Social Distancing Spins, Day 7

By Joel Francis

The exploration of my record collection continues.

10,000 Maniacs – In My Tribe (1987) Here’s the moment where everything came together for the Maniacs, and for my money is their finest album. Our Time in Eden sold more copies and had bigger singles but none of that success would have been possible without the creative breakthroughs on In My Tribe. There’s not a bad song on the album. Opener “What’s the Matter Here” so effortless and graceful it takes a few dozen listens to figure out Natale Merchant is singing about child abuse. It’s the perfect balance of poignance without being preachy. R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe pops up to provide countermelody vocals on “A Campfire Song.” I believe this is the first time Stipe and Merchant duet on record. Their voices complement each other so well I’ve always longed for a full duets album. Jerome Augustyniak’s percussion arrangement on a cover of Cat Steven’s “Peace Train” gives the song a fresh spin while staying true to the hopeful spirit of the original. The album ends with “Verdi Cries,” an achingly nostalgic look back at a European holiday and the anonymous tourist who played “Aida” every day from his room. Merchant’s wordless chorus and the string arrangement by David Campbell (Beck’s dad) end this perfect album on the perfect note.

The Beach Boys – Ten Years of Harmony (compilation) Contrary to popular perception, the Beach Boys made a tremendous amount of great music after Pet Sounds. Consistent with popular perception, the Beach Boys created several boatloads of embarrassing drek during that same era. Ten Years of Harmony collects the highlights from the 1970s. Not everything here is gold. “It’s a Beautiful Day” is a forced, mawkish attempt of a song that used to roll effortlessly out of the group during their heyday. Despite this misstep, there are enough stellar moments across the two platters to make this an essential addition to any Beach Boys collection. Think of it as a bookend to the stellar Endless Summer compilation. Bonus points to the producers for not tacking on any live versions of their early hits.

Teisco – Musiche de Teisco (compilation) A clerk in a record shop in Seattle recommended this album, so I added it to my pile. Hopefully by now I established that if the price is low and the cover intriguing, I will absolutely take a chance on an album. This is a collection of Italian electronic music recorded between 1975 and 1980. Imagine Pink Floyd as a Krautrock band and you’re pretty close. I have no idea why the covers depicts a person playing guitar when most of the music here is keyboard-based.

The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers (1971) I went whole-hog when I discovered the Rolling Stones, evangelizing the band as if they were some obscure group. In the midst of this fervor, my family gathered at my grandparents. We were all watching some movie on television when a commercial came on advertising a Stones hit collection. I was mortified to see the song “Bitch” roll across the screen amongst other hits like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Women.” My fear was that some familial authority would connect my newfound love of the band with the distaste of “Bitch” and place the Stones off limit. It seemed like “Bitch” scrolled across the screen three times as often as any other song title. Thankfully, the crisis existed only in my mind and no one said a word.

This anniversary edition of Stick Fingers features two versions of “Bitch.” The one we all know and love is on the first record, while an extended version graces the bonus disc. An extra two minutes of horns grooving over that great Keith Richards guitar riff ain’t a band thing at all. The bonus disc also includes a version of “Brown Sugar” with Eric Clapton on slide guitar. The horns are removed from the track to give Slowhand’s snoozy playing more prominence and Mick Jagger’s racist lyrics are pushed up in the mix. Yes, the zipper on the cover works.

TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain (2006) The last time TV on the Radio performed in Kansas City was almost five years ago to the day. The first time I saw them, in support of this, their third album, was also in March. They always play intense compact sets, around 75 to 80 minutes in length. Return to Cookie Mountain, the album and the tour, were what cemented my TVOTR fandom. Opener “I Was a Lover” sounds like a chopped and screwed version of a My Bloody Valentine track with haunting falsetto vocals over the top. “Wolf Like Me,” a straight-up rock song about turning into a werewolf, sounds like something destined for a budget Halloween album but never fails to get my blood pumping. Having David Bowie sing on “Provence” was the ultimate seal of approval at the time. Now it sounds more like providence.

Steve Earle – Train a Comin’ (1994) Country singer Steve Earle emerged from incarceration with little going for him. After an existence as a songwriter for hire, Earle shot up his chance at mainstream country success with the Nashville machine behind him. An unassuming, acoustic album, Train a Comin’ opens the second chapter of Earle’s career, spurning the muscle of Music Row for a less lucrative but uncompromised existence as a six-string troubadour and songwriter extraordinaire. He’s been releasing an album about every 18 months ever since (and stopping through town almost as frequently).

R.E.M. – Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) R.E.M.’s third album is an outlier in their catalog. It doesn’t have the jangle or mystique of Murmur and Reckoning, doesn’t punch as hard as Lifes (sic) Rich Pageant and doesn’t have the commercial breakthroughs like Document. But being the odd duck isn’t a bad thing. The album doesn’t pull me in until the second song, “Maps and Legends,” which is followed by “Driver 8,” the big single. The second side is even better, opening with “Can’t Get There from Here” (with punchy horns foreshadowing “Finest Worksong” on Document). Peter Buck’s great guitar line is pushed to the front of the mix on “Green Grow the Rushes,” intentionally burying Michael Stipe’s vocals in the back. “Kohoutek” is a great performance and the acoustic “Wendel Gee” closes things off. Stipe’s lyrics are as inscrutable as ever, so I can’t really tell you what any of these songs are about, but they sound great going by.

Social Distancing Spins, Day 6

By Joel Francis

The coronavirus quarantine has given me plenty of time to explore and write about my record collection.

