Tuesday, June 25, 2019
The Lord of the Strings Concert Series has brought a host of top flight musicians to the stage to showcase their talents. President and founder Tim Johnson has been doing so since 2002, to the delight of Southern Californian music fans. On Saturday evening, he took up his usual role as master of ceremonies to introduce a performer who proceeded to dazzle the assembled crowd with two sets, featuring inventive original tunes mixed in with a variety of genre-hopping standards.
Water-droplet harmonics cascaded in waves over the audience, followed by complex chord voicing executed at the speed of light supported by bass-lines that seemed to be rolling off the thumb of the tastiest funk player. Floating over this were flawlessly picked melody lines interjected by mind-blowing solos.
All executed simultaneously, seemingly effortlessly, by one prodigiously talented individual.
Meet Joe Robinson...
While those of us witnessing this wizardry paused to pick our collective jaws from the floor and reattach them, Joe casually remarked that he was now "warmed up" and continued on with a virtual masterclass in guitar virtuosity. The combined skillsets of Lenny Breau, Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel (who has championed and mentored Robinson), Merle Travis, Roy Clark and Roy Buchanan all figure in his wheelhouse. Add to this a pitch perfect tenor voice, topped off with a unique, melodic songwriting gift and you have an artist to be reckoned with.
None of this is surprising when you learn that he had logged 1000 plus gigs by the tender age of eighteen(!). The by-product of hard work and natural prowess was obvious to all who were lucky enough to be in attendance. Dashing off a highlight reel of jazz standards, pop, funk, country licks (and everything in between) "The Cannonball Rag" sat comfortably alongside "Misty", "Bye, Bye Blackbird" and his caffeinated version of "Classical Gas" which earned him top honors in the 2008 Australia's Got Talent competition. He also included Adam Rafferty's arrangement of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely" as well as Tommy Emmanuel's reading of "Over the Rainbow". Both were sublime interpretations. Utilizing a loop pedal for certain tunes, he would lay down sweet rhythm grooves and then grab his Telecaster to obliterate the faithful with incandescent leads. For one selection, he played two guitars at once (picking hand on the acoustic, fret hand on the electric) in what he described as (paraphrasing here), "wrangling both instruments to perform a parlor trick that he never tires of."
Showmanship at its finest.
It must be noted that Robinson read the mood of the crowd quite well, pacing his set accordingly. The most impressive aspect of his stage banter was that he kept it light, humorous and never fell into the singer/songwriter abyss of over-explaining what he was about to do.
Let the Guitar do the Talkin'...
On top of his aforementioned abilities as a performer, his compositions reveal him to be an absolute wordsmith. Free of cliché and brimming with melodic hooks, the songs that he previewed from his new disc, Undertones, were spectacular. ("Anything But Love You", "Let the Guitar Do the Talkin'" and the very clever (hilarious) "Millennium Man"). I will be reviewing that album in full soon, so stay tuned. Other standouts were "Adelaide" and "The Ghost of al Capone", which was result of a dream he had. His storytelling on the latter has a concision and intelligence that draws the listener in, with nary a wasted word to be found. Concluding the evening with "Out Alive", he ripped a series of solos that brought the house to its collective feet. Generous with his time, he even did an encore after that. It was an incredible show, in an intimate venue with crystal-clear sound. My thanks to Nate and Scott for the invite, as all expectations were exceeded.
Deserving of every superlative, to truly appreciate his estimable talents in person, please check out Joe's website for upcoming shows. Highly recommend to all reading here to get out and see him, support the artist and purchase his music. Guaranteed that you will be entertained and inspired out of your skull.
Wednesday, June 19, 2019
"There weren't any demos...Everything was basically made up in the studio, you see. I just play the guitar, don't I? That is my characteristic and it's my identity as you hear it. I suppose as far as this album goes, in a way it's almost like a back-to-basics album."
