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.

Review: Pixies

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By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

For the first time in more than 20 years, the Pixies rolled into town in support of new material.

The influential college rock quartet has now been around longer as a reunion act than in their initial stint. Reunited contemporaries like Dinosaur Jr. have released multiple new albums, making the paucity of new Pixies material – two songs – even more glaring. That changed late last year when lead singer/songwriter Black Francis dropped four new songs on an EP and followed it up with four more last month.

All but one of those songs were played when the band performed at the Midland Theater on Tuesday night. Toss in the single “Bagboy” and the as-yet unrecorded “Silver Snail” and new material comprised nearly a third of the band’s setlist. The new recordings received a mix reception online, but for the most part they worked in concert.

The appropriately noisy “What Goes Boom” blended seamlessly with the band’s cover of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Head On.” Later, in a quieter moment, Francis segued from “In Heaven (Lady in Radiator)” to “Andro Queen.” The songs were recorded 26 years apart, but sounded onstage like they were pulled from the same session.

JfDKB.St.81“Bone Machine” announced the band’s presence, and although the thumping bassline that introduced the song was familiar the musician wasn’t. Paz Lenchantin, a veteran of A Perfect Circle and Billy Corgan’s Zwan, filled the gaping hole left when founding member Kim Deal departed last June.

Lenchantin didn’t have any problems replicating Deal’s basslines, but her thin voice was often buried in the mix.The band arrived as if shot out of a cannon, blasting through the first eleven songs in less than 30 minutes.

Doing their best Ramones impression, the band rarely paused between songs and hardly acknowledged the near-capacity crowd before barreling into the next number. The songs were never rushed, but they were definitely urgent.

Some of the best moments were the demented rockabilly of “Brick is Red” and the surf guitar intro to “Ana.” Guitarist Joey Santiago got plenty of time to play with feedback during “Vamos,” one of the few times the band deviated from the recorded arrangement. A medley of “Nimrod’s Son” and “Holiday Song” started with“Nimrod” at full speed before bouncing into “Holiday Song.” A slowed-down arrangement of “Nimrod” closed the medley.

At 33 songs and 100 minutes, the band devoted plenty of time to exhume some deep cuts from its catalog, and deliver most of its biggest songs (including both versions of “Wave of Mutilation”). Francis let the crowd take over the choruses on “Where is My Mind?” and “Here Comes Your Man.” Given the band’s underground legacy, it was odd to see fists pumping in the air with every “chien” on the chorus of “Debaser,” but the quartet definitely knew how to work the theater crowd.

The Pixies first reunion concert in Kansas City was a victory lap. The second concert was a celebration of their greatest album. This third visit was a view of the Pixies as a working band, trying to prove they still have plenty to say. They do.

Setlist: Bone Machine; Wave of Mutilation; U-Mass > Head On (Jesus and Mary Chain cover); What Goes Boom; Distance Equals Rate Times Time; Ilsa de Encanto; Monkey Gone to Heaven; Ana; Brick is Red; I’ve Been Tired; Magdalena; Cactus; Gouge Away; Bagboy; Blue Eyed Hext; Crackity Jones; unknown song; Veloria; Havalena; Snakes; Silver Snail; In Heaven (Lady in Radiator); Andro Queen, Indie Cindy; Greens and Blues; Where is My Mind?; Here Comes Your Man; Vamos; Nimrod’s Son/Holiday Song (medley); Wave of Mutilation (UK Surf). Encore: Debaser; Planet of Sound.

Keep reading:

The Man in (Frank) Black

Review: Dinosaur Jr

Review: Pavement

The Man in (Frank) Black

(Above: Frank Black visits “Manitoba” all by his lonesome.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

It’s hard to believe, but the Pixies have been around as a reunion act for almost as long as their original incarnation. When Frank Black (aka Black Francis) announced his new project shortly after the Pixies’ first triumphant reunion tour, few could have predicted where he would end up.

The self-taught, idiosyncratic king of indie rock was working in Nashville, Tenn., with seasoned session musicians. The impulse yielded two albums, 2005’s “Honeycomb” and 2006’s double album “Fast Man Raider Man.” Earlier this year Black announced a third Music City installment was on the horizon.

“If you’re into the pop music of the 20th century and you happen to be a post-punk record maker, chances are you’ll like Patsy Cline and Miles Davis,” Black said. “Most rock musicians aren’t going to put out a bebop album, so we go to blues, folk, roots music, whatever you want to call it. It’s not that much of a jump for me — it’s all part of the same grassy hillside.”

It’s also a road well traveled. In 1966, Bob Dylan left New York City to record at the CBS studios in Nashville with the day’s top session players. More recently, Robert Plant ventured to middle Tennessee to work with Allison Krauss and Buddy Miller.

“The reason why you see this happening again and again is because of the opportunity to play with some of the best musicians in the world,” Black said. “It’s not just country music, but R&B and the whole world of 1950s and ’60s pop recording.”

Black’s collaborators are a world removed from the Boston underground scene where the Pixies formed in the mid-’80s. His album credits today include Muscle Shoals legends Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, Stax guitarist Steve Cropper and drummer Chester Thompson, pal of Genesis and Frank Zappa.

