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Posts Tagged ‘Bruce Springsteen’

Day 34

By Joel Francis

Based on the announcements made today it looks like we’ll be doing this for at least another month. I hope everyone out there is safe and healthy.

Ringo Starr – Beaucoups of Blues (1970) The Fab Four drummer had a busy year in 1970. He not only released two solo albums, but was an integral part of Let It Be, the final Beatles album. Beaucoups of Blues was the last Ringo-related release of the year. Frankly, this is a criminally underappreciated album. The premise is simple: Ringo travelled to Nashville and cut a bunch of country tunes with the best session players in the city. The results are even better than expected. As demonstrated on songs like “Honey Don’t” and “Act Naturally,” Ringo has a great voice for country songs. The instrumental support is superb. Finally, the album barely breaks the half-hour mark, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. If you like the Beatles, country music or top-shelf musicianship, don’t hesitate to grab Beaucoups of Blues next time you see it.

Mikal Cronin – MCII (2013) If you are a big fan of the prolife garage rocker Ty Segall, you may recognize Mikal Cronin as the bass player from Segall’s band. For his second solo album, Cronin brings a lot of the dirt and scuzz from Segall’s projects, but sweetens it up with lots of acoustic rhythm guitar and some keyboards and strings. The result is nearly 40 minutes of wonderful power pop that changes tempo and textures just enough to remain invigorating throughout. After kicking out the cobwebs with rockers like “Shout It Out” and “See My Way,” Cronin ends the album on a graceful, contemplative note with the slow, string-laden “Piano Mantra.”

MCII was my favorite album that year and it remains an absolute delight. Put this on, turn it up and let ‘er rip.

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong – Ella and Louis (compilation) The First Lady of Song and Satchmo only appeared in the studio together a handful of times, likely because they knew the universe would not be able to handle this abundance of joy. The two-record set I own combines 1956’s Ella and Louis with 1957’s Ella and Louis Again. There has never been a time I’ve played this music that I haven’t felt better afterward. Dwell on that for a moment. Think about how much has changed in the world over the past 63 years, when these songs were released. And these two have been able to deliver unbridled bliss that entire time. If you don’t own this, there has never been a better time to buy it. We are all stuck at home, starving for human interaction. Think of it as therapy and have it delivered. If you own this, I hope I have inspired you to play it now. The world needs more gaiety, in all times, but especially now.

Rolling Stones – Goat’s Head Soup (1973) The Stones’ 13th U.S. long-player ended their incredible hot streak that started way back with 1966’s Aftermath. I’m fairly confident that the Stones were the best rock band on the planet during that run. You could argue the Beatles, but they broke up in 1970. In 1966, the Who were still figuring everything out on A Quick One (a fine album). The Kinks kept pace for most of that time, but peaked with 1971’s Muswell Hillbillies. Look, the point is that the Stones were very, very good for about seven years. And then Goat’s Head Soup came out.

Goat’s Head Soup isn’t a bad album, necessarily, it’s just not as good as the half-dozen albums that came before. “Dancing with Mr. D” starts the record on a tepid note and it takes the last two songs on the side to rescue the album. “Angie” was a No. 1 hit and the horn-driven “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” is solid, but neither are as vital as “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar,” the songs that clearly inspired these. The second side is better just because it doesn’t try as hard. “Silver Train” is a ragged romp powered by Mick Taylor’s slide guitar that recall’s the better moments on Exile on Main Street. “Winter” is a beautiful downtempo number to which anyone who has experienced a season that just won’t let go – meteorological or otherwise – can relate. The performance is so good it almost makes up for the malaise plaguing the weaker numbers. There is enough good stuff on Goat’s Head Soup to make it a worthwhile addition, but temper your expectations.

Bruce Springsteen – Human Touch (1992) This was the first Bruce Springsteen album I owned. I know, I picked a really bad time to become a fan. I remember watching Springsteen on Saturday Night Live around the time of this release, when I was just starting to discover him (away from the omnipresent hits, at least). Everything I read said the stage was where Springsteen really came alive. I was underwhelmed. The new arrangement of “57 Channels” was too noisy for my tastes at the time and I didn’t know what to make of the other songs performed because they were on Lucky Town, the other album the Boss released on the same day. I didn’t know what to make of the guy. The live setting didn’t resonate so I kept going back to Human Touch, looking for something that I may have missed.

