Social Distancing Spins – Day 32

By Joel Francis

Today’s entry puts us at 200 albums in the quarantined exploration of my record collection. Don’t worry, there is still more than enough to keep us busy until well after a COVID-19 vaccine is discovered and dispersed.

Wilco – Sky Blue Sky (2007) It took a while for Sky Blue Sky to grow on me. I admit I was pretty underwhelmed at first. I had seen Wilco several times in support of their previous album and was expecting something raw and bleeding based on those shows. What I got was considerably more mellow and gentle. Once I got past my expectations, I was able to appreciate what Wilco had crafted, rather than what I thought they should have done. Guess who had the better vision.

Many of Sky Blue Sky’s finest moments have become concert favorites. “Impossible Germany” is a great showcase for guitarist Nels Cline’s formidable talents, while “Shake It Off” provides an opportunity for the band to show off their tight-but-loose jam chops. My favorite song is “Hate It Here,” a deceptively cheery song about a person learning to live without a longtime partner. The Wilco catalog is stocked with great albums, but Sky Blue Sky makes a sleeper case for being one of the best of the bunch.

Scott H. Biram – The Bad Testament (2017) Scott H. Biram is like hearing a preacher who got caught doing something dirty and decided to go whole hog down the dark path. A one-man band, Biram sits at the crossroads of folk, blues and country with plenty of hellfire and brimstone to go around. On his sixth long-player, Biram moves between acoustic and electric guitars and mixes in snippets of televangelists between tracks. If you’ve ever succumbed mightily to temptation and prayed just as hard for salvation, you know where Biram is coming from. Buckle your hat and put this on.

George Harrison – Thirty-Three and 1/3 (1978) The fifth album from the Quiet Beatle after the split is a lukewarm affair. The first song, “Woman Don’t You Cry for Me,” opens with a popping bass funk riff that always makes me take a second look at the label and make sure this is actually a George Harrison album. Unfortunately, the second cut is limp, failing to build any momentum from “Woman.” This is the album’s biggest problem. There are some good songs, but they are sunk around listless tracks. The strongest run comes on the second side with the run of “True Love,” “Pure Smokey” and “Crackerbox Palace.” If you put these songs with the three good songs from the first side you’d have a solid EP. That’s six out of ten good songs, a fantastic batting average for baseball but far too low for a Beatle.

Phosphorescent –  Muchacho (2013)

The Lone Bellow – Half Moon Light (2020) The Lone Bellow have always sounded more southern than their Brooklyn roots imply. For their fourth album the trio let more of the indie rock sound from their native borough creep into the mix. Likewise, Phosphorescent frontman and Huntsville, Ala. native has always had more than a little Williamsburg hipster in his brand of country music. Although Half Moon Light and Muchacho were recorded several years apart, they share a complementary vibe and kinship.

The best moments on Muchacho include the triumphant “A Charm/A Blade” and “The Quotidian Beasts,” which sounds like Calexico produced by Daniel Lanois. “Song for Zula” has been all over the place, but I like it best as the music over the credits for the very underappreciated indie romance film “The Spectacular Now.”

Half Moon Light is a similarly sturdy album. Among the stand-out tracks here are “Friends,” the horns and harmony assisted “I Can Feel You Dancing” and the tender “Dust Settles.” If you ever wondered what David Gray might sound like with a touch more country in his repertoire, these albums are for you.

The Flaming Lips – 7 Skies H3 (2011) A while back, the Flaming Lips, Oklahoma City’s finest psychedelic rock export, recorded a 24-hour song, slipped it on a thumb drive and stuck them a real human skull. 7 Skies H3 is a one-hour distillation of the best moments from that experiment. You know, in case you didn’t want to spend a day of your life listening to the full song or want a human skull. (Or maybe a second one. If you already own two, you are likely a voodoo priest. Would a third really matter at this point?)

