Saturday, October 24, 2009

Jimmie Dale Gilmore: One Endless Night (2000)

Let's start out by saying that alternative country music artist Jimmie Dale Gilmore is an acquired taste. To put it mildly, he has an odd voice, which can be off-putting to a lot of people. But he always sings in tune which is more than can be said about many of his contemporaries. One critic wrote that Gilmore's voice is not appealing enough to listen to him do an album of covers. I disagree. (He wrote only two of the thirteen songs on this disc.)

Gilmore, who is devoted to his beloved Texas, performs these songs by well known rock and country composers in a style that compensates for his voice. He performs with a full electric band, playing light rock or country arrangements and brings an appealing originality to the songs. If Gilmore ever wanted to be a rock' n roller rather than a country singer he would have done it well.

Gilmore covers songs by singer-songwriters such as Jesse Winchester, John Hiatt and Walter Hyatt. There is a cover of Jerry Garcia's Grateful Dead tune "Ripple" that for my money outshines the original. Perhaps the weirdest track is a cover of "Mack The Knife" with a sparse arrangement slowed down to the point where it becomes a totally different song from the Bobby Darin hit version of 1959.

Further elaboration will not make you fully appreciate this album or Gilmore's singing. Everyone should listen to this disc at least once. I think it is a great piece of work but I fully understand if his voice will make you want to take a pass on a second listen.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Brandi Carlile - Give Up The Ghost (2009)

Twenty-eight year old Brandi Carlile just released her third CD last week to much deserved critical acclaim.

Unlike 2007's The Story, produced by T Bone Burnett, Give Up The Ghost, is a more rocking affair with Rick Rubin at the helm.

The livelier first half of the disc trumps the more folky singer-songwriter oriented songs of the second half but that does not mean Carlile should have left the quieter stuff on the cutting room floor. To the contrary, the second half only pales by comparison. If tracks one through five were released as a separate EP, and songs six through eleven were issued the same way, and you listened to either one without ever hearing the other, you would still be very impressed by everything you heard.

The buoyant melodies, harmonies, and arrangements of the rockers may have you tapping your toes even while Carlile continues to be a serious songwriter. The opening track, "Looking Out" contains the heavy lines, "I laid a suitcase on my chest so I could feel somebody's weight." The tune ends with the declaration "Someone loves you," and because it does, we know it's OK for the song to sound so upbeat.

"Dying Day," written by Carlile's guitarist and close friend Tim Hanseroth, offers more deep thoughts yet the song is never morose. It's rocking workout helps the listener understand that while Carlile is often "lost in a sea of drunken screams" we also know that everything will turn out fine because she is "gonna love you 'til my dying day."

Carlile's childhood idol, Elton John, who proves here that he has never gotten enough credit for his piano playing, is featured on the terrific "Caroline." The single, "Dreams," is about physical love, and "That Year" is about dealing with a friend's suicide ten years later.

Carlile relies on her two main sidemen, the Hanseroth twins, more than ever. This time around she only wrote three of the songs without their assistance. Amy Ray, Benmont Tench, and Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers all lend a hand in the studio.

Give Up The Ghost, a late entry for album of the year honors, is a must for all lovers of Americana rock. No other label fits this hybrid of folk, modern country, and rock 'n roll that is a perfect backdrop for the singer's powerful and beautiful voice.

This album has it all.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Bucket List: John Mayall - The Turning Point (1969)

I've been hoping to discuss some current releases but not much new stuff has come my way lately, so let's take another ride on the Wayback Machine to talk about British blues powerhouse, John Mayall.

Mayall's most important gift to rock' n roll lies not with his own playing, singing, and songwriting but with his tremendous ability to discover outstanding talent. Among the all-stars and Hall of Famers whose careers he helped launch are Peter Green, John McVie, and Mick Fleetwood who all eventually left to organize Fleetwood Mac. Mick Taylor left Mayall to replace Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones, and Andy Fraser started Free. His most illustrious 60s graduate, Eric Clapton, wrote on Mayall's website, "John Mayall has actually run an incredibly great school for musicians." Clapton eventually left Mayall too and formed Cream with Jack Bruce, another of the bandleader's prodigies.

We can debate forever what Mayall's best records are, and many blues lovers would easily choose the album he did with Clapton, Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton. However, his most famous work, even if it wasn't his best, came several years after Clapton left to become a major guitar hero. It was in 1969, not long after Taylor left, that The Turning Point was recorded live at the Fillmore East.

The Turning Point is unique because the concert and the subsequent album release featured an all acoustic quartet and no drummer, something unheard of in hard rocking 1969. Mayall played harmonica and acoustic guitar, Johnny Almond played sax and flute, Jon Mark played, according to Mayall, "acoustic finger-style guitar," and Steve Thompson was the bassist. Mark and Almond left not long after the album was released to form their own band.

Among the songs are the album's best known track, the exuberant classic "Room to Move," a piece that became famous for Mayall's mouth percussion gimmick, and there is the topical rant that opened the album, "The Laws Must Change," a song expressing his views on legalizing marijuana. However, the best tracks have bassist Thompson and woodwind player Almond stealing the show. Because this concert was "unplugged" (a term that was not yet used in 1969) the former's bass is front and center while the latter proved he can play with any bluesman or jazz band anywhere. Both shine on "Thoughts About Roxanne" and "California."

Mayall's vocals can be a distraction but once you get beyond them The Turning Point is definitely a very rewarding experience.