Friday, May 30, 2014

The Velvet Underground & Nico - The Velvet Underground & Nico

The Velvet Underground & Nico
The Velvet Underground & Nico
Verve V6-5008

I started listening to this album again for my post on the VU's "Scepter Studio Sessions" record last year.  It is not like I had completely stopped listening to it, it is one of the ten most important records in my life.  However after over 30 years of playing it, I wasn't really hearing it anymore, I knew it too well.  Hearing the acetate version opened up the record for me again.  My copy is not an original pressing.  It dates from the late 1970s when it was reissued by Polydor on the Verve label.  It looks nice and sounds fine so I've never felt compelled to replace it with an original or any of the modern reissues.  Originals were not hard to find in Berkeley back when I was there, but they were pricey and most of them had the banana skin sticker peeled off the cover revealing the pink banana underneath.  This is such a rich album that it has been able to appeal to me in different ways as I have grown and changed.  When I first got it I was an immature and naive teenager from the suburbs.  Back then I was drawn to the shock value of "Heroin," "Venus In Furs," "There She Goes Again," and "I'm Waiting for the Man" with their vivid depictions of drug abuse, perversion and sexual violence.  Those songs were already more than 10 years old when I first heard them but they were still so much more daring and dark than the classic rock crap I was hearing on the radio.  I was as straight as they come and I got a big charge out of hearing Lou Reed singing about putting a "spike" into his vein.  As I got into my 20s and 30s it was the music itself that appealed to me the most.  I loved the slow/fast dynamic of "Heroin," the incessant pounding rhythm of "Run Run Run" and "I'm Waiting For The Man," the dissonant noise of "The Black Angel's Death Song" with John Cale mercilessly tormenting his viola and above all the band's fantastic assault on the eardrums with their epic workout on "European Son."  That song still sounds so modern and exciting to me, it remains one of my favorite VU songs.  However now that I'm an old fogey I find myself drawn to "Sunday Morning" and the three songs Nico sings on the album, "Femme Fatale," "All Tomorrow's Parties," and especially "I'll Be Your Mirror."  The mixture of angst, ennui and tenderness in those songs appeals strongly to me.  I like Nico as an artist and a singer more now than I did when I was young and I value her contribution to this record more than I did back when I first heard it.  Cale has always been intellectual and cold as an artist and Reed was a sarcastic smart ass with a rock and roll heart.  Neither conveyed as much feeling as Nico did as a vocalist.  Nico made the group sexy and her sincerity and worldly persona gave them depth.  The Velvets made great music without her, but I like them best when Nico was with them.  This album is 47 years old but it still sounds fresh and invigorating, unlike a lot of the hippie music from that era.  It captured the world that produced it as well as any record ever has.  Lou Reed had a fantastic gift for observation worthy of a journalist and thrust into the frenzied environment of lunacy, perversion and creativity that surrounded Andy Warhol and the New York experimental art world, he responded with a record that is both a documentary portrait and an artistic analysis.  It is not only a depiction of the energy and insanity of the 1960s but it also foreshadows the nihilism and narcissism of the 1970s.  To borrow an expression from Jean-Luc Godard, this record is the truth at 33 and 1/3 revolutions per minute and it is delivered with music that is brimming with vitality and adventurousness.  Cale, Reed and Nico went on to make a lot of great music after this album, but I don't think the music on this album has ever been surpassed, by them or any other rock artist.  Recommended to people who think Andy Warhol's films are better than his paintings.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Pre-Creedence - The Golliwogs

