Monday, May 27, 2019

Having a Rave Up with the Yardbirds - The Yardbirds

Having a Rave Up with the Yardbirds
The Yardbirds 
Epic BN 26177

This was the Yardbirds' second American album and has no British equivalent being cobbled together from singles, unreleased tracks as well as four cuts from their British debut album "Five Live Yardbirds."  It was probably puzzling to the original buyers.  There are two versions of "I'm a Man" and side one sounds very different from side two, almost as if they were recorded by different bands, and in a sense they were since side two features an uncredited Eric Clapton on lead guitar and side one features Jeff Beck instead.  The liner notes don't even mention that side two is a live recording from the previous year.  Despite this shoddy packaging the record is fantastic, full of essential music.  It opens with "You're a Better Man Than I" written by Mike Hugg of Manfred Mann.  It has long been one of my favorite Yardbirds songs.  It is a social protest song with a folk rock sound driven by a propulsive bass riff and jangly guitar lines until Jeff Beck's explosive fuzzed out guitar solo that goes from raga to psychedelic in a thrilling manner.  His solo is a hard rock landmark and shows that Beck was the most creative rock guitarist of his era prior to the rise of Jimi Hendrix.  "Evil Hearted You" was written by Graham Gouldman and displays his typical gift for a well-crafted catchy pop song.  It was deservedly a hit single in England.  The song is punctuated by loud slashing guitar chords that emphasize its gloomy nature until the surprisingly upbeat bridge section.  Beck delivers a subdued but powerful solo.  Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man" was essentially the Yardbirds' unofficial theme song.  The song stayed in their repertoire for the entire history of the band and was released in versions by all three lead guitarists for the band.  Beck delivers the studio version here, Clapton was on the live version from "Five Live Yardbirds" on side two of this album and Jimmy Page performed on the expanded version the band developed late in their career as heard on "Live Yardbirds."  The Beck version is easily my favorite.  The song is driven by the familiar Bo Diddley shuffling beat that gradually builds in force to the most amazing rave up the band ever did.  Beck and Relf on harmonica trade licks until Beck goes berserk.  He races down his guitar neck and until he runs out of room and starts striking his strings percussively.  It is tremendously exciting.  I've listened to it hundreds of times and it still floors me.  "Still I'm Sad" was written by the group's bassist Paul Samwell-Smith and drummer Jim McCarty.  It was the flip side of the "Evil Hearted You" single in Britain and was a hit in its own right there.  It is a complete change of direction from the rest of the album.  It is slow and despondent with Relf's vocal supported by a quasi-Gregorian chant background vocal.  I like it but I'm glad the rest of the album is different.  "Heart Full of Soul" is another terrific Gouldman contribution and the band's second most successful American single after "For Your Love."  It is a compelling song bolstered by raga-style fuzz guitar runs from Beck.  Side one concludes with the band's searing workout on Tiny Bradshaw's "The Train Kept A'Rollin.'"  I mentioned in an earlier post on the "Blow-Up" soundtrack that I thought the version of this song the band performed in that film (under the title "Stroll On") was the greatest hard rock song the band ever did, but this version is equally impressive.  It opens with Beck imitating a train whistle on his guitar and then explodes.  The guitar riff that drives this song is relentless and overwhelming.  Just when it seems like the song can't get any hotter Beck unleashes his second solo which is absolutely incendiary.  This remains the most irresistible hard rock I've ever heard, an absolute masterpiece.  Side one of this album is an incredible side of vinyl, the pinnacle of mid-1960s hard rock.  There was nothing like this before in rock history and it established the foundation for decades of hard rock to come.  Side two is old-fashioned in comparison.  It was recorded only a year earlier but it feels more like a decade.  I'm fond of "Five Live Yardbirds" but the band's approach to rhythm and blues, while exciting, was not all that far removed from the original songs.  The style is similar, they just played faster.  I think Epic largely made the right choices in the four songs they selected for this album although I would have substituted "Too Much Monkey Business" for "I'm a Man" since it already appeared on side one in a superior performance.  Vocalist Keith Relf was not up to the challenge poised by Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning" but the band makes up for it with the energy of their performance.  Relf's harmonica blowing is engaging and the song features two dynamic rave ups.  This was my favorite track on "Five Live Yardbirds."  Relf and the group can't match the vocal firepower of the Isley Brothers on "Respectable" but instrumentally it is ferocious with the band noisily attacking the song at a breathless tempo concluding with a manic rave up performed at phenomenal speed.  The Clapton version of "I'm a Man" has a similar arrangement to Beck's studio version but is less highly charged.  Relf's fine harmonica work dominates the first portion of the song as well as the first rave up.  Clapton takes charge in the second rave up but does not have much of a solo and the call and response with Relf that helps drive the Beck version is largely lacking in this version.  Side two finishes with another Bo Diddley song "Here 'Tis."  This is another fast tempo song which features some of Clapton's finest guitar work with the Yardbirds as he lays down some blistering licks.  There is an excellent studio version of this song with Jeff Beck that the band cut for the TV show "Ready Steady Go!" which I slightly prefer although it is not as energetic as this one.  I'm generally hostile to American record companies monkeying around with a band's catalogue and crafting phony albums out of it, but in this case I can't deny that I really love this album.  I think it is easily the best of the four Epic albums (excluding comps and live records) and although you can get the best songs here on just about any Yardbirds comp, I think fans might still want to seek out this record which is not hard to find and generally less expensive than the other Epic albums.  I feel it has historical significance and even has a bit of an aura to it.  Recommended to Jeff Beck fans.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Second Chapter - Danny Kirwan

