Wednesday, February 29, 2012
These two albums are quite unfairly overlooked and under-appreciated in the Young canon, despite each containing a recognized classic, and both holding several high quality tunes that never fail to impress. But it's the albums that precede (On The Beach, Tonight's The Night) and follow (Comes A Time, Rust Never Sleeps) that get the kudos. I think it's just a matter of Young having so many discs in this mid-to-late 70's period that these get the shaft. Also, they are both more of a stylistic grab-bag of Young's moods (country, Crazy Horse rock, mystical imagery) than a single theme, so they aren't as easily absorbed.
It's nice to be able to buy them the old-fashioned way again, reissued on glorious vinyl. However, these aren't the deluxe 180-gram pressings so cherished by today's vinyl hounds. These German-manufactured and imported copies are lighter weight, but still solid; they aren't flimsy, almost transparent quality waxings that you used to get back when the big labels were selling multi-millions of Saturday Night Fever and the like. No, these stand up to the ear and quality test. No doubt Neil will reissue them in 180-gram versions when he gets around to his Archive Vol. 2 duties someday, but that could be a very, very long wait.
Zuma is the earlier album, from 1975, and the first with the reformed and rejuvenated Crazy Horse, Frank Sampedro now in for the late Danny Whitten. And what an auspicious debut for the combo; Young whipped up a crunchy guitar feast, led by the now-beloved Cortez The Killer. There are several elemental rockers, all of which still resonate; Drive Back, Stupid Girl, Don't Cry No Tears, Danger Bird. There's also a tantalizing look at what might have been. In '74, Young had been lured back into the clutches of CSNY, for a money-grabbing tour of baseball stadiums and gigantic outdoor venues in North America and England, one of the great extravaganzas of rock excess. There was supposed to be a reunion album too, and Young was offering up songs (Long May You Run) and leading some recording, but he got fed up with the silliness. One of those tracks is here, Through My Sails, and it's a gem. If the others had simply let him lead, it would have been a centerpiece in a great album. Zuma remains understated, but delivers lots when you put it on, especially after some years away.
American Stars 'n Bars has a more complex history, with the tracks coming from four different seasons, stretching from 1974 to 1977, when it came out. It features distinctly different styles and bands, plus Neil solo. The oldest track, 1974's Star Of Bethlehem, features Emmy Lou Harris on harmonies, and is an acoustic folk number, and was perhaps not dark enough to join the lineup for On The Beach. It comes from a batch of tunes that Young held in reserve for a few years, originally planned for an album to be called Homegrown, including Rust's Pocohantas and Decade's Love Is A Rose. By 1975, Crazy Horse was back in play, and the Zuma sessions yielded some extras, which were hardly B-list material. One was Homegrown, here turned into a sloppy proto-grunge. The other was a masterpiece, Like A Hurricane. It says a lot about this era that Young could afford to keep it off Zuma.
1976 was a bit of a wilderness year for Young, with the unsatisfactory Stills-Young Band album, and the subsequent tour that Young quit halfway through. One track made it to this album, and it's one of the strangest songs in his canon, and that is saying a lot. Will To Love is from the point of view of a salmon (?!?), swimming upstream, and somehow he turns it into a romantic metaphor. It's a solo thing, doctored with oddness, and isn't for everyone.
The rest of the album, the five tracks that made up side one, sees Young in country mode. Now, that's pretty familiar to us now, but really it's his first true foray into the scratchy fiddle music he's turned to at various times now. Here Crazy Horse is joined by mainstay Ben Keith on pedal steel, Nicolette Larson and Linda Ronstadt on prominent backing vocals, and the unknown then, unknown now Carole Mayedo on the fiddle. As is typical with his country work, Young goes for the simplest lyrics and cliches, although for my money these ones beat a lot of his later work, like many of the numbers on Old Ways. The Old Country Waltz is nicely composed, and Hey Babe is catchy but for some reason bombed as a single. The clincher is Bite The Bullet, where the Horse are finally let loose to play loud and nasty, and the women wail behind. If only all his country efforts were like this side.
Zuma's the better of the two, but both need to be in your Neil Young collection if you're more than just a Harvest/Harvest Moon fan. And yes, I think vinyl is the way to go.
