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Posts Tagged ‘alt-country’

By Joel Francis

Robert Fripp and Brian Eno – Evening Star (1975)
Brian Eno and Kevin Shields – The Weight of History (2018) The second album from King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp and former Roxy Music effects wizard Brian Eno continues down the same experimental path established on their first album. Layers of audio are bounced between two tape decks, building up sheets of sound that are then manipulated and augmented with guitar solos and other effects. If this sounds too technical fear not: Evening Star is a supremely pastoral album, especially on the first side. As with Eno’s other ambient projects the point of this music is to almost disappear in the background and enhance the mood and atmosphere of a space. The first side of Evening Star succeeds on this level, projecting a layer of calm into my house each time it is played. The second side, the 28-minute track “An Index of Metals” is more textured, incorporating dense levels of guitar distortion. While distorted manipulations keep the piece from fading into aural wallpaper the result is still soothing.

More than 40 years after collaborating with Fripp, Eno partnered with another guitarist know for dense layers of distortion. The guitar player in My Bloody Valentine, Kevin Shields was the primary auteur behind the shoegaze masterpiece Loveless. The music Shields and Eno have crafted together seems like it builds on the foundation Eno established with Fripp. Like “An Index of Metals,” their work forces some attention to appreciate its wonder. Shields and Eno have only collaborated on two songs so far, but the 12-inch single containing these tracks make me want a more.

Murder by Death – The Other Shore (2018) The eighth album by the Bloomington, Ind. Goth-country rockers is a concept album that according to press materials is “a space-western about a ravaged Earth, its fleeing populace and a relationship in jeopardy.” Well that clears things up. Fortunately the music is so engaging that it masks any plot problems. Their brand of roots rock is bolstered by a dedicated cellist, which brings a sweeping Southern Gothic feel to the music. The music on The Other Shore is certainly more nuanced than the petal-to-the-metal live show I saw from them several years ago at Middle of the Map festival. That said, all the songs on The Other Shore feel like they would translate well to the stage. Murder by Death have built a loyal following over the past two decades. The Other Shore is accessible enough to please the existing fans and win them even more.

Roy Lee Johnson and the Villagers – Self-titled (1973) If the name Roy Lee Johnson rings any bells, it might from the song “Mr. Moonlight,” which he wrote and was covered by the Fab Four on the album Beatles for Sale. Johnson’s lone outing with the Villagers bears no resemblance to that song whatsoever. Opening number “Patch It Up” sounds like James Brown and the J.B.s. The next number, “I’ll be Your Doctor Man” continues in this very funky vein, with the distinct accompaniment of the Memphis Horns. Recorded at Muscle Shoals, Roy Lee Johnson and the Villagers drips with Southern soul and funk in every track. Unfortunately for Johnson, two events coincided to keep him from becoming a star. First, Stax was in shaky financial state when this album came out. Poor distribution killed any chance of this success. Fans couldn’t find the album in stores to buy it and send it up the charts. Secondly, the Villagers young bass player Michael James died suddenly, leading to the end of the Villagers. James’ playing plays a prominent role in the album’s success, adding to the melody line while simultaneously holding down the groove. The side two instrumental “Razorback Circus” is a prime example of what James brought to the material. Johnson didn’t release another album until the mid-‘80s. His most recent album is 1998’s “When a Guitar Plays the Blues.”

The Creation – Action Painting (compilation) If you know any of the Creation’s songs, it is probably “Making Time,” used in the brilliant film Rushmore. It’s the first track in this collection, meaning there are 22 other 1960s British garage rock classics to discover here. Fans of early Who, Small Faces and the Kinks will find a lot to love. As always, the Numero Group has done an excellent job of presenting the music with the best mastering possible and putting it in context as well. All the band’s singles are here as well as a handful of pre-Creation singles by Creation Mark Four and songs that only popped up on later compilations. The Creation like to pose as ruffians on songs like the tough “Biff, Bang, Pow” and the cocksure “Can I Join Your Band,” but their true colors are revealed on several goofy numbers. “The Girls Are Naked” sounds like the nutty younger cousin of the Who’s “Pictures of Lily.” Covers of “Cool Jerk” and “Bonie Maronie” conjure images of awkward dance steps in a school gymnasium. The Creation never seem to take themselves too seriously – they have a song about “Ostrich Man” – but their Mod sensibilities make this an essential addition to any 1960s Anglophile’s collection.

Jane’s Addiction – Nothing’s Shocking (1988) Most of the songs on the major label debut by the Los Angeles-born alternative party band still sound fresh today. I hadn’t listened to this album in a long while before this spin, but Eric Avery’s bassline on “Up the Beach” that opens the record still got the adrenaline going. Nothing’s Shocking was a staple in my college dorm room, but I think nostalgia isn’t the only force powering the album today. Dave Navarro’s guitars and Stephen Perkins drums kick like a blast of dynamite as singer Perry Farrell counts in the band on “Ocean Size.” “Mountain Side” still hits like an avalanche, but it’s not just the heavy songs that land. “Ted, Just Admit It…” is a longer, more experimental piece. “Standing in the Shower … Thinking” is a piece of faux funk that concludes the first side. “Summertime Rolls” is another atmospheric experimental piece carried by Ferrell’s voice. The horns on “Idiots Rule” and the radio staple singalong “Jane Says” are the only dated moments on the album. The brass on “Idiots Rule” sounds like shades of “Sledgehammer” and “Jane Says” suffers from overexposure. Jane’s Addiction have broken up and regrouped several times in the 32 years since Nothing’s Shocking came out, but none of those projects have come close to matching their original output.

