Sunday, January 31, 2016

Better Day - Dolly Parton

Better Day
Dolly Parton
Dolly Records 1-528216

Here is a post for Dolly Parton in honor of her recent 70th birthday.  I'm a little mortified that she is already 70 but I'll bet she is fine with it.  Nothing seems to faze her or diminish her indomitable positivity.  I bought this album after seeing Parton during her tour promoting it back in 2011.  I liked the new songs when I heard them in concert and I'm happy to say that the rest of the album is good as well.  Parton wrote all the songs and is in fine form throughout.  The album is appropriately pressed on sunny orange vinyl and is a double album even though it is barely more than 40 minutes long and could have fit on a single album which irks me since it requires getting up to flip the record every 10 minutes.  That aside, I'm very happy with it.  The record opens with "In The Meantime" which introduces the basic theme of the album - uplifted spirits and an optimistic attitude.  It is a "don't worry, be happy" type song which downplays thoughts about the end of the world in favor of exalting our achievements and the good aspects of life.  It is a propulsive country rocker with a typically charismatic vocal from Parton.  "Just Leaving" asks for God's help in leaving a bad situation and looking for a better life.  The song has a strong country flavor driven by a fiddle and a banjo.  Despite the anxiety and unhappiness expressed in the lyrics, it is an upbeat song with a warm, comforting vocal from Parton.  Side one concludes with "Somebody's Missing You" which is a sweet love song.  Parton has always excelled at this type of romantic song.  Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris sing background vocals on the tune which sounds lovely.  It is one of my favorite tracks on the album.  Side two begins with "Together You and I" which is a love song that uses images from nature to celebrate her relationship.  It has a more pop-oriented sound although the fiddle gives it some country flavor.   "Country is as Country Does" was co-written with Mac Davis.  The song is a humorous paean to her country roots and her core country values.  It is a rollicking honky-tonk type song that is very entertaining.  The side ends with "Holding Everything" which is an intensely romantic song that resembles her classic "I Will Always Love You" in the verses.  The chorus is straight pop delivered with plenty of exuberance.  Kent Wells, the album's producer and guitarist, duets with Parton on the song.  It is a bit too pop for my liking but it is well done.  Side three begins with "The Sacrifice" which I think is one of the oddest songs she has ever written.  In it she recalls all the sacrifices she has made in order to be rich and successful.  She compares her sacrifice with Jesus' sacrifice and concludes that it was all worth it.  I admire her drive and determination but I find her reasoning a little dubious.  I don't recall any parts of "The Bible" where Jesus extols the pursuit of riches.  In keeping with the spirit of the lyrics, the music is upbeat and energetic.  "I Just Might" is about recovering from heartbreak and optimistically moving on.  It is a classic country-style ballad with a swelling chorus that derives its strength from Parton's emotional vocal.  The side ends with "Better Day" in which she reassures us that though the present may seem bleak, better days lie ahead.  She recites the first verse before launching into the song which is a mixture of gospel and rhythm and blues in style.  The song shows off her vocal chops and is one of my favorites on the album.  "Shine Like the Sun" is another "there will be a better tomorrow" type song that emphasizes moving forward and escaping the people and things that are bringing you down.  The song is bouncy sunshine pop that reinforces the song's positive outlookIn "Get Out and Stay Out" she kicks out her unworthy lover and moves on for a better life.  The words are surprisingly vindictive and harsh for Parton but true to her good nature, she sings them so sweetly it sounds more like a love song.  I guess she just doesn't have it in her to be completely mean in a song.  In "Let Love Grow" she encourages someone who has been burned by love in the past to give her a chance to show him how good love can be.  The song is slick country-pop but Parton's heartfelt vocal gives the song emotional depth and makes for a stirring conclusion to the album.  I don't think any of these songs can match the quality of her work in the early 1970s but all of them are good making this a consistently satisfying album.  I like its personal quality, it strongly reflects her personal philosophy as well as her dignity and strength.  I've long admired her as an artist and I'm very pleased to see her still making meaningful records full of spirit and vitality so late in her career.  Recommended to people looking for something to cheer them up - if Dolly Parton can't do it, you have some serious blues.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Children of the Future - Steve Miller Band

