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(Above: Michael Stipe introduces what “may well be his favorite song in the R.E.M. catalog.” The classic “Fall on Me” gets the unplugged treatment for MTV in 1991.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The first volume of R.E.M.’s “MTV Unplugged” collection is a perfect storm of both the band and the zeitgeist.

In 1991, “Unplugged” was just starting to take off, thanks to the success of Paul McCartney’s official bootleg from his appearance on the show. The show was gaining a reputation for a place where classic rock artists could rekindle their audience by playing stripped-down versions of hits and a venue for newer, but still established, bands could expand their palette.

The year was also a watershed for R.E.M. Signing with Warner Bros. and a massive tour for “Green” had catapulted the quartet from cult status. “Out of Time,” the follow-up to “Green” became R.E.M.’s first No. 1 album, and produced their biggest hit, “Losing My Religion.”

“Out of Time” was also uniquely suited for “MTV Unplugged.” After building success with riff-heavy arena-ready songs like “The One I Love” and “Orange Crush,” the band decided to scale back. Mandolin, acoustic guitar and organ dominated songwriting process and, in turn, the final recordings.

R-E-M-MTV-Unplugged-1991It seemed inevitable that R.E.M. would appear on the popular MTV show. The surprising part is that it took 23 years for the performance to see proper release. After surviving for nearly a generation as old, dubbed VHS copies and bootlegged CDs, R.E.M. “Unplugged” was finally released. It debuted in April as a Record Store Day Exclusive vinyl set paired with an encore 2001 “Unplugged” performance. Several months later, stand-alone editions of both shows were released in multiple formats.

As a time capsule, “Unplugged” stands somewhere between essential and curiosity. The 17-song set is dominated by “Out of Time.” More than half the album is present, along with one outtake. As such, the album does a great job fleshing out this under-recorded era. Because the band abandoned touring and focused on television appearances and music videos, “Unplugged” stands as one of R.E.M.’s longest sets of the early ‘90s.

That said, most of the arrangements stick pretty close to the album versions so there aren’t any big revelations present. The best songs include a jangly, sing-along version of “End of the World” and an energetic reading of “Radio Song” sans KRS-One that leans heavily on guest Peter Holsapple’s organ. A low-key, less urgent “Disturbance at the Heron House” is a rare revision of an electric number and makes me wish the band had tried a few more (“These Days” and “Driver 8” spring to mind).

Five bonus tracks that never made it to air follow the full broadcast performance. Driven by Bill Berry’s congas, “Get Up” takes on a new life. “Swan Swan H” and “World Leader Pretend” mirror their album counterparts. “Fretless” represents the one song that doesn’t work unplugged.  The studio version of this “Out of Time” outtake foreshadows the direction the band would take on “Automatic for the People.” Robbed of electricity, it lacks the sense of suspicion and dread that fuels the track.

R.E.M. did themselves a disservice by waiting so long to release this set. It undoubtedly would have sold better 20 years ago when the band was at its peak and fans were anxious for new material.  While die-hards and completists have owned this performance for years, the improved sound and bonus tracks make it a worthwhile addition to the catalog. Ultimately, “Unplugged 1991” is a nice complement to a band working at peak convergence of popularity and artistry.

Disclaimer: The Daily Record was sent a complementary review copy of “Unplugged 1991” from Soundstagedirect.com in exchange for promoting the site. Readers may purchase this album, or any other, with a 10 percent discount using code KWS10. Soundstagedirect.com is not the only online retailer carrying this title.

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(Above: Santana and Nas put their spin on AC/DC’s “Back In Black” on the “George Lopez Show.” Believe it or not, this is one of the better moment’s on Santana’s new album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

It’s hard to believe it has been a ten years since “Supernatural.” Back then, Santana was just another fading Woodstock star. He has been living in the shadow of “Smooth” and “Maria Maria” ever since.

With a title like “Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time” one could be excused for thinking Santana’s latest album was a repackaging of “Oye Como Va,” “Soul Sacrifice” and the rest of the jams that made him a guitar icon. Instead we are gifted with an album much more panderous.

“Guitar Heaven” reunites Santana with label president/marketing guru Clive Davis for the first time since “Supernatural” and is the third consecutive album to follow its formula. The blueprint is simple: pair Santana’s guitar with some of the biggest pop voices of the moment in every genre. The twist this time is that every tune is a well-known cover, a great guitar classic, no less.