Lucinda Williams – Good Souls Better Angels (2020) The 14th studio album from Southern singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams couldn’t arrive at a better time. At a time when COVID-19 shutdowns have people feeling frustrated, sad, angry and hopeful (sometimes experiencing each emotion within minutes of each other), Williams channels these states of mind through her lyrics and amplifier.

On “Big Black Train,” Williams confronts her bouts with depression and determination not to get onboard again. “Man Without a Soul” is a hot pellet of rage directed at the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The album ends with “Good Souls,” a hopeful prayer to “Keep me with all of those/who help me stay strong/and guide me along.”

Williams’ band expertly augments her emotions throughout the album, often working in a swampy blues or Rolling Stones rock form. After an hour of searing, electrified full-band arrangements, the vinyl version of Good Souls Better Angels includes five acoustic demo bonus tracks. They are the perfect palate cleanser. Having shared this emotional catharsis, we are renewed to defeat the next challenge.

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By Joel Francis

The Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968) Did you ever stop to think that maybe the biggest difference between country and rock and roll is marketing? I’m not saying fans of Sleep or Deafhaven are likely to warm up to Garth Brooks, or vice versa, but music is littered with crossover artists, from Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins to Aaron Lewis and Darius Rucker. Elvis Presley may have started the trend, debuting on Sun Records with music that was equal parts rock, country and blues. In the post-monoculture landscape where streaming reigns supreme, genre distinctions mean even less. Bret Michaels, Jon Bon Jovi and Lionel Richie can tour as country artists while performers who started in the country bucket like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood can move seamlessly into being pop stars. And honestly, what is the difference between Sheryl Crow and Miranda Lambert? Or Kid Rock and herpes? Sorry, that was a low blow, but I couldn’t resist.

I bring all this up, because in 1968 these distinctions were a very big deal. The Byrds upset a lot of people when they performed on the Grand Ole Opry. Their hippie hair was too long for the Nashville crowd and their music too twangy for the hippies. The group was banned from the Opry when they dared to deviate from the prearranged setlist. Oh, the humanity! Instead, the band nearly broke up, with new recruit Gram Parsons leaving first. Bass player Chris Hillman and drummer Kevin Kelley, another short-timer left at the end of the year, with Hillman joining up with Parsons in the Flying Burrito Brothers. As usual, Byrds founder Roger McGuinn was left to pick up the pieces and assemble another formation of the Byrds. McGuinn’s group released another six albums before packing it in. None approach the influence of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Parsons and Hillman used Sweetheart as a stepping stone, building a musical empire that spawned not only mainstream successes like Eagles and the outlaw country movement. That legacy is still obvious today in the music of Lucinda Williams, Sturgil Simpson and the Highwomen.

Ghostface Killah – Fishscale (2006) The prolific Wu-Tang Clan MC Ghostface Killah drops so many albums, pseudo-albums/mixtapes and collaborations it can be daunting to separate the wheat from the chaff. Fishscale, Ghostface’s fifth album is a gritty masterpiece. Ghostface has an amazing eye for detail, making ever scenario across the album crackle to life like a short film or story. Production from Doom, Just Blaze, Pete Rock and J Dilla make the songs both accessible and memorable. Vignettes about drug deals, street life and women blur together to create a cinematic 65-minute arc. Check out the image this paints from the song “Kilo”: “A hundred birds go out, looking like textbooks/When they wrapped and stuffed/Four days later straight cash, two million bucks.” Or this childhood memory from “Whip You With a Strap”: “(T)hen came Darryl Mack lightin’ all the reefer up/Baby caught a contact, I’m trying to tie my sneaker up/I’m missing all the loops, strings going in the wrong holes/It feels like I’m wobbling, look at all these afros.”

Someone once said that Bruce Springsteen songs don’t begin and end as much as they zoom in a focus on a story, then gradually fade back out. Ghostface’s storytelling is easily on that same level for Fishscale. Along the way, the gets help from several members from the Wu-Tang Clan. The entire Clan assembles for “9 Milli Bros” and Ne-Yo pops by to sing the hook on “Back Like That,” a Top 20 Hot R&B hit. Even with these assists, Fishscale is Ghostface’s triumph and should be part of every hip hop library.

Batfangs – self-titled (2018) The women in Batfang live in a universe where Van Halen and Def Leppard are indie rock icons. The nine songs on the duo’s debut album, all written by singer/guitarist Betsy Wright, with some help from drummer Laura King, pay tribute to the 1980s hair band anthems that continue to provide atmosphere in Trams Ams and strip clubs today. At just 25 minutes, Batfangs know how to love ‘em and leave ‘em. Two years on, I’m hoping their album wasn’t just a one-night stand.

