norah jones, booker t. jones, post malone album covers

Random record reviews: Norah Jones, Post Malone, Booker T.

By Joel Francis

Norah Jones – Pick Me Up Off the Floor

Although Norah Jones’ second album in as many years shares many similarities with last year’s Begin Again, Pick Me Up Off the Floor hangs together better as a cohesive album.

Working once again with a revolving cast of musicians, Jones maintains a consistent mood and tempo throughout the album. The joy in these performances lie in their subtleties, like the pedal steel guitar on “Heartbroken, Day After,” soulful B3 organ on “Flame Twin” or horns on the gospel song “To Live.” It’s not hard to get lost in the interplay between drummer Brian Blade and upright bass player Chris Thomas on “Hurts to Be Alone.”

Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s idiosyncratic guitar playing and unique phrasing are evident throughout “I’m Alive,” one of the best songs on the album. Ultimately, however, these nuances aren’t distinct enough to win Jones any new fans. The mid-tempo pop/jazz singer may need to be picked up off the floor, but only the most devoted fans will be swept off their feet.

Post Malone – Hollywood’s Bleeding

For an established pop artist, Post Malone’s third album takes a while before the hooks arrive. There are a few flourishes of energy – DaBaby’s rap on “Enemies,” the bridge on “Allergic” – before “A Thousand Bad Times,” the fifth song, finally delivers something to sing along to.

From there, Hollywood’s Bleeding starts building momentum. “Circles” is perfect for a night at the club (whenever that can be a thing again), while Future and Halsey steal the spotlight on “Die for Me.” Ozzy Osborne and Travis Scott take over on the arena rock anthem “Take What You Want.” In danger of disappearing on his own album, Malone grabs center stage on “I’m Gonna Be” and “Staring at the Sun” (with SZA). This sets up the massive hit “Sunflower,” which appeared in the animated Spider-Man film.

At 17 tracks and 51 minutes, Hollywood’s Bleeding could benefit from some editing, but the genre mashup, something-for-everyone approach winds up delivering plenty of fun.

Booker T. Jones – Note by Note

As leader of Booker T. and the MGs, Booker T. Jones helped define the sound of the Stax label and southern soul. Trust me, you’ve heard him play even if you don’t recognize the name. Now Jones is back with his first album since 2013 revisiting the songs and music that built his reputation.

Note by Note jumps out of the speakers with “Cause I Love You,” a duet between Evvie McKinney and Joshua Ledet. From there, Jones takes the mic for the swampy blues “Born Under a Bad Sign” before turning the singing over to Ayanna Irish on the playful “B-A-B-Y.”

Regardless of the style or the singer, Jones’ distinctive B3 organ holds the performances together. His talent is especially evident on seemingly disparate performances of the gospel number “Precious Lord” and Chuck Berry’s “Havana Moon” (delivered with a distinct south-of-the-border feel).

Two new songs close out the album, but by then the deal has long been sealed. Fans of the Colemine and Daptone labels will find a lot to love here, but any fan of sweet soul music should celebrate Note by Note.

Keep reading:

Review – Booker T.

Another Side of Norah Jones

“Stax Does the Beatles”

Social Distancing Spins – Day 32

By Joel Francis

Today’s entry puts us at 200 albums in the quarantined exploration of my record collection. Don’t worry, there is still more than enough to keep us busy until well after a COVID-19 vaccine is discovered and dispersed.

Wilco – Sky Blue Sky (2007) It took a while for Sky Blue Sky to grow on me. I admit I was pretty underwhelmed at first. I had seen Wilco several times in support of their previous album and was expecting something raw and bleeding based on those shows. What I got was considerably more mellow and gentle. Once I got past my expectations, I was able to appreciate what Wilco had crafted, rather than what I thought they should have done. Guess who had the better vision.

Many of Sky Blue Sky’s finest moments have become concert favorites. “Impossible Germany” is a great showcase for guitarist Nels Cline’s formidable talents, while “Shake It Off” provides an opportunity for the band to show off their tight-but-loose jam chops. My favorite song is “Hate It Here,” a deceptively cheery song about a person learning to live without a longtime partner. The Wilco catalog is stocked with great albums, but Sky Blue Sky makes a sleeper case for being one of the best of the bunch.

Scott H. Biram – The Bad Testament (2017) Scott H. Biram is like hearing a preacher who got caught doing something dirty and decided to go whole hog down the dark path. A one-man band, Biram sits at the crossroads of folk, blues and country with plenty of hellfire and brimstone to go around. On his sixth long-player, Biram moves between acoustic and electric guitars and mixes in snippets of televangelists between tracks. If you’ve ever succumbed mightily to temptation and prayed just as hard for salvation, you know where Biram is coming from. Buckle your hat and put this on.