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
I don't need a Wall scarf, collector cards, cheap coasters, or big marbles. In fact, most of the attendant packaging here is simply filler, including two booklets that include sketches, photos, and lyrics, but not one historical essay or statement from the band members, or anything approaching added information. Sure, it's nice to be reminded of the visual element to the creation, especially those cool Gerald Scarfe illustrations of marching hammers and such that would turn up later in the stage show, video and movie. But it's a case of what isn't here in this box instead of what is. More (or less) on that later.
What we do get is a great lot of the original double-disc, broken up into three parts. There is the original double-album, released here on two-CD's and newly remastered. Next comes a 1980 live recording of the Wall in concert, from Earl's Court in London. Finally, we step back to get two stuffed-full CD's of demos, first from Roger Waters' home recordings as he compiled the project, and then later versions once the band came in. This is the new and exciting stuff for fans. A final, seventh disc is visual, a DVD that includes a making-of documentary, an interview with Scarfe, and the old video for Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2.
The Wall is a landmark for several reasons in the Floyd cannon. Despite Dark Side Of The Moon's fame and chart longevity records, it's the Floyd disc fans know the best, its largest-seller. It's also the album where Roger Waters finally took complete control of the band, coming up with the concept, writing the vast bulk of the songs, and spearheading the effort from start to finish. It's also the most cohesive of their concept albums, with a somewhat coherent story line, and little of the group noodling and drifting that had long been part of the typical Pink Floyd album. With no ideas up their sleeves, the others had asked Waters what he had. He offered them two concepts to choose from, either The Wall, or the tracks that became his first solo disc, The Pros And Cons of Hitchhiking. They chose wisely.
It's a nasty piece of work. Infused with autobiographical elements, the tale follows the character Pink, born in the war years, with a father killed in combat, who then enters into his own personal battles. The horrible Teacher, representing a stifling education system. The clinging Mother, overprotective and emotionally damaging. Society, the government, mental illness, fame, and as Pink becomes a rock star, the dreaded fans. They are all just bricks in the wall he builds around himself, as he retreats. Much of the alienation Waters felt for the fans came from the infamous spitting incident in Montreal on the Animals tour, when one rowdy crowd member who clawed his way to the stage got in full in the face from Waters. Simply, he'd had it up to here with people who wanted to party at rock shows instead of listen to the music. So, there were a lot of themes about 20th century life there, and somehow Waters managed to get a story out of it. As rock concept albums go, it's certainly up there with The Who's Tommy and Quadrophenia as a decent tale.
You can buy the remastered album on it's own for twenty dollars. If you like Floyd, you probably already have it in some version. The big question is whether to shell out the hundred bucks for this Immersion box. Trinkets aside, stuff you'll look at once and file away, is there enough to feel you're getting your monies' worth? Let's look at the demos first. Floyd followers will have a field day going through the differences as we move from Waters' initial recordings to the addition of the band and producer Bob Ezrin, as the project grows closer to fruition. You get some insight into Waters' first thoughts on the subject matter, including an early take on Another Brick where we sings "We don't need your adulation" instead of education, this version aimed at certain fans of the band. Things get filled in as the demos progress, including different sound effects and voice-overs. Happiest Days Of Our Lives fleshes out the story of the psychopathic teacher, lyrics that were later dropped, which make it clear that he was, initially, not condemning the whole education system. High school students in 1979 clearly preferred the final version. There's a very different take of the end piece, Outside The Wall, with alternate lyrics, synth, and a children's choir, which is not bleak at all. Instead, it's more of a shrug of the shoulders, an "oh well, life ain't easy", which would have left the listener with much confusion about what all that serious stuff was about earlier.
Dave Gilmour's not insignificant contributions are also introduced and adapted into the story, and we hear the incomplete Comfortably Numb, still wordless, as Gilmour mouths the melody with doo-doo-doo's, still a sad and beautiful piece with just his guitar. If you know the final version like the back of your hand (and there are many who do), you'll enjoy these two disc the most.
