Thursday, November 25, 2010

Forgotten Music Thursday: Arlo Guthrie - Presidential Rag (1974)

I've been searching in vain for some appropriate music that would allow me to combine today's Thanksgiving holiday with Forgotten Music Thursday. Unfortunately, the only Thanksgiving song I could come up with was Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," and that epic is hardly forgotten. However, with Guthrie on my mind while perusing my old LP collection, I came across a song from his 1974 eponymous album called "Presidential Rag," a very dated but totally cool political screed ripping the late President Richard Nixon for his roll in the Watergate scandal.

There really isn't a whole lot to write about concerning "Presidential Rag." The best way to appreciate the song is to just listen to it. History buffs and those of us who are old enough to remember the whole sordid affair will understand and maybe sympathize with Guthrie's anger while leaving everyone else out in the cold.  Trust me, I'm not trying to start a political argument on what is exclusively a music blog but I thought this song was good enough to be raised from the dead one more time.

To help you reminisce here are the lyrics and an audio clip of one of Guthrie's best political treatises.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Cat Empire - Cinema (2010)

The ska music and the party vibe are a little less prevalent than on previous releases and the lyrics are a bit more serious on Cinema, the latest CD from The Cat Empire. On "Reasonably Fine" they offer the following thoughts, "I lost my shoes, I lost my wife, I lost my keys, I lost my kite, and though I'm young at heart I'm so much older." However, don’t let lyrics such as these prevent you from stomping your feet or singing along with the Aussie horn band at your next Saturday night keg tapping because the combination of a scratchy turntable, a percussionist, and a drummer can make any set of lyrics danceable.

The eccentric lead vocals of Felix Riebl and Harry Angus are still pleasing, the rhythm section continues to burn, and the keyboard work of Olliver McGill is outstanding once again, especially on the coda to "Shoulders" and on the electronics that dominate "Only Light."

Of course, great musicianship rarely matters if the songs don't penetrate your soul and these eleven tracks most certainly do. Despite the often melancholy mood the guys overall positive attitude toward both life and their music help the band avoid sounding depressed. To lighten things up Angus doesn't forget the band's love of all things Caribbean and he proves it on the chorus to "The Heart is a Cannibal," a passage that will surely remind you of 10cc's "Dreadlock Holiday."

It would be almost impossible for Cinema to be as great as their masterwork, Two Shoes, but don't let that stop you from allowing it to take over your brain. While it's a set that sounded like generic pop music upon initial exposure it grows more rewarding with every spin because of the varied nuances and subtleties The Cat Empire employ in their tunes.

The sextet and their horn section appendage have been consistently good throughout their career and Cinema, their fifth CD, is no exception.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lucy Schwartz - Life In Letters (2010)

It only took all of two minutes listening to twenty year old Lucy Schwartz to realize that she should demand stardom. On Life In Letters, her second full length CD, the singer-songwriter composed some top notch pop-rock songs, vocalized with gusto, and played a pretty mean piano. She did it all with the confidence and professionalism of a performer twice her age.

In some ways Schwartz is already a veteran. Her songs have appeared in the movie Shrek Forever and on TV's Grey's Anatomy, Brothers and Sisters, ER, Private Practice, and Parenthood. She has also played live on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Mitchell Froom, who also worked with Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney, ably handled the sessions, producing full sounding arrangements that enhance Schwartz's easily accessible melodies that get inside your head and just won't leave. The two opening tracks, "My Darling" and the single, "Graveyard" are tailor made for radio. The title track, "Shadow Man," and "Those Days" aren't far behind.

Schwartz also composes mature lyrics. On "Graveyard" she intelligently sings, "And you know you’re not there/When the wind in your hair goes right through you/And you know that you’re gone/When the sound of a song cannot soothe you/And it’s a difficult burden to bear/When you’re not quite there." The cryptic opening verse to "Rain City" proves that she has a lot to say. "This city’s always raining/When you haven’t got a coat/I once was a grand pianist/But I can’t recall a note." The lyrics to this breakup song coalesce as the song progresses and it's so full of wisdom that it feels like it had to be written by somebody much older than a young lady barely out of her teens.

It's rare when an artist can do it all but on Life In Letters Lucy Schwartz proves that she is a complete package.

