Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Harmony is Real - Songs for a Happy Holiday - The Living Sisters

Harmony is Real - Songs for a Happy Holiday
The Living Sisters
Vanguard 78431-1

This album spent a lot of time on my turntable this past Christmas season.  It only has three traditional Christmas carols on it, but for me that is a plus.  Given how long the Christmas hype has become, I'm generally tired of the traditional songs well before Christmas rolls around, so the abundance of original songs on this album appeals to me.  Becky Stark's "Harmony is Real" opens the album but it is not a Christmas song.  It celebrates harmony, both the vocal kind and the fellowship kind.  It could be the Living Sisters' theme song since they are among the most harmony oriented groups in contemporary music.  As is often the case with Stark's work it has a childlike simplicity in its melodic structure although the horn arrangement gives it some musical sophistication.  Eleni Mandell's "Kadoka, South Dakota" celebrates an old-fashioned small town Christmas.  The swinging song evokes memories of the Andrews Sisters or other vintage female pop ensembles but Jeremy Drake's jumping guitar lines give the song some rock and roll oomph.  It is one of my favorite tracks.  The Sisters' version of "Jingle Bells" similarly mixes vintage harmonizing with a western swing style arrangement featuring some lively guitar and piano work.  Inara George's "Merry Happy Christmas" combines heartbreak with Christmas cheer in a striking manner.  George's lead vocal is full of emotion in the verses but the song has a more cheerful 1950s doo-wop flavor in the ensemble chorus.  Alex Lilly's "Skip the Sugar (Good Girl)" is about being good to please Santa although it is given an adult twist with references to not breaking hearts or stealing party dresses.  In keeping with the eclectic sound of the album, this track has a punchy reggae flavor to it.  Lilly and George co-wrote "Christmas in California" which is a slightly satirical celebration of spending Christmas in California although the content of the song seems more specific to Los Angeles.  The elaborate, rocked up arrangement of the song reminds me of Phil Spector's "A Christmas Gift for You."  The rock and roll sound continues on side two for Mandell's "Baby Wants a Basketball for Christmas" which veers between vintage piano and guitar driven verses and music hall style choruses.  The song cleverly mixes gift giving references with sexuality in describing the give and take of a relationship.  "Little Drummer Boy" is given a traditional arrangement that showcases the Sisters' vibrant ensemble harmonizing.  Mandell's "Neon Chinese Christmas Eve" provides a Jewish perspective on the holiday as she describes taking her Christian boyfriend to Chinatown for a Christmas Eve dinner.  It is a slow, but lovely song enlivened by an engaging horn arrangement.  Mandell extends the Jewish theme with her "Hanukkah" which humorously celebrates the Jewish holiday.  The Sisters take turns singing the lines and the song sounds wonderful.  It channels 1950s pop music and vintage harmonizing.  It is another one of my favorites.  "Silver Bells" is right in the Sisters' wheelhouse and sounds gorgeous.  The album concludes with Stark's "Don't Go To Sleep" which like her other song has no references to Christmas.  Apparently the holiday is not her thing.  It has a simple melody driven by Stark's piano lines and some beautiful vocalizing.  It gives the record a romantic but also rather somber finish.  Mandell is the star of this record.  She wrote almost half of the original songs on the record and her contribution is the most diverse and liveliest of the music on the record.  I'm a big fan of the Living Sisters and I adore this album which should to appeal to anyone who likes ensemble singing.  The record is pressed on snow white festive vinyl and is handsomely packaged.  Recommended to fans of the Fleetwoods and the Chordettes.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Christmas with the Everly Brothers and the Boys Town Choir - The Everly Brothers and the Boys Town Choir

Christmas with the Everly Brothers and the Boys Town Choir
The Everly Brothers and the Boys Town Choir
Warner Bros. Records  W 1483

I put this one on while we were trimming the tree and didn't make it through side one before my wife demanded I take it off and put on some "real Christmas music."  I get her point, this is the least festive, most solemn Christmas record in my collection.  It is extremely "churchy" which has some nostalgic appeal for me because I grew up singing many of these songs in church accompanied by old ladies with high voices and an organ, which is pretty much what this record sounds like.  The liner notes refer to the Everlys singing Christmas carols as boys with their neighbors back home in Kentucky which seems like a charming idea for an album - get the Everlys a small back-up group like the Jordanaires to harmonize with, maybe a piano and a guitar and make an intimate, heartfelt Christmas album.  That is not this record.  The choir dominates this record, overwhelming the Brothers' low key vocals with their lovely but lifeless vocalizing.  The Everlys seem like guest performers on their own album.  There are even two tracks, "Away In a Manger" and "Angels, From the Realms of Glory" that don't feature the Everlys at all just the choir.  The Everlys' contribution to the album is so slight, it feels like a rip-off.  I suspect the boys just went in the studio and knocked out their contribution in a couple of hours.  I was extremely disappointed when I first heard this album and it is only my immense love for the Everlys' work that keeps it off my purgatory shelf.  I think it is by far their worst record.  The arrangements are stodgy and lethargic, the album lacks emotion and inspiration.  Nonetheless there are parts of it that I do enjoy.  The first verses of "Adeste Fideles," "The First Noel" and "Silent Night" sound terrific but then the choir takes over and I lose interest.  Don's solo vocal on "What Child Is This?" is very appealing with only minimal interference from the choir.  This is my favorite track and it suggests what a good record this might have been without the choir.  Phil's solo turn on "O Little Town of Bethlehem" is nice as well but suffers from the obtrusive choir being too high in the mix.  I wish there was some way I could erase the choir from this record, even though I would be left with only about 10 minutes of the Everlys singing given the fragmentary nature of their contribution.  This record rarely makes onto my turntable, but I do play it once in a while on a chilly December night when my family is not around to complain about it.  In the darkness of the living room with the Christmas tree lights blinking it brings back not entirely welcome memories of school pageants and midnight Christmas Eve masses.  Recommended to people who consider Santa Claus sacrilegious. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Strangers in the Night - Frank Sinatra