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble – Couldn’t Stand the Weather (1984) It’s hard to believe that Stevie Ray Vaughan gifted fans with three studio albums and a live record – the majority of his catalog – in less time than a presidential term. Couldn’t Stand the Weather was Double Trouble’s second album and if it feels like a disappointment after their debut Texas Flood, it is only because Texas Flood claimed so much territory. Lightning-fast guitar heroics can only be a surprise one time. After that, they are expected.

Vaughan didn’t write many songs for this album, but the ones he did are gems. The white hot instrumental “Scuttle Buttin’” sets up the title song, another original, nicely. Vaughan also wrote the last two songs on the album. “Stag’s Swang,” the last number, shows off another tool in Vaughan’s formidable arsenal – jazz guitar.

The four covers are all spectacular. Vaughan owns Jimi Hendrix’ “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” The slow blues “Tin Pan Alley” couldn’t be more different from the Hendrix cover, but Vaughan is right at home there, too. “Cold Shot” was released as a single and became a Top 40 rock radio hit.

Couldn’t Stand the Weather clocks in at eight tracks and slightly less than 40 minutes. This might make the Weather seem slight in the shadow of Texas Flood, but it remains an indispensable chapter in the book of a consummate blues man that ended way too early.

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By Joel Francis

Charles Mingus – The Clown (1957) Jazz bass legend Charles Mingus’ second album for the Atlantic label was also his second masterpiece in a row. There are only four songs on The Clown, but as with any Mingus release, they leave plenty to unpack. The Clown opens with a Mingus bass solo before the rest of the band joins in on “Haitian Fight Song.” Mingus described the song as a contemporary folk number, but it reminds me of Jimmy Smith’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” the way the song starts simply before the horns swagger into the forefront. “Bee Cee” is a piano-driven blues number. Side two opens with “Reincarnation of a Lovebird,” Mingus’ tribute to Charlie Parker. You can hear different pieces of Parker’s melodies fly past in the song. Mingus revisited this song several times throughout his career. The title track concludes the album. Actor Jean Shepherd – who narrated and co-wrote the film A Christmas Story based on his life – tells the story of a clown who worked hard to please everyone but wasn’t appreciated until after his death. Mingus said the clown was meant to be a stand-in for jazz musicians. There’s a lot going on for an album that lasts a scant 28 minutes, but Mingus always rewards repeated listens.

Buddy Miles Express – Electric Church (1969) Former Electric Flag drummer Buddy Miles got an incredible assist on his second solo album from guitarist Jimi Hendrix. At the time, Hendrix was expanding the Experience to incorporate the players that would become the Gypsy Sun and Rainbows group that performed at Woodstock. Somewhere around this time, Miles was asked to join Hendrix’ new trio Band of Gypsys. Before that, however, Hendrix produced half the songs on Electric Church and played on several cuts as well. Putting aside the long shadow Hendrix casts over this album, Electric Church is a good slice of R&B. The horns on the first cut, “Miss Lady” wouldn’t have been out of place on a Stax release (and place Hendrix’ wah-wah guitar solo in a unique context). Hendrix’ fingerprints are also all over “69 Freedom Song.” The Memphis soul connection is made more explicit on Miles’ cover of Otis Redding’s “Cigarettes and Coffee” and a live version of Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s “Wrap It Up.” Side two kicks off with “Texas,” a slow blues number written with former Electric Flag bandmate Mike Bloomfield. There might not be enough guitar pyrotechnics to entice Hendrix fans to sit through the entire album. Likewise, fans of soul music might be put off by the acidic rock explorations. Somewhere between the two camps, however, Miles was able to carve out a nice little niche.

Van Morrison – A Period of Transition (1977) Van Morrison’s ninth album certainly lives up to the title. The gypsy soul that characterized early albums like Tupelo Honey and Moondance was coming to a close, but the jazzier, lengthier contemplations exemplified on Common One and Beautiful Vision had not yet arrived. Pianist Dr. John plays on every track here and co-produced the album, giving the songs his native New Orleans shuffle, particularly on the swampy opener “You Gotta Make It Through the World.” The single “Joyous Sound” shares a spirit and feel with “Domino.” Elsewhere, “Flamingos Fly” and “Heavy Connection” point to the jazzy, adult contemporary direction Morrison would later take on Avalon Sunset and Poetic Champions Compose in the late 1980s. The intro to “It Feels You Up” sounds like something from Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, but the song remained a concert staple for decades. Of most interest to this Cowtown boy is “The Eternal Kansas City.” A gospel choir carries the meat of the melody while Morrison namechecks Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Jay McShan and other local luminaries. Incidentally, everyone Morrison honors in the verse was still alive at the time, except for saxmen Bird and Lester Young. Morrison must have liked “The Eternal Kansas City” enough to re-record it with Gregory Porter on his 2015 album Duets: Reworking the Catalog. A Period of Transition is far from essential, but dedicated Morrison fans will want this to see how he got from A to B.