As expected the results aren’t typical three-minute singles. All the tracks are either instrumental or feature heavily processed vocals. I wouldn’t play it for a backyard cook-out, but as a psychedelic exercise, it is quite good. My favorite moments include “Battling Voices from Beyond,” an aggressive track propelled by tympani and the closing ethereal two-for of the title track and “Can’t Let Go,” the closest thing to a traditional song on the album.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 31

Day 31

By Joel Francis

Baby Huey – The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend (1971) Sadly, Baby Huey was no longer living by the time The Living Legend came out. The soul singer died from a heart attack four months before album’s release.  With no chance of a sequel, The Baby Huey Story makes the most of its shot. “Listen To Me” starts the album with a horn chart so strong it should be in every pep band’s repertoire. An extended reading of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Going to Come” turns the civil rights anthem into a psychedelic soul adventure. On the flip side, Huey tackles “California Dreamin’” and three songs by benefactor and producer Curtis Mayfield. “Hard Times,” another civil rights song, popped up a dozen years ago on a collaborative album between John Legend and the Roots. In fact, hip hop musicians have mined this album pretty hard for beats and samples since the early ‘80s. There’s a good chance you’ve already heard a lot of Baby Huey’s Story, just in five- or 10-second looped intervals. Soul fans and hip hop heads will find a lot to enjoy in Huey’s abbreviated catalog.

The Cure – Standing on a Beach: The Single (compilation) Greatest hits collections were the meat and potatoes of my music library during my time as a student. In those days of early internet, anthologies were the best place to start for bands and artists with daunting catalogs. I mention this because I learned through the hits collections Standing on the Beach and Galore that the Cure were a very different band on their singles than they were on album. Singles Cure were bright, poppy and quirky. Album Cure was moody, dark and confrontational. I am a Singles Cure fan. Standing on a Beach starts with the band’s early lo-fi post-punk work and leaves off at the doorstep of their must successful commercial period. The transformation is subtle on Standing on a Beach. There aren’t any huge leaps in sound and the progression feels very natural. It’s also more fun than any proper Cure album would allow.

David Bowie – Heathen (2002) At the time of its release, Heathen was hailed as a comeback for Bowie. In retrospect this seems odd, because the final three albums Bowie released as a touring musician, before disappearing for a decade, are very much of a piece. They are Bowie reflecting on his past work, cherry-picking the best bits and reprising them in a contemporary context. Of these three albums – 1999’s Hours, Heathen and 2003’s Reality – I like Heathen best. It feels the most fully realized. There’s not a bum track to be found, but “Slow Burn” and “Everyone Says Hi” stand out as favorites. The reference to the Yankees in “Slip Away” will always make me think of that horrible/wonderful period after 9/11 when we were all New Yorkers, even if the only thing you’d done in New York at the time was go to the Bronx for a ball game like me.

Johnny Cash – Now Here’s Johnny Cash (compilation)

Johnny Cash – Original Sun Sound (compilation) Both of these albums are early 1960s attempts by the Sun Records label to cash in on Johnny’s stardom (See what I did there?) after he moved on with Columbia Records. Interestingly, neither of them contain many hits. Now Here has “Cry Cry Cry” and “Hey Porter” while Original has “Big River.” That’s it. The rest of the 21 tracks across the two albums are deep cuts. And they go pretty deep. “Belshazzar” outfits an Old Testament tale the Tennessee Two sound. Cash liked “Country Boy” so much he cut it again 30-some odd years later on Unchained.  Even the Lead Belly chestnut “Goodnight Irene” gets a spin. The producers on Now Here positioned “Oh, Lonesome Me” next to “So Doggone Lonesome.” “Port of Lonely Hearts” appears earlier in the collection, further driving the point home.  Fans wanting the hits should look elsewhere, but anyone wanting a deeper look at his early period will be pleased. Even better, both of these albums can be found pretty easily for under five bucks.

Stardeath and White Dwarves – Wastoid (2014) Stardeath may have won some new fans through nepotism – lead singer Dennis Coyne is the nephew of Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips – but they kept the converted by producing entertaining slabs of psychedelic, experimental rock. Wastoid is the Oklahoma City quartet’s second album. They are significantly heavier than the Lips, but share that band’s morbid playful side. If you ever wanted the Flaming Lips to make a stoner rock album, this is for you. I enjoy Wastoid more than their debut, simply because it sounds more effortless and assured. Stardeath released an EP in 2015 and have been strangely quite since then. I hope we get some new stuff at some point.