The live concert is a good job, Gilmour especially shining on guitar and vocals. But now comes my chief beef. I've (hypothetically) bought the Wall box to be completely immersed in the album. The Wall was conceived of as a touring, visual show, and Waters went through great hoops to put these shows on. It's one of the most famous live events undertaken in rock, with its giant wall built slowly and then destroyed over two hours, the Scarfe illustrations projected on the Wall as part of the show, the giant teacher puppet, the phony Floyd band that opened the night, Gilmour playing on top of the Wall, it's all about the visuals. So why don't we get the damn show? We know its out there, because on the DVD there's a two-minute snippet, plus plenty of footage used in the documentary. Sigh. For the consumer, it makes no sense. I know why we don't get the god-awful movie with Bob Geldof as Pink, but seeing the live show surely counts as part of the experience. At least the documentary does give us a lot of insight, touching on everything from Richard Wright's firing during the making of the album, to the horrible relationships within the band, to the isolation and antipathy Waters felt that drove the project. Time has certainly mellowed Waters, and he and the others are able to reflect on it all with grace, and even humour ("I hope people understand I was being satirical", Waters advises).
One hundred dollars is a lot of money to plop down, even if it is your favourite band or album. There won't be another Wall boxed set, so what's done is done. I'm sure there are reasons for both the glaring omissions here, the lack of a historical booklet, and the non-appearance of a concert DVD, but I had fully expected to find both in this set, and I'm left feeling like The Wall Immersion Edition is a few bricks short of a load.
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
For reasons unclear, McCartney quickly brought in famed documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, who had shot The Beatles and the Stones in the '60's. Maysles follows McCartney in the days and hours leading up to the concert, as he does tons of press interviews (Dan Rather, Howard Stern), meets grieving firefighters and police officers, and even walks down the street, signing autographs. McCartney figures if he makes himself available, over mass media or in person, he might be able to give some strength back to the people of New York. So far, so good.
The trouble is, it's McCartney, who always seems a little self-serving even in the most charitable of moments. We see him trying to sell the idea of performing his new Freedom song at the concert to such luminaries as Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend, who simply say okay, as even they know the pecking order of rock stardom. It's unclear whether McCartney's pushing his song because he thinks it's worthy, or because ...well, let's not go there and give him the benefit of the doubt. But there was an awful lot of press at the time about this new song that he'd written and would debut. Perhaps that's why Maysles was brought on board. Even when he's greeting firefighters who lost brothers and colleagues, the film is always centered on him. Why dwell on a lengthy scene in the limo of McCartney trying to avoid persistent autograph hounds, the ones he knows are just going to sell the signature on eBay? What, in the end, does this have to do with the behind-the-scenes look at the concert? In truth, this is a behind-the-scenes look at a week of being McCartney, albeit an exceptional one.
It is quite fascinating to see how it works backstage, as celebs drop by for hugs, from James Taylor to Elton John to Bill Clinton. Maysles also knows how to capture moments that give us true insight, such as what happens before and after interviews with the likes of Rather and lesser, fawning lights. But for some reason, the footage captured of the rehearsals, and the concert, is flatly recorded, and makes poor use of better audio sources. I saw that concert on TV, and remember it being exciting, emotional, cathartic, everything a rock show could be at such a time. The Who, especially, gave one of their greatest performances in a city that had always loved them. Billy Joel in his hometown, was tremendous. Maysles barely captures any of this, which to me, was a historic night. I just don't get that from this 90-minute doc. I do remember thinking at the time though, at the very end of the show, how much that McCartney song Freedom sucked. Ten years later, it still sucks. However, hats off to him, McCartney did have a lot of effect on the people of New York City then, and his weight in the rock world brought a ton of other stars to the city in its time of need.
Monday, February 20, 2012
Everybody in England is familiar with Rumer, although she hasn't hit the heights that Adele has. This debut Rumer album came out in late 2010, and received massive critical acclaim, including a rare, five-star, "instant classic" review in Mojo Magazine. That's where I first found out about her. So, why haven't we heard her here? My guess is that with Adele dominating things, the plan has been to wait until her furor died down to introduce Rumer. Unfortunately, Adele's machine keeps on plowing ahead, so we're finally get the Rumer album, and I hope it can find a place over here.
First off, she doesn't sound like Adele. Instead, she is more a throwback to classic pop vocalists of the 60's and early 70's. She has the smoothness and poise of Dusty, and (don't take this the wrong way), the gentle romanticism of Karen Carpenter. Okay, I said it. But you know, Carpenter was a darn fine singer, so don't let that scare you off. Rumer is singing emotional pop-soul, and it's absolutely gorgeous.