Rare Earth – Get Ready (1969) The late 1960s were the time of meandering hard rock epics that encompass an entire album side, like “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” After transforming the landscape of pop music with their Motor City soul, Motown decided it wanted a slice of this acid rock pie as well. Get Ready contains five other songs, including covers of “Tobacco Road” and Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright,” in addition to the title song, but the 21-minute cut on the second side is clearly the selling point. These types of lengthy, meandering jams aren’t really my thing, but the live audience on the album is eating it up. I don’t think the band is saying anything with the album version that they don’t articulate on the two minute, 50 second single. Then again, I’ve never dropped acid or seen a show at the Fillmore. If you like drum solos or extended organ parts, this is for you. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here with the Temptations.

Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice (2017) The prolific Kurt Vile had been releasing laid-back, guitar-centric indie rock albums for nearly a decade when the Australian songwriter Courtney Barnett dropped her debut album. Barnett has a knack for inserting little details into her lyrics that tie her songs together without appearing like she’s trying too hard. In other words, she and Vile shared a laconic approach to songwriting and guitar skills that outpace the songs each write. For their first album together, Barnett and Vile create a level of relaxed comfort where they are able to swap lines like “What time do you usually wake up?/Depends on what time I sleep” (on “Let It Go”) without coming across as lazy or phoning it in. At just nine songs and 45 minutes, Lotta Sea Lice knows not to overstay its welcome. Hopefully we’ll get another collaboration at some point down the road.

Old 97s – Graveyard Whistling (2017) On their previous album, the Texas alt-country quartet turned their amps up and returned to their roots with the raw, profane Most Messed Up. The band appeared to be at a crossroads heading into Graveyard Whistling, their 11th album. While the production is slicker and the songwriting is less self-referential, the 97s are still fully committed to having as good a time tonight as possible and dodging the consequences of it tomorrow. Singer Rhett Miller acknowledges as much on “Bad Luck Charm,” the jig “Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls, the lonesome “Turns Out I’m Trouble” and the bloody “Drinkin’ Song.” Elsewhere, the boys turn theology into a pickup line on “Jesus Loves You” (sample lyric: “He makes wine from water/but I just bought you a beer”), stare into the afterlife with the help of Brandi Carlyle on “Good With God,” and wax nostalgic on “Those Were the Days.” Ultimately, Graveyard Whistling isn’t as essential as Most Messed Up, but it is a very good album from a band with a great run.

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By Joel Francis

Saturdays and Sundays are for family time. I think the trend of fewer weekend spins and a combined entry spanning Friday through Sunday will continue going forward.

The Dirtbombs – Ultraglide in Black (2001) Musically speaking, the Motor City is best known for two groundbreaking styles of music: Motown, of course, and the raw rock and roll that would become punk, pioneered by the MC5 and Stooges. The Dirtbombs combine both of these genres masterfully on this tribute to their hometown. Hearing Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye get a layer of scuzzy guitars and blown-out drums not only casts the songs in a new light but is a pure delight. If you like Detroit music, heck if you’ve ever driven a Ford, you’ll find something to like here.

I saw the Dirtbombs touring in support of another album, several years after Ultraglide came out. The show started after midnight and there were about a dozen people in the audience. It was fantastic.

The Temptations – All Directions (1972) Before taking the compass to All Directions, let’s pause for a moment and marvel at the industriousness of the Motown machine. All Directions was the first of two Temptations releases in 1972. Overall, it was their 16th studio album (counting two full-length collaborations with the Supremes) in only eight years. Think about that for a moment. In less than a decade, they went from “The Way You Do the Things You Do” to “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” Wow!

“Papa” is the standout track here, a No. 1 hit on the U.S pop charts, but the rest of the album isn’t a bunch of cast-offs. “Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On” starts the album with a faux-concert intro before the five Tempts trade lead vocals a la “Ball of Confusion.” Album closer “Do Your Thing” is a rare example of Motown covering Stax. The version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” won’t make anyone forget Roberta Flack, but newcomer Richard Street handles it well. After this album, the Temptations took a whole seven months off (during which they were no doubt touring) before releasing their next album.

Tom Petty – Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (1987)

Tom Petty – The Last DJ (2002) Last autumn, I was on a business trip with the better part of a day to burn in Gainesville, Fla. Knowing that was Tom Petty’s home town, I did some online sleuthing and found several Petty-related points of interest to visit. The night I got in, I was walking around a nice little square of shops near my hotel when a sign caught my eye: Lillian’s Music Store. I had to go in. As I ordered my drink the bartender who gave me the scoop: Lillian’s hadn’t been a music store for some time (it claims to be the oldest bar in Gainesville) but kept the former occupant’s business name. Which is why on the song “Dreamville,” the third track on The Last DJ, Petty sings “Goin’ down to Lillian’s music store/To buy a black diamond string/Gonna wind it up on my guitar/Gonna make that silver sing.”

