Social Distancing Spins – Day 27

By Joel Francis

David Gilmour – About Face (1984) Simply put, About Face is not only David Gilmour’s finest solo album, but superior to Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell as well. “Murder” is Gilmour’s response to the assassination of John Lennon. It starts as quiet acoustic number before exploding in anger against Steve Winwood’s expansive organ playing. I have no idea what “Cruise” is about, but it’s an extremely catchy acoustic number. I’ll admit to be taken aback the first time I heard R&B horns on “Blue Light,” something Pink Floyd never explored, but they have grown on me. Pete Townshend wrote the lyrics for two numbers here. These compositions fit will with what Townshend was doing on his White City album, which I discussed way back on Day 4. Check out the live album Brixton Academy in 1985 featuring both Townshend and Gilmour for another stellar example of their synergy during this time. “You Know I’m Right” is about Roger Waters, with a title (and lyrics) shutting the door on any reconciliation. Gilmour and the Floyd (sans Waters) would be back in a couple years, but About Face makes a strong case that this was the (albeit less commercial) path Gilmour should have considered instead.

The Nels Cline 4 – Currents, Constellations (2018) Playing this album is a good way to find out who your true friends are. While some will hear obnoxious jazz guitar noodling (with two guitarists, no less), others will hear sublime fretboard interplay. If you do happen upon someone who also appreciates this music, buy this person a drink or ask them to marry you, depending on his or her gender and your preference.

Ed Ackerson – Capricorn One (2019) I must confess I had never heard of Ed Ackerson before buying a ticket to his memorial concert last February. Circumstances aligned in my favor: a free evening, a solid lineup, a reasonable ticket price and an opportunity to finally see a show at the famed First Avenue. For a while I felt like an interloper, but after exiting with an armload of vinyl and all the $1 CDs I could get, I now count myself converted.

Capricorn One was Ackerson’s last album before succumbing to pancreatic cancer last October. It’s a Syd Barrett-influenced slab of soaring guitars as wonderfully atmospheric as its sci fi-inspired title implies. Ackerson wrote all the songs, played all the instruments and produced all the tracks. His final musical vision is a great ride.

The Black Belles – self-titled (2011) The self-titled debut by this garage rock quartet is unfortunately their only release. Produced by Jack White for his Third Man Records, it’s hard to tell where the producer stops and the band ends, but if you like White’s raw aesthetic that’s not a bad thing. According to the band the writing and recording came together pretty quickly. They did several high-profile shows during their brief time together, including backing Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report and playing on his “Charlene” single. They also performed at the Devil’s Night Halloween concert in 2012. My favorite songs here include the appropriately titled “Honky Tonk Horror,” the moody “Not Tonight” and the very Jack White “In a Cage” but the entire album is good enough to make me wish there was at least another volume. Main songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Olivia Jean has subsequently released two solo albums with White and Third Man.

Buffalo Springfield – Again (1967) Neil Young jumps to the fore on Buffalo Springfield’s second album, and it’s easy to see why. His three compositions – album opener “Mr. Soul,” “Expecting to Fly” and closing cut “Broken Arrow” – are all classics in his expansive songbook. But the other songs here are no slouches either. Stephen Still’s banjo-driven “Bluebird” is a lovely song. Later, the harmony vocals on his song “Rock and Roll Woman” foreshadow the coming of Crosby, Stills and Nash. Richie Furay chips in a couple solid compositions as well. The unique horn arrangement on “Good Time Boy” definitely makes it stand out on the album. Buffalo Springfield collapsed under their own weight the following year. Again ranks as the group’s finest release during their short tenure.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 19

By Joel Francis

Remember, the best way to stay safe from the coronavirus is to stay home. And while you’re there, you may as well play some records. Here are some of mine.

