Social Distancing Spins, Day 6

By Joel Francis

The coronavirus quarantine has given me plenty of time to explore and write about my record collection.

The Records – self-titled (1979) When you name yourself something as basic as “The Records” you are telegraphing your lack of ambition (ditto for the current rock act The Record Company). I mean, one song released as a stand-alone single at the time was called “Rock and Roll Love Letter.” But being obvious doesn’t make The Records any less fun to play. The combination of chiming guitars straight out of the Byrds’ playbook and sweet harmony vocals on “Starry Eyes” practically laid the foundation for Matthew Sweet’s career. “Girls That Don’t Exist” thumps like a Cars track and “Girl” echoes of Cheap Trick. Again, none of these are bad things. Worse acts have gotten by on a lot less and the sum of these reductive parts is nothing short of a lost power-pop gem.

I have to take a moment to call out “Teenarama.” All the infectious melody in the world – and this cut has a lot of it – can’t mask predatory lyrics like “I wanted a change of style/to be with a juvenile” and “I thought that a younger girl/could show me the world.” Gross. I realize that grown men singing about young girls goes back further than Chuck Berry singing about someone at least half his age on “Sweet Little Sixteen” but that doesn’t make it any less despicable. Stop, now.

Ike and Tina Turner – Workin’ Together (1971) Legitimate question: When did everyone find out that Ike Turner was an abuser? Was it the film What’s Love Got to Do With It, Tina Turner’s autobiography or did everyone kind of know before then? I ask because I couldn’t help but dwell on the Turners’ tumultuous relationship during the Ike Turner-penned song “You Can Have It.” In the song, Tina Turner talks about working up the courage to walk away from a man who was no good. Project much, Ike?

Although this is a catalog-entry album, it plays like a greatest hits collection. The iconic versions of “Proud Mary,” “Get Back” and “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” (with a classical piano intro) are all here, as is the DJ classic “Funkier than a Mosquita’s Tweeter.” Throw in the fine title track and a cover of “Let It Be” and this has just about everything you’d want from soul’s dysfunctional couple.

Mudcrutch – 2 (2016) It is fitting that Tom Petty’s final recording is a reunion with his old band from Gainesville, Fla., and not the Heartbreakers. It is also fitting that guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboard player Benmont Tench are the backbone of both bands. Petty’s name was always out front, but Campbell and Tench (along with deceased bass player Howie Epstein) were the heart of the Heartbreakers. Everyone in Mudcrutch get the chance to sing an original song and Petty retools “Trailer,” a lost ‘80s Heartbreakers classic. This is the sound of musical friends enjoying each other’s company with no pretense other than to have a good time. “Beautiful Blue” belongs in every Petty playlist. There are worse things to have on one’s headstone than “I Forgive It All,” another Petty standout.

Tamaryn – Tender New Signs (2012) I had never heard of the New Zealand-born singer Tamaryn when I walked into the old RecordBar location to see the Raveonettes at the Middle of the Map festival. Performing immediately prior to the headliners, Tamaryn’s lush set of dream pop almost stole the night. Tender New Signs is very much in line what I heard that night. Tamaryn’s latest releases have moved in a more pop direction. They’re not bad, but the layered shoegaze approach here and on her second album, The Waves, are what I keep coming back to.

Prince and the Revolution – Parade (1986) I purchased this album on my way home from work the day Prince died. Surprisingly, the record store still had a handful of Prince titles in stock. I had all the others, so Parade was the winner. I can’t remember what I did first after arriving home, take off my jacket or put this on the turntable.

I never saw Under the Cherry Moon, the Prince film this album is supposed to accompany. I can tell you that I adore the hit single “Kiss” and that it may be my least favorite song on the album. There’s a reason why “Mountains” was a concert mainstay, but for even more fun check out the 10-minute version on the 12-inch single. More contemplative songs like “Under the Cherry Moon,” “Do You Lie” and the instrumental “Venus de Milo” weigh heavily in what would be come D’Angelo’s signature sound a decade later. There’s a reason why D’Angelo’s chose to pay tribute to Prince with this album’s closer “Sometimes it Snows in April.” That songs never fails to make the room dusty.