Now, the larger question is this: If I am going to buy a drink at Lillian’s Music Store chiefly because it appears in a Tom Petty lyric, as a Clash fan am I likewise obliged to get inked at the Death Or Glory tattoo parlor? The answer of course, is yes. And yet it didn’t happen. My apologies, Mick and Joe.

One more quick note about Lillian’s. They had these weird heavy, glass dishes that I hadn’t seen for several years scattered around inside. Ashtrays. Because indoor smoking is still cool in Florida, I guess. All my clothes smelled afterward and I had to double-bag them so they wouldn’t reek into the rest of my luggage.

A couple quick thoughts about the music on these albums before moving on, because this is already running long. Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) contains one of my favorite Petty deep tracks, “Runaway Trains.” It has very ‘80s production and feels almost more like an adult contemporary tune closer to something Sting or Steve Winwood would come up with than anything in the Heartbreakers catalog. I love it because it is so unusual and has those great Petty lyrics and singing. This album also has “It Will All Work Out,” one of my all-time favorite Petty songs. The Last DJ is excellent, except for the song “Joe,” which is my least favorite Petty song. It sounds like a demo that should have been scrapped in the studio. You should still own both albums.

David Bowie – Station to Station (1976) One of many favorite moments from catching David Bowie’s concert on the Reality tour during its stop in Kansas City, Mo. was watching him hang out on the side of the stage, arms holding on to the scaffolding, grooving along to as his band churned through the long instrumental introduction to “Station to Station.” It was the first song in the encore set and for those minutes, Bowie was just another music fan, like all of us in the crowd.

Bowie claimed to have no memories of making this album, but Station to Station’s detached, synthesized paranoia paved a direct path to Joy Division.  Single “TVC15” was durable enough to find a spot in Bowie’s Live Aid set nearly a decade later and his cover of “Wild is the Wind” is an touching showcase of Bowie’s vocal talent. An essential addition to any rock fan’s music collection.

Elvis Costello – Imperial Bedroom (1982) Elvis Costello’s seventh album concludes an incredible opening run with the country tribute Almost Blue as the only misstep. (Almost Blue doesn’t miss because of the genre – the songs and performances just aren’t as strong as on the surrounding albums.) Former Beatles engineer pulls several tricks out of George Martin’s playbook with his gorgeous production arrangements. I love the orchestral countermelody on “And in Every Home” and what sounds like a sitar on “Human Hands.” Not every song is dressed up. “Tears Before Bedtime” and “Man Out of Town” have a pared-down Attractions sound that could have come from Trust, Costello’s previous album. It’s not hard to imagine bands like the Decemberists obsessing over Imperial Bedroom and coming away with dozens of ideas. Costello wouldn’t stay in this baroque mood for long, however. By the next album (and year) he had moved on to a more modern sheen and added the TKO Horns for Punch the Clock.

Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell (2019) Lana Del Rey got a lot of buzz when her album Born to Die came out nearly a decade ago. I watched her on Saturday Night Live, eager to hear what the fuss was about and sampled her debut album before dismissing her as a joke trying too hard to be ironic (and iconic). NFR is the album that finally won me over. Del Rey has built her catalog almost exclusively on torch songs, but here she does them really, really well. Early in the album, the sweeping guitars at the end of “Mariners Apartment Complex” lead right into “Venice Bitch,” which slowly builds into a psychedelic meltdown. Later, Del Rey delivers one of the sexiest music nerd songs ever on “The Next Best American Record.” Don’t ever say she doesn’t know her demographic. The super-profane opening couplet that opens the album belongs in the poetry hall of fame as a stand-alone lyric. I don’t know how long LDR will be able to hold me, but she definitely got me with NFR.

Slobberbone – Bees and Seas: The Best of Slobberbone (compilation) Alt-country fans lamenting the end of Uncle Tupelo need look no further than Slobberbone. The questionably named quartet from Texas perform with the same reckless abandoned that fueled UT classics “Screen Door” and “Gun.” This two record set devotes roughly one side to each of the band’s four albums. The band remains remarkably consistent in sound a quality throughout. There are no detours into horn sections or bagpipes and Brent Best’s songwriting via scenes of everyday life never fail to suck me in. Sadly, like Uncle Tupelo, Slobberbone is no longer releasing new material. Unlike their forebearers, though, Best and company frequently reunite and tour.

The Kinks – Face to Face (1966) As the Fab Four started to migrate toward more intricate, artistic material, the Kinks stepped right into the void, albeit with a more garage-y sound. Straightforward rockers “Party Line” and “Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home” set the album off strong, but Ray Davies takes a couple surprising turns with the Indian instruments on “Fancy” and faux-Hawaiian guitars on “Holiday in Waikiki,” a charming tale about winning a holiday in the Pacific. “Dandy” is the type of music hall number only an Englishman could write (and probably stomach – it’s much to cloying for me). Several years ago, I was fortunate to hear Ray Davies perform “Sunny Afternoon,” my favorite song from Face to Face, in concert. It remains an enduring memory of a fantastic night.

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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.

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(Above: The Rainmakers perform “Another Guitar,” one of the more subdued moments in a long, rowdy night.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The Rainmakers took a packed house all over the map Saturday night at Knuckleheads.

