What I'm Listening To
Stevie Ray Vaugan:The Sky is Crying (Epic 1991)
The blues. Mostly an excuse to hear stinging lead lines over standard blues changes. Smart
covers of Elmore James, Lonnie Mack, Howlin' Wolf, Kenny Burrell, and Jimi Hendrix. Not
necessarily the best cover versions of all of them, but James' "The Sky is Crying" is pretty fine.
The odd thing is that this a collection of songs recorded with his band Double Trouble for other
albums, but unreleased until collected together here following his untimely death. Yet, of all
the Vaughan albums I've heard, it's my favorite. Perhaps because it's loaded down with good
songs by great blues songwriters.
Joseph Arthur: Lou (Vangaurd 2014)
Kirsty MacColl and Mott the Hoople aside, there aren't that many good covers of Lou Reed
songs. Joseph Arthur has done something brilliant in offering a whole album of them. Arthur
strips each of 12 songs down to its essence, providing minimal but smart arrangements that
highlight melody and words. And there's the rub: the songs fall into two categories. The ones
that Reed wrote after the age of 30 are, song for song, weaker than the ones he wrote in his 20s.
As poetry (as words on the page), the later ones may be smarter and better crafted, but they're
wordy and the melodies are dull. With the earlier songs, Arthur's covers shine as melodies.
With a song like "Stephanie Says," I care about Stephanie because the melody leads me there.
Not so the Reed-like narrators of "NYC Man" and "Magic and Loss."
J. D. Souther: Tenderness (Sony 2015)
In rock'n'roll, the degeneration of vocal quality as one ages is not necessarily a deficit. J.D.
Souther is both a great songwriter and a great singer. But, as he pushes 70, the voice is fraying,
and so his new album is a huge disappointment. (And this is recent: on his live album of 2011
he still sounded great.) So then what about the 10 new songs, and the arrangements? Love
remains his primary topic, and country-ish sound of his early work has given way to jazzy,
bluesy chord progressions, almost as if Steely Dan did the backing tracks for an Eagles album.
As a result, songs like "Dance Real Slow" and "Need Somebody" sound like throwbacks to the
1930s -1950s (the explicit topic of the very fine "Downtown Before the War"). "Something in the
Dark" and "Let's Take A Walk" are the other keepers.
Dire Straits: Making Movies (Warner Bors. 1980)
"Walk of Life" being an exception, this album contains the only Dire Straits music I care to hear.
Every few years, I pull it out, play it a few times, and set it aside again. I did so again last week,
because I wanted to hear "Skateaway," the song about female empowerment that gives the album
its title. As always, the ballads were wistful, the anthems were sweeping in their affirmation of
human hopes and dreams, and the goofy closing number, "Les Boys," entertained. So why do I
like this album so very much more than all of their other music? Pretty simple: the presence of
Roy Bittan on piano, shifting the sound of the band from scruffy "roots" rock to something fuller,
and more grand. Which makes me a sentimentalist at heart.
The Lone Bellow: Then Came the Morning (Descendant 2015)
A record that answers a question I'd never thought to pose: What if Arcade Fire was an alt-country
band? And I don't mean that in a negative way. At other points, the songwriting reminds me of
Tom Petty, both in his way with a melody and with his willingness to toss in the occasional
oddball throwaway. Here, that would be "Cold As it Is." And then there are a few where the band
strips back to the basic trio, and there's just the Southern string band. In the end, it's the
songwriting and the singing that impresses me. Case in point, "Diners" reveals a dark first-person narrative: a reckless drifter breaks into diners at night and tries to soothe his broken heart by
listening to country music on the jukeboxes. I might like this album even better in the form of
rough demos, stripped of the studio gloss.
Chris Thile: Bach: Sonatas & Partitas Vol. 1 (Nonesuch 2013)
Just like Thile, I paid no heed to "classical" music until I was exposed to Glenn Gould's 1981
recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. By the time Thile heard it, he was already a child
virtuoso, playing bluegrass mandolin; he still plays what he calls "progressive bluegrass." Here,
he demonstrates his general mandolin chops by offering three suites by Bach, originally written
for violin (Sonata No. 1 in G minor; Partita No. 1 in B minor; and Sonata No. 2 in A minor). He
does an astounding job of sorting out the interweaving voices of Bach's compositions, and he
also gets to show off the incredible speed of his fingers. When he plays this stuff live, he grins
like the Cheshire Cat. Not surprisingly, this record is currently selling at about the same pace
as Gould's1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations.
Blues from "Big Bill's" Copa Cabana (Chess 1968; reissue of 1963 LP)
10 tracks, most running under four minutes. Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters in their prime,
sitting in with Buddy Guy (instead of their own bands) and recorded live on July 26, 1963. There's
filler: a couple of tracks by other Chess singers, dubbed with club noise to sound live. With a few
exceptions, the band sets up a slow grinding groove that often sounds more like a drone than a
set of changes. Buddy Guy is a terrific support player, tearing off lightning runs of slightly distorted
guitar, frequently competing with Otis Spann's piano fills. Spann sets up "Got My Mojo Working,"
one of the few fast numbers, with a driving riff that he frequently disrupts with unexpected
syncopations. His piano solo is a pure stomp. The Wolf is in great form, but Waters (on half
the tracks) is the star vocalist.
Lucinda Williams: Sweet Old World (Chameleon 1992)
Go figure. Currently for sale at major online retailers for under five bucks, while weaker albums
in her back catalogue go for a lot more. But let's start with the obvious: if her version of "Sweet
Old World" doesn't melt your heart, you either hate popular music or I don't know what. Throw in
her cover of Nick Drake's "Which Will," and those two tracks insure that this is her best album.
Actually, I do understand why not everyone will respond to it. It's a mix of blues and rock and
country that's not so much "roots" as it is a roots subgenre: trailer-park-poor-southern-white-but-
not-a-confederate-flag-waver music. And, as with all her work, a few of her own songs are either
maudlin or dull. Given the sparse instrumentation, the dull ones are very dull. But someone in my
house has been humming "Memphis Pearl" ever since I last played it.
Jack Bruce: Songs for a Tailor (Polydor 1969)
Unless you're a certain age, I suppose both the singer and the album are as obscure as second
tier Victorian novels not written by Dickens. But I've been listening to this since my brother
bought it when it was new, because it was the first solo work by Bruce --Cream's bass player--
just after Cream disbanded. A couple of these songs were rejected by Cream for their own
albums, to the loss of those albums. So who would listen to this now? Eric Clapton fans? Lord
of the Rings fans drawn to the song "To Isengard"? But if you don't think Cream was at its best
during drum solos and guitar solos, then you know that Bruce was the star, and this is his star
showcase. Basically, this is Cream plus a jazzy horn section, minus the drum and guitar solos.
