Random record reviews: Steve Earle, Prince

(Above: Prince gets funky on “1+1+1=3,” one of the best tracks his album The Rainbow Children, in Las Vegas in 2002.)

By Joel Francis

Steve Earle – Ghosts of West Virginia

Ostensibly a song cycle about coal miners, Ghosts of West Virginia, the newest album by singer/songwriter Steve Earle, also works as a metaphor for blue collar work. Although the songs were written years ago for a theater production, they seem particularly timely right now, in the midst of a pandemic when sectors of the workforce are literally labeled essential.

Steve Earle - The Ghosts of West Virginia

The album opens with an a capella song that sounds like an old Appalachian hymn. From there, Earle unearths the heritage and history of the coal mining profession and covers the folk song “John Henry” for further context. 

The emotional tour de force “It’s About Blood” opens the second side. As the guitars build, Earle names all 29 miners killed in the 2010 Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion. A climax this intense would conclude most albums. Instead, Earle pivots into the tender ballad “If I Could See Your Face” sung by Elanor Whitmore. This ability to empathetically explores different facets of a coal miner’s life, is not only what makes Earle a cut better than many other songwriters, but also makes Ghosts of West Virginia stand out in his own vast catalog.

Prince – One Nite Alone

Prince’s final shows were billed as the Piano and a Microphone tour, but One Nite Alone shows this context was not a new one. Recorded in 2002, this 35-minute collection finds Prince exploring his jazzier side. The recordings are gorgeous, elegant and intimate, putting the listener in the room with Prince. But like a decadent desert, these songs work best in small doses. Although some tracks, like “Here on Earth,” feature touches of synthesizer and percussion, they all work in the same stately mood, blunting the effect across the course of the album.

One Nite Alone is the album to play when you finally open that bottle of wine you’ve been saving, want to impress a certain someone or just want to curl up in the dark and escape with a gifted artist. Finally having it on vinyl will make the experience seem even more immediate. It won’t be played as much as Purple Rain, but One Nite Alone will be perfect when time comes.

Prince – The Rainbow Children

Once freed from the shackles of a major label, Prince was able to indulge all of his impulses, for better or worse. His 2001 album The Rainbow Children is a jazz concept album about … who knows. I’ve never quite been able to figure it out. The looser arrangements and nearly 70-minute running time allow Prince more space to jam and solo. Whether or not it works depends on your taste in jazz and self-indulgence.

The Rainbow Children is a long way from Prince’s groundbreaking, hit-filled albums of the ‘80s. That said, there are some stand-out tracks. The James Brown funk workout “The Work, Part 1” could have been an R&B hit in an alternate world. Closing songs, “The Everlasting Now” and “Last December” also number among the album’s strongest moments.

Long out of print, Prince completists will be delighted they no longer have to shell out exorbitant figures to own The Rainbow Children on vinyl. Less devoted fans may want to sample the album digitally before deciding if they want to take custody of The Rainbow Children.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 66

By Joel Francis

Peter Gabriel – Up (2002) As a fan who discovered Peter Gabriel in the early ‘90s, the decade between Us and Up seemed interminable. I’m glad no one told me at the time that I’d be waiting at least twice at long for his next platter of original material. Because of the lengthy delay, Up didn’t have the commercial impact of Us and So. Up is also a much darker album that features electronic elements in several songs. “The Barry Williams Show,” the first single released from Up, is easily its worst track. The arrangement never really gels and the lyrics lampooning talk shows and reality TV seems forced. (Lord, if Gabriel ever knew where those twin genres of trash television would lead us today ….) Sadness and mortality are themes in a couple songs, including the moving “I Grieve,” first showing up on the City of Angels soundtrack four years before Up’s release. Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn assists on the album’s emotional apex, “Signal to Noise.” As Gabriel has continued to move further away from rock music, hearing him surrounded by guitars, drum, bass and keyboards feels almost as gratifying as when this original material was first released.

