Saturday, February 27, 2016
Mr. Suit Records SUITABLE1305
This is a good time to be a Dylan fan. Columbia Records has been emptying its vaults providing a steady stream of archival recordings covering most of his recording career. Curiously they have so far not released this recording of one of the seminal events in his early career, his legendary concert at Carnegie Chapter Hall. The recording is a little rough in spots but generally sounds good, certainly acceptable quality for an archival release. I assume it is the great man himself who has chosen not to sanction a legitimate release of it, perhaps he is embarrassed by it. I think it is wonderful and I'm delighted to have a copy of it on vinyl. This is an adequate pressing by bootleg standards, my only real complaint about it is that it omits one of the songs from the show, "This Land is Your Land." That track appeared on Columbia's "The Bootleg Series: Vol 7" so I'm guessing its legitimate release prevented its inclusion due to whatever passes for copyright standards in Europe. The album begins with the traditional song "Pretty Peggy-O" which appeared on Dylan's debut album with slightly different lyrics. The song is an Americanized version of the old Scottish song "The Bonnie Lass O'Fyvie." The song fades in and out in an annoying manner. It might be a technical problem but it might also be a nervous Dylan drifting too far from his microphone. This sporadically happens throughout the record. He follows the song with a story about getting lost on his way to the concert when he got off at the wrong subway stop as well as describing how he constructed his set list by borrowing songs from other performers. He then facetiously introduces the traditional song "In the Pines" as being about an 11 year old girl learning about life by going out a lot. Dylan's version lacks the intensity of the classic Leadbelly versions. He quickly launches into another song from his debut, "Gospel Plow." There is a false start with his vocal practically inaudible. He tries it again and performs with a lot of energy, whooping and hollering his way through the song. While tuning his guitar he talks about spending time with Woody Guthrie when he first came to New York and then he performs Guthrie's classic protest song "1913 Massacre." It is an earnest and respectful performance. Side B opens with a passionate cover of Bessie Smith's "Blackwater Blues" that shows Dylan's charisma to good effect. He follows this with "A Long Time A-Growing" which is more commonly known as "The Trees They Grow So High." In his introduction Dylan says he recently learned the song from Liam Clancy and with winning candor describes his version as "straight imitation." He identifies the song as an Irish song, but it is more likely of British origin. I'm a big fan of Pentangle's version of it. Dylan's performance sounds tentative and mild (perhaps because he just recently learned it) although I like its intimacy. Dylan perks up again with a vigorous cover of Bukka White's "Fixin' To Die" which he also recorded for his debut album. Side C opens with Dylan's original composition "Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues" which is a talking blues obviously influenced by Woody Guthrie. Noel Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary has said that he showed a newspaper clipping of the event described in the song to Dylan in a cafe and that Dylan returned with the newly written song the next day. Dylan recorded a studio version of the song during the sessions for "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" that eventually appeared on the first "Bootleg Series" compilation. Dylan's live performance of the song is confident and shows his comic side. Dylan deprecatingly introduces "Man on the Street" as his own song suggesting it might be a good time to go out for a cigarette. The song, which was untitled at the time, was lifted from "The Strange Death of John Doe" by Millard Lampell which was recorded by the Almanac Singers in 1941. Dylan improved the song by adding the striking imagery of the cop poking the dead homeless guy with his billy club. Dylan recorded the song for his debut but it did not get released until the first "Bootleg Series" album. "Talking Merchant Marine" is another Guthrie cover. Dylan's performance is bland, he sounds like he wasn't comfortable with the song. Given that the song is so specific to World War II, it is a curious choice for the show. "Black Cross" was taken from a poem by Joseph S. Newman (the uncle of Paul Newman) which was recorded by Lord Buckley. Dylan introduces the song saying he learned it from Buckley when he saw him perform it at the Casino in Portland, Oregon. I suspect he actually learned it from Buckley's album "Way Out Humor." Dylan recites the poem rather than singing it, while accompanying himself on guitar. It is a poem about religious hypocrisy and racism, it is easy to see why it appealed to Dylan who gives a convincing performance. All three of the songs on Side D appeared on Dylan's debut album. John Lair's "Freight Train Blues" dates back to the 1930s and was covered by a bunch of artists including Red Foley, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams and the Weavers. Dylan gives an engaging and lively performance complete with yodeling. It is one of my favorite tracks on the record. "Song to Woody" was Dylan's homage to his hero, Woody Guthrie, and its music is taken from "1913 Massacre" which Dylan performed earlier in the show. It is a heartfelt performance that gets a strong reaction from the audience although the fading in and out issue that runs through the record is particularly irritating on this track. The album ends with "Talkin' New York" which is about Dylan's experiences after he first came to New York. I've always liked the line the coffee shop owner tells him, "you sound like a hillbilly anyway, we want folk singers here" which sums up the folk boom quite nicely. I love this show, I wish Dylan would authorize a legitimate release of it with cleaned up sound and equalized sound levels. Given how taciturn Dylan has become as a performer, it is a real treat to hear him chatty and effusive, performing with enthusiasm and an eagerness to please. The performance is a bit raw, Dylan was obviously still learning and developing, but the material is terrific and I find the record fascinating. Recommended to Dylan fans who wish he never went electric.
