Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Some of the latest crop of albums I've had the pleasure of playing.
Gogol Bordello: Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strikes (Side One Dummy, 2005). Eugene Hutz is a punk in the mold of Bob Mould. Unlike Mould, though, Hutz at least has a sense of humor. Backed by Yuri Lemeshev on accordian and Sergey Ryabtzev on violin, these former Eastern European refugees (Hutz is actually a DJ at a Bulgarian bar in New York) have been the best thing to hit my CD player in months. This wild and eclectic mix is one part gypsy dance music and one part punk - hence the title! But while its style may owe itself to those categories, such as they are, there's so much more to these guys. Ultimately they defy categorization. If you've never heard anything like them before, it's because you haven't. Sort of a Lawrence Welk meets Sid Vicious variety show. Now categorize that! A+
The Go-Betweens: Oceans Apart (Yep Roc, 2005). Calling Robert Forster and Grant McLennan mature singer-songwriters is redundant. They've been maturing for over twenty years. Let's just call this they're most complete and assured album ever. The tandem has grown so much since Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane it's almost unfair to call them the same band. Every song here has its own unique story to tell. And the songs grow on you with each listen. "To know yourself is to be yourself / keeps you walking through these tears," is about as "mature" a lyric as you'll likely find. Charming, yet elusive, they're just troubadours on the road to musical nirvana. What else can they do but follow they're calling? A
John Prine: Fair and Square (Oh Boy, 2005). Some Humans Ain't Human isn't just about the President (yes, John, we know he's an idiot!), it's about a lot of people out there just like you and me. But while many of these songs endear themselves to your heart, including My Darlin' Hometown, and She Is My Everything, the latter proof that there are still guys out there that can write good love songs, the simple fact is he's done better than this. Where is the Lake Marie or Sam Stone? Truth is, a lot of this material seems borrowed from past efforts, which doesn't make this album bad, just not as rewarding as it could've been. B+
Bruce Springsteen: Devils and Dust (Columbia, 2005). If ever there was a case of a major artist in need of a major breakthrough it was our underclass hero. The guy you always rooted for and wondered what happened to finally releases an album worthy of his rep. Not since Tunnel of Love has he enjoyed such heights. Where The Rising saw him mired in his subject, here the songs come to him and the result is a man who's finally comfortable is his own skin again. He's got something to say and a voice to say it. A-
Amy Rigby: Little Fugitive (Signature Sounds, 2005). Nine years, a failed marriage and a new husband haven't dampened her spirits one bit. In fact, she's just as cynical as ever, even when there's nothing to be cynical about - The Trouble With Jeanie. She's still that mod housewife, desperately trying to hold onto a youth that long ago would've alluded lesser and, yes, younger women. Like Rasputin might as well be her theme song. Just when you think she's done, she gets back up off the mat. She's not so much worried about looking old as acting old. Here's hoping she never grows up. A-
Monday, October 17, 2005
Alt-country, that is country that has some blues and or rock-n-roll in it, has always captured my fancy. In light of what passes for country music these days, I thought I'd come up with a list of some of my favorite albums, again in no particular order.
Lucinda Williams: Sweet Old World (Chameleon, 1992). In spite of her pleas to the contrary this is in deed a dark album, full of regrets, violent death and fear of insecurity. But locked within all of those troublesome moments she finds the hope to go on. On Memphis Pearl mom promises her little baby it won't always be like this, even when deep down she knows it will; on He Never Got Enough Love Williams knows what the absence of a loving mother and the presence of an abusive father will do to any child; and on the title track, even in the face of a suicide we can only surmise is someone close to her, she still has the composure to know what was truly lost: "the breath from your own lips, a sweet and tender kiss, the sound of a midnight train, wearing someone's ring, dancing with no shoes, the beat, the rhythm, the blues." Williams gift is that she take us to the edge of despair and bring us back safely. She knows that despite its imperfections this truly is a sweet old world. The fact that we can't always see that is our regret; the fact that she can is her virtue. A
Joe Ely: Honky Tonk Masquerade (MCA, 1978). Like most Texas artists, Ely is pigeonholed. He's too country for rock and too rock for country. With fellow ex-Flatlander Butch Hancock doing the co-writing this is the finest country-rock album since Gilded Palace of Sin. Really, any one interested in what gets played deep in the heart of Texas, would do well to check out not only this entry but his self-titled debut. Ely's music is more Memphis than Nashville, and the result is an album that's more hard-edged and direct than the usual melodic twang that passes for country. With the exception of Willie Nelson no one even comes close. A.
