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Posts Tagged ‘Numero Group’

(Above: Phoebe Bridgers’ sophomore album is an introspective indie rock masterpiece.)

By Joel Francis

Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

Indie folk darling Phoebe Bridgers’ second album is an introspective masterpiece perfect for late nights and headphones. “Garden Song” sets the stage with delicate guitars, subtle electronics and double-tracked vocals, but while Bridgers is able to maintain this mood throughout the course of the 41-minute album, it never feels staid or monotonous. The upbeat “Kyoto” bounces with a horn section, while the autotune on “Punisher” makes the lyrics about loneliness seem even more immediate and detached. “ICU” sounds like one of the best Death Cab for Cutie songs in years. The album culminates with the fittingly titled “I Know the End” and a cavalcade of horns, choir, strings and drums that bleed into screams, electric guitar and deep exhalations – a cathartic release of all the emotions Bridgers has been processing throughout the album.

Punisher recalls the lineage of Elliott Smith, Cat Power and early Sufjan Stevens, but Bridgers’ guest appearances with the 1975 and Mercury Rev and projects with Conor Oberst and boygenius reveal a broad talent that should be successful in whatever path Bridgers chooses. I’m happy to follow her on the ride.

Neil Young – Homegrown

After the success of his classic album Harvest and its No. 1 hit “Heart of Gold” in 1972, Neil Young was at a crossroads. His guitarist and a member of his touring crew had both died from drug overdoses and a longtime romantic relationship ended. Young poured his emotions into two disparate projects. Death got a hard look in the eye on Tonight’s the Night and heartbreak was at the core of Homegrown. Of the two projects, Homegrown was much closer in spirit to the homespun charm of Harvest. This might be why Young released Tonight’s the Night and Homegrown languished in the vaults until now.

Although several songs appeared across Young’s later ‘70s releases, Homegrown is the first chance to hear the dozen songs as Young first envisioned them. The result is this missing link between Harvest and Comes a Time. Not everything works – the spoken word piece “Florida” and lumbering blues of “We Don’t Smoke It No More” stall the album’s momentum – but the rest capture Young in a lyrically vulnerable and musically tranquil state.

24-Carat Black – III

Funk collective 24-Carat Black released only one album, which flopped on the charts in 1973 but gained a second life in the in the 1990s thanks to several prominent hip hop samples. The Numero Group, a Chicago label specializing in obscure and forgotten labels and bands released a collection of unreleased 24-Carat material in 2009. Now, even more 24-Carat Black material has been unearthed and released by Numero as III.

It is clear from some of the performances and mixes that these recordings were never intended to be the final version. That said, there are some moments worth seeking out. The muted trumpet on “I’m Coming Back” places the track in jazz/fusion territory popular in the late ‘70s. Similarly, “Speak Low” feels like a missing link between classical, funk and jazz. The 10-minute “Skelton Coast” sounds like something mid-‘70s Marvin Gaye would have cooked up. It is interesting to wonder what ideas were waiting to be added to the mostly instrumental track. Fans who devoured 24-Carat’s proper album and the previous vault collection will enjoy III. Newcomers should start with the original 1973 Stax release.

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By Joel Francis

Insurgence DC – Broken in the Theater of the Absurd (2019) Insurgence DC formed in the late ‘80s, but Broken in the Theater of the Absurd is just their third album, arriving 19 years after their previous release. The Washington D.C.-based punk trio has plenty to say about the corruption and incompetence they see around their hometown. Reading the lyrics printed across the back of the album, one could be forgiven for thinking she was looking at a Billy Bragg broadside. What keeps songs like “Poison Profits” and “Third Party Opinions” from being op-ed pity parties is a well-seasoned band that plays well off each other and knows how vary textures and arrangements to keep the music fresh. The aggressive songs are tempered by flourishes of avant noise (think Sonic Youth), post-punk moodiness and the gleeful ska of “Pick Pocket Pirates.” Fans of the Dischord label and anyone P.O.ed by the current political landscape will find a lot to like in the Theater of the Absurd.

