Saturday, January 31, 2009

MAKEM AND CLANCY



THE MAKEM AND CLANCY CONCERT

Two true Irish poets who breathed life into everything they touched, captured live in 1977. This is a sentimental trip, as my mom was kind enough to take me along with her to see them play at the Savoy Theatre in Glace Bay in 1978. I had no idea of their significance or stature, though the memory of meeting the duo afterward to shake hands is a very happy one.

Liam is the lone survivor of the celebrated musical Clancy brothers, left to tell the stories with wit, a spellbinding lilt and a healthy amount of blarney. Tommy Makem passed in the summer of 2007.

For those with any interest in the genre, I also recommend this album, recorded live in the 60's on a Sunday afternoon at Columbia Records' 30th Street studio with Pete Seeger and 200 supporters. The joy in this performance is infectious. At age five, this one and "Beatles '65" were my favorite records. Wrecked both of them on a little mono suitcase record player.



"The Rambles of Spring" from a 1981 TV special, filmed at Bunratty Castle, Ireland.

U2



GET YOUR BOOTS ON (single)

Get your sneakers on and run away from this before it blows!

Too late.

Mixing "Pump It Up" (all apologies to Elvis-the living one) with "Wild Wild West" (Jesus) must have seemed like a great idea after a few pints. Then it turned into a three day drunk.

How's that hangover, members of U2?

I certainly hope that it isn't as painful as listening to this.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

MOBY GRAPE



MOBY GRAPE

Overshadowed by the story behind the collapse of founding member Alexander 'Skip' Spence, this long neglected San Francisco band imploded quickly. Countless pages have been filled in praise of this album, though not many people have actually listened to it, except for Robert Plant. You won't hear any of these tunes on classic rock stations, either.

Why?

Despite fine writing and playing from each member, there is nothing that reaches beyond "well done" to the level of GREAT. Make no mistake, this is a consistent set of songs, but memorable or extraordinary are tags that just don't apply. Based on many spins, to me, "Moby Grape" has definite high points ("Omaha") though I don't hear cause for why "important" rock critics lose their minds over it.

Faint traces of the lysergic experience ("Indifference") creep in, mixing with countryish material ("Ain't No Use") but it all lacks "Marv Albert bite". The Grateful Dead later used "Hey Grandma" as a musical template for "Truckin" , but Jerry and company remembered to write in a hook. That's the crucial element lacking here.

These guys also had an uphill battle in having their artistic statement released simultaneously with "Sgt. Pepper", which dominated the airwaves in the summer of '67. Next came a suicidal PR tactic that saw five singles put out all at once, with only "Omaha" charting, trudging to number 88.

Subversive cover art didn't help their case. Don Stevenson is flashing the naughty middle digit, which is funny to me, though still taboo in terms of public display over forty years on. Once Spence disappeared into a drug induced ether that involved an attempt to chop up one of his band mates and ended with forcible confinement in a mental facility, the door to any success slammed shut.

I would still recommend giving this one a shot, if you can find it. Each selection is fairly short which is a plus, though they stretched things out when playing live. This is really where they were in their element.

Mike Douglas show appearance = Very tight.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

JONI MITCHELL



COURT AND SPARK

Moving away from intimate guitar/piano vocal only presentation, Joni Mitchell linked up with Tom Scott and the LA Express as well as some of the top jazzers in the session game. Her voice is still very much a focal point, despite the ambitious arrangements.

She remained without peer in the song writing department.

Refusing to be tagged and filed in the early 70's "singer-songwriter" bin, Mitchell pushed past these restrictions to produce an intelligent, esoteric work of art. This propelled her far beyond the musings of some of her contemporaries, who had yet to come to grips with the megaton blast that had reshaped music in the late 60's.

Comfortable in her own skin, "Court and Spark" set the tone for experiments to come.

"People's Parties" is one of the best things that she ever committed to tape. Observation is entwined with all of the human frailty of the observer, shaded in with that immaculate 12 string part. Transitioning shrilly (overdriven layered vocals) into "Same Situation" with a piano based soft landing pad, an intimate vocal performance breaks into an uplifting plea: "Send me somebody, who's strong and somewhat sincere."

