Social Distancing Spins – Days 15-17

By Joel Francis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Blondie

(Above: Blondie perform “My Heart Will Go On” and validate the cliche: It’s the singer, not the song.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Blondie performed all four of their No. 1 hits during Tuesday’s concert at Crossroads KC, but they opened their encore set with someone else’s chart topper.

Playing with an energy that recalled their CBGB’s heyday, the sextet slammed through a surprising cover of Celine Dion’s “Titanic hit “My Heart Will Go On.” It is unsure what was more shocking: that Blondie covered Celine Dion; or that it was really, really good.

If Blondie ever get around to making another album, that cover should definitely be included. Until then, the back catalog satisfied the nearly full venue. The 80-minute set played like a greatest hits album and clocked in at about the same length.

High points included a blistering “Rapture” that went from the rap hit to punk to a blues jam and finally ended up in the band’s hip-hop update, “No Exit.” Debbie Harry’s voice isn’t as strong as it used to be, but “Maria” put to rest any questions on her strength as a singer. She nailed the big notes of the chorus and the lower register of the verses.

Drummer Clem Burke was the group’s secret weapon. Throughout the night, the founding member set the tone by opening and closing most numbers, driving the rest of the band with his powerful playing and delivering emphatic fills that always seemed to enhance the performance. His moody playing underlined the dark moodiness of the one-two of “Fade Away and Radiate” and “Screaming Skin.”

When the band stretched out on “Atomic,” Harry retreated to the shadows at the side of the stage. She may have been out of the spotlight, but it was clear with the two detours into her solo catalog that Harry was always in the driver’s seat.

Harry reclaimed center stage with the reggae sing-along of “The Tide Is High” that drew the biggest response of the night. Harry made sure the crowd stayed involved by switching from to a cover of “I’ll Take You There.” She may have transformed the Staples Singers’ hit from social anthem to come-on, but the audience still hung on every word. When the band flipped back to “Tide,” there were scores of arms waving and fingers aloft, responding to the chorus “The tide is high but I’m holding on/I’m gonna be your number one.”

Fifty minutes earlier it was the band holding one finger in the air, as the performers frantically signaled to the soundman to turn up their monitors. Opening number “Call Me” suffered from dropped coverage, with Harry’s weak vocals buried in a horrible mix that seemed to frustrate both band and audience. The sound improved during “Hanging on the Telephone,” the next number, but it took until the fourth song, “The Hardest Part,” for everything to click.

Once the sound was solved, the band rocked like a finely tuned machine. Although only half of the six musicians onstage were original members, most of the rest have been onboard since the band reunited 10 years ago.

The evening ended with three straight No. 1 hits. After the Dion cover and the disco thump of “Heart of Glass,” Blondie segued into “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” Michael Jackson moments have become the cliché of the summer, but this inspired pairing made complete musical sense and kept bodies moving.

Few of Blondie’s peers in the late ‘70s New York punk scene had as much mainstream success as Blondie, and even fewer of those acts are still going today. Although the night may have ended sooner than expected, there were few complaints with what it delivered. At this point, we’re happy to take what we can get.

Setlist: Call Me, Hanging on the Telephone, Two Times Blue, The Hardest Part, Fade Away and Radiate, Screaming Skin, Maria, Atomic, The Tide Is High/I’ll Take You There, You’re Too Hot, Rapture/jam/No Exit, One Way Or Another. Encore: My Heart Will Go On, Heart of Glass, Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough

Iggy Pop – “Preliminaires”

IggyPop-02-big

By Joel Francis

Purists of all stripes can relax: Iggy Pop’s much ballyhooed 15 studio album, “Preliminaires,” is not the jazz album Pop talked up before its release.

That said, the album’s lone foray into the genre is actually one of its best songs. Borrowing enough of Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans hot jazz sound and arrangements to earn Satchmo a partial songwriting credit, “I Want to Go to the Beach” is surprising triumph that should throw a nice curveball into dinner party playlists.

The rest of “Preliminaries,” however, is more French café than bebop bistro. Pop opens and closes the album with two spoken word pieces in French and provides two versions of “She’s the Business” – both with and without French narration – that are straight from the Serge Gainsbourg model.

Other tracks find Pop channeling late-period Leonard Cohen for “I Want to Go to the Beach,” dropping in some acoustic Delta blues for “He’s Dead/She’s Alive” and delivering another spoken word piece about how dogs are the ultimate companion based on the Michel Houellebecq novel “The Possibility of an Island.” On the gentle yet foreboding “Spanish Coast,” Pop croons in a deep baritone on what could be a lost Marianne Faithful song. There’s also a cover of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “How Insensative.”

Try as he might, Pop can’t repress his rock side for the entire album. “Nice To Be Dead” is a solid rocker that is one of the album’s best tracks and very much what one would expect from Pop. The electronic “Party Time” is to cocktail parties what “Night Clubbing” was to nights on the town.

While “Preliminaires” is a departure, it doesn’t arrive out of the blue. Pop first dabbled in jazz on a 1990 duet with Debbie Harry on Cole Porter’s “Well, Did You Evah!” He also did an entire album of jazz-tinged spoken word pieces. And although that album, “Avenue B,” was a disaster, “Preliminaires” succeeds in large part because Pop delivers each track with authority and authenticity.

While Pop’s genre hopping could be a bizarre recipe for disaster, he turns this into a strength, weaving the diverse threads together for a cohesive listen.  The resulting variance in mood and texture is another element that keeps “Preliminaires” from being as stilted and dreary as “Avenue B.” “Preliminaires” greatest strength, though, might simply be that Pop knows when to quit. Most songs hover between two and three minutes and the 12-track affair is over in a brief 36 minutes.

“Preliminaries” will not bump “Lust for Life” or “The Passenger” off the pedestal atop Pop’s catalog and likely won’t even stand as a major entry in his canon, but curious fans interested in what the Wild One can do when stripped of his raw power should find something to like.