Her material is almost completely self-written, and shamelessly echoes the glory days of lush, melodic, heart-tugging pop. On Aretha, the singer is a school kid, shy and humiliated by peer pressure, but gets through it by listening to the soul great on her headphones, giving her strength. In Saving Grace, she's the weary 9-to-5 worker, sick of the same conversations and the high fashion parade passing her by in the city, but saved each day by coming home to her lover. In Thankful, she's watching the world outside her window, the kids playing and bickering outdoors, a woman passes on a bicycle, the first frost, all little things in all the seasons, and she's thankful for just being alive. In a nice nod to her roots, the radio is playing Superstar, and I'm betting its not the original Delaney and Bonnie version, or Joe Cocker's, but rather The Carpenters hit.
As I say, there are no apologies here for being a tad unhip, or maybe we've come so far now that this stuff will be hip. I'm going to admit it, I love it, and have always had a soft spot for such supposed wimpy tunes. It's no surprise that Burt Bacharach has already expressed admiration, and worked with her. The final giveaway is the lone cover, and ending track on the album, the old David Gates hit Goodbye Girl. She does a beautiful job of course, and who could ever imagine that song coming back again? Anyway, here's hoping Rumer doesn't get buried by Adele, and here's hoping enough people embrace their hidden pop love. And you know what? I like her a lot better than Adele. Just saying.
Sunday, February 19, 2012
James is rightly considered one of the great singers of all time, and despite all her health issues, her voice never diminished on disc. Every song here gets a tremendous performance, whether a blues ballad, pop number or R'n'B classic. There's not many that can equal Otis Redding, but here she tackles two of his gems, the themed pair of Champagne & Wine and Cigarettes & Coffee, and makes them her own. Bobby "Blue" Bland's Dreamer sounds like it was written for her in the first place, and serves here as the closest number to a valedictory address. Across the board, the song choices are smart, and even the outlandish idea of covering Guns n' Roses Welcome To The Jungle works, as James recasts it as a funky and gritty piece.
Since the start of the 2000's, James has been working with her two sons, Donto and Sametto, a drummer and bass player respectively. Again, this is a situation that often turns out weakly (Frank Sinatra Jr., anyone?), more of a boost for the kids than the parent, but it turns out the boys not just looked after mom, together as co-producers, they came up with a plan and product that rivals anything from her long career. If you want to hear beyond At Last, there's nothing wrong with grabbing this as well as her earlier works.
Saturday, February 18, 2012
Fabulously, these are the entire Ed shows, including the vintage commercials (Hai Karate aftershave, anyone?), and the variety show in all its classic absurdity. I had never heard of dancer Peg Leg Bates, but there he was, dancing WITH A PEG LEG. The prosthesis that allowed him to tap dance was quite on display, and you have to give him great credit for developing this skill, but it's simply a visual shock, and not the first. The Ed Sullivan Show was a hodgepodge of old and new, a holdover from the days of vaudeville, with circus performers, comics, puppeteers, even dramatic readings. It tried to be everything for everybody, which is why Ed (who also produced the show) kept trying to put modern stuff in "for you kids", like the Rolling Stones, as he had with Elvis and The Beatles. But it was clear where his heart lay, at home as he was with stage veterans and old showbiz royalty.
There was a reason Sullivan tried to get old and young, parents and children. It was still broadcasting then, not narrow-casting. With only a small number of channels available, shows wanted something for everyone, and this was way before you could change the channel with a remote. So the whole family wanted something they could all watch. And while the kids might role their eyes during Robert Goulet, it would be the adults turn to cluck during Mick Jagger's mugging and preening.
Don't think Ed was too square though. His fawning over old-school celebrities and stiff stage patter belied a man willing to change attitudes along with the times. Appearing on the most popular show on television hugging singer Ella Fitzgerald, and then kissing her hand probably did much for race relations. And there's one moment, after watching the somewhat bizarre circus spectacle of a ferocious tiger riding on top of a horse, when Sullivan uttered words that might have come out of David Letterman's lips in the same theatre 40 years later: "He ain't gonna get me on no tiger or horse, neither one of them. Next week, in fact, I think we'll have the horse ride the tiger."
