Monday, January 29, 2007

Grace Potter and The Nocturnals - Nothing But The Water (2006)

Grace Potter and The Nocturnals are a rock and roll band that is obviously in love with the blues. Potter, who was only twenty-two when this CD was recorded, is a student of rock and roll's great white blues ladies. Her voice is a lot smoother than Janis Joplin's, rougher than Bonnie Raitt's, and she mixes a little Susan Tedeschi in the stew for good measure. Potter also has a top notch band. The Nocturnals manage to sound spontaneous and loose while playing songs that have well thought out arrangements. Her Hammond B-3 organ adds color to almost every track.

While Raitt and Joplin often interpreted other people's songs Potter and the band, who specialize in songs about love gone bad, have written a disc full of originals. Lyrically Potter has an edge to her that makes this typical radio friendly subject come alive. The opening track "Toothbrush and My Table" sets the mood. The relationship is over and all the singer wants from the whole affair is her stuff back, including her J .J. Cale CD, her toothbrush, and her table. She is hurt and angry but there is no sentimentality, no mention of wishing for his return, no begging for his love. On "Joey" Potter sings about another broken relationship, but this time it turned violent, and the singer has obtained a court order to keep her former lover away.

This CD is highly recommended. If you turn up your nose because Potter isn't Janis Joplin you'll be missing out on a whole lot of good music.

Nothing But The Water was originally released in 2005 but it was repackaged with a 40 minute DVD last year.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

RIP: Denny Doherty

My recent attempts to discuss the current music scene are rudely interrupted once again, this time by a sad event. Denny Doherty, who rose to fame as the male lead singer of The Mamas and The Papas, died on January 19, 2007.

During the brief time the quartet recorded together, 1966 to 1968, they were one of the biggest musical acts in the world. Because I considered The Beach Boys a rock band, and more than just a group of singers, I have often stated that The Mamas and The Papas are the greatest vocal group who ever graced a recording session or took to the stage.

Their first album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears was one of the most popular debut albums of the decade.

The Mamas and The Papas weren't just singers controlled by a manager, producer, and a record company. Leader John Phillips was an excellent composer who wrote most of their songs and he also arranged almost all of the vocals himself. Phillips didn't like to sing lead so Doherty assumed that role. He is the voice out in front on two of Phillips early compositions, both huge hits, "California Dreamin" and "Monday Monday." When Doherty wasn't singing lead, their most famous member, "Mama Cass" Elliot usually did. Elliot possessed what may be the greatest female voice of the rock n' roll era and she showed it off beautifully on many of the group's hit singles, most notably on "Words Of Love" and "Dream A Little Dream Of Me." She also sang lead on one of their outstanding album tracks, a cover version of The Beatles' "I Call Your Name." The fourth member, Michelle Phillips, who was married to John at the time, may have been the least important member of the group, but even she proved her worth by taking the lead vocal on one of their greatest songs, the remake of "Dedicated To The One I Love."

You can purchase a superb 2-CD package released in 2001 titled, All The Leaves Are Brown: The Golden Era Collection. The set is a complete retrospective containing every song, in order, from every LP they recorded during the 60s and it even includes a B-side, "Glad To Be Unhappy," that never appeared on any of their albums. An excellent detailed biography accompanies the package. The remastered sound is remarkable. The set does not include People Like Us, the 1972 album reuniting all four singers, recorded only to fulfill their contractual obligation to their record company. The album was both a critical and a commercial failure.

The "sex, drugs, and rock n' roll" lifestyle led to the group's quick demise. John Phillips become a huge drug casualty and eventually he became a petty thief to support his habit. He died in 2001 at age 65. Elliott died young in 1974 of a heart attack related to her serious weight problem and now, with Doherty's death, only Michelle Phillips survives.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Angry String Orchestra - The String Quartet Tribute to the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (2005)

Vitamin Records, the label that has issued dozens of string quartet tribute albums for artists as diverse as Slayer, Enya, Bon Jovi, Oasis, Warren Zevon, Bjork, Radiohead, Rush, Fleetwood Mac, and more has released a nice reworking of The Beach Boys classic Pet Sounds. While I can't envision either string quartet fans or Slayer fans listening to classical arrangements of that band's work Pet Sounds is music that easily lends itself to a classical treatment.

Despite the limitations of using only three string players and a percussionist the quartet's arrangements are very close to the vest. Therefore, more than anything else, what one notices most about this CD is Brian Wilson's gift for writing melodies. The central themes and melodies of many Beach Boys songs were often buried under their gorgeous harmonies and Wilson's wall of sound. When laid to bare the sparseness of these arrangements reveal the beauty of his work.

The Angry String Orchestra are David Keen on violin and viola, Deborah Assael on cello, and Michael Goetz on double bass. Percussionist Doug Munro also served as producer and arranger of the CD.

