Tuesday, December 29, 2015

SO LONG, IAN



It is with much sadness that I write a few sentences in tribute to a true ambassador of rock and roll. As these words take shape, I am drinking cheap beer while listening to the Bomber album. Proud to be a former teenage metalhead, Motorhead kicked down the door and stormed into my life in the early 80s. While those precious cassettes from that time are long gone, likely buried in a landfill, the memories are razor sharp. First cigarettes (left-handed and otherwise), the spine-tingling, adrenalin rush that ensued while blasting their anthems, pissing off parents, small dogs and children within a one mile radius. This culminated in the happiness of being swept along by that wonderful tsunami of noise, without pretension, containing the energy of a thousand suns. All other poser bands could suck it!

Whatever happened to your life? Stone dead, forever

My favorite recollection from that misty period was trading Anvil's "Forged In Fire" for "Another Perfect Day" back in 1983. The guy who did the deal didn't care because "Fast" Eddie Clarke had left Motorhead. Who cares? It was Lemmy's band. He continued to make uncompromising slabs of rock as my listening tastes shifted to other vistas.

Still came back to No Sleep 'Til Hammersmith from time to time, while visiting the ever popular, scenic altered states. The bass solo in "Stay Clean" is worth your left arm.

We are the road crew!

All of us rent a corner of the planet for a second, only to be cut down into biodegradable matter for recycling. With that knowledge, you should feel free to do anything. If you take up an instrument, sing and spread music to anyone who is willing to hear, then you will be the recipient of much love in return.

Lemmy has collected a lifetime of it, slashing away at his Rickenbacker while craning his moustachioed mug upward toward the mic.

Play his music loud for the next week, Your neighbour's lawn will turn brown and the prophecy will be fulfilled.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

THE TONY BENNETT BILL EVANS ALBUM



Nocturnal musings from a basement window of introspection could very well be the overarching theme this week. This precious space when most other humans are comatose allows for the anarchistic laundering of thoughts in seemingly fresher air. Inane chatter coupled with the incessant pinging of devices are thankfully muted. The perfect compliment to this gently unfolding quiet?

Tony Bennett's warm baritone wrapped around the dextrous playing of jazz pianist Bill Evans.

Two very gifted individuals in every respect, their collaboration is filled with many rewarding moments for the listener. Opting to record solo voice and piano is pretty daunting from the perspective of any singer as every note is under scrutiny. Poor phrasing or awkward pitch are easily exposed, without the coverage of other instruments. Working without a net, Bennett steps up to every song with confidence and cool, delving deeper into his artistry in the process. When this record first appeared in 1975, unheralded, its contents were very much out of step with contemporary noises, likely puzzling anyone who had not spent time in the confines of a smoky jazz club. Song selection along with arrangements were reportedly worked out during the sessions, with no prior preparation. Impressively, the duo ran through each tune a few times before deciding that they had a final take.

Evans approached the material with delicate brilliance, supporting Bennett tastefully as he sang, generous in leaving space for his vocals to soar. When he did stretch out to take solos, he became an orchestra, lifting the compositions to greater heights. Their choices all tend toward softer, downbeat jazz standards ("Waltz for Debby" being the lone piece composed by Evans), though this is quite a strong set. Very easy on the ear, it is highly recommended to be enjoyed under a purple sky, in close proximity to ocean currents with your favourite libation. Recognizing an undeniable chemistry, they teamed up to produce a second LP in 1977 (Together Again), though Evans passed away in 1980, sadly precluding the revival of this inspired pairing. Simply a masterclass in sheer technique all around.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

SKIP



Gently influencing all of the liquid on our planet, the first Christmas full moon since 1977 is also cutting a grand figure in the evening sky, shedding some of its reflected light on a corner of my music collection that has been ignored for quite some time.

Skip James' Blues from the Delta came back into listening rotation after a long hiatus, much like the musical path taken by the man himself.

He cut some remarkable material in a single session early in 1931 for Paramount records and was paid the miserly sum of forty dollars for 26 songs. Eighteen tunes from this recording spree saw release on cheap, 78rpm discs, though they did not sell. Nehemiah James then turned to the church, was ordained as a baptist minister in 1932 and concentrated on gospel music, forming the Dallas Texas Jubilee Singers and backing his father, who was a preacher. Some years after that, he stopped playing altogether and drifted back to Mississippi, where he worked driving a tractor and cutting timber.

Now here's one to ponder. Imagine if Robert Johnson hadn't died so young and was living in relative obscurity, only to be located by young blues enthusiasts and encouraged to return to live performance as he approached retirement age.

That's exactly what happened to Skip James in 1964.

Fortunately, he was also able to re-record his phenomenal music with far more sophisticated technology than what he had originally been afforded. His work was rescued from barely audible, scratchy discs and allowed to breathe. Cream also did a vastly different version of his tune "I'm So Glad" on Fresh Cream that put some long overdue money in his pocket. History came to life as one of the best Delta bluesmen had his music resurrected, with scores of very lucky people able to see him play live. His pure falsetto voice was unique as was his use of modal guitar tunings. That effortlessly light vocal approach is what separates him from so many others who mined this genre, most choosing to wring each phrase from their "troubled and worried minds" in a far lower register.

Poor health plagued him during this brief renaissance though and he passed away in the fall of 1969.

Listening again now to these cuts is quite stirring, with each note containing vast amounts of what draws people back to timeless art:

Soul

Skip will still be astonishing in late December of 2034.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

FRANK ZAPPA (!)



