Passerine Dream takes flight

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

In a previous life, Dave Tanner and I worked as reporters at sister newspapers in suburban Kansas City. He always had a positive spirit and was eager to talk out about music whenever our paths crossed.

When another friend and reporter suggested we drive across Missouri to see Ringo’s All-Starr Band at the Fox Theater in St. Louis, Tanner and I jumped at the chance. The three of us drove to the show, drove home afterward and were back at work the next morning, because we were young and could do things like that back then.

Since then, Tanner has become one of the best Paul McCartney stand-ins in Beatles tribute bands across the country. When the pandemic halted his touring – Tanner estimated he played 155 shows and was gone for 200 days in 2019 – Tanner turned to his backlog of songs and decided to record an album of his own material.

The album (and band) name Passerine Dream came from a songbird Tanner kept running across in his hobby as an amateur birdwatcher and bird photographer. (Those are his photos on the album.)

Tanner was kind enough to talk through each track on the album with The Daily Record during a break while performing in Georgia with the group Liverpool Legends. In the spring of 2022, the Liverpool Legends will set up shop in the Andy Williams Moon River Theater in Branson, Mo.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“Be Together”

“The first complete song of words and music that I ever wrote. I wrote it on an acoustic guitar, which was tuned to the tuning McCartney uses on Yesterday, D standard. It is that way because I had that guitar sitting around from my live shows. I added bass to it for demo purposes. Another band I was in called The Depth and Whisper recorded it and played it live quite a few years ago. I used it as an icebreaker to break in the new album.”

“Little Dreams

“I had a little guitar lick that I’ve been messing around with for a couple years. I don’t know what exactly came into my head other than those first couple of lines when I was sitting there with a guitar. The first verse about came about through conversations with other birders, about how suburbia creates a completely unnatural ecosystem for wildlife. Cutting down grass helps sparrow, starling and robins survive. There are billions of these birds we have enabled to fill up our back yards. They are at war, but there is hope in everything that waits. Everyone wakes up thinking today could be the day I catch a break.

“When I took the thumb drive containing these tracks into the first mixing session, the files were corrupted (laughs). I had a sort-of, almost buried piano part on there so (producer) Paul (Malinowski) said let’s make this a piano ballad now. He started taking the covering off this amazing baby grand and started miking it up. He told me, you’re going to play that (song) on this (piano). I was like (deep breath) OK, here we go. Steve Davis from Liverpool played the slide solo.”

“On and On

“’On and On’ is an old song I’ve had kicking around in my demo files for a long time. The roots of some of these songs go back pretty far. I knew I had an acoustic guitar and multi-layered vocal breakdown recorded years earlier. Eric Voeks arranged that middle part, where he and I each sing multiple layers.

“It was going to be really stripped down, just acoustic guitars and voices. I sent it to my boss with Liverpool Legends, Marty Scott. He said it needs drums and that it had R.E.M. and Jellyfish written all over it. I just went with it. I didn’t want to talk myself out of it.

“I wrote the lyrics on an airplane flying to and from a gig. The hum of the aircraft gave me a melody and I started writing them down as fast as I could. They came flooding to me pretty quick. I’m amazed at how that song went from stripped-down demo to a 12-string (guitar) and rockin’ drum beat.”

“Driver

“I wrote ‘Driver’ in one day, music and lyrics. I started it, say, maybe, 10 in the morning. By 2 in the afternoon I had a five-and-a-half-minute demo cut.

“The well-intentioned narrator in the opening few lines, he wants to do what’s right. He’s also at the mercy of life and substance. Something happens to him. I had more stanzas, but I edited them down. It was becoming too (Bob) Dylan-esque for me, getting too long and laborious. What got cut out leaves it open to as to what happens to the narrator. He has a moment where he triumphs – his willpower and the love of his life win the day.”

“Hometown

“’Hometown’ is based on a few phrases and things my dad told me when I was leaving home. I grew up in a small town in Ontario, although I’ve lived in Missouri for quite a number of years. He basically said, if things don’t work out, my door is always open. Go into the world and do your thing. Without that confidence, I would have stayed in Ontario.

“My dad passed in 2014 and I had some of (the song) written then. I finished it for this album. It was an emotional song to sing. I know it’s a peppy kind of a song, (with a) driving beat and guitar riffs. When I was trying to lay down the vocal tracks, it took me quite a few days. The first couple days I tried to do it I couldn’t make it through.

“John Perrin, the current drummer for NRBQ, plays drums on this. On backing vocals is my friend Erik Voeks. I was stuck on what kind of vocal harmony use and it was starting to interfere with the melody. I sent the song to Erik and he was kind enough to send a suite of backing vocals. I wanted to see what others could do because I was hitting a brick wall.”

“Path of Least Resistance

“This one came from a couplet in an old notebook. I had a vague melody going and it came together pretty quickly during the recording process. I thought to balance the album, I should have another rocker and so I kind of wrote it that way, to drive a little bit. I sent the tempo and chords to Marty and he pounded out a great drum part in his home studio. He sent that back to me and I layered a few more things on here. It’s my own voice, rhythm and creation, but it does harken back to right about 1980 or ’81, something that might have been around then. It balances out the album pretty well. I couldn’t think of the album without having that rocker.”

“Breaking Through

Dave Tanner

“This song was written during the period of 2020 when I was fighting with self-doubt and depression. I started asking myself when are we going to break through? Even as humanity, we’ve got to break through somehow again. The next revolution has got to be in our minds, to look forward and break through all the monotony, hate, self-loathing and rancor out there.

“People started asking if the song is about coming out of the pandemic and I guess it kind of is. We’ve gone to the edges, the highs and the lows. We can psychologically put ourselves anywhere, we can go down or give ourselves hope.”

“Feel/My Heart

“It comes from an original demo called ‘Feel.’ I had that opening guitar hook and verse and chorus. The melodic part just came to me – something to lift the chorus. Without that, the song is at one level. It shows the narrator is affected and uplifted by how the other person makes them feel. Sometimes you can’t do it with words.

