Monday, January 26, 2009

James Taylor – Covers (2008)

James Taylor has often been credited with kick-starting the whole singer-songwriter movement so it's ironic that many of his biggest hit singles have been cover versions of other people's songs. Notable among them are "You've Got A Friend," "Handy Man," "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)," and "Up On The Roof." Taylor has written some wonderful songs so my statement isn't meant to demean his accomplishments. To the contrary, he is talented and versatile enough to fold other artist's songs into his laid back musical frame of reference and truly make them his own.

Considering both Taylor's good taste and commercial success recording other artists' work we shouldn't be surprised that he finally issued a whole CD of classics originally associated with other stars. On his latest release, Covers, a lot of famous 60s and 70s pop and rock standards receive the usual laid back Taylor treatment. "Not Fade Away," "Hound Dog," "Suzanne," "On Broadway," and "Wichita Lineman" are pleasantly played and arranged by the top notch band he assembled for the sessions. The usual guitars and keyboards lead the way but they are often supported by some nice horn charts that give the more laid back readings of rockers such as "Summertime Blues" some added punch. As always, Taylor's smooth vocal delivery is impeccable.

You can never go wrong with a James Taylor CD. He is among the elite figures in American pop music history.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Tom Moon - 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die (2008)

Tom Moon once played saxophone in Maynard Ferguson's big band. More famously, he is a music critic who worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Rolling Stone Magazine, and National Public Radio. His top flight music credentials helped him complete his first book, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die.

The theme of this massive tome is easy to understand. It isn't intended to be a list of Moon's favorite works. Instead, he choose 1,000 recordings, most of them full length albums or CDs, (a few singles like The Beach Boys "Good Vibrations" or The Temptations "Ain't To Proud To Beg" are included) that he believes everyone must hear to be fully musically educated. Moon's opinions are written in a very non-effete style because he just explains what he loves about each recording and what he believes readers will gain by listening to it.

The book has everything imaginable. Recent bands such as Radiohead and The Arcade Fire are included as are 90s stalwarts Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice In Chains. Mainstream artists such as Abba, Neil Diamond, Boston, Norah Jones, and Chicago are featured as are both Elvises, Rick Nelson, and Chuck Berry. The Beatles have six entries. Miles Davis has five. Surprisingly, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart only has three.

Opera, classical, jazz, world music, Broadway musicals, and movie soundtracks all have their place. West Side Story and The Sound of Music receive equal time with Beethoven symphonies, The Sex Pistols, Arrested Development, Count Basie, and Nina Simone. Music from Third World Asian and African countries also have a significant share of this book.

Moon published each entry alphabetically by artist, in lieu of separating them by era or genre, to make sure readers would not just peruse their favorites. Therefore, you can read about the gospel group The Abyssinian Baptist Choir and their 1960 album Shakin' The Rafters on page 4 and then on page 5 move right on to AC/DC and 1980's Back In Black.

I realize it is virtually impossible for everyone to like every recording in the book and I'm sure Moon understands that too. He even admits he needed an education in classical and opera and sought help from the Inquirer's classical music critic, Daniel Patrick Stearns, to gain further appreciation of the art form.  In the end Moon found as many wonders among the works of music's original long-haired musicians as he did among those in the world of rock n' roll.

You can see the complete list in alphabetical order and some abridged reviews from the book at Moon's website. You can purchase it from Amazon.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Too Old to Rock 'n Roll: Too Young to Die!

Despite the title of this article, You're not about to read a review of the old Jethro Tull album bearing the same name. I'm stealing Ian Anderson's album title because it's appropriate for the discussion we're about to have.

I've written before that I've never been stuck in the musical generation of my youth because I've never stopped listening to new stuff. I still listen to a lot of music and purchase many jazz, blues, and country CDs. I also listen to a lot of singer-songwriters. However, recently I find myself far less receptive to the latest offerings from the world of rock 'n roll. Even though I've used this web space to praise some fine new and popular rock bands such as Los Lonely Boys, The Cat Empire, Sea Wolf, and Grace Potter and The Nocturnals I find most current rock music to be too loud and totally devoid of melody, musicianship, and originality. (Shudder! I now sound like my parents).

Current favs Kings Of Leon, The Arcade Fire, and The Hold Steady are all critically acclaimed bands that I believe have nothing to offer yet I wonder if I would like them if I was younger. Would I still like crushingly loud bands such as Led Zeppelin today if my first exposure to them was in the new millennium rather than 1968? Are the Allman Brothers superior to Vampire Weekend? Do The Rolling Stones have more talent than My Morning Jacket? Is U2 better than Coldplay?

Has the art form finally run out of ideas? Is rock strictly a young man's game with no place for more mature fans? I've never asked for reader participation to one of my posts before, but today I'm asking all who read this article to offer your opinions. How do you feel about today's rock 'n roll? Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

She & Him - Volume One (2008)

Semi-famous actress, Zooey Deschanel, has found a second career as a pop-rocking singer-songwriter with a fixation for the 60s. We're not talking about Woodstock, tie-dyed t-shirts, wah-wah pedals, fuzz boxes, or the seventeen minute electric guitar jams that dominated the latter half of the decade. We're talking about music you may hear on an episode of Mad Men: Motown, early Beatles, Phil Spector style girl groups, and Brill Building pop with a little bit of country music thrown into the mix.

Deschanel has teamed with folk-rocker M. Ward and together they made one of the best albums of last year. The two met on the movie set of 2007's The Go-Getter, sang a Richard and Linda Thompson duet for the film, became friends, and discovered they had a lot in common musically. Their one time recording session soon turned into a more lasting partnership and they convened at Ward's studio to record this disc.

While this album may appear to be Deschanel's CD, with just a little help from her friend, it is definitely a true collaboration. She sings almost all of the lead vocals and wrote all but two of the songs for Volume One while Ward sings back up, does the arrangements, and leads the band.

Sixties girl groups are the most obvious influence on Volume One. These are not overly long songs that wear out their welcome. Instead, they are short, radio ready ditties from two young people who have old musical souls and like it that way. Both members of She & Him believe that much of today's music is too loud, and often over-produced, so their hearts steer them toward music that no one hears on the radio anymore.

They cover two old top forty chestnuts, an acoustic, slowed down, and extremely mellow version of Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got A Hold On Me," and one of my favorite songs from the early Beatles songbook, a fun, countrified take of "I Should Have Known Better." Of Deschanel's originals the marvelously upbeat "This Is Not A Test," "Sweet Darlin," and "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here" all shine brightly. Even if the lyrics are not always uplifting, the music certainly is.

Volume One is a surprisingly excellent musical beginning for the actress and her more experienced producer and bandleader. I'm looking forward to Volume Two.