Thursday, February 25, 2010

Forgotten Music Thursday: The Beach Boys - The Beach Boys (1985)

I wasn't planning on writing about The Beach Boys again so soon after extolling the virtues of Sunflower a few weeks ago. However, because writer Scott D. Parker is hosting a new feature on the last Thursday of every month in which a bevy of bloggers will write about forgotten music I've decided to participate by discussing one of the later albums by the famous surf-rockers. Their eponymous 1985 album, The Beach Boys, is one with an interesting backstory.

Except for Dennis Wilson, who died in December 1983, everyone else was present and accounted for on their first album since the drummer's passing. The lineup included both Brian and Carl Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston. They dedicated the album "to the memory of our beloved, brother, cousin, and friend."

This LP was released around the same time that Brian was awakening from his twenty year death spiral. It was hailed as his comeback because he was fully integrated into the band for the first time in almost a decade. It would also be the last time all five of these guys worked together and Brian would never appear again on a Beach Boys album.

The producer was Steve Levine, who was famous at the time for working with Culture Club. Of course that meant the album became a typical, almost totally 80s, synthesized affair. Very few tracks actually featured the band playing their own instruments as Levine and his studio mates replaced them with all sorts of digital keyboards. The drums and bass were mostly programmed. Usually, the Beach Boy who was most responsible for writing the song added some keyboards or guitar to the arrangement but that is all.

The album's songwriting is passable. Two of the better tracks came from outside the band. Stevie Wonder wrote and played on "I Do Love You," and Culture Club's Boy George and Roy Hay contributed The very good "Passing Friend." The weakest song is the Jardine/Brian Wilson entry "California Calling." By this time it seemed so juvenile to hear men in their forties singing brand new songs about boogie boarding and the "ultimate wave" while using phrases like "totally rad." Fortunately that is the only song that tries to relive their glory years. The highlight is the Mike Love/Terry Melcher top 40 hit "Getcha Back," arguably the band's last really memorable song before the release of their final hit, "Kokomo," three years later. Brian co-wrote, sang lead, and helped arrange the vocals on five of the tracks.

In his autobiography the former head Beach Boy wrote that by working with Levine "I learned the lesson that so many people who made albums in the eighties missed: no matter how perfect technology made the sound, an album still boiled down to great songwriting and a spiritual investment in the music." He also wrote that Levine "was preoccupied more with the technology than the music. I saw lots of computers and blinking diodes, but I didn't hear any human qualities in the music. How could I? Levine recorded each of the five voices individually and ran them all through computers, which squeezed out every imperfection until they all sounded alike." Later, while Levine was out of the studio, Brian lined everyone up around a single microphone and had the group sing harmonies to one of his songs, "I'm So Lonely." When Levine returned he said that he had never seen anybody record a group of singers all at once before and he wasn't particularly happy about it.

Despite the criticisms above I like this album. It was the the great American band's last decent effort. The vocals, especially the harmonies, are classic Beach Boys, and in the end isn't that what these guys were all about? I can listen to them sing the phone book, and while some may argue that is exactly what they did on this album, Brian and the guys were able to elevate even the weaker tracks by utilizing their instinctively outstanding vocal abilities. Carl is the record's star. His voice was superb.

The Beach Boys was recorded in London for Caribou Records and the CD version had a bonus track, "Male Ego," that wasn't on the LP. "Getcha Back" went to #26 on the singles chart and the album rose to #52. It wasn't a big hit but it wasn't a failure either. In the end though the record ended up like most of The Beach Boys' work of this era, totally forgotten and in the cutout bins. It deserved a better fate.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Michelle Shocked - Soul of My Soul (2009)

The always controversial Michelle Shocked is back. After fighting a losing battle for artistic freedom with Mercury Records in the early 90s (a result that left her without a label for seven years) the singer-songwriter's releases have been uneven. However, when Shocked is "on" she is so good her talent can not be denied. Such is the case with one of her harder rocking CDs, Soul of my Soul. It favors mainstream rock more than most of her albums do and that accounts for much of its artistic success. In Shocked's case "mainstream" is not synonymous with sellout.

Despite the overall feel of the album Shocked still hits hard with her liberal to left leaning politics. If that's a problem then she is an artist who is clearly not for you. Three of the ten tracks blast the former George W. Bush Administration. "Ballad of the Battle of the Ballot and the Bullet, Pt. 1: Ugly Americans" is the most pointed example. Worried about her rights Shocked rants, "I'm singing this while I still can." Another of the political songs, "Other People" is a reminder of the melodic folk-pop of her Mercury years. It's a lot more subtle and therefore ultimately more successful. The rest of the disc is very tame by comparison. There are love songs ("Waterproof" and "Love's Song") and tunes you can almost dance to. "Liquid Prayer" is an excursian into R&B territory.

Shocked may never again achieve the excellence of her major label debut, Short Sharp Shocked, a CD that includes the outstanding "Anchorage." Many people consider it among the greatest singer-songwriter albums ever recorded. While Soul of my Soul doesn't quite reach those heights it contains the same vibe and that's all we can ask for from someone of Shocked's stature.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Sea Wolf - White Water, White Bloom (2009)

Sea Wolf, the name of the musical project put together by Alex Brown Church, is back with its second full length CD, White Water, White Bloom. It's similar to Church's debut, Leaves In the River, minus it's two very catchy radio tracks, "Winter Windows" and "You're A Wolf." In their place is "Wicked Blood," a song that comes close to stealing the same upbeat instrumental vibe.