Second Chapter
Danny Kirwan
DJM Records  DJLPA-1

I was sad to read that Danny Kirwan died last June after many years of mental illness.  He was my third favorite member of Fleetwood Mac after Peter Green and Christine McVie and his tenure in the band from 1968 to 1972 is my favorite period of the band's discography.  I have his three solo albums from the latter half of the 1970s and although none of them are essential, I like all three.  This is my favorite, it was his solo debut.  It opens with "Ram Jam City" which is a country-flavored seduction song.  It is a catchy tune with a charming vocal from Kirwan.  "Odds and Ends" is a slight love song that has a music hall flavor to it.  Kirwan's exuberant vocal puts the song over for me.  The record slows down for the romantic "Hot Summers Day" which reminds me of Paul McCartney.  I could do without the sappy strings but otherwise I find the song appealing.  The record changes direction again for the reggae style "Mary Jane."  Kirwan delivers a fine guitar solo and the song has a strong pop feeling that verges on bubble gum.  The music hall returns for "Skip A Dee Doo."  Kirwan always had an affinity for this style of music and he does it convincingly while still maintaining a rock sound courtesy of his guitar work.  It is yet another love song with rather inane lyrics.  I don't think that lyric writing was one of Kirwan's strengths.  Side one concludes with "Love Can Always Bring You Happiness" which is a McCartneyesque love song.  The string arrangement gives the song a rich pop sound.  Side two opens with the laid-back "Second Chapter."  I always assumed that the title of the album referred to the second stage of Kirwan's career following his work with Fleetwood Mac, but the song with the same title is an obscure love song.  I dig the sax embellishments but the string arrangement is heavy-handed.  "Lovely Days" is a very pretty song with sensitive impressionistic lyrics.  It is one of my favorite tracks.  "Falling in Love With You" is an idyllic country-style song.  The lyrics are trite but Kirwan's warm vocal makes them sound sincere.  "Silver Streams" is an entrancing song that invites the listener into Kirwan's vision of blissful romance.  Gerry Shury's arrangement is very successful and uses strings and brass to add vigor to the gentle melody.  "Cascades" is very similar.  It is another winsome evocation of romance with a sweet melody and pleasing arrangement.  It gives the album a tender and endearing conclusion.  This record shows the strength of the album format.  None of the songs are particularly strong on their own, but programmed together they contribute to an overall feeling of harmony and enchantment.  This album always makes me feel good when I play it and fills me with affection towards the artist.  The lyrics are generally mundane, but they are effective and Kirwan sings them extremely well.  My only complaint about the album is that Kirwan's guitar work is so subdued.  He generally takes a back seat to the keyboards and orchestrations.  Nevertheless the album is very satisfying and fans of low-key romantic 1970s pop ought to give it a spin.  I think Kirwan was one of the more under-appreciated figures in rock music and I equate his mental decline with that of Syd Barrett as one of the more tragic stories in rock history.  Recommended to fans of Paul McCartney's silly love songs.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Do You Believe in Magic - The Lovin' Spoonful

