Thursday, September 30, 2010

Forgotten Music Thursday: Do You Remember Cashman & West?

My lifelong passion for the Philadelphia Phillies is second only to my passion for music. For those of you not in North or South America, Japan, or South Korea, they’re a professional baseball team from The United States and in 2008 they were the champions of the whole sport. On Monday night The Phillies won their division title for the fourth straight year and earned a chance to play in their third straight World Series. If they do indeed make it to the final round I'm hoping they get to play the New York Yankees again this fall so they can show The Bronx Bombers that they are the new sheriff in town.

The impending post-season got me thinking about baseball songs and Terry Cashman's "Talkin' Baseball (Willie, Mickey, and The Duke)" immediately flashed in my mind. From there my thoughts leaped easily to the early 70s pop duo Cashman & West. Cashman and Tommy West were soft-rock and pop singer-songwriters who are largely unknown today. The duo recorded three albums together but they were mostly known within the music business for writing songs for other artists and producing records for the late Jim Croce. Cashman and original partner Gene Pistilli, co-wrote "Sunday Will Never Be The Same," a hit for Spanky and Our Gang in 1967, and they also had a hit single themselves under the group name The Buchanan Brothers. Their song, "Medicine Man," went to #22 on the Billboard charts in 1969. Later they added West to the act, and after Pistilli left to join Manhattan Transfer, Cashman and West continued as a duo.

"American City Suite" opens side two of Cashman and West's first album, A Song Or Two (1972). It's a sad and moving set of songs about the decline of New York City in the 70s. It's lyrics are full of nostalgia and often border on maudlin. Still, the duo sincerely cares about their city and their old neighborhood. They long for what it once was, and are depressed over it's current state of affairs.

Cashman & West never recorded anything as serious as "American City Suite" again. The rest of their music was squeaky clean and often too saccharine for hard rocking music fans, yet I found stuff to enjoy on all of three of their albums.

Moondog Serenade followed A Song Or Two in 1973 and Lifesong, released soon after, completed their recording career as a duo. However, they still worked as a team behind the scenes. They started their own label, named after their last album, and signed Henry Gross who they sent into the top ten in 1976 with the song "Shannon." Cashman continued as a solo act and eventually released his well known baseball novelty song in 1981. He later recorded a version for every major league team in existence at the time. In the 90s, West opened his own record company and recording studio in New Jersey.

Today, the only way to get the music C & W recorded together is to purchase a single disc compilation titled The Very Best Of Cashman & West. The CD has songs from all three original albums. Unfortunately it contains one major flaw: a truncated version of "American City Suite."

Here are the lyrics to "American City Suite" and the LP version of the entire suite on vinyl.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Avett Brothers - I and Love and You (2009)

You really have to hand it to The Avett Brothers for their perseverance. Since 2002 they have averaged one CD release per year.  It took until their eighth disc, issued last year, before they were able to finally land a major label deal from American Recordings, a Columbia Records affiliate headed by producer Rick Rubin. He is renowned for working with The Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, Metallica, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Rage Against The Machine, and perhaps most famously, Johnny Cash. Rubin, currently the number two in command at Columbia, helped make the brothers stars with their latest album, I and Love and You.

Seth and Scott Avett are the lead singers for a trio that includes bassist and keyboard player Bob Crawford. They are ably assisted by an unofficial fourth member, Joe Kwon on cello. Scott, Seth, and others play drums in the studio but they use a full time drummer for concerts.

The very slow and quiet title track was the unlikely first single, becoming a big hit on college and alternative radio stations. Their followup, "Kick Drum Heart" is far more upbeat and couldn't be more different from its predecessor if it tried.

While electric guitars are part of the mix the band is mostly an acoustic outfit that often colors their sound with both country and folk textures. However, the trio feels like a rock act because they naturally resist adhering to a formula, they use overly frantic vocals that are decidedly more influenced by rock than any other style of music, and they have personalities that are anything but Nashville.

During their recent performance at the Appel Farm Arts & Music Festival in Elmer, NJ on June 5, 2010 I came away with the feeling I had just witnessed a rock band doing an unplugged set. For anyone who knows the brothers' history this shouldn't be a surprise because their first band, Nemo, was rooted in rock 'n roll. The act that became The Avett Brothers began only as a side project while Nemo was still active. Eventually the rock group bit the dust as the side project became their focus.

Admittedly, The Avett Brothers are not for everyone so before you dig into your wallet for the CD you may want to sample several videos from their live shows where you can see and hear some prime examples of their very loose and fun concerts.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin (2010)

Except for 2004's Smile Brian Wilson's solo releases have never matched the quality of his best Beach Boys material. His frequently juvenile lyrics are the reason. While the genius arranger reacquired his lost sanity around 1983 emotionally he is still locked into 1965 and it shows in his songs.  The problem is emphasized by the lyrics found on his new CD of George Gershwin standards, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin.  Everything on this disc was written many years before the Hawthorne, CA native was even born and because Gershwin's lyrics are more sophisticated than Wilson's we are rewarded with a set of tunes that are more enjoyable than anything found on the latter's recent original work.  For this album the star only needed to use the talents he is best suited for: arranging the music and producing the record in the studio.