"Theme for an Imaginary Western" has lost none of its grandeur.
Sarah McLachlan: Essential (Sony 2013)
This collection summarizes twenty years of music in 30 tracks, and there are no missteps. But
what I notice is that her songwriting takes a back seat to the voice. "Sweet Surrender" is a darn
fine song, and "Building a Mystery" is not far behind. 1997's Surfacing album seems to have
been the peak; without knowing that album well, I find that the most consistent cluster of tracks
on this compilation are all from that album. Then I notice that, those songs aside, the consistent
standout tracks consist of the numerous covers (of XTC, Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, the duet with
Lauper on "Time after Time"). Without them, there'd be a notable lack of variety. And although it
was familiar to me, initially I didn't realize that "When She Loved Me" was a Randy Newman
contribution to a Toy Story movie. Now there's a merger of words and melody.
Jefferson Airplane: Bark (Grunt 1971)
When it was new, the album came wrapped in brown paper, like the brown paper bag of a
grocery store. So the "JA" circle functioned just like a corporate logo. The difference, I suppose,
is that we were to understand this to be a worker-owned shop, selling local fair trade products.
Wonderful cover aside, it's without question their worst album. Half of the songs are junk: they
sound like they took a half hour to write, and five minutes to arrange.( Low point: Covington's
"Thunk.") The two new members don't improve things. Their new drummer pounds away without
nuance: the music works best when there are no drums. (Case in point: "Third Week In The
Chelsea," which sounds very much like a Bob Dylan track.) And Papa John's electric fiddle
mostly screeches (and yet it's well used on the instrumental "Wild Turkey.) Another highlight:
Slick's "Never Argue with a German if You're Tired." So true!
The Iguanas: If You Should Ever Fall on Hard Times (Yep Roc 2008)
Another disc that sounds more like a radio station than an album. There are four distinct styles
here, so that every third or fourth song sounds like a different band. At the same time, it's unified
by its back story: The Iguanas are a New Orleans band, but they had to relocate in the wake of
Hurricane Katrina. This is the album that resulted. There's New Orleans R&B ("Sour Grapes"),
there's "roots rock" (the title song), there are Latin rhythms and Spanish vocals, and then, to my surprise, some tracks that sound like Tower of Power. Much of the difference comes from the
different styles of horn arranging. I like all of it, but my favorite track may be "Pelican Bay," a
smooth and breezy tune about driving up the coast. What's never mentioned is the dark subtext:
his "baby" is in Pelican Bay federal prison.
Thompson Family (Fantasy 2014)
This is not the best place to start if you're curious about any of these musicians. Seven family
members: the concept is that no one but family members appear on the record. But often no
more than two or three are performing. The unstated concept: Richard and Linda are divorced,
and never in a room together. Overall, it's like a random shuffle of British folk rock on the iPod.
Nine songs and one instrumental. Half of them are keepers. And I take it back: "Bonny Boys"
might just be the place to start if you want to know what's great about Linda Thompson; her
voice failing her, she sings a heartbreaking ballad. After that, Teddy and Richard have the best
songs. The lingering question: Why doesn't that other sister perform?
Suzanne Jarvie: Spiral Road (2014)
Is there too much music in the world? There's so much that it's a crapshoot whether anyone
will know about or hear a lot of great music. Yet, by serendipity, sometimes the right music
reaches the right listener. That's certainly true here. I'm not the first to say that her singing is
reminiscent of both Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris; but in my book, that's a winning
combination. Add intelligent lyrics, strong supporting musicians, the occasional banjo and
mandolin, and I can listen to this all day. (I also love Chris Brown's keyboards, several of them
of vintage timbre.) Ten original songs, and the slow ones steal the show. In a stroke of genius, "Shrieking Shack" incorporates a bit of Chaplin's "Smile," a song that's never done anything
for me in the past. For me, it's the album's emotional highpoint.
Peter Gabriel: Shaking the Tree (Geffen 1990)
Pop music, big heartfelt ballads, progressive rock, world music, R&B dance hits. This "greatest
hits" collection plays like a jukebox. Peter Gabriel has one of the most moving voices in rock
music, and he's no slouch as a songwriter. While I don't care to hear "Sledgehammer" and
"Family Snapshot" ever again, the remaining 14 tracks have worn really well. That's a high
batting average, as they say in baseball. Two tracks (but not the songs) are new to this
collection, and in both cases Gabriel delivers a great vocal: "Here Comes the Flood" and the
title track. Ask me on the right day, and I'll say that "Mercy Street" and "Biko" are my favorite
songs in the world.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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).
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
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."
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.)
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Mary Lee's Corvette: Blood on the Tracks (Bar None 2002)
Columbia records once used the advertising slogan: "No one sings Dylan like Dylan." True
enough. But for many people, that's not a recommendation! I bought Blood on the Tracks the
day it was released, and love it dearly. Others may prefer this live gig at which Mary Lee Kortes
and her band covered it in its entirety. It's flawed in following the original musical arrangements a
bit too closely. But it proves that the songs are great songs, and they work well when detached
from Dylan's smothering persona. And I like the way she sings "Wabasha." The great flaw is that
"Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" was not that strong to begin with, and here they make
it worse with some very weak "guest" vocal support.
Peggy Sue: Fossils and Other Phantoms (Yep Roc 2010)
My initial impression was of loping rhythms and yowling, caterwauling vocals. To my American
ears, the thickness of the English accents turns some of the vocals into wordless vocalese. Rosa
Slade and Katy Young co-wrote and sing eleven original songs (and reworked the traditional "Green
Grow the Rushes"), providing an extended meditation about the poisonous attraction of love. My
second impression was that, like the band X, they wear their influences on their sleeves while
subverting all the easy pleasure that they might have wrung out of their material. The sound is a
kind of queasy folk-punk, with some heightened power from the contributions of drummer Olly
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.
Neil Young: Zuma (Reprise 1975)
I remember buying this around the same time as Mitchell's Hissing of Summer Lawns. Two
Canadians in California, their albums neatly captured multiple polarities in popular music. She
sought "roots" in African-American music, he in country music (most of side one). Her primitivism
came from sampling African drums, his from using players with limited chops and cranking up the
volume. (At times it's almost punk rock.) Her lyrics are polished poems, while his generally follow
the edict of "first thought, best thought." Both albums are great. The last four songs of Zuma
(formerly side 2 of the LP) are probably my favorite sequence of four from any of his records
("Stupid Girl," "Drive Back," "Cortez the Killer," and the sweet Crosby-Stills-Nash-Young
benediction of "Through My Sails").
