.  Side two on the other hand I barely know at all.  My sisters and I adored this record, it was our favorite record until my father came home with "If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears" by the Mamas and the Papas a few years later.  Then I discovered the Monkees and the Beatles and soon I lost all interest in this record.  I didn't even consider taking it when I grew up and left home and it probably ended up in a landfill.  In my 30s I started getting nostalgic about my childhood and wanted to hear this album again even though soft rock has never been my thing.  So I bought a copy of my own and played it again with a mixture of anticipation and dread - dread that my childhood treasure would embarrass me.  To my relief I found that I still liked it and I still like it now as well.  The Sandpipers were a trio of vocalists, Jim Brady, Michael Piano and Richard Shoff who sang ensemble vocals over subdued instrumental arrangements that range from easy listening to folk pop to bossa nova to lounge style jazz.  Their lethargic sound is augmented by an uncredited female vocalist whose soaring voice adds much needed vitality to the record.  She is so prominent on the album that my sisters and I assumed she was the woman on the cover - why else would she be on the cover we naively wondered.  On the title track the woman singer has been identified as Robie Lester who made a career out of singing in cartoons and Disney children's records.  On the rest of the record I presume the singer is Pamela Ramcier who was associated with the group throughout their recording career and also toured with them.  I find it pretty obnoxious that they did not simply make her a full-fledged member or at least give her a credit, she was a better singer than they were.  My favorite song on the album is "Cast Your Fate To The Wind," a song that I have loved nearly my entire life after hearing it on this record.  My favorite version is the Vince Guaraldi original, but this is not far behind.  It features a folk-rock arrangement augmented by Latin jazz style flute runs with an atmospheric vocal that really sends me.  I used to play it over and over as a child.  My other favorite song on the album is "Guantanamera" which was a top ten hit for the group.  It was adapted by Pete Seeger for English speaking audiences from a popular Cuban song.  The poetic verses are in Spanish but there is a spoken translation in the middle of the song over which Lester sings another verse in Spanish.  It is largely driven by acoustic guitars and sounds lovely.  There are several other Spanish language songs on the album (probably why my father liked it so much) presumably attempting to capitalize on the title song's success.  They include a bilingual version of Frank Sinatra's big hit "Strangers In The Night" with a Latin-style arrangement and Keith Colley and Paul Rubio's "Enamorado" with female back-up singers giving it some welcome energy.  There is also a bilingual version of the Mexican folk song "La Bamba" that is so slow as to be practically unrecognizable to fans of Ritchie Valens' famous rock and roll version.  The female vocal on the song comes close to overwhelming the boys' laid back vocal.  Rock and roll does not fare any better with a Spanish language version of "Louie, Louie" given a glacially slow romantic arrangement.  It sounds comical, but it actually works surprisingly well if you like that sort of thing.  The Spanish influence is also present on "Carmen," a pop adaptation of Bizet's opera.  The international flavor of the record extends to France with "La Mer (Beyond the Sea)" sung in English in a relatively uptempo performance (by Sandpiper standards) but which pales next to Bobby Darin's classic version although the quasi-bossa nova arrangement is appealing.  Italy is represented by "Stasera Gli Angeli Non Volano" which had been released as single the previous year by the New Christy Minstrels (recording as the Minstrels.)  It is a beautiful song sung entirely in Italian, very romantic.  There is also a cover of the Beatles' "Things We Said Today" given a slight Latin flavor but otherwise sticking close to the original.  I like it and wish there were more songs like it on the record.  "What Makes You Dream, Pretty Girl" is a straight forward romantic pop song with a nice chamber pop feel to it.  Finally there is a cover of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil's "Angelica" which is best known in Gene Pitney's version from the same year although my favorite version is Scott Walker's on his debut solo album.  The Sandpipers' performance is typically pretty and romantic, but I miss the drama of the Pitney and Walker versions.  Do I really recommend this record?  I imagine many rock fans will hate it and I'm not sure I would like it much if I hadn't grown up with it.  Nonetheless having enjoyed it for nearly 50 years, I think there must be more to my fondness for it than mere nostalgia.  The music is consistently lovely, especially the female vocalizing, and the arrangements are tasteful and engaging.  It is one of the most overtly romantic records in my collection and sounds particularly fine after a tough day, unwinding at home with a glass of wine and a special someone.  Recommended to fans of Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Fugs - The Fugs

