Theodore Gracyk
         Theodore Gracyk

What I'm Listening To 

 

© 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 Theodore Gracyk

For a version of this page with graphics, click here 

 


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.
2/25/16



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."
1/25/16



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.
8/5/15



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.
7/28/15




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.
7/28/15



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's1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations.
5/28/15



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.
5/28/15




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.
5/20/15



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.
5/11/15



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.
3/22/15




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!
3/19/15



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.
3/13/15




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?
3/3/15




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.
2/10/15



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.
1/20/15




Neville Marriner (cond.): Handel, Messiah  (Argo 1976)
Christmas music! Tired of carols, no matter who's singing? I've concluded that I could put any
of Handel's oratorios on the stereo and it would be accepted as Christmas music. But, in its
way, Messiah really is about Christmas. And, if you're like me, you really only know the
Hallelujah chorus. This holiday season, I played this disc a few times and got a positive response
from everyone who heard it. Marriner's version is relatively unique in performing the earliest known edition, from 1743, with an orchestra and chorus of the size used by Handel. The score was
significantly revised, but since this is first time I've actually paid attention to Messiah, I can't say
I heard the differences. Maybe when I play it with a different conductor next year.
12/30/14



Pink Floyd: Meddle (Harvest 1971)
One of the last Floyd albums I got to know, and it pretty well encapsulates both the band and
my feelings about them: much of this is great (the 26 minutes of the title track, and the opening
cut, "One of These Days"), a chunk of it is simply dull, and there's one total dud (the howling
dog with blues guitar of "Seamus"). For those who admire the classic band and their multi-
platinum concept albums, one can hear (in retrospect) all of their later developments in
embryonic form. In fact, some of the music for Dark Side of the Moon was adapted from
early versions of "Meddle." As always, the vocals are a weak spot. But that David Gilmour is
one heck of a guitarist.
10/20/14



Fleetwood Mac: Kiln House (Reprise 1970)
When this was new there was no Internet and radio was either top-40 (current pop hits) or FM
(cutting-edge and the occasional obscurity). I am not sure that I'd heard Buddy Holly prior to
hearing two songs in the film American Graffiti, in 1973. Besides a few Beatles' covers, I'd
never heard rockabilly before hearing the opening track to this album, "This Is Rock." And then
there's their spot-on performances of "Buddy's Song" and "Hi Ho Silver." All three blew me away,
and they haven't lost their charm. They were struggling to find a direction after the departure of
their star, Peter Green. Christine McVie had just jointed the group (but has no lead vocal) and
they were reaching back into their "roots." The originals are a mixed bag; I like "Earl Gray.
10/13/14



Weather Report: 8:30 (Columbia  1979)
This was playing in my office when someone came by and said, "I knew you were eclectic, but
I didn't think you listened to new age." The music happened to be near the end of "The Orphan,"
one of the four studio tracks that rounds out this live album. Yes, that one's a bit easy listening
for me, bland yet lacking the serenity of "In A Silent Way," but otherwise this is a pretty fine
record. I never, never listened to this sort of thing in the 1970s, so I'm a bit amazed to learn that
they were the biggest draw in jazz in their day. And it hardly need be noted that their monster
hit, "Birdland," is my second least favorite track here. Yet, even here, the rhythm section is
dynamite.
9/28/14



Eno • Hyde: Someday World (Warp 2014)
Brian Eno's new collaboration with Karl Hyde is swell and I'm glad it's in the world. Aside from
the annoying saxophones in the album's opening minutes, I like almost everything about it. But
I had to accept it on its own terms, because I didn't expect a record that sounds so very normal.
Level of experimentation? Close to zero. Level of weirdness? Very tame by art-rock standards. It
climbed pretty high on the "electronic" music charts, but most of it is a standard rock band
performing songs with electronic embellishments. Okay, maybe there's a bit of a Steve Reich
thing going on throughout (and, for one song, Joy Division). But then there's a heap of soaring
choruses, too.
9/15/14




Kate Bush: Hounds of Love (EMI 1985)
It starts with "Running Up That Hill." I'm tempted to stop there, but I'll continue.
Like the Beatles, she abandoned live performance for the studio; in her case, the early albums
often had brilliant videos. This record makes more sense on vinyl, where the two sides constitute
two distinct musical suites ("Hounds of Love" and "The Ninth Wave"). Side one is the high point
of her career: four hit singles that I can listen to over and over again, in part because of their
ferocious drumming. Side two, which tells a fractured story, is musically less compelling. Her
sudden return to live performance on August 26, inspired me to listen again. And again, almost
every day since.
9/9/14




Stevie Wonder: The Definitive Collection (Motown 2002)
Set aside the one or two sentimental crowd-pleasers, and the best of these 21 tracks are a
good argument that the 1970s were the golden age of American popular music. (Which is not
to ignore the 1960s hits included here!) 15 of these went to Number 1 on the R&B charts, back
when it took a lot of vinyl sold to get there. That Wonder's politically-charged funk tunes were
so popular is something of a miracle: "Living For The City" was as hard hitting as anything
N.W.A. or Tupac Shakur would every produce, but Wonder had the pop smarts to bring it to a
broad, broad audience. And like a great crème brûlée, even the pop trifles are fabulous
concoctions of voice, rhythm, and arrangement. Case in point: "Boogie On Reggae Woman."
8/20/14




Loudon Wainwright III: Strange Weirdos (Concord 2007)
Wainwright may now be best known for being the father of Rufus Wainwright, and I can only
wonder whether the song "Lullaby" is a memory of Rufus, or perhaps daughter Martha. It
honestly gives voice to the thought that every parent's had about a child who won't go to sleep:
"I'm sick and tired of all of your sob stories ... No more histrionics ... You're a late night faucet
that's got a drip." And is that Richard Thompson's guitar supporting him? (Another father with a
musician son.) It's followed by a genuine lullaby, the gentle instrumental "Naomi." Parts of this
album appear prominently in the soundtrack of the film Knocked Up. The film's use of
Wainwright's excellent cover of Peter Blegvad's "Daughter" made this record one of his better
sellers, but I'm equally taken with the original songs that knock L.A.
7/20/14




Jennifer Warnes: The Well  (Music Force 2001)
She's more than a one-hit wonder, and has sold millions of records, and yet she's almost totally
forgotten except by her fans. Count me among them. This is the last album she released, so I
guess it's her swan song (and yet she remains active: she sings with Leonard Cohen on his album
of two years ago). It's a generally low-key record, but the beauty of her voice and phrasing and
the smart selection of songs bring me back to it often. I'm surprised to admit that the Billy Joel
ballad ("And So It Goes") might be the best thing here. The title song is another fine ballad,
there's a fine Tom Waits cover, and a stirring cover of Arlo Guthrie's "Patriot's Dream." But the
real gem is her duet, with Doyle Bramhall, of the country standard "You Don't Know Me."
7/15/14




Murray Perahia: Plays Bach Concertos  (Sony 2011)
So much of my work is editing now, and it is hard to do proper editing while listening to music
with words. This month, I've become enraptured by this repackaging of Perahia's three discs
of his interpretations of Bach's keyboard concertos (understood broadly, since it includes
Brandenburg No. 5). This represents quite a shift for me. For a long time, I've listened to Bach
on harpsichord, rather than piano. But fidelity to "authentic" sonics can make Bach sound brittle
and prissy, and I prefer these works when they're sweeping and lush. The adagio movements
are especially fine. Parahia tends to divide listeners into admirers and dismissives; I suppose
I'm becoming an admirer. Sadly, this budget-price pack of three discs is now off the market.
7/15/14




Faces: Five Guys Walk into a Bar...  (Rhino 2004)
This is why they make box sets. 67 tracks: many tuneful, many raucous, many sloppy to the
point of falling down, many outtakes and live tracks, and the mix of old and new makes them
sound like an undiscovered band. I don't have any direct evidence, but I assume that some or all
of the four founding members of the Replacements spent as many hours listening to the Faces
as I once did. ("Borstal Boys" should have been on an early Replacements album, and any
number of these ballads is the model for "Here Comes a Regular.") In short, delete the blues
clichés, and this material is the blueprint of the Replacements and any number of post-punk
rock and roll. Keep the blues clichés, and there were nights when they were contenders for the
best white blues band in the world (assuming your criterion isn't heroic guitar solos).
6/15/14




Linda Thompson: Won't Be Long Now  (Pettifer 2013)
One song here is called "Paddy's Lamentation," but eight or nine of these eleven songs are
somebody's lamentation. Both the originals and the traditional songs are pretty bleak stuff. I'm
not saying I don't care for her new album. As always, she's a remarkable singer, and the
supporting musicians are major stars of British folk music. But I can't exactly warm to it, either.
A sea shanty joins tales of misogyny, parental abandonment, the fate of the Irish at the hands
of their colonial oppressors; was the set list assembled by an advisor from the Birmingham
school of cultural studies? I'll come back to it in the future for two tracks.  "If I Were a Bluebird"
is a heavenly waltz that was c-written by Ron Sexsmith. "As Fast as My Feet" is a blast of
unmitigated joy.
5/12/14




Kate and Anna McGarrigle: Matapédia  (Hannibal 1996)
Much later, we look back, and we come to think of an artistic effort as a "final" work. But that's
in retrospect.  This is the last studio effort of Kate and Anna McGarrigle. When it was new, it
seemed another in the line of their brilliant but sporadic records, and a welcome return to
the "folk" soundscape of banjo, accordion, fiddle. Today, I recognize that the emphasis is
on regret, childhood memories, and death. "Why Must We DIe" is a case in point. It all comes
together in "Goin' Back to Harlan," structurally unusual with its ABCABCCC structure. It took me
a long time to realize that it's quite literally a love song to the music of Appalachia: enraptured
by the music, Anna asks the classic folk songs to "frail my heart apart."
5/2/14




Roseanne Cash: The Essential Rosanne Cash  (Sony 2011)
A two-disc career overview, with 18 tracks per disc, and her voice is one of the great treasures
of American song. Yet if I were to assign them a grade, à la Robert Christgau, I'd give the first
disc an A+ and the second disc a C-. And it's no coincidence that the difference is the precise
point at which she went from being an interpretive singer to being a singer-songwriter. Among
her own songs, only "Black Cadillac" does anything for me. I'll return to this, but mostly for her
work in the 1980s, where exuberance and song craft ("Seven Year Ache"!) trumps her later
commitment to earnest self-expression. (On the other hand, the newest song, her duet with
Bruce Springsteen, recommends an album of duets from the pair. But it's a cover version, too.)
4/2/14





Television
(Capitol 1992)
Having seen the (not very good) film CBGB, I've been listening to Television. Album three, to be
precise. Having more or less memorized the first and second albums, this one still feels relatively
fresh to me. Recorded after a fourteen-year hiatus, these ten songs filled a standard album, which
means that they'd abandoned long guitar solos. And they'd jettisoned all the production touches
of the first albums: no keyboards here. Aside from the occasional catchy chorus, there are few
concessions to "pop" music. It's a mesmerizing mesh of twin electric guitars and a tight rhythm
section, exploring the range from hushed, sparse interludes to the expected crunch of a "punk"
band. Mostly, it's about the guitars.
3/16/14





The Best of Mink DeVille  
(EMI 2007)
The music is either under the group name, as here, or (after 1986) as Willy DeVeille. This is the
best of the several compilations of the group's music; 20 songs on one disc at a budget price.
I saw him live, once, and he has the charm and swagger to move a crowd; little wonder that Mink
DeVille was one of the most booked bands at CBGBs in their first years of operation. Yet there is
nothing punk or new wave about the music: even when I was buying the albums new, the music
was pure retro, as if the set list was drawn from Drifters, Chuck Berry, and Otis Redding songs.
Except the songs were mostly originals, and damn fine ones,  "Little Girl" and "I Broke that
Promise" among them.
3/6/14





Warren Zevon: The Envoy  (WEA 1982)
You'd think that all topical songs would sound dated after decades pass. Zevon's "The Envoy"
just sounds prescient. There he is on the cover, ready for an overseas flight to sort out the
situation in the Middle East. And in an era of "Breaking Bad" and hillbilly heroin, there's
"Charlie's Medicine."  And Elvis wasn't long dead when Zevon recorded his wistful song about
wanting to hear "The King" deliver religious music. Throw in a great novelty song ("The Hula
Hula Boys"), one angry rocker ("Ain't that Pretty") and the usual handful of heartbreak songs
with gorgeous melodies, and it's one of my three or four favorites by Zevon.
3/6/14





Johnny Boy Would Love This...A Tribute To John Martyn
(Liaison 2011)
Having listened to many John Martyn albums over the years, I must admit that I never warmed
to him. He wrote many wonderful songs, and he was a great guitarist, but his voice sounds like
a muffled foghorn and his arrangements were often fussy. Case in point: the original version of
"Walk to the Water" never did anything for me. Here, John Smith brings it alive. This is a two
disc set, and I prefer disc two, which opens with ten strong cuts, including those of Snow Patrol
and Beth Orton. And it ends with Phil Collins, with a performance I admired in advance of knowing
who was singing it. On disc one, the Cure's Robert Smith knocks it out of the ballpark.
2/6/14




Andy Irvine and Paul Brady  (Mulligan 1976)
Irvine holds his mandolin in the cover photo. Neither he nor Brady were purists, but this album
of traditional Irish music is an approximation of what you might have heard in a Galway pub in
the nineteenth century. If you're seeking the definitive version of the story-ballad "Arthur McBride,"
this is the place: Brady's vocal on that track is the Holy Grail of "folk." Seven minutes of the
sweetest music in the world tell the story of a brutal confrontation. In conjunction with "The Jolly
Soldier" and "Mary and the Soldier," a theme emerges, and suddenly the line between "folk" and
"protest" music vanishes. Irvine's not the singer that Brady is, but he is the key to the
instrumentals in 6/8 and 7/8 time, and he provides the mournful hurdy gurdy on "Lough Erne
Shore."
1/30/14



Annie Lennox: Christmas Cornucopia (Decca 2010)
We have quite a pile of Christmas discs at home, so we balance old favorites with wild cards.
One of this year's new addition to the festivities was Annie Lennox. After Bach's Christmas
Oratorio was rejected (not by me!) after one playing, Lennox was the only new addition to this
year's playlist. Oddly, that means the less traditional won out, for, as one might expect, this is
not a safe, soothing set of interpretations. Unlike Bach, the only choir to be heard is an African
children's choir. Lennox tends to sing every song with maximum intensity. I see from reviews that
many people loathe it. I predict it will become annual holiday music at our house.
12/30/13




Vladimir Ashkenazy: Chopin: Nocturnes, 4 Ballades (Decca 1997)
This week, these recordings are my workplace music. Some Chopin lovers criticize Ashkenazy
as not passionate enough, as if emoting is music's essence. But why limit music, whether
Chopin's or any other? Sometimes we want an escape from emotion. After all, these
compositions aren't raw outpourings of his soul. They're composed. And they're composed
subject to aesthetic standards. And these performances are lovely. What's more, Decca has
now packaged these two discs with three others (featuring different pianists) in a boxed set that
costs about a dollar more than this two-CD set.
12/19/13




John Cale: Shifty Adventures in the Nookie Wood (Domino 2012)
Lou Reed died recently, and I realized that I'd given up on new material from Reed some years
back. Not so for his Velvets collaborator, John Cale. Half of the new record is wonderful. The
guy can still write a song, and, as so often over his post-Velvets career, the aching, midtempo
songs are his strong suit (here, "Mary," "Living with You," "Sandman"). The opener, "I Wanna
Talk 2 U," begins uncharacteristically with just acoustic rhythm guitar, then builds into a rock
arrangement with a electric guitar that seems to have dropped in from a Gamble and Huff soul
music arrangement. Elsewhere, there are sonic experiments with voice synthesizers that leave
me cold. But give him credit for trying.
11/16/13




Emmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball (Elektra 1995)
It's a purely academic question whether this is her best album (in a long career of very good
albums). Despite the presence of "Waltz Across Texas," its certainly the least "country"
sounding record she's made, but not because her source material -- Dylan, Neil Young,
Lucinda Williams, the McGarrigles -- is all that different. It's the heavy bottom end, the brooding
tempos, and the sonic murk of Daniel Lanois's production. Ironically, the song that he contributes
is the weakest track here. The standouts are "Goin' Back to Harlan," "Sweet Old World," and
"Orphan Girl."
11/13/13




Various: Electric Muse (Island 1975)
Vinyl, four discs, and used copies are selling for the insane price of $100. The subtitle is
misleading: "The Story of Folk into Rock." It's the story of British folk into British folk-rock. If
we expanded it, we'd need Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, the Grateful Dead, and more. That quibble
aside, it's a nice overview of the progression of sakbut and handbells to my favorite folk-rock
band, Fairport Convention. Historically, I know perfectly well that the Middle Ages didn't sound
anything like this, but emotionally, it feels like it did. And Davey Graham's take on Mingus'
"Better Git It in Your Soul" is why I dug it out to listen to it today.  But where's Nick
Drake?
11/6/13




Bob Dylan: Another Self Portrait: Bootleg Series Vol. 10 (Columbia 2013)
Given how terrible his recent work can be, it's interesting to revisit the records that, until now,
were regarded as Dylan's nadir. Personally, I like most of Self Portrait. Yet it's undeniable that
some tracks ("Belle Isle") are far better without the overdubs they received without Dylan's
supervision. The New Morning out-takes are well worth hearing, and yet none are better than
the versions selected for that album. The real discoveries here? "Pretty Saro" is as good as
anything he's ever recorded, yet here we find it was done in the midst of indifferent and weak performances. And, having ponied up for the deluxe box, I think the Isle of Wight concert is a
blast.
10/6/13




The Doors: L.A. Woman  (Elektra 1971; 2 disc edition 2012)
My favorite Doors album, hands down, in part for its skewering of the myth of L.A. as the land
of sunshine and good times. The title track and "Riders on the Storm" are the two best long
tracks they created, and "Love Her Madly" is perhaps the best of their "pop" songs. Aside from
that track, it's a blues album with really superior lyrics. The presence of supporting musicians
(including Jerry Scheff on bass) leads to greater swing and musical interplay. Guitarist Robbie
Krieger shines throughout. The second disc reveals that they were remarkably consistent from
take to take, and its concluding track, a cover of Muddy Waters' "Rock Me," should have been
on the original album.
10/1/13




Laura Nyro: Gonna Take a Miracle  (Columbia 1971)
One of the very first, if not the first, "covers" albums centered around songs from the singer's
formative years -- many others would borrow the idea in years to come. She used rising stars
Labelle for backing vocals, and the results include stunning a cappella versions of "I Met Him
on a Sunday" and "The Wind." Perhaps there are instruments, but in my memory there are just
lush vocal harmonies. Elsewhere, R&B producers Gamble and Huff lay down funky grooves. The
year that I was a college disc jockey, I usually included at least one track from this LP each time
I spun discs. The 2002 expanded version makes it even better.
9/5/13