The result is a dozen pedestrian, uninspiring performances. None of the musicians associated with this project even pretend to muster the effort to add something new to these well-worn staples of classic rock radio stations. It’s hard to imagine anyone clamoring to hear Train’s Pat Monahan aping early Van Halen or anxiously waiting to see what Chris Daughtry could do with Def Leppeard’s “Photograph.”

Predictably, Davis invited Rob Thomas back into the fold, but this time the man who brought Santana his biggest hit is anything but smooth. The Matchbox 20 singer seems completely overwhelmed by “Sunshine of Your Love.” Joe Cocker fares better on the Jimi Hendrix staple “Little Wing,” but the performance still begs the question why anyone thought this project was necessary.

At best the outcome is merely redundant; at its worst it an embarrassment. The only inventive choices were including India.Arie and Yo-Yo Ma on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and rapper Nas trying to inject some hip hop into “Back In Black.”

Neil Young’s “Le Noise” is a true celebration of the guitar. For his 32nd album, Young worked with famed producer Daniel Lanois. Lanois’ productions are frequently criticized for their big echoy sound and stark separation of instruments. They can often sound like Lanois conformed the artists to his vision, rather than the other way around.

Although some of Lanois’ swampy trademark exists in “Le Noise,” his distinct fingerprints are absent for the most part. The reason is simple: there’s less for him to work with. All of the album’s eight tracks were cut live and feature only Young and his guitar. The result is a pastoral yet invigorating portrait of Young seated on his amp, volume cranked to 11, intimately and intently debuting his latest song cycle.

While the guitar makes all the noise, Young’s songwriting makes all the difference. Without a bed of strong material, “Le Noise” would be a curio, like “Arc,” the album-length experiment of feedback and noise Young released in 1991. These songs could just as easily been delivered acoustically. Fortunately, Young and Lanois muck them up with waves of feedback and distortion.

In the mid-‘90s, both Young and Santana were regularly releasing solid, if unremarkable albums that clearly came from the heart. Today their paths couldn’t be more different.

In movie terms, Young is the actor who with a questionable resume, but has remained unquestionably independent. Santana, on the other hand, resembles the washed-up actor willing to do anything to land one last big role.

But show-biz loves redemption stories. Let’s hope Santana has some Mickey Rourke in him.

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 (Above: First Stephen Foster, then Ray Charles. Now John Legend and the Roots have “Hard Times.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

A little more than three months after releasing one of the best albums of their 17-year career, The Roots are back, this time with John Legend.

The pairing is inspired. The Roots have long have a reputation as the best band in hip hop. For the past couple years they’ve proved their mettle to the mainstream as the house band on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” Legend is clearly a great talent, but often gets overwhelmed by slick production and light-weight songwriting. These 10 reinterpretations of classic soul protest songs offer the perfect platform for him to shine.

Legend lives up to the opportunity, singing with grit and emotion only hinted at on his solo albums, and feeding off the Roots’ vibe. Opening cut “Hard Times,” a lost Curtis Mayfield classic written for Baby Huey, feeds off a horn line ricocheting off of Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson’s drums and Captain Kirk Douglas’ bright guitar. Black Thought’s rap in the middle reinforces the track’s message and feel. This is music to spark both revolution and revelry.

“Wake Up Everybody” features a guest rhyme from Common that feels like a verse from a lost hymn. Legend’s duet with Melanie Fiona here captures the same mood as a classic Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell number. “Little Ghetto Boy” – bolstered by another Black Thought cameo – and the buoyant gospel reading of Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free” are other high points.

Unfortunately, the album can’t sustain these moments. Legend’s vocal shortcomings come to the foreground on “Wholy Holy.”Gaye’s voice soars effortlessly on the original, while Legend strains just to lift off. His over-singing on Bill Wither’s “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” is accidentally exposed by Douglas’ understated, tasteful soloing.

Not all of the blame lies at Legend’s feet. Normally an impeccable arranger, there are some surprising issues with Thompson’s choices. Les McCann’s “Compared to What” swings and skips like a rock skimming the top of a lake. Thompson’s slower arrangement is leaden in comparison. His treatment of Lincoln Thompson’s (no relation) reggae song “Humanity (Love the Way it Should Be)” hews closely to the original, but without the Jamaican patois it seems stiff and forced. The performance should have been reworked to emphasize what Legend could bring to the number.

