Social Distancing Spins – Day 47

By Joel Francis

Stay strong and stay safe, my friends.

Johnny Cash – American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002) The final Johnny Cash album released in Johnny Cash’s lifetime is appropriately fixated on mortality. Then again, Cash has been singing about death since he shot a man in Reno to watch him die. The album works more often than it doesn’t. The title song is one of my favorite Cash compositions, funneling the Book of Revelations through a strummy Martin guitar. Similarly, Cash turns Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” into a gospel song. He adds a layer of guilt and gravitas to Sting’s “I Hung My Head” that is absent from the original recording. Best of all, Cash infuses a lifetime of pain and addiction into “Hurt,” completely claiming the song from Nine Inch Nails. Most of the rest ranges from fine to worse. “Tear-Stained Letter” is too jaunty and “Desperado” and “Danny Boy” are unnecessary. Cash isn’t adding anything to those well-worn tunes. Even worse, are covers of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (with Fiona Apple) and “In My Life.” Surprisingly, Cash seems lost on these songs, unsure of what to do with them. The high points more than make up for the milquetoast material – there is usually a little filler on Cash albums, but the result is the least consistent of the American releases to that point.

David Lee Roth – Eat ‘Em and Smile (1986) Diamond Dave is looking to settle scores with his solo debut. He brought in hotshot guitarist Steve Vai and bass player Billy Sheehan to generate one of the highest notes-per-second rock albums in an era that celebrated six-string excess. For better or worse, Roth can’t help being anything other than himself so even this grudge match was delivered with a broad wink and jazz hands. The key word in the album’s title is SMILE. All the songs push the fun factor to 11, but surprisingly nothing feels forced. Of course it’s all junk food, but like getting the extra butter on movie theater popcorn, sometimes you just can’t help it.

Four Tops – Second Album (1965) More often than not, especially in the 1960s, Motown albums were collections of hit singles padded with other recordings. The result was often uneven, but the album tracks on Second Album are pretty great in their own regard. No one can argue with the three Top 10 hits on the first side: “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” “It’s the Same Old Song” and “Something About You.” The second side doesn’t contain any hit singles but doesn’t suffer from it. “Darling, I Hum Our Song” has a great Levi Stubbs vocal performance (really, he’s great on everything here) in a Jackie Wilson-styled song from the period when Berry Gordy was writing hits for Wilson. “Since You’ve Been Gone” first appeared as the b-side of “Standing in the Shadows of Love.” The energy from Four Tops and the Funk Brothers on this track make me think it could have been a hit on its own. Back on the first side, “IS There Anything I Can Do” is one of the few songs on the album not to come from the pen of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. Written by Smokey Robinson and fellow Miracles Ronald White and Pete Moore, it’s not hard to imagine the Miracles performing this song. Surprisingly, as far as I know they never did. Come for the hits on Second Album but stay for the album tracks that illustrate just how special the Four Tops were.

The Damned – The Best of the Damned (compilation) It seems there are almost as many best-of collections for the Damned as there has been lineups. I picked this up at a garage sale because it has many of my favorite songs from their first three albums, back when they were more punk than goth. At some point I might expand my Damned album collection to include those early releases in their entirety, but until then this is a great overview of a tough band.

The Stooges – Fun House (1970) The hype sticker on my album proclaims “Iggy and the boys find their troglodyte groove.” I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. The music on Fun House connects on a primal level, like howling at the moon. In a strange way, it connects with me in the same way as Howlin Wolf or John Lee Hooker – straight in the gut, without any pretense. Like it is hitting the lowest rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (food, shelter, etc.) In other words, the exact opposite of a pompous album review that references Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The song “TV Eye” came from a phrase that Stooges rhythm section Scott and Ron Asheton’s sister used about men leering at her. It forces me to exceed the speed limit every time it comes on in the car. “Down in the Sleep” came to Iggy Pop in the middle of the night. He got out of bed trying to play the power chord he heard in his head, waking his wife in the process. Unlike Ziggy, Iggy didn’t play guitar. Perhaps he never found that chord.

After the opening assault, Fun House changes up a bit but remains just as gripping. Steven Mackay’s saxophone squonks across the second side like the group has just discovered fire for the first time.

This album needs to be played regularly to make sure you are still alive.

The Shins – Wincing the Night Away (2007) The third album from the Albuquerque indie rock quartet was their first release after Natalie Portman proclaimed them life-changing in the film Garden State. There was a lot riding on this release, but frontman and songwriter James Mercer wasn’t afraid to stretch the band’s sound. He sprinkles synthesizers and funk basslines among the familiar chiming guitars and la-la-la melodies. As a result, Wincing the Night Away isn’t as strong as the two Shins albums before it, but it is still very enjoyable.