Saturday, February 20, 2016
Atco SD 33-227
This is the debut album by Iron Butterfly. It features the unique line up of Danny Weis, Darryl Loach, Jerry Penrod, Doug Ingle and Ron Bushy. Prior to its release Weis, Loach and Penrod departed leaving Bush and Ingle to reinvent the band with new members as a quartet. As a young teenager I encountered the single edit of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" on a compilation called "Get It Together." I loved it and bought some of their albums. For awhile I really liked these guys, but I've rarely listened to them in the past 25 years. I was originally drawn to Ingle's organ work and the group's heavy sound, but in retrospect they don't seem all that heavy, particularly in comparison to their contemporaries like Mountain, Cactus, Black Sabbath, Steppenwolf or Led Zeppelin. I still kind of like their debut though. Fans of their later work, may be surprised by this album which sounds poppier and mostly features short songs without extended solos. It is often more "butterfly" than "iron." The album opens with Ingle's "Possession" which begins with a solemn organ intro before the heavy riff that drives the song begins. The song's heaviness is undercut by Ingle's quavery high vocal as he sings inane lyrics about jealousy. Ingle's organ work is the highlight of the song for me. "Unconscious Power" was written by Ingle and Weis with words by Bushy. It was released as a single but failed to chart. It is a straight ahead rocker with trippy lyrics about freeing your mind. The song's frenetic pace and propulsive riff make it one of my favorite tracks on the album. Next up is a lethargic version of Allen Toussaint's oft-covered "Get Out Of My Life, Woman." It starts with another churchy organ intro before launching into the song's familiar funky riff. The song features a joint vocal from Ingle and Loach that tries to be passionate but sounds strained instead. There is a nice rave up at the end that breathes some life into the song but ends too quickly. "Gentle As It May Seem" was written by Weis with words by DeLoach. DeLoach sings the lead vocal but is even less convincing than Ingle and it doesn't help that the lyrics are so vacuous. Musically the song is terrific being a high tempo rocker with scorching guitar work from Weis. Side one concludes with "You Can't Win" which is another collaboration between Weis and DeLoach. It is a protest song about how hopeless it is to fight the authorities. The song is driven by a lumbering riff embellished by screeching guitar runs from Weis. Ingle's vocal is more relaxed than usual. Side two kicks off with Ingle's "So-Lo" with lyrics by DeLoach. It is an incredibly vapid song in which DeLoach describes how his girl left him because he behaved badly. The song has a mildly ominous intro before becoming sunshine pop with a light vocal from DeLoach backed by harmonious background vocals. Ingle contributes a couple of Bach-style organ solos to give the song a mild chamber pop flavor. If I heard the song on the radio (not very likely) I'd never guess it was Iron Butterfly. The band returns to form for "Look for the Sun" which features music by Weis and Ingle and words by DeLoach who sings the lead vocal along with Penrod. The song is driven by a heavy riff that helps cover up the dumbness of the lyrics which celebrate how the sun makes people feel good. Heavy riffing continues with "Fields of Sun" featuring music by Ingle and words by DeLoach. It is another paean to the sun which they like because it makes the plants grow. Ingle sings the lead with his typically intense style which makes the lyrics seem even stupider. "Stamped Ideas" is another Ingle/DeLoach collaboration. DeLoach advises his girlfriend to stay away from plastic people and keep her stamped ideas inside her head, in other words more hippie bullshit. The song is a rocker with a bit of rhythm and blues sound to it. DeLoach sings a sloppy lead vocal but otherwise the song cooks pretty nicely. The side ends with Ingle's instrumental "Iron Butterfly Theme" which foretells the band's future direction. It is a superbly ponderous song with a slow sludgy riff upon which Ingle and Weis noodle about with semi-psychedelic solos. Its dense, weighty sound makes it my favorite track with the added bonus of having no idiotic lyrics to irritate me. There is much that I like about this album. It is less self-indulgent and has more good tunes than any Iron Butterfly album I've ever heard. The band comes up with a bunch of compelling riffs, the rhythm section is solid and I enjoy Weis' guitar work. My problems with the record are the vocals and the lyrics. Ingle is a decent singer but I don't like the sound of his voice and he usually sounds uptight to me. DeLoach on the other hand is too light and relaxed for the weight of the band's sound. As for the lyrics, these guys make the Ramones seem like Shakespeare. I know it's only rock and roll and it isn't supposed to be smart, but the relentless stream of idiocy this band unleashes is hard for me to bear. I'm amazed that a band could have so little to say, but of course they would later top this with an entire album side devoted to the lyrical nonsense of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" so I suppose I should not be surprised. Fortunately the music is strong enough that I can mostly tune out the words and dig the heavy groove the band gets into. Recommended to people who prefer "Fresh Cream" to "Wheels of Fire."
