Friday, February 27, 2015
As for Young Americans, this was a sea change for Bowie. He was on the road, touring his latest sci-fi rock epic, Diamond Dogs, an album based largely on George Orwell's 1984. It was a huge, ambitious tour, but part-way through, he became enamored with a totally different sound, the sleek soul music that was happening on radio and in clubs across the U.S., especially the Philly Soul of The O'Jays, The Spinners, Gamble & Huff, Thom Bell, etc. In the middle of the tour, the big Diamond Dogs sets were gone, new soulful players were introduced, and the set list changed to include the early Young Americans, cover versions and a whole new Bowie. The difference between the Diamond Dogs and Young Americans albums was night and day, the end of the Ziggy era and glam rock, the start of a smoother, more musically-experimental side that kept advancing right through to Scary Monsters. At the same time, it was his most popular period, resulting in the #1 single Fame, and he would return to those sounds for his other commercial success, Let's Dance.
Oh, another somewhat rare version graces the A side. It's the single edit, what often got played on the radio back in 1975, shortened down from the five minute album cut. Only this one is a 2007 remix of the edit, done by producer Tony Visconti, for you completists. But the whole point is these are just nice to have, the whole series looks great.
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
The reason you don't find a lot of out-takes from Zeppelin albums was because of Physical Graffiti. The 1975 double album came about because the album sessions produced a bit too much for one album, so the group emptied its files and came up with another seven works-in-progress from past sessions, bringing this up to a double-vinyl collection. That's why you find the cut Houses of the Holy here, rather than on the previous album of the same name, and Bron-Yr-Aur, an acoustic sibling to Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp from Led Zep III way back in 1970.
It's also why the bonus tracks on all these Zeppelin reissues have been so dull. Instead of unreleased gems, we have been getting ho-hum early mixes and minor alternate versions of cuts. They may help the biggest fans and scholars understand the recording process of the group, and find some of the building blocks that led to the final versions, but in the end, you'll just go back to the regular albums for your listening pleasure. To my ears, the big bonus is the excellent remastering job overseen by Page, everything sounding so full and current.
Physical Graffiti also benefits from a broad range of styles and interests of the band, thanks to its collection from various sources. There are the usual blues belters, but some softer acoustic material as well, Trampled Under Foot shows a funky side, and there's the grand Kashmir, the best Eastern-influenced track in the group's repertoire. Plant really gets to stretch with all the different styles, and the album stands as the favourite for many discerning Zep fans.
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
The Mavericks always make the old stuff sound great and new, and manage to find a grand mix of styles. What Am I Supposed To Do Without You is a pop-soul number, something new for them, but Raol Malo has the pipes for anything. Of course, we also get the traditional mix of styles, from the 50's swing of Stories We Could Tell to the Latin pulse of What You Do To Me to the pretty fireside ballad Let It Rain (On Me) to the classic R n' B of The Only Question Is. Although he never plays it up or gets goofy, Malo does remind me of Elvis sometimes. He doesn't imitate him, he just can do it all, and has a voice that always makes a song seem great. The retro vibe is played up throughout, and I love it.
Monday, February 23, 2015
The thing is, it's not all funk. Oh my yes, they can do that, but here it's more under control, tastes of it but not full-on. Instead, The Meters were making a more commercial album, and it's a showcase of all their abilities. There's the sweet soul of You're A Friend Of Mine, the Jungle Book fun of They All Ask'd About You, the Latin grooves of Lair, and even some fine jazzy, George Benson guitar in Middle of the Road.
In all that mix, The Meters also advanced the new sound of New Orleans, something still reverberating around the city and the globe. Singing about their neighbourhoods, all the great traditions, using the accents and attitudes, and capturing some of the old rhythms and second-line sounds, they found a new groove in songs such as Mardi Gras Mambo and Talkin' 'Bout New Orleans. This band could do no wrong.
Sunday, February 22, 2015
Whoa, and hello! Here's a voice that comes along once in a generation, and only on a blue moon. Out of Toronto, Martin could be doing big rock songs, over-singing and being called the new Janis Joplin, and thankfully, she is not. Instead, she's been building a roots/blues/gospel sound and team with Delta Sugar. They sound like a million bucks, but are only a small group. In addition to Martin's leads and acoustic guitar, there are the harmonies of Sherie Marshall and Stacie Tabb, electric guitar from MIkey McCallum, and organ from Jimmy Hill. Any percussion is stomps and claps from the group, and that is it, but it packs more punch than a stage full of amps and guitar heroes.