George Harrison – Thirty-Three and 1/3 (1978) The fifth album from the Quiet Beatle after the split is a lukewarm affair. The first song, “Woman Don’t You Cry for Me,” opens with a popping bass funk riff that always makes me take a second look at the label and make sure this is actually a George Harrison album. Unfortunately, the second cut is limp, failing to build any momentum from “Woman.” This is the album’s biggest problem. There are some good songs, but they are sunk around listless tracks. The strongest run comes on the second side with the run of “True Love,” “Pure Smokey” and “Crackerbox Palace.” If you put these songs with the three good songs from the first side you’d have a solid EP. That’s six out of ten good songs, a fantastic batting average for baseball but far too low for a Beatle.

Phosphorescent –  Muchacho (2013)

The Lone Bellow – Half Moon Light (2020) The Lone Bellow have always sounded more southern than their Brooklyn roots imply. For their fourth album the trio let more of the indie rock sound from their native borough creep into the mix. Likewise, Phosphorescent frontman and Huntsville, Ala. native has always had more than a little Williamsburg hipster in his brand of country music. Although Half Moon Light and Muchacho were recorded several years apart, they share a complementary vibe and kinship.

The best moments on Muchacho include the triumphant “A Charm/A Blade” and “The Quotidian Beasts,” which sounds like Calexico produced by Daniel Lanois. “Song for Zula” has been all over the place, but I like it best as the music over the credits for the very underappreciated indie romance film “The Spectacular Now.”

Half Moon Light is a similarly sturdy album. Among the stand-out tracks here are “Friends,” the horns and harmony assisted “I Can Feel You Dancing” and the tender “Dust Settles.” If you ever wondered what David Gray might sound like with a touch more country in his repertoire, these albums are for you.

The Flaming Lips – 7 Skies H3 (2011) A while back, the Flaming Lips, Oklahoma City’s finest psychedelic rock export, recorded a 24-hour song, slipped it on a thumb drive and stuck them a real human skull. 7 Skies H3 is a one-hour distillation of the best moments from that experiment. You know, in case you didn’t want to spend a day of your life listening to the full song or want a human skull. (Or maybe a second one. If you already own two, you are likely a voodoo priest. Would a third really matter at this point?)

As expected the results aren’t typical three-minute singles. All the tracks are either instrumental or feature heavily processed vocals. I wouldn’t play it for a backyard cook-out, but as a psychedelic exercise, it is quite good. My favorite moments include “Battling Voices from Beyond,” an aggressive track propelled by tympani and the closing ethereal two-for of the title track and “Can’t Let Go,” the closest thing to a traditional song on the album.

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.”

Social Distancing Spins, Day 3

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.

Social Distancing Spins, Day 1

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.

Review: Wilco returns to the Crossroads (2009)

(Above: Jeff Tweedy goads the crowd then gives them a “Sonny Feeling.”)

By Joel Francis

Wilco had been onstage for nearly two hours Tuesday night when they headed back out for their second encore. Despite a long night and a chilly temperature somewhere in the 40s, they unloaded both barrels with the energetic one-two of “Monday” and “Outtasite (Outta Mind).”

For those few moments, the show touched the same stratosphere the band maintained throughout their for-the-ages performance almost two years ago to the day at Crossroads in 2007. The force and power bubbling under the surface for most of the night finally emerged and everyone – band and sold-out crowd alike – soaked it in.

The band announced its presence with “Wilco (The Song)” which found guitarist Nels Cline violently thrashing his guitar in front of his speaker to induce feedback. Although each song in the return engagement to Crossroads was solid, they all hit the same emotional plane without generating much drama. The main set was very, very good, but very reliable, without any peaks or valleys.

Wilco was at its best when it stretched out, as on “Bull Black Nova,” “Handshake Drugs” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” “At Least That’s What You Said,” opened gently on Pat Sansone’s piano before the harsh stomp of Jeff Tweedy’s guitar took over. The band inverted the loud-quiet-loud formula for “Misunderstood,” which thundered between verses before dropping back to Tweedy’s voice and guitar.

Because the band’s latest release, “Wilco (The Album),” is a summation record, the new material fit well alongside old favorites. Although it tipped toward the fresh, the setlist was democratic, ignoring the first album and drawing equally from the rest.

As the songwriter and frontman, Tweedy gets the spotlight, but the entire ensemble deserves credit. Bass player John Stirrat contributed gorgeous harmony vocals to several songs. Cline delivered several jaw-dropping solos, but the most amazing one came during “Impossible Germany,” where he made the guitar neck seem three times as long.

