Social Distancing Spins – Day 54

By Joel Francis

Frank Turner – Positive Songs for Negative People: Acoustic (2016) A British folk singer with a punk rocker’s heart (and musical approach), Frank Turner released his sixth album in two forms, acoustic and electric. Either version gets me in the feels. The acoustic versions are just as powerful in their stripped-down arrangements. It’s not hard to imagine Turner on a stool singing directly to you. The material lives up to the Zig Zigler-approved title, although the chorus to “The Next Storm,” one of my favorite songs, is a little awkward in this time of physical distancing. When Turner sings “I don’t want to spend the whole of my life indoors/Laying low, waiting for the next storm,” I guarantee he wasn’t think of this reality. I’m also fairly confident Turner would counter with the chorus of another song here: “We could get better/because we’re not dead yet.” Amen.

Dwight Yoakam – Dwight Sings Buck (2007) This one’s so obvious the only question is why it didn’t happen sooner. Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens, who pioneered the Bakersfield sound of country music, first shared the mic in 1988 and took the song all the way to No. 1 on the country charts. Yoakam embraced the rock-driven, electric instrumentation Owens helped established. Owens’ death in 2006 must have inspired Yoakam to pay tribute. Of course none of the 15 songs here will replaces Owens’ indelible recordings, but Yoakam is clearly both having a ball and dead serious about this homage to his mentor. My favorites here are “Act Naturally” – which I first heard from Ringo – “Cryin’ Time” and “Foolin’ Around.”  There’s not a bad song (or performance) in the bunch.

The Who – Who Are You (1978)
The Who – Face Dances (1981)
I like to play these Who albums back-to-back because despite having different drummers, I don’t think they are as dissimilar as traditionally thought. For a while, I thought Face Dances was the better of the two albums, but playing them consecutively for the first time convinced me otherwise. Who Are You caught The Who at a low point. Drummer Keith Moon was out of shape and punk had changed the landscape of rock music. Pete Townshend reached back to the decade-old, abandoned Lifehouse concept for several songs. Bass player John Entwistle wrote his songs in singer Roger Daltrey’s range so they would have a better shot at getting on the album. Both moves worked. Entwistle placed a record three songs on the album and Townshend’s leftovers – including the title song – were solid. I think Who Are You gets more credit than deserved because of the iconic title number and Moon’s death less than a month after the album was released. I also think Face Dances gets knocked unfairly because of Moon’s absence. To my ears, Townshend’s writing on the whole of Face Dances is just as reliable as that on Who Are You. “You Better You Bet” may not be as good as “Who Are You,” but it doesn’t miss by much. “Don’t Let Go the Coat” and “Another Tricky Day” should be on every expansive Who playlist alongside “Guitar and Pen” and “Sister Disco.” Although Who Are You gets the nod as a slightly better album, both releases are second-tier Who. Unfortunately, the band has yet to release a first-tier album in the decades since these.

R.E.M. – The Best of R.E.M. at the BBC (compilation) I was a pretty intense R.E.M. fan for a long time, but after they broke up in 2011, their music gradually fell out of regular rotation. This 2018 collection made me fall in love with the band all over again. The two-record set cherry picks the best cuts from the eight CD set. The first LP pulls from the band’s studio sessions, while the second draws from concerts recorded in 1984, 1985 and 1999. Because founding member Bill Berry only appears on a third of cuts, the album inadvertently becomes a showcase for late-period R.E.M. While the albums released without Berry certainly weren’t as strong as those with him on board, each of them still had several amazing moments. It is fantastic to have many of those late-period high points collected here. The later in-concert material shows that while R.E.M. may have slipped on record, they remained an undeniable live force until the end.

Special mention must be made of drummer Bill Rieflin, who became R.E.M.’s drummer in 2004. He only appears on two songs here but beat the skins for the band’s final three albums. Rieflin also appeared on albums by Ministry, Swans, Robyn Hitchcock, King Crimson and KMFDM. Rieflin died of cancer a little over a month ago, in late March. Thanks for the music, Bill.

Social Distancing Spins, Day 4

By Joel Francis

Each day during the quarantine I’m going deep into my record collection and writing about what I pull out.

Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Further Out (1961) Dave Brubeck’s groundbreaking 1959 release Time Out was so successful a sequel was inevitable. The point of these albums isn’t the complexity of each composition’s time signature. It’s how much fun the group seems to be having as they effortlessly skate through rhythms that would make prog rock bands break out in sweat. Take “Unsquare Dance” for example. On the face it seems simple enough – just handclaps and snare drum with Brubeck intermittently tickling the keyboard. The result is catchy and edgy enough to appear in “Baby Driver,” a mixtape masquerading as a heist film released a mere 56 years after the song was recorded.

Bob Dylan – Live 1966: Acoustic Set (1998) The first time I saw Bob Dylan in concert, in the late ‘90s, a friend asked me if he played acoustic or electric. The answer, of course, was both, but the aftermath of that plugged in Newport set warranted the question nearly half a century later. This archival release was recorded about a year after the firestorm at the folk festival. The seven songs that comprise this acoustic set are immaculate. Of course the songs are amazing, but what stands out to me is Dylan’s harmonica playing and the way he teases phrases and moments. This set makes a strong case that Dylan may be an even better performer onstage alone, without a net. Knowing that the arrangements will soon get turned up amplifies the solo performances even more.

Pete Townshend – White City (1985) After the death of drummer Keith Moon, Pete Townshend is often accused of holding back his best work for solo projects and delivering second-rate material for The Who. I disagree. “Face Dances” has just as many strong moments as “Who Are You,” Moon’s final album. By the time the band got to “It’s Hard” no one’s heart seemed to be in it. Besides, it is very difficult to imagine Roger Daltrey singing anything on this album beyond the bombastic (and excellent) opener “Give Blood.” I don’t see where John Entwistle’s bass would add anything, either.

There’s supposed to be a story in here somewhere. I once watched Townshend’s 60-minute film version of White City so long ago it was on videotape. The narrative wasn’t any more apparent after that experience, although it was nice to hear different and extended versions of the material. Don’t overthink this, just appreciate it.

Raconteurs – Live at Cain’s Ballroom (2020) I saw the Raconteur’s performance in Kansas City that immediately followed the shows in Tulsa, Okla. that form this album. It was … good. Nothing groundbreaking, but a solid night out. Unless something changes, I don’t think I’ll feel compelled to buy a ticket next time they come through. The same goes with this album. It’s great to have a document of that tour, but the performance doesn’t have the energy of their concert at the Ryman Auditorium on a 2011 tour (released in 2013). I think I’ll be playing that album more often.

Various Artists – Big Blue Ball (compilation) In the early 1990s, Peter Gabriel hosted a series of weeklong workshops at his home studio. Artists from all over the world were encouraged to add to existing recordings and develop and contribute original material. This collection, released in 2008, a brisk 13 years after the final gathering, is the culmination of those sessions. There are a couple Gabriel gems to be sure, but fun for me is scouring the musician credits and try to pick out how everyone interacts together. Living Colour axeman Vernon Reid lays down synth guitars on “Rivers,” a New Age track that wouldn’t be out of place at a spa (or at least what I imagine a spa would be playing). Gabriel corrals jazz drummer Billy Cobham, former Public Image Ltd. bass player Jah Wobble and onetime Prince foil Wendy Melvoin for the single “Burn You Up, Burn You Down.” The song “Forest” opens like an outtake from Gabriel’s Passion soundtrack before turning into something that might be heard at a dance club or upscale art gallery (or at least what I imagine an upscale art gallery would be playing). Most of the album stays in this vein of world music with modern elements.

Echo de Africa National – Récit Historique de Bobo-Dioulasso (unknown) I know absolutely nothing about this album. I couldn’t even determine the year when it came out. The two side-length songs aren’t even given titles. To my ears, it sounds like this was recorded sometime between 1965 and 1975. I can tell you that if you like African ensembles with multiple horn players, percussionists and guitarists, who like to stretch out, this is probably for you. I haven’t been disappointed by it.

Various Artists – Light on the South Side (compilation) Less an album than an aural art installation, Light on the South Side combines 18 obscure blues and soul cuts with a gorgeous 132-page hardcover book featuring sumptuous black-and-white photography of African-American working class adults in the 1970s looking to escape the pressures of everyday life in the dive bars on Chicago’s South Side. You can smell the polyester and cigarette smoke listening to Little Mack do the “Goose Step” or hearing about Bobby Rush’s “Bowlegged Woman.” Crack open a High Life tall boy and enjoy.