What I Listened To In 2006
B.B. King, The Ultimate Collection, Geffen 2005
By coincidence, this disc was sitting it in my CD player when I read that B.B. King was named as one of this month's recipients of a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Since King hasn't done anything remarkable for national security or world peace, I guess he won it for his cultural contributions to America. Okay, that works for me. King's various record labels have issued scores of compilations. This one is noteworthy for putting his entire career on one disc. The first eleven tracks take us from 1951 to 1970, from "Three O'clock Blues" to "The Thrill is Gone." Song for song, few careers can match him. Then the remainder of this generous selection chronicles the craftsmanship of a bluesman who's outlived his cultural sources.
Paul McCartney, Run Devil Run, Capitol 1999
Recorded shortly after the death of Sir Paul's first wife, Linda, the title is now a bit prophetic about his impending divorce from the second Mrs. McCartney. Putting that aside, McCartney sings twelve of his favorite rock and roll songs plus three new songs in that style. But there's absolutely no sense of nostalgia. I don't know who assembled the musicians, McCartney and/or co-producer Chris Thomas, but it's a batch of seasoned professionals who cut loose with gleeful abandon. The biggest surprise is Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour -- not the sort of guy one associates with the Chuck Berry riff of "Brown Eyed Handsome Man." Different listeners are likely to pick different songs as favorites. Right now, mine are "Honey Hush" and "Shake a Hand."
Dion DiMucci, King of the New York Streets, Capitol 2000
Three discs, 65 songs. Dion was blessed with one the greatest voices of rock and roll. Track for track, I'd rather hear his 20 best than a comparable collection by Elvis or Chuck Berry. But if you don't care for doo wop, stay away until he emerges, in the wake of Dylan, as a "singer-songwriter" (which he already was). Dion's version of Dylan's "Baby, I'm in the Mood for You" is definitive. The same goes for Leiber and Stoller's "Ruby Baby" and Tom Waits' "Lookin' for the Heart of Saturday Night." I wish Dion would do a whole album of Waits' songs. Dion's own "My Girl in the Month of May" is one of rock and roll's greatest love songs, and "Daddy Rollin' in Your Arms" is either a great song about sex, or drug addiction, or both.
Robert Fripp, Exposure, E.G. 1979 ; Discipline 2006 (Expanded version)
There's an old cliché about an iron fist in a velvet glove. As this album demonstrates, Fripp prefers to pull the fist out of the glove and display them by side by side. King Crimson fans will be comfortable with the results, but who else? Jagged guitar riffs and grinding chord sequences sit beside ambient electronic creations, and standard pop songs are either stripped bare (Peter Gabriel singing "Here Comes the Flood") or hypercharged (Daryl Hall, of Hall and Oates, rips into "You Burn Me Up I'm a Cigarette"). The reissue adds a second disc --allowing us to hear the album Fripp wanted to release but couldn't, due to management interference-- and Hall's vocal chops provide unity amidst the diversity.
Rolling Stones, Goat's Head Soup, Rolling Stones Records 1973
The Stones once released a compilation disc called Sucking in the Seventies, but it covers the second half of the decade. In light of what came next, I'm irrationally fond of this LP. "Angie," the hit, is my least favorite track. It goes nowhere. Another ballad, "Winter," is splendid. The remaining tracks range from great ("Doo Doo Doo Doo Heartbreaker") to merely serviceable ("Silver Train"), but even the weak ones have some stellar guitar interplay between Mick Taylor and Keith Richards. Many arrangements are built up over a bed of boogie piano -- is Richards even present on "Hide Your Love"? But what I really like about this record is Charlie Watts' drumming, which is beautifully recorded.
Johnny Winter, Second Winter, Columbia 1969
Buy the CD and the liner notes won't make much sense unless you know that the vinyl pressing of the two disc set had a blank fourth side. With his brother Edgar on saxophone and keyboards (including electric harpsichord), Johnny poses a musical question: How many different ways can we arrange and stretch the blues? Eleven tracks make for eleven ways. The five originals are all good, but the covers are brilliantly chosen and arranged, taking overly familiar songs and exploring their basic blues underpinnings. By comparison, Dylan's original recording of "Highway 61 Revisited" is prissy, and Little Richard's "Miss Ann" is stiff. And "Johnny B. Goode" rocks hard enough not to bore me.
