Monday, September 29, 2014

Music From Big Pink - The Band

Music From Big Pink
The Band
Capitol ST 2995

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

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.  If you really want to hear what she is capable of, check out her great 2001 song "Si Tu Disais."   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.