Social Distancing Spins – Day 41

Sonny Rollins – The Freedom Suite (1958) The Civil Rights movement and bebop came of age together in the 1940s and ‘50s. It makes just as much sense for the jazz artists of that time to make music about the blatant racial inequality happening in America at the time as did for Chuck D, KRS-One and Mos Def to do it in their times. The hard-hitting title song lasts nearly 20 minutes and takes up the entire first side. In it Rollins displays his talent for twisting, flipping and turning a theme inside-out, only without any of the humor he usually infuses into his playing. Rollins is dead serious here and his point is driven home by Max Roach’s sympathetic and dynamic drumming. The second side is devoted to softer material, including a stellar reading of The Music Man’s “’Till There Was You” (also covered by the Beatles). Rollins’ pacing in the production of this album is just as impeccable as in his playing. He knows when to clench a fist and when to extend a hand.

Raffi – Singable Songs for the Very Young (1976) This was a favorite album from my childhood and my son now enjoys it. I wrote extensively about Raffi and his then-unknown producer some time ago. 

Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe – Enko on ti Tou: 1966-2016 (compilation) I don’t know anything about this band or this music except that I love it. Internet research tells me this is “one of the most important French Antillean band from the ‘60s and ‘70s.” This practically goes without saying. In all my acquaintances with other French Antillean bands from the ‘60s and ‘70s, Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe definitely rest on the top of that pile. The internet also tells me their music is “a unique mix of Biguine, funk, Latin, compass and early Zouk.” Don’t confuse Les Vikings de la Guadeloupe with a late Zouk band. They are strictly early Zouk. Look, here is all you need to know about this fantastic collection. Ready? You know how there aren’t many airplanes in the sky right now, because we can’t really leave our houses except to go to the grocery store? And you know how we all can’t wait for this to end and safely return to exploring our world? If you put this record on and close your eyes, you can take an easy vacation in your mind down to the Caribbean. No frequent flyer miles required.

Bob Dylan – Under the Red Sky (1990)
Joni Mitchell – Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988)
Paul McCartney – Egypt Station (2018) Most longtime artists who hang around long enough reach a crossroads at a certain point in their careers. Do they want to continue pushing to be on the vanguard, or will they regroup and continue to create from their strengths? Typically, the audience figures this out an album or two before the artist. A common attempt to hang on the precipice of the cutting edge a little longer is to rope in several high-profile guests.

This is the place Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell found themselves in the late ‘80s. Mitchell enlisted Tom Petty and Billy Idol to assist on “Dancin’ Clown,” with a result that is as head-scratching as it appears on paper. Other duets were more successful. Peter Gabriel steps into “My Secret Place” and makes it sound like a So b-side. Willie Nelson and Don Henley trade vocals with Mitchell on “Cool Water” and “Snakes and Ladders,” respectively. The best duet on the album, though, comes between Mitchell and saxophone legend Wayne Shorter on “A Bird that Whistles (Corrina, Corrina).”

The hype sticker on my copy of Under the Red Sky boasts special appearances by David Crosby, George Harrison, Bruce Hornsby, Elton John, Al Kooper, Slash, Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Don Was and more, with each musician’s name in all caps. For all that star power it’s remarkable that only a few guests manage to differentiate themselves from standard studio pros. The other problem with Under the Red Sky is that some of the songs are embarrassing. It doesn’t matter which special guest plays the solo on “Wiggle Wiggle,” the ghost of Jimi Hendrix couldn’t save a tune with the lyrics “wiggle to the right, wiggle to the rear/wiggle ‘til you wiggle right out of here.” Dylan is still Dylan though, and he gives us the great “Born in Time” to counterbalance “Wiggle Wiggle.” But that’s the problem: the album is a wash.

Neither Chalk Mark or Red Sky are bad albums, per se. It’s that not only do the results fail to add major works to each artists’ considerable songbooks, they seem to be trying awfully hard to achieve this mediocrity. To be fair, half-baked Dylan and Mitchell are still better than the majority of songwriters, and there are some keepers hidden in both albums. But Chalk Mark and Red Sky are also the final contemporary-sounding albums each made before retreating to acoustic guitars and the style of music that made both of them icons and haven’t come close to anything close to modern again.

Paul McCartney has managed to avoid this trap for the most part. There was a time in the mid-to-late ‘90s after the Beatles Anthology came out that it looked like he was going down the heritage path, but he still believes he can land on top of the charts again. On McCartney’s most recent album, Egypt Station, he brought in producers Greg Kurstin, who has worked with Sia, Beck, Pink and Zayn Malik of One Direction, among others, and Ryan Tedder, who has worked with Beyonce, One Direction, Selena Gomez, Ed Sheeran and many more. Clearly McCartney was thinking about the zeitgeist when he selected these producers. And while the single “Fuh You” was obviously written for Top 40 appeal, it’s also not half as awkward as “Wiggle Wiggle” or “Dancin’ Clown.” Egypt Station won’t make anyone forget about Band on the Run, but it also feels a lot less forced that Under the Red Sky and Chalk Marks in a Rain Storm.

Obviously, Dylan and Mitchell went on to release some great albums after they embraced heritage status. I don’t know that McCartney has made an album as good as Love and Theft this century, but he also hasn’t resorted to a hits-with-strings live album or three consecutive standards album. (McCartney did one, 2012’s Kisses on the Bottom, and moved on.) That has to count for something.