The evening’s secret weapon, though, was Sansone, who added an organ texture reminiscent of The Band’s Garth Hudson to “Kingpin” and seemed to chipping in a tasty guitar or keyboard line every time I looked his way.

There were a few pleasant surprises, like the “Summerteeth” nugget of joy “I’m Always in Love,” a loose and funky “Hoodoo Voodoo” that found Sansone and Cline trading guitar solos, and “Radio Cure,” which sounded like a voyage inside Tom Waits’ piano.

Always affable, Tweedy was in good spirits, suggesting the throng shouting requests elect a president and present their wishes in writing. After blowing his nose during “Hate It Here,” he pretended to toss the handkerchief into the audience.

Nearly two and a half hours after saying hello, Wilco closed out the night with a barnstorming version of “I’m A Wheel.” After teasing the embers they lit a sonic pyre on a cold night that will burn brightly until their next visit.

Setlist: Wilco (The Song); I Am Trying To Break Your Heart; Bull Black Nova; You Are My Face; One Wing; A Shot In The Arm; Radio Cure; Impossible Germany; At Least That’s What You Said; One By One; I’ll Fight; Handshake Drugs; Sonny Feeling; Hate It Here; Can’t Stand It; Jesus, Etc; Walken; I’m the Man Who Loves You. (Encore 1:) Misunderstood; I’m Always In Love; You Never Know (with Liam Finn); California Stars (with Liam Finn, Eliza Jane Barnes). (Encore 2:) Kingpin; The Late Great; Monday > Outtasite (Outta Mind) > Hoodoo Voodoo; I’m A Wheel.

Keep reading:

Wilco Wows at Crossroads (2007)

Review: Wilco at Wakarusa (2005)

Jay Bennett, Always In Love

(below: Jeff Tweedy at Crossroads, Oct. 6, 2009.)

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Jay Bennett, Always In Love

(Above: Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy perform the unreleased Wilco song “Cars Can’t Escape.”)

By Joel Francis

When I first heard Jay Bennett had been fired from Wilco back in 2001, I was worried the band had just lost their secret weapon. Jeff Tweedy may have been the wordsmith and idea man, but Bennett was the artist who polished those ideas to perfection.

Bennett died in his sleep May 24. He was 45 years old.

Bennett’s presence was felt from the moment he joined Wilco in 1995. Tweedy was still trying to crawl out from the shadow of Uncle Tupelo and establish his identity independent of his Tupelo cohort (and rival) Jay Farrar. Bennett’s presence on the band’s second album, “Being There,” added a new dimension to the arrangements and production.

“Summerteeth” is arguable Wilco’s finest hour and definitely the perfect product of the Tweedy/Bennett vision. For each of Tweedy’s dark moments, like “She’s A Jar” or “Via Chicago,” there are the sun-drenched pop anthems of “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(again)” and “I’m Always in Love.” Wilco’s music has never been happier and more optimistic than it is on “Summerteeth.” For proof, check out the opening riff in the title song. “Summerteeth” the song is the musical equivalent of a gentle breeze caressing the backyard hammock, or those Corona beach commercials.

Bookending the recording of “Summerteeth” are two albums using unused Woody Guthrie lyrics recorded with British folker Billy Bragg. Bennett’s touch is felt across both volumes of the “Mermaid Avenue” material; “Secrets of the Sea” and “Hoodoo Voodoo” continue that “Summerteeth” vibe.

Wilco’s next album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” famously found the band in transition and butting heads. But if “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” point to the band’s future without Bennett, “Jesus, etc.” and “Heavy Metal Drummer” still held plenty of Bennett’s sunny, radio-friendly magic.

Although Tweedy continued building critical acclaim and growing his fan base after “Foxtrot,” Bennett was not as successful on his own. That Bennett was working as a VCR repairman prior to joining Wilco says a lot about his craft. Bennett was a tinkerer, one who was best improving and polishing other’s creations. Left to both build and execute, he struggled.

Despite this, Bennett’s four solo albums still have merit. His first post-Wilco release, a collaboration with Edward Burch called “The Palace at 4 a.m.,” has a remake of the “Summerteeth” track “My Darling” that may top the original. This album and the two that follow it have more unused Guthrie material which makes for a nice “Mermaid Avenue” post script. (The post script continued this year with Wilco’s release of Guthrie’s “Jolly Banker.” Hopefully a “Volume Three” will appear sometime.) Bennett’s limited singing ability can grows wearisome across these releases, his production never does.

Bennett’s most complete solo statement was his second-to-last album, 2006’s “The Magnificent Defeat.” The second word in the title should be given more emphasis than the third. Bennett’s lyrics and delivery have a bit of Elvis Costello anger to them, but the fun he had putting the album together jumps out the speakers and makes for an infectious listen.