Strangers in the Night
Frank Sinatra
Reprise Records  FS-1017

There has been a lot of hoopla about Sinatra's centennial of late so I might as well jump on the bandwagon too.  I would not describe myself as a big fan of him even though I have about 20 of his albums.  He has long been a part of my life though, I knew who he was long before I knew about the Beatles.  Some of my earliest musical memories are my father playing his albums.  As best as I can recollect my father only had his Reprise albums even though most people (myself included) think he did his best work for Capitol Records.  I didn't particularly like what I heard as a child, I thought Sinatra was one of those adult things like alcohol, sex and cigarettes that was part of the world of my parents and their friends.  My stepfather was also a big Sinatra fan and he was the first person to point out to me that Sinatra sounded different with different arrangers.  When I saw Sinatra on TV back then I was repelled by him, he seemed arrogant and remote.  I greatly preferred his cohorts Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. as well as warmer crooners like Andy Williams.  After I got into rock music I wanted nothing to do with this stuff.  I only started to like Sinatra when I started watching old movies and saw him when he was young and more likable in films like "Anchors Aweigh," "Guys and Dolls" and especially "On The Town."  I started buying his albums when I was in my late 20s and I admired his peerless vocal technique, the rich timber of his voice and the quality of his material.  Nonetheless when it comes to pop crooners I've always preferred warmer and jazzier singers like Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald.  This album is far from my favorite but I think it is one of his more interesting ones for Reprise.  The title track was a hit single and one of Sinatra's best known songs even though he supposedly hated it.  I like the song's overt romanticism although the arrangement is pretty corny.  It is the only song on the album not arranged by Nelson Riddle and it sounds different from the rest of the record.  "Summer Wind" is my favorite track on the album and one of my favorite tracks from the Reprise era of Sinatra's career.  Riddle's arrangement is brash and swinging, it gives the song plenty of oomph which seems to inspire Sinatra.  "All or Nothing at All" swings even harder, it is another one of the best tracks on the record.  Sinatra recorded the song several times throughout his career but this is by far my favorite version.  Riddle slows down Tony Hatch's "Call Me" for Sinatra, it sounds different than the familiar versions by Chris Montez and Petula Clark.  The arrangement suits Sinatra's style but it also exposes the inane lyrics.  Sinatra goes back into the past with Walter Donaldson's "You're Driving Me Crazy!" from 1930.  Riddle gives the song a swinging modern arrangement that makes the song almost unrecognizable.  Sinatra muffs the lyric at one point but I guess he was okay with that.  One of the perks of owning the record company I suppose.  Side two opens with "On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)."  My father used to play Barbra Streisand's version often which is a lot more dramatic.  Riddle's arrangement is looser and punchier given almost a bluesy feeling from the piano and organ.  Sinatra's vocal is a bit laid back, even sloppy in places but I prefer it to Streisand's perfection, it has more life.  "My Baby Just Cares for Me" is another Donaldson oldie that Riddle breathes new life into with punchy brass and swinging organ lines.  Sinatra's swagger serves him well on this cut.  Sinatra borrows another song from the Petula Clark catalog with "Downtown."  It is an uptempo arrangement that Sinatra practically clowns his way through.  He makes the song sound silly and exerts little effort to hide his contempt for the song.  He takes a third crack at a Walter Donaldson oldie with "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" from 1925.  Riddle makes the old chestnut swing and Sinatra sounds like he's enjoying himself as he belts out the lyrics.  Riddle saves his most exciting arrangement for the album closer, Rodgers and Hart's "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World."  Driven by frenetic bongos, the band races through the song inspiring Sinatra to deliver an energetic and forceful interpretation  It is another one of my faves and gives the album a rousing finish.  I suspect the album was just another day at the office for Sinatra, he sounds uninspired even disdainful at times but he was so gifted that he sounds good even when he's not really trying.  Nelson Riddle does manage to get a rise out of him a few times and he does an admirable job of keeping things interesting when Sinatra checks out.  Even though I'm older now than my parents were when they were big Sinatra fans, he's never going to mean as much to me as he did to them.  I like his music, I admire his voice, I can even respect his vision, but I don't relate to him like they did.  I'm practically the same age as Sinatra was when he recorded this album, but to me he is always going to be that old guy who represented the values and experiences of my parents' generation.  He was their voice.  For me that role was fulfilled by the Beatles and Bob Dylan.  Nonetheless I'm happy to acknowledge his upcoming 100th birthday and express my appreciation for his spectacular body of work.  Recommended to people who believe that "it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Keep On Singin' - Andraé Crouch and the Disciples