Joni Mitchell: The Hissing of Summer Lawns (Asylum 1975)
Is the title a reference to lawn sprinklers? When it was new, the sound of this record was
thought difficult. In retrospect, I value it as a showcase for her voice. What's more, the
continuities with Court and Spark stand out ("Sweet Bird" could have come right off that
earlier LP and "Centerpiece" extends her infatuation with jazz great Annie Ross). The lead
track ("In France...") has the best electric guitar to grace any of Mitchell's studio albums, and
"Edith and the Kingpin" and "Shadows and Light" have also held up well. But I see that the "All
Music" website contains multiple factual errors about the most experimental track, "The Jungle
Tindersticks: Tindersticks (This Way Up 1993)
Joy Division crossed with Cowboy Junkies? Their self-titled debut seems to be out of print in
the U.S., but even at the height of their popularity they were primarily a British phenomenon.
The most obvious point of comparison is Nick Cave, but I find that Stuart Staples is the better
vocalist and songwriter. Tindersticks has a rich sound: a baritone voice is buried within a
post-punk sensibility that hides beauty behind shambling soundscapes. They're not afraid to
merge string arrangements with the Velvet Underground. I can do without the instrumental "The
Walt Blues," but "Blood" is a tremendously moving song.
Carlos Santana and Mahavishnu John McLaughlin: Love Devotion Surrender
(Columbia 1973; expanded Sony 2003)
That's Carlos on the left in the photo, and John on the right. That's also how their guitars are
placed in the stereo separation of this almost-all-instrumental album. (As there should be,
there's chanting on "A Love Supreme.") Twenty-two minutes of John Coltrane's music, moved
from saxophone to electric guitar, one extended workout on a traditional gospel tune (my favorite
track), and two pieces by McLaughlin. The theme is heavenly love, with congas. It's one of those
records where it makes a difference how you classify it. It's not jazz, so don't harp on the fact that
they don't swing. But the guitars soar, and I'm not the first to say that Larry Young's organ work
ties it all together.
Teddy Thompson: A Piece of What You Need (Verve 2008)
I have exactly one criticism of this disc, which I find completely captivating. What the heck is
the point of a "hidden" track of music buried on the end of the disc, ten minutes after the
eleventh song has ended? It annoys me to wait for it, especially since it's a solid cover version
of the Everly Brothers' 1965 hit, "The Price of Love." It fits beautifully with the set of songs
composed by Thompson, and with its retro musical style. (I swear that some of these horn
charts and drum tracks could have been sampled from 1960s pop hits.) If you've never heard
of Thompson --son of Richard & Linda-- give a listen to "What's This?" and "The Things I Do."
Then "Can't Sing Straight," which sounds like it was written for Johnny Cash, who could have
made it a hit.
Richard & Linda Thompson: Pour Down Like Silver (Island 1975; expanded 2004)
Although I regard it as the weakest track on the album, I have had "Hard Luck Stories" in my
head for a few days. This is one of those records where I still remember exactly where I was
when I first heard it. I was in a record store, thinking about buying a David Bowie album, when
the clerk put this on. It was the first I'd ever heard (or heard of) them. I was intrigued, but I bought
the Bowie album anyway. This is the better album, and better now, with four live tracks, including
a stunning version of "Night Comes In," with the great lines about ecstatic trance: "Dancing 'till
my feet don't touch the ground/I lose my mind and dance forever." Even the uptempo tracks are
Tori Amos: Little Earthquakes (WEA 1992)
Her debut album as a solo artist, and time has been kind to it. When I first heard it, twenty years
ago, I mostly heard a vocalist who was too close to Kate Bush for comfort. I still hear the echo
of Kate, especially in "Precious Things," but I also hear Robert Plant. Amos's subsequent career
lets me hear her voice more clearly. Which is what this set of songs was always all about: having
a voice, finding a way to be heard in a culture that doesn't want to hear some things. "Crucify"
doesn't work for me, and for the most part I think the more stripped-down the arrangement, the
better. "Silent All These Years" and "Me and a Gun" are the obvious standouts, but I'm drawn
to "China" and "Leather."
Kronos Quartet: Requiem for Adam (Nonesuch 2001)
Program music by Terry Riley, which is to say that it's instrumental music that takes on greater
significance when it's supplemented by textual commentary. The "Adam" of the title isn't Biblical.
He's the son of one of the performers. The music is generally placid, except for the second
movement, where the string quartet is supplemented by percussion and electronic instruments.
This movement is about a physical location that carries both biographical and symbolic weight,
yet musically I prefer the two surrounding movements. What I like best of all is the six-minute
piano piece that functions as a coda. I also like its title ("The Philosopher's Hand"), which again
takes on an unexpected dimension when you read Riley's explanation.
Bangles: Different Light (Columbia 1986)
Not "The Bangles." Just Bangles. Jangly pieces of steel, which about sums them up. One of
my favorite albums of the 1980s, but now I clearly see why they didn't last as a group. Once
you get past the title song of this disc, there are four really great songs here, two of which
became hits ("Manic Monday" and "Walk Like an Egyptian"). But they wrote none of them. Their
big hit record didn't make them much money with the songwriting royalties making Liam
Sternberg rich and Prince even richer. So, for their next album, they made sure they wrote every
last song, and the ratio of strong material plummeted. In retrospect, the two big hit songs hold
up as infectious pop soufflés, while the other two covers, of Big Star and Jules Shear, are giddy
Steve Miller Band: Anthology (Capitol 1972)
Before Steve Miller became a major hit-maker with "Fly Like an Eagle" and a host of other
radio-friendly songs I never want to hear again, in San Francisco he was in heavy rotation on
FM radio. This selection of 16 tracks are from that period (his first seven albums). It's not really
representative: it goes easy on the good-time R&B and blues raps that were a big part of his early
repertoire. There is "Living in the USA" and the great shout at the end, "Somebody get me a
cheeseburger." But the goal seems to be to showcase Miller as a writer and singer, and the
result is mostly ballads. I personally don't find a weak track here. It doesn't hurt that Nicky
Hopkins, the great session pianist of that time, is present on a good deal of it.
Jackson Browne: Late for the Sky (Elektra 1974)
I didn't have much use for Jackson Browne until I was walking up a staircase in my college
dormitory and I heard the first song on this album coming from someone's room. I sat down on
the top stair and listened right through side one and I was hooked. Let's get clear: this is a batch
of introspective, wordy, piano-based songs by a narcissist who would have benefited from fewer
literature courses and more philosophy. It could have been as dull as his first album, but it's
redeemed by the extraordinary vocal harmonies and David Lindley's contributions on slide guitar
and, on "For a Dancer," violin. To this day, the four songs of side one still seem like 22 perfect
Paul Simon: Graceland (Warner Bros. 1986)
Interesting and striking on so many levels, it's an exemplary example of cross-cultural musical
collaboration, and of how liberating it can be to make art when you're washed up and no on cares
what you do. Simon was washed up until this record brought him back, giving him hit records in
four continuous decades. For my tastes, it doesn't need the zydeco number, but otherwise it's
just about perfect, beginning with rhythms that set the stage for the description of a terrorist
bombing in the opening verse of the opening song, "The Boy in the Bubble." The tracks
dominated by vocal interplay with Ladysmith Black Mambazo are the true highlights: "Homeless"
and "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes."