Willie Nelson – Teatro (1998) Willie Nelson seems game to try just about anything. Reggae album? Sure. Duet with Kid Rock? Why not? Still, the decision to record in an old movie theater with producer Daniel Lanois was a solid nod. Nelson revisits several of his lesser-known songs from the 1960s with harmonica player Mickey Raphael and the marvelous Emmylou Harris on backing vocals. Many of the arrangements are Spanish or Mexican in spirit and give a vibe like we are lost in a marathon of Ennio Morricone films south of the border. Nelson, the other musicians and the songs thrive in this atmosphere, making this a distinctly unique album in Nelson’s vast catalog and also one of his best.

Peter Gabriel – Us (1992) It took Peter Gabriel six years to release a follow-up to his massively successful album So. That’s almost light speed, considering he’s only given us one other album of original material since then. But what an album Us is. Gabriel throws everything from bagpipes to a Russian folk group in the should-have-been-single “Come Talk to Me.” Other songs are just as overstuffed and immaculately excellent. The horn-driven “Kiss the Frog” ranks as one of the greatest extended sexual metaphors of all time. “Blood of Eden” and “Secret World” are passionately romantic. The only dud is “Steam,” aka Son of “Sledgehammer.” There is a lot to unravel in Us, but Gabriel gave his fans plenty of time to process all of it.

Mount Righteous invade KC

(Above: Mount Righteous play in the street back in 2008 when they had a guitarist in the lineup.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

There must be something in the water down in Dallas/Fort Worth. After spawning the uber-upbeat indie rock choir the Polyphonic Spree and singer-songwriter St. Vincent the town presents yet another indie band from the fringes: Mount Righteous.

The exuberant nine-piece collective sounds like a cross between John Phillips Sousa and the Shins. The unique sound is intentional, said founder and drummer Joey Kendall.

“We knew since we were such a big band, we wanted to be able to play without a PA,” Kendall said. “Since we weren’t going to be using mics and amps, we got a hold of brass instruments.”

The normal lineup of bass/guitar/drum was thrown overboard for brass, woodwinds, accordion, melodica and bells. Adding further distinction to their sound, everyone in the band sings in unison.

“We do that so we don’t have to use mics, but everyone can still hear us,” Kendall said. “That said, we just wrapped up recording our second album and there are some solo vocals on there. In concert we’ll use megaphones for that part.”

Mount Righteous’ off-the-grid approach means the band can literally play at the drop of a hat. Since forming in 2007, they’ve crashed SXSW by parading in the street, played in a D/FW metroplex, and marched just outside of Mexico at Borderfest.

“We want to be prepared to rely only on ourselves,” Kendall said. “There’s a feeling of freedom that comes with knowing we can play whenever and wherever.”

On Saturday, Mount Righteous will bring their show to The Brick in Kansas City.

“This is our second visit to Kansa City,” Kendall said recalling the band’s May, 2008, performance. “There’s a good vibe to the Brick. Since we book our own tours, we look to places that have already booked us. We met some cool people there last time and are looking forward to seeing them again and hopefully make some more friends.”

When Kendall started corralling members for his new project several years ago everyone had standing obligations to their own bands. Eventually, though, Mount Righteous started taking priority.

“I’ve always viewed this as my main focus,” Kendall said. “But it took several years of work for the band to be worth doing full-time for everyone anyway. You need a lot of shows and a couple records under your belt before you know what you’ve got.”

Unlike the Polyphonic Spree, Mount Righteous is a true collective, with everyone in the band contributing lyric and song ideas. Although some musicians might feel constrained with such an unusual array of instruments, Kendall feels relieved.

“I think if we used the standard, traditional guitar lineup it would be overwhelming. There are so many ways you can write a song on guitar,” Kendall said. “Whereas there are hardly any pop songs written with these instruments.”

Kendall concedes that its unusual that so many unconventional bands have come from his neck of the woods, but doesn’t think Mount Righteous isn’t doing anything others aren’t.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people in community collective bands,” Kendall said. “There were bands like that in Grapevine (Texas, the band’s hometown) even before Polyphonic Spree. What we’re doing isn’t that new of an idea. We just might be better at getting things organized and going on tour.”

The show: Mount Righteous go onstage at 10 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 21 at The Brick, 1727 McGee. Visit http://www.thebrickkcmo.com/ for ticket prices and further information.

Review Roundup – Rakim, Dodos, Naomi Shelton, Blakroc and Daptone Gold

(Above: The title song from Naomi Shelton’s debut album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The first month of 2010 is almost in the history books. Fortunately, there’s still time to take one last look at some overlooked releases from the final quarter of 2009.

The Dodos – “Time to Die”

The Dodos third album isn’t a major departure from 2007’s “Visiter.” Several subtle elements, however, make “Time to Die” an improvement. First off, the San Francisco-based indie duo has added vibraphonist Keaton Snyder to their ranks. His playing adds new textures and new rhythms to the songs. Like Vampire Weekend, the Dodos add elements of African music to their arrangements. Unlike Vampire Weekend, though, the Dodos don’t use world music as a template. They incorporate its ingredient into already solid songs. At times the album recalls a more sophisticated Shins. “Time To Die” is filled with a high sense of melody and smart indie rock songwriting bolstered by intricate arrangements that serve the song.