“When I was laying down the groundwork, I had two minutes left on the click track after I was done with the song. Rather than just erase it, I thought I’d try to write another two minutes, so I wrote the poem ‘My Heartbeat,’ where the narrator actually finds the words. I was pretty proud of that, because the first part of the song sounds unrequited, not necessarily finding the words, but then there’s a love poem at the end. The words were there the whole time. Marty Scott played drums and I did the rest.”

“Opened Your Eyes

“I had a demo called ‘When You Opened Your Eyes Today.’ It had some guitar chords and asked some questions. It pointed inward a little bit: Who are you going to be today? Musically it’s almost a little haunting. Lyrically, it is about looking at one’s self and asking the question, when you step out into the world, what’s the deal? Where are you going? What are you going to do with your life?

“If you listen closely, there’s sort of a secret when those haunting background vocals enter in the second half of the track. Those are the attempts to answer those questions. In the first half I’m asking when you open your eyes, who are you going to be? The answer in the second half is myself. I’m going to be myself.

“The reason this song is last is that I had the other eight songs done and I saw if I was going to put this album out on vinyl, I still had some time to spare on side two. I went into my notebooks and pulled out these lyrics. It’s the last one on the album because it was the last song I worked on and I already had how the album was going to be in my head. It’s my own bonus track without being a bonus track.”

To purchase the Passerine Dream album or follow Tanner on social media, visit the band’s website.

Keep reading:

Review: Ringo Starr (at Starlight Theater)

Social Distancing Spins – Day 61 (Fab Four edition)

Making Movies is making waves

GA-20 BRING THE BLUES

By Joel Francis

Guitarist Matt Stubbs, a veteran of blues harpist Charlie Musselwhite’s band and one third of the new blues act GA-20, thinks it’s time for a blues revival.

After all, Stubbs reasons, soul music had its resurrection with Lee Fields, Sharon Jones and the Daptones. Traditional country had a resurgence with Coulter Wall and Charlie Crockett.

“What I’d like to see is more traditional blues,” Stubbs said. “I think if more people heard this style of blues, they would like it. That’s a lot of why we make the records we do and why I produce the as I do. We’ll have people come up to us after shows and ask ‘What kind of music is this?’ I tell them it’s traditional blues.”

Traditional blues is more raw and primitive than what came later, when blues musicians – who often also worked as sharecroppers – migrated north from Deep South in the 1940s and ‘50s, settling in Chicago, Detroit and other northern cities.

The primarily acoustic blues from the Mississippi Delta became electrified to overcome the noise in the clubs and on the street. British musicians heard this amplified blues, absorbed it and imported it back to the United States on early albums by the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds and Fleetwood Mac, to name just a few acts.

See GA-20 in Kansas City, Mo. at Knuckleheads on Tuesday, Nov. 2.

“These days, if you go to a blues festival, you get a lot of the modern blues or rock take,” Stubbs said. “A lot of great artists do that, but that’s not we are doing. That’s not what I put on my turntable. I think when a lot of people hear the word blues, they think of guitar shredding and music derived from British blues and classic rock.”

On their second album, GA-20 pay tribute to Hound Dog Taylor, a less-celebrated figure from the Chicago blues scene. Stubbs discovered Taylor when he heard “Give Me Back My Wig” on a blues CD at 15 or 16 years old. Stubbs said that song stood out because it was a little more rough around the edges.

“That’s the kind of blues that’s always spoken to me,” Stubbs said. “I like it to be kind of raw.”

Taylor is a good fit with GA-20 for several reasons. Like GA-20, Taylor’s band The Houserockers featured a lineup of two guitars and drums – no bass. GA-20 (named after a vintage guitar amplifier) and Taylor also both caught the ear of Bruce Iglauer, founder of the blues label Alligator Records.

“Bruce started the label because Hound Dog couldn’t get a record deal at the time,” Stubbs said. “Bruce saw us before the pandemic and was interested in working for us, but we were already signed to Colemine Records.”

Stubbs brainstormed ways to make something work and realized it was approaching the 50th anniversary of Alligator Records and Taylor’s first album. He came up with the idea for Colemine and Alligator to pair up and recognize those anniversaries.

Music was always present when Stubbs was growing up in Boston. His dad is also a guitarist and the young Stubbs was always listening to his father rehearse and perform. When Stubbs heard Lenny Kravitz’ “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” his dad told him if he liked that, he’d probably like Jimi Hendrix. That opened a door to Albert King and Freddie King.

“When I was 16, I joined my dad’s band,” Stubbs said. “I went to music college, dropped out and started gigging as much as possible.”

In his early 20s, Stubbs got the chance to join blues singer Janiva Magness. That lead to playing with John Németh. One of the musicians in Nemeth’s stable was June Core, longtime drummer for Charlie Musselwhite.

“When Charlie’s guitar player moved onto other things, Charlie called me up and asked if I wanted to play guitar,” Stubbs said. “There was no rehearsal.”

That was about 13 or 14 years ago, Stubbs guesses. GA-20 grew out of a year when Musselwhite went on the road with Ben Harper and his band for a year. With nothing to do, Stubbs formed another band with guitarist Pat Faherty so he could work.

“Pat was a friend who came to a lot of my shows. He was into other music before the blues,” Stubbs said. “We started with two guitars and a harmonica for a gig or two. It ended up morphing into drums and two guitars with no harmonica.

“We had to keep the band lean out of necessity to make money,” Stubbs continued. “We started to sound pretty good, so I booked some studio time to record that first album. There were no expectations, it was just a fun project.”

Those session resulted in Lonely Soul, GA-20’s debut release, which featured Musselwhite’s harp on one track and was released on Colemine. The album hit No. 2 on the Billboard blues chart in 2018. A four-song live EP came out in September, 2020, when live concerts were shut down.

Now Stubbs is back on the road with both GA-20 and Musselwhite. A European tour and several festival appearances in 2022 are currently in the works. Stubbs said he hopes to put out another GA-20 album in May.

