Social Distancing Spins – Day 66

By Joel Francis

Peter Gabriel – Up (2002) As a fan who discovered Peter Gabriel in the early ‘90s, the decade between Us and Up seemed interminable. I’m glad no one told me at the time that I’d be waiting at least twice at long for his next platter of original material. Because of the lengthy delay, Up didn’t have the commercial impact of Us and So. Up is also a much darker album that features electronic elements in several songs. “The Barry Williams Show,” the first single released from Up, is easily its worst track. The arrangement never really gels and the lyrics lampooning talk shows and reality TV seems forced. (Lord, if Gabriel ever knew where those twin genres of trash television would lead us today ….) Sadness and mortality are themes in a couple songs, including the moving “I Grieve,” first showing up on the City of Angels soundtrack four years before Up’s release. Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn assists on the album’s emotional apex, “Signal to Noise.” As Gabriel has continued to move further away from rock music, hearing him surrounded by guitars, drum, bass and keyboards feels almost as gratifying as when this original material was first released.

Thelonious Monk – Solo Monk (1965) ‘Tis a pure delight to hear Thelonious Monk work without a band, with no filter between his mind and the music. The 13 songs on this wonderful album include standards, like the jaunty “Dinah,” which opens the collection, and the wistful, sentimental “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You),” which ends the album. Monk scatters his own compositions among the standards, including “Ruby, My Dear,” one of his signature pieces, “Monk’s Point” and “North of the Sunset.” In his autobiography, pianist Randy Weston talks about Monk holding court at his New York City apartment, sitting at the piano, playing whatever comes into his mind. Solo Monk is as close as we’ll get to eavesdropping on one of those private sessions. Solo Monk is a treasure in every way.

The Kinks – Sleepwalker (1977) The Kinks had such a long career they managed to peak twice. Between 1966 and 1971, they released an amazing cluster of albums, including Something Else, Arthur and Muswell Hillbillies. Then, in the late 1970s they peaked again, starting with Sleepwalker. Disco-era Kinks were a very different group than their swinging ‘60s counterparts. The group had ballooned to five members, to accommodate a keyboard player, and the sound was more hard rock than twee pop. Songwriter Ray Davies abandoned the concept albums that had bogged down most of the band’s 1970s albums, and brought sleek, stand-alone rock songs. Brother Dave Davies turns his guitar up loud enough to reach the cheap seats in the sports arenas they would wind up playing on tour. The subject of songs “Life on the Road” and “Juke Box Music” are evident in their titles. “Life Goes On” is an upbeat anthem guaranteed to brighten any bad day. Sleepwalker isn’t the best album from the Kinks revival, but it sets the table nicely for the pair of albums that follow and improve on this direction.

Lee Ranaldo – Between the Times and the Tides (2012) As a member of Sonic Youth, guitarist Lee Ranaldo’s solo releases were art projects not intended for mainstream audiences. Thankfully his first effort after Sonic Youth’s unfortunate demise is an accessible, low key indie rock album in the same vein as his old band’s album Murray Street. Ranaldo wrote all the songs for Between the Times, but he assembled an all-star band to bring the material to life. Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelly, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and Medeski, Martin and Wood jazz keyboard player John Medeski. My favorite song on the album is “Xtina as I Knew Her,” a haunting look back at underage drinking parties and the danger constantly lurking under the veneer of good times. Here are the lyrics to the bridge, which sets up a stinging Cline solo: “Slip behind the valley curtain/Looking for a place to hide/Shaky and those times uncertain/Everyone drunk on red wine.” The other songs are equally solid, proving that underneath are the abstract noise experiments beats the heart of a pop songwriter.

Steve Earle and the Dukes – So You Wanna Be an Outlaw? (2017) It feels like Steve Earle releases a new album of original material about 18 months. If you don’t like his current musical disposition, wait a few seasons and he’ll be there again in a different mood. Fortunately, So You Wanna Be an Outlaw?, a return to country-ish material, is a keeper. By virtue of being so prolific, Earle’s songwriting has gotten tighter and tighter, to the point where he can write a tribute to the people fighting forest fires simply because he learned they’d never had one (“The Firebreak Line”). Most of the other songs on the album deal with troubles: with women, money and society. Willie Nelson pops by to lend his voice to the title song. Earle ends the album with several earnest covers of classic outlaw country songs, including Billy Joe Shaver’s “Ain’t No God in Mexico” and Waylon Jenning’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”

Pearl Jam – Live at Easy Street (2019) In the spring of 2005, Pearl Jam stopped by a Seattle record shop to play a few songs and spread some hometown love. Seven of those songs were released on an CD exclusively available in independent record shops. Several years later, those same seven songs were released on vinyl for Record Store Day. My biggest complaint with this release is that I wished they would have released the full 16-song set on two albums, rather than the 27 minutes of material that populates this EP. What we’re given is great, though. Two songs from Riot Act, the band’s newest album at the time, one each from No Code and Ten and three covers. John Doe even comes out to perform X’s “The New World” with the band.

Last fall I ended up in Seattle for work. After making an obligatory stop at the Jimi Hendrix gravesite, I was hungry for both breakfast and crate digging. Both desires were satiated at Easy Street, which features a nice little brunch menu and an impressive expanse of vinyl. The large murals commemorating Pearl Jam’s concert brought two and two together for me. If you find yourself in the neighborhood, Easy Street is definitely worth a stop.

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.