Thursday, April 28, 2011

Forgotten Music Thursday: Ralph McTell - Streets of London (1971)

Folk singer Ralph McTell came from the same English coffeehouse circuit that helped give birth to the careers of Al Stewart and the late John Martyn. McTell has always been better known in his homeland and Australia than in the United States where he has received almost no attention whatsoever.

McTell frequently performs live with just his voice and a guitar but, unlike similar artists who do the same, his concerts are still satisfying because the man has quite an appealing voice. The veteran singer-songwriter owns a rich baritone and sings with an obvious English accent that enhances his live shows and recordings. He doesn't need the adornments of a band to cover up any vocal deficiencies. Proof of this lies with his solo acoustic performances on Ralph, Albert, and Sydney, a cleverly named live album full of songs he recorded at the Royal Albert Hall and the Sydney Opera House.

The closest McTell ever came to obtaining any acceptance in America was for his 1971 album You Well Meaning Brought Me Here, a platter full of nice songs and one huge standout, "Streets of London," a composition that is considered to be his signature piece among people who are familiar with his work. McTell is well worth listening to beyond "Streets" but this beautiful, melodic, and sad work about the plight of homeless people he encountered in London should be a timeless classic. The song packs a wallop because McTell was genuinely moved by what he saw. He wanted to create the same emotions in his listeners and shouldn't that be the goal all socially conscience music aspires to achieve?

If you've never heard this great song before listening to it now is a must. While much of the world is getting caught up in the pomp this wonderful and ancient city has to offer because of tomorrow's Royal wedding the song offers a vivid portrait of London's dark side. The contrast between William and Kate's nuptials and "Streets" couldn't be more obvious.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Ben Waters - Boogie 4 Stu: A Tribute To Ian Stewart (2011)

This post is more than a review, it's also a history lesson.

The late Ian Stewart (July 18, 1938 – December 12, 1985) was a founding member of The Rolling Stones. He preceded everyone but Brian Jones into the group when he was the first to respond to an ad Jones placed in a newspaper looking for musicians to start a new band. Stewart, whose nickname was "Stu," staked out a reputation for himself as a great piano player who loved big band jazz, R & B, blues, and boogie woogie.

Stewart's physique was on the hefty side. He wore his hair differently and he was a few years older than the rest of the Stones. He didn't look the part so in 1963, their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, decided Stu was too uncool for the image he was marketing, and that six guys on stage was too many, so he demoted Stewart to lead roadie. Oldham also allowed Stewart to play piano on almost all of The Rolling Stones' records. Stewart filled both of those rolls admirably until the day he died of a heart attack. Keith Richards once said, Stu might have realised that in the way it was going to have to be marketed, he would be out of sync, but that he could still be a vital part. I'd probably have said, 'Well, f**k you', but he said 'OK, I'll just drive you around.' That takes a big heart, but Stu had one of the largest hearts around."

A straight arrow, Stewart frowned upon the band's life of debauchery. Instead he played golf on the road. Despite their differences the rest of the band loved him dearly and he loved them. Mick Jagger even said that Stewart was the one guy the band always tried to please. They wanted him to like whatever they were recording.

Ben Waters is a British rock n' roll piano player specializing in boggie woogie who is currently working with Charlie Watts. His aunt and uncle are the parents of English singer, P J Harvey.

Waters, who once saw Stewart play live when he was just nine years old says that Stu is the reason he plays piano. He has always been an admirer of the "Sixth Stone" and he wanted to record a tribute to him for a long time. Now Waters has fulfilled his dream with Boogie 4 Stu: A Tribute To Ian Stewart.

First, here is a warning. Do not expect this CD to sound like the Rolling Stones. While they all played on the disc it's not about them. It's all about Stewart and the music he loved. Jagger, Richards, Watts, Bill Wyman, and Ron Wood are all on board and all five contribute to the the only track that sounds remotely like The Stones, a cover of Bob Dylan's "Watching The River Flow." It's not really a full reunion because the longtime band mates were scattered all over the world and each one added their parts after Waters sent the unfinished track to them.

