Tuesday, November 29, 2011

TEN YEARS GONE


Today marks the tenth anniversary of George Harrison’s passing. His musical accomplishments were considerable, though he had a tough time reconciling his role in the biggest group of the sixties. He was wont to speak about that period of his career through clenched teeth, preferring to focus on the present. Typically dry, upon accepting the Billboard Century Award in 1992 his first remark was telling.

"I'm sure that being in the Beatles has not been a hindrance to my solo career."


Forging his own path in the early seventies, Harrison was the first of his ex-colleagues to hit number one right out of the gate. Taking steps into territory that alienated longtime fans, singing about his personal beliefs and sharing the shimmering beauty of East Indian music with anyone who would listen, he remained unconcerned about replicating the past.

For the record, Dark Horse is an excellent album. Listen to it again!




Refusing to succumb to trivial audience pandering, he created on his own terms. When he was fed up with the bullshit that came with his trade, he retreated to his family and garden. The pleasure of music-making never disappeared from his radar, but he felt no compunction to reinvent himself every few years for the fickle masses.

Just dig what he was presenting live in '74.



Possessed of a dark sense of humor, when he heard that Neil Innes was reviving "The Rutles" in the mid 90s to parody The Beatles' Anthology with "Archaeology" he asked which one of them would get shot.

Slide guitar wizard, skirt-chaser, film mogul, lover of old scratchy records, ukelele virtuoso, racing enthusiast, spiritual seeker, philanthropist...lifelong smoker

He did kick the habit toward the end of his journey here in the material world. Sadly, it would not be in time.

My recollection of Nov 29, 2001 involves playing a lot of George’s music and drinking far too many beers. The following night I headed out to see Blue Oyster Cult at the Warehouse in Toronto with one of my best friends. BOC played “I Need You” as part of their set that evening, in fulsome tribute to a guy who likely inspired them to take up their instruments. It remains a very fond memory.

Late November 2002 brought two very pleasant surprises. Brainwashed, the record he had been working on in the last years of his life was posthumously completed (by his son Dhani and Jeff Lynne) and released. That and Tom Petty's Last DJ disc played constantly in my atmosphere for about a month afterward.

If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there...


Shortly after this, on Nov 29th, The Concert for George was held at the Albert Hall, featuring a band comprised of rock legends, all playing their friend on his way by performing his songs. When the DVD of this event was released the following year, it was yet another gift to those who continue to celebrate his legacy, winning new converts along the way.

Ten years on, the world still misses Nelson Wilbury. I’ll be playing his tunes tonight, drink in hand, wondering how a goddamn decade managed to slip by so quickly.

For your reading pleasure, check out this 1977
interview






Wednesday, November 23, 2011

FORGOTTEN MUSIC THURSDAY-BADFINGER



STRAIGHT UP

Badfinger's history is best described by that famous quote about there being no happy ending when you tell the rest of the story.

Prior to contractual problems, crooked management and the loss of two gifted songwriters to suicide, there was a band that created timeless music. Released at the tail end of 1971, Straight Up is their high water mark, though it had a difficult gestation period. Legendary Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick was in the producer's chair first and they completed a full album, which Apple Records rejected. Joey Molland picks up the story from here.

TAKE ONE!

We had already recorded a version of the album which Apple had turned down because they thought it was a bit crude sounding, and it kind of sounded like the No Dice record. They [Apple] were looking at doing something a bit more sophisticated for our second album. We had gone into the Manor which was Richard Branson’s studio in Oxford, by ourselves and had recorded a bunch of songs such as Blind Owl, Get Away, Timeless, and some of it was later used on the Ass [1973] album. We gave that entire album we had recorded to Apple as the next Badfinger album but they knocked it back.


TAKE TWO!

Enter George Harrison, who offered to run the sessions if they started the process from scratch. He produced four tracks; two were re-recordings of "Name of the Game" and "Suitcase" plus two new songs, "I'd Die Babe" and "Day After Day".

