Wednesday, July 30, 2014
Loudon Wainwright III
Columbia KC 32710
A few weeks ago I saw Loudon Wainwright III play a delightful show at Levitt Pavilion. It was just him and his guitar. He primarily did his newer songs which tend to focus on death, decay and depression as he proudly admits. He seems to be reveling in being a nasty old curmudgeon. All of my Wainwright records are from the 1970s when he reveled in being an obnoxious young smart aleck. Then and now his saving grace was his humor and self-deprecating style. He did do one song off this album, the lead track, "The Swimming Song" which sounded great on a warm summer night in Los Angeles. On the album it is driven by a banjo and features a rhythm section that gives it more oomph than his solo performance but not as much charm. "A. M. World" is a raucous tune that reminds me of Randy Newman the way it blends noisy rock with a music hall style tune. Its rich sarcasm is also suggestive of Newman as it mocks rock stars including a dig at Neil Young. "Bell Bottom Pants" is dedicated to the United States Navy presumably since sailor pants were supposedly the inspiration for bell bottom pants. The hideous fad for the pants in the 1970s is the subject of the song. "Liza" is about Wainwright's childhood friendship with Liza Minnelli and how he drove her around in her toy electric Thunderbird. The song is sung a cappella and sounds like an old folk song. Oddly enough, Wainwright's son Rufus also recently wrote a song about Minnelli, "Me and Liza." "I am the Way" is based on Woody Guthrie's "New York Town" which was about a guy down on his luck in New York City but still bragging about his romantic prowess. Wainwright changes the words to be about Jesus although he still brags about his romances (Mary Magdalene). The song was recorded live in concert and captures Wainwright's engaging charm as a performer. It is my favorite track on the album. In "Clockwork Chartreuse" Wainwright riffs on Kubrick's film "A Clockwork Orange" describing a couple of louts itching for some ultra-violence. Wainwright rocks out on this one. Side two opens with the bluesy "Down Drinking at the Bar" which mocks an alcoholic. With its honky-tonk piano and howling guitars it is one of the strongest songs on the album from a musical standpoint. The epic "The Man Who Couldn't Cry" is the strongest song from a lyrical standpoint. It is loaded with black humor as Wainwright sings about a guy who cannot cry despite all the awful things that happen to him in the song. He only cries when it rains and when a massive storm comes he cries until he dies of dehydration. He goes to heaven and bad things happen to all the people who wronged him in the song. It sounds silly, but the spare acoustic guitar riff and Wainwright's compelling vocal make the song powerful. "Come A Long Way" was written by Kate McGarrigle who was married to Wainwright at the time. The song is about a break-up and is a lot more earnest and poetic than is typical with Wainwright. In "Nocturnal Stumblebutt" Wainwright has insomnia and is clumsily roaming his house in the dark looking for a cigarette while trying not to disturb his sleeping wife. He finally finds one and concludes the song telling his wife "just to show I love you, not gonna look for an ashtray baby, gonna use your shoe." Ha-ha, what a prince! The song has a funky, swampy sound to it that I find appealing. "Dilated to Meet You" is a greeting to his new born son Rufus delivered with some good-natured humor. Appropriately McGarrigle sings harmony on the low key song which I think is a charming addition to the song. Charm is entirely absent from "Lullaby" which is also directed at baby Rufus but it is considerably meaner essentially ordering him to shut up and go to sleep. The nastiness of the lyrics is leavened a bit by the mellow music and a laconic vocal from Wainwright. Throughout his career Wainwright has used his life and family for song fodder which probably isn't very pleasant if you are related to him. He can be nasty but he does not spare himself either as was evident in his concert where he presented himself as a broken down old man with depression issues. He may be an asshole but I admire his candor and with his knack for humor I'm inclined to be more tolerant of some of his excesses. At least he's not boring, that's for sure. Recommended to people who think Bob Dylan is too nice.
