Monday, June 30, 2014
Mira LP 3005
The debut album by the Leaves is one of the better garage band albums of the mid-1960s. I first encountered the group on the "Nuggets" compilation which featured their only hit single, "Hey Joe." There are many covers of this classic song, but the Leaves' recording is my favorite of the fast versions of the song. With its crisp drumming, driving bass riff and ringing guitars it is a model of folk-rock power and it boasts an exciting instrumental break as well. John Beck delivers a passionate, urgent vocal that pushes the song to its limit. It is easily the best song on the album but there are enough other quality songs on the album to make it well worth seeking out. My favorite song after the title cut is "Dr. Stone" which was written by Beck and the band's bassist Jim Pons. Beck's wailing harmonica and the Bo Diddley style riff give the song a rhythm and blues feel that is combined with the song's folk-rock structure and jangly guitar to create a stimulating hybrid. "Too Many People" is another excellent song and was the band's first single in 1965. It is a garage rocker penned by Pons and the Leaves' original lead guitarist Bill Rinehart. It rocks hard and features rebellious lyrics that give it plenty of bite. "Just a Memory" was written by Rinehart's replacement lead guitarist Bobby Arlin and it has a nice Merseybeat sound to it. Arlin's "War of Distortion" is an odd little tune that sounds like a novelty song aside from blasts of fuzz guitar which help keep it in the garage genre. "Back on the Avenue" is a group composed instrumental that is punchy and energetic and features some fiery guitar work from Arlin and more wailing harmonica from Beck. The covers on the record are all decent but with one exception not particularly interesting. The exception is the group's version of "Girl From the East" by Bobby Jameson which he recorded on the cult album "Songs of Protest and Anti-Protest" which was released under the pseudonym, Chris Lucey. The song is a lovely folk-rock song featuring a slight raga element with a nice harmony vocal from the band on the chorus. It is one my favorite tracks on the album. There were practically as many covers of Allen Toussaint's "Get Out of My Life, Woman" as there were of "Hey Joe" back in the 1960s. The Leaves' version is lackluster but listenable thanks to some stinging guitar runs. They do a folk-rock version of "He Was a Friend of Mine" taken at a faster tempo than the Byrds' version on "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and it is also thankfully free of the Kennedy references that the Byrds imposed on the song. The Leaves' performance of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart's "Words" lacks the drama and propulsion of the Monkees' superior version but is otherwise very similar. "Good Bye, My Lover" is based on the Searchers' version of the song and it is even credited to Searchers Mike Pender and John McNally on the label however it was actually written by Lamar Simington, Leroy Swearingen and Robert Mosley with Mosley issuing a single of the song in 1963 done in a rhythm and blues style arrangement. The Leaves' version is not as good as either of those versions but is still enjoyable thanks to a solid vocal from Beck. The band's cover of "Tobacco Road" is uninspired, arguably the weakest track on the album. Despite the handful of duds, I find this album consistently appealing. The songwriting is well above average by garage band standards and the covers are tastefully chosen. The record shows a lot of promise that alas went unfulfilled. The band's follow-up album on Capitol was disappointing and they broke up after it. The Leaves demonstrate the richness of the music of the mid-1960s. Even a relatively minor group like this was capable of making excellent music that still engages me nearly 50 years after it was recorded. Recommended to fans of the first album by Love.
