Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Black Keys - Turn Blue (2014)

The Black Keys are as diverse as The Beatles' were beginning with Rubber Soul through the end of their days and that usually resulted in fans of the latter loving everything they released. However, in the case of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney it sometimes means that not everyone will be satisfied with all of their work, the best example being the duo's supremely misguided rap record, Blackroc (2009). Fortunately, their latest, Turn Blue, is one you should find to your liking.

The boys latest is 1970s arena rock sprinkled with psychedelia and a bit of R&B tossed in on the vocals (Like I said, eclectic). Less gritty than the rockers' early, more blues based discs the pristine production contributes to this being a very different sounding album than those from a decade ago when they began paying regular visits to the Hot 100.

There is the excellent "Weight of Love," the album's opening salvo, that is repeatedly and accurately compared to Pink Floyd. "Fever," a danceable, 80s, new wave track and "Bullet In The Brain," the first single, couldn't be more different from each other. Then there is the R&B drenched power ballad, "Waiting On Words," that also features a very cool guitar riff. Four tracks show off the duo's love of female backing vocals. The disc closes with one of the catchiest songs ever played on radio, "Gotta Get Away," a bouncy and friendly blast of energy filed with hooks that must have many long time fans believing that Auerbach and Carney have sold out.

Danger Mouse was behind the glass again, just as he was on the Keys international blockbuster, El Camino (2011).

In these days of formulaic artists it's great we have a band that loves to experiment and isn't afraid to take chances. The Black Keys usually make their journeys worth the listener's time and Turn Blue is another fine example.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Great Cover Versions: The Tremeloes - Here Comes My Baby (1967)

1967 was the year of "Flower Power," peace signs, and Haight-Ashbury. Both music and Western culture were changing rapidly and drastically but the British Invasion was still in full bloom as the former empire continued to send hits to the upper reaches of the American record charts in a big way.

Popular in Britain since around the time The Beatles became a sensation in their country The Tremeloes finally hit America with "Here Comes My Baby," a song written and recorded by Cat Stevens on his debut album, Matthew & Son (1967). Stevens' original version is much more pop-oriented than the music we came to know as his style and his voice is not instantly recognizable. When I first learned (not that long ago) that he wrote "Here Comes My Baby" I was quite surprised.

The song's universal appeal is evident by the fact outfits as different as The Mavericks and Yo La Tengo have issued their own covers (both versions are good) but the English band's release continues to be the definitive one.

The Tremeloes' single went to #4 on the English charts and #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 here in America and is missing the final verse that Stevens used on his album track.

In this video the group is camping it up more than they need to and having a little too much fun despite the fact they don't have the girl. It's immediately followed by Stevens' LP version.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Brandi Carlile - The Firewatcher's Daughter (2015)

For her fifth studio album Brandi Carlile decided it was time for a change. Her subject matter remains the same, she still writes about missing her youth, family, friends, and how much they all mean to her. The difference is how these subjects are presented. On The Firewatcher's Daughter the veteran but still young artist continues to record songs with folk inclinations but she also rocks like never before and the album has a looser feel to it because everything was recorded in one take. Nothing was over rehearsed.

The twelve song album still has the Hanseroth twins by Carlile's side and they serve once again as full collaborators, not just as prominent sidemen in her band. The trio composes together and separately sharing writing credits almost equally. The only area in which the star dominates is vocally. She continues to be the lead voice on all of the songs and is the dominant personality and frontwoman of her domain.

"Mainstream Kid" has a definite punk influence and "Blood, Muscle, Skin & Bone" is loud but contains enough hooks to pull the listener into the singer's world. "The Stranger At My Door" is another rocker (it's the song where the CD's title comes from) and it descends into 60s style feedback in the coda, another very unusual touch from this pensive artist. "Things I Regret," with the great line "You can only remember what you want to forget," demands to be added to the playlists of radio stations who thrive on Americana. "The Eye," ("You can dance in a hurricane but only the eye") with beautiful three part harmonies is one of the album's highlights. "I Belong to You" is a straight acoustic love song and the album closes with a very moving cover of The Avett Brothers' "Murder In The City."