GA-20 plays Knuckleheads with J.D. Simo on Tuesday, Nov. 2. Go here to buy tickets online and get more information.

“I think the only place I’ve played in Kansas City is Knuckleheads,” Stubbs said. “I was there with John Németh and Janiva Magness. I played there before the venue across the street (Knuckleheads Garage) was open.”

Follow GA-20 on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

Keep reading:

Review: Big Head Blues Club

Review: B.B. King and Buddy Guy

The true story of Cadillac Records

Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite: Social Distancing Spins, Day 55

collage of Joe Strummer and Clash album covers

Social Distancing Spins: Clash-mas Eve edition

By Joel Francis

Joe Strummer, lyricist, lead singer and rhythm guitarist for The Clash died on December 22, 2002. By the time I found out it was late the next day. Every 24th of December since then, I have declared Clashmas Eve and dedicated to the memory of Strummer and the majesty of The Clash. This non-denominational holiday can – and should – be celebrated by all.

Joe Strummer and the Latino Rockabilly War – Permanent Record soundtrack (1988)

Joe Strummer only gets one side of this soundtrack, but he used it to re-establish himself as a solo artist and build anticipation for a proper, full album. In retrospect, I wonder if the Permanent Record didn’t work too well.

It’s true that none of the five songs here are going to replace “White Riot,” or even “Johnny Appleseed.” At the same time, there’s none of the sub-par material like “Ride Your Donkey” that mar Strummer’s eventual solo debut Earthquake Weather.

Most of the songs on Permanent Record are solid, straight-up rockers. Although “Trash City” stands out as the best track, “Baby the Trans” and “Nefertiti Rock” are also a lot of fun. “Theme from Permanent Record” is an instrumental with Strummer’s wordless vocals.

The biggest problem with both the Permanent Record material and Earthquake Weather is the weird ‘80s production that makes everything sound both flat and glossy at the same time. The energy of these performances really struggles to come through. I don’t know if the problem is in how the instruments were recorded or in the mix, but I would love someone to try clean up these remix them.

While I’m dreaming, there is another 10 minutes worth of outtakes from these sessions floating around on bootlegs. It would be nice to add them to this set and release everything as stand-alone EP.

In case you are wondering, the second side of this album finds the Stranglers covering the Kinks as well as original songs from Lou Reed, the Bo-Deans, J.D. Souther and the Godfathers. I bet I play the Strummer side of this album 10 times for every spin the flip side gets. Take the Lou Reed track off there and that number goes down even more.

The Clash – Live at Shea Stadium (2008)

On a road trip several years ago, I subjected a traveling companion to a recreation of the legendary Clash and Who concert at Shea Stadium in 1982. Thanks to archival releases by both bands, each set can be heard in its entirety.

The two groups were obviously in very different places and had very different jobs to do that night. The Who performed for nearly three times as long as the Clash (two hours and 20 minutes) and were nearing the end of their first farewell tour.

The Clash poured their souls into a breathless 50-minute set that maintains its intensity and energy throughout. The music videos for “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and “Career Opportunities” were shot at this gig and with good reason. The quartet is tight and ready to blow anyone off the stage. “Clampdown,” “I Fought the Law” and opening number “London Calling” are also impeccable. Legend has it that The Clash were treated poorly by Who fans at earlier concerts. In this set they aim to convert everyone in the ballpark. Although the band splintered the following year, none of those cracks are apparent in this set.

Coming on the heels of this set, the Who’s performance couldn’t help but be a disappointment. The band had to pace itself for a much longer set and couldn’t match the Clash’s energy. Although the Who open with several of their earliest hits, they sound like a group tired of each other and tired of the road, going through the motions. Although these performances are nearly 40 years old, the Who ended up having the last laugh. It is still possible to hear Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend play these songs. Sadly, our ability to hear the Clash in concert is limited to archival releases like this.

(Side note to the official Clash archivists and Columbia Records: How about a retrospective collection from The Clash’s shows at Bond’s Casino?)

The Pogues with Joe Strummer – Live in London (2014)

Joe Strummer was never the kind of performer who would plop down on a stool, acoustic guitar in hand and play his catalog. He needed to be in a band. Even when his name was out front, Strummer fed off the energy from the musicians around him. I think this is why Strummer struggled so much after the Clash ended. He didn’t have a group of mates to perform with and draw inspiration from.

When the Pogues asked Strummer to play guitar on a late ‘80s tour, Strummer had so much fun he stuck around to produce the Pogues fifth album. When the Pogues again asked Strummer to go on tour with them in 1991, he was no longer anonymously playing guitar, but positioned front and center, replacing Shane MacGowan.

Live in London is a fantastic snapshot from that tour. On one hand, it shows how uniquely suited MacGowan is for the Pogues. Strummer seems to have trouble keeping up with the band on the faster songs, such as the opening song “If I Should Fall with God” and “Turkish Song of Damned.” Conversely, the recording also shows how easily the Pogues are able to slip into Clash numbers “London Calling” and “Straight to Hell.”

The Pogues soldiered on for a couple more albums and tours after the ’91 tour eventually breaking up, then getting back together with MacGowan in 2001. They have toured sporadically since then, but released no new studio material. Strummer became involved with several film soundtracks throughout the ‘90s but didn’t release any new studio material until forming the Mescaleros at the end of the decade.

The Clash – London Calling (1979)

I have an excellent, 560-page book that breaks down each song on the Clash’s third album. Countless other think-pieces have been written about the album as well. Here are some stray thoughts.

I love that Rolling Stone named London Calling the best album of the ‘80s when it was released in 1979.

I love that artists across all genres have drawn inspiration from London Calling. The Black Crowes, Anne Lennox, Third Eye Blind and Manic Street Preachers all covered “Train in Vain.” I’m not sure those four acts have much in common beyond a love of this song.

I love that 32 years after its release, the song “London Calling” – a warning about an environmental apocalypse – was selected as the theme song for the 2012 Olympic games in London.

