Saturday, December 20, 2014

Black Tambourine - Black Tambourine

Black Tambourine
Black Tambourine
Slumberland Records  SLR 111

Enough with the Christmas records and the obituaries, I feel like rocking out.  I suppose some people might question my choice of Black Tambourine to rock out with, they were hardly Black Sabbath or Black Flag, but I like them better than either.  Their noisy, shoegaze inspired pop gets me bopping better than any punk or heavy metal band ever could.  This is an expanded version of the 1999 compilation album "Complete Recordings" and if you have that record you might be wondering if you need to upgrade.  Yes, you do.  It features 6 additional tracks, two demos and four 2009 recordings of songs from their original repertoire that they never recorded.  Plus it is on glorious vinyl in a handsome gatefold sleeve with lots of pics and a discography on the inner sleeve.  I was completely unaware of the group during their brief existence in the early 1990s.  When I heard them on college radio several years later, I fell for them hard.  The album opens with "For Ex-Lovers Only" off of their 1992 EP "Audrey's Diary."  The song is an unhappy conversation between a couple breaking up messily.  The discord in the song is reinforced by the band's noisy guitars roaring in the background.  "Black Car" is driven by more distorted guitar noise over which Pam Berry croons dreamy romantic lyrics about an inability to connect with her lover.  The song comes from the bands self-titled 1991 EP.  "Pack You Up" comes from the same EP and it is a forceful rocker over which the band adds layers of distortion.  The harsh music reflects the bitter and vindictive lyrics describing a nasty break up.  Next up is a cover of Love's classic folk-rock song "Can't Explain" from "Audrey's Diary."  The song is taken at a slower pace than Love's version but sounds somewhat similar aside from all the noise the band piles on top of the original riff.  "I Was Wrong" was recorded in 1990 but first appeared on "Complete Recordings."  It sounds more stripped down than the other songs, perhaps it was unfinished.  It is decidedly lo-fi, Berry's vocal is so murky I can't even understand what she is singing about.  The song is poppy and has a lot of energy, it reminds me of the Shop Assistants.  "Throw Aggi Off the Bridge" is my favorite Black Tambourine song and originally appeared on "Audrey's Diary."  Aggi evidently refers to Aggi Wright of the Scottish band the Pastels.  The song is a love song to Stephen Pastel encouraging him to get rid of Wright so he and Berry can be a couple.  The song is driven by a powerful bass riff upon which the band tosses some raucous guitar work.  The song features one of Berry's best vocals.  You'll never hear a more sweetly sung paean to murder.  I adore the Pastels and I find it immensely charming that the group wrote a song about them.  "Drown" has an old fashioned romantic pop style tune reminiscent of early 1960s girl groups.  The band tones down the noise a little to emphasize the beauty of the song, but although the song sounds romantic, the lyrics are a cool kiss-off to an ex-lover who left her but now wants to be with her again.  The song was on the 1991 EP.  "We Can't Be Friends" is very similar to "Drown" dismissing an ex-lover who wants to be friends.  It is a hard-driving slice of jangle pop with the usual cacophonous treatment that appeared on a 1992 compilation CD called "One Last Kiss."  "By Tomorrow" is another song off the 1991 EP.  It is a treat-me-right-or-I'll-leave you type song.  The song starts off with a subdued jangle pop sound and then erupts into a loud rave-up.  "Pam's Tan" was the first song that the band recorded.  It appeared on a Slumberland comp in 1989.  It is a short instrumental recorded without Berry.  According to the liner notes she was in England buying records at the time, my kind of gal.  It is followed by the demo versions of "For Ex-Lovers Only" and "Throw Aggi Off the Bridge" recorded in 1990.  The former track is more subdued than the release version but the demo of "Aggi" is spectacular.  It is at least as good as the release version, it sounds even more crazed and energetic than that version although I don't like that Berry's vocal is buried so deep in the mix.  The album concludes with the four new songs which blend in so seamlessly with the rest of the album that it is hard to believe they were recorded nearly 20 years after the original sessions.  "Heartbeat" is a fast paced, feedback laden cover of the Buddy Holly classic.  "Lazy Heart" has a dynamic bass riff propelling it forward with the guitars making a racket on top of it.  Even though these four new songs were recorded in professional studios, "Lazy Heart" sounds even murkier than the songs they recorded in their basement.  In true shoegaze fashion, I can't understand Berry's reverb heavy vocal at all.  The punchy, hard-rocking "Tears of Joy" isn't much clearer but I love it anyway.  It sounds like a cross between the Jam and the Primitives recorded underwater.  The album concludes with a cover of Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" which is a little less noisy than the other tracks although still pure dream pop.  It gives the album a nice elegant finish.  There you have it, a fantastic compilation of the best American shoegaze band.  If you have any appetite for this kind of music, I can't recommend this record enough.  It has spent a lot of time on my turntable the past few years and that is not going to change anytime soon.  Recommended to fans of Slowdive who wish they played faster.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Christmas Present....And Past - Paul Revere and the Raiders