Working with George was a great experience, he was a master in the studio and he brought all his Beatles experience into the mix. George was very encouraging and co-operative. He would bring in his guitar and plug in and work on songs with you. He was only too willing to play a bit of rhythm guitar or some lead guitar and advise us on singing vocal parts. He did make us work around the microphone and made us sing all the backing vocals all at once. He wouldn’t let us overdub them one track at a time. So it was all the three part harmony done live. He also played the slide part with Pete on Day After Day. It took them about six hours to do that. He and Pete did that part together, overdubbed live, which is difficult, getting it right and getting the pitch right. George also played the acoustic rhythm on I’d Die Babe and that off-beat lead line in it too. That’s the only bits he actually played on the album.

Harrison had to then turn his attention to organizing the Bangladesh concerts and did not return to the project.

TAKE THREE!

Todd Rundgren came in to finish the record. Todd was really hard to work with, a real egomaniac and it was insufferable. Baby Blue was recorded live except we overdubbed an acoustic, then Todd took the tapes off and did what he did to it. It was not an enjoyable experience working with him, but Straight Up was our best selling album.


Rundgren salvaged a bit from the Emerick recordings, kept Harrison's work and proceeded to tape some new tunes. He also did the final overall mix, for which he was not credited. Despite the number of cooks, the finished album is sequenced beautifully and has a uniform sound. Pete Ham and Tom Evans wrote great material, as did Joey Molland. Melodic with fantastic harmony structure, their tunes rarely strayed beyond the five minute mark. "Day After Day" is a perfect example, with verses every bit as memorable as the chorus. They were so much more than a sugary pop act though, capable of delivering harder edged performances and were a tight unit on stage.



Strength in arrangement, especially in the vocal department, puts their work in the category of another legendary British group to which they were closely tied. This connection would serve to both help and hinder the band throughout their short existence.

Ghostly backing vocals and fuzzed guitar arpeggios over piano are key drivers of their sound, coloring much of the material. "Take It All" even drops in a Garth Hudson-esque organ toward the fade. Power pop just was another dumb tag assigned to these guys. Ignore the labels and you'll find a wealth of clever transitions ("Money" gracefully coasting into "Flying"), hooks galore and epic sounding pieces (the stabbing horns and strings in "Name of the Game).

"Day After Day", "Baby Blue" and "It's Over" stand out, though there is not one bad song or wasted note to be found here. One of the best rock recordings of the early 70s, bar none.

So with such a winning combination, why would it linger in the "forgotten" files?

Money stole my lady


When Apple Records fell into financial chaos, legal machinations prevented the further pressing and distribution of this classic work. Badfinger's Apple albums became instant collectors items. Truly heartbreaking, considering the combined talents of this star-crossed group. Without proper distribution, their shot at getting a commercial foothold was finished before they even properly started. How rare was it to find this recording? I found Straight Up on vinyl in the mid- 80's. The asking price exceeded 100 dollars!

Rolling Stone's review at the time was negative, as well, which didn't help from a PR perspective. Further proof that if you base your buying habits solely on recommendations from Rolling Stone, you have a shitty music collection.

When years of legal wrangling were finally resolved, "Straight Up" was remastered and released on CD in 1993 with bonus tracks. Interesting it is for the audiophiles out there, as the bonus stuff is primarily the Geoff Emerick productions (His versions of "Name of the Game" and "Suitcase" are awesome). Well worth looking for. Sadly, Badfinger is known primarily for the series of tragic events that ripped them apart, rather than the transcendent music that they created. This is a "must have" LP.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

JAMES TAYLOR-ONE MAN DOG


Occupying a curious position in the JT discography, One Man Dog ended up a top five disc following its release in late 1972, though critics and fans were divided in their estimations.

Intended to be a loose song suite, in the fashion of the long medley that graces the back nine of Abbey Road, there is no heavy underlying concept at work. What I hear is the artist, entrenched in his home studio, bringing in some very talented friends and saying, “Here’s the tune, the meter isn’t running, so we’ll play and see where this goes.” The ultra-slick, high production values that would soon become an integral part of the sunny, California sound in the mid 70s are, mercifully, not in place here. This is not to say that it is sloppily executed, as the record sounds great (especially in vinyl format) and the playing/singing is first rate.

The general mood, set by the opener ("One Man Parade") is one of ebullience. One can almost picture Taylor hunched over his acoustic, finger-picking the intro and then leaping to his feet to march around singing, swept up in his own joyous noise. It is this sense of fun which has a positive impact on the material, which is melodic and inventive. For a writer whose subject matter had generally tended toward the darker side of life, a tune like “Chili Dog” is definitely a 180 degree turn away from “Fire and Rain”.

