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 Avenue.

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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15 jazz greats to emerge in the last 20 years

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

norah jones, booker t. jones, post malone album covers

Random record reviews: Norah Jones, Post Malone, Booker T.

By Joel Francis

Norah Jones – Pick Me Up Off the Floor

Although Norah Jones’ second album in as many years shares many similarities with last year’s Begin Again, Pick Me Up Off the Floor hangs together better as a cohesive album.

Working once again with a revolving cast of musicians, Jones maintains a consistent mood and tempo throughout the album. The joy in these performances lie in their subtleties, like the pedal steel guitar on “Heartbroken, Day After,” soulful B3 organ on “Flame Twin” or horns on the gospel song “To Live.” It’s not hard to get lost in the interplay between drummer Brian Blade and upright bass player Chris Thomas on “Hurts to Be Alone.”

Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s idiosyncratic guitar playing and unique phrasing are evident throughout “I’m Alive,” one of the best songs on the album. Ultimately, however, these nuances aren’t distinct enough to win Jones any new fans. The mid-tempo pop/jazz singer may need to be picked up off the floor, but only the most devoted fans will be swept off their feet.

Post Malone – Hollywood’s Bleeding

For an established pop artist, Post Malone’s third album takes a while before the hooks arrive. There are a few flourishes of energy – DaBaby’s rap on “Enemies,” the bridge on “Allergic” – before “A Thousand Bad Times,” the fifth song, finally delivers something to sing along to.

From there, Hollywood’s Bleeding starts building momentum. “Circles” is perfect for a night at the club (whenever that can be a thing again), while Future and Halsey steal the spotlight on “Die for Me.” Ozzy Osborne and Travis Scott take over on the arena rock anthem “Take What You Want.” In danger of disappearing on his own album, Malone grabs center stage on “I’m Gonna Be” and “Staring at the Sun” (with SZA). This sets up the massive hit “Sunflower,” which appeared in the animated Spider-Man film.

At 17 tracks and 51 minutes, Hollywood’s Bleeding could benefit from some editing, but the genre mashup, something-for-everyone approach winds up delivering plenty of fun.

Booker T. Jones – Note by Note

As leader of Booker T. and the MGs, Booker T. Jones helped define the sound of the Stax label and southern soul. Trust me, you’ve heard him play even if you don’t recognize the name. Now Jones is back with his first album since 2013 revisiting the songs and music that built his reputation.

Note by Note jumps out of the speakers with “Cause I Love You,” a duet between Evvie McKinney and Joshua Ledet. From there, Jones takes the mic for the swampy blues “Born Under a Bad Sign” before turning the singing over to Ayanna Irish on the playful “B-A-B-Y.”

Regardless of the style or the singer, Jones’ distinctive B3 organ holds the performances together. His talent is especially evident on seemingly disparate performances of the gospel number “Precious Lord” and Chuck Berry’s “Havana Moon” (delivered with a distinct south-of-the-border feel).

Two new songs close out the album, but by then the deal has long been sealed. Fans of the Colemine and Daptone labels will find a lot to love here, but any fan of sweet soul music should celebrate Note by Note.

Keep reading:

Review – Booker T.

Another Side of Norah Jones

“Stax Does the Beatles”

Elvis was a hero to most

By Joel Francis

Elvis Presley led a boring life.

I realize this seems like a preposterous statement, especially coming from someone who devoted a good deal of time reading Peter Guralnick’s 1,000-plus page, two-volume biography of The King. But I stand by my statement.

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Carless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley stand as the definitive works on the totality of Elvis’ life. Other books might provide better insight into a specific part of Elvis’ story, but for a cradle-to-grave examination, I can’t imagine how anyone could do it better than Guralnick.

In addition to being a great writer, Guralnick is a thorough researcher. While Elvis left no record of his life beyond the carefully cultivated figure in copious interviews, films and records, Guralnick gets to the soul of the man through first-hand interviews with scores of musicians, friends and – most importantly – women.

Through the memories of Dixie Locke, Elvis’ first girlfriend, we see the inception of his royalty. She was 15 when they met (Elvis was 19) and a sophomore in high school. They started seeing each other regularly when Elvis was a truck driver, delivering supplies at job sites for Crown Electrical in Memphis. Locke paints the picture of a man who was confident in his ability as a musician, but didn’t want to be pushy about his passion. Elvis’ always had his guitar with him and wouldn’t hesitate to play and sing if asked, but would never initiate a performance on his own.