Children of the Future
Steve Miller Band
Capitol SKAO 2920

Congratulations to Steve Miller for making it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  As I've mentioned in past posts, I despise that institution but I'm glad Miller received the recognition anyway.  No doubt he is in there for his work in the mid-1970s when he had a bunch of hits.  That is when I first encountered him.  I liked him because he sounded better than most of the other acts that were popular around that time, but I didn't become a fan until I discovered his work from the 1960s.  The first two albums by the Steve Miller Band, "Children of the Future" and "Sailor" impressed me when I was in college and obsessed with the San Francisco Sound.  I did buy some of his later albums, but these two are the only ones I still play very much.  His debut album opens with the title song which like most of the record was written by Miller.  It begins with a frenzy of psychedelic noise before settling into a propulsive folk rock groove driving the flower child lyrics about the new generation, getting high and loving one another.  The song segues seamlessly into the rocking fragment "Pushed Me to It" which is about a break-up.  It leads directly into another up tempo fragment "You've Got the Power" which is about the power of love.  Without a break the album abruptly shifts speed and feeling with the slow majestic organ line that introduces "In My First Mind" which Miller wrote with the band's organist Jim Peterman.  The song is driven by swelling organ and mellotron runs that remind me of Pink Floyd.  The song is a trippy love song that is one of my favorite tracks on the album.  There is a segue of seagulls and wave sounds that lead into the concluding song on side one, "The Beauty of Time is That It's Snowing (Psychedelic B. B.)" which is as surreal as its title.  There is a blues boogie at the beginning mixed low with sound effects on top.  It fades away for more ocean noises and then Peterman's organ returns playing the slow riff from "In My First Mind" over which the group repeatedly sings "We are children of the future" until the song fades out.  Side one is a remarkable piece of music, totally unlike any of the other San Francisco bands of the time that I've heard.  Side two is more conventional.  It opens with Boz Scaggs' "Baby's Callin' Me Home" which features a subdued lead vocal from Scaggs and harpsichord lines from Ben Sidran.  It is a simple love song but the melody is hypnotic and haunting giving the banal words a lot more feeling than they deserve.  It is my favorite track on the record.  It segues into another song by Scaggs, "Steppin' Stone."  In total contrast to the previous song this is a riff-driven blues rocker about a guy whose woman has done him wrong.  "Roll With It" is also a riff-driven rocker of the so-long-babe-I-gotta-ramble variety.  Miller at last unleashes his guitar for a stinging solo.  The album continues in a similar vein with Jim Pulte's "Junior Saw It Happen" which is about a guy whose woman has run off with another guy.  It is a fast paced boogie driven by Peterman's organ with another highly charged guitar solo from Miller.  The band's drummer Tim Davis sings the lead vocal.  It is followed by a cover of Buster Brown's 1959 blues classic "Fannie Mae" (listed as "Fanny Mae" on the album cover.)  Davis again sings lead and Miller plays harmonica on this jumping track that testifies to Miller's beginnings as a blues musician in Chicago.  The album concludes with a slow cover of Charles Segar and Big Bill Broonzy's blues standard, "The Key to the Highway."  I don't think Miller was a good enough singer to put the song over properly but I still enjoy the track thanks to the band's instrumental strength.  Stylistically this record jumps all over the place with one side of highly original psychedelic progressive rock and another of mostly derivative blues and rock.  I like both but side one is definitely my favorite.  It is records like this that make albums so appealing to me.  Not only do I like the programming and the way the songs flow together, but I also admire how it takes the listener on such an adventurous musical trip while sustaining a groove and a consistent mood.  I can't think of another album quite like it aside from the band's wonderful follow-up record, "Sailor."  Recommended to people who think it would be cool if Canned Heat jammed with King Crimson. 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Is It Love? - Cilla Black

Is It Love?
Cilla Black
Capitol ST 2308

This is my belated tribute to Cilla Black who died last August.  This was her debut album in the United States.  Seven of its eleven tracks are taken from her English debut album, "Cilla" and there are also two British singles, an American single and one previously unreleased track.  The album opens with the single "Is It Love?" which Black performed in the movie "Ferry Across the Mersey."  It was written by Bobby Willis who she would later marry.  The single flopped but I think it deserved a better fate.  It is my favorite track on the album.  Black gives the song a sultry romantic treatment on the verses before unleashing her soaring voice full throttle on the choruses.  "I'm Not Alone Any More" was written by Clive Westlake and the British singer Kenny Lynch.  It is another one of my favorite tracks on the album.  It is driven by a dynamic string arrangement and a terrific soulful vocal from Black that displays her range to great effect.  "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" was a hit single in England, but the Righteous Brothers classic single rendered it irrelevant in the American market.  She sings it well but the arrangement pales in comparison to Phil Spector's extravaganza.  Next up is a cover of the Little Anthony and the Imperials' hit "Goin' Out of My Head."  It sticks pretty close to the original and though she gives a strong performance, it seems pointless to me.  I feel the same about her cover of Doris Troy's "What'cha Gonna Do About It."  She closes side one with a pop standard, Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To."  The song has a swinging big band arrangement and a booming vocal from Black.  It has a lot of energy, but I'd prefer a more subdued and romantic interpretation for the song.  Side two opens with another pop standard, Victor Young's "Love Letters."  I like Black's romantic vocal and the restrained, contemporary arrangement.  "(Love is like a) Heat Wave" is another useless cover that copies the classic version by Martha and the Vandellas.  It is followed by another pop standard, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's "Ol' Man River."  The song is given a punchy big band arrangement and Black's big voice handles the song with ease.  I suspect it was largely included just to showcase her vocal skill.  The album concludes with a pair of Bacharach/David songs originally recorded by Dionne Warwick, "This Empty Place" and "Anyone Who Had a Heart" which was a big hit single for Black in England.  Neither song strays far from the Warwick versions although I prefer Bacharach's subtler arrangements.  Warwick was a more seductive and smoother singer than Black which I think suits the songs better.  Black's powerful voice is too robust for the sensitivity of the two songsBlack was a talented singer with a fabulous voice, but this album is undermined by the excessive amount of useless covers.  I also would have preferred a more rock oriented selection of material although I can't deny she handles the pop standards quite well.  Although she was often associated with the British Invasion because of her connection to the Beatles, Brian Epstein and George Martin, she was more in the mold of a classic pop crooner.  She had the skill to sing anything, but I suspect that she was most comfortable with the cabaret/pop standard material.  I'm not a big fan of that stuff but I still buy Black's records whenever I see them because I like her voice so much.  Recommended to fans of Timi Yuro.