Here we are nearly 30 (!!!) years later, and I’m still not sure how much gold there is in hills of Human Touch. The album opens with the title track, easily the album’s best song and sonically similar to the Tunnel of Love material. From there it flatlines and coasts. The songs I liked best back in the day remain my favorites today: “With Every Wish,” “Roll of the Dice,” “Real World,” the title track, “Man’s Job,” “The Long Goodbye” – mostly clustered in the middle for some reason. It is only because of Devils and Dust and, especially, Western Stars that I am finally able to appreciate “Pony Boy.”

Thanks to the Tracks box set fans are able to sift through a dozen or so outtakes and piece together their own version of Human Touch. I think the album would have been better with “Sad Eyes,” “Trouble River,” “Red Headed Woman” and “All the Way Home” replacing “Soul Driver,” “Gloria’s Eyes,” “All or Nothin’ at All” and “Real Man.” More importantly, I think we’ve already given this record more time than it deserves. Let’s just move on.

Los Lobos – The Neighborhood (1990) A good friend of mine once commented that Los Lobos were like the second coming of The Band, a group of supremely talented multi-instrumentalists who could sound like themselves while still maintaining the spirit of any genre. For their fifth album, the East Los Angeles quintet enlisted an actual member of The Band to help them along their journey through New Orleans soul (“Jenny’s Got a Pony”), the bluesy swagger of “I Walk Alone” and the heavenly skip of “Angel Dance.” Helm sings on the ballad “Little John of God” where his vocals are understated but the perfect accent. The only element this album doesn’t touch is traditional Mexican music, but that was the focus of their entire previous album, La Pistola y el Corazon, so it’s understandable the wolves bypass it here. There’s not a bad track among the 13 songs here. The Neighborhood remains a high-water mark in the band’s formidable catalog.

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By Joel Francis

Days blur together like a Michel Gondry dream sequence, but the vinyl never stops.

Slowdive – self-titled (2017) During their original run, the English quintet Slowdive delivered three albums that blurred the lines between shoegaze and dream pop. For their first album in nearly a generation, the band is once again operating in the sweet spot of dreamy guitars and ethereal vocals. Slowdive manages to maintain a consistent mood without feeling repetitive. I’m not sure I would have appreciated them as much during the grunge era as I do now, but this reunion album still serves as a soothing antidote to a stressful time. There’s nothing better than putting this on and letting the world float away for the better part of an hour. Favorite songs include the single “Sugar for the Pill” and “Falling Ashes,” which became even more of a favorite after seeing them perform it in concert.

Bruce Springsteen – The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) The Ghost of Tom Joad is typically compared to Nebraska because they are both acoustic albums, but this is really unfair to Joad because it isn’t trying to accomplish the same thing. The songs on Tom Joad are fully realized acoustic performances complete with violin, pedal steel and a full band. The songs are some of the Boss’ best, as well. I love the title track in all its arrangements, especially the one with Pete Seeger reciting the lyrics over Springsteen’s guitar. “Youngstown” is a concert staple, yet “Dry Lightning” and “My Best Was Never Good Enough” don’t seem to get the recognition they deserve. “Across the Border” remains particularly relevant in the current xenophobic culture. Overall, The Ghost of Tom Joad has more in common with Devils and Dust than anything else in Springsteen’s catalog. It’s his best album of the 1990s.

Tom Waits – Alice (2002) Tom Waits threw his hat into the ring of releasing two albums on the same day when he released Alice and Blood Money simultaneously in the spring of 2002. Of the two, I prefer Alice, which features more ballads and generally less abrasive material (not that Blood Money is a bad album). Really, the two albums complement each other like less contrived versions of the Brawlers and Bawlers collections on the Orphans box set. Blood Money says “Misery is the River of the World” and Alice cries “No One Knows I’m Upset.” Pick a pill, red or blue. Either one leads to sonic delights.

Margo Price – Live at the Hamilton (2016) Margo Price is a throwback to a time when women like Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt could move the needle in Nashville. Sadly, I don’t know how much traction she and fellow spirits the Highwomen will get. Either way, her songwriting and spirit can’t be denied. This set features Price and her band onstage in Washington, D.C., 24 hours after election day. (I was set to attend an in-store that same night but couldn’t muster the motivation to leave the house, an ironic stance now.) They perform several songs from her debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter and cover Billy Joe Shaver, Merle Haggard, Rodney Crowell and breathe new life into Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.”

