What I Listened To In 2007
The Pogues: Fairytale of New York (1988, CD single 2005)
The composing of Christmas songs seems to be a lost art. This duet between Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl is now twenty years old, just old enough to have stood the test of time. As the yearning of the opening verse gives way to the exuberant chorus ("the bells were ringing out on Christmas day"), someone who doesn't understand English might be forgiven for thinking that it's a another saccharine ode to the holiday season. With the way that MacGown mangles his words, a lot of Americans can't follow the song. But the bleak lyrics ("you're an old slut on junk," he sings to her) reflects the tensions between our hopes and our reality. And then there's the homesickness: the boys in the NYPD choir were singing "Galway Bay," indeed. Plus, I love the tin whistle.
The Byrds: The Notorious Byrd Brothers (Columbia 1968; expanded digital remaster, 1997)
The blaring brass on the opening track announces that the group intends to mess with our expectations. Sure enough, there's not a Bob Dylan song to be found. Instead, a group that was in the process of breaking up --notice that the window on the right has a horse where founding member David Crosby ought to be-- produced its strongest album by mirroring the nation's fragmentation. Some people can't deal with the wild juxtapositions: the Brill Building pop of "Goin' Back," the anti-war agony of "Draft Morning," the hippie-dippie sentiments of Crosby's "Tribal Gathering." Call it postmodern. Call it psychedelic. But notice the stunning guitar solo of "Change is Now" and grant that Roger McGuinn is under-appreciated. With 8 outtakes, most worth hearing.
Joe Ely: Honky Tonk Masquerade (MCA 1978))
This record was Ely's second album. I never grow tired of its combination of backbeat, accordion, and whining steel guitar. When it was released, country music still sounded very different from "rock" music. (Unlike today, when most "country" music sounds a lot like recycled rock music.) In retrospect, I'm impressed at how Ely exploited the honky tonk tradition to subvert stylistic expectations, making an album that straddles the country and rock categories. There's a Hank Williams cover, some Jerry Lee Lewis-style rock and roll ("Fingernails"), and amazing songs from Butch Hancock (the title track) and Jimmy Dale Gilmore. It's criminal that the wonderful follow-up, Down on the Drag, is out of print.
Bruce Springsteen: Magic (Columbia 2007)
Three years into his professional career, Bob Dylan informed an audience, "It's just Halloween. I have my Bob Dylan mask on." Here's an album that sounds as if Springsteen got up one day and said, "It's time to put my Bruce Springsteen mask on." Again and again and again, this record sounds like it was created by listening to a half dozen earlier Springsteen albums, then assembling a set of songs that superficially imitate them. I've played it repeatedly at high volume, but after the first three songs, it all feels utterly recycled. Worse, the "magic" of the E Street Band isn't the saxophone. It's the rich interplay of keyboards and guitars. Where's Roy Bittan's piano? Mostly missing in action.
Terry Reid: Superlungs (Astralwerks 2005)
Recorded in 1968 and 1969 by the man who turned down Jimmy Page's invitation to become Led Zeppelin's vocalist (and who then suggested to Page that he hire Robert Plant), these tracks are a tantalizing reminder of what Led Zeppelin might have sounded like. But Reid had his own power trio (drums, organ, and his own guitar) and had an American tour lined up, so it was not to be. Then bad management put his career on hold. But if you can set all that baggage aside, this is an extraordinary mixture of British blues, rock, and pop music by the singer who was, for good reason, Page's first choice for vocalist. And Reid could write, too: "Without Expression," "Silver White Light" and "Rich Kid Blues" keep me playing this disc.
Los Lobos: The Town and The City (Hollywood 2006)
I'm not the first to say that new material from Los Lobos often sounds familiar. You wouldn't call them derivative, because what's most familiar in their sound is true of a thousand other bands. It's just that they do it all so effortlessly that they sound like "classic rock" even when there's no obvious source. This time, peel away the vocals and "Little Things" calls to mind Procul Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" (pay attention to the keyboards). The combination of percussion and guitar gives "The City" and "No Puedo Mas" the feel of classic Santana (by which I mean the early group, not Carlos solo). Overall, this outing has a bluesy, relaxed feel that masks the bitter social observation of some of the lyrics. Like the guitar playing, the themes are tough and accomplished without calling attention to themselves.
