Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Slow Burning Blues

Any serious musician must have some knowledge and appreciation of the blues to have any credibility, even if it's a genre they don't work in regularly. As proof, you can hear the blues in the songs of a ton of musicians who don't have any real connection to the genre: stars such as James Taylor ("Steamroller Blues") or even Carole King. Surely you can hear Bessie Smith or Susan Tedeschi belting out "I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet" without a whole lot of effort.

No blues satisfies my soul more than slow burning blues. These songs, many with extended, improvised guitar solos that often unfold at a snail's pace allow the finger-picker to stretch out and show off his chops. Intense but smoldering guitar work played by virtuosos, often supported by jazzy organ or piano fills and understated vocals, are a hallmark of the genre.

Electric blues sounds like rock music to many people and acoustic blues is often thought of as folk music but real music fans know blues when they hear it. The genre is not easy to explain but honesty is its most important component.

The easiest way to understand and fall in love with this highly emotional music born in America's deep South is by simply listening to the masters below play their hearts out. Stevie Ray Vaughan's Austin City Limits performance is particularly outstanding.

Stevie Ray Vaughan Riviera Paradise Live From Austin Texas from Johnny Winter on Vimeo.

Friday, August 17, 2018

John Prine - John Prine (1971)

About Bob Dylan, AllMusic wrote, "As a vocalist, he broke down the notion that a singer must have a conventionally good voice in order to perform, thereby redefining the vocalist's role in popular music."

John Prine never possessed a great voice either but it doesn't matter. Based on the above statement the vocals on his outstanding, eponymous debut are just what you would expect them to be and it is how they should be for the kind of music he makes.

While Dylan rightfully gets all the credit in the world for making artists like Prine possible it's easy to say the latter's debut LP eclipsed Dylan's because it's songs were all originals while the Minnesotan's first record mostly consisted of covers.

It's also easy to say that Prine is among the very best composers of the second half of the Twentieth Century and early on he made an album that would go down in history as one of the top ten singer-songwriter albums ever recorded.

Prine showed his sense of humor on the opening track, "Illegal Smile," which, of course, is about marijuana although Prine claims it isn't. In the liner notes of his anthology, Great Days, he wrote that it is "not about smokin' dope. It was more about how, ever since I was a child, I had this view of the world where I can find myself smiling at stuff nobody else was smiling at. But it was such a good anthem for dope smokers that I didn’t want to stop every time I played it and make a disclaimer."

Prine proved quickly that he is a masterful story teller who can make you feel all kinds of emotions through his songs. The folkie tugged at your heart strings with his sad stories of a decorated, drug addicted, Viet Nam veteran, "Sam Stone," who meets a very tragic ending and the loneliness many elderly people experience on "Hello, In There."

Then of course, there is Prine's most famous song, "Angel Of Montgomery," a standard that has been covered by more artists than we can count. When it was suggested that the singer write another song about old folks he quickly rejected the idea because he already said everything he needed to on the subject. That conversation led him to write a song about a woman who felt she was much older than she really was and wanted to become an angel so she could fly away from her drab life.

"Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" is an anti-war protest song, a common topic in 1971. It too deals with death but in a more humorous way.

"Pretty Good" is the most obvious rocker. Lyrically it's quite dylanesque with lines like "I heard Allah and Buddha were singing at the Savior's feast, And up in the sky an Arabian rabbi fed Quaker Oats to a priest."

"Paradise" is for Prine's Father and is about the harm caused by strip mining in Kentucky.

With only a couple of exceptions the set's thirteen arrangements never stray far from folk or country but they're tastefully augmented by electric and steel guitars, piano, organ, and drums. Prine played acoustic guitar.

Considering that this is probably Prine's most loved and well known record it's hard to believe it never got higher than #154 on the American album charts.

Find out more at Prine's website.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Forgotten Music: The Hooters - The Original Version Of "Fightin' On The Same Side" b/w "Wireless" (1981) & The Original Single Of "All You Zombies" (1982)

Before The Hooters signed with a major label in the mid-80s, before they opened the Philadelphia portion of Live Aid, and eventually became bigger stars in Europe than here at home, they were undoubtedly the most popular and best unsigned band performing in and around The City of Brotherly Love.

Having seen the quintet several times before they ever released an album I can assure you that they were definitely at their peak as a live act during those early years. They embraced their love of ska and reggae and mixed them with a heavy dose of power pop.

The second time I saw The Hooters they employed a horn section for their show at a now defunct Philadelphia venue, The Ripley Music Hall, in November 1982. The brass added a dimension to their sound that I never heard from them again. It was a long time ago but I remember it as a really great evening of music.