The Fugs
The Fugs
ESP-Disk  ESP 1028

The second album by the Fugs is my favorite of their albums.  I was attracted to the group partly because of my interest in the Beat Generation writers, which principal Fugs Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg were loosely affiliated with, but mostly because of the lurid descriptions of their music that I read in rock encyclopedias.  Any group that had the nerve to name themselves after a crude euphemism for sex in the mid-1960s had to be worth checking out and I was not disappointed.  I still consider the band to be one of the most interesting and adventurous rock bands of their era.  The album opens with Ed Sanders' "Frenzy" which befitting its title is a crazed rock and roll style invitation to the ladies in the audience to come up and enjoy their "baskets of love."  If that suggests flower power innocence, Sanders clarifies matters when he howls about feeling "his laser beam" when it is "deep inside your belly."  The Dionysian philosophy behind the Fugs' work is expressed by the sensual lyrics and the frantic, ecstatic music.  "I Want To Know" is a poem by Charles Olson set to music by Sanders.  It is about experience and the pursuit of knowledge although the hedonist theme of the album is reflected in references to breaking a vein or drinking to achieve understanding.  The music is slower and prettier with more than a hint of doo-wop in the arrangement.  Sanders is not a good enough singer to put the song over, but his earnestness does have some appeal.  Sanders and Fugs guitarist Pete Kearney contribute "Skin Flowers."  The song is an ode to the pleasures of the flesh, in particular young teen-age flesh.  The song is a garage rocker driven by a wailing harmonica with a surf influence in the twangy guitar riff.  Sanders delivers the classic Fugs track "Group Grope" a frenzied rocker that may have been the most overtly sexual pop song of its era.  In his opening lines Sanders proclaims his philosophy of "dope, peace, magic, gods in the tree trunks and a group grope."  Needless to say the boys don't stop at groping as the "studes fug the teach" and "the daughters fug the preach."   Even after all these years I'm still astonished when Sanders asks "does it feels so good inside you baby?" and then starts grunting in ecstasy.  The song finishes with an orgy featuring multiple voices groaning and making orgasmic noises as the music builds to a sonic crescendo.  It is truly an amazing song.  The jazzy "Coming Down" is another Sanders song.  It is a dark song about coming down from a cocaine high with lots of death imagery.  Sanders' limitations as a vocalist are evident throughout the song, but it is still compelling.  "Dirty Old Man" is a collaboration between Sanders and Lionel Goldbart, a weirdo poet who Sanders met in his New York book store, the Peace Eye Bookstore.  The title character hangs out in schoolyards giving out drugs and porn to kids and trying to look up little girls' skirts while clutching Communist literature.  The music is perversely child-like with a sing-along structure.  It is easily the creepiest and most offensive song on the album.  Kupferberg opens side two with another classic Fugs song, "Kill For Peace."  It is a satirical song about the Domino Theory and in particular the Vietnam War.  It is not subtle but it is pretty funny and Sanders sings it with gusto.  The music is folk-rock with the repetitive structure of a children's song.  Kupferberg also wrote "Morning, Morning" which in contrast to the rest of the album is gentle and sensitive.  It is a contemplative evocation of loneliness and unhappiness tied to the movement of the day.  It is delicately crooned by Kupferberg with a harmony vocal by Betsy Klein.  Fugs keyboardist Lee Crabtree and guitarist Vinny Leary wrote "Doin' All Right" with lyrics from poet Ted Berrigan.  It is a song that celebrates freakdom.  The subject of the song has long hair and a beard which leads dismayed observers to compare him to Jesus and to wonder how he gets by, but he maintains that he is doing fine with plenty of sex and drugs which is a pretty apt theme for a rock song if ever I heard one.  It includes the immortal couplet "I'm not ever gonna to go to Vietnam, I prefer to stay right here and screw your mom."  