Monday, January 26, 2015

The Only Place - Best Coast

The Only Place
Best Coast
Mexican Summer  MEX 109

I'm trying to be less of a snob about popular music.  In the past I have reacted negatively when bands I liked became hugely popular.  Best Coast haven't reached that stage yet, but they certainly have the potential.  Last time I saw them live was at the Wiltern where my wife and I found ourselves surrounded by teenage girls.  During a blistering set by Jeff the Brotherhood they played with their phones and impatiently whined that they wanted Beth.  When Best Coast hit the stage they squealed and screamed with glee and sang along with most of the songs.  I'm used to feeling at old at shows, but this time I felt like Methuselah.  I don't think Bethany Cosentino aspires to be Gwen Stefani or Taylor Swift, she seems too insecure for that.  However her music is unusually accessible by indie rock standards.  Her tunes are poppy and full of hooks and her lyrics seem old-fashioned in their focus on boys and her eagerness to please, more 60s girl group than Echo Park hipster in their content and style.  I know some of the cool kids criticized her debut album, "Crazy For You," for this as well as her alleged lack of a feminist perspective, but I don't have a problem with it.  Of course I'm old and hung up on the 1960s when most songs were like this.  I love "The Only Place" which is the opening track on Best Coast's second album and it was the one that made it to the radio.  It is a paean to Southern California befitting the group's name.  It is mercifully free of the heavy reverb and over-production that I felt marred "Crazy For You."  It is the indie rock version of sunshine pop with its jangly guitars, propulsive beat and shimmering vocal.  The lyrics come right out of the Beach Boys playbook praising the sun, the beach, the waves and "the babes."  The song is inane but being a native Californian it appeals to me anyway.  If I lived in another state I might be inclined to point out the shallowness of her view of the good life and note that she ignores the traffic, pollution, narcissism and selfishness that make Southern California less than the paradise she describes.  "Why I Cry" is a more sophisticated song lyrically.  It is both a portrait of ennui and a lack of understanding in a relationship.  The music is slick garage band style rock with a lot of pop hooks.  "Last Year" sounds autobiographical to me, a description of the alienation and confusion she is experiencing in her life as a budding young rock star.  I find her words compelling and the music is slower and heavier reflecting the gloomy outlook of the song.  "My Life" seems to be about repairing a broken relationship but I think it is also about trying to restore some order and direction in her life.  "No One Like You" sounds like the songs on "Crazy For You."  It is decidedly retro in its sound with a tune that could have come out of the early 1960s.  The lyrics express her wish for her boyfriend to love her more.  With a few cosmetic changes it would fit comfortably on a Shangri-Las or Angels album.  The similarly retro "How They Want Me to Be" could be a Dusty Springfield song.  It may be answering her critics as she emphasizes wanting to be how she wants to be rather than how others want her to be.  Side two opens with the bouncy "Better Girl."  The cheerful music is in contrast to the lyrics which emphasize self-improvement with references to depression, substance abuse and loneliness as well as some more references to her critics.  "Do You Love Me Like You Used To" is the sort of song her critics carp about, a plaintive song that blames herself for her relationship problems and which expresses her fear of being alone.  The tune is slightly retro pop but with some muscle that contradicts the weakness expressed by the lyrics.  "Dreaming My Life Away" is a slow, sweet pop song with an appropriately dreamy feel to it.  Its best element is Cosentino's expressive vocal.  "Let's Go Home" is a fast-paced poppy song that gets me bopping, one of my favorite tracks.  Although throughout the album she has been complaining about being withdrawn and not going out, this song is an invitation to stay home and cocoon.  The album concludes with "Up All Night" which is another slow song with classic pop elements in its sound.  The song laments the breakdown of a relationship and her yearning to be with her ex-boyfriend.  The song's rich, dreamy sound and Cosentino's emotional vocal make it a powerful and satisfying conclusion to the record.  I don't care what hipsters and snooty rock critics think about Best Coast, but unfortunately, judging from her lyrics, Cosentino does.  Her insecurity and anxiety are all over the record, she truly wears her heart on her sleeve.  Personally I'm tired of the ironic distance and posturing that are so common in the lyrics of indie rock bands.  I'll take Cosentino over Lana Del Rey any day of the week.  Her music is heart-felt and sincere and if it appeals more to teeny-boppers than the cool kids, well I can live with that.  I hope she stays true to herself and ignores the critics.  Recommended to Jackie DeShannon fans.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Let's Stay Together - Al Green