“Wake Up” was inspired by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory and Arcade Fire’s song “Wake Up.” The original plan was record an EP, and truthfully Legend and the Roots should have stayed with that concept. The handful of strong cuts present would have made for an outstanding mid-player. As is, this is a solid album with plenty of outstanding moments, but ample opportunity to skip to the next cut. Or, better yet, seek out the originals.

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Fans delay Maxwell’s next album

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 (Above:  The video for “Self Sabotage” off the Lawrence band Fourth of July’s sophomore album.)

By Joel Francis
Ink magazine

Fourth of July  singer Brendan Hangauer appears on the cover of the Lawrence-based, indie quintet’s sophomore album seated next to a pretty blonde. Although she’s looking at him and leaning in, his arms are crossed and eyes stare straight ahead. The pair may be close in proximity, but they seem miles apart emotionally.

This is often how it goes in the closing stages of a relationship, when the pair faces loneliness and, of course, vast tracts of time to flip the whole scenario over and endlessly analyze.

These are the times that Hangauer, his brothers Patrick and Kelly, and Brian and Brendan Costello — another pair of siblings — relive on Before Our Hearts Explode. Breaking up, as the saying goes, may be hard to do, but it has rarely sounded like this much fun.

The album opens with “Friend of a Friend,” the story of an ex-girlfriend’s rebound lover. Driven by acoustic guitar and organ and powered by a nimble  electric guitar, it’s too bouncy to be bitter. The track sets the template for the next 40 minutes: an intimate survey of love’s rubble,  via jangly guitars and slacker vocals. It’s Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks filtered through Camper Van Beethoven.

It’s also a ruse, albeit an effective one. Hangauer is broken and hurt but refuses to let his guard down. For every telling lyric such as “Don’t be so sure of things/not even wedding rings” or “you know you ruined us/when you slept with that little slut” there are a plethora of la-la-la or ooh-ooh-ooh choruses to mask the betrayal.

The facade breaks in only a couple places. “Song for Meghan,” the first ballad, arrives midway through the record. Hangauer’s unvarnished craving for an absent love resonates in Adrianne Verhoeven’s lovely vocal countermelody.

This is followed by “Moving On,” a song as caustic and cynical as anything by Elvis Costello. It also has a sweet undercurrent as Hangauer recalls brighter days. The same trumpet that amplified Hangauer’s longing on “Song for Meghan” now cuts through the track like a ray of sunlight forcing its way into a dark room through a crack in the shades.

Before Our Hearts Explode succeeds at having it both ways — a breakup record that provides the perfect accompaniment for playing Frisbee. Like all relationships it is never black and white. The good times are tucked alongside the most painful.

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thePhantom – “Bohemian Seduction Grooves”

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By Joel Francis
Ink Magazine

“Seduction” is the key word in the thesis-length title of thePhantom’s new EP, Bohemian Seductive Grooves for the Gay Soul. But thePhantom, aka Kansas City rapper/producer Kemet Coleman, would rather have you in his head than in his bed.

The five-track release is thePhantom’s attempt to translate the urban theory he’s been soaking up as a student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City into urban beats and rhymes. Dropouts needn’t worry. The vibe is more relaxed than the last day of school, with wordplay more effortless than a third-grade spelling test.

The low-key production on opening track “Midnight Seduction” sets the mood. ThePhantom’s words are set against a wash of synthesizers perfect for that late-night comedown when the energy starts to fade but sleep is still a long way off. “Downtown,” the second cut, bumps the tempo, but the rest of the album plays like lost tracks from a chill-out compilation.

ThePhantom says his master plan is to unite Kansas City’s diverse citizenry on the dance floor, a place where both blue-collar and artisans are equally comfortable. Of course if that effort creates a gathering of eligible women, thePhantom’s fine with that, too. On “Just Right” he makes the case for romance without stooping to the crass cliches common to the genre.

On December’s Destroy and Rebuild, thePhantom had an entire album to present his titular concept. Padded with a five-minute instrumental, the EP’s 22 minutes are ample time for thePhantom to gather his bohemians and gay souls, but not long enough to keep them on the dance floor. The result feels more like an outline than the conclusion. Sadly, that’s exactly what this is. ThePhantom has announced this EP will be his final project. Even so, he leaves behind a body of work worth further study.