The Mavericks: In Time  (Valory 2013)
After ten years, a reunion album. Fans are so grateful they're praising it, but I think it's their
weakest album. Sure, I love the sound of the thing, especially the fusion of Latin and Tex-Mex
elements. While I like the way that Jerry Dale McFadden decorates the songs with keyboard
sounds not heard since the 1960s, guitarist Eddie Perez isn't given much space to solo. However,
the big failing is the songs, few of which are memorable. In the past, part of the appeal was the
brilliant arranging of well-chosen covers. But now singer Raul Malo reserves such music for his
solo career. The result is one very bland ballad, six or seven festive tunes that sound pretty much
the same, one swing tune, and one bizarre slow song with female chorus. Guess which one I like
best.
9/4/13




Sam Phillips: Cruel Inventions  (Virgin 1992)
This record dates from early in Phillips's career, but after she abandoned Christian pop music.
If you know the "roots" sound associated with the record production work of her husband, T.
Bone Burnett, you're in for a shock. There's nothing rootsy here. This is singer-songwriter music
as aural cotton candy, with inventive arrangements that tickle the palette. (Among others, Van
Dyke Parks and Elvis Costello contribute.) Her husky vocals have never sounded better, and I'm
not aware of a stronger set of songs on any of her later albums, good as they are. "Lying" is a
particular favorite.
8/5/13




Brad Mehldau: Highway Rider  (Nonesuch 2010)
He's an enormously talented jazz pianist. It is certainly in his favor that he's not afraid to cross
genre boundaries. In this case, he's composed a large-scale instrumental work for jazz ensemble
and orchestra. Mehldau writes that he is following in the steps of Haydn and Beethoven,
developing all the "movements" from a single melodic motif. It was only after I'd decided that long
stretches of it sounded like film soundtrack music that I noticed that the cover image is of a screen
at a drive-in movie theater. Sure, most of it is pleasant, in an unobtrusive way, but I can't help but
note that the music takes a quantum leap forward whenever the featured soloist is Joshua Redman
on saxophone. Otherwise, much of it sounds like Dave Brubeck playing over Aaron Copland's
music.
7/12/13





Nick Drake: Fruit Tree  (Hannibal 1986)
When I got an iPod, my first move was to load it with the complete recordings of the Beatles and
of Nick Drake. Fifteen months later, I've removed half of the Beatles catalogue but not a single one
of the 45 tracks found on Fruit Tree, Drake's career retrospective. The first ten songs are beautifully
arranged (Five Leaves Left). After that, the progressive intensity of his music is frightening. "Which
Will," "Black Eyed Dog," "Pink Moon," and "Hanging on a Star" reveal the shallowness of thinking
that pop songs do not reach the heights of great fine art. (For years there was little information
available about Drake, but we now know that he had piano training and was intimately familiar with
parts of the "classical" chamber music repertoire.)
7/5/13





Steely Dan: Gaucho  (MCA 1980)
At the time, when punk still seemed vibrant, I was more interested in Joy Division than Steely
Dan. Listening again, this record has come up immeasurably in my estimation. It's their groove
album, some say; there's nothing noisy, noting too fast, and no big shifts in dynamics. All I know
is that "Hey Nineteen" and "Gaucho" are aural heaven, and most of the rest of it is not far behind.
The only evidence that the production of this music was a struggle (and they stopped making
music after this for a very long time) is the acidic bitterness of Donald Fagen's voice on several of
the tracks ("Third World Man" in particular) and the tension between the beauty of the musical
surfaces and the ugliness of some of the characters the songs portray.
66/21/13





Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Phil Ochs: strong>Amchitka  (Greenpeace 2009)
Unreleased for nearly 40 years, these two discs capture three "folk" musicians in their prime,
raising money in 1970 to fund Greenpeace's challenge to nuclear testing at Amchitka, Alaska. But
it's no longer available on the Greenpeace website. Which is a shame: this is the best recording of
an early Joni Mitchell concert ever released, including two duets with Taylor and a performance of
Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." Ochs is good, too. But it's Taylor who really shines here, as he so
consistently does. Seven songs, and four of them are my top four favorites, in splendid versions:
"Fire and Rain," "Carolina in My Mind," "Something in the Way," and "Sweet Baby James." It's
singer-songwriter heaven.
66/5/13





Bob Dylan: strong>Tempest  (Columbia 2012)
Is this alt-country? Roots rock? Americana? All of the above? Is "Pay in Blood" a dark rewrite
of "Right Time of the Night?" Is the title track, about the sinking of the Titanic, the most boring
14 minutes in Dylan's career? Rhetorical questions aside, I like the music (provided by his regular
touring band, supplemented by Los Lobos' David Hidalgo). However, most of the songs are in the
mode of his last few records; second-hand riffs and melodies support thematically linked couplets.
Which is to say, the songs sound thrown together rather than composed. The two exceptions are
"Tempest" and "Roll on John." He tries to be linear and focused, and fails miserably. Not a record
that I can recommend to others.
5/19/13





The Gourds: Haymaker!  (YepRoc 2009)
Is this alt-country? Roots rock? Americana? All of the above? What I know is that they're direct
descendants of The Band, and they're nearly as good. (If you told me that "Country Gal" was an
outtake from The Band's Rock of Ages concerts and that "Bridgett" is Steve Earle, you might
have fooled me.) Other musical reference points are Los Lobos and the Beat Farmers. A few of
the songs are overly derivative -- "Tex-Mex Mile" is a rewrite of "Six Days on the Road" -- but
there's  not a minute on this disc that bores me. "Country Love" is one of the best opening tracks
I've heard in years, and "Valentine" is one of the best love songs.
4/26/13




Grateful Dead: Wake of the Flood  (Grateful Dead Records 1973)
Released 40 years ago, this was the first Dead album I ever purchased. It is, in my view, their
last good studio album, by which I mean it's their last album on which at least half of the material
is fully successful. In fact, this one falls flat on only one track, "Let Me Sing Your Blues Away."
It doesn't. Otherwise, what's distinctive about this album is the perfection of the group harmonies,
the touches of jazz, and the sheer happiness of most of this music. That includes "Stella Blue,"
a Jerry Garcia showpiece that alternates world-weary ennui with rays of hope. Not coincidentally,
my favorite Dead shows from the next decade are generally the ones that feature this song in
the 2nd set.
4/15/13




Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What   (Hear Music 2011)
The title might be my least favorite aspect of this collection of ten songs. If you're a Paul Simon
fan, there's nothing radically new in either the sound of the record or the songwriting, and for a
guy of 70, his voice is surprisingly fine. The theme, so far as there is one, is death -- sometimes literally, in the jokey "The Afterlife" (it isn't what he expected) and sometimes less directly, in his
 fixation on God, angels, and other spiritual matters. He's drawn on gospel music before, in
"Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "Loves Me Like a Rock," but now on several tracks he
samples directly from gospel records that predate his birth, making them (virtual) partners in
smart mashups. Right now, I'm drawn to "Eternal Sacred Light," which sounds like a
Graceland
outtake: I like the complaint about the bad music on the radio.
3/27/13




Regina Spektor: Far  (Sire 2009)
I want to like her music. I really do. In theory, I should. But I find that her voice and piano
playing get tedious after a few songs. There's a steady pumping of the chord sequences and
most of the melodies are cut from the same pattern. The piano goes pump pump pump and
the voice chirps along, like Mary Margaret O'Hara on an uninspired day. Musically, I find that
the use of seasoned producers -- four of them! -- provides the arrangements with clever touches
that occasionally make me smile. If the melodies were more appealing, I might even like a few
of these songs, but then "Laughing With" reminds me that you shouldn't write a pop song
about God unless it's as good as XTC's "Dear God."
3/15/13




Faces: First Step   (Warner Bros. 1970)
For contractual reasons, the North American album is credited to Small Faces, but that
group had collapsed, to be revitalized by the addition of Rod Steward and Ron Wood. It has
all their strengths and weaknesses: a fine rhythm section, slide guitar, sloppiness, tossed-off
boogie beside brilliant songs, and the heavenly whirl of Ian McLagan's organ. As with the later
albums, the rockers take on greater edge by their juxtaposition with Ronnie Lane's thoughtful,
tender ballads. The first, "Devotion," arranges the voices of Lane and Stewart in a way that
suggests Lane is the real bandleader. (He's also responsible for "Stone," which you might
mistake for a folk song.) Lane's nimble bass playing is also the key to "Three Button Hand
Me Down," a jolly shaggy-dog tale about a suit.
3/3/13




Thelonious Monk: Alone in San Francisco   (Riverside 1959)
A live recording in a San Francisco nightclub, but there's no sonic record of an audience's
presence, so he might really have been alone except for the recording engineer. The point, of
course, is that he's playing solo instead of, as normally, with a quartet. (He was battling with
his record company and was honoring his contract without recording new material!) All the same,
it's one of my favorites: interpretations of his own compositions sit aside four standard tunes.
Thus, Irving Berlins "Remember" is played as a sentimental parlor tune with splashes of
"Chopsticks" and the occasional dissonance and disorienting filigree. His trademark
choppiness is clearly a chosen effect, for there are many passages of rollicking boogie from his
left hand and of delicacy from his right.
3/3/13




Harry Nilsson: Aerial Pandemonium Ballet (RCA 1971)
Nilsson was a relatively obscure singer-songwriter when his cover of Fred Neil's "Everybody's
Talkin'" was selected as the theme song for the film Midnight Cowboy. Then it won a Grammy.
Nilsson used the sudden attention to cherry-pick tracks from his first two albums, remix them,
alter the vocals, and construct this oddity. (The two inset images on the cover are the cover
images of those other albums.) If "Rocky Racoon" and "She's Leaving Home" are among your
favorite Beatles tracks, you'll probably love it. Nilsson's vocals are captivating, and his
songwriting is often brilliant. "Good Old Desk" is a hymn to a desk, but also to the deity
referenced by the initials formed by those words; if you're old enough, you certainly know the
song "One."
2/8/13




Lambchop: Mr. M  (Merge 2011)
It opens with fifteen seconds of meandering chamber music, reaching a mild dissonance that
hangs in the air, leading to a jazz drumroll and piano. All very classy. Seven seconds later,
singer Kurt Wagner shatters it with profanity. It may seem an odd analogy, but Wagner's music
reminds me of Joseph Cornell's boxes of artfully arranged bric-a-brac. I don't' know what some of
it is, or why it's important to him, and some of it is merely the garbage of everyday life, but the
result is a delicate, haunting beauty. The song "2B2" sounds like the words were assembled
from random thoughts: about taking down the Christmas lights, watching television, dealing with
insomnia. You know, life.
1/15/13




J. D. Souther: Natural History (Entertainment One 2011)
This record has given me an unexpected degree of pleasure over the past few months. The
controlling idea is that, now that he qualifies for social security benefits and Medicare, he's
re-recorded a set of songs he wrote and recorded decades ago. His voice is nearly as pure
as it was when these tuneful, memorable songs were new. Most were major radio hits for other
singers, including three songs he co-wrote with members of The Eagles. Without exception, I
prefer these new, stripped-down versions to the glossy "originals," especially "New Kid in Town."
The one song directly associated with Souther, "You're Only Lonely," is slow, sparse, and
wonderful.
1/1/13





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.
12/29/12





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.
11/29/12




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
or 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.
11/15/12




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").
11/15/12




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."
11/05/12




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.
10/20/12





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.
09/30/12




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.
09/17/12




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.
09/10/12




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."
08/28/12




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.

08/28/12





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.
08/16/12




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.
08/16/12




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.
05/03/12




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."
005/03/12




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.
04/21/12




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.
04/21/12




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.
04/4/12




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.
03/24/12




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.
02/24/12




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.
I play it loud.
02/12/12




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.
01/31/12




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.
01/01/12




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.
12/20/11




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.
12/6/11




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.
11/28/11




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.)
11/10/11




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.
11/5/11




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.
10/5/11





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.
9/30/11





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.
9/25/11





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.
9/20/11





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.
8/29/11




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.
8/11/11




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.
8/5/11




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.
7/18/11





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.
7/18/11




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.
6/13/11




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
.
6/6/11




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.
5 5/11/11




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."
5/11/11




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.
4/11/11




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.
4/8/11




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.

3/9/11




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)."

3/9/11




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.
2/23/11




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.

2/11/11




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.
1/20/11




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.
1/12/11



James Taylor: A Christmas Album (Hallmark 2004)
At my house, it's against the law to deck the halls, trim the tree, or open gifts without
Christmas music in the background. This year, I decided to give the Roches a rest and pulled
this gem from the pile. Ironically, given that he's a "singer-songwriter," Taylor has written only a
handful of really memorable songs, but he's turned out to be a remarkable interpreter of the songs
of others. In this case, his version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" ranks with the best of them. His
duet partner is Natalie Cole, and their exchanges are both relaxed and sultry. Cole's presence is
a clue that the music is closer to "lite jazz" than folk or rock, due to Grusin's presence as pianist
and arranger. "Go Tell it on the Mountain" turns out to be a great Christmas song, well suited to
Taylor's voice.
12/30/10




Keith Jarrett: The Out-of-Towners (ECM 2004)
Big pile of final exam essays, pressure to get done on time, Christmas presents to wrap,
pressure to get them in the mail on time. Time for music that drops the stress level and does
not intrude on the intellectual problem of deciding if a particular student essay merits a B- or a
C+. These piano explorations of six songs were recorded in the summer of 2001, a time we now
recall as sunnier and less insane. The general mood is a pleasant stroll in the park. In short, this
is my kind of jazz: it works perfectly as background music, but it's not bland, either. Jarrett's
released a number of these sets of "covers" with this trio, and I selected this one simply because
I like the song "It's All in the Game." Given that it's Jarrett at the piano, that's reason enough.
12/16/10





John Fogerty: The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again (Verve 2009)
Is it a sign of the apocalypse that Fogerty, the voice of Creedence Clearwater Revival, has
released an album of country music on Verve, a jazz label? No, it's just the collapse of the
music business. That aside, it's an extremely strong record, right up there with another similar
disc from about the same time, John Doe and the Sadies' Country Club. Fogerty has assembled
stellar supporting musicians and a great set of songs. The John Denver tune is a bit sentimental,
and covering himself ("Change in the Weather") is silly, but the opening three ("Paradise," "Never
Ending Song of Love," and "Garden Party") are outstanding versions of well-known songs. Given
his status, he even gets two members of the Eagles to sing with him on "Garden Party." He
sounds great, they sound great, all of which just highlights how poorly Springsteen sings in HIS
cameo appearance.
11/16/10




Joe Henry: Blood from Stars (Anti 2009)
My initial reaction was annoyance. His singing is more mush-mouthed than ever, as if he's
imitating Leon Redbone, and the arrangements smack of middle-period Tom Waits by way of
New Orleans. While the singing is still annoying in spots, the complexity of the arrangements
has grown on me, as have about half of the songs."The Man I Keep Hid" and "Truce" are lyrically
and musically gripping. "Stars" has a great line, worthy of Bob Dylan ("I remember tomorrow like
it was yesterday") and a great "la la la" hook that gets stuck in my head. "No Lamp When the
Sun Comes Down" has a touch of Kurt Weill. But for a very long stretch in the middle of the disc,
he's working with standard blues progressions, and only the jazzy horns hold my interest.
10/25/10




Van Morrison: The Healing Game (1997; expanded Exile 2008)
The first few listens highlight how little difference there is among Van Morrison's recent records.
Ten listenings later, this one proves to have a batch of superior songs -- I particularly like "It Once
was My Life" -- and a few really strange ones, like "Burning Ground." There's a touch of the
Caribbean in some rhythms, the gospel backup vocals are well done, and there's some intelligent
arranging of the horns. And then, of course, there's the big, sad ballad that lets us wallow in
sentimentality. "Sometimes We Cry" opens with a short bass solo and then builds slowly,
appropriating a long tradition of gospel and soul music into a majestic account of existential
resignation that moves to the sheer joy of singing nonsense syllables, an ending that ends all too
soon.

10/05/10




Mary Margaret O'Hara: Miss America (1988 Virgin Records)
Listening to Grace Slick's vocals and idiosyncratic songwriting (e.g., "Rejoyce" on Baxter's),  I
decided to dig this disc out. I give it a listen from time to time, then put it away. I know it's a cult
favorite and that a used disc sells for $20 to $50, so send me a check for $50.00 and I'll send you
my copy. O'Hara's voice frequently moves up into a squeal that sounds like a fingernail on a
blackboard. It's the same problem I have with Victoria Williams. And I hate the attempt to do a
free-form, Patti-Smith-style rant on "Not Be Alright." Yet many of the songs are very fine (I like
what the Cowboy Junkies did with "You Will Be Loved Again") and the atmospheric guitars are
compelling. If only O'Hara sang it all as she does on "Dear Darling."