Gram Parsons: Grievous Angel (Reprise, 1974). In which the inventor of alternative country brings it all home, as they say. On GP Parsons' love for country music dulled the delivery. Here, all the walls come down. With Emmylou Harris backing up on vocal, he allows himself the freedom to develop his soulful rock. On Return of the Grievous Angel and Hearts on Fire Parsons and Harris outdo the Parsons/Hillman duo of Christine's Tune and Sin City - no small feat. And if In My Hour of Darkness isn't self prophetic than Love Hurts underscores his worst fears and insecurities. A pity he never lived long enough to appreciate the gift he gave the world; a shame the world still doesn't get it! A
Rosie Flores: After the Farm (Hightone, 1992). Of all the alt-country singers out there, Flores is the closest to pure country there is. Pure country like Loretta Lynne and Merle Haggard, though, which is a comfort here. But Flores borrows as much from Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle, as any of the aforementioned greats. And like her 1987 self-titled debut her husky voice is just what the country doctor ordered. Blue Highway is the best damn non-hit song to come out in decades, while West Texas Plains is pure Nashville, replete with drinking and relationship breakups, everything but the dog dying. Perhaps album three? A-
The Jayhawks: Blue Earth (Twin/Tone, 1989). Calling Mark Olsen and Gary Louris a poor man's Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman is moot at best. Truth is this is best Flying Burritos album since Burrito Deluxe; in fact I'll take this over the former any day for sheer delivery. Since Olsen isn't quite the writer Parsons was, his aim is lower, which is OK by me. This album flows and rocks in a way Hillman used to fight Parsons over way back when. And I prefer Olsen's Baltimore Sun to Parsons' Streets of Baltimore anyway. Not a great album, just a damn good one. A-
John Prine: Sweet Revenge (Atlantic, 1973). Three of the first four songs on this wonderful album are some sort of joke Prine appears to be playing on himself, with Dear Abby the punch line. The odd man out is Christmas in Prison, this year's Sam Stone, about the tortured soul of a prisoner who has all eternity to morn the loss of the woman he loves. "We're rolling, my sweetheart, we're flowing, by God," is about as bleak and gut wrenching as rock-n-roll has ever gotten. And that's Prine's gift, or curse if you will. He is able to empathize with those the rest of us would rather not associate with. In so doing he becomes both the convict and the poor schmuck who gets caught with his girl friend's pants down to her knees all at the same time. Life doesn't get much more surreal than that. A
Friday, October 14, 2005
Throughout the last forty years or so a number of fine albums have been released that are excellent best ofs. While some of these artists/bands have been prolific album producers in their own right, others have been merely content to be singles artists. We won't distinguish here; in fact our hats go off to all of these albums and the artists/bands that produced them.
From earliest to most recent:
Sly & The Family Stone: Greatest Hits (Epic, 1970). From the sublime Dance to the Music to the politically-charged Stand this band had the greatest run of hits over a 24-month period than any band since the Beatles. The rhythms are contagious, as are the lyrics. But what made all of this possible was Sly Stone's vision and commitment to the music. The first truly integrated rock band to front a number one hit in the country, that alone would be history enough. But more than thirty years later they still sound fresh and relevant, well, now, that's just awesome. A+
Al Green: Greatest Hits (Hi, 1975). With the exception of Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin, no other African American artist has been able to successfully produce both hit singles and worthwhile albums. Call Me in '73 was one of the decade's best LPs. And while any one serious about getting into him would do well to start there, there is no resisting this collection. It shows Green on top of his game. The man didn't simply rule the R&B airwaves, he destroyed them. And he didn't do too shoddy on top-40 either. He had the soul of Otis Redding, but the savvy of, say, James Brown. That is to say he knew how to take his music out to the masses. And the masses drank up ever last drop. A+
Dolly Parton: The Best of Dolly Parton (RCA Victor,1975). The second Best of in her RCA catalogue, this one captures her at her finest. Porter Wagoner's production is second to none, but the triumph here is both Parton's writing (she writes all but two of the titles) and her singing, which is nothing sort of angelic. Jolene is about the insecurities of a woman who knows she is losing her man and there is nothing she can do to stop it; Coat of many Colors her story of personal poverty transcended into riches; and When I Sing for Him her testimony of a faith that has carried her throughout the years. Country music has never been this good. A+
Creedence Clearwater Revival: Chronicle (Fantasy, 1976). 15 of the 20 songs here went top ten, with five reaching number one. Like the Beatles before them, they not only ruled the top-40 format, but consistently turned out quality albums: Willy and the Poor Boys and Cosmos Factory to name their two finest. John Fogerty's genius is that he managed all of this over a three and half year period. It took the Fab Four six years to do the same. Pound for pound, the greatest American rock and roll band ever. A
