Saturday, April 25, 2009

STEELY DAN



PRETZEL LOGIC

Damn you Fagen and Becker! There are very few perfect creations kicking around the planet, though "Pretzel Logic" holds down a spot in the top ten. Bending genres to make them do their bidding, they stretch the brain of the listener as straight blues morphs into jazz-rock with perfect harmonies and a decorative, muted horn arrangement. Precisely why I return to these songs so often. Welcome to the studio craft of Steely Dan.

How about the rest of this LP?

Magnificent.

Why do they show the credits at the end of a movie? Because they are lengthy and have no plot. Seeing that this is a low budget review of an excellent album, here is a "for whom without this would be just two guys with mind blowing songs" list:

Michael Omartian - keyboards
David Paich - keyboards
Timothy B. Schmit - bass, vocals
Wilton Felder - bass
Chuck Rainey - bass
Denny Dias - guitar
Jeff Baxter - guitar
Ben Benay - guitar
Dean Parks - guitar
Plas Johnson - saxophone
Jerome Richardson - saxophone
Ernie Watts - saxophone
Lew McCreary - horn
Ollie Mitchell - trumpet
Jim Hodder - drums
Jim Gordon - drums
Jeff Porcaro - drums

Subsequent releases would see the session player checklist mushroom to epic proportions. What I would give just to have been emptying ashtrays in the studio at that time.

Everything about this disc is pleasing to the ear, with not one clunker in the pack. You can almost picture everyone scrubbing up and putting the gloves on to do the mixes. Melodies flow effortlessly ("Rikki Don't Lose That Number", "Any Major Dude") with sharp lyrics around every corner ("Night by Night")

"It's a beggars life said the Queen of Spain but don't tell it to a poor man..."

Scintillating grooves are part of the package, "Parker's Band" boasting one of the finest in the set. Their lone choice of cover song is so inspired that it could be bottled and would fly off the shelves. Taking Duke Ellington's "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" and planting a pedal steel solo in it is just one of the many fun games played here. Curiously, "Barrytown" adopts the exact vocal melody of "Tell Me What You See" , a knock off track from "Help!". Inside jokes appear all over the place, with the lyrics making veiled reference to cult members standing on the corner with flowers in their hands. If you know about the "Moonies", then you are in and it all makes perfect, twisted sense.

Deserving of every superlative, this classic would initiate a cycle of crafting studio masterpieces with hired guns and staying away from live performance for nearly twenty years.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

NEIL YOUNG



FORK IN THE ROAD

Love the cover photo. Looks like he's trying to signal you to call the police without tipping off the people who are holding him at gunpoint.

Could be that he's channeling this guy.



Regardless of the wrapper, Neil seems to be on track with what he's done for many years: Making music spontaneously, delving into characters and causes quite earnestly and then doing a 180 degree turn down the next path that inspires him to write. Master of the "musical snapshot", he leads the assembled musicians through a series of short blasts celebrating his long love affair with automobiles.

In this case, his revamped 1959 Lincoln Continental, designed to run on an alternative electric power source (the Lincvolt project) serves as the impetus for the bulk of material.

Some songs are lyrically austere ("Cough Up the Bucks") though despite throwing a few wild punches, he connects more than he misses. "Fork in the Road" displays the wry humor that lurks beneath so many of his songs and his guitar (trusty "Old Black") is up front, distorted and matches the rant.

Neil Young - Fork In The Road


Not wanting to jump in without a serious evaluation, I have listened to this quite a bit in the past week. Anyone who is disappointed in what they're hearing obviously hasn't taken in many Neil Young albums. He's been doing this for a long time and his audience has often been slow to keep up. Interested in capturing things on the fly, the finished product is sometimes rough hewn but that doesn't mean it has any less merit than some sterile, overblown production that took five years to squeeze out and puts you to sleep.

Really decent sketches here and though it has a couple of repetitive tunes, it's pretty enjoyable overall. Longtime collaborator Ben Keith provides his usual stellar work on pedal steel ("Light a Candle" is excellent), guitar and keyboards, while the rest of the crew has been with him on and off for years. Young' has earned his place among the top writers to emerge from the sixties who still have something to offer. Plus, it's always great to hear a familiar voice raised at a time when we're being bombarded with so much phony noise masquerading as music.

ZZ TOP



TRES HOMBRES

Tres bien! Gillette poster boys "Zed Zed" Top outdo themselves with an almost spotless half hour of heavy blues. Years before Frank Beard was replaced by a machine, he was free to rock the kit with gut-bucket shuffles and tasty fills. This is where the trio really sharpened their sound, marrying classic blues riffs with clever arrangements and lyrics. Opening with the stellar one-two punch of "Waitin' For the Bus" and "Jesus Just left Chicago" the pace is set and never drags. Headphone fanatics have a virtual Billy Gibbons symphony with plenty of dirt under the fingernails playing across the stereo spectrum.

