Thursday, January 18, 2018

STEALERS WHEEL REDUX



First of three records released under the name Stealers Wheel. Gerry Rafferty (best known for “Baker Street”) and Joe Egan penned and sang all of the material, backed up by additional musicians. There would be a rotating cast of support players in their brief stint as a “band”. Sonically, the listener will spot a huge nod to the compositional approach of the Fab Four. The big single was “Stuck in the Middle With You” which flew into the top ten in 1973, sold by the truckload and saturated radio playlists of that era. Rafferty channels Dylan mixing in a bit of Lennon on his lead vocal (though he doesn’t quite veer into “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” territory), with Egan harmonizing on the catchy chorus. Tasty slide parts color the song, which sits on a clever bass groove. Handclaps ice the cake. More cowbell? They have you covered in the breaks. All the makings of a hit. When Quentin Tarantino deployed it as part of The Reservoir Dogs soundtrack (who could forget that disturbing Mr. Blonde scene) it was back. Credit to the strength of the tune in that it has held up remarkably well. The rest of this debut effort is quite respectable. “Late Again” and “You Put Something Better Inside Me” are both highlights and also got 45’ed. “Outside Looking In” plays like a lost Lennon solo cut, yet the overall impact is hypnotic. “I Get By” would have slotted in perfectly on the second Big Star album (Radio City) with a stop-start arrangement, twin guitar attack and comes closest to a “rock” feel.

The mix is incredibly clean, which is no surprise as the legendary Geoff Emerick engineered along with John Mills. My copy dates from the late 70s, though I found it second hand in the early 90s. Listening for the first time in at least a decade, this is a lot better than I remember it. Solid harmonies and impeccable playing in service of the songs goes a long way. Stealers Wheel (the album) remains overlooked despite its obvious charms. Their catalog got a makeover and reissue in 2016. If you spot this one in vinyl format, grab it.

Friday, January 12, 2018

LED ZEPPELIN I TURNS 49



Back in the mists of the late sixties, two session veterans coupled with two relatively unknown (yet very good) musicians. With all groups who are in their infancy, the first rehearsal is generally a proving ground to see if everyone will be able to work well together. For this quartet, the musical equivalent of nuclear fission happened in a small room. Their next steps would be to get tighter as a unit, then commit a set of songs to tape. In a quote from his book Sound Man (which is recommended reading), legendary producer/engineer Glyn Johns takes up the narrative:

I turned up at Olympic (studio), not having any real idea of what I was walking into. I was blown off my feet. The album that we made in the next nine days was a landmark in rock and roll history, taking it to another level altogether. The stereo mix of this record is certainly one of the best sounding that I ever made, but the credit has to go to the band, as all I did was try to faithfully put down on tape what they were giving me, adding a little echo here and there to enhance the mood.

On January 12, 1969 Led Zeppelin was released in the US. It was a stunning debut that caught a lot of listeners by surprise. Three summers ahead of their contemporaries in terms of sonic impact, the innovation in sound was a revelation. Most rock-obsessed readers know the rest of the story: critics at the time didn’t get it, claims of authorship on certain pieces were questionable and the group was considered to be the product of hype as they landed a huge deal without having logged any serious time on stage. The fullness of time would sweep away these claims, reverse initial critical opinions and legalities concerning credits would eventually be sorted out.

Landing with the force of an asteroid strike, “Good Times, Bad Times” kicks in the door with those opening accents in E major, punctuated by percussive responses and proceeds to level most everything that came before it. Heavy rock had truly arrived with this grand statement, executed in just under three minutes.

Groups had put out heavy stuff before this, didn’t they?

They had, though Zep I properly captured the energy and live feel of such muscular playing in a recording studio. The key to this was a combination of factors. Jimmy Page produced and ran the sessions. Along with John Paul Jones, he had logged hundreds of hours of studio time. Both musicians knew that the secret to making a top class record was all about care in pre-production. The band was tight and all arrangements were set prior to tracking. Each player knew how to coax the best sounds from their respective instruments. In addition, Jimmy was also very savvy about mic technique and their proper placement to get the most out of the room.

So was Glyn Johns. It was on this gig that he discovered a widely imitated formula for recording drums. This again is an excerpt from Sound Man (edited for inclusion here)

It was a complete accident…we had finished a basic track and had decided to overdub an acoustic guitar on it. I took one of the Neumann U67s that I had been using on the drums to use on the guitar. Having finished, I put it back on the drums to start the next basic track. When I lifted the faders to listen to the drums, I found that I had inadvertently left the mic assigned to the track I had been using for the overdub (placed to the far left in the stereo spectrum). As the other drum mic was in the middle, it spread the sound to the left. So I wondered what would happen if I put them left and right and made the small adjustment of pointing the floor tom mic at the snare, making the two mics equidistant from it. The result sounded enormous with the completely different perspective that stereo brings…I panned each track to half left and half right ending up with the technique that I have used ever since. A prerequisite to this working is that you must have a drummer who gives you a good sound in the first place, as well as a pair of Neuman U67s or 47s, or Telefunken 251s.