Houston Stackhouse – Worried Blues (2017)

Rev. Leon Pinson – Hush-Somebody is Calling Me (2016) There’s a great record shop in Memphis, right around the corner from a restaurant that used to be a hair salon and built their eatery around the old fixtures. Both are worth a stop. The shop, Goner Records, has an incredible selection of delta blues albums that is expertly curated. I typically pick out a half dozen albums that look intriguing by artists I’ve never heard. The person behind the counter is always happy to describe each album and I buy as much as I can afford. This process has never let me down. It also led me to these albums, released in the 2010s but compiled from recordings made in the 1960s. Both contained fingerpicked, acoustic Delta blues. As expected from his title, Pinson works a lot of gospel in his songs. If you can’t make it to church (or don’t want to go) put this on instead.

Prince – Art Official Age (2014) It is lazy critical shorthand to say a given new album is an artist’s best since his or her most recent critical masterpiece. The new album usually doesn’t measure up and music fans end up with piles of reviews where each subsequent release is hailed as a return to form and compared to the same previous classic.

So let me try it now. Art Official Age is Prince’s best release since the Love Symbol album. The funk workouts are on par with the best jams on Musicology and 3121 but what gives Art Official Age the nod is “Funknroll” a track that combines soul, funk, rock and electro to surpass its title and give Prince his best dance track since “P Control.”

See how easy that is?

If you are curious about any of Prince’s post-heyday releases and feel overwhelmed by the number of albums he put out across the last 20-or-so years of his life, Art Official Age is a solid place to start.

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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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By Joel Francis

Our trawl through my world of vinyl continues.

Various Artists – Stroke It Noel: Big Star’s Third in Concert (2017) To butcher the cliché, probably not everyone who bought a Big Star album back in the ‘70s started a band, but it’s a fair bet that at least one person from most of your favorite bands did (unless you are super into, say, Norwegian death metal, in which case, thank you for branching out and reading this blog).

It’s been ten years to the month since Big Star’s frontman Alex Chilton died on the eve of his celebration at South by Southwest. The impromptu tribute that emerged from that tragedy morphed into a series of concerts around the world celebrating Big Star’s troubling third album. It’s wonderful to hear members of Wilco, R.E.M., Yo La Tengo, the Posies, Semisonic, the dbs and more pass the mic and hike through these songs. But the live reproductions are so faithful they miss the fragile, alluring qualities that made the original studio versions that almost seemed to disintegrate before coalescing into beauty – if they made it that far. So yeah, I dig this, but hearing R.E.M.’s Mike Mills bounce joyfully through “Jesus Christ” or Django Haskins struggle with “Holocaust” doesn’t make me a bigger Big Star fan. It just makes me glad that the people I’m into have such immaculate taste.

Robert Fripp – Exposure (1979) I have a great deal of respect for King Crimson, Robert Fripp’s groundbreaking progressive rock ensemble, but to my heathen ears their music is like listening to calculus. I can get behind Exposure, though. You can almost hear Fripp smirking as he takes the listener from wordless, off-kilter a capella harmonies to an endlessly ringing phone and then a boogie woogie pastiche – all in about a minute. It’s almost like Fripp is daring us to meet us where he is, then abruptly changing course and challenging us to follow him over there. This is also an apt description of his entire career. Listening to Exposure is like playing tag. You never stay in one place and may find yourself out of breath at times with the quarry just out of reach, but it’s always fun to play. Special mention must be made of the definitive version of “Here Comes the Flood” with Peter Gabriel on vocals.

Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear – Skeleton Crew (2015) This mother-son duo was poised to be the next big thing to break out of the Kansas City music scene when this debut album came out. They appeared on one of the last episodes of The Late Show with David Letterman, the Today show, Later with Jools Holland and played Bonnaroo and the Newport Folk Festival. Things have been quiet since then – only one EP in 2018 – but these laid-back, folk blues romps are still a fun spin.

Kendrick Lamar – Damn. (2017) Damn. was my favorite album the year it came out and it remains a compelling listen today. The fact that I can say this despite a concert that nearly left me in tears is a testament to its strength. When the Damn. tour announced a date at the Sprint Center, I quickly jumped on tickets. Not wanting to take out a second mortgage, my friends and I got seats in the upper level, extreme stage right. The sound was fine for the opening acts, but when Lamar took the stage it was like the sound blew out in the speakers directed at our section. You know it sounds you’re just inside the doors, waiting to get in and the show starts without you? All bass with just a hint of vocals? That’s how it sounded inside the arena. Some ushers kindly moved us to another section where the sound was slightly better, but the spell had been broken and the show was a bust. All this and I still can’t wait to hear what Lamar does next.