One of the best in the business, Gibbons overlays an impressive and tasteful series of guitar tracks that are expertly supported by Hill and Beard.



My own proper introduction to the group involved a massive herbal jazz cigarette and a mind blowing car ride with "ZZ Top's First Album" and this gem as the soundtrack. "Eliminator" had just come out around this time and following my epiphany with the earlier (and far superior) stuff, I decided that wine was a hell of a lot better than grape juice.

Lots of FM favorites sprinkled throughout the disc ("Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers", "La Grange") and they make sure not to wear out their welcome, keeping the the material short and sweet. WARNING: Look for a vinyl copy of this (and all other pre-eighties ZZ Top) because someone thought it would be great to give the older LPs an "updated" sound for re-release on CD. This means horrible sounding drums, boosted in the mix with far too much reverb and guitars that lack the presence they had on the original analog versions.

Apparently, if some fine southern gentlemen ask you to step into a metal cage that's tied to the back of a pick up truck, you really shouldn't do it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

DEEP PURPLE



FIREBALL

Second studio release from the Mach II lineup of Deep Purple and they waste no time in grabbing the listener with the explosive title track. Perfect example of dynamics in action, with Ian Gillan's shredding vocal topping a speedy riff that everyone clings to until the breakdowns with jazzy, lightning drum flourishes. Glover and Lord both take solos as the band roars back into the main theme, going out on a high note. Definitely one of the best things that they ever did.



Picked up my copy of this years ago for two dollars. The gatefold cover is well worn but the record itself is in great shape (no scratches, very little surface noise). The version I have has the remarkable "Strange Kind of Woman" in place of "Demon's Eye".



Stretching things out on stage was a specialty for these guys so the live versions of this generally eclipse the one on the album. "Anyone's Daughter" is a bit of a shaggy dog tale that wouldn't have sounded out of place on "Bringing It All Back Home". Dylanesque and like nothing else they had done before or since, Lord's piano carries the tune and Blackmore's fills are exceptional. Very Un-Purple-like.

Second side opens with the splashy vehicle that would be employed in their live sets to showcase Ian Paice ("The Mule"). One of rock's finest drummers, he is steady and inventive throughout this disc. Overall, this LP is a perfect soundtrack for knocking back a few beers (like most classic albums). Personally, I would swap "Fools" for "Demon's Eye", though you can have the best of both worlds by purchasing the reissue on CD, which gives you all the tracks from these sessions with bonus material.

This incarnation of the group was one of the strongest live acts of the early seventies.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

KISS



ALIVE II

The Backstory:

1977 saw the original quartet at the height of their fame, riding high on the massive success of big albums and the merchandising of anything featuring those iconic grease-painted faces. Determined to squeeze another golden egg out of the band, plans were set to record one of their shows at Budokan Hall in Tokyo. The bulk of this was rejected for release so a second effort was made by taping a late summer, three night stay at the LA Forum. Selecting the best performances from both attempts, "Alive II" would be issued as a two record set with the fourth side consisting of five new studio cuts.

This was filmed a week after the LA shows.



The Challenge:

One of my best friends recently suggested that I dust off my vinyl copy of "Alive II", go straight to side four and concentrate only on those songs. Many years have passed since I had last listened to these tunes, so it was a serious journey into the time machine.

What a blast!

Straight ahead, tons of guitar and plenty of hooks. No prizes awarded for being lyricists of consequence but they never claimed to be anything other than a big rock spectacle. As the last note of the Dave Clark Five cover ("Any Way You Want It") echoed, I dropped the needle and proceeded to spin it again.

Ace's "Rocket Ride" gets the most stars here, with a heavily phased riff that's more fun than a dozen beer. "Larger Than Life" claims second prize (love that drum sound) while the rest just brought back a ton of good memories. Great players who knew how to deliver an instant classic when they were on their game.

Very pleasant surprise.

After that, I re-enlisted in the Kiss Army and cranked the rest of the album.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

GREATEST LIVING SONGWRITERS



Chuck Clarke and Lyle Rogers!

Hard to believe that it's been 22 years since "Ishtar" was released to an indifferent public and savage reviews. I sat in a mostly empty theatre and almost filled my Depends laughing at this brilliant movie. People walked out. It must be tough when you go through life without a sense of humor.

One of my favorite films as it is beautifully strange on so many levels. Paul Williams wrote the songs performed by the hapless duo. Misunderstood and ahead of its time.