Keep On Singin'
Andraé Crouch and the Disciples
Light Records LS-5546-LP 

I picked this up in a thrift store in Williams, Arizona awhile back.  I had no idea who Andraé Crouch was at the time.  I'm not a big fan of religious music, but I dug the cover and hoped that the music was funky or soulful.  When I got home I gave it a spin and was dismayed to hear that much of it sounded like smooth sunshine pop.  It was so not what I was expecting that I stuck it on my purgatory shelf planning to discard it.  Then last January Crouch died and I came across several lengthy obituaries of him that praised his work and its significance in the history of gospel music.  I remembered that I had one of his records and pulled it out to listen to it again.  It was pretty much as I remembered but this time it didn't bother me.  Without my false expectations to prejudice me, I heard the music differently.  I appreciated its eclecticism and its pop appeal.  You might think I was just swayed by the critical praise of Crouch's work, but I think it is more of a case of me being motivated to listen to it more attentively.  The record opens with "I Don't Know Why Jesus Loved Me" which like all the songs on the record was written by Crouch.  It is sung by one of the Disciples, Perry Morgan.  This song has more of a traditional gospel sound with a prominent organ line and soulful ensemble vocals.  This is my favorite track on the record.  Crouch sings lead on "I'm Gonna Keep On Singin.'"  This is a more upbeat track bolstered by brass and winds and very poppy harmony vocals led by Crouch's twin sister Sandra who was also a member of the Disciples.  It is a slick and accessible production that shows off Crouch's pop smarts.  If it wasn't so religious I could imagine it as a top 40 single.  Disciple Billy Thedford and guest singer Tremaine Davis sing "I'm Coming Home, Dear Lord" with a lot of feeling.  The song is less dynamic than the previous track but shares the same elaborate pop style arrangement.  Crouch takes the mike again for "Along Came Jesus" which is a jumping number with a catchy melody and energetic vocals.  The record slows down for "Jesus (Every Hour He'll Give You Power)" which boasts a stirring vocal from Crouch.  Side two begins with Crouch singing "Take a Little Time" which is another soulful performance with an elaborate pop arrangement.  "What Ya Gonna Do?" is a jaunty number that almost sounds like a show tune.  It is mostly sung as an ensemble with a solo passage sung by Crouch.  It concludes with an odd bit of musical cacophony that sounds almost psychedelic.  "I've Got Confidence" is a rocker that is driven by a stinging guitar line.  It features a dynamic lead vocal from Crouch and it is one of my favorite cuts on the album.  Thedford is the soloist for "My Tribute (To God Be The Glory)" which is a dramatic ballad.  I find it sappy and overblown.  For some reason fake applause is dubbed in at the end of the song.  The album concludes with Crouch singing "I Must Go Away" which is country-flavored.  I find the song appealing, particularly the harmonica work and tasteful piano lines.  I'm not a Christian but I admire Crouch's expression of his spirituality.  He's not preachy or self-righteous and his lyrics have some memorable images and language.  Mostly though it is the music that gets to me.  Crouch and the Disciples were all terrific singers and their vocal interplay is consistently engaging.  Crouch was also a skilled arranger and I appreciate the variety of instruments and styles he employs throughout the record.  Although I was initially turned off by the poppiness of the record, I'm hardly the sort of person who does not like a big juicy hook and Crouch sprinkles them liberally throughout the record.  Crouch wanted to make religious music that would appeal to a broad audience and on this record he succeeded.  Anyone who is a fan of sophisticated 1970s pop-soul or sunshine pop ought to find stuff to like on the album.  Recommended to religious fans of the Fifth Dimension and Gladys Knight and the Pips.

