Thursday, March 31, 2011

Forgotten Music Thursday: Jackson Browne - Hold Out (1980)

During the 70s Jackson Browne had staked out a great reputation for himself as one of the elite poets of rock. His often introspective (some would say self-absorbed) songwriting enabled him to be elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.  It's one of their selections that I agree with wholeheartedly.

Hold Out, Browne's first album of the new decade is considered one of his minor efforts. This disc was his immediate followup to Running On Empty (1977) and it was released around turning points in both the singer-songwriter's personal life and his career. It was an album that discussed his brand new marriage (which unfortunately failed quickly) several years after the suicide of his first wife. It was also the last one with the same band he had used for most of his career. His main sideman, David Lindley, would never again be a permanent member of his group although the two would remain great friends and continue to work together often throughout the years. Also, to many in the critics circle, Hold Out began the rocker's artistic slide even though he would retain his popularity with fans for a few more years.

Browne's last record of the LP era opened with "Disco Apocalypse," a commentary of the times highlighted by a great solo featuring backup singer Rosemary Butler. "That Girl Could Sing" (#19 on Billboard) is a song about another woman Browne loved and lost, supposedly singer-songwriter Valerie Carter. "Boulevard," (#22 on the charts) discussed the hedonistic lifestyles and the disillusionment of those who stroll along Hollywood Boulevard and its environs. The title track tells his lover to hold out for somebody new because he traded "love for glory."

Side two opened with "Of Missing Persons" a thoughtful song written for musician Inara George (currently performing with the duo The Bird and the Bee) who was the daughter of Brown's good friend and Little Feat founder, the late Lowell George, who had recently died from the usual rock 'n roll excesses. On "Call It A Loan," co-written with Lindley, Browne wonders what it will cost both parties stuck in an affair who need each other desperately and can't break away. He closed the record out with an eight minute love song to his new dearly beloved, "Hold On, Hold Out," whose centerpiece was an almost schmaltzy spoken passage in the middle that was very much not the kind of thing Browne normally put on vinyl.

Hold Out isn't a classic but it's still a fine collection of tunes. Unfortunately, despite the fact that it reached number one on the Billboard Top 200 charts and spawned two hit singles, the album receives very little attention today.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Yes - The Yes Album (1971)

Because I was a huge fan of progressive rock back in the 70s I believed I was among music's most enlightened devotees. My love of prog grew from being a fan of Yes, the sub-genre's most popular and successful band.

It all started with a song that, to this day, remains the biggest prog hit single of all time, "Roundabout," from their 1972 album, Fragile. The LP version of the song ran for more than eight minutes and was highlighted by Rick Wakeman’s hard hitting organ solo that he later bettered on "Close to the Edge" from the album of the same name.

After Edge Yes still produced quality work, and remained popular for years, even though they never quite reached the heights of those albums again. Their next release, Tales of Topographic Oceans, was a double disc set featuring only one long song on each of its four sides, and with it the outfit's pretentiousness was no longer teetering close to the edge, it fell over of it.

My affair with prog-rock has waned somewhat over the years, and my feelings toward Yes along with it, but I still have a lot of room in my heart for their third album, the best one of their career, simply titled The Yes Album. If you only ever buy one Yes record make sure its this little gem from 1971. It's their first with the fabulous Steve Howe on guitar and the last one for over a decade with Tony Kaye on keyboards. (Wakeman would replace him following its release.) As usual, Jon Anderson was the singer, Chris Squire played bass, and Bill Bruford was the drummer.

Why is this album, the first of their three classic discs, their best? While I still don't have a clue what Anderson's always pretentious lyrics mean (Does anyone understand his spacey, pseudo-intellectual poetry?) instrumentally this record is outstanding. On later albums Howe was often overpowered by Wakeman and his extensive collection of keyboards and synthesizers but The Yes Album was Howe's moment in the sun. He anchored the band with a virtuosity that led the group to its finest work as a cohesive ensemble.

Listen to Anderson's voice soar over the instruments on "I’ve Seen All Good People/Your Move." His perfect vocals never meshed as well again on a Yes arrangement because he sang this song with untypical restraint. It's one of the rare moments when he and the rest of the quintet sounded as if they were all headed in exactly the same direction.

"Clap" is a live, solo instrumental track that is really nothing more than a vehicle for Howe to show off his talents as an acoustic guitarist. "Yours Is No Disgrace" is the album's standout song. It rocks in a much freer way than most Yes tracks do, it almost functions as an anti-prog statement, and Howe turns in some of his finest work ever. "Perpetual Change" became a concert favorite that features more tasteful acoustic guitar. Even the little known "A Venture" benefited from a bit more subtlety than most Yes songs do.

