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.”

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.

Review: TV on the Radio

(Above: TV on the Radio perform “Could You,” a song from their newest album, on March 21, 2015, at the Midland Theater in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

TV on the Radio is no stranger to Kansas City. Nearly eight years ago to the day, the indie rock band delivered a transcendent performance at the Voodoo Lounge. They have returned twice since then, in support of their subsequent two releases.

Saturday night, the Brooklyn-based, indie rock band played at the Midland theater, their largest venue in town to date, in front of their biggest crowd.

The first five songs of the night all came from “Seeds,” the band’s latest album. They would return to it again twice more, and also perform a non-album single drawn from those sessions. A red strobe light enveloped the stage during opening number “Lazerray,” making the band look like a stop-motion video from the future.

Later, the red, green and yellow beams of light crossing the stage during the “Seeds”’ title track recalled the album’s cover. The chorus on that song sounds like a lost African proverb: “Rain comes down like it always does/This time I’ve got seeds on ground.” As singer Tunde Adebimpe repeated the uplifting message, the music slowly built in intensity, threatening to overwhelm the room.

Musically, TV on the Radio can be hard to pin down. At times they can sound like Peter Gabriel, as on set-closer “Staring at the Sun,” or Radiohead, or Joy Division. While there are some obvious touchstones — Bono would kill for the silky falsetto guitarist/vocalist Kyp Malone used on “Million Miles” — TV’s sound is generally too mercurial for a game of spot-the-influence. They are clearly pointing the way forward more than they are looking back.

The stage was set simply, with no screens or effects aside from the light show. Though frontman Adebimpe was energetic, the core quartet and touring drummer and keyboard/horn player stayed in place. Arranger/producer/jack-of-all-trades Dave Sitek stood at stage left behind a table of gadgets and next to a bank of synthesizers. He rotated between guitar and the rest of his tricks like the man behind the curtain.

Although the show was skimpy on older numbers (and questionably skimpy in general at just 15 songs and 80 minutes), predictably they were the ones that drew the biggest response.

“Wolf Like Me” inspired a feral sing-along. For the encore, the band went back to its two earliest singles, “Young Liars” and “Staring at the Sun.” Neither could be described as inspiring, but it was moving to hear the room come together in one voice.

If we are fortunate, TV on the Radio will return again in a couple years, with a new batch of songs to perform. We will miss the older numbers they displace, but not too much. After 15 years and six albums, they remain a band on the rise, with no horizon in sight.

Setlist: Lazerray, Golden Age, Happy Idiot, Seeds, Could You, Wolf Like Me, Trouble, Million Miles, Blues from Down Here, Winter, Dancing Choose, Love Dog, DLZ. Encore: Young Liars, Staring at the Sun.

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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.

Top 10 Albums of 2006

Game Theory – The Roots
The Boxing Mirror – Alejandro Escovedo
The Obliterati – Mission of Burma
St. Elsewhere – Gnarls Barkley
Fox Brings the Confessor – Neko Case
Fishscales – Ghostface Killah
Return to Cookie Mountian – TV on the Radio
In the Pines – In the Pines
Begin to Hope – Regina Spektor
Modern Times – Bob Dylan

Top 10 Albums of 2004

Tom Waits - Real Gone

Tom Waits, “Real Gone”
Franz Ferdinand, “Franz Ferdinand”
Tift Merritt, “Tambourine”
Wilco, “A Ghost Is Born”
TV on the Radio, “Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes”
Bjork, “Medulla”
Gift of Gab, “4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up”
Loretta Lynn, “Van Lear Rose”
Morrissey, “You Are The Quarry”
Mos Def, “The New Danger