Interviewed for Guitar World magazine back in 1988 to promote Outrider, Jimmy Page certainly was no ordinary guitarist talking up his new disc. He was one of the most revered figures in rock circles. The eighties began with the promise of the first Led Zeppelin US tour since 1977 and the potential of forthcoming new music. All of that disappeared in an instant with the untimely passing of John Bonham. Shortly after, the surviving members announced that they had made a mutual decision to disband. Deep shock was followed by a retreat from the public eye. Page downed tools, reportedly not touching a guitar for a long period of time until he was approached to do the soundtrack for Death Wish II. This led to a reset for the gifted musician, who returned to live performance in 1983, joining Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton for the ARMS charity shows in the UK. Out of this experience, he also reconnected with Paul Rodgers who had recently left Bad Company and stood in for Steve Winwood when nine additional ARMS dates were booked in the US. Their collaboration in The Firm came next, yielding two albums and a couple of short tours before they called it quits. In 1987, he began work on the material for his solo debut.
Naturally, the nine tracks that appear on this record feature spotless fret-work from the star of the show, who tastefully deploys his guitar army and manages to properly scorch the clone groups that cropped up in that time period attempting to replicate sounds that he invented back in the late 60s. Looking at this from a vinyl perspective, side one leans toward hard rock while the flip downshifts to a more laid back vibe, with the blues taking center stage toward the finish line. Three lead vocalists lend their throats to the proceedings (John Miles, Chris Farlowe and Robert Plant). Amongst the heavy hitters, "Wasting My Time" and "The Only One" both leap from the speaker grills to instantly grab your attention. The former has sweet slide breaks and a catchy chorus while the latter has Plant presiding over a series of riffs that recall the vibe of their old aggregation. Jason Bonham acquits himself admirably throughout, forging his own style on the skins, particularly shining on "Writes of Winter".
“Emerald Eyes” is the absolute standout of the pack. Page masterfully blends acoustic twelve string and electric guitar with a shimmering tremolo effect. The melody is haunting, accented by those silky Pagean bends. Quite like old times.
Positively wigging out on "Prison Blues", JP throws down face melting solos with a twist. His great sense of dynamics allows for a build up in intensity before he takes it over the top. Great "off the floor", spontaneous feel.
If I cannot have your love, I'll sing the blues
Overall, this is a pretty decent platter. Those that rushed out to purchase it in the week it was released (yours truly being one of them) were presented with a sturdy set of tunes, highlighted by impeccable musicianship throughout. Anyone expecting the second coming of Zeppelin would have had a sharp adjustment of expectation. Hence, contemporary reviews were mixed.
The dissenting voices missed a few key points.
First off, Page wisely avoided the trappings of horrible eighties production that was all the rage at that point. No fake drums pushed up in the mix or dated synthesizers with everything drowning in reverb. Shelf life of the material extends exponentially as a result. While he nods to his past, there is no concentrated effort to turn this into Zeppelin Redux. His knowledge of how to get the best sounds to tape came from years of hanging around after playing sessions, watching the engineers and taking notes. A deep understanding of varying styles/genres of music also factors in, though he doesn't stray too far from the known path here.
Holding up well in 2019, it still stands as the lone title in his discography to be produced under his name. The subsequent tour undertaken in support of the LP exposed a new generation to his talents. If you see Outrider in any format, drag it home. You will be pleasantly surprised.
Saturday, June 08, 2019
How do you follow being Fab?
For Paul McCartney, hard work was the key to his impressive run during the 1970s. Forming Wings was a deliberate attempt to start over, return to playing live and reignite the joy of being in a working band. Written off initially by critics, Paul and team would eventually turn negative notices for their inaugural effort, Wild Life, into glowing reviews with Band on the Run. During this time, group members came and went, with Denny Laine and Linda being the only constant fixtures throughout the journey. Following up with a string of hit singles/albums, culminating in the hugely successful Wings Over America tour and triple disc, document of these shows, Wings had become a veritable commercial force. Entering their seventh year, lineup changes once again entered the equation. With the departure of drummer Joe English and lead guitarist Jimmy McCulloch in 1978, it was left to Laine to recruit new members.
Enter Steve Holley and Laurence Juber.