During these pre-stardom years The Hooters issued two independent 45 RPM singles. The first one was "Fightin' On The Same Side" (1981). A similar take appeared on their LP, Amore, another independent release that sold over 100,000 copies in Philadelphia in 1983. Then finally, it was issued in a very different version on their second Columbia LP, One Way Home (1987).

The flip side (remember them?) was "Wireless." It was "dedicated to the memory of Bob Marley" and was a real gem. It was a concert staple for The Hooters in those early days but once they hit the big time they completely abandoned it.

Both tracks were written by Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian, the two main Hooters. Joining them was David Uosikkinen, the only drummer they ever had. Two other original members, both gone before the group's record deal was in place, were guitarist John Kuzma and bassist Bobby Woods.

A second single, a live version of "All You Zombies" b/w "Rescue Me," was subsequently released with the same lineup. A studio version of "Zombies" was also included on Amore. It was then redone and became an important track on their smash hit, Columbia debut, Nervous Night.

By the time The Hooters went national their Jamaican influences mostly disappeared and their pop side became dominant. Nevertheless, because Hyman and Bazilian are excellent composers they were able to hit pay dirt with their songwriting. The latter wrote "One of Us" for Joan Osborne while Hyman composed "Time After Time" with Cyndi Lauper.

The Hooters still play around Philadelphia today and all over Germany where they have always been very popular.

The group never made a bad record but listen to these early tracks and you can hear what you missed while they were strictly a local phenomenon.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Jakob Dylan - Seeing Things (2008)

The children of music's biggest legends who pursue their own careers often experience mixed blessings. On the positive side it is a lot easier for them to get their music heard and recorded due to their connections while other artists who are just as talented often struggle to earn even a small amount of attention. On the down side they're almost always compared negatively to their far more famous and accomplished parents instead of only on their own worthiness.

Jakob Dylan is one of those offspring. It's not right, but The Curse Of The Famous Parent is going to hang over him forever. So, because The Wallflowers' leader deserves the attention he has earned on his own without being burdened by unobtainable expectations other people have assigned to him this review of Seeing Things (2008) will not be compared to Bob Dylan's work in any way. It will be discussed only on its own merits.

Dylan has recorded two solo albums apart from his band. Seeing Things is the first one and it's a satisfying, folk-oriented, singer-songwriter outing featuring the star on acoustic guitar and vocals.

The album's sparsely arranged tracks are courtesy of Rick Rubin who has run sessions for The Avett Brothers, Johnny Cash, and Neil Diamond. Rubin always brings out the best of an artist's acoustic side and Dylan's album is no exception.

Dylan does not have a strong voice but it's a pleasant one that make these melodic songs easy to listen to. His vocals are brighter and more up front than on any of The Wallflowers' albums and if that ends up being Rubin's chief contribution it's a very welcome one indeed.

I have to admit that I've never paid much attention to the Wallflowers' lyrics. However, Rubin's work makes Dylan's vocals and songs the centerpiece of the album so you find yourself listening intently.

Dylan has a lot on his mind. He is concerned about the state of the world and about the wars that were being waged in the early part of the 21st century. A prime example turns up on the very first track, "Evil Is Alive And Well."

"It doesn't always have a shape
Almost never does it have a name
It maybe has a pitchfork maybe has a tail
But evil is alive and well
It might walk upright from out of the inferno
May be coming horseback through deep snow
It's ragged fat and fat, it's hungry as hell."

As we look at America today the singer-songwriter's words still ring true because even if we are not at war with a common, foreign enemy we are certainly at war with ourselves.

Not every track is that serious but there are no lightweight songs and many are loaded with lyrical obscurities. I guess you can say that makes them deep.

There are only three other musicians listed on the liner notes and they add only light touches of bass, keyboards and harmonies which could be why we are only given their names but not what their individual contributions are.

The artistic success of Seeing Things made me wonder if Dylan should give up his band and concentrate on a solo career because with this album the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

5 Awful Recordings By Artists In The Rock 'N Roll Hall Of Fame

Former Rolling Stone writer Tom Nawrocki, who is also a voting member of The Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame, once posted on his blog, Debris Slide, that it is possible to play your way out of the hall. He was referencing Chicago the band and he used their hit, "Look Away," as evidence.

Let it be said that the horn band is not the only artist to release music that is unworthy of their status. While Chicago are included in the list below some other great Hall of Fame members turned out "art" that is just as galling.