The Records – self-titled (1979) When you name yourself something as basic as “The Records” you are telegraphing your lack of ambition (ditto for the current rock act The Record Company). I mean, one song released as a stand-alone single at the time was called “Rock and Roll Love Letter.” But being obvious doesn’t make The Records any less fun to play. The combination of chiming guitars straight out of the Byrds’ playbook and sweet harmony vocals on “Starry Eyes” practically laid the foundation for Matthew Sweet’s career. “Girls That Don’t Exist” thumps like a Cars track and “Girl” echoes of Cheap Trick. Again, none of these are bad things. Worse acts have gotten by on a lot less and the sum of these reductive parts is nothing short of a lost power-pop gem.

I have to take a moment to call out “Teenarama.” All the infectious melody in the world – and this cut has a lot of it – can’t mask predatory lyrics like “I wanted a change of style/to be with a juvenile” and “I thought that a younger girl/could show me the world.” Gross. I realize that grown men singing about young girls goes back further than Chuck Berry singing about someone at least half his age on “Sweet Little Sixteen” but that doesn’t make it any less despicable. Stop, now.

Ike and Tina Turner – Workin’ Together (1971) Legitimate question: When did everyone find out that Ike Turner was an abuser? Was it the film What’s Love Got to Do With It, Tina Turner’s autobiography or did everyone kind of know before then? I ask because I couldn’t help but dwell on the Turners’ tumultuous relationship during the Ike Turner-penned song “You Can Have It.” In the song, Tina Turner talks about working up the courage to walk away from a man who was no good. Project much, Ike?

Although this is a catalog-entry album, it plays like a greatest hits collection. The iconic versions of “Proud Mary,” “Get Back” and “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” (with a classical piano intro) are all here, as is the DJ classic “Funkier than a Mosquita’s Tweeter.” Throw in the fine title track and a cover of “Let It Be” and this has just about everything you’d want from soul’s dysfunctional couple.

Mudcrutch – 2 (2016) It is fitting that Tom Petty’s final recording is a reunion with his old band from Gainesville, Fla., and not the Heartbreakers. It is also fitting that guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboard player Benmont Tench are the backbone of both bands. Petty’s name was always out front, but Campbell and Tench (along with deceased bass player Howie Epstein) were the heart of the Heartbreakers. Everyone in Mudcrutch get the chance to sing an original song and Petty retools “Trailer,” a lost ‘80s Heartbreakers classic. This is the sound of musical friends enjoying each other’s company with no pretense other than to have a good time. “Beautiful Blue” belongs in every Petty playlist. There are worse things to have on one’s headstone than “I Forgive It All,” another Petty standout.

Tamaryn – Tender New Signs (2012) I had never heard of the New Zealand-born singer Tamaryn when I walked into the old RecordBar location to see the Raveonettes at the Middle of the Map festival. Performing immediately prior to the headliners, Tamaryn’s lush set of dream pop almost stole the night. Tender New Signs is very much in line what I heard that night. Tamaryn’s latest releases have moved in a more pop direction. They’re not bad, but the layered shoegaze approach here and on her second album, The Waves, are what I keep coming back to.

Prince and the Revolution – Parade (1986) I purchased this album on my way home from work the day Prince died. Surprisingly, the record store still had a handful of Prince titles in stock. I had all the others, so Parade was the winner. I can’t remember what I did first after arriving home, take off my jacket or put this on the turntable.

I never saw Under the Cherry Moon, the Prince film this album is supposed to accompany. I can tell you that I adore the hit single “Kiss” and that it may be my least favorite song on the album. There’s a reason why “Mountains” was a concert mainstay, but for even more fun check out the 10-minute version on the 12-inch single. More contemplative songs like “Under the Cherry Moon,” “Do You Lie” and the instrumental “Venus de Milo” weigh heavily in what would be come D’Angelo’s signature sound a decade later. There’s a reason why D’Angelo’s chose to pay tribute to Prince with this album’s closer “Sometimes it Snows in April.” That songs never fails to make the room dusty.

Mission of Burma – Signals, Calls and Marches (1981) Mission of Burma have always been on the artier side of the punk spectrum, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t brutally loud and abrasive. This debut EP cleans up their sound considerably but it will still pin you up against the back wall if you aren’t watching out. The reissue I own adds the group’s debut single “Academy Fight Song,” it’s b-side and a pair of unreleased songs on a second LP. I only wish the record label had either put all the material on one album (there is certainly enough room) or pressed the bonus content on smaller platter. There is a lot of unused wax on this essential yet brief release.

The Conquerors – Wyld Time (2016) This Kansas City band generated a lot of good press when Wyld Time, their debut album came out. I was so enamored with their British Invasion throwback sound that after hearing them at an in-store performance, I immediately scurried over to the racks and bought the album. Sadly, it appears the wyld times are over for the Conquerors. Their social media hasn’t been updated since 2017. This disappointing development shouldn’t stop any revivalists from enjoying the Conquerors only offering.

Joe Strummer – US North (1986)

Joe Strummer – Forbidden City (1993) This pair of 12-inch singles deliver some gems from the Joe Strummer archives. I have no idea why it took more than 30 years for Strummer’s collaboration with his former Clash bandmate Mick Jones to see daylight. “U.S. North” dovetails nicely with the pair’s work on the Big Audio Dynamite album No. 10, Upping St. and would have been a highlight on anything either artist released around that time. “Forbidden City” ended up on a Strummer’s first album with the Mescaleros in 1999. This demo version has a saxophone that gives it the same sound and feel as the Pigs With Wings soundtrack Strummer did in the early ‘90s. The demo is nice enough, but I don’t know it’s good enough to warrant a stand-alone release. I’d have preferred it if they included it on a proper collection, with more unreleased material. I guess I wasn’t disappointed enough not to buy it, though. There’s one born every minute, eh?

Social Distancing Spins, Day 4

By Joel Francis

Each day during the quarantine I’m going deep into my record collection and writing about what I pull out.

Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Further Out (1961) Dave Brubeck’s groundbreaking 1959 release Time Out was so successful a sequel was inevitable. The point of these albums isn’t the complexity of each composition’s time signature. It’s how much fun the group seems to be having as they effortlessly skate through rhythms that would make prog rock bands break out in sweat. Take “Unsquare Dance” for example. On the face it seems simple enough – just handclaps and snare drum with Brubeck intermittently tickling the keyboard. The result is catchy and edgy enough to appear in “Baby Driver,” a mixtape masquerading as a heist film released a mere 56 years after the song was recorded.

Bob Dylan – Live 1966: Acoustic Set (1998) The first time I saw Bob Dylan in concert, in the late ‘90s, a friend asked me if he played acoustic or electric. The answer, of course, was both, but the aftermath of that plugged in Newport set warranted the question nearly half a century later. This archival release was recorded about a year after the firestorm at the folk festival. The seven songs that comprise this acoustic set are immaculate. Of course the songs are amazing, but what stands out to me is Dylan’s harmonica playing and the way he teases phrases and moments. This set makes a strong case that Dylan may be an even better performer onstage alone, without a net. Knowing that the arrangements will soon get turned up amplifies the solo performances even more.

Pete Townshend – White City (1985) After the death of drummer Keith Moon, Pete Townshend is often accused of holding back his best work for solo projects and delivering second-rate material for The Who. I disagree. “Face Dances” has just as many strong moments as “Who Are You,” Moon’s final album. By the time the band got to “It’s Hard” no one’s heart seemed to be in it. Besides, it is very difficult to imagine Roger Daltrey singing anything on this album beyond the bombastic (and excellent) opener “Give Blood.” I don’t see where John Entwistle’s bass would add anything, either.

There’s supposed to be a story in here somewhere. I once watched Townshend’s 60-minute film version of White City so long ago it was on videotape. The narrative wasn’t any more apparent after that experience, although it was nice to hear different and extended versions of the material. Don’t overthink this, just appreciate it.

Raconteurs – Live at Cain’s Ballroom (2020) I saw the Raconteur’s performance in Kansas City that immediately followed the shows in Tulsa, Okla. that form this album. It was … good. Nothing groundbreaking, but a solid night out. Unless something changes, I don’t think I’ll feel compelled to buy a ticket next time they come through. The same goes with this album. It’s great to have a document of that tour, but the performance doesn’t have the energy of their concert at the Ryman Auditorium on a 2011 tour (released in 2013). I think I’ll be playing that album more often.

Various Artists – Big Blue Ball (compilation) In the early 1990s, Peter Gabriel hosted a series of weeklong workshops at his home studio. Artists from all over the world were encouraged to add to existing recordings and develop and contribute original material. This collection, released in 2008, a brisk 13 years after the final gathering, is the culmination of those sessions. There are a couple Gabriel gems to be sure, but fun for me is scouring the musician credits and try to pick out how everyone interacts together. Living Colour axeman Vernon Reid lays down synth guitars on “Rivers,” a New Age track that wouldn’t be out of place at a spa (or at least what I imagine a spa would be playing). Gabriel corrals jazz drummer Billy Cobham, former Public Image Ltd. bass player Jah Wobble and onetime Prince foil Wendy Melvoin for the single “Burn You Up, Burn You Down.” The song “Forest” opens like an outtake from Gabriel’s Passion soundtrack before turning into something that might be heard at a dance club or upscale art gallery (or at least what I imagine an upscale art gallery would be playing). Most of the album stays in this vein of world music with modern elements.

Echo de Africa National – Récit Historique de Bobo-Dioulasso (unknown) I know absolutely nothing about this album. I couldn’t even determine the year when it came out. The two side-length songs aren’t even given titles. To my ears, it sounds like this was recorded sometime between 1965 and 1975. I can tell you that if you like African ensembles with multiple horn players, percussionists and guitarists, who like to stretch out, this is probably for you. I haven’t been disappointed by it.

Various Artists – Light on the South Side (compilation) Less an album than an aural art installation, Light on the South Side combines 18 obscure blues and soul cuts with a gorgeous 132-page hardcover book featuring sumptuous black-and-white photography of African-American working class adults in the 1970s looking to escape the pressures of everyday life in the dive bars on Chicago’s South Side. You can smell the polyester and cigarette smoke listening to Little Mack do the “Goose Step” or hearing about Bobby Rush’s “Bowlegged Woman.” Crack open a High Life tall boy and enjoy.

Social Distancing Spins, Day 2

By Joel Francis

Welcome to another installment of spelunking in my record collection while the world … well, who knows what’s happening out there. Let’s just stick to the music.

A.K. Salim – Afro-Soul/Drum Orgy (1965) I knew nothing about this album that wasn’t on its packaging when I bought it. I don’t know much more now. But this much is certain: If you want lots of African percussion with blasts of free jazz swooping in and out, this is the place to be. It’s not for every day listening, but at the right time this always does the trick.

Nas – Illmatic: Live from the Kennedy Center (2018) Illmatic is such a great album that this edition marks the third time I’ve purchased it. After owning the original CD and album, I passed on the 20th anniversary edition and rolled my eyes when I heard an orchestral live version was coming out. Then I heard a track and knew I was going to have to buy this again. Hearing these performances with the National Symphony Orchestra takes the album to another level. It’s almost like watching The Godfather in a 1972 theater, then viewing it in IMAX. The jazz organ underpinning the original “Memory Lane” becomes a swirling concerto complemented by the DJ Green Lantern’s scratches. Earlier, Nas shouts out his dad’s original cornet solo on “Life’s a Bitch.” There’s amateur footage on Youtube of Kendrick Lamar doing a similar performance with the NSO. Cross your fingers this someday gets official release.