The Temptations – Wish It Would Rain (1968) The seventh album by Motown’s soul stalwarts is groundbreaking in several ways. It was their final album with David Ruffin on vocals and Smokey Robinson producing. It’s also their last album to contain the classic Motown sound before producer Norman Whitfield (who is behind the boards for several tracks here) starting taking the Tempts down a more psychedelic path. The heartbreaking ballads “I Wish It Would Rain” and “I Could Never Love Another” were based on a real-life relationship that cut so deeply Robert Penzabene, who helped write both numbers, killed himself. The rest of the album stays along these themes of heartache and loss, but the Funk Brothers keep punching away, keeping the album from getting too somber. With Wish it Would Rain, the Temptations ended their classic lineup era on a high note and carried that momentum into the next psychedelic chapter.

Priests – The Seduction of Kansas (2019) The Washington D.C.-based punk trio named their second album after Thomas Frank’s book of the same name, an examination of why people – mainly conservatives in his thesis – vote against their own interests. The songs are more empathetic than angry, written as an attempt to bridge and understand the divide that has split America. Texturally, the album moves from a spacey, early Cure vibe on the paranoid “Not Percieved,” to the post-punk thump of revenge on “I’m Clean.” The final song, “Texas Instruments,” is my favorite cut. It discusses the whitewashing of history by looking at the story of the Lone Star state. Sample lyrics: “The hubris of propriety/Macy’s Day Parade history/Puff your chest up so we can see/Who brought the books you read?” Heady stuff to be sure, but the music keeps the feet entertained while the brain is engaged. Sadly, Priests went on an indefinite hiatus shortly after their tour behind this album wrapped. I hope this isn’t the last we hear from them.

Hearts of Darkness – self-titled (2010) Man, you could hardly go anywhere around Kansas City without bumping into either a member of Hearts of Darkness, someone talking about Hearts of Darkness or seeing a flier for an upcoming Hearts of Darkness. They won a spot at Farm Aid in 2011 and blew Snoop Dogg off the stage as an opening act that same year. Watching the 15-piece Afrobeat group perform was like standing on the launch pad as a rocket takes off. The band’s energy was matched only by the amount of smiles generated. Hearts of Darkness released another album in 2012 and then gradually tapered off. According to their ReverbNation site the group’s most recent show was in 2017. High time for a comeback.

White Stripes – Icky Thump (2007) After expanding their sound on Get Behind Me Satan, the White Stripes’ previous album, Icky Thump was the sound of the duo getting back to a straightforward rock sound. This isn’t the garage rock they perfected on early albums, however, but a more spacious arena-ready sound reflecting the larger venues they were now commanding. A cover of Patti Page’s “Conquest” remains a divisive song among fans, but other singles like the title track and the stomp of “Rag and Bone” make up for this misstep. It would have been interesting to see where Jack and Meg White would have taken their sound after this album. Icky Thump sounds like pair were getting back to basics and regrouping before deciding where to go next. Unfortunately, Meg White called it quits after the tour wrapped. We’ll never know what the next chapter may have held.

Jackson Browne – Running on Empty (1977) Put the iconic title track that opens this album and the magnificent medley of “The Load Out/Stay” that closes the record. There’s some pretty weird stuff happening in the other 30 minutes of this album. Cocaine shows up in nearly a third of the songs. “Rosie” is a tribute to a groupie. (Sample lyric: “She was sniffing all around/like a half-grown female pup.” Classy, Jackson.) There are a couple songs about the loneliness and desolation on the road, one of which was actually recorded on Browne’s tour bus as it hummed toward the next gig. Its like Browne decided to turn Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” into a concept album. I won’t say it doesn’t work, but take away the first and last cut and there’s not much to make Running on Empty into more than a one-night stand.

Radiohead – The Bends (1995) If this is your first time encountering The Bends, you are in store for a tremendous experience. If it is not, feel free to use this as an excuse to play it again. So much has been written about Radiohead and The Bends, I don’t know that I have much to add. I will say that The Bends was gripping the first time I heard it and continues to reveal new layers a generation later.

Death Cab for Cutie – Plans (2005) One of the best moments at a Death Cab for Cutie concert is when the band exits the stage, leading singer Ben Gibbard alone to sing “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” with his acoustic guitar. This heartfelt, darkly romantic ballad has been a staple on mixes and playlists by the angst-filled and lovelorn from the day Plans was released. There are several other great songs to be found here as well. “Soul Meets Body” and “Crooked Teeth” are perfect slices of indie rock and the rest isn’t far behind. Plans isn’t Death Cab’s best album, but it has definitely earned a place on the medal platform.

