What I Listened To in 2012
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Mary Lee's Corvette: Blood on the Tracks (Bar None 2002)
Columbia records once used the advertising slogan: "No one sings Dylan like Dylan." True enough. But for many people, that's not a recommendation! I bought Blood on the Tracks the day it was released, and love it dearly. Others may prefer this live gig at which Mary Lee Kortes and her band covered it in its entirety. It's flawed in following the original musical arrangements a bit too closely. But it proves that the songs are great songs, and they work well when detached from Dylan's smothering persona. And I like the way she sings "Wabasha." The great flaw is that "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" was not that strong to begin with, and here they make it worse with some very weak "guest" vocal support.
Peggy Sue: Fossils and Other Phantoms (Yep Roc 2010)
My initial impression was of loping rhythms and yowling, caterwauling vocals. To my American ears, the thickness of the English accents turns some of the vocals into wordless vocalese. Rosa Slade and Katy Young co-wrote and sing eleven original songs (and reworked the traditional "Green Grow the Rushes"), providing an extended meditation about the poisonous attraction of love. My second impression was that, like the band X, they wear their influences on their sleeves while subverting all the easy pleasure that they might have wrung out of their material. The sound is a kind of queasy folk-punk, with some heightened power from the contributions of drummer Olly Joyce.
Paul Badura-Skoda and Jörg Demus: Beethoven Klaviersonaten (Royale 2001)
This 3-disc set was ridiculously cheap online and features Beethoven performances by two highly regarded pianists. I find that piano sonatas work well as office music when I have work for which music with words would be too distracting. As with many inexpensive European reissues, no information is given about the dates of these particular recordings, but the audio quality is high and the Badura-Skoda appears to be from his sonata cycle of 1970. Music aside, what's with the image on the cover? Who thought a COWBOY should illustrate Beethoven sonatas? But then I think of Willa Cather stories about life on the plains and in the west in the 19th century, and what they played in their parlors.
Neil Young: Zuma (Reprise 1975)
I remember buying this around the same time as Mitchell's Hissing of Summer Lawns. Two Canadians in California, their albums neatly captured multiple polarities in popular music. She sought "roots" in African-American music, he in country music (most of side one). Her primitivism came from sampling African drums, his from using players with limited chops and cranking up the volume. (At times it's almost punk rock.) Her lyrics are polished poems, while his generally follow the edict of "first thought, best thought." Both albums are great. The last four songs of Zuma (formerly side 2 of the LP) are probably my favorite sequence of four from any of his records ("Stupid Girl," "Drive Back," "Cortez the Killer," and the sweet Crosby-Stills-Nash-Young benediction of "Through My Sails").
Joni Mitchell: The Hissing of Summer Lawns (Asylum 1975)
Is the title a reference to lawn sprinklers? When it was new, the sound of this record was thought difficult. In retrospect, I value it as a showcase for her voice. What's more, the continuities with Court and Spark stand out ("Sweet Bird" could have come right off that earlier LP and "Centerpiece" extends her infatuation with jazz great Annie Ross). The lead track ("In France...") has the best electric guitar to grace any of Mitchell's studio albums, and "Edith and the Kingpin" and "Shadows and Light" have also held up well. But I see that the "All Music" website contains multiple factual errors about the most experimental track, "The Jungle Line."
Tindersticks: Tindersticks (This Way Up 1993)
Joy Division crossed with Cowboy Junkies? Their self-titled debut seems to be out of print in the U.S., but even at the height of their popularity they were primarily a British phenomenon. The most obvious point of comparison is Nick Cave, but I find that Stuart Staples is the better vocalist and songwriter. Tindersticks has a rich sound: a baritone voice is buried within a post-punk sensibility that hides beauty behind shambling soundscapes. They're not afraid to merge string arrangements with the Velvet Underground. I can do without the instrumental "The Walt Blues," but "Blood" is a tremendously moving song.
Carlos Santana and Mahavishnu John McLaughlin:
Love Devotion Surrender (Columbia 1973; expanded Sony 2003)
That's Carlos on the left in the photo, and John on the right. That's also how their guitars are placed in the stereo separation of this almost-all-instrumental album. (As there should be, there's chanting on "A Love Supreme.") Twenty-two minutes of John Coltrane's music, moved from saxophone to electric guitar, one extended workout on a traditional gospel tune (my favorite track), and two pieces by McLaughlin. The theme is heavenly love, with congas. It's one of those records where it makes a difference how you classify it. It's not jazz, so don't harp on the fact that they don't swing. But the guitars soar, and I'm not the first to say that Larry Young's organ work ties it all together.
Teddy Thompson: A Piece of What You Need (Verve 2008)
I have exactly one criticism of this disc, which I find completely captivating. What the heck is the point of a "hidden" track of music buried on the end of the disc, ten minutes after the eleventh song has ended? It annoys me to wait for it, especially since it's a solid cover version of the Everly Brothers' 1965 hit, "The Price of Love." It fits beautifully with the set of songs composed by Thompson, and with its retro musical style. (I swear that some of these horn charts and drum tracks could have been sampled from 1960s pop hits.) If you've never heard of Thompson --son of Richard & Linda-- give a listen to "What's This?" and "The Things I Do." Then "Can't Sing Straight," which sounds like it was written for Johnny Cash, who could have made it a hit.