I love that Beto O’Rourke loves and relates to the Clash so deeply that he said Ted Cruz was working for the clampdown during a debate like this was an everyday reference. (Beto isn’t wrong, by the way.)

I love that the greatest punk album of all time went out of its way to also include ska on “Rudy Can’t Fail,” lounge music on “Lost in the Supermarket” and pop music on the aforementioned Top 40 hit “Train in Vain.” The song “The Cheat Card” even features a wall of sound, Phil Spector-esque arrangement that had guitarist Mick Jones on piano and trumpet solo.

Never Mind the Bollocks and the Clash’s first album may have burned hotter as succinct statements of raw punk rock, but London Calling sustained that passion across four sides of vinyl and transcended the genre in the process. If you like music, you love London Calling.

Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros – Live at Acton Town Hall (2012)

Joe Strummer’s time with the Mescaleros has gained heightened importance over the years. The Mescaleros were, of course, Strummer’s final band, but also the ensemble that galvanized him to record and tour regularly.

Even in that context, this show at Acton Town Hall is of historic importance. This recording captures Strummer in fine form a little more than a month before his death, doing a benefit show for striking firefighters. Even better, former Clash bandmate Mick Jones joins Strummer onstage during the encore for the pair’s first performance together since the US Festival in 1983.

Acton Town Hall wasn’t Strummer’s final show, but it sure seems like the stars aligned for one magical night.

The Clash – Sandinista! (1980)

At three LPs and 36 songs, most would say Sandinista is too much. I would argue there’s not enough. The Clash were ridiculously prolific, turning out five albums in five years, plus another album’s worth of non-album singles, but the time around Sandinista was bountiful even by those standards.

In addition to fitting studio time for Sandinista! around a hectic touring schedule, the Clash also recorded and released the “Bankrobber” single with two dub versions as b-sides. After recording on Sandinista wrapped, the Clash started working on Ellen Foley’s Spirit of St. Louis album. Foley was dating Clash guitarist Mick Jones at the time. The Clash not only serve as Foley’s band for the entire album, but Jones and Joe Strummer wrote six original songs for the album. (Clash collaborator Tymon Dogg, who worked with the band on Sandinista, also wrote three songs for Foley.)

Imagine a version of Sandinista! where “One More Dub” on side two is replaced with “Bankrobber.” Swap out “Broadway” with “Charlie Don’t Surf” and call the third record a bonus LP: The Clash in Dub. While we’re at it, let’s drop the children’s songs as well. I wonder how history would regard this much improved version of Sandinista! It wouldn’t eclipse London’s Calling, but I bet it would have a much better reputation and we’d see more Sandinista! tracks on tribute albums.

Since we can’t change the past, my dream version of Sandinista! would contain the original album, plus the “Bankrobber” single material and the demo or working versions of tracks Jones and Strummer wrote for Foley (in other words, the Clash versions, sans Foley). I shudder to think what studio scraps from the Sandinista! sessions might remain after listening to sides five and six of the original album, but if there are any other goodies left over, include them as well. That’s easily three compact discs worth of material and I’d buy it in a second. As with all of these suggestions, someone, please, come take my money.

Keep reading:

Social Distancing Spins – Days 35-37 (an in-depth look at Cut the Crap, the Clash’s final album)

Happy Clash-mas Eve (Strummer in the post-Clash ’80s)

Happy Clash-mas Eve (Strummer and reggae)

Christmas record covers

Social Distancing Spins: Christmas edition

By Joel Francis

It’s been a while since we’ve had any social distancing spins, but hopefully everyone is still social distancing and staying safe. I’d say Happy Holidays, but these are all Christmas albums, so Merry Christmas and thanks for reading.

Various artists – Motown Christmas (2014)
Various artists – A Motown Christmas (1973)

I didn’t spend a lot of time with Motown Christmas before tucking it into my pile of purchases. Seeing Smokey Robinson and the Temptation among the featured artists was all I needed. You can imagine my surprise when I played this album months later (I bought it out of season) and discovered this was a collection of contemporary Motown artists. I didn’t bother me too much, because it didn’t cost much and what’s here is great.

Smokey Robinson opens the album with a song that has that classic Miracles sound augmented by a drum loop that is way too prominent in the mix. Gregory Porter and Anita Wilson take us to church with a soaring gospel mash-up of “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Other high points include India.Arie and Gene Moore’s duet on “Mary Did you Know” and Tye Tribbett, who turns “The Little Drummer Boy” into a serious dancefloor jam.

A Motown Christmas is the album I thought I was buying the first time. Oh, what a difference that little article – the letter a – makes. A Motown Christmas rounds up the best moments from several of the label’s biggest Christmas albums. Let’s face it, no one needs to own all these albums, but sprinkling the high points across two records is a pretty tasty collection.

A Motown Christmas serves up four songs each from Stevie Wonder (including “Someday at Christmas” and “Ave Maria”), the Temptations and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Diana Ross and the Supremes get five cuts and the Jackson 5 have six songs, plus a Michael Jackson solo performance of “Little Christmas Tree.”

Either yuletide Motown set will keep spirits high. If you play them back-to-back the label’s impact becomes even more apparent.

J.D. McPherson – Socks (2018)

Oklahoma singer/songwriter J.D. McPherson mines the same early rock and roll territory that has served Brian Setzer so well on his holiday records.

While Setzer borrows from the high-octane crowd of Gene Vincent, Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, McPherson draws from a more diverse pool. “Hey Skinny Santa” sounds like a Louis Jordan jump song and “Twinkle (Little Christmas Lights)” has a New Orleans shuffle and a piano solo that sounds like it was lifted from Huey “Piano” Smith. McPherson veers closer to Setzer’s territory on “Bad Kid,” which features a guitar solo that splits the difference between Duane Eddy and Dick Dale, and “Santa’s Got a Mean Machine” which sounds like it was cut in Sun Studio.