Fortunately, instead of playing it safe, Carlile altered her sound before her records became stale and as a result she created another excellent piece of work. For those of you who don't relish change there is still enough acoustic material and singer-songwriter rock to keep you happy.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mark Knopfler - Sultan of The Guitar

To these ears there has never been a more outstanding guitar player than Mark Knopfler. What he does better than most of the men who shred for a living, and are revered for it, is that he frequently plays with tasteful restraint. It's not that he can't break your eardrums, he most certainly can, and he proved it with the phenomenal "Telegraph Road" from Love Over Gold but even when he demonstrates his virtuosity with one of his great solos it's always in service to the song, not merely an attempt to show off his chops. Why? Because the Scotsman is a very good songwriter too.

Knopfler has had four separate careers. Early on he was the leader of a quartet that started out as a little pub band. You should all know that outfit as Dire Straits.

Secondly, Knopfler is also a talented composer of movie soundtracks. Local Hero, Cal, and The Princess Bride are just a few on a larger list. Most of this music can be listened to as entities unto themselves rather than just as adjuncts to the films. You do not need to have seen the movies to appreciate them. It's telling that these albums have mostly been marketed as Knopfler's work and not simply as music from the films.

Next, there is Knopfler the collaborator. His sessions with The Notting Hillbillies, Emmylou Harris, and Chet Atkins prove he's not necessarily interested in being a star. In fact, one of the reasons he broke up Dire Straits was because he believed the band had gotten too big. He's happily shared the credit and even stepped back from the spotlight when working with others.

Finally, there is Knopfler the singer-songwriter. For the most part his guitar playing is no longer an event. Instead his soothing, Dylan-like baritone vocal chords are front and center.

Overall, Knopfler has consistently released high quality records and election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should be a certainty.

The guitarist also deserves a complete album by album retrospective. Unfortunately, he has far too big of a catalog to go down that road so what I'll attempt to do here is discuss Knopfler's best in chronological order.

Let's start at the very beginning.

Dire Straits (1978)
The band's debut LP was an unexpected commercial success highlighted by the big hit single, "Sultans of Swing." As always, Knopfler played his best and he proved early on that he knew how to write lyrics and craft a song. This record was a thankful departure from most new bands that arrived on the scene in the late 70s who were heavily into the new wave or punk and away from musicianship. If there is a fault with the album anywhere it's in the leader's singing. Knopfler sang better on all of his later records but his shortcomings here aren't enough to detract from the listener's enjoyment. His voice is not unpleasant. Overall, it's a sparsely arranged set that shows off Dire Straits' pub band roots perfectly.

Dire Straits - Making Movies (1980)
Knopfler outdid himself here with a seven song record, and the band's third, that included his best work to date: "Skateaway," "Romeo and Juliet," "Solid Rock," "Expresso Love, "and "Tunnel of Love" all received substantial airplay and deserved it. The great guitarist's vocals improved too (or recorded in a fashion that his deficiencies were compensated for). Knopfler's brother, David, who was second guitarist, left the quartet and the E Street Band's Roy Bittan assisted, giving the album more color with his keyboard work. With the possible exception of the last track, "Les Boys," Dire Straits third album is a winner and one of the best of the 80s.

Dire Straits - Love Over Gold (1982)
"Telegraph Road" is 14:23 of rock 'n roll bliss and Dire Straits' best song. It's a story about land development in Detroit, Michigan over several decades and how it's evolving landscape adversely affected a man's life. After the relatively quiet, mid-tempo main song ends it suddenly explodes into a speedy, blistering 4:00 jam session (similar to "Free Bird") that stills sends shivers down my spine all these years later. The hit was "Industrial Disease" another song about the state of of the working man, only this time in Britain. "Private Investigations" is not too shabby either. The whole album contains only five songs and is around forty-one minutes in length which is probably why some people have branded it as Dire Straits' prog-rock album. However, there is nothing progressive sounding about these songs even though it's more meticulously produced and ambitious than anything they previously released.

Mark Knopfler - Local Hero (1983)
This album, jointly Mark Knopfler's first solo work and his first soundtrack, was written about extensively on Bloggerhythms several years ago so there is no point in doing so again because my opinion of this work of art hasn't changed. You can read all about this moving, mostly instrumental, showcase for Knopfler's composing skills here.