McCoy Tyner – McCoy Tyner plays Ellington (1965) This is essentially an album by the celebrated John Coltrane quartet without the legendary leader. Without their leader’s sheets of sound, everyone else gets more room to shine. Tyner was usually the person keeping Coltrane’s songs from falling apart – think about his insistent piano line in “My Favorite Things” while Coltrane scrapes the stratosphere. Finally out front and on his own, Tyner showcases and ability to pay tribute to a genre pioneer in Ellington while applying the some of the touches he showed with the futurist saxophonist. We lost a giant when McCoy Tyner died earlier this month.

The Raconteurs – Help Us Stranger (2019) The Raconteurs have always been my least-favorite Jack White project, however their by-the-numbers approach made for a refreshing listen after White’s previous release, the bizarre solo album Boarding House Reach. Help Us Stranger arrived more than a decade after the Racontuers’ previous release. While I didn’t really miss them, it is nice to hear White doing some straight-up rocking without all the cutesy tricks and gimmicks.

Marvin Gaye – Here, My Dear (1978) Here’s a question to pull out when the party gets dull (or maybe when you want it to end): Who had a better 1970s, Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye? At first glance, it looks like Wonder in a landslide. He won all the Album of the Year Grammys and graduated from opening for the Rolling Stones to recording with Ella Fitzgerald. A second look reveals that Gaye’s decade was every bit as incredible, even if he didn’t win as many trophies. Of course What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On are the twin pillars, but I Want You and Trouble Man are very, very good, even if they tend to get lost in the shadows. Then there’s Here My Dear, Gaye’s final album of the decade and a bitter kiss-off to his ex-wife (and label boss Barry Gordy’s sister) Anna Gordy.

Gaye knew going into the recording sessions that Anna Gordy would receive all royalties from the album’s release, as per the terms of the divorce. Undaunted, Gaye recorded the longest album of his career and used that time to dissect the relationship, peel open Gordy’s heart and spray lemon juice on the wounds. Here, My Dear isn’t only a bitter album, though. Gaye slides between soul, gospel, funk and jazz as he bares his soul and examines the wreckage. At the time, it seemed few wanted to go on Gaye’s deeply personal journey. The album didn’t sell well initially, but eventually even Gordy came around to appreciating Here, My Dear.

Roy Ayers Ubiquity – A Tear to a Smile (1975) The first time I saw Roy Ayers in concert I didn’t get it at all. I was expecting a jazz vibes player in the tradition of Lionel Hampton or Bobby Hutcherson. Instead, I got what I thought was a smooth jazz crooner going on about sunshine and searching. The second time, I got it. If Louis Jordan is the link between Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles, then Ayers is the cog that connects Milt Jackson with Tupac.

Tom Verlaine – Words from the Front (1982) I think I spotted this at a yard sale for a song a picked it up on a whim. While I like Television, this is the only album I own from the Verlaine catalog. I always enjoy this album while it’s playing, but it leaves my mind almost immediately after it’s done. Sorry, Tom.

Various Artists – The Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru (compilation) I got this album in a bundle when Luaka Bop celebrated its 25th anniversary. Dismiss this collection as a mere toss-in at your own peril. You can hear everything from the roots of Celia Cruz and the samba to songs like “Son de los Diablos” that wouldn’t be out of place on the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack. Afro-Peruvian music originated with the slaves brought over from Africa and forced to settle in Peru. There’s no trace of this horrific history on the 15 hip-shaking cuts here, but it does explain why some of the music sounds like a flamenco band got kidnapped by an aggressive drum circle.

The Dead Girls – Out of Earshot (2010) The Dead Girls were Kansas City band who weren’t afraid to proclaim their power pop influences. This is their second release and as far as I know the only one that made it only vinyl. You can hear a lot of Big Star, the Replacements and Thin Lizzy on this release and while the album plays more like a tribute act than saying something on its own, it’s still a very fine listen.

Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger (2016) Paul Simon started taking his time between albums after Graceland took off, which is to say more than 35 years ago. Appropriately, Stranger to Stranger sounds like it has been crafted by a patient perfectionist. Simon spent an entire 40-minute podcast breaking down how he built “Werewolf,” the opening track, around the rhythms – but not guitars – of Flamenco music. Other tracks employ the experimental instruments developed by Harry Partch or the laptop sampling of Clap! Clap! “Cool Papa Bell” marries the rhythms and mood of Graceland with the profanity of The Capeman. It’s cerebral stuff to be sure, but also infinitely hummable and pleasurable.

Joe Strummer – 001 (compilation) The 2018 collection 001 is both an overview of Joe Strummer’s career opportunities outside of The Clash and a treasure of unreleased material from his archives. The ten-year jump from his pre-Clash band The 101ers to “Love Kills” from the Sid and Nancy soundtrack is jarring, but other than that the collection flows quite smoothly until its unfortunate, premature ending.

Kudos to the Strummer estate for making this set affordable, instead of a trophy piece that only the super-rich or ultra-dedicated can acquire.

U2 – October (1981) The Irish quartet’s sophomore album is easily the group’s most overlooked release. It doesn’t have the promise of their defiant debut, the hit singles on War or the Brian Eno cache of The Unforgettable Fire. All bets for October’s reappraisal were off once The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby took off.

October’s status may seem harsh in this context, but it’s pretty fair. October is by no means a difficult listen, but it also doesn’t the chops to muscle its way into the conversation. That said, it is still nice to see “Gloria” and “October,” the album’s two best songs, creeping back into setlists for the first time since the ‘80s.

Social Distancing Spins, Day 1

By Joel Francis

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a lot of things away, but one thing it has provided me in abundance is plenty of extra time at home. I decided to make the most of my social distancing by doing a deep dive through my album collection. As the turntable spun, I was inspired to write about what I heard.