John Bonham was not only an extraordinary player but also knew how to properly tune his drums. His bass foot sounds like the work of multiple pedals, yet it is just that magic right leg of his doing all of the heavy lifting. Couple that with virtuoso fret burning from Page and Jones and you have a winner. Robert Plant’s vocals were the icing on an astounding cake.

HIGHLIGHTS

Led Zeppelin I is uniformly excellent. There are multiple musical personalities at work throughout. One delivers original, uncompromising, intensity in short blasts (“Good Times, Bad Times”, “Communication Breakdown”) while the next lays back and brings acoustic guitar up front ("Your Time Is Gonna Come" sporting that glorious, church organ intro from choirmaster John Paul Jones and “Black Mountain Side” an instrumental adaptation of Bert Jansch’s reading of the traditional folk tune “Black Water Side”). They split the difference with the haunting “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” an Anne Bredon composition that Page took up from a Joan Baez LP and deftly re-arranged. This is a prime example of their versatility and an innate ability to make melodic yet ultimately powerful music. Dynamics are the secret sauce that make this one so compelling. Plant hits those notes effortlessly, supported by delicate acoustic picking from Page. When Bonham and Jones kick in, the game is raised. One of my personal favorites. Elsewhere, heavy blues workouts take up the majority of needle time, with Willie Dixon’s “You Shook Me” show-casing everyone’s taste and skill. The monsters are “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times”. These multi-part epics stretch out to encompass psychedelic passages, face-melting solos, vocal gymnastics and both were wisely chosen to close out each side of the disc. No descriptors do justice to the sheer power of these mind-blowing slabs of experimentation. You need only listen.

As of this writing, the album holds up beautifully, sounding as fresh in 2018 as it did nearly a half century ago mainly because they didn’t overthink their performances. On the other hand, careful consideration was applied to song sequence. Very clever it is as each selection blends into the next, with the caveat that no similar theme follows what precedes it. No minor detail, this programming approach maintains interest as each new surprise unfolds.

Majestic as it was, Zep I was merely a taste of what was yet to come. “Dazed and Confused” would become a staple of their shows, running over 30 minutes on inspired nights. It also unofficially kicked off the 1970s roughly a year in advance of the actual event. Rock music’s blueprint would be redrawn overnight, with the ever present shadow of the Zeppelin cast on everything below.


Monday, January 08, 2018

SUMMERTIME DREAM



Following the beast that he had unleashed with Sundown would prove to be a challenge for Lightfoot. Instead of reinventing the wheel, he opted to stick with a similar formula on Cold on the Shoulder, from which came the excellent single, "Rainy Day People". Landing with ease on contemporary radio playlists, it kept his work at the forefront of the public imagination. The mother LP was viewed as a lesser opus at the time, though it's actually quite good. His summary statement to end 1975? Gord's Gold, four sides of brilliance which served as both an excellent career retrospective and a defiantly raised middle finger to his former label.

I'll return to that conversational marker...

New business in the shape of his next project was already in progress as he closed out another productive year. Ten new songs were written and recorded by January 1976. Summertime Dream would be his twelfth LP in a decade, capping an inspired run of incredibly influential, substantial music that continues to find a new audience.

Opening with grace, "Race Among the Ruins" wastes no time establishing itself as the strongest, most accessible track. His ability to combine hooks with a well considered line is estimable. It takes the eye of a seasoned editor to make this scan and instantly catch the ear of the listener within a three minute framework.

When you wake up to the promise
Of your dream world comin' true
With one less friend to call on
Was it someone that I knew
Away you will go sailin'
In a race among the ruins
If you plan to face tomorrow
Do it soon


This country-pop diamond grabs your attention immediately, though even inveterate fans were scarcely prepared for the next weapon to be deployed on the disc. Gallons of ink have been spilled in an effort to praise and deconstruct "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald". Grim in that it recounts the detail of a (then) recent nautical disaster, it stands as one of the most unlikely creations to ever invade top forty playlists (Can # 1, US #2). Lengthy, ponderous and seemingly without a trace of any discernible chorus, the song stands on a very haunting guitar figure that punctuates each verse and sheer will. Musically, every player contributes to an atmosphere of pure foreboding and futility. Lightfoot tops it off with a chilling vocal that runs down every aspect of the last journey of a doomed vessel and its crew members.