Do You Believe in Magic
The Lovin' Spoonful
Kama Sutra  KLP 8050

This is a vintage mono pressing of the debut album by The Lovin' Spoonful that I bought used while I was in high school.  I was a big fan of the band back then, they were probably one of my ten favorite groups at the time even though they had broken up many years before.  They are no longer one of my favorites but I'm still fond of them.  This is arguably the weakest of the three albums produced by the original line up but it is still very worthwhile.  It is loaded with covers of old blues songs which makes it a bit grittier than their other albums.  My favorite of the covers is "My Gal" which I'm otherwise totally unfamiliar with.  It has humorous lyrics and a pounding beat with plenty of guitar noise from Zal Yanovksy.  It is among the hardest rocking songs in the Spoonful catalog.  I also like the jug band style "Fishin' Blues" which dates back to the 1910s.  It defines the good time music sound that the Spoonful were famous for.  The rollicking "Blues in the Bottle" was originally recorded in the 1920s and the band's performance has a country feel to it.  The vocal is winningly sloppy and Yanovsky delivers a solid guitar solo.  The more relaxed "Sportin' Life" is undermined by a pedestrian vocal that fails to convey the despair of the lyrics although I dig John Sebastian's harmonica solo.  "Wild About My Lovin'" has a similarly laid back sound bolstered by some stimulating guitar licks from Yanovksy.  There is also a blues instrumental credited to Sebastian called "Night Owl Blues" presumably in honor of the band's residency at the club, the Night Owl Cafe.  They may claim copyright on it but it is basically a standard slow blues driven by Sebastian's wailing harmonica with Zanovsky chipping in with a smoldering guitar solo at the end that fades out too quickly for my taste.  There are a few non-blues covers as well.  "You Baby" was written by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and Phil Spector and was originally released by The Ronettes in 1964.  The Spoonful's cover sticks pretty close to the original's arrangement and it sounds very out of character for the band.  Minus the Spector wall of sound and Veronica Bennett's passionate vocal, the song is a pale shadow of the original and it does not fit in with the rest of the album.  The band fares better with their folk-rock version of Fred Neil's "Other Side of This Life" which is far more suitable to their sound.  There is also the band's terrific workout on "On the Road Again" which is credited to Sebastian but it is essentially a rocked up cover of the song of the same name that the Memphis Jug Band recorded in 1928.  The Spoonful version is very engaging and reminds me of the early Grateful Dead who also performed the song.  It adds credence to the story that the Dead supposedly were inspired to give up folk music and take up rock when they heard the Spoonful.  The true strength of the album lies in John Sebastian's three songwriting contributions.  His exuberant paean to the wonders of music, "Do You Believe in Magic," thrilled me when I first heard it on oldies radio as a young teen and it remains one of my favorite Spoonful songs.  The song boasts an irresistible drive and jangly folk-rock guitar which is always a winning combination for me.  "Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind" is an exploration of adolescent romantic indecision with a catchy melody and a humorous vocal.  "Younger Girl" is another memorable song.  Sebastian's vocal effectively captures the yearning of the lyrics and the bass, guitar and autoharp give the song a dense string sound I find very appealing.  These three songs are essential.  You could get them on just about any Lovin' Spoonful comp of course, but if you are more than a casual fan of the band you should seek out this album.  It consistently demonstrates the band's instrumental prowess, particularly Yanovksy's underrated guitar skills, and it is eclectic and entertaining as well.  I would place it among the best American rock albums of 1965.  Recommended to fans of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and the early Grateful Dead.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Six Covers Vol. 2 - Veronica Falls

