Saturday, March 28, 2015

Run For Cover - The Living Sisters

Run For Cover
The Living Sisters
Vanguard  79269

A mini-album from my favorite pretend sisters.  I had mixed feelings when I read that the Living Sisters were releasing a covers album.  These women are first-rate songwriters and all my favorite songs on their debut album, "Love to Live" had been self-penned.  A covers record seemed like a regression to me.  On the other hand I saw these ladies deliver some spectacular Patsy Cline covers back in 2011 at Disney Hall so I knew they had the chops to deliver a quality covers record.  Thus I bought this as soon as it came out and I have to admit that my first instincts were correct.  I was a little disappointed by it.  It is beautifully sung but it doesn't engage me that much.  It opens with "Make Love To Me" which was a big hit for Jo Stafford in 1954.  The Sisters give it a western swing style arrangement which is a big improvement over Stafford's big band version.  Most of the song is sung jointly by the quartet, but they also trade solo vocals for some lines which is their style for the entire album.  The song has humor and energy, it even has a swinging guitar solo.  It is easily my favorite track.  Surprisingly the ladies take on George Clinton next with a cover of Funkadelic's "Can You Get To That?"  Predictably it is a lot less funky than the original despite some greasy guitar work.  The Sisters' style is to smooth over the rough spots and although I admire the creativity and skill of their vocal arrangement, I'm not convinced this was a good idea.  It is interesting though.  Side one concludes with a glacially slow cover of the Doris Day classic, "Que Sera, Sera."  I'm not a big fan of the original, but it is more propulsive and lively than this cover.  I like the prominence of the rhythm section in this arrangement, it does rock in a way and there is no denying that the singing is fantastic, but I find the track rather dull and I lose interest well before its nearly 6 minute running time expires.  Side two opens with a cover of Patsy Cline's 1956 single "A Poor Man's Roses."  Cline's original was country with sophisticated pop touches, the Living Sisters' version is sophisticated pop with country touches.  It sounds wonderful but Cline's version has a bigger emotional punch.  Next up is an a cappella arrangement of Dolly Parton's "Jolene."  It is a remarkable piece of ensemble singing showing the Sisters' mastery of harmony vocals.  It really sends me but it lacks the urgency that Parton brought to her original version.  The side ends with another Patsy Cline cover, her immortal performance of Don Gibson's "Sweet Dreams."  It is my favorite Cline record and no one is ever going to make a better version, not even great vocalists like the Living Sisters.  Their version is certainly beautiful but it lacks the heart that Cline brought to the song.  There is much to like about this record.  The quartet's taste in covers is eclectic and tasteful, a mixture of the familiar and the obscure.  The singing is impeccable, you don't hear these kind of harmonies in pop music anymore.  However the record does leave me a little cold, I feel it is an exercise in style and technique and doesn't express much.  I know from their solo work that these women have plenty to say and I'd rather hear another album where they do their own songs.  Recommended to Linda Ronstadt fans.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Stories - Stories

Kama Sutra Records KSBS 2051

I'm beginning to dread looking at the obituaries in the newspaper (yes I'm the kind of dinosaur who still reads print media.)  It seems like every day another rocker appears in there.  There are a bunch of them I've yet to comment on.  However seeing Michael Brown's obituary in the "LA Times" on Saturday, really hit hard.  Despite his small discography the man was one of my musical idols.  His album with the Left Banke "Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina" is one of my all time favorite records. This album can't compete with that masterpiece, but I still love it.  It was the debut album by Stories the band Brown formed with vocalist/bassist Ian Lloyd after leaving Montage.  Brown and Lloyd co-wrote all the songs on the album.  It begins with "Hello People" which is a hippie utopia song driven by Brown's piano.  Lloyd has a strong vocal on the song supported by some enthusiastic gospel style back-up singing.  It gets the record off to a bright start.  "I'm Coming Home" is an upbeat song with a ragtime feel until the chorus which sounds like Badfinger.  Brown plays energetic piano throughout with a nice solo.  The song rocks out winningly at the end.  It was released as a single but didn't crack the top 40.  "Winter Scenes" is pure chamber pop with sensitive and evocative lyrics using winter imagery to describe a love affair.  Halfway in, the song abruptly shifts into a boogie with frenetic keyboard work from Brown and then alternates between chamber pop and rocking out.  "Step Back" is more of a conventional rock song with Steve Love's guitar licks out in the forefront.  Lloyd's forceful vocal carries the song.  "You Told Me" is another chamber pop song that features Brown and Lloyd's fathers playing violin (they are depicted on the back cover with their sons.)  Both violinists were professional musicians and their playing largely drives the song and gives it a baroque sound.  The song is about breaking up and heartbreak with an emotional vocal from Lloyd.  Side two opens with "St. James" which is a propulsive rocker displaying dynamic interplay between Brown's piano and Love's guitar.  It is the most exciting track on the album.  The album slows down for "Kathleen" which is a chamber pop love song.  It boasts a pair of harpsichord solos from Brown and violin support from Brown and Lloyd's fathers.  "Take Cover" is riff driven with a lumbering guitar solo from Love who also offers effective vocal harmonies backing up Lloyd.  "Nice to Have You Here" is a delicate chamber pop song dominated by Brown on harpsichord and organ.  The song allows Lloyd to demonstrate his vocal range and emotional expressiveness.  The album concludes with "High and Low" which is loaded with pop smarts - creative vocal harmonies, swelling shifts in tempo, stinging guitar solo, multi-tracked keyboards.  This effervescent, shimmering song about the turbulence of love gives the record an ebullient finish.  This is a wonderful record, one of the best of its era.  Ian Lloyd was the most talented vocalist Brown ever recorded with and his vocal strength greatly enhanced Brown's music.  He could rock out or gently croon with equal authority and grace.  His voice has an appealing grain to it, a slight raspy quality that reminds me of Robert Plant or the young Rod Stewart.  The music sounds great, brilliantly arranged and loaded with texture and density.  Like Badfinger and Big Star, Stories brought the best qualities of the music of the 1960s into a 1970s sound - short songs, creative arrangements, melodic hooks and elaborate vocal harmonies.  43 years later it still sounds great to me.  These guys should have been huge and Michael Brown should have made dozens of albums instead of a mere five.  How is it possible that guys like Don Henley and James Taylor made more records than Brown did?  How did Carly Simon and Chicago sell millions more records than Brown did?  I was around back in the 70's and I haven't a clue.  Most of the music on the radio back then was mediocre, even awful.  I hated it so much that I fled back to the 1960s for my music.  Later I realized that good music was out there in the early 1970s, it just wasn't on the radio and maybe we were just too dumb to appreciate it.  A generation that preferred to listen to the Doobie Brothers, America or the Eagles instead of Badfinger, Big Star or Stories basically got what it deserved.  It is tragic that Chris Bell, Tom Evans and Pete Ham died before they were rediscovered by a new and smarter generation of music fans, at least Alex Chilton and Michael Brown lived long enough to see their music finally embraced and celebrated.  They are both gone now, but their music will live on and if you've never heard any of it this album is a good place to start.  Recommended to fans of early Todd Rundgren.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Hand of Kindness - Richard Thompson