McPherson also scores points for writing 11 original holiday songs for this album. Not only is McPherson a solid songwriter, but this means you don’t have to slog through the same overworked standards that are always on repeat at the mall.

Various artists – Psych-out Christmas (compilation)

If you learn one thing about me through all these Social Distancing Spins blog entries, you should know I will absolutely buy any album if the cover art and sleeve are intriguing and the price is right (read: cheap).

Cleopatra’s 2013 compilation Psyche-out Christmas is one such purchase and I am all the better for it. The album opens with a dumb skit featuring Halloween monsters throwing a Christmas party that sounds like something Dr. Demento might reject for being too corny, but don’t let that put you off. The Elephants rip through the Beatles’ “Christmas Time is Here Again” and Psychic Ills live up to their name with a hung-over reading of “Run Rudolph Run.”

Miss Quintron and the Pussycats are the only band to get two tracks. Their performances of “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bell Rock” are fun. For some reason a group called the Sons of Hippies cover the Zombies’ “Time of the Season.” The biggest name is Iggy Pop who delivers a straightforward version of “White Christmas” that’s called the “Guitar Stooge Version” for some reason. I guess that means James Williamson or Ron Asheton play on the track, but the guitar follows the vocal melody and is pretty low in the mix. Hands-down, the best song is Sleepy Sun’s version of “What Child of This,” which features a galloping rhythm section complemented with shoegaze guitars.

Psyche-out Christmas is one of those collections that is greater than the sum of its part. Aside from Sleepy Sun there aren’t really any songs that scream to be included on a playlist (or mixtape) on their own merits. But the 17 songs here hang together for a very enjoyable listen that is guaranteed to draw at least a couple puzzled looks when unsuspecting listeners have to confirm if they are really hearing what they think they are hearing.

Various artists – Death May Be Your Santa Claus (compilation)

If Psyche-out Christmas doesn’t drive the squares out of your holiday party, Death May Be Your Santa Claus should do the trick. This 2013 Record Store Day – Black Friday exclusive gathers sermons, blues, jazz and gospel tracks issued in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s.

Clips of Reverend J.M. Gates sermons from the 1920s appear every couple songs and provide not only the title track but ask the question Will hell be your Santa Claus? Um, maybe? A little bit of Gates goes a long way and I could have done with half as much. The rest of the songs from Sonny Boy Williamson (the first one), Bessie Smith, Tampa Red and very early Duke Ellington are will appeal to fans of early blues and jazz. Aside from the Heavenly Gospel Singers’ version of “When Was Jesus Born?” not many of the other songs are very well-known.

The award for best song title and group name combo goes to Butterbeans and Susie, who perform “Papa Ain’t No Santa Claus (and Mama Ain’t No Christmas Tree).” The song comes from the pen of Fats Waller’s lyricist Andy Razaf and ragtime pianist Alexander Hill. The Butterbeans and Susie are Joe and Susie Edwards, who sing, and pianist Eddie Heywood.

The Edwards were a married comedy team that performed from the 1920s until the 1960s, which is pretty impressive when you consider how much comedy changed during that time. They started in the vaudeville era and managed to keep it going through the advent of radio, talking movies and finally television. Joe Edwards was known as Butterbeans, which is how the duo got their name. You can learn all kinds of stuff on the internet.

John Fahey – The New Possibility (1968)

Folk guitarist John Fahey remains fairly unknown nearly two decades after his death, but he inspires a deep devotion from those that discover him. Listening to this album it is easy to hear why.

The performances on The New Possibility sound like they were captured in one take with a live guitar. If there is any overdubbing it is hidden well. The tempos across the 14 standards captured here are fairly steady as well.

I understand that this can read like the recipe for a snooze-fest and in most circumstances I’d agree. But there is something in Fahey’s playing that is both magnetic and intimate. The New Possibility makes me feel like I am sitting inside Fahey’s guitar, feeling the wood vibrate around me while the strings oscillate overhead.

While the arrangements are fairly straightforward, there is something in Fahey’s playing that simultaneously makes me want to pull close and provides a feeling of comfort. Every time I’ve put this album on at a holiday gathering, people will almost immediately stop talking and listen. When I play this album by myself, I usually end up playing it twice because the environment it creates is so soothing and refreshing. Next time the holiday blues or yuletide fatigue start to fade in, send them packing with The New Possibility.

Keep reading:

Classic Christmas Carol: “In the Bleak Midwinter”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Greensleeves”

Review: The Flaming Lips – “Christmas on Mars”

prophets of rage, psychedelic furs, bobbie gentry album covers

Random record reviews: the Psychedelic Furs, Bobbie Gentry, Prophets of Rage,

By Joel Francis

Psychedelic Furs – Made of Rain

For better or worse, the Psychedelic Furs will always be tied to “Pretty in Pink” and the films of John Hughes. The master of 1980s coming-of-age movies directed his last film in 1991, the same year the Furs released their final album. That is until now, 29 years later, and Made of Rain.

Just the eighth album from the band, Made of Rain is far from the cash-in or pale imitation skeptics could rightly assume after so long an absence. To be sure, Made of Rain will never be mistaken for one of the Furs classics made in the first half of the Me Decade, but it is also better than some of the albums released toward the end of the group’s original run.

 “The Boy that Invented Rock and Roll” opens the album with no concession to the passage of time. Singer Richard Butler is still entrenched in that odd niche between Johnny Rotten and David Bowie, while Mars Williams’ saxophone darts around Tim Butler’s propulsive bassline. Lead single “Don’t Believe” is a tough number that features a short, soaring chorus against a dark backdrop. Later, “Come All Ye Faithful” finds Richard Butler at his sardonic best, delivering lines like “When I said I loved you, and I lied / I never really loved you, I was laughing at you all the time.”

Even less-successful numbers such as “Ash Wednesday” and “You’ll Be Mine” get by on their ability to conjure the specific feelings and memories only the Psychedelic Furs can produce. It isn’t pure nostalgia, but also a wonder that no matter how much has changed, life could somehow sound and feel this way again.