Their skillsets as musicians are estimable. Bringing a new energy to the proceedings, this version of Wings would feature far more muscular playing than ever before. Reset button fully deployed, the quintet set to work on new material. The sessions for what would become Back to the Egg were ground out at multiple locations/recording facilities and lasted nearly a year. Chris Thomas was brought in to co-produce with McCartney. His presence would bring another perspective in terms of the approach to tracking and final mix.
Before delving into the content, it's best to set expectations for those not familiar with this record. Upon release, it was subject to scathing reviews from rock scribes of that time. Some were mildly snarky, while others were pretty vicious. This set is much better than the notices it received. Next up is the talk track around McCartney wanting to capture the energy of punk and some of the premier "New Wave" acts that were coming to prominence during that era. Some of the tracks have a harder edge, which is a positive, though any evidence of trying to recreate the vibe of the Sex Pistols doesn't really stand out. (Try to imagine John Lydon wrapping his vocal chords around "Winter Rose"). Instead, certain selections are closer in feel to the pub rock/power pop movement. Far more Nick Lowe/Dave Edmunds than the Damned. Let's face facts: Punk was DIY, ragged-ass musicianship and pure adrenalin. None of those bands spent a year on their productions nor did any utilize a castle as a recording locale.
HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR EGGS?
Naturally divided into two listening experiences in its original vinyl format, side one is labeled as 'Sunny Side Up' while the flip (pun intended) is 'Over Easy'. It is the sunny side that gets the edge for consistency. Opening with the funky "Reception", it's all about the bass. Paul's line is tight and perfect, grooving accordingly. Nodding to his mid-sixties experiments with tape loops, spoken word snippets are threaded into the mix (excerpted from "The Poodle and the Pug") along with a shrill synth-guitar line. The effect is that of someone fiddling with a tuner dial on a radio, trying to pick up a clear signal. As this brief instrumental fades, "Getting Closer" crashes in with authority. Custom built with a fantastic hook and a powerful, vintage McCartney "screaming" vocal, it was an obvious choice for a single. The energy is amped up in the outro, propelled by Holley's precision percussive attack. First rate rock tune, it certainly deserved a higher chart ranking. "We're Open Tonight" is a short, delicate acoustic piece that serves as a clearing of the aural palate before the onslaught of "Spin It On", which is about as close as this set comes to Punk. It is hyper-caffeinated, though the rotating riff is pretty standard. Juber's fretwork is the star of the show on this one. Denny Laine's lone offering, "Again and Again and Again", raises the bar a notch higher. Reportedly a hybrid of two motifs that he had been working on, the bridge is spectacular with a very clever turnaround. A standout track with Laine delivering a pristine lead vocal, supported by McCartney's stellar harmony, it is power pop at its finest. Scoring again with a superbly heavy slab of guitar-centric madness is "Old Siam, Sir". This one apparently caused some friction in terms of credits for contribution of key parts, though the result is another contender for best in show on the disc. McCartney steps up with a tonsil-shredding lead, Juber and Laine execute fine harmonized guitar figures and Holley steers the arrangement with inventive fills. Linda's keyboard perfectly compliments the lyrical theme. Downshifting slightly, "Arrow Through Me" is a prime example of how seamlessly Paul adapts the stylistic elements of other genres, in this case funk/R & B through the lens of Stevie Wonder. Smooth vocal, leaping into falsetto territory, floats over a haunting melody and the horn section ices the cake. These last two cuts were also 45'ed, making it as far as the top 30. Both were worthy of higher placement and round out an ultimately solid first side of music.
Conceptually, pulling together a virtual "dream team", comprised of some of the premier instrumentalists in rock, to play in unison on a song or two seems like a pretty interesting idea. McCartney brought these heavy friends into the studio to lay down the "Rockestra Theme" and "So Glad to See You Here".
