Social Distancing Spins – Day 53

By Joel Francis

Insurgence DC – Broken in the Theater of the Absurd (2019) Insurgence DC formed in the late ‘80s, but Broken in the Theater of the Absurd is just their third album, arriving 19 years after their previous release. The Washington D.C.-based punk trio has plenty to say about the corruption and incompetence they see around their hometown. Reading the lyrics printed across the back of the album, one could be forgiven for thinking she was looking at a Billy Bragg broadside. What keeps songs like “Poison Profits” and “Third Party Opinions” from being op-ed pity parties is a well-seasoned band that plays well off each other and knows how vary textures and arrangements to keep the music fresh. The aggressive songs are tempered by flourishes of avant noise (think Sonic Youth), post-punk moodiness and the gleeful ska of “Pick Pocket Pirates.” Fans of the Dischord label and anyone P.O.ed by the current political landscape will find a lot to like in the Theater of the Absurd.

Miles Davis – In a Silent Way (1969) I shudder to think how Miles Davis would have responded to the age of Twitter. Davis has been dead for nearly 30 years and audiences are still trying to catch up to what he was doing. The period when In a Silent Way came out demonstrates Davis’ restlessness and ambition. Just a year earlier, Davis disbanded his second quintet, one of the most incredible ensembles in music history. Three members of that quintet appear on In a Silent Way, but are used in completely different ways and surrounded by a host of other musicians. I’m having trouble coming up with a contemporary corollary for the sounds here. The last couple Davis quintet albums hinted at this direction, but In a Silent Way’s music still sounds surprising and fresh more than half a century later.

Neither rock, nor jazz (and not fusion), the closest touchstone to the music on In a Silent Way might be a psychedelic, improvised version of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp tried to accomplish both together and on their own in the mid 1970s. In fact, John McLaughlin’s electric guitar that opens the second side on “In a Silent Way/It’s About that Time” sounds like what Daniel Lanois would play with Eno in the 1980s. Davis had long moved on by that point, of course. He jerked even more heads by releasing Bitches Brew, another masterpiece, the following year. The vast expanse of the universe is barely enough to contain all of Davis’ ideas. I’m glad he never had to face myopic imbeciles limited to 280 characters.

Alex Chilton – Songs from Robin Hood Lane (compilation) What is it about the Great American Songbook of the 1930s to ‘50s that compels repeated interpretations? Late in his recording career Alex Chilton drew from this well for two solid albums. The output bears absolutely no resemblance to the power pop that Chilton created with Big Star or the blue-eyed soul he brought to the Box Tops. While no one would confuse him with Grant Green, the albums do reveal Chilton has decent jazz guitar chops. Chilton’s phrasing and vocal delivery also depict him as someone completely at home in this style of music. The title of this collection holds the key to Chilton’s comfort with these jazz standards. Robin Hood Lane was the name of the suburban Memphis street where Chilton grew up hearing his mom play these classic songs endlessly. Come to this collection not expecting “September Gurls” or “Cry Like a Baby,” but with an open mind to hear another facet from a criminally neglected (by mainstream society and himself) artist.

Eddie Hazel – Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs (1977) Parliament-Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel left his stamp on many P-Funk classics (dig “Maggot Brain” as Exhibit A) but this was the only solo album released in his lifetime. Solo is a relative term here. Bassman Bootsy Collins co-wrote three of the songs here and keyboard legend Bernie Worrell is credited on two. Those two, plus the Brides of Funkenstein and a host of other P-Funk players all appear, but the album really does belong to Hazel. He transforms “California Dreamin’” into a slow jam and turns the Beatles “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” into an acid-drenched guitar workout. The original songs fit well into the P-Funk songbook, but Hazel’s playing is remains prominent throughout. Although Hazel continued to sporadically appear on P-Funk releases after this album dropped, he was never as prominent as before. Thankfully back in print, Game is essential not only for P-Funk fans, but anyone who wondered what Jimi Hendrix or Ernie Isley might have sounded like fronting a funk band.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Hard Promises (1981) Nearly 40 years ago, when Hard Promises came out, MCA records wanted to hike the price to $9.98. Today, you can down the album on iTunes for $9.99. Inflation, huh? Petty and the boys refused to be the reason their label nicked fans an extra buck and Hard Promises eventually came out at the standard price of $8.98. Regardless of how much you paid, the music here is worth the investment. The songwriting on Hard Promises is every bit as good as Damn the Torpedoes, the band’s previous album, but doesn’t suffer from the same overexposure. The album starts with the classic “The Waiting” before leading into “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me),” the album’s second single. The remaining eight songs are all album cuts, but still beloved to hardcore Petty fans. Stevie Nicks duets on the gorgeous “Insider,” the Heartbreakers roar on “A Thing About You” and the album ends with another delicate ballad, “You Can Still Change Your Mind.” In between we get the slinky “Nightwatchman” and “The Criminal Mind,” which opens with a slide guitar part that sounds like a country version of the riff from “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”