Cities like Tokyo, Omaha, Minneapolis, Boston and St. Louis cropped up in “Downstream,” “Snake Dance” and, of course, “Missouri Girl.” Lead singer and songwriter Bob Walkenhorst implored listeners to “walk on the edge of the world” on “Width of a Line” and to visit “The Other Side of the World.”

photo (2)
A Missouri native, Walkenhorst also referenced Carroll County, where he grew up, in setting up “Lakeview Man,” and nearby Ray County, the inspiration for “Swinging Shed.”

The four-piece roots-rock band started in the 1980s but took breaks in the 1990s and 2000s. Partway through the night, Walkenhorst mentioned the group’s 25th anniversary reunion show at Knuckleheads nearly four years ago to the day.

“That was intended to be a one-time, thank-you show,” Walkenhorst said. “But there were just too many new songs that kept coming up that needed a home.”

A second batch of songs were given a home late last month on “Monster Movie,” the quartet’s seventh studio album. Early in the show, Walkenhorst thanked fans who had already picked up the new album and promised everyone else a preview.

He wasn’t kidding. The concert opened with “Monster’s first three tracks, and all but two of its dozen songs were played during the night. The new material wasn’t as familiar, but it didn’t take prompting to get fans to sing along to the title song and dance to everything else.

One new song, “Your Time Has Come,” was dedicated to guitarist Jeff Porter’s son, who decided to celebrate his 21st birthday listening to his dad. Two longtime fans from North Dakota who drove in to experience the band in concert for the first time got a shout-out before “Shiny Shiny.”

photo (1)At more than 2 and a half hours and almost 40 songs, the marathon set gained steam as it progressed. The clock was nearing midnight when the band played around with “Drinking on the Job,” incorporating bits of “Going to Kansas City,” “Hey Paula” and “One Toke Over the Line.”

Admitting he had no idea where the song was heading, Walkenhorst, Porter and bass player Rich Ruth then paused for an adult beverage before finishing “Drinking on the Job.” That number went right into a spirited “Hoo Dee Hoo,” which stormed into “I Talk With My Hands.”

That would have been a perfect ending, but the band decided to make the performance legendary. It returned to burn through another four songs, including a monstrous “Big Fat Blonde,” before finally saying good night.

Even then no one, onstage or off, seemed ready to leave. As the crowd shuffled out, it had more to look forward to, because this show will be almost as much fun to relive in memory as it was to experience initially.

Set list: Sh-thole Town; Monster Movie; Who’s at the Wheel; Tornado Lane; The Other Side of the World; Snake Dance; Save Some For Me; The One That Got Away; Miserable; Missouri Girl; Width of a Line; Long Gone Long; Thirteenth Spirit; Your Time Has Come; The Wages of Sin; Reckoning Day; Believe in Now; Another Guitar; Given Time; Small Circles; Dogleg; Lakeview Man; Swinging Shed; Government Cheese; Spend It On Love; Battle of the Roses; Downstream; Shiny Shiny; Rockin’ at the T-Dance; Information; Drinking on the Job; Hoo Dee Hoo; I Talk With My Hands. Encore: Let My People Go-Go; One More Summer; Big Fat Blonde; Go Down Swinging.

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(Above: The re-tooled BoDeans cover the Boss at a recent stop on their American Made tour. This is the band’s first outing without founding member Sam Llanas.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The urgency in Kurt Neumann’s voice was so strong that he repeated the phrase twice before ending the show: “Buy ‘American Made’ and we’ll come back and play for you.” Translation: we need you to buy our new album to keep going.

Neumann has a lot pushing against him right now. His band, the BoDeans, had a handful of near-hits and big opportunities in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but Neumann is determined to be something more than a nostalgia act.Sunday’s 90-minute concert at Knucklehead’s was a defiant statement. Neumann confidently mixed songs from “American Made” with the band’s classic. Most importantly proved he could carry the BoDeans without founding member, songwriting partner and stage foil Sam Llanas.

Llanas may have been missed on the setlist – there was no “Feed the Fire,” “Far Far Away” or “Runaway” – but the fans flooded to the dance floor for “Texas Ride Song” and kept it crowded for most of the night.

The setlist bounced between four decades of work, but the songs all carried the same earthy rock feel that defied time. The new group of players Neumann assembled in the wake of Llanas’ departure brought a freshness to the material and were playing with something to prove.

Percussion player Alex Marrerro enhanced Neumman’s lead vocals with his high harmonies. The interplay between Warren Hood’s violin and longtime member Michael Ramos’ accordion and organ often recalled the roots/zydeco sound of John Mellencamp’s heyday. During “The Ballad of Jenny Rae,” guitarist Jake Owen slipped in a tribute to Deep Purple’s Jon Lord.

Between songs, Neumann was chipper, explaining how a snowstorm in Montana inspired “Idaho” (the title state provided an easier rhyme) and plugging new single “All the World,” which is getting some airplay on CMT. The introductions to the Johnny Cash-inspired “Flyaway” and “Paradise” revealed similar themes of a positive mindset as the ultimate freedom.