Blakroc – “Blakroc”

Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have been making great garage blues albums for nearly a decade as the Black Keys. After about five albums, however, some staleness started to creep into the formula. After recruiting Danger Mouse to produce their 2008 release, and Auerbach’s early ’09 solo album, the pair dropped their biggest transformation. “Blakroc” pairs the Keys with former Roc-a-fella co-owner Damon Dash and a host of MCs, including Mos Def, Ludacris, Q-Tip, Pharoahe Monch and members of the Wu Tang Clan. The result is the expected mash-up of rap vocals and raw gutbucket rock that exceeds expectations. Auerbach’s dirty, fuzzy guitars and Carney’s drums add an urgency often lacking in the urban world of sampling. In turn, the MCs feed off the vibe, responding with more bounce and personality in their delivery. More, please.

Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens – “What Have You Done, My Brother?”

Naomi Shelton’s back story should sound familiar to fans of Bettye LaVette. Shelton palled around with pre-fame Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Lou Rawls. Despite their encouragement, success eluded Shelton, who played regular gigs around New York City. Thirty years later, Shelton became part of the “Daptone Super-Soul Revue,” but it took another decade for her debut album to emerge. “What Have You Done, My Brother?” is a classic gospel album that sounds like it could have been cut 50 years ago. Despite its traditional arrangements, the album finds contemporary resonance in the title song, which questions the war in Iraq. Shelton’s cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is especially poignant. A survivor of the civil rights movement, Shelton combines the longing of Cooke’s vision with the optimism of the Obama-era.

Various Artists – “Daptone Gold”

Daptone Records found fame with the diminutive dynamite Sharon Jones, but the entire stable should appeal to Jones’ fans. “Daptone Gold” is a 22-track sampler of the Daptone roster. While Jones is appropriately represented (sometimes through non-album tracks), there are no bum cuts. The old school gospel of Naomi Shelton sets nicely next to Antibalas’ political Afrobeat and the instrumental soul of the Budos Band. Other artists include Stax throwbacks Lee Fields and Charles Bradley. Hip hop fans will recognize “Make the Road By Walking,” the Menahan Street Band track Jay-Z smartly sampled for his own “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is).” At 78 minutes, this generous sampler will certainly send newcomers diving into the back catalog for more.

Rakim – “The Seventh Seal”

Rakim made his name as one of rap’s premier MCs with his groundbreaking albums with Eric B in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. It’s been 10 years since the world has heard anything from Rakim. During that decade he toured sporadically and signed with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label. The prospect of Dre making beats for Rakim made fans salivate, but unfortunately “The Seventh Seal” is not that long-awaited album. It’s difficult to forget about that hypothetical masterpiece with all the b-list production that plagues “The Seventh Seal.” Rakim sports enough killer flow to justify his reputation, but tracks like “Won’t Be Long” and album opener “How To Emcee” are more stilted and dated than anything on “Paid in Full” or “Follow the Leader.” While there are enough moments on “The Seventh Seal” to make it a must-have for old school fans, casual listeners should probably just ask the devoted to cull a few cuts from this for a killer Rakim mixtape.

(Below: “Holy Are You,” one of the better cuts off Rakim’s “The Seventh Seal.”)

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More album reviews from The Daily Record.

The Shins: Have Your Vinyl and MP3, Too

The Kansas City Star’s Back To Rockville blog

By Joel Francis

The major labels may be lumbering in the past, but Sub Pop is starting to show hints of recognizing the digital revolution.

Starting this week with “Wincing the Night Away,” The Shins’ highly anticipated third release, fans who order any LP from the Sub Pop catalog will receive a coupon for a digital copy of the album. Simply go online, enter the coupon information and start legitimately downloading the files.

Or, as the statement on the Sub Pop Web site puts it: “The idea here is that people who buy records on vinyl should be afforded the same access to the digital files as those who buy records on CD, without having to consult some audiophile/computer expert/person working at Radio Shack.”

This is a great idea that also highlights the CD gradual slide into obsolescence. The first thing I do when I get a CD is rip it to my computer so I can put it on my iPod. There’s no point in gathering armfuls of plastic discs for road trips or worrying about if they might get scratched: the music is all safe on iPod, which can hold more than I could dream (or dare) to take anyway.

But for all their handiness, digital files don’t quite scratch the musical itch. There’s nothing to have or hold in a file that suddenly appears on a hard drive. Vinyl, the Shins and Sub Pop have realized, is the perfect remedy. Fans get big artwork, lyric sheets with type large enough to be read, and extreme gratification from the scratchiness that pops from the speakers when the needle is dropped.

If listeners don’t yet have record players, they’ve at least got a cool oversized souvenir of their direct support of a band. Hey, it doesn’t cost much more than iTunes and you get more, both physically and emotionally. Hopefully more bands will follow suit in the future, but for now, it will be fun to watch where this experiment goes.