Bobbie Gentry – The Delta Sweete

After the surprising – and massive – No. 1 hit “Ode to Billie Joe,” Bobbie Gentry recorded a sometimes-autobiographical song cycle about life in the South. As a Mississippi native, the material is a natural for Gentry, but odd production choices make The Delta Sweete a completely unique release.

Neither psychedelic nor countrypolitian, the acoustic instruments at the heart of each performance are saturated with strings, horns and seemingly everything producer Kelly Gordon could think of. The busy arrangements often draw the focus away from Gentry’s voice and lyrics. At times, the material resembles folk songs posturing Las Vegas show tunes.

Perhaps no number on The Delta Sweete embodies this juxtaposition better than “Sermon,” also known as the country gospel song “God’s Going to Cut You Down.” Gentry’s version is startling upbeat, accented with punchy horns. It is especially astonishing for those used to the foreboding Johnny Cash version.

The new deluxe version unearths a mono mix of the album, along with band tracks, but the spare acoustic demos are most fascinating addition. The Delta Sweete might be a better album if it stayed closer in spirit to these stripped-down performances, but it would also be a lot less interesting.

Prophets of Rage – Prophets of Rage

The remaining members of Rage Against the Machine have had a hard time filling the void left by the unexpected near-retirement of frontman Zack de la Rocha nearly 20 years ago. The trio paired with Chris Cornell for three albums in the ‘00s and are now working with Public Enemy’s Chuck D and DJ Lord and B-Real of Cypress Hill.

The supergroup’s 2017 self-titled album is closer in sound, content and spirit to the Machine’s celebrated catalog. Chuck D has no problem agitating a lyric against injustice and the like-minded B-Real is a better foil in this context than a post-reality show Flava Flav.

Neither Public Enemy nor Rage Against the Machine were known for subtly and truthfully the Prophets of Rage doesn’t offer many surprises. The album sounds pretty much exactly as one would imagine. Those excited by this prospect know playing the Prophets at maximum volume satisfies both a primal and sociopolitical need.

Keep reading:

Review: Prophets of Rage

Review: “All Over But the Shouting”

Review: David Rawlings Machine

funkadelic, paul mccartney, alanis morissette album covers

Random record reviews: Alanis Morissette, Paul McCartney, Funkadelic

By Joel Francis

Alanis Morissette – Such Pretty Forks in the Road

On her first album in eight years, Canadian songstress Alanis Morissette gets introspective and a little too comfortable. Such Pretty Forks in the Road hits the turnpike out of the gate, but takes an unfortunate detour, succumbing to its own ponderous weight before getting back on track for the final songs.

Written for her children, “Ablaze” belongs on any Morissette best-of playlist and features one of the best lyrics on the album: “My mission is to keep the light in your eyes ablaze.” The piano-driven confessional “Reasons I Drink” could be a b-side from Fiona Apple’s stellar Fetch the Bolt Cutters. “Drink” is followed by “Diagnosis,” a frank look at depression and mental illness. These songs are saved from being pablum for a group therapy session by a raw, honest delivery and arrangements that heighten Morissette’s emotions.

Unfortunately, Forks then takes a wrong turn. The songs start to blend (bland) together and the lyrics grow treacly. “Losing the Plot, a song about insomnia, did a good job of putting this listener to sleep. “Sandbox Love” suggests something new with a shimmering guitar intro, but collapses into the same middle-of-the-road quicksand.

Closing numbers “Nemesis” and “Pedestal” end the album on a strong note, but anyone pining for the raw anger of her ‘90s breakthrough oughta know those days are nowhere to be found.

Paul McCartney – Flaming Pie

Paul McCartney went all-in after the Beatles Anthology pushed the Fab Four back into the spotlight. For his first post-Anthology album, McCartney enlisted Anthology producer Jeff Lynne and called on old pals Ringo Starr and George Martin.

The resulting album, Flaming Pie, hits that sweet spot where the performances shine without seeming over-labored and the songwriting has a relaxed feel without feeling tossed-off. The first time McCartney was able to sustain this zone throughout an entire album he delivered Band on the Run. While Flaming Pie isn’t as good as that album, it isn’t far off and may be as close to that apex as we will ever see again.

High points include the Ringo-assisted “Beautiful Night,” the R&B number “Souvenir” and single “The Song We Were Singing,” where McCartney confronts his legacy with the great lyric “I go back so far/I’m in front of me.” The acoustic “Little Willow” is a heartfelt ballad, while album-closing “Great Day” could have appeared on Ram.

If you have some spare change, consider buying the deluxe version. The extra LP finds McCartney laying down early versions of these songs accompanied only by his own guitar (or piano). Ringing phones, overhead airplanes, barking dogs and passing trains only add to the intimacy.

Funkadelic – Maggot Brain

George Clinton’s genre melting experiment never soared as high as it does on Maggot Brain, the third album from Funkadelic. Guitarist Eddie Hazel’s 10-minute solo on the title track may be the finest sound coaxed from six strings by any rock axeman not named Jimi Hendrix. “Can You Get to That” exists in a world where Crosby, Stills and Nash recorded with Norman Whitfield-era Temptations. “Hit It and Quit It” reimagines jazz organist Jimmy Smith as a member of a Bay-area jam band. “You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks” combines the spirit of Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder with a jazz trio.

funkadelic maggot brain album cover

And that’s just side one.

Any trepidation of musical whiplash reading these descriptions would be well-founded, but somehow everything hangs together. Clinton’s vision of putting heavy metal, gospel, folk, funk and any other LSD-inspired musical visions into the blender and seeing what pours out resulted in a collection that is decidedly greater than the sum of its parts. Each performance supports the other possibly because the only points of reference for this sound are the other songs on the album.

Funkadelic released many other superb albums in the 1970s – to say nothing of brother band Parliament’s output – but they never danced so freely on the edge of threatening to fall into the abyss while simultaneously grabbing anything with an arm’s length to raise them into the stratosphere.

