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.