Neil Young: Decade (Reprise, 1978). This triple LP (2 CDs) captures a career that remarkably was still developing. At 32 his catalogue was considerable. And while nothing here would make one want to skip over the original albums - start with After the Gold Rush and Tonight's the Night - it's enough evidence of his greatness to give it its due. And as Robert Christgau correctly points out "I'd rather here Ohio, Soldier, Helpless and Long May You Run in this context than in any other." A
Lynyrd Skynyrd: Gold and Platinum (MCA, 1979). The shame here is that in death they became bigger than life. With all but two of their albums essentials, particularly their last, the temptation here is to call this a sampler. But it's much more than that. Like John Fogerty before him, Ronnie Van Zant knew a thing or two about how to make a tuneful record. And while hits weren't their purpose in life, they were, nonetheless, an important part of their success. And unlike the Allmans, they went somewhere with their southern boogie. A
Donna Summer: On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II (Casablanca, 1979). In her own way she was as significant to black music as Aretha Franklin. In-deed, her style borrows more from '60s Motown than, say, Atlantic. Nor can she be merely stereotyped as another disco diva. Maybe that's why out of a genre that included the likes of Gloria Gaynor, Vicki Sue Robinson, and Thelma Houston, Summer's hits have endured the test of time. Check out Bad Girls and compare it to a contemporary song from, say, Toni Braxton or Alicia Keys. A
Bob Marley and the Wailers: Legend (Island, 1984). Anyone who doubted Marley's abilities as a songwriter should know this. With the exception of Stevie Wonder, nobody wrote better, catchier songs in the '70s. From politics to sex to just plain old down home melodies, Marley's range was undeniable. Natty Dread and Burnin' are absolute most owns, but after that this tribute covers all the bases. A
Madonna: The Immaculate Collection (Sire, 1990). Sure, go on, deny that she made a difference. Pretend that she didn't own a decade that was about as diverse, if not more so, than the '60s. Pretend, too, that you weren't listening to that disco mix of Into The Groove or that you weren't watching her videos - especially Papa Don't Preach - and then try and deny that you weren't mesmerized by the woman's sex appeal. Phony, you say? All style and no substance? Give me a break. Sure, she's about as genuine as a two dollar bill. Equally true, take her out of the decade and it collapses in on itself. But that's OK. You can still lie to yourself and say she didn't matter. After all what harm would it do? A+
John Prine: Great Days: The John Prine Anthology (Rhino, 1993). The agony here is that 41 songs and they still haven't nailed it. John Prine, Diamond in the Rough, Sweet Revenge, Common Sense and Storm Windows catalogue a prolific career most songwriters would give their eye teeth to approach. Yet Prine makes it seem so easy. Wise beyond his years and yet never smug about it, his humanity and his humility go hand in hand. Like Dylan, a genius; unlike Dylan, a whole lot friendlier. AGarth Brooks: The Hits (Liberty, 1994). OK, so he's the Billy Joel of country, so what? Only a cynic would deny him his props. And for sheer enjoyment, I'll take Friends in Low Places over Only the Good Die Young any day. At least Brooks seems like he's enjoying his own show; Joel comes off as way too serious for someone with such limited talent. Though I'd much prefer George Strait or John Anderson on sheer principle alone, there isn't anyone out there with as much charisma as this guy. Yes, he's full of himself. So was Little Richard! A
Marshall Crenshaw: This Is Easy: The Best of Marshall Crenshaw (Rhino, 2000). Between 1982 and 1991 Crenshaw was easily the most honest, talented and underappreciated rock-n-roller of his time. Not since Buddy Holly has the world heard such basic, simple and unrelenting music. That he never got a hit single once - especially out of the first two albums - is one of the great injustices of the business that defies all logic. This act of love by a record company known for it's risk-taking is an attempt to set the record straight and maybe right some wrongs in the process. A
De La Soul: Timeless: The Singles Collection (Tommy Boy/Rhino, 2003). If three incredible and two pretty damn good albums haven't provided enough proof that their rap was, well, timeless, nothing will. So what if the choice "single" cuts sound more fulfilling in their original album versions. That's why it's called a singles collection, right? Solution, buy the albums anyway, especially 3 Feet High and Rising. But, if you're like me, this "collection" will serve to illustrate that they are the best hip hop band this side of the Beasties. A+
Sunday, October 09, 2005
It was early 1967. Don Kirshner, producer of the Monkees, was on his way to a meeting with his band to address concerns they had over the release of the single A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You. The band, led by Michael Nesmith, had long desired artistic control over the content of their songs - in deed Kirshner had allowed Nesmith to co-produce some of his own songs and even allowed Peter Tork to play guitar on a couple more.