My intent is to provide brief snippets about each day’s albums. I understand that many of these classic recordings deserve lengthy posts on their own, but since we will be covering a lot of ground here I will try to remain brisk and on point. Ready? Let’s get to it.

Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell (1980) Sabbath’s first half-dozen albums are rightly canonical. Heaven and Hell isn’t as groundbreaking but every bit as enjoyable as those classic platters. Sadly, the Ronnie James Dio era of Sabbath is mostly remembered by headbangers these days. This is the only Sabbath album I own, but I look forward to someday adding Mob Rules to the collection.

Hot Water Music – Light It Up (2017) – Playing the most recent album from the veteran Florida rock band was intended to wet my whistle for their concert at the RecordBar, scheduled just a few days away. Alas, like everything else on the horizon it was moved forward on the calendar until a hopefully calmer time. With a name swiped from Charles Bukowski and a sound like gasoline arguing with barbed wire the show is guaranteed to be a winner whenever it is held.

The Hold Steady – Heaven is Whenever (2010) This was my least-favorite Hold Steady album when it was released and I confess I haven’t played it as much as the albums that preceded and followed it. I thought the departure of multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay left too much of a hole in their sound, though the band sounded great when I saw them on this tour. Playing it now, I don’t think I gave Heaven is Whenever is enough credit at the time. It’s not a masterpiece on the scale of Boys and Girls in America and not as fierce as Teeth Dreams but there are some freaking fine moments, including “Our Whole Lives,” buried at the end of side two.

Bruce Springsteen – Born in the U.S.A. (1984) What can be said about this landmark that hasn’t been said before? To be fair, this album was a request from my five-year-old son who loves “Dancing in the Dark” thanks to E Street Radio. “Dancing” is the next-to-last track, meaning he exposed to 10 other great tunes while waiting for his favorite number. Hopefully a few more of them will stick, although I’m not sure I want him singing “I’m on Fire” quite yet.

The Yawpers – American Man (2015) This Denver-based trio fits in well on Bloodshot’s roster of alt-country acts. Songwriter Nate Cook’s early 21st-centry examination of the U.S. of A. plays like a road trip. On songs like “9 to 5,” “Kiss It” and “Walter” they sound like Uncle Tupelo being chased through the Overlook Hotel by Jack Torrance.

The Highwomen – self-titled (2019) I toured the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville a few years ago. I was fascinated by the museum until the timeline reached the late 1980s. After Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle came on the scene, mainstream country and I quickly parted ways. The four songwriters in Highwomen are trying to reclaim popular country music on their own terms. Many, many great artists have tried to bend Music City to their tastes only to retreat exhausted. The best of them found Music Row sucking up to their pioneering sound only after it became popular. My guess is that the Highwomen will follow this same route, but they are so good you can’t rule out they will be the ones to finally break the stale, chauvinistic stockade.

(I say this and then notice that I’ve namedropped two male country stars in this piece without mentioning any of the female members of the Highwomen. Sigh. Please forgive me, Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris.)

Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy! (2019) The Ivy League-educated neo-soul songstress focuses on the small to show us the large on her second album. Each of the thirteen tracks focus on an important black artists – Nikki Giovanni, Eartha Kitt, Jean-Michel Basquiat – explore what it means to be black in America today. What sounds like an academic thesis is actually a good dance album, thanks to a soundscape that slides between jazz, soul, hip hop, Afro-beat and even touches of EDM.

Jeff Tweedy – Together at Last (2017) Thanks to the film “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” Jeff Tweedy’s bands Uncle Tupelo and Wilco barely made it into the mainstream before the monoculture collapsed and the entertainment world splintered into a million micro-genres and sects. The eleven songs performed here are stripped of all wonky production and distilled to voice and guitar. They are still amazing.

Joni Mitchell – Ladies of the Canyon (1970) Joni Mitchell’s work in the 1970s is every bit as good as Neil Young’s and even better than Bob Dylan’s. This album finds Mitchell branching out by adding more instruments to the guitar-and-voice arrangements found on her first two albums. The jazz clarinet solo at the end of “For Free” gets me every time. Three of Mitchell’s biggest songs are tucked at the end of side two. “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Woodstock” set up “The Circle Game,” a look at mortality than never fails to leave me feeling deeply blue.

Ian Hunter – You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic (1979) Ringo’s All-Starr Band isn’t the place for deep cuts, so I knew when Ian Hunter was listed as the guitar player for the 2001 tour I held a ticket for, I knew I was going to hear “Cleveland Rocks.” The only problem was the show was in St. Louis, so it didn’t really work. That’s Hunter’s catalog in a nutshell for me. All the right ingredients are there on paper and I get excited about hearing the albums when I read the reviews, but they never fully click with me. His releases are so plentiful in the used bins and priced so cheaply I keep giving them a shot hoping the next one will be The One.

Bear Hands – Fake Tunes (2019) Another play anticipating a performance that was cancelled. They descending keyboard part on “Blue Lips” reminds me of a good appropriation of Vampire Weekend’s first album (that’s a compliment). The overall vibe sends me to the same place as Beck’s “Guero” and “The Information” albums.

Thom Yorke – Susperia (2018) I’m not sure we needed a remake of Susperia, the 1977 Italian horror classic, but I’m glad it gave us Thom Yorke’s moody score. Trading his laptop for a piano, the Radiohead frontman provides 80 minutes of spare, melancholy instrumentals. The few vocal tracks make you wish there were more.

Yorke performed in Kansas City, Mo., less than two months after Susperia’s release, but ignored his latest album until the final song of the night. His performance of Unmade alone at the keyboard was the perfect benediction for a skittery night of electronic music.