Elvis Costello, Costello & Nieve, Warner Bros. 1996
This limited edition box set of five discs chronicles Costello's 1996 tour (with one disc per show). It was a stripped-down tour and he sings for all he's worth. On most songs, there's only his voice and Steve Nieve's piano, complete with grandiose flourishes that repudiate the whole idea of punk/new wave. On some, it's just Costello and acoustic guitar. Here and there, Pete Thomas joins on drums. With each disc at about 25 minutes, the whole thing would fit on two discs. That aside, most of these 27 performances are my favorite versions of the songs that are featured, particularly "Black Sails in the Sunset" and "Just a Memory." "Alison" becomes a R&B medley. Some of the between-song monologues are hilarious, perhaps better than the songs themselves.
Gerry Mulligan/Thelonious Monk, Mulligan Meets Monk, Riverside 1957; Expanded 2003
From the order of the names you can tell who was the bigger star in 1957. Today, we'd reverse them. Mulligan's smooth baritone sax and Monk's piano high jinks are an interesting pairing. The best description might be food. It's like sweet-and-sour chicken (Mulligan is the sweet part, and Monk's dissonances are the sour). Then after a few bites you can feel some heat building up in your mouth. The original album has one standard ("Sweet and Lovely"), one Mulligan composition, and four Monk compositions. The expanded version adds four alternate takes. Two great takes on Monk's "Straight, No Chaser" and a haunting performance of "Round Midnight."
Bob Dylan, Modern Times, Sony 2006
Aside from my aesthetic reaction to the music on this disc, I keep wondering who else is listening to it (or at least buying it) in order to send it to the number one position in the popular music charts. Assembled from fragments of obscure Americana, the final three songs are fabulous. "Nettie Moore" expands a fragment of an American parlor song from 1857. A moving love song, it uses whimsical verses to set up a haunting chorus. It also contains my favorite line of the album, "I'm in a cowboy band." Without mentioning New Orleans, "The Levee's Gonna Break" extends the blues tradition of allusive political commentary. Then it closes with "Ain't Talkin'," a slow meander through "this weary world of woe." If you find Dylan boring, this one will really bore you. But not me.
The Byrds, Live at the Fillmore February 1969, Epic/Legacy 2000
This is so sad. The only reason to release this album is that it represents the best recorded documentation of the Byrds at this time. However, it's not a particularly inspired performance. If you can locate one, there are several shows from 1970 in circulation. They're glorious, and prove that the Byrds were by no means washed-up in their last years together. The long version of "Eight Miles High" on 1970's Untitled gives an idea of what this quartet could do, but its guitar interplay is tepid compared to some of what's circulating. Guitarist Clarence White could play psychedelic music with the best of them.
Electric Light Orchestra, Eldorado, Jet 1974 (Expanded Reissue Sony 2001)
Sonic cheesecake. Jeff Lynne, in love with the Beatles, creates a studio extravaganza that is equal parts A Hard Day's Night and Magical Mystery Tour. (Okay, more the latter, but then he throws in some Chuck Berry for good measure.) Lynne sings like a more nasal John Lennon; suddenly, he soars like Roy Orbison. The orchestra is too loud in some spots, but its integration with synthesizers and a rock and roll quartet is generally successful. As was fashionable at the time, the vocals are slightly buried in the tidal wave of sound -- you have to strain to catch most of the words to "Boy Blue." Get the reissue, on which the eight-minute medley makes for a great conclusion.
Lester Young with the Oscar Peterson Trio, Verve 1952 (Reissue 1997)
For weeks now, watching events unfold in the Middle East on live television has been an exercise in masochism. Then I was struck by the resemblance between the black shapes in this cover and those of Robert Motherwell's abstract "Elegy" series (reflections on another war). The music is anything but dark. "On the Sunny Side of the Street" is the shot of optimism that I need when I think about the world. Oscar Peterson's light touch on the piano perfectly supports the singing quality of Young's tenor saxophone. And then there's the added joy of Barney Kessel's guitar.
