What I'm Listening To
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Stevie Ray Vaugan:The Sky is Crying (Epic 1991)
The blues. Mostly an excuse to hear stinging lead lines over standard blues changes. Smart covers of Elmore James, Lonnie Mack, Howlin' Wolf, Kenny Burrell, and Jimi Hendrix. Not necessarily the best cover versions of all of them, but James' "The Sky is Crying" is pretty fine. The odd thing is that this a collection of songs recorded with his band Double Trouble for other albums, but unreleased until collected together here following his untimely death. Yet, of all the Vaughan albums I've heard, it's my favorite. Perhaps because it's loaded down with good songs by great blues songwriters.
Joseph Arthur: Lou (Vangaurd 2014)
Kirsty MacColl and Mott the Hoople aside, there aren't that many good covers of Lou Reed songs. Joseph Arthur has done something brilliant in offering a whole album of them. Arthur strips each of 12 songs down to its essence, providing minimal but smart arrangements that highlight melody and words. And there's the rub: the songs fall into two categories. The ones that Reed wrote after the age of 30 are, song for song, weaker than the ones he wrote in his 20s. As poetry (as words on the page), the later ones may be smarter and better crafted, but they're wordy and the melodies are dull. With the earlier songs, Arthur's covers shine as melodies. With a song like "Stephanie Says," I care about Stephanie because the melody leads me there. Not so the Reed-like narrators of "NYC Man" and "Magic and Loss."
J. D. Souther: Tenderness (Sony 2015)
In rock'n'roll, the degeneration of vocal quality as one ages is not necessarily a deficit. J.D. Souther is both a great songwriter and a great singer. But, as he pushes 70, the voice is fraying, and so his new album is a huge disappointment. (And this is recent: on his live album of 2011 he still sounded great.) So then what about the 10 new songs, and the arrangements? Love remains his primary topic, and country-ish sound of his early work has given way to jazzy, bluesy chord progressions, almost as if Steely Dan did the backing tracks for an Eagles album. As a result, songs like "Dance Real Slow" and "Need Somebody" sound like throwbacks to the 1930s -1950s (the explicit topic of the very fine "Downtown Before the War"). "Something in the Dark" and "Let's Take A Walk" are the other keepers.
Dire Straits: Making Movies (Warner Bors. 1980)
"Walk of Life" being an exception, this album contains the only Dire Straits music I care to hear. Every few years, I pull it out, play it a few times, and set it aside again. I did so again last week, because I wanted to hear "Skateaway," the song about female empowerment that gives the album its title. As always, the ballads were wistful, the anthems were sweeping in their affirmation of human hopes and dreams, and the goofy closing number, "Les Boys," entertained. So why do I like this album so very much more than all of their other music? Pretty simple: the presence of Roy Bittan on piano, shifting the sound of the band from scruffy "roots" rock to something fuller, and more grand. Which makes me a sentimentalist at heart.
The Lone Bellow: Then Came the Morning (Descendant 2015)
A record that answers a question I'd never thought to pose: What if Arcade Fire was an alt-country band? And I don't mean that in a negative way. At other points, the songwriting reminds me of Tom Petty, both in his way with a melody and with his willingness to toss in the occasional oddball throwaway. Here, that would be "Cold As it Is." And then there are a few where the band strips back to the basic trio, and there's just the Southern string band. In the end, it's the songwriting and the singing that impresses me. Case in point, "Diners" reveals a dark first-person narrative: a reckless drifter breaks into diners at night and tries to soothe his broken heart by listening to country music on the jukeboxes. I might like this album even better in the form of rough demos, stripped of the studio gloss.
Chris Thile: Bach: Sonatas & Partitas Vol. 1 (Nonesuch 2013)
Just like Thile, I paid no heed to "classical" music until I was exposed to Glenn Gould's 1981 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. By the time Thile heard it, he was already a child virtuoso, playing bluegrass mandolin; he still plays what he calls "progressive bluegrass." Here, he demonstrates his general mandolin chops by offering three suites by Bach, originally written for violin (Sonata No. 1 in G minor; Partita No. 1 in B minor; and Sonata No. 2 in A minor). He does an astounding job of sorting out the interweaving voices of Bach's compositions, and he also gets to show off the incredible speed of his fingers. When he plays this stuff live, he grins like the Cheshire Cat. Not surprisingly, this record is currently selling at about the same pace as Gould's 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations.
Blues from "Big Bill's" Copa Cabana (Chess 1968; reissue of 1963 LP)
10 tracks, most running under four minutes. Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters in their prime, sitting in with Buddy Guy (instead of their own bands) and recorded live on July 26, 1963. There's filler: a couple of tracks by other Chess singers, dubbed with club noise to sound live. With a few exceptions, the band sets up a slow grinding groove that often sounds more like a drone than a set of changes. Buddy Guy is a terrific support player, tearing off lightning runs of slightly distorted guitar, frequently competing with Otis Spann's piano fills. Spann sets up "Got My Mojo Working," one of the few fast numbers, with a driving riff that he frequently disrupts with unexpected syncopations. His piano solo is a pure stomp. The Wolf is in great form, but Waters (on half the tracks) is the star vocalist.
Lucinda Williams: Sweet Old World (Chameleon 1992)
Go figure. Currently for sale at major online retailers for under five bucks, while weaker albums in her back catalogue go for a lot more. But let's start with the obvious: if her version of "Sweet Old World" doesn't melt your heart, you either hate popular music or I don't know what. Throw in her cover of Nick Drake's "Which Will," and those two tracks insure that this is her best album. Actually, I do understand why not everyone will respond to it. It's a mix of blues and rock and country that's not so much "roots" as it is a roots subgenre: trailer-park-poor-southern-white-but-not-a-confederate-flag-waver music. And, as with all her work, a few of her own songs are either maudlin or dull. Given the sparse instrumentation, the dull ones are very dull. But someone in my house has been humming "Memphis Pearl" ever since I last played it.
