Wednesday, September 30, 2015
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.
Saturday, September 26, 2015
Honest Jons Records HJRLP28
I had never heard of Simone White when I caught her opening for John C. Reilly and Friends at a church in Santa Monica back in 2013. It was the perfect setting for her sensitive music and delicate voice. I was enormously impressed by her and shortly afterwards bought this album. The LP has an unusually generous number of cuts, it actually has three more tracks than the CD version much to my delight. "I Didn't Have Any Summer Romance" introduces White's low key style. She breathily croons the words backed by a muted horn section and a laid-back rhythm section. The song is a cover of a 1962 Carole King single that laments that the only thing worse than having a broken heart from a summer romance that dies in the fall is to not have any summer romance at all. Despite the song's age, White's version sounds completely contemporary. "Worm Was Wood" was written by Frank Bango and Richy Vesecky. Without the horn section, this song sounds even more languid than its predecessor. The lyrics feature a series of false statements which are ultimately compared to the illusion and transient nature of love. White's own "The Beep Beep Song" is a whimsical song about love. It sounds like a children's song but its theme is serious. "The American War" is a biting satirical song about American military aggression and gunboat diplomacy. In keeping with its theme, the song has more of a rock flavor with prominent percussion and a guitar riff although White's vocal remains sedate. "Sweetest Love Song" is a lovely track in which White gives up listening to music because she all she wants to hear is the love song that her lover represents. The song is glacially slow placing all its emphasis on the sensuousness of the vocal which totally sends me. "Great Imperialist State" is about being "a spoiled child of the great imperialist state" and the uselessness of such an existence. The music has more tension than the rest of the album with a richer instrumental palate driven by jangly guitar. The song concludes with a musical rave-up with a raga-rock flavor. It is my favorite cut on the album. "Mary Jane" is about a woman with an abusive husband who becomes a musical performer before settling into a comfortable middle-class existence. The song has a jazz-folk flavor to it that along with White's breathy vocal reminds me of Nick Drake. Side one concludes with "Soldier Sailor" which compares a soldier with a sailor and their unhappy situations. The turmoil in the lyrics contrasts with the calmness in the music. Side two begins with another Bango/Vesecky composition, "Roses Are Not Red" which again recounts a series of false statements, this time to emphasize the denial a person experiences after a break-up. Horns and a cello enhance the sparse accompaniment giving the song some much needed color. "We Used to Stand So Tall" coolly examines the decline of America and the deceptions behind wars. The song assumes the guise of a children's song which adds to its cutting effect. "Why Is Your Raincoat Always Crying" returns to Bango/Vesecky once more for a song that uses a person's clothing to dissect their emotions and personality. White's girlish voice is particularly lovely on this track. It is followed by a subdued cover of Ewan MacColl's classic "Dirty Old Town" which describes a romance in a decaying industrial town. It is an odd choice of songs since White's delicate crooning style contrasts with the gritty words, but she manages to put it over anyway. "You May Be In Darkness" is a melancholy description of a break-up, no recriminations just unhappiness pervades the song. The song's minimalist accompaniment features a mournful cello that enhances the sadness in White's voice. "Haven't Got a Dollar To Pay Your House Rent Man" is an old blues song by Morris Rouse and Eddie Jackson recorded by Genevieve Davis in 1927. The song's exuberance offers a welcome contrast to the moodiness of the rest of the album. "Only the Moon" is about unrequited love. It is a sorrowful song that again reminds me of Nick Drake. White has a voice that is perfect for conveying heartbreak. The album perks up at the end for "I Am the Man" which is about her taking responsibility for her life and the world around her instead of blaming the powers that be. In keeping with its upbeat message the song has more energy and a more memorable melody than most of the songs on the record. It is another one of my favorite cuts. I enjoy this record's intelligence and consistency of tone. The lyrics are interesting and have a political edge to them as well that I find refreshing. I'd prefer more dynamic musical accompaniment, but I have to acknowledge that the restrained arrangements serve to place all the record's focus on White's gorgeous voice and fortunately she is a strong enough singer to make it work. Nonetheless I find that I can only listen to this album at certain times. If I listen during the day, it sounds insufferably precious and twee to me. It runs well over 50 minutes and it is so tranquil and relaxed that I don't have the patience to hear it all the way through. I find the best time to listen to it is late at night when I am in a more receptive mood for White's sensitivity and the delicate grain of her voice. Around midnight this album really gets to me. Recommended to fans of the Finches and Inara George.
Sunday, September 13, 2015
Turn Me On Dead Man
Alternative Tentacles Records Virus 453
I knew nothing about this Bay Area band when I bought this album. I had never heard any of their music. I bought it partly because it was cheap, partly for the dazzling cover art, partly for being on Jello Biafra's record label, but mostly because of the band's name. If you are a Beatles fan you are probably aware that you can hear what sounds like the phrase "turn me on dead man" when you play "Revolution No. 9" backwards. It was one of the clues in the "Paul is dead" hoax. Being a Beatles nut myself, I couldn't resist this record and besides it looked like a psychedelic record which is one of my favorite genres. It turned out to be a fine album, I'm delighted that I bought it, but it is more heavy than psych with kind of a whacked out grungy sound, although the lyrics are often very trippy. The band kick out the jams right from the start with "Heart of the Deaf" which is a paean to an evil goth woman who the singer is attracted to. The song features a pounding rhythm, a heavy riff and plenty of hard rock noise, but it is intelligent and controlled, far from the self-indulgent excesses of heavy metal. "Dreamchild" is another powerful rocker with spacy lyrics buried in the mix like a shoegaze song. I wish it went on longer. That is not a problem for the lengthy "Deep Space Pollen" which features a request to extraterrestrials to come to Earth and take the band for a ride in their spaceship although this might also be interpreted as a drug metaphor. The song is driven by a slow, thunderous riff and lots of metallic guitar noodling. "Missing Time" describes the experience of being taken by the spaceship, although it probably is also a drug trip metaphor. It starts slow and trippy and then some power riffing takes over for awhile before giving away to a calmer conclusion. Side two opens with "Her Majesty the Drug" which is a colorful invitation to take a hallucinogenic trip. The song starts out psychedelic but then a monstrous riff kicks in reminiscent of Blue Oyster Cult's classic "Godzilla." The song returns to psychedelia briefly with some lyrical sitar-like guitar sounds and then the band rocks out again. This is my favorite track on the album. I like the dramatic shifts in dynamics as well as the trippy lyrics. The band quiets down for "Let Them Eat Flowers" which is the lightest sounding song on the album. It is another drug song featuring sky and flower symbolism and it is the most overtly psychedelic song on the album. The band returns to heaviness with the hard driving "Star People" which backs up its ominous lyrics about space invaders with a powerful sonic assault that drives the song to its conclusion. The song has a prog-rock sound to it as well which makes it more interesting than a typical hard rock song. The album concludes with "Uhura" which is a sludgy instrumental that I assume is a reference to "Star Trek" in keeping with the space theme that permeates the album. As an album closer, I find it a downer. I have a limited appetite for hard rock, but this band's use of psychedelia and prog-rock to flesh out their sound makes them very appealing to me. At times I wish the music was as trippy as the lyrics, but for the most part the band's sonic roar excites me. The band's dope-crazed, sci-fi lyrics stimulate me as well. It is an imaginative and creative album that I find consistently engaging. Recommended to fans of the Warlocks and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.