See Vitamin Records' website for a complete listing of their string quartet tributes.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Atlanta Rhythm Section - Southern Rock At It's Finest

Of all the Southern rock bands on the music scene during the 70s only the Allman Brothers Band impressed me more than the Atlanta Rhythm Section. ARS was a band that evolved out of the 60s band The Classics IV who were famous for a string of hit singles including "Stormy," "Spooky," and "Traces.

ARS featured the usual dual electric lead guitars that were a staple of so many bands from the South but that is where the similarity to most of their peers ended. They offered a tighter sound than most Southern rockers, they didn't jam as incessantly, and for a few years they became masters of the radio friendly, four minute rock song. They could also impress you with their ballad writing as well. ARS was easily among the most mainstream of the Southern bands largely because of Ronnie Hammond's often smooth vocals and their knack for writing melodies. The dynamic Hammond was my favorite lead singer of all the Southern rockers with the exception of Greg Allman.

The best and most well known version of ARS recorded from 1973 to 1981. They were popular for only about three years then faded into oblivion as each succeeding album sold less and less. During their peak years of the mid to late 70s, in addition to Hammond, their lineup included Barry Bailey and J. R. Cobb on guitars, the massive Paul Goddard on bass, Dean Daughtry on keyboards and Robert Nix on drums (later replaced by Roy Yeager). Their producer, Buddy Buie exerted a lot of influence on both their music and their career and he almost served as another member of the band. In the late 80s Hammond, Bailey, and Daughtry reorganized the band with different members and they continue to tour today without Hammond.

Their commercial peak was the album Champagne Jam (1978) featuring "I'm Not Gonna Let It Bother Me Tonight," "Imaginary Lover," the title track, and the fantastic rocker "Large Time," a tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd. But their best album, Dog Days, (1975) featured two great ballads, "All Night Rain" and the title track. Those tunes mixed well with some straight ahead Southern boogie such as "Crazy," and "It Just Ain't your Moon." Some of their other well known hits of the period included "So Into You," "Sky High," "Do It Or Die," a remake of "Spooky," and "Alien."

I saw ARS live after Nix left the band, during the period when their short-lived popularity was waning, and the boys from Doraville, Georgia proved they could rock with the best of the genre. You would think that their musicianship, pop sensibilities, and string of hit singles would still generate a following today but the world seems to have forgotten the Atlanta Rhythm Section. I never hear their music played on classic rock or oldies radio stations, and I never hear anyone discuss them. Am I the only one who still cares about this very fine Southern rock band?

Read more about the history of ARS, along with a complete discography on their website.

You can buy their music from Amazon.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Sons Of Champlin - Hip Li'l Dreams (2005)

Any discussion of The Sons Of Champlin, Bill Champlin's recently revived 1960s band, inevitably leads one to a discussion of his other horn band, the far more famous and successful group that takes it's name from America's second city, Chicago.

Champlin was recording horn band influenced rock with The Sons before Chicago ever released their first LP, Chicago Transit Authority, in 1969. I'm certain his horn band experience played a large part in his invitation to join Chicago in 1981 to replace the soulful vocals of the late Terry Kath and to replace keyboard player Robert Lamm who was thought to be leaving. Fortunately Lamm never left but Champlin, who is considered a master of the Hammond B-3 organ, stayed on anyway and remains a member of Chicago to this day.

Because Chicago sold their souls to the devil (and spent most of their later years as a power ballad atrocity in the studio and as a traveling oldies road show when on tour) they have largely squandered Champlin's many talents. It has often been speculated that he mostly considers Chicago his day job and that The Sons are his first love. If that is true his heart is in a good place. It is nice to have The Sons operating at full steam so Champlin can show the world what he can contribute.

The horns on Hip Lil' Dreams are frequently buried too far in the mix for my taste so while I may still prefer the sound of the Chicago horns when they are ramped up and at the top of their game this CD proves, that over the course of a full album, Champlin and his band have more soul than Chicago has had in twenty-five years and they can out-funk and out-rock them anytime they choose. The CD's opening track, "For Joy," is an all out rocker with wailing horns. The title cut is truly funky. "Bring Home the Gold" proves that Champlin is not afraid to tackle social concerns with lines like "We stand aside and waive goodbye, and send the kids out to fight, and, maybe bring home the gold." On "Star Outta You" he takes on the music industry: "Ya’ Gotta be filthy, ya gotta smoke crack, you gotta have a bad attitude, a reputation in the sack and always howlin' at the moon. Ya gotta sound just like everyone else, gotta be loud and rude. If you're just another hack I can make a star out of you." The irony is that these lyrics prove Champlin has a little bit of that "bad attitude" in his music and that is a good thing.

Champlin's fellow Chicagoans can learn a little from Hip Li'l Dreams. Four of the seven Sons of Champlin are original members who obviously enjoy their gig. I'm not recommending this album just because it's superior to Chicago's most recent work, 2006's XXX. I want you to seek out The Sons because they are worthy of your attention on their own merits.

For more on Hip Li'l Dreams be sure to read the The Review Revue.