10/05/10




Jefferson Airplane: After Bathing at Baxter’s (RCA 1967; expanded CD RCA/BMG 2003)
Most psychedelic music bores me to death. Yet one of my favorite records has most of the
tell-tale signs. Lyrics about dropping acid? Check. Flutes and harpsichords? Check.
Gratuitous movement of instruments across the stereophonic environment? Check. Long,
unorganized stretches of instrumental jamming? Check. So why, if I hate so much of this
music, do I regard this controlled anarchy as one of the great discs of 1967? Great vocalists,
strong harmonies, intelligent (if cryptic) lyrics, and gorgeous melodies. From the opening squeal
of feedback to the goofy sonic experiment of “A Small Package of Value…” to the hippie-anthem
“Saturday Afternoon,” I think this is just about a perfect summation of the attractions of the
so-called summer of love. And the bonus tracks are uniformly strong
.
10/02/10




Graham Parker: Imaginary Television (Bloodshot Records 2010)
Don't judge an album by its cover. I don't know why Graham Parker has released so many
albums with horrific covers (after the first three, anyway), but it can't have helped his career.
Which is still going after all these years. Here's the latest disc, with ten originals and one
obscure cover version, mixing together pub rock, r&b, reggae, and whatever else appeals to him.
To borrow from Elvis Costello, with whom he was frequently compared when both were starting
out, he used to be disgusted, but now he's mostly amused. As usual, there are a few very
strong songs, including "Bring Me a Heart Again" and what may be my current imaginary theme
song: "You're Not Where You Think You Are," which begins, "This room got really weird..."
09/22/10




Bob Dylan: Bob Dylan (Columbia 1962)
I finally bought this on compact disc because I was just under $25 for an order over at
Amazon.com, and another cheap purchase got me free shipping. And it was cheap: under $8,
about the price that would have been fair for all compact discs and that might have kept more
people buying music. But I digress. Having not played it in years, I am reminded of how
genuinely rude and raw and energetic he sounds here, on his debut. (He even jokes about
the reception to his singing on "Talkin' New York.") We wouldn't hear another voice like this
until Captain Beefheart, then punk. Nonetheless, he really could sing. His "Man of Constant
Sorrow" is phenomenal. Above all, he was a master of timing. Those tiny pauses and extended
notes are brilliant.
09/08/10





Harold Budd: Pavilion of Dreams (Obscure 1978; EG 1991)
For me, this is morning music, something to play while reading the morning newspaper with a
cup of coffee. Four lovely minimalist pieces with a total running time of a little over 45 minutes,
this is music without tension, direction, or disruption. Much of the time, it's the musical
equivalent of staring at a pond of water, throwing in small pebbles, then watching the ripples
form and then fade away. At other times, it's the equivalent of watching a small stream flow
over the pebbles. Other listeners will supply their own metaphors, but no one is going to describe
it as a ride on a bucking stallion. But if you're not in the mood for it, you might describe it as
kicking a dead horse.
09/02/10




The Clash: Sandinista! (Epic 1980)
I bought it the week it was released, 30 years ago, and haven't played it in 20 years. Although I remembered most of the songs, I'd forgotten how boring most of it is, especially the second half.
Clash fans praise it as inventive and experimental, but today's fans don't listen to the original stuff
that they're appropriating. If you don't own any dub reggae, I suppose their version of it sounds
pretty good. Strangely, my two favorite tracks are both cover versions of songs they didn't write:
"Police on My Back" (my very favorite Clash track?) and "Lose This Skin" (if only for the weirdness
and energy it injects into disc 2). There are some strong originals, including "Charlie Don't Surf,"
but the final impression is a band that couldn't agree on what they were doing.
08/25/10




Elvis Costello: King of America (Columbia 1986)
I thought this was a pretty good record when it was new, even a sort of comeback after a pair
of weak albums. Applying the test of time, it's even better than I remembered, and it's certainly
the best of the three albums he's made with T-Bone Burnett. Some of it is country music, in the
very British and twisted way that the Kinks sometimes recorded country music. Especially the
fast ones, like "Glitter Gulch." Set those aside, and it's a exploration of American music styles, including a slow, aching cover version of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" that draws on Nina
Simone rather than the Animals. "Indoor Fireworks" and "I'll Wear It Proudly" are two of the most
moving things he's written and recorded.
08/08/10




Bruce Springsteen: Prodigal Son At Winterland (Great Dane 1979)
A bootleg, beautifully recorded from the KSAN broadcast in December 1978, as Springsteen
was wrapping up his "Darkness" tour and Winterland itself was about to be torn down. Having
seen him on more than one tour, and having seen an earlier show of this tour, I join those who
maintain that he peaked in 1978, and that this is one of the greatest rock performances ever.
The guitars snarl, the piano tinkles, Springsteen howls, and the band's timing is perfect. He
fumbles some of the lyrics, but the venue was relatively small (perhaps 5,000?) and the audience
actually shuts up and listens with admiration to the slow ones. So why has he put out so many
weak live-recordings when he could be releasing shows from 1978?
07/24/10




Soul Asylum: Grave Dancers Union (Columbia 1992)
The title is missing an apostrophe, which is somehow apt for an expression of life in the
underclass. "Runaway Train" was the big hit, and its bright acoustic jangle and big sing-along
chorus are the most optimistic thing here. Which is ironic, since it joins the rest of the songs
in expressing themes of alienation, failure, frustration. (Case in point: find the line in "Without A
Trace" that gives the disc its title.) Overall, it's a melodic singer-songwriter album buried under
surging, distorted guitars. "Homesick" is a better song than the midtempo "Runaway Train," but
these quieter songs are a brief respite from the adrenaline rush of the loud stuff. (Case in point:
"Somebody to Shove.")
07/24/10




Roxy Music: Stranded (Island 1973)
I hadn't played this album in years, and I'd forgotten how experimental it was. The first LP by
they made after Brian Eno's departure, I may be in the minority in suggesting that his departure
benefited the band. The songs are better, and so are their arrangements. The opener, "Street
Life," is my favorite opening track on any of their albums, and "Amazona" is one of my favorite
Roxy tracks ever, with a mixture of funk and instrumental swagger that they seldom attempted
again. (On vinyl, "Serenade" was another great side-opener.) Above all, I admire the thin line
between sincerity and irony in songs like "Psalm" and "Mother of Pearl." The production, by
Chris Thomas, is divine. 
06/30/10




Lloyd Cole: Antidepressant (One Little Indian 2006)
Cole was a philosophy major at Glasgow, and when I listen to him I sometimes wonder if we have
mutual acquaintances. In any case, his education is there in the metaphors and wordplay (e.g.,
"nondescript manuscript"). The opening two songs are superb: "The Young Idealists" and "Woman
in a Bar," and the rest are never less than good. His voice is often conversational -- think Leonard
Cohen, but pleasanter and with more melodic movement -- but he can sing more conventionally
when he chooses, as on "Traveling Light" and a moving cover of Moby Grape's melancholic "I am
Not Willing." He favors keyboards now, instead of guitar, but Neil Clark is on hand to provide slide
guitar here and there.
06/04/10




The Kinks: Everybody's in Show-Biz (1972; Expanded re-release, Velvel 1996)
Originally a strange hybrid, with a disc of studio songs and a disc of highlights from a concert
at Carnegie Hall. The studio disc is structured so that each side ends with a big, sad ballad,
"Sitting in My Hotel" and "Celluloid Heroes," two of Ray Davies' very best songs and performances. 
On compact disc the organization just feels random, with "hillbilly" music, show tunes, calypso,
English music hall, and a few touches of hard rock. But I do like the way Davies toys with our
expectations in us on the live segment with "Banana Boat Song" and "Lola," editing out the songs
themselves and just giving us the sing-along with the audience. Such a tease.
5/31/10




Hi Times: Hi Records R&B Years (Hi 1995)
This three disc overview of 1970's Memphis R&B is better, track for track, than virtually any box
set ever assembled. In part, that's due to the presence of all of Al Green's major hits ("Tired of
Being Alone," followed by "Let's Stay Together" -- sheer bliss). But Green is merely one attraction.
Ann Peebles is criminally underrated and largely forgotten, and George Jackson's "Aretha, Sing
One for Me" is the great lost R&B track that I somehow never heard when most of this was on the
radio. I admit that there are some tracks that underwhelm me (the early stuff on disc one, and the
novelty tune "Drunk') but the house band at Hi could hold their own with cross-town rivals Booker
T. & the M.G.'s.
5/24/10




Brian Eno: Another Green World (Virgin 1975)
Notice how the cover image is assembled from geometric shapes of distinct colors. The music
is like that, as well. On one level, it's a all about the juxtaposition of static parts. On another level,
it's about the interaction of those parts, and the unexpected beauties that arise as distinct sounds
interact to form music; "Sky Saw" opens the album with jagged, raw guitar against a bubbling bass
line, punctuated by seemingly random drum sounds. After that, things are generally calm (and
predominantly instrumental, with lots of synthesized sound), as if someone has re-imagined Satie's
piano music as a Roxy Music album. It doesn't hurt to have Phil Collins (yes, Phil Collins) and
Robert Fripp on board for percussion and guitars, respectively.
5/11/10




Judy Collins: Who Knows Where The Time Goes (Elektra 1968)
Sometimes you get a song stuck in your head and you don't even know it's there. A week ago
I listened to a Sandy Denny album, which included the song "Who Knows..." and then, today, it
was in my head. But not Denny's original. I needed to hear Collins singing it, along with "Someday
Soon." Those are the two standouts on this virtually perfect disc: outstanding songs, beautifully
arranged and sung. Stephen Stills had a big hand in this album (and his relationship with Collins led
to one his own greatest achievements, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" -- just look at those eyes on her
album cover). One Dylan cover, one Leonard Cohen cover, two traditional songs. And "My Father,"
which she wrote.
4/30/10




Bruce Cockburn: Waiting for a Miracle (Gold Castle 1987)
This intelligently selected "best of" album pulls the best songs from half a dozen albums, and
the success rate is much higher than is typical for such projects. I like to think of Cockburn as
the Canadian Jackson Browne -- so why  is he so obscure down here in the USA? His only
American hit, "Wondering Where the Lions Are," is an amazingly catchy piece of folk reggae,
"The Trouble with Normal" could have been written yesterday (as a critique of yet another American
turn to the right), and "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" makes it clear why even a pacifist might think
that violence is sometimes necessary. I  like it when he uses his speaking voice: he sounds like
Roger McGuinn, which is not true of his singing.
4/20/10



  
The Very Best of Jackson Browne (Rhino/Elektra 2004)
Two discs, and it almost lives up to its title, since I find that only three of his albums are worth
having in their entirety (and those would be albums one, three, and four in his discography).
Browne chose the song lineup for this collection, and other than the choices from number four
(The Pretender) they're pretty much the ones I'd select, too. The real reason to own this, to be
honest, is the presence of "Lawyers in Love," the funniest thing he's ever recorded (better than
"Redneck Friend"). It's an almost perfect documentation of the Reagan years and, with the
possible exception of "Somebody's Baby," the catchiest thing he's done.
3/22/10




Big Star: Live (Rykodisc 1992)
Alex Chilton was not the sole reason to love this band, but with his death last week, I pulled
this one off the shelf because it's an Alex Chilton showcase, recorded as a live radio gig in 1974,
after Chris Bell left the band. It's not particularly well recorded, and operating as a trio, they sound
thin in spots. But at the heart of it there are four acoustic numbers, just Chilton and guitar: "The
Ballad of El Goodo," "Thirteen," "I'm In Love with a Girl," and Loudon Wainwright III's "Motel Blues."
Right there you get three of my favorite Big Star songs, and you get Chilton in prime voice,
without sonic distraction for eleven glorious minutes. For him, it was another day on the road, but
I'm thankful it was preserved.
3/122/10




Robert Plant/Alison Krauss: Raising Sand (Rounder 2007)
I don't spend much time in bars, but the last one I was in was coincidentally playing the same
record that I'd just heard at home: this one. I love it for three reasons: Krauss, Plant in a gritty,
subdued mode, and T. Bone Burnett's production and song choices. I see over at Amazon.com
that a lot of people hate it for the latter two reasons. Krauss does her usual thing, which is already
a positive, but then Burnett's steered her into bluesy material, and then everyone had the good
sense not to pursue "blooze" music of the sort we know from Led Zep -- no banshee wailing!
Then there's the deep, bottom-heavy production: when they duet, it's two sweet voices singing
over the abyss.
3/13/10




Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster
(American Roots 2004)
I've thought, many times over the years, that Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More" is our
alternative national anthem. The number of children who go to bed hungry at night, the number of
people who are one  illness away from bankruptcy -- Foster caught it and Mavis Staples delivers it
here. This disc is one  of the few places you can hear a selection of Foster's songs without a
syrupy, sappy treatment,  and most of them are incredible. Each song features a different singer
who imprints her or his  personality on it. Henry Kaiser treats "Autumn Waltz" like a Grateful Dead
performance, and I'm going to have to look into the music of BR5-49.
2/2/10




John Mellencamp Scarecrow (Mercury 1985)
His voice is always welcome on the radio, but his records always seem uneven. Except this
one. (Okay, I admit I haven't heard the last decade's worth, so don't hold me to that.) This is small-
combo rock and roll with a hint of roots-country, with genuine working-class bitterness in the lyrics.
At the time of its release it got a lot of comparisons to Springsteen, but now I think it holds up
better than the Boss's Born in the USA. Kenny Aronoff's drumming is rock solid and "Small Town"
gives a voice to conservative pride, and "Scarecrow" to economic suffering, that together keep the
red states red. Mellencamp wanted us to take this seriously. I do.
2/2/10




John Doe and the Sadies: Country Club (Yep Roc 2009)
I have to wait until everyone else has gone home for the day before I can play this in my office
--the honky tonk sound is too disruptive. Doe covers thirteen country classics (and the Sadies
throw in two instrumentals, most likely to throw some publishing revenue their way). These might
be my favorite renditions of "Stop the World and Let Me Off," "I Still Miss Someone," and "Are the
Good Times Really Over," all of them songs that I enjoy in their original incarnations (from Waylon
Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard, respectively, and those names are a pretty good
indication of the kind of music featured here). Yee-haw!
2/2/10




Michael Penn: March (RCA 1989)
The sonic complexity of the studio production, courtesy of Patrick Warren, does not obscure
the fact that Penn is basically a singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar. But the arrangements,
particularly the percussion, keep it lively. "No Myth" was the big hit and sounds a lot like Crowded
House (as does "Innocent One"), and elsewhere there are strong echoes of Chuck Berry ("Brave
New World"), David Bowie ("Bedlam Boys") and Bob Dylan (almost every song, including a
wonderfully nasal moment of singing on "No Myth"). Penn's lyrics are sometimes described as
bitter, but I've always found them to be a balance between a cynical realism and a joyful idealism.
Case in point, the rollicking closing track: "Evenfall."
12/29/09




Emmylou Harris: Light of the Stable (Reprise 1979)
It seems that every Christmas season we play one seasonal record more that the rest. This year,
it was Emmylou's, recorded when she moved into to a more "traditional" country sound (in other
words, she got rid of the honky-tonk piano and electric guitars and started recording acoustic
versions of bluegrass standards). It's worth noting that the original cover photograph (stupidly
replaced with other images in its digital releases) emphasizes that these are religious songs;
there's no "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" here! But if you want "O Little Town Of Bethlehem"
and "Away In a Manger," and don't want overproduced schlock, this is the record you want playing
when you're unwrapping presents.
12/29/09




Robert Fripp & Brain Eno: No Pussyfooting (EG 1973)
With exams to grade and then grades to calculate, I don't want background music that's too
distracting. I don't feel like hearing Erik Satie, so this fit the bill nicely. Long, droning washes
of decaying sound support twisting, snaking squeals of electric guitar. In the absence of melody
and harmonic progression, there's noting but texture and tone. In short, my office has music, yet
there's nothing to distract me as I determine whether a student has accurately summarized
standard defenses of medical confidentiality. As the titles suggest, "Heavenly Music Corporation"
is a bit more soothing than "Swastika Girls," for the latter has a greater sense of competing
motions.
12/16/09




Derek and the Dominos: Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs (Atco 1970)
It's Eric Clapton's best record, yet it is by no means a Clapton record. It's a group project, which
is why it works. Clapton teams up with Bobby Whitlock and writes the best songs of his career;
Clapton and Whitlock trade vocal lines, energizing Clapton; they team up with Duane Allman, and
his guitar work inspires and energizes Clapton. And their rhythm section is no slouch, either: it's
drummer Jim Gordon's piano composition that provides the long coda of "Layla." The result is a
two-record set (one compact disc) that never grows old. Their live recordings, without Allman, are somewhat dull, and don't include "Layla" because they broke up before it became their FM radio hit.
12/7/09
 


Super Session
(Columbia 1969;Expanded 2003)
Between projects (in other words, kicked out of his most recent band), Kooper recruited
Bloomfield (between projects, too, most likely due to his drug problem) to record a quickie blues
album. Bloomfield didn't come back the second day (most likely due to his drug problem), so
Kooper finished it with Stills (who was starting Crosby Stills & Nash). Bloomfield plays guitar on
side one, Stills on side two. The opening minute of this album tells you everything there is to know
about Bloomfield: it's a blistering, joyous solo. Some of Kooper's overly-busy horn arrangements
now sound dated, which is why those who love this album love the expanded CD: we get two of the
best tracks (the opener, and "Season of the Witch") with the overdubs removed.
11/17/09




Sinead O'Connor: Sean-Nós Nua (Vanguard 2002)
The title means "old-made-new," or something like that. We won't fuss here about the limits of
translation. But that's the issue: what we have here is a collection of 13 "traditional" Irish songs,
using "traditional" instruments, such as banjo and bouzouki. (In other words, not really.) Generally,
I hate this stuff. Here, I love it, mainly because her singing is astoundingly moving. The opening
track, "Peggy Gordon," is a close cousin of the song "The Water is Wide," and this is one of the
best versions I've heard. After 12 songs about lost love and Irish suffering and homesickness, it
ends with a rousing "I'll Tell Me Ma," so we culminate with optimism instead of misery. If she ever
releases Sean-Nós Nua Vol. II, I'll buy it right away.
11/11/09




The Jayhawks: Tomorrow the Green Grass (American 1995)
One of the best of the "alternative country" movement, and perhaps the best of the non-punk,
non-funk bands to emerge from Minneapolis/St. Paul. Adding Mark Olson to the band changed
their vocal sound: the harmonies are a lot richer on this one, and suddenly they sound more like
The Byrds in country-rock mode and less like the Flying Burrito Brothers. (That's meant as a
compliment.) They front-load the thing with four great uptempo songs. But as I listen to it again, I
find that the most moving song comes later: "See Him on the Street" is a short story about seeing
an acquaintance years after he vanished and was declared a suicide. Gram Parsons would have
killed for this song.
11/11/09




Paul Kantner & Grace Slick: Sunfighter (Grunt 1971)
My sharing on this page is not always a recommendation. This record so strongly evokes its time
and place for me that I cannot pretend to be very objective, for it's as much a time machine as
music. The first two songs illustrate, if nothing else, that the hippie mindset was often complex
and conflicted. "Silver Spoon" scorns PC eating habits before we knew what "PC" meant, while
the fragment "Diana, Part 1" wonders whether the overthrow of the status quo is really worth the
price of the deaths that will result. And then there's "When I Was a Boy I Watched the Wolves,"
so good that they should have given it to their group, Jefferson Airplane, but which they kept for
themselves.
10/17/09




Warren Zevon: Life'll Kill Ya (Artemis 2000)
There is conflicting information about whether he knew that he had terminal cancer when he
made this record. (Yet I think it's superior to The Wind, made when he definitely knew so.) It
ranges from stripped-down acoustic numbers ("Hostage-O") to something approaching rock'n'roll
("Porcelain Monkey," a runaway metaphor about Elvis's decline). A lot of it is profane, rude, and
deliberately offensive, but not without rhetorical effect, and almost every song is tuneful and catchy.
There's also a very strong take on a song he didn't write, "Back in the High Life Again," arranged
as wishful thinking rather than boasting.
10/17/09




Crowded House: Together Alone (EMI 1993)
In America they're pretty much a one-hit wonder (the first album's "Don't Dream It's Over") but
worldwide they were a hit-making machine. Fronted by Neil Finn, this was a rock band that
remembered to put melodies and hooks into their music, which requires a great singer. Sure
enough: they had one: Finn's singing is always the primary attraction. This, their fourth album,
is my favorite, with a balance between uptempo rockers and yearning ballads and between simple
and elaborate arrangements. There's not a bad track on here, but four of these songs are as good
as some of the best popular songs of the last fifty years: "Pineapple Head," "Private Universe,"
"Distant Sun," and "Catherine Wheels." But you might pick four others from the same album,
and I might agree.
09/30/09





Led Zeppelin: Presence (Swan Song 1976)
Didn't much care for this when it was new, when the cover art seemed more interesting than
the music. Now it's quite grown on me, and the four longest tracks are among my favorite
Led Zep performances. The opener, "Achilles' Last Stand," has genuine grandeur. The closer,
"Tea For One," is sheer desolation. Many fans think that this is their least satisfying disc, but
I think that the group is so in tune with one another that they've finally gotten down to playing
together without trying to call attention to their instrumental chops. There's no clutter and no over-
arranging. Page's lead guitar is a constant delight, always serving the tune. As for the singing, I
think that this might be Plant's consistently best album
09/09/09