Jack White and the Bricks – Live on the Garden Bowl Lanes: 1999 (2013)

The Go – Whatcha Doin’ (1999) These albums both arrived courtesy of the Third Man Records Vault and were recorded around the same time. Jack White was always a man of a million projects. When Meg was unavailable for a White Stripes show he grabbed some buddies – including future Raconteur Brendan Benson and Dirtbombs drummer Ben Blackwell – for a set including a couple songs that would become Stripes staples, a pair of Bob Dylan covers and a song by ? and the Mysterians (not 96 Tears). The sound is a little rough but the performance is solid.

The debut album from The Go, Whatcha Doin’ is hefty slab of garage rock guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Jack White plays guitar and co-writes a couple songs, but this isn’t his show. He left the band shortly after the album came out, but there was no animosity. In 2003, The Go opened several shows for the White Stripes in the United Kingdom.

Syl Johnson – We Do It Together (compilation) This is the sixth platter in the amazing Complete Mythology box set released by the Numero Group in 2010.The material starts in 1970 and ends in 1977, omitting the time Johnson spent with Hi Records. Never lacking in self-confidence, Johnson frequently claimed he was every bit as good as James Brown and Al Green. Although he doesn’t have their notoriety, Johnson’s albums could easily slip into a DJ set of those soul masters.

KC Recalls: The Clash at Starlight

(Above: The Clash perform “Three Card Trick” at what would be their next-to-last concert in June, 1985.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Thirty years ago today, The Clash took the stage at Starlight Theater for their first and only concert in Kansas City. They were a far cry from The Only Band That Matters, as the groundbreaking punk band was known when it London by storm in the late ‘70s. Key members Mick Jones, guitar, and Topper Headon, drums, had been replaced by three hired guns. The mission, however, remained the same.

clashKCstarlightStub“You’re gonna do ten days’ work in ten minutes when you deal with us,” lead singer Joe Strummer told NME in 1984. “We’ll smash down the number one groups and show that rebel rock can be number one.”

Alan Murphy, 28, didn’t have to wait long for his favorite song. “London Calling” kicked off the night, followed by the powerful “Safe European Home.” The Starlight setlist could not be located, but staples of that tour included “Career Opportunities,” “Clampdown,” “Brand New Cadillac” and “Janie Jones.”

A pair of covers made big impressions on a pair of fans seeing the band in concert for the first time. Michael Webber, 20 at the time, was happy to finally experience the band’s iconic reggae cover “Police and Thieves.” “I Fought the Law” was a high point of the show for Derek Koch, then 23.

The “Out of Control” tour marked the Clash’s first extensive U.S. tour in two years. Although there was no new album to support, the band played many new songs that would end up on its final album, “Cut the Crap.” These included “This is England,” the last great Clash song, “Three Card Trick” and b-side “Sex Mad Roar.” Two new songs never saw studio release. “(In the) Pouring Rain” was released in live form on “The Future Is Unwritten” soundtrack and “Jericho” is only available on bootlegs.

Clash_PaulJoe-Roskilde-850005_∏Per-Ake-Warn-1024x976Koch recalls watching bass player Paul Simonon “throwing all the great poses I had only seen in pictures on TV or video, and Joe prowl(ing) the stage like an angry lion.”

Coverage of the Clash’s Sunday night concert at Starlight was surprisingly light. The Kansas City Times ignored the event entirely, and the Star only mentioned it in a run-down of summer concerts. A monster truck rally at Arrowhead Stadium dominated entertainment coverage that weekend, receiving both a preview story in Saturday’s paper and event coverage on Monday. Copies of The Pitch were unavailable for research at press time.

For Webber, Murphy and Steve Wilson, 31, the absence of Mick Jones, put an asterisk on the concert. Although everyone interviewed wishes they had trekked to other cities to see the band in its prime, that Sunday night at Starlight still carries great memories.

“(We arrived) just as the band began to play,” Wilson said. “I think what struck me was this sense, however diminished by Mick’s absence, that ‘Wow, I’m finally seeing the f-king Clash.’“

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Clashmas Eve (Tenth Anniversary Edition)

(Above: The second part of “The Night London Burned,” a 30-minute documentary about Joe Strummer’s final concert and onstage reunion with Mick Jones.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Note: Every year on Christmas Eve, we mark the passing of Clash singer and musical legend Joe Strummer. This year marks the tenth anniversary of Strummer’s passing on Dec. 22, 2002.

“War Cry”

The limp reception to Joe Strummer’s 1989 solo album “Earthquake Weather” didn’t sit well with its creator. But just because Strummer was a stranger to the studio for nearly a decade, doesn’t mean he wasn’t involved with music.

41R6GY31MNL._SL500_AA300_One of Strummer’s great discoveries during the 1990s was the Glastonbury Festival. The three-day summer festival combined two of Strummer’s passions: live music and camping. Every June his entourage would grow, eventually becoming a makeshift community dubbed “Strummerville.” Performances by the Prodigy, Bjork, Elastica and others at the festival fostered a love for techno music that would influence Strummer’s music for the rest of his life.

The song “War Cry” from the “Grosse Pointe Blank” soundtrack is the most overtly electronic-influenced track in Strummer’s catalog. The swirling melody is carried by a pulsing keyboard riff, but the track’s energy comes from Strummer’s vigorous guitar playing. The six-minute instrumental is the only piece from Strummer’s film score to see official release.

Strummer produced the original “Grosse Pointe Blank”  soundtrack and included two tracks from his old band. The first volume was so successful a second was released. “War Cry” was unfortunately buried near the end of the sequel.

“MacDougal Street Blues,” Strummer’s contribution to a Jack Kerouac spoken word compilation also released in 1997, found Strummer working in the same style. Kerouac sounds like he was recorded in a bathroom, but Strummer’s musical backing almost seems like a skeletal cousin to “War Cry.”

We didn’t know it at the time, but “War Cry” signaled the end of Joe Strummer’s wilderness years.