McGuinness Flint: Happy Birthday, Ruby Baby (Capitol 1971)
I bought it 30 years ago, played it once, was bored, and set it aside. Yet it has its rabid admirers,
so I finally got back to it. It takes a few listens, but now I get it. This forgotten group was, like
Crosby Stills Nash, a home for refugees from other groups; their producer had worked with the
Beatles, their pianist had worked extensively with the Rolling Stones, and all but one song was
co-written by members Gallagher and Lyle, who'd go on to write major radio hits for others. The
sound? A sophisticated pub rock, a lot like their contemporaries, Brinsley Schwarz, but with a
knack for odd arrangements. (The trombone solo sounds like a passage from Steely Dan.) It ends
with "Sparrow," an absolutely gorgeous song and vocal performance.
Grateful Dead: Workingman's Dead (Warner Bros. 1970; expanded 2003)
If you want to make the case that American Beauty is a better album, I might go along with
the argument. But this album was the perfect soundtrack when we found ourselves driving through
the north country woods in the rain. If it weren't for the drug reference in the lyric to "Casey
Jones," newcomers would never guess that the Dead were a highly experimental, psychedelic
jam band. We now call it roots music, but call it what you like, this set of 8 songs sounds more
like Appalachia than San Francisco. Assuming there are wolves in Appalachia. Best of all, "Uncle
John's Band" is lovely and, dare I say it, spiritual. The newly added tracks are keepers, as well.
Kate Bush: 50 Words for Snow (ANTI 2011)
Her voice is aging exceptionally well and her music feels richer despite its movement toward
minimalism. It certainly meanders. The title track is the only thing I don't like here. It really is
about the topic of there being 50 words for snow in Inuit, but it's pompous and dull. Detractors
may find this low-key music dull anyway, but quiet is not the same as dull. (Or are we about to
start debating 50 words for lack of excitement?) Elsewhere, there are two strong duets, one of
them with Elton John, which was a delightful surprise when I finally looked at the credits and
realized who was singing so soulfully with her. And I quite like how many of her long-time fans
HATE this record with vehemence. I admire her willingness to go her own way, fans be damned.
Valerie Carter: Find A River (Pony Canyon 2000)
The music industry is dysfunctional beyond belief, because it's capitalism on steroids. At
present, you can purchase exactly one CD by Valerie Carter at Amazon, and buy one album
of music downloads. This one? You can buy a used copy for $50. But then again, I play the copy
that I keep in the car so often, it really is worth that much to me. In any case, Carter comes
out of the 70s southern California music scene and has made a living as a high-profile back-up
singer. Here, she offers 23 exquisite minutes of song interpretation, including the obscure
Lowell George track that gives us the title. Neil Young is represented, so is Prince, and the two
Blue Nile songs are heaven.
Dianne Reeves: A Little Moonlight (Blue Note 2002)
If you look at the title and finish it with the phrase "can do," then this album may be to your
liking. Straight-up, no gimmicks treatments of standards by a jazz trio & quartet with a stellar
vocalist. It opens with a bass solo, and the first track, a Richard Rogers song, is basically a duet
of bass and voice. Although I love her voice, it's her playful phrasing and passages of scatting
that seal the deal for me. By the time she gets to "Skylark," she's convinced me that Hoagy
Carmichael is the greatest songwriter ever. Although I don't know who Fischer and Laine are,
their "We'll Be Together" is a nice find, ending this ten song set with a simmering late-night ballad.
Elvis Costello: Get Happy!! (Warner Bros.1982)
The fake-60s cover, including signs of wear, combine with the double exclamation points of
the title to warn you that this a pretense masking a deeper truth. On the other hand, maybe it's
what it sounds like: a tossed-together alcohol-fueled rave-up. The original album was 20 tracks
on a single LP, so you don't need this with bonus tracks. While there are some outstanding
individual songs, the real impact is the cumulative power of the sound of it: I think of a roller rink
in Memphis in 1968, late on Saturday night, and the live combo has been hitting the bottle. The
tempos have picked up, the drummer is bashing away, the singer is getting hoarse and
occasionally making up lyrics, and the only thing holding it together are the R&B bass lines.
I play it loud.
Laurie Anderson: Big Science (Warner Bros.1982)
A distillation of Anderson's performance art piece United States, this disc represents a brief
moment when the American avant-garde crossed over to the pop charts. It soothes, it grates,
it amuses, it surprises. I am delighted that, after thirty years, "O Superman" seems weirder,
sharper, and more terrifying than it did when it was new. Rhythmically organized by a tape loop
of the single syllable "ha," her electronically filtered voice alternates spoken platitudes and
segments of singing, interspersed with bits of music that derive from Phillip Glass. "Let X = X"
and "Walking and Falling" are nearly as good. "Born, Never Asked" throws her violin into the mix.
Hummel, Beethoven, Neuling: Works for Mandolin and Fortepiano (Globe 1999)
There is so much music available that none of us know its full range. Even within familiar
traditions, there are huge swaths of the repertoire that remain marginal. Or, more to the point,
that become marginal with changes of fashion. We forget that the mandolin was once a
common instrument. So common, in fact, that major composers wrote for it. While no one is
likely to think that Beethoven's multiple compositions for mandolin are his most innovative work,
they are fascinating for the glimpse they give into the broader musical culture of the time. To
make it all the better, it's what I've listened to while reading Theodor Adorno's attack on listening
to "authentic" music.
George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Capitol 1973)
I heard a saccharine version of John Lennon's Christmas song "Happy Xmas (War is Over)"
in the grocery store yesterday. I have long thought that Harrison's post-Beatles work is equal
to Lennon's, and the lead song on this album, "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth," is a
far better Christmas song than Lennon's. Same goes for Harrison's lovely "The Light that Had
Lighted the World." Granted, Harrison's charms are more subtle, but pretty much everything
here gets better with repeated listening. And let's not forget "Sue Me, Sue You Blue" is a biting
commentary on Lennon's destructive greed. "Be Here Now" is a forgotten gem, lovely in a way
that few songs ever are, gently floating on a bed of tinkling piano and acoustic guitar.