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Steddy P and DJ Mahf – “While You Were Sleeping”

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By Joel Francis
Ink Magazine

Steddy P takes care of his fans. Since Steddy’s debut album in 2008, fans have never had to wait more than a few months between new offerings. This month Steddy dropped the While You Were Sleeping EP/mixtape to keep fans happy until the emergence of his next full-length album. But While You Were Sleeping is more than a stopgap release. Six new cuts show Steddy’s recent activity in the studio. But more fun is the second part of the album: 13 tracks from the back catalog, remixed by DJ Mahf.

Mahf, who oversaw Steddy’s 2009 album, Style Like Mind, clearly had a blast marrying “Kenneth Arnold” to the “Super Mario Bros.” video game soundtrack. “Miss Your Coffee Table,” one of the few odes to the fairer sex on the mixtape, incorporates both Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest and LL Cool J’s “I Need Love.” Other tracks pay tribute to early Kanye West, Jay-Z, DJ Shadow and the Nappy Roots. That Steddy’s original verses stand up against such recognizable backgrounds is a testament to his clever wordplay and intricate delivery.

At times Steddy’s delivery recalls that of Blackalicious’ Gift of Gab. Steddy does a good job of changing textures when necessary, and recruits great guests such as Ces Cru, Mathias and Jbomb to further vary the vocal patterns. Steddy’s best performance across the 19 tracks comes early. “BARS (Loser’s Club Remix)” is Steddy’s answer to repeated invitations to freestyle battles. After calling out so-called Midwestern rappers who quickly vacate to the coasts he revs into double time. It’s not quite Twista-fast, but impressive nonetheless.

Although they appear first, the new tracks almost seem secondary. Steddy comes strong out of the chute on “Enough” and “Bars,” but the production falters on “Steddy Persistence Pt. II,” the third cut. Each song is handled by separate producers. The tracks don’t flow together well, and the quality fluctuates.

On “No Doz” Steddy uses a violent slasher/horror film metaphor to establish his lyrical dominance. His words are threatening, but try as it might, the chintzy synthesizer loop can’t be considered sinister. A similarly vanilla loop is featured in “And It’s Like That,” which manages to include a shout-out to Steddy’s former home turf of Mizzou, to KU and even to the UMKC Roos.

The final new song, “WindOverHead,” is the most successful. The production includes hints of the ambient and industrial, as well as snippets of saxophone and opera over an understated piano melody. Steddy shines across this landscape, calling out Tech N9ne and Mac Lethal and marking his IndyGround territory.

Despite a few minor missteps, While You Were Sleeping is a nice place for longtime fans to regroup and experience Steddy’s catalog in a different light. Newcomers will find the album a handy place to catch up. Best of all, it’s free.

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(Above: Marvin Gaye asks for a witness. He gets four go-go dancers.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

For the past 46 years, few have been able to see “ The T.A.M.I. Show,” the 1964 concert film that captured early performances from the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and the first major U.S. appearance of the Rolling Stones.

A tangle of legal issues sent the movie to exile almost immediately after it was sent to the theaters. The producer lost his rights and the film was never released on video rarely shown in public. For years fans would read about how incredible the “T.A.M.I. Show” was – particularly James Brown’s appearance, which Rick Rubin once said “may be the single greatest rock and roll performance ever captured on film” – without being able to see it. Thankfully this has finally been corrected. After decades of wrangling, Shout Factory has finally released the “T.A.M.I. Show” on DVD.

After a montage of all the stars arriving over one of the longest Jan and Dean songs ever, Chuck Berry takes the stage. His appearance ties the film back to “Rock Rock Rock” and the classic ‘50s rock and roll films, but halfway through “Maybelline,” the camera swings over to Gerry and the Pacemakers doing their version of the song. It’s a little disorienting at first, and doesn’t completely work, mostly because Gerry is so campy. He’s constantly playing to the camera, and the group clearly doesn’t have Berry’s talent or charisma.

Fortunately, an endless parade of go-go dancers in bikinis is on hand to distract from any lulls in the music. Constantly in motion, the dancers swarm across the stage – often directly in front of the performers – and on platforms in the back. The producers discovered what MTV perfected in the ‘90s with “The Grind:” buxom, gyrating dancers will make even the most execrable music enjoyable.