Rush – Power Windows (1985) I know everyone loves the hard, sci-fi prog of Rush’s late-‘70s peak, but I am strongly partial to their synth-heavy early ‘80s material. This mostly boils down to the fact that during high school I played the band’s 1989 live album A Show of Hands so often I thought the laser would bore right through the CD. So you can have your “Cygnus X-1” and “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” and I’ll stick with “Marathon” and “Manhattan Project,” thank you very much.

Husker Du – Everything Falls Apart (1982) Playing this record (included in the Numero Group’s essential early-days collection Savage Young Du) is like flying down the interstate on a Japanese motorcycle without a helmet. Insects slap your face and the wind stings your eyes as gravity forces you closer to the ground. Danger is imminent, but you twist your wrist and accelerate even more. Stopping is not an option. Oh, and there’s an entire side of bonus tracks.

Johnny Cash – Mean as Hell! (1966) Mean as Hell! is the single platter version of Johnny Cash’s double-record concept album Sings the Ballads of the True West. I think I got this at a garage sale, because who can resist an album with this title (with mandatory exclamation point) where a gaunt, drugged out Cash is dressed like a cowboy, holding a gun? The music isn’t as exceptional as the cover. The spoken-word bits are a little too somber. Cash sounds like a Southern preacher crossed with a National Geographic narrator on the title track and the studio version of “25 Minutes to Go” is nowhere near as fun as the live version at Folsom Prison. Despite these shortcomings, I’ll still put on my spurs for the ballads: “I Ride an Old Paint,” “Sweet Betsy from Pike” and album closer “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.”

Frank Black – Teenager of the Year (1994) No one liked this album when it came out. It didn’t sound like the Pixies, wasn’t as radio-ready as the Breeders and there was a lot of lingering animosity over how Frank Black ended the beloved Pixies. I didn’t know any of this at the time, however, because I was too busy listening to A Show of Hands. Coming to this album several years later, all I heard were nearly two dozen bright blasts of Black’s songwriting at its most accessible. Nurse a grudge all you want. I’ll be right over hear blasting “Freedom Rock” loud enough to drown out your whining.

Brian Eno – Reflection (2016) I don’t know enough about ambient music to tell you the difference between this album and Lux or the longer-form pieces on the Music for Installations collection. I can tell you that when it gets to the point in the day when I need some Eno, Reflection (and Lux) always comforts me. I also don’t think I have to get up to turn the record over as often with Lux, so there’s one difference.

Bruce Springsteen – The Wild, The Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle (1973) This is one of my absolute favorite Springsteen albums because it’s the sound of him fumbling through different sounds trying to figure out what he wants to be. It all clicked into place with Born to Run, his next album. The guitars at the beginning of “Sandy” sound like the Allman Brothers Band before the accordion whisks in foreshadowing the opening section of Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” Where else can you hear Springsteen rocking with a clavinet over a Doobie Brothers guitar line but on “The E Street Shuffle”?

The picture of the band is especially priceless. Half the guys have their shirts unbuttoned all the way, only a couple are wearing shoes and Springsteen is rocking a tank top and blue jeans. They look like a group that would get uncomfortably close and overly friendly with a stranger, ask to bum a cigarette and then inquire if he or she liked to par-tay.

Wild and Innocent is also the only time multi-instrumentals David Sancious appeared as Springsteen’s main musical foil. Sancious left to form his own band shortly after this album came out and went on to work with Stanley Clarke, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Eric Clapton and many others.

Lee Hazlewood – The LHI Years: Singles, Nudes and Backsides (compilation) If you’ve heard “These Boots,” then you’ve heard a Lee Hazlewood production. This collection doesn’t contain any of Hazlewood’s work with the Chairman of the Board’s daughter – which is good enough to warrant its own anthology – but it does contain duets with Ann-Margret and Suzi Jane Hokom and solo cuts that sound like cowboy songs in Cinemascope. Drag Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound to the wild west and your getting close.