Linda Ronstadt: Mad Love (Elektra 1980)
Right here we have an illustration of what I hate about the rating system at places like
Amazon.com -- on Amazon, this record averages four out of five stars, which suggests that
it's a good record. It's not. I put it on because there are two or three songs that I wanted to hear.
Maybe four. Which leaves six tracks that are unbelievably misguided: poor songs, poorly suited
to her voice, poorly arranged. (In case you don't know, it's Linda's attempt to make a trendy "new
wave" record, but two of the strongest tracks are the cover versions of Neil Young and a 1960's
rock'n'roll hit.) If you want to listen to Blondie, listen to Blondie, and beware of fans who can't bear
to admit when their favorite artist has gone wrong.
09/09/09




Miles Davis: In A Silent Way (Columbia 1969)
In the early part of the day I avoid playing music that might disturb the work of those in
neighboring offices. The last few days, it's been this record. Musically, it's more about John
McLaughlin's guitar than Davis's horn playing, which only occasionally joins the proceedings.
For much of its two long tracks, the music flows aimlessly ("grooving," as they used to say in
the 60s), occasionally becoming a little more animated and even a bit cluttered before it settles
down again. The highlight is the Josef Zawinul tune that gives the album its title; you just want it
to go on and on. Before they edited the tapes and pulled out the choicest moments, I guess it
did.
08/25/09





Jesse Winchester: Humour Me (Sugar Hill 1989)
I guess he lives on his songwriting royalties, because each time I acquire another one of his
records, I find it has a song the he wrote that was a hit for someone else. This time, it's
"Well-A-Wiggy," a gospel-tinged, doo-wop nonsense song that was a minor hit for the Weather
Girls. It contains one of the most inspirational verses I've come across recently: "Well baby don't
you worry / Because everything is peachy / Everything is jelly / Wiggy everything is pie." Delivered
with his usual sweet drawl, backed by some of the most notable bluegrass musicians that money
can rent, the whole album is a mellow stroll through love's complications.
08/20/09





Pretenders: Break Up The Concrete (Artist First 2008)
Songs. Got to have good songs or what's the point? Something seems to have taken hold of
Chrissie Hynde, inspiring her to write her strongest batch in years. Instant classic: "Love's a
Mystery." Although he still tours with the group, drummer Martin Chambers is notably absent,
explaining the music's lighter feel. Ace session drummer Jim Keltner makes an essential
contribution to the Bob Diddly groove of the title track and the staccato beat of "Rosalee."
I've seen it described as their "country" record, but not really. (Not like "Thumbelina" back in
1984. Now that was country!) Okay, there's pedal steel. There are more slow ones than rockers,
but almost every song is memorable.
07/30/09





XTC: Skylarking (Geffen 1986, Expanded CD Caroline 2002)
The garden is in bloom and the lawns are lush and need mowing more than once a week. It's
time for Skylarking, an album about lying in the grass, tilling the soil, and all that nostalgic
British Romantic longing for Thomas Hardy's poor peasants. While I have no such Romantic
longing, the opening four songs are about as perfect a sequence as you'll find anywhere:
"Summer's Caldron" to "Grass" to "The Meeting Place" to "That's Really Super, Super Girl."
Produced by Todd Rundgren, it's the best Donovan album Donovan never made. In retrospect,
I have mixed feelings about "Dear God," the song that got attention back when the album was
new. Shouldn't they have been singing to Zeus or Bacchus?
06/05/09





Fathers and Sons
(Chess 1969, MCA Expanded CD 2001)
I just saw the film Cadillac Records, about Chess Records and the Chicago blues, and
I didn't much care for it. In particular, I despised the plot construction that implied that, had it
not been for ENGLISH blues fans and musicians, Muddy Waters would have died in obscurity.
What the film didn't want to show was his relationship with white boys here in the USA. Fathers
and Sons
is a beautifully recorded Muddy Waters album in which he performs many of his best
songs, in both studio and live settings. He's supported by a mixed race band of older bluesmen
(the "fathers") and hot-shot white boys who learned from them (the "sons"). And far from ending
his career, it was the start of a genuine comeback.
05/28/09





Nigel Kennedy: Kennedy Plays Bach (EMI 2000)
Because he sells a lot of records, the pawn shops always have Kennedy discs available. I didn't
buy it because it's him, but rather to get the Concerto for oboe and violin in D minor. He's
supposed to be a "rebel" in the world of serious music, but barely is. It's like Arland Specter,
a rebel with seniority the United States Senate). I do like the zippy tempos, and the Berlin
Philharmonic is just sonic sugar, an aural cotton candy. It's perfect background music for grading
final exams for my modern philosophy course. You've got Bach, soundtrack for the rational
dimension of the Enlightenment, and you've got the solo instruments for the rise of the individual.
Or something like that.
05/15/09





Bill Evans Trio: Portait in Jazz (Riverside 1959; expanded 2001)
Or, portrait of the young artist after a stint with Miles Davis, including "Blue in Green," a tune
he wrote with Davis (or, perhaps, for which Davis took half the credit). Having not listened to Evans
in a while, I am forcefully struck by the similarities to Thelonious Monk. Granted, Evans is less
radical and more melodic; it's sort of Monk-polished. Besides Evans' way with a standard -- Cole
Porter, Rodgers & Hart -- there is the amazing bass support of Scott LaFaro. Evans wanted the
freedom of free jazz, minus the cacophony, with each player free to simultaneously improvise.
While Paul Motian's drumming is relatively straightforward, LaFaro is an inventive foil for Evans,
providing an alternative, interesting focal point during passages of each performance.
05/13/09




Bob Dylan: New Morning (Columbia 1970)
Columbia, or Sony -- or whoever the corporation is these days --continues to release remastered
Dylan discs. As before, there are no "extras." This might be one of Dylan's two or three most
amiable albums, full of (seemingly) happy songs. But scratch the surface and the major themes
are dislocation (he's constantly moving on to somewhere else, such as Utah, or the Dakotas),
religious faith, and nostalgia (except for the term "dude," "Winterlude" might be a Hoagy Carmichael
song). Most of the arrangements are rooted in piano, giving it a unique feel for a Dylan album. His
own playing on "Sign on the Window" supports one of his best melodies, simple words, and great
singing.
04/24/09





John Cale: Music For A New Society (Warner 1982)
"Damn life, damn life" he sings over a piano that haltingly plays the melody from the "Ode to Joy."
There's no joy here, so it was the perfect soundtrack to recent events, trying to keep a handle
on things while the social structure started to fall apart. (For you, that may mean the economy.
For me, it meant the local river forcing an evacuation.) From "natural" bonds (a mother and her
children in the opening song) to international ones ("Chinese Envoy"), Cale's lyrics and music
explore the darkest emotions. Frayed emotions are frequently heightened by sonic distortion,
and the few serene moments are welcome respites.
04/13/09





Various Artists: Keep on the Sunny Side: Bluegrass Salutes The Carter Family (CMH 2003)
I'm not so deep into bluegrass that I recognized all the names of the performers of these nineteen songs. (Who's Joe Maphis? He's darn good on that guitar.) While I wonder if this music would sell
a few more copies if the album graphics weren't so horrible, I do appreciate the oddly informative
liner notes, which trace the histories of the various songs. I've always like "Cannonball Blues," but
now I marvel at the strangeness of its perspective (President McKinley has a premonition of his
assassination and bids farewell to his "honey babe"). Yet there's not much info about the performers.
Is that Missy Raines I like on "Pawn You My Gold Watch and Chain," or Martha Adcock?
04/13/09




Linda Thompson: Versatile Heart (Rounder 2007)
With the disappearance of record stores, learning about new records has become a hit-or-miss
process. I don't know how I stumbled across the existence of this one, but I did. She has few
equals when it comes to performing a ballad, and there are some fine ones here, especially Rufus
Wainwright's "Beauty" -- the opening line of which, "Beauty, you make me sad," describes her own
accomplishments. The other standouts are Waits and Brennan's "Day After Tomorrow" and her own
"Go Home" and "Whisky, Bob Copper and Me." The arrangements are primarily acoustic, and I was
delighted to find that the closing arrangement (of a lovely tune by her son Teddy) is by Robert Kirby,
of Nick Drake fame.
03/12/09




Van Morrison: Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl (2009)
There's an ancient rule in aesthetics: only a direct encounter with the object can reveal its value.
Here's confirmation of that rule. In theory, this should be wonderful. In practice, not so much.
Astral Weeks
is a unique record (and I wrote about it in my most recent book). Recreated live,
the arrangements hew so closely to the record that it feels embalmed. What ruins it for me, though,
is the singing. If you don't have them memorized, I dare you to tell me the words to the first three
lines of the opening song, "Astral Weeks." He sounds like he's singing through a mouth full of
porridge. Nor am I a fan of the change in song sequence. And he did better versions of "Listen to
the Lion" and "Cypress Avenue" on his 1974 live album, It's Too Late to Stop Now.
03/09/09




Graham Parker: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista 1979, expanded 1996)
Those are sparks shooting out of his head, a nice metaphor for the way his anger erupts into
song. The expanded CD follows the original album with the same again, except live (a little
faster and less polished, with some over-amplified backing vocals). I love both versions. I know
that some people are put off by "You Can't Be Too Strong," which is frequently cited as a pro-life
diatribe. Really? Since when is empathy a political stance? It seems perfectly in keeping with
the anti-Americanism of "Discovering Japan," one of Parker's nastiest and best songs. Of all his
records, this one does the most justice to the guitar playing of Brinsley Schwarz and Martin
Belmont.
03/03/09




David Bowie: Hunky Dory (RCA 1971)
A snatch of one song, "Queen Bitch," features prominently in the film Milk, leading me back to
this album. It's one of Bowie's early albums and yet one of the last that I came to know. It features
the full Spider From Mars band, used to such good effect on the next three albums, yet the sound
is dominated by Rick Wakeman's florid piano work. The songs include three of my favorites: "Oh!
You Pretty Things," "Life on Mars?," and "The Bewlay Brothers." And now that I'm no longer
disappointed by the relative lack of rock and roll, what used to sound like "filler" sounds tuneful and
meditative. A blueprint for Morrissey's career?
2/15/09




Cassandra Wilson: Belly of The Sun (Blue Note 2002)
She's unusual in that she's never made a bad record. This one's a bit more blues-based, largely
due to the presence of "You Gotta Move" and "Hot Tamales." The former isn't all that different from
the Rolling Stones' version. Too many versions are cutesy and thus annoying. Her version is the first
since Robert Johnson's that I enjoy. Beyond that, we have her usual mix of a few original songs
and a bunch of standards. Not jazz standards, of course, but songs that you might know if you're
visiting my web site. In this case, her failure to do anything special with The Band's "The Weight"
is balanced by what she does with Dylan's "Shelter from the Storm" and the old pop hit "Wichita
Lineman."
1/13/09




The Mavericks: The Definitive Collection (MCA 2004)
Looking back over the year, I realize that the disc that I played the most was this collection
of 20 songs from The Mavericks. The only song that got old was their cover of Hank Williams'
"Hey Good Lookin'," which seems too obvious a choice and then remains too close to the original
to add anything to the song. Otherwise, there are a dozen tracks here that never seem to bore me,
among them "There Goes My Heart," "Dance the Night Away," and the Springsteen cover, "All That
Heaven Will Allow." Another favorite is "Here Comes the Rain," first released in 1995. The chorus
(and guitar riff) is Van Morrison's "Here Comes the Night," slightly altered so that they can keep the
royalties.
12/18/08




Captain Beefheart: Unconditionally Guaranteed (Mercury 1974)
It's interesting, now and then, to seek out the music that fans tell you to avoid. Since the day
of its release, this album has been attacked as a low point in the Captain's career -- he's said
as much himself. While it lacks the rude cacophony and spirit of anarchy that attracts noise
lovers to Beefheart, it's just wrong that "difficult" is synonymous with "better." I think that half of the
songs here are brilliant, especially "Peaches" and "New Electric Ride." And compared to almost
any other record released in 1974, this IS a rude cacophony. The rhythms have been regularized
and he even tries to croon in a place or two, but the results are still closer to punk than Frank
Sinatra.
11/14/08




Delany and Bonnie and Friends: Motel Shot (Atco 1971)
That's a motel room number on the album cover, and the concept, adopted by Jackson
Browne for Running on Empty, is that we're hearing the music that the musicians make
with each other when they're touring, but for each other, not for an audience. It's half blues,
half gospel, and it all makes me feel good. The music is dominated by the acoustic guitar of
Duane Allman and the piano of Leon Russell -- and at least one song features Eric Clapton.
In other words, it's Derek and the Dominos unplugged. And if you're a Gram Parsons fan,
you'll want it for his version (singing with Bonnie Bramlett) of "Rock of Ages."
11/14/08





Andreas Staier: Joseph Haydn: Piano Concertos (Harmonia Mundi 2005)
Election day, 2008, and I'm killing time in the office on a beautiful fall afternoon, waiting until
it's late enough to make it worthwhile to take a look at the television news. After what has
seemed an increasingly ugly election and a foul mood of division, Haydn offers me a dose of
civilization. Sure, Haydn has a prankster mode, but it's such an urbane wit. His music is always
a soothing reminder that, whatever the outcome of the election, we are not condemned to anti-
intellectualism. This recording uses a period pianoforte (not a modern piano), giving the faster
movements a wonderful lightness.
11/04/08



Earth: The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull (Southern Lord 2008)
An hour of droning instrumental music, featuring non-member Bill Frisell's guitar on two tracks.
Generally slow and stately, like a soundtrack for the grinding of tectonic plates. Then, from
time to time, the piano lightens the mood. I've seen their music described as psychedelic. It's
not very. And as heavy metal. Sorry, but big fat guitar sounds do not mean it's heavy metal. I
recognize some of the lumbering pace of early Black Sabbath, but what I hear most of all is
progressive rock: it's a distant cousin of King Crimson (circa Red) in their more conventional
moments.
10/30/08




Neutral Milk Hotel: In The Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge 1998)
Here's another of those records that has a strong reputation but that leaves me cold. If your
musical background is limited, I suppose you might find the music interesting. I just find it
tediously derivative. Some of the horn arrangements remind me of Van Dyke Parks, the vocals
remind me of both Phil Ochs and Jonathan Richman, and there's a general feeling of strident self-
importance.  "Holland 1945" is the only song that sticks with me. Not coincidentally, it's got the
most coherent lyric of the lot. Anyone who's impressed by this would be better off with Phil Ochs'
Pleasures of the Harbor (1967).
10/12/08




Grateful Dead: Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings (Grateful Dead Records
2005)
Four shows recorded with 16 track high fidelity over four consecutive nights in early 1969,
these tapes gave us the superlative Live/Dead (still one of the best live albums ever released).
Pressed in a limited edition, you can still buy a 3 disc version, or buy these 10 discs used for
something like $75 per disc. Or you can hear it all free, in lower fidelity, online here. What you'll
hear is a band that wasn't always in tune, that played some sloppy blues and R&B, and that
began to hit its stride with four extended explorations of their psychedelic gem, "Dark Star." For
me, most of the pleasure is the interplay of Garcia's guitar and Lesh's bass. 
9/29/08





P J Harvey: White Chalk (Island 2007)
Evidently, I'm missing something with this one. Critics and reviewers are endorsing it, but to
these (jaded?) ears it's her least interesting record. Sure, she learned to play the piano and
it's heavily featured, but unfortunately it sounds like someone who hasn't played the piano much.
For some reason, she sings these songs at the very top of her register, and the strain of her
voice is relentlessly grating. It aspires to the chilly ambience of Richard and Linda Thompson's
Shoot Out The Lights, but here there's nothing to bring me back to the music. And songs without
interesting music are just barely songs. Having played it about ten times, I doubt I will again.
9/22/08




Devendra Banhart: Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon (XL Recordings 2007)
This project has a mellow, late 1960s feel to it, but with a bit more humor than I associate with blissed-out hippies. "Shabop Shalom" is the song that really got me into Banhart's peculiar groove. Setting aside the actual lyrics, the opening acoustic music and spoken words strongly recall Donovan's hippie anthem, "Atlantis," but then it suddenly goes to a 1950s doo-wop tune (teasingly quoting "Who Wrote the Book of Love," here identified as the Dead Sea Scrolls), but with a crooning lead vocal borrowed from Bing Crosby. Now that I listen again, "Bad Girl" plays around with a similar dynamic. Banhart is a genius at arranging. And who can resist a good samba, or three?
9/2/08

 


 

Richard & Linda Thompson: Shoot Out The Lights (Hannibal 1982)
I listened to this album twice while doing some chores and now the chorus of "Wall of Death" keeps playing in my head. Comparing life choices with a series of carnival attractions, it's one of Richard Thompson's signature songs: a seemingly uplifting melody and rhythm set to lyrics that invite us to celebrate life by contemplating death. Which, more obviously, is the theme of "Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?" From the title song's horrific, building anger to the sweet lull of "Just the Motion," it's about as perfect an album can be. I don't care if it's autobiographical (about their marriage collapsing). I'm just thankful they stayed together long enough to produce it.
9/2/08

 


 

Tim Buckley: Blue Afternoon (Straight 1969)
When I was a teenager, this music was too subtle for me. It's certainly blue, but stylistically not exactly the blues. Shopping the other day at a "big box" retail store, I was struck by the huge selection of Jeff Buckley and the complete absence of music by his father, Tim. So much for the judgment of posterity. Yet at the same stage of their (brief) careers, both specialized in a moody anguish and an ability to convey intimacy. Of the two, Tim impresses me more than Jeff. This disc is notable for giving a relatively free hand to Lee Underwood, whose restrained, bluesy guitar gives the whole affair a jazzy flavor.
8/11/08

 


 

David Bowie: Heroes (RCA 1977)
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Bowie hasn't made an album as good as this one 
ever again. Well, maybe one, Scary Monsters. What they share in common, besides Bowie, 
is the presence of Robert Fripp on lead guitar. And one is tempted to say that, because Heroes 
has more Fripp, it's better. Some of the instrumentals on this album used to strike me as dull, 
but now I recognize that their surfaces are boring and their backgrounds are mesmerizing. 
Another odd thing is that all the "rock" songs seem to be piano-based, allowing Fripp to soar, 
swoop, and rumble without concern for holding things together. Bowie's voice has seldom been 
used to greater effect. When he goes into a shrill screech, as in the final verse of the title song, 
it pays off.
7/28/08

 


 

John Prine: German Afternoons (Oh Boy 1986)
Easy-going in the extreme, I'm pretty sure that the album title refers to hot summer afternoons 
spent doing nothing much, getting pleasantly buzzed on cold beer. Hence the song "Out of Love," 
in which the loss of love is compared to running out of beer. Prine's gentle croak of a voice makes 
his performances sound unrehearsed and spontaneous, yet he has the uncanny ability to sound 
as if he's either laughing or crying (or both), depending on the mood of the song. All of which masks 
the fact that he may well be one of the best songwriters of the past thirty years. Two examples, on 
this album, both heartbreakers: "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness" and "Paradise." Sure, the latter 
is a remake, but with these bluegrass players, a welcome one.
7/21/08

 


 