Locke was on a two-week vacation with her parents when Elvis got the call from Sam Phillips to cut some songs for Sun Records. When she returned, Elvis was playing shows all over the area with guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black. Elvis and Locke did an admirable job of trying to remain a couple, but Elvis’ life had changed too much over that short amount of time. He was home less and less and the couple found they had fewer things in common each time he was back in Memphis. Elvis was still shy, tender and devoted, but he was no longer living a life that could be contained by a white picket fence and nine-to-five job.

Elvis’ rise on the Louisiana Hayride tours, the Dorsey Brothers, Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan television shows is well-covered territory. In many ways, his life crescendos upon entering the army. Although just 23 at the time, Elvis and his manager, the infamous Colonel Tom Parker, were worried a fickle public would forget about The King while he was overseas. When Elvis returned from Germany two years later, he hit the ground running, recording singles and making movies to regain any lost momentum. He also came back with a habit for pills and a 14-year-old love interest, Priscilla Beaulieu.

In many ways, the events of 1960 and Elvis’ return to America set up a cycle of events that he was either never willing or able to escape for the rest of his life. Elvis would fly to Los Angeles or go on location for a movie shoot for a few weeks, pop into a California or Nashville studio to record the music for the film’s soundtrack, a stand-alone single or his own album, have a few weeks off, then be off to another movie shoot with a sprinkling of several more recording sessions, rinse, lather, repeat.

In the days of the Kennedy administration, it seemed like everything Elvis touched turned to gold. He had hit records and was a big box office draw. Because success came so quickly, both before and after the army, Elvis kept a tight circle of friends, people he knew from Memphis or the service, people he could trust. This is certainly natural and understandable. And because Elvis and his crew were all males in their early 20s, it made sense for everyone to burn the candle at both ends and have as much fun as possible. If that meant you had to take a few pills so you could stay up for 20-plus hours at a time and cavort around Las Vegas or the Sunset Strip, so be it.

The enduring problem was Elvis never found a greater purpose in life. He began with ambition to be a legitimate actor in the mold of Marlon Brando or James Dean, but it didn’t take long for Parker or the studio heads to realize that people would gladly pay just for the privilege of seeing their idol on the big screen, regardless of the vehicle. So, any attempts at prestige went out the window and the movies got quicker and cheaper. For most of the ‘60s, Elvis was appearing in three new movies each year.

Likewise, the unmistakable brilliance in being able to transform a standard like “Blue Moon of Kentucky” into something completely fresh and revolutionary was also being commodified. In order to make as much money as possible, Parker and RCA records insisted that they have a significant cut of the publishing on any song Elvis would record. As the decade progressed, the person responsible for finding new material from their publishing company got lazier and lazier and the material suffered significantly. There are many true gems to emerge from this period, like Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman’s “Viva Las Vegas.” But those moments are tarnished by the amount of embarrassing dreck like “There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car” and “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”

Near the end of the decade, Elvis was tired of releasing such undercooked material (although he never got tired of cashing the checks). His routine had been pretty static for several years at this point, although because Elvis’ fame kept growing, the circle around him became even more insular and isolating. And because everyone had been taking stimulants to stay awake for so long, they now needed depressants to help them sleep.

Here again, the underlying issue of a greater purpose comes back to the fore. When you can buy anything you want without fear of running out of money, when you can bed any woman you want on charm alone and you can get out of any jam simply because you are Elvis Presley it all becomes very rote very quickly. Put another way, a life without friction is no life at all.

Elvis, June 1968

Elvis flirted with different hobbies, trying to fill that void. He bought a ranch and everyone got horses, he got into karate, then collecting law enforcement badges, guns and racquetball, but eventually tired of it all. Nothing scratched that itch.

Shortly after the summer of love, Elvis finally stood up for himself and declared he wanted to start touring again. (As a point of reference as to how out-of-touch Elvis was at this time, try imagining him at the Monterey Pop Festival or Woodstock. It is almost impossible.) Coincidentally, the public was finally tiring on to Elvis’ cinematic manure and stopped showing up at the theaters. The ’68 Comeback Special re-established The King’s musical bona fides and invigorated his recordings for a while. The fans flocked to his concerts, which earned rave reviews, but in reality, Elvis had only traded three- or four-week movie shoots for two- or three-week tours. The rest of his hamster wheel remained the same.