Cassandra Wilson: Blue Light til Dawn (Blue Note 1993)
Except for an interlude of African percussion, none of this rises above the level of a quiet murmur. Even the "fast" songs are taken at the tempo of a funeral march. The unifying concept is to take "pop" and "rock" songs and to treat them the way that an earlier generation of jazz singers treated Broadway show tunes. That is, to treat them as if every word matters. From this perspective, a good Joni Mitchell song ("Black Crow") is exactly like a good Robert Johnson song ("Come On In My Kitchen"). Her husky voice turns everything into a smoldering blues. Best of all are the last two tracks, both of them "pop" songs: Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey" and Ann Peebles' "I Can't Stand the Rain."
Dan Hicks: The Most of Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks (Sony 2001)
This is an expanded version of an LP originally released in 1969 ("Original Recordings"). It's the bulk of that delightful album plus seven songs recorded for an aborted follow-up. It kicks off with three winners: "How Can I Miss You (When You Won't Go Away)," "Waiting for the 103," and "I Scare Myself (Thinking About You)." Notice how the parenthetical clarifications twist the knife. There are also two great morality tales, "Canned Music," about how listening to live music will improve your love life, and "He Don't Care," about the apathy of drug users. As for the sound, I never understood why the music of Django Reinhardt & Stephane Grappelli sounded so natural to me the first time I encountered it. It's because I already knew Hicks's music, which apes their style (but adds the charming Lickettes on backing vocals).
Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life (Blue Note 2007)
Somehow, this one didn't quite live up to my expectations. Dedicated to showcasing Strayhorn's songwriting, and featuring two of my favorite singers (Dianne Reeves and Elvis Costello), it comes across as solid yet generic jazz. Don't get me wrong. Pianists Hank Jones and Bill Charlap are both splendid in Duke Ellington's seat on the pieces that Strayhorn co-wrote with Ellington, and they do a great duet together on "Tonk." Reeves offers a killer version of the title track. However, the four tracks dominated by Joe Lovano's tenor sax could be on any of Lovano's own albums. With vocals on fewer than half the tracks, the album is dominated by improvisations on familiar changes, so much of the time it's nothing particularly Strayhorn-esque. I guess I really wanted to purchase Reeves Sings Strayhorn, and got part of it.
Gear Daddies, Let's Go Scare Al (Polydor 1990)
Although all music is in some sense regional, some music never catches on beyond its place of origin. In that sense, the Gear Daddies were a regional band. They were huge in Minneapolis and on the bar circuit within an easy drive of their home base --they paid homage to their fan base with a fabulous country-and-western version of Prince's "Little Red Corvette" -- but unless you've heard their ode to driving a Zamboni machine, you might not have heard of them. On this, their debut album in a too-short career, they pour their hearts out with ten songs about life in small Midwestern towns where men abuse women ("Boys Will Be Boys"), marry women and then restrict them to numbing routines ("She's Happy"), and make life miserable for any male who dares to be different ("Heavy Metal Boyz!").
Love, Forever Changes (Elektra 1967/Rhino Remaster 2001)
The sound of the "summer of love" in the canyons above Los Angeles. Aside from the bass and two electric guitar solos, Love went "unplugged" for its third album. The addition of strings and horns has often been described as Baroque, but that's not quite right. Like the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," it's chamber music, and like that song, gorgeous melodies are the setting for bleak meditations on life and death. Listen past the Flamenco touches and wistful melodies. Aside from the little girl in the pigtails at the ice cream truck, these songs are about death, the specter of war, and social isolation. Then among the bonus tracks we get to hear their painful struggle to get it all perfect.
The Zombies, Greatest Hits (DCC 1990)
I guess that these tracks have now been remastered for improved sound, but mid-1960s "British Invasion" recordings were mixed for radio, not high-fidelity. The Zombies were relatively short-lived, and the cover of this collection makes it perfectly clear why you're buying it. You want " She's Not There" (a giddy rush that's reminiscent of the Beatles at their mop-top best), "Tell Her No" (more Rolling Stones than Beatles in sound and attitude), and "Time of the Season." Comparable only to some of Van Morrison's work with Them, "Time of the Season" has both a jazzy-yet-soulful vibe and an intriguing arrangement of voices and instruments. Colin Blunstone's vocals are a constant delight, so there's much more here than the three hit songs.