Richard & Linda Thompson: Pour Down Like Silver (Island 1975; expanded 2004)
Although I regard it as the weakest track on the album, I have had "Hard Luck Stories" in my head for a few days. This is one of those records where I still remember exactly where I was when I first heard it. I was in a record store, thinking about buying a David Bowie album, when the clerk put this on. It was the first I'd ever heard (or heard of) them. I was intrigued, but I bought the Bowie album anyway. This is the better album, and better now, with four live tracks, including a stunning version of "Night Comes In," with the great lines about ecstatic trance: "Dancing 'till my feet don't touch the ground/I lose my mind and dance forever." Even the uptempo tracks are mournful.
Tori Amos: Little Earthquakes (WEA 1992)
Her debut album as a solo artist, and time has been kind to it. When I first heard it, twenty years ago, I mostly heard a vocalist who was too close to Kate Bush for comfort. I still hear the echo of Kate, especially in "Precious Things," but I also hear Robert Plant. Amos's subsequent career lets me hear her voice more clearly. Which is what this set of songs was always all about: having a voice, finding a way to be heard in a culture that doesn't want to hear some things. "Crucify" doesn't work for me, and for the most part I think the more stripped-down the arrangement, the better. "Silent All These Years" and "Me and a Gun" are the obvious standouts, but I'm drawn to "China" and "Leather."
Kronos Quartet: Requiem for Adam (Nonesuch 2001)
Program music by Terry Riley, which is to say that it's instrumental music that takes on greater significance when it's supplemented by textual commentary. The "Adam" of the title isn't Biblical. He's the son of one of the performers. The music is generally placid, except for the second movement, where the string quartet is supplemented by percussion and electronic instruments. This movement is about a physical location that carries both biographical and symbolic weight, yet musically I prefer the two surrounding movements. What I like best of all is the six-minute piano piece that functions as a coda. I also like its title ("The Philosopher's Hand"), which again takes on an unexpected dimension when you read Riley's explanation.
Bangles: Different Light (Columbia 1986)
Not "The Bangles." Just Bangles. Jangly pieces of steel, which about sums them up. One of my favorite albums of the 1980s, but now I clearly see why they didn't last as a group. Once you get past the title song of this disc, there are four really great songs here, two of which became hits ("Manic Monday" and "Walk Like an Egyptian"). But they wrote none of them. Their big hit record didn't make them much money with the songwriting royalties making Liam Sternberg rich and Prince even richer. So, for their next album, they made sure they wrote every last song, and the ratio of strong material plummeted. In retrospect, the two big hit songs hold up as infectious pop soufflés, while the other two covers, of Big Star and Jules Shear, are giddy delights.
Steve Miller Band: Anthology (Capitol 1972)
Before Steve Miller became a major hit-maker with "Fly Like an Eagle" and a host of other radio-friendly songs I never want to hear again, in San Francisco he was in heavy rotation on FM radio. This selection of 16 tracks are from that period (his first seven albums). It's not really representative: it goes easy on the good-time R&B and blues raps that were a big part of his early repertoire. There is "Living in the USA" and the great shout at the end, "Somebody get me a cheeseburger!" But the goal seems to be to showcase Miller as a writer and singer, and the result is mostly ballads. I personally don't find a weak track here. It doesn't hurt that Nicky Hopkins, the great session pianist of that time, is present on a good deal of it.
Jackson Browne: Late for the Sky (Elektra 1974)
I didn't have much use for Jackson Browne until I was walking up a staircase in my college dormitory and I heard the first song on this album coming from someone's room. I sat down on the top stair and listened right through side one and I was hooked. Let's get clear: this is a batch of introspective, wordy, piano-based songs by a narcissist who would have benefited from fewer literature courses and more philosophy. It could have been as dull as his first album, but it's redeemed by the extraordinary vocal harmonies and David Lindley's contributions on slide guitar and, on "For a Dancer," violin. To this day, the four songs of side one still seem like 22 perfect minutes.
Paul Simon: Graceland (Warner Bros. 1986)
Interesting and striking on so many levels, it's an exemplary example of cross-cultural musical collaboration, and of how liberating it can be to make art when you're washed up and no on cares what you do. Simon was washed up until this record brought him back, giving him hit records in four continuous decades. For my tastes, it doesn't need the zydeco number, but otherwise it's just about perfect, beginning with rhythms that set the stage for the description of a terrorist bombing in the opening verse of the opening song, "The Boy in the Bubble." The tracks dominated by vocal interplay with Ladysmith Black Mambazo are the true highlights: "Homeless" and "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes."
