Thursday, December 18, 2014

Phyllis Sinclair - Wishlist (2013)

Little known Phyllis Sinclair is a singer-songwriter with four CDs to her name. The latest is Wishlist (2013), a Christmas album with eight originals and an adaption of "Silent Night" that takes a deeply personal and introspective turn.

Interesting songs abound. The bouncy "Evergreen" is a about a ragged, unloved tree not chosen to be in someone's house during the holidays and "Handwritten Christmas Card" is another upbeat entry on the thrill of receiving such a personal greeting in the mail.

Accompanied only by acoustic guitar, "A Lesson In Harmony/Silent Night" begins with a spoken word tale of how Sinclair's mother asked her to sing one of the World's most popular Christmas carols at home as a lesson in how to sing harmony and she closes the story with all three verses of the song.

Sinclair is a member of the Cree Nation and a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba. The disc's first track, "Minoh Awasis (Beautiful Child)" was written in the Cree language featuring just rattle, drum, and traditional flute. It salutes her roots while telling the story of the first Christmas night. It's not anything you'll ever hear on the radio and it's the only song on the album that a listener may want to pass on, but once you know her cultural perspective it becomes a much more rewarding listen. Unfortunately, the English translation that she so generously provided to me is not included in the CD's packaging.

I don't know Sinclair's religious beliefs but it's obvious she has given religion more than a cursory thought because of her unique song, "Mary's Letter To Joseph." Lyrically, it's the most interesting track on the set. The letter is Mary's sincere thank you note to Joseph for standing by her through a very difficult time, an unexplained pregnancy, a situation that could have taken a devastating turn against both her reputation and life if he had been a different man.

Sinclair is a pure folk singer blessed with a fine voice who uses her life as a basis for many of her compositions. Home, family, and Christmas mean a lot to her and the album mixes all of those themes together into a more than satisfying, thirty-seven minute program that tugs at your heart without sounding overly sentimental. Wishlist isn't rock 'n roll but, I like it.

You can buy Wishlist at Amazon and visit Sinclair's website for a detailed biography.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Brian Setzer Orchestra – Boogie Woogie Christmas (2002)

The Brian Setzer Orchestra take their loud, rocking big band formula and apply it to some classic holiday music, revitalize it, and make it totally their own. If you missed this album upon its initial release in 2002 you must open your wallet and lay down your holiday green so you can start your Christmas party immediately.

Setzer’s flaming, frantic, greaser rock guitar dominates many of the hard rocking tunes while always meshing perfectly with the brass and reed sections on such seasonal standards as "Sleigh Ride," "Winter Wonderland" and "Jingle Bells." Setzer welds his leather jacket and tattoo persona perfectly into the lyrics of the latter track by changing the closing line to "Oh what fun it is to ride in a '57 Chevrolet." These songs are always overplayed every Christmas but the fresh arrangements Setzer offers up are a welcome adventure.

Not every track roars at breakneck speed. The pace slows down a bit for guest Ann-Margaret who can still act like a sultry vixen while singing a sexy counterpoint with Setzer on "Baby, It’s Cold Outside."

Another highlight is the most eclectic piece the orchestra has ever recorded, a seven minute, jazz-influenced arrangement of "The Nutcracker Suite" originally written for the Les Brown big band in the 1950s. Setzer’s version is more jazzy than classical and it even rocks a little too.

So They Say It’s Christmas" is Setzer’s only original contribution on the set and it's a welcome ballad after all the bombast, and never in his entire career has he sounded as genuine and serious as he does on an emotional take of "O Holy Night" recorded with a thirty voice choir. You could play this version in church!

This is a great CD from start to finish. Mostly it is fun but it is also frequently very moving.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Great Cover Versions: Do You Hear What I Hear?

One of the few Christmas songs written in the post-World War Two years with a religious theme that also became a mainstream hit is "Do You Hear What I Hear." Despite the subject matter it's not a hymn or a carol, it's a pop song. It's been recorded by literally hundreds of artists although in recent years, as things have become more and more politically correct, vocalists have become increasingly afraid of singing religious holiday songs, so today, it is heard less frequently.

The reason I'm writing about this classic has nothing to do with religion. Instead it's because I accidentally discovered "Do You Hear What I Hear" has a short, simple, but very interesting origin. It was written by the married songwriting team of Noel Regney and Gloria Shane Baker. According to Wikipedia Regney wrote the lyrics and Baker the music, a situation that was opposite of how the two usually worked. They also wrote songs for a host of others including Bobby Vinton, Doris Day and Perry Como. Regney also wrote the English lyrics for The Singing Nun's "Domininque" (1963).

What makes this Christmas tune interesting is that it was written in October 1962. Readers old enough to remember should recall how close the World came to nuclear war that month of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Regney and Baker wrote the song as a plea for peace during that sad October and it became a hit record for the Harry Simeone Chorale who also released the popular "Little Drummer Boy" in 1958. The next year Bing Crosby issued his version of "Do You Hear What I Hear" which eventually became more popular than the original.

The song's lyrics tell the tale of Jesus's birth in sort of a "whisper down the lane" manner. The "night wind" tells a "little lamb" who tells a "shepherd boy" and so on until it reaches the "mighty king."

The song has even been recorded (for better or worse) by Bob Dylan. Here are two versions including the bard's recent cover from 2009.

