By Joel Francis
Here we go. Back into the stacks of wax.
L7 – Scatter the Rats (2019) If you were worried that L7 might have mellowed over the two decades since their last release, you can rest easy. The four females are just as fierce and uncompromising as you remembered from ‘90s alternative/punk classics Smell the Magic and Hungry for Stink. Honestly, Scatter the Rats is better than anything they’ve done since those two albums. Put this on and watch the paint peel from the wall.
Pink Floyd – Atom Heart Mother (1970) The pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd catalog is a lot more interesting to me than their commercial and artistic peaks in the mid-to-late 1970s. I love hearing them find their voice as a quartet, adding and subtracting elements. Atom Heart Mother is their dalliance with an orchestra. The strings on the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” are a loose starting point here, but no one seems to know where they fit on the Floyd songs. That’s the first side, at least. The second side is more democratic, with each of the group’s three songwriters taking turns at the mic on original songs. The last track is a 13-minute instrumental called “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,” whose title sums up the album perfectly.
Randy Newman – Land of Dreams (1988) I once played this album for a friend. After the first song, she politely demurred that this wasn’t what she normally enjoyed. Translation: It’s milquetoast old-people music. While Newman’s production is certainly lush and radio-friendly, his lyrics, storytelling and sly, subversive humor are more compelling than they may come off at first blush. Land of Dreams was supposed to be Newman’s musical autobiography. He gave up at some point, but we still get the captivating opener “Dixie Flyer” and most of the songs on side one. The ballad “Falling in Love” displays the cinematic touch that established Newman as an in-demand film composer. (Is it just me or is there a bit of “You’ve Got a Friend” in this tune?) The second side isn’t as successful, but it concludes on a couple of high notes: the hit “It’s the Money that Matters” and the wrenching ballad “I Want You to Hurt Like I Do.” It’s more than enough to make up for the embarrassing faux-rap of “Red Bandana.”
Tony Bennett – Jazz (compilation) This two-album collection pulls Tony Bennett’s collaborations with jazz musicians who are as proficient with their instruments as Bennett is with his incredible voice. It’s easy to take Bennett’s singing for granted. It seems he’s never encountered a song he can’t make his own. The treat, then, is hearing that voice spar and hang with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Herbie Mann and Count Basie. I’m partial to the performance of “Just One of Those Things” with Art Blakey and the West Coast swing of “Clear Out of this World” but everything here is top-notch.
Leonard Cohen – Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 (2009) According to legend, this is the set that followed Jimi Hendrix at the legendary British music festival. Leonard Cohen only had two albums under his belt at the time of this recording, but it’s amazing to see how many songs included in this set would remain concert favorites until the end of his life. The performance also has a folky atmosphere, filled with acoustic guitars, fiddle, banjo and piano. The Isle of Wight performance shows little of the polished sophisticated sheen that Cohen’s later concerts would adopt. Put this on for a down-home experience with the poet extraordinaire.
Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Johnny Hodges – Hawkins! Eldridge! Hodges! Alive! at the Village Gate (1962) Here is the sound of three pre-war titans muscling their way back into a musical conversation that has seemingly moved away from them. They do it not by adapting to a bop or modal vocabulary, but by stretching out and showing how those elements were always present in the swing music they helped popularize and pioneer. There are only three songs here – each of them well over 10 minutes – but they are more than enough to make the point.