Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Various Artists - Heartworn Highways (2006)

In 1975 film director Jim Szalapski had a burning desire to film a documentary showcasing the new generation of singer-songwriters and performers he believed were about to change the face of country music. Fortunately his dream came true even though it took six years for the fruits of his labor, Heartworn Highways, to be released in 1981.

Many of the unknown artists featured in Szalapski's film include now respected alt-country or outlaw-country artists Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, David Allan Coe, and John Hiatt. Lesser known but still talented performers such as Larry Jon Wilson, Gamble Rogers, and Steve Young are featured here too.

Detailed liner notes stress that this CD version of Heartworn Highways is not a "literal soundtrack" to the film because producers David Gorman and Michael Nieves wanted a "CD that stood on its own as an audio companion to the movie." Gorman and Nieves sought to create a specific mood for the album so songs that were left on the film's cutting room floor have finally found a home on the CD thirty years later. The disc that was finally issued includes many solo acoustic performances and the rest offer only sparse arrangements. Harder rocking songs such as "Texas" by The Charlie Daniels Band were left off of the album despite their success in the film.

I'm a listener who prefers the sound of a band featuring fully arranged works that allow for diversity of the music. Usually, after a few songs, lonely troubadours armed only with an acoustic guitar cease to make a connection with me. In order to grab me the artist has to be something very special. I give credit to Szalapski who instinctively found singer-songwriters who could deliver the goods all by themselves especially since men like Earle, Hiatt, and Van Zandt haven't made their reputations based on their vocal prowess. They are all songwriters of impeccable taste who write compelling works that prove they are in touch with everyday American life.

It's absolutely amazing how so many of the unknown artists in the film became stars in their genre within a few years after Heartworn Highways was released. How fortunate for us that many still have viable careers today.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Kim Richey - Chinese Boxes (2007)

Kim Richey is, and probably always will be, one of my favorite female singer-songwriters. Richey's appeal lies with her ability to use her beautifully strong voice to easily communicate her equally strong melodies. In addition, her songs almost always feature a full band that help make all five of her CDs well arranged affairs. This is true whether the song is a rocker, a country tune, or a ballad. All of the producers who have worked with Richey seem to understand her completely including Giles Martin, who produced Chinese Boxes, her first CD after a five year absence. (Martin's very famous father, George, produced The Beatles).

Richey's first two discs, her self-titled debut and her masterwork, Bitter Sweet, are similar sounding upbeat country albums. Then, beginning with 1999's Glimmer, Richey began traveling the road of a singer-songwriter while steering herself away from country music. Each subsequent release has sounded entirely different from the one that proceeded it and that is a good thing. It shows her desire to be an artist, grow, and record what she loves. Could this be the reason she has never achieved the mass success she so richly deserves?

Throughout her career Richey has written very few songs without a collaborator and this is true again on Chinese Boxes. She composed with unknowns such as Katie Herzig on "Jack and Jill" and "I Will Follow," with the better known Mindy Smith on "Drift," and with the even more popular Joan Osborne on the rocking "Not A Love Like This."

Chinese Boxes is a good album from a very fine artist.

Also available is also a five song EP titled Little Record that has been sold independently and, in some cases, as a bonus disc with Chinese Boxes. It offers solo acoustic versions of the big record's title track and "Drift," new solo versions of two older songs, and a cover of Cake's "Mexico." As the full band arrangements of all of these songs are superior to the sparse versions found here the chief asset of Little Record is that it is a great showcase for Richey's voice.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The 885 Most Memorable Musical Moments - The Listeners Vote

On October 2, 2007 WXPN, 88.5 FM, Philadelphia began counting down their list of the 885 Most Memorable Musical Moments. The station chose all of the moments themselves from among the huge amount of entries submitted by their listeners. Then their fans were given the responsibility of voting for the top 100 moments from a ballot of entries posted on the station's website. While none of the moments I wrote about in the seven articles I wrote for WXPN and Bloggerhythms in July and August are on the ballot (probably because most of mine were more personal in nature) WXPN's list includes most of the important moments in pop music history. Below are the ten moments I voted for and my reasons for choosing each one. They are ranked chronologically. Many of my ten are not actual musical events but they are significant because of the huge impact each one had on how people listen to music. I voted for the moments I believe are historically significant and not necessarily ones that were personally important to me. Here are my choices.

1. Thomas Edison invents the phonograph record and makes the first recording of a human voice on the first tinfoil cylinder phonograph, 1877

Our record and CD collections exist because of Edison's magnificent invention. For the first time in history music did not have to be experienced in a live setting to be enjoyed. Most people in rural areas probably never heard symphony orchestras, Al Jolson, or Enrico Caruso perform live. Now they could hear those pioneers just by going to their local store and bringing home a record. The phonograph opened up the art of music to a great number of people who previously had only limited exposure to its pleasures. Later on radio would expand on that by reaching millions of people at one time but Edison's talking machine was the first device to allow consumers the ability to own music and listen to it at home.

