Thursday, July 30, 2009

Sharon Little - Perfect Time For A Breakdown (2008)

It's always cool when someone who is about to hit the big time lives within a stone's throw of your house (or at least a very short drive from it). Such is the case with Sharon Little from North Wales, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia.

Depsite her proximity I just saw the young singer live for the very first time this past weekend at the XPoNential Music Festival hosted annually by WXPN - 88.5 FM , public radio from the University of Pennsylvania. Little was the opening act on the main stage of the Saturday portion of the festival held each July in Camden, New Jersey's Wiggins Park. The stage is on the Delaware River overlooking a great view of the skyline of The City Of Brotherly Love.

For a young lady in her twenties Little has a very fine stage presence. She has a lot of poise and always knows exactly what to say and when to say it. She is as self-assured as someone who has been gigging for twenty years. Her band was tight and the singer's expressive vocal style is far removed from those breathy female weaklings who believe that singing barely above a whisper is the only way to show emotion in their music. Her voice, while not as powerful or as mature sounding as great singers such as Susan Tedeschi or Bonnie Raitt, is perfectly suited for her self-written repertoire of songs. Little is not a true blues belter nor is she an R & B queen, but there are enough of both styles in her rock 'n roll to prove she isn't a wimp.

Little's show forced me to head over to the CD booth later and plunk down ten dollars for her major label debut, Perfect Time For A Breakdown, released last year on CBS Records. The CD is a very nice affair, Little's voice is in full flower, but it's a disc I would like even more if I hadn't heard her live first. The album is still a worthwhile purchase, but in the studio her R & B and blues influences are less apparent than they are in concert. The belief here is that Little's career would best be served by ratcheting up the intensity of her recording sessions to match her concert performances.

Friday, July 24, 2009

John Cruz - Acoustic Soul (1996)

Even though John Cruz only released his second CD, One of These Days, in 2007, eleven years after his debut, Acoustic Soul, he has long been a highly regarded singer-songwriter in his native state of Hawaii. Acoustic Soul sold 100,000 copies on the islands upon its release.

The CD is aptly named because the only electric instrument appearing anywhere on it is the bass that accompanies the band leader's acoustic lead guitar. Musically, the disc is a spirited affair that is loaded with Cruz's bluesy R & B vocals. His slightly raspy voice is perfectly suited for the songs showcased here.

If you're not a fan of Hawaiian music don't be put off. This disc isn't traditional music with harmonies and a ukulele. The opening track, "Island Style," has become a Hawaiian standard and is played by bands all over the fiftieth state. "Only Cruz’s regional hit and "Kawailehua'a'alakahonua," sung in his native tongue, offer us any indication about his heritage. While the musician freely embraces his roots he clearly has other musical avenues he wants to travel.

The proof that Cruz is not just some local musician is everywhere. He has written with Trey Anastasio, and their song, "A Case of Ice and Snow," appeared on Anastasio's solo CD, Bar 17. Jack Johnson has covered "Island Style" and plays the song in concert. He has also appeared at Bonnaroo, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and New York's Carnegie Hall. One of These Days was recorded in Jackson Browne’s home studio and just this past March Cruz played fourteen shows at SXSW in Austin, TX.

Cruz apprenticed for a decade on the East Coast before Acoustic Soul was recorded, mostly in Boston, Martha's Vineyard, and Greenwich Village. He is playing a series of concerts on schooner cruises this summer on the Vineyard.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Chicago: An Album By Album Analysis Of The Terry Kath Era (1969 - 1977)

The original lineup of Chicago has always been one of my all time favorite bands. My affection for this great horn band is such that I want to discuss all of the albums they recorded before Terry Kath's unfortunate and accidental passing. Their debut album is now forty years old, and it's followup is not far behind, yet their music endures to this day.