After Elvis’ marriage to Priscilla ended in divorce, he desperately started cycling through a dizzying number of women. This time, though, he wasn’t (just) looking for sex. He was searching for a connection. He felt isolated from his entourage, his family, his manager, even well-meaning fans. Who he was as a person had been consumed by what he was as a celebrity.

Several women in Guralnick’s book express surprise that when they met Elvis, thinking their world was going to get larger. Instead, it shrank to hotel suites, Graceland and a dozen constant hangers-on. By the mid-‘70s, Elvis had given up any pretense of caring. He put on weight, quit trying onstage and lashed out at everyone around him. The merry-go-round of uppers and downers had given way to cocaine.

Elvis, June 1976

In his final years, Elvis was burning through money in futile attempts to buy intimacy. He’d buy a fancy car for a girl on their first date, then get sad when she wanted to leave Graceland to be with her friends or family. “Well I gave her a car and she leaves me in it,” Elvis quipped. He begged his dates to hold his hand and stay with him until the pills take over enough for him to fall asleep. He speaks baby talk and expects them to wait on and care for him. By the end, it is no surprise that Elvis dies, only that the inevitable took so long. And it didn’t really take that long. Picture Elvis in that gorgeous black leather attire onstage in the fabulous (and weird) ’68 Comeback Special. Now think of him bloated, squeezed into a jumpsuit. Those moments are less than 10 years apart.

Could this have been avoided? Looking at Judy Garland and Kurt Cobain, the answer seems negative. But Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Dave Grohl would say otherwise. Heck, Frank Sinatra outlived Elvis by two decades, and Sinatra started his career when Elvis was in grade school.

Elvis rarely spoke up for himself, preferring to follow a schedule someone else laid out for him. Maybe he didn’t want to let down all the people depending on him, but it ultimately meant he became a pawn in his own life. He was far too content with the superficial for far too long, rarely searching for depth until he had become fallow.

As Guralnick notes in the introduction to Careless Love, Elvis’ story is a tragedy. It is compelling and fascinating by what it suggests and lacks, but as a long-form, day-by-day narrative, it plays like a boring recitation of Groundhog’s Day as the same events cycle past again and again. As a vacation, I’d swap places with Elvis in a second, but in the long view I’ll take my mundane life over Elvis’ boring one any time.

Cue “Heartbreak Hotel.” Roll credits.

Keep reading:

KC Recalls: Elvis Presley at Kemper Arena

Peter Guralnick and Solomon Burke’s Sweet Soul Music

Local Doctor Claims He’s Treating Elvis

The Cramps, Tom Waits, Khruangbin album covers

Random record reviews: The Cramps, Tom Waits, Khruangbin

By Joel Francis

The Cramps – Stay Sick!

While mainstream America was reliving the 1950s via sock hops and malt shops in “Happy Days,” the Cramps slid a hand underneath the decade’s poodle skirt to celebrate rockabilly music, monster movies and pin-up girls.

The  Cramps roared into the 1990s with Stay Sick!, a debaucherous offering every bit as good as their first few albums nearly a decade earlier. The band’s musk is evident just by reading the song titles on Stay Sick! If a whiff of “The Creature from the Black Leather Lagoon” and “Journey to the Center of a Girl” don’t get you going, dig their perversion of Bob Seger’s milquetoast “Old Time Rock and Roll” into the infinitely superior “God Damn Rock and Roll.”

This is the music your parents warned you about – and for good reason. If that doesn’t provide enough motivation, there’s a song called “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns” which is every bit as awesome as it sounds. C’mon. You know you want to.

Tom Waits – Small Change

Tom Waits’ fourth album plays like the daydreams of a janitor resigned to cleaning up a strip club as the sun rises and the last customer stumbles out. “Tom Traubert’s Blues” opens the album, a romantic fantasy set against a lush orchestra, borrowing the melody and chorus from “Waltzing Matilda.” Jim Hugart’s upright bass propels the next number, “Step Right Up,” a monologue that dances in the common ground between carnival barkers, beat poetry and TV preachers.

The rest of the album settles in between these two poles. Small Change is largely filled wistful, piano ballads with “Step Right Up,” “Pasties and a G-String” and “The One That Got Away” puncturing the fatigue of the late-night blues. Waits quotes a bit of Casablanca’s “You Must Remember This” in the opening and closing bars of “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” illuminating a major influence on the compositions here and the booze-fueled perspective from which Waits was writing.