Monday, November 30, 2015

That's My Song - Carolyn Hester

That's My Song
Carolyn Hester
Dot Records  DLP 3604

On our way home from our summer vacation this year I insisted on a detour to Clovis, New Mexico because I wanted to see the town where the great Buddy Holly began his recording career.  As we pulled into town my wife thought I had lost my mind.  Clovis has obviously seen better days.  We went to the buildings that housed Norman Petty's recording studio and office which are now closed although still intact and largely untouched except for the decay of time and neglect.  We then headed over to the Chamber of Commerce where I checked out the Norman Petty museum in their basement.  It was full of wonderful artifacts including a re-creation of the Petty recording studio.  I really enjoyed it and I recommend a visit if you ever find yourself in the area.  While I was perusing the exhibits I was surprised to see a copy of this record.  I've had it for years but never realized it was produced by Petty presumably in Clovis.  When I got home I examined the record which contains no production credits but I noticed that Petty was mentioned in the liner notes.  This album was Hester's first for Dot after Columbia dropped her after a pair of albums.  The liner notes emphasize the Southwestern influence on the album noting that everyone who performed and produced the record was born or raised in Oklahoma, Texas or New Mexico (Hester is from Texas.)  Also the notes claim that all but two of the songs were written by people from the Southwest or are concerned with the area.  The album begins with "That's My Song" by George and Barbara Tomsco.  George Tomsco was in the Petty-produced group the Fireballs and plays guitar on eight of the tracks of this record.  The song has a jaunty, countryish melody and a cheerful vocal from Hester.  It is one of my favorite tracks on the record.  "Amapola" is identified as a Mexican song in the liner notes for the album but it was actually written by the Spanish songwriter Joseph Lacalle.  Hester sings the first two verses in Spanish and then sings one of the English verses by Albert Gamse.  Her vocal is fabulous and shows off her ability to hit the high notes with ease.  It is a superbly romantic song and another one of my favorites.  "Ain't That Rain" is another song by the Tomscos. The song is a farm worker's lament about life's difficulties that uses weather metaphors to convey its message.  The song is slow and moody with a low key but expressive vocal from Hester.  "Momma's Tough Little Soldier" is the first of three songs by Tom Paxton on the album.  It is a lively song about a rambunctious child.  It is silly but fun"Lonesome Tears" is a Buddy Holly song.  Holly of course worked with Petty and Hester met him when she was recording her debut album "Scarlet Ribbons" in Clovis in 1957.  She and Holly became friends and made some unreleased recordings together.  Hester imbues the song with a bluesy feeling that I prefer to Holly's more rock and roll style originalSide one concludes with "Stay Not Late" which was written by Hester.  It is a lovely, enigmatic song that reflects on the transience of life in poetic language.  Side two opens with "Everytime" by Paxton.  It is a somewhat sappy love song, but Hester's vocal is so pure and emotional that she makes it convincing.  "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound" is also a Paxton song.  It is a familiar rambling-around-this-world type folk song that Hester once again makes sound deeper than it is by virtue of the sincerity and strength of her singing.  Hester wrote "Ten Thousand Candles" which refers to a UNESCO statistic that 10,000 people died of malnutrition every day.  It is a powerful protest song given an anthemic quality by Hester's forceful singing.  "The Times I've Had" is an anti-war song by Mark Spoelstra.  Hester gives it an old-timey, bluesy interpretation that is very effective.  "Jute Mill Song" is a labor protest song of Scottish origin.  Hester's vocal is typically gorgeous, but perhaps the gritty lyrics deserved a little more bite.  "The Rivers of Texas" is credited to Irene Carlyle but I've read that she denied writing it and said she learned it from a Texan in the 1920s.  It is a wonderful song describing an ill-fated love affair and the singer's determination not to love again using an assortment of rivers to narrate the song's story.  It gives the record a charming finish.  Hester is one of my favorite singers and I'd listen to her sing just about anything This record is made stronger I believe by the continuity of theme and sound that it derives from its Southwestern focus.  It feels like a statement rather than just a collection of songs.  Hester's impeccable vocal technique and the tasteful musical accompaniment make it consistently stimulating and pleasing to listen to as well.  Norman Petty was obviously an excellent collaborator for her.  I have a limited appetite for folk music, but I never get tired of listening to Carolyn Hester.  Recommended to Buddy Holly fans who dig folk music.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Piaf! - Édith Piaf

Édith Piaf
Capitol  T10210

I was in the middle of a different post when I heard about the Paris terrorist attacks.  I lost all interest in finishing that post as a result.  Music seemed trivial in the wake of such a tragedy.  But for me music is also a comfort, so when I got over my initial shock and disgust, I reached for some French records to console myself with the greatness of France and its peopleI fell in love with French culture when I was in high school and that has never changed.  I first heard Piaf in my high school French class.  I have to admit I didn't like her very much at first, but that changed when I got to college and my musical tastes expanded.  When it comes to French pop I mostly listen to the music of the 1960s and early 1970s but whenever I feel like hearing traditional chanson-style French music, Piaf is my first choice.  I have a bunch of her Capitol LPs all of which are worthwhile but I've opted for this one because I like its cover.  The record is a compilation of recordings from the late 1950s.  "Et Pourtant" by Michel Emer and Pierre Brasseur and "Marie la Française" by Jacques Larue and Philippe-Gérard date from 1956.  "Et Pourtant" describes all the negative outside influences that impede a perfect love.  I think it is a little silly but Piaf invests the song with so much feeling that it still works.  I particularly like the dramatic piano accompaniment that punctuates the vocal"Marie la Française" is a portrait of a street walker that is notable for its bleak tone and imagery.  Despite the darkness of the lyrics, the music has a jaunty music hall flavor.  Next up is a single from 1957, "Les Grognards" by Pierre Delanoë and Hubert Giraud.  It is a strange song about the ghosts of soldiers from the time of Napoleon marching down the Champs Elysées demanding attention for their suffering from the revelers out for a good time.  The song sounds like a relentless military march and Piaf sings with enormous passion, but it is not my kind of song.  I find it a little creepy.  A 1958 EP is the source for "Comme Moi" by Claude Delécluse, Marguerite Monnot and Michelle Senlis, "Salle D'Attente" by Monnot and Michel Rivgauche and "La Foule" which was a Spanish song by the Argentine songwriter Angel Cabral translated into French by Rivgauche.  "Comme Moi" is about a woman excitedly awaiting the arrival of her lover.  The song is tremendously romantic and Piaf croons with palpable yearning, it really gets to me.  "Salle D'Attente" is a highly poetic description of a couple breaking up.  Despite the unhappy subject of the song, the music is largely upbeat, particularly the punchy piano accompaniment.  "La Foule" depicts a woman caught up in a crowd who finds herself thrust into the arms of a man she is wildly attracted to but then the crowd pulls them apart and she can never find him again.  I believe it is an allegory about the transcient and unpredictable nature of love.  The song was a hit for Piaf in France and I can see why.  It has a sweeping waltz-like tune and Piaf sings it with a lot of verve and style.  It is my favorite track on the albumSide two opens with "Fais Comme Si" from the soundtrack to the 1959 film "Les Amants de Demain" which starred Piaf.  It was written by Monnot and Rivgauche.  It is a highly romantic description of unrequited love being fulfilled through imagination.  The music is atmospheric and Piaf's vocal is brilliant, it gives me chills.  A great song, another one of my favorites on the record.  Next up are a pair of songs by Jo Moustaki taken from the 1958 French EP "Édith Piaf chante Jo Moustaki."  "Les Orgues de Barbarie" is a nostalgic evocation of the bygone days when lovers stolled the Parisian streets listening to the music of barrel organs.  The music is light and rhythmic evoking the feeling of a street entertainerIn "Le Gitan et la Fille" a gypsy makes an impassioned declaration of love full of violent imagery and flamboyant promises.  The dramatic music reinforces the crazed feelings of the lyrics and features a Spanish flamenco flavor as well which contributes to its stirring effect.  Piaf offers up a richly nuanced vocal that moves fluidly from smouldering emotion to loud outbursts of fury.  The album concludes with three more songs from "Les Amants de Demain."  The first two were written by Monnot and Henri Contet.  The title track describes how the lovers of tomorrow will love freely and completely without the burdens of today.  I find the music excessively heavy, particularly the choir that backs up the vocal.  "Les Nieges de Finlande" is a wistful song in which Piaf dreams of a fantastic trip around the world based on stories she heard from a sailor.  It is a more subdued song that sounds like a lullaby with a restrained vocal from Piaf that I find charming.  "Tant Qu'il Y Aura des Jours" is another Monnot/Rivgauche song.  It describes how love has not changed through the ages, that lovers continue to say and do what they always have.  The accordion driven song evokes the feeling of dance hall or a street performance and ends the record on an upbeat note.  Although this music predates my birth, I still relate to it strongly.  It evokes my idealized visions of France as well as a romantic view of the world that appeals to me more than the cynicism popular today.  Most of all I'm attracted to Piaf's voice, its grainy thickness resonant with experience and emotion, the masterful way she articulates the words and conveys her attitude.  Her music transports me and fulfills me.  It reminds me of the pleasures and joys of living.  When I hear her sing, I know that there is no way a bunch of savages whose highest cultural achievement is blowing up historical treasures and making murder videos can ever defeat a culture that produced someone like Édith Piaf.  Vive la France!  Recommended to people looking for a reminder of why Paris will always be the City of Light.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