Hand of Kindness
Richard Thompson
Hannibal Records HNLP 1313

I saw Richard Thompson perform with his power trio at the Levitt Pavilion last summer.  It was a typically fantastic show and for me the highlight was his rocked up performance of "Tear Stained Letter" which was the lead track on this album.  We were all singing along with him having a blast.  That prompted me to pull out this album and give it a few spins having not heard it for several years.  It still sounds terrific.  Actually I have to admit when I first heard it back in the 1980s I was a little disappointed.  It was issued in the wake of his break-up with Linda Thompson, his wife and musical partner.  I missed Linda's voice and the music lacked much of the drama and intensity that characterized his preceding album, the classic "Shoot Out The Lights."  Over time I succumbed to its many charms and now it is among my favorites in his extensive catalog.  Like its predecessor it features a reunion of the "Full House" line up of Fairport Convention minus Dave Swarbrick: Thompson, Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks and producer Joe Boyd.  My favorite track is "Tear Stained Letter" which is a propulsive country rocker driven by John Kirkpatrick on accordion and Pete Zorn and Pete Thomas on saxophone.  Thompson offers up some rockabilly style guitar solos that are smoking hot.  The song is about the travails of breaking up and heartache.  It is tempting to interpret this as a response to his marriage breaking up but Thompson has always written about this sort of stuff.  "How I Wanted To" covers the same territory but without the humor and without the beat.  The song is slow and mournful, notable mostly for Thompson's heartfelt vocal and ringing guitar lines.  "Both Ends Burning" is a jaunty tune about a race horse.  The song is highlighted by Kirkpatrick's accordion and the honky-tonk sax solos at the end of the song. The redoubtable Fairport rhythm section drives the vindictive "A Poisoned Heart and a Twisted Memory" which is a majestic folk-rocker with a very strong vocal from Thompson.  I love his howling guitar solo at the end of the song.  Side two begins with "The Wrong Heartbeat" which has a riff that reminds me of a 1960s English beat group sound with a ska flavor as well.  "Hand of Kindness" sounds like an outtake from "Shoot Out The Lights" with its dark hypnotic groove and cutting guitar sound as well as its desperate lyrics.  It is another one of my favorite tracks and features more dynamic guitar work from Thompson on top of a rock solid foundation from Pegg and Mattacks.  Very compelling stuff.  "Devonside" is an even darker song although the music is more upbeat.  It is a fatalistic portrait of a pair of doomed lovers that displays Thompson's gift for evocative and poetic lyrics.  The song features a lovely fiddle solo from Aly Bain.  The album closes on a humorous note with the rollicking "Two Left Feet" which is a folk-rock dance tune with a Cajun flavor which features some memorable playing from the two Petes on sax and Kirkpatrick on his accordion as well as some all too brief electrifying runs from Thompson himself.  It gets me bopping big time and give the record an exhilarating finish.  If you are a Richard Thompson fan, this is an essential record and if you are not a fan, you should be.  Great guitar playing, strong vocals, brilliant songwriting, what's not to like?  Recommended to people who think "Full House" would have been a better record if Thompson had been singing lead instead of Dave Swarbrick.