Miles Davis – In a Silent Way (1969) I shudder to think how Miles Davis would have responded to the age of Twitter. Davis has been dead for nearly 30 years and audiences are still trying to catch up to what he was doing. The period when In a Silent Way came out demonstrates Davis’ restlessness and ambition. Just a year earlier, Davis disbanded his second quintet, one of the most incredible ensembles in music history. Three members of that quintet appear on In a Silent Way, but are used in completely different ways and surrounded by a host of other musicians. I’m having trouble coming up with a contemporary corollary for the sounds here. The last couple Davis quintet albums hinted at this direction, but In a Silent Way’s music still sounds surprising and fresh more than half a century later.

Neither rock, nor jazz (and not fusion), the closest touchstone to the music on In a Silent Way might be a psychedelic, improvised version of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp tried to accomplish both together and on their own in the mid 1970s. In fact, John McLaughlin’s electric guitar that opens the second side on “In a Silent Way/It’s About that Time” sounds like what Daniel Lanois would play with Eno in the 1980s. Davis had long moved on by that point, of course. He jerked even more heads by releasing Bitches Brew, another masterpiece, the following year. The vast expanse of the universe is barely enough to contain all of Davis’ ideas. I’m glad he never had to face myopic imbeciles limited to 280 characters.

Alex Chilton – Songs from Robin Hood Lane (compilation) What is it about the Great American Songbook of the 1930s to ‘50s that compels repeated interpretations? Late in his recording career Alex Chilton drew from this well for two solid albums. The output bears absolutely no resemblance to the power pop that Chilton created with Big Star or the blue-eyed soul he brought to the Box Tops. While no one would confuse him with Grant Green, the albums do reveal Chilton has decent jazz guitar chops. Chilton’s phrasing and vocal delivery also depict him as someone completely at home in this style of music. The title of this collection holds the key to Chilton’s comfort with these jazz standards. Robin Hood Lane was the name of the suburban Memphis street where Chilton grew up hearing his mom play these classic songs endlessly. Come to this collection not expecting “September Gurls” or “Cry Like a Baby,” but with an open mind to hear another facet from a criminally neglected (by mainstream society and himself) artist.

Eddie Hazel – Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs (1977) Parliament-Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel left his stamp on many P-Funk classics (dig “Maggot Brain” as Exhibit A) but this was the only solo album released in his lifetime. Solo is a relative term here. Bassman Bootsy Collins co-wrote three of the songs here and keyboard legend Bernie Worrell is credited on two. Those two, plus the Brides of Funkenstein and a host of other P-Funk players all appear, but the album really does belong to Hazel. He transforms “California Dreamin’” into a slow jam and turns the Beatles “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” into an acid-drenched guitar workout. The original songs fit well into the P-Funk songbook, but Hazel’s playing is remains prominent throughout. Although Hazel continued to sporadically appear on P-Funk releases after this album dropped, he was never as prominent as before. Thankfully back in print, Game is essential not only for P-Funk fans, but anyone who wondered what Jimi Hendrix or Ernie Isley might have sounded like fronting a funk band.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Hard Promises (1981) Nearly 40 years ago, when Hard Promises came out, MCA records wanted to hike the price to $9.98. Today, you can down the album on iTunes for $9.99. Inflation, huh? Petty and the boys refused to be the reason their label nicked fans an extra buck and Hard Promises eventually came out at the standard price of $8.98. Regardless of how much you paid, the music here is worth the investment. The songwriting on Hard Promises is every bit as good as Damn the Torpedoes, the band’s previous album, but doesn’t suffer from the same overexposure. The album starts with the classic “The Waiting” before leading into “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me),” the album’s second single. The remaining eight songs are all album cuts, but still beloved to hardcore Petty fans. Stevie Nicks duets on the gorgeous “Insider,” the Heartbreakers roar on “A Thing About You” and the album ends with another delicate ballad, “You Can Still Change Your Mind.” In between we get the slinky “Nightwatchman” and “The Criminal Mind,” which opens with a slide guitar part that sounds like a country version of the riff from “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”

Heartbreakers bass player Ron Blair left after this album and didn’t return until 20 years later. Of the four original-lineup Heartbreakers albums, Hard Promises is easily my favorite. Heck, it might be my favorite Petty album pre-Full Moon Fever. Either way, all American rock fans need this album.

