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By Joel Francis

The weekend weather was way too nice to be inside playing records. Here’s what I listened to when I wasn’t enjoying nature.

Fucked Up – Dose Your Dreams (2018) Toronto’s finest sextet have always been incredible musicians, but sometimes their subtlety and talent gets lost behind frontman Damian Abraham’s blowtorch of a voice. Here, on their fifth album, Abraham pulls back a little and the rest of the band flexes their muscles. I guess the story on Dose Your Dreams is a continuation of their 2011 masterpiece David Comes to Life. I have listened to David Comes to Life countless times and have only and elementary understanding of its story. The narrative on Dose Your Dreams is lost on me. So forget about that. Check out the rare mashup of hardcore punk and jazz saxophone at the end of “Raise Your Voice Joyce” (dig the synthesizer on the track, too). The title track is straight-up indie rock, while “Two I’s Closed” sounds like it could be the Dirty Projectors. If this sounds like the band leaving punk and throwing everything at the wall, fear not. The songs are still here, just not in the way you might expect.

Dose Your Dreams is the sound of Fucked Up spreading their wings. It will be interesting to see where they go from here.

Joe Callicot – Ain’t A Gonna Lie to You (2003) Don’t feel bad if you aren’t familiar with Mississippi Joe Callicot – I wasn’t either. Cruising the liner notes and the web, I found out that the dozen songs here were recorded in 1967, two years before his death. I could recite a few other facts but all you really need to know is that Callicot is an acoustic blues picker in the vein of fellow Mississippian John Hurt. Callicot’s voice isn’t as molasses-smooth as Hurt’s, but if you like the relaxed style of one, you’ll enjoy the other. These times are anxious enough. Put this on and unwind.

Blondie – Eat to the Beat (1979) In her autobiography, Debbie Harry describes Blondie as a nonstop circus of recording, tours and musicians. In the six year (and six album) blur between playing shows at CBGB and headlining arenas before breaking up, Harry has a point. Still, it would be nice if she slowed down to let fans savor the journey a little bit more. Blondie’s fourth album opens with the fantastic “Dreaming,” still a concert staple.  We also get the new wave dance classic “Atomic” and cinematic “Union City Blue.” Eat to the Beat is the only Blondie album I own, but every time I play it I’m reminded I need to seek out a couple more.

Billie Holiday – Lady in Satin (1958) As the final album released during Billie Holiday’s brief life, it’s hard not to listen to this album and not think about her tragic story and play the what-if game. Her ragged voice here is another constant reminder of her hard life. As an inspired artist, Holiday is able to use her ragged state to her advantage. The raw tension she infuses into every performance adds another dimension to songs like “Glad to Be Unhappy” and “You’ve Changed.” I also thought about this article and how racists in power conspired to make Holiday’s life even more difficult. I know it sounds fantastic, but just check out the reporting and get back to me. Rest in peace, Lady Day.

Stevie Wonder – Music of My Mind (1972) Stevie Wonder’s incredible run of classic albums usually begins with Talking Book, but the people who start there are missing the two great records that came before that landmark. Music of My Mind came out just six months before Book and lays the groundwork for all of the latter’s achievements. The synthesizers and clavinets that came to define Wonder’s sound are trotted out for the first time here. Music of My Mind is also the first album where Wonder plays most of the instruments himself. (Sayonara Funk Brothers.) The first side starts strong with the upbeat “Love Having You Around.” “Superwoman” is a reworking of a song from Wonder’s previous album. Its great in both forms. “I Love Every Little Thing About You” would fit fine on a playlist of Wonder love songs, right between “All I Do” and “As.” The second side is good as solid as well. Consider this a warm-up for Talking Book and jump in. It’s all there – almost.