Lyle Lovett, Curb 1986
I find it hard to believe that this album is now 20 years old. It's Lovett's recording debut, and I originally thought of it as the promising first step of a singer-songwriter with enormous potential. In a funny way, I still think of it that way. Although he's done work that's just as good, it's not clear he's presented a subsequent set of songs that are better than these. And how to categorize it? Is it country music, or some kind of twisted Americana? Among the many highlights, I always return to this album for two songs. Musical merits aside, "God Will" is simultaneously funny and theologically deep. "This Old Porch" rattles off an astounding string of metaphors before it culminates in a mild but shocking moment of bitterness.
Grin, 1 + 1, Spindizzy 1971
At the same time that he was working with Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Nils Lofgren fronted a wonderful trio, Grin. (The other two musicians are on the album's back cover.) Their second album has a puzzling title unless one notices that the two LP sides are labeled "Rockin' Side" and "Dreamy Side," breaking the album into up tempo and slow songs, respectively. "White Lies," the opening song, is about as perfect as pop can be. There are multiple hooks and there's a delicate balance between acoustic and electric elements. "Moon Tears" is nearly as good. The slow ones are so over-the-top with emotion that I overlook their silliness ("Lost a Number") and sexism. Graham Nash is on hand for backing vocals, and I like the accordion.
Moby Grape, 20 Granite Creek, Reprise 1971
Loading up the CD changer with blues and boogie for a July 4th barbecue, this album was the wild card in a predictable deck. It got more favorable response than anything else. So I was surprised to notice that there's neither a description nor rating of it in the All Music Guide. The lead track, "Gypsy Wedding," got radio airplay when the album was new, and "Goin' Down to Texas" and "Ode to the Man at the End of the Bar" are pretty terrific, too. The arrangements lack the lovely harmonies and vocal interplay of their debut album, but vocalists Lewis, Miller, and Mosley shine on their respective songs. Skip Spence is back with the band for one track. The closing song, Lewis' "Horse Out in the Rain," is as wonderful as it is depressing.
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers and Hart Songbook, Polygram 1997 (Remastered ~ Original release 1956)
Sitting here with a calculator, crunching the numbers for the semester grades I'll assign to students, I want (for their sake, not mine) music that puts me in an amiable mood. This is just the ticket: Ella Fitzgerald's crystalline singing wed to the pop sophistication of Rodgers and Hart. The first time I heard this, I was surprised at how many of these songs I knew. Unless you've lived in a cave, you might, too. Floating along with these melodies, even heartbreak carries the message that everything will be all right. My only complaints are that pianist Paul Smith is too low in the mix and guitarist Barney Kessel has limited solo space.
Patti Smith, Horses: Legacy Edition, Arista, 2005
To celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Horses, her debut album, Patti Smith performed the eight songs together in concert. This two disc set presents the original album and that concert. I always thought "Free Money" was a little anemic on the original. The live version has the rock and roll punch that it needs. "Kimberly" has more swagger, and "Elegy" has gained a muted trumpet and a litany of departed love ones. Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) duplicates John Entwistle's bass lines on the encore, "My Generation." The passing years have given depth to a lot of this material, but those years have also robbed Smith's voice of the girl-group vocal swoops that complicated the original performances.
David Thomas Broughton, Complete Guide to Insufficiency, Birdwar/Plug Research, 2005
Every now and then my older brother sends me a few industry promo discs. Quite often, I've never heard of the singers. Sometimes I turn it off after one song. Sometimes I play it over and over. Here's one that I've been playing all week. Broughton's deep, morose voice is muffled, as if at the far end of the room, and it hovers over an acoustic guitar, recorded with greater clarity than his voice. Broughton occasionally thickens the vocal by adding his own voice a second time. Bits of percussion wander into the mix, then vanish. In short, it's "folk" music made by a very self-conscious artist. Five songs, forty minutes. At nearly nine minutes, "Unmarked Grave" is as depressing as anything by Richard Thompson. That's an endorsement.