Keep reading:

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Review: George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars

Kansas, Courtney Marie Andrews, Soul of a Nation album covers

Random record reviews: Kansas, Courtney Marie Andrews, Soul of a Nation

By Joel Francis

Kansas – The Absence of Presence

The 16th album by wayward (and native) sons Kansas manages to capture the essence of what made the radio-friendly prog-rock band popular in the 1970s, while infusing it with enough new blood to ensure the group will carry on well into the 21st century.

All of the music on The Absence of Presence is written by newcomers Zak Rizvi and Tom Brislin. The pair handles the lion’s share of the lyrics as well, although founding member Phil Ehart co-wrote the words on four songs.

Absence also marks lead vocalist Ronnie Platt’s second outing with the band. He doesn’t sound like longtime frontman Steve Walsh, but his voice is familiar enough to slide into the void left by Walsh’s absence.

The result is what you would expect. Lots of violin/keyboard duets, powerful drums and big, chugging guitars that turn on a dime. The best moments on The Absence of Presence come during the many instrumental sections when the seven musicians are able to play off each other. Close your eyes during “Propulsion 1” or the instrumental breakdowns during “Animals on the Roof” and “The Song the River Sang” and it’s hard not to slip back in time.

Courtney Marie Andrews – Old Flowers

Phoenix-born singer/songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews bares her crushed soul on Old Flowers. Song cycles about heartbreak are nothing new, but Andrews makes her worthwhile addition to this vast cannon with a hushed production that rewards close – and repeated – listens and an eye for detail, like dancing in Nashville and walking on Venice Beach under a full moon.

Old Flowers opens with “Burlap String,” which sounds like an outtake from Neil Young’s Harvest and sets the scene of “a family and a house/where the memories of us belong.” The enchanting “If I Told” is a beautiful tale of longing that captures the spark of a new relationship. The ache behind the delicate melody is teased out by what sounds like the ghosts of piano keys in the background that ultimately swells into an organ that consumes the track.

These wistful memories give way to the devastation of “Carnival Dream” and a cascading drum part that reinforces the hurt. By the time we get to “Ships in the Night,” Andrews can admit to her onetime love “I know you felt the same way/but the timing wasn’t right.”

Andrews captures her pain so elegantly and perfectly on Old Flowers it is nearly impossible not to be moved. Its orbit is so powerful that it can draw in unprepared listeners. Played in the right time and space, it is a jewel.

Various artists – Soul of a Nation: Jazz is the Teacher, Funk is the Preacher

Given the number of collections available, there must be a substantial appetite for jazz and funk music created during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Soul of a Nation: Jazz is the Teacher, Funk is the Preacher is another new three-album collection covering the era of the Black Arts Movement, when jazz, funk, fusion and street poetry crisscrossed and inspired the mind as much as the feet.

Several of the names included here – Funkadelic, Gil Scott-Heron, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Don Cherry – should be recognizable, even if the performances are more obscure. Some songs may take some acclimation. “Theme De Yo-Yo,” by Art Ensemble of Chicago sounds like a R&B song wedged into a free jazz performance. “Space Jungle Funk” by Oneness of Juju is everything you think it is.

Even the more accessible numbers, such as Baby Huey’s “Hard Times” and James Mason’s “Sweet Power of Your Embrace,” a synthesizer-driven funk song that could have been the theme song to a ‘70s cop show, refuse to become background music. Jazz is the Teacher is a demanding collection, but if you’re willing to invest, it is richly rewarding.

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PJ Harvey, Dixie Chicks, Roddy Ricch album covers

Random record reviews: The Chicks, PJ Harvey, Roddy Ricch

By Joel Francis

The Chicks – Gaslighter

They may have dropped the dixie, but these Chicks still aren’t ready to make nice. The opening title track has many of the band’s hallmarks – a catchy, sing-along chorus, propulsive banjo picking backed with big drums, and a nasty kiss-off.

Production from Jack Antonoff, the man behind the boards for Taylor Swift’s recent pop albums and Lana Del Ray’s 2019 gem NFR, gives the album a shiny, poppy gloss. Fans missing the country and bluegrass elements of the Chicks’ older material should love “March March,” a strong performance with banjo, violin and plenty of stomps and claps.

If Gaslighter has a weakness, it is the multitude of mid-tempo numbers and ballads. The album would be better with more upbeat performances sprinkled throughout. As it is, Gaslighter stalls after the momentum established by the early numbers. Compounding the problem, most of these songs deal with the same topic: the dissolution of Natalie Maines’ marriage.

This won’t be a problem for long-time fans. Despite the weighty heartbreak behind the material, Gaslighter is filled with self-empowerment and determination to embrace the future regardless of the past.

PJ Harvey – Dry – Demos

The demos Polly Jean Harvey crafted for what would become her debut album are so strong they were released as bonus tracks not long after Dry started drawing critical acclaim. Now they are finally receiving their own stand-alone vinyl release.

The demos are presented in the same running order as the proper album, and clock in at nearly the same combined length, providing an alternate perspective of the lauded release. Many of the songs are built around acoustic guitar parts that create more space for Harvey’s voice and lyrics to shine through.

Harvey aficionados have long had Dry – Demos in one form or another for some time. If you are still actively listening to Dry or wondering what the hype surrounding Harvey is about, you will eventually want to add them to your vinyl collection as well.

Roddy Ricch – Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial

Trap MC Roddy RIcch’s debut album made a lot of noise earlier this year when his single “The Box” spent 11 weeks at the top of the charts and became a dance club staple. Ricch allegedly spent just 15 minutes recording the juggernaut and claimed to recording 250 songs for Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial.

This quick pace is evident in the 16 tracks that made the album – and clock in at a little more than 43 minutes. Ricch almost sings his lyrics (with an assist from Auto-Tune), creating a smooth delivery and melody that serves as a counterpoint to the hardened machismo of Ricch’s lyrics. Most songs revolve around tales about Ricch’s previous life as drug dealer, his success – and wealth – as a rapper and bragging about sexual exploits. Along the way, Ricch gets high-profile assists from Mustard, Ty Dolla Sign, Meek Mill and A Boogie wit da Hoodie.