Justin Townes Earle – Absent Fathers (2015) The first time I saw Justin Townes Earle in concert, he was part of his dad Steve Earle’s road crew. He came onstage (barefoot) at the end of the night to add extra guitar to “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding.” Unfortunately, the father had to fire his son for excessive drug use before the tour was over. Keep in mind Steve Earle actually served time in the early ‘90s for heroin, cocaine and weapons possession, so outdrugging him is a pretty neat trick.

This bit of biography also frames the sadness that saturates the characters on Absent Fathers. None of these ten songs are about the perfect nuclear family, but Justin Earle inherited his dad’s knack for songwriting and inhabits these characters so well it’s hard not to be moved.

Bobo Yeye – Belle Epoque in Upper Volta (compilation) I am convinced – but willing to hear otherwise – that the roots of all music either goes back to Gregorian monks chanting in Europe or African drumming and singing. While both forms have their appeal, I’ll take the dirty African funk found here any day. Loud drums, horns, fuzzy guitars, soulful vocals, primitive recording. Yeah, this hits the sweet spot. Accompanying the three albums in this Numero collection is a hardcover book of photography and essays about the music. Feast your eyes and your ears.

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By Joel Francis

Here we go. Back into the stacks of wax.

L7 – Scatter the Rats (2019) If you were worried that L7 might have mellowed over the two decades since their last release, you can rest easy. The four females are just as fierce and uncompromising as you remembered from ‘90s alternative/punk classics Smell the Magic and Hungry for Stink. Honestly, Scatter the Rats is better than anything they’ve done since those two albums. Put this on and watch the paint peel from the wall.

Pink Floyd – Atom Heart Mother (1970) The pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd catalog is a lot more interesting to me than their commercial and artistic peaks in the mid-to-late 1970s. I love hearing them find their voice as a quartet, adding and subtracting elements. Atom Heart Mother is their dalliance with an orchestra. The strings on the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” are a loose starting point here, but no one seems to know where they fit on the Floyd songs. That’s the first side, at least. The second side is more democratic, with each of the group’s three songwriters taking turns at the mic on original songs. The last track is a 13-minute instrumental called “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,” whose title sums up the album perfectly.

Randy Newman – Land of Dreams (1988) I once played this album for a friend. After the first song, she politely demurred that this wasn’t what she normally enjoyed. Translation: It’s milquetoast old-people music. While Newman’s production is certainly lush and radio-friendly, his lyrics, storytelling and sly, subversive humor are more compelling than they may come off at first blush. Land of Dreams was supposed to be Newman’s musical autobiography. He gave up at some point, but we still get the captivating opener “Dixie Flyer” and most of the songs on side one. The ballad “Falling in Love” displays the cinematic touch that established Newman as an in-demand film composer. (Is it just me or is there a bit of “You’ve Got a Friend” in this tune?) The second side isn’t as successful, but it concludes on a couple of high notes: the hit “It’s the Money that Matters” and the wrenching ballad “I Want You to Hurt Like I Do.” It’s more than enough to make up for the embarrassing faux-rap of “Red Bandana.”

Tony Bennett – Jazz (compilation) This two-album collection pulls Tony Bennett’s collaborations with jazz musicians who are as proficient with their instruments as Bennett is with his incredible voice. It’s easy to take Bennett’s singing for granted. It seems he’s never encountered a song he can’t make his own. The treat, then, is hearing that voice spar and hang with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Herbie Mann and Count Basie. I’m partial to the performance of “Just One of Those Things” with Art Blakey and the West Coast swing of “Clear Out of this World” but everything here is top-notch.

Leonard Cohen – Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 (2009) According to legend, this is the set that followed Jimi Hendrix at the legendary British music festival. Leonard Cohen only had two albums under his belt at the time of this recording, but it’s amazing to see how many songs included in this set would remain concert favorites until the end of his life. The performance also has a folky atmosphere, filled with acoustic guitars, fiddle, banjo and piano. The Isle of Wight performance shows little of the polished sophisticated sheen that Cohen’s later concerts would adopt. Put this on for a down-home experience with the poet extraordinaire.

Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Johnny Hodges – Hawkins! Eldridge! Hodges! Alive! at the Village Gate (1962) Here is the sound of three pre-war titans muscling their way back into a musical conversation that has seemingly moved away from them. They do it not by adapting to a bop or modal vocabulary, but by stretching out and showing how those elements were always present in the swing music they helped popularize and pioneer. There are only three songs here – each of them well over 10 minutes – but they are more than enough to make the point.

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By Joel Francis

I hope everyone is staying inside and remaining healthy while we traipse through my album collection.

Chico Hamilton – The Further Adventures of El Chico (1966) Chico Hamilton was a drummer who played with Count Basie, Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan and Lena Horne. For this album he is joined by Clark Terry (another Basie alumnus) and Ron Carter. The set mixes jazz standards (“Stella by Starlight,” “Who Can I Turn To?”) with blues, a few originals and covers of then-contemporary pop songs. It works well for the most part, but the jumps to the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream” and the Mamas and Papas’ “Monday, Monday” are jarring and remind of the exact moment the album was recorded. The pop covers aren’t bad on their own – although they cling pretty faithfully to the original charts – but they work against the rest of the material.

Van Morrison – Three Chords and the Truth (2019) A friend summed it up perfectly: Van Morrison’s output for the past three decades is always good, rarely great. I couldn’t tell you that Three Chords and the Truth is any better than the two albums he released the year before this, or even the two albums he released the year before that. I could tell you that all but one of the tracks are new Morrison compositions. I can also tell you that guitarist Jay Berliner, who played on Astral Weeks, is back in the band. His distinctive guitar lines color the album effectively. With four full sides of music there is a lot for Morrison fans to digest. I don’t think this will win any new fans, but if you like anything he’s released since his classic run in the 1970s, there’s a good chance you’ll like this, too.

Ella Fitzgerald – The Duke Ellington Songbook (1957) I’m generally not a fan of lyrics being added to instrumental songs. This album is a delightful exception. Ella Fitzgerald scats and floats across Duke Ellington’s enduring melodies like a spring breeze kissing laundry on a clothes line. Of course having Ellington’s orchestra on hand doesn’t hurt, either. Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson also pop up. You already know most of these numbers, now hear them anew with Ella and the Duke as your tour guides.

I got this double-album set at an estate sale. The previous owner wrote down the date, location and price of album on the inside of one of the sleeves. I love these little touches that show how these songs were here long before we came along and will exist long after us as well.

Warren Zevon – self-titled (1976) The album that introduced Warren Zevon to the masses (or at least his devoted cult) plays like a greatest-hits album. Linda Ronstadt covered no less than four of the 11 tracks performed here. Jackson Browne produced the album and plays on most cuts. Members of Fleetwood Mac, Eagles and the Beach Boys also pop up in the musician credits. You may think you don’t know Zevon, but I bet you’ll recognize at least a couple songs here. And if you like that laid-back, 1970s L.A. singer/songwriter vibe, you’ll love everything here. A true classic.

Various Artists – American Epic: The Soundtrack (compilation) The majority of the 15 songs in this collection were recorded in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Fans of early folk and roots music will be familiar with most of these songs. What they likely haven’t heard is the clarity of these performances. The compilers cleaned up all the hiss and noise that usually comes with primitive recordings like these. The songs here by blues, country and folk pioneers aren’t just a nice collection of Depression-era musicianship. They are an essential part of who America is as a nation today. To learn why, you’ll need to watch the American Epic documentary. Enjoy.

Neil Young – Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live (2018) Tonight’s the Night was the first of Neil Young’s so-called ditch trilogy, his non-commercial response to watching “Heart of Gold” hit No. 1. The studio version was held by the label for two years before finally seeing release. This live album comes from the same period (1973) but is less bleak than its studio counterparts. The songs are Young’s responses to the death of two close associates from drug overdoses. Their spirits hang heavy over the night, but the intensity is dissipated by Young’s stage banter about topless women, burlesque dancer Candy Barr, Perry Como and label honcho David Geffen. The band also goes into a short rendition of “Roll Out the Barrel.” The heavy emotion in the songs never flinches, but onstage Young allows the audience to take breaks. These moments of release are what makes Roxy a compelling bookend to the studio edition.