Johnny Cash: In Prague Live (CBS/Supraphon1983)
Recorded in 1978 for European television, and later released as an album, this particular show
catches country music's greatest baritone at a time he looked to be washed up as a recording
artist. With the hits few and far between, he kept touring to adoring crowds. This set has him
in great form, determined to demonstrate both sides of "Country and Western." The setlist is
heavy on the Sun Records hits, train songs and a moving version of "The Streets of Laredo."
Plug his name and "Prague 1978" into YouTube and you can watch most of it. For me, the best
song is a dead-on version of "Sunday Morning Coming Down." And Minnesota appears in at least
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
Daryl Hall: Sacred Songs (RCA 1980, expanded CD 2009)
Sure, I like Hall and Oates when they come on the radio. And if that's how you think of Daryl
Hall, this disc is quite a shock, so out of keeping with audience expectations that the record
company refused to release it for three years. The opener, the title song, is a driving piece of
rock and roll with odd lyrics. After that, we head down the rabbit hole, thanks to producer and
guitarist Robert Fripp, fresh from his work on David Bowie's Heroes. From moment to moment
on tracks 2 through 5, you don't know whether you'll get pop music, 1970's electronic
experimentation, or a crazed guitar solo. After that it's (relatively) straightforward, except that
the songs and singing are uniformly great. (The expanded edition adds 2 killer tracks Fripp put
on his own solo album,
Exposure, in 1979.)
The Beatles: Beatles For Sale (Parlophone 1964)
An astounding record on many levels. There's the title, for a start: naming a commodity "for
sale" drags critical theory into the record store. Next, there's the dualism of roughly equal
numbers of covers and originals. Most of the covers date back to the 1950s and come from
their Hamburg stage set, heavy on the rockabilly, with some great George Harrison guitar work.
Some of the originals are stylistically close to this material, but there's also a handful of strikingly
unique pop songs, among them the two openers, "No Reply" and "I'm a Loser." Bob Dylan
hadn't yet gone "electric," and his influence is evident, both lyrically and in the acoustic guitars.
And then there's "Eight Days A Week," early Beatles perfected.
Corinne Bailey Rae: The Sea (Capitol 2010)
I heard her single "Put Your Records On" in a coffee house a few years back and I was
mesmerized by her voice and her neo-soul smarts. Her more recent record demonstrates real
growth as both a singer and a songwriter -- so much so that I'll probably buy her next record
as soon as it's released, something that I seldom do with anyone any longer. Song for song,
an amazing record with real variety in the arrangements and some stellar riffs. The lyrics have
gotten more complex, reflecting her years as student of English literature (yet they're never
pretentious!). The sea of the title, and of the gentle closing song, is time. It doesn't always heal.
Andy Irvine and Paul Brady (Green Linnet 1976)
In much the way Sinéad O'Connor praises Veedon Fleece, Bob Dylan has praised Paul Brady,
going so far as to offer a cover of Brady's arrangement of the traditional "Arthur McBride."
Although it's hard not to love the way Dylan sings the word "shillelagh," Brady's version is better.
With Brady, you can easily imagine you're hearing a Regency era singer in a Dublin pub. The
song is a protest ballad that's shockingly current. The poor are recruited to fight the wars of
imperial conquest, and the potential cannon fodder (the narrator and his cousin Arthur) protest
with their only means: violence. The irony: it's Christmas morning. But in the end, it's the melody
and the voice that matter here. The same holds for the rest of the record.
Van Morrison: Veedon Fleece (Warner Bros 1974)
It's reported that Sinéad O'Connor says it's the definitive album of Irish music. She's right, if
you don't think of Irish music as "Danny Boy," drinking songs, or Clannad. Case in point:
"Country Fair." Driving back and forth across rural Minnesota, we had this pastoral album in
the car and listened to it five times in two days. And then I wanted to hear it again. Although
the sound is predominantly acoustic, this LP is the last gasp of Morrison's great early band,
the Caledonia Soul Orchestra (with special kudos to David Hayes on bass). The falsetto singing
of "Who Was That Masked Man" gives me chills, while "Comfort You" makes me swoon.
"Streets of Arklow" is one of his greatest songs.
Bettye LaVette: Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook (Anti 2010)
The real gimmick is that LaVette brings out the African-American underpinnings of classic rock.
She sounds just like what Tina Turner wants to sound like, but rarely does. I'd love to hear her
belting out "River Deep Mountain High." Instead, I'll settle for this set of classic rock covers.
Each Beatle gets a tune (but all but John gets a post-Beatles song). As with Cowboy Junkies,
Harrison's "Isn't It A Pity" is stirring. But who would have predicted that the Moody Blues and The
Who would come across so well, reshaped as soul music? In contrast, Pink Floyd's "Wish You
Were Here" sounds a little lame.
Syd Straw: War and Peace (Polygram 1996)
Although Straw's powerful voice is distinctively her own, there are moments where you might
mistake this for a Pretenders album, which is a kind of backhanded praise. In other places, minus
the vocals, it's not all that far from Neil Young's work with Crazy Horse. I play it often, and I've
come to think that the "war" of the title is the war between the sexes. Or, to borrow one of the
song titles, it should be called "Love, and the Lack of It." I actually liked this better on vinyl,
because the first half is so much stronger than the second half that I used to play side one and
ignore side two. Now I usually turn it off after the opening eight songs, after which it kind of drags.
But "The Toughest Girl" and "Time Has Done This" are extraordinary.
Cowboy Junkies: Early 21st Century Blues (Zoe 2005)
Their "covers" album. Eleven songs, but only two originals. Not that you can always guess which
are which. The John Lennon song is dull and strident, but perhaps that's the point: it makes it
clear that this is a record about something. That's a peace sign on the cover, and it's a concept
album about war, the military, and their true cost. Thanks to the unifying theme (and their
distinctive, unifying sound), it's their most cohesive record. The U2 song ("One") and George
Harrison song ("Isn't It A Pity") take on new dimensions in this context, and Bob Dylan's
"License to Kill" and the traditional "Two Soldier" are an astoundingly powerful opening pair.
Singer Margo Timmins shines throughout.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: Damn the Torpedoes (1979)
The peak of their early career, where Tom Petty and Mike Mike Campbell first assemble a full
album of great songs with great arrangements. Petty yowls, the backing vocalists echo key
lines, the guitars chime and howl, and the organ swells. Best of all, musical hooks abound. By
comparison, a lot of Petty's more recent music is relatively formulaic. Throughout much of this
record, I'm delighted by a recurring musical strategy. It's like those cartoons where the coyote
is moving fast, goes off a cliff and then hangs suspended in the air until he realizes he lacks
support. Then he falls. In these arrangements, the music will speed forward and then, suddenly,
all sense of motion is momentarily suspended. And then it speeds on.
Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Tell My Sister (Nonesuch 2011)
Three discs of music, some of it recorded 40 years ago: their first two albums, remastered, and
an amazing disc of demo recordings. Am I exaggerating when I assert that "Heart Like a Wheel"
and "(Talk to Me of) Mendocino" are two of the most exquisite weddings of words and music that
exist? I think not. Their music originates in minstrel songs, Stephen Foster, Charles Ives, French
chanson, and blues, to which they add their singular harmonies and descriptions of the tangled webs
of human relationships. I bought their debut LP in 1976 because it was produced by Joe Boyd, who'd
worked with Fairport Convention and Nick Drake. If you have any affinity for that music, this might
just be your musical Nirvana.
Joe Cocker: With A Little Help From My Friends (A&M 1969)
I watched a Slovenian film recently and was amused when two fat, middle-aged men discussed
Joe Cocker's career as proof that rock music isn't just a matter of youth and good looks.
Coincidentally, I've had his debut album in the car, mainly to listen to its two great Bob Dylan
covers and, above all, "Bye Bye Blackbird." In essence, Cocker's debut album was a showcase
for the aesthetics of appropriation: these English musicians are thoroughly immersed in American
popular music (and some of the songs are twice removed, as cover versions of other English
attempts to sound American, the best being Traffic's "Feelin' Alright"). When's he's in top form,
as here, the slow and midtempo material is both unpredictable and intense.
Bryan Ferry: Olympia (Astralwerks 2010)
Throw a few oboe solos into the arrangements in order to give Andy MacKay a few more chances
to show off, and you might as well call this a Roxy Music album. Avalon II, to be precise. I cannot
say that the presence of Brian Eno makes a notable difference, but I attribute a couple of the
better guitar solos to Pink Floyd's David Gilmour. Of the eight new original songs, five are
midtempo funk grooves and three are languid ballads. The lyrics are largely inconsequential, except
to establish whether Ferry's voice should express lust or longing. To round things out he reaches
back to the late 1960s for two terrific covers, Tim Buckley "Song to the Siren" and a Capaldi-
Winwood tune from Traffic's debut album. In both cases he bests the originals.
The Seldom Scene: Act 1 (Rebel 1972)
Their name is a joke, reflecting the fact that they were amateurs who never played in public more
than once a week. (Notice that their faces are not seen in the cover photo.) Their relative lack of
"redneck" or "hick" accents made their bluegrass appealing to a folkie audience, as did their
decision to treat non-traditional material just like the traditional stuff. The other twist is that a
dobro takes the place of the fiddle, so that their sound is often stripped-down and the high end
never sounds cluttered. Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans" is taken at a surprisingly fast
tempo, and James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" is, to my ear, superior to the source recording,
thanks to the harmonies.
Shelby Lynne: I am Shelby Lynne (Island 2000)
Having failed to attract attention as a mainstream country act after ten years in Nashville, Lynne
decided to reveal that what she really wanted to be was a retro-soul singer. For my money, this
record outshines all of the white, female "soul" and R&B singers that have come since. (Amy
Winehouse, for starters.) And she's something of a vocal chameleon. "Leavin'" could be mistaken
for a lost Aretha Franklin track from the late 1960s. For my personal fave, "I Thought It Would Be
Easier," she could be Ann Peebles. In other spots she's raw ("Why Can't You Be") and delicate
("Dreamsome"). And then "Where I'm From" reminds you that she's just a country girl from
Rolling Stones: Between the Buttons (UK Decca 1967)
This album was the second on which the Jagger & Richards wrote all the material, and some
may foolishly opt for the American version, which leads off with the big hit, "Let's Spend the
Night Together." But British albums of the 1960s didn't always include the hit singles, and the
hit-less UK album has charms of its own. The guitars are less prominent than one might desire,
and Jagger's singing is sometimes awkward, but I adore ten of the twelve songs here despite their
overt misogyny. (Okay, "Back Street Girl" might be a critique of class-based misogyny. But I
wouldn't swear to it.) The true album title should be "Charlie Watts drums to 11songs about
women and 1 about drug use."
Randy Newman: Harps and Angels (Nonesuch 2008)
Sincere, sentimental ballads ("Feels Like Home") are sandwiched between bluesy shuffles, talking blues, and bitter, bitter diatribes. The rhythms of New Orleans permeate much of it, beginning with
the title song, a reflection on morality and divine judgment. (God has background singers and
speaks French!) On first listen some of the songs seem so throw-away that they sound improvised,
but the rhythmic timing and sly spoken asides are so brilliant that I suspect that every word was
carefully selected. If you "get" him, you'll find that this record is one of the strongest in Newman's
long career. "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" and "A Piece of the Pie" insure it.
Greg Kihn: Greg Kihn Again (Beserkely 1977)
The musical genre is pure power pop: catchy rock and roll played by a basic quartet (drums-bass-
two-guitars). The cover versions of Buddy Holly ("Love's Made a Fool of You") and Bruce
Springsteen ("For You") blend seamlessly with the original songs. If that appeals to you, you might
join me in thinking that this disc redeems the late 70s. (If that's an exaggeration, it's because the
closing song isn't very good.) "Island" would be a fine song in the Ray Davies songbook, and "Hurt
So Bad" and "Madison Avenue Man" are pearls. The Replacements might have sounded like this
if they'd had more discipline.
King Wilkie: Low Country Suite (Zoe 2007)
The sextet started as a relatively traditional bluegrass outfit. By the time they put this together,
they got ambitious. What I admire here, besides the sense of craft, is that they make it sound
as if all American song (rap excepted) springs from the same source -- Appalachia by way of
Tin Pan Alley? The key source might be Dylan's "You Ain't Going Nowhere," a song often played
by progressive bluegrass bands and which King Wilkie thinly rewrite as the splendid "Crazy
Daisy," on which they sound remarkably like the Band. Most of the songs are taken at a slow
pace, but "Angeline" is not far from Chuck Berry done acoustic (listen for the instrumental
break!). "Captivator," a song about watching movies, seals the deal for me.
Art Garfunkel: Breakaway (Columbia 1975)
This one falls into the category of a guilty pleasure: lush ear candy dominated by romantic
longing. Garfunkel's voice is in top form here (which is no longer the case, perhaps because,
as the cover reveals, he spent too much time around secondhand smoke). With the exception of
"Rag Doll," which does nothing for me, it's an intelligent selection of songs, both old ("I Only Have
Eyes for You") and new (his last great piece of work with Paul Simon, "My Little Town"). I like the
way that a song like "Disney Girls" (an obscure Beach Boys track) functions as ironic counterpart
to the yearning of Stevie Wonder's "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)."