Sunday, July 20, 2014
Sire SR 6042
A post for the late Tommy Ramone, the last of the original Ramones. Tommy was the drummer on the first three albums by the band and under his real name Tommy Erdelyi had a distinguished career as a producer. This is my favorite Ramones album. I have to admit that when I first heard the Ramones, I did not like them. I thought they were primitive and stupid. Of course that was the whole point, but my tastes were formed by classic rock, I believed in fancy guitar solos and pretentious lyrics. I was too brainwashed by the crappy music of the 1970s to understand what the Ramones were attempting to do. Then I heard "Nuggets" and fell for the Clash, Blondie and Elvis Costello. My aesthetic perspective shifted dramatically. When I bought "Rocket To Russia" a couple of years after it came out, I loved it. Much of it follows the classic Ramones formula, fast paced primitive paeans to idiocy like "Cretin Hop," "Rockaway Beach," "Locket Love," "I Don't Care," "Teenage Lobotomy" and "I Can't Give You Anything." The standout tracks include the hilariously subversive "We're a Happy Family" with its immortal stanza "sitting here in Queens, eating refried beans, we're in all the magazines, gulpin' down thorazines." "Why Is It Always This Way?" is remarkably macabre with its lyrics about being unable to forget a girlfriend who committed suicide and is now preserved in a bottle of formaldehyde. "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" transcends the Ramones' formula achieving classic status with its irresistible catchiness and its timely lyrics. It is a testament to the vapidity of that era that the song was not the massive hit single it deserved to be. The band shakes loose from the formula for a few tracks. "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" offers a change of pace with a mid-1960s style love song. "Ramona" also features a more pop-oriented song structure reminiscent of the early Kinks as well as slightly more sophisticated lyrics (by Ramones standards anyway.) "I Wanna Be Well" also slows things down a bit for a more poppy flavor although the repetitive drug addled lyrics are pure Ramones. These songs show the band trying to expand their sound, a trend they would explore more deeply on their next album, "Road to Ruin." The album is rounded out by a pair of well chosen covers, a hyper-paced version of Bobby Freeman's "Do You Wanna Dance?" and a faithful performance of the Trashmen's moronic classic "Surfin' Bird" that is right in the Ramones' wheelhouse. There is not a weak track on this album. I think it is the band's masterpiece, the ultimate expression of their original message and style. There was nowhere to go after this. The album's lack of commercial success led the band to attempt to create a more popular sound in their future albums with mixed success. "Rocket to Russia" remains one of the great records of its era, or any era really. It has hardly aged at all. It still sounds fresh and exciting, its energy, creativity and vitality continue to have immense appeal. Tommy Ramone may have passed from this world, but this record's excellence insures that his name and work will not be forgotten as long as people still feel the urge to rock. Recommended to fans of the Stooges.
Saturday, July 19, 2014
Merle Haggard and the Strangers
This is a modern reissue on 180 gram vinyl. I did not like country music very much until my 20s. Even when I started to appreciate it, I ignored Haggard who I associated with "Okie From Muskogee," a song I absolutely hated. It took the Everly Brothers to bring me around. They covered his songs "Sing Me Back Home" and "Mama Tried" on their classic album, "Roots" and I loved both songs. I started buying Haggard's music. I'm not a big fan, but I pick up his records when I see them at a good price. With a few exceptions like Dolly Parton, most country artists in the 1960s and 1970s were singles artists, their albums are mostly filler, compilations are the smart buy to get their best tunes. I don't think Haggard is any different but on this album the filler is pretty good. Haggard wrote four songs for the record and by far the best one is the title track. It is a moving song with autobiographical elements about a son who rebels against his mother and ends up in prison full of regret. I prefer the Everlys' version for its superior arrangement but Haggard's version has a lot of drive and feeling. I'm no expert on the man, but this is easily the best song I've ever heard him do. I also like his vindictive "I'll Always Know" which is one of the liveliest cuts on the record. "The Sunny Side of My Life" is the most upbeat song on the record, a welcome change from the doom and gloom that permeates the album although the song is ordinary at best. It still beats the fourth song Haggard wrote for