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Thirty days in the hole is a long time. I’ve got to mix things up to keep life fresh. Stay tuned.

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By Joel Francis

Let the hit parade continue.

Sonic Youth – Washing Machine (1995) On the surface, Washing Machine appears to be just another release by avant rockers Sonic Youth. Released nine albums into their three-decade career, the band doesn’t have much to prove by this point but they certainly aren’t coasting through this set. All three of the band’s songwriters are in peak form. The album opens and closes Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo taking lead vocals on their respective compositions. Moore’s closing cut, “The Diamond See” is a fascinating 20-minute track that shows the quartet stretching out, yet never repeating themselves. It’s the longest they let a mood percolate on a studio album. (An even longer 25- minute version was released on The Destroyed Room rarities collection.) Overall, Washing Machine points to the more mature direction Sonic Youth would take in the early ‘00s.

One Day As a Lion – self-titled (2008) Well, this is it. The 20 minutes on this EP comprise most substantial release by Zack de la Rocha since the end of Rage Against the Machine at the end of the millennium. It boggles the mind how someone so politically aggressive during the Clinton administration could be so quiet during the Dubya and current administrations. If anything, you’d think de la Rocha would be out stumping for Bernie Sanders.

Brief as it is, the music here meets all expectations. It’s loud, combative and better than either of Rage axeman Tom Morello’s acoustic Nightwatchman full-lengths.

Andrew Hill – Point of Departure (1964) I discovered Andrew Hill about six months before he died. Even though I didn’t have a lot of history with his art, I was still deeply saddened by his loss. Selfishly, I had hoped that I would be able to see him perform at some point. I was also disappointed that such a monumental talent hadn’t achieved the renown and accolades Hill deserved.

It can be easy for pianists to get lost in the background when playing in larger groups, especially with reed-player Eric Dolphy in the mix. Hill’ steady hand is ever-present across this album, guiding every song and creating the spaces for Dolphy and saxman Joe Henderson’s solos (and delivering plenty of his own as well). “Dedication,” the final piece, is as beautiful a piece of music as you will ever hear.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Get Happy!! (1980) Elvis Costello has released so many great albums across so many styles it is hard to pin down a favorite. That said, of the four classics in his initial “angry young man” phase, this might be my pick as the best. Costello skitters across all forms of soul music in these 20 songs, moving quickly from Motown to Northern and blue-eyed soul. Ballads and Southern soul are also given their due. What reads like a dull, academic genre exercise on paper is a hoot to hear because of the Attractions manic energy – particularly Steve Nieve’s hopping organ – and Costello’s lyrics, that slash like a switchblade in an alley fight. You don’t realize how quickly they cut until they’ve moved on to the next victim. Best to keep dancing and sort it all out later.

Robbie Robertson – Storyville (1991) Anyone disappointed that Robbie Robertson’s debut album bore few traces of his time with The Band will find more to like with this sophomore effort. Although the performances are far more restrained and the production more polished than anything with his old group, it’s not hard to imagine Rick Danko singing on “Night Parade” (although he does contribute backing vocals on the gorgeous ballad “Hold Back the Dawn”). Taken on its own terms, this is still a very satisfying album. Neil Young stops by to help with “Soap Box Preacher” and the Neville Brothers appear on “Shake This Town,” recorded with Rebirth Brass Band, and “What About Now.” The spirit of New Orleans, where Storyville was made, also appears on “Go Back to Your Woods.” In a way, Storyville makes a nice companion piece to the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon, released the year before with Daniel Lanois, the man behind the boards for Robertson’s debut.

Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five – The Golden Era Series, Vol. 1 (compilation) It blows my mind that these recordings are approaching their centennial. These are among Armstrong’s first sessions as a bandleader. His solos here went a long way establish jazz as an improvisational genre. Satchmo doesn’t sing on every cut, but when he does it is always memorable. The dozen cuts here are so celebrated and influential it is impossible to have a favorite, but I’ll share some of the titles to whet the appetites of the uninitiated: “Heebie Jeebies,” “Struttin’ with some Barbeque,” “Gut Bucket Blues,” “Hotter than That.” Just reading those titles, how can you not want to dive in?

The songs here appeared roughly the same time as George Gershwin’s compositions and significantly predate Aaron Copeland’s most celebrated pieces. This is the sound of America growing up and forcing its way on the world’s artistic stage well before it became impossible to ignore as a superpower.

Ben Folds – Supersunnyspeedgraphic, the LP (compilation) The first three sides of this two-record collection encompass highlights from the digital-only mini-albums Folds released in the early 2000s. It’s fun to hear Folds give the Cure and the Darkness his own demented spin. His potty-mouthed cover of Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” is funny the first few times, but gradually wears out its welcome. In his memoir A Dream About Lightning Bugs, Folds recounts a stint opening for John Mayer where he would perform this song several times in a row relishing the jeers. I can relate to how that audience must have felt. Original songs including “Adelaide,” “Songs of Love” and “Still” more than make up for Folds’ West Coast rap mishap. The fourth side of this set is a real treat, too. We get a half-dozen cuts from the Over the Hedge soundtrack, including a great cover of The Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket” and an alternate version of “Rockin’ the Suburbs” with an epic William Shatner rant based on real events.

The Supremes – At their Best (compilation) Conventional wisdom holds that the Supremes were over once Diana Ross left. True, Ross had much greater success as a solo artist than the Supremes did without her, but they were still a potent force. The group had six Top 40 hits in the post-Ross era and several more hits on the R&B charts. Many of those tracks are included on this 10-track collection, which spans 1970 to 1976. “Stoned Love” and “Up the Ladder to the Roof” are as good as anything the Supremes released in their prime years. “I’m Going to Let My Heart Do the Walking” and “You’re My Driving Wheel” update the group’s sound with elements of funk and disco. The Supremes were always a better singles act than album artists and this anthology is a fitting encapsulation and the final chapter.

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And on the tenth day, I rested. There are now 90 albums covered in the previous Social Distancing Spins posts. Enjoy those and I’ll catch you with more tomorrow.

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By Joel Francis

A 30-day lockdown in my hometown of Kansas City, Mo. was announced today. It looks like this trek through my record collection will continue a while longer.

Bruce Springtsteen – Western Skies (2019) The Boss made his legion of fans wait five long years between releases before dropping Western Skies in the middle of 2019. The first few times I listened, I didn’t like it at all. The songwriting was good, but the strings were too syrupy and heavy-handed. Even though I couldn’t get into the album, when I saw it on sale online the completist in me pushed the buy button. I don’t know what changed, but something happened when I played it this morning. I heard everything with new ears and finally heard what Springsteen was trying to accomplish with the orchestra. I can’t wait to dig into this one again.

Neville Brothers – Yellow Moon (1989) The highs and lows of this album come in rapid succession at the end of side one. Aaron Neville voice soars cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Going to Come.” The civil rights hymn is accented by producer Daniel Lanois’ tremelo guitar and guest Brian Eno’s ethereal keyboards. The civil rights theme takes an uncomfortable turn with the next song, “Sister Rosa,” a well-intentioned by horribly awkward rap tribute. Fortunately the ship is righted with Aaron Neville back in the spotlight with a tender cover of Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side.” Elsewhere, the album explores cajun and the brothers’ native New Orleans on songs like “Fire and Brimstone” and “Wild Injuns.”