David Jones - David Jones

David Jones
David Jones
Colpix Records 493

David Jones is of course Davy Jones of the Monkees.  This was his debut album which predated the Monkees by a year.  I'd seen the record in the bins for years without ever considering buying it even though I'm a big fan of the Monkees.  I just assumed it would not be very good.  Then when Jones died in 2012, I finally bought a copy in a burst of sentimentality.  I hate to admit it, but my first instincts were correct.  I was appalled the first time I played it.  I expected bubblegum or sunshine pop, but most of what I heard sounded like show tunes or music hall type songs all sung in an exaggerated English accent that made Peter Noone sound like John Wayne.  Once I overcame my initial disappointment, I came to appreciate the album more, but I still don't like it all that much.  "What Are We Going to Do" was the single off the album.  It is a jaunty tune that sounds like Herman's Hermits.  It was a stiff on the charts but I think it is one of the more appealing tracks on the record.  It is followed by three straight music hall songs.  "Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner" dates from the 1940s, "Put Me Amongst the Girls" goes back to 1907 and "Any Old Iron" is from 1911.  "Any Old Iron" is given a rock treatment, but the other two sound old-fashioned.  Jones excelled at this sort of stuff but it is not my cup of tea.  I do like the energy of "Any Old Iron" which Jones sings with a lot of enthusiasm.  It is back to the modern world for "Theme For a New Love" which is a corny love song that Jones recites rather than sings not unlike his Monkees' song "The Day We Fall in Love."  I hate it but I imagine the teenyboppers liked it.  Side two begins with a cover of Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe" that is modeled after the Turtles' folk-rock version.  It is better than I would have expected, Jones sings it convincingly.  "Face Up To It" sounds like early 1960's pop that builds in a "Bolero" like structure.  The arrangement is overblown but Jones' vocal performance is strong.  Van McCoy's "Dream Girl" is what I originally expected the album to be like.  It is an inane song with a very poppy sound, very commercial sounding.  Jones was always good at this sort of pop fluff and I think it is one of more successful tunes on the record.  It is back to the music hall for a cover of Tony Hatch's "Baby It's Me" which Petula Clark released in 1963.  The old fashioned arrangement makes it sound older than that.  It is followed by a cover of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil's "My Dad" which was a big hit for Paul Petersen in 1962.  Jones version is just as sappy as the original.  The album concludes with "This Bouquet" which is a welcome return to bubblegum pop that reminds me of Gary Lewis and the Playboys.  This album is an obvious effort to manufacture a pop star.  Jones was being manipulated and groomed by record company lackeys which was probably ideal training for his early career with the Monkees.  The record flopped largely I think because the songs were so pedestrian and out of touch with the 1965 music scene.  Most of it sounds more like 1960 or even earlier.  Nonetheless Jones' talent is evident throughout the album.  He sings with verve and charisma.  I'm not sorry I bought it, but I doubt that I'm going to be playing it very much.  Recommended to Herman's Hermits fans whose favorite song is "I'm Henry VIII, I Am."

