Saturday, December 29, 2007

2007 - The Year In Review

Most of the CDs featured in Bloggerhythms Mid-year Review remain at the top of the list as 2007 winds down. Because I don't want to bore everyone by restating for a third time all of the great things I wrote about these discs (most were praised in their individual reviews and at the year's half way point) I'll just list the winners in order with a link to each CD's original review and add any additional comments I feel are worthy. You know it was an eclectic year because new music by some old reliable classic rockers share the list with a few who released their first CDs after Y2K, and so not wanting to snub any of my favorite CDs, I expanded this year's list from five to ten.

There is essentially a three way tie for the top spot. Deciding who recorded the best CD of 2007 is almost an impossible task. America's album, released early in the year, wins in a photo finish because it held the number one position for most of it. The Cat Empire also deserves to be number one for recording the most original sounding music in many years. Their CD is both a triumph of arranging and musicianship. In contrast to America, who relied on a proven formula, The Cat Empire excelled because of its startling uniqueness. Austin based Jimmy Lafave wrote some of the best new songs of the year and his cover versions of other artist's work, especially Bob Dylan, are wonderful.

Listen to all of these great discs and decide for yourself.

1. America - Here & Now
Score one for the old guys. By staying true to their roots Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell created a classic.

2. The Cat Empire - Two Shoes
A little hip-hop, ska, reggae, and Latin jazz combine to create an original Australian stew.

3. Jimmy Lafave - Cimarron Manifesto
Lafave is a genuinely talented singer-songwriter with impeccable taste in cover tunes and a rocker with a heavy Bob Dylan influence. I am taken aback that Lafave is not rich and famous based on both this CD and a recent Austin live performance I had the pleasure of attending. Both critic Dave Marsh and country-rocker Lucinda Williams are huge fans.

4. The Shins - Wincing the Night Away

5. Brandi Carlile - The Story
A great voice, band, and songs make this the best disc by any female artist this year. The title track is the song of the year.

6.The Young Dubliners - With All Due Respect: The Irish Sessions

7. Seamus Kelleher - Four Cups of Coffee
I highly recommend this debut solo release by Kelleher, who is well known in Philadelphia as the lead guitarist for the area's most popular local band Blackthorn. Kelleher fulfilled his life-long dream of finally making his own solo album. It may have been a long wait but after hearing Four Cups Of Coffee I wish he had stepped out on his own a long time ago.

8. California Transit Authority - Full Circle
I like this CD a lot but since the band's leader, Danny Seraphine, the original and former drummer for Chicago, included two-thirds old Chicago songs on the album, I couldn't put it higher on the list. I wouldn't even consider Full Circle a covers album. Can you really cover your own songs? Anyway, Seraphine is back, his drumming is as great as ever, and his band is really cooking. The vocal star is Tower of Power's Larry Braggs.

9. Lewis Taylor - The Lost Album

10. Sea Wolf - Leaves In The River
This is the first full length CD by the band put together by singer/songwriter Alex Brown Church and it's a dandy. At times Sea Wolf sounds like both The Moody Blues and modern rockers The Shins. (Phil Ek, The Shins producer, helms this one for Church and company) Two songs are receiving substantial airplay, "Winter Windows" and "You're A Wolf." This CD was a Christmas gift so I haven't had time to fully absorb it yet and when I do look for a full review.

Honorable Mention
Paul McCartney - Memory Almost Full

The Eagles - Long Road Out Of Eden

Grace Potter and The Nocturnals - This is Somewhere
Potter and her fine band improved upon their fine first CD, Nothing But The Water, by broadening the subject matter of their songs beyond Water's one note theme of broken love affairs. Be sure to check out the new disc's closing track "Big White Gate" as a great example. They turned up the volume by writing harder rock 'n roll arrangements.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Diana Krall Featuring The Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra - Christmas Songs (2005)

Someday everyone who ever sang or played a note will have recorded a Christmas album and, despite how much I enjoy Christmas music, this isn't necessarily a good thing. Every year there is far more Christmas music released than the world will ever need so when a good seasonal disc arrives in my house it is really appreciated.

Diana Krall's Christmas Songs is one of the good ones and while it won't make you forget Ella Fitzgerald's 1960 gem, Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, Krall's album is one of the most instinctively swinging Christmas albums ever released by a female jazz vocalist. This CD has Ella's ghost all over it. Krall's voice is not quite as smooth as Fitzgerald's but her singing and piano playing prove she has talent in abundance.

My only beef with Christmas Songs is the same one that I have with most new Christmas albums. Hardly anyone records Christmas carols anymore so every new Christmas CD seems to rehash the same old holiday pop songs. Krall's CD offers no new songs, nothing obscure, just the same tired old offerings. Do musicians, or more likely the record companies, have a fear of offending non-Christians by singing carols? Has political correctness ruined any chances for future great performances of "Silent Night," "O Holy Night," Adeste Fideles" and all of the other great carols?" I'm not a religious person but these traditional songs are still great music and very important to the holiday.

This apparent political correctness has caused many artists to round out their Christmas albums with non-Christmas songs. Krall closes her disc with the child's lullaby "Count your Blessings." It's not a Christmas song and no matter how you slice it neither is Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Trumpeter Chris Botti added an instrumental version of "Hallelujah" to his holiday release several years ago. Just because it uses that holy word as its title doesn't make it a Christmas song, and although it's not on Krall's disc, "Baby, It's Cold Outside" has become another overplayed trendy seasonal tradition.

I'm not trying to dump on Krall because Christmas Songs really is a fine CD. It's just that with so little new Christmas music being written, combined with the fear of singing religious Christmas songs because someone may be offended, every new holiday CD has the same dozen worn out tunes. How many versions of "Jingle Bells," "Winter Wonderland," "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town," and "Let It Snow" do we need?