Kelis – Food (2014) Her milkshake brought the boys to the yard, but Food is a full meal of biscuits and gravy, jerk ribs and cobbler. Working with producer Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio, Kelis’ most recent album to date rejects contemporary production and attempts at Top 40 success. The organic arrangements with live instrumentation make this a Kelis album with the singer in firm control, rather than a vehicle with her voice slotted into other producers’ ideas. The relaxed comfort of the sessions comes through in the songs. “Cobbler” opens with gales of laughter as a slow Afrobeat groove slowly builds. Those same horns also pop up in “Jerk Ribs” and “Friday Fish Fry,” propelling everyone straight to the dance floor. “Bless the Telephone” might be my favorite moment on the album. It’s also one of the most basic –Kelis and Sal Masakela sound so honest and vulnerable singing over a gorgeous acoustic guitar line. Then the party roars back to life.

The Flaming Lips – The Terror (2013) The Terror isn’t my favorite Flaming Lips album by a long shot, but it felt the most appropriate right now. Half the band was in a bad way when this album was being made and it shows. Singer Wayne Coyne’s longtime romantic relationship had ended and multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd relapsed into substance abuse. There aren’t any hints of the magic and wonder fans got from the band’s breakthrough albums. Instead there are songs like the seven-plus minute “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die,” which sounds like the dawn of a nightmare in some post-apocalyptic desert. But hey, when you haven’t left the house in more than a week and have just been alerted your entire city is on lockdown for the next 30 days, sometimes even cold comfort is comforting. Happy spring, everybody!

Son Volt – Straightaways (1997)

Uncle Tupelo – Anodyne (1993) The first time I saw Son Volt was in support of Straightaways, when they opened for ZZ Top at Sandstone Amphitheater. The venue was your typical outdoor shed and my friend and I were miles away from the stage, out on the lawn. Frontman Jay Farrar was never known for his onstage energy and the songs sizzled out well before they reached us.

Oh to have seen Farrar just a few years earlier. If I could build a time machine, one of the first places I’d go would be to an Uncle Tupelo concert. Hearing Farrar’s voice pair with Jeff Tweedy’s on the chorus of “Slate,” the first song, always sends me to a happy place. While the sessions for what would be the pair’s final album were acrimonious – at least from Farrar’s viewpoint; Tweedy has said he had no clue of his partner’s hostility and disillusionment – the result is a timeless slab of alt-country goodness.

Bleached – Welcome to the Worms (2016) Centered around sisters Jennifer and Jessica Clavin, Bleached operates somewhere between Blondie and the Donnas. I first saw the band at the now-shuttered Tank Room on Halloween night with Beach Slang. The sisters, along with bass player Micayla Grace, all performed in costume. These songs were a little more garage-y in concert, but it is still great girl-group rock however you slice it.

Ahmad Jamal – Inspiration (compilation) This 1972 collection finds jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal primarily working in a trio format with bass and drums. The assemblage hops around from the mid-‘50s to the late ‘60s in both studio and club settings. Several of the songs are augmented with a string section, which can be a little jarring, since Jamal isn’t know for orchestral work. Despite the seemingly hodgepodge nature, the four sides make for a generally cohesive play. Jamal made a ton of records and none of them are very expensive. Any good music shop will have at least five or six inches of his platters to choose from in the stacks. This isn’t a bad place to start.

Emmylou Harris – At the Ryman (1992) Emmylou Harris was coming off the worst-performing album of her career to date when she stepped onstage at the storied Ryman Auditorium for three nights in the spring of 1991. Backed by her new bluegrass ensemble the Nash Ramblers (lead by Sam Bush), Harris tackles several hit songs associated with other artists. While her versions of Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Mansion on the Hill” or John Fogerty’s “Lodi” won’t make you forget the original performers, Harris puts her own distinctive stamp on them. One of my favorite singers of all time, Harris’ voice is particularly affecting on the a capella “Calling My Children Home” and a medley of Nanci Griffith’s “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go” and “Abraham, Martin and John.”

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