Wilson has said many times that his favorite piece of music has always been Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." He even remembers being captivated by it when he was only two years old.  The lone survivor from the famous trio of brothers convinced Disney's Pearl Records to support his idea for an album using the late composer's songs. As it turns out they were quite receptive to the idea and Gershwin's estate even offered him more than one hundred unfinished songs to complete however he wanted.  With lyricist Scott Bennett, who is also a member of the songwriter's current band, he completed two that became "The Like in I Love You" and "Nothing but Love."

Among the rest of the fourteen tracks are standards that include a four song suite from Gershwin's opera, Porgy and Bess.  "I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’" was turned into an instrumental that sounds like an outtake from Pet Sounds in large part due to the presence of a bass harmonica used as a lead instrument. "I Got Rhythm" could be a fast and happy Beach Boys single from the mid-60s.  With its sprightly call and response lead vocal and chorus "They Can't Take That Away from Me" is another highlight.  Wilson also turned in a nice job on one of Gershwin's finest numbers, "Someone to Watch Over Me."  The album opens and closes with an almost a capella arrangement of the introduction to "Rhapsody In Blue."

It's possible not everyone will buy into the fact that these songs are Wilsonized versions of pre-World War Two pop classics because they don't sound anything like what most people would expect to hear when listening to music inspired by The Great American Songbook.  Liking this CD depends mostly on whether or not you enjoy the surf-rock icon's post-Beach Boys output.  Also, Wilson's voice is not what it used to be.  Even though he can still sing well his angelic falsetto is gone.

You can decide about the merits of this music for yourself by listening to all of the songs at Amazon and Wilson's official website.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Posies - Blood/Candy (2010)

Lead singer Ken Stringfellow and fellow songwriter Jonathan Auer are the two main spokes in the musical wheel known as The Posies, another revered 90s band from Seattle. They're back with a whole new rhythm section and a brand new CD, Blood/Candy.

The Posies songwriting has always been their strong suit and while they are fine musicians, Stringfellow and Auer are not about flashy axe work or even a good groove. Solos are short and sweet, and as with most power pop, excellent harmonies and melodies share space everywhere.

The Posies don't mimic their influences, they honor them. The early Who, Squeeze, and The Beatles all turn up in their repertoire and you shouldn't be surprised to learn that Stringfellow was recently an important member of Big Star. He helped keep Alex Chilton's much cherished cult band alive over the last few years. The two bandleaders prove that rock doesn't have to be filled with bombast, rebellion, or alienation to win over the hearts and minds of fans and the critics.

Blood/Candy is loaded with good songs. The light airy vocal pop of "Glitter Prize," "Notion 99," "Holiday Hours,"and "So Caroline" are all intelligent tracks that are ready made for radio. "Licenses To Hide" and "She's Coming Down" have a definite Squeeze influence. "For The Ashes" could have found it's roots in Paul McCartney's "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" and the introduction to "Take Care" definitely reminds the listener of Keith Moon in his louder caveman moments.

On Blood/Candy The Posies sound more like a top flight British Invasion band than anybody whoever came out of Seattle and the album is all the better for it.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Roy Orbison - The Last Concert (2010)

Roy Orbison, one of the extraordinary talents of rock 'n roll's formative years, was almost Elvis Presley's vocal equal. Like "The King" he preferred ballads to rocking out and, just like Presley, he excelled at both. For those unfamiliar with Orbison his often dramatic (some would say melodramatic) singing style is best represented today by the likes of The Mavericks' Raul Malo.

The Last Concert features the star in top vocal form all during this last memorable show at Highland Heights in Akron, Ohio on December 4, 1988. Unfortunately, one can't listen to it without just a touch of sadness because Orbison died only two days later of a heart attack at age 52 making the title of the CD the cold, dark truth. The singer's passing is made even sadder when you realize he died less than two months after his new supergroup, Traveling Wilburys, released the first of their only two CDs. The Wilburys helped put one of Sun Records iconic pioneers back into the spotlight.

The good news is that this fifty-five minute, fourteen song CD is a joyous best of retrospective as well as a historic document. Orbison tells the audience that "Ooby Dooby" was the first song he ever recorded for Sun and further educates the crowd by announcing that the next tune, "Go, Go, Go (Down The Line)" was the first song he ever wrote. Add them to a bunch of his golden hits including, "Only The Lonely," "Dream Baby," "Blue Bayou," "It's Over," "In Dreams," and his biggest hit, "Oh, Pretty Woman" which closes the show, and you get not only 60s nostalgia but excellent pop sung by a rocker with a four octave range.

The only negative lies with the sparse liner notes. They briefly describe Orbison's last night on stage and the bleak events that followed, but that is all. Other than the track listing there are no other notes, no composing and production credits, and the band is not even given their due. Orbison, and everyone involved, deserved to be treated better than this because the concert really was goodbye forever.

If you like Orbison and oldies you should buy The Last Concert. You won't regret it.

Here is Orbison's final live performance of "Oh, Pretty Woman."