It is a driving rocker with some terrific propulsive piano playing from Crabtree.  The album finishes with the 11 minute song suite "Virgin Forest" by Sanders, Crabtree and the record's engineer Richard L. Alderson.  It abandons rock for the most part in favor of tribal drumming, jazz, sound collages and chanting.  There isn't much of a plot, it begins with the birth of Aphrodite, then a man and a woman meet in the jungle and do it doggy style and then the man does it with a chimp.  Next up is some turkey gobbling followed by an orgy, a recital of some violent poetry taken from William S. Burroughs and finally a plea for death to "stay thy phantoms."  Just your typical pop song.  Back in the 1960s the Fugs' music was sometimes accused of being pornographic, but I think that is inaccurate, it is more polemical than it is arousing.  Unlike Frank Zappa who covered some of the same territory and also pushed the boundaries of bourgeois standards of decency, I don't think the Fugs were merely interested in being shocking.  Zappa had a juvenile's delight in scatology and perversity as a form of rebellion, but the Fugs had an agenda they were pushing.  Fellow traveler Allen Ginsberg described it as "the soul politics ecstasy message" in his highly expressive liner notes for the album.  The Fugs' music is about sexual liberation, release from inhibitions and the transformative force of physical pleasure.  These guys were poets confronting a sick society with their strongest weapons, the power of language and the power of love.  Recommended to people who believe that if you free your body, your mind will follow.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Carolyn Hester - Carolyn Hester

Carolyn Hester
Carolyn Hester
Columbia CS 8596

Carolyn Hester's third album and her debut album for Columbia Records.  In my post on "Joan Baez in Concert Part 1" I mentioned that I've never understood Baez's immense popularity during the folk boom.  As a corollary to that, I understand even less why Baez became a big star and Carolyn Hester did not.  Hester seemingly had it all.  She had a terrific voice, more relaxed and expressive than Baez and equally polished and powerful.  She was a good guitarist.  She had better taste in material, earthier and less corny.  She was just as attractive as Baez, perhaps even more so.  Bob Dylan was smitten with her, he called her "double barrel beautiful" in his memoir "Chronicles Volume One."  In his book he discussed the circumstances that led to him playing harmonica on three cuts on this album and gave her credit for introducing him to the album's producer John Hammond and thus launching his own career on Columbia Records.  Dylan also expressed envy towards Richard Fariña for being married to Hester.  Prior to marrying Mimi Baez, Fariña was indeed married to Hester and in David Hajdu's book "Positively 4th Street" he paints an unflattering picture of Fariña using Hester to launch his own music career.  Hajdu claims it was Fariña's idea for Dylan to play on this album but Hester disputes this.  However it happened, Dylan did make his recording debut on this record, which is largely why this record is hard to find and very pricey.  Dylan's presence on this record overshadows Hester practically, which is a shame because this is a wonderful record in its own right.  Besides Dylan, Hester is also accompanied by guitarist Bruce Langhorne and bassist Bill Lee for much of the album.  The album opens with Albert E. Brumley's classic gospel song "I'll Fly Away" which features Dylan, Langhorne and Lee adding instrumental support to Hester's robust vocal.  It is one of my favorite tracks on the album.  Dylan makes the most of his opportunity blowing up a storm.  The religious theme continues with "When Jesus Lived in Galilee" which was popularized by John Jacob Niles who collected the song in Kentucky. "Los Biblicos" is derived from "Los Bilbilicos" an old song in Ladino, the Jewish language derived from medieval Spanish.  Hester sings the lyrics popularized by Theodore Bikel which are considerably different from traditional versions although the imagery of the songs are similar featuring unhappy lovers listening to nightingales sing.  This hauntingly beautiful music has an exotic Middle Eastern flavor that reflects its Sephardic origin and the interplay of the guitars is exquisite.  If you don't believe that Hester could sing as well as Baez, check out her gorgeous vocal on this song.  "Yarrow" is a ballad of Scottish origin collected by Francis Child that is generally known by the title "The Dowie Dens of Yarrow."  It is a stirring tale of a ploughboy vying with 9 gentlemen for the love of a lady, who is attacked by the gentlemen.  