Six Covers Vol. 2
Veronica Falls
Bella Union  Bellav383p

I was unhappy when I saw that Veronica Falls had broken up a few years ago after only two albums.  They were my favorite group and their music appealed to me like few bands ever have.  Most of the bands that I have loved either went on too long for me to mind when they broke up (like R. E. M.) or broke up before I loved them (like the Beatles.)  The only comparable experience I ever had was with Sleater-Kinney and they eventually got back together.  I had hoped that might happen with Veronica Falls too, but last year their drummer Patrick Doyle died at the age of 32 ending those hopes.  I adored his crisp, muscular drumming and his vocal contribution to the band's trademark multipart harmonies was an essential part of their sound.  I've already blogged about "Veronica Falls" and "Waiting For Something To Happen" so I offer up my thoughts about this mini-album as a tribute to Doyle.  It was the second of the two homemade tour souvenir records the band recorded of cover songs, although by the time they came to play here in Los Angeles in 2013 it had already sold out and I had to find a copy on the internet.  The record opens with "Is Anybody There?" based on a version by Home Blitz (who I had never heard of) of a song originally recorded by the punk band Cock Sparrer (who I had heard of but never listened to.)   I checked out both of those versions and Veronica Falls' cover beats both.  Driven by Doyle's pounding beat and a polyphonic vocal the band makes the song their own.  It would fit comfortably on either of their albums.  "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" is of course the Bob Dylan classic from "Bringing It All Back Home."  I was dubious at first but the song responds well to the Veronica Falls style particularly the jangly guitars and vocal harmonies. "Teenagers" was originally by the punk band The Rats who I had never heard of when I bought this.  I like the original, but Veronica Falls' cover shreds it.  The song is ideally suited for them and the teenage angst expressed in the lyrics is very much like their own music.  I'm a big fan of "Bury Me Happy" by the Australian band The Moles from their wonderful album "Untune the Sky," but as much as I love it, I prefer the Veronica Falls version mostly because of Roxanne Clifford's vocal.  Otherwise they are similar although Veronica Falls' performance is more forceful particularly with Doyle's drumming propelling the song.  It is my favorite cut on the record.  "Timeless Melody" was originally by the La's on their classic self-titled album.  It is another song I'm a big fan of.  Both versions are terrific but I give the edge to Veronica Falls mostly because of Clifford's voice.  "What Deaner Was Talking About" was released by Ween on "Chocolate and Cheese."  I'm not a big Ween fan although I like that album and their version of the song.  Veronica Falls' version is very similar only with better singing.  It is the song that sounds the least like a typical Veronica Falls song, but I still enjoy it.  This a minor record but I still love it.  Veronica Falls recorded so little music that I treasure any opportunity to hear them even if they are playing other people's songs.  It is also a record that provides ample opportunity to appreciate Patrick Doyle's talents both as a drummer and a singer and to mourn his premature passing.  Recommended to fans of The Bangles.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Let's Go To San Francisco - The Flower Pot Men