Thelonious Monk – Solo Monk (1965) ‘Tis a pure delight to hear Thelonious Monk work without a band, with no filter between his mind and the music. The 13 songs on this wonderful album include standards, like the jaunty “Dinah,” which opens the collection, and the wistful, sentimental “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You),” which ends the album. Monk scatters his own compositions among the standards, including “Ruby, My Dear,” one of his signature pieces, “Monk’s Point” and “North of the Sunset.” In his autobiography, pianist Randy Weston talks about Monk holding court at his New York City apartment, sitting at the piano, playing whatever comes into his mind. Solo Monk is as close as we’ll get to eavesdropping on one of those private sessions. Solo Monk is a treasure in every way.

The Kinks – Sleepwalker (1977) The Kinks had such a long career they managed to peak twice. Between 1966 and 1971, they released an amazing cluster of albums, including Something Else, Arthur and Muswell Hillbillies. Then, in the late 1970s they peaked again, starting with Sleepwalker. Disco-era Kinks were a very different group than their swinging ‘60s counterparts. The group had ballooned to five members, to accommodate a keyboard player, and the sound was more hard rock than twee pop. Songwriter Ray Davies abandoned the concept albums that had bogged down most of the band’s 1970s albums, and brought sleek, stand-alone rock songs. Brother Dave Davies turns his guitar up loud enough to reach the cheap seats in the sports arenas they would wind up playing on tour. The subject of songs “Life on the Road” and “Juke Box Music” are evident in their titles. “Life Goes On” is an upbeat anthem guaranteed to brighten any bad day. Sleepwalker isn’t the best album from the Kinks revival, but it sets the table nicely for the pair of albums that follow and improve on this direction.

Lee Ranaldo – Between the Times and the Tides (2012) As a member of Sonic Youth, guitarist Lee Ranaldo’s solo releases were art projects not intended for mainstream audiences. Thankfully his first effort after Sonic Youth’s unfortunate demise is an accessible, low key indie rock album in the same vein as his old band’s album Murray Street. Ranaldo wrote all the songs for Between the Times, but he assembled an all-star band to bring the material to life. Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelly, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and Medeski, Martin and Wood jazz keyboard player John Medeski. My favorite song on the album is “Xtina as I Knew Her,” a haunting look back at underage drinking parties and the danger constantly lurking under the veneer of good times. Here are the lyrics to the bridge, which sets up a stinging Cline solo: “Slip behind the valley curtain/Looking for a place to hide/Shaky and those times uncertain/Everyone drunk on red wine.” The other songs are equally solid, proving that underneath are the abstract noise experiments beats the heart of a pop songwriter.

Steve Earle and the Dukes – So You Wanna Be an Outlaw? (2017) It feels like Steve Earle releases a new album of original material about 18 months. If you don’t like his current musical disposition, wait a few seasons and he’ll be there again in a different mood. Fortunately, So You Wanna Be an Outlaw?, a return to country-ish material, is a keeper. By virtue of being so prolific, Earle’s songwriting has gotten tighter and tighter, to the point where he can write a tribute to the people fighting forest fires simply because he learned they’d never had one (“The Firebreak Line”). Most of the other songs on the album deal with troubles: with women, money and society. Willie Nelson pops by to lend his voice to the title song. Earle ends the album with several earnest covers of classic outlaw country songs, including Billy Joe Shaver’s “Ain’t No God in Mexico” and Waylon Jenning’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”

Pearl Jam – Live at Easy Street (2019) In the spring of 2005, Pearl Jam stopped by a Seattle record shop to play a few songs and spread some hometown love. Seven of those songs were released on an CD exclusively available in independent record shops. Several years later, those same seven songs were released on vinyl for Record Store Day. My biggest complaint with this release is that I wished they would have released the full 16-song set on two albums, rather than the 27 minutes of material that populates this EP. What we’re given is great, though. Two songs from Riot Act, the band’s newest album at the time, one each from No Code and Ten and three covers. John Doe even comes out to perform X’s “The New World” with the band.