I was recently told that it is too easy for somebody with access to a keyboard to trash others without regard to their feelings and that is probably true. However, if you don't want to be harshly criticized don't make records as bad as these renowned musicians did.

It should be noted that all of the hall inductees mentioned here are artists I have greatly admired for a long time.

The Beach Boys - L. A. (Light Album) (1979)
After the late 70s it was rare when The Beach Boys succeeded in the studio and one of their truly terrible releases was L.A. (Light Album). After two nice opening tracks, Carl Wilson's "Good Timin" and Alan Jardine's melodic "Lady Lynda," written for his now ex-wife and based on J. S. Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," the album falls apart. There are eight other songs and all of them need to be flushed. Two stand out for their wretchedness. There is 10 minutes and 51 seconds of "Here Comes The Night," a good song in its original form from their four star, 1967 album, Wild Honey. For this record they brought it back to life and then killed it by turning it into a full blown disco track. I know it was 1979, but still! The album ends with the three Wilson Brothers giving us a very unneeded version of the 19th century, kids' song, "Shortenin' Bread." It wouldn't have been sad if the SoCal guys had put down their instruments and surfboards after this putrid set. It's possible The Beach Boys made worse albums later but I stopped listening after this debacle that reached only #100 on the charts.

Chicago - Twenty-1 (1991)
There was no excuse for this album. The original septet's lineup included music majors and young men who took pride in their work. After tragedy, several personnel moves, changing tastes, and numerous attempts to remain relevant (yes, Chicago also went disco for a moment in 1979) this is where one of my all time favorite bands ended up: on a power ballad assembly line with over-the-top, tenor vocalist Jason Scheff leading the way. While Twenty-1's horn charts were more prominent than they had been on some earlier albums it feels as if they were pasted on top of the basic tracks, contributing very little to the proceedings. The songs are indistinguishable from one another and they were covering Diane Warren tunes. Worst of all was "You Come To My Senses." The band now seems to have disowned this album that peaked at #66 on the charts. How Twenty-1 got that high I'll never know.

The Greg Allman Band - I'm No Angel (1987)
The Greg Allman Band is not in the Hall of Fame, but its leader is rightfully enshrined. Except for the very good, autobiographical, title track Greg Allman caught the same disease that infected a lot of older, legacy acts in their middle years. He discovered synthesizers and slick production. This from a man who once led a fabulous Southern rock band with two excellent drummers. However, on this CD he unbelievably covered Michael Bolton and reworked two Allman Brothers Band classics in the popular style of the day. The modernized versions of ABB's "It's Not My Cross To Bear" and "Don't Want You No More" possess too much gloss and metallic sheen. The keyboard player's talents always led him to earthy, sometimes raw, blues-rock and it's his vocals in that vein that are this album's only asset. I'm No Angel seems worse than it probably is because of who made it and it certainly is not as bad as the rest of the junk on this list. To his credit Allman later returned to his roots and even revived his wonderful, famous outfit.

Eric Clapton - Pilgrim (1998)
Eric Clapton said in the liner notes accompanying his tribute CD to Robert Johnson that the late blues man's music was the finest he ever heard. Despite that, Clapton proved he can be quite good at producing low volume, acoustic ballads. "Tears of Heaven," "Wonderful Tonight" and the entire unplugged album are proof that he was more than just a blues man. Some people who like Pilgrim have said the critics are just mad that "God" isn't acting like God on this set. The fact that I liked the aforementioned songs and album are proof that I'm not one of them. So, believe me when I tell you that Pilgrim is just plain boring. It's great when an artist wants to try something new but monotonous vocals and drum loops, synths, and strings sections are not the way to go. The first two groups mentioned above in this post had been sliding down the mountain for years so it wasn't surprising when they fell into a musical canyon they would never be able to escape from but Clapton was still playing hardcore blues and rock so there was no clue he was about to slime his career with this atrocious CD. My extreme dislike for this set of songs did not stop it from being a huge success worldwide, selling over four million copies. How could so many people be so wrong?

The Beatles - Revolution #9 (1968)
Talk about ruining the flow of an album. The Beatles' great White Album from which this eight minutes worth of noise and sound effects came from is almost too easy to include. As most people know it's not really music. It's John Lennon and Yoko Ono trying to prove how avant-garde they were and how outrageous they could be. It should have been saved for one of the couple's extra-curricular outings they recorded away from the band. Defenders of this "sound collage" say it showed how advanced The Beatles were compared to everybody else. To me it just proved that Lennon and Ono were doing too many drugs.