Thursday, August 28, 2014

Forgotten Music Thursday & Great Cover Versions: Nilsson - Without You (1972)

Once in awhile a piece of music sounds so generic that you wonder what someone else hears in it but that's what makes some people musicians while millions of us without talent work in cubicles. They hear things in songs we never will. One of those blessed with such talent was the late Harry Nilsson who obviously heard something in Badfinger's "Without You" that no one else did, not even the song's composers.

The troubled British quartet released the original version of "Without You," written by the band's Tom Evans and Pete Ham, for their 1970 album, No Dice. However, their arrangement of this soon-to-be massive 1972 hit for Nilsson never got noticed by the public and it was destined to be just another deep track from a classic album.  Even Ham and Evans believed it was nothing more than album filler.

Badfinger's recording is quite thin when compared to Nilsson's more melodramatic take that appeared on his 1971 Nilsson Schmilsson LP.  The 45 RPM that was culled from his album reached #1 on the US pop charts and stayed there for four weeks in the winter of '72.

Mariah Carey also covered the song as a single in 1994 and she rode it to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in America. It also became her biggest hit in Europe. Carey's performance was based on Nilsson's record and because it lacked the originality that his did the critics were not as kind to her.

Today, it is Nilsson's version that still resonates while almost no one remembers the original Badfinger track.


Friday, August 22, 2014

Great Cover Versions: The Allman Brothers Band - Heart of Stone (2003)

A new, occasional series starts today on Bloggerhythms, Great Cover Versions, featuring songs that are just as good, or better, than their original and/or more famous versions.

In 1965 The Rolling Stones released "Heart of Stone," an early single that became a big hit in America. It's one of The Glimmer Twins better, early ballads, but today, unfortunately, it mostly takes a back seat to many of their more famous tunes. It's a fine performance with an excellent vocal by Mick Jagger.

As good as The Stones version was, The Allman Brothers Band released an even better cover of this tune on their last album, Hittin' the Note, in 2003 with both Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes playing guitar. Greg Allman's superb, soulful vocal is superior to Jagger's. If this album truly was the last ABB studio set it was a great way to go out.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Puss N Boots - No Fools, No Fun (2014)

Other than the actual music one of the more endearing qualities about Norah Jones is that the anti-diva is among the few unselfish pop stars on the planet when it comes to sharing the spotlight with others. Her ego doesn't need to call attention to herself because she is all about the music.

While the singer-songwriter is the main attraction in The Little Willies she is not the sole reason to listen to that country band's two albums. She is even more selfless when teaming with Billy Jo Armstrong on Foreverly, the duo's tribute to The Everly Brothers, and now Jones has allowed herself to be nothing greater than one third of Puss N Boots, another country collaboration with Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper.

Jones, Dobson, and Popper have been performing together since 2008 and this year they finally released an album, No Fools, No Fun. Only five of the songs come from the ladies themselves, the rest are cover versions, and there are four live tracks.

Speaking of covers, the band has impeccable taste, choosing works from many hall of fame worthy composers: Robbie Robertson ("Twilight"), Roger Miller (a live version of "Tarnished Angel"), and Jeff Tweedy ("Jesus Etc."), as well as "Cry, Cry, Cry" by Johnny Cash.

The only two songs that rock are "Don't Know What It Means," the only composition on the album written by Jones. On it she handles electric guitar duties like she was born to play rockabilly. It's immediately followed by a killer cover of Neil Young's "Down By The River" where she rips some great lead lines while sounding a lot like Young. Jones has mostly been known as a pianist but here she proves that she's no slouch with an axe in her hands.

The trio is not interested in playing to current trends at all. The ultimate proof is "In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town" which dates back to 1932. Their vocals on this chestnut as well as Tom Paxton's "Leaving London" feature pure, three part, country girl harmonies reminiscent of Trio, the great country roots disc by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt. The difference is that Puss N Boots is rawer than that celebrated super group's first release. This isn't a criticism of the younger outfit because their sparse, often drummerless arrangements, are a perfect foundation for their vocals and songs.