Does anyone know where the love of god goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours


His genius places you right there with those brave souls about to perish in the grip of a ferocious November gale. Deserving of every superlative, this startling recording succeeds in conveying the weight and tension of the event itself. Very few writers are capable of bringing such subject matter so deftly to the masses without falling victim to maudlin cliché.

There is a distinctive adult-contemporary-country feel in place with the sweet steel of Pee Wee Charles coloring the arrangements. Lightfoot further commits to full band performances, with "I'd Do It Again" nominated as the cut that stretches out most into "rock" territory. Harmonized lead guitar and a surprising time signature change all work like a Swiss watch. Both the title track and "Protocol" weave storytelling magic and sonic innovation together successfully, coming in as close contenders in the highlight reel category. Confident, in excellent voice and determined to take new steps, Summertime Dream saw him make a stylistic break with the past. While it was successful on every level, commercial fortunes would not be the same for him after this one. Despite shifting trends, he stayed in the game doing what came naturally: writing and plying his trade in front of adoring audiences.

POSTSCRIPT

We now come full circle to a point that I had raised in the first paragraph. Gord's Gold had an element of score settling involved in its packaging. Still raw about what he felt was a lack of support from label executives during his time with United Artists, he re-recorded all of his early material featured on that double disc. He was not pleased with the sound of the originals nor was he thrilled about them making money by putting out compilations like Classic Lightfoot and licensing the masters to K-Tel to do the same. The past held no romance for GL and he took his revenge accordingly. This exercise in kicking off 2018 with a week of Lightfoot reviews has been extremely rewarding. I had carefully dusted off these seven great LPs, collected over years at flea markets, record shops and street sales, not entirely sure how they would sound. Some have moved around with me countless times, waiting patiently to be played again. It's been a revelation as each was every bit as powerful as I had remembered. Nuance, craftsmanship and true talent has no substitute. He is still working regularly and rumor has it that this humble poet may have a new disc for release this year. Heartfelt thanks to Mr. Lightfoot for sharing his prodigious gifts.


Saturday, January 06, 2018

SUNDOWN



Stepping back from the commercial arena in 1973, that calendar year marked the first occurrence where Lightfoot had no new product on offer since he had begun his professional recording career in the sixties. The consistent grind of write/record/tour had put heavy demands on his time, left little opportunity for family concerns and saw his intake of alcohol increase exponentially ("Somewhere USA" sums it all up). An intensely private man, he soldiered on through his commitments. His marriage imploded and the relationship he had with then girlfriend Cathy Smith would inspire both tumult and new songs. The restless artist internalized these experiences and turned them into what can arguably be cited as his best work to date.

Sundown (the album) is a consolidation of all musical avenues that he had taken over the past few years, with a nod to prevailing trends in soft rock and jazz. He was clearly utilizing new colors on the palette to paint pictures in sound and a more muscular approach is evident in the rhythm section, with session veteran Jim Gordon on drums. Synthesizers make their first appearance on a GL disc, though they are tastefully deployed. The result is akin to capturing lightning in a bottle.

THE BIG ONES

The title track is one of the most recognizable in his impressive canon. Sporting a killer hook in the chorus, simple but tasty guitar licks punctuating the verses and vaguely menacing lyrics, it is work that few writers would hesitate to sign their name to. Though the author has made little public comment on the matter, the aforementioned affair with Smith and some legendary partying are deftly woven into the narrative.

She's been lookin' like a queen in a sailor's dream
And she don't always say what she really means
Sometimes I think it's a shame
When I get feelin' better when I'm feelin' no pain


No mindless bouncy pop sentiment is present in the refrain, which found this bit of shade subversively dominate the playlists of countless radio stations and inhabit the minds of millions of listeners. Brilliant from top to bottom, it gave him his first US number one single.

Sundown you better take care
If I find you been creepin' 'round my back stairs


"Carefree Highway" owes its existence to a stretch of road in Arizona that bears the name. Lightfoot instantly co-opted the title and it followed "Sundown" into the top ten when issued as a follow up single. All of the stylistic devices he had used in the past coalesce perfectly here from supporting acoustic leads to light orchestration and a big, harmonized chorus that lodges in the brain effortlessly. There is a world-weary feel that creeps in, with the metaphorical highway being the ideal escape route from problems on the homefront. None of this was evident to his listeners at the time.

