Social Distancing Spins – Days 26 and 27

By Joel Francis

Nice weather and conference calls are an anathema to playing records.

Jay-Z – The Black Album (2003) Reading Jay-Z’s book Decoded has me turning back to his old albums for the first time in quite a while. Sean Carter has always been at his best when rhyming about himself, particularly his early exploits as a hustler. Jay’s told it so many times it’s almost as much cliché as legend by this point. The Black Album is loaded with boasting and taunts over some of the best productions of the time. The Neptunes, Rick Rubin, Just Blaze, Timbaland and a young Kanye West all contribute tracks. One of Hova’s best-known rhymes on the album comes from “Moment of Clarity”: “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli.” As we saw on 4:44, Jay can’t really do conscious rap without inevitably turning it back on himself. (Remember his lament over not investing in Dumbo real estate in “The Story of O.J.”?) The Black Album is all about Jay-Z all the time, and we are better for it.

Paul McCartney – Press To Play (1986) Somewhere along the way, I got the idea that Press to Play was a solid Paul McCartney album, unfairly overlooked because of its very of-the-moment production. It isn’t. There are some songs I genuinely enjoy here, such as the flamenco guitar-accented “Footprints,” “Press” and “Move Over Busker.” There is a solid EP lurking among these 10 tracks. The problem with the rest is that despite help from 10cc’s Eric Stewart, the songwriting simply isn’t that strong. McCartney was wise to bring in Elvis Costello as a songwriting partner for his next album, Flowers in the Dirt. I didn’t pay much for Press to Play so I don’t feel badly about owning it, but all but the most dedicated McCartney fans can press skip instead.

Sonny Rollins – Next Album (1972) Jazz albums from the 1970s can be a dicey proposition. One never knows how much synthesizer or slap/fretless bass will be involved. Fortunately, Sonny Rollins plays to his strengths on Next Album. For the most part, Rollins plays in an acoustic four-piece setting. Opening number “Playin’ in the Yard” is the only track to feature electric bass and electric piano. It’s also the only time Next Album sounds of the moment, but anyone who enjoyed Joe Zawinul’s tenure with Cannonball Adderly will feel right at home. Later, “The Everywhere Calypso” lives up to its name with a fun Caribbean beat. The absolute high point is a 10-minute version of “Skylark” that closes the album. The band gradually fades away during the performance, leaving Rollins to play unaccompanied for several blissful minutes.

DJ Shadow – Endtroducing (1996) The Bay-area DJ’s first album is the one to which all of his other releases will be compared. None of the songs on this all-instrumental album made the charts, but “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt” has appeared in several commercials. You would probably recognize the haunting piano line if you heard it. The spacey “Midnight in a Perfect World” is another favorite. Clocking in at nearly 10 minutes “Stem/Long Stem/Transmission 2” is the centerpiece of the album. It starts with a harp refrain before building into a hard drum attack (with strings). It eventually settles back down into something almost ambient. If Brian Eno ever tried to create dance music, it might sound a lot like this. Whenever someone says that sampling isn’t music, I hold up Endtroducing as an emphatic counterargument. Then walk away, because arguing about what constitutes music, much like arguing about authenticity or what is or isn’t a sport, is a waste of time. And I’d rather be listening to music than quarreling about it.

Toots and the Maytals – Funky Kingston (1975) Reggae pioneer Toots Hibberts’ first album for Island Records is so strong you might be forgiven for thinking you are listening to a greatest hits album. Many of his biggest – and best – songs are here: “Funky Kingston,” “Time Tough,” “Pressure Drop” (later covered by the Clash, the Specials and Keith Richards) and a delightful cover of John Denver’s “Country Roads” (with West Jamaica standing in for West Virginia). Hibbert’s singing has always been filled with as much soul and gospel as reggae. His joyous vocals go a long way toward making these great songs even more infectious.

Junior Walker and the All Stars – Shotgun (1965) Junior Walker recorded nearly 20 albums for Motown, but this is really the only one you need. From the title song to Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “(I’m a) Roadrunner” to the infectious “Shake and Fingerpop,” Shotgun not only contains Junior Walker’s best-known tunes, but a deep well of great album tracks as well. “Shoot Your Shot” could be “Shotgun”’s cousin, complete with dance steps. “Cleo’s Mood” steps away from the template and sounds like a Leiber-Stoller revival. When you see Shotgun, don’t be afraid to pull the trigger. You know you need this.

Review: Elvis Costello and the Imposters

(Above: Elvis Costello and the Imposters take the stage on a hot summer night at Crossroads KC.)

Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Elvis Costello solved the age-old problem of what to do when an artist has too many great songs for one show – he brought them all onstage with him.

Costello’s “Spectacular Spinning Songbook” tour touched down at a crowded Crossroads on Thursday night. Behind the acclaimed songwriter’s left shoulder loomed a huge multi-colored wheel adorned with three dozen of his favorite songs. One at a time, members of the audience were invited up to spin the wheel and pick the next number.

“(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” usually an encore, came up early. So did “Earthworms,” a song Costello wrote for singer Wendy James in the early ‘90s but never recorded himself. When the wheel landed on Bob Dylan’s “This Wheel’s On Fire,” Costello let the crowd choose between that number and his own “Human Hands.” The headliner won out.

First employed in the late ‘80s, the spinning songbook is a novel way for the performer to experience his work in a new context. On that level it was a success. The quartet was tight and energetic, clearly feeding of the energy of the fans dancing along to their selections onstage. But the wheel also killed momentum and started to feel kind of gimmicky after a while.

That said there was indisputably some great music in between spins. A spooky “I Want You” and an extended reading of “Watching the Detectives” that played up the song’s dub roots were among the high points.

Many of the best moments came early. Costello and his Imposters took the stage in with many favorites in a potent 15-minute romp before introducing the wheel. The extended jam on “Uncomplicated” found Costello and bass player Davey Faragher trading lines from Jr. Walker’s “Shotgun.” The Motown connection returned during “Alison,” when Costello incorporated several of the verses from Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears.”

Keyboard wizard Steve Nieve was the driving force on many songs, adding calliope runs to “Radio Radio,” a Theremin solo on “Peace, Love and Understanding” and sneaking some Stevie Wonder clavinet on “Shabby Doll.”

The night nearly ended with a brilliant three-song encore in which Costello and his band somehow took the jumpy “Pump It Up” straight into the reflective “Alison” before somehow ending up on a surprisingly strong version of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” Costello had other plans, however, returning with two thirds of the Lovell Sisters to play some bluegrass.

Setlist: I Hope You’re Happy Now; Heart of the City; Mystery Dance; Uncomplicated > Radio Radio; Talking in the Dark; Clubland; (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding; Earthbound; Human Hands; Watching the Detectives; (I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea; Almost Blue; Shabby Doll; I Want You. Encore 1: Brilliant Mistake; Pump It Up; Alison > Purple Rain. Encore 2: Sulfur to Sugarcane; The Crooked Line; The Scarlet Tide.

Keep reading:

Elvis Costello – “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane”

The Miracles – “The Tracks of My Tears”

Solomon Burke’s Sweet Soul Music