Last fall I ended up in Seattle for work. After making an obligatory stop at the Jimi Hendrix gravesite, I was hungry for both breakfast and crate digging. Both desires were satiated at Easy Street, which features a nice little brunch menu and an impressive expanse of vinyl. The large murals commemorating Pearl Jam’s concert brought two and two together for me. If you find yourself in the neighborhood, Easy Street is definitely worth a stop.

Social Distancing Spins – Days 15-17

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.

Social Distancing Spins, Day 7

By Joel Francis

The exploration of my record collection continues.

10,000 Maniacs – In My Tribe (1987) Here’s the moment where everything came together for the Maniacs, and for my money is their finest album. Our Time in Eden sold more copies and had bigger singles but none of that success would have been possible without the creative breakthroughs on In My Tribe. There’s not a bad song on the album. Opener “What’s the Matter Here” so effortless and graceful it takes a few dozen listens to figure out Natale Merchant is singing about child abuse. It’s the perfect balance of poignance without being preachy. R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe pops up to provide countermelody vocals on “A Campfire Song.” I believe this is the first time Stipe and Merchant duet on record. Their voices complement each other so well I’ve always longed for a full duets album. Jerome Augustyniak’s percussion arrangement on a cover of Cat Steven’s “Peace Train” gives the song a fresh spin while staying true to the hopeful spirit of the original. The album ends with “Verdi Cries,” an achingly nostalgic look back at a European holiday and the anonymous tourist who played “Aida” every day from his room. Merchant’s wordless chorus and the string arrangement by David Campbell (Beck’s dad) end this perfect album on the perfect note.

The Beach Boys – Ten Years of Harmony (compilation) Contrary to popular perception, the Beach Boys made a tremendous amount of great music after Pet Sounds. Consistent with popular perception, the Beach Boys created several boatloads of embarrassing drek during that same era. Ten Years of Harmony collects the highlights from the 1970s. Not everything here is gold. “It’s a Beautiful Day” is a forced, mawkish attempt of a song that used to roll effortlessly out of the group during their heyday. Despite this misstep, there are enough stellar moments across the two platters to make this an essential addition to any Beach Boys collection. Think of it as a bookend to the stellar Endless Summer compilation. Bonus points to the producers for not tacking on any live versions of their early hits.

Teisco – Musiche de Teisco (compilation) A clerk in a record shop in Seattle recommended this album, so I added it to my pile. Hopefully by now I established that if the price is low and the cover intriguing, I will absolutely take a chance on an album. This is a collection of Italian electronic music recorded between 1975 and 1980. Imagine Pink Floyd as a Krautrock band and you’re pretty close. I have no idea why the covers depicts a person playing guitar when most of the music here is keyboard-based.

The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers (1971) I went whole-hog when I discovered the Rolling Stones, evangelizing the band as if they were some obscure group. In the midst of this fervor, my family gathered at my grandparents. We were all watching some movie on television when a commercial came on advertising a Stones hit collection. I was mortified to see the song “Bitch” roll across the screen amongst other hits like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Women.” My fear was that some familial authority would connect my newfound love of the band with the distaste of “Bitch” and place the Stones off limit. It seemed like “Bitch” scrolled across the screen three times as often as any other song title. Thankfully, the crisis existed only in my mind and no one said a word.

This anniversary edition of Stick Fingers features two versions of “Bitch.” The one we all know and love is on the first record, while an extended version graces the bonus disc. An extra two minutes of horns grooving over that great Keith Richards guitar riff ain’t a band thing at all. The bonus disc also includes a version of “Brown Sugar” with Eric Clapton on slide guitar. The horns are removed from the track to give Slowhand’s snoozy playing more prominence and Mick Jagger’s racist lyrics are pushed up in the mix. Yes, the zipper on the cover works.

TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain (2006) The last time TV on the Radio performed in Kansas City was almost five years ago to the day. The first time I saw them, in support of this, their third album, was also in March. They always play intense compact sets, around 75 to 80 minutes in length. Return to Cookie Mountain, the album and the tour, were what cemented my TVOTR fandom. Opener “I Was a Lover” sounds like a chopped and screwed version of a My Bloody Valentine track with haunting falsetto vocals over the top. “Wolf Like Me,” a straight-up rock song about turning into a werewolf, sounds like something destined for a budget Halloween album but never fails to get my blood pumping. Having David Bowie sing on “Provence” was the ultimate seal of approval at the time. Now it sounds more like providence.

Steve Earle – Train a Comin’ (1994) Country singer Steve Earle emerged from incarceration with little going for him. After an existence as a songwriter for hire, Earle shot up his chance at mainstream country success with the Nashville machine behind him. An unassuming, acoustic album, Train a Comin’ opens the second chapter of Earle’s career, spurning the muscle of Music Row for a less lucrative but uncompromised existence as a six-string troubadour and songwriter extraordinaire. He’s been releasing an album about every 18 months ever since (and stopping through town almost as frequently).

R.E.M. – Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) R.E.M.’s third album is an outlier in their catalog. It doesn’t have the jangle or mystique of Murmur and Reckoning, doesn’t punch as hard as Lifes (sic) Rich Pageant and doesn’t have the commercial breakthroughs like Document. But being the odd duck isn’t a bad thing. The album doesn’t pull me in until the second song, “Maps and Legends,” which is followed by “Driver 8,” the big single. The second side is even better, opening with “Can’t Get There from Here” (with punchy horns foreshadowing “Finest Worksong” on Document). Peter Buck’s great guitar line is pushed to the front of the mix on “Green Grow the Rushes,” intentionally burying Michael Stipe’s vocals in the back. “Kohoutek” is a great performance and the acoustic “Wendel Gee” closes things off. Stipe’s lyrics are as inscrutable as ever, so I can’t really tell you what any of these songs are about, but they sound great going by.

Social Distancing Spins, Day 1

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.

Review: Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle

(Above: Shawn Colvin, left, and Steve Earle emplore listeners to “Tell Moses.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

With all the smiles, stories and strumming, Steve Earle and Shawn Colvin’s performance Wednesday night at the Kauffman Center seemed like very upscale busking.

The two artists stood on an all-black stage adorned with four monitors, one table, four guitars and two mandolins.

The concept was as straightforward as the setup. Over the course of 100 minutes, the pair performed ever song from their new collaboration, “Colvin and Earle” and scattered a couple of their own hits for good measure.

IMG_5969Despite nearly two dozen albums to their names, cover songs dominiated the setlist.

Earle introduced the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” by saying he learned how to play tennis racket to that song in front of a mirror. The spare arrangement brought Mick Jagger’s haunting lyrics to the forefront, particularly lines like “catch your dreams before they slip away.”

Other standout covers included Emmylou Harris’ “Raise the Dead” and the oft-recorded “Tobacco Road.” A laidback, almost effortless cover of “Wake Up Little Suzy” opened the night.

Before “Someday,” Earle told a long story, recapping his days as a Nashville songwriter trying to get a record deal, then fighting to get another when his debut single disappointed everyone. A friend took him to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on the “Born in the U.S.A.” tour, where Earle found inspiration to write his “Guitar Town” album. After success proved to be more of a struggle than failure, Earle fell into a spiral of drugs, only poking his head out of the darkness long enough to hear Harris recorded “Guitar Town” and Colvin cut “Someday.”

IMG_5974Despite a lack of drums (or band), the version of “Someday” that followed punched as hard as a metal band going full throttle.