Carlene Carter: Stronger (Eleven Thirty 2008)
I had no clue, back in the 1970s, that Carlene Carter was the grandchild of one of the founders 
of country music, Maybelle Carter, or that her mother was June Carter, wife of Johnny Cash. In 
1978, she was a New Wave singer associated with Nick Lowe and Graham Parker. (I believe she 
may be the model for the singer in the novel/film High Fidelity.) Three decades on, her debt to her 
grandmother and mother is all too obvious. What I love about this record is that it completely 
undercuts the Romantic ideal of baring one's wounds for art. It's thirteen years since her last 
record, and in the meantime everyone close to her has died. Instead of giving us a diary of her 
suffering, she gives us swagger, sweetness, sass. And her nerve: the third track steals the melody 
of the country classic "Long Black Veil."
6/16/08

 


 

Jenny Lewis & the Watson Twins: Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love 2006)
I had no clue that Jenny Lewis was the founder of the country-folk band Rilo Kiley when I heard 
her version of "Handle With Care." Her cover of that Traveling Wilbury's hit was enough to convince 
me to buy the disc, which is wickedly intelligent and tuneful. The press on Lewis emphasizes her 
debt to singers like Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, but that doesn't reflect what I hear. Both her 
singing and songwriting borrow more from Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello, in all the best ways. The 
title song, for example, is a shaggy-dog story along the lines of Dylan's "Ballad of Frankie Lee and 
Judas Priest," and she sings on Costello's 2008 album (which compares unfavorably to hers). The 
Watson Twins supply harmonies, in case you were wondering.
6/16/08

 


 

Marti Jones: Unsophisticated Time (A&M 1985)
It's been a cold, overcast spring. Fresh green leaves only appeared on the trees a few days ago. 
Today, however, it's blue skies and a feeling of warmth, so I've been playing a record that matches 
the mood of the day. This LP, her solo debut, was the first in a string of superb albums that 
combine her wonderful voice with great songs, cleverly arranged. None of which sold many 
copies. "Talk To Me" is built on a chassis of the Zombies' "Time of the Season," and "The 
Element Within Her" opens with muted keyboards that mix Chopin and Bach before launching 
into a taunting string of "la la la." It's one of the best covers of an Elvis Costello ever recorded, 
and makes me wish she'd done an LP of his songs.
5/14/08

 


 

Cat Power: Jukebox (Matador 2008)
Moody, moody cover versions of an intelligent selection of songs. She's not a great singer 
when measured by vocal chops, but she's developed a soulful and bluesy drawl that lets her 
convey both intimacy and passion. Although she doesn't sound much like Billie Holiday, the 
presence of Holiday's "Don't Explain" suggests one source of her style. "New York, New York" 
is the most surprising transformation, its big band swing replaced with laid-back Memphis groove. 
Bob Dylan's "I Believe in You" has a backing track that sounds like the Rolling Stones in 1972, 
and it's followed by her own song, a devotional confession to Dylan, "Song to Bobby." For me, 
the highlight is "Aretha, Sing One For Me," George Jackson's ode to the healing power of music.
5/7/08

 


 

Eroica Trio: Ravel: Piano Trio (EMI 1997)
Last night as we drove to a chamber music recital in falling snow, we debated whether we 
were driving in a blizzard or merely in a storm. Officially, there wasn't enough wind to qualify 
as a blizzard. In any case, the reason to travel in bad weather was a performance of Ravel's 
Trio for piano, cello, and violin. The last two movements are among my favorite compositions. 
There's nothing wrong with the first two movements --they're classic, playful Ravel-- but the slow 
third movement utilizes the pianist's left hand to establish a sense of foreboding, and the fourth 
movement ends things animé, that is, with joyous animation. The Eroica Trio highlights George 
Gershwin's obvious debt to this piece by preceding it with his three preludes. 
4/7/08

 


 

Van Morrison: Saint Dominic's Preview (Warner Bros 1972)
The album feels like a thrown-together hodge-podge, with a casual blues number ("I Will Be 
"There") and a two-verse song fragment ("Redwood Tree") interspersed with three of his greatest 
songs ("Jackie Wilson Said," "Listen to the Lion," and "Almost Independence Day"). Which is 
why it's so charming, and so utterly typical of Morrison. The R&B material swings, the arrangements 
are compelling--including some very subtle and intelligent use of early synthesizer--and he's in great 
voice. Arguably, the two long tracks ("Lion" and "Independence Day") are his two greatest studio 
performances. And, for me, "Almost Independence Day" reminds me of the time, on Independence 
Day, when it was on the radio as we drove along the San Francisco Bay, lyric synchronized with 
reality.
3/25/08

 


 

Various Artists: A Tribute to Joni Mitchell (Nonesuch 2007)
One "tribute" album leads to another. The cover of this one sets the stage: it's a little too reverential, 
as if she were dead and candidate for sainthood. Luckily, a few of the singers understand that the 
goal is not to sound like the object of veneration, but, rather, to acknowledge inspiration. Thus, I 
recommend the approaches taken by Sufjan Stevens and Björk to "A Free Man in Paris" and 
"The Boho Dance," respectively. Stevens opens with a stirring blast of synthesized horns that's 
more vigorous than anything else on the whole album. And Björk is, well, Björk. These are, not 
coincidentally, the two opening tracks. After that, things get a bit too serious, with everyone 
sticking closely to Mitchell's own arrangements. Not that they're bad ones.
3/13/08

 


 

Various Artists: Return of the Grievous Angel (Almo 1999))
This album has a subtitle: "a tribute to Gram Parsons." I love Parsons' music with the Byrds and 
then the Flying Burrito Brothers, but his two solo albums have always struck me as something 
of a mixed bag. This project is another in a parade of acts of remembrance by Emmylou Harris, 
his duet partner on the solo albums. She does not, however, steal the show. In fact, her 
harmonizing with Beck on "Sin CIty" is the weakest thing here -- not because of Emmylou, but 
because Beck doesn't have the vocal chops for it. Otherwise, it's musical bliss. Assuming, of 
course, that country rock is your means to bliss. Dare I say that the Mavericks cover of "Hot 
Burrito #1" is the definitive version?  And Evan Dando is an amazing choice for "$1,000 Wedding."
2/15/08

 


 

Trees: On the Shore (Columbia 1970; Sony expanded CD 2007) 
Don't ever, ever judge a record by its cover. The cover of the Trees' second album is gorgeous. 
It's the work of the design team Hipgnosis, who did similar great things for Pink Floyd and Led 
Zeppelin. Unfortunately, cover art is the only reason anyone will ever use the terms "Hipgnosis," 
"Pink Floyd" and "Led Zeppelin" together in a sentence. The music is standard British folk-rock 
of the period, with electric guitar juxtaposed against acoustic elements (think of Zeppelin's 
"Stairway to Heaven"). Celia Humphris has a pleasant voice, but the moment she stops singing, 
tedium sets in. Ten minutes of "Sally Free and Easy" is about seven minutes too many. It's now 
available in an even longer version, the opposite of what's needed.
2/12/08

 


 

Amy Winehouse: Back to Black (Republic 2006) 
I find more humor in the "Parental Advisory" label on the cover than in the actual songs. I can't 
imagine anyone young enough to need parental advisement who'd want to hear this second-hand 
R&B. But maybe I'm wrong. For the most part, I'm left cold by her obvious debt to Billie Holiday, a 
comparison that reminds me that Holiday always did interesting things with rhythm and melody. 
Take away Winehouse's occasional way with a lyric and the actual music is extremely dull 
(especially the horn charts). The one delight is "Rehab," where the interplay of piano and horns 
keeps me engaged until we get to the sing-a-long of "They try to make me go to rehab, I say no, 
no, no," which is no longer funny now that she's in rehab.
2/2/08

 


 

Booker T & the MGs: McLemore Avenue (Stax 1969) 
Ignore how ugly the cover is and you realize that it's another in a long line of parodies of the 
Beatles' Abbey Road cover. Except that this one's special. It was the first, and with good 
reason: Booker T & the MGs, soul band extraordinaire, play the Abbey Road album more or 
less straight through. Note the year of release: they put out this album within months of the 
Beatles' release. It's almost but not quite an instrumental album, with Booker T's organ as the 
lead instrument. There are a few dull passages, but the overall effect is funkier and more playful 
than the Beatles. I've always thought that stretches of the original album were ruined by inane 
lyrics; without them, there's just the pleasure of the musical flow. One regret: they skip "Her 
Majesty."
1/31/08

 


 

David Johansen: Live It Up (Blue Sky 1982, Razor & Tie CD 1992)
Between the sloppy but glorious New York Dolls and the campy slop of alter-ego Buster 
Poindexter, David Johansen tried to carve out a career as a standard rock and roll singer. 
Commercially, it went nowhere. Aesthetically, it was guitar-rich, heart-on-your-sleeve arena rock. 
I enjoy it immensely as I sit in my office and fill out boring paperwork. This live set list offers a 
few Dolls songs, the best stuff from his solo debut, and some very well-chosen covers of major 
1960s AM radio hits. In this format, anyone who doesn't know the sources will have trouble telling 
the difference. "Build Me Up Buttercup" and "Bohemian Love Pad" are the fun throwaways. The 
surprise is the weight he gives to "Is This What I Get For Loving You?" -- but it's hard to go wrong 
with a Goffin-King hit. And who can resist "Frenchette"?
1/17/08

 


 

Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs: Under the Covers, Vol. 1 (Shout! Factory 2006)
This belongs to that distinct genre of records known as the covers album. Someone "covers" a 
collection of songs they admire. This one is odd. They've selected a great batch of songs from 
the roughly 1965-1971, yet I don't know that I recommend it. Sweet and Hoffs have distinctive, 
recognizable voices. But half the fun of the genre is to hear the music rearranged, and here the 
arrangements slavishly copy the originals, as if they peeled Nico's voice off the Velvet 
Underground's recording of "Sunday Morning" and then overdubbed Hoffs' voice. And the same 
goes for the Who's "The Kids Are Alright," and so on with the rest. The one exception, and thus 
the one treat, is "Who Knows Where the Time Goes," where they devise delightful, original 
harmony parts.
1/11/08

 


 

Nick Lowe: At My Age (Yep Roc Records 2007)
I've always resisted compiling a "10-best" list for the year as it ends. But if I did construct one 
for 2007, I'd likely put this album on my list. Lowe had the nerve to call his first solo album 
Jesus of Cool
(a title that didn't survive the Atlantic crossing). If anything has become cool, 
it's the music itself. The arrangements favor touches of country music (the piano and guitar 
of the opening track, "A Better Man," the shuffle of "Long Limbed Girl"), but it's all been mixed 
smooth in a blender with the mariachi horns (on "The Club" -- think "Ring of Fire" by Johnny 
Cash) and cool jazz ("Other Side of the Coin"). The songwriting is stellar. Best of all is the 
faked misogyny of "I Trained Her to Love Me," which has the bite of the best Randy Newman 
songs.
1/2/08

 


 

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.
12/24/07

 


 

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.
12/18/07

 


 

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.
12/06/07

 


 

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.
10/31/07

 


 

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.
10/08/07

 


 

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.
9/14/07

 


 

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."
8/27/07

 


 

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).
8/20/07

 


 

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.
8/8/07

 


 

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!").
7/25/07

 


 

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.
6/25/07

 


 

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.
6/11/07

 


 

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.
6/11/07

 


 

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."
5/21/07

 


 

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.
5/17/07

 


 

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.
5/1/07

 


 

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." 
4/4/07


 

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.
3/20/07

 


 

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.
3/13/07

 


 

Arcade Fire, Neon Bible, Mercury 2007
There hasn't been music this earnest-sounding since early U2 and Big Country. The 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.
3/10/07

 


 

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.
2/25/07

 


 

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).
2/13/07

 


 

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. 
1/18/07

 


 

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 com-
mercial 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.
1/18/07

 


 

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 n
amed 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.
12/18/06

 


 

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."
12/17/06

 


 

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.
12/1/06

 


 

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.
11/19/06

 


 

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.
10/24/06

 


 

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.
10/23/06

 


 

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. 
10/9/06

 


 

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."
10/2/06

 


 

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.
9/8/06

 


 

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.
8/14/06

 


 

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.
8/13/06

 


 

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.
7/28/06

 


 

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.
7/18/06

 


 

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.
7/07/06

 


 

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.
7/05/06

 


 

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.
5/15/06

 


 

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.
5/3/06

 


 

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.
4/26/06

 


 

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.
4/3/06

 


 

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.
3/20/06

 


 

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."
3/12/06

 


 

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"?
2/9/06

 


 

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.
1/22/06

 


 

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.
1/20/06

 


 

Neil Young, Prairie Wind, Reprise 2005
I live on the edge of the prairie, just a few hours south of Winnipeg, where Neil Young once lived. 
I suppose that life in Winnipeg inspired the title of this album. I wish I liked it. I like the cover 
much better than the music, which makes me yawn. The pre-release hype suggested that it 
would be another Harvest Moon. Perhaps it's time for old Neil to write a set of songs about 
something that will inspire him. Trains, perhaps.
12/28/05

 


 

Ersel Hickey, The Rockin' Bluebird, Collectibles 2001
The title of this compilation makes no sense unless you know that his biggest hit was 
"Bluebirds Over the Mountains," and even that was only a minor hit in 1958. Why didn't he 
ever score a big hit? "Shame on Me" is one of the best rockabilly songs I'd never heard. Was 
it simply that his style of rockabilly was already becoming old-fashioned? Was it the pompadour? Listening to these twenty tracks today, it's remarkable how much he sounds like Buddy Holly. 
And his version of the show tune "Some Enchanted Evening" is so weird that it borders on the 
avant-garde.
12/18/05

 


 

Adam Green, Gemstones, Rough Trade 2005
Remember the comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes? I imagine that, were Calvin to grow up and 
become a musician, this is how his music would sound. By the way, that's a compliment. 
Brash, questioning, sometimes annoying. Simultaneously in-your-face and charming. And smart. 
Very smart. Remember how Calvin used to build corpses instead of snowmen? As a lyricist, 
Green is in similar company--which vulgarity will catch you off guard or, repeated as a chorus, 
will provoke and amuse? The music is off-kilter, too. Broadway show tunes collide with snatches 
of folk and rock'n'roll. The result is much closer to Phil Ochs than Jonathan Richman.
11/18/05

 


 

Jimmy Reed, The Very Best of Jimmy Reed, Rhino 2000
Pure groove. Reed isn't that great a vocalist (he's no Muddy Waters). He isn't a great guitarist 
(he's no B.B. King). A number of his songs are well known -- I'm sure I know a half dozen cover 
versions of "Baby What You Want Me to Do" -- yet most of them sound just like all the rest. 
But every performance has the same relaxed, mid-tempo propulsive groove, like traveling down 
the freeway on cruise control on a summer day.
11/15/05

 


 

Sly & The Family Stone, There's a Riot Goin' On, Epic 1971
A remastered CD is finally available. Be sure to avoid the older ones, which lack the "American 
flag" cover photo and which sound dreadful. I realized that for four months now, I have played this 
album more times than any other that I own. The sound of the record is unique. The music is all 
groove and pulse, and even the "fast" tracks are relatively slow. All of the instruments sound
muffled and distant. In sharp contrast, Sly's vocals are out front, in vivid close-up, and they
often sound like a man huddled under a blanket, muttering to himself. "Thank You For Talkin'
To Me Africa" is astounding -- Sly's old hit, "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," but this
time, with malice.
10/19/05

 


 

Chad VanGaalen, Infiniheart, Sub Pop 2005
He sits in his bedroom in Calgary and records immaculate songs of heartbreak. Winter 
conditions in Calgary encourage this sort of thing (and Chad's photo on the back of the CD 
shows him outside in the dead of winter, in a setting that could be down the street from my house). 
Most of the songs employ very simple acoustic guitar and light washes of synthesizer, with his 
angelic voice floating on top. Some of the lyrics try too hard to be deep. Some are simply absurd: 
"I'd like to build us a home in a tree." Much of it recalls Neil Young, the Neil of "I Am A Child." 
Case in point: "I Miss You Like I Miss You."
10/3/05

 


 

David Ackles, American Gothic, Elektra 1972
Today it suddenly feels like autumn, so I put on this, a decidedly autumnal album. By turns 
restrained and then theatrical, the sound is piano, light orchestration, Ackles' meaty voice, 
and occasional supporting voices. It's as if Rodgers and Hart created a musical adaptation of 
Winesburg, Ohio
(Sherwood Anderson's 1919 short story collection), or Edgar Lee Masters' 
1916 poetry collection, Spoon River Anthology. If those references mean nothing to you, think 
Randy Newman with more empathy and less irony. The tale of Billy Whitecloud could be a 
century old, or a contemporary news story.
9/23/05

 


 

Patti Smith, trampin', Columbia/Sony 2004
The new songs are strong and her singing is better than ever. Her quintet plays with confidence 
and Jay Dee Daugherty remains one of my favorite drummers. "Gandhi" evokes passages from 
her earliest albums, particularly the title tracks of both Horses and Easter. But a problem confronts 
me every time I get to this album's closing song, "trampin'," the melody of which strongly recalls 
the hymn "Bringing in the Sheaves." The simple piano accompaniment is perfect for Smith's voice. 
But it calls attention to the empty hole in the sonic middle range of the rest of her music, a space 
previously filled by the piano of Richard Sohl.
9/19/05

 


 

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, EMI 1972/Expanded edition 2002
"Take it, Vassar," says a voice, and a flurry of violin jump-starts a tune. Vassar Clemens died 
a few days ago. In the era before compact discs and digital downloads, these three vinyl discs 
were my initiation into "country" music. Vassar Clemens played with all the flash and fire that 
I associated with rock music. Listening to him here, I got my introduction to Maybelle Carter, 
Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, and other great musicians representing three generations of 
quintessentially American music. My favorite moment is when Vassar drops a few bars of 
the "Dragnet" TV theme into "Orange Blossom Special."
8/25/05

 


 

John Cale, HoboSapiens, Or Music/EMI 2003 
The title refers to the overall theme of geographic and cultural displacement. "Things" is not so 
interesting that it merits its appearance in two versions, but otherwise Cale offers a baker's 
dozen of drum loops, electronic samples, found sounds, and his dour voice, which has deepened 
slightly with age. The songs are often built up from musical fragments, with numerous 
well-integrated incorporations of "world music" (the supporting vocals on "Reading My Mind," 
the nagging acoustic guitars of "Letters From Abroad"). Best of all is "Magritte," about the 
transforming power of art. How can the world remain the same "after we saw Magritte"?
8/22/05

 


 

Woody Guthrie, Dust Bowl Ballads, RCA Victor 1940, Buddha Records expanded edition 2000
I bought a Woody Guthrie album when I was a college freshman. I hated it. This famous 
collection of ballads ("ballad" in the old sense of the term, meaning a song that tells a story) 
has the same rudimentary guitar and rough vocals. So I can understand it when others prefer 
to admire the legend while listening to something else, such as Springsteen's recent 
Devils and Dust. But now I prefer the sources over the derivations. As with Walker Evans's 
or Dorothea Lange's photographs of the same time and place, what is emotionally gripping 
need be neither pretty nor easy.
8/12/05

 


 

Joan Baez, Any Day Now, Vanguard 1968
Consisting of 16 songs written by Bob Dylan, this album is hard to find on compact disc. 
That's because Vanguard prefers to push the 20-song compilation Vanguard Sessions: 
Baez Sings Dylan
, which cuts two songs from this album and adds five from other albums. 
Any Day Now
is superior, both because there is a consistency of sound --Baez recorded it 
in Nashville, using many of the same musicians that Dylan used on his three great Nashville 
albums-- and it features her version of "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," on which Ken 
Buttrey's drumming is transplendent.
8/3/05