Neko Case, k.d. lang, Laura Veirs – Case/Lang/Veirs (2016) The appetite for supergroups goes back to Sun’s Million Dollar Quartet. But for every Traveling Wilburys or CSNY, it seems you get about three Nodding Hillbillies or the Firms. Maybe that’s why Case/Lang/Veirs works so well. I don’t remember hearing much of anything about this project before its release. There was no time to build anticipation and expectation, it was just … there.

The greater reason why Case/Lang/Veirs works is because all three women are incredible songwriters with voices of gold that perfectly complement each other. While this album doesn’t match the high points each artist has achieved on her own it should be cherished by fans of all three.

The Gotobeds – Poor People are Revolting (2014) Sometimes you end up with an album purely because of the convergence of mood, price and genre. The Pittsburgh-based punk quartet are fine purveyors of their craft, but don’t know why I have three of their albums. I’d definitely go see them the next time they come through town, but my fandom isn’t as deep as my record shelf suggests. Poor People are Revolting is the Gotobeds’ first full-length album. If you like the sound of Pavement, the Fall and Sonic Youth noisily colliding with populist politics, this is the place for you.

Social Distancing Spins, Day 9

By Joel Francis

A 30-day lockdown in my hometown of Kansas City, Mo. was announced today. It looks like this trek through my record collection will continue a while longer.

Bruce Springtsteen – Western Skies (2019) The Boss made his legion of fans wait five long years between releases before dropping Western Skies in the middle of 2019. The first few times I listened, I didn’t like it at all. The songwriting was good, but the strings were too syrupy and heavy-handed. Even though I couldn’t get into the album, when I saw it on sale online the completist in me pushed the buy button. I don’t know what changed, but something happened when I played it this morning. I heard everything with new ears and finally heard what Springsteen was trying to accomplish with the orchestra. I can’t wait to dig into this one again.

Neville Brothers – Yellow Moon (1989) The highs and lows of this album come in rapid succession at the end of side one. Aaron Neville voice soars cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Going to Come.” The civil rights hymn is accented by producer Daniel Lanois’ tremelo guitar and guest Brian Eno’s ethereal keyboards. The civil rights theme takes an uncomfortable turn with the next song, “Sister Rosa,” a well-intentioned by horribly awkward rap tribute. Fortunately the ship is righted with Aaron Neville back in the spotlight with a tender cover of Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side.” Elsewhere, the album explores cajun and the brothers’ native New Orleans on songs like “Fire and Brimstone” and “Wild Injuns.”

Kelis – Food (2014) Her milkshake brought the boys to the yard, but Food is a full meal of biscuits and gravy, jerk ribs and cobbler. Working with producer Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio, Kelis’ most recent album to date rejects contemporary production and attempts at Top 40 success. The organic arrangements with live instrumentation make this a Kelis album with the singer in firm control, rather than a vehicle with her voice slotted into other producers’ ideas. The relaxed comfort of the sessions comes through in the songs. “Cobbler” opens with gales of laughter as a slow Afrobeat groove slowly builds. Those same horns also pop up in “Jerk Ribs” and “Friday Fish Fry,” propelling everyone straight to the dance floor. “Bless the Telephone” might be my favorite moment on the album. It’s also one of the most basic –Kelis and Sal Masakela sound so honest and vulnerable singing over a gorgeous acoustic guitar line. Then the party roars back to life.

The Flaming Lips – The Terror (2013) The Terror isn’t my favorite Flaming Lips album by a long shot, but it felt the most appropriate right now. Half the band was in a bad way when this album was being made and it shows. Singer Wayne Coyne’s longtime romantic relationship had ended and multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd relapsed into substance abuse. There aren’t any hints of the magic and wonder fans got from the band’s breakthrough albums. Instead there are songs like the seven-plus minute “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die,” which sounds like the dawn of a nightmare in some post-apocalyptic desert. But hey, when you haven’t left the house in more than a week and have just been alerted your entire city is on lockdown for the next 30 days, sometimes even cold comfort is comforting. Happy spring, everybody!