Suspension of disbelief is the attitude that will take you far when you wade into the exceptional catalog of Mr. Frank Zappa. Commanding every stage upon which he walked, peeling off impeccable solos dressed in a guitar tone finer than silk, the man did not suffer fools gladly. Fueled by coffee, cigs and satire, he revolutionized recording techniques, while only the greatest musicians lined up to play/record with him.

"Apostrophe" is by far the best record with which to introduce a casual listener to Zappa, being one of his most accessible works. That doesn't excuse you from checking out the rest of his output, which is rich in exquisite playing, ingenuity of arrangement and eclecticism. Humour was the essential element in his lyrical subject matter, though he was serious as a heart attack about the fine details of every note produced under his watch. The title track on this immaculate disc features a solo taken in the Lydian mode, sitting straight-faced next to an opus about a fur trapper who is temporarily blinded by the "deadly yellow snow".

You just have to listen.

Satirical pieces that target hypocrisy in organized religion ("St. Alphonzo's Pancake Breakfast", "Father O'Blivion"), New Age charlatans ("Cosmic Debris") and the misguided zeal of some social activists ("Uncle Remus") blend wit with effortless, musical gymnastics. Understanding sound from an orchestral perspective, his stock in trade was deploying a superb, rotating cast of sympathetic players to bring his sonic vision to life.

Now ladies and gentlemen, destined to take the place of the mud shark in your mythology, here it is, the killer guitar tone...



Sublimation of original thought in favor of following trends was a constant theme that he railed against and with "Apostrophe", no subject is safe from his razor-sharp, verbal barbs. He would continue to publicly defend freedom of expression throughout his life. While Zappa would continue to astound, amuse, confound and sometimes piss off listeners, this album represented a commercial breakthrough. For an artist who was not bound by the restrictions of the two minute pop single, it really didn't matter.

Genius is a label that is tossed around far too liberally in the world of recording arts, though it deservedly applies to the multi-talented, late Francesco Zappa. Better still, he would reject that tag and simply allow his art to do the talking.

Monday, December 07, 2015

NORTHERN LIGHTS-SOUTHERN CROSS



Few groups have had such a radical influence on their peers as The Band. The first two releases ("Music from Big Pink" and "The Band") sent psychedelic taste makers reeling, leaving them face down on the canvas in the late sixties. Eric Clapton listened to "Big Pink" incessantly and wanted to join the quintet. After hanging out with them late in 1968, George Harrison's playing during the "Get Back" sessions echoed what Robbie Robertson was doing, who, in turn, was inspired by Curtis Mayfield. (That opening guitar figure in "Don't Let Me Down" is a very close cousin of the one which heralds "The Weight") Triumphant in invoking the true spirit of roots music, their gift for reading each other as ensemble players made it all seem effortless. Those songs have retained their power over time, still fresh and pure as the three voices that shaped them. Having set the bar quite high, it was inevitable that the third LP would come under heavy scrutiny. Pressure to produce another masterpiece, along with escalating indulgences on the part of key members of the team, would see a tapering off of the creative momentum that pushed them into the realm of recognition that they now inhabited in 1970. "Stage Fright" and "Cahoots" had the goods, though the reception for each was somewhat chilly compared to what had come before. Robertson was the main composer, though it seemed that his muse had temporarily checked out. The stop-gap measure would involve issuing a double live set (Rock of Ages), taking a brief group hiatus and recording a brilliant album of material by artists that had inspired them (Moondog Matinee).

Diminishing commercial fortunes now greeted the group as the seventies ticked on. In the dying months of 1975, The Band gently sent this quiet beauty out on the stormy seas of a consumer culture that had changed quite dramatically. "Northern Lights- Southern Cross" would be their first LP to feature all original compositions since "Cahoots".

Boards on the window, mail by the door,
Why would anybody leave so quickly for
Ophelia, where have you gone?


Curiously, this would be considered as a "comeback", though they really hadn't gone away.

Yet.

"Acadian Driftwood" is the strongest track, with Manuel, Helm and Danko all taking lead parts in this epic tale that loosely describes the plight of Acadians displaced by the French and English conflicts that arose in the 1800's. Robertson chalked up two instant classics with "Ophelia" and "It Makes No Difference." Rick Danko's performance of the latter lifts the song with an aching soulfulness that few singers ever achieve, regardless of experience or technique.



Filling the spaces with tasteful keys and horns is the always brilliant Garth Hudson, employing synth textures that give the sound a contemporary feel. The professor was one of the early pioneers in exploring this technology, sometimes designing models to his own specifications. Genius is an underestimation of his capabilities. Manuel and Helm turned in their usual spot-on vocal and instrumental contributions, with the shuffling rhythms of the dance floor showing up in a couple of places. There are no serious concessions to the robotic disco beat that was steadily hijacking the popular music scene at that time, though "Jupiter Hollow" and "Ring Your Bell" are pretty "four on the floor" for these guys. Levon and Rick were masters of creating space as the rhythmic quarterbacks of the band, though their secret was to never overplay.

Despite all moves toward working together productively as they once had, the tight knit unit of old was coming apart. Interpersonal issues around writing credits and aforementioned substance abuse ("Forbidden Fruit" doesn't even come close to the real story) were now taking a serious toll on the group dynamic, though they managed to rally in Malibu to deliver this last truly great effort. An upbeat energy pervades this project, which is quite remarkable in light of their circumstance at that point. This return to form is an enjoyable listen in all respects while remaining criminally overlooked in their catalog.

Within a year, the five original members would take their final bows together with "The Last Waltz".