Monday, February 15, 2016
After David Bowie died I heard tributes to him on classic rock radio stations, commercial alternative rock stations and college radio stations which I think is an indication of his eclecticism and musical adventurism. Given that he also dabbled in soul/funk and on his final album jazz, there is practically a Bowie album for everyone who likes pop music no matter what genre. I like all his albums from the 1970s, but my favorites are the Berlin trilogy from the latter part of the decade when Bowie collaborated with Brian Eno on three classic and highly influential albums, "Low," "Lodger" and "'Heroes.'" I love all three but I've opted to discuss this one because it was the one that I bought first and it was the album that made me a Bowie fan. As a teen I was lukewarm about Bowie. I was too uptight and naive to appreciate him during his glam rock phase although I liked several of his singles from that period. I was alienated by his flirtation with soul in the mid 1970s although I came to like it later. This album hit me at just the right time. I had become enamored with the early New Wave bands and was looking for something different from the classic rock I had grown up on. The sound that Bowie and Eno came up with for this album excited me and opened me up to explore new sounds in rock. I consider it one of the key albums in my personal musical history. The album begins with "Beauty and the Beast" which still has the funk sound of Bowie's soul period with its percussive punch, soulful backing vocals and driving bass line. However the song's high energy level, Robert Fripp's noisy guitar work, the frenzy of synth sounds and Bowie's intense vocal make it also sound New Wave. The song evokes cynicism and decadence. "Joe the Lion" also has a pronounced beat suitable for the dance floor but it is even noisier than the opening track with more howling guitar work from Fripp and swirling synth lines. The lyrics are again decadent with imagery suggestive of a pulp novel about the dark side of town. "'Heroes'" was co-written with Eno whose influence is evident in the drone that runs through the song. Bowie begins by seductively crooning and as the song builds he becomes more emotional as he desperately shouts out the words. The song's overt romanticism is powerful, idealistically suggesting that love can overcome the turmoil of the world. Given the climate in the world of the time, it was a resonant message, when the song cites the Berlin Wall it is a reminder that the Cold War was still raging in 1977. The first time I heard this song, it immediately captivated me and I still consider it Bowie's best vocal performance ever. By comparison "Sons of the Silent Age" sounds more conventional aside from Bowie's mannered vocal. It starts out with a Middle Eastern flavor before assuming a romantic pop sound that reminds me of his music from his glam-rock days. The saxophone and synths heighten the romantic feeling generated by the music. The lyrics describe the alienation of urban life and escaping through love much like "'Heroes'" does. Side one concludes with another funky dance tune, "Blackout." It is a harsh portrait of urban desperation and a plea to a lover to rescue him. Aside from "'Heroes'" it is the most dramatic song on the album. The music is richly textured and harsh, bordering on cacophonous and the vocals are screechy befitting the tone of the song. It is one of my favorite tracks on the record. Side one of this album is flawless, the best side of vinyl in the Bowie catalog and one of the great achievements in rock in the late 1970s. Side two is more experimental, consisting largely of electronic music instrumentals. When I first got this record I didn't play side two very much, I found it boring. As my musical tastes expanded, I came to appreciate it much more and now consider it an integral part of the experience of listening to this album. It begins with "V-2 Schneider" which is the most pop oriented of the instrumentals. It has a driving bass riff over which Bowie blows energetic sax lines supplemented by synth drones. It is not purely instrumental since Bowie sporadically sings the words of the title throughout the song. Pop disappears for the menacing "Sense of Doubt" which sounds like the soundtrack to a gothic horror movie. Gloomy synth lines alternate with an atmospheric piano line. The mood lightens with "Moss Garden" which was co-written with Eno. The langurous synth drones convey a dreamy feel to it, like meditation music. Bowie noodles around on a koto giving it an exotic texture suggestive of the Far East. "Neuköln" is another collaboration with Eno. It has some of the ethereal feel of the previous track punctuated by Middle Eastern sounding blasts of sax from Bowie which become harsher and more dissonant near the end of the song. It is my favorite of the instrumentals. The side ends with "The Secret Life Of Arabia" which was co-written with Eno and guitarist Carlos Alomar. This is a funky song that returns to the sound of side one giving the album an upbeat finish. I never get tired of this record. It still stimulates me as much now as it did when it came out. There are several Bowie albums that I don't like very much (most of the 1980s and early 1990s) but I don't think there was ever a more adventurous artist in rock. His artistic restlessness made him one of the most interesting and compelling characters that I've ever encountered in pop music. This quality makes his premature passing seem even more tragic to me, I think he still had the potential to make exciting music as his excellent final album "Blackstar" indicates. I'll miss him and I'll always be grateful for the gift he shared with us. Recommended to fans of "Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)" who wish that Eno was a better singer.