What I Listened to in 2011
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George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Capitol 1973)
I heard a saccharine version of John Lennon's Christmas song "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" in the grocery store yesterday. I have long thought that Harrison's post-Beatles work is equal to Lennon's, and the lead song on this album, "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth," is a far better Christmas song than Lennon's. Same goes for Harrison's lovely "The Light that Had Lighted the World." Granted, Harrison's charms are more subtle, but pretty much everything here gets better with repeated listening. And let's not forget "Sue Me, Sue You Blue" is a biting commentary on Lennon's destructive greed. "Be Here Now" is a forgotten gem, lovely in a way that few songs ever are, gently floating on a bed of tinkling piano and acoustic guitar.
Johnny Cash: In Prague Live (CBS/Supraphon1983)
Recorded in 1978 for European television, and later released as an album, this particular show catches country music's greatest baritone at a time he looked to be washed up as a recording artist. With the hits few and far between, he kept touring to adoring crowds. This set has him in great form, determined to demonstrate both sides of "Country and Western." The setlist is heavy on the Sun Records hits, train songs, and a moving version of "The Streets of Laredo." Plug his name and "Prague 1978" into YouTube and you can watch most of it. For me, the best song is a dead-on version of "Sunday Morning Coming Down." And Minnesota appears in at least two songs.
Sandy Denny: Who Knows Where the Time Goes (Hannibal 1991)
Denny died at the age of 31, robbing the "folk" end of British popular music of a stellar alto voice. (You may know the voice from her appearance on the fourth Led Zeppelin LP.) She really could sing. At the same time, her admirers tend to overrate her talent. This three disc overview displays her strengths and weaknesses. About half of it was otherwise unreleased when it was assembled. There are two great revelations. One is that, as a writer, she had one great song, and it provides the collection's title. The other is that the quality of the music jumps tremendously whenever Richard Thompson is her musical partner. The Complete Denny & Thompson -- I'd buy it instantly.
Daryl Hall: Sacred Songs (RCA 1980, expanded CD 2009)
Sure, I like Hall and Oates when they come on the radio. And if that's how you think of Daryl Hall, this disc is quite a shock, so out of keeping with audience expectations that the record company refused to release it for three years. The opener, the title song, is a driving piece of rock and roll with odd lyrics. After that, we head down the rabbit hole, thanks to producer and guitarist Robert Fripp, fresh from his work on David Bowie's Heroes. From moment to moment on tracks 2 through 5, you don't know whether you'll get pop music, 1970's electronic experimentation, or a crazed guitar solo. After that it's (relatively) straightforward, except that the songs and singing are uniformly great. (The expanded edition adds 2 killer tracks Fripp put on his own solo album, Exposure, in 1979.)
The Beatles: Beatles For Sale (Parlophone 1964)
An astounding record on many levels. There's the title, for a start: naming a commodity "for sale" drags critical theory into the record store. Next, there's the dualism of roughly equal numbers of covers and originals. Most of the covers date back to the 1950s and come from their Hamburg stage set, heavy on the rockabilly, with some great George Harrison guitar work. Some of the originals are stylistically close to this material, but there's also a handful of strikingly unique pop songs, among them the two openers, "No Reply" and "I'm a Loser." Bob Dylan hadn't yet gone "electric," and his influence is evident, both lyrically and in the acoustic guitars. And then there's "Eight Days A Week," early Beatles perfected.
Corinne Bailey Rae: The Sea (Capitol 2010)
I heard her single "Put Your Records On" in a coffee house a few years back and I was mesmerized by her voice and her neo-soul smarts. Her more recent record demonstrates real growth as both a singer and a songwriter -- so much so that I'll probably buy her next record as soon as it's released, something that I seldom do with anyone any longer. Song for song, an amazing record with real variety in the arrangements and some stellar riffs. The lyrics have gotten more complex, reflecting her years as student of English literature (yet they're never pretentious!). The sea of the title, and of the gentle closing song, is time. It doesn't always heal.
Andy Irvine and Paul Brady (Green Linnet 1976)
In much the way Sinéad O'Connor praises Veedon Fleece, Bob Dylan has praised Paul Brady, going so far as to offer a cover of Brady's arrangement of the traditional "Arthur McBride." Although it's hard not to love the way Dylan sings the word "shillelagh," Brady's version is better. With Brady, you can easily imagine you're hearing a Regency era singer in a Dublin pub. The song is a protest ballad that's shockingly current. The poor are recruited to fight the wars of imperial conquest, and the potential cannon fodder (the narrator and his cousin Arthur) protest with their only means: violence. The irony: it's Christmas morning. But in the end, it's the melody and the voice that matter here. The same holds for the rest of the record.