The Greatest Hits of Eric Burden and the Animals, MGM 1969
Not "The Animals," mind you, but the psychedelic group that followed. I regret the absence of "Good Times," a cheerful song about squandering life, but unless you're my age, there's a good chance you've never heard any of these performances. Yet as the war casualties mount, "Sky Pilot" could find a home on the radio again. (And when was the last time you heard a song that features both flutes and bagpipes?) On the rest of it, Burden is so sincere about the wonders of late-1960s California that one can only marvel at the rococo arrangements and whacked-out enthusiasm. Songs associated with Johnny Cash, the Bee Gees, the Rolling Stones, and Tina Turner add to the fun.
Leonard Cohen, Dear Heather, Columbia 2004
Where before his singing was half-croaked, it's now a tuneful talking, so that the melodic weight is usually carried by supporting female vocalists (Sharon Robinson, in particular). Some of the time, Cohen just whispers lyrics into the microphone. The sound is either cool jazz ("Undertow") or chamber-music with a backbeat, with strong hints of Kurt Weill and Roman Catholic liturgical music, sometimes all in the same song ("Morning Glory"). No one else could put a jaw's harp on the song "On the Day," a song fragment about "the day they wounded New York," and make it work. Then he undercuts his own pretensions by closing with a stirring performance of "Tennessee Waltz," the country music standard.
Brian Eno, Another Day on Earth, Opal 2005
Casting doubt on the theory that Brian Eno is some kind of lonely genius, the liner notes list more "listeners and commentators" than participating musicians. For those who lost track of him, this is a strong return to the approach of his stellar 1970s albums, Another Green World and Before and After Science. In other words, he wrote songs. This album is the most understated of the trio. Some songs are almost lullabies over rhythm loops. Robert Fripp is on here somewhere, but not so you'd notice. Eno's vocals are characteristically deadpan, and Aylie Cooke supplies a compelling spoken vocal to the closer, "Bone Bomb."
Lucinda Williams, Live @ The Fillmore, Lost Highway 2005
Cherry-picked from a run of three shows in 2003, this double album is a stellar showcase for Williams' songwriting. She wrote all 22 songs, and there's not a dud here. On the other hand, aside from some guitar solos, the live versions are not very different from the studio versions. So if you want a "best of," this is what you want. But if you already have the studio albums that built her reputation, this album is superfluous. There's room on these discs for a few more songs, so why not a surprise or two? How about one of those ZZ Top songs she praises here? Or one of the Dylan or Hank Williams songs she's been know to cover? Or one of the many hard-core blues in her repertoire, like "Hard Time Killing Floor"?
Pixies, Doolittle, Elektra 1989
Sonically, the Pixies were the blueprint for a great deal of 1990s "alternative rock" (Nirvana, in particular). This album always reminds me how one-dimensional all of the imitators were. A strange mixture of strangled vocals, clichéd guitar riffs, and goofy back-up vocals, the Pixies make it clear that serious ideas don't require dour, look-at-me-suffering music. "Monkey Gone to Heaven," for example, has both a catchy pop refrain and, if I understand it all, one of the most apocalyptic lyrics ever written. "La La Love You" simultaneously skewers bubble-gum pop songs and celebrates the giddy rush of love. In fact, it's like a 1960s pop album --only two of the fifteen songs are more than 3 minutes long-- that's been warped almost beyond recognition.
The Blue Nile, High, Sanctuary 2004
Eight years since the last album; only four albums in twenty years. Paul Buchanan's vocal technique is deceptive. He sounds like he's the guy sitting at the next table in the coffee house, talking to himself. If his voice grabs you, great, but if it doesn't, you're unlikely to be patient enough to get into the music. After a few listens, melodies emerge. Beautiful ones, most of them tracing a slow arc over relatively static beds of piano, synthesizer, and percussion. "Because of Toledo" is both typical and outstanding: over a slow tempo, a narrator offers glimpses of an unhinged life. He's thankful he's off the drugs, but life still isn't' much better.
All text © 2006 Theodore Gracyk
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