“Bhindi Bhagee”

The first time I heard this song was on a Saturday afternoon broadcast of World Café. I was in the car with my dad and halfway through the second verse I commented that the track sounded like someone from the Clash recording a Paul Simon song arranged by Peter Gabriel. DJ David Dye confirmed one third of my theory, but I still don’t think the other two guesses missed the mark by much.

globalThe musical re-awakening Strummer experienced at Glastonbury carried over to his appearance (as a guest, not an artist) at Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD music festival. Listening to the acts from around the world perform, hanging out with musicians like Donovan and spending time at Gabriel’s Real World recording studio finally provided the tipping point for him to get serious about making his own music again.

The music Strummer made with the Mescaleros was diverse, encompassing dance and electronic, country, punk and rock. On the band’s sophomore release, “Global A Go-Go,” Strummer branched out big time for their sophomore release. The platter more than lives up to its name, featuring lots of violin, exotic percussion, flute and other world music flourishes.

“Bhindi Bhagee” opens with acoustic guitar and flute and features Strummer delivering his intricate lyrics in a laid-back conversational style. Like Simon, Strummer lets the song unspool like a story. The chorus is basically a list of everything Strummer hopes to encompass with the arrangement. The best part comes at the bridge, where Strummer honestly explains where he’s at musically.

So anyway, I told him I was in a band
He said, “Oh yeah, oh yeah – what’s your music like?”
I said, “It’s um, um, well, it’s kinda like
You know, it’s got a bit of, um, you know.”

Yeah, all of that and a lot more.

“White Riot (live)”

Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon weren’t looking for trouble when they attended the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976, but they shouldn’t have been surprised a riot broke out. Founded as response to the Notting Hill race riots and the racial issues plaguing England in the late 1950s, the carnival had become increasingly violent in its second decade.

Joe aCTONAs Strummer watched the England’s racial minorities physically challenging the authorities, he wished his fellow Caucasians would have the courage to take a similar stand.  Although written long before the Occupy movement, Strummer finally found a body willing to pick up his gauntlet:

“All the power’s in the hands/of people rich enough to buy it
While we walk the street/Too chicken to even try it.”

Along with the Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the U.K.,” “White Riot” kicked off England’s punk movement. As the band’s debut single, it clearly had special meaning to Strummer, who performed the song as the final encore during his last tour with the Mescaleros in 2001 and 2002. (An early version of the song has Strummer singing the first verse a capella before the full band kicks in. It’s an interesting thought, but the message is much stronger in the final arrangement.) The already-potent track became even more powerful when Strummer invited Mick Jones onstage to play it with the Mescaleros at what would be Strummer’s final concert.

The duo, sharing the stage for the first time in nearly 20 years, clearly had fun with the reggae bounce of “Bankrobber,” stretching it to over nine minutes. “White Riot” is the tour de force, though. After calling for the song “in the key of A,” Strummer almost seems to second guess himself. As the guitarist – I’d like to think its Jones, but don’t know for sure – plows into the opening chords, Strummer hastily calls a halt to the song, instructing the drummer to count it off properly. The aggression and anger in the original version – Strummer almost sounds determined to push you out in front of the cops if you won’t fight willingly – now shows hints of age and wisdom that suggest that while this is one way to bring about change, it isn’t necessarily the only path to revolution. It’s a subtle change, but doesn’t cost the performance any of its original urgency.

Less than five minutes after ending “White Riot,” Strummer and Jones concluded the concert with a blistering “London’s Burning.” Barely five weeks later, Strummer was gone.

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Happy Clash-mas Eve (classic edition)

007’s Greatest Hits – The Music of James Bond

(Above: Her Majesty gets an assist from 007 to open the London Olympics in July, 2012.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

James Bond, the most famous spy in the world, first graced the big screen in “Dr. No” 50 years ago. This weekend, 007 will appear on the big screen for the 25th time in “Skyfall.” To celebrate both events, The Daily Record presents a three-part retrospective examining and celebrating the often wonderful and sometimes puzzling world James Bond theme songs. This series originally appeared in 2008 in advance of “The Quantum of Solace.”

The Music of James Bond: Part One – The Classic Years

The Music of James Bond: Part Two – The Seventies

The Music of James Bond: Part Three – The ’80s and Beyond

Crescent City snapshots

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

A recent trip to New Orleans provided me the opportunity to bask in several facets of jazz. When possible, I took video footage to preserve a few choice moments.

My first night in the Big Easy, I stopped in at the legendary Preservation Hall. With its intentionally rough-hewn interior, stepping inside was like visiting a living history farm. The Hall has been a tourist destination for half a century, but don’t let that keep you away. Sure, this may be the only live jazz most people will hear for the rest of the year, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth experiencing. The setlist stuck to pre-war standards, but they were delivered with plenty of fun and energy. The venue’s name is apt. The arrangements aren’t groundbreaking, but the Preservation Hall band is keeping a sound alive that may otherwise have been forgotten. Unfortunately, no audio or video is allowed.

Located on Bourbon Street a few blocks from Preservation Hall (and near Skully’s, a great record store), Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub draws on the same era, but from a different perspective. If Preservation Hall celebrates the Sidney Bechet of New Orleans, Fritzel’s commemorates the European Bechet. In fact, thanks to an audience request, the band leader treated the crowd to a great version of Bechet’s “Petite Fleur.” The 1959 hit isn’t the easiest song to master, but the clarinet player blew effortlessly. I was able to take a little video to capture the atmosphere in Fritzel’s.

After two days in the French Quarter, I had had enough. The tourist trap may be fine for less-seasoned travelers, but I quickly discovered Frenchmen Street was where the locals partied, The corridor featured many fine clubs within the space of a few blocks, including Snug Harbor, the Apple Barrel and my destination for the next two nights, the Blue Nile and d.b.a.

