Saturday, February 18, 2017

Eva Cassidy - Songbird (1998)

It’s a shame people still don’t know who the late Eva Cassidy is. The singer and guitarist became a posthumous star in 1998 but unfortunately, while alive, she was totally unknown outside her Washington D.C. area home.

Two years after her passing at age thirty-three from melanoma, her golden singing voice was discovered by two BBC disc jockeys who heard her versions of "Over the Rainbow" and Sting's "Fields of Gold." She went on to have great popularity in Britain where she earned three number one records that sold over ten million copies combined.

A compilation, Songbird, put together from her three CDs was released in 1998 but Cassidy's work continued to exist in complete obscurity here at home until ABC-TV's Nightline televised a brief segment about her. The weekend after the program aired all of her albums soared to the top of Amazon's best sellers list. The disc went platinum in 2008.

Five songs from Songbird ("Wade in the Water," "Wayfaring Stranger," "Songbird," "Time is A Healer," and "I Know You By Heart") are from Cassidy's debut album, Eva by Heart. Four more, ("Fields Of Gold," "Autumn Leaves," "People Get Ready," and "Oh, Had I A Golden Thread") are from her second CD, Live at Blues Alley. The compilation's final track, "Over the Rainbow," is from The Other Side.

Some of the tracks on this CD differ from the original versions. The singer's father found an alternate version of "Wayfaring Stranger" that was considered good enough to include on this set and the applause was edited from the Live at Blues Alley tracks.

Cassidy was an uncommon talent. Her voice allowed her to tackle any song with a rare combination of power and beauty. She was at her best on soft ballads and on gospel-tinged soul. Her sparsely arranged version of "Fields of Gold" is one of the most tasteful cover songs I've ever heard and rivals Sting's original. "Wade in the Water," "Wayfaring Stranger," and "People Get Ready" are her rhythm and blues offerings and although these tracks feature a really tight band that is also very satisfying her voice remains the star of the show. Cassidy's cover of Christine McVie's "Songbird," from Fleetwood Mac's Rumours LP, sounds like she listened to a lot of Dusty Springfield during her Memphis period.

During her brief career Cassidy received a few composing credits but she was mostly a terrific interpreter of other people's songs.

You can read about Cassidy's life, her music, illness and more here at Wikipedia and at a website put online by one of her relatives.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Forgotten Music: Chicago - Vote for Me (1977)

One of the more fascinating devices Chicago's Robert Lamm employed on a few of his political songs was not taking sides. It's one of the components of the keyboard player's writing that helped make him Chicago's best composer. Nevertheless, Lamm has always possessed strong opinions and anyone who has been a fan of Chicago over the years knows which side he leans toward politically.

The best example of Lamm's seeming neutrality is the band's hit single, "Dialogue," from 1972. The song is a conversation between two college students represented by Terry Kath and Peter Cetera, each espousing a different point of view. The lyrics are more about apathy and not being involved than any specific ideology and, to his credit, Lamm never reveals his hand.

The same can be said for Lamm's 1977 album track from Chicago XI, "Vote For Me." It's an uptempo, joyous sounding, pop song featuring a gospel chorus on which a presidential candidate happily promises voters everything, including "new cars that run on beer," but deep down you know he'll never follow through with any of them.

The lyrics reveal Lamm's sense of humor while totally skewering our political process and the hypocrisy of elected officials. Again, he doesn't make his politics known thereby adding a bit of mystery to the song and it's stronger because of it.

Politics is on the minds of people more than usual these days so it's time to resurrect this long forgotten track that should have been a classic. "Vote For Me" could have been a hit if it had been released as a single just a few years earlier. Its timing just wasn't right.

This was the last song Lamm wrote with a social message until 1984 when "We Can Stop the Hurtin'" appeared on Chicago 17.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

La La Land - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Released December 9, 2016)

As a movie offering us a good love story La La Land easily satisfies. Actors Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are excellent and they have a great rapport with each other. They look and act like a real couple, something that is a must for a romantic film to be successful.

This best film nominee of 2016 is well paced and looks great. Both things can be attributed to Damien Chazelle who is quickly establishing himself as a fine director.

Much of the plot of La La Land is driven by Gosling's character who is an aspiring jazz musician. Chazelle is also the man behind the award winning Whiplash, a 2014 film about a jazz drummer at a music conservatory. Apparently, the director is a big jazz fan.

La La Land gets four stars for its acting, plot, direction, cinematography and all of those neat little things Hollywood gives awards for. Unfortunately, the music is not as rewarding.