While the lyrical content remains fairly static, the production is frequently fascinating. Delicate finger-picked guitars give way to gospel piano, flutes, harps and vaguely Asian melodies. These disparate arrangements are held together with booming basslines and trap drums. The back half of the album is especially interesting, with each song sounding completely different than the rest. This sequence culminates with “Prayers to the Trap God” and a gospel choir on the concluding “War Baby.”

Keep reading:

Review: Members of the Dixie Chicks, and others, at Lilith Fair

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wooden shjips, the pretenders, fiona apple album covers

Random record reviews: Wooden Shjips, Pretenders, Fiona Apple

By Joel Francis

Wooden Shjips – Back to Land

The moment the needle drops on Back to Land, the third album from the San Francisco psychedelic group Wooden Shjips, a trace amount of smoke seeps from the speakers. By the time the title song is going full bore the sweet smoke is now unmistakably filling the room. Short of stopping the record, nothing can be done to stop the foggy ambience. It’s best just to lay back and embrace the feeling.

It doesn’t take long for the four-piece band to lay down a groove wide enough to accommodate an aircraft carrier. Once there, an organ spars with Ripley Johnson’s echo-laden vocals against a tight, minimalist rhythm section while Johnson’s guitar soars high in the heavens. There isn’t necessarily a lot of deviation from song to song, but why play with a perfect formula? Listeners will figure out pretty quickly if Wooden Shjips are their cup of tea. If so, welcome to the promised land.

Pretenders – Hate for Sale

Every so often, if music fans are lucky, a veteran artist will put out an album that reminds fans why and how they fell in love with the band in the first place. Hate for Sale, the 11th album from the Pretenders, is that album.

Clocking in at a brisk 30 minutes, Hate for Sale snarls out of the gate with and rarely slows down. Frontwoman Chrissie Hynde seems invigorated by the return of founding drummer Martin Chambers and guitarist James Walbourne, with whom she wrote every song. Walbourne’s riffs and solos add muscle to Hynde’s undiminished vocals. He even manages to singlehandedly salvage the album’s least-effective track (“Junkie Walk”). Sidesteps into reggae on “Lightning Man” and orchestral pop on the introspective ballad “You Can’t Hurt a Fool” reinforce the raw force on the rest of the album.

The Pretenders are selling hate. Buy it. There is a lot to love.

Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

When this Fiona Apple’s fifth album was released digitally last April, and dealing with the coronavirus appeared to be a season and not A Thing We’d Have to Live with Indefinitely, I was convinced it was going to be the soundtrack for the pandemic.

Although this naiveté is laughable in hindsight, Fetch the Bolt Cutters still captures that mood. It is charming, angry, insecure, elegant, awkward and funny – often effortlessly shuffling through several emotions within a few bars.

Apple recorded these songs at her home studio in the years following her previous album, eight years ago. The resulting baker’s dozen tunes are complex and authentic and provide a heartening catharsis especially needed right now.

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jill scott, margo price, spirituality in jazz album covers

Random record reviews: Margo Price, Jill Scott, Spirituality in jazz

By Joel Francis

Margo Price – That’s How Rumors Get Started

Margo Price is a long-time Nashville resident, but her third album is loaded with the sun-soaked hallmarks of Los Angeles. The title song, which opens the album, operates on the same wavelength as Jenny Lewis’ recent masterpiece On the Line. The next track, “Letting Me Down” has a strong Jackson Browne vibe. Later, “Heartless Mind” has a very ‘80s feel that seems peeled from a John Hughes montage.

Her sound may be different, but Price is as defiant as ever, taking on motherhood, heartbreak and a raft of political issues such as housing and health care, in a sharp stanza or two that allows an idea to linger while the song moves along.

Special notice must be given to Tom Petty’s keyboard wizard Benmont Tench, who frequently gives the performances a Heartbreakers air, and producer Sturgill Simpson who keeps the album cohesive and gives “Twinkle Twinkle” the same fuzzy feel as his album “Sound and Fury.”

Jill Scott – Who is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds, Vol. 1

The debut album from Philadelphia singer Jill Scott is a near-perfect blend of soul, jazz and poetry. Her gig as a spoken-word poet shines brightly through her lyrics a delivery throughout the album. (Sample stanza: I felt Dizzy, Sonya, heaven and Miles between my thighs/Better than love,we made delicious.) Sympathetic production from DJ Jazzy Jeff (Townes) and the Roots (as the Grand Wizzards) create a neo-soul backdrop of acoustic instruments and horns that her words ride like waves.

Who is Jill Scott? brought some of the singer’s best-loved and well-known songs, including “Love Rain,” “One is the Magic #” and “A Long Walk.” No less than Beyonce has been known to drop a bit of “He Loves Me” into her set. Who is Jill Scott? Either a longtime favorite or your next favorite singer. If you love soul music, you need this album.

Various artists – If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem (Soul, Politics and Spirituality in Jazz, 1967-1975)

From “Strange Fruit” in the 1930s, to Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige” suite in the ‘40s, to Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Now album in the 1950s, protest music has long been at the heart and core of jazz. This collection rounds up 10 performances from a time when America’s civil rights leaders were being killed and more militant factions, such as the Black Panthers, were gaining a voice. As a genre, jazz was also under siege from R&B groups like Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown.

The music in this double LP is just as strident and uncompromising as one would expect from the title, but it’s far from a purely academic exercise. More often than not, the basslines in these performances are funky enough on their own to get your feet involved, while your head ponders the parallels between that time and the present day, and the horn players ricochet melodies and grooves off each other. Dig it.

Keep reading:

Review: Jill Scott at Starlight

Social Distancing Spins – Day 21, featuring Margo Price, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Prince and delta blues

Powerful songs help move protest music back in mainstream