Colvin bragged about all her depressing breakup songs, saying “I’ve known fans who won’t take their Prozac for a week before I come to town.” She backed up her words with her biggest hit, “Sonny Came Home,” and “Diamond in the Rough.” While most songs found Colvin and Earle playing off each other vocally, “Diamond” featured a long outro that saw the pair spar musically.

The auditorium was about two-thirds full, and needed little prompting to join in on Earle’s buoyant, mandolin-fueled “The Galway Girl.” The singing and clapping encouraged during “Tell Moses,” a new song, felt like an hootenanny.

After returning to the stage with a Beatles number, the pair closed the night with Earle’s biggest hit, “Copperhead Road.” Colvin got the chance to show off her guitar chops again on that one. With Earle playing mandolin, she had to provide all the song’s musical muscle.

Judging by the lines at the merchandise table afterward, it was more than enough to convince fans into throwing some more change in the hat on the way out.

Setlist: Wake Up Little Susie; Come What May; You Were On My Mind; Raise the Dead; Ruby Tuesday; Tobacco Road; That Don’t Worry Me Now; Someday; The Way That We Do; You’re Right (I’m Wrong); Burnin’ It Down; Sunny Came Home; The Galway Girl; Happy and Free; Tell Moses; You’re Still Gone. Encore: Baby’s In Black; Diamond in the Rough; Copperhead Road.

Keep reading:

Justin Townes Earle: His father’s son

Review: Lilith Fair

Elvis Costello – “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane”

Justin Townes Earle: His father’s son

(Above: Justin Townes Earle performs the joyous/sorrowful “Harlem River Blues” for David Letterman.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

While he was living in Los Angeles in the throes of addiction, songwriter Steve Earle reached out to his son Justin, who was living with his mom in Nashville.

“I had very little contact with my dad growing up,” Justin Townes Earle said, “but once a month I’d get a package in the mail full of records.”

Steve Earle was a country sensation at the time, building on the success of his albums “Guitar Town” and “Copperhead Road,” but the albums he mailed his son bore little relation to ones he was making.

“I guarantee you I was the first kid in Nashville to have Nirvana’s ‘Bleach,’ because I got it from my dad in ’89 when it first came out,” Earle said. “I had all the AC/DC albums … Mudhoney. I got Ice Cube’s ‘Lethal Injection’ from my father.”

A few years later, the elder Earle — now clean of his addictions — offered some musical advice to his son: Write what you know and write honestly. By this time Justin Townes Earle, 14, had discovered the music native to his hometown.

“I took that advice and ran with it,” Earle said. “I’m the type of person who, once you point me in the right direction, just leave me alone and let me go.”

Earle plays the Bottleneck in Lawrence tonight. Fifteen years have passed since his songwriting career began, and although he suffered some of the same dark periods of substance abuse his father endured, Earle has persevered. He has released an album a year since 2007, each building on the last.

“My albums have been a conscious progression,” Earle said. “ ‘Yuma’ was me addressing my Woody Guthrie thing. ‘The Good Life’ addressed the honky-tonk ghost. With ‘Midnight at the Movies’ I was trying to push to the weirder side of folk, and then on ‘Harlem River Blues’ I was going for more of the gospel and blues.”

Last year’s “Harlem River Blues” opens with what may be the standout track in Earle’s impressive catalog, an upbeat, jaunty gospel number … about suicide by drowning.

“That song initially came from something I remembered when reading the ‘Basketball Diaries’ when I was young,” Earle said. “Jim Carroll and his buddies were the toughest kids in New York because they’d jump off the cliffs into the Harlem River.”

The darker elements draw on Earle’s days as a homeless junkie. Shortly after being fired from his father’s band in the early 2000s, Earle spent two years on the streets in perpetual search for the next fix.

“Because I am a drug addict, I have friends with fairly miserable lives and a few who actually took their own lives,” Earle said. “I talked with one friend about eight hours before he did it (killed himself) and as he told me his plan. I saw a look of ease on his face I’d never seen. It was what he wanted to do and why the song has a celebratory feeling.”