Waits mined this same fertile territory across the half-dozen albums he released annually in the 1970s, but he never did it better than he did on Small Change.

Khruangbin – Mordechai

Working with vocals seems to please Khruangbin. After building an all-instrumental ouvre, the Texas funk trio released an EP with soul singer Leon Bridges earlier this year. Several months later, they released Mordechai, their third album, replete with singing.

The disembodied vocals on “First Class,” the opening cut, give way to actual lyrics on “Time (You and I),” which recalls Kool and the Gang sans horns. While most songs feature vocals, the singing complements and reinforces the vibe set by the instruments. The upbeat “Pelota” features handclaps and Spanish lyrics delivered with so much gusto it is impossible to listen without moving your body to the rhythm. A couple other high points feature African elements. “Connaissais de Face” incorporates bits of film dialogue alongside African guitar elements and dub rhythm. The relaxing “So We Won’t Forget” floats on a midsummer breeze with its Afro-pop arrangement and chill vocals.

Far from being a gimmick, by the end of Mordechia it becomes clear that the human voice is yet another texture for Khruangbin to play with in their impressive musical arsenal. It will be fun to see where this leads them next.

Phoebe Bridgers, Neil Young, 24-Carat Black

Random record reviews: Phoebe Bridgers, Neil Young, 24-Carat Black

By Joel Francis

Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

Indie folk darling Phoebe Bridgers’ second album is an introspective masterpiece perfect for late nights and headphones. “Garden Song” sets the stage with delicate guitars, subtle electronics and double-tracked vocals, but while Bridgers is able to maintain this mood throughout the course of the 41-minute album, it never feels staid or monotonous. The upbeat “Kyoto” bounces with a horn section, while the autotune on “Punisher” makes the lyrics about loneliness seem even more immediate and detached. “ICU” sounds like one of the best Death Cab for Cutie songs in years. The album culminates with the fittingly titled “I Know the End” and a cavalcade of horns, choir, strings and drums that bleed into screams, electric guitar and deep exhalations – a cathartic release of all the emotions Bridgers has been processing throughout the album.

Punisher recalls the lineage of Elliott Smith, Cat Power and early Sufjan Stevens, but Bridgers’ guest appearances with the 1975 and Mercury Rev and projects with Conor Oberst and boygenius reveal a broad talent that should be successful in whatever path Bridgers chooses. I’m happy to follow her on the ride.

Neil Young – Homegrown

After the success of his classic album Harvest and its No. 1 hit “Heart of Gold” in 1972, Neil Young was at a crossroads. His guitarist and a member of his touring crew had both died from drug overdoses and a longtime romantic relationship ended. Young poured his emotions into two disparate projects. Death got a hard look in the eye on Tonight’s the Night and heartbreak was at the core of Homegrown. Of the two projects, Homegrown was much closer in spirit to the homespun charm of Harvest. This might be why Young released Tonight’s the Night and Homegrown languished in the vaults until now.

Although several songs appeared across Young’s later ‘70s releases, Homegrown is the first chance to hear the dozen songs as Young first envisioned them. The result is this missing link between Harvest and Comes a Time. Not everything works – the spoken word piece “Florida” and lumbering blues of “We Don’t Smoke It No More” stall the album’s momentum – but the rest capture Young in a lyrically vulnerable and musically tranquil state.

24-Carat Black – III

Funk collective 24-Carat Black released only one album, which flopped on the charts in 1973 but gained a second life in the in the 1990s thanks to several prominent hip hop samples. The Numero Group, a Chicago label specializing in obscure and forgotten labels and bands released a collection of unreleased 24-Carat material in 2009. Now, even more 24-Carat Black material has been unearthed and released by Numero as III.

It is clear from some of the performances and mixes that these recordings were never intended to be the final version. That said, there are some moments worth seeking out. The muted trumpet on “I’m Coming Back” places the track in jazz/fusion territory popular in the late ‘70s. Similarly, “Speak Low” feels like a missing link between classical, funk and jazz. The 10-minute “Skelton Coast” sounds like something mid-‘70s Marvin Gaye would have cooked up. It is interesting to wonder what ideas were waiting to be added to the mostly instrumental track. Fans who devoured 24-Carat’s proper album and the previous vault collection will enjoy III. Newcomers should start with the original 1973 Stax release.