Heartbreakers bass player Ron Blair left after this album and didn’t return until 20 years later. Of the four original-lineup Heartbreakers albums, Hard Promises is easily my favorite. Heck, it might be my favorite Petty album pre-Full Moon Fever. Either way, all American rock fans need this album.

The Roots – Game Theory (2006) The Philadelphia natives that comprise The Roots are often labelled the best band in hip hop, an unsubtle jab at other groups that don’t play traditional instruments. Twenty-seven years after their debut album, I think it’s past time to drop the sobriquet and call them what they are: One of the best bands ever. Full stop. After striving (and compromising) for mainstream success on their previous album, The Roots went all-in on a darker, stripped down sound for Game Theory. Even though they weren’t aiming for the charts, I find myself humming the hooks in these songs for days afterward. Named after a mathematical model for decision making, Game Theory stares at big-picture topics like police brutality, drug addiction, poverty and dishonest media outlets. MC Black Thought’s isn’t afraid to drop heavy lyrics, but his delivery swings enough that you wind up tapping your foot as you nod your head. “Clock With No Hands” isn’t just a thought-provoking (no pun intended) look at addiction, but features a beautiful original (read: non-sampled) melody. In fact, one of the few samples on the album comes when Thom Yorke’s voice floats in and out of “Atonement.”

I saw The Roots perform with a full horn section on back-to-back nights of the Game Theory tour and they are among the best shows I’ve ever seen. Not in hip hop, but among everyone. Full stop.

Various Artists – Lows in the Mid-Sixties: Vol. 54: Kosmic City Part 2 (compilation) Between 1967 and 1973, Cavern Studios in eastern Kansas City, Mo., were a hotbed of recording activity. Local groups could venture into the subterranean limestone cave where the studio was located and, for the right amount of money, walk out with a record. The best of the rock sides were compiled on Numero’s exquisite collection Local Customs: Cavern Sounds, shown back on Day 12. Lows in the Mid-Sixties is a companion to that release, rounding up 14 covers of well-known hits by bands you’ve never heard. It is solid garage rock with a touch of psychedelia sprinkled across for good measure. One of my favorites is Dearly Beloved’s version of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” Dearly Beloved have clearly studied Van Morrison and Them’s cover, but removed the shimmering signature guitar line (later sampled by Beck on “Jack Ass”). The music here is far from essential and I’m not sure how interesting it might be to an audience beyond KC’s metropolitan area, but it proves the local music scene was humming around the Age of Aquarius.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 47

By Joel Francis

Stay strong and stay safe, my friends.

Johnny Cash – American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002) The final Johnny Cash album released in Johnny Cash’s lifetime is appropriately fixated on mortality. Then again, Cash has been singing about death since he shot a man in Reno to watch him die. The album works more often than it doesn’t. The title song is one of my favorite Cash compositions, funneling the Book of Revelations through a strummy Martin guitar. Similarly, Cash turns Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” into a gospel song. He adds a layer of guilt and gravitas to Sting’s “I Hung My Head” that is absent from the original recording. Best of all, Cash infuses a lifetime of pain and addiction into “Hurt,” completely claiming the song from Nine Inch Nails. Most of the rest ranges from fine to worse. “Tear-Stained Letter” is too jaunty and “Desperado” and “Danny Boy” are unnecessary. Cash isn’t adding anything to those well-worn tunes. Even worse, are covers of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (with Fiona Apple) and “In My Life.” Surprisingly, Cash seems lost on these songs, unsure of what to do with them. The high points more than make up for the milquetoast material – there is usually a little filler on Cash albums, but the result is the least consistent of the American releases to that point.