Arthur Rubinstein, Chopin: 19 Nocturnes (RCA 2000)
Recorded in the 1960s, these performances of the bulk of Chopin's nocturnes are among my three or four favorite recordings of solo piano music. The singing quality of the melodies is highlighted by Rubinstein's measured pacing; he emphasizes their melodic quality and lets the emotional expression take care of itself. The over-arching mood of reflective tranquility makes it the perfect accompaniment for reading philosophy. The music has a sense of forward motion and logical inevitability that supports heavy reading. Then, when I pause and try to clear my head in the middle of a piece of dense, turgid prose, the musical lines have a pristine clarity that never fails to revive my mind.
Pretenders, Sire 1980 (Expanded remaster: Sire/Rhino 2006)
In 1980, the British magazine Melody Maker named this album one of its ten-best of the year. In retrospect, it blows away many of the other "winners" (Adam & the Ants, Madness, the Clash's Sandinista). It's also worth noting that it's the only album on the list with a female vocalist. A surprise is in store for anyone who only knows their big American hit, "Brass in Pocket" and its catchy chorus ("I'm special"). That song and the other two radio-friendly tracks are shoved to the second half of the album, after six swaggering slabs of foul-mouthed aggression. Okay, one of the six is an instrumental, but it still feels foul-mouthed. Then track seven is one of the sweetest gender-benders in rock and roll: the euphoric "Stop Your Sobbing."
John Fahey, The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, Takoma 1965
Let's start with the philosophical in-joke: the title makes me think of Arthur Danto. Then there's the subjective association: the second piece is called "Orinda-Moraga," which is a place in California. I used to live there, and the rolling sound of this sunny instrumental is a lovely evocation of rolling hills and oak trees. Putting that aside, these 15 acoustic instrumental performances feature a stellar guitarist at the top of his game. The opening is deceptive, with a loose interplay of guitar and banjo that sounds like two old codgers playing on the front porch. Later on, when the dog starts to bark, you suspect that a young codger really is playing on the his front porch.
Lucinda Williams, West, Lost Highway 2007
On the one hand, I'm grateful that she makes music. She's one of the most intelligent and insightful songwriters in America, and her delivery of those songs is almost always riveting. On the other hand, she's settled into a groove in which every new song sounds remarkably like an earlier song -- it's as if she's forgotten how to create new melodies. And while it's gutsy to start an album with a slow, repetitive song like "Are You Alright?", it's self-indulgent to follow it with five more slow, repetitive songs. The violin is a nice addition to her standard sound, and Bill Frisell is always welcome on guitar. But "Wrap My Head Around That" is just dreadful, and repeated listening --out of loyalty-- hasn't helped.
T-Bone Burnett, Dot Records 1986
Burnett has achieved fame as a record producer (most notably with the soundtrack for the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Generally, his solo records betray too much thought and too much effort, and they tend to come across as clever but not heartfelt. Here's the big exception. This thirty minutes of acoustic music, recorded live without overdubbing, is about as perfect as a record can be. In retrospect, I see that it's a purer form of the more calculated "folk" construction of O Brother and another Burnett production, Gillian Welch's Revival. Burnett wrote the two strongest songs, "River of Love" and "I Remember," which is saying something about an album that includes an outstanding performance of Tom Wait's "Time."
Old & in the Way, Round Records 1973
This might be the first bluegrass album that I ever heard. A side project of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, Garcia is the least interesting thing about it. It's a showcase for Peter Rowan (formerly a sideman for bluegrass giant Bill Monroe), David Grisman (formerly a sideman for bluegrass great Red Allen), and Vassar Clements (also ex-Monroe). They do justice to traditional material (e.g., "Pig in a Pen"), but it's the newer material that makes it interesting. Rowan's hippie anthem "Panama Red" is loads of fun (and even more fun if you get the drug reference of the title) and their version of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" is stirring. Too bad this disc doesn't include "Lonesome L.A. Cowboy." For that, you need another of their albums.