Let's Stay Together
Al Green
Hi Records SHL 32070

I saw an interview with Al Green a few weeks ago regarding him being the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors.  It had been many years since I had seen him on TV and I was reminded of the man's natural ebullience and positivity.  He radiates good vibrations as much as any singer I have ever seen.  It is easy to see why he was so successful as a preacher.  I've been a fan of his for a long time.  He was one of the first soul singers I remember liking.  I was just getting into music and starting to listen to the radio during Green's rise to stardom in the early 1970s.  His classic singles were among my favorite songs at the time and when I got older and started collecting albums I was happy to add his to my collection.  Even after I got into the 1960s and discovered the great soul singers on Atlantic, Stax and Motown, Green still remained one of my favorite singers.  Although I'm not a believer, I like his gospel records too, but it is the great secular albums he recorded for Hi Records in the early and mid-1970s that I like the best.  I can't pick a single one as a particular favorite, but this one is certainly a contender.  The title song is one of the great songs of its era and one of the best love songs in rock.  It was written by Green with his producer Willie Mitchell and Al Jackson of Booker T and the MGs who played drums on the record.  The song is largely driven by the rhythm section who lay down a forceful groove that is occasionally given an additional push by the horn section and the background vocalists.  The song gives Green plenty of space to plead his case which he does with ardor and sexiness.  He sings with stylish grace and smoothness and displays his range hitting the high notes effortlessly.  It is a world class performance by a master vocalist.  I never get tired of hearing it.  None of the rest of the record can approach this fantastic song, but Green still sings his heart out through out.  "La-La For You" was written by Green and Mitchell.  It is another sultry love song.  It lacks the unstoppable groove of "Let's Stay Together" but Charles Hodges' keyboards and the horn section fill the spaces nicely and Green provides plenty of feeling.  It is one of my favorite tracks on the album.  "So You're Leaving" is uptempo and has plenty of punch courtesy of the horns and another strong rhythm track.  "What Is This Feeling" is more laid back but it still has a nice groove and a warm vocal from Green.  Side one concludes with "Old Time Lovin" which is a slow burner with a smoldering vocal from Green.  Side two begins with a cover of Eddie Floyd's "I've Never Found a Girl" which was a hit single back in 1968.  I like Floyd's version a lot, but if I had to pick one, I'd go with Green's.  He doesn't change it much.  He slows it down and let's his redoubtable rhythm section get up front and push the song's funky groove into prominence.  The biggest difference is Green's sensuous, virtuoso vocal which oozes sexiness.  The man's incomparable skill as a vocalist is even more evident in the following song, a cover of the Bee Gee's "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart."  I've never been a fan of the song, I find the original to be whiny and sappy.  Green cuts through the phoniness of the song and makes it utterly convincing.  For most of the song he sings with self-restraint refusing to indulge in the self-pity of the lyrics.  He lets the song simmer awhile before opening up and taking over the last part of the song with just the strength and authority of his vocal.  His masterful technique is stunning.  Up next is Green's original song "Judy" which sounds like filler after the drama and power of the previous two songs.  It is still tasty though.  The album concludes with another Green composition, "It Ain't No Fun to Me."  The song has a seductive groove to it which provides a solid framework for yet another supremely sexy vocal from the master.  The horn section gives the song a push in all the right places in that inimitable Memphis style.  Ho-hum just another classic album by one of the greatest singers in rock.  This is an essential purchase for anyone interested in contemporary pop music.  It sounded great in 1972, it sounds great now and it will still sound great in 2072 probably.  Plus for you single fellas out there looking for a soundtrack for date night, well look no further.  If this record can't get your special friend interested in you, well then it ain't gonna happen.  Recommended to Otis Redding fans.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Songs for a Tailor - Jack Bruce