Dire Straits - Brothers In Arms (1985)
Dire Straits' one and only international blockbuster is also their most diverse record. The famous guitar riff on "Money For Nothing" was once described as heavy metal for yuppies and that's accurate because while he can rock hard, Knopfler, unlike most headbangers, actually writes songs that are about something. Besides, the MTV favorite isn't down and dirty enough to be considered metal. "So Far Away" could be a J. J. Cale tune and "Walk of Life" has a definite rockabilly vibe. Then there is the tension of side two. Four songs, highlighted by the title track, are about war and political abuse. Although the band, whose lineup by this time was now mostly just Knopfler, bassist John Illsley, and whoever he recruited to play with them, would continue on for a while this platter was really the end of their glory years.

The Notting Hillbillies - Missing...Presumed Having a Good Time (1990)
This is the only album made by Knopfler's post-Dire Straits country band. He took lead vocals on "Your Own Sweet Way" but the rest of the time the singing was given over to the other members of the quartet. The album is a quiet outing in which the star blends into the background but he does contribute harmony vocals and his always classy guitar work. The band included singer-songwriter Brendan Croker as well as Steve Phillips who made guitars for Dire Straits. The keyboard player was Guy Fletcher, a later member of Knopfler's old band, who continued to work with him on many of his soundtracks.

Mark Knopfler - A Shot At Glory (2002)
Containing some of Knopfler's best movie music this soundtrack has three vocal tunes that sound as if they were quality leftovers from Dire Straits and the rest is instrumental music that combines electrified rock with Celtic folk music. Rock guitar is supplemented by bagpipes, fiddles, and accordions. Colorful all the way around.

Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris - All the Roadrunning (2006)
The pure country album reached number eight in the United Kingdom and went to number seventeen on the Billboard 200 in America. It was a collaborative effort with country star Emmylou Harris recorded over a seven year period before its 2006 release. The set is a unique blending of two voices that surprisingly complement each other well. Ten of the twelve tracks are Knopfler compositions, the other two were contributed by Harris. This album spawned a subsequent tour and DVD. Knopfler is the star but the presence of a female lead singer on his songs sends this record into a whole new dimension.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Kent State & the Protest Song

One of the things I miss about music today is the protest song.

Today's rap crap is frequently too full of violent, misogynistic lyrics (OK, you've made a good point, The Rolling Stones were often like that too). Today's self-absorbed, singer-songwriters, as excellent as many of them are, can not be mistaken for real folk or protest singers even though that is where a lot of their musical influences were schooled.

It's not that there is nothing left to say and nobody around to say it. Jackson Browne's latest, 2014's Standing In The Breach, was very politically and socially aware.

The recently, dearly departed, Celtic-rock band, Black 47, also frequently walked in Browne's territory over their twenty-five year existence. Their final CD, Last Call (also 2014), took on illegal immigration. In 2008 they recorded an entire disc about the war in Iraq and they were important in spreading the word about Ireland's often violent history.

Protest and political songs don't have to be depressing or preachy. Humor is a great way to make a point and to gain attention. Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant Masacree" is very long but it's also extremely funny while protesting war and the draft. Stevie Wonder recorded a song you could dance to with "Happy Birthday," the last track from Hotter Than July (1980), his last record from his golden era. It was his plea for Martin Luther King's birthday to become a national holiday that he was eventually happy to see become a reality. Both artists, though very different musically, proved lightheartedness can help promote serious goals.

There were more. The almost forgotten Al Stewart told us all about the "Road to Moscow" and George Harrison lead The Beatles on his tirade against the "Taxman."

Peter, Paul, and Mary are finished, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez have grown old, and U2 have abandoned their causes. Where are the new Pete Seegers and Woody Guthries? Some of these activist musicians actually recorded songs with a social conscience that became hits and, over time, popular standards.

This post was inspired by today's forty-fifth anniversary of the tragedy at Ohio's Kent State University. The unfortunate campus protest that resulted in the deaths of four college students prompted Neil Young to write "Ohio," one of rock's great politically charged records. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young rode it to number 14 on Billboard's Hot 100 shortly after the tragedy. The flip side of the famous single was a short, Stephen Stills song, "Find the Cost of Freedom," dedicated to those who died in the war in Viet Nam.

While there has always been a need for escapism in entertainment there was a time when pop music made people think. We need some of that thoughtfulness again.