McGuinness Flint: Happy Birthday, Ruby Baby (Capitol 1971)
I bought it 30 years ago, played it once, was bored, and set it aside. Yet it has its rabid admirers, so I finally got back to it. It takes a few listens, but now I get it. This forgotten group was, like Crosby Stills Nash, a home for refugees from other groups; their producer had worked with the Beatles, their pianist had worked extensively with the Rolling Stones, and all but one song was co-written by members Gallagher and Lyle, who'd go on to write major radio hits for others. The sound? A sophisticated pub rock, a lot like their contemporaries, Brinsley Schwarz, but with a knack for odd arrangements. (The trombone solo sounds like a passage from Steely Dan.) It ends with "Sparrow," an absolutely gorgeous song and vocal performance.
Grateful Dead: Workingman's Dead (Warner Bros. 1970; expanded 2003)
If you want to make the case that American Beauty is a better album, I might go along with the argument. But this album was the perfect soundtrack when we found ourselves driving through the north country woods in the rain. If it weren't for the drug reference in the lyric to "Casey Jones," newcomers would never guess that the Dead were a highly experimental, psychedelic jam band. We now call it roots music, but call it what you like, this set of 8 songs sounds more like Appalachia than San Francisco. Assuming there are wolves in Appalachia. Best of all, "Uncle John's Band" is lovely and, dare I say it, spiritual. The newly added tracks are keepers, as well.
Kate Bush: 50 Words for Snow (ANTI 2011)
Her voice is aging exceptionally well and her music feels richer despite its movement toward minimalism. It certainly meanders. The title track is the only thing I don't like here. It really is about the topic of there being 50 words for snow in Inuit, but it's pompous and dull. Detractors may find this low-key music dull anyway, but quiet is not the same as dull. (Or are we about to start debating 50 words for lack of excitement?) Elsewhere, there are two strong duets, one of them with Elton John, which was a delightful surprise when I finally looked at the credits and realized who was singing so soulfully with her. And I quite like how many of her long-time fans HATE this record with vehemence. I admire her willingness to go her own way, fans be damned.
Valerie Carter: Find A River (Pony Canyon 2000)
The music industry is dysfunctional beyond belief, because it's capitalism on steroids. At present, you can purchase exactly one CD by Valerie Carter at Amazon, and buy one album of music downloads. This one? You can buy a used copy for $50. But then again, I play the copy that I keep in the car so often, it really is worth that much to me. In any case, Carter comes out of the 70s southern California music scene and has made a living as a high-profile back-up singer. Here, she offers 23 exquisite minutes of song interpretation, including the obscure Lowell George track that gives us the title. Neil Young is represented, so is Prince, and the two Blue Nile songs are heaven.
Dianne Reeves: A Little Moonlight (Blue Note 2002)
If you look at the title and finish it with the phrase "can do," then this album may be to your liking. Straight-up, no gimmicks treatments of standards by a jazz trio & quartet with a stellar vocalist. It opens with a bass solo, and the first track, a Richard Rogers song, is basically a duet of bass and voice. Although I love her voice, it's her playful phrasing and passages of scatting that seal the deal for me. By the time she gets to "Skylark," she's convinced me that Hoagy Carmichael is the greatest songwriter ever. Although I don't know who Fischer and Laine are, their "We'll Be Together" is a nice find, ending this ten song set with a simmering late-night ballad.
Elvis Costello: Get Happy!! (Warner Bros.1982)
The fake-60s cover, including signs of wear, combine with the double exclamation points of the title to warn you that this a pretense masking a deeper truth. On the other hand, maybe it's what it sounds like: a tossed-together alcohol-fueled rave-up. The original album was 20 tracks on a single LP, so you don't need this with bonus tracks. While there are some outstanding individual songs, the real impact is the cumulative power of the sound of it: I think of a roller rink in Memphis in 1968, late on Saturday night, and the live combo has been hitting the bottle. The tempos have picked up, the drummer is bashing away, the singer is getting hoarse and occasionally making up lyrics, and the only thing holding it together are the R&B bass lines.
Laurie Anderson: Big Science (Warner Bros.1982)
A distillation of Anderson's performance art piece United States, this disc represents a brief moment when the American avant-garde crossed over to the pop charts. It soothes, it grates, it amuses, it surprises. I am delighted that, after thirty years, "O Superman" seems weirder, sharper, and more terrifying than it did when it was new. Rhythmically organized by a tape loop of the single syllable "ha," her electronically filtered voice alternates spoken platitudes and segments of singing, interspersed with bits of music that derive from Phillip Glass. "Let X = X" and "Walking and Falling" are nearly as good. "Born, Never Asked" throws her violin into the mix.
Hummel, Beethoven, Neuling: Works for Mandolin and Fortepiano (Globe 1999)
There is so much music available that none of us know its full range. Even within familiar traditions, there are huge swaths of the repertoire that remain marginal. Or, more to the point, that become marginal with changes of fashion. We forget that the mandolin was once a common instrument. So common, in fact, that major composers wrote for it. While no one is likely to think that Beethoven's multiple compositions for mandolin are his most innovative work, they are fascinating for the glimpse they give into the broader musical culture of the time. To make it all the better, it's what I've listened to while reading Theodor Adorno's attack on listening to "authentic" music.
What I Listened to in 2011
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 © 2012 Theodore Gracyk
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