Songs for a Tailor
Jack Bruce
ATCO  SD 33-306

I was sorry to read about the passing of another one of the idols of my youth, Jack Bruce, who died back in October.  I was a huge Cream fan as a teen.  I had all of their albums and "Disraeli Gears" was one of my 10 favorite albums of all time.  My enthusiasm for the band diminished as I got older, nowadays "Disraeli Gears" would not even crack my top 100 album list.  I seldom listen to them anymore but I haven't forgotten what they once meant to me and how influential they were on my early musical tastes.  My enthusiasm for Cream was the reason why I bought this album over 30 years ago and it is also why for most of that time I hardly ever played it.  I was disappointed when I first got it because it sounded nothing like Cream.  I had too much respect for Bruce to get rid of it, it just sat in limbo on my shelf.  About ten years ago I started listening to it again and found I liked it.  When Bruce died and I wanted to pay my respects, this was the album I reached for rather than Cream.  It definitely has its flaws, most notably Pete Brown's pretentious and obscure lyrics, but I admire its eclecticism and the quality of the music.  The album was named in honor of Jeannie Franklyn who designed some of Cream's clothing.  She was also the girlfriend of Richard Thompson and was riding in the Fairport Convention van with him when it crashed killing her and drummer Martin Lamble.  I'm touched that Bruce chose to honor her memory with his first solo album.  The album opens with "Never Tell Your Mother She's Out of Tune" which I believe is about shunning work for freedom.  The song is augmented with noisy trumpets and saxes for a jazzy flavor that approaches cacophony at times.  George Harrison plays unobtrusive guitar on the track under the pseudonym L'Angelo Misterioso.  The song is energetic and benefits from a strong vocal from Bruce.  "Theme for an Imaginary Western" is Bruce's best known song as a solo artist.  It is easily the best song on the album, but I have to confess that when I want to hear it I generally reach for Mountain's cover version.  The song is full of imagery from western films strung together to evoke impressions of searching and of loss.  Fitting the theme of the song the music is expansive and majestic particularly in Bruce's organ lines.  "Tickets to Water Falls" finds Pete Brown waxing poetic with lines like "trained your bicycle to dance, told it tales of window boxes."  I guess the track is a hippie love song.  Befitting its arty lyrics, the music sounds like prog rock with flashy tempo shifts and melody changes driven by virtuoso bass riffs and lots of keyboards.  "Weird of Hermiston" despite its oddball title is actually a tender song about heartbreak.  The title is pretentiously derived from an unfinished novel by Robert Louis Stevenson.  I like the dynamic melody and Bruce's authoritative vocal.  Side one concludes with the moody "Rope Ladder to the Moon" which is an ambivalent love song that stresses the negative consequences of a relationship.  I can't decide if the song is prog rock or jazz rock which probably means it is neither.  Given the prominence of Bruce's cello playing in the instrumentation of the song, I suppose it could also be considered chamber pop.  "The Ministry of Bag" features a series of nonsensical verses reminiscent of Lewis Carroll.  The song benefits from a propulsive rhythm and blues style melody punctuated by blasts from the horn section.  "He the Richmond" was apparently inspired by Shakespeare.  The Richmond is probably a reference to Henry in "Richard III" and the opening line "there comes an affair in the tides of men" is a distortion of a line in "Julius Caesar" where Brutus declares "there is a tide in the affairs of men."  Brown's version of the line makes little sense and I would say the same for the rest of his lyrics for the song.  The annoyingly obscure lyrics are partially redeemed by the music which is trippy folk-rock that reminds me of early Traffic.  "Boston Ball Game, 1967" has little to do with baseball.  It features two sets of lyrics with Bruce singing a verse from one followed by a verse from the other not unlike Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair/Canticle."  Since Bruce sings both sets of lyrics it is hard to tell them apart and the song sounds like nonsense.  Actually it doesn't make much more sense when you look at the two sets of lyrics separately.  The track is jazz rock largely driven by the horn section.  The title of "To Isengard" is evidently a reference to Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" which features a fortress of the same name, but the song itself is devoid of Hobbits being yet another abstruse love song.  The song starts out gentle and folky with Bruce delicately crooning in a high voice.  The idyllic mood lasts for the first two stanzas and then the song abruptly shifts direction for the final stanza becoming frenzied jazz rock that culminates in a jam with some exciting bass work from Bruce coupled with plenty of guitar noodling.  "The Clearout" is a song about confronting rejection.  It is the only song on the album that sounds like a Cream song with its heavy riff and with Jon Hiseman's hyperactive drumming which is reminiscent of Ginger Baker.  It gives the album a strong finish.  This song and "Weird of Hermiston" were originally intended for "Disraeli Gears" and would have made that album better.  According to Bruce they were rejected by the ATCO bigwigs for being weird and noncommercial although I'm flabbergasted that someone actually thought that "Mother's Lament" and "Blue Condition" were better songs.  Listening to this album it is abundantly evident that Bruce was a gifted musician.  In Cream he was overshadowed by the excesses of Clapton and Baker, but here he has space and opportunity to shine in his own right.  His bass playing and keyboard work are consistently engaging and stimulating.  His vocals are also very fine.  It makes we wonder why Bruce did not have a more successful solo career.  I think it was partly because he really didn't have anything to say.  Relying on another person to write the lyrics is bad enough, but choosing a poet more interested in esoteric wordplay than communicating personal thoughts and feelings is even worse.  I like complex and surreal word play on the printed page, but I generally don't like it in rock songs.  I think rock music should be direct and emotional in its effect.  I don't mind having to think, but I don't want to have to study a printed lyric sheet to figure out what a song is about.  I get the impression that Bruce didn't care about the words, he just needed a framework for his music.  Empty musical virtuosity is what turned me off about Cream and I feel like this is more of the same only subtler.  Bruce probably would have been better off sticking with jazz.  Despite that I do like this record and feel that it is an excellent representation of Bruce's musical legacy.  Recommended to Procol Harum fans. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Way I Feel - Leonard Nimoy

