Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Forgotten Music: Soft Cell - Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go (1981)

Every once in awhile I feel the need to give the 1980s a nod because occasionally the decade really did offer something to talk about musically.

The British synth-pop duo of singer Marc Almond and David Ball, known as Soft Cell, were not true one hit wonders but they may as well have been. They're mostly remembered for their 1981 hit "Tainted Love" that peaked at #8 in the United States and #1 in seventeen other countries including their native England.

Almond was the singer and Ball played virtually every instrument.

The 2:34 single, from Soft Cell's debut album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret pales in comparison to the nine minute, 12" version that segues into a cover of The Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go."

Almond contributes a fine lead vocal while Ball adds a very spooky, yet almost danceable, full, bottom end. When the riff from the Motown trio's hit is added on top with what sounds like a vibraphone (but is probably a keyboard) we realize just how good the Holland-Dozier-Holland song is. Great songs shine through in any environment.

It's a gem of a record from a genre that mostly sounds dated today.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

J Burn - Burnt Blue (2015)

For those of you who miss The Grateful Dead, Pure Prairie League and Sweetheart of the Rodeo era Byrds there is San Franciscan J. Burn who, I'm sure not coincidentally, recorded his new EP at Bob Weir's TRI Studios in San Rafael, CA.

Burnt Blue, a brief four song set, is Burn's second effort. His first was a full-fledged fourteen track album, Major Melodies Backward Beginnings, in 2014.

Burn should be taken seriously. You can tell by the company he keeps in the studio. In addition to working at TRI he is supported by multi-instrumentalist Jason Crosby (vocal, piano, violin) who has played with The Allman Brothers Band, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, Pete Seeger, Blind Boys of Alabama, Dave Mathews, Robert Randolph and Susan Tedeschi. Also assisting on these sessions was Robin Sylvester on bass and slide guitar. He too has played with a host of famous rockers including Weir's group, Ratdog.

Burn is a good composer and he sings like Jerry Garcia (especially on "Our Shared Song"), which could be why Weir is attracted to his work, but even if there had never been such a thing as The Grateful Dead he is good enough to survive on his own in a genre that is now, unfortunately, very overlooked. Because Burn's music is not in vogue these days he'll probably never earn anything more than a nice cult following but he deserves any attention he receives.

Burn describes himself as a musician, activist, gardener and photographer and, if he is half as good at the rest of these things as he is at music, he just may be a modern day Renaissance man.

You can stream the entire EP below. Pay special attention to "Memory Lane" a perfect recollection of the singer's later coming-of-age years and "Old Time Heroes" on which Burn again longs for his past. Crosby's gin joint, country piano playing on this track is a nice touch.

Learn more at Burn's website.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Diana Krall - Wallflower (2015)

Diana Krall moves closer and closer to being a pop act instead of a jazz musician with each successive album. In the process you may think that she would lose much of her old fan base, especially when you consider that many of the cover songs she is doing these days were not the hippest things on the block when most of them charted back in the 70s. However, after hearing Krall's latest album, Wallflower, I'm convinced that her audience will remain.

Krall has always been a fine interpreter of other people's work and she takes these soft rock hits and completely reinvents them. On Wallflower she serves mostly as a soft-spoken vocalist. She only plays piano on three of the twelve tracks, and she is accompanied throughout by an "A" list of heavyweights including Michael Bublé who duets with the star on Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone again (Naturally)."

Jazz bassist Christian McBride gives "California Dreamin'" a solid foundation and the backing vocals by Stephen Stills and Graham Nash add some color to the great Mamas and Papas classic. The song was perfect the first time around so it really doesn't need to be remade but Krall's very quiet rendition is still welcome as she turns it into a very different song. I can't identify the percussion sounds, they're certainly not drums, but whatever it is that Krall and producer David Foster are employing makes this update unique. She slows it down considerably and by comparison the famous vocal quartet's original sounds like hard rock.

Krall's takes on "Desperado" and "I Can't Tell You Why," both Eagles classics, suit her well. She also loves "Superstar," "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word," "Don't Dream It's Over," and "Operator (That's Not The Way It Feels)" all songs she reinterprets in new, very striking ways.

The album isn't all remakes of former chartbusters. Paul McCartney's "If I Take You Home Tonight," an unused, leftover ballad from his album of standards, Kisses On The Bottom, is a fine choice and tailor made for Krall. It's another dreamy love song in the McCartney tradition.

The title track was written by Bob Dylan in 1971. It was never released until 1991 on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991 and unusually for the folk-rock giant it's a straightforward love song. Krall's lounge version offers up more emotion than Dylan's over-the-top honky-tonk arrangement.