Kermit Ruffins has enough of a following that he can play nearly every night of the week. Locals now have to share Ruffins with tourists (like me) thanks to his appearances on “Treme.” The two-hour set was filled with standards like “What a Wonderful World” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” which Ruffins managed to freshen up without offending purists. An entertainer and trumpet player from the Satchmo school, Ruffins was determined to make everyone in room smile and get on their feet. The best moment arrived after an intermission, when the house PA’s version of Tupac’s “I Ain’t Mad At Ya” faded into a live version, with Ruffin’s delivering a blistering post-Katrina rhyme. Here is some footage I shot of Ruffin infusing the Black Eyed Peas with some much-needed zydeco.

On my final night in NOLA, I returned to Frenchmen Street to witness Rebirth Brass Band at d.b.a. There are a myriad of great brass bands in the Crescent City, but Rebirth may be the only one that can boast a parental advisory rating in its catalog. The eight-piece unit mixes funk and hip hop into the traditional brass band sound. The stifling heat in the small room couldn’t keep the crowd from dancing, and the band seemed to be having the most fun. Here’s a bit of Rebirth’s tribute to another native son, Fats Domino.

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Jerry Leiber and the ballad of “Kansas City”

(Above: Paul McCartney goes to Kansas City with a little help from his friends.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Big Apple has “New York, New York,” “Empire State of Mind” and dozens more. The Windy City has “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” Tom Waits gifted the Twin Cities with not one but two songs (“Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” and “9th and Hennipen”). Visitors to the Bay City are encouraged to “wear some flowers in (their) hair” while the City of Angels gets “California Love,” “Beverly Hills” and “Hollywood Swingin’.” Heck, the even the Gateway City has “St. Louis Blues.”

But there’s only one universally known song about my hometown: “Kansas City.” (Only obsessive music fans and listeners of a certain age will recall “Everything Is Up To Date in Kansas City” and “Train to Kansas City.”) When listening to Jay-Z, Frank Sinatra, Tom Waits and Louis Armstrong boast about other American cities I try to find comfort reminding myself that the Beatles only sang about one city during their career and they chose “Kansas City.”

“Kansas City” is the only song visiting performers feel obliged to work into their setlist. Willie Nelson played it at Farm Aid earlier this month and Paul McCartney used it to open his 1993 show at Arrowhead Stadium (the recording from that night also appears the album “Paul Is Live”). I’ve heard the song so many times in concert I feel like someone should tell all touring acts that no, really, they don’t have to play “Kansas City” on our behalf.

It’s not like the song is invisible around town. Twelfth Street and Vine may be gone (typical of my hometown – undermining its greatest assets), but the song is still very present. Go to a Royals game and if you stick around until the end you are guaranteed to hear “Kansas City.” If the boys in blue win, fans are treated to the Beatles version. If they lose then Wilbert Harrison is piped through the speakers.

“Kansas City” was seven years old by the time Harrison got his hands on it. Originally recorded by bluesman Little Willie Littlefield in 1952, the song was written by a couple of 19-year-old Jews inspired by a Big Joe Turner record. Littlefield’s performance featured a somewhat racier chorus, ending with the line “with my Kansas City baby and some Kansas City wine.” When Federal Records received Littlefield’s recording they promptly rechristened it “K.C. Lovin’.”

Wilbert Harrison

Harrison had been performing “K.C. Lovin’” for years before he decided to record it in 1959 under its original title and with the sanitized chorus we all know today. Released on Fury Records, the platter went straight to No. 1 and spawned an army of imitators. Within weeks, interpretations of “Kansas City” by Hank Ballard, Rockin’ Ronald, Little Richard, Rocky Olson and a reissue of Littlefield’s original recording could be found in record shops. Paired with his own “Hey Hey Hey,” Little Richard’s cover hit No. 27 in the UK and inspired the Beatles’ recording.

The men – boys, really – who penned “Kansas City” wouldn’t visit the town that inspired their song until the mid-‘80s, nearly 35 years after handing the tune to Littlefield. Despite this handicap, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller nailed their vision of “a melody that sounded like it could have come out of a little band in Kansas City,” as Stoller later explained on a UK television show.

Hot on the heels of “Hound Dog,” “Kansas City” cemented Leiber and Stoller’s reputation as rock and roll’s hottest songwriters. Before the decade was out they would write scores of hit songs for the biggest singers of the day – Elvis Presley, the Drifters, Phil Spector, Ben E. King and, especially, the Coasters – and shape the young days of rock and roll more than anyone else. A sampling of their songs from the time reads like an early rock and roll greatest hits collection: “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Riot in Cell Block Nine,” “On Broadway,” “Love Potion No. 9,” “Young Blood,” “Searchin’,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand By Me” and on and on.

Jerry Leiber (left) and Mike Stoller show the King of Rock and Roll his next hit.

The duo’s use of strings on the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby” predates (and foreshadows) the Motown sound that would dominate pop music in the coming decade. In fact many of their arrangements and innovations were so prescient that Leiber and Stoller found themselves on the sidelines for much of the 1960s. The Beatles and other British Invasion bands learned to write emulating Leiber and Stoller and other Brill Building songwriters, making third-party songwriters largely redundant. The expansive use of the recording studio rendered Leiber and Stoller’s pioneering arrangements sounding (for a while) like quaint relics of the past.

Despite these advancements, rock and roll and pop music will never outgrow the shadow of Leiber and Stoller. Grammy awards, hall of fame inductions and songwriting royalties stand as a testament to Leiber and Stoller’s perpetual influence. Even “American Idol” paused to pay tribute with an all Leiber-and-Stoller episode last spring.

Jerry Leiber, 78, died Monday. His survivors include Mike Stoller, his songwriting partner of 60 years, his family and everyone who ever picked up the guitar or sat down at the piano and tried to write a song or become a star.

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