If there's a time and vibe as inspiration, I'd say it's the rural gospel/soul of The Staple Singers. All those elements are there, from the echoes of field hollers to the country streak that goes through all southern soul. The organ sanctifies when it comes in, the electric guitar makes it modern (well, latter 20th century), and the harmonies intensify. There's call-and-response, hurt and suffering. And while the focus will be on Martin as the front woman, this really is a team effort and powerful blend. Even the all-original material is seamless, never dropping the ball on the right lyric, tone and emotion. This is a group that just gets it, gets it all.
Thursday, February 19, 2015
I always like blues with some soul mixed in, and Ellis stakes out a fine blend between the two. The Atlanta guitar whiz mixes it up too, with slow heartbreak (In From The Cold) or smooth grooves (Seven Years). Through it all, Ellis flames up the proceeding with sharp and fluid guitar lines.
Midnight Ride is a particular gem, with a good-time rhythm being cooked up by the band, and Ellis playing two distinct solo lines throughout, dueling with himself. Give It Away sees him switch to dobro, coaxing some hurt out of those rattling strings, with a mellow feel. With a voice that manages to be both gruff and friendly, and a big variety of sounds over the ten original cuts, Ellis gives you lots to chew on, and never settles into blues repetition.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Yes, there's a burn-out factor now that I've acquired about ten different takes on Jamming, and thirteen on No Woman, No Cry. However, we're not dealing with a bunch of hired guns behind Marley; The Wailers and The I-Threes were a real band, taking cues from the leader but ready to improvise and find new soul within the songs on any night. Now that we've all had the luxury of examples of several tours over several years, it's obvious how tight this unit was when needed on the well-known hits, and how easily they could turn things around if a groove got going they liked. This is pretty amazing, considering the copius amounts of ganja being smoked off and on-stage.
This show does start with some lesser-known cuts, at least for the standard hits fan: Slave Driver, Burnin' + Lootin', Them Belly Full and The Heathen warm things up for all. Then comes a relaxed and reworked version of I Shot The Sheriff, Marley playing around rather than sticking to the studio cut. No Woman, No Cry sets the stage for the final assault, the big party of Lively Up Yourself, Jamming, Get Up, Stand Up and Exodus. I did hear some technical glitches that have been fixed up, some equipment hum has been filtered out as much as possible, but it's still there, and may signify the best quality tapes from Marley have now been used up. I'm sure they will find something else to release though, the Marley family has let out more music than the Hendrix estate, and seem to have no problem keeping up a constant pace.
Monday, February 16, 2015
There are just ten cuts here, and of that, two of them are featured twice, in "single version" edits. These are the major songs in the film, although usual practice with these discs is to include more material, and there must of been lots around from filming the live shows. Or how about licensing a few old hits? It would have been nice for this to feel more like an album. What we do get is a pretty good song in I'm Not Going To Miss You, the last studio recording Campbell co-wrote and recorded. One of two versions is done with some of his old colleagues in The Wrecking Crew, the famous L.A. studio musicians responsible for half the hits in the 60's. Campbell was a member in the early days, his prowess on guitar so high he worked on hits for Phil Spector and The Beach Boys. So its a touching moment to have this reunion, and it's a strong number, tackling love and last days in the lyrics.
Daughter Ashley Campbell is featured in the film, chief among his family support, and also a performer. She sings two of the numbers here, Remembering, which directly talks about her memories of her father, his importance in her life. She's a decent singer for sure, but sorry, I'm here for the star. Same goes for The Band Perry, who cover Campbell's theme song, Gentle On My Mind. It's a fine version, the singer sounds a tiny bit like Dolly Parton, but I want more Campbell. There are two cuts recorded live at the Ryman Auditorium, including Wichita Lineman, where he simply nails it, at least on an emotional level, and you can tell he still feels great excitement performing the Jimmy Webb classic. I haven't seen the film yet, I can tell already I'm going to like it, but I wish the soundtrack put me in the mood for it instead of being a lost opportunity.