* * * * * Everyone Must Own
* * * * Excellent
* * * Good
* * Fair
* Poor

* * * * * Chicago Transit Authority (1969) - Whether they were playing screaming psychedelic hard rock, jazz, blues, or love songs, everyone in the band proved they were worthy of the huge mass success that followed CTA's release. The band's ability to play anything and play it well is the hallmark of their debut album. The stars are Robert Lamm, Terry Kath, and the horns, and even Peter Cetera demonstrates he can be a rock and roll animal when he wants to be. The standout tracks are Lamm's "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is, "Beginnings," "Listen," and Kath's "Introduction." A cover version of "I'm A Man" became a standard for the band in concert. It's true that the inclusion of "Free Form Guitar" is very questionable & for some people "Liberation" may seem over the top, but for those of you who remember this period well neither track seemed out of place at the time. Even Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young performed 15-minute live guitar jams back in the day. CTA is the very best example of the band's original musical goals. Containing four hit singles that each deserved to be a hit this album was on the charts for over a year. In my opinion this is one of the best rock albums of all time and my favorite Chicago album.

* * * * * Chicago II (1970) - This is the album that made Chicago famous. Some people may prefer Chicago II to CTA because it is a much more tightly arranged record. Featuring less jamming than CTA the second album is more song oriented. This gives the LP a slightly more mainstream feel but IT DOES NOT MEAN THE ALBUM WAS A SELLOUT! Too the contrary. The arrangements are more ambitious and more complex than on CTA and even some classical song structures are applied to pieces such as the wonderful "The Ballet For A Girl In Buchanan," which includes the hit singles "Make Me Smile" and "Color My World." The album also contains a third hit single, "25 Or 6 To 4," featuring a sizzling Kath guitar solo. The horn section really shines on "In The Country." The anti-war suite "It Better End Soon" on side four may seem dated to the same people who believe "Liberation" is an anachronism, but in view of the current war it's relevancy has returned. While CTA was dominated by Lamm's compositions, Kath's guitar and the horns, this release is more of a complete band effort with everyone playing their best. With the introduction of Walt Parazaider's flute, an instrument he didn't play on CTA, and deftly placed electronic keyboards such as on the bouncy ending to "Wake Up Sunshine," the overall sound textures became even more colorful and diverse than on CTA. It is Chicago's second best effort.

* * * * III (1971) - To me this album is the oddest in Chicago's discography and although less of a classic than the two that preceded it, it is still excellent nonetheless. While "Free" and "Lowdown" were both top-notch singles they are seldom heard on radio today and therefore are more obscure to the casual fan than their earlier hits. The main drawback is too much filler that appears to be included only to stretch this release into another double album. Some editing of this LP would have helped. While not bad, "Motorboat To Mars," "Free Country," and "Progress?" are classic examples of this unnecessary filler. On the plus side, III is the band's most jazz oriented LP to date. "Happy 'Cause I'm Going Home," "The Approaching Storm," "Mother," and "Loneliness Is Just A Word" are all jazz influenced pieces that really show off Chicago's willingness to try everything. Because this LP has both the extended jams of CTA & the suites of Chicago II it has some of the personality of both of its predecessors and thus appears less focused. III is number 5 on my best of Chicago list.

* * * Live at Carnegie Hall (1971) - My initial comments on this album consisted of only two sentences. "Jim Pankow was right. Buy Live In Japan instead." Since then I've had to amend that statement because the 2005 remastered version of Live at Carnegie Hall which was originally released as a four LP, and later as a three CD set, is a huge improvement in the sound quality over either of its predecessors. Read more about the new version in this complete review.





* * * * * V (1972) - This is the last of the albums from their very artistic, eclectic period. The album contains everything from Top 40 pop songs such as "Saturday In the Park" to avant-garde jazz that is best exemplified by "A Hit By Varese." "Dialogue" may be their best socially conscience song ever. "Now That You've Gone" is the standout track and offers everything that is great about early Chicago. Walt Parazaider blows his brains out with a truly wonderful sax solo, rocking hard over the brass. Other terrific tracks include "All Is Well," "State Of The Union," and "While The City Sleeps." However, there were warning signs of the future. "Saturday In The Park" is pure pop rock and was the first indication that the band may be heading in a more mainstream direction. No one thought much about it at the time because it is a terrific song. If their change in direction continued to produce songs like this top 40 Robert Lamm classic no one but the worst cynic would be having a laugh at Chicago's expense today. This indispensable album is the group's third best album ever and often threatens to move up higher on the list depending on my mood.