Let's Go To San Francisco
The Flower Pot Men
TELDEC  6.26179 AP 

This is a German compilation of various tracks attributed to the Flower Pot Men, which was a studio group concocted to record tracks by John Carter who had a significant career behind the scenes in the 1960s British pop music industry as a performer, producer and writer.  Side one features the four original Flower Pot Men singles on Deram Records running in chronological order.  Carter and his frequent partner Ken Lewis wrote "Let's Go To San Francisco" which was released in 1967.  It was the band's only hit single and the song that attracted me to the group in the first place.  I collect songs about my former hometown and this is a particularly good one although like so many songs about the summer of love it is loaded with hippie nonsense.  Flowers do not grow high there (unless they mean a different kind of high) nor is there an abundance of sunshine.  The lyrics may be silly, but the music is wonderful.  It is more sunshine pop than psychedelic with soaring vocals and effervescent harmonies bolstered by an elaborate poppy arrangement.  It sounds like Brian Wilson producing the Tokens.  The song continues on the b-side of the single with a slightly moodier arrangement.  Carter and Lewis along with Russell Alquist wrote the 1967 single "A Walk in the Sky" which is an obvious attempt to exploit the success of "Let's Go To San Francisco."  It features a similar sunshine pop arrangement with mildly psychedelic lyrics.  The song is not as engaging as its predecessor but it is fun and it has a surprisingly somber break in the middle that I find interesting but which probably sabotaged whatever chance it might have had to be a hit.  Carter wrote the b-side "Am I Losing You" which is a more conventional love song that has an evocative arrangement that makes it sound like a lost outtake from "Pet Sounds."  Carter, Lewis and Alquist wrote the band's 1968 single "You Can Never Be Wrong" which flopped but I think it is lovely.  It has a chamber pop sound and another elaborate pop symphony style arrangement which sounds like the Zombies jamming with the Left Banke.  It is one of my favorite tracks on the album.  The b-side was "Man Without a Woman" by Carter and Alquist which is a much more sedate track.  It is a bit sappy but it sounds pretty.  Deram dumped Carter for the band's final single in 1969.  "In a Moment of Madness" was written by Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway and it sounds little like the band's previous work.  It is straight ahead commercial pop that borders on bubble gum.  It is pleasant enough if you like that sort of thing.  The b-side, "Young Birds Fly," was written by Bill Swofford who as Oliver had a hit with his cover of "Good Morning Starshine."  It was originally a single by the Cryan' Shames and this version is similar to theirs although less inspired.  It sounds like the Association on a bad day.  Side two is a hodge-podge of Carter tracks.  "Journey's End" was written by Carter and his wife Gill Shakespeare (which is Carter's real last name) and first appeared as the b-side on a 1974 reissue of "Let's Go To San Francisco."  The song was credited to the Flower Pot Men but I have no idea if they were really performing it.  It doesn't sound much like the original band, it has more of a rocked up sound.  It reminds me of the Moody Blues.  "Mythological Sunday" was the b-side of a 1968 Deram single that the Flower Pot Men recorded under the name Friends because Deram had soured on the commercial appeal of the Flower Pot Men.  It was written by Carter and Alquist.  I think it is the most psychedelic track that they ever did although it also has a chamber pop flavor to it.  It is one of my favorite cuts on the album.  "Blow Away" was an unreleased Carter/Lewis track that is credited to the Flower Pot Men although it sounds very unlike any of their officially released recordings.  It sounds more like the Byrds on "The Notorious Byrd Brothers."  It is a great slice of zonked out folk-rock that is easily the hardest rocking and most compelling track on the album.  I can understand why Deram passed on it, but it is better than any of the official recordings except "Mythological Sunday."  "Piccolo Man" was the a-side of the Friends single.  It was written by Carter, Lewis and Alquist and it is pure bubble gum.  It is easily my least favorite track.  Carter and Lewis wrote "Let's Go Back to San Francisco" which was a sequel to their hit and sounds very similar to it, basically the song sounds so much like the original that it seems pointless.  It was released as a single in 1981 under the name Beautiful People.  Its b-side was "Silicon City" which was written by Carter and Shakespeare.  It sounds nothing like the Flower Pot Men and a lot like the early 1970s Beach Boys.  I'm very happy with this comp aside from the lack of discographical info.  John Carter had an interesting career and deserves to be better known.  The first three Flower Pot Men singles are delightful and the odds and sods on side two are very appealing and eclectic.  I can't claim that any of this is essential, but it makes me happy whenever I put it on and I'm very glad to have it.  This particular record isn't easy to find, but Carter's work has been collected on a bunch of modern CD comps which are worth seeking out if you have a taste for sunshine pop.  Recommended to Zombies fans who dig Brian Wilson. 