R.L. Burnside – Too Bad Jim (1994)

T-Model Ford – The Ladies Man (2010) I saw T-Model Ford one time, right around the time The Ladies Man came out, a couple years before his death. The venue, Davey’s Uptown Rambler’s Club, or just Davey’s, was about as close as you could get to a juke joint in Kansas City. Split across two storefronts, the bar was on the left side, where you’d traditionally enter. The area with music was on the right side of the wall. If a performer moved too far stage right he or she was liable to bump into a door leading out to the street. That would be bad. Despite these shortcomings, the sight lines were decent, the drinks were cheap and the sound was usually OK. I mention all this because Davey’s, a century-old Kansas City institution, was gutted by a fire just a couple days ago. Everyone reminiscing online about the great times they had at the venue made me reach for this album.

R.L. Burnside’s blues were cut from the same primitive cloth as Ford’s. I don’t know if Burnside ever played at Davey’s but I’m sure he would have been welcomed and would have liked it. The good news is that the Markowitz family, who have run Davey’s since the 1950s, plan to rebuilt the space.

Loose Fur – self-titled (2003) Recorded before Wilco’s career-defining Yankee Hotel Foxtrot but released afterward, Loose Fur is the sound of Jeff Tweedy shaking off the weight of Wilco and getting acquainted with two new collaborators. Opening track “Laminated Cat” is one of my favorite Tweedy compositions. It’s more than seven minutes here, but Wilco frequently tear it down onstage like a Sonic Youth number and stretch it even longer. Jim O’Rourke’s “Elegant Transaction” provides a more relaxed counterpoint and while the album doesn’t get that relaxed again until the closing number, “Chinese Apple,” the opening pair frame the album as a balancing act between tension, experimental noise and release.

Benny Carter – Further Definitions (1961) Impulse Records are frequently viewed as the playhouse for avant-garde jazz workouts by saxophonists John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Yusef Lateef and Sonny Rollins. Further Definitions is proof that Impulse wasn’t so one-dimensional (at least in the early years). Pre-war legends Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins push each other to new heights in the confines of this small group anchored by Coltrane’s rhythm section. The result is an album that jazz fans can appreciate for its sophistication and intricacy but your mom can hum along with. A win for everyone.

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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 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.

Keep reading:

Review: Farm Aid

Review: Alejandro Escovedo

Review: Cross Canadian Ragweed

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(Above: Alejandro Escovedo soundchecks “Lucky Day” during a recent stop at Knuckleheads in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

In a career that spans four decades, Alejandro Escovedo has worked with Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Mickey Raphael, Ian Hunter, Whiskeytown, a string quartet and a host of other talents in his own ensembles. On Thursday night at 1911 Main he performed with an octet of Kansas City’s finest musicians. The result sounded as strong and invigorating as any of Escovedo’s high-profile collaborations.

There wasn’t much room to get acquainted in the opening number, “This Bed Is Getting Crowded.” Far from intimidated, the ad-hoc band threw plenty of muscle into the hard-driving number from Escovedo’s latest album. The smiles exchanged across the stage confirmed what the fans in the comfortably crowded venue suspected: this was going to be a show to remember.Throughout the nearly two-hour set, Escovedo chatted casually between songs, sharing stories about the songs, recalling past gigs and friends in Kansas City — particularly his numerous shows at Davey’s Uptown Rambler’s Club — and generally having a good time. In a lot of ways, the performance felt more like a night out with friends than a capital-P Performance.

High points included the beautiful back-to-back ballads “Five Hearts Breaking” and “Swallows of San Juan” — both of which featured nice steel guitar playing from Mike Stover — and the joyous “Always a Friend.” Later in the night the band smoothly slid from the smoldering “Everybody Loves Me” into the intimate “Gravity/Falling Down Again,” completely and effortlessly transforming the emotion of the room.

Friend and Midwestern Musical Co. owner Matt Kessler got numerous shout-outs for allowing the band to rehearse in his space, being a good friend and for turning 50 at midnight. His birthday present was being allowed to strap on a guitar and sit in with the band for the party-inducing “Castanets” and encore set.

The band, dubbed the Cody Wyoming Deal, was led by Wyoming on guitar and backing vocals, and also included guitarists Stover and Christopher Meck, Erik Voeks on bass and backing vocals, drummer Paul Andrews. Abigail Henderson, Lauren Krum and Katie Gilchrist also contributed backing vocals.