David Lee Roth – Eat ‘Em and Smile (1986) Diamond Dave is looking to settle scores with his solo debut. He brought in hotshot guitarist Steve Vai and bass player Billy Sheehan to generate one of the highest notes-per-second rock albums in an era that celebrated six-string excess. For better or worse, Roth can’t help being anything other than himself so even this grudge match was delivered with a broad wink and jazz hands. The key word in the album’s title is SMILE. All the songs push the fun factor to 11, but surprisingly nothing feels forced. Of course it’s all junk food, but like getting the extra butter on movie theater popcorn, sometimes you just can’t help it.

Four Tops – Second Album (1965) More often than not, especially in the 1960s, Motown albums were collections of hit singles padded with other recordings. The result was often uneven, but the album tracks on Second Album are pretty great in their own regard. No one can argue with the three Top 10 hits on the first side: “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” “It’s the Same Old Song” and “Something About You.” The second side doesn’t contain any hit singles but doesn’t suffer from it. “Darling, I Hum Our Song” has a great Levi Stubbs vocal performance (really, he’s great on everything here) in a Jackie Wilson-styled song from the period when Berry Gordy was writing hits for Wilson. “Since You’ve Been Gone” first appeared as the b-side of “Standing in the Shadows of Love.” The energy from Four Tops and the Funk Brothers on this track make me think it could have been a hit on its own. Back on the first side, “IS There Anything I Can Do” is one of the few songs on the album not to come from the pen of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. Written by Smokey Robinson and fellow Miracles Ronald White and Pete Moore, it’s not hard to imagine the Miracles performing this song. Surprisingly, as far as I know they never did. Come for the hits on Second Album but stay for the album tracks that illustrate just how special the Four Tops were.

The Damned – The Best of the Damned (compilation) It seems there are almost as many best-of collections for the Damned as there has been lineups. I picked this up at a garage sale because it has many of my favorite songs from their first three albums, back when they were more punk than goth. At some point I might expand my Damned album collection to include those early releases in their entirety, but until then this is a great overview of a tough band.

The Stooges – Fun House (1970) The hype sticker on my album proclaims “Iggy and the boys find their troglodyte groove.” I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. The music on Fun House connects on a primal level, like howling at the moon. In a strange way, it connects with me in the same way as Howlin Wolf or John Lee Hooker – straight in the gut, without any pretense. Like it is hitting the lowest rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (food, shelter, etc.) In other words, the exact opposite of a pompous album review that references Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The song “TV Eye” came from a phrase that Stooges rhythm section Scott and Ron Asheton’s sister used about men leering at her. It forces me to exceed the speed limit every time it comes on in the car. “Down in the Sleep” came to Iggy Pop in the middle of the night. He got out of bed trying to play the power chord he heard in his head, waking his wife in the process. Unlike Ziggy, Iggy didn’t play guitar. Perhaps he never found that chord.

After the opening assault, Fun House changes up a bit but remains just as gripping. Steven Mackay’s saxophone squonks across the second side like the group has just discovered fire for the first time.

This album needs to be played regularly to make sure you are still alive.

The Shins – Wincing the Night Away (2007) The third album from the Albuquerque indie rock quartet was their first release after Natalie Portman proclaimed them life-changing in the film Garden State. There was a lot riding on this release, but frontman and songwriter James Mercer wasn’t afraid to stretch the band’s sound. He sprinkles synthesizers and funk basslines among the familiar chiming guitars and la-la-la melodies. As a result, Wincing the Night Away isn’t as strong as the two Shins albums before it, but it is still very enjoyable.

Willie Nelson – Teatro (1998) Willie Nelson seems game to try just about anything. Reggae album? Sure. Duet with Kid Rock? Why not? Still, the decision to record in an old movie theater with producer Daniel Lanois was a solid nod. Nelson revisits several of his lesser-known songs from the 1960s with harmonica player Mickey Raphael and the marvelous Emmylou Harris on backing vocals. Many of the arrangements are Spanish or Mexican in spirit and give a vibe like we are lost in a marathon of Ennio Morricone films south of the border. Nelson, the other musicians and the songs thrive in this atmosphere, making this a distinctly unique album in Nelson’s vast catalog and also one of his best.