The "hit" single was "Help Me", with strong support from Larry Carlton. His tasteful playing through the fade is beyond description. "Free Man in Paris" featuring Crosby and Nash on backing vocals, charted as well. The blurring of gender perspective in the chorus line coupled with that guitar hook is extremely effective.

Both of these songs represent a very deft marriage of pop and jazz with incredible attention to detail in every aspect. All possible loose ends are dealt with and you WANT to hear more.

"Raised on Robbery"



Heavily orchestrated arrangements ("Down to You") never overwhelm the author. Unlike so many before (and too many after) her constructions steer away from the whiny, cliche-ridden paths that could easily be taken when subject matter drifts so close to the writer's experiences.

Covering the jokey "Twisted", wrapped in full-on jazz, is a bizarre ending to an otherwise stellar set.

Listeners will be drawn in by the melodies, musicians by the roster of great players that lend their hands to these impressive songs. Joni was only at the beginning of a rewarding journey into deeper forms of expression, with concessions to a wider audience soon to be all but left behind.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

THE KINKS



THE KINKS ARE THE VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY

This album is a special favorite of mine.

Released in late 1968, roughly around the same time as Electric Ladyland, Beggars Banquet and the White Album, the record got lost in the shuffle. Lacking proper promotion (new discs weren't as hyped as they are today) and with the Kinks still banned from touring in the US, it sank without a trace.

Fast forward to 1981. I was in a record store flipping through the stacks, when an older man, noticing the titles I was looking at, approached me. He asked if I liked 60's music and I said, "yep". He didn't have a pedophile beard or rapist glasses, so I didn't run away. Asking if I had heard of the Kinks (I really hadn't, except for "You Really Got Me") he went on to explain why they were great and that "The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society" was the one LP to own. He also said (prophetically) that I should buy lots of Stones albums as they would probably be making records for another twenty years.

I never did see that guy again, though he was very wise. It took some time to fully appreciate the impact of Ray Davies' genius, but I really liked the tunes. Should you should sell a family member or a kidney to get a copy of this album?

Definitely.

Tinkling piano, underpinned by softly strummed acoustic guitars and a descending bass line introduce the title track. The Custard Pie Appreciation Consortium, the Sherlock Holmes English Speaking Vernacular, the Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliate-all inventive playfulness wrapped in an engaging melody that starts you on a very English trip. As Davies noted: "While everybody else thought that the hip thing to do was to drop acid, to do as many drugs as possible and listen to music in a coma, the Kinks were singing songs about lost friends, draught beer, motorbike riders, wicked witches and flying cats."



Fairly weighty thoughts (for a 24 year old) also shape "Do You Remember Walter?". The frustration felt by the inability to reconnect with a childhood friend who has succumbed to complacency is a universal subject. Jeff Lynne must have liked this tune a lot, as the opening of ELO's "Mr Blue Sky" matches the piano and drum lines exactly.

"Walter, you are just an echo of a world I knew so long ago
If you saw me now you wouldnt even know my name.
I bet youre fat and married and youre always home in bed by half-past eight.
And if I talked about the old times you'd get bored and you'd have nothing more to say."

Growing old wasn't a common theme in the music of the late 60's, though the first line of "Picture Book" suggests that you imagine yourself doing just that. Looking over your shoulder at the past , all the usual suspects show up while thumbing through an album of dusty photos. Davies was reportedly going through a patchy period in the mid sixties, suffering a depressive episode. Better spirits recovered, childhood memories of bed and breakfast, seaside vacations in "those days when you were happy, a long time ago" were channelled into his work.

"Big Sky" seems to be an impassive watcher of all that goes on below it, with lyrics that suggest an anti religious sentiment. ("Someday, we'll be free...") The band plays hard here (and on "Wicked Anabella"), though not in the vein of their early, almost punkish sounding singles.

Music hall stylings also flower here, though not to the extent that he would incorporate them in early to mid 70's. Proceedings take a strange turn, at times, with varispeeded arrangements (Noel Coward on acid, "Sitting By the Riverside") though psychedelic touches are purposely avoided. Because of this, the band also fell out of sync with then current trends.

Production values were not at the level of the Kinks' contemporaries, allowing distorted sounding drums, bass rumbles and guitar buzz to remain. Shel Talmy is out of the picture, though it really doesn't matter, as the overall sound could have benefitted from more careful engineering, getting sounds to tape without overloading the tracks.