The showgirls hog the camera during the first number of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ set. Fortunately, lens eventually pulls back on the second number, and the quartet delivers the first great performance of the night. Robinson drops down, jumps up and throws his entire spirit into an extended “You Really Got A Hold On Me.” That energy carries into “Mickey’s Monkey,” that has everyone onstage and in the crowd dancing. Marvin Gaye continues Motown’s strong showing with a great “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.” For “Can I Get a Witness” he performs away from the band, flanked by two shimmying girls.

Director Steve Binder isn’t shy about cutting to the junior high and high school students in the audience screaming in delirium. One long shot accidentally allows a glimpse of policemen in helmets patrolling the aisles. There was clearly a hard line on the level of excitement that could be displayed.

It’s hard to believe Lesley Gore was the biggest star on the bill at the time, and that she didn’t become an even bigger star later. Gore dutifully performs her best-known songs, the No. 1 “It’s My Party” and its Top 5 sequel “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” but her poise, grace and presence suggest she should have had a much longer career. Gore It’s too bad she couldn’t keep up with the harder, psychedelic edge rock music was about to take.

Several of Gore’s songs are captured by a camera that looks like Vaseline has been smeared over the lens. In the commentary track, Binder said that was exactly what was done. He either couldn’t afford or didn’t have time to outfit the rigs with soft focus capability, so they went with this bargain basement substitute. Unfortunately, it looks like Gore is singing through a funhouse mirror.

Jan and Dean, the evening’s MCs, kick off the surf portion of the show, but they are outmatched by the Beach Boys, who follow. Jan and Dean’s harmonies seem thin and the skate-board-in-a-guitar-case trick can’t hold up to the Boys’ rich voices and Brian Wilson’s songwriting. The performance was filmed months before Wilson’s nervous breakdown forced him off the road. Here he looks completely at ease and happy.

After the movie’s initial run, the Beach Boys’ manager demanded his client’s four-song set be removed. When the inevitable “T.A.M.I. Show” bootlegs popped up, the Beach Boys were usually missing. This DVD finally restores the lush “Surfer Girl” and the freedom of “I Get Around.”

The film treads water through the Dakotas, Supremes and Barbarians until – finally – we get to James Brown and the Famous Flames. Honestly, there’s nothing he does here that wasn’t captured on the incredible “Live at the Apollo” album one year earlier. This, however, was his first major show in front of a white audience. It also gave fans the opportunity to see Brown work his magic in addition to just hearing it.

The Flames are razor-sharp as Brown kicks into “Out of Sight.” Showing his penchant for adventurous covers, Brown resuscitates Perry Como’s hit “Prisoner of Love.” He then directs the Flames into “Please, Please, Please” and the place goes nuts for the now-infamous cape routine. Brown’s pants, which were clean before the song, are scuffed and dirty at the knees from all the times he falls down (only to pop right back again.) During “Night Train” he does this crazy dance on one foot where he manages to wriggle across the stage. Not only does he not fall down, but he looks impossibly smooth.

In his commentary on the “T.A.M.I. Show” trailer, director John Landis, whose entire seventh grade class scored invites to the taping, said the Rolling Stones “were kind of boring after James Brown.” He’s right. The Stones open with a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around,” an odd choice considering Berry was onstage earlier. They don’t start to live up to their hype and billing until the terrific “Time Is On My Side” and “It’s All Over Now.”

It’s difficult to watch the early Stones without picturing the lazy spectacle they’ve become. There is a hunger in these songs and Mick Jagger is genuinely working to win the crowd’s approval. It’s odd to see Brain Jones so alive and so happy. It seems he was born with those omnipresent bags under his eyes that just grew sadder and deeper until the lids above closed forever.

But that was still several dark years off. The “T.A.M.I. Show” is a celebration that despite some dated production techniques and material still feels vibrant. It’s a peek behind a curtain to a world where artists from not only all over the world, as the song goes, but all genres, could party together on the same stage. In a way, it was a precursor to the weekend festivals that would pop up at the end of the decade and have resurfaced to dominate the summer musical landscape again today.

Keep reading:

Talking James Brown and King Records with Jon Hartley Fox

Talking Motown with Bill Dahl

Review – “King of the Queen City”

Review: The Temptations and Four Tops

(Below: The Beach Boys get around.)

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