Barely 29, Earle feels like he has already lived several lifetimes. He quit school at 14 and ran off with some other budding songwriters at 16. A near-death experience hastened the start of his recovery from hard substances, although Earle still smokes and just swore off alcohol.

“The album ‘Harlem River Blues’ is about a man in his late 20s realizing he’s human and slowing down. The invincible part of my 20s are over,” Earle said. “I’ve run the gamut. There’s something about drugs that make you realize how delicate life is.”

Most of Earle’s immediate future will be consumed with touring, but he plans to take several weeks in October to record his next album. After that he’s moving from New York City to Europe for three years.

“I want to go to Barcelona on weekends and Paris for dinner,” Earle said. “I’ve been to Barcelona three times on tour but have never been to the beach. I want to spend a month in Marrakech. I just want to take in as much as I can.”

Thursday’s show will be Earle’s first appearance in the area since he opened for Levon Helm at the Crossroads in July, a night Earle calls “one of my favorite shows of all time.”

“I had done a couple shows with Levon prior to that night, but because his voice was bad he didn’t sing,” Earle said. “After my set I walked out and ordered a couple drinks from the bar at the right side of the stage. When the band kicked into ‘Ophelia’ and I heard that voice, I dropped my drinks and ran to the side of the stage.

“I didn’t move for the rest of the night.”

Keep reading:

Catching up with the Hot Club of Cowtown

Woody Guthrie – “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)”

Review: Alejandro Escovedo

15 x 15

(Above: The only acceptable version of “Hoochie Coochie Man.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

A fun game has been going around the internet recently: Name 15 albums that influenced your taste in music today in 15 minutes. Because we never play anything straight up at The Daily Record, we twisted the rules a little and came up with 15 songs we dislike by artists we like.