Kirshner had been in the business for years and was accustomed to dealing with strife. Besides, he was extremely excited over a new song that he had recently gotten a hold of that he believed would be the best Monkee song ever. And that was saying something given the success of Daydream Believer and I'm a Believer. But when Kirshner arrived for his meeting he soon discovered it was an ambush. The meeting lasted less than an hour, and when it was over, Kirshner was canned.
Undaunted, Kirshner put the song on a shelf until such time as he felt he could release it. That time occured in 1969. Kirshner had been asked to produce an annimated TV series for CBS consisting of the fictional Archie Comics. The cast of characters included Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper, Veronica Lodge, Reggie Mantle and Jughead Jones. Kirshner needed a song that would be the theme for the group, but he also needed a band to perform it. Remembering what happened with the Monkees, Kirshner decided he would create the band out of session players and keep their identities secret. That way they could not rebel and demand creative control. He hired Ron Dante and Toni Wine to do all the vocals. Dante was lead singer for the Cufflinks who had a single of their own that year called Tracy. Wine, no stranger to the business herself, co-wrote the smash hit A Groovy Kind of Love for the Mindbenders in 1965.
In the spring of 1969 the session musicians and Dante and Wine entered a studio to record the song written by Jeff Barry and Andy Kim and shelved for almost two years by Kirshner. The song took less than a day to record and was released later that year. It went on to become the best selling hit single of the year, spending four weeks at number one.
The song was Sugar, Sugar.
What Kirshner was able to accomplish was nothing short of ground-breaking. He had single-handedly created a fictional band based on a comic strip, hired non-entities to perform a song that was written by somebody else, and with a minimal amount of effort went on to create a blockbuster hit single that took the country by storm. The record industry, never one to deny a success, or pass up an opportunity to make a buck, took notes. Within a year of it's release, Sugar, Sugar was garnering copycats. Other groups like White Plains and Vanity Fare began emerging and scoring top forty hits of their own. Soon an entire genre had been born. Bubble gum, once thought to be the purview of lesser talent, was now in full vogue, and everyone wanted a piece of the action.
Here is a list of some of my favorite bubble gum songs of the '70s along with some relevent comments.
1. Norman Greenbaum: Spirit in the Sky (1970). The only song in the list written by the artist himself, Greenbaum was the only artist to make both God and dying cool at the same time. Try that sometime. Even Billy Graham would give it it's do.
2. Edison Lighthouse: Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes) (1970). The lead singer, Tony Burrows, who also sang lead on My Baby Loves Lovin' (see #3) and United We Stand (#10), was the ultimate bubblegum session singer. While Ron Dante holds the mantle as the voice of history, Burrows' contribution is insurmountable. Three top 20 hit singles in three months. Only the Beatles had managed to accomplish that feat.
3. White Plains: My Baby Loves Lovin' (1970). This song used to get me in trouble with mom every time I sang it. Oh, and by the way, I sang it quite often!
4. Alive & Kicking: Tighter, Tighter (1970). Co-produced by Tommy James, this was my favorite summer hit of that year. Whenever it came on the radio I immediately stopped what ever I was doing and turned up the volume, much to my parents chagrin.
5. Mark Lindsay: Arizona (1970). While most prefer 1971's Indian Reservation, this is my pick for his best song of the decade.
6. Steam: Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye (1969). Released late in '69 this rather obscure song wound up going all the way to number one. To this day it gets sung in more arenas and ball parks than even Queen's Another One Bites The Dust.
7. Vanity Fare: Hitchin' a Ride (1970). Unlike most of these artists, this group actually had a hit earlier in the year with Early in the Morning. But this would be their moniker.