Denny Laine, Laurence Juber, David Gilmour, Hank Marvin, Pete Townshend – guitars
Steve Holley, John Bonham, Kenney Jones – drums
Paul McCartney, John Paul Jones, Ronnie Lane, Bruce Thomas – basses
Paul McCartney, Gary Brooker, John Paul Jones – pianos
Linda McCartney, Tony Ashton – keyboards
Speedy Acquaye, Tony Carr, Ray Cooper, Morris Pert – percussion
Howie Casey, Tony Dorsey, Steve Howard, Thaddeus Richard – horns
The motif of the "Rockestra Theme" is quite basic, easily adapted by an expanded session crew and is concise. Not sure why they still hadn't had any dinner, though.
Feed the Rockestra, Macca or face their wrath...
Despite the cast of thousands approach, both worked out extremely well. The "Rockestra Theme" won a Grammy for best rock instrumental. One of the surprises amongst the pack on the 'Over Easy' side is "To You". Lyrically it deals with a similar theme as that of "Arrow Through Me" where the narrative is taken from the point of view of a jilted lover. The music that supports it pre-figures the sounds that would color eighties productions. It is quite different than anything that had come before it in the Wings catalog and pointed to a very promising sonic direction for them had they continued on as a unit.
Instead of carrying on down a more experimental avenue, Paul retreated into familiar territory, filling out the rest of the back nine with softer fare. To be blunt, "The Broadcast" is execrable and should have been elbowed in favor of something else from the sessions like "Cage" (which went unreleased) or perhaps another tune from Denny Laine. Taking song fragments and welding them together saw the inclusion of "After the Ball/Million Miles" and "Winter Rose/Love Awake". While boasting fetching melodies (Winter Rose is especially beautiful, taken on its own), they are a poor fit with the surrounding material. "Baby's Request" was chosen to close out the set, though that honor should have gone to "So Glad to See You Here", which includes a short, reggae-fied reprise of "We're Open Tonight" toward the end. Showcasing McCartney's versatility, this soft jazz number is about as close to Hoagy Carmichael as you can get. It's good yet really doesn't belong here, coming off as an anachronism that few contemporary consumers would truly connect with. The aforementioned songs diffused the finished product, likely resulting in the indisposition registered by the reviewers who gave it such a critical pasting.
The perspective of forty years has seen a revision of opinion concerning Back to the Egg. It is now seen as a creative step forward in some respects, with Chris Thomas helping to guide McCartney toward a cleaner production style. The infusion of new blood in the Wings camp also gave a meatier dimension to their overall sound. Desire to do something different with song structure is another plus. This incarnation was really just finding its feet as a live act (as bootlegs from the 1979 UK tour will attest). It's a pity that an unfortunate series of events (the pot bust in Japan being the major blow) conspired to permanently bring an end to Wings.
While it kicks off better than it finishes, it is well worth adding to your collection. Those of you who own a vinyl copy know what to do.
Spin it on, don't stop, take it back to the top...
Sunday, June 02, 2019
Stan Rogers' untimely passing would give his third studio LP the sad distinction of being the last recording released by the artist during his lifetime. He was working on an ambitious concept that involved writing entire albums around the theme of specific regions in Canada. His first two sets dealt with the socio-economic concerns of the Atlantic Provinces in the mid 70s, blending nautical tales with topical fare and good old fashioned songs that addressed love, loss and everything in between. Rogers was a wordsmith, possessed of a rich baritone voice and the soul of a poet who crafted intelligent music that continues to inspire anyone lucky enough to be introduced to it. The title track, once hailed as the alternate Canadian national anthem, details the futility of the quest that early explorers undertook to find a route across Canada to the Pacific ocean. His work had diverse roots in folk, country and English traditional styles. "The Field Behind the Plow" is one of the most eloquent and heart wrenching tributes to the men and women who toil quietly to help provide the food on our tables that we take for granted. Equally beautiful is the metaphor deployed in the lyrics of "Free in the Harbour" which compares the extensive whale hunting in times past to ongoing oil exploration and how these creatures are no longer pursued in favor of extracting an entirely different type of "oil from the sea". It ranks as one of his finest tunes.