Peter Gabriel – Us (1992) It took Peter Gabriel six years to release a follow-up to his massively successful album So. That’s almost light speed, considering he’s only given us one other album of original material since then. But what an album Us is. Gabriel throws everything from bagpipes to a Russian folk group in the should-have-been-single “Come Talk to Me.” Other songs are just as overstuffed and immaculately excellent. The horn-driven “Kiss the Frog” ranks as one of the greatest extended sexual metaphors of all time. “Blood of Eden” and “Secret World” are passionately romantic. The only dud is “Steam,” aka Son of “Sledgehammer.” There is a lot to unravel in Us, but Gabriel gave his fans plenty of time to process all of it.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 18

By Joel Francis

The journey through my record collection continues.

Pet Shop Boys – Actually (1987) The Pet Shop Boys’ second album is the strongest in their still-growing catalog (Behaviour is a close second). Come for the hit singles and stick around for the album cuts, like the Kraftwerk-inspired “Shopping” and “It Couldn’t Happen Here,” the moody track based on an Ennio Morricone melody that opens the second side. Still not convinced? This is the album with the glorious Dusty Springfield duet “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” That alone makes Actually worth owning. While the other nine songs aren’t as strong (how could they?), Actually is filler-free dance/pop perfection.

Daniel Lanois – Goodbye to Language (2016) As a producer, Daniel Lanois has worked on some of my all-time favorite albums by Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young and Robbie Robertson. (We talked about his work on the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon back on Day 9.) The sound on Goodbye to Language is closer to Lanois’ ambient work with Brian Eno than his commercial endeavors. The premise is simple. Lanois’ pedal steel playing is recorded and treated by Rocco DeLuca. The result is an ethereal dream guaranteed to release stress. Put this on and let yourself go.

The Decemberists – The King is Dead (2011) I jumped on the Decemberists bandwagon with their video for “Sixteen Military Wives,” which reminded me of Rushmore. Two albums later, I feared they got lost in their own mythology for the ponderous concept album The Hazards of Love. Fortunately, I was wrong. The King is Dead is everything Hazards wasn’t: succinct, buoyant, humorous, fun. That a few songs sounded like peak-era R.E.M. (“Calamity Song,” “Down by the Water”) or Tom Petty circa Wildflowers (“Don’t Carry It All”) doesn’t help. It may be easier to play spot-the-influence with The King is Dead than on the band’s other releases, but the sound is still filtered through singer/songwriter Colin Meloy’s grad school tweed and spectacles, making it distinctly the Decemberists.

Miles Davis – My Funny Valentine (1965)

Miles Davis – Four and More (1966) Both of these albums draw from the same 1964 performance at Philharmonic Hall in New York City. The ballads went on Valentine and the uptempo numbers were relegated to Four and More. By the time Four and More was released, Miles had moved on from his modal sound and was about to reinvent jazz once again. Less progressive fans probably enjoyed this look back at the time. Pianist Herbie Hancock was only 23 and drummer Tony Williams just 18 at the time of this performance, but both play with a confidence and ambition beyond their years. These are probably the best performances of saxophone player George Coleman in Miles’ band. He tends to get overlooked between tenures of John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. The quartet lingers on the ballads, drawing out every note, particularly on the 15-minute title cut. Conversely, they blast through the chords on “So What” and “Seven Steps to Heaven” with almost careless speed.  FYI, the entire concert was finally released as originally performed on CD in 1992.

James Brown – Live at the Apollo, Volume II (1968) Five years after the first Live at the Apollo album propelled James Brown off the chitlin circuit, Brown returned to the same venue but in a different place musically. The R&B that defined the first Apollo album was giving way to funk on the sequel. Songs like a hard-driving “Kansas City” and “Think” (with Kansas City, Kan. native Marva Whitney) showed Brown’s roots, while “Cold Sweat” and “Bring It Up” point the way forward. The 11-minute version of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” is one-third as long as the original half-hour Apollo release. So the sequel isn’t as concise, but it captures the Hardest Working Man in Show Business in prime form.