He defeats them all and then is treacherously stabbed in the back by the lady's brother.  It is another one of my favorite tracks on the album.  Pushed along by the two guitarists playing fast-paced runs, Hester's passionate vocal brings the old song to life.  "Dink's Song" will be familiar to those who have seen the Coen Brothers' film "Inside Llewyn Davis" where it is heard several times.  The bluesy song was first documented by John Lomax in Texas in the early 1900s.  It was also part of Dylan's early repertoire and appears on the bootlegs identified as the "Minneapolis Hotel Tape" recorded in 1961 (you can hear its first legitimate release on "The Bootleg Series Vol. 7.")  Hester's vocal really sends me, she sings it with such feeling.  "Swing and Turn Jubilee" is a lively dance song made popular by Jean Ritchie who collected it in Kentucky.  She is joined again by Dylan, Langhorne (on fiddle) and Lee who provide considerable propulsion for the tune.  "Once I Had A Sweetheart" is a folk song that was popular in the Appalachians although it is apparently of English or Scottish origin given its resemblance to the traditional ballads "As Sylvie Was Walking" and "Green Grow the Lilacs."  I first heard it on Pentangle's version on "Basket of Light" and it remains one of my favorite Pentangle songs, but Hester's performance is equally wonderful.  Her stunning vocal gives me chills and for me it is the best track on the album.  According to Hajdu, Dylan taught Hester "Come Back, Baby" because she wanted to learn a blues song for her album.  The song was written by Walter Davis and was recorded many times, my favorite version being Ray Charles' performance on "Ray Charles," his debut album for Atlantic. Hester sings it convincingly, her Texas background serves her well on this tune.  Dylan's harmonica adds some color to the song although his solo is practically just a single sustained note.  "Dear Companion" is another Appalachian song popularized by Jean Ritchie.  It features a broken hearted girl singing about an unfaithful lover and Hester sings it with much tenderness.  It is one of her best vocals on the album, it cuts right through me.  "Galway Shawl" is an Irish folk song that Hester sings a cappella.  It is another excellent performance.  "Pobre De Mi" is more commonly known as "Por Un Amor" a Mexican Ranchera style song by Gilberto Parra.  I remember hearing it on my father's mariachi records when I was a kid and Linda Ronstadt also did a version of it on "Canciones de mi Padre."  Hester sings it capably in Spanish demonstrating her range and versatility.  Langhorne's playing adds a lot to the song as well, some of his best work on the record.  "Virgin Mary" is an African-American spritual song that is also known as "Pretty Little Baby."  It is a Christmas song about the birth of Jesus.  Hester sings it beautifully but it is my least favorite track.  It reminds me of Joan Baez, who had it in her early repertoire.  I just love this record, it is one of my favorite folk records of the 1960s.  Hester is magnificent but some credit should also go to Bruce Langhorne whose tasteful accompaniment does a lot to enhance the atmosphere and dynamic quality of Hester's sound.  This did not go unnoticed by Richard Fariña who would later employ Langhorne for a similar effect on his own records.  If there was any justice in this universe, this record would have made Hester a big star like Baez.  I guess she did get the last laugh though, because most of her records are now pricey collectables and you can find Baez albums in the bargain bin.  For the typical price of a nice first pressing of this album in a used record store, you can buy just about every album Joan Baez ever recorded.  I was fortunate enough to find a good quality first pressing for about the price of 4 or 5 used Joan Baez albums which I consider one of my best scores ever.  I don't usually endorse pricey collectables especially when there is a reasonably priced CD alternative, but this record is just about worth the price.  Hester's voice was made for vinyl, this is a great sounding record.  Recommended to fans of early Sandy Denny.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Queens of Noise - The Runaways

Queens of Noise
The Runaways
Mercury SRM-1-1126