SURPRISES

Absorbing contemporary sounds, "Seven Island Suite" takes the vocal harmony style of CSN into the arrangement, has a very pretty turnaround and breezes by even at its six minute running time. Very different also is the jazz inflected "Is There Anyone Home" which has a similar feel to the sonic approach that Joni Mitchell took on Court and Spark. Another stunner, it subtly makes comment on his domestic issues, without being too obvious. His gifts as a wordsmith never flag. I would nominate "High and Dry" as one of the most clever takes on relationship insecurities dressed up in a nautical theme. Listen closely to what is being set down and a lot more is revealed about his personal situation at that point. Pointedly, Smith sings backing vocals on this one. "Circle of Steel" is a fine composition saturated with references to the Christmas holidays. Small wonder that this gem doesn't feature with similar seasonal offerings when December rolls around. "Too Late For Prayin'" closes with understated majesty, without percussion and brings the poet/ballad singer persona out as a gentle reminder that this side of his musical personality had not been completely subverted.

Strength follows strength throughout this truly magnificent set, with nary a wasted note to be found. Deservedly attaining the number one position in the US album chart, Sundown is the commercial apotheosis in his discography. International fame and increasingly lucrative prospects followed.

Friday, January 05, 2018

OLD DAN'S RECORDS



Appearing in stores in November 1972, Old Dan's Records saw the bearded bard gifting listeners with his second disc in less than a year. Unlike Don Quixote, a larger group of musicians contributed to the sessions. Drums return to the mix along with pedal steel, banjo, dobro and autoharp.

What about that title?

Kind of a play on the words: old dance records. It reminds me of my uncle Jack's 78-RPM dance-record collection. It reminds me of hanging out with the grandparents at Christmastime or some other holiday, having a party and getting out the old vinyl.

Curiously, breaking out the old vinyl has caused me to listen from a different perspective. This LP sees a further elaboration of the sounds that he had first explored on the Summer Side of Life. Once again, his voice slips easily into the songs as if they were a pair of comfortable shoes. With Dylan, there was always a sense of affectation that crept into his country-fried material. Lightfoot didn't change his approach to singing, nor did he try to emphasize a twang that he didn't naturally possess. His secret was to be as earnest a possible in executing his part when he stepped up to the mic. His power of continuous creativity is astounding, with side one being absolutely flawless. "Farewell to Annabel" builds gradually, adding layers of instruments. Just as it reaches a crescendo, the drums kick in and the curtain comes down as the track fades precisely before the three minute mark. Leaves you wanting more. "That Same Old Obsession" is an aching ballad that should have struck gold as a single. The title track is a joyous exercise and "Lazy Mornin'" benefits from the deployment of atmospheric vibes. Highlight here is the pedal steel driven "You Are What I Am". Two minutes of perfection, it garnered lots of play on both sides of the border. Allegedly written for his girlfriend at the time (Cathy Smith) it has an infectious chorus, doesn't overstay its welcome and exudes positivity. The coolest of the pack is "My Pony Won't Go" which features some sweet slide work courtesy of David Bromberg. It sounds as though everyone is having one hell of a good time throughout this record. Whether intentional or not, the closer, "Hi'way Songs" is arranged very similarly to "Farewell Annabel" with all instrumentalists ramping up as the needle eases toward the run-out grooves. The lyric seems to look back on the journey that he had taken thus far as a touring musician breaking into the larger US market, yet happiest back on home ground in Canada. Per usual, his economy with words ensures that the narrative is thinly veiled, tightly edited but with enough detail to convey the message.

Just for now I'd like to rest
In the shade of a maple tree
To the blue Canadian sky
I'll say a prayer for the world out there

When I stand on my own sod
It feels so good to be home, by God
The winter wind has turned my head
But I always came up warm somehow


Prolific would be the best descriptor of the man in 1972. There was more fine work to come.


Thursday, January 04, 2018

DON QUIXOTE



Temporarily abandoning the sound he had explored in Nashville, our resident poet strips things back to basics. The chiming guitar interplay amongst Lightfoot, Red Shea and Terry Clements takes center stage, augmented only by strings and the melodic foundation work of bassist Rick Haynes. The end result is another impressive collection of songs, steeped in the rich tradition of folk narratives. His focus is sharp, with the words painting vivid pictures at every turn. Songcraft this good does not come without hours of contemplation, revision and hard, ugly work to fill the blank page. The lone cover in the pack (Shel Silverstein's "Susan's Floor") is decent enough, though it seems like filler when compared to the surrounding material.

Opening strong with the title track, Lightfoot takes wonderful artistic liberties with Miguel de Cervantes' iconic character, allowing him to pass clever commentary on the madness of modern human behavior.