Steve Earle: Train A Comin (WEA 1997)
This might be picky, but the very title of this disc summarizes my ambivalence to Earle and his
music. Why the folksy misspelling, with not even an apostrophe? Still, this acoustic disc is his
most consistent and listenable record. It helps that he's backed by some of the best players that
money can rent, and Emmylou Harris adds her voice to these casual proceedings. All too often,
his records are dominated by one or two very good songs (three of which are prominently featured
in the film Talladega Nights). Still, it must be said that he tends to yowl and drawl beyond all
need, and that he did not write any of the best four or five songs on this disc. But then again,
those include a Beatles tune and a reggae classic.
Fleetwood Mac: Tusk (WEA 1979 - 1990 single disc)
This two record set was re-mastered for a single CD by trimming some time from Stevie Nicks'
"Sara." I'm not a fan of her music, and you could have trimmed even more of her from these 20
tracks and I'd like it even more. Her appearances are the sorbet course in a French meal: palette
cleansers. The rest of Tusk is offers the contrasting music of Lindsey Buckingham and Christine
McVie. He contributes bitter, raging, and just plain weird material, and she provides four wonderful
songs, including "Over and Over" and "Honey Hi," neither of which I tire of hearing. This is also a
great sonic achievement, with great care taken in the sounds of the instruments, and for my
money this is the best mix. Don't bother with the expanded version.
Philip Glass: Songs from Liquid Days (Sony 1986)
I'm not exactly a fan of Glass's work. Of the recordings I have, I play this one the most. These
are vocal pieces: real songs. (I'm always puzzled by students who refer to every musical work as
a song.) Short patterns repeat endlessly, supplied by Glass's own ensemble and by the Kronos
Quartet. If that's not descriptive enough, think of operatic lines over block-block-block of sound,
intertwined with whirly-whirly-whirly bursts of sound. There's lots of motion, but not much sense
of a journey. I haven't tried it in this context, but I think it would be the perfect soundtrack for a
long car drive through endless cookie-cutter suburbs. Among the vocalists, Linda Ronstadt shines.
Richard Thompson: (guitar, vocal) (Hannibal 1991)
This was a two-disc vinyl set for the 1970s, assembled carefully so that each of the four sides
had a distinctive coherence or pattern. Assembled on one disc, it's a wonderful, incoherent
mess. There's some stuff from the early years with Fairport Convention (including a languid
"cover of the Byrds' song, "Ballad of Easy Rider"), some of the best Linda Thompson
performances ever, and two epic guitar work-outs ("Calvary Cross" and "Night Comes In"). For
those who think Thompson is all doom and gloom, there's a little Chuck Berry. For those who
think he can't sing, half the songs have other vocalists. Just for fun, there are traditional jigs done
as guitar tunes. Me, I like the doom and gloom, and I think he's a great singer.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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..."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.")
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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?
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
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
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
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."
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.
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
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).
Grateful Dead: Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings (Grateful Dead Records
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.
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.
Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon (XL Recordings 2007)
Richard & Linda Thompson: Shoot
Out The Lights (Hannibal 1982)
Tim Buckley: Blue Afternoon
David Bowie: Heroes (RCA 1977)
German Afternoons (Oh Boy 1986)
Stronger (Eleven Thirty 2008)
Jenny Lewis & the Watson Twins:
Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love 2006)
Marti Jones: Unsophisticated Time
Cat Power: Jukebox (Matador
Eroica Trio: Ravel: Piano Trio
Van Morrison: Saint Dominic's Preview
(Warner Bros 1972)
A Tribute to Joni Mitchell (Nonesuch 2007)
Return of the Grievous Angel (Almo 1999))
On the Shore (Columbia 1970; Sony expanded CD 2007)
Back to Black (Republic 2006)
Booker T & the MGs: McLemore
Avenue (Stax 1969)
David Johansen: Live It Up (Blue
Sky 1982, Razor & Tie CD 1992)
Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs:
Under the Covers, Vol. 1 (Shout! Factory 2006)
Nick Lowe: At My Age (Yep Roc
The Pogues: Fairytale of New York
(1988, CD single 2005)
The Byrds: The Notorious Byrd Brothers
(Columbia 1968; expanded digital remaster, 1997)
Joe Ely: Honky Tonk Masquerade
Bruce Springsteen: Magic
Terry Reid: Superlungs (Astralwerks
Los Lobos: The Town and
The City (Hollywood 2006)
Cassandra Wilson: Blue Light til Dawn
(Blue Note 1993)
Dan Hicks: The Most of Dan Hicks &
His Hot Licks (Sony 2001)
Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life (Blue
Gear Daddies, Let's Go Scare Al (Polydor
Love, Forever Changes (Elektra
1967/Rhino Remaster 2001)
The Zombies, Greatest Hits (DCC
Arthur Rubinstein, Chopin: 19
Nocturnes (RCA 2000)
Pretenders, Sire 1980 (Expanded
remaster: Sire/Rhino 2006)
John Fahey, The Transfiguration of
Blind Joe Death, Takoma 1965
Lucinda Williams, West, Lost
T-Bone Burnett, Dot Records 1986
Old & in the Way, Round
Susan Tedeschi, Hope and Desire,
Arcade Fire, Neon Bible, Mercury
Jamie Saft Trio, Trouble, Tzadick
The Triffids, Born Sandy Devotional,
Hot Records 1986
Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Warner
Flying Burrito Brothers, The Gilded
Palace of Sin, A&M 1969
B.B. King, The Ultimate
Collection, Geffen 2005
Paul McCartney, Run Devil Run,
Dion DiMucci, King of the New York
Streets, Capitol 2000
Robert Fripp, Exposure, E.G. 1979
; Discipline 2006 (Expanded version)
Rolling Stones, Goat's Head Soup,
Rolling Stones Records 1973
Johnny Winter, Second Winter,
Elvis Costello, Costello & Nieve,
Warner Bros. 1996
Gerry Mulligan/Thelonious Monk,
Mulligan Meets Monk, Riverside 1957; Expanded 2003