I recently watched the feature film on the Runaways with my son.  To him the movie was ancient history and he was surprised to learn it was based on a true story and that the Joan Jett in the movie is the same artist who performed "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" a song he really likes.  For me it was a return to an era I'd rather just forget.  I was in high school during the band's heyday and the women were just a few years older than me.  Seeing the 1970s lovingly recreated for the film was kind of a nightmare for me, ha-ha.  I was not a fan of the band back then, I'm not sure I ever even heard any of their music at the time.  I do remember reading an article about them that disapprovingly noted their use of their sex appeal to promote the band (as demonstrated in the cover art of this album with the band clutching strippers' poles) which led me to think they were just a gimmick band.  Then Joan Jett became a big star and I liked her records so I went back and checked out the Runaways' music and I liked what I heard.  This album was their second record and it sure beats most of what was on the radio back in 1977.  I like the band's debut album too but I think this was their definitive statement as a band.  The best song is the album opener "Queens of Noise" which was written by Billy Bizeau and sung by Joan Jett.  It is the only non-original song on the album but it fits the band perfectly, an ideal theme song for the group.  It rocks out wonderfully but I wish the band had increased the tempo and I could certainly do without the hideous synthesizer solo.  The song illustrates the difference between the Runaways and the punk bands they are sometimes compared to.  A band like the Ramones would have emphasized the song's velocity but the Runaways prefer to emphasize its heaviness.  Heaviness also carries the day with Jett's "Take It or Leave It" with its excellent power riff and Jett's forceful vocal as well as lead guitarist Lita Ford laying down some fiery licks in her solo.  "Midnight Music" is a lot more poppy although it is still driven by a heavy riff.  Cherie Currie sings the lead vocal and co-wrote it with the band's manager Kim Fowley and Steven Tetsch.  "Born to Be Bad" was penned by Fowley, drummer Sandy West and future Bangle Michael Steele who had been an early member of the Runaways.  It is a self-referential song that plays up their bad girl image.  If a guy was singing it I'd find it insufferable, but I like hearing a woman singing about being a rock and roll rebel.  The verses are slow-paced, pushed along by a simple heavy riff and then pick up speed for the chorus.  Ford delivers a noisy solo that is full of heavy metal cliches but gets the job done.  The most appealing part of the song is Jett's charismatic lead vocal.  "Neon Angels On the Road to Ruin" was written by Ford, Fowley and bassist Jackie Fox and it is another song inspired by the band's persona.  It is a rocking boogie with an outstanding vocal from Currie.  Side two opens with Jett's "I Love Playin' With Fire" which is one of the strongest songs on the album.  Jett's snarled vocal is backed up with a fast paced hard-riffing tune that foreshadows her solo work.  The hard rock noise continues with "California Paradise" which was composed by Fowley, Jett, West and Kari Krome.  The song is driven by West's energetic drumming and an alluring, sarcastic vocal from Currie as she croons a twisted paean to California's charms.  "Hollywood" is credited to Fowley, Fox and Jett although it is hard to believe it took three people to come up with such an inane song.  The song may be dumb but it is very catchy with the chorus boasting one of the strongest hooks the band ever came up with.  Jett screeches out the vocal with impressive urgency.  "Heartbeat" was written by Currie, Ford, Fowley, Fox and the record's producer Earle Mankey.  It is more of a power ballad than a rocker, sweetly sung by Currie as she describes a brief hook-up with a fellow performer.  "Johnny Guitar" was written by Fowley and Ford as a showcase for Ford's metallic guitar playing.  It is a slow blues that goes on for more than seven minutes.  Currie's vocal is buried deep in the mix making it hard to hear the lyrics which describe making love with the title character.  The focus of the song is clearly directed at Ford and her guitar.  I find her frenzied fretwork self-indulgent but I suppose metal-heads will dig it.  The song is easily the worst one on the album for me.  Regardless of Ford's regrettable heavy-metal leanings, I consider this to be one of the most exciting hard rock albums of its era right up there with the best work of AC/DC and Blue Oyster Cult.  The Runaways were a terrific band, West and Ford could really play, Currie was a talented singer and Joan Jett is one of the greatest rockers of her generation.  Despite the sexual exploitation associated with their image, the Runaways' music was a powerful feminist statement of empowerment and liberation.  Even with all the countless female punkers and riot grrrls who followed in their wake, I still find this record's statement of female rock power wildly exhilarating.  The Runaways kicked out the jams as well or better than any of their male peers.  I think they were one of the best American bands of the 1970s.  Recommended to fans of the Donnas and L7.