The material was strong enough to get by this fact, though it's a minor annoyance.

Village Green gives the listener a glimpse of a fictional place, "far away from the soot and noise of the city" where life is quiet. Davies: "I tried to write about what I knew, and that was the neighbourhood I grew up in. All of those songs were inspired by characters who lived, probably, 100 yards away from me. But they also pick up on a kind of wistful and ironic facet of English culture. English people are a little bit wistful and mundane - and I like the people that have little quirks in their lives and low-achieving people. I think they're worth writing about. It's something to do with the English culture and dark humour and the way we look at the world."

Bassist Pete Quaife named "Animal Farm" as his favorite track saying that, "the song gave him shivers when he first heard Ray banging it out on piano." "Starstruck" continues on an ethereal path, with mellotron supporting the lyrical reading of an individual that gets caught up in fast living, chasing after a rock star. A promotional film was made for this one, the last featuring the original lineup.



The remaining tracks are a mixed bag, stylistically. "Phenomenal Cat" musically echoes what Syd Barrett had been doing on Piper at the Gates of Dawn., with bizarre, sped up elfin voices unsettling the once upon a time, fairy story atmosphere "Monica", by contrast, slips into a latin jazz. Sarcastically funny, "People Take Pictures of Each Other" is a cruel version of picture book in which the author expresses his distaste both for being photographed and being stuck, sitting for hours perusing them ("Don't show me no more, please!")

Completely deflating the yearning, nostalgic theme of the album, it employs jaunty, old time music to completely kill all that came before. A masterstroke of sequencing as the curtain drops. My own nostalgic trip comes into play here, as being steered toward this record opened another door in my musical education. I feel lucky, as Davies himself once joked that, "even the people who talk about Village Green probably haven't heard it."

The 2004 deluxe edition manages to shovel up all of the tracks (including the excellent "Days") recorded during these sessions on three CDs. Sadly, they don't make 'em like this anymore.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

BIG STAR



#1 Record

Dizzying styles and fads were thrown at the record buying public in 1972. Artists who had brought so much to the imaginations of listeners in the 1960's were either dead or releasing work that saw them going into decline. Some of the heroes of the previous decade were looked upon as spent forces, creatively.

The K-Tel generation was now ripe for brainwashing.

Along came Big Star, taking the best elements of British Invasion pop, the jangle of the Byrds and fusing it all with great playing, song writing and crystal clear production. The makings of a super successful group?

It really should have been.

Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel formed the core of the outfit (then called "Icewater") They were then joined by former Box Tops singer, Alex Chilton, with he and Bell doing the bulk of the writing. Renamed for a local supermarket chain, while recording, all of the pieces fell into place.

Released on Ardent Records, hampered by inept distribution from Stax, the album flopped commercially. Although music critics drooled over # 1 Record, many didn't even get to hear it. Shortly after, Chris Bell walked away from the band.



Everything here is meticulously thought out in terms of arrangements and how the instruments were recorded. It seems fitting that producer John Fry mentioned, at the time, "that if it came out of England it was alright by us."

Anyone watching reruns of That 70's Show would be familiar with the opening strains of "In the Street", little knowing (or caring) where it came from. Love the line about stealing a car to drive around and the "wish we had a joint so bad" turnaround. Clean, crisp Stratocaster produced guitar figures are everywhere. "When My Baby's Beside Me" and "Thirteen" also leap out and grab the ear.

Heavier material appears occasionally ("Don't Lie To Me", "Feel") but it is the exception and not the rule.

Signaling a downshift in the homestretch, "rock" exits the picture in favor of quiet fare. Melancholy permeates the remaining songs, which seem caught in the long shadow of a lonesome sunset. "Try Again" would not have sounded out of place on "All Things Must Pass." Acoustic strumming and slide guitar, surround the "Lord, I've been tryin' to be what I should" lyric. Mysteriously titled, "St 100/6" makes a stark, album closer.

"Love me again
Be my friend
I need you now
I'll show you somehow."



Although they would (without Bell) produce another brilliant set (Radio City), it would suffer the same fate as # 1 Record. An aborted attempt at a third album signaled the end of the band. The legend grew up around them as time passed. Countless artists have paid tribute, citing them as a huge influences.