* * * Live In Japan (1972) - This fine live album was the only one to buy until Carnegie Hall was reissued. First, the sound quality is far superior to the tinny, amateurish sounding original release of Carnegie Hall. Secondly, this double disc showcases Chicago's versatility, offering a cross-section of all their various styles and influences while putting on a stellar concert performance by playing all their best stuff from their first four studio albums. All seven members get to show off their musical prowess. Tight ensemble work is combined with great singing and instrumental soloing. The band really sounds like they are enjoying themselves and they show their appreciation to the audience by singing "Lowdown" and "Questions 67 and 68" in Japanese. Disc two gets bogged down with Terry Kath's free form guitar introduction to "A Song For Richard and His Friends", Robert Lamm's too long piano intro to "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is," and Danny Seraphine's way too long drum solo from "I'm A Man" but otherwise this recording is everything a fan of the band's classic early period would want from a Chicago concert. It was originally released in 1972 only in Japan. It has only been available in America since 1996 when it was finally released on CD.

* * VI (1973) - The results of the warning provided by "Saturday In the Park" were realized here. VI is where Chicago started to forget they were a horn band so I was immediately disappointed with this ten-song disc containing three tracks with no horns and a fourth having only a brief flute solo at the end. Although the band possessed other worthy traits, the interaction between the horn section, Kath's guitar, and the fine singing and songwriting were always welded together into a cohesive whole that set them apart from all other rock bands. I am not saying that everything they did without horns was bad but VI wasn't up to the standards they had set for themselves on all of their previous releases. If I wanted to listen to acoustic music at the time VI was released I would have preferred to listen to CSN, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, America, or the Eagles, all who wrote and played acoustic soft rock better than Chicago. But, there is still a lot to like here. "Feeling Stronger Everyday" and "Just You and Me" are two great singles, "Hollywood," "What's This World Coming To," and "Rediscovery" are all great songs. Also worthy is "Something In This City Changes People," the best song here without the brass.

* * * * VII (1974) - I like jazz so I was thrilled that the horn section was back and dominating the experimental jazz tracks the band recorded to open this two-disc set, an experiment that yielded mostly positive results. My least favorite is the too long "Devils Sweet." It is simply not my taste. While still listenable, I prefer more melodic jazz with a good beat, but I must give the guys credit for trying something new and different. Much better are "Aire," with a great Terry Kath solo and "Italian From New York," that opens with really cool ARP synthesizer sound effects before morphing into the main theme, and "Hanky Panky" which is more traditional in song structure. VII is a very schizophrenic album. It has been said that the album's duel personalities are a result of a compromise the rest of the band, who wanted to make a jazz LP, made with Peter Cetera who dislikes jazz. So on side 2 the modern jazz is followed by the more mainstream rock the band began to play on VI, but on VII all of it works well and is better than what is found on its predecessor. Jazzy pop acoustic numbers such as Cetera's "Happy Man" and Kath's "Byblos" fit right in. Some great horn charts on the pop sides include "Life Saver," "Mongonucleosis" and "Call On Me." There is much more, but for the sake of rambling on too long I will stop here. With help from The Pointer Sisters and The Beach Boys, both of whom sing backup, VII was their last set of top-notch musical diversity. Three hit singles help make this album another big hit. VII ranks number 4 on my "Best of Chicago" album list.

* * VIII (1975) - According to Robert Lamm Chicago VIII was the beginning of the band's long downhill slide in both the quality of their music and of their enduring popularity. Drugs and the rock 'n roll lifestyle began to take their toll on the music, and it shows. The songs on VIII are wildly different in style, substance, and temperament. Where other Chicago albums had a distinct personality this disc is all over the place. VIII is an album one would call eclectic if it was a quality piece of work, but because it is one of the original band's lesser efforts the listener will tend to think they have lost their way and can't come up with an identifiable sound. The odds of the same person liking "Old Days" and the Jimi Hendrix tribute "O Thank You Great Spirit" are small. Again there are several hornless entries. In addition to "Spirit," which is easily the best of these, there is "Hideaway" a generic hard rocker, and "Till We Meet Again" a throwaway acoustic ballad that is nothing more than filler. The horns play only as a unit; there are no solos. Little on the album is of the quality of anything that came before. Chicago let it be known that their better days were behind them. The best songs are "Ain't It Blue," "Long Time, No See," "Anyway You Want," "Harry Truman," and "Brand New Love Affair." I don't hate this album, in fact it has grown on me over the years, but for the most part this isn't classic 70s Chicago. If this LP was your introduction to the band you had no idea what they were capable of doing.