See the man who tips the needle
See the man who buys and sells
See the man who puts the collar
On the ones who dare not tell
See the drunkard in the tavern
Stemming gold to make ends meet
See the youth in ghetto black
Condemned to life upon the street


The author himself picks up the thread

It was written for Michael Douglas' first movie, Hail, Hero! I wrote the title song for the movie, but it was no good, even though he used it. He didn't use "Don Quixote," even though it was a better song. It wasn't a very good demo. I was at the premiere of the movie in Boston, and the producers took us all out to the horse track there. It was the only time I ever went to the races in my life. The movie went down in flames. But the song survived, and it seems that Mr. Douglas has thrived also.

Once again, the playing is precise and sharp as the lyric. There are allusions to the futility of war ("See the soldier with his gun/Who must be dead to be admired") that balance perfectly with the brave but delusional young horseman, tilting at windmills in attack mode, believing them to be giants. All this in just over three minutes. The other two highlights on the first side are the upbeat "Alberta Bound" and the gorgeously arranged "Looking at the Rain". These two offerings share a common theme: love lost. The former sees the protagonist down on his luck romantically in Toronto, which offers a lot of fun but lacks the one girl that he truly cares about. Solution? He resolves to head west and catch up with her. The latter doesn't hold out much hope for reconciliation, with regret filling every corner of the page.

Wishing this was all a dream
And I'd find you sleeping when I wake


Elsewhere there are ecological concerns around whale hunting wrapped in the tale of "Ode to Big Blue" and his passion for sailing infuses "Christian Island (Georgian Bay)". The late Stan Rogers had to have been listening intently, as he took up similar themes and ran with them on a string of dazzling albums before his untimely passing. He also took more than a few cues from Lightfoot's musical template from this period.

Though this inspired gem rarely falters in consistently delivering quality songs, it contains my personal favorite out of everything that this gifted man has written. "Beautiful" lives up to its title in every sense, from its soaring melody to those expertly interwoven guitars. His very best, hands down.

Closing out with a stunning piece on the sad toll that war takes on humanity, this multi-part construction provides a harrowing bookend to the imagery that is explored in the opening cut. "The Patriot's Dream" is six- plus minutes that covers a wide scope of scenarios and could easily transfer to a short screenplay, though the underlying message is quite clear.

Pity that it doesn't always get through.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

SUMMER SIDE OF LIFE



Gord goes Nashville on his seventh record, which sees him steering his sonic template on a jarring 180 degree turn toward the strains of bluegrass and country. Gentle, folky acoustic ballads are still present, though they now mix with more uptempo fare. The session crew expands to include some of the most respected singers/players in the revered Music City. Kenny Buttrey and Charlie McCoy, who had both worked with Dylan on Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline show up in the cast along with the Jordanaires. The transition suits Lightfoot as his voice slips comfortably into these genres, never sounding out of place. “Cotton Jenny” fully embraces the shit-kicker motif as he pulls off a minor coup with a killer hook, easily assimilated storyline and truly authentic delivery. You can almost smell the hay bales that one would imagine him surrounded with as he lays down his vocal in earnest, with a Buddy Holly hiccup thrown in for fun. This one later scored as a hit for Anne Murray, further proof of his effortless touch as a tunesmith that fellow artists could draw upon for radio-friendly material. Runner up for the most accessible selection here is the title track. The harmonized turnaround is reminiscent of “Does Your Mother Know?” and he deftly manages to balance weighty lyrical content with a very catchy melody. A creeping shadow slowly overtakes carefree time spent under the summer sun, with sadness hanging around the corner.

Lightfoot: "It's about guys going away to fight in Vietnam; that's the whole driving thought behind it. It's about saying goodbye to your girlfriend and your mother and not knowing if you're coming back--going through God knows what."

Regardless of the author's estimation (apparently it was not one of his favorites), it is a masterful four minutes of music.

And if you saw him now/You'd wonder why he would cry/The whole day long

Canadian themes are referenced (“Love and Maple Syrup”, “Cabaret” and “Nous Vivons Ensemble” which is sung in the style of stilted Diefenbaker French), storytelling is rich (“Miguel”, “10 Degrees and Colder”) and his innate ability to frame the complexities of a love relationship without veering into maudlin or clichéd territory is showcased in “Talking in Your Sleep”. Beautifully rendered, the classic harmonies of the Jordanaires are deployed perfectly at the mid-point.

Blending a number of styles successfully, this sits among his very best efforts. It is a must-own for anyone who is even a casual fan of his work. Pleasant surprises would continue unabated in 1972 as Lightfoot was embarking on an incredible creative run during this period.