Now, to the Stones. The first show, from 1964, is quite a spectacle, mostly in its absurdity. In addition to Peg Leg, British actor Laurence Harvey recites The Charge Of The Light Brigade, a trio of Korean sisters sing Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho, trying to stifle their accents, comedian couple Stiller and Meara, parents of Ben, and the father of George Costanza (on Seinfeld at least), did their stand-up, and a young Itzhak Perlman blew everybody off the stage, Stones included. Their rough blues on Around and Around seemed out of place, but everything on the show did. Time On My Side is a little smoother, and the group is starting to look like stars.
You can actually watch the band grow in stature and performance on each show, from '64 to '69. By May 1965, they are leading off the show, torquing up the danger on The Last Time. In February of 1966, they are huge pop stars, and Satisfaction is delivered with relish. Their second appearance that year, in September, sees them as pop dandies, with Lady Jane and Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow? I can barely understand that period, so Ed must have been perplexed too.
The most famous appearance comes in 1967, when the group had to censor themselves by singing Let's Spend Some Time Together. Not that it bothered them, Mick making a big deal out of singing the new words and rolling his eyes at the camera. The group was taking the opportunity to reach its fans on TV, and didn't care about the rules of an older generation. Plus, it's a great performance, as is Ruby Tuesday from the same show.
The last hour here is a mixed blessing. In 1969, the Sullivan show was still a major force in TV, and apart from the horse-tiger act, it was an A-list showcase, featuring Fitzgerald, Rodney Dangerfield, a young Robert Klein and of course, our little Italian mouse friend Topo Gigio. As a piece of TV, it's actually quite watchable, and trivia lovers should note that Fitzgerald sings a number by one Harry Nillson, Open Your Window. You'll flip for the Stones' set list, comprised of Gimme Shelter, Love In Vain, and Honky Tonk Women. And then you'll moan with sorrow when you discover it's lip-synch'ed. At least Jagger's mic is live, so he's actually singing along to the track, and the band all try to give a performance.
So, there are two good reasons to get this set: To see the Stones, and to see full Ed Sullivan shows. You get it all, from Senor Wences to The Muppets to Flip Wilson, Red Skelton and Phyllis Diller all in their primes. I can assure you it's fascinating to watch these shows, but if you're younger than 40, you might need a 60's interpreter.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Then there's this beauty, a wonderful later-career disc. This isn't his most recent album, but the one before it, his comeback album of 2008. At the time, Campbell teamed up with the much younger producer Julian Raymond, who had the idea of remodelling Campbell using modern, somewhat alternative and left-field songwriters and material: works by Foo Fighters, U2, Paul Westerberg, and Lou Reed. But before you scream Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin, it wasn't quite the same. While Raymond used the same trick of making surprising and excellent song choices, the production was actually full-on, rather than the stripped-down records Cash and Rubin made. It's a fabulous sound, part modern, and part classic Campbell, great big sounds with horns and strings, and classic guitar and banjo licks straight out of the 60's. There are so many great versions, such as Jackson Browne's These Days, rich and emotive, Campbell given lots of room to soar, and rising to the occasion. Turning Green Day's Good Riddance into a folk ballad with a driving drum track and mandolin solo is sheer bravado, and again, a complete success. The only time you feel like Campbell might be heading back to Branson, Missouri material is on the gospel cut Jesus, until you realize it's Lou Reed's song.
This updated version is met to tie in with the Grammy bounce, and there's some nice additions. There are two remixes of classics, Gentle On My Mind and Galveston, really just the normal cuts with the sonics cleaned up. Then there are three cuts for an AOL session, the highlight being Wichita Lineman with Campbell proving he still has it, a take on U2's All I Want Is You, featured on the main album, and unfortunately, a similarly cheesy Rhinestone Cowboy. He really should have done Galveston on the Grammy's.
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Many of the songs come from the hymnals. Blessed Assurance, Give Me That Old Time Religion, The Old Rugged Cross and Nearer My God To Thee are as much pillars of American folk music as any murder ballad or old-timey mountain song. There's a great argument to be made that this early gospel is the truest American music, predating jazz, country, bluegrass, whatever. Its influence is still obvious all over genres today. With two jazz giants devoting their attention to it, even wordlessly, the case is stronger.