Sunday, December 23, 2018

1968 - France Gall

France Gall
Polydor 530 916-2

I did not want to let 2018 slip away without acknowledging the passing of my favorite French singer, France Gall, back in January of this year.  This is my favorite of her albums aside from compilations.  It is a 2018 reissue of a record originally released by Philips as 844.706 BY.  I bought it originally on CD many years ago and was delighted to finally get it on vinyl this year.  It was a transitional record for the 20 year old Gall as she moved away from the girlish sound of her Ye-Ye period in search of a more mature sound.  The record begins with her 1967 single, "Toi que je veux" in which she declares her desire for her lover.  Despite her ardor she worries about the end of their relationship but nonetheless savors her passion.  Her declaration that "Je me suis ouverte aujourd'hui à la vie" sums up the flavor of the song and the album as well.  The music of the song is exuberant with a chamber pop flavor that suits Gall's voice very well.  Her vocal on the song really sends me.  "Chanson Indienne" expresses the unhappiness of an expatriate from India who misses her country.  The song was written by Gall's father Robert and David Whitaker who directed the orchestra and arranged most of the record.  The song features a sitar and Indian style percussion which gives it an exotic sound.  Gall's voice cuts through the elaborate arrangement expressing the emotions in the song very convincingly.  My French is not good enough to figure out "Gare a toi... Gargantua" which appears to be inspired by the play on words in the title.  Gargantua is presumably the Rabelais' character and the song makes numerous references to his ravenous appetite which apparently extends beyond food to women as well.  I believe the song is full of double entendres that warn Gargantua to not extend his consumption habits to other women.  It seems like a very sexy song unless I'm completely misunderstanding it which is certainly possible.  In contrast to the racy subject matter, musically the song recalls the childish style of the songs Gall was singing as a teenager which creates some interesting tension.  In "Avant la bagarre" to celebrate her 20th birthday the singer's boyfriend takes her to a restaurant that she used to go to and they run into her former flame and the two men get into a fight.  The song is a straight ahead rocker driven by a pulsing bass line and electric organ riffs.  It is one of my favorite tracks on the album.  "Chanson pour que tu m'aimes un peu" is a pathetic plea for the singer to be loved a little by someone who does not even pay attention to her.  The song was written by her father and her brother Patrice and I find it weird that her father would create such a degrading song for her to sing.  Musically the song is very appealing, guided by a hypnotic acoustic guitar riff and a sensitive vocal from Gall that makes it easier to swallow the unpleasant lyrics.  Side one concludes with Serge Gainsbourg's magnificent "Néfertiti" which is one of my all time favorites in Gall's catalog.  It was released as a single in 1967.  It is a sensual ode to the Egyptian queen which with typical Gainsbourgian perversion even rhapsodizes about the odor of her mummified body.  The music is very alluring with a Middle Eastern flavor and a seductive vocal from Gall that melts me.  Side two begins with "La fille d'un garçon" which is about a summer romance on vacation that fades in the winter.  The music is appropriately idyllic driven by a throbbing bass line and tasteful strings.  Gall's vocal is absolutely radiant reflecting the warmth of a glowing heart.  In "Bébé requin" Gall describes herself as a baby shark seeking to devour her lover's heart.  It was a single in 1967.  It is a catchy little tune driven by a staccato bass riff and punchy bursts of brass with a music hall flavor as well.  "Teenie Weenie Boppie" is another Gainsbourg opus which vividly describes a fatally bad LSD trip that includes a hallucination of Mick Jagger drowning in the Thames.  In contrast to the lurid lyrics, the music evokes the bubble gum sound of Gall's records of the mid-1960s.  The song is loaded with hooks and the sweetness of Gall's vocal would suggest a trip to the candy store rather than a drug trip.  "Les yeux bleus" is a love song by Robert Gall and Claude-Henri Vic.  The song has a jazzy sound and Gall handles the demanding vocal with ease and grace.  "Made in France" compares France and England focusing mostly on cultural differences.  It is a charming song that again recalls Gall's Ye-Ye period.  Gall trades verses with the background singers and sings the chorus herself.  Gall's vocal plays up the humor in the lyrics and combined with the engaging tune, it makes this song irresistible.  It is another one of my favorite tracks.  "La petite" is a duet with Maurice Biraud in which an older man is attracted to the daughter of his friend.  Biraud expresses the opinion of the man and Gall sings from the perspective of the daughter.  The old man is romantic and protective, the daughter is unsentimental and eager to learn the ways of love.  I find the song to be creepy particularly since Robert Gall helped write it and the girlish quality France Gall brings to her vocal makes it even more disturbing.  The song's only saving grace is that the music is very enjoyable but it still gives the album an unsavory finish.  It is the only blemish on an otherwise wonderful album.  Even though she did not write any of the songs, I think this record was a personal record for Gall.  Its recurring themes of growing emotionally, learning to love and awakening sensuality probably had some resonance for her.  She certainly sings the songs with sincerity and purpose.  This record is an expression of her opening up to life and embracing adulthood.  I've always found her voice enchanting, but hearing her sing more sophisticated songs with the earnestness and passion of youth really gets to me.  I've been crazy about this album ever since I first heard it.  I like all of Gall's albums, but this one seems especially unique to me, I love the way it merges the music of her youth with the music of her adulthood.  I think it is really special, as was she.  I'm going to miss her very much.  Recommended to fans of Lulu.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Sound of Christmas - The Ramsey Lewis Trio