the album, "You'll Never Love Me Now" which is pretty much the definition of filler - generic and mundane. The best of the non-originals is his cover of Dolly Parton's "In the Good Old Days" which recounts a youth spent enduring hardship. I prefer Parton's original (which you can find on "The Best of Dolly Parton") but Haggard's performance is very strong, arguably his best vocal on the album. Haggard grew up a dust bowl refugee so I think the song probably had a lot of resonance for him. Given that he spent time in San Quentin, I would have expected him to relate to Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" as well, but his performance instead sounds uninspired to me. He does better with "Green Green Grass of Home" but plenty of guys have done it better than him. With its depiction of a condemned inmate recalling his family and home, it fits well with the theme of the album. I do prefer his version of "Little Ole Wine Drinker Me" over Dean Martin's hit version. It is one of my favorite tracks on the album. Mel Tillis' mournful "I Could Have Gone Right" revisits the theme of the title track as an imprisoned son apologizes to his mother for going wrong. It lacks the vitality of "Mama Tried" but Haggard sings it well. He has an even better vocal on Leon Payne's "Teach Me To Forget" although I find the song kind of tedious. Dallas Frazier's "Too Many Bridges to Cross Over" is not much better but at least it is faster. "Run 'Em Off" is the oddest song on the record. It was a country hit for Lefty Frizzell in 1954. It sounds old fashioned and its humor makes it stand out awkwardly from the rest of the tunes. I count four really good cuts on this album and two pretty good near misses which adds up to half the album which is a better than average percentage for a 1960s country album. Unless you are a big fan, you can probably pass it up, but I'm not sorry I bought it. Recommended to Johnny Cash fans.
Friday, July 11, 2014
Billy Joe Royal
Columbia CL 2403
I was disappointed by this when I first picked it up. Given that the album was produced by Joe South and largely written by him I was hoping it would be country-rock or blue-eyed soul with swampy overtones but what I heard instead sounded sappy to me. Only the title tune (which was a top ten single) impressed me much. After a few spins I appreciated the album better although I still wish it had a rawer sound without the strings and background singers. Joe South wrote six of the twelve songs on the record and they are among the most worthwhile cuts. The title track is a hugely catchy tune that offers a classic tale of class conflict and romance. The second best song is "I Knew You When" which has an expressive vocal from Royal and it is bolstered by a powerful, soaring arrangement with a rhythm and blues feel to it. "I've Got to Be Somebody" is almost as good. It is about a guy who finds ambition when he falls in love. The song has a terrific urgency to it, particularly in the chorus. In this case the background singers and strings give the song extra oomph instead of dragging it down. It is a real winner. South's other three songs are not nearly as good. "Pollyanna" is poppy but sounds old-fashioned with its heavy strings and choir, it reminds me of the Four Seasons. "Leaning on You" is also heavily arranged and dramatic, it sounds like Burt Bacharach. "My Fondest Memories" is pure mush. This is also the case with Marty Cooper and Ray Whitley's "Heartaches and Teardrops" which is one of the songs that irked me the most when I first played this record. However it is well-crafted and effectively sung by Royal and if you have a taste for sentimental pop, you will probably like it more than I do. Freddy Weller's "Those Railroad Tracks in Between" shamelessly rehashes the title tune, but it is one of the stronger tunes on the record. Weller played guitar on the album and went on to join Paul Revere and the Raiders in 1967. Tommy Roe's "King of Fools" wallows in self-pity and is the sappiest song on the record. The three covers are all duds. Royal is not the right guy for Willie Nelson's classic "Funny How Time Slips Away." It sounds weak and trite in his version. He is a skilled singer but the song needs more bite. This is equally true of Royal's high quavery vocal on Jimmy Hughes' "Steal Away" which pales in comparison to Hughes' soulful original performance. He delivers the Dells' "Oh What a Night" in an uptempo version that is the most propulsive song on the record, but robs the song of the drama and atmosphere of the original version. For me, the three first rate Joe South songs make this album worth having, but more discerning record buyers might want to just stick with the 45 of the title track unless you have a thing for the pre-British Invasion pop music of the early 1960s. Recommended to fans of Gene Pitney.