A Christmas Present....And Past
Paul Revere and the Raiders
Columbia CS 9555

I was sad to read about Paul Revere's passing back in October.  He is depicted on the back cover of this record looking back at the camera while the rest of the band faces away.  I suspect that was a reference to the back cover of "Sgt. Pepper" where another guy named Paul faces away from the camera while the rest of his band faces forward.  I was too young to catch the Raiders in their heyday when they were on TV all the time clowning around in their Revolutionary War outfits.  I started to like them when I heard "Indian Reservation" on the radio in 1971 when it was a big hit.  Eventually I heard their classic recordings from the mid-1960s and became a big fan.  They weren't fashionable or cool at the time but I didn't care.  I thought they were great and since nobody wanted their records they were cheap and easy to find.  Well not this one.  This one took a little digging and patience to get.  I certainly understand why.  It is easily the weirdest of their Columbia albums, I'm still not sure what they were trying to do.  It was offered as a Christmas album, they called it a present, but I would definitely not recommend that you put this one on to trim the tree or have a Christmas party.  It is a downer as we used to say.  "Jingle Bells" is the only traditional Christmas carol on the record and it is played for laughs.  It features guest vocalists Elaine Gibford and Paul Edward Connors who I have never heard of although Gibford was apparently in a movie in 1966.  They sing the song in a cartoonish old fashioned style and just repeat the chorus over and over against an increasingly rocked up musical backing.  The song breaks down at the end as the singers increase the tempo and go out of sync.  It is an interesting deconstruction of the song that reminds me of the Mothers of Invention.  The rest of the album consists of original songs by lead singer Mark Lindsay and the record's producer Terry Melcher.  The album opens with an introduction that establishes the irreverent tone of the album.  An announcer introduces a brass band described as a Salvation Army street band.  The band is slow to start, but eventually kick in with "Joy to the World" and continue to play even after the announcer tries to get them to stop so the record can continue.  The band reappears throughout the album playing brief snippets of Christmas classics in between the actual songs.  The first actual song is "Wear a Smile at Christmas" which is a music hall type of song that complains about people unhappily rushing about on their holiday errands.  At one point someone impersonates Lyndon Johnson urging his "fellow Americans" to smile at Christmas.  "Brotherly Love" is set to the tune of the English folk song "Greensleeves."  The song attacks hypocrisy and the lack of genuine feeling in people's pretense of goodwill to others at Christmas.  "Rain, Sleet, Snow" is a tribute to the postal service's efforts at Christmas delivered with a quasi-psychedelic treatment featuring strings and a heavy riff.  It is my favorite song on the album.  Side one concludes with "Peace" which is an instrumental played by strings.  They play a simple motif that is repeated over and over interspersed with occasional thunderclaps.  At least I think they are thunderclaps, maybe they are supposed to be explosions that would make more sense.  Side two opens with "Valley Forge" which begins with an announcer setting the scene as Christmas 1775 and noting that no resemblance is intended to any future conflicts presumably referring to Vietnam.  The song reflects the perspective of one of George Washington's disgruntled soldiers who doesn't understand what he is fighting for which sure sounds more like Vietnam than the Revolutionary War to me.  The song moves from a musical comedy type tune to a more rock based one with sleigh bells running through the song for an ironic effect.  "Dear Mr. Claus" is a music hall style song about a guy who wants a "real live doll" for Christmas.  He doesn't want her just for companionship, he needs her to wash the dishes as well.  "Macy's Window" is a description of typical Christmas vignettes that I believe are meant to express the lack of a true Christmas spirit.  This song is followed by "Christmas Spirit" which is another musical hall type tune that celebrates the Christmas spirit but the song is given an exaggerated, almost sloppy performance that suggest some sarcastic distance from the subject not unlike their version of "Jingle Bells."  The album concludes with "A Heavy Christmas Message" which is "who took the Christ out of Christmas."  It takes less than a minute to deliver the message but the song lasts about 4 minutes and 15 seconds.  There is a minute of near silence as the music is mixed so low as to be almost inaudible unless you crank up the volume.  Eventually it is faded up enough to hear some jug band style jamming with a prominent kazoo and then it is faded down for another minute of barely audible music.  It is kind of amusing but I have to admit I don't always wait for it to finish before I turn it off.  And there you have it, a not so merry Christmas with Paul Revere and the Raiders.  Looking at my description it sounds pretty awful, but actually I really like the record.  Its consistency of theme and technique as well as the device of linking the songs with the brass band elevate the whole above the parts.  It is what albums are all about.  The dynamics of this band are so fascinating.  Like the Monkees they combined comedy, crass commercialism and artistic ambition to create a train wreck of an album that still somehow works.  I would compare it to the Monkees' project "Head," a work designed to confound a teenybopper fan base while using the commercial clout of that fan base to create a personal statement.  People who dismiss Paul Revere and the Raiders as a lightweight group ought to give it a spin.  I say these guys were one of the best American bands of their era.  Recommended to fans of "The Beatles Christmas Album."