Mission of Burma – Signals, Calls and Marches (1981) Mission of Burma have always been on the artier side of the punk spectrum, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t brutally loud and abrasive. This debut EP cleans up their sound considerably but it will still pin you up against the back wall if you aren’t watching out. The reissue I own adds the group’s debut single “Academy Fight Song,” it’s b-side and a pair of unreleased songs on a second LP. I only wish the record label had either put all the material on one album (there is certainly enough room) or pressed the bonus content on smaller platter. There is a lot of unused wax on this essential yet brief release.

The Conquerors – Wyld Time (2016) This Kansas City band generated a lot of good press when Wyld Time, their debut album came out. I was so enamored with their British Invasion throwback sound that after hearing them at an in-store performance, I immediately scurried over to the racks and bought the album. Sadly, it appears the wyld times are over for the Conquerors. Their social media hasn’t been updated since 2017. This disappointing development shouldn’t stop any revivalists from enjoying the Conquerors only offering.

Joe Strummer – US North (1986)

Joe Strummer – Forbidden City (1993) This pair of 12-inch singles deliver some gems from the Joe Strummer archives. I have no idea why it took more than 30 years for Strummer’s collaboration with his former Clash bandmate Mick Jones to see daylight. “U.S. North” dovetails nicely with the pair’s work on the Big Audio Dynamite album No. 10, Upping St. and would have been a highlight on anything either artist released around that time. “Forbidden City” ended up on a Strummer’s first album with the Mescaleros in 1999. This demo version has a saxophone that gives it the same sound and feel as the Pigs With Wings soundtrack Strummer did in the early ‘90s. The demo is nice enough, but I don’t know it’s good enough to warrant a stand-alone release. I’d have preferred it if they included it on a proper collection, with more unreleased material. I guess I wasn’t disappointed enough not to buy it, though. There’s one born every minute, eh?

“Together Through Life” is a minor masterpiece

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By Joel Francis

After delivering three “important” albums in the past dozen years, it’s nice to know Bob Dylan can make an album without making a statement.

“Together Through Life” feels like an afternoon drive through a dusty Texas border town with the windows rolled down. Much of that feel comes from the ubiquitous accordion played by David Hildago of Los Lobos. Lyricist Robert Hunter – who co-wrote all but one of “Life”’s tunes with Dylan and is best known  for writing “Casey Jones” and other songs with the Grateful Dead – deserves some credit for the record’s lack of ponderousness.

But lack of weight doesn’t equal a lightweight record in this case. The album is a cousin to “New Morning,” a solid, offering that is overshadowed by the albums surrounding it and filled with songs Dylan recorded because he wanted to, not because he had something to say.

Sonically, the album is cut from the same cloth that has defined Dylan’s previous ‘00’s offerings. It is a pastiche of Chess blues, Sun Records country and rock and pre-war pop. While there’s nothing as sunny as “Silvio,” a track Dylan and Hunter collaborated on 20 years ago, there’s also nothing as forgettable as “Ugliest Girl in the World,” the other fruit borne of that union.

Guitarist Mike Campbell from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers adds light acoustic guitars and mandolin to most tracks, but drops a murky electric guitar reminiscent of Neil Young on “Forgetful Heart.”  Lyrically the song resembles the material for “Time Out Of Mind,” right down to the dark lyrics: “The door has closed, if indeed there ever was a door.”

While Dylan albums are rarely sunny endeavors, the gloom of “Forgetful Heart,” and the sarcasm of “It’s All Good” are broken by upbeat numbers like “Jolene” and “Shake Mama Shake” – both of which sound like they came from the Chess Studios at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue circa 1958. The tongue-in-cheek “My Wife’s Hometown” might be Dylan’s funniest number since his knock-knock joke in “Po’ Boy “ while “I Feel A Change Coming On” has a twilight optimism.

Fans have grown accustomed to waiting nearly five years between new offerings. “Together Through Life” is surprise arrival little more than two years after “Modern Life.” “Life”’s runtime of 10 tracks and 45 minutes and lack of “statement song” like “Highlands” or “Ain’t Talkin’” make a tempting case to write the album off as a lesser work. Although it will never measure among the first-tier cannon, those who dismiss it do so at their own folly.