The last of the three songs on the disc that are unfamiliar to most listeners is the one that least gets into your soul and it's the star's duet with Bryan Adams on Randy Newman's "Feels Like Home." It's not out of place but it just doesn't stay with you as much as the other selections do.

Of the moldie oldies the one big surprise is 10cc's "I'm Not In Love." Listening to this cover after hearing the original for decades it never occurred to me that the song could be presented properly in a coffee house setting but Krall's and Foster's sparse opening made me truly listen to the lyrics for the very first time. The 1975 single is really a triumph of studio production and technical wizardry and those things make it a great record but here the singer and producer prove it's also a good song.

These songs hold up well when translated into completely different genres. That's not only a tribute to Krall it's a testament to the great songwriting behind all of them.

Here is "California Dreamin'" live with a real drummer in a jazzier arrangement than the one on the album.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Cory Wells (1941 -2015)

Left to right: Danny Hutton, Cory Wells, Chuck Negron
I was saddened last night when I heard the news about the sudden death of singer Cory Wells who was an important member of one of my favorite bands from the first half of the 70s, Three Dog Night.

The septet was huge for a long period of time and had a stable lineup for most of their major hitmaking years of 1969 to 1974. Three Dog Night had an unusual configuration: three singers who took turns singing lead backed by a four piece rock band who did not sing.

While 3DN was insanely popular the group never won any critical support because almost all of their singles rocketed into the top forty (a serious error in those days), they didn't write their own music, and they didn't have the image the music intelligentsia demanded from musicians of the era. No self respecting hippie would have anything to do with them.

The band's trademark and ace in the hole was the vocal trio of Wells, Danny Hutton, and my favorite, Chuck Negron. However, Wells was no slouch as his leads on "Try A Little Tenderness," "Eli's Coming," Mama Told Me Not To Come," "Never Been To Spain," Shambala," "Let Me Serenade You," and "Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues)" all prove.

The singers were dynamic. All three could rave like a soul man and could woo the girls with a good love song or ballad. They could sing rock and scream like a banshee. Most bands didn't have one vocalist who was that versatile but this California outfit had three.

I met my future wife at college and the first off campus concert I ever took her to was Three Dog Night at The Spectrum, Philadelphia's big concert arena at the time. The band was at the height of their popularity and I was thrilled when they opened the show with a hit that was one of my favorites, "Family of Man." Later in the evening Negron sang their greatest album track, a cover of Stevie Wonder's "Never Dreamed You'd Leave In Summer." The memories have faded but I remember it as a great night.

So, here's to you Cory Wells, may you rest in peace.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Eric Clapton - Me and Mr. Johnson (2004)

When it first came out I quickly picked up a copy of Eric Clapton's Me and Mr. Johnson before ever hearing a note. I played it a couple of times and then sold it. Looking back on it later I wasn't sure why we parted ways and I regretted my decision.

I haven't heard Clapton's fourteen song tribute to bluesman Robert Johnson (perhaps the founding member of the 27 Club) in many years so when I found a used copy recently for only $1.99 I picked it up again and listened to it intently in my car. Given a second chance this still isn't the album it could have been but it is a keeper.

The former Bluesbreaker and Domino who also was in Cream and Blind Faith assembled an outstanding band of all-stars. Steve Gadd played drums, Nathan East was on bass, while Andy Fairweather Low and Doyle Bramhall II accompanied the star on guitars. Jerry Portnoy contributed very fine harmonica. Pino Palladino (bass) and Jim Keltner (drums) also assisted on one track, "Traveling Riverside Blues."

Then there was the undisputed star of the sessions, Billy Preston on piano and organ. Just like he did with The Beatles on Let It Be many years earlier his virtuosity on all fourteen Johnson composed songs elevated the sessions to heights they may not have reached without him. Based on these two records alone one could make a case that Preston is one of the most impressive sidemen in rock history.

Preston's organ work and solo on "Little Queen of Spades" steals the show. His barrelhouse piano on "They're Red Hot" and "32-20 Blues" is also superb.

As for Clapton, other than singing lead, he seemed to lose himself inside the band and that's what is missing. This critically acclaimed set needs more of him as he was on another Johnson song he starred on way back in the day, Cream's "Crossroads." While we all know that Clapton's work on Mr. Johnson was truly a labor of love it wasn't always apparent. This is why there is a lot of room for Preston to shine.

Johnson, of course, influenced many and he sometimes wasn't even credited (His final lines from "Traveling Riverside Blues" were completely appropriated by Led Zeppelin on their 1968 album track "The Lemon Song") but he has never meant more to anyone than he does to Clapton. Inside the CD's gatefold he wrote that Johnson's work was "the finest music I ever heard. I have always trusted its purity and I always will..."