The Way I Feel
Leonard Nimoy
Dot Records DLP 25883

This may be the worst record that I own.  I would not normally keep a record this bad, but it is so dreadful that it is entertaining, fascinating even, to borrow an expression from Mr. Spock.  The main reason I keep it though is that I used to be a Trekkie and retain a soft spot for the original series even though I hung up my phaser a long time ago.  Spock was my favorite character and I have a lot of respect for Nimoy as an actor, but as a singer, yikes.  It is not that he is a terrible singer or has an awful voice, he just sounds wrong.  He is too uptight to be a pop singer and he lacks the authority to be a crooner.  He is more of a warbler who is frequently overwhelmed by the songs he's been assigned to sing, almost none of which suit him.  Surprisingly for a guy with such a distinguished speaking voice, his singing voice is almost comically weak.  The worst performances are his versions of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil's poppy "It's Getting Better" (which was later a hit single for Cass Elliot.)  The songs are beyond Nimoy's range and his struggles with them are embarrassing.  I don't even like good versions of Bobby Hebb's "Sunny" so hearing Nimoy's strained version is pure torture for me.  His ludicrous vocal embellishments and his dramatic interpretation of the song remind me of Bill Murray's comedy character Nick the lounge singer.  His performance of Pete Seeger and Lee Hays' "If I Had a Hammer" is just as overblown.  He sounds like a parody of a folk singer and the spoken patriotic finale is nauseating.  David Somerville and Bruce Belland's humorous "The Hitch-Hiker" is the weirdest track.  Nimoy sings the song in a terrible country-style accent that sounds like he is auditioning for "Hee-Haw."  "Here We Go 'Round Again" was written by Paul Evans and Paul Parnes.  Evans wrote some songs for Elvis and this inane song sounds like it would be more fitting for Presley than Nimoy who really struggles with it.  He does much better with Randy Sparks' "Billy Don't Play the Banjo Anymore" which makes less demands on his voice and has a subdued arrangement that is more sympathetic to his limitations.  My favorite track is "I'd Love Making Love to You" by Hollywood songwriter Hod David Schudson.  Nimoy does not sing it well, but his awkwardness is rather endearing and makes the corny lyrics sound more convincing.  My other favorite is his tasteful cover of John Hartford's "Love is Sweeter" which he sings competently and with feeling.  Nimoy wrote two of the tracks.  "Please Don't Try to Change My Mind" (co-written with Don Christopher) is a trite so-long-babe-I-gotta-ramble type song which he sounds comfortable singing.  Nimoy co-wrote "Consilium" with the record's producer Charles R. Grean.  The song is incredibly pretentious as Nimoy solemnly intones advice and philosophical platitudes, but I still find it entertaining because I like Nimoy's speaking voice.  Nimoy similarly speaks rather than sings "Where It's At" by novelty songwriter Cy Coben which addresses the meaning of life.  It is amusing to hear Nimoy seriously orating this hippie nonsense as if he was reciting Shakespeare.  In case you are wondering, according to Nimoy, "love" is where its at.  Groovy.  Although this record is comically inept, it does reveal some evidence that Nimoy might have made a decent record with better arrangements and more appropriate songs.  His voice is not unpleasant, it reminds me at times of Leonard Cohen.  He needed more songs like "Love is Sweeter."  Oh well despite its awfulness it is seldom boring and though I rarely play it, I'm glad I have it.  Recommended to Trekkies who wonder what it would sound like if Mr. Spock impersonated a hippie.