The New Pornographers – Together (2010) Together was the first New Pornographers album that didn’t excite me when it was released. It felt like the band was having to work too hard to develop the delightful power pop that made the group’s first three albums so wonderful. That their sound was becoming a crutch. In retrospect, I think I was too hard on the album. Granted, the band isn’t breaking any new ground but there are several genuinely great songs here, such as the delicate “Valkyrie in the Roller Disco,” (How’s that for title?) “Crash Years” and Dan Bejar’s always-skewed songwriting on “Jenny Silver Dollar.” Together may be a holding pattern, but if this is what it took to get to Brill Bruisers, their next release, a classic on par with the Pornographer’s early material, then it was worth the stop.

Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet on Sky (2012) The third album after Dinosaur Jr.’s reunion is cut from the same cloth as their previous release, Farm. More of the same isn’t a bad thing, though. Not when you’ve got J. Mascis’s guitar ripping through the speaker with bass player Lou Barlow and drummer Murph right behind him, chasing Mascis like he owes them money.  You’ll know within the first 30 seconds if you like this album. If you do, the full listen won’t be enough. Fortunately, the Boston-based trio has left us several more platters, just like this one.

Social Distancing Spins, Day 2

By Joel Francis

Welcome to another installment of spelunking in my record collection while the world … well, who knows what’s happening out there. Let’s just stick to the music.

A.K. Salim – Afro-Soul/Drum Orgy (1965) I knew nothing about this album that wasn’t on its packaging when I bought it. I don’t know much more now. But this much is certain: If you want lots of African percussion with blasts of free jazz swooping in and out, this is the place to be. It’s not for every day listening, but at the right time this always does the trick.

Nas – Illmatic: Live from the Kennedy Center (2018) Illmatic is such a great album that this edition marks the third time I’ve purchased it. After owning the original CD and album, I passed on the 20th anniversary edition and rolled my eyes when I heard an orchestral live version was coming out. Then I heard a track and knew I was going to have to buy this again. Hearing these performances with the National Symphony Orchestra takes the album to another level. It’s almost like watching The Godfather in a 1972 theater, then viewing it in IMAX. The jazz organ underpinning the original “Memory Lane” becomes a swirling concerto complemented by the DJ Green Lantern’s scratches. Earlier, Nas shouts out his dad’s original cornet solo on “Life’s a Bitch.” There’s amateur footage on Youtube of Kendrick Lamar doing a similar performance with the NSO. Cross your fingers this someday gets official release.

McCoy Tyner – McCoy Tyner plays Ellington (1965) This is essentially an album by the celebrated John Coltrane quartet without the legendary leader. Without their leader’s sheets of sound, everyone else gets more room to shine. Tyner was usually the person keeping Coltrane’s songs from falling apart – think about his insistent piano line in “My Favorite Things” while Coltrane scrapes the stratosphere. Finally out front and on his own, Tyner showcases and ability to pay tribute to a genre pioneer in Ellington while applying the some of the touches he showed with the futurist saxophonist. We lost a giant when McCoy Tyner died earlier this month.

The Raconteurs – Help Us Stranger (2019) The Raconteurs have always been my least-favorite Jack White project, however their by-the-numbers approach made for a refreshing listen after White’s previous release, the bizarre solo album Boarding House Reach. Help Us Stranger arrived more than a decade after the Racontuers’ previous release. While I didn’t really miss them, it is nice to hear White doing some straight-up rocking without all the cutesy tricks and gimmicks.

Marvin Gaye – Here, My Dear (1978) Here’s a question to pull out when the party gets dull (or maybe when you want it to end): Who had a better 1970s, Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye? At first glance, it looks like Wonder in a landslide. He won all the Album of the Year Grammys and graduated from opening for the Rolling Stones to recording with Ella Fitzgerald. A second look reveals that Gaye’s decade was every bit as incredible, even if he didn’t win as many trophies. Of course What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On are the twin pillars, but I Want You and Trouble Man are very, very good, even if they tend to get lost in the shadows. Then there’s Here My Dear, Gaye’s final album of the decade and a bitter kiss-off to his ex-wife (and label boss Barry Gordy’s sister) Anna Gordy.