Mavis Staples – Livin’ on a High Note (2016) Mavis Staples is a treasure. Her soulful voice never fails to put me at ease. For her 10th solo album, Staples is assisted by some of the top indie music songwriters today. Justin Vernon, Benjamin Booker, Valerie June, Aloe Blacc and Neko Case all contribute songs. Case’s work is rarely performed by other singers, so it is intriguing to hear Staples’ voice interpret Case’s unique phrasing. Vernon and M. Ward’s “Dedicated” is another standout track. I love the way Staples delivers the lyric “if it’s us against the world/Well I would bet on us” with so much hope and assurance. Livin’ on a High Note ends on a high note with “MLK Song,” a gospel folk song that incorporates one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches for the lyrics. Staples knew King well and marched with him several times in the 1960s. Again, her singing is full of hope and optimism, not sadness or loss. Livin’ on a High Note is a feel-good album for any time, but it seems especially needed right now.

Lanois + Raffi = Eno

(Above: Raffi was a staple of The Daily Record’s early childhood. The oft-spun LP remains in its archives.)

By Joel Francis

Like many adolescent males in the mid-‘60s, Canadian Dan Lanois pined for a guitar. But he didn’t just want to make music, he wanted to record it, too.

Armed with an instrument and a cheap, tiny cassette recorder, Lanois and his brother Robert started recording anything they could find. They soon found manipulating the results was almost as fun as making and capturing the sounds. The siblings eventually invested in a four-track recorder and set up a small studio in the laundry room of their mother’s Ancaster, Ontario home.

The domestic facility was named MSR Studios, and the brothers advertised that for $60 they would not only record a band’s demo, but arrange, play on and compose the tracks as well. A short time after MSR Studios opened for business in the mid-‘70s, the Lanois brothers’ ad caught the eye of Egyptian immigrant Raffi Cavoukian.

Cavoukian was a veteran of Toronto’s folk circuit, but his 1975 album, “Good Luck Boy” generated little heat. Cavoukian’s mother-in-law encouraged him to write and record some songs for the children at her preschool. Aided by his wife, kindergarten teacher Debi Pike, Cavoukian recorded a tape that was so successful other schools started requesting copies.

MSR Studios was everything Cavoukian was looking for. Cheap, efficient and local it even came with its own musicians. In 1976, Cavoukian borrowed $4,000 from a bank recorded his first children’s album, “Singable Songs for the Very Young,” at the Lanois brother’s small home studio. Dan Lanois also played mandolin, recorded, mixed and engineered the album.

The easygoing, folk-flavored “Singable Songs for the Very Young” was a smash that ranked among top children’s album more than two decades after it was released.  Boosted by sessions with Cavoukian, by now going by simply Raffi, Doug McArthur, another Toronto folkie, and rock band Simply Saucer, the Lanois brothers soon had enough money to move their studio to better quarters. In 1978 they purchased a Hamilton, Ontario house on Grant Avenue, which became, naturally, Grant Avenue Studio.

Raffi was one of the first artists to use Grant Avenue Studio. By now he and Dan Lanois had collaborated on two albums and would go on to record two more together. Their body of work together comprised Raffi’s first four children’s albums. Grant Avenue also boasted sessions by singer/songwriter Ian Tyson and new wave band Martha and the Muffins.

The Muffins had just come off a commercially successful tour opening for Roxy Music, but they lost two members in the process. When the remaining quartet decided to carry on, one of the new musicians they recruited was bass player Jocelyne Lanois, sister of Dan and Robert. The Muffins got permission from Virgin to make an album with Dan Lanois with the stipulation that they operate on a miniscule budget. This was no obstacle for Lanois, and the resulting album “This is the Ice Age” generated a Top 40 Canadian single.

The band and album didn’t do much outside of the Great White North, however, and they were dropped by Virgin. The Muffin’s relationship with Lanois, however, flourished through two more albums. Their 1984 album, “Mystery Walk,” featured guest drummer Yogi Horton. Horton was a veteran of the 1981 experimental album “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” and was recommended by his boss during those sessions, Brian Eno.

Eno, of course, had cemented his legendary reputation with his work in Roxy Music and the solo albums he released in the first half of the 1970s, and his production work with Devo, David Bowie, Talking Heads and the “No New York” No Wave compliation in the second half of the decade. By the mid-‘80s, Eno and Lanois were longtime associates.

Lanois’ tape and recording manipulations first caught Eno’s attention in the late ‘70s. Although embroiled in producing the final chapter in Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” and on albums with both the Talking Heads and their bandleader David Byrne, Eno and Lanois met at Grant Avenue to experiment with sound and recording. In 1979, Eno recorded “The Plateaux of Mirror,” the second installment in his ambient series, with Harold Budd at Grant Avenue. Although they did not produce the album, “Bob and Danny Lanois” are thanked in the album credits.

In 1982, Lanois co-produced and played some on the fourth installment of Eno’s ambient series, “On Land.” The following year, Lanois received cover billing for his musical and production contributions to the “Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks.” One of the album’s tracks, “Silver Morning,” was essentially a Lanois solo performance.

When U2 asked Eno to produce their fourth album, “The Unforgettable Fire,” in 1984 Eno brought Lanois with him. The next year, Eno recommended Lanois to Peter Gabriel to help with the “Birdy” soundtrack.

Ten years after opening MSR Studios in his mother’s laundry room, Lanois was an A-list producer. He and Gabriel collaborated on several landmark albums, including “So” and “Us.” Eno and Lanois also repeatedly re-teamed with U2 for “The Joshua Tree,” portions of “Rattle and Hum,” “Achtung Baby,” “All that You Can’t Leave Behind” and the Irish quartet’s most recent album, “No Line on the Horizon.” Lanois has also worked with Emmylou Harris, the Neville Brothers, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Hothouse Flowers, Willie Nelson and released several solo albums.