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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Forgotten Music Thursday: Crosby, Stills & Nash - CSN (1977)

By 1977, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash had not released a studio album as a threesome since their eponymous debut in 1969 or together with Neil Young since Deja Vu in 1970. When they finally issued CSN during the Jimmy Carter Administration it became a major hit even though it's never been held in as high esteem as their two earlier LPs. However, it was good enough to prove there was still a demand for the kind of music they made almost a decade earlier.

CSN, with the smiling trio on the cover masking their ever present behind the scenes turmoil, was the last album for seventeen years that would show them to be a functioning, self-contained unit. So, it's amazing that with just three LPs from their golden era (nothing they ever did together after this album would come close to matching the artistic achievements or popularity of these three) that this band became legendary as one of the greatest in rock history. Why? Because the trio is so supremely talented that when they fired on all cylinders the quality of their work was often unsurpassed.

Subsequent albums were marred by Crosby's drug problems and their inability to overcome their differences with each other. Five years later, on Daylight Again, Stills and Nash were often forced to use outside composers and vocalists due to the former Byrd's frequent absences. Timothy B. Schmidt and Art Garfunkel added harmonies to compensate for what they lost with Crosby.

It's not that CSN is a totally forgotten record but when people think of the supergroup it's almost never this album that comes immediately to mind. By 1977 disco & punk were cultural and musical forces to be reckoned with, the Woodstock era was winding down, and just three years later Ronald Reagan would be elected President so there was the belief by some that the group was already becoming a hippie anachronism. Even so, the twelve song platter reached #2 on Billboard's pop album chart, only kept out of the top spot by Fleetwood Mac's blockbuster, Rumours.

Crosby, who always wrote the least accessible music for the trio turned in some of his best work: "Shadow Captain," "Anything at All," and "In My Dreams." All feature stellar vocal harmonies but, as usual, they lack the hooks needed for radio.

Stills was on fire, contributing the very fine "See the Changes," and two entries that did get some deserved radio time, "Fair Game," and "Dark Star." In addition to the outstanding group singing the latter two show off Stills' love of percussion. He also wrote the more Crosby-like "Run From Tears" and his "I Give You Give Blind," the only true rocker on the album, percolates despite the addition of a string section.

Nash's contributions were not as melodic as usual, as "Cold Rain" and "Carried Away" prove, but he also came up with "Just a Song Before I Go," perfection that went to #7 and became the band's highest charting single ever. He also contributed one of the album's more colorful entries, the mind-blowing "Cathedral," about an acid trip he took in Winchester Cathedral on his 32nd birthday.

The songs on CSN are often less straightforward than the two classics that came before it, and this proved the group was still thinking out of the box and operating at full capacity but, overall, the music is only at a four-star level rather than the five-star peak of their earlier work. This, when taken in consideration with the era it was released in, probably contributed to CSN not quite being the A-List classic it could have been.

Nevertheless, CSN is a great record. When you want to listen to intelligent music with great arrangements and singing pull this one out of mothballs, especially if you're tired of the overplayed classic rock staples.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Black 47's Farewell Philadelphia Concert At World Café Live, 11-13-2014

Drummer Thomas Hamlin & Larry Kirwan
say good-bye to Philadelphia
One of America’s truly influential Celtic-rock bands, Black 47, has called it quits after a long and distinguished career.

In September 2013 the band released this statement. "In early November 2014, exactly 25 years after our first gig, Black 47 will disband. There are no fights, differences over musical policy, or general skulduggery, we remain as good friends as when we first played together. We just have a simple wish to finish up at the top our game after 25 years of relentless touring and, as always, on our own terms." As a result they played their last Philadelphia gig at World Café Live last Thursday evening.

As the New Yorkers neared the finish line last week they remained a loyal and stable group. The sextet could boast that they still had four original members and a fifth one who had been with them for almost a decade and a half.

As always, leader and group spokesman, Larry Kirwan, regaled us with stories that inspired his compositions. He and his mates showed off their humorous side with what is arguably their best known song, "Funky Ceili," as well as "Maria's Wedding," and their ode to inebriation, "40 Shades of Blue." They also played a few deadly serious political works such as "James Connolly" and "The Big Fellah" two wordy tales that teach us a great deal about Irish history.

Kirwan and his friends leaned heavily on their early catalog (all of the songs above are from their first two major label releases) and, as is the case with most artists, those early CDs included their very best tunes. From those first couple of discs they also gave us "Banks of the Hudson," "Rockin' the Bronx," "Blood Wedding," and "Desperate."

"Celtic Rocker" from Bankers and Gangsters (2010) also saw the light of day as did the group's updated version of "When Those Saints Go Marching In." Simply titled "Those Saints" this track, from Trouble in the Land (2000), was rewritten with totally new lyrics. They also played their reworked rendition of Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" that was never on any of their studio albums even though it became a standard for the band in concert.

Black 47 has never been the tightest ensemble to walk onto a stage but that's not meant as a criticism. Freewheeling arrangements that are rough around the edges have always been part of their modus operandi. It's how they're supposed to sound and on this night they stayed true to form.

The only drawback of Black 47's last World Café show most likely wasn't their fault. The usually clear sound produced by this top notch West Philadelphia venue was missing. The opening act, Barley Juice, suffered the same fate and their fiddle player complained after their set that she wasn't happy with the muddy mix.

Regardless, Black 47 gave another concert worthy of their reputation.

So long guys, you'll be missed.

You can purchase their final studio album, the appropriately titled Last Call in digital format from Amazon.