The Roots – Game Theory (2006) The Philadelphia natives that comprise The Roots are often labelled the best band in hip hop, an unsubtle jab at other groups that don’t play traditional instruments. Twenty-seven years after their debut album, I think it’s past time to drop the sobriquet and call them what they are: One of the best bands ever. Full stop. After striving (and compromising) for mainstream success on their previous album, The Roots went all-in on a darker, stripped down sound for Game Theory. Even though they weren’t aiming for the charts, I find myself humming the hooks in these songs for days afterward. Named after a mathematical model for decision making, Game Theory stares at big-picture topics like police brutality, drug addiction, poverty and dishonest media outlets. MC Black Thought’s isn’t afraid to drop heavy lyrics, but his delivery swings enough that you wind up tapping your foot as you nod your head. “Clock With No Hands” isn’t just a thought-provoking (no pun intended) look at addiction, but features a beautiful original (read: non-sampled) melody. In fact, one of the few samples on the album comes when Thom Yorke’s voice floats in and out of “Atonement.”

I saw The Roots perform with a full horn section on back-to-back nights of the Game Theory tour and they are among the best shows I’ve ever seen. Not in hip hop, but among everyone. Full stop.

Various Artists – Lows in the Mid-Sixties: Vol. 54: Kosmic City Part 2 (compilation) Between 1967 and 1973, Cavern Studios in eastern Kansas City, Mo., were a hotbed of recording activity. Local groups could venture into the subterranean limestone cave where the studio was located and, for the right amount of money, walk out with a record. The best of the rock sides were compiled on Numero’s exquisite collection Local Customs: Cavern Sounds, shown back on Day 12. Lows in the Mid-Sixties is a companion to that release, rounding up 14 covers of well-known hits by bands you’ve never heard. It is solid garage rock with a touch of psychedelia sprinkled across for good measure. One of my favorites is Dearly Beloved’s version of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” Dearly Beloved have clearly studied Van Morrison and Them’s cover, but removed the shimmering signature guitar line (later sampled by Beck on “Jack Ass”). The music here is far from essential and I’m not sure how interesting it might be to an audience beyond KC’s metropolitan area, but it proves the local music scene was humming around the Age of Aquarius.

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By Joel Francis

Since this is day 45 of the social distancing spins project, I thought it was only fitting we celebrate by spinning, what else, 45s. Here are 10 from my collection.

Penny and the Quarters – You and Me/You Are Giving Me Some Other Love (2011) “You and Me” was neatly tucked near the end of the Numero soul compilation Eccentric Soul: The Prix Label. The scant liner notes provide more questions than answers. Then Ryan Gosling heard this great soul love song and used it in his 2010 movie Blue Valentine. The film developed a devoted following – it’s quite good – and peoples started wondering about the love theme that brought the main characters together. Numero turned on the bat-signal, hoping to learn more about the mysterious Penny – and deliver some royalties. Finally, the mystery was solved. Penny was none other than Nannie Sharpe of Columbus, Ohio. She performed the song with her brothers in a studio in 1969, not knowing if they were actually being recorded. The tune itself sounds like it could have come from the golden age of doo wop, or at least Sam Cooke’s pen. The b-side, “You Are Giving Me Some Love,” is cut from the same cloth and features a lengthy spoken-word introduction. The lo-fi quality of both recordings only adds to the charm. Lost jewels like this are what makes the Numero Group so essential. I dare you to listen to this and not smile.