Similar movies in this genre? "The Pick of Destiny", "A Mighty Wind" and "This Is Spinal Tap" are a few that instantly come to mind.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

JOHN ALLAN CAMERON



LORD OF THE DANCE

Disclaimer: This has absolutely nothing to do with that marionette Michael Flatley, feet flailing about at 100 mph with 1000 other people on stage, copying his every move. Some day his legs will just detach and fly off, killing several unfortunate geriatrics with front row seats.

All that they wanted was a nice evening out.

John Allan Cameron garnered the respect of his peers as a first rate musician and story teller. Few would have the sheer guts that it must have taken to carve out his career path. Here was a young man from Cape Breton, who donned a kilt in the sixties and walked out on stage to present traditional Scottish fare to an unsuspecting public. Best of all was that he played arrangements of Celtic music on a 12 string acoustic guitar. Fiddle tunes (strathspeys in 4/4 time, reels in 2/2), folk ballads that were hundreds of years old, jigs and everything in between was served up in a way that captivated listeners.

Born with a gift to entertain, he was a truly innovative soul and tenaciously brought the music that he grew up with to a much wider audience. He has often been named as the "Godfather of East Coast Music", bravely cutting a path that many fine musicians from the region have followed.

"Lord of the Dance" was his fourth record and is a great place to start for those who haven't heard his music. Within the grooves you'll find folk, pop, traditional, Gaelic, bagpipes, fiddle and a host of top notch players who compliment but never overpower the man himself.

Highlights include the title song, "Streets of London", "Robbie's Song for Jesus" and the expertly picked "Trip to Mabou Ridge" which is authentic Scottish music, designed to pack everyone into the kitchen and start the party.

Why the kitchen? You don't have to walk as far to grab the next beer.

I must state that while I grew up with this music all around me, I really didn't appreciate a note of it until much later in life. Each in their own time.

John Allan Cameron took his final bows in the fall of 2006, leaving a wonderful legacy and far too many who miss him dearly.



Here's an audio clip of John Allan playing with a handful of talented musicians who were lovingly called "The Cape Breton Symphony"

Monday, April 13, 2009

EAGLES



EAGLES

First album from the group, recorded in England with the ubiquitous Glyn Johns in the producers chair. Before Henley and Frey became the dominant decision makers and writers, Eagles Mach I was a fairly democratic setup. The lineup was filled out by master multi-instrumentalist Bernie Leadon and bass player/singer Randy Meisner. These guys didn't invent the country rock genre, though they certainly achieved more commercial success with it than their contemporaries.

Boasting vocal power to spare, the original quartet were all excellent singers in their own right. Their harmonies were as flawless as their instrumental contributions . Sticking to well crafted songs, the emphasis was on delivering a polished end product without pointed social messages or issues that reflected the times. In terms of longevity, this has allowed much of their output to retain freshness and avoid the date stamps associated with most early seventies fare.

Critics took them to task for not being animated enough in performance. It isn't the type of material with which you would associate an excessive light show and people flying through the air. Reproducing these songs live required a laid back approach with a focus on the individual parts that were crucial to the overall sound.

"Take It Easy" , "Witchy Woman" and "Peaceful Easy Feeling" have since become radio staples. You know them.

Here they are in 1973, with Leadon taking them through "Train Leaves Here This Morning" ,which he wrote with Gene Clark.



Giving Earl Scruggs a run for his money on "Earlybird"



Finally, a guy who rarely took leads (Meisner), but should have more often.



"Eagles" is an interesting album, capturing a style that they would soon abandon in favor of a more rock oriented path. I enjoy the record solely for the fact that it is a genuinely balanced presentation. Two very ambitious lieutenants would soon begin to vie for complete control of the operation, leaving Leadon and Meisner to play diminished roles before they finally bowed out.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

JAMES GANG



THIRDS

Last "James Gang" studio extravaganza to feature Joe Walsh and it definitely has its moments. "Walk Away" grabs honors as the track that stands miles above everything else on the album. Walsh outdoes himself, with slide and wah-wahed mania all coming together to create organized chaos toward the end. Brilliant template for his later solo work.



"Midnight Man" and "Things I Could Be" are both respectable tunes with some nice layered harmonies.

The rest of the set is all over the map. Considering that these guys were best known as a power trio, some of the material probably left huge cartoon question marks hovering over the heads of fans that were poised to hear "Funk #49", part two.

String scores, brass arrangements , gospel singers and country-fried pedal steel all find their way into the mix. Stretching themselves in quite a few directions, the approach works well in places ("Again") though Walsh's fine playing is downplayed more than it should be.