The album closer, "Starship Trooper," almost rivals "Yours Is No Disgrace" in its appeal. The song's coda, "Wurm," is an exciting, extended riff that Howe, Kaye, Squire, and Bruford used to feed off of each other almost as if they were jazz musicians.

Overall, while The Yes Album is truly a product of its time it doesn’t overwhelm you with as much bombast as every Yes record that followed it. Therein lies its appeal.

I've always been a Wakeman fan. I saw him live a few years ago and it was one of the best concerts I ever saw. You can read about that wonderful night here. The famous keyboard player always received more credit and press than Howe who, to me, was often the unsung hero of Yes's glory years.

I became a Yes fan because of Wakeman and Howe. To me Anderson sometimes just got in the way. Yes is a hall of fame caliber band that still needs to be taken seriously today, but not as seriously as Anderson always believed they should be.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Kim Richey - Wreck Your Wheels (2010)

I always believed that Kim Richey would live up to her early promise because on her satisfying, self-titled debut and her excellent follow up, Bitter Sweet, Richey’s guitar based pop-rock and country songs were ear fulfilling experiences. Without pumping up the volume her songs packed enough punch to keep things interesting. Unfortunately, she didn’t continue down that enjoyable path. Instead, she became a singer-songwriter whose music gradually became more polished while losing her country-rock roots in the process. Her next three releases, Glimmer, Rise, and Chinese Boxes all had some very nice moments even if the albums did not reach the heights of her first two discs.

Richey’s songs on Wreck Your Wheels are all about coping, lost love, and unrequited love. This was true of her early CDs too but they were buoyed by brighter arrangements. But now, the singer, who is always in fine voice, seems to have lost the ability to write compelling melodies because these tunes are mostly indistinguishable from one another. The few that do leave a small lasting impression, "Leaving 49," the title track, and "When the Circus Comes to Town," lean a little more in the direction of her first two CDs but not enough to make Wheels a keeper. Richey also sang about the circus coming to town on Rise. It's another indication that she has run out of ideas.

I’ve seen Richey in concert three times and I enjoyed every performance. Her upbeat, onstage demeanor belies her often dour songs. I'm not against her lyrical content (there have been some wonderful songs written about the dark side of being in love) but the melancholy mood has to be tempered with a less brooding atmosphere more than once per album.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

An Album by Album Analysis of The Beatles Catalog: Beatlemania, Part 2

This is part two in Bloggerhythms' series reviewing all of the British LPs released by The Beatles. Today we discuss Beatlemania 2, the period that began the group's transition away from simply being teen idols and into respected artists. The years 1965 and 1966 found the Beatles still selling tons of records, still touring, and still the biggest thing in the music world.

You can read part one here.

Help! (1965)
Help! is the album that coincided with the release of The Beatles’ second movie. Seven of its fourteen songs are from the film of the same name. It's also one of their more inconsistent efforts because of the wide gap between the classic stuff and the filler. It's also the LP that served as the bridge between the teenybopper band that turned the world on its head and the extremely talented and eccentric artists of their later career. Their more traditional songs, "The Night Before," "Another Girl," "You’re Gonna Lose That Girl," and the title track all have a different feel than their earlier recordings. The latter, especially, has a lyrical maturity not heard on most of their Beatlemania stuff, yet all four songs retain that propulsive, exuberant, British Invasion sound the quartet was known for. After those songs the styles of music vary greatly. The rockers are louder and the ballads are softer than in the past. The great "Ticket to Ride" is quite a heavy track for 1965 and several acoustic songs are prominent for the very first time. "It’s Only Love," "I’ve Just Seen a Face," "You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away," and the iconic "Yesterday" are here and all are among their finest songs of the period. There are only two covers, most notably Ringo Starr's take on the Buck Owens country hit, "Act Naturally." The low point comes with George Harrison’s first two compositions since With the Beatles. His "I Need You" and "You Like Me To Much" just don’t have the panache of the great Lennon – McCartney songs. Both tracks prove he had a long way to go to catch up with his bandmates.