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Merry Christmas - The Supremes

Merry Christmas
The Supremes
Motown 638

As Supremes albums go this one is mediocre, but as a Christmas record it is very good, one of my favorites.  I put it on while we were trimming the tree this year and it went over quite well.  It has a nice mix of secular and religious songs, standards and new songs and it captures the spirit of the season without being too sappy.  I have to admit that the first time I heard it I was very disappointed.  I was hoping for Motown-ized versions of the Christmas classics akin to what Phil Spector did with his Christmas album.  Most of these arrangements would be suitable for Andy Williams or the Lettermen, traditional easy listening pop.  Eventually I came around to realizing that was pretty much what I wanted, that's what I grew up listening to at Christmas and as a result I play this more at Christmas than the Spector album (even though I consider that a much better record.)  The standards are all pretty good aside from "The Little Drummer Boy" which I find tedious.  "White Christmas" and "Silver Bells" feature nice vocal arrangements.  "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" gets a big band arrangement and is most notable for Diana Ross' bizarre impersonation of Santa Claus.  "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" is one of the few tracks that sounds like a Motown song and is all the better for it.  It is my favorite cut on the album.  "Joy to the World" is given an energetic performance but I could do without the martial drumming and the mechanized tightness of the vocals.  I don't know why people consider "My Favorite Things" (from "The Sound of Music") to be a Christmas song but I'm not complaining too much because I like the Supremes' version quite a bit.  It has a swinging big band arrangement and features the persistent ringing of sleigh bells to try to make it sound more Christmas-like I suppose.  Ross' vocal is vibrant and the song is another one of my favorites on the record.  I like all of the newer songs to varying degrees.  The best one is Jimmy Webb's poignant "My Christmas Tree" which is about a woman spending Christmas alone and missing her lover who has left her.  Ross' vocal is moving and the song is full of expressive images typical of Webb's work.  I also like Al Capps and Mary Dean's "Little Bright Star" which is given a jumping Motown arrangement and features some strong vocal work.  "Children's Christmas Song" was written by Isabelle Freeman and Harvey Fuqua and it also has a Motown-style melody and arrangement.  The song is inane but extremely catchy, it sticks in my brain for days after I play it.  Diana Ross does a lot of talking in the song as she bosses around her younger brother Chico and Berry Gordy's three kids who participate in the vocal.  Her Christmas cheeriness sounds phony to me, but the song is so silly that I can't really blame her.  Ronald Miller and William O'Malley's "Twinkle Twinkle Little Me" is also pretty dumb. It is written from the perspective of the star on top of a Christmas tree.  It has a good Motown-style tune though and I dig the harmony vocals in support of Ross' lead.  Don Gustafson's "Born of Mary" has an evocative melody that sounds like it was lifted from a classic western.  The song has an ensemble vocal from the group.  It is not a memorable song but it sounds nice.  I think this is one of the better Christmas albums of its era.  I wish my parents had been cool enough to have had a copy, I think I would have loved it when I was a kid.  I think part of why I like it so much is that it reminds me of being a kid at Christmas time.  The exuberance and warm feelings that permeate much of this record brings out the holiday spirit in me.  Recommended to people who need to tame their inner Scrooge.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Just Another Diamond Day - Vashti Bunyan