Alex Chilton: "Well, all in all I sort of look at the Big Star records as being a little bit innovative, you know? And by that I mean in a mostly musical sort of way, and not so much in a literary sense. I look at the tunes that we wrote, and I think that some of them – a few of them – are pretty good. I listen to the music, and I think that some of it shows a good musical mind at work. That’s what I think is good about those records. I see them as being the work of sort of young, fairly promising musical minds. I’m not as crazy about them as a lot of Big Star cultists seem to be."

Some film shot during these sessions. "Thank You Friends" is from "Sister Lovers" (third, incomplete Big Star album)



"#1 Record" isn't easy to find on vinyl, though it's readily available on a twofer CD (which includes "Radio City") released by Rykodisc in the early 90's. When listening, you'll be amazed that this was done in the early seventies.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Thursday, January 08, 2009

NICK DRAKE



PINK MOON

Appreciation for all things musical often comes at the expense of certain social expectations. Listening for a small quirk in an arrangement when you should be focusing on a conversation is just a small symptom of this.

Discovering an artist that reminds you of why you became obsessed with music to begin with is the payoff.

Despite years lost in dusty record stores I have only become aware of Nick Drake's contributions in the past year.

Glad to have finally caught up.

Released in 1972, "Pink Moon" was his third and final album. Like its predecessors, little notice was taken of it and by 1974, he was gone.

Accompanied only by an acoustic guitar in a myriad of tunings, the voice is that of someone who's constantly telling you a secret. Leaning in closer, you pick up information missed the first time around.

Return trips to these quiet, inscrutable songs become inevitable.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

RUSH



SIGNALS

For many listeners/critics, this album was the point where:

a) They really liked the new direction taken and wanted more.

b) They set fire to the record in protest.

c) They set fire to themselves.

This was an X-mas gift for me back when it first came out, so I went with the first option.

Arguably, these guys are three of the most accomplished players out there. Stunning virtuosity does not always translate to mainstream success, though (not that any artist should focus on pleasing the universe). Their earlier work often strayed into lengthy, conceptual territory.

Beginning with the "Permanent Waves" LP in 1980 , streamlined song writing was the road forward and "Signals" was a great balance between pleasing everyone and no one. Those who enjoyed ten minute swords and sorcery epics now had to look elsewhere.

Geddy Lee's voice underwent a fairly dramatic transformation through this period, finding a greater warmth and tonality in the process. The Roland JP-8 synth was also the centerpiece of most tracks which drove people in the "rock camp" away from the group.

"Subdivisions" and "New World Man" got quite a bit of airplay with the album notching a top five US chart placing. All of the instrumental elements that make their sound unique are in place, though they are tempered with more of a pop-rock feel.



A sea change was also reflected in Neil Peart's approach to his lyrical craft. "Losing It" addresses the universal concern of decreasing skill and stamina that accompanies aging. Hemmingway is referenced, alluding to his decline before his death.

"Digital Man" is the best of both worlds. Shredding and insane shifts in timing sit comfortably with synth overlays and slight detours into ska. Listen to those basslines! No wonder this was brought back into the setlist for their last tour, as it must be fun to play.

Terry Brown was gone as producer after this, reputedly not happy with the shift in direction.

Though they continued to be a powerful live act, the band spent the remainder of the 80's chasing synthesizers down a rabbit hole, to their detriment, on record.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

YES



CLOSE TO THE EDGE

This was the second Yes album to feature the Anderson, Squire, Wakeman, Howe and Bruford lineup and it is their masterpiece.

Three song titles are presented, two of which feature four part suites.

The 18 minute title track is so good that it only feels like 15 minutes. Allegedly, the lyrics were inspired by Herman Hesse's novel "Siddhartha". A burbling stream builds to an intense rush of guitar/bass flourishes with drumming that straddles time signatures. This high wire act continues through each part that downshifts back to the pastoral soundscape to close.

"And You and I" is the audio equivalent of a solar eclipse. Rick Wakeman's heart attacks were the product of extreme commitment to his work. OK, it was getting loaded, but the guy is a genius.

"Siberian Khatru" sees every band member contribute memorable work, creating their own category in a way that seems effortless (though hours went into every part) Watch the virtuosity as it flies through the air.



Gliding high above these amazing arrangements is the voice of Jon Anderson. What else can you say?

Light years ahead of their time, epic is too easy a label for this high point of the prog period.