Thursday, March 29, 2007

Michelle Shocked - Kind Hearted Woman (1996)

There is an unusual history behind Michelle Shocked's very hard to find CD Kind Hearted Woman. I accidently stumbled across it last week in the $2.99 section of the finest used CD store I've ever had the pleasure of shopping in, the Princeton Record Exchange. Someday I'll have to post an article about this great place to buy music and try not to make it sound like a commercial.

Kind Hearted Woman was the first CD Shocked recorded after the demise of her contract with Mercury Records. It was originally issued as a limited edition in 1994 and was only available for purchase at her live performances. It was officially released in October 1996 and even then the album did not get wide release.

The original CD featured Shocked as the only musician. After playing it on the road for two years she went back in the studio and rerecorded it with Fiachna O'Braonain and Peter O'Toole, two members of the Irish band Hothouse Flowers. Producer Bones Howe was at the controls.

Kind Hearted Woman is not for casual fans. I have always loved Shocked, and while this disc is a departure for her (devoted fans will tell you every one of her CDs is a departure) it is by no means an inferior work. The singer-songwriter's often present sense of humor is nowhere to be found. Most of the songs are about the hard life of the farmers and working class people of the rural deep south. The album's dark tone is set on the first track. "Stillborn" threatens to engulf us with a Yoko Ono type wail that is relevant to its subject matter but fortunately Shocked's vocals never quite succeed in crossing over that line. The good news is her singing and arrangements are far more conventional over the remainder of the album.

The cover of the original CD was white with a black cat but the official 1996 version, seen here, is black with a white cat. Shocked wrote in her liner notes, "About the smiling cat: Back in the days when hobos used to ride the rails they had a vocabulary of symbols that let each other know what to expect when they came to a strange town. For example a circle with crooked arrow through it meant a 'squat' or abandoned building. A cat with a smile and a heart chalked on a fencepost or pavement meant in that house lived a kind hearted woman who might offer a warm meal, an odd job, a place to sleep for the night. You get the idea." Her quote provides a lot of insight regarding the music on the album. The cat appears to be inspiration for the second track, "Homestead."

In addition to Amazon the CD is available for $15 plus shipping through Shocked's website. Don't look for it at any conventional retail outlets.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Dixie Chicks - Shut Up & Sing (2006) (DVD)

Shut Up & Sing is the feature length documentary about The Dixie Chicks that was released to theaters in the fall of 2006 and on DVD in January 2007.

The cover on the box of the DVD has the following pronouncement: "Freedom of speech is fine, as long as you don't do it in public." So for those of you who are squeamish of free speech when the perpetrators are liberals here is your warning: Do not open this DVD. If you do, and you don't like what you find inside, don't blame me.

In many ways Shut Up & Sing is like so many other documentaries on the lives of working musicians. The film alternates between shots of live in concert performances, clips of the band recording in the studio, in business meetings, backstage before and after their concerts, and at home with their families.

Not a single performance of a complete song is to be found anywhere, and to me that has always been a major flaw with most documentaries on musicians, but this film is not about the music. It's about the reaction from all sides to lead singer Natalie Maines' infamous quote made from a stage in England, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas."

After the comment, shown early in the movie, we witness the backlash, the protests, radio station programmers refusing to play the Chicks' music, and the ridiculous cries of "traitor" from many misquided former fans who don't understand what the First Amendment means. We witness Martie Maguire's fear of going onstage after receiving death threats and the defiance of Maines grow stronger as the noose tightens around the band.

You should not expect anything exceptional about the cinematography, film editing, sound, or music, in Shut Up & Sing. You should expect to ride an emotional roller coaster regardless of your political views because, despite its slant in favor of The Dixie Chicks, the film has enough guts to make both sides angry.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Lucinda Williams - West (2007)

Candidates for my top five CDs of 2007 are arriving early this year and West, the latest CD from Lucinda Williams, is most assuredly going to be among them. Williams has always been one of my favorite singer-songwriters and, while she may never again make another record as great as the almost perfect Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, this is her best set of music since her 1998 landmark CD.