Wednesday, June 25, 2014
The Dandy Warhols
Beat The World Records/The End Records TE 252-1
I loved the Dandy Warhols back when they released "The Dandy Warhols Come Down" and "Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia" but their subsequent albums greatly disappointed me. I didn't expect them to keep making the same record over and over but I found their exploration of new sounds to be self-indulgent and annoying. I gave up on them. Then last year I went to their show at the Wiltern to hear them play "Thirteen Tales" in its entirety and damned if I didn't fall in love with them all over again. The concert inspired me to check out their most recent studio album to see if maybe the magic was back. Not really, but I do like it better than any album they've released since "Thirteen Tales." The album starts promisingly with "Sad Vacation" written by Courtney Taylor-Taylor and the band's drummer Brent DeBoer. The song is driven by a heavy bass riff and features a stripped down sound that is a sharp contrast to some of the excesses of their previous albums. The song is a nasty break up song sung in a breathy voice by Taylor-Taylor. "The Autumn Carnival" was written by Taylor-Taylor in collaboration with David J from Love and Rockets and it sounds more like Love and Rockets to me than the Dandies. There is a strong 1980s vibe to it. It has pretentious lyrics that use the symbolism of a carnival to wax lyrical about hedonism which has always been one of Taylor-Taylor's favorite themes. He sings it in a breathy voice again which I find irritating. He breaks out his David Bowie voice to sing "Enjoy Yourself" which he wrote by himself. The song is startlingly personal and autobiographical as Taylor-Taylor croons about his pretty boy heyday when he "used to be cool." The song is about both nostalgia for the the past and enjoying the present. It sounds like Taylor-Taylor is missing his past success which he purposely undermined following the release of the film "Dig!" and "Thirteen Tales." DeBoer and Taylor-Taylor's "Alternative Power To The People" is an instrumental that sees the Dandies return to the dance floor. I never cared much for their dance music phase but the song is fast-paced and propulsive enough that I don't get bored. They slow down for Taylor-Taylor's "Well They're Gone" which is a cabaret style love song that he breathily intones like he is aspiring to be Leonard Cohen. It is a pretty song most notable for the theremin that runs through it giving it an eerie sound. Side one concludes with "Rest Your Head" a collaboration between Taylor-Taylor and Miles Zuniga of Fastball. The song uses the imagery of a train trip to discuss dealing with failure and pain, an apt metaphor for the Dandy Warhols' train wreck of a career. The song is one of the most mainstream style songs I've ever heard them play, it would fit easily on a Tom Petty album. Taylor-Taylor's voice sounds ragged and awkward, maybe there is a physical reason for so many breathy vocals on the record. The B-side opens with a dubious cover of Merle Travis' "16 Tons" which was a big hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955. Taylor-Taylor drawls out the song backed by a raucous rhythm and blues interpretation of the song driven by Steve Berlin's honking saxophone. It sounds like something you'd hear in a burlesque show. The Dandies have recorded plenty of oddball covers through the years but they usually don't use them as filler on their albums. Taylor-Taylor's "I Am Free" is another autobiographical song in which he expresses his happiness at overcoming his "darkest past" and being saved by the music inside of him. It is a surprisingly joyous song bolstered by an exuberant brass section. I interpret the song as Taylor-Taylor looking back on his twisted career and relishing an opportunity to set things right again. The song is one of my favorites on the album and it features one of Taylor-Taylor's best vocals. "Seti vs. the Wow! Signal" is another collaboration with Miles Zuniga. Lyrically it is one of the odder songs in the band's canon. It humorously recounts the story of the unusual radio signal detected in space by a scientist in 1977 as part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project. Like "Rest Your Head" it has a commercial classic rock sound but I still like it. It sure beats the dreary drone of "Don't Shoot She Cried" which was written by DeBoer and keyboard player Zia McCabe. It is easily the worst song on the album and unfortunately the longest as well. This glacially slow dirge has some lyrics but all I can decipher is the song title which is repeated numerous times. I've complained about Taylor-Taylor's self-indulgence throughout his career but he's got nothing on his bandmates. "Slide" was written by DeBoer and clumsily describes a troubled relationship. It does not sound much like the Dandies, it sounds more like a U2 song given a psychedelic re-mix. I enjoy it for the most part but it gives the album a lackluster finish. There are too many duds on this record for me to proclaim "This Machine" to be a true comeback for the Dandies but it does make me hopeful for the future. I'm intrigued by the emergence of Taylor-Taylor's more mature outlook and his self-awareness. Musically though it does not sound very inspired. Taylor-Taylor once boasted "I sneeze and hits come out" but now he seems to be laboring to write compelling melodies. As much as he irritated me back then, I do miss the old Taylor-Taylor. His flamboyant narcissism and relentless self-confidence fascinated me and his music was truly exhilarating. This sounds more like a record from a broken man. He's even lost his voice to some extent. Nonetheless I do believe that Taylor-Taylor is too talented an artist to simply fade away. This record helps me believe he still has another great record left in him. In any case I'll keep listening and hoping. Recommended to people who like "The Black Album/Come on Feel The Dandy Warhols" better than "Welcome To The Monkey House."