* * * IX (1975) - Most of Chicago's hits are here in their shorter, AM radio versions on this, their first greatest hits album. Most hard core fans prefer the longer album versions of songs like "Beginnings" and "I'm A Man" that were featured on the band's regular LPs and FM radio. The edited tracks just aren't the same. The album was a great introduction to the group but not a disc you would use to give a novice a lesson on what Chicago is really all about. Since then, this LP has been supplanted by several other greatest hits albums, compilations and box sets.




* X (1976) - Chicago's second completely frustrating album in a row picked up where VIII left off but is even more disappointing. X is the low point for the original band. There are several poor pop songs. Both Peter Cetera's "Mama Mama" and Terry Kath's "Hope For Love" in which he repeats the line "I don't know" I don't know how many times are both dull and pointless pop tunes and a true sign that the band is now mailing it in. Even worse is "You Get It Up" with its sexual connotations and a really bad dance funk arrangement. Even the horn section sounds terrible. Cetera's "If You Leave Me Now" is better than any of those songs, but unfortunately it became an albatross to the band. The tune became a huge, huge hit and Chicago would thereafter be known as Peter Cetera's ballad band, no matter what else they recorded. It was also an ominous sign that this song had a full string section and French horns in lieu of the Chicago horn section. This would become a trademark of the band in years to come. The only thing missing was David Foster. On the plus side, "Once or Twice" and "Scrapbook" are very good reminders of the old days and both songs would have been able to find a home on one of their early albums. Several other songs, most notably "You Were On My Mind," "Skin Tight," and "Another Rainy Day in New York City" may have found a place as a lesser track on VI or VII, but overall the results were not enjoyable.

* * * * XI (1977) - This album was a return to form. Cetera's "Baby, What A Big Surprise" was a reprise of its sister song on X, but "Surprise" doesn't bother me as much because it isn't played as often on the radio. Interestingly, this is Cetera's only lead vocal and composition on the album but because it was the big hit Chicago's reputation as a ballad band was cemented even further. Terry Kath's "Mississippi Delta City Blues" finally made it to record and is a fine performance. His power trio, blues guitar tune, "Takin' It On Uptown," may be the best song the band ever recorded without horns and just to show off his versatility Terry also performs a great Ray Charles style tribute on "Little One." Robert's funny but serious "Vote For Me" is the band's last socio-political song for a long time, an aspect of their music I missed later on. Another Lamm standout is "Policeman." The highlight is Danny Seraphine's "Take me Back to Chicago" featuring an excellent Lamm lead vocal and Chaka Khan's terrific guest performance which closes out the song. I wish Jim Pankow and Lee Loughnane had used one of the traditional three lead vocalists for their songs instead of singing lead themselves, but overall XI proved that Chicago was taking their music seriously again after the debacle that was X. Instrumentally XI is their best work since VII, it makes the best usage of the horn section since VII, and it is more in the spirit of their earlier work. There are even a few instrumental solos. It was a fitting swan song for Terry Kath whose guitar work on this album really stokes the fire that drives the band. Kath died not long after this album was released and Chicago would never be the same.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Melody Gardot - My One and Only Thrill (2009)

My One and Only Thrill, the second full length CD by Melody Gardot, is a more sophisticated affair than her debut, Worrisome Heart. On several tracks the Philadelphia based singer-songwriter, who plays acoustic guitar and piano, adds a new edge to low volume music because she frequently creates a deep, smoldering groove that feels like it’s about to become white hot yet never does. She and her band are probably the only musicians on the current music scene who can play with so much intensity without raising the volume. Just listen to the CD's best song, "Who Will Comfort Me," for a wonderful example of the twenty-four year old's ultra-low key jazz chops.

Thrill also showcases a full string section on many tracks, something she didn’t use on her more low budget, but still satisfying, debut. Unfortunately, producer Larry Klein (who also worked with Joni Mitchell and Madeleine Peyroux) and Gardot use the strings to excess, pushing her superb band into the back seat of this high end vehicle too often for my liking. Many of the songs in the mid-section of the disc are so laden down with strings, so quiet and so slow, that you begin to think they are just going to stop completely or simply vanish into thin air.

Right now the best way to capture Gardot is in live performance where she and her very talented sidemen do what they do best: play some of the most glorious small group jazz I've ever heard.