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Underachievers Please Try Harder - Camera Obscura

Underachievers Please Try Harder
Camera Obscura
Merge MRG 239

I was very unhappy to read that Carey Lander died of cancer a few weeks ago.  She was the keyboard player for Camera Obscura (she is wearing the white hat in the cover pictures for this album.)  She also did the string arrangements and sang back-up vocals on this record.  I admire this band and have ever since I first heard "Suspended From Class" from this record on KXLU a decade ago.  I bought the CD and loved it so much that I bought it on vinyl as well.  I like all their albums but this is by far my favorite and I have to admit the main reason I love it so much is that it reminds me of their fellow Scots, Belle and Sebastian.  I've never heard any record that sounds more like Belle and Sebastian without actually being by Belle and Sebastian.  Even the cover art looks like a Belle and Sebastian record, hardly a surprise since head Belle, Stuart Murdoch, snapped the pictures.  I don't mean to imply that the album is blatantly imitative of the Belles, it is more that it shares common themes and the splendid chamber pop sound that made those early Belle and Sebastian records so magical.  The record opens with "Suspended From Class" which with its school metaphor, romantic awkwardness and self-deprecating lyrics immediately evokes early Stuart Murdoch.  Tracyanne Campbell has a low key, reserved style of singing but her voice is extremely lovely and sucks me right into the song.  Lander's graceful piano solo is supplemented by Nigel Baillie's delicate trumpet lines giving the song a delightful sound that is right out of the Belles' playbook.  "Keep It Clean" manages to be twee and coolly cutting at the same time, another early Murdoch trait.  The song is propulsive but retains a chamber pop flavor driven by Lander's organ and Kenny McKeeve's reverb laden guitar runs.  "A Sisters Social Agony" is a tender portrait of an indie-minded adolescent with all the corresponding angst that comes with.  You don't hear many pop songs that mention the film director Mike Leigh.  The music evokes early 1960s girl groups and 1950s doo-wop.  Campbell's dreamy vocal carries the song.  "Teenager" is one of my favorite tracks on the record.  It is addressed to a boy who is infatuated with a self-centered girl and the singer's attempt to woo him back.  The song opens with a beat group style guitar run before assuming the shuffling melody that drives the song.  Campbell's vocal is particularly compelling on this tune.  "Before You Cry" is a laid back break-up song.  It has a jaunty country-flavored melody which suits its rather callous lyrics.  John Henderson takes the vocal on the early part of the song before being joined by Campbell for the chorus.  She sings the final verse.  "Your Picture" critiques a narcissistic friend.  Henderson sings this one as well with a lugubrious vocal given extra depth with reverb.  Campbell sings a subdued harmony vocal in parts of the song.  The song is mostly supported by acoustic guitar.  It reminds me of early Leonard Cohen.  Side two opens with "Number One Son" which describes more adolescent romance woes.  It is another one of my favorite cuts.  It is a joyous track with a propulsive beat and a catchy melody that is fleshed out with strings and Baillie's trumpet.  It is the song that sounds the most like Belle and Sebastian on the record.  The poppy, upbeat sound continues with "Let Me Go Home" which is about a wild party with Motown records spinning, guests drinking and couples making out on the stairs.  Henderson sings lead and Lander's piano and McKeeve's jangly guitar runs carry the song which is the happiest track on the album.  Pure pop bliss.  The album slows down for "Books Written For Girls" which chronicles a mismatched romance with misleading appearances and false expectations.  Campbell's plaintive vocal is more emotional than is typical on this record.  I find it entrancing.  There is a lovely steel guitar solo from Wullie Gamble and some sensitive piano playing from Lander.  "Knee Deep at the NPL" describes a fun winter's night out dancing that ends with a couple falling in love.  The NPL refers to National Pop League which was a revered music club in Glasgow.  Campbell has another evocative vocal on this track which is bolstered by a gentle flute solo from Americo Alhucena.  Henderson joins the vocal at the end of the song for a charming polyphonic section.  The album concludes with "Lunar Sea" which is a poetic love song.  Campbell and Henderson sing this gentle song as a duet.  I enjoy McKeeve's rolling guitar riffs throughout the song and the chamber pop sound that makes this track a lovely conclusion for the album.  I adore this album, it is one of my favorites of the 2000s.  I've listened to it a lot in the past ten years and I still find it intensely engaging and charming.  I understand why Camera Obscura moved away from this style as their career progressed, they weren't going to get anywhere sounding so much like Belle and Sebastian.  Heck even Belle and Sebastian do not sound this much like Belle and Sebastian anymore.  I don't consider it a derivative record though, I think the band absorbed the Belles' distinctive style and gave it their own interpretation.  The record is made with intelligence and grace and even though I'm far removed from the youthful perspective that permeates the lyrics, I still find that I relate to it deeply.  Some of that can be attributed to the Tracyanne Campbell's voice which makes the words seem more significant and touching than they might be on paper.  The musical setting also enhances the lyrics, it invests them with feeling and sensitivity.  Carey Lander was a big part of this.  I think her keyboards were the heart of the band's musical sound.  Much of the beauty of their music comes from the tender and thoughtful expressiveness in her playing.  It will be an difficult hole to fill now that she is gone, but I do hope they find a way to carry on.  This one is obviously recommended for Belle and Sebastian fans.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Making Mirrors - Gotye