Jones plays, Haden responds, or vice-versa. There's no drama here, no out-there soloing or radical or even minor departures from the famous melodies. Instead an intense calmness prevails, a richness that only serves the historic notes. There are even some surprising choices, including two carols, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and It Came Upon The Midnight Clear, that help connect the dots over the years for this kind of praise music, with great messages. This is a wonderful disc to go to at any time, to wash your troubles away.
Monday, February 13, 2012
The compilers have tried to go past the obvious hits, and they did well with that, as almost none of these bothered the charts. However, they are also strong choices, and my relatively hasty research shows most weren't released as singles, but probably would have been decent choices. The names are all recognizable for the most part; Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald, Brenda Lee, Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, even Count Basie shows up with a late-period attempt at modern sounds, an instrumental version of Ray Charles' recent hit I Can't Stop Loving You. All good stuff. Oddly, the one major hit that is included here is so overused that it's become annoying: I hereby declare a moratorium on the appearance of The Girl From Ipanema for at least a decade. It needs to rest, at the same retirement home as Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah.
There's a ringer here, and it will be of interest to a lot of folks. New festival favourite Grace Potter is a grand choice to update another classic, with Fly Me To The Moon an obvious and good choice for the show's subject matter. She does a smooth job of it, too. With the non-album Potter oddity, and the mostly-obscure track listing, this makes a nice pick-up for those with a taste for some light swingin'.
Sunday, February 12, 2012
Almost every act of his vintage (he started in the late 60's) pretty much has to come out and do a greatest hits show, and lean heavily on the tried-and-true numbers from the start of their career. Thompson, however, can do shows of entirely new material, as we have here, and still have the audience thrilled. I bet he appreciates this, and for an artist, it may be more important than that collection of luxury cars in the garage their more commercially-successful peers can afford.
This set comes from a festival in Glasgow, rather than the similarly-named one in Cape Breton. Recorded in January of last year, it sees Thompson perform the bulk of his latest effort, the strong Dream Attic album. That album was actually a live one, of all-new material, captured in concert rather than in studio as Thompson and his crack band worked out exciting stage arrangements. We get the usual devastating character studies, take-downs of greedy bastard bankers (The Money Shuffle), self-important rock stars (Here Comes Geordie, reported to be about Sting), and vile serial killers (Sidney Wells). The musicianship is of the highest order, with Thompson effortlessly coaxing ripping solos, but more importantly providing a rich and ringing tone through all his rhythm and fills-playing.
The band is stellar and able to move in any direction Thompson chooses, adding lots of their own colours. Pete Zorn is a mood machine, going from dark and gloomy to full-out rocking on sax and flute, as well as beefing up the set when needed on second guitar and vocals. Canadian and McGarrigle associate Joel Zifkin is whiz on fiddle, and as Thompson explains in the liner notes, not stuck on any style, so a valuable sideman. Rather than impressing with solos, this band is all about making a joyful noise together.
The hall-capacity audience is highly supportive of these new-to-them songs, and nobody is rushing out to the beer vendor like they do when The Rolling Stones try to sneak in something written after 1978. And even when the Thompson Band returns for the second set of older material, it's hardly a greatest-hits night. Instead his fans are treated to rare gems such as The Angels Took My Racehorse Away from his solo debut Henry The Human Fly in 1972 ("the poorest-selling album in Warner Brothers' history", he says triumphantly). Thompson could cherry-pick just about anything from his discs and get away with it, but of course he does add some of the better-known favourites, this time Wall Of Death, Al Bowlly's In Heaven and Tear-Stained Letter, the latter perhaps his biggest showboat crowd-pleaser.
If you are a Thompson fan, you already know you need this video. If he's new to you, it's a great place to start, and lucky you, as there will be so much to discover.
Friday, February 10, 2012
That was welcome news, but not entirely exciting. After all, his most recent releases, after the later-period thrills of I'm Your Man and The Future, were the underwhelming Ten New Songs (2001) and Dear Heather (2004). He made nods to them on the tour, but really his reputation for a new generation was anchored in legend, and the unexpected revival of Hallelujah. The idea of a new, and stunning Cohen album seemed chancy at best. Of course, I never thought he'd start a world tour in Fredericton, either, let alone play possibly the greatest concert event I've ever witnessed, when he was 73. Now he's 77.