Regardless of the subject matter, he infused the characters that populated his writing with a wonderful accessibility. You knew them or at least had a sense that you did. Skipping an afternoon of work to escape a few hours of drudgery, the protagonist in "Working Joe" steals some time to relax. Managing to balance light hearted fun with a touch of pathos, the tune also swings. "The Idiot" takes up an all too familiar tale of young Maritimers heading west to seek work in the oil patch, daydreaming about returning to their home town. Stan wrote for everyone and he captured the cultural touchstones of the western region as masterfully as he did in his earlier paeans to the east coast. When it came to the music itself, he surrounded himself with top class players. Brother Garnet Rogers brought his talents to the mix on violin, while Paul Mills (who also produced his recordings) added his nimble fingers on lead guitar. In performance, impeccable musicianship and spot on vocals from everyone were punctuated with entertaining, frequently hilarious stories.
Northwest Passage comes highly recommended, though all of his output was of very high caliber. Anyone with a love for clever, well-constructed and heartfelt music will connect with these compositions. He was the genuine article, living and breathing his craft.
Brilliant, outspoken, opinionated and on the cusp of greater notoriety as an artist, Rogers perished in a fire aboard Air Canada flight 797 on June 2, 1983. He was just 33 years old. Such promise, of new music to be made, stories yet to be told, all disappeared in an instant.
Friday, May 31, 2019
Fittingly titled, the third Nilsson record soars majestically. Named for a vaudeville act originally performed by his grandparents, there is definitely a circus-like atmosphere woven into the grooves. The cover art depicts an old fashioned aircraft superimposed on a drawing of the artist's unsmiling visage. This provides another perspective entirely as the songs deftly perform the sonic equivalent of an Inmelmann turn, which is comprised of an ascending half-loop followed by a half-roll. Successful execution means that the pilot brings the plane to a higher altitude and pulls off a course change of 180 degrees. Listeners are guaranteed an equally exhilarating experience.
In addition to capturing that gravity defying voice in the midst of complex aerobatic maneuvers, producer Rick Jarrard pushes studio craft to its very limit. Add to this the remarkable arrangements of George Tipton and you have a veritable dream team in place. Harry brought some of his most innovative compositions to the table, resulting in one of his finest albums.
Despite the lighthearted intro, "Daddy's Song" alludes to the personal pain felt by its author, whose own father deserted him at an early age. This underscores a rigid dichotomy that informs much of content in this set. Themes of loneliness, insecurity and ruptured relationships are set to uplifting musical accompaniment. This could easily be a companion piece to "1941" from his previous disc. Wrestling with the raw emotions that come with paternal abandonment, there is the idealized version of Dad in the first two verses followed up by the reality of "the rainy day" that he left and the vow to end the cycle of sadness should he become a father himself. With its meticulously multi-tracked harmonies, this beautiful song makes for a compelling opener. In jarring juxtaposition to people who let you down comes a truly inventive ode to the workstation.
“When my heart’s on the floor I just open the drawer of my favorite guest / And what do I see but a picture of me working at my good old desk"
Melodic with a truly killer hook, "Good Old Desk" is one of the highlights in a stellar set. Curiously, many read a divine meaning into the title, seeing it as an acronym for the Almighty (G.O.D.). Appearing on Playboy After Dark in 1969, Nilsson performed the tune, telling host Hugh Hefner (with a straight face) that, "the song's meaning was in its initials." Years later, he fessed up to the fact that he was really just bullshitting Hefner and simply thought that it was a funny thing to say. In truth, there was a far more mundane inspiration for this one. Nilsson had office space at RCA and elaborated on his quiet place of work in a 1977 interview on the BBC:
"I had this little office with a desk, and a lamp, and then a couple of things on the wall and a rug. I turned the regular office overhead lights out and just lit this little lamp, and I was very comfortable there. I'd go there at night and write and there was no one in the building."
The other standout in terms of ingenuity and execution is the brilliant "One". Harry claimed that the staccato keyboard centerpiece of the arrangement was conjured while placing a phone call and getting a busy signal. His vocal is a mini master-class in dynamics, culminating in a flawless falsetto leap toward the outro. Pre-figuring Neil Young by a few years, the "number" that you're doing here is a thinly veiled reference to rolling/smoking a left handed ciggie. Tipton takes a minimalist approach to augmentation, with light strings, decorative flute and a hint of harpsichord supporting that effortless hummingbird of a voice throughout. Three Dog Night covered "One", scoring a hit, while Harry's version failed to chart. Great shame, as the original here is far superior.