Alejandro Escovedo – With These Hands (1996) Alejandro Escovedo is an undiscovered treasure. His songwriting deftly slides between different settings, from string quartet to country, Latin American to raw rock. For his third album, Escovedo enlists Willie Nelson and his harmonica player Mickey Raphael, cousin Shelia E and singer Jennifer Warnes. Despite these high-profile guests, the spotlight remains firmly on Escovedo and his masterful songs. From the moody opener of rocker “Put You Down” through “Tugboat,” a dedication to Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison that ends the record, there isn’t a bad song to be found.

Pearl Jam – Yield (1998) “Wishlist,” the next-to-last song on the first side of Yield, is my favorite Pearl Jam song. It’s simple, quiet and understated with none of the bombast of “Alive” or even “Given to Fly,” the song that precedes “Wishlist” on Yield. This album marks the first time the Seattle quintet returned to the meat-and-potatoes hard rock without any artistic detours. Although 2009’s Backspacer produced better results mining this same vein, Yield is still a good, direct hard rock album.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 11

By Joel Francis

Let the hit parade continue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Distancing Spins, Day 9

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.”

Neil Young, Santana celebrate the guitar

(Above: Santana and Nas put their spin on AC/DC’s “Back In Black” on the “George Lopez Show.” Believe it or not, this is one of the better moment’s on Santana’s new album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

It’s hard to believe it has been a ten years since “Supernatural.” Back then, Santana was just another fading Woodstock star. He has been living in the shadow of “Smooth” and “Maria Maria” ever since.

With a title like “Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time” one could be excused for thinking Santana’s latest album was a repackaging of “Oye Como Va,” “Soul Sacrifice” and the rest of the jams that made him a guitar icon. Instead we are gifted with an album much more panderous.

“Guitar Heaven” reunites Santana with label president/marketing guru Clive Davis for the first time since “Supernatural” and is the third consecutive album to follow its formula. The blueprint is simple: pair Santana’s guitar with some of the biggest pop voices of the moment in every genre. The twist this time is that every tune is a well-known cover, a great guitar classic, no less.

The result is a dozen pedestrian, uninspiring performances. None of the musicians associated with this project even pretend to muster the effort to add something new to these well-worn staples of classic rock radio stations. It’s hard to imagine anyone clamoring to hear Train’s Pat Monahan aping early Van Halen or anxiously waiting to see what Chris Daughtry could do with Def Leppeard’s “Photograph.”

Predictably, Davis invited Rob Thomas back into the fold, but this time the man who brought Santana his biggest hit is anything but smooth. The Matchbox 20 singer seems completely overwhelmed by “Sunshine of Your Love.” Joe Cocker fares better on the Jimi Hendrix staple “Little Wing,” but the performance still begs the question why anyone thought this project was necessary.

At best the outcome is merely redundant; at its worst it an embarrassment. The only inventive choices were including India.Arie and Yo-Yo Ma on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and rapper Nas trying to inject some hip hop into “Back In Black.”

Neil Young’s “Le Noise” is a true celebration of the guitar. For his 32nd album, Young worked with famed producer Daniel Lanois. Lanois’ productions are frequently criticized for their big echoy sound and stark separation of instruments. They can often sound like Lanois conformed the artists to his vision, rather than the other way around.

Although some of Lanois’ swampy trademark exists in “Le Noise,” his distinct fingerprints are absent for the most part. The reason is simple: there’s less for him to work with. All of the album’s eight tracks were cut live and feature only Young and his guitar. The result is a pastoral yet invigorating portrait of Young seated on his amp, volume cranked to 11, intimately and intently debuting his latest song cycle.

While the guitar makes all the noise, Young’s songwriting makes all the difference. Without a bed of strong material, “Le Noise” would be a curio, like “Arc,” the album-length experiment of feedback and noise Young released in 1991. These songs could just as easily been delivered acoustically. Fortunately, Young and Lanois muck them up with waves of feedback and distortion.

In the mid-‘90s, both Young and Santana were regularly releasing solid, if unremarkable albums that clearly came from the heart. Today their paths couldn’t be more different.

In movie terms, Young is the actor who with a questionable resume, but has remained unquestionably independent. Santana, on the other hand, resembles the washed-up actor willing to do anything to land one last big role.