Bob Dylan, Modern Times, Sony
The Byrds, Live at the Fillmore February
1969, Epic/Legacy 2000
Electric Light Orchestra, Eldorado,
Jet 1974 (Expanded Reissue Sony 2001)
Lester Young with the Oscar Peterson
Trio, Verve 1952 (Reissue 1997)
Lyle Lovett, Curb 1986
Grin, 1 + 1, Spindizzy 1971
Moby Grape, 20 Granite Creek,
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers and
Hart Songbook, Polygram 1997 (Remastered ~ Original
Patti Smith, Horses: Legacy Edition,
David Thomas Broughton, Complete Guide
to Insufficiency, Birdwar/Plug Research, 2005
The Greatest Hits of Eric Burden and
the Animals, MGM 1969
Leonard Cohen, Dear Heather,
Brian Eno, Another Day on Earth,
Lucinda Williams, Live @ The Fillmore, Lost
Pixies, Doolittle, Elektra
The Blue Nile, High, Sanctuary
Neil Young, Prairie Wind, Reprise
Ersel Hickey, The Rockin' Bluebird, Collectibles
Adam Green, Gemstones, Rough
Jimmy Reed, The Very Best of Jimmy
Reed, Rhino 2000
Sly & The Family Stone, There's a Riot Goin' On, Epic
Chad VanGaalen, Infiniheart, Sub
David Ackles, American Gothic, Elektra
Patti Smith, trampin', Columbia/Sony
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Will the Circle
Be Unbroken, EMI 1972/Expanded edition 2002
John Cale, HoboSapiens, Or
Woody Guthrie, Dust Bowl Ballads, RCA
Victor 1940, Buddha Records expanded edition 2000
Joan Baez, Any Day Now, Vanguard
Olivier Messiaen, Quatuor Pour La Fin
Du Temps, Deutsche Grammophon 2000
k. d. lang, Hymns of the 49th
Parallel, Nonesuch 2004
Neil Young, Time Fades Away,
Free, Best of Free, A&M
Gifted and Black, Canyon 1970
Sonny Rollins, The Quartet featuring
Jim Hall, RCA/Bluebird 1986
Mark Vidler, GoHomeProductions,
Online mp3 downloads
Leonard Cohen, Death of a Ladies' Man,
Warner Bros. 1977
A Christmas Gift For You, Philies 1963/Rhino 1987
The Nashville Acoustic Sessions,
One Trick Pony, Warner Bros. 1980 (Remastered and Expanded 2004)
Marshall Crenshaw, Warner Bros. 1982
Terminal Tower, Twin Tone 1985
Smile, Nonesuch 2004
20/20, 20/20, CBS 1979
Fountains of Wayne,
Welcome Interstate Managers, S-Curve 2003
The Replacements, Pleased to Meet
Me, Warner Bros. 1987
Canned Heat, Living the Blues,
Buffalo Springfield, Last Time Around,
Fairport Convention, What We Did On
Our Holidays, Hannibal, 1969
That's The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk,
Scott Joplin (Composer), The Easy Winners, Angel, 1975
Emmylou Harris, Blue Kentucky Girl, Warner Bros., 1979 (Rhino
expanded cd, 2004)
Steely Dan, Everything Must Go, Reprise, 2003
Ray Charles, Definitive, WEA, 2001
Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose, Interscope, 2004
Steve Forbert, Streets of This Town, Geffen, 1988
Elvis Costello, Trust, Columbia, 1981 (2 disc edition, Rhino,
Sparks, Kimono My House, Island, 1974
Chris Cacavas, Chris Cacavas and Junk Yard Love, Heyday, 1988
Jim Carroll, Catholic Boy, Atco, 1980
Carlene Carter, Musical Shapes, Warner Brothers, 1980
Various Artists, Rainy Day, 1984
Joan Armatrading, Lovers Speak, 2003
The Folk Years, Time-Life Collection, 2003
The Pogues, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, MCA, 1985
Brinsley Schwartz, Despite It All, Capitol, 1970
Phil Ochs, Chords of Fame, A&M 1976
Dave Edmunds Get It, Swan Song 1977
Soundtrack Album, Twin Peaks, Warner Bros. 1990
Harry Nilsson, Nilsson Sings Newman, RCA 1969
Van Dyke Parks, Song Cycle, Warner Bros. 1968
Charlie Haden and Hank Jones, Steal Away, Verve 1995
Iggy Pop, The Idiot, RCA 1977
Elvis Costello, North, Deutsche Grammophon 2003
Television, Adventure, Elektra 1978/Rhino Expanded Edition
Robin Holcomb, Rockabye, Nonesuch 1992
Bob Dylan, John Wesley Harding, Columbia 1968, SACD 2003
The Flatlanders, More a Legend Than a Band, Plantation
1973, various reissues
Jennifer Warnes, Famous Blue Raincoat, Private Music
The Best of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes,
Bob Marley and the Wailers, Live at the Roxy, Island
Uncle Tupelo, 89/93: Anthology,
Charles Lloyd in Europe, Atlantic 1968
The Clash, Combat Rock, Epic 1982 (Remastered CD on
Jesse Winchester, Jesse Winchester, Ampex
The White Stripes, Elephant, V2 2003
Various Artists, I'm Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard
Cohen, Atlantic 1991
Lou Reed, Live: Take No Prisoners, Arista 1978
Linda Ronstadt, Simple Dreams, Asylum 1977
Love, Love Revisited, Elektra 1970
Steely Dan, Citizen Steely Dan, MCA 1993
Lotte Lenya, Lenya Sings Weill: The American Theatre
Songs, Sony Classical
The Kinks, Face to Face, Reprise 1966
The Jam, Setting Sons, Polydor 1979
Talking Heads, The Name of This Band is Talking Heads,
Shudder to Think, First Love, Last Rites, Sony 1998
The Eels, Electro-Shock Blues, Dream Works 1998
Washington Phillips, I Am Born to Preach the Gospel, Yazoo
Bob Dylan and the Hawks, Tales of a Mexican
Neil Young, Hawks & Doves, Warner Bros. 1980
Warren Zevon, Excitable Boy, Asylum 1978
Funkadelic, One Nation Under a Groove, Warner Brothers
Duke Ellington, The OKeh Ellington, Columbia 1991;
John Cale, Vintage Violence, Columbia 1970
The Chieftans, Bells of Dublin, RCA 1991
Tom Waits, Used Songs (1973-1980), Rhino
Hot Tuna, Hot Tuna, RCA 1970 (expanded CD
Flatt and Scruggs, Songs of the Famous Carter Family, Columbia
Jimmy Eat World, Clarity, Capitol 1999
Mott the Hoople, Mott, Columbia 1973
Sarah Vaughan, Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown, Verve
King Sunny Adé, Ju Ju Music, Mango, 1982
Linda Thompson, Fashionably Late, Rounder 2002
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Live in New
Ryan Adams, Gold, Lost Highway 2001
Bill Frisell, Blues Dream, Elektra/Asylum
The Concert for Bangladesh, Apple 1972; CD
Squeeze, Greatest Hits, A&M 1996
Bob Marley, Exodus, Tuff Gong 1977; Expanded
Galactic, We Love Em Tonight: Live at Tipitina's
Etta James, Tell Mama: The Complete Muscle Shoals
The Cocteau Twins, Blue Bell Knoll, Capitol 1988
Chappaquiddick Skyline, Sub Pop 1999
|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
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>
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>
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.
|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.
|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
|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.
|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.
© 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
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