Rubber Soul (1965)
Help! paved the way for Rubber Soul, one of the more highly regarded rock albums of all time and a favorite of many, many, Beatles' fans. Suddenly, teenagers weren't the only ones listening to the biggest rock act in history. Serious musicians were taking notice too. Folk music influences are everywhere, and except for the flutes at the end of "You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away" from the previous album, this record also began the group's usage of other instruments and sounds. Harrison’s sitar on Norwegian Wood, George Martin's harpsichord on "In My Life," and McCartney’s fuzz bass on Harrison's "Think For Yourself" are all examples of the band expanding their musical horizons. Speaking of our late buddy George, his years in the studio studying Martin and his more accomplished friends finally paid off with his first two worthwhile compositions. Both "Think For yourself" and "If I Needed Someone," the latter with a very nice Roger McGuinn electric twelve-string guitar lead, were proof that he had finally arrived as a composer. From this point forward Harrison wrote stuff that would often rival the best of Lennon and McCartney. Paul's "Drive My Car" opens the album and it rocks, but overall the LP's sound was far softer than any of their previous releases. Introspective works such as "In My Life," "Norwegian Wood," and "Nowhere Man" all garnered attention, all were primarily associated with Lennon, and signaled a new direction for both he and the band.

Revolver (1966)
The infamous episode with President Marcos in the Phillipines was symbolic that life on the road was grinding The Beatles down. Also, after Lennon's controversial butcher cover for the American release of Yesterday and Today, and his comments about the band being more popular than Jesus, it was time to stop. All the the pressure and bad press created an atmosphere that looked as if the bubble might finally burst. Yet, despite everything, the four lads issued a sensational last album from their touring days. In the 21st century, as the world's view of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as the greatest rock album ever made has waned a bit, Revolver is now often considered The Beatles best LP. George gets enough space for three songs, his most to date, and they are all outstanding. "Love You To" is heavily Indian influenced and his hard rocking "Taxman," with its very clever lyrics, became their first political song. The shy one's third offering, "I Want to Tell You" takes us back to their earlier days. McCartney wrote the best lyrics of his career for "Eleanor Rigby," and he also contributed one of his most loved romantic ballads, "Here, There, and Everywhere." He also shines with the more obscure but terrific "For No One." Got To Get You Into My Life" is one of his better rockers. Lennon was no slouch either. The appropriately titled "I'm Only Sleeping," and the upbeat "And Your Bird Can Sing" are both great pop-rock. His darker side turns up on three songs that are clearly influenced by the drug culture the group's leader had recently embraced. "Doctor Robert," "She Said She Said," and the almost sinister sounding "Tomorrow Never Knows" prove the point. Only the stupid "Yellow Submarine" misses the mark. However their creativity was fueled, The Beatles made it known that they were at the top of their game even though it became increasing clear that Lennon and McCartney were developing separate musical identities.

Next Up: Part 3, The Psychedelic Era (1967)

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Medicine Bluff - Medicine Bluff (2010)

Oklahoma’s Medicine Bluff (named after the famous local landmark where Geronimo escaped to avoid the cavalry) like to say they are part country, but to these ears a more accurate description would be a mixture of mainstream Southern Rock and hard driving Americana. In the studio the band consists of Gary Webb on lead and harmony vocals while David Adair plays bass, guitar, and (to paraphrase his own words) anything else with strings. Bruce Fennel is behind the drum kit. While working as a trio in the studio suits this group just fine they augment their lineup on stage by adding a bassist and a second guitar player.

Most of the songs are about relationships but the band shows its rowdier side on the last three songs. "Brand New Life" is about the need for escapism, "Take Your Medicine" comments on addictions, and "Outlaw" is the disc's perfect finale. The last tune's final thirty-five seconds is an obvious tribute to "Free Bird" that will burn up your speakers. "Two Hundred Miles" is another fast moving rocker that needs to be played at maximum volume. "Make Sure" has a definite grunge vibe with its fluid, tuneful verses offset by a loud, rocking chorus that culminates in some hot soloing by Adair. "Over For Good," the CD's weakest track, is a power ballad that lacks the sub-genre's usual cloying bombast. It's another fine offering because of more great fretwork by Adair and a fine vocal by Webb.

I've tried to pick out Medicine Bluff's biggest asset and I can't decide what it is because each member is so good at what they bring to the table. Webb's vocals could front any Southern rock outfit, Fennel beats the skins as well as any rock drummer, and Adair's lead guitar is astonishingly creative.

This mostly self-written, nine song, CD clocks in at under thirty-eight minutes so it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

You can listen to clips and download the songs here from Amazon or listen to all nine tracks in full on Medicine Bluff's website. Buy the whole album, not just a few individual songs. You won't be disappointed.