The jazz, pop, show tunes, and instrumentals, all composed by Justin Hurwitz who also worked with Chazelle on Whiplash, are not compelling and waste the lyrics of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Even 'City of Stars," the Academy Award nominated song from the film and, "Another Day of Sunshine," the huge production number that opens the flick on a Los Angeles freeway, failed to make a lasting impression. As soon as the songs were over they disappeared from my mind forever. The lone exception is John Legend's performance of "Start a Fire," a bright, pop-rhythm & blues workout that deserves significant radio airplay.

The soundtrack isn’t helped by the fact that Stone and Gosling are merely adequate vocalists. Their singing is bland and not at all powerful. Musicals need better voices than these two stars possess. In the end there is no need to listen to the soundtrack outside of the context of the film but you should go see it anyway. The story deserves your attention.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

It's Time To Stream Some Music

A recent Christmas present from my wife was Chromecast Audio, a very small device that can be attached to my Yamaha home theater receiver. It’s no more than half an inch thick and not much wider than a silver dollar. Basically, it looks like a small, black, plastic, hockey puck with a couple of wires attached.

Once Chromecast was plugged into the RCA V-AUX outlet on my system all I had to do is register it online and begin streaming music directly from my laptop. Installation is easy even for those of us who are not tech savvy. Now I can play streamed music through my Klipsch floor speakers in beautiful, room filling, clarity.

There are additional ways to plug Chromecast Audio into traditional speakers (what some people now call "dumb" speakers) and equipment so you can use it virtually with any kind of setup. You can enjoy Chromecast by using apps downloaded to your phone or ipad or on a laptop or desktop computer.

Chromecast Audio is inexpensive too. It lists at $35, but my wife purchased one at Best Buy for only $25. You can’t buy it from Amazon because the online shopping giant considers it competition for their own Echo. I’m using it to replace my Sirius/XM subscription that was now surpassing $100 per year and because there are so many streaming sites available I have far more opportunities to hear a lot of different music.

Now it's time to move on to the reason technology such as Chromecast Audio exists and that is listening to music.

Chromecast easily works well with both Pandora and Spotify but there are lots of sites beyond those two that offer a thousands of songs, artists, and genres so let's discuss a couple of very good ones that you can use.

AccuRadio is completely free and for my money it's one of the best streaming platforms currently available. It offers over 1,000 stations. You can customize your listening by rating every song you hear. You can even ban songs and artists. Unusually, for a free service the site also offers an unlimited number of song skips.

The Chicago based outfit has stations featuring everything from classical, opera, beautiful music, Broadway, jazz, blues, all kinds of rock music and country fare, folk, singer-songwriters, and hip-hop. There are hits stations for every decade from the 1950s to the 2000s.

Examples of the unique stations AccuRadio fans can sample are "Ladies Sing the Blues," so titled because it plays only blues music performed by women. They have a Korean pop station and a French pop station.

AccuRadio pays the bills with ads on their website and with commercials on their stations. However, to greatly reduce the interruptions per hour you can sign up for a free account. There is never a fee.

The bottom line is if you can't find a station you like using AccuRadio you should not bother making music a part of your life.

Another good streaming service that is geared toward the Philadelphia metropolitan area is iradiophilly.

Unlike AccuRadio, it's a small, local service with only eight stations including a year round Christmas music station and a station that plays only Philadelphia based artists. The website has a definite local slant, including regional news and events, but the radio programming is for everyone, everywhere. Their stations are not commercial free, but the ads are strategically placed so as not to be annoying or overwhelming. They offer a great signal too.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

The Rolling Stones - Blue & Lonesome (2016)

The Rolling Stones are back with their first studio album since The Bigger Bang more than a decade ago and it's a surprise because there isn't a single Keith Richards / Mick Jagger original song anywhere. Instead, Blue & Lonesome offers up twelve raw covers of old blues tunes, many that predate the infamous British rockers' career.

It's been written here before that usually when an artist releases an album of all cover songs it's because he or she has run out of inspiration while they still have contractual obligations to fulfill. It is to the Stones' credit that they didn't fall into an often fatal trap by releasing an album that often puts the nail in the coffin of many formerly great and productive careers.

Blue & Lonesome comes across as a true labor of love. All of these old songs grew from the roots of the original quintet. The blues are what inspired Jagger and friends in the beginning and it's a shame the band took so long to produce such an effort.

Richards is the The Rolling Stones' Paul McCartney. He's the one who seems to care most about their legacy so what is truly amazing about this record is how much of a Jagger album it is. While the songs feature three great guitarists (Richards, Ron Wood, and Eric Clapton who plays slide guitar on "Everybody Knows About My Good Thing" and lead electric on "I Can't Quit You Baby") it's the frontman's vocals and harmonica work that stand out. While all of the axe work is quite good it is Jagger who comes across as the most engaged. Who knew he still had it in him?

The songs are by Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Magic Sam, Howlin' Wolf and a host of others.

If this is the last album by England's second most famous rock band, it's a great way to say farewell.