Son Volt – Straightaways (1997)

Uncle Tupelo – Anodyne (1993) The first time I saw Son Volt was in support of Straightaways, when they opened for ZZ Top at Sandstone Amphitheater. The venue was your typical outdoor shed and my friend and I were miles away from the stage, out on the lawn. Frontman Jay Farrar was never known for his onstage energy and the songs sizzled out well before they reached us.

Oh to have seen Farrar just a few years earlier. If I could build a time machine, one of the first places I’d go would be to an Uncle Tupelo concert. Hearing Farrar’s voice pair with Jeff Tweedy’s on the chorus of “Slate,” the first song, always sends me to a happy place. While the sessions for what would be the pair’s final album were acrimonious – at least from Farrar’s viewpoint; Tweedy has said he had no clue of his partner’s hostility and disillusionment – the result is a timeless slab of alt-country goodness.

Bleached – Welcome to the Worms (2016) Centered around sisters Jennifer and Jessica Clavin, Bleached operates somewhere between Blondie and the Donnas. I first saw the band at the now-shuttered Tank Room on Halloween night with Beach Slang. The sisters, along with bass player Micayla Grace, all performed in costume. These songs were a little more garage-y in concert, but it is still great girl-group rock however you slice it.

Ahmad Jamal – Inspiration (compilation) This 1972 collection finds jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal primarily working in a trio format with bass and drums. The assemblage hops around from the mid-‘50s to the late ‘60s in both studio and club settings. Several of the songs are augmented with a string section, which can be a little jarring, since Jamal isn’t know for orchestral work. Despite the seemingly hodgepodge nature, the four sides make for a generally cohesive play. Jamal made a ton of records and none of them are very expensive. Any good music shop will have at least five or six inches of his platters to choose from in the stacks. This isn’t a bad place to start.

Emmylou Harris – At the Ryman (1992) Emmylou Harris was coming off the worst-performing album of her career to date when she stepped onstage at the storied Ryman Auditorium for three nights in the spring of 1991. Backed by her new bluegrass ensemble the Nash Ramblers (lead by Sam Bush), Harris tackles several hit songs associated with other artists. While her versions of Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Mansion on the Hill” or John Fogerty’s “Lodi” won’t make you forget the original performers, Harris puts her own distinctive stamp on them. One of my favorite singers of all time, Harris’ voice is particularly affecting on the a capella “Calling My Children Home” and a medley of Nanci Griffith’s “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go” and “Abraham, Martin and John.”

Review: The Flaming Lips – “Christmas On Mars”


Above: The “Christmas On Mars” trailer. You have been warned.

By Joel Francis

Blame the Flaming Lips for contributing to Christmas creep. Their long-awaited (holiday?) sci-fi flick lands on DVD next Thursday and will be shown on the big screen in select theaters around the country all month. If you live in Kansas City, Mo., you have two opportunities to see the film. Screenland will host viewings at 9 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 21 and at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 22. Below is a reprint of my review of a sneak peek screening at Wakarusa last summer.

“Christmas On Mars” – Friday night, the Flaming Lips tent

The chance to catch a band-hosted screening of the Flaming Lips’ seven-years-in-the-making movie “Christmas on Mars” overpowered the need for sleep for many Wakarusa campers.

Shortly after the Lips’ spectacular set on the Sun Down Stage, 200 fans lucky enough to snag a free ticket earlier in the evening were ushered into the band’s large “Eat Your Own Spaceship” tent. Inside, it felt a lot like summer camp. Everyone sat on long wooden benches and roadies handed out popcorn.

After a short personal introduction from lead Lip Wayne Coyne and a longer recorded interview, the film finally started around 1 a.m.

The movie follows the descent of paranoia and psychosis on a crew of astronauts in their Martian space station on Christmas Eve. Multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd plays the main astronaut while Coyne portrays an emerald-hued, antennae-sporting Martian who swallows an asteroid, is detained by the space crew and then forced into the role of Santa Claus.

The results are pretty much what you’d expect from a group with no acting or screenwriting background, paying for their production as they go. Fans started sneaking out almost as soon as the rock-show volume movie started. When I finally succumbed an hour into the movie a herd of fans were seated on the ground outside the tent for the next showing. Live and learn.