The Golliwogs
Fantasy Records F-9474

When Saul Zaentz died earlier this year, my first thoughts were of John Fogerty.  I admire Zaentz's film productions and I love Fantasy Records' vast jazz library, which they put out in reasonably priced and nice quality re-issues many of which I have purchased.  However when it comes to Fogerty's bitter feud with Zaentz, I am completely on Fogerty's side.  I think Fantasy under Zaentz took advantage of Fogerty and treated him shabbily even by record company standards.  This album is a classic example of that.  All four members of Creedence Clearwater Revival were opposed to this release of their early recordings when they were known as the Golliwogs, but Fantasy ignored their wishes and released it anyway.  I have mixed feelings about this.  I sympathize with the band's embarrassment and feel that they should have control over what material gets released to the public, yet as a huge CCR fan I always wanted to hear this stuff and I have to admit that I'm pleased to have this record.  I do understand why the band would be embarrassed by these songs.  None of them are bad really, but most of them are derivative and sound nothing like CCR's mature recordings.  The album is comprised of the 7 Golliwogs singles running in order, which I like since you get to easily track the band's development.  The earliest single is "Don't Tell Me No Lies" backed with "Little Girl" which was released in late 1964.  Like all the singles except the final one, it was composed by John Fogerty and his brother Tom.  They share vocals on the A-side which is a punchy tune that sounds like a cross between the British Invasion and early sixties American pop like Jan and Dean.  Tom sings lead on the inane "Little Girl" which resembles the Beach Boys, in particular "Surfer Girl."  "Where You Been" and "You Came Walking" are from 1965.  Tom sings lead on both.  The former is a shameless retread of "Little Girl" with similar trite lyrics.  The B-side is a lot better.  It is another British Invasion inspired song with a surf-style guitar break.  "You Can't Be True" and "You Got Nothin' On Me" were also released in 1965.  The A-side features John on lead vocal and I think he is a big improvement over his brother whose vocals I find kind of sappy.  John is a grittier singer and this rhythm and blues style song is right in his wheelhouse.  The song is not particularly distinguished but the group is starting to sound a little like CCR.  The B-side is a rocking tune that is a duet with John and Tom and is obviously derived from Chuck Berry.  The band is still searching for their sound but this single is a big improvement.  "Brown Eyed Girl" and "You Better Be Careful" came out in 1966.  This is another step forward.  The A-side bares a suspicious resemblance to Link Wray's "Rumble" but it is still a fine song that would hold its own on a garage band compilation.  John's excellent vocal and the band's tight instrumental attack are suggestive of the CCR sound.  The riff-driven "You Better Be Careful" also has a classic garage band sound and although it sounds nothing like CCR, it is constructed a bit like the early CCR songs and shares their moodiness.  "Fight Fire" and "Fragile Child" also came out in 1966.  "Fight Fire" is another riff-driven garage band style tune with an instrumental break that sounds like it was inspired by Them's "Gloria."  The jangly guitar riff and the song construction of the folk-rock style B-side reminds me of "The Little Black Egg" by the Night Crawlers.  The Golliwogs third single of 1966 was "Walking on the Water" backed with "You Better Get It Before It Gets You."  The A-side is a weird, melodramatic song distinguished by a smoking distorted guitar solo.  The band re-recorded the song for the debut CCR album.  The B-side is a slow rhythm and blues type song that sounds like the Rolling Stones until the rave-up kicks in.  Here at the end of the song you can hear the embryonic sound of CCR.  That sound is full blown in the final Golliwogs single from 1967, "Porterville" backed by "Call It Pretending."  The songwriting on this final single was credited to the entire band.  "Porterville" actually appeared on the debut album by CCR the following year and this single was re-released under the CCR name in 1968.  "Porterville" is classic CCR highlighted by John Fogerty's tortured vocal, the band's powerful rhythmic drive and the song's swampy riff.  "Call It Pretending" on other hand sounds more like Motown than CCR which is probably why it didn't make it on to the debut album.  I know this record was only released because of record company greed and I'm sorry it caused the band unhappiness, but it was a remarkable journey from the Golliwogs to CCR and I am happy to have this vinyl history of it.  Recommended to fans of the Standells.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