Aerial Ballet is notable for being a proverbial Trojan horse, as it contains Nilsson's version of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'", which would sit virtually unnoticed until it was pulled for inclusion on the Midnight Cowboy film soundtrack in 1969. In an odd reversal of fortune, while others would hit big with his songs, he would do the same when covering the work of other writers. It would earn him his first Grammy.
There is nothing resembling "rock" to be found in the grooves of Aerial Ballet. Nor does the material align with anything remotely psychedelic, flying in the face of the trends of those times. Instead, the musical underpinnings are incredibly serene, at times seeming like a throwback to a bygone era. The professional songwriter surfaces in offerings like "Don't Leave Me" and "The Wailing of the Willow" and both also tap feelings of sadness that are at the core of the lyrical subject matter throughout. Elsewhere, Beatlesque touches can be found in the story-oriented songs ("Mr. Tinker" and "Mr. Richland's Favorite Song"). Harry weaves these narratives with a sharp eye for concision and exposition of the theme, taking the shortest route possible. Your patience is never tested in spinning this wonderful disc as no cut exceeds the three minute mark. While Nilsson Schmilsson often gets the critical nod as his best work, this is an equally strong contender for that honor. It is no surprise that his contemporaries greatly admired his estimable talents. Using his voice as an instrument, backed by top class musicians with a sympathetic producer in his corner, Aerial Ballet is a high watermark in his catalog.
Wednesday, May 29, 2019
Seismic shifts in popular music occurred during the 1960s. Artists who stretched the boundaries of expression provided listeners with sounds that would have a shelf life lasting for decades beyond the era in which they were created. Rock as a genre had matured. With the advent of FM radio format, full length albums became statements that required your attention as opposed to one or two hit singles cobbled together with filler. Stylistic diversity and the element of surprise were a constant thread that made the material so compelling. As the decade wound down, a new musical aggregate appeared on the scene that would inspire their contemporaries and have a powerful influence on the sonic template of the seventies.
The debut LP of Crosby, Stills and Nash was a game changer.
What's more, they did it quietly.
While the principals themselves disagree on exactly where they first blended their voices in glorious harmony (Joni Mitchell's place versus Cass Elliot's pad for those placing the home game), what is not in dispute is how important the results were. The trio were all former members of high profile groups. Crosby had success with the Byrds, Stills came to prominence with Buffalo Springfield and Nash was a key player in the Hollies. All had experienced creative frustration during their time with these bands. The idea of using their own names for this new project would guarantee that each writer was given equal billing and would be free to pursue solo work, if they so desired. Ground rules in place, they began the task of crafting and rehearsing the songs that would comprise this phenomenal disc.
THRILL ME TO THE MARROW
Opening with the multi-part stunner that is "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes", the tone is set beautifully. Shimmering harmonies, inventive acoustic playing, Latin flavors and shifting time signatures are blended expertly. Stephen Stills quarterbacks this one, topping his cry from the heart with a soulful lead vocal. Nicknamed "Captain Manyhands" by the others, he plays almost every note on multiple instruments throughout, with few exceptions. Stills' recently ruptured relationship with folk singer Judy Collins translates into a soaring, majestic cornerstone piece. It is nothing less than a career highlight. Just as you catch your breath from the jubilant outro, a snippet of spoken gibberish (courtesy of Crosby) leads into the sleek, catchy "Marrakesh Express". Finding hidden messages embedded in rock records had become de rigueur for those fanatics whose sleuthing was generally aided by a healthy supply of cannabis (or other stimulants). Poking fun at this with his subversive intro, Croz probably inadvertently caused many to damage their vinyl copies trying to play this backward. The joke gets funnier when you take into consideration that many were looking to East Indian philosophies and gurus to find a deeper meaning to their existence. Composer Nash gently sends up all and sundry looking for an "The Answer".
Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind
Had to get away to see what we could find
Hope the days that lie ahead
Bring us back to where they've led
Listen not to what's been said to you
He scores with a melodic single, which made it into the top 30 along with "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes". Graham has finely honed pop sensibilities, a knack for which would land CSN on top forty playlists with regularity. Crosby weighs in next with the serene, intelligently designed "Guinnevere". His vocal interplay with Nash is a model of economy and beauty, while the tuning he uses (EBDGAD) enhances the ethereal quality of this quiet gem. All three tracks serve to introduce you to the eclectic nature of the group dynamic and the personalities behind the creative process.
Stills provides two more acoustic-guitar-centric vehicles to showcase their spotless harmonies in "You Don't Have to Cry" and "Helplessly Hoping". The former was the proving ground for Nash to add his clean, stratospheric high harmony to that of his partners in crime. How amazing would it have been to be in the room when he listened intently to the first pass and then provided the missing piece to what would become their signature sound. When you have singers that are this talented, why pile on layers of augmentation? "Helplessly Hoping" is pure, alliterative magic and would remain a staple of their set-lists for years to come.
"Wooden Ships" boasts a brilliant, anti-war tale with Stills and Crosby each taking a lead role from the prospective of characters who are survivors of a nuclear holocaust. Written with Paul Kantner, the narrative ingeniously has the post-apocalyptic group escaping the fallout zone by boat to start a new civilization.
Horror grips us as we watch you die
All we can do is echo your anguished cries
Stare as all human feelings die
We are leaving you don't need us
This is one of the handful of selections that have a full band arrangement (meaning Stills plays everything with Dallas Taylor on drums). The sleeper cuts are "Pre-Road Downs", another criminally underrated Nash tune with a great hook and Crosby's very fine "Long Time Gone". Crosby tends to be overshadowed by his mates as a lead vocalist, though he turns in a powerful performance. The sheer confidence that is on display in every aspect of this landmark recording is felt even today, fifty years after it landed in stores and subsequently on the turntables of millions.
Why is this such an important record?
The key is in the approach. Sharply bucking prevailing trends of the time, arrangements are stripped down to feature acoustic guitars and voices prominently. When drums do appear in the mix, they are unobtrusive and deployed to keep time. Tedious, lengthy, electric guitar-heavy workouts are avoided. The focus is rightly placed on the songs. All three composers brought only their very best to the table. Their transatlantic hybrid introduced a very unique harmonic style that inspired countless acts, setting the stage for what would be labeled as "soft rock" and permeating playlists of the early 70s as the singer-songwriter movement grabbed hold of the public imagination. They also became poster children for the Woodstock generation, due in large part to their coming out party at the festival mere months after CS&N was released. Imitators appeared, though no one managed to successfully duplicate what they were laying down. Elements of folk, pop, jazz, rock and everything in between were synthesized into something entirely fresh. Ultimately listenable, well crafted and still beguiling a half century on, this record is required listening for anyone who appreciates top class harmony singing and melody.
Tuesday, May 14, 2019
Ladies and gentlemen, this LP is arguably where Neil Young discovered his true essence. Compared with some of the more elaborate arrangements found on his self titled, debut solo disc, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere is austere. All of the urgency, energy and inspiration of the musicians playing together in the studio is captured beautifully. David Briggs understood the value of transferring a "live off the floor" feel directly to tape, without endlessly revisiting the tracks to re-do parts in layers after the fact. No need to over-analyze. The minimalist path to recording would become a signature in the work that Neil would produce from this point forward.
Danny Whitten, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina were primarily a vocal group (Danny and the Memories) in the mid-sixties, cut a single as The Psyrcle (produced by Sly Stone) and made little impression on the music scene of that era. All three picked up a musical instrument fairly late in the game. With some rudimentary instruction, they began to play together. Hooking up with other like-minded players, the Rockets were born. Endless jams evolved into shaping some of their own material, penned mainly by Whitten and Leon Whitsell. They managed to produce one, eponymously titled long player. Again, it was not a raging commercial success. At this point, Young stumbled upon them. He had escaped the wreckage of the Buffalo Springfield and had his own first disc in the can. Long story short, he poached Whitten, Talbot and Molina from the Rockets.