Jack Bruce: Songs for a Tailor (Polydor 1969)
Unless you're a certain age, I suppose both the singer and the album are as obscure as second tier Victorian novels not written by Dickens. But I've been listening to this since my brother bought it when it was new, because it was the first solo work by Bruce --Cream's bass player-- just after Cream disbanded. A couple of these songs were rejected by Cream for their own albums, to the loss of those albums. So who would listen to this now? Eric Clapton fans? Lord of the Rings fans drawn to the song "To Isengard"? But if you don't think Cream was at its best during drum solos and guitar solos, then you know that Bruce was the star, and this is his star showcase. Basically, this is Cream plus a jazzy horn section, minus the drum and guitar solos. "Theme for an Imaginary Western" has lost none of its grandeur.
Sarah McLachlan: Essential (Sony 2013)
This collection summarizes twenty years of music in 30 tracks, and there are no missteps. But what I notice is that her songwriting takes a back seat to the voice. "Sweet Surrender" is a darn fine song, and "Building a Mystery" is not far behind. 1997's Surfacing album seems to have been the peak; without knowing that album well, I find that the most consistent cluster of tracks on this compilation are all from that album. Then I notice that, those songs aside, the consistent standout tracks consist of the numerous covers (of XTC, Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, the duet with Lauper on "Time after Time"). Without them, there'd be a notable lack of variety. And although it was familiar to me, initially I didn't realize that "When She Loved Me" was a Randy Newman contribution to a Toy Story movie. Now there's a merger of words and melody.
Jefferson Airplane: Bark (Grunt 1971)
When it was new, the album came wrapped in brown paper, like the brown paper bag of a grocery store. So the "JA" circle functioned just like a corporate logo. The difference, I suppose, is that we were to understand this to be a worker-owned shop, selling local fair trade products. Wonderful cover aside, it's without question their worst album. Half of the songs are junk: they sound like they took a half hour to write, and five minutes to arrange.( Low point: Covington's "Thunk.") The two new members don't improve things. Their new drummer pounds away without nuance: the music works best when there are no drums. (Case in point: "Third Week In The Chelsea," which sounds very much like a Bob Dylan track.) And Papa John's electric fiddle mostly screeches (and yet it's well used on the instrumental "Wild Turkey.) Another highlight: Slick's "Never Argue with a German if You're Tired." So true!
The Iguanas: If You Should Ever Fall on Hard Times (Yep Roc 2008)
Another disc that sounds more like a radio station than an album. There are four distinct styles here, so that every third or fourth song sounds like a different band. At the same time, it's unified by its back story: The Iguanas are a New Orleans band, but they had to relocate in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. This is the album that resulted. There's New Orleans R&B ("Sour Grapes"), there's "roots rock" (the title song), there are Latin rhythms and Spanish vocals, and then, to my surprise, some tracks that sound like Tower of Power. Much of the difference comes from the different styles of horn arranging. I like all of it, but my favorite track may be "Pelican Bay," a smooth and breezy tune about driving up the coast. What's never mentioned is the dark subtext: his "baby" is in Pelican Bay federal prison.
Thompson Family (Fantasy 2014)
This is not the best place to start if you're curious about any of these musicians. Seven family members: the concept is that no one but family members appear on the record. But often no more than two or three are performing. The unstated concept: Richard and Linda are divorced, and never in a room together. Overall, it's like a random shuffle of British folk rock on the iPod. Nine songs and one instrumental. Half of them are keepers. And I take it back: "Bonny Boys" might just be the place to start if you want to know what's great about Linda Thompson; her voice failing her, she sings a heartbreaking ballad. After that, Teddy and Richard have the best songs. The lingering question: Why doesn't that other sister perform?
Suzanne Jarvie: Spiral Road (2014)
Is there too much music in the world? There's so much that it's a crapshoot whether anyone will know about or hear a lot of great music. Yet, by serendipity, sometimes the right music reaches the right listener. That's certainly true here. I'm not the first to say that her singing is reminiscent of both Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris; but in my book, that's a winning combination. Add intelligent lyrics, strong supporting musicians, the occasional banjo and mandolin, and I can listen to this all day. (I also love Chris Brown's keyboards, several of them of vintage timbre.) Ten original songs, and the slow ones steal the show. In a stroke of genius, "Shrieking Shack" incorporates a bit of Chaplin's "Smile," a song that's never done anything for me in the past. For me, it's the album's emotional highpoint.
Peter Gabriel: Shaking the Tree (Geffen 1990)
Pop music, big heartfelt ballads, progressive rock, world music, R&B dance hits. This "greatest hits" collection plays like a jukebox. Peter Gabriel has one of the most moving voices in rock music, and he's no slouch as a songwriter. While I don't care to hear "Sledgehammer" and "Family Snapshot" ever again, the remaining 14 tracks have worn really well. That's a high batting average, as they say in baseball. Two tracks (but not the songs) are new to this collection, and in both cases Gabriel delivers a great vocal: "Here Comes the Flood" and the title track. Ask me on the right day, and I'll say that "Mercy Street" and "Biko" are my favorite songs in the world.
What I listened to in 2014
What I listened to in 2013
What I listened to in 2012
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 © 2014 Theodore Gracyk
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