But show-biz loves redemption stories. Let’s hope Santana has some Mickey Rourke in him.

Keep reading:

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

The Derek Trucks Band makes old-school rock new

CSNY – “Ohio”

Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello – “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

 

 

 

Lanois + Raffi = Eno

(Above: Raffi was a staple of The Daily Record’s early childhood. The oft-spun LP remains in its archives.)

By Joel Francis

Like many adolescent males in the mid-‘60s, Canadian Dan Lanois pined for a guitar. But he didn’t just want to make music, he wanted to record it, too.

Armed with an instrument and a cheap, tiny cassette recorder, Lanois and his brother Robert started recording anything they could find. They soon found manipulating the results was almost as fun as making and capturing the sounds. The siblings eventually invested in a four-track recorder and set up a small studio in the laundry room of their mother’s Ancaster, Ontario home.

The domestic facility was named MSR Studios, and the brothers advertised that for $60 they would not only record a band’s demo, but arrange, play on and compose the tracks as well. A short time after MSR Studios opened for business in the mid-‘70s, the Lanois brothers’ ad caught the eye of Egyptian immigrant Raffi Cavoukian.

Cavoukian was a veteran of Toronto’s folk circuit, but his 1975 album, “Good Luck Boy” generated little heat. Cavoukian’s mother-in-law encouraged him to write and record some songs for the children at her preschool. Aided by his wife, kindergarten teacher Debi Pike, Cavoukian recorded a tape that was so successful other schools started requesting copies.

MSR Studios was everything Cavoukian was looking for. Cheap, efficient and local it even came with its own musicians. In 1976, Cavoukian borrowed $4,000 from a bank recorded his first children’s album, “Singable Songs for the Very Young,” at the Lanois brother’s small home studio. Dan Lanois also played mandolin, recorded, mixed and engineered the album.

The easygoing, folk-flavored “Singable Songs for the Very Young” was a smash that ranked among top children’s album more than two decades after it was released.  Boosted by sessions with Cavoukian, by now going by simply Raffi, Doug McArthur, another Toronto folkie, and rock band Simply Saucer, the Lanois brothers soon had enough money to move their studio to better quarters. In 1978 they purchased a Hamilton, Ontario house on Grant Avenue, which became, naturally, Grant Avenue Studio.

Raffi was one of the first artists to use Grant Avenue Studio. By now he and Dan Lanois had collaborated on two albums and would go on to record two more together. Their body of work together comprised Raffi’s first four children’s albums. Grant Avenue also boasted sessions by singer/songwriter Ian Tyson and new wave band Martha and the Muffins.

The Muffins had just come off a commercially successful tour opening for Roxy Music, but they lost two members in the process. When the remaining quartet decided to carry on, one of the new musicians they recruited was bass player Jocelyne Lanois, sister of Dan and Robert. The Muffins got permission from Virgin to make an album with Dan Lanois with the stipulation that they operate on a miniscule budget. This was no obstacle for Lanois, and the resulting album “This is the Ice Age” generated a Top 40 Canadian single.

The band and album didn’t do much outside of the Great White North, however, and they were dropped by Virgin. The Muffin’s relationship with Lanois, however, flourished through two more albums. Their 1984 album, “Mystery Walk,” featured guest drummer Yogi Horton. Horton was a veteran of the 1981 experimental album “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” and was recommended by his boss during those sessions, Brian Eno.

Eno, of course, had cemented his legendary reputation with his work in Roxy Music and the solo albums he released in the first half of the 1970s, and his production work with Devo, David Bowie, Talking Heads and the “No New York” No Wave compliation in the second half of the decade. By the mid-‘80s, Eno and Lanois were longtime associates.

Lanois’ tape and recording manipulations first caught Eno’s attention in the late ‘70s. Although embroiled in producing the final chapter in Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” and on albums with both the Talking Heads and their bandleader David Byrne, Eno and Lanois met at Grant Avenue to experiment with sound and recording. In 1979, Eno recorded “The Plateaux of Mirror,” the second installment in his ambient series, with Harold Budd at Grant Avenue. Although they did not produce the album, “Bob and Danny Lanois” are thanked in the album credits.