Just Another Diamond Day
Vashti Bunyan
DiCristina Step04

This is the 2004 re-issue of Vashti Bunyan's debut album originally released as Philips 6308 019.  When this album was originally issued, it hardly sold at all making it a pricey collectors item when people finally came to appreciate its excellence.  I became interested in Bunyan via her connection to Joe Boyd who produced this record.  Boyd was of course the manager/producer for the Incredible String Band, Nick Drake and Fairport Convention all of whom I loved.  I was really into the British folk rock scene and was dying to hear this album but I never could find a copy I could afford.  I was delighted when it was reissued and thrilled to hear that it was just as great as I had imagined.  I think it was one of the best records Boyd was ever involved with although I guess he does not agree since he devoted only a single page of his autobiography to it.  Rob Young in his marvelous survey of British folk music, "Electric Eden" focused almost his entire first chapter on Bunyan and the remarkable story behind this album.  In the late 60s Bunyan and her boyfriend, Robert Lewis, set off from Kent in a horse and wagon they bought from a gypsy (depicted on the gatefold of the album.)  They were heading north to Scotland to the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides where their friend Donovan had purchased some land to start a hippie commune.  Their plan to join the commune did not pan out and they ended up living in a primitive cottage on the nearby island of Berneray.  Bunyan composed the songs on this record during her arduous journey and while living on the island.  She recorded it while pregnant in late 1969 and when the album flopped upon its release the following year, Bunyan abandoned the music industry.  It would be 35 years before she would make another album.  Even if this had been the only album she had ever made, it would still insure her an important place in the history of British folk music.  It is an absolute masterpiece.  The record opens with "Diamond Day" which celebrates agrarian life.  The song features a lovely recorder and string arrangement from Robert Kirby who also did some of the string arrangements on Nick Drake's "Five Leaves Left" album.  "Glow Worms" continues the celebration of a natural life as Bunyan delicately croons about the world she observed around her on her journey.  The melody of "Lily Pond" sounds like it was derived from "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" which suits its fairy tale style lyrics nicely.  Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band plays Irish harp on the song bolstering its string sound.  "Timothy Grub" recounts the beginning of Bunyan's journey.  In the song she and Lewis are forced to leave their encampment by a pair of policeman.  They get picked up by a friend in his car but the car runs out of gas.  Stranded, they encounter a gypsy with a horse and wagon which they buy to continue their trip.  The song has a charming jazziness to the melody that reminds me of Nick Drake.  "Where I Like to Stand" was co-written with John James who plays a dulcitone on the album and painted the animals on the album cover.  He was also the friend with the car that ran out of gas mentioned in "Timothy Grub."  The song celebrates life by the ocean as Bunyan sings about watching the waves and the fishermen and enjoying the natural world around her.  A pair of Fairporters play with Bunyan on this song, namely Dave Swarbrick on fiddle and Simon Nicol on banjo and they enliven the simple child-like melody.  "Swallow Song" describes the passing of summer into autumn with the usual emphasis on the natural world.  The song features another evocative string arrangement from Robert Kirby.  Side one concludes with "Window Over the Bay" co-written with Robert Lewis.  The song is traditional sounding with only minimal accompaniment and the first verse sung acappella.  The song is another paean to agrarian life that sounds like it was inspired by life on Berneray.  This lovely song is one of my favorites on the album.  Side two begins with "Rose Hip November" which is about the changing of the seasons, autumn giving way to winter.  It also anticipates the birth of her son Leif.  This haunting song is another one of my favorites.  Williamson plays whistle and harp on this song which gives it a rich instrumental texture.  "Come Wind Come Rain" returns to Bunyan and Lewis' trip across the U.K. and traveling in the wagon in the winter elements.  The sprightly tune resembles "Lord of the Dance" by Sydney Carter which in itself was derived from the 19th Century dance tune "Simple Gifts" by Joseph Brackett.  Carter's song was covered by Donovan (on "H.M.S. Donovan") so perhaps Bunyan heard him play it and the melody stuck with her.  I greatly prefer "Come Wind Come Rain" to "Lord of the Dance."  Nicol on banjo and Swarbrick on mandolin accompany the song to great effect.  Lewis co-wrote "Hebridean Sun" which looks forward to their arrival in the Hebrides and celebrates the first signs of spring.  Bunyan's intimate vocal on this song really sends me.  "Rainbow River" idealizes the life of a boy growing up on a farm enjoying home-baked bread and fresh fish from a river.  Robert Kirby's recorder arrangement enhances the idyllic feeling of the song.  "Trawlerman's Song" is another collaboration with Lewis.  It recounts the joy of a fisherman returning home to his family after being out at sea.  It has another wonderful intimate vocal from Bunyan.  "Jog Along Bess" is about Lewis and Bunyan's wagon, their horse Bess who pulled their wagon, and their dogs Blue and May who came along on their journey.  The jauntiness of the tune is bolstered by Williamson on fiddle.  The album concludes with "Iris's Song For Us" which Bunyan got from a pair of her Berneray neighbors, Iris McFarlane and Wally Dix.  It is a love song filled with images from nature.  It is very traditional sounding particularly since one of the verses is sung in Gaelic.  Swarbrick's fiddle adds to the traditional flavor of the song.  It gives the album a lovely finish.  I adore this record, but I imagine some people may find it excessively twee.  It could have easily been self-indulgent hippie hogwash, but Bunyan's immense talent and sincerity insures that it always rings true.  I'm drawn to Bunyan's sensitivity and the delicate expressiveness of her voice, it mesmerizes and relaxes me.  I find that this album sounds particularly wonderful late in the evening by candlelight or on a wintery afternoon staring out the window sipping a cup of tea.  Recommended to fans of the Incredible String Band who wish they weren't so noisy.