Still worthy of investigation. If you find a vinyl copy at a bargain price, pick it up and prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS



THE LAST DJ

Artists rarely release records this strong in the autumn of their career, though Petty did just that with "The Last DJ". A loose lyrical concept ties the first few songs together as themes of rampant greed and crass commercial interest destroying music are explored with very little subtlety. I agree with all of the sentiments expressed.

The title track says it best.

Mediocrity is exactly what our current culture is celebrating. Just watch any of the karaoke contests on TV. Hour long commercials interrupted by bad lounge singers. The whole thing reeks. Occasionally, a pretty flower pushes its way through the cracks of a sidewalk in the middle of the city. Decent music, too, will always make its way to an audience. Eventually.

"Joe" is a scathing rant against all the distasteful aspects of the music business. The cynicism is rooted in reality, though. It has to be galling to be a craftsman in a disposable world. That's what truly fuels most of the finger pointing songs here.

Balanced by his ear for great melodies, the album also has its share of of softer material. "Dreamville" visits a place in the distant past lyrically with a full on moment from side two of Abbey Road in the middle, replete with orchestra and slow, distinct tom fills, giving the impression that Ringo himself dropped by to add his two cents. It's a fantastic song.

Equally good are "You and Me" and "Have Love Will Travel".

Mike Campbell is one of the most underrated guitarists in the business. Indeed, the Heartbreakers are comprised of musicians of the highest calibre. Who wouldn't want a genius like Benmont Tench in their band? They make it look so easy.

Tom Petty has put thousands of hours into his craft and it shows. He's resisted the temptation to turn his fans upside down and shake out their pockets when they come to his concerts, fought the record companies on price gouging and has maintained a pretty high standard as a writer. "The Last DJ" is no exception.

"And the lonely DJ's digging a ditch, trying to keep the flames from the temple."

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

THE BEATLES REMASTERED



FRESH CUTS!

September 9, 2009 promises to be expensive for Beatles fans. All twelve original UK releases (plus the US version of Magical Mystery Tour) have finally been digitally remastered and will be released on that date, along with all of the singles and a ten disc collection titled "The Beatles in Mono".

A crew of engineers at London’s Abbey Road Studios have spent four years working on the remasters using new technology and vintage equipment in an effort to preserve “the authenticity and integrity of the original analog recordings” and ensure “the highest fidelity the catalog has seen since its original release in 1987.”

Track listings and artwork will match the original UK releases. Expanded booklets will include original and newly written liner notes with rare photos. For a limited time, each of the albums will be “embedded” with a brief documentary about its making.

Any collector of sixties rock albums will tell you that The Beatles titles on CD are sonically inferior to the original vinyl releases. Depending on which country you lived in when the albums first appeared, there are also countless variations in the mixes, song titles and covers. Throw in mono, stereo and "electronically reprocessed for stereo"( where a mono master had the high and low end panned to opposite sides of the spectrum to create the illusion of stereo) versions and you'd need a separate room just to store Beatles LPs.

On a personal note, I am one of those sick (or really healthy if you're a muso) individuals who has multiple vinyl copies of just about everything they did. I may have to stand up at a meeting someday and tell everyone present that it's been 47 days since my last visit to a record shop and that I have five copies of "Let It Be" alone-The Box (with book), gatefold on Red Apple, gatefold on Apple, non-gatefold on Apple, and Capitol reissue. I promise that I won't buy any more...

I've said too much.

Nice to see that EMI is finally giving this treasured catalogue the treatment that it deserves.

Now, enjoy what you won't hear on these sets.

Monday, April 06, 2009

HEAVEN AND HELL



THE DEVIL YOU KNOW

Tony, Geezer, Ronnie and Vinnie are releasing their first studio project in a dog's age on April 28th. Sabbath...er, Heaven and Hell, will also be on the road this summer, bringing face melting joy to a stage near you. I saw this line up two years ago and they were excellent. Dio is in remarkable voice for a man in his late sixties.

Looking forward to hearing this.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/mpd/permalink/m31JPJ71082UHF

Saturday, April 04, 2009

GENE CLARK



GENE CLARK WITH THE GOSDIN BROTHERS

Another unjustly forgotten set from a most under-appreciated artist. Gene Clark left a void that wasn't easily filled upon his departure from The Byrds as his song writing and vocal contributions were key ingredients to their early success. Clark quickly turned his hand to crafting his first solo release. "Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers" could easily slide into a "top ten best albums you've never heard" list.

Teaming with Vern and Rex Gosdin, he also assembled Doug Dillard, Clarence White, Glen Campbell and had former bandmates Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke anchor the rhythm section. Leon Russell provided string arrangements to round out this stellar cast. Strong songs and Clark's excellent voice should have assured that this gem grabbed a wide audience.