This is highly produced rock music that fortunately falls short of pretentiousness even while using a small rock orchestra and that's because, just like its predecessor, it's serious and mostly obscure lyrics are often offset by lively tempos that avoid the heaviness of prog-rock. Strings are used in abundance but they don't weigh the music down either. It also helps that Church's somewhat mysterious voice is quite appealing.

In addition to "Wicked Blood," other highlights include the title track, "Spirit Horse," and the hardest rocking song on the disc, "O Maria!"

White Water, White Bloom was produced by Mike Mogis, who is an important part of Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst's musical brainchild. Recently, Mogis and Oberst also teamed up with Jim James of My Morning Jacket and singer-songwriter M. Ward of She & Him to release their first self-titled CD, Monsters of Folk.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Edgehill Avenue - Off the Edge: Live at the Highlands Festival (2010)

Edgehill Avenue, the mighty fine Southern rock band from Louisville, continue to search for some much deserved attention for Rambler, their first full length studio CD. In the meantime they just released a brand new live EP, Off the Edge: Live at the Highlands Festival, that includes three songs from Rambler. There are two more from their currently out of print, self-titled EP ("All I Need" and "60 Days") and two previously unreleased tunes ("Corduroy" and "Summer Rain").

While band leader Drew Perkins calls Off The Edge an EP it's not one of those short, twenty minute, overpriced disappointments. At thirty-seven minutes it would have been a full length album in the pre-digital age so, because it's priced economically at $7 for a CD and only $5 for a download of all seven songs, it's worth every penny, especially because the band proved they are just as comfortable playing live as they are in the studio.

While the quintet embraces improvisation, and there is a very nice guitar battle between Perkins and lead axeman Mike McLaughlin on "Corduroy," they don't bore you with interminable jamming. Sonically, the recording is excellent. Perkins vocals are more up front allowing the listener to understand the lyrics easier than on the original versions.

If your a fan of Rambler this CD is a nice companion disc that will only encourage ticket sales if the band ever decides to visit your town.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Los Lonely Boys - 1969 (2009)

Forgiven, Los Lonely Boys third full length studio CD was loaded with more great roots-rock that continued to cement their reputation as one of our best current American bands. One of its highlights included a cover of The Spencer Davis Group/Chicago Transit Authority hit "I'm a Man." It showcased a lot of what the trio does best. I don't know if that song became the band's inspiration to record more classic rock oldies but if an educated guess has to be made I'd say it laid the foundation that eventually gave birth to 1969, a five track EP full of songs from that great year in rock 'n roll history.

On Santana's "Evil Ways," a song that is perfect for these Texans, the brothers created a whole new groove with their usually fine harmony vocals and guitarist Henry Garza's blazing solo. On "Polk Salad Annie" they can't match Tony Joe White's deep baritone voice that was a huge part of the song's appeal but Henry again rides the coda into the sunset with another powerful, bluesy solo. It may be impossible to capture the raw power or the emotion that was always a part of Jim Morrison's singing with The Doors but on "Roadhouse Blues" Los Lonely Boys come mighty close. They also borrow part of the medley from side two of The Beatles' Abbey Road to re-invent "She Came In Through the Bathroom Window." Finally, Buddy Holly's "Well Alright," later covered by Blind Faith, rounds out the set. It too receives the group's funky treatment.

All five are good songs whose originals are hard to top but if you've never heard the old classics you may think that the covers featured on 1969 are ideal. In the end, the versions you prefer may depend solely on which ones are the most familiar to your ears.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Paul McCartney - Good Evening New York City (2009)

Paul McCartney's Good Evening New York City celebrates the opening of Citi Field, the brand new baseball stadium of the New York Mets, that was built right next door to old Shea Stadium. If you're a Beatles fan (and maybe even if you're not) then you know about the Fab Four's historic night at Shea in 1965. It was rock 'n roll's first outdoor stadium concert.

It's easy to dismiss Good Evening as a clone of McCartney's last live album, Back in The U. S. Live 2002, and that is because seventeen of it's thirty-five tracks appear on both of the double disc sets. The two releases even sound alike at times so the best way to get the full effect and most enjoyment out of Good Evening is to watch its accompanying DVD on your home theater system. The sound is amazing and you'll believe you're right there fighting the crowd for a place in the front row.

Despite the repetition Good Evening does have a few surprises. "A Day In The Life," "I've Got A Feeling," "I'm Down," "Helter Skelter," and Mrs. Vanderbilt are all featured here. "Let Me Roll It" has a hot rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" tacked onto the end. Because of the supersized venue the band leaned toward the harder rocking stuff yet there were still enough McCartney ballads to keep those fans happy too. Billy Joel paid the ex-Beatle back for his appearance at Joel's concert that closed Shea by helping McCartney out on "I Saw Her Standing There." The songs needing strings or an orchestra (most notably "A Day In The Life" and "Eleanor Rigby") suffered because keyboard player Paul "Wix" Wickens replaced them with a synthesizer instead but that is a minor complaint.

Overall, it was an enjoyable two and a half hours of non-stop music. For a little while Beatlemania was back in New York.