 


 

Olivier Messiaen, Quatuor Pour La Fin Du Temps, Deutsche Grammophon 2000 
I purchased this recording after reading an account of the music's composition in a German 
camp, Stalag VIII A, during World War II. I played this "Quartet for the End of Time" quite a 
lot in late September, 2001. I pulled it out and played it again following the terrorist bombings 
of London earlier this month. All good music suspends time by enveloping the listener in a time 
of its own. This music suspends time musically, and Messiaen thus asks us to meditate on 
the end of time. For fifty minutes, the most abstract of arts presents an abstract idea: the 
heavenly stillness after life.
7/19/05

 


 

k. d. lang, Hymns of the 49th Parallel,  Nonesuch 2004 
Although I own most of her albums, I am hardly a k.d. lang fan. Too much of her recording 
career is strongly derivative of singers she admires, and/or sung with a knowing wink of 
condescension. Yet I adore this quiet album of "cover" versions of songs by Canadians. 
A few of them are a bit too obvious (Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush"), but she consistently 
wins me over with the beauty and intelligence of her singing. My only criticism is that there 
are only eleven songs. Ron Sexsmith deserves at least another song, and something more 
obscure by Leonard Cohen would be welcome.
7/04/05

 


 

Neil Young, Time Fades Away,  Reprise 1973
The cover photograph was recreated as a passing moment in Almost Famous, a film set in 
the days when these live recordings were released. Following Young's Harvest album, these
performances were once thought raw, ugly, and noncommercial. I've been playing it in the car 
for the last two weeks. So far, no one has objected. In fact, the lack of polish invites everyone to 
sing along, off-key. Listen beyond Young's raw guitar and you'll hear Young's interplay with 
Ben Keith's piercing pedal steel guitar and Jack Nitzsche's rolling piano. 
6/28/05

 


 

Free, Best of Free,  A&M 1973
The Blues, 1970's British style, which means it's pronounced "De Blooze," and which also 
means that I ignored it for more than twenty years. I was only familiar with the hit, "All Right 
Now," which is far more aggressive than anything else here. Avoiding cover versions, Free 
specialized in rambling, intense songs and tasteful musicianship that's refreshing for its refusal 
to pander. Seldom in a hurry, the basic quartet played with silence as well as sound. Another 
"best of" collection has replaced this one in the marketplace, but this one has "The Hunter."
6/13/05

 


 

Nina Simone, Gifted and Black, Canyon 1970 
Deeply soulful. Available on compact disc in various budget reissues (I got my copy for 50 
cents), this live concert impresses me more than anything else I've heard this year. "To Be 
Young, Gifted and Black" and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" feature sparse arrangements 
that put her voice out front, making her sound equally powerful and intimate. I've always thought 
of her as a jazz singer, but that simply calls attention to the inadequacy of our categories. If 
she has a category, she shares it with Aretha Franklin, not Ella Fitzgerald.

6/6/05

 


 

Sonny Rollins, The Quartet featuring Jim Hall, RCA/Bluebird 1986 
I know, I know, he's a mercurial bop virtuoso. But there's so much more. I pulled this out to hear 
while reading Stanley Crouch's recent profile of Rollins in The New Yorker. It's the sessions for 
his famous 1962 album, The Bridge, together with the rest of his studio work from 1962-1964. 
What struck me was his evident delight in rhythm and melody. What struck me even more was 
the guitar of Jim Hall, whom Rollins plucked from obscurity to accompany his comeback after a 
long sabbatical. Like most musicians, Rollins thrives when he has a musical foil.

6/6/05

 


 

Mark Vidler, GoHomeProductions, Online mp3 downloads  
When Jacques Attali predicted the future of music, he predicted that the over-supply 
("stockpiling") of commercial music would be the starting point for a new music. This new 
activity would overturn the specialized roles (composer, performer, audience) that dominated 
all previous music. Well, here it is: the mash-up. The music of one record is stripped of its 
vocal, the vocal of another is stripped of its music, and one is laid atop the other. Sometimes 
silly, sometimes scary. Christina Aguilera and the Velvet Underground! It's as if Nico were still
 there for Loaded. http://www.gohomeproductions.co.uk/mp3.html
1/20/05

 


 

Leonard Cohen, Death of a Ladies' Man,  Warner Bros. 1977
One Phil Spector production leads to another. Spector co-wrote these nine songs with Cohen, 
assembled the band, and produced the album. Cohen evidently hates it so much that none of 
it appears on The Essential Leonard Cohen. Yet it remains a crucial album in Cohen's 
development, moving him from the sparse, "folk" settings of the early albums to the more 
adventuresome musical arrangements of all his subsequent work. What's more, Cohen's 
singing is better on this album than on anything else he's released. Wrongly dismissed as 
a Cohen album best left to Cohen fanatics, musically it is the richest of any of his albums.
12/29/04

 


 

Phil Spector, A Christmas Gift For You,  Philies 1963/Rhino 1987
(Also re-released as Phil Spector's Christmas Album)
Girl-group heaven. I know of no Christmas music that captures the kitsch of the season half so 
well as this album. Spector's "wall of sound" and inventive arrangements harness classic rock 
and roll to a batch of familiar songs like "White Christmas." I can't think of better versions of 
"I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," "Frosty the Snowman," and "Christmas (Baby Please 
Come Home)." But program your CD player to skip the last track, in which Spector talks over 
"Silent Night."
12/17/04

 


 

The Nashville Acoustic Sessions,  CMH 2004
Although he gives himself equal billing with three Nashville studio pros, this is really Raul Malo's 
second solo album. Malo is vocalist for one of the best groups in contemporary country music, 
The Mavericks, and this disc features eleven covers of songs by eleven composers who've 
influenced him. There's Roy Orbison (to whom Malo is often compared), Bob Dylan, Hank 
Williams, Gram Parsons, and Van Morrison. Parsons' "Hot Burrito #1" has never been more 
passionate ("I'm your toy.." indeed). I was surprised at how it fits so nicely beside a song I'd 
never cared for, Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer's "Moon River." Great singing is often the art 
of great juxtapositions.
12/10/04

 


 

Paul Simon, One Trick Pony,  Warner Bros. 1980 (Remastered and Expanded 2004)
It kicks off with the infectious rhythms of "Late in the Evening." With the addition of "Stranded 
in a Limousine," this soundtrack of a vanity film project is dominated by the blues, not something 
one thinks of as Paul Simon's strength. So when Randy Newman wanted to make fun of white 
guys singing the blues, Newman got Simon to sing "The Blues." Yet most of this album features 
low-key, jazz-tinged arrangements of Simon's blues-iest set of songs. They work because Simon 
makes no claim to authenticity. "That's Why God Made the Movies" and "How the Heart 
Approaches What It Yearns" are great songs among a half dozen other good ones.
11/25/04

 


 

Marshall Crenshaw, Marshall Crenshaw,  Warner Bros. 1982
As retro as the table and coffee cup in the cover photograph, Crenshaw's first LP offers twelve 
deceptively simple rock and roll songs. He's made any number of fine albums since, but he's 
never written another verse to match this one: 
     Well I hate TV 
     There's gotta be somebody other than me 
     Who's ready to write it off immediately 
     I'm lookin' for a cynical girl.
And who else has offered, as a convincing reason to love New York City, that it's a reliable 
cure for ennui? And does it in an "aw-shucks" manner that blocks any hint of pretension?
11/19/04

 


 

Pere Ubu, Terminal Tower,  Twin Tone 1985
It's Armistice Day, or is that Veteran's Day? Time to listen to "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," 
one of Pere Ubu's most majestic and horrific songs. This collection of singles dating from 1975 
to 1980 is the most accessible album of their "early" years (before they disbanded, then 
regrouped with a more conventional sound). In other words, these tracks are generally less 
experimental and willfully weird than the Pere Ubu albums that followed. Nonetheless, the guitar 
and synthesizer parts are refreshing diversions from standard rock music.  The vinyl album sold 
fewer than 11,000 copies before going out of print. But it's available on CD.
11/11/04

 


 

Brian Wilson, Smile,  Nonesuch 2004
I cannot recall the last time that I went out of my way NOT to hear something, as I did this album. 
The Beach Boys aborted the album Smile in the 1960s and let their cultural moment pass. My 
original response to the news that Brian Wilson had returned to the project was something 
between horror and sadness. Having heard it, my response is gratitude. Lush, flowing, silly, and 
pretentious, it may mean nothing to the pop audiences of today. Unless, perhaps, they're already 
hip to what made the Beach Boys so wonderful.
10/22/04

 


 

20/20, 20/20,  CBS 1979
I'm a sucker for this kind of thing: solid 4/4 drumming, snotty vocals, sharp hooks, lyrics full of 
mundane details about adolescent life, girlfriends addressed as "baby,"  the little cries of "HEY!" 
as they move from verse to chorus. I bought this several years ago for a buck, set it aside, and 
forgot that I had it. Then I came across it again and finally played it. I cannot remember the last 
time that I got such pleasure from one dollar. Should-have-been-a-hit: "Yellow Pills." Runner-up: 
almost everything here.
10/22/04

 


 

Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers,  S-Curve 2003
Somebody else on the Internet posted this about this band: "To say the FoW is that best band 
in the world would be untrue; to say that FoW plays for themselves would be trite; however, to 
say that Fountains of Wayne is talented is an understatement." Absolutely right! "Stacy's Mom" 
is their second hit, so they're no longer one-hit wonders. The rest of the album reminds me of early 
Steely Dan, minus the jazz pretensions (including the percussion on "Hey Julie," which reminds 
me of the Dan's "Do It Again").
10/10/04

 


 

The Replacements, Pleased to Meet Me,  Warner Bros. 1987
In the 2004 film Saved!, a parent complains to Pastor Skip that Christian bands sound too 
much like regular rock bands. This comment sets up one of the film's most subtle jokes. When 
we later see a "Christian" rock band perform, their set consists of nothing but Replacements songs,
including the stellar ballad from this album, "Skyway." In fact, the rock band in the film is doing 
nothing but lip-synching to the Replacements' original recordings.
10/10/04

 


 

Canned Heat, Living the Blues,  1968
What many attribute to karmic forces, I attribute to the sheer luck of serendipity. While writing an 
academic paper on authenticity in music, I threw this album on the boom box. There I had it: white 
boys claiming that they were "living the blues," playing Charlie Patton songs that were already five 
decades old. What could be less authentic? Does that make the Jimmie Rodgers song more 
authentic? But then again, didn't one of these guys teach Son House how to play his own songs? 
And what could be more authentically 1960s than the graphics of this album cover? Dr. John 
contributes piano to one track and John Fahey contributes guitar to another. For my money, it's 
as authentically expressive as anything the Sex Pistols ever did.
9/20/04

 


 

Buffalo Springfield, Last Time Around, Atco 1968
The cover captures it: in a group of five, Neil Young looks the other way. Decades later, Young
apparently held up the Buffalo Springfield box set until it was sequenced in a way that denies the 
existence of this album. Why? Because Neil didn't approve of some of the songs, because 
bassist Bruce Palmer had been deported and was replaced by Jim Messina, or because they 
used Richie Furay as lead vocalist on one of Neil's song? Most of the music is beautiful 
country-rock, with occasional Latin rhythms. It's the most charming of their three albums.
8/20/04

 


 

Fairport Convention, What We Did On Our Holidays, Hannibal, 1969
Once, for a short time, there was a style of music called folk-rock. It's two most distinctive 
features were vocal harmonies (think of Simon and Garfunkel) and cover versions of Bob Dylan 
songs (think of the Byrds). This album offers flawless executions of both. There's a Joni Mitchell 
song, too. But it's also the first fully realized work by both Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson. 
Gentle and soothing, its depths are trauma, sin, and despair. There's also the soaring sing-a-long 
of "Meet On the Ledge." It's their signature song, and one of my favorites, yet I have no idea 
what the phrase means. Why would we meet on a ledge?
8/04/04

 


 

That's The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk, A&M, 1984
The first time that I heard a recording of Thelonious Monk was so memorable that I can tell 
you where I was sitting and who I was with. Hal Willner's tribute album offers fresh arrangements
of 23 Monk compositions. The obvious choices are all here, with especially evocative renditions
of "Misterioso" (by Carla Bley) and "'Round Midnight" (by Joe Jackson). The two tracks with 
Dr. John emphasize the stride piano underpinnings of the music, while Chris Spedding and Peter
Frampton ingeniously arrange "Work" for two guitars. Unfortunately, several performers assume 
that Monk's strangeness is best conveyed through ugliness, so I don't have much use for the 
contributions of John Zorn or Shockabilly. Monk's music is about humor and unconventional 
beauty, not shock and ugliness.
7/21/04

 


 

Scott Joplin (Composer), The Easy Winners, Angel, 1975
Ten ragtime classics written a century ago, perfect for the Fourth of July or for any other 
American holiday you care to celebrate. Or the perfect background for a mint julep. These 
versions are a little different, since violinist Itzhak Perlman has arranged them for piano and
violin. But that treatment is perfectly in keeping with the conventions of ragtime -- Joplin 
himself helped his publisher create scores for different combinations of instruments. André 
Previn plays the piano parts, but it's the violin that provides the sweet voice of the melody.
7/01/04

 


 

Emmylou Harris, Blue Kentucky Girl, Warner Bros., 1979 (Rhino expanded cd, 2004)
I had a low opinion of "country" music until I was seduced by the voice of Emmylou Harris. 
(The Byrds led me to Gram Parsons, who led me to Emmylou.) And where did she find all 
these great songs? Then I noticed the musicianship of the players she worked with. Then I 
realized that I liked country music just fine. This album was the beginning of Harris' solid 
streak of "traditional" country albums. In retrospect, I realize that the harmonies on most of 
these songs are central to their power.  Now it's been reissued with two bonus tracks, and 
they fit perfectly.
6/24/04

 


 

Steely Dan, Everything Must Go, Reprise, 2003
"We're going out of business," they sing on the title track. I sure hope not. Their come-back 
disc in 2000 was such a treat that this one was initially a disappointment. None of the songs 
are particularly catchy and most of the them employ the same mid-tempo snare-on-the-backbeat. 
Now I appreciate it for what is: a solid groove as a platform for relaxed soloing. It sounds like 
the music of a summer afternoon.
6/21/04

 


 

Ray Charles, Definitive, WEA, 2001
For a few minutes, the cable news networks stopped talking about the death of Ronald Reagan.
Sadly, they told us of the passing of Brother Ray. By some strange quirk, I was listening to one 
of his "best of" collections the previous evening. It doesn't matter which collection you  choose.
They're all great. But I'm particularly fond of his cover versions of country-and-western classics. 
And I'm willing to bet Ray Charles never voted for the so-called "great communicator."
6/21/04

 


 

Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose, Interscope, 2004
I saw her in live performance once, the only show I've ever snuck into without a ticket. She's 
70 now, but sounds almost exactly the same as she did on her big hits. White Stripe fans already
know that Jack White produced this disc. While the fast ones tend equate "authentic feeling" 
with sloppiness, there's considerable power in the combination of White's rock leanings and 
Lynn's voice and predictable melodies. On first listen, the obvious highlight is the vocal duet on 
"Portland Oregon." The other gems are all at the end, particularly "Miss Being Mrs," the one 
track whose musical arrangement is pictured in the cover photo.
6/10/04

 


 

Steve Forbert, Streets of This Town, Geffen, 1988
Forbert is a singer-songwriter with a nasal voice, which cursed him with a "new Dylan" label 
when his first album was released in 1978. Like Dylan, he knows how to cram unexpected 
syllables into a line of verse. Although Forbert never became a household name, after a decade 
of recording he teamed up with Garry Tallent (Bruce Springsteen's bass player). The result is 
his most consistent album. I found it in the "remainders" bin at a major retailer for two bucks. 
"I Blinked Once" is a moving ballad, and the choruses of "Perfect Stranger" and "Wait a Little 
Longer" are as refreshing as the first cup of coffee in the morning.
5/26/04

 


 

Elvis Costello, Trust, Columbia, 1981 (2 disc edition, Rhino, 2003) 
Extremely intelligent yet nasty lyrics are yoked to perky sing-alongs, some barked out in
a hoarse shout, some delivered in a jazzy croon. The original album had 14 songs but no
discernable center of gravity. Rhino's disc of 17 bonus tracks is what I keep coming back 
to. There's considerable redundancy in the song selection, but the unreleased tracks are 
generally harsher and more forceful. The cover version of "Slow Down" is one of his best
rock-and-roll performances.
5/25/04

 


 

Sparks, Kimono My House, Island, 1974
Extremely intelligent yet nasty lyrics are yoked to perky, chirpy sing-alongs, delivered in a 
mock-operatic voice. Sparks had two big British hits with this LP, exposure to which results 
in their repeating themselves endlessly in your brain. They are, naturally, the opening songs: 
"This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us" and "Amateur Hour." But "Talent is an Asset" 
has the same effect. Two or three years later and minus the bed of keyboards, Cheap Trick 
would score their first hits with a similar sound. But their imitation was never as musically 
clever as the final track, "Equator," and its when-will-this-ever-end a cappella coda.
5/19/04

 


 

Chris Cacavas, Chris Cacavas and Junk Yard Love, Heyday, 1988
As war atrocities fill the headlines, I find myself drawn to side one of this record, which sat in 
among my LPs untouched since the 1980s. I wanted to hear one song, but it took me a long 
time to find it, because I couldn't even remember who sang it. Here it is, the second song; 
"Truth," with backing vocals by Johnette Napolitano (of Concrete Blonde). If you don't know 
who's singing, you'd swear it's Neil Young and Crazy Horse. "After the bombs fall/After the 
Berlin Wall," begins one verse, and the song is twice punctuated by a soaring, unexpected 
bridge: "Some take the long way around," he sings, and then a solo guitar enters, courtesy 
of the Byrds. 
5/14/04

 


 

Jim Carroll, Catholic Boy, Atco, 1980
A student asked me why I don't have any rap in my list of what I'm listening to. The obvious 
answer would be that I'm not listening to it. Or does this album count as rap?  It is, in the same 
way that Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" is rap. Except that most of Carroll's work 
has even less melody. The songs "Catholic Boy" and "People Who Died" are awesomely raw. 
Then you notice how carefully worked the language is, and you see how it's raw like David 
Lynch and Goya, not raw like Jack Kerouac and Willem de Kooning. In other words, it takes 
a professional poet to sound this honest, with every word calculated for effect. The music is 
forceful, too.
5/03/04

 


 

Carlene Carter, Musical Shapes, Warner Brothers, 1980
That's Carter as in The Carter Family. Carlene made this album (her third and best) during her 
marriage to Nick Lowe, who brought in the rest of the group Rockpile. The sound is tight but 
never slick. It was a complete and total commercial bomb. But if you could copyright style and 
attitude, she'd be rich, because today, every other woman singing on "country" radio sounds like 
Carlene Carter on this album. But nothing on the radio is as much fun as her duet with Dave 
Edmunds, "Baby Ride Easy." Oh, and she does "Ring of Fire" because it was written by her 
mother, June Carter Cash. Some of her own songs are not unlike it.
4/29/04