During sessions in Los Angeles, Black worked with Funk Brother Bob Babbitt, Al Kooper, Phil Spector veteran Carol Kaye and drummer Jim Keltner. Grab any of your favorite major-label albums from the late ’50s to the mid-1970s and at least one of these names will be found on the sleeve.

“I guess you could say the era peaked in the ’60s and got a bad rap in the ’70s, because by then there was just too much easy-listening and knockoff, quickie records,” Black said. “But the people who grew up under the punk badge were young 20-somethings who didn’t have a lot of money and shopped at used clothing stores and decorated their apartments with kitsch. All of a sudden, out come those old Dean Martin albums again. Ultimately, what you rebel against becomes hip again.”

When Black comes to town on Monday, he’ll be without any of his all-star assistants. In fact, Black’s only company onstage will be his acoustic guitar. But regardless of his surroundings, Black said, his goal is the same: to satisfy the customers.

“That’s where I’m at now and it’s no different from when I played my first gig,” Black said.

“It’s all part of the world of the musician. Sometimes you play huge festivals for tons of money in front of tons of people, other times you’re playing Knuckleheads in Kansas City. Both are equally valid.”

Keep reading:

Review: Pavement

Review: Robert Plant and Allison Krauss

Dinosaur Jr Sets High Bar For Reunion Albums

15 jazz greats to emerge in the last 20 years (part three)

(Above: Savion Glover does his thing with plenty o’ swing.)

By Joel Francis

Continuing The Daily Record’s look at the state of jazz today, here is the final of three installments shedding light on 15 jazz greats to emerge in the last 20 years. Note that these musicians are not necessarily the 15 greatest jazz artists to arrive since 1990. A brief listen to any of them, though, should more than persuade the most ardent purist that jazz is alive and well.

Eldar Djangirov

Eldar Djangirov is the continuation of the great line of pianists to emerge from Kansas City, Mo. that stretches back to Count Basie and Jay McShann. The three have more than an adopted hometown in common, though. Although none were born in Kansas City, all experienced significant musical growth while living there. Unlike Basie and McShann, though, Eldar’s formation started before puberty. He performed at a Russian jazz festival at age 5 and at age 12 became the youngest guest ever on Marian McPartlan’s Piano Jazz radio show. Though his latest album is straight-up smooth jazz, Eldar’s earlier work has a breadth that recalls everyone from Ahmad Jamal to Art Tatum. Albums to start with: Eldar, Live at the Blue Note

Christian McBride

Bass player Christian McBride was mentored and hailed by no less an authority than Ray Brown before starting off on his own. McBride works comfortably in the traditional vein on his early albums like “Fingerpainting,” the excellent tribute to Herbie Hancock performed in a bass/guitar/trumpet setting. He gets more funky and touches on fusion with his three-disc live set recorded at Tonic and studio albums “Sci-Fi” and “Vertical Vision.” In 2003, McBride collaborated with hip hop drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots and keyboardist Uri Caine for a spectacular collaboration known as the Philadelphia Experiment. McBride has also worked extensively with Sting and Pat Metheny. Albums to start with: Fingerpainting, The Philadelphia Experiment.

Joshua Redman

Expectations have been high for Joshua Redman since winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition in 1991. While Redman hasn’t fulfilled those unrealistic expectations by taking his instrument to the heights achieved by Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, he has built a strong career on his own terms. Redman’s early quintets helped launch the careers of Christian McBride and Brad Mehldau and his work as musical director of the San Francisco Jazz Collective paired him with legends like Bobby Hutcherson and new artists like Miguel Zenon. Redman’s catalog is adventurous enough to include covers of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” with guitarist Pat Metheny and funky experiments that recall Eddie Harris. Albums to start with: Spirit of the Moment, Back East.

Savion Glover

Jazz tap may have died with the golden age of big-budget Hollywood musicals, but Savion Glover is trying his best to bring it back. He has appeared in televised concerts with Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra, collaborated with poet Reg E. Gaines and saxophone player Matana Roberts for the John Coltrane-inspired improve “If Trane Was Here,” appeared in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” and was a cast member of “Sesame Street.” Glover hasn’t recorded any albums, but his live performances are a potent reminder that jazz isn’t the exclusive province of those with a horn or a voice.

Bad Plus

Combining rock and jazz is nothing new, but the piano/drums/bass trio Bad Plus have done it in an acoustic setting that resembles Medeski, Martin and Wood more than Weather Report. Their early albums were filled with original material that split the difference between Oscar Peterson and Ben Folds, tempered by occasional arrangements of Pixies and Black Sabbath classics. Unfortunately, recent releases have steered sharply away from new compositions and saturated the increasing covers with more irony. While the concept of their newest album – all covers with a female vocalist – makes one wary, their early material should not be overlooked. Albums to start with: Give, Suspicious Activity.

Keep Reading 15 Jazz Greats to Emerge in the Last 20 Years

Part One

Part Two

Five Legends Still Adding to Their Legacies