Sound of Christmas
The Ramsey Lewis Trio
Cadet LP 687X

I put this one on to trim the tree this year.  It is more jazzy than Christmasy but it put me in a good mood.  The album was originally issued on Argo, Cadet reissued it in the mid 1960s.  When I was a child someone gave me a 45 of the Ramsey Lewis Trio's performance of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" backed with "Winter Wonderland."  It was the first jazz record I can remember ever hearing.  I did not particularly like it although I did keep it and I still have it.  Many years later I started to like jazz and when I came across this album I remembered that old 45 and bought this.  It does not swing as much as I would like, but it is tasteful and has a pleasant vibe to it.  I particularly like side one which features Lewis along with bassist El Dee Young and drummer Red Holt.  On side two the trio is augmented by strings which I find frequently obtrusive.  The album opens with a moody interpretation of Charles Brown's "Merry Christmas Baby" which features some very propulsive piano work from Lewis that brings out the bluesy feeling within the song.  It is my favorite track although it is pretty gloomy for the opening cut on a Christmas record.  The record perks up with a swinging take on "Winter Wonderland" that gets me bopping.  "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" starts off slow and somber, before picking up a little steam but it remains a surprisingly downbeat interpretation of the song.  Lewis' own "Christmas Blues" follows.  It is straight ahead rhythm and blues given a Christmas feeling by the incessant jingling of bells through the song.  Side one concludes with a lively version of "Here Comes Santa Claus" that is another one of my favorite tracks.  Side two begins "The Sound of Christmas" by Lewis and Riley Hampton who arranged and conducted the strings for side two.  The song alternates between some dynamic work from the Trio and silky smooth orchestral passages.  Unfortunately the orchestra wins, but the song has its moments.  It is followed by a sappy version of Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song" that is largely dominated by the orchestra although Lewis does break free briefly with an engaging solo.  Mostly though it sounds like cocktail lounge jazz.  Lewis fares better with "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" where his energetic playing dominates the song and is supported by an impressively dramatic arrangement.  "Sleigh Ride" features more exuberant playing from Lewis that is enhanced with support from the orchestra.  It is one of the best interpretations of the song that I've ever heard.  The album concludes with Frank Loesser's "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" which Lewis attacks as if it were a bluesy torch song.  The orchestra keeps him from going too far off the rails and it gives the record a nice emotional finish.  This record has limitations as Christmas music.  Children will probably hate it and it is not festive enough to satisfy many people's notions of what Christmas music should be.  It works great for me though.  By mid-December I'm usually sick of Christmas music, Lewis' interpretative approach appeals to me more than the standard carols.  Also this is a very romantic sounding record, I recommend it for cuddling with your special someone on a cold wintry evening sipping an adult beverage and looking at the lights twinkling on the tree.