There isn't much rock 'n roll on West so if you're expecting the full-bodied sound of the electric band featured on Car Wheels you may be dissappointed. Most of the music is mellow singer-songwriter fare that is less produced and rehearsed than her perfectionist nature normally permits. This forces her always literate songwriting to take on even more importance than ususal. In many instances on West, the lyrics are the song.

As always Williams sings about what is on her mind, be it loneliness, a lost lover she misses and looks upon with fondness, and on "C'mon" she rants about another lover that she can't stand the sight of anymore. It's an even angrier rocker than her concert favorite "Changed The Locks." Two ballads inspired by her mother's death, "Mama You Sweet" and "Fancy Funeral" rank with her best writing.

The few rock songs may be weaker than usual but all the ballads are extremely strong and they make West another must own Lucinda Williams CD.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

Just like a lot of people will do this year I'm revisiting The Beatles' classic Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as it approaches it's fortieth anniversary on June 1, 2007. Most will probably just gush over the album but I'm hoping to view this masterwork from a unique perspective.

Sgt. Pepper has often been considered both the greatest and the most important album of the rock era. Many polls conducted by music magazines over the decades have consistently placed it at the top of their lists. However a few more recent polls have seen the album lose some of its hold on music fans. As an example, the listeners of adult alternative radio station WXPN in Philadelphia conducted a poll in October 2005 and voted it the number two album of all time behind Abbey Road. Other albums that placed in the top ten by the Fab Four were Rubber Soul, Revolver, and The Beatles, (a.k.a. The White Album).

The luster of Sgt. Pepper has worn off for me over the years and all of the albums mentioned above, with the possible exception of Rubber Soul, hold a stronger place in my heart than the landmark Pepper does. Don't get me wrong, the album still ranks among The Beatles greatest works but, as time goes by, I find that it is one I love more with my head than my heart, and as I will discuss shortly, in the twenty-first century, even it's importance may be waning.

Many of the album's thirteen songs are pop masterpieces, the eclecticism and originality The Beatles exhibited on it were unprecedented. "A Day In The Life," complete with it's off-kilter forty piece orchestra still amazes me as does George Harrison's sitar driven "Within You Without You." While all of the songs on the album are worthy in their own way I have come to believe over time that despite it's greatness and historic impact that Pepper's songwriting is not as strong as on the other albums mentioned above. It's more a work of great arranging and production than it is a collection of great songwriting and, in the end, that is what elevates the quality of their other LPs. The lesser produced albums mentioned above don't use as much knob turning, tape splicing, and magic tricks as this classic employs and therefore the songwriting and vocals play a much more important part on every one of them, and to me it was songwriting and vocals that provided The Beatles a unique place in most people's hearts.

Sgt. Pepper changed the way most people listened to music. Prior to it's release most pop and rock music fans bought 45 RPM records and listened to Top 40 radio almost exclusively. Pop LPs were mostly just another marketing tool used to sell music. Most albums contained two or three hit singles and eight to ten songs that were mere filler. Until Pepper rock albums were not considered works of art. Sgt. Pepper almost single handedly changed the musical landscape and upped the ante for anyone else wanting to make records.

The Beatles felt that putting previously released singles on albums and forcing the fans to pay for the same music twice was unfair. That is why "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields," two songs originally meant for the album, were excluded after EMI released them as the A and B side of a single in February 1967. Therefore Sgt. Pepper had no singles to generate sales and this meant that the album had to be strong on it's own merit. Fortunately it was.

I said earlier that today Sgt. Pepper's importance may be waning. Digital downloading may be affecting both its influence and importance. Downloading has turned many younger music fans back into consumers of individual songs. Fading quickly is the day when someone will buy a whole album to get the three songs they like while hoping there is some other worthy material on it to justify their purchase. Today, instead of paying upwards from $15 for the privilege of buying a whole CD, it is possible to go online and pay just 99 cents each for the three songs you like and ignore the rest.

Even the album cover was a huge production. The Beatles put almost as much work into it as they did the music. While CDs may have diminished the importance of album cover art the ipod completely eliminates any need for record album covers, CD jewel boxes, and liner notes.

Time marches on. While it's music will always be with us I wonder if everything that made Sgt. Pepper both great and hugely significant will vanish from the landscape. As the baby boomers age and become less influential, and as new musical forms develop, and new technology continues to evolve, what will people think of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the future?