2. Marconi sends and receives first radio signal, 1895

The listener couldn't choose the music played on the radio, as they could with the phonograph, but now a song could reach thousands or even millions of listeners at a time. Nothing else would have the ability to spread music as far and wide as radio. It is simply the best thing that ever happened to music. The Internet may be changing that somewhat, but as of today, radio is still the primary way for an artist to get their music heard by a large audience. It would take until the 1920s before consumers could get radio in their homes but it all started here.

3. Judy Garland sings "Over The Rainbow" in The Wizard Of Oz, 1939

It's both a beautiful song and a beautiful rendition by one of the very best female singers of all time. It has always been my belief that "Over The Rainbow" may have done more than any other song to make people realize the impact music could have in the movies.

4. "Rock Around the Clock" is used in the movie "Blackboard Jungle", sparking the Rock and Roll revolution, March 19, 1955

Would Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and Bruce Springsteen have become stars, or even musicians, if this song didn't appear in this movie?

5. Motown Records opens for business, 1959

Berry Gordy and his roster of musicians probably did more than anyone in history to popularize and bring black music into the mainstream. Their slogan was "The Sound Of Young America" not "The Sound Of Black America" and that was telling.

6. February 9, 1964, The Beatles appear on "The Ed Sullivan Show"

This is one of popular music's defining moments. For a lot of kids in the world rock & roll and popular music began here. The Beatles arrival launched an era of unprecedented quality and interest in music.

7. "Rolling Stone" magazine founded in San Francisco by Jann Wenner, in 1967

I've long had my gripes with this forty year old periodical but during my late teens and twenties I probably learned more about musicians and the music industry from it than from any other source. It may not have shaped my tastes but it certainly gave me a rock & roll education.

8. The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, August 1969

No, I wasn't there but it truly was one of the the most important events in rock music history. Books, movies, records, and musical careers were all made because of this momentous event.

9. The Phillips factory in Germany releases the first compact disc for commercial use, August 17, 1982

CDs improved upon the quality that high-end phonograph records and stereo equipment reached by the 1980s. CDs had a much wider dynamic range than records, increased music's portability (something that would become very important in the future), and the amount of music that could be stored on a single piece of media increased significantly.

10. Apple introduces the iPod and iTunes, revolutionizing the distribution and consumption of music, 2001

As I said in a recent look back at Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band mp3s are rapidly destroying the entire album/CD formats as ways of listening to music: I wrote, "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."

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Arthur Alexander - Lonely Just Like Me: The Final Chapter (1993 & 2007)

The R & B world seems to have a propensity for producing all-star level musical talent who should be legends but instead perform for many years, often decades, in undeserved obscurity. Many never found a large audience even among the genre’s own fans. Such is the case with hard luck Arthur Alexander who died in 1993 before Lonely Just Like Me could make him a star.

Alexander’s resume did contain a few minor hit records in the early 60s but he is mostly known for one song. Beatles fans will recognize him as the composer of "Anna" which they covered on their very first album, Please Please Me, all the way back in 1963, before they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Lesser known are "Soldier Of Love" which appears on The Beatles Live At The BBC double set, an early Rolling Stones cover of Alexander's "You Better Move On," and "Sally Sue Brown" covered by someone born with the name of Robert Zimmerman. When those three rock icons cover your material it guarantees you respect.

Even though many highly regarded artists loved his music, after a few minor chart entries and some bad industry dealings with record companies, Alexander quit the music business completely and earned a living driving a bus for a social services organization. Eventually musician and producer Ben Vaughn coaxed him out of retirement and the revitalized singer recorded Lonely Just Like Me in 1993. Sadly, a heart attack took his life within a few months after the CD was released.

Alexander was not your traditional R&B showman. His records weren’t barn burners. He sang in a pleasant, easy, low-key, style that reminds one of O.C. Smith on his 60s hit "Little Green Apples" or Otis Redding in the mellow mood he demonstrated on his gargantuan 1967 hit, "Dock Of The Bay." Alexander's relationship to rhythm and blues is the same as James Taylor's relationship to rock 'n roll. Taylor could do a fine cover of the disc's opening track "If It's Really Got To Be This Way."

Many of Alexander's compositions were quite sad and titles such as "Go Home Girl," "Every Day I Have To Cry," "Johnny Heartbreak," and the title track are all prime examples. Two tracks, "Sally Sue Brown" and "Genie In The Jug," prove Alexander could get a beat going when he feels like it. All twelve of the songs on the original CD release were written or co-written by Alexander. When asked how he wrote such great songs without being a musician he said, "They really find it surprising. All I can tell them is that it's a gift, it is a gift from God. I hear a melody and lyrics in my head, and once they get in there they just won't go away."

Hacktone Records recently re-issued the CD under the name of Lonely Just Like Me: The Final Chapter with a lot of bonus material. An entire on air performance and interview with Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air is included along with four demos Alexander recorded in a Cleveland hotel room. Finally he sings a live version of "Anna" recorded at The Bottom Line.

This CD is music well worth owning and the view from this pulpit is that that soft rock fans will like Alexander's music as much as R & B lovers.