Making Mirrors
Universal Republic Records  B0016449-01

I first heard Gotye on KCRW which is our local NPR station.  I would describe their playlist as hipster-light.  The song was "Somebody That I Used to Know" and like most of the world I loved it the moment I heard it.  The song was soon in heavy rotation on KCRW and Gotye even did a live set on the air there that I really enjoyed.  Then much to my amazement the song took off and soon it was everywhere including the popular stations that my son liked.  My son loved the song as much as I did and it made me happy to bond with him over it.  In the old days when I was a snob, this kind of massive popular success would have been the kiss of death for me, but now I embraced it.  I was glad the song was everywhere.  I took my son to see Gotye live back in 2012 and we both had a great time.  I think an artist who can bridge generations is special.  Some of the hipsters at work poked fun at me when I mentioned liking the Gotye show, but I could not care less.  I respect Gotye as an artist and I think this album is terrific.  It begins with the introspective "Making Mirrors" which is a dreamy tune that barely lasts a minute.  The album kicks into gear with the propulsive "Easy Way Out" which is one of my favorite cuts.  This song about ennui and difficulty getting away from past feelings is driven by fuzzy guitar riffs.  This song leads into the slinky groove of the "Somebody That I Used to Know" which is the ultimate song about being hung up on the past.  As you probably already know, this song is about the emotional wreckage of a break-up.  It is one of the most potent break-up songs I've ever heard.  Before I heard it a thousand times it used to give me chills with its emotional power.  The most inspired aspect of the song is bringing in Kimbra to provide an alternative viewpoint to the self-pity of the main part of the song.  The side finishes with another uptempo song, the exuberant "Eyes Wide Open."  Powered by resounding drum beats and an impassioned vocal from Gotye, this song chronicles the ecological disaster created by humans indifferent to the consequences.  The B side begins with the electronic pop of "Smoke and Mirrors."  The song is about selling out and artistic integrity, remarkably prescient considering how Gotye's career took off abruptly taking him from cult figure to international superstar.  The song is not directed explicitly at himself and I'm not saying it necessarily applies to him, but I find the issues it raises are interesting in this context.  If nothing else it does show Gotye's artistic awareness and introspective nature.  The mood lifts for the joyous sunshine pop of "I Feel Better."  The song is a paean to love and friendship.  It is not deep, but provides some welcome lightness to the album.  "In Your Light" continues in a similar vein both lyrically and musically as he celebrates the joy love brings him.  Side C opens with "State of the Art" which celebrates Gotye's acquisition of a vintage Lowrey Cotillion electric organ which he uses throughout the song as he lauds its various features.  Gotye combines this old technology with modern electronic devices, distorting his voice as well as using samples to flesh out the smorgasbord of sounds that drive the song.  It is silly but fun unlike the next song, "Don't Worry, We'll Be Watching You."  It is a reggae style electronic song with a plodding, lethargic beat and a foreboding sound to it that matches its creepy lyrics.  It is about trying to leave some controlling organization, probably a religion.  It makes me think of Scientology but it could apply to a lot of things.  Side D begins with "Giving Me a Chance" which is about finding redemption with a loved one.  It is low key romantic electropop.  "Save Me" has an ebullient world music sound bolstered by prominent percussion and an abundance of instrumental overdubs, both analog and electronic.  It is an extremely upbeat song about being redeemed through the power of love.  The records concludes with "Bronte" which is not about the famous sister authors, but rather about a dying pet.  It is a beautiful and delicate song that gives the album an emotional and sensitive ending.  Some people rag on Gotye for being wimpy and whiny, but I admire his emotional honesty and expressiveness.  This record is full of self-doubt and angst for sure, but it also features Gotye's will to find his way and overcome his unhappiness.  I find it moving and uplifting.  Musically it is extremely engaging with a lot more instrumental texture and variety than is typical with electronic music.  Recommended to fans of Lorde.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

With a Little Help From My Friends - Joe Cocker

With a Little Help From My Friends
Joe Cocker
A&M SP 4182

My belated tribute to Joe Cocker who died last December.  I think it has taken me so long to get around to this because I have mixed feelings about his career.  I have to admit that I hated him when I was a kid.  My introduction to him was his hit single "You Are So Beautiful" which they used to play all the time on the crummy soft-rock/adult contemporary radio stations my father listened to in the car.  That song made my skin crawl.  Then I saw him on "Saturday Night Live" and thought he was ridiculous.  My opinion of him changed in my senior year of high school when I saw "Woodstock" and finally perceived his talent.  I became a fan of his first three albums.  I haven't much interest in him after that.  I've heard tracks from most of his 1970s albums, none of which appeal to me.  His hit single with Jennifer Warren "Up Where We Belong" nauseates me and I've never bothered to explore his post-1970s catalog.  I do like those first three records though, especially this one which was his debut album.  The album consists largely of covers of well-known songs.  My favorite is the title track which of course comes from the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."  It boasts an extraordinary and dramatic arrangement that radically transforms the song to the point where it is hardly recognizable as the same song.  Cocker howls his way through the song supported by soulful harmonizing from female background singers with his back-up band (including Jimmy Page) making a racket behind him.  It is an exciting song but I don't consider it an improvement over the original.  I think the song was better served by the charm and warmth that Ringo brought to his performance of the song rather than Cocker's histrionics which overwhelm the message of goodwill and amity at the heart of the lyrics.  I still dig the arrangement, although when I feel like hearing Cocker's version, I usually reach for the "Woodstock" soundtrack album which has an even more over-the-top and kinetic performance.  My other favorite track is a cover of Traffic's "Feelin' Alright" which benefits greatly from Cocker's soulful vocal augmented by Merry Clayton, Brenda Holloway and Patrice Holloway's strong backing vocals.  I consider this the definitive version of the song.  Cocker comes close to cutting the Animals with his smouldering version of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood."  I give Eric Burdon the edge for his intensity, but the groove on this arrangement is fabulous.  I'm also impressed by the way Cocker revitalizes the 1926 pop standard "Bye Bye Blackbird."  The song is given a soul-style treatment that makes it sound contemporary and Page contributes a stinging guitar solo that gives it some fire.  Cocker is less successful with a pair of Dylan covers. "I Shall Be Released" seems like a natural fit for him, but I find it dull and over-wrought.  My favorite part of the song is Stevie Winwood's swelling organ lines. "Just Like a Woman" is worse.  The song is undermined by Cocker's exaggerated vocal and a fussy arrangement.  I greatly prefer the simplicity and directness of Dylan's original.  He also covers the comparatively obscure "Do I Still Figure In Your Life" which was a 1967 single by Honeybus.  The song provides a good vehicle for Cocker's impassioned emoting.  There are three original songs that Cocker co-wrote with Chris Stainton which are easily the worst tracks on the record.  I've had this record for decades and played it a bunch of times and I still can't remember any of them even after I've just finished listening to the record.  "Sandpaper Cadillac" is the best of the three thanks to Page's fuzzy guitar riffs and some appealing shifts in tempo.  "Change in Louise" is energetic and reminds me of Procol Harum if Gary Brooker had laryngitis.  "Marjorine" has a music hall flavor to it.  For some reason Cocker chose to sing some of it in a high, almost falsetto voice, that irritates me like fingernails on a chalkboard.  The song features both Jimmy Page and Albert Lee on guitar and I'm still bored by it.  I think the weakness of the original songs is emblematic of Cocker's career.  He was a great interpreter, but I don't believe he was a great artist.  He was heavily dependent on outside material and I think Chris Stainton was largely responsible for the imaginative arrangements that make Cocker's first two albums so compelling.  Once Stainton left, Cocker's sound suffered.  Despite my misgivings about his taste and vision, there is no denying that the man was a fantastic singer, among the best of his era.  Even the weaker songs on this album sound wonderful.  Like Janis Joplin, he redefined rock singing by incorporating soul and rhythm and blues techniques into the orthodox style of rock singing creating an intoxicating synthesis that is still thrilling to me 46 years after it was recorded.  Recommended to people who think it would have been cool to hear Ray Charles perform with a loud rock band.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Joan Baez in San Francisco - Joan Baez