8. Daddy Dewdrop: Chick-a-Boom (Don't Ya Jes' Love It) (1971). A song about a guy going after a naked girl. Now that's rock-n-roll.
9. Gallery: Nice To Be With You (1972). There are few songs that hold so much personal joy for me as a kid as this song. I couldn't stop playing it.
10. The Brotherhood of Man: United We Stand (1970). Even as a 9-year old I dug the meaning of this song. Though written as a love song, it could just as well have been about mankind.
Well that's my top 10. Perhaps later I'll put up another ten songs.
Bye, for now.
Thursday, October 06, 2005
I know it's a little early for Thanksgiving, but here are some turkeys fit for the oven.
U2: How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Interscope, 2004). Having proven he's the Bob Geldof of the '90s, Bono now sets his sights on another over the top icon - Sting: another entity who hasn't had anything relevant to say in over a decade. I know rock bands can get carried away with themselves, but these guys haven't made any waves since Rattle and Hum and that was a live performance! C+
Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Greendale (Reprise, 2003). I saw Young perform this claptrap at Jones Beach. Dull, long, and insipid are words you usually don't associate with him, until, that is, you have to endure this. C-
Ryan Adams: Gold (Lost Highway, 2001). I was betting that New York, New York was his 9/11 tribute until I learned it was recorded before the event. No matter how many Gram Parsons and Bob Dylan comparisons I keep hearing about this guy, all I keep coming back to is Jackson Browne in the early '70s: boring and full of himself. Play Highway '61 Revisited or Grievous Angel and you tell me. Significance that's mass produced for consumption always spells the same: pretentious. C-
Bruce Springsteen: The Rising (Columbia, 2002). It's hard not to like this guy; his heart is in the right place. And unlike so many of his modern-day contemporaries in their 40s or 50s (Sting, for example) you actually want the guy to succeed. But like so many do-gooders, Springsteen gets lost in his subject. Into the Fire is predictable. The heroes of 9/11 (the cops, the firemen) are suppose to give us faith and hope for a better tomorrow. Truthful? Maybe. Good art? Not really. C
The Mountain Goats: The Sunset Tree (4AD, 2005). After two fairly impressive albums, John Darnielle was due for a let down, but I never suspected a melt down. It's not like he's the first artist to use music as therapy - indeed most great art delves into pain - but Darnielle doesn't go anywhere with it. He's trapped in his pain and no matter how defiant words like "I will make it through this year if it kills me" may sound, you're just not sold. This is one patient who should've sued his therapist. B-
Shelby Lynne: Love, Shelby (Island, 2001). Great looks, great tits and great legs can take you so far, the rest is up to talent. C-
Brian Wilson: Smile (Nonesuch, 2004). This isn't nearly bad enough to merit mention in a turkey shoot, but with all the hoopla surrounding it - not to mention the 37-year wait we've had to endure while Wilson fiddled with it just getting it right - it deserves mention as the single most overdone and under-delivered album of the last few years. None of these songs - most of which have sounded better in earlier renditions - improve with age in spite of Wilson's dickering. His voice, long ago lost into the void, seems overmatched for the material any way. And no matter how many '60s gurus insist that this is the great lost Beach Boys album, I'll pass. B
Tuesday, October 04, 2005
Amy Rigby: Diary of a Mod Housewife (Koch, 1996). Rigby isn't merely some 37 year old retread with an ax to grind over a husband who doesn't appreciate her. She's a brilliantly honest 37 year old retread with an ax to grind over a husband who doesn't appreciate her. She's got balls, too, and the wisdom to use them. When she asks old hubby those 20 Questions, she's already got the answers. But lest you think her ax is tilted only toward her partner, I've got news for you, it's not. Time For Me To Come Down and Sad Tale show at least a capacity for introspection lesser artists would frown upon. And when she's not too busy trying to save her marriage, Knapsack becomes her ticket to a fantasy world where the guy in the bookstore notices her and she notices back. A
Rosanne Cash: Interiors (Columbia, 1990). I've been a fan of Cash ever since 1985's Rhythm and Romance. Here she fires producer-husband Rodney Crowell and flies solo. Even writes all her own material. The result is an album that exceeds the sum of its parts. She's her daddy's girl and like dear old dad she enunciates the pain in her soul like few artists can. On the Surface documents a troubled marriage that within a year would be over, while Dance With The Tiger deals with her own demons. Bittersweet, but still hopeful. A