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Bucket List: Hall and Oates - Home For Christmas (2006)

I've always liked Hall and Oates from afar but in recent years I've come to appreciate them a lot more than I have in the past. Home For Christmas is their third really strong CD in a row following 2003's Do It For Love and 2004's Our Kind Of Soul. All three CDs rival their best albums from the 70s and 80s suggesting that the 21st century edition of H & O is arguably just as good as their earlier incarnations. Even considering their current hot streak I still wasn't expecting anything as stunningly and consistently great as Home For Christmas, the best new holiday disc I've heard in several years.

While Home For Christmas never loses sight of what H & O do best (making blue-eyed soul colored with lots of mainstream pop-rock) their choice of material for this album indicates the duo has far more eclectic tastes than they ever showed us during their glory years of the early 80s. Recording carols and religious songs for pop Christmas CDs are considered brave moves during these overly politically correct times but apparently Hall and Oates are unafraid of any negativity. "The First Noel" and "O Holy Night" both sound fine in the Hall and Oates production style and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" reminds the listener of the acoustic soul from their adventurous early 70s records.

There are two original songs. Oates' "No Child Should Ever Cry On Christmas" proves he should sing lead far more often. Hall's title track is excellent too but where this album really shines is on the well chosen and obscure cover material. Stax-Volt's William Bell and Booker T. Jones wrote "Everyday Will Be Like A Holiday" and it's rendered superbly here. Robbie Robertson's sacred "Christmas Must Be Tonight" is another excellent choice.

Two traditional gospel songs are the biggest surprises. A fine arrangement of "Mary Had A Baby" is preceded by the CD's real treat: an exciting uptempo version of "Children Go Where I Send Thee" in which the whole band raves it up in full gospel mode.

The only excursion into the land of overused and abused Christmas songs are "The Christmas Song" and a new version of their only previous holiday release, "Jingle Bell Rock." Charlie DeChant's sax and Oates's lead vocal on the former are nice touches and Hall's take on the latter does not disappoint.

The very eclectic Home For Christmas will have you wondering if Hall and Oates have been holding back on us for decades.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Beach Boys - Ultimate Christmas (1998)

Right away I'll say this CD is a must own for Beach Boys aficionados and completists. Ultimate Christmas is a twenty-six track disc that opens with the full version of their classic 1964 Christmas album. After that it gets way more interesting despite the fact that, in typical Beach Boys fashion, there is the usual mixture of terrific music mixed in with some horribly juvenile dribble that grown men shouldn't be allowed to sing unless they are recording a kids album, and maybe not even then.

In 1977 the band, minus Bruce Johnston and functioning again with their classic original lineup, decided they wanted to make a new Christmas album. Tracks were laid down but Warner Brothers rejected the album so the songs remained in the vault until the release of this CD in 1998. Everything the band completed for the album appears here. Instead, they issued The M. I. U. Album the following year as their final Warner's release.

Some of the more interesting tracks were created by using songs that appeared on M. I. U. with totally different lyrics written for Christmas. That album's "Bells Of Paris" became "Bells of Christmas." The boys harmonies on this track are among their best of that era. The arrangement works better as a Christmas song. "Kona Coast" became "Melekalikimaka" (not the same song as the Big Crosby classic), and then there is "Child Of Winter" a completely new, cool, upbeat, and fun tune that was slated to be their first single from the album. All of those songs are worth your time. On the dark side there is the ridiculous "Santa's Got An Airplane" and the childish "(I Saw Santa) Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" featuring Al Jardine's young sons on lead vocals. Youthful charm always helped The Beach Boys music but when that youthfulness was not tempered by someone with more mature tastes embarrassments like those two songs are a result.

Also interesting is the seldom heard 45 RPM version of "Little Saint Nick," complete with bells and glockenspiel added. They also reused the melody from "Drive-In," a song from the boys surf music period, and replaced its lyrics with those from "Little Saint Nick" for unique takes on two of their classics. The original 1964 album closed with an acapella version of "Auld Lang Syne." Its centerpiece was a spoken word holiday greeting from Dennis Wilson. On Ultimate Christmas there is a bonus version deleting Dennis's speech that allows the world to hear the purity of the group's harmonies. The previously unreleased arrangement proves nobody could harmonize like the guys from Hawthorne, California.

The album closes with two radio public service announcements the band recorded for "Toys for Tots" and a 1964 radio interview with Brian Wilson promoting the 1964 Christmas album.

Ultimate Christmas is a mostly fun CD containing everything The Beach Boys ever recorded for Christmas.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Doug Sahm - Live From Austin, TX (2007)

Doug Sahm was always a good time musician. It's what he always wanted to be and it's what he did best. This concert CD, recorded for the PBS TV series, Austin City Limits is no exception. Live From Austin, TX has been released simultaneously on both CD and DVD as part of a series on the New West label and culled from the archives of the acclaimed music performance show. This is a complete concert from November 14, 1975.

Augie Meyer who was Sahm's main sideman beginning with The Sir Douglas Quintet in the 60s is on board as usual, playing his Hammond B-3 organ. Meyer contributes most of the best moments on songs that Sahm made famous with the quintet including "Nuevo Laredo," "Rains Came," "Mendocino," and "She's About A Mover." This is a typical Sahm performance because everyone, especially the leader, is having a great time playing the hits, traditional fiddle tunes such as a romping version of "Cotton-Eyed Joe," and covers of T-Bone Walker and Texas swing giant Bob Wills.

As always, Sahm and his band are in a relaxed groove as they boogie through the evening. If you are a Sahm fan, like I am, this disc will fulfill your wish for a good time.