Don't read me no Ann Landers/Don't feed me no Colonel Sanders



That sense of humor extends to the sonic dimension of the project as he pulls off the most clever deployment of saws (both chain and hand) on record in the link between "Fanfare" and "Little David".

There are passages that have a slightly jazzy feel and others have a gospel inflection, though “relaxed” is the best overall descriptor. No one expects speed metal tempos from a JT album nor do they happen here. Reminiscent of McCartney's first solo effort in terms of the brevity of certain songs and the fact that he tosses in a couple of instrumentals, Taylor earns points for trying his hand at something different with the attempt to weld these fragments together. Perhaps listeners at that time saw this as "unfinished" when compared to his last two releases.

“Don’t Let me Be Lonely Tonight” was the obvious choice for a single, though that shouldn't stop you from enjoying the rest.

Produced by Peter Asher, featuring scads of guests, this is one forgotten gem that begs to be heard on vinyl, if at all possible.

Friday, November 11, 2011

11 11 11 = SABBATH!


Today's announcement that the original members of Black Sabbath plan to release a brand new album and tour the world in 2012 was the best piece of music news
that I have heard in quite some time. Perhaps all of that noise about 11 11 11 being an auspicious date wasn't too far off the mark.

There have been several reformations since the late 90s and the band have acquitted themselves quite well in each instance. Their first crack at recording a full length disc with the original four in 2001 was aborted, with only a couple of tracks seeing the light of day.

Here's hoping that the new material is strong and that Ozzy, Geezer, Tony and Bill show a new generation of rock fans why their music has remained vital after 41 years.



Monday, November 07, 2011

THE JAYHAWKS


MOCKINGBIRD TIME

Emerging quietly from hiatus, the Jayhawks came back with their mid-90s lineup in place to play some shows in 2009. Mark Olson, who had left the group in 1995, has returned to the fold. Mockingbird Time marks the first, full length Jayhawks recording since Tomorrow the Green Grass with Olson and Gary Louris collaborating. Despite the tepid reviews that I have read, to these ears at least, this is a solid set of songs.

RANT!

What in the name of fuck do people want? We are subjected to a ton of the most objectionable garbage that has ever poisoned the airwaves on a daily basis and a few hipsters complain that the Jayhawks "didn't make their best album ever, per their claims prior to its issue". On the contrary, they have written songs with great changes, played with feeling and topped by two-part harmonies that soar. In a time where one note shit, with gimmicky noises and phony, processed vocals rule the musical landscape, people should be falling over themselves to welcome something real.

I digress.

While not as uniformly excellent as Tomorrow the Green Grass, there is still quite a bit to celebrate. Most all of the selections deliver in terms of melody, arrangement and the vocals of Louris and Olson blend effortlessly. Sonically, their harmonies have a slightly melancholic quality, though this never overwhelms the program. Their voices still sound magical when paired.

Tying things together beautifully are the deft keyboard touches of Karen Grotberg. Her contributions to the music supply a ton of personality and would be greatly missed if taken out of the mix. There are a few attempts to bring electric guitars to the fore, though a gentler, more introspective mood prevails. My only request would be to trim the running time on a couple of songs and remove the title cut. It is the only one in the pack that seems to strain to find something to say, fails and would have best been left for a future box set.

Standout tracks include "Hide Your Colors", "Tiny Arrows" (shades of CSNY), "She Walks In So Many Ways" and the excellent closer "Hey Mr. Man". Repeated listening will be required, but there's enough diversity with forays into folk, esoteric 60s rock and country to maintain interest. The playing is impeccable, atmospheric strings provide depth and color to several tunes, and the hooks are subtle though once they set up camp in your brain they do not let go. Why this band has never really broken big is a mystery to me.

Strong, engaging and undeserving of some of the critical stick it has received, Mockingbird Time will hold up well down the road. Long after the contrived, overly sugared pop confections of 2011 leave people with an upset stomach and nothing more, thoughtful music with soul will be waiting to sweep you up in its charms when you're ready.

The Jayhawks are touring the US currently. Get out and see them if you have a chance.