 


 

Various Artists, Rainy Day, 1984
So whatever happened to Karl Precoda? His guitar goes berserk on the title song, the Jimi 
Hendrix number from Electric Ladyland. Unlike that track, the rest of these cover versions of 
1960s songs are "folk" rather than "rock," which is another way of saying that this is a "roots" 
collection. But what's really at work here is that a bunch of California kids, facing adult life, look 
back to their record collections and pretend that they're the rock stars they most admire. For a 
moment, they succeed. When I think of the song "I'll Be Your Mirror," this version is the one 
that plays in my head. 
4/09/04

 


 

Joan Armatrading, Lovers Speak, 2003
This album was released a year ago, but I didn't know that it existed until quite recently. Born 
on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts and a pop star in Britain, she doesn't fit any of the 
stereotypes that are used to market non-white singers in the U.S.A., so her career is all but 
invisible. Overdubbing herself on everything except percussion, Armatrading delivers 14 new 
songs, half of them the equal of her strongest work. Given that her best songs rank with best 
of the last twenty years, one could do worse. The millions plunking down their dollars for 
Norah Jones might want to make this their next purchase. 
3/31/04

 


 

The Folk Years, Time-Life Collection, 2003
Eight discs loaded with 120 songs, and after a few listens, that's 80 tracks I never want to hear 
again. But there are many that I haven't hear since I was a child. Among them, the Sandpipers' 
"Come Saturday Morning" and Tom Paxton's "The Last Thing on my Mind" are forgotten gems. 
Some of the best material is by artists who aren't "folk," no matter how far you stretch the 
category (e.g., The Band, The Mamas and the Papas, the Lovin' Spoonful, Otis Redding). As for 
the rest, six artists more or less exhaust what's really special here. You can almost guess which 
ones in advance of listening: Dylan, The Byrds, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, and 
Johnny Cash. 
3/22/04

 


 

The Pogues, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, MCA, 1985
Wednesday was St. Patrick's Day, offering an excuse to have a few friends over, load the CD 
changer with Irish music, and crack open a bottle. As if we need an excuse! We just call this 
album "that drunken Irish music." The actual title is a phrase attributed to Winston Churchill, 
describing the traditions of the British Royal Navy. But the subject of the album as a whole is 
post-colonialism and the end of the empire. If Rudyard Kipling had written songs, one of them 
would be on here, with expletives added. The traditional American "Jesse James" is included, 
just in case you think songs about Ireland and Australia are quaint regionalisms.
3/17/04

 


 

Brinsley Schwartz, Despite It All, Capitol, 1970 
"Well, the sun shone down," begins one song,  and this album is a sunny day in the country, just 
like the cover image. More than the sum of  its influences (Crosby Stills & Nash, the Band, 
Van Morrison, the Byrds), they mix saxophone  and pedal steel guitar and refuse to 
acknowledge that there's any stylistic contradiction. If you've never heard of them, don't 
blame yourself, but note that lead vocalist Nick Lowe contributed "(What's So Funny 'Bout) 
Peace Love and Understanding" to their final LP, four years later.  (Bill Murray sings it in the 
film Lost in Translation.) Some of these songs are nearly as  wonderful. "Love Song," for 
starters.
3/5/04

 


 

Phil Ochs, Chords of Fame, A&M 1976
My kids loved the films This is Spinal Tap and Best in Show, but were less impressed by 
A Mighty Wind
. Who doesn't get jokes about heavy metal bands and dog shows? But unless 
your hair is graying, it's unlikely you've ever heard any of the music spoofed in A Mighty Wind.
Next to Dylan, Ochs was the sixties' greatest topical singer-songwriter. Unfortunately, most 
topical songs have an expiration date somewhere between milk and cold cuts. Most of these 
are no exception. But there are gems here, among them "There But for Fortune." And one 
topical number, "Here's to the State of Richard Nixon," is now a commentary on how little 
things have changed
2/17/04

 


 

Dave Edmunds Get It, Swan Song 1977
I remember when rock music was fun. So does Dave Edmunds, and his nostalgia for it would 
be mere nostalgia if he didn't have the voice and guitar chops to make something of it. Signed 
to Led Zeppelin's custom label, Edmunds delivered the definitive performance of "I Knew the 
Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)," a track I still hear at wedding receptions. It usually 
gets everyone out on the dance floor. So would the two tracks that follow it here, one by 
Graham Parker and one that Edmunds co-wrote with Nick Lowe. I might even prefer this 
version of "Hey, Good Lookin" to the original.
2/8/04

 


 

Soundtrack Album, Twin Peaks, Warner Bros. 1990
Music's uncanny ability to summon up the past is one of the reasons we listen. If you've never 
seen the TV series for which Angelo Badalamente composed this music, you might classify it with 
the lounge music revival. But for those who saw the show when it was something fresh, well, I 
can only report that as I was playing it, my partner came in and asked what the creepy music 
was. Fourteen years later, the creepiness depends on having formed the right associations, 
adding depth to these otherwise tranquil surfaces.
1/25/04

 


 

Harry Nilsson, Nilsson Sings Newman, RCA 1969
The opening track of Parks' Song Cycle is Randy Newman's "Vine Street," a reminiscence of 
being "third guitar" in a rock band. It's also the opening track here, which led me from one to the 
other. Where Parks is grandiose, Nilsson's song cycle is minimalist. Much of the time it's just
Nilsson's voice and Randy Newman's piano. Newman wrote all the songs, and these perfect
renditions are frequently stronger than Newman's own versions. Nilsson's sweet vocals on
songs like "Love Story" and "So Long Dad" initially disguise their brutal messages, generating 
a delicious irony over and above the irony Newman builds into the lyrics.
1/15/04

 


 

Van Dyke Parks, Song Cycle, Warner Bros. 1968
I grant you that this stuff is a tad precious, and Parks' nasal tenor is his weakest asset. When
this was new, I suspect that listeners thought of it as psychedelic, like certain Beach Boys 
tracks that Parks co-wrote with Brian Wilson. Now we might call it postmodern: jarring 
juxtapositions of styles and moods (some tracks are under a minute) collide with nostalgia, 
word-play, and social commentary. He's tried to incorporate the history of American popular 
music into one LP, and he's nearly succeeded. Think Charles Ives. Think whimsy. Think too 
smart for his own good. And did I mention how tuneful it all is?
1/10/04

 


 

Charlie Haden and Hank Jones, Steal Away, Verve 1995
It's that horrible time of year, time to grade final examinations. Grading student essays requires 
just the right sort of music, and this album fits the bill. It's merely bass and piano. It's melodic 
without being dull, and the music is familiar (mostly spirituals and folk songs) but played 
inventively. "We Shall Overcome" takes on new meaning when you're only halfway through 
a stack of essays.
12/18/03

 


 

Iggy Pop, The Idiot, RCA 1977
The stereotype is that rock and roll is fast, fun and stupid. All of which was more or less true 
of the first Stooges LP. So I guess this is where Iggy starts to make art music, because it's 
mostly midtempo, depressing, and smart. (And the cover is arty black-and-white, just like 
Elvis Costello for his first Deutsche Grammophon album). Of Iggy's two styles, it's tough to 
say which is more decadent. As Tolstoy said of Baudelaire, "the feelings which the poet 
transmits are evil and very low ones." As if that's a bad thing.
12/12/03

 


 

Elvis Costello, North, Deutsche Grammophon 2003
It's new, so I bought it. I used to buy all his albums the week they were issued. I saw him on 
David Letterman, singing a song from this album. It sounded good. What I didn't know was 
that all eleven songs sound pretty much alike. I would not have imagined that he could make 
an album this dull, but here it is. I couldn't get the "free bonus track" to download from the 
internet, either. Music reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine calls it "subtle." It's now in my pile of 
stuff to sell to a pawn shop.
12/07/03

 


 

Television, Adventure, Elektra 1978/Rhino Expanded Edition 2003
Their debut got raves, and deservedly so. Adventure is their sophomore album and it is 
generally dismissed as a disappointing hodge-podge. Yet it's one of the best records released
in 1978. The debut was generally tense; this one's generally hopeful. "Glory," "Days" (not the 
Kinks song), and "Carried Away" are three of my favorite rock songs.
11/20/03

 


 

Robin Holcomb, Rockabye, Nonesuch 1992
I was playing this and was asked, "Is this Nanci Griffith?" Then a few dissonant piano chords 
clouded the landscape, and it was evident that it wasn't Nanci Griffith. Holcomb's music is 
sterner stuff, parlor music that's never too sentimental, reminding me of the songs of Charles 
Ives. Holcolm makes art music, but not so you'd notice.
11/07/03

 


 

Bob Dylan, John Wesley Harding, Columbia 1968, SACD 2003 
My favorite Dylan album. I'm not saying it's his best. I'm just saying that I play it more than 
any other. 12 songs, 11 of them great. If it didn't have "The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And 
Judas Priest," I might like it even better. (I prefer "Clothes Line Saga," its model.) Neil Young 
liked this album so much, he made his own version of it and called it Harvest. Neil even hired 
Kenny Buttrey on drums. Too bad Neil didn't write this many great songs. 
11/05/03

 


 

The Flatlanders, More a Legend Than a Band,  Plantation 1973, various reissues
Look at that cover photo. Lubbock really is that flat. Like Buddy Holly before them, these 
west Texas existentialists escaped in their musical imaginations long before they got a chance to 
hit the road and escape for real. Some people don't like musical saw and won't give this twisted 
C&W a fair chance. Last week I saw three of the Flatlanders on stage together at an outdoor 
festival. Immediately after Jimmie Dale Gilmore started to sing "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go 
Downtown," four twenty-somethings sitting nearby left in disgust, offering me a better view 
of the stage. I'm sometimes thankful for small minds.
10/07/03

 


 

Jennifer Warnes, Famous Blue Raincoat,  Private Music 1987
You might be able to convince me that Judy Collins and Tori Amos give equally fine 
interpretations of the title song, and you might persuade me that R.E.M. has a more convincing 
take on "First We Take Manhattan." Nonetheless, when Warnes dies, I predict that the Vatican 
will immediately announce her beatification on the basis of two tracks on this album: "Song of
Bernadette" and "Joan of Arc." Leonard Cohen's fascination with blending Roman Catholicism 
and eroticism has seldom been so convincing.
09/26/03

 


 

The Best of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes,  Epic/Legacy 1992
I don't think I have ever heard any of these tracks on the radio. The Jukes were ignored even 
when they were popular. Part of the tradition of honkies trying to sound just like their
African-American models but in reality doing something else, these forgotten tracks were 
deeply nostalgic when they new (1976-1981). Now that their sources are a fading memory, 
the nostalgia factor is reduced and they're simply great tunes from a great band. A whole lot of 
this was written by Bruce Springsteen. Too bad the track with Ronnie Spector is the live 
version, not the studio single.
09/17/03

 


 

Bob Marley and the Wailers, Live at the Roxy,  Island 2003
Marley sells much better now than in his lifetime. I don't know that I prefer this to the great 
1975 live album (Live!), but it's good to have a complete show from 1976. It gives me a 
new excuse to listen to most of the same Marley songs as always. At this point Marley and 
the Wailers had been playing this same set of songs over and over and over, yet once again 
they make it sound both inspirational and spontaneous. The gem here is the 24 minute encore 
of "Get Up Stand Up"  into "No More Trouble" into "War." 
09/17/03

 


 

Uncle Tupelo, 89/93: Anthology,  Columbia/Legacy 2002
The problem with "country-rock" isn't the music, but rather with the critical response. Folks 
who rave about Uncle Tupelo's merger of country and punk sensibilities must not listen to 
much honky tonk, nor to Johnny Cash. Uncle Tupelo's "I Got Drunk" could have been lifted 
from Lefty Frizzell. Their compelling reading of "Moonshiner" owes everything to Bob Dylan's 
arrangement. Questions of originality aside, this is damn fine roots music, provided your roots 
include Iggy and the Stooges.
08/11/03

 


Charles Lloyd in Europe,  Atlantic 1968
My older brother listened frequently to John Coltrane records. I never really paid attention, but 
now I find that this mode of mid-60s jazz feels like going home. The Lloyd quartet featured Keith 
Jarrett on piano, and the album opens with a strange, sitar-like sound that's really Jarrett playing 
the interior of the piano. Jack DeJohnette provides spectacular percussion. I'm surprised to find 
that my favorite track is the shortest, the closing "Hej Da!", a sprightly dance of piano and flute
in which joy wins out over jamming.
08/11/03

 


The Clash, Combat Rock,  Epic 1982 (Remastered CD on Columbia/Legacy 2000)

Most "new wave" now sounds very, very dated, including at least half of this, the last genuine 
Clash album. But I have mentioned to my family that they might play "Straight to Hell" at my 
funeral.
08/01/03

 


Jesse Winchester, Jesse Winchester,  Ampex 1970
With 11 perfect songs in about 30 minutes, this debut album is probably the most perfect
embodiment of the genre of singer-songwriter. Too much is made of Winchester's personal 
history (a Tennessee draft-dodger who'd fled to Canada). It is no surprise that the album features
 Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson of the Band, for their musical and geographical roots 
precisely reflect Winchester's merger of country and rock. But it's not country-rock. Think 
James Taylor, only deeper.
07/20/03

 


The White Stripes, Elephant,  V2 2003
This album was recommended to me by all sorts of people whose opinions I trust. They were 
right. It's fun, fun, fun, without being the least bit nice. Meg White's pioneer dress and Jack 
White's fringed cowboy shirt to the contrary, this duo is a blues band on overdrive. They 
kept reminding me of someone, but it took some time to register: they're the new Kinks! 
Like the Kinks, they merit bonus kudos for fashion sense and graphic design.
05/29/03

 


Various Artists, I'm Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, Atlantic 1991
Leonard Cohen writes the best Bob Dylan songs (circa 1967) this side of Bob Dylan. But 
Cohen's own arrangements often drag, so that I find more than twenty minutes of his singing to 
be about five minutes too many.  This album solves that problem, with 18 performers 
covering their favorite Cohen tunes. Three of these tracks are simply superb: R.E.M.'s 
gleeful assault on "First We Take Manhattan," the Pixies paranoid take on "I Can't Forget," 
and, best of all, John Cale's simple piano arrangement of "Hallelujah."
05/26/03

 


Lou Reed, Live: Take No Prisoners, Arista 1978
Does this album intentionally have the aesthetically most displeasing cover art of the rock 
era? Except for some stray tracks on Street Hassle (1978) and Lou's obligatory box set, 
this is the only official documentation of a superb band in live action: the sound is dense and
frequently brutal but tinged with jazz and melodicism. It's a mess but it rewards rehearing if 
you edit it, as I did, removing all of  "Walk on the Wild Side" (a mean, mean tease in which 
the band vamps for sixteen minutes while Reed avoids singing the song), chop the long 
monologue out of the middle of "Sweet Jane," and eliminate most of the in-between-song 
rambling. What's left is 65 minutes of strong performance. This is where editing software 
earns its keep.
05/22/03

 


Linda Ronstadt, Simple Dreams, Asylum 1977
In 1977, I was listening to a lot more Patti Smith than Linda Ronstadt. Twenty-five years 
later, I still listen to Smith, but find that all of her albums are seriously flawed. Ronstadt 
dominated the radio in her prime years, and this album doesn't have a weak cut on it. 
Covered by a singer at the height of her career, Warren Zevon's "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" 
is really rather witty. A year later she was singing support on Zevon's Excitable Boy.
05/12/03

 


Love, Love Revisited, Elektra 1970
Bringing together key tracks from 1966 to 1969, this is the original "Best of" collection 
for this largely forgotten group. Eleven originals, two brilliant cover versions; think of 
the Byrds without any country influences. Over the course of three albums, they were 
simply wonderful. Then the drugs took hold (just listen to the downer classic, "Signed 
D.C.") and their moment was gone. 
04/22/03


Steely Dan, Citizen Steely Dan,  MCA 1993
With 66 tracks of sonic bliss, these four discs assemble the first seven Steely Dan albums 
into one package. The concept: two cynical college boys who loved jazz front a rock band. 
College textbooks on rock will tell you that punk was more important. Those college 
textbooks won't tell you that Becker and Fagen had exactly the same world-view as the 
Sex Pistols. But Becker and Fagen didn't regard noise as necessary to the expression of 
their cynicism.
04/21/03


Lotte Lenya, Lenya Sings Weill: The American Theatre Songs, Sony Classical 
1999
Both the title and the release date are apt to misinform, since this collection includes 
songs written before Kurt Weill came to America, and it was all recorded (and originally 
released) over forty years ago. But done right, decadence and sentimentality both age 
well. And these were done right. The bitter songs make the sweet ones all the sweeter, 
while the sweet make the bitter all the more pungent. "Lost in the Stars" is the emotional 
(and philosophical) high point.
04/12/03


The Kinks, Face to Face, Reprise 1966 
Although a shade less sophisticated than the Beatles at the same time (and never as 
well-recorded), the Kinks quickly moved beyond bashing out simple R&B riffs to these 
carefully arranged pop songs. "You Really Got Me" may be more fun than anything here, 
but as portraits of the challenges of modern life these songs have barely dated: strong melodies,
strong singing, and subtle humor. And just like the Jam's Setting Sons some thirteen years 
later, it opens with sound of a ringing telephone.
03/31/03


The Jam, Setting Sons, Polydor 1979 
As troops advance on Baghdad, how could I resist a concept album about an imperial 
power suffering a sharp economic downturn, resorting to military exploits to counter its 
creeping malaise? Which just demonstrates that when it succeeds, music has the power 
to speak in unforeseen circumstances. A big deal in Britain in their day but never popular 
in the U.S.A., the Jam rival the Clash for great tunes and a social conscience. And their 
guitar riffs stick in my head for days every time I play them.
03/2403


Talking Heads, The Name of This Band is Talking Heads, Sire 1982
One of the most intelligently assembled live albums ever, these two vinyl discs document 
the progressive expansion of the Talking Heads from a quirky quartet to a polyrhythmic 
juggernaut. For both its scope and its performances, I prefer it to the live album they've 
kept in print, "Stop Making Sense." If this had that other album's recording of the song 
"Heaven," it might be all the Talking Heads you'd ever need.
03/10/03


Shudder to Think, First Love, Last Rites, Sony 1998
Technically, this a movie soundtrack. Sonically, it is a sampler of rock music styles drawn 
from the last 40 years. Conceptually, it's something more: all the songs are written by 
the band Shudder to Think, who perform the music behind an array of very different 
vocalists (e.g., Jeff Buckley, John Doe, Liz Phair, Billy Corgan). There's Stax-style soul 
music, a Velvet Underground ballad, 1960s pop music. It's like a wonderful radio station 
from back in the days when radio was good.
02/021/03


The Eels, Electro-Shock Blues, Dream Works 1998
I' m often asked what "new" material I'm listening to.  For me, something released five 
years ago is new. I just got a copy of this and was surprised by how accessible it is, given 
that it's an album about mortality and mental illness. The fourth track on this album is "My 
Descent into Madness," and that title just about sums up the dominant subject matter. What 
you can't guess from the depressing song titles is how contemplative and exuberant the 
music is.
02/015/03


