By Joel Francis
Based on the announcements made today it looks like we’ll be doing this for at least another month. I hope everyone out there is safe and healthy.
Ringo Starr – Beaucoups of Blues (1970) The Fab Four drummer had a busy year in 1970. He not only released two solo albums, but was an integral part of Let It Be, the final Beatles album. Beaucoups of Blues was the last Ringo-related release of the year. Frankly, this is a criminally underappreciated album. The premise is simple: Ringo travelled to Nashville and cut a bunch of country tunes with the best session players in the city. The results are even better than expected. As demonstrated on songs like “Honey Don’t” and “Act Naturally,” Ringo has a great voice for country songs. The instrumental support is superb. Finally, the album barely breaks the half-hour mark, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. If you like the Beatles, country music or top-shelf musicianship, don’t hesitate to grab Beaucoups of Blues next time you see it.
Mikal Cronin – MCII (2013) If you are a big fan of the prolife garage rocker Ty Segall, you may recognize Mikal Cronin as the bass player from Segall’s band. For his second solo album, Cronin brings a lot of the dirt and scuzz from Segall’s projects, but sweetens it up with lots of acoustic rhythm guitar and some keyboards and strings. The result is nearly 40 minutes of wonderful power pop that changes tempo and textures just enough to remain invigorating throughout. After kicking out the cobwebs with rockers like “Shout It Out” and “See My Way,” Cronin ends the album on a graceful, contemplative note with the slow, string-laden “Piano Mantra.”
MCII was my favorite album that year and it remains an absolute delight. Put this on, turn it up and let ‘er rip.
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong – Ella and Louis (compilation) The First Lady of Song and Satchmo only appeared in the studio together a handful of times, likely because they knew the universe would not be able to handle this abundance of joy. The two-record set I own combines 1956’s Ella and Louis with 1957’s Ella and Louis Again. There has never been a time I’ve played this music that I haven’t felt better afterward. Dwell on that for a moment. Think about how much has changed in the world over the past 63 years, when these songs were released. And these two have been able to deliver unbridled bliss that entire time. If you don’t own this, there has never been a better time to buy it. We are all stuck at home, starving for human interaction. Think of it as therapy and have it delivered. If you own this, I hope I have inspired you to play it now. The world needs more gaiety, in all times, but especially now.
Rolling Stones – Goat’s Head Soup (1973) The Stones’ 13th U.S. long-player ended their incredible hot streak that started way back with 1966’s Aftermath. I’m fairly confident that the Stones were the best rock band on the planet during that run. You could argue the Beatles, but they broke up in 1970. In 1966, the Who were still figuring everything out on A Quick One (a fine album). The Kinks kept pace for most of that time, but peaked with 1971’s Muswell Hillbillies. Look, the point is that the Stones were very, very good for about seven years. And then Goat’s Head Soup came out.
Goat’s Head Soup isn’t a bad album, necessarily, it’s just not as good as the half-dozen albums that came before. “Dancing with Mr. D” starts the record on a tepid note and it takes the last two songs on the side to rescue the album. “Angie” was a No. 1 hit and the horn-driven “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” is solid, but neither are as vital as “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar,” the songs that clearly inspired these. The second side is better just because it doesn’t try as hard. “Silver Train” is a ragged romp powered by Mick Taylor’s slide guitar that recall’s the better moments on Exile on Main Street. “Winter” is a beautiful downtempo number to which anyone who has experienced a season that just won’t let go – meteorological or otherwise – can relate. The performance is so good it almost makes up for the malaise plaguing the weaker numbers. There is enough good stuff on Goat’s Head Soup to make it a worthwhile addition, but temper your expectations.
Bruce Springsteen – Human Touch (1992) This was the first Bruce Springsteen album I owned. I know, I picked a really bad time to become a fan. I remember watching Springsteen on Saturday Night Live around the time of this release, when I was just starting to discover him (away from the omnipresent hits, at least). Everything I read said the stage was where Springsteen really came alive. I was underwhelmed. The new arrangement of “57 Channels” was too noisy for my tastes at the time and I didn’t know what to make of the other songs performed because they were on Lucky Town, the other album the Boss released on the same day. I didn’t know what to make of the guy. The live setting didn’t resonate so I kept going back to Human Touch, looking for something that I may have missed.
Here we are nearly 30 (!!!) years later, and I’m still not sure how much gold there is in hills of Human Touch. The album opens with the title track, easily the album’s best song and sonically similar to the Tunnel of Love material. From there it flatlines and coasts. The songs I liked best back in the day remain my favorites today: “With Every Wish,” “Roll of the Dice,” “Real World,” the title track, “Man’s Job,” “The Long Goodbye” – mostly clustered in the middle for some reason. It is only because of Devils and Dust and, especially, Western Stars that I am finally able to appreciate “Pony Boy.”
Thanks to the Tracks box set fans are able to sift through a dozen or so outtakes and piece together their own version of Human Touch. I think the album would have been better with “Sad Eyes,” “Trouble River,” “Red Headed Woman” and “All the Way Home” replacing “Soul Driver,” “Gloria’s Eyes,” “All or Nothin’ at All” and “Real Man.” More importantly, I think we’ve already given this record more time than it deserves. Let’s just move on.
Los Lobos – The Neighborhood (1990) A good friend of mine once commented that Los Lobos were like the second coming of The Band, a group of supremely talented multi-instrumentalists who could sound like themselves while still maintaining the spirit of any genre. For their fifth album, the East Los Angeles quintet enlisted an actual member of The Band to help them along their journey through New Orleans soul (“Jenny’s Got a Pony”), the bluesy swagger of “I Walk Alone” and the heavenly skip of “Angel Dance.” Helm sings on the ballad “Little John of God” where his vocals are understated but the perfect accent. The only element this album doesn’t touch is traditional Mexican music, but that was the focus of their entire previous album, La Pistola y el Corazon, so it’s understandable the wolves bypass it here. There’s not a bad track among the 13 songs here. The Neighborhood remains a high-water mark in the band’s formidable catalog.