In 1982, Lanois co-produced and played some on the fourth installment of Eno’s ambient series, “On Land.” The following year, Lanois received cover billing for his musical and production contributions to the “Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks.” One of the album’s tracks, “Silver Morning,” was essentially a Lanois solo performance.

When U2 asked Eno to produce their fourth album, “The Unforgettable Fire,” in 1984 Eno brought Lanois with him. The next year, Eno recommended Lanois to Peter Gabriel to help with the “Birdy” soundtrack.

Ten years after opening MSR Studios in his mother’s laundry room, Lanois was an A-list producer. He and Gabriel collaborated on several landmark albums, including “So” and “Us.” Eno and Lanois also repeatedly re-teamed with U2 for “The Joshua Tree,” portions of “Rattle and Hum,” “Achtung Baby,” “All that You Can’t Leave Behind” and the Irish quartet’s most recent album, “No Line on the Horizon.” Lanois has also worked with Emmylou Harris, the Neville Brothers, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Hothouse Flowers, Willie Nelson and released several solo albums.

“Tell Tale Signs” Sheds Light on Legend

Above: “Dreaming Of You” is one of many stand-out tracks on “Tell Tale Signs.”

By Joel Francis

If there’s one detail to take away from “Tell Tale Signs,” the eighth installment in Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series, its that “Mississippi” is as vital to his late-career renaissance as “Like A Rolling Stone” was to his electric rebirth.

The song opens both discs of the set (a third version appears on the bourgeoisie-only $130 “deluxe edition”). We first hear it as beautiful, slow folk ballad that features one of Dylan’s best vocal performances. Play this version for people who say Dylan can’t sing. It next appears as a more wirey, blues-influence tune that bears more of producer Daniel Lanois’ fingerprints.

Anyone who heard Sheryl Crow’s cover of “Mississippi” – she cut it for her “Globe Sessions” album before Dylan included it on “Love and Theft” – knows the song’s durability. It’s interesting to see Dylan add and shave layers before settling on a version suitable for release.

“Tell Tale Signs” is mainly a collection of shading and texture. With a few exceptions, hardcore Dylan fans will be familiar with all its 27 songs. What is surprising is the new contexts Dylan continually places them in.

“Most of the Time” is a gorgeous mood piece on “Oh Mercy,” but the alternate version replaces Lanois’ sheen with an acoustic guitar and places Dylan’s regret and pain at center stage. This motif is repeated across the set. Lanois produced two albums with Dylan and it’s telling that a majority of the cuts on this set draw from those sessions. Although their collaborations were critically acclaimed, Dylan and Lanois often struggled over differences in vision. These alternate versions are closer to the sound and feel that Dylan achieved alone on his ‘00s albums and could be seen as refutations of Lanois’ input.

There are only a handful of unheard songs, but what’s here is worth hearing. Lesser artists could build a career with the material Dylan discards. It’s unclear why the evocative “Dreaming of You” was left off “Time Out Of Mind,” but it is one of the brightest gems in this collection. There are two other “Time” discards – the gospel-flavored “Marching to the City” and the longing tale of lost love “Red River Shore.” “Can’t Escape You” is a sideways love song recorded in 2005, while the traditional “32-20 Blues” is an acoustic folk song from the “World Gone Wrong Sessions.”

The live cuts sprinkled throughout aren’t as illuminating, but still worthwhile. “High Water (For Charley Patton)” is angrier onstage, while an acoustic “Cocaine Blues” is a reminder of the amazing chemistry Dylan had with longtime touring guitarist Larry Campbell.

The inclusion of three previously released soundtrack songs is a bit puzzling. We’re given the superb “Cross the Green Mountain” from “Gods and Generals” and the haunting “Huck’s Tune” from “Lucky You,” but where is the Oscar-winning “Things Have Changed” from the “Wonder Boys” soundtrack? (A live version does appear on the $100 bonus disc.) Dylan’s swinging version of “Red Cadillac and Black Moustache” cut about the same time as “Love and Theft” for a Sun Records tribute would have been nice to have.

But these are minor quibbles. While this set doesn’t tell the faithful anything they don’t already know, that doesn’t mean they’re not worth hearing again in a different light.