Mission of Burma – Innermost/And Here It Comes (2009) These are two non-album tracks recorded at the same time as their third reunion album (and fifth overall) The Sound the Speed and the Light. The album is the weakest release of their reunion relative to the rest of their catalog, which is to say it is still very good. I don’t know the record well enough to tell you if “Innermost” and “And Here It Comes” were unfairly excluded, but they aren’t a departure from the band’s arty, cerebral, intense punk. Of the two tracks, I prefer “And Here It Comes” for the guitar solo and sonic experimentation in the middle.

Brandon Phillips and the Condition – People Talk/Angel Say No (2019) Brandon Phillips is a staple of the Kansas City, Mo., music scene. He started off in the Gadjits with his brothers, before the three of them started the Architects, an incredible punk band. Now the Phillips brothers are back with Brandon out front in the Condition, a sonic tribute to early Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. The pair of tunes here are so good it’s almost a cruel tease. I desperately want a full-length album to enjoy alongside Look Sharp! and Punch the Clock. Like the Phillips’ brothers other musical endeavors, the Condition have hooks and energy for miles, I hope they stick around long enough to give us more.

Ben Folds – Mister Peepers/A Million Years or So (2018) Piano man Ben Folds wrote this song about then-assistant attorney general Rod Rosenstein as part of a storytelling project for The Washington Post Magazine. I don’t think Folds has written another political song (please let me know in the comments if he has), but this track is a winner on several levels. First off, the lyrics, painting Rosenstein as a nerd getting picked on by the GOP jocks in the House of Representatives is perfect analogy. Folds also nails the hypocrisy baked-in to the bullying we’ve normalized from D.C. The lyric is worth quoting in full:

“You boys are Christians right? What would Jesus do? Would he bury crimes and carry water like a stooge? Or smear a family man in case he tells the truth/About the boss/Yeah what would Jesus do?”

Finally, the banjo and fiddle accompaniment is superb. I don’t think Folds has worked in this mode before either and I love the bluegrass tinge it provides. If we’re lucky, there might be a few more songs in this direction on Folds’ next album. Or he could cover Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg again. Could go either way.

The b-side is a Roger Miller cover that Folds turns into a tear-jerking love ballad.

Jawbox – Motorist/Jackpot Plus! (1992) The single version of “Motorist” is quite a bit different from the album version that appeared on For Your Own Special Sweetheart a couple years later. The single version opens with a drum machine and the verses rest on the bassline and drums, until the guitar kicks in and takes the song over the top on the chorus. The album version opens with the chorus, then drops back to the first verse. The version here is a more raw performance and my favorite of the two readings. The b-side, “Jackpot Plus!” is another song that also appears on For Your Own Special Sweetheart. This time the arrangement and emotion are pretty similar. The biggest difference is J. Robbins’ vocals have a filter on the album version. I love this kind of no-frills, visceral punk.

The Beatles – Baby It’s You/I’ll Follow the Sun/Devil in her Heart/Boys (1994) I believe this was my first vinyl purchase. I don’t know if the turntable at home was even working at the time I bought this, I just knew I was happy to buy a new Beatles single just like my parents (could) have at my age. “Baby It’s You” was pulled from the Live at the BBC compilation. The other three songs are also BBC recordings, two of which were included on the 2013 collection On Air: Live at the BBC, Volume Two. These early sessions are great because they remind you just how amazing the Beatles were as live performers. Before they were turning the recording studio inside-out, they were a heck of a live band. John Lennon’s tender vocals on “Baby It’s You” made it a stand-out cut on the first BBC anthology. The other songs aren’t as essential, but it’s always fun to hear the Fab Four let it all hang out on “Boys.”