Gaye knew going into the recording sessions that Anna Gordy would receive all royalties from the album’s release, as per the terms of the divorce. Undaunted, Gaye recorded the longest album of his career and used that time to dissect the relationship, peel open Gordy’s heart and spray lemon juice on the wounds. Here, My Dear isn’t only a bitter album, though. Gaye slides between soul, gospel, funk and jazz as he bares his soul and examines the wreckage. At the time, it seemed few wanted to go on Gaye’s deeply personal journey. The album didn’t sell well initially, but eventually even Gordy came around to appreciating Here, My Dear.

Roy Ayers Ubiquity – A Tear to a Smile (1975) The first time I saw Roy Ayers in concert I didn’t get it at all. I was expecting a jazz vibes player in the tradition of Lionel Hampton or Bobby Hutcherson. Instead, I got what I thought was a smooth jazz crooner going on about sunshine and searching. The second time, I got it. If Louis Jordan is the link between Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles, then Ayers is the cog that connects Milt Jackson with Tupac.

Tom Verlaine – Words from the Front (1982) I think I spotted this at a yard sale for a song a picked it up on a whim. While I like Television, this is the only album I own from the Verlaine catalog. I always enjoy this album while it’s playing, but it leaves my mind almost immediately after it’s done. Sorry, Tom.

Various Artists – The Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru (compilation) I got this album in a bundle when Luaka Bop celebrated its 25th anniversary. Dismiss this collection as a mere toss-in at your own peril. You can hear everything from the roots of Celia Cruz and the samba to songs like “Son de los Diablos” that wouldn’t be out of place on the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack. Afro-Peruvian music originated with the slaves brought over from Africa and forced to settle in Peru. There’s no trace of this horrific history on the 15 hip-shaking cuts here, but it does explain why some of the music sounds like a flamenco band got kidnapped by an aggressive drum circle.

The Dead Girls – Out of Earshot (2010) The Dead Girls were Kansas City band who weren’t afraid to proclaim their power pop influences. This is their second release and as far as I know the only one that made it only vinyl. You can hear a lot of Big Star, the Replacements and Thin Lizzy on this release and while the album plays more like a tribute act than saying something on its own, it’s still a very fine listen.

Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger (2016) Paul Simon started taking his time between albums after Graceland took off, which is to say more than 35 years ago. Appropriately, Stranger to Stranger sounds like it has been crafted by a patient perfectionist. Simon spent an entire 40-minute podcast breaking down how he built “Werewolf,” the opening track, around the rhythms – but not guitars – of Flamenco music. Other tracks employ the experimental instruments developed by Harry Partch or the laptop sampling of Clap! Clap! “Cool Papa Bell” marries the rhythms and mood of Graceland with the profanity of The Capeman. It’s cerebral stuff to be sure, but also infinitely hummable and pleasurable.

Joe Strummer – 001 (compilation) The 2018 collection 001 is both an overview of Joe Strummer’s career opportunities outside of The Clash and a treasure of unreleased material from his archives. The ten-year jump from his pre-Clash band The 101ers to “Love Kills” from the Sid and Nancy soundtrack is jarring, but other than that the collection flows quite smoothly until its unfortunate, premature ending.

Kudos to the Strummer estate for making this set affordable, instead of a trophy piece that only the super-rich or ultra-dedicated can acquire.

U2 – October (1981) The Irish quartet’s sophomore album is easily the group’s most overlooked release. It doesn’t have the promise of their defiant debut, the hit singles on War or the Brian Eno cache of The Unforgettable Fire. All bets for October’s reappraisal were off once The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby took off.

October’s status may seem harsh in this context, but it’s pretty fair. October is by no means a difficult listen, but it also doesn’t the chops to muscle its way into the conversation. That said, it is still nice to see “Gloria” and “October,” the album’s two best songs, creeping back into setlists for the first time since the ‘80s.

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.