Neumann was smart enough to know that the road to the future will be paved with his past, closing with four fan favorites that got everyone on their feet. He called it a night with “Closer to Free,” the song that served as the theme to “Party of Five” and landed the band in the Top 10. As the audience sang along, it’s hard to imagine the message didn’t resonant with the players onstage as well.

Set list: Stay On, Texas Ride Song, Good Work, Flyaway, The Ballad of Jenny Rae, Tied Down and Chained, Paradise, Idaho, All the World, Angels, American, Fade Away > Good Things. Encore: Still the Night, Closer to Free.

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(Above: Ryan Adams improvises a song about his pet badger at the Music Hall in Kansas City, Mo., on Feb. 1, 2012.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

In a night that covered more than two hours and comprised 21 songs, including hits, rarities and fan favorites, the most memorable song may have been the one that didn’t even exist when the concert began.

Mistakenly hearing a fan’s song request as “My Badger,” singer/songwriter Ryan Adams immediately composed a song about his new pet badger “Admiral.” Containing references to the USS Enterprise, Mariah Carey and “Glitter” and the perils of domesticating wild animals, it was the “Iliad” of improvisation. The song contained four verses, a chorus and whistled bridge. It probably would have featured a drum solo if Adams weren’t the only performer onstage.“My Badger” wasn’t the only spontaneous song during Wednesday’s performance at the Kansas City Music Hall. The off-the-cuff material provided a nice contrast to Adam’s less-than-uplifting lyrics and allowed the singer to poke fun of himself as well. g.”

In the past, detours like those could have easily turned into wormholes that derailed the performance. This current solo/acoustic tour is an artistic showcase. Everything in the carefully crafted song arrangements and selections is designed to display Adams’ songwriting abilities. While Adams is a divisive performer and personality, there’s no question he has chops. A beautiful “Oh My Sweet Carolina” set the mood perfectly. Later, Adams gave a stripped down reading of his post-9/11 hit “New York, New York” on the piano, placing the familiar song in a new context.

For most of the evening, Adams was seated on a chair in the center of the stage with two red, white and blue Buck Owens-style acoustic guitars within arm’s reach. A notebook of song lyrics lay on a monitor at his feet. The low red lighting kept most of Adams face in shadows as he bent over his guitar, delicately finger-picking and strumming.

The setlist contained as many songs from Adam’s first solo album, 1999’s “Heartbreaker,” as his most recent, last year’s “Ashes and Fire.” In a way, the night had the same flaw as the album. Taken individually, every song was exquisite, but together they started sounding similar.

Varying tempos would have helped, but even upbeat numbers like “Firecracker” were slowed down. The songs that best fit the mood were the gentle “Please Do Not Let Me Go” and haunting reinterpretation of Oasis’ “Wonderwall.” The sole number from Adams’ days in Whiskeytown, “16 Days,” was another standout.

Although stacking mid-tempo numbers created a steady stream of fans in and out of the theater, those who remained were pin-drop quiet during each song. Between numbers they shouted requests and egged on the singer’s eccentricities. There was nothing that would have converted an undecided listener, but after experiencing two frustrating concerts previously at the Uptown Theater over the years, the devoted finally got what they came for. And then some.

Setlist: Oh My Sweet Carolina; Ashes and Fire; If I Am A Stranger; Dirty Rain; My Winding Wheel; Sweet Lil’ Gal (23rd/1st); Invisible Riverside; Everbody Knows; Firecracker; Let It Ride; Rescue Blues; Please Do Not Let Me Go; English Girls Approximately; Two; Lucky Now; Wonderwall (Oasis cover); New York, New York; 16 Days; Come Pick Me Up. Encore: When Will You Come Back Home?; Sweet Illusions.

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(Above:  The song is called “Playing the Part,” but Jamey Johnson is definitely his own man.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Jamey Johnson stood onstage at Crossroads in a black t-shirt and blue jeans. The wind that pushed temperatures to the mid-century mark on Saturday night frequently floated the long follicles of his hair and beard. Subtract the acoustic guitar and add some tattoos and Johnson could have easily been mistaken for one of the performers at Rockfest, occurring simultaneously just a few blocks away.

Call him the last Highwayman or forgotten outlaw, Johnson’s music is wedged in a narrow crevasse in today’s country landscape, too traditional for the alt. country/no alternative scene and rarely sweet and polished enough for the new/young country machine. (Johnson has tasted mainstream success in co-writing Trace Adkin’s “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” George Straight’s No. 1 hit “Give It Away” and his own “In Color.” He performed the latter two to great response, letting the audience take over on the chorus.)

Johnson basks in the music of his idols, both stylistically and aesthetically. Littered with signatures, his blonde acoustic guitar is clearly a tribute-in-progress to Willie Nelson’s famous six-string Trigger. Johnson’s 24-song was an immaculate honky tonk playlist, seamlessly crisscrossing between original material, Nelson, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Don Wilson, Hank Williams – both father and son – George Jones and Ray Price.