Setlist: This Bed Is Getting Crowded, Crooked Frame, Real As An Animal, Rosalyn, Five Heart Beating, Swallows of San Juan, Always a Friend, Wave Goodbye, Tender Heart, I Don’t Need You, Down in the Bowery, Sister Lost Soul, Pissed Off 2 a.m., Everybody Loves Me > Gravity/Falling Down Again, Castanets. Encore: Velvet Guitar, Shine a Light (Rolling Stones cover).

Keep reading:

Review: Alejandro Escovedo (2010)

Review: Wakarusa Music Festival (2005)

Review: Los Lobos (2011)

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(Above: Titus Andronicus deliver “A More Perfect Union.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

It’s clear that Patrick Stickles is a smart guy. His band Titus Andronicus is named after one of Shakespeare’s more obscure plays and his lyrics are littered with sly allusions to American history and rock heroes like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.

Despite the pretentious song titles (check the setlist) and English-major critiques (“This next song is about the narrator’s quest for internal validation,“ Stickles announced at one point), many of the band’s songs deal with self-doubt, alienation, insecurity and other forms of social and emotional uncertainty that have served countless other bands so well for so long.TitusAndronicusWhen Stickles led crowd in singing “you will always be a loser” or “the enemy is everywhere” it gave off similar vibe to when Weezer declared “In the garage/no one hears me sing this song or Morrissey and the Smiths wondered “In my life/why do I give time/to people who don’t care if I live or die?”Bonded in isolation, a full but not crowded Riot Room crowd reveled in the indie punk band’s 90-minute set on Friday night. The quintet charged out of the gate with the driving “A More Perfect Union,” also opening track on their most recent, excellent album, “The Monitor.” Stickle doesn’t have a big singing range and his lyrics are so dense it’s often difficult to discern what he’s saying/screaming over the band, but he always keeps the sound churning.

The set stalled a couple times because of equipment problems, but those interruptions couldn’t stall the night. Top moments included the emotional tour de force “Battle of Hampton Roads,” which lead into the mostly instrumental “Titus Andronicus Forever.”

One of the few indie bands that can boast a trio of guitars, “Forever” found the middle ground between Boston and Sonic Youth. As guitarists Amy Klein and David Robbins wailed in harmony, Stickle and the rhythm section reveled in cacophony.

Klein was the night’s unsung hero. Her boundless energy infected the entire room. Most of the night it looked as if she was playing guitar on a trampoline. The only time she wasn’t bouncing around was when she switched to violin. Her lovely solo and arrangement on “Four Score” served as a nice counterpoint to Stickles’ grievances.

At times Stickle seemed to prattle on a bit much between numbers -– especially in the second half of the set –- but when the band kicked in the world was a perfect place, at least until the song ended.

Setlist: A More Perfect Union; Richard II; My Time Outside the Womb; New Song; Upon Viewing Brueghel’s ‘Landscape With the Fall of Icarus’; Fear and Loathing in Mahwah; No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future; Titus Andronicus; To Old Friends and New; Battle of Hampton Roads > Titus Andronicus Forever; Four Score and Seven.

Keep reading:

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(Above: Jay-Z takes fans behind the scenes for the making of  the cover for his 2009 release “The Blueprint 3.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

There is no shortage of books on album artwork. Pick a decade, genre or label and you’ll likely have several volumes to choose among. Johnny Morgan and Ben Wardle make an impressive entry into this crowded field with their book “The Art of the LP: Classic Album Covers 1955-1995.”

While some of the album covers are inevitably familiar – Santana’s “Abraxas,” Nirvana’s “Nevermind”  – the grouping sets this volume apart. Albums are arranged in ten categories ranging from sex, drugs and rock and roll to ego, drugs, politics and death.

artofLPwebIt’s fascinating to watch the evolution of styles and boundaries. In the 1950s, for example, just showing a black man’s face with a red tint as on Sonny Rollins’ “A Night at the ‘Village Vanguard’ was enough to shock a racially uneasy country in the middle of the red scare. Barely over a decade later, “black power” was in full force on covers such as Miles Davis’ “On the Corner” and Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove.” More subtle comments on race and politics gave way to confrontational styles embraced in succession by reggae, punk and hip hop.