Van Morrison: Veedon Fleece (Warner Bros 1974)
It's reported that Sinéad O'Connor says it's the definitive album of Irish music. She's right, if you don't think of Irish music as "Danny Boy," drinking songs, or Clannad. Case in point: "Country Fair." Driving back and forth across rural Minnesota, we had this pastoral album in the car and listened to it five times in two days. And then I wanted to hear it again. Although the sound is predominantly acoustic, this LP is the last gasp of Morrison's great early band, the Caledonia Soul Orchestra (with special kudos to David Hayes on bass). The falsetto singing of "Who Was That Masked Man" gives me chills, while "Comfort You" makes me swoon. "Streets of Arklow" is one of his greatest songs.
Bettye LaVette: Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook (Anti 2010)
The real gimmick is that LaVette brings out the African-American underpinnings of classic rock. She sounds just like what Tina Turner wants to sound like, but rarely does. I'd love to hear her belting out "River Deep Mountain High." Instead, I'll settle for this set of classic rock covers. Each Beatle gets a tune (but all but John gets a post-Beatles song). As with Cowboy Junkies, Harrison's "Isn't It A Pity" is stirring. But who would have predicted that the Moody Blues and The Who would come across so well, reshaped as soul music? In contrast, Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" sounds a little lame.
Syd Straw: War and Peace (Polygram 1996)
Although Straw's powerful voice is distinctively her own, there are moments where you might mistake this for a Pretenders album, which is a kind of backhanded praise. In other places, minus the vocals, it's not all that far from Neil Young's work with Crazy Horse. I play it often, and I've come to think that the "war" of the title is the war between the sexes. Or, to borrow one of the song titles, it should be called "Love, and the Lack of It." I actually liked this better on vinyl, because the first half is so much stronger than the second half that I used to play side one and ignore side two. Now I usually turn it off after the opening eight songs, after which it kind of drags. But "The Toughest Girl" and "Time Has Done This" are extraordinary.
Cowboy Junkies: Early 21st Century Blues (Zoe 2005)
Their "covers" album. Eleven songs, but only two originals. Not that you can always guess which are which. The John Lennon song is dull and strident, but perhaps that's the point: it makes it clear that this is a record about something. That's a peace sign on the cover, and it's a concept album about war, the military, and their true cost. Thanks to the unifying theme (and their distinctive, unifying sound), it's their most cohesive record. The U2 song ("One") and George Harrison song ("Isn't It A Pity") take on new dimensions in this context, and Bob Dylan's "License to Kill" and the traditional "Two Soldier" are an astoundingly powerful opening pair. Singer Margo Timmins shines throughout.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: Damn the Torpedoes (1979)
The peak of their early career, where Tom Petty and Mike Mike Campbell first assemble a full album of great songs with great arrangements. Petty yowls, the backing vocalists echo key lines, the guitars chime and howl, and the organ swells. Best of all, musical hooks abound. By comparison, a lot of Petty's more recent music is relatively formulaic. Throughout much of this record, I'm delighted by a recurring musical strategy. It's like those cartoons where the coyote is moving fast, goes off a cliff and then hangs suspended in the air until he realizes he lacks support. Then he falls. In these arrangements, the music will speed forward and then, suddenly, all sense of motion is momentarily suspended. And then it speeds on.
Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Tell My Sister (Nonesuch 2011)
Three discs of music, some of it recorded 40 years ago: their first two albums, remastered, and an amazing disc of demo recordings. Am I exaggerating when I assert that "Heart Like a Wheel" and "(Talk to Me of) Mendocino" are two of the most exquisite weddings of words and music that exist? I think not. Their music originates in minstrel songs, Stephen Foster, Charles Ives, French chanson, and blues, to which they add their singular harmonies and descriptions of the tangled webs of human relationships. I bought their debut LP in 1976 because it was produced by Joe Boyd, who'd worked with Fairport Convention and Nick Drake. If you have any affinity for that music, this might just be your musical Nirvana.