Joan Baez in San Francisco
Joan Baez
Fantasy Records  5015

It is amusing to me that one of my favorite Joan Baez albums is the one she sued to prevent from being released.  In her lawsuit against Fantasy Records the album is described as a "poor quality and tasteless record" that damaged her reputation.  I beg to differ.  I don't blame her for being mad, the record is obviously a rip-off and a shameless bit of record company chicanery.  Despite that, the album is often quite enjoyable.  It was recorded in 1958 when Baez was 17.  I mistakenly believed it was a live album when I bought it, but it was actually a demo recorded in a studio.  It features an eclectic bunch of songs, more diverse than most of her Vanguard albums.  My favorites are the two rock and roll songs on the record, covers of the Coasters' "Young Blood" and the Midnighters' "Annie Had a Baby."  Throughout her career I've never found Baez's sporadic efforts to sing rock to be convincing, she just sounds too uptight and stilted.  Perhaps because of her youth, she sounds more relaxed, even happy on these cuts.  I've always found her to be humorless to a fault, but these two songs are funny and she plays up their humor.  "Annie Had a Baby" is the better of the two.  Baez sings in a low voice and a southern accent and distorts the words like a rockabilly singer.  Of course it is ridiculous but I still love it and I'm sorry it is so short.  She sings "Young Blood" in her normal voice although she lowers her voice for the lines sung by the back-up singers in the Coasters' version.  She whoops and hollers her way through the song and I adore her for it.  I've heard a bunch of her albums and there is nothing like this on any of them.  Unfortunately the rest of the album is not nearly as fun.  Her version of "La Bamba" comes close.  It is energetic but her Spanish sounds exaggerated, like she is showing off in Spanish class.  Baez was a big fan of Harry Belafonte as a teenager and she does three of his songs which are among the best tracks on the record.  My favorite is her cover of "Man Smart, Woman Smarter" which she sings in a silly Caribbean accent that I find utterly charming.  She tones down the accent for "Island in the Sun" which is pleasant and light.  On "Scarlet Ribbons" she sings in her normal voice which is of course lovely.  She also covers Merle Travis' country classic "Dark as a Dungeon" which I like as well.  She sings it beautifully as you'd expect, but she also sounds loose, responding to the song rather than forcing her will upon it.  The rest of the album sounds more like her early Vanguard albums, traditional folk songs and spirituals delivered with that perfect soprano voice.  My favorite of the bunch is her take on the old work song "Told My Captain" which is restrained and moody.  "Every Night" is generally known as "Every Night When The Sun Goes In."  I like the song but her vocal lacks sufficient feeling to put it over.  "Water Boy" is another work song often associated with Odetta who was a big influence on Baez as a teen.  Again I find the song lacking in feeling.  "Oh Freedom" was also a song Odetta performed and it is the one song from this album that Baez kept in her repertoire.  It is a very stirring song, but she performed it much better later in her career.  The old English folk song "I Gave My Love a Cherry" would easily fit on her first album.  She sings it flawlessly as if she were singing a hymn and I find the song lifeless and dull.  My least favorite cut.  Nonetheless this is a remarkable record for a 17 year old.  Baez's magnificent voice was already fully developed and she unleashed it freely with impressive force.  Her lack of maturity is most evident in her inconsistent ability to bring out the depth and feeling in the songs.  Too often she sounds like she is imitating someone's record without connecting to the words.  It is hardly embarrassing though, I wish some of the youthful exuberance and sense of fun displayed on this recording had carried over to her mature career. Recommended to fans of Carolyn Hester.