Alice Cooper – Clones (We’re All)/Model Citizen (1980) “Clones” doesn’t sound anything like Alice Cooper’s anthems “School’s Out” or “Eighteen,” but then again at the time this was recorded Cooper didn’t sound much like himself, either. He dabbled in 1950s noir on Lace and Whiskey and got ultra-personal on From the Inside. It’s clear Cooper didn’t know what to do at the time, so he hooked up with Cars and Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker and swapped the guitars for synthesizers. I haven’t listened to the album Cooper and Baker made together, but “Clones” has everything I love about those early Cars singles – handclaps! great keyboard hooks! sharp rhythm guitars! – and early ‘80s new wave in general. “Model Citizen” is closer to Cooper’s expected sound but Baker’s production tricks can’t completely hide the inane lyrics that aren’t nearly as clever as they think.

James Brown – The Payback Part One/Part Two (1973) My all-time favorite James Brown jam. The only bad things I can say about “The Payback” is that I get annoyed by having to flip the single over halfway through the song and that I’m always disappointed it doesn’t go on for twice as long. This song has been sampled a million times, but no one has been able to improve on the original. An angry Brown put the godfather in his Godfather of Soul nickname with this tale of revenge. Brown lays out how he’s been wronged and what he’s going to do about it over some funky chicken-scratch guitar. The horns punch like fists and Brown’s emphatic screams punctuate the anger and boasting with a sharp blast of frustration and impatience. You can see Brown pacing his corner of the boxing ring, psyching himself up and waiting for the bell to ring as this song builds. By the time it’s over, I’m ready hit the streets and find some trouble myself. Maybe it’s for the best this song isn’t longer, before I get caught in something I can’t handle.

The Clash – Bankrobber/Rockers Galore ….UK Tour (1980) Between releasing a two-LP masterpiece and it’s three-record follow-up, the Clash managed to released this gem, which never appeared on any of their albums. Joe strummer rides a terrific reggae groove talking about income inequality disguised as the story of his dad, a bank robber who never hurt anyone and just “loved to steal your money.” Think of it as Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” by way of King Tubby and Kingston, Jamaica. Reggae producer Mikey Dread added great dub effects to “Bankrobber.” On the b-side, Dread takes over, taking the mic for some toasting over an even more dubbed-out version of the “Bankrobber” track. When Clash guitarist Mick Jones joined Joe Strummer onstage for the first time in decades at a benefit show for striking firefighters, the two jammed on this song for nearly 10 minutes.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window/The Burning of the Midnight Lamp (1998) If memory serves, this was a promotional give-away that came with the Hendrix Live at the BBC double-disc set. After the success of the Beatles BBC collection, all the heritage bands got in on the act. “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” is a song that never appeared on any of the Experience albums, a Hendrix cover of an obscure Bob Dylan song that was only released as a single. Got that? Hendrix covering Dylan has historically been a good thing and this version is a solid addition to the Hendrix catalog, even if it isn’t as incendiary as “Watchtower.” The BBC version of “The Burning of the Midnight Lamp” shows how proficient Hendrix was at transforming his psychedelic studio creations into compelling live performances. Pairing this song with the Dylan cover shows how much an influence the Hibbing, Minn., folk singer had on Hendrix’ lyric-writing. He drops a lot of little details into “Lamp” that sometimes get lost among the guitar heroics.

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By Joel Francis

The weekend weather was way too nice to be inside playing records. Here’s what I listened to when I wasn’t enjoying nature.

Fucked Up – Dose Your Dreams (2018) Toronto’s finest sextet have always been incredible musicians, but sometimes their subtlety and talent gets lost behind frontman Damian Abraham’s blowtorch of a voice. Here, on their fifth album, Abraham pulls back a little and the rest of the band flexes their muscles. I guess the story on Dose Your Dreams is a continuation of their 2011 masterpiece David Comes to Life. I have listened to David Comes to Life countless times and have only and elementary understanding of its story. The narrative on Dose Your Dreams is lost on me. So forget about that. Check out the rare mashup of hardcore punk and jazz saxophone at the end of “Raise Your Voice Joyce” (dig the synthesizer on the track, too). The title track is straight-up indie rock, while “Two I’s Closed” sounds like it could be the Dirty Projectors. If this sounds like the band leaving punk and throwing everything at the wall, fear not. The songs are still here, just not in the way you might expect.