Susan Tedeschi, Hope and Desire, Verve 2005
If I didn't know the year it was released, I'd swear that it was from the 1970s. It sounds like Bonnie Bramlett or early Bonnie Raitt. In other words, it's a singer's showcase: a set of great songs from a wide range of songwriters, held together by a blues & gospel vibe. None of that excessive melisma that passes for soulfulness in this age of American Idol and Christina Aguilera-copycats. Derek Trucks offers the intelligent guitar support that Duane Allman used to supply as a session musician and the Hammond B-3 organ provides the contrasting "church" feel that used to dominate this kind of music. Best of all, it opens with a perfect cover of "You Got the Silver," the Rolling Stones' best Robert Johnson song that they wrote themselves.
Arcade Fire, Neon Bible, Mercury 2007
There hasn't been music this earnest-sounding since early U2 and Big Country. My overall impression is a batch of big sweeping melodic lines pumped up with big, grandiose walls of sound. Glockenspiel and pipe organ have that effect. After a few listens, the ballads start to emerge, then you notice the twitching, new-wave sound of "The Well and the Lighthouse." Ditto for "Antichrist Television Blues," which hides its punk roots in a big chorus and a largely acoustic arrangement. In fact, isn't it basically a rewrite of the Violent Femmes' "Add it Up"? "Windowsill" takes us into Springsteen-land, just like the (great) pair of songs that mention cars in their titles. And they remind me of The Triffids.
Jamie Saft Trio, Trouble, Tzadick 2006
I got this last year and finally got around to playing it. It's jazz. Jamie Saft plays piano and Hammond organ. There's a pair of guest vocalists. The trio plays a melody and then they improvise on it for five or six minutes. You know, standard jazz. Sometimes they get a little atonal, but nothing terribly weird happens. Unless, that is, you think it's weird to replace Gershwin tunes with eight Bob Dylan songs as your featured material. I could do without Mike Patton's vocal overkill on "Ballad of a Thin Man," but otherwise it's fabulous. What it shows, overall, is how varied the blues can be.
The Triffids, Born Sandy Devotional, Hot Records 1986
They don't sound anything like Nick Drake, but it's a safe bet that if you respond to Nick Drake, you'll respond to The Triffids. There's a similar combination of darkness, musical intelligence, and sensitivity. These songs are about coming of age in the isolation and emptiness of rural Australia (it doesn't occur to you to write a song called "Chicken Killer" if you grow up in the big city). There's a roots-rock sound, with yearning pedal steel guitar, but it's softened and the emotional sweep expanded by a sophisticated use of synthesizers and string arrangements. David McComb wrote and sang most of it, but he lets Jill Birt handle the suicide song, "Tarrilup Bridge," revealing the influence of the Velvet Underground (Lou Reed knew when to let Moe Tucker sing).
Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Warner Bros. 1976
In today's market, no major record label would release the debut album of the McGarrigle sisters. They'd have no clue how to market it. Back then, it was named album of the year by Stereo Review. With ten original songs and two quirky covers (one is "Swimming Song'), this album betrays no sense of a specific decade, place, or even nationality. ("Blues in D," to take one example, features a clarinet. Who else since Benny Goodman arranges a blues with prominent clarinet?) Behind their gorgeous voices, the dominant sounds are piano, accordion, and banjo. I suppose that two or three of these songs are my two or three favorite songs of all time. By the way, they're Canadian, which explains the one song in French.
Flying Burrito Brothers, The Gilded Palace of Sin, A&M 1969
Sneaky Pete Kleinow died last week. That's him in the front, with a pterodactyl on the front of his fancy suit. Like the music, the clothes were simultaneously a homage and an insult to their country-music sources. On most of the album, Sneaky Pete's pedal steel is distorted with fuzz tone, creating a sound that was as inviting as it was unique. The Eagles took what was commercial from the Burrito Brothers and made a fortune, but the Eagles could only dream of vocals as sweet and pure as those of Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, who formed this group after they left the Byrds. "Wheels" should be the official anthem of America's freeways, and their take on "Dark End of the Street" is stellar.
All text © 2007 Theodore Gracyk
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