Old Ideas is not only better than I had expected, it is a significant work by a vibrant artist, obviously buoyed by his recent success. Everything you want from Cohen is here, plus a few surprises. There are songs of the highest lyrical quality, his hallmark since the start of his music career. With his experience, he learned long ago that economy is more important than verbiage, and the search for the perfect word and phrase would serve him better than haste. Cohen's wit is present as well, playing off his image, as he did with I'm Your Man. The disc opens with Going Home, and the very first lines we hear are "I love to speak with Leonard/He's a sportsman and a shepherd/He's a lazy bastard/Living in a suit." It's a fascinating number that seems to be about the difference between the public and on-stage Cohen and who he feels he really is: "He wants to write a love song/An anthem of forgiving/A manual for living with defeat."
Defeat? Love is defeat? Crap. He's probably right, and that little zinger is just tossed off in the midst of one number. As usual, love in all its agony and ecstasy is a major theme here, even after the fact, on Anyhow, where our boy tries to lesson a guilty conscious: "Have mercy on me baby/After all I did confess/Even though you have to hate me/Could you hate me less?" It's lines like these that draw us into the songs, and the album is full of them.
His other main song source, again something that has remained constant, is religion, combining these classic images with personal writing. In Show Me The Place (which features a welcome return of vocalist Jennifer Warnes), the images are from the Resurrection, the singer asking "help me roll away the stone", but it's another relationship song, our man willing to suffer for the love of one just as Jesus did for the love of all. Only L.C. could pull that lyric off.
Part of the success of that, and a couple of other songs, comes from the production and arrangements, which cast these songs closer to hymns than Cohen has ever come. Credit the various producers and arrangers here, because the disc features a varied bunch of styles and collaborations, and this is more good news. Both Ten New Songs and Dear Heather felt like Cohen was leaning too heavily on both Sharon Robinson and Anjani Thomas, and while both return here, they are part of the team, with Cohen seeming more in control of the overall plan, and more interested as well. Patrick Leonard and Ed Sanders are most prominent, but it always feels like Cohen's song. Even the co-writing credits are way down, Cohen solely responsible for five of the ten tracks.
One last and pleasant surprise comes at the start of the second half of the album. Until then, Old Ideas had sounded like the usual modern Cohen disc, spare but precise instrumentation, not as synth-heavy perhaps, very good for sure. But on Crazy To Love You, we get the return of the original Leonard, as the song features the nylon-string guitar with which his early hits are associated. It's Cohen's nod to his younger self, and might even be in answer to his son Adam, who recently released his own disc of nylon stringed tunes, saying he'd been bugging the old man to return to that sound for years. It is welcome, and as usual wise. Just a taste, not a return, that's not growth.
Listening through, the biggest surprise is what Cohen didn't do on this disc. He didn't go back, he moved forward, and strongly. He got better, like any artist wants, and even though his age is there, it's not the topic, not the excuse, not really considered. Unlike contemporaries Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, there are no ruminations on what things have changed. For Cohen, nothing really has in his work, and the work is all-important, which is why he "love(s) to speak with Leonard". He's our man, skipping into the future.
Monday, February 6, 2012
There's a smoothness on a lot of tracks, but it's the good kind, not wimpy but instead soulful. Isaak really shines when he puts the gospel into his music, not literally, but grabbing the good swing found in those uplifting tones. You Gotta Pray is a number to get you out of the personal blues, and sees him getting close to preacher vocals. Instead of other bluesmen, at several points on the disc I find myself thinking about Lyle Lovett, and that's meant as a big compliment.
Even when the disc leans towards cliche, such as the lyrics on Hard Workin' Woman, where his baby is leaving on a big jet plane, the production quality, the sound, and the voice make the song winner. Luckily, there are far more gems with something new in them. He gets a slow funky groove going for A Little Wine, a cautionary tale, and for Tell Me Why, Isaac lets his inner Howlin' Wolf come out. Always known (and nominated) as a strong songwriter on the national blues scene, Isaak pushing to the head of the pack with this work.