Dose Your Dreams is the sound of Fucked Up spreading their wings. It will be interesting to see where they go from here.

Joe Callicot – Ain’t A Gonna Lie to You (2003) Don’t feel bad if you aren’t familiar with Mississippi Joe Callicot – I wasn’t either. Cruising the liner notes and the web, I found out that the dozen songs here were recorded in 1967, two years before his death. I could recite a few other facts but all you really need to know is that Callicot is an acoustic blues picker in the vein of fellow Mississippian John Hurt. Callicot’s voice isn’t as molasses-smooth as Hurt’s, but if you like the relaxed style of one, you’ll enjoy the other. These times are anxious enough. Put this on and unwind.

Blondie – Eat to the Beat (1979) In her autobiography, Debbie Harry describes Blondie as a nonstop circus of recording, tours and musicians. In the six year (and six album) blur between playing shows at CBGB and headlining arenas before breaking up, Harry has a point. Still, it would be nice if she slowed down to let fans savor the journey a little bit more. Blondie’s fourth album opens with the fantastic “Dreaming,” still a concert staple.  We also get the new wave dance classic “Atomic” and cinematic “Union City Blue.” Eat to the Beat is the only Blondie album I own, but every time I play it I’m reminded I need to seek out a couple more.

Billie Holiday – Lady in Satin (1958) As the final album released during Billie Holiday’s brief life, it’s hard not to listen to this album and not think about her tragic story and play the what-if game. Her ragged voice here is another constant reminder of her hard life. As an inspired artist, Holiday is able to use her ragged state to her advantage. The raw tension she infuses into every performance adds another dimension to songs like “Glad to Be Unhappy” and “You’ve Changed.” I also thought about this article and how racists in power conspired to make Holiday’s life even more difficult. I know it sounds fantastic, but just check out the reporting and get back to me. Rest in peace, Lady Day.

Stevie Wonder – Music of My Mind (1972) Stevie Wonder’s incredible run of classic albums usually begins with Talking Book, but the people who start there are missing the two great records that came before that landmark. Music of My Mind came out just six months before Book and lays the groundwork for all of the latter’s achievements. The synthesizers and clavinets that came to define Wonder’s sound are trotted out for the first time here. Music of My Mind is also the first album where Wonder plays most of the instruments himself. (Sayonara Funk Brothers.) The first side starts strong with the upbeat “Love Having You Around.” “Superwoman” is a reworking of a song from Wonder’s previous album. Its great in both forms. “I Love Every Little Thing About You” would fit fine on a playlist of Wonder love songs, right between “All I Do” and “As.” The second side is good as solid as well. Consider this a warm-up for Talking Book and jump in. It’s all there – almost.

Justin Townes Earle – Absent Fathers (2015) The first time I saw Justin Townes Earle in concert, he was part of his dad Steve Earle’s road crew. He came onstage (barefoot) at the end of the night to add extra guitar to “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding.” Unfortunately, the father had to fire his son for excessive drug use before the tour was over. Keep in mind Steve Earle actually served time in the early ‘90s for heroin, cocaine and weapons possession, so outdrugging him is a pretty neat trick.

This bit of biography also frames the sadness that saturates the characters on Absent Fathers. None of these ten songs are about the perfect nuclear family, but Justin Earle inherited his dad’s knack for songwriting and inhabits these characters so well it’s hard not to be moved.

Bobo Yeye – Belle Epoque in Upper Volta (compilation) I am convinced – but willing to hear otherwise – that the roots of all music either goes back to Gregorian monks chanting in Europe or African drumming and singing. While both forms have their appeal, I’ll take the dirty African funk found here any day. Loud drums, horns, fuzzy guitars, soulful vocals, primitive recording. Yeah, this hits the sweet spot. Accompanying the three albums in this Numero collection is a hardcover book of photography and essays about the music. Feast your eyes and your ears.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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