Joe Cocker: With A Little Help From My Friends (A&M 1969)
I watched a Slovenian film recently and was amused when two fat, middle-aged men discussed Joe Cocker's career as proof that rock music isn't just a matter of youth and good looks. Coincidentally, I've had his debut album in the car, mainly to listen to its two great Bob Dylan covers and, above all, "Bye Bye Blackbird." In essence, Cocker's debut album was a showcase for the aesthetics of appropriation: these English musicians are thoroughly immersed in American popular music (and some of the songs are twice removed, as cover versions of other English attempts to sound American, the best being Traffic's "Feelin' Alright"). When's he's in top form, as here, the slow and midtempo material is both unpredictable and intense.
Bryan Ferry: Olympia (Astralwerks 2010)
Throw a few oboe solos into the arrangements in order to give Andy MacKay a few more chances to show off, and you might as well call this a Roxy Music album. Avalon II, to be precise. I cannot say that the presence of Brian Eno makes a notable difference, but I attribute a couple of the better guitar solos to Pink Floyd's David Gilmour. Of the eight new original songs, five are midtempo funk grooves and three are languid ballads. The lyrics are largely inconsequential, except to establish whether Ferry's voice should express lust or longing. To round things out he reaches back to the late 1960s for two terrific covers, Tim Buckley "Song to the Siren" and a Capaldi-Winwood tune from Traffic's debut album. In both cases he bests the originals.
The Seldom Scene: Act 1 (Rebel 1972)
Their name is a joke, reflecting the fact that they were amateurs who never played in public more than once a week. (Notice that their faces are not seen in the cover photo.) Their relative lack of "redneck" or "hick" accents made their bluegrass appealing to a folkie audience, as did their decision to treat non-traditional material just like the traditional stuff. The other twist is that a dobro takes the place of the fiddle, so that their sound is often stripped-down and the high end never sounds cluttered. Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans" is taken at a surprisingly fast tempo, and James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" is, to my ear, superior to the source recording, thanks to the harmonies.
Shelby Lynne: I am Shelby Lynne (Island 2000)
Having failed to attract attention as a mainstream country act after ten years in Nashville, Lynne decided to reveal that what she really wanted to be was a retro-soul singer. For my money, this record outshines all of the white, female "soul" and R&B singers that have come since. (Amy Winehouse, for starters.) And she's something of a vocal chameleon. "Leavin'" could be mistaken for a lost Aretha Franklin track from the late 1960s. For my personal fave, "I Thought It Would Be Easier," she could be Ann Peebles. In other spots she's raw ("Why Can't You Be") and delicate ("Dreamsome"). And then "Where I'm From" reminds you that she's just a country girl from Alabama.
Rolling Stones: Between the Buttons (UK Decca 1967)
This album was the second on which the Jagger & Richards wrote all the material, and some may foolishly opt for the American version, which leads off with the big hit, "Let's Spend the Night Together." But British albums of the 1960s didn't always include the hit singles, and the hit-less UK album has charms of its own. The guitars are less prominent than one might desire, and Jagger's singing is sometimes awkward, but I adore ten of the twelve songs here despite their overt misogyny. (Okay, "Back Street Girl" might be a critique of class-based misogyny. But I wouldn't swear to it.) The true album title should be "Charlie Watts drums to 11songs about women and 1 about drug use."
Randy Newman: Harps and Angels (Nonesuch 2008)
Sincere, sentimental ballads ("Feels Like Home") are sandwiched between bluesy shuffles, talking blues, and bitter, bitter diatribes. The rhythms of New Orleans permeate much of it, beginning with the title song, a reflection on morality and divine judgment. (God has background singers and speaks French!) On first listen some of the songs seem so throw-away that they sound improvised, but the rhythmic timing and sly spoken asides are so brilliant that I suspect that every word was carefully selected. If you "get" him, you'll find that this record is one of the strongest in Newman's long career. "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" and "A Piece of the Pie" insure it.
Greg Kihn: Greg Kihn Again (Beserkely 1977)
The musical genre is pure power pop: catchy rock and roll played by a basic quartet (drums-bass-two-guitars). The cover versions of Buddy Holly ("Love's Made a Fool of You") and Bruce Springsteen ("For You") blend seamlessly with the original songs. If that appeals to you, you might join me in thinking that this disc redeems the late 70s. (If that's an exaggeration, it's because the closing song isn't very good.) "Island" would be a fine song in the Ray Davies songbook, and "Hurt So Bad" and "Madison Avenue Man" are pearls. The Replacements might have sounded like this if they'd had more discipline.