Listen to "My Darling" and the official music video to "Graveyard."

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Come Blow Your Horn

More than fifty years after rock 'n roll revolutionized popular music there is not a whole lot of excitement left in the classic guitar-bass-drums-piano formula popularized by Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and a host of other pioneers. I still love rock music but many times when I crave more than what the basic rock band lineup has to offer I start searching for something a little more substantial, and often, I’ll find what I’m looking for in bands with horn sections.

Horn bands make some colorful music so it's a shame there aren't more of them. Is it because fledgling artists can't absorb the additional expenses of a larger group without promoters shelling out more cash to compensate them? Are many of the small clubs that new artists depend on for gigs not big enough to house a larger ensemble? Probably, it's nothing more than the likelihood that rock fans just prefer the simpler, more traditional sounds.

Regardless of the reasons, the pop music landscape is littered with horn bands that tried but never quite made it to the big time. Some never had a hit, some were one-hit wonders, and a few had minor successes on the album charts. Some were novelty acts. Some were critical successes and some were not. Among them are Sons of Champlin, Ides of March, Lighthouse, Chase, Mom’s Apple Pie, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and let's not forget the all-female horn band, Isis. A few, Chicago, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Tower of Power, The Brian Setzer Orchestra, and Earth, Wind and Fire have done very well for themselves but overall less complex fare continues to rule the charts and the airwaves.

To help you choose the horn bands whose catalogs are worth delving into, here, in chronological order based on the date of their first release, are my favorite horn bands, the ones you shouldn’t miss.

Sly and The Family Stone
This trippy, hippy band from the psychedelic era was not only one of the first bands to be integrated with both black and white musicians it was also one of the few with both male and female members. While the horns were not the band's focal point (the groove was) they were still an integral part of the Sly experience. They weren't improvisers or soloists, but the horns, consisting of one sax and one trumpet, enhanced almost all of The Family's greatest songs. They offered far more than the staccato bleeps used by most traditional R & B horn bands.

Blood, Sweat & Tears
B,S & T’s debut album, Child Is Father To The Man, recorded by founder Al Kooper's edition of the group, is clearly unique. The record featured everything from jazz, blues, folk, ballads, and a little progressive rock as well as all-star jazz trumpeter, Randy Brecker. It has become a rock classic. Kooper's B,S & T fell apart after only one album and the remaining members reorganized. The David Clayton-Thomas version that soon followed was a more pop oriented affair that had a string of radio hits over the next couple of years.

Anybody who has read Bloggerhythms over the years knows how I feel about almost everything Chicago recorded from 1969 through 1974. They released a couple of more gems later but for the most part the septet used up their inspiration early in their career. At the time they possessed everything a band could bring to the table. The horn trio was the featured attraction and they wrote songs specifically for the sax, flute, trumpet, and trombone. Nobody in rock has ever used brass and woodwinds as wonderfully as Chicago did.

Steely Dan
Walter Becker and Donald Fagan didn’t have a permanent horn section. Instead they used a host of studio all-stars that changed with every album. Many people don’t even consider The Dan a real rock band because of their intricate jazz influenced arrangements. Nevertheless, they recorded what is possibly the greatest jazz – rock song ever, "Aja."

Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes
Often denounced as Springsteen with brass The Asbury Jukes’ first three albums, all produced by Miami Steve Van Zandt, certainly showed the Boss’s influence as they covered many of his songs. Beginning with their fourth album, The Jukes, they dumped Van Zandt, asserted their independence, wrote their own music, and released a more mainstream affair that proved they had talent in their own right. Johnny Lyon's soulful voice was clearly another asset.

The Brian Setzer Orchestra
Setzer’s rockabilly and jazz big band is essentially The Stray Cats with horns. While Setzer and his men haven’t broken any new ground, his scorching guitar work, when coupled with more traditional big band arrangements, can blow the cover off of any decibel meter in its vicinity.

The Cat Empire
These Aussies are the ultimate party band and are perhaps the best horn band on the current pop music scene. Their reggae and ska inflected arrangements have anyone who has ever heard them dancing in the streets. As with Steely Dan, the horns are not a permanent part of the group even though one of their two lead singers and primary songwriters, Harry James Angus, doubles on trumpet as one of their lead instruments. The Cat Empire is a must listen.