The one-third-capacity crowd oscillated in their responses throughout the 100-minute set. They were either completely invested, whooping and hollering and singing along with every word as on “Get Straight,” “In Color” and several of the better-known covers, or completely disinterested and conversing over the performance. Perhaps the consistently low-key, understated arrangements wore thin, but given their overwhelming responses at times it’s hard to believe this crowd didn’t know exactly what they were getting beforehand.

High points included a steamrolling “That Lonesome Song” that gained energy from the interplay between the pedal steel and electric guitarists. During a spirited reading of “Tulsa Time,” Johnson gave each of his six band members time in the spotlight as they passed solos across the stage. “By the Seat of Your Pants” opened with an a cappella verse capped with a rare Johnson solo on his acoustic guitar.

After slowing the set to a crawl with the romantic “Amanda” and remorseful “Walkin’,” the night ended with the crowd-pleasing “In Color” and jubilant “I Saw the Light,” the most energetic number of the night. A few more moments like this would have kept the crowd in hand more consistently.

When the houselights came up few could believe it was over. There was no encore and Johnson had barely acknowledged the crowd beyond working our town into his lyrics a couple of times. It was clear as he left, however, that Johnson was satisfied he’d made his mark.

Setlist: High Cost of Living; Lonely at the Top; Cover Your Eyes; Night Life (Willie Nelson cover); Country State of Mind (Hank Williams Jr. cover); Can’t Cash My Checks; The Door Is Open (Waylon Jennings cover); Playin’ the Part; Mary Go Round; Tulsa Time (Don Williams cover); I Remember You; That’s the Way Love Goes (Merle Haggard cover); That Lonesome Song; For the Good Times (Kris Kristofferson/Ray Price cover); unknown slow blues cover; Still Doing Time (George Jones cover); Misery and Gin (Merle Haggard cover); By the Seat of Your Pants; Give it Away; Set ‘Em Up, Joe; Amanda (Don Williams cover); Walkin’ (Willie Nelson cover); In Color; I Saw the Light (Hank Williams cover).

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(Above: Social Distortion frontman Mike Ness says he’s performed “Story of My Life” so many times it belongs to the fans more than him – but it never gets old to hear.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Bathed in a white spotlight, Social Distortion front man Mike Ness generated a wall of distorted chords with his Les Paul guitar before belting out the lonesome words to “Making Believe,” a song first recorded more than 50 years ago. Ness was joined by the rest of the band on the second verse, adding a punch Kitty Wells and Emmylou Harris probably never imagined when they recorded their hit versions of the song. Before the chorus came around again the classic country number had been converted to a punk anthem.

For many of the songs in Social D’s 90-minute set Tuesday night the Beaumont Club the reverse was also true. It isn’t hard to imagine songs like “Bad Luck,” “Bakersfield,” and especially “Prison Bound” as traditional country fare cast in only a slightly different light.

Social Distortion’s presentation recalls Black Flag – full of furious energy and tattoos – but its content – songs of the downtrodden and desolate searching for redemption – could have come from the Acuff-Rose catalog.

The Orange County quartet have been smearing the line between country and punk for more than 30 years now, long before the alt-country era of Uncle Tupelo or even cowpunk contemporaries Jason and the Scorchers.

The sidemen sometimes change, but Ness and company roll into town regularly enough that the singer/ lead guitarist knew where State Line divides the town and that he was firmly planted on the Missouri side. The current lineup includes drummer David Hidalgo Jr., son of the Los Lobos singer and guitarist.

Although the band released its first album in seven years in January, most of the night was dedicated to fan favorites and fevered sing-alongs. “Bad Luck,” “Sick Boys” and “Ball and Chain” drew especially hearty responses. On the rare occasion when the fans didn’t know the words, as on the new song “Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown,” they participated by crowd surfing and jumping around.

Hard-driving instrumental “Road Zombie” took off like a brick dropped on the accelerator. The band barreled through half of their main setlist in about 30 minutes, before Ness paused to talk and slow things down.

Near the end of the first set, Ness introduced the fiddle player from  Chuck Regan’s band, who opened, and invited him to sit in with the band. Second guitarist Jonny Wickersham strapped on an acoustic guitar and an accordion player joined the ensemble for a pair of stripped-down songs. The resulting performances of “Down Here (With the Rest of Us)” and “Reach for the Sky” proved even unamplified Social D was still electric.

Ness is clearly proud of his band’s legacy. Before one number he stopped to chat with a young girl who named Social Distortion her favorite band. She wasn’t the only pre-adolescent fan in the crowd. As Ness said before “Story of My Life,” these songs have been around so long they’re not really about him anymore. They belong to everyone who grew up with the band or is just discovering his music. Shows like this will ensure that circle remains unbroken.

Setlist: Road Zombie > So Far Away; King of Fools; Bad Luck; Mommy’s Little Monster; Sick Boys; Machine Gun Blues; Ball and Chain; Down on the World Again; Bakersfield; Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown; Down Here (With the Rest of Us); Reach for the Sky; Making Believe (Jimmy Work cover). Encore: Prison Bound; Story of My Life; Ring of Fire (Johnny Cash cover).

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