  1. Led Zeppelin – “Stairway to Heaven.” Might as well get this heavy out of the way first. Classic rock radio has destroyed this great band’s best-known song. I’ve heard it so many times at this point I can conjure it up in my sleep. I never need to hear it again. Let me go one step further: I’d rather hear a half-hour live version of “Moby Dick” than have to sit through “Stairway” again.
  2. Joni Mitchell – “The Circle Game.” Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song about the cycles of life is actually a remarkable song. It works too well, though, leaving me completely depressed and feeling like I care about has decayed around me in just under 5 minutes. No wonder Mitchell selected this song to close her classic album “Ladies of the Canyon.” After this there’s nowhere to go.
  3. Beastie Boys – “Fight For Your Right To Party.” The Beastie Boys were a lot more creative and fun than the frat boy stereotype this dumb song earned them.
  4. Van Halen – “Love Walks In.” The Sammy Hagar period of the band is rightly painted as inferior to the original lineup, but you can’t help when you were born and I came of age right in the middle of Van Hagar. I never had a problem with Eddie switching from six-string to synths, but the sugary melody combined with lyrics about aliens made this song more than I could handle.
  5. Boogie Down Productions – “Jimmy.” Usually a master of the message, KRS-One’s sermon on safe sex comes off as both preachy and simplistic. The idiotic chorus destroys what little credibility may remain. The track did inspire the Young MC cut “Keep It In Your Pants” from his follow-up to “Stone Cold Rhymin’.” I wish I didn’t know these things, but I do and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
  6. Anyone – “The Long Black Veil.” First performed by Lefty Frizzell in 1959, this country classic has become a staple for Johnny Cash, The Band, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen and a dozen more. I can’t argue with any of those artists, but for a reason I could never put a finger on, it never resonated with me.
  7. Radiohead – “Creep.” This song introduced Radiohead to America, and for that I should be grateful, but “Pablo Honey” is the outlier in their catalog for me. In my mind, the catalog officially starts with “The Bends.”
  8. James Brown – “Killing Is Out, School Is In.” This song became the unintentional center point of Brown’s 2002 concert at the River Market. A lackluster set had already been derailed by a couple Janis Joplin covers by Brown’s then-wife and mayor Kay Barnes onstage proclamation of James Brown Day. Several years after Columbine, the message was not only no longer timely, but embarrassing. The song was later released as a single. Thankfully few heard it.
  9. David Bowie – “Changes.” Yet another song ruined by radio and turned into lazy shorthand for its era by television and movie producers.
  10. The Beatles – “The Long and Winding Road.” Dislike may be too strong a word for this song, but Paul McCartney had already delivered a better ballad for the “Let It Be/Get Back” project. This one feels like a syrupy afterthought to me.
  11. Steve Earle – “The Devil’s Right Hand.” This number brought Earle acclaim as a songwriter before he established himself as a recording artist in his own right. I think Lynyrd Skynyrd covered the same turf better with “Saturday Night Special.” The verses aren’t band, but the song is overly reliant on the repetitive chorus.
  12. The Who – “Behind Blues Eyes.” This sensitive number never seemed to fit in with the rest of “Who’s Next” and it seemed even more out of place as a single. Pete Townshend usually struck the right balance of being tough and vulnerable at the same time (see “The Song Is Over” or “How Many Friends”). He sounds weak and whiney on “Blue Eyes.” Limp Bizkit’s cover confirmed my instinct. Sympathy for Fred Durst? Never!
  13. Anyone but Muddy Waters – “Hoochie Coochie Man.” In the hands of Waters and the Chess studio pros, this is a blues masterpiece. For just about anyone else, it is usually a lame attempt for a middle-aged white guy to show he’s hep to the blooze. I’m looking at you Eric Clapton, Alexis Korner, Steven Seagal and Dion.
  14. Jay-Z – “Young Forever.” Alphaville’s 1984 hit “Forever Young” worked perfectly as the soundtrack to Napolean Dynamite’s dance with Deb. In the hands of Hova, however, it is ridiculous.
  15. Louie Armstrong – “What A Wonderful World.” There’s nothing wrong with Satchmo’s sublime performance. He manages to walk the tightrope between sincere and saccharine as the strings underneath support his presentation. Unfortunately, no one understood the song’s message, as it has a crutch when movie producers want to tug on heartstrings. Joey Ramone’s version was great upon release, but in the decade since it has become a hipster version of the same cliché.  I guess this leaves me with Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips’ weird yet heartfelt reading. I don’t think mainstream America is ready for that to be thrust down their throats – yet.

Keep reading:

Review: Flaming Lips New Year’s Freakout

Jay-Z – “The Blueprint 3″

Review: “Pops” by Terry Teachout

Top 10 Albums of 2008 (haiku remix)

raphael_saadiq_-_the_way_i_see_it

By Joel Francis

Raphael Saadiq – The Way I See It
Classic soul throwback.
Avoids tribute clichés by
keeping spirit true.

TV on the Radio – Dear Science
Great band gets better.
Bowie-meets-doo-wop epics.
Tunes for brain and feet.

Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson – Two Men with the Blues
Disparate worlds?
Not so fast. Legends say no.
Smiles all around.

David Byrne/Brian Eno – Everything That Happens…
Restless souls rejoin.
Straight-ahead compared to last album
Twenty-three years ago.

Randy Newman – Harps and Angels
Not Pixar film score.
Track 4 tears Dub-ya new one.
Mark Twain of music.

Justin Townes Earle – The Good Life
Old country played right.
More Hank Williams than Junior.
Dad Steve should be proud.

Erykah Badu – New Amerykah, Pt. 1
Esoteric beats
and furious politics
make for dark album.

Portishead – Third
More dark atmospheres,
Dormant band surprises all;
Not trip-hop retread.

She and Him – Vol. 1
Vanity project?
Hell no. Zooey is for real.
M. Ward is great foil.

Q-Tip – The Renaissance
Ten years not Tip’s fault,
stupid labels shelve three tries.
Glad to have you back.