Especially interesting are the two-page spreads, like the one juxtaposing the use of the American flag on Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 release “There’s A Riot Going On,” Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 “Born in the U.S.A.” and the Black Crowes’ 1993 album “Amorica.” Stone alters the flag’s stars to make it a statement against the Vietnam War, while the backdrop to Springsteen’s anti-Vietnam statement is seen as patriotic. The Black Crowes chose an image from Hustler of a woman in a flag patterned bikini. The authors note that the Crowes statement wouldn’t have been unusual in the free love era of the ‘60s, but needed the relaxed censorship of the ‘90s to gain mainstream circulation.

Arranging the albums so they comment and reflect on each other, not only reinforces the themes, but adds a deeper appreciation of the work. Students of art will undoubtedly relish this experience, but for the rest of us Morgan and Wardle have added a solid block of text for each work. This paragraph not only provides the context of the time and artists, but explains what the artist may have been trying to accomplish.

This text is especially fun on the disastrous covers marked with an exclamation point.  The authors clearly have a special place in their hearts for the Scorpions. No less than three of the ‘80s German metal outfit’s covers are denoted. Reaching a “Spinal Tap” moment, they muse “Would the Scorpions ever learn the difference between sexy and sexist? Of course not.”

Ending just before the peak of the CD era, Morgan and Wardle give their subjects the largest canvass possible. The oversized pages allow for half-size reproductions. Music fans used to viewing tiny CD booklets will be amazed at the details that spring from the page. Fans accustomed to vinyl sleeves won’t miss much. Gatefold covers or albums that answer the cover artwork on the back are also given full exhibition. The handsome hardbound book is housed in a red plastic slipcase.

“The Art of the LP” is a visual jukebox that will entertain and inspire music fans and artists alike. Unless your coffee table is already loaded with similar books, I suggest making room for this one.

Keep reading:

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light

Review: “Neil Young – Long May You Run: The Illustrated History”

Review: “The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing”

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(Above: Arlo Guthrie pays tribute to his father as their friend Pete Seeger aids in a performance of “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Illegal immigration is a hot-button topic in the current political landscape, but it is hardly a new issue. In January, 1948, a plane crashed carrying 28 migrant farmers being deported by the U.S. government. All 32 passengers were killed in this tragedy, but when newspapers and radio stations reported the incident they only mentioned the names of the pilot, co-pilot, stewardess and guard. The workers were described only as “deportees.”

This incensed Woody Guthrie, who felt the workers were just as human as the other victims. Thus inspired, he wrote a poem expressing the injustice of the situation. Since the workers’ names were not known – 60 years later, 12 of the victims are still unknown – he made up names.

Ten years later, Guthrie had been hospitalized at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital for what would later be diagnosed as Huntington’s disease. Although Guthrie was very much out of the public eye, learning his music became a rite of passage for the musicians in the burgeoning folk revival. Schoolteacher Martin Hoffman was inspired by Guthrie’s “Deportee” poem and set the words to music. The song was quickly passed around the folk community and Guthrie’s friend Pete Seeger added it to his repertoire.

Guthrie’s lyrics not only pay respect to the departed workers, but question the system that seduces workers to leave their families and risk their lives to find unsecured work under questionable conditions. In addition to the 28 workers who died in the plane crash, Guthrie jumps to first person and pays tribute to the other workers who either died on the job in America or perished trying to reach a better life.

“We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died ‘neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same. “

After restoring humanity to the anonymous deportees and chronicling the plights of their families and countrymen, Guthrie delivers some damning questions in the final verse.

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except “deportees”?

In the 2004 book “Reefer Madness,” author Eric Schlosser raises many of the same questions with his essay “In the Strawberry Fields.” Drawing on firsthand accounts, Schlosser describes the conditions of the illegal farmers in the California strawberry fields. The workers’ living conditions and treatment are amount to slavery in all but name, he argues. Schlosser’s questions, like Guthrie’s, remain unanswered.

“Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” has been covered so often that Guthrie biographer Joe Klein declared it the “last great song” Guthrie wrote. Artists who have recorded their vision of the song, either in tribute, in protest or both, include Pete Seeger, Guthrie’s son Arlo Guthrie, the Byrds, Bruce Springsteen, the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, the country super group the Highwaymen, Peter, Paul and Mary, Concrete Blonde, Nanci Griffith, the Los Lobos side group Los Super Seven, Old Crow Medicine Show and Billy Bragg.

Keep reading:

Bob Dylan – “Workingman’s Blues No. 2”

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