Washington Phillips, I Am Born to Preach the Gospel, Yazoo 2003
Recorded from 1927 to 1929, these performances are an otherwordly combination of 
country blues, Christian preaching, brief snatches of scat falsetto, and the sound of the 
dolceola (which sounds like a toy piano but is really a sort of zither). "I am born to 
preach the gospel and I sure do love my job" it begins, and he sure does. Fire and 
brimstone never sounded so sweet.
02/02/03


Bob Dylan and the Hawks, Tales of a Mexican Painter (bootleg) 
A complete concert from 1966. For several years it was available free for downloading 
from the official website of The Band (who were, in '66, still the Hawks). Not such a revelation in
the wake of  Dylan's release of the Manchester tapes from the same year, but of interest for 
the direct evidence that not every audience hissed and shouted rude remarks. This Australian 
crowd is pretty damn respectful. And then there's the amazing little story of the Mexican Painter 
that introduces "Just Like Tom Thumb Blues."
01/26/03


Neil Young, Hawks & Doves, Warner Bros. 1980 
Is this even available on compact disc? I burned it to CD from vinyl a few days ago and it 
demonstrates that the most significant thing about the vinyl long player was the pause 
created by the act of flipping it over, a silence that decisively divided the record into two 
distinct parts. Neil takes full advantage of that fact here. Side one has the feel of Young's
Comes a Time, and side two is jaunty fake-country. I had to add a minute of silence so 
that "Stayin' Power" doesn't destroy the mood left by "Captain Kennedy." But the true 
highlight is the opening track, the solo performance of the delicate "Little Wing" (no, it's 
not the Jimi Hendrix song).
01/014/03


Warren Zevon, Excitable Boy, Asylum 1978 
An uneven album, with a highly produced sheen, this is the music that announced Zevon's 
cracked sensibility to the larger world, via the radio hit ""Werewolves of London." The 
centerpiece is "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" (which Zevon recently performed 
with real gusto on David Letterman). Three superb ballads give the album some depth, 
balancing out the jokes. But the real highlight remains "Lawyers, Guns, and Money," a plea 
for escape where the dilemma is never specified.
01/06/03


Funkadelic, One Nation Under a Groove, Warner Brothers 1978 
By some unplanned serendipity, I see that Warren Zevon's Excitable Boy also dates 
from 1978. Where that album has the polished sound of Los Angeles prior to the punk 
explosion, Funkadelic is the sound of a major funk machine that wasn't yet swamped by the 
emerging backlash against disco. As with James Brown, sampling means that you'll 
know these grooves even if you don't know the songs. As songs, toilet humor remains 
a weakness, reminding me that the words are there only because the audience needs 
something to chant along with. With the long, slow burn of a live recording of "Maggot 
Brain," the band demonstrates how superfluous those lyrics really are.
01/06/03


Duke Ellington, The OKeh Ellington, Columbia 1991; recorded 1927-1930 
Living on an academic time table, at my house it's time to grade final exams. 
Since that seemingly endless task inspires misanthropy, I need an antidote. Lucky 
for me that Duke Ellington existed. Do I really need three versions of "East St. 
Louis Toodle-oo"? You bet! 
12/20/02


John Cale, Vintage Violence, Columbia 1970 
As Monty Python used to say, "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!" Well, 
nobody could have expected this exquisite pop album as his initial project after 
Lou Reed tossed him out of the Velvet Underground when Reed wanted the Velvets 
to make more conventional music. On his own, Cale showed just who had the knack 
for it (hint: not Reed, at least not yet). "Big White Cloud" and "Amsterdam" are two 
of the finest songs and performances from a career studded with neglected gems.
 12/12/02


The Chieftans, Bells of Dublin, RCA 1991 
This album is a staple of our Christmas season. It's holiday music, sure, but not so that 
you'd notice. Reels and hornpipes mingle with traditional holiday fare such as " God Rest 
Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "O Holy Night." Nothing sanctimonious, and with recovering 
junkie Marianne Faithful singing "I Saw Three Ships a Sailing," it offers the hope of 
redemption for every one of us. Actually, there's a whole pack of famous guests on 
vocals, but they're not pictured on the cover, because they're not the reason to listen.
 12/09/0


Tom Waits, Used Songs (1973-1980), Rhino 2001 
None of his early albums were consistent enough for me to replace my vinyl with 
digital copies, so this recent anthology fills a nice gap in my collection. He used to 
seem so Bohemian: a self-conscious throwback to the 1950s beat poets and their love 
of jazz. Now he just sounds like a classic songwriter whose sweet voice (on "Ol' 55") 
gradually gave way to hoarse croak. And "Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night" 
just sounds better the more you play it.
12/02/02


Hot Tuna, Hot Tuna, RCA 1970 (expanded CD reissue, 1996)
Last Tuesday night was election day in the U.S.A. Looking around for something suitable, 
this one's red-white-and-blue cover turns out to be oddly symbolic, as does the opening 
sequence of  "Hesitation Blues," "How Long Blues," and "Uncle Sam Blues." It turns out 
that the Nixon era shows us how sneakily subversive pop music can be. And I find it utterly
charming that Jorma Kaukonen always sings as if he has a sinus problem: the technical 
virtuosity is always in the guitar, not to mention Jack Casady's bass.
 11/08/02


Flatt and Scruggs, Songs of the Famous Carter Family, Columbia 1961
When they got together for this relaxed session with Mother Maybelle Carter, they 
did not know that they were about to become very, very famous with "Ballad of Jed 
Clampett" (the TV theme for the Beverly Hillbillies). With that fame and fortune, Columbia 
would pair them with a hot producer and a pile of contemporary pop songs that would 
eventually spur the defection of  Lester Flatt. This album was the (purist) calm before the 
(sellout) storm. It includes a resplendent rendition of " You Are My Flower." A better 
twenty-nine minutes of traditional American song is hard to find.
10/30/02


Jimmy Eat World, Clarity, Capitol 1999
How could I resist an album with a song called "Your New Aesthetic"? And is that cover 
image an allusion to the four ancient elements of earth, air, fire, and water? In other words, 
a quartet of brainy, back-to-basics rock and rollers bashing out heavenly little pop songs. 
Or so it goes for twelve tracks (the perfect number for a pop album). Track thirteen is a 
strange coda: over 16 minutes, its tape loops and feel of Simon-and-Garfunkel-on-acid 
took a bit of accommodation on my part. Now I hum along.
10/08/02


Mott the Hoople, Mott, Columbia 1973
I hear "All the Young Dudes" perhaps twice a year on the radio. Otherwise, these pioneers 
of glam rock are undeservedly forgotten (unless you count lead singer Ian Hunter's song 
"Cleveland Rocks," picked up on the Drew Carey Show). But Martin Scorsese knows a 
good thing when he hears it, and he opened Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore with a 
blast  of  the album's opener, "All the Way From Memphis." This album influenced the 
Clash and its over-the-top production underlies Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." These 
guys knew how to be  brutal ("Violence") and melodic (but never saccharine). After leaving 
Mott to form Bad Company, guitarist Mick Ralphs would never again do anything 
this interesting.
 9/26/02


Sarah Vaughan, Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown, Verve 1954

Reissued on CD with one bonus track, her voice alternatively smoky 
and sweet, it sounds as if she's right there in the room with you. Maybe 
it's the time of year, but this version of "September Song" keeps pulling 
me back. It perfectly captures the twilight mood of summer on the cusp 
of autumn. Clifford Brown's trumpet deserves second billing (recording 
1954, Brown matches anything Miles Davis produced that year), but the 
surprise on many tracks is Herbie Mann's flute.
 9/13/02


King Sunny Adé, Ju Ju Music, Mango, 1982

I've been listening to this one, on and off, for twenty years. It never 
gets old, which is another way of saying that it's timeless. Despite 
up to 20 musicians going at once, it's layered but never cluttered. 
Talking drums are the cushion, the women's voices are on top, and 
in between there are guitars, guitars, and more guitars. Pedal steel 
guitar might sound like a postmodern joke, but the African sensibility 
is to recognize that it's the perfect way to bend pitch, perfectly 
complementing the talking drums. Oh, and King Sunny sings. 
9/6/02 


Linda Thompson, Fashionably Late, Rounder 2002

The title is cute, alluding to the 17 years since her last album. It 
could have been called Fashionably Morose,  because I don't 
know when I've heard a set of songs more infused with death, 
misogyny, and general misery. Actually, I do know: Harry Smith's 
Anthology of American Folk Music
(1952). This isn't actual folk 
music, but an amazing simulation. With Nick Drake's string arranger, 
and Van Dyke Parks playing a mean accordion. 
8/19/02


Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Live in New York City
Columbia 2001

20 tracks on 2 discs, but unless you're a true believer, this 
live album (his 3rd) has only one clear reason to exist. That's 
the song "American Skin (41 Shots)." Now if a studio 
version of that song had been included on Springsteen's most 
recent album, The Rising would have gained some genuine 
complexity, contrasting the heroism of New York City's finest 
with one their more questionable moments. Here, it's interesting 
to note the "41 Shots" is followed by "Lost in the Flood," an 
early Springsteen tale of urban life in which the cops also blow 
someone away.    
8/9/02


Ryan Adams, Gold,  Lost Highway 2001

Although I admired his earlier recordings with the band 
Whiskeytown, I was avoiding this album because of its 
strong associations with September 11. (The video for 
"New York, New York" simply annoys me.) But 
"Firecracker" has an undeniable hook and, melody aside, 
the slide guitar colorings are the real pleasure of  the slow 
ones. Who, exactly, is sideman Ethan Johns? He generally 
outshines bandleader Adams.
7/9/02


Bill Frisell, Blues Dream,  Elektra/Asylum 2001

True mood music for postmoderns? Technically, I suppose 
Frisell is a jazz guitarist. And jazz is supposed to be rooted 
in the blues. Here, Frisell addresses a question that few have 
bothered to ask: what does a genuine hybrid of jazz and 
country music sound like? As with any good jazz, it's evocative, 
haunting, and delightfully inventive. One regrets that Chet Atkins 
and Miles Davis never got together to make a different kind of 
fusion music.
7/1/02


The Concert for Bangladesh,  Apple 1972; CD 1991

Bob Dylan is coming to town soon and I'm listening to 
highlights of the back catalogue. On vinyl, Dylan's five 
songs occupy one side of this set of concert highlights. 
On compact disc, Dylan dominates disc two. Arguably, 
these are the strongest 25 minutes of live Dylan available 
anywhere. If you don't "get" the attraction of Dylan, start 
here. If you still don't get it, quit.
 6/28/02


Squeeze, Greatest Hits, A&M 1996

Why such an unimaginative title? After all, very few of
these were actually HITS. Instead, how about More
Songs about Dating and Infidelity
? Or, drawing on
their one huge hit, Tempted by the Fruit of Another?
Drawing about equally from each of Squeeze's initial nine studio
albums, I bet I could play this at home, tell my teenage
kids that it's the Beatles, and they'd believe me. In fact,
as soon as one of them gets tired of their Beatles'
compilation CDs and asks me, "Dad, what does
Rubber Soul sound like?", I'll just put this on. 
5/28/02


Bob Marley, Exodus, Tuff Gong 1977; Expanded
CD remaster 2001

I owned this when it was new, and promptly sold it at a
used record store without ever listening to side two,
where Marley stuck the love songs that made him a
genuine superstar. I never got that far because side
one, the "rasta" side, seemed bland in comparison with
early albums like Catch a Fire and Burnin'. Now I
appreciate the idea that the groove may be more
important than the words. With a second disc of live
material and the once rare single "Punky Reggae
Party," the two Curtis Mayfield tracks emphasize that
reggae had surprisingly deep roots in the U.S.A. 
5/5/02


Galactic, We Love Em Tonight: Live at Tipitina's  Volcano 2001

Dominated by an unrelenting New Orleans groove, this live album 
serves up a dense gumbo of sound. Dominated by the funk grooves 
of the Crescent City's own Meters, there are also strong hints of 
both Tower of Power and Little Feat. Vocalist Theryl DeClouet is 
the band's weakest link, but vocals are almost beside the point here.   
 4/26/02


Etta James, Tell Mama: The Complete Muscle Shoals Sessions,  
MCA/Chess 1968; expanded CD MCA 2001

In the late 1960s, Muscle Shoals Alabama was music heaven, 
and Etta James was one of its angels. Rivaling Aretha Franklin for 
soulfullness, even "I Got You Babe" (yes, the Sonny and Cher tune) 
is completely believable.
 4/18/02


The Cocteau Twins, Blue Bell Knoll,  Capitol 1988

I've played this dozens of times in my office while I'm working. 
It never intrudes. After it's over, I cannot recall a single element of it.
This is wallpaper music par excellence.  4/4/02


Chappaquiddick Skyline, Sub Pop 1999

I suppose that this album answers the question of
what it sounds like when you combine a
country-roots sensibility with a Master's degree
in creative writing. A whisper of a voice floats
over subtle arrangements that recall the hushed
calm of the Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue
Eyes" and "Jesus." The opening song keeps
repeating "I hate my life." It should be
depressing, but here it's presented as a fact, as
something to move beyond. 3/15/02


 

The Smiths, Singles, Reprise 1995

Presented in chronological order, these
are the singles released by The Smiths
between 1983 and 1988. I first heard
the group in 1984, when their
queerness was immediately evident and
still unique. The early singles often
sound alike, but in 1986 they released
"Panic" and hit their stride, so that the
final eight of these eighteen tracks
provide a genuine and sustained thrill.
Then they broke up before they got old
and stale. 3/3/02

 

Elvis Costello, This Year's Model,
Columbia 1978, Rhino CD remaster 2002

Rhino continues its series of sonic upgrades of the
Declan McManus catalogue. To paraphrase Nick
Lowe, who produced the thing, it's pure punk for
now people. I played it all the time when it was
new, and in my memory it's fast and loud, on a par
with the first Clash album. At a mere one minute
and fifty-eight seconds, "No Action" retains its
urgency and sting. At the same time, songs like
"Radio Radio" and "This Year's Girl" now sound
both smarter and more melodic than anything on
the first Clash album. 

Is it just me, or do the 1970s sound better with
each passing year? 2/21/02

 

Big Star, Third: Sister Lovers
PPVC 1978, Rykodisc CD 1992

Pop music that's so twisted it must be rockbr> music. The blues appear (indirectly) through
cover versions of the Kinks and Jerry Leer> Lewis. But as with the deepest blues, Ibr> always feel better for having experienced a
journey through deep misery. I like to set my
CD player so that it plays all the slow ones,
one after another. It doesn't matter whether
Alex Chilton is riding in a big black car,
taking a walk with the wind blowing back his
scarf, or thinking of stopping for the night at a
Holiday Inn. Except for snappy Christmas
song, it all comes out as a dirge. 2/6/02

 

Rolling Stones, Let It Bleed
1969

No, it is not an "answer" to the Beatles' Let It
Be. This one came first and it's the sound of a
band in transition. Two tracks with Brian Jones
before his departure and death, and two with
new lead guitarist Mick Taylor. All told, eight
tracks of blues, boogie, and hard rock, and then
the closing track, "You Can't Always Get What
You Want," signaling that the Stones might be
growing up. 1/18/01 

Weezer, Pinkerton /b>br> Geffen, 1996

We used to call it power pop.
It's an song cycle that does
"Madame Butterfly" from the
man's point of view. Why
weren't these guys as popular
as Nirvana? 1/5/01

The Roches, We Three Kings/b> 
MCA, 1990

Bah, humbug. But if I have to listen to
Christmas music, this is my top choice. It kicks
off with a sacrilegious rendition of Handel's
"For Unto Us a Child Is Born" and breathes
new life (thanks to dissonant harmonies and a
New York City attitude) into a batch of
otherwise stale --oops, timeless-- songs. 
12/25/01

 

The Band, Moondog Matinee
Capital, 1973, digital remaster 2001

Cover versions inspired them to make their most
relaxed and underrated album. For the first and
only time in their career, it's all about the singing
and the playing, never about anyone's ego. "The
Third Man Theme" is just plain fun, while "Share
Your Love" and "A Change is Gonna Come" are
their two most heartbreaking ballad
performances. Of the newly added tracks, "What
am I Living For" keeps drawing me back. 
12/18/01 

 

Dolly Parton, The Grass is Blue
Sugar Hill, 1999

Before O Brother Where Art Thou
brought bluegrass to the masses, Dolly
was already ahead of the game. A
sweet, rueful version of "I Still Miss
Someone." A piercing urgency graces
"Silver Dagger," while "Train, Train" is
an archetypal train song. 12/15/01

 

Bill Evans, Conversations With Myself
Verve 1963, digital remaster 1997

Jazz pianist Evans, featured to such great effect
on Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, presents an
innovative studio set dominated by three
Thelonious Monk tunes as Evans overdubs
improvisational interplay with himself. I
especially like "Blue Monk." 12/04/01

 

Lucinda Williams, Essence 
Lost Highway 2001

Despite the Grammy, I was disappointed by Car
Wheels on a Gravel Road, which seemed stiff and
overworked. This one was tossed off quickly and
some of it sounds unfinished. But Charlie Sexton's
guitar textures nicely complement the songs, and much
of it has the same dreamlike, talking-out-loud quality as
her earlier cover version of Nick Drake's "Which Will."
But it's not all slow: "Get Right With God" has such an
infectious New Orleans groove that I didn't recognize
its religious theme until my fourth hearing. 11/29/01

 

Aretha Franklin, Young, Gifted and Black
Atlantic Records 1972, Rhino records CD 1993

One of her most soulful albums. The Queen of Soul presents the
Beatles' "The Long and Winding Road" as a spiritual and "First
Snow in Kokomo" is one of her most personal tunes. Not to
mention two of her best singles, "Day Dreaming" and "Rock
Steady." 12/1/01

 

Rodney Crowell, The Houston Kid 
Sugar Hill Records 2001

I guess it's a come-back album. The
obvious highlight is his brash
incorporation/rewrite of Johnny Cash's "I
Walk the Line" into his reminisce of the
first time he heard Johnny on the car
radio. But most of the rest of this stark,
largely acoustic album is nearly as good. 
11/28/01

 

New Order, "Ceremony" 
Factory single, February 1981

I walked into a record store in Davis in
1981, heard this, and immediately bought
it. After September 11, 2001, I had an
urge to hear this song again. It stayed on
my turntable for a month. The opening
line: "This is why events unnerve me." A
nagging guitar and rising sense of tension.
The emotional kick comes in the middle:
"Oh, I'll break them down, no mercy
shown/Heaven knows, it's got to be this
time." There is no emotional resolution.
10/30/01
 

 

Return to 
Theodore Gracyk's
HomePage
      
&&&n  


© 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 Theodore Gracykr> Minnesota State University Moorhead | 1104 7th Ave South | Moorhead, MN 56563 USA | 1.800.593.7246br> a member of the a href="http://www.mnscu.edu">minnesota state colleges and universities system (mnscu)|| My Home Page
mission | an equal opportunity educator and employer | accessibility questions? | contact me | updated 3/24/12