Friday, February 13, 2015
Valentine's Day on Saturday, what better time to be good to your woman? That's the theme for the Julian Taylor Band's show at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern for Valentine's Day. Taylor has been speaking out in support of women's shelters and organizations with the Be Good To Your Woman challenge, started after his song of the same name. A social media campaign has been launched, getting people to speak out and share.
Taylor's been sharing via song, with his new album Tech Noir. Taylor has been building his solo career of late, quite different from his years leading Staggered Crossing. This is a much more soulful, funky sound, with rich grooves and tons of hooks, a real return to the glory days of Top 40 70's soul. You Say starts with a sharp horn burst, and moves into a slick Stax blues groove. No Guns! adds a wah-wah groove, and tons of tightness. Even the ballads have balls, Hurt Me filled out with slicing guitar. As for Be Good To Your Woman, it's a simple, effective message, in an uplifting, wicked mid-tempo groove, with a real piano even. It's a gem of a Canadian soul record.
Thursday, February 12, 2015
With everyone clamoring to add banjo and mandolin to their band the past couple of years, Les freres Punch pull ahead of the pack with their instrumental mastery. Plus, it all really does feel like a new sound they've created. Bluegrass harmonies turn into lush pop vocals, classical strings bend and bow themselves into rock sounds, genre walls give way in every direction.
Tracks such as Familiarity and My Oh My uses movements instead of verse structure. Boll Weevil is much more traditional, yet, comes near the virtuosity of Bela Fleck's style. Between 1st and A has the mystery and melancholy of a Paul Simon city-life lyric, stirring string parts and intricate pickin' too. It's really too bad everybody's going bluegrass, because the more commercial of the groups are getting a lot of the attention these guys deserve.
Monday, February 9, 2015
Austin has a compelling voice, and he reminds me a lot of Rodney Crowell. Not just vocally, but in his playfulness with the country-roots sound. Gatling Gun has serious hard rock bottom, banjo on top. Simple Truth is a funky tale, a little Little Feat in there. Shake Me Up moves into soul territory with horns and a tight groove. These are songs that should find favor in most roots communities, but just in case you forget where he came from, Austin lets the crack band go for on Run Down, featuring some vicious playing. Sounds like Austin might have been chaffing at the bit in his old band.
Sunday, February 8, 2015
Two New Orleans greats team up here, the good Doctor being produced by Allen Toussaint. When you get Toussaint, you get a real musical producer; he does the arrangements as well, which gets you all the instruments choices, blends, percussive accents and background vocal additions. And there's a third element here, the band is the monster New Orleans group The Meters. Between Art Neville on organ and Toussaint himself on piano, Dr. John, a master player, barely touched the keys on the album.
This album took Dr. John away from the mysterious, voo-doo infused gris-gris sound he had pioneered in the late 60's, and back towards a more conventional, soulful sound. It was even surprisingly commercial, landing him his biggest hit, the top ten cut Right Place, Wrong Time, and another charter, Such A Night. Usually, that means a compromise was made, but really it was more a meeting of the minds and a blending of the talents. Dr. John wrote it all, and Toussaint knew how to make it funky AND ear-pleasing.
There are plenty more grand numbers than the well-loved hits; Qualified is one of those perfect Toussaint horn numbers, with a gospel funk by Dr. John. But hearing the light touch on Such A Night again, with its jazz hints and delightful piano is a great treat, especially since it is such a highlight of The Last Waltz. Delightfully pressed on a gaudy orange and green splattered vinyl, this is one of those reissues that puts the fun back in record collecting.
Thursday, February 5, 2015
There are great debates going on this week over Dylan's voice, and a lot of arguments being made that suggest he is a master singer. They go something like this: It's not about the quality of his voice, it's the phrasing, and how he's singing the words. Perfect pitch be damned, he has perfect timing. Detractors can throw out words like wheezy, nasal, tired, and painful, and as I'm listening to him struggle through Some Enchanted Evening, it's hard to disagree. There are better performances here though, and I'll say that he is, as one friend and veteran Dylan-watcher said, very committed to these performances. He's trying, he's thought it through, the spirit is willing if the vocal chords are not entirely. But on Lucky Old Sun, well, there's nothing to complain about out, a number better associated with Louis Armstrong, who was more about phrasing than perfection.