George Whitsell: "My understanding was Neil was gonna use the guys for a record and a quick tour, bring 'em back and help us produce the next Rockets album. It took me a year and a half to realize that my band had been taken."
This new aggregation was re-branded as Crazy Horse. Rehearsals began in earnest to work on music with their new boss. What they put to tape in a relatively short period of time would be a game changer.
"Cinnamon Girl" is the perfect opener, deploying a mesmerizing riff in D A D G B D tuning. It is a short blast of pure rock and roll, with a killer hook, dual lead vocals courtesy of Young and Whitten (who takes the high harmony) and culminates in a one note solo that you could frame. Like the best work of any writer, it is marked by brevity and ingenuity. Young lets out brief burst of noise from his Les Paul as a postscript, letting the last note decay in a haze of distortion. This shot across the bow would remain a staple of his set-lists for decades. It has aged beautifully, neatly avoiding any ties to the era from which it came.
So who is this girl? In typical Neil fashion, he provided a cryptic explanation in the liner notes to his Decade collection.
"Wrote this for a city girl on peeling pavement coming at me thru Phil Ochs eyes, playing finger cymbals. It was hard to explain to my wife."
Deftly switching gears, the title track follows with the groove downshifting to a laid back, country rock vibe. Great harmonies frame this fulsome tribute to getting back to a place where the pace of life is slower, free from hectic itineraries. Purposely open ended, the details of this idealized retreat are left to the imagination.
Everybody seems to wonder/What it's like down here...
Just as you get acquainted with the subtle charms of this tune, it fades out, leaving you wanting a little more. Definite highlight. Pulling a complete 180 degree turn, "Round and Round (It Won't Be Long)" is a simple vehicle for acoustic guitar. His keening tenor is joined here by Robin Lane, who admirably complements Young on this folky, minor key sad ballad. As he would later on with Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson, bringing a female voice into the vocal arrangement brought another sonic dimension to the table. While it is a decent composition, this is one instance where cutting the running time down would have been beneficial. A minor complaint, though side one ends on both a hypnotic and gloriously sprawling note. "Down by the River" is a cornerstone piece, which would be taken well beyond the nine minute mark on stage by the Horse. The rhythm section hangs on tight while Whitten weaves simple but effective lines through Young's solos. There are no virtuoso heroics, so bass and drum fills are economic and as unobtrusive as possible. Briggs simply let the band play and pruned the end result of any glaring mistakes or uninspired sections. Another instant classic, without pretension.
Side two gets off to a slow start, flagging a bit in terms of intensity. "The Losing End" (When You're On) is a serviceable, country flavored shit-kicker, though fairly non-descript. "Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets) is a dirge, salvaged only by the outstanding violin improvisation by...wait for it...former Rocket, Bobby Notkoff. The closer snaps everything back into sharp focus. "Cowgirl in the Sand" is the majestic, long form companion to "Down By the River", yet manages to hit harder due to some truly unhinged fret-bombing from Mr. Young. Sporting a short, brooding intro, the lyric is unfathomable with a turnaround that is nothing short of breathtaking. Just to illustrate how strong this melody is, have a listen to the acoustic version found on Four Way Street, which documents the CSNY live experience circa 1970. It works either way, though it's a blast to hear Crazy Horse support Neil as he coaxes some otherworldly licks from his axe. Slamming the door shut on this timeless disc, it completely overshadows the aforementioned selections that precede it on the second side.
While this stunning artistic statement did not fly up the charts when it was initially released back in '69, it sold respectably and made a lasting impression on his contemporaries. Listeners were put on notice. Young found both his aural template and sympathetic co-conspirators to help bring his unique vision to life. It is remarkable how fresh this music sounds a half century later. If you dig Uncle Neil, dust off your vinyl copy and have a loud 50th anniversary celebration.