King Wilkie: Low Country Suite (Zoe 2007)
The sextet started as a relatively traditional bluegrass outfit. By the time they put this together, they got ambitious. What I admire here, besides the sense of craft, is that they make it sound as if all American song (rap excepted) springs from the same source -- Appalachia by way of Tin Pan Alley? The key source might be Dylan's "You Ain't Going Nowhere," a song often played by progressive bluegrass bands and which King Wilkie thinly rewrite as the splendid "Crazy Daisy," on which they sound remarkably like the Band. Most of the songs are taken at a slow pace, but "Angeline" is not far from Chuck Berry done acoustic (listen for the instrumental break!). "Captivator," a song about watching movies, seals the deal for me.
Art Garfunkel: Breakaway (Columbia 1975)
This one falls into the category of a guilty pleasure: lush ear candy dominated by romantic longing. Garfunkel's voice is in top form here (which is no longer the case, perhaps because, as the cover reveals, he spent too much time around secondhand smoke). With the exception of "Rag Doll," which does nothing for me, it's an intelligent selection of songs, both old ("I Only Have Eyes for You") and new (his last great piece of work with Paul Simon, "My Little Town"). I like the way that a song like "Disney Girls" (an obscure Beach Boys track) functions as ironic counterpart to the yearning of Stevie Wonder's "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)."
Steve Earle: Train A Comin (WEA 1997)
This might be picky, but the very title of this disc summarizes my ambivalence to Earle and his music. Why the folksy misspelling, with not even an apostrophe? Still, this acoustic disc is his most consistent and listenable record. It helps that he's backed by some of the best players that money can rent, and Emmylou Harris adds her voice to these casual proceedings. All too often, his records are dominated by one or two very good songs (three of which are prominently featured in the film Talladega Nights). Still, it must be said that he tends to yowl and drawl beyond all need, and that he did not write any of the best four or five songs on this disc. But then again, those include a Beatles tune and a reggae classic.
Fleetwood Mac: Tusk (WEA 1979 - 1990 single disc)
This two record set was re-mastered for a single CD by trimming some time from Stevie Nicks' "Sara." I'm not a fan of her music, and you could have trimmed even more of her from these 20 tracks and I'd like it even more. Her appearances are the sorbet course in a French meal: palette cleansers. The rest of Tusk is offers the contrasting music of Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie. He contributes bitter, raging, and just plain weird material, and she provides four wonderful songs, including "Over and Over" and "Honey Hi," neither of which I tire of hearing. This is also a great sonic achievement, with great care taken in the sounds of the instruments, and for my money this is the best mix. Don't bother with the expanded version.
Philip Glass: Songs from Liquid Days (Sony 1986)
I'm not exactly a fan of Glass's work. Of the recordings I have, I play this one the most. These are vocal pieces: real songs. (I'm always puzzled by students who refer to every musical work as a song.) Short patterns repeat endlessly, supplied by Glass's own ensemble and by the Kronos Quartet. If that's not descriptive enough, think of operatic lines over block-block-block of sound, intertwined with whirly-whirly-whirly bursts of sound. There's lots of motion, but not much sense of a journey. I haven't tried it in this context, but I think it would be the perfect soundtrack for a long car drive through endless cookie-cutter suburbs. Among the vocalists, Linda Ronstadt shines.
Richard Thompson: (guitar, vocal) (Hannibal 1991)
This was a two-disc vinyl set for the 1970s, assembled carefully so that each of the four sides had a distinctive coherence or pattern. Assembled on one disc, it's a wonderful, incoherent mess. There's some stuff from the early years with Fairport Convention (including a languid cover of the Byrds' song, "Ballad of Easy Rider"), some of the best Linda Thompson performances ever, and two epic guitar work-outs ("Calvary Cross" and "Night Comes In"). For those who think Thompson is all doom and gloom, there's a little Chuck Berry. For those who think he can't sing, half the songs have other vocalists. Just for fun, there are traditional jigs done as guitar tunes. Me, I like the doom and gloom, and I think he's a great singer.
What I Listened to in 2010
What I Listened to in 2009
What I Listened to in 2008
What I Listened to in 2007
What I Listened to in 2006
What I Listened to in 2005
What I Listened to in 2004
What I Listened to in 2003
What I Listened to in 2002
What I Listened to in 2001
All text © 2010 Theodore Gracyk
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