The other important aspect of the record is the arrangements. If you've spent any time with the Sinatra catalog, especially pre-'60's, you'll know these songs were originally done with large orchestras. Dylan has instead chosen to record with a very small combo, basically his touring group plus one horn or stringed instrument providing the needed lushness. Pedal steel and bowed acoustic bass (might be a cello, I didn't get the credits) give much of the atmosphere, and there are beautiful moments on the electric guitar. It's headphone music, warm with a narcotic quality, and as rich as the originals, with ten times the players. The review I would have given this album on Tuesday, the day it came out, would have been far more picky about the singing. Try my technique of living with it for a few spins, and I bet you'll be a lot happier.
Monday, February 2, 2015
The prolific singer-songwriter continues to define his own style, getting closer and closer to doing one thing very very well. Given his writing talents, this is no easy task, and he could easily be anything from an outlaw to a popular country guy to a hipster folkie. He's been cleaning up his act and rowdy ways over the last couple of years and albums, and allowing all the emotion and honesty to come through. Now he's one of the best roots songwriters going, with his heart on full display.
This album comes hot on the heels of last fall's Single Mothers, and for good reason. It was recorded at the same time, and initially it was one piece, but Earle felt each group of songs needed to be separate to make the right statement. Whereas Single Mothers was about the wreckage of a broken home, Absent Fathers is more about what happens next as the broken generation grows up and takes those issues with them into the world. Yes, there's some of Earle's past and present there, but mostly it's an examination of those feelings. The music is soft for the most part, bluesy acoustic picking, with just enough uptempo work to keep it from being too intense. Mostly, it's sad but true, like life.
Sunday, February 1, 2015
The Coen Brothers spent as much time making sure the music from their film Inside Llewyn Davis would be accurate and good as they did on the filming, so it's not surprise the concept holds up well outside the world they created. Done as a companion concert event to the film, this is the two-plus hours of from that show, as opposed to the album soundtrack. You may have seen it flipping by your choices on Netflix, and it's a worthy view, as well as a tremendous listen.
The cast on for the concert is made of folks who contributed to film, as well as regular pals of music supervisor T Bone Burnett's, plus a few actual period folk stars. If you don't know the film, it is fictional, set in Greenwich Village just before the arrival of Bob Dylan on the scene. The Coens and Burnett found a mix of classics, vintage choices and even a couple of new numbers crafted for the plot. Main star Oscar Isaac is here, cast as star largely for his musical talents, and he pulls off a fine Green, Green Rocky Road and Hang Me, Oh Hang Me, just like in the movie. Marcus Mumford was a major contributor, and appears for some classic Dylan-associated tunes. The Punch Brothers made a lot of concert work, their peerless instrumentation on hand for the night, as well as their own contributions, including opener Tumbling Tumbleweeds (The Sons of the Pioneers number, written by Winnipeg and New Brunswick-raised Bob Nolan, BTW).
Justin Timberlake was just great in the film, but he didn't show for the concert, probably because he knew his out-sized celebrity didn't fit. Instead, Elvis Costello subs, doing the tongue-in-cheek Please Mr. Kennedy, along with Isaac and the Punch Bros. The quality guests keep coming, including Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, Keb' Mo', The Avett Brothers, Conor Oberst, Lake Street Dive, Jack White and The Secret Sisters. Just like in the movie, Dylan doesn't appear, but his spirit in felt in several songs, and his old running buddy Bobby Neuwirth does a show-stopper with Rock Salt and Nails. Just to let you know everything was being done well, Joan Baez was on hand for a few numbers, including the union anthem Joe Hill.
I've had my issues with some of the current folk crop, including the Mumfords and Avetts, but it was good to here them in context with all this other quality folk. Their music matched the rest that night, the Punch Brothers showed how to modernize and still keep the essence, there were some lighthearted moments, but mostly it's a scintillating listen, with noteworthy performances by almost all. What could have come off like a PBS pledge drive, or even worse, like the real version of the spoof A Mighty Wind, instead is a triumph for folk.