Today, Tweedy and bass player John Stirratt are all that remain of the Wilco lineup that brought us “Summerteeth” and “Being There.” But every time the band launches into “She’s A Jar” or “ELT” – as they frequently do – a little bit of Jay Bennett will be smiling on the audience. And they’ll be smiling back.

Keep reading:

Wilco Wows At Crossroads KC

Wakarusa Music Festival (2005)

Holiday Marketing Can Reveal Bands’ Inner Grinch

Mongol Beach Party will get its groove on with a weekend reunion

mbp
By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

The Mongol Beach Party reunion was already booked when Mark Southerland found out about it.

“I think what happened was (drummer) Bill (Belzer) booked the show, called (guitarist) Jeff (Freeling), and everyone else found out through third parties,” said Southerland, who plays saxophone in the band.

Although the idea had been floated casually in conversation before, this time no one said no. Seventeen years apart seemed like the right time to hook back up.

“When we started this band, none of us had been in bands before,” singer Christian Hankel said. “Now we’ve spent our lives since then in bands and music.”

Today Hankel and trombonist Kyle Dahlquist are part of Alacartoona; Belzer is in the New Amsterdams with Get Up Kid Matt Pryor; and Southerland is involved in several projects, including the Malachy Papers and Snuff Jazz. Bass player Scott Easterday fronts the reconvened Expassionates; and Freeling, the lone Mongol based outside of Kansas City, plays guitar with Chicago’s Blue Man Group.

“The fact that we’ve all continued on as musicians and none of us have set down our instruments has helped us reapproach the Mongol songs again,” Freeling said. “It’s not as if we’re reliving our glory days.”

Fans who show up at the RecordBar Friday and Saturday are guaranteed the same good-time, quirky dance-rock songs they heard nearly 20 years ago at the Shadow, Harling’s Upstairs and the Hurricane.

“I get the big sense that this isn’t just our reunion,” Hankel said. “People are using us as a way of getting together with their circle of friends from that time.”

Kansas City in the late ’80s was a different scene. There were fewer places to play, fewer outlets for exposure and fewer bands.

“Back then if you wanted to be known it was expensive and difficult,” Hankel said. “You couldn’t set up a MySpace page or Web site because those didn’t exist. You could make a CD, but that was worthless unless you could get somebody to play it.”

Instead the Mongols took whatever gigs they could get, even when it meant they were packaged with completely different bands like the Sin City Disciples.

“Bands were country or blues or whatever and had their own music scene that would go with them,” Easterday said. “We were different because we cut across the sub-scenes.”

Record producer Tom Mardikes was introduced to Mongols by his aerobics instructor, Freeling’s mother.

“Tom believed in a ‘Kansas City sound’ unique to our town,” Hankel said. “He took us to City Spark Studios, offered us unfettered access to the studio to record a full CD and promotion to college radio.”

“Toast,” the Mongols’ only album, was recorded in 1991. Long out of print, it was remastered and reissued this month.

“We included a few new additions to this version,” Easterday said. “There are our three demos cut at City Spark and a couple songs from a limited-edition cassette we made.”

Mongol Beach Party formed out of the Rockhurst High School friendships of Belzer, Freeling and Hankel and the musical partnerships forged at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. After five years of living together in a house at 43rd and Harrison, and a single-minded focus on the band, the group unraveled when Belzer joined Uncle Tupelo.

“Jeff Tweedy would come drunkenly into Cicero’s (a St. Louis club the Mongols sometimes played),” Belzer said. “I loved his band, and when I was talking to him one time the idea came up for me to tour Europe with them.”

Belzer couldn’t be blamed for taking advantage of the opportunity to play for bigger crowds and share the bill with Bob Mould, Michelle Shocked and bluesman Taj Mahal. He wasn’t the only Mongol looking to expand his horizons.

“Bill did not break up the band,” Hankel said. “Because we were so close emotionally, but starting to branch out artistically, there was enormous pressure within the group. Side projects were not part of the culture at that time.”

Today the only musical trend hipper than a side project is a full-blown reunion.

“I’ll be honest, I’m looking forward to the rehearsals more than the shows,” Hankel said last week. “Jeff and I were best friends before Mongol Beach Party, and we lost touch for a long time. I’m excited about reconnecting with these guys.”


mongol farewells
The Mongol Beach Party shows are Friday and Saturday at the RecordBar. The Friday show starts at 9 p.m. with opening act the Afterparty. The Saturday show starts at 9 p.m. with the Last Call Girls. Tickets for either show cost $10 in advance, $15 at the door. Advance tickets are available at the RecordBar or through groovetickets.com.