Instead, it got lost amongst the multi-colored parade of 1967 psychedelia. He was a step or two ahead of the times.

"Tried So Hard" is graced by fantastic picking by the late Clarence White. "I Found You" is also included in this audio-only post.



Managing to outdo even his former group with this one, the odd twist is that his record came out at roughly the same time as The Byrds own "Younger Than Yesterday". You can guess which one received more attention.

There is a certain quality in his voice that suggests he had seen some rough times. Certainly, it's not stated directly as these songs are not the "I'm at the bottom of a whisky bottle in a honky tonk" type fare. Country rock/pop/folk is definitely the best descriptor of this excellent collection.

"So You Say You Lost Your Baby". Leon Russell's string arrangement is superb.



Make sure you find the original vinyl copy of this or the 2007 re-release on CD because, in the interim, some horrible decisions were made to tamper with the recording. In one instance, all of the backing tracks were redone, leaving just the original vocals, to give it a "softer" sound. It has also been retitled and put out as "Echoes" with different songs inserted. This is what happens when an artist loses control of their recorded legacy and some genius executive with no musical talent decides to "draw a moustache on the Mona Lisa".

Since his death in 1991, there has been precious little offered in the way of collecting his best work and presenting it to the public. It's a shame as he was a talented writer.

Friday, April 03, 2009

THE JAYHAWKS



TOMORROW THE GREEN GRASS

One of my favorite discs for so many reasons, namely that it was a ray of musical sunshine in the unremarkable mid 90's, boasting two guys (Gary Louris and Mark Olson) who had voices that were married to one another. The melodies? Better than you could ask for. Imagine Neil and Crazy Horse with the Everly Brothers singing lead. Criminally overlooked and underbought, "Tomorrow the Green Grass" is a fine piece of work.

"Blue" is an achingly powerful song, with fine harmonies tinged with melancholy. Louris and Olson's vocal blend unintentionally conveys a certain sadness. Hands down, it wins the prize as the most outstanding track here.

For those that remember Jon Stewart's pre "Daily Show" years. I watched this when it originally aired in April 1995.



More than a hint of Uncle Neil shows up in a few tracks, especially with "Nothing Left To Borrow" and "Miss Williams Guitar". Primarily, the feel is that of alt-country, with piano lines neatly filling the spaces, though rock/pop and folk inform many of the songs. The material is exceptional and the one cover, Grand Funk's "Bad Time", is so perfectly executed that it manages to eclipse the original. The Byrdsian/Petty jangle of "Pray For Me" is supported (like everything else) by iron clad harmonies and a nice hook as the set races to the finish line.

Good old fashioned, straight ahead album that you will find yourself returning to many times. Still sounds fresh fourteen years on. It amazes me that these guys did not find a larger audience with material of this calibre.

"Real Light" in Germany, June 1995.

TODD RUNDGREN



SOMETHING/ANYTHING?

"I've decided right now, I'm changing the name of the album to Throw Money."

Call it a brilliant tour de force.

Rundgren's masterpiece covers much stylistic ground. Velcro yourself in, grab whatever helps you to listen to music and get ready to hear Motown, Beatles, Brian Wilson and Phil Spector all thrown in the blender and shaped into something radically different. Expertly performed and produced, he plays just about every note on the record (wth the exception of side four) and comes up with an impressive number of stellar pop songs.

Two records worth of music with very little filler makes "Something/Anything?" a good starting point for anyone interested in dipping a toe into his work. "Hello, It's Me" is re-recorded and shows up here at a much improved tempo. The Nazz's (his ex band) version of the tune sounds like everyone swallowed a handful of valium before the session. Snappily arranged, it became one of his best known songs. "I Saw the Light" is the other high profile cut that most people would recognize. Irresistible hooks lodge in your cerebrum after just one spin, making it one of those perfectly constructed pop songs.

Not much in the way of ROCK here, though a few tunes like "Black Maria" stray into that territory.



There are a few instances where he recycles keyboard driven motifs (lots of daunting space to fill) and injects silliness in the form of "Piss Aaron", "Slut" and the minute long "Intro". It remains entertaining without stretching the jokes beyond bearable limits.

Warning: Anyone familiar with Lawrence Welk will be irritated by the slices of audio verite count-ins on side four.

Without a doubt, he's one of those artists that wears all of the hats with ease and was also in demand as an engineer/producer. Look up his credits.

As a postscript, if you want to hear dead on covers of a few classics from 1966, get your hands on his 1976 album, "Faithful". "Good Vibrations" has to be heard to be believed.