Social Distancing Spins – Day 21

By Joel Francis

Days blur together like a Michel Gondry dream sequence, but the vinyl never stops.

Slowdive – self-titled (2017) During their original run, the English quintet Slowdive delivered three albums that blurred the lines between shoegaze and dream pop. For their first album in nearly a generation, the band is once again operating in the sweet spot of dreamy guitars and ethereal vocals. Slowdive manages to maintain a consistent mood without feeling repetitive. I’m not sure I would have appreciated them as much during the grunge era as I do now, but this reunion album still serves as a soothing antidote to a stressful time. There’s nothing better than putting this on and letting the world float away for the better part of an hour. Favorite songs include the single “Sugar for the Pill” and “Falling Ashes,” which became even more of a favorite after seeing them perform it in concert.

Bruce Springsteen – The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) The Ghost of Tom Joad is typically compared to Nebraska because they are both acoustic albums, but this is really unfair to Joad because it isn’t trying to accomplish the same thing. The songs on Tom Joad are fully realized acoustic performances complete with violin, pedal steel and a full band. The songs are some of the Boss’ best, as well. I love the title track in all its arrangements, especially the one with Pete Seeger reciting the lyrics over Springsteen’s guitar. “Youngstown” is a concert staple, yet “Dry Lightning” and “My Best Was Never Good Enough” don’t seem to get the recognition they deserve. “Across the Border” remains particularly relevant in the current xenophobic culture. Overall, The Ghost of Tom Joad has more in common with Devils and Dust than anything else in Springsteen’s catalog. It’s his best album of the 1990s.

Tom Waits – Alice (2002) Tom Waits threw his hat into the ring of releasing two albums on the same day when he released Alice and Blood Money simultaneously in the spring of 2002. Of the two, I prefer Alice, which features more ballads and generally less abrasive material (not that Blood Money is a bad album). Really, the two albums complement each other like less contrived versions of the Brawlers and Bawlers collections on the Orphans box set. Blood Money says “Misery is the River of the World” and Alice cries “No One Knows I’m Upset.” Pick a pill, red or blue. Either one leads to sonic delights.

Margo Price – Live at the Hamilton (2016) Margo Price is a throwback to a time when women like Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt could move the needle in Nashville. Sadly, I don’t know how much traction she and fellow spirits the Highwomen will get. Either way, her songwriting and spirit can’t be denied. This set features Price and her band onstage in Washington, D.C., 24 hours after election day. (I was set to attend an in-store that same night but couldn’t muster the motivation to leave the house, an ironic stance now.) They perform several songs from her debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter and cover Billy Joe Shaver, Merle Haggard, Rodney Crowell and breathe new life into Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.”

Houston Stackhouse – Worried Blues (2017)

Rev. Leon Pinson – Hush-Somebody is Calling Me (2016) There’s a great record shop in Memphis, right around the corner from a restaurant that used to be a hair salon and built their eatery around the old fixtures. Both are worth a stop. The shop, Goner Records, has an incredible selection of delta blues albums that is expertly curated. I typically pick out a half dozen albums that look intriguing by artists I’ve never heard. The person behind the counter is always happy to describe each album and I buy as much as I can afford. This process has never let me down. It also led me to these albums, released in the 2010s but compiled from recordings made in the 1960s. Both contained fingerpicked, acoustic Delta blues. As expected from his title, Pinson works a lot of gospel in his songs. If you can’t make it to church (or don’t want to go) put this on instead.

Prince – Art Official Age (2014) It is lazy critical shorthand to say a given new album is an artist’s best since his or her most recent critical masterpiece. The new album usually doesn’t measure up and music fans end up with piles of reviews where each subsequent release is hailed as a return to form and compared to the same previous classic.

So let me try it now. Art Official Age is Prince’s best release since the Love Symbol album. The funk workouts are on par with the best jams on Musicology and 3121 but what gives Art Official Age the nod is “Funknroll” a track that combines soul, funk, rock and electro to surpass its title and give Prince his best dance track since “P Control.”

See how easy that is?

If you are curious about any of Prince’s post-heyday releases and feel overwhelmed by the number of albums he put out across the last 20-or-so years of his life, Art Official Age is a solid place to start.

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?