Monday, June 16, 2014
Words and Music by Bob Dylan
Epic BN 26447
This was the album that helped drive Graham Nash out of the Hollies and into the welcoming arms of Stephen Stills and David Crosby. I can see why Nash was pissed, after the adventurous psych-pop of the previous two Hollies albums "Evolution" and "Dear Eloise/King Midas in Reverse" this album was a huge step backwards. It has a terrible reputation which is not undeserved I suppose, but I still like it. I do think it is the worst Hollies album of the 1960s though and Dylan is poorly served by it as well. The songs get a poppy treatment and Allan Clarke frivolously sings the lyrics like he is still singing about Carrie Anne or bus stop romances. The group's ludicrous lounge-style performance of "Blowin' In The Wind" is the most egregious example of this, although considering the myriad covers of this song back in the 1960s I give the Hollies points for trying something different. This album would be better and more useful if the Hollies had attempted some more obscure Dylan songs. All the songs are very well-known aside from "Quit Your Lowdown Ways" and there is not a single song on here that has not been done better by Dylan himself or others who have covered him. The Byrds trounce them on "My Back Pages" and "All I Really Want To Do" (the Hollies' version features a steel drum solo!) Peter, Paul and Mary had better versions of "Quit Your Lowdown Ways," "When The Ship Comes In," and "Blowin' In The Wind" - at least you know they cared about the words. Dylan and Linda Ronstadt had better (and sexier) versions of "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight." Even Julie Driscoll had a better cover of "This Wheel's On Fire" as did the Band and Ian and Sylvia. Manfred Mann had the definitive version of "The Mighty Quinn," as did the Band with "I Shall Be Released." Dylan's own versions of "I Want You," "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "Just Like a Woman" are infinitely preferable to the Hollies' covers. Numerous 1960s folk-pop acts from the Silkie to the Seekers to Jackie DeShannon, did Dylan better than the Hollies. So why do I like this album? I like it because it sounds like a Hollies album. As a Dylan record it is a travesty, but it is nonetheless full of the pop bliss the Hollies brought to the lightweight ditties they normally performed. The elaborate arrangements and enchanting vocal harmonies that were their trademark are prevalent throughout the album. For all their faults, the Hollies were masters at creating catchy pop music that sounded wonderful. I don't blame Graham Nash for leaving them, their commercial attitude stifled his artistic growth, but I'm not convinced that his subsequent career was any better than his work with the Hollies. "Crosby, Stills & Nash" is a far superior record from an artistic standpoint, but this album gives me more pleasure. Recommended to people who find Bob Dylan hard to listen to.
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
Not Not Fun Records NNF 190
I first heard Magic Lantern on KXLU and was excited by their trippy sound. I tracked down a copy of this album and was surprised to see that Cameron Stallones was in the group. Stallones is best known for his work under the name Sun Araw and has justifiably received much acclaim for his adventurous music. I used to work with Stallones in a film-related job. It was obvious that he was destined to go places but I figured he was going to be a successful filmmaker not a cult rocker. If I had known he was going to make terrific records like this one, I would have been nicer to him back then, ha-ha. The album opens with my favorite cut "Dark Cicadas" which is a hard riffing tune that sounds like a lost Hendrix jam except that the guitar playing is not nearly as good. It is energetic though with some compelling distortion and it holds my interest throughout. Like all the songs on the album this is an instrumental aside from some howls from Stallones. "Moon Lagoon Platoon" lays noisy guitar and keyboards over a hypnotic riff and some indecipherable singing from Stallones. It reminds me of "A Saucerful of Secrets" era Pink Floyd. The A-side concludes with "Planar/Sonor" which is another Hendrixian jam. It is the hardest rocking song on the record but I find it less exciting than "Dark Cicadas" although I do enjoy the cacophony that results. The B-side kicks off with "On The Dime" which sounds like jazz fusion akin to the Mahavishnu Orchestra driven by a straight ahead riff with the distorted sound of the guitars and keyboards noodling on top of the riff preserving the psychedelic sound of the rest of the album. It is a lengthy workout but I find it consistently stimulating. In contrast the closing number, "Friendship," starts out as a drone. As the song picks up steam a more pronounced riff emerges and builds in strength as the instrumentalists focus in on it with their solos. It reminds me of Can. This may not be the most original album out there (I think Sun Araw is much more inventive in his sound) but if you are a fan of psychedelic music, this album should push all your buttons. Recommended to fans of Wooden Shjips and Dead Meadow.