New Multitudes - Farrar, Johnson, Parker, Yames

New Multitudes
Farrar, Johnson, Parker, Yames
Rounder 116619129

I was fortunate enough to catch these guys playing this album at the Mayan Theater in downtown Los Angeles and it was one of the best shows I've ever seen.  The Mayan is an intimate venue and I got up close to the stage, close enough to bask in Yim Yames' aura as he shredded on bass.  This album is a project in which modern musicians provide music for lyrics written by Woody Guthrie that he never recorded.  The music is composed by Jay Farrar of Son Volt, Will Johnson, Anders Parker and Yames (aka Jim James), the leader of My Morning Jacket.  The end result does not sound much like Guthrie, but I'm not complaining.  I admire Guthrie, but I listen a lot more to Son Volt and My Morning Jacket than my Guthrie records.  The sound is mostly alt-country and folk-rock and it manages to sound both contemporary and traditional at the same time.  Farrar's "Hoping Machine" is my favorite track on the record.  In the lyrics Guthrie urges the listener to keep hoping despite the problems of the world.  The words are rather awkward and unwieldy but Farrar's high mournful voice makes them ring true and when the majestic "out of order" chorus takes off, the song becomes extremely powerful.  It is a fantastic collaboration that in itself makes the project worthwhile.  Parker's "Fly High" is more subdued and conventional.  It is a sweet love song.  The album hits another high with Yames' "My Revolutionary Mind."  This is my favorite set of lyrics as Guthrie expresses his need for a left-wing lover because "ain't no reactionary baby can ease my revolutionary mind" after a hard day of class struggle.  I presume that Guthrie intended the song to be humorous, but with Yames' sensitive treatment and gorgeous vocal the song becomes a heartfelt and soulful plea.  It is a brilliant adaptation and as a bonus it concludes with a brief, noisy rave-up - Yames just can't help himself, the man was born to rock out.  Johnson's "V. D. City" is a Springsteen-style rocker with the propulsive music adding punch to an apocalpytic portrayal of a city ravaged by venereal disease where "Syph Alley" and "Clap Avenue" are overrun by lost souls. The fast tempo continues with Parker's "Old L. A." which is alternative rock reminiscent of R. E. M. and supports a lukewarm paean to Los Angeles.  Yames closes out the side with the folky "Talking Empty Bed Blues."  Yames' plaintive vocal underscores the loneliness expressed in the lyrics.  Side two opens with Johnson's "Chorine My Sheba Queen" which is a moody and romantic folk song that reminds me of Iron and Wine.  Farrar takes his turn with "Careless Reckless Love" which is another album highlight.  He uses an alt-country approach to the song investing the simple lyrics with great feeling.  The song builds in strength as it goes along propelled by a fine guitar solo.  Parker's final contribution is his best, the excellent "Angel's Blues."  The song is a rocker built around a ringing guitar riff suggestive of Neil Young or Richard Thompson.  The song is sexier than you might expect from Guthrie as he boasts about his romantic prowess.  Even Jim Morrison never came up with a line as good as "I got more little angels, than you'll find in the promised land."  Johnson's "No Fear" is a bluesy shuffle in which Guthrie looks forward to dying.  I find the song a little monotonous but the lyrics are impressive and remarkably dark.  Yames wrote the music for "Changing World" which is a minimalist folk song.  The lyrics are about not being afraid to change and live the life one wants to live.  Farrar finishes the album with "New Multitudes" which is about how the new generation will make the world a better place.  I think Farrar's three contributions to the record are the strongest among the four collaborators.  He really has a feel for Guthrie's vision.  The rest of the record is good too, one of the best of 2012 in my opinion.  I like the multifaceted portrait of Guthrie that it provides.  I don't claim to be an expert on the man, but I have a bunch of CDs and albums of his work and I find the breadth of material covered on this album to be revelatory.  I'm used to hearing Guthrie do old folk songs, union songs and earnest protest songs.  On this record he writes about sex, death and loneliness as well as politics and I like him better for it.  Kudos to Farrar, Johnson, Parker and Yames for giving these wonderful old songs life.  If you are not a vinyl nut, you probably should buy the deluxe CD version of this album (which costs less than the vinyl LP) which gets you a second disc with 11 extra songs plus a booklet with facsimiles of Guthrie's original handwritten lyrics as well as his artwork.  The album has none of that much to my chagrin.  It is still a great record though that sounds wonderful and I'm happy to have it.  Recommended to people who like "Another Side Of Bob Dylan" better than "The Times They Are A-Changin'."