The star's democratic role here also brings to mind Mark Knopfler's one-off sessions with The Notting Hillbillies, Missing...Presumed Having a Good Time, a country album with a group of unknowns on which the fabulous guitarist takes less than a starring role.

I have no idea if No Fools, No Fun is just a lark or if Puss N Boots will use this effort as a springboard into something more permanent. However, the music the three make on these fourteen tracks is completely worth your time and often a lot of fun.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Black Horse Motel - Red Summer Spirit (2013)

Every year, beginning the first Friday in August, Bethlehem, PA presents Musikfest, the nation's largest free music festival. It lasts ten days and spans two full weekends while offering hundreds of free acts. You can see and hear everything from polka bands, to jazz, to country, to hard rock.

The festival also brings in a few major performers each year who require you to purchase a ticket. This year's incomplete list of headliners includes Alan Jackson, The Moody Blues, Sheryl Crow, The Avett Brothers, and Weezer.

I've seen a lot of free concerts at Musikfest and it's a great way to find new artists. Such is the case with Black Horse Motel (BHM), a Philadelphia based folk-rock band, who released their first album, Red Summer Spirit in 2013.

Band leader and primary composer David Richardson sings most of the lead vocals, and he plays banjo, mandolin, and guitar as well. On the eleven track CD John Cradic also sings while assisting on guitar, and Johnell Lawrence plays a mean fiddle. Both have been replaced since the album was released by Galen Fitzpatrick and Ryann Lynch respectively. Desiree Haney supports the lower end with her cello.

With just those four on the front line BHM would sound like a modern, urban, bluegrass band (not that there's anything wrong with that) but it is drummer Megan Manning who turns them into a rock band. This lady can hang with anybody and in a live setting she provides almost all of the energy that fuels the rest of the group. Manning's contributions are less apparent on Red Summer Spirit because in the studio the full band allows the songs to be the star of the show (and that is as it should be) but on Saturday night she rocked with all of her might.

The album, led by the opening track, "The Apology" is thoughtful without being too arty and you can dance to it too. Overall, the quintet gave us a nice full length debut.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Chicago XXXVI: Now (2014)

Chicago XXXVI: Now is the former Windy City band's latest attempt at new, original music and while it's head and shoulders above the debacle that was XXX, their last album of newly recorded material (unless you count the long delayed Stone of Sisyphus), it's not what I hoped it would be.

Of the four founding members still in the group's lineup only two, Robert Lamm and trumpeter Lee Loughnane were full time participants on XXXVI. Long time second generation member, Bill Champlin, is gone too so it would be foolish of me to believe the large ensemble would record an album that sounds like their classic years. Chicago is no longer that band.

Unfortunately, my wish was fulfilled on this record and that is one of the big problems with the project. Lamm, who wrote or co-wrote seven of the eleven new tunes, is back in the saddle as the group's principal writer which means he's the person most responsible for this mess of an album. It appears that their most talented composer has finally gone stale (most of his compositions sound indistinguishable from one another) and, if that's indeed the case, perhaps it's time for the veteran act to hang up their horns and call it a day.

Loughnane is a good musician but his lyric writing is cringe worthy. His lone songwriting credit is "America." Sadly he wrote, "America is you and me, Our declaration tells us we're all free and equal, No religion, no color, just people, No one better, no one worse, Everyone comes first" on this insipid track." With those last words he conjures up moldy, leftover images from Woodstock or a politically correct moment from Sesame Street. Lee, don't you realize that if everyone comes first no one does? Please stick to what you do best and simply play your horn.

Jason Scheff's usually screeching vocals are a lot of what's wrong with the title track and, when Lou Pardini (Champlin's replacement) and guitarist Keith Howland both take their turn as lead singer, Chicago proves they don't have a superb vocalist anymore.

Loughnane's lyrics aren't the only thing here that will give you a headache. The CD cover is Chicago's worst design ever. If you have equilibrium problems you should not stare at it too long. I'm sure the boys in the band don't want you to lose your balance.

It wasn't always this way. For a look at the original septet's golden era take a look at An Album By Album Analysis Of The Terry Kath Era.