Richards and Wood take the lead vocals on "Worried Life Blues" where they both sound like old bluesmen from the thirties. On a Waters/Jools Holland original, "Boogie For Stu" (the title comes from a Led Zeppelin song) a duo of saxes add a lot of flair to some jump blues. Holland, who allowed Waters to use his recording studio for free, sang lead on "Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor" and Harvey, Waters cousin, joins him on "Lonely Avenue."

Waters, who is an outstanding pianist in this genre, played on all but the last song and co-produced the disc with Glyn Johns. Watts, who was there with him live in the studio, played on six tunes. The last track was recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1984 by Stewart and another band he starred in, Rocket 88.

This CD is for people who appreciate old blues, great piano playing, and a good time more than it is for fans of Mick, Keith, and their friends. If you love this kind of roots music you'll savor every moment of Waters' very fine labor of love.

Sir Peter Blake, who was responsible for the famous cover to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, designed this one for Waters.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

An Album By Album Analysis of the Beatles Catalog: Part 3, The Psychedelic Era

1967 was the year that psychedelia ruled. It's music was very much in tune with the drug and hippie culture of its time. Today, the two Beatles' albums from this period feel like relics from a different age.  That's not to say there aren't any great and timeless songs on these LPs because there are. Read about them below and feel free to agree or disagree.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
In 2007, on the fortieth anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Bloggerhythms posted a lengthy reevaluation of this all time classic. In short, the LP many have considered to be not only The Beatles' masterpiece, but also the greatest album of all time, has become a record you love more with your head than with your heart. It is indeed an artistic triumph of production, sophistication, and originality but it lacks excitement because it is short of great songs. However, "A Day In The Life" is outstanding and a fabulous way to end the album. For the original, more in depth review please take a look here.

Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
This is the only American album reviewed as part of this project and that is because no such record existed in The Beatles homeland in 1967.  Back in The United Kingdom the six songs from the TV show of the same name were originally issued only as an EP on two 45 RPM records.  These same tunes made up side one of the American LP that has now become the standard version worldwide, and just as it was with Sgt. Pepper’s, the production and glossy sheen of the music outweighed the quality of the songwriting. The title track is worthy. So is Paul McCartney’s "The Fool on the Hill," and the corny, but upbeat "Your Mother Should Know."  "Flying" is pleasant background music but George Harrison took a step backward with "Blue Jay Way."  This eerie track has a much darker vibe than we usually get from the shy one. Then there is Lennon’s drugged out "I Am the Walrus," a song that gives me the creeps both lyrically and aurally. As J. A. Bartlett of the The Hits Just Keep On Comin' so truthfully wrote, "As long as there are fourteen year old boys "I am the Walrus" will always be popular."   I couldn’t have said it any better. The last two tracks are psychedelia run amok.  Side two offers five songs from previously released singles including the outstanding "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever."  Both were originally intended for Sgt. Pepper’s. On the other hand "Hello Goodbye," with its insipid lyrics, and "Walrus" made up what is arguably the worst A and B side combination in the Beatles catalog of singles. "All You Need Is Love" backed with "Baby, You’re A Rich Man" pack a much better one-two punch.  The LP's cover, featuring the group wearing walrus outfits, is beyond ridiculous. Perhaps The Beatles were smart enough to realize their excesses and maybe that is why the quartet left this brief era of overproduction behind and changed directions again.

In case you missed them here are Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.  Stay tuned for Part IV, 1968 - 1970: The End.

Finally, in a completely unrelated Beatles moment I'd like to point out to all Fab Four fans that there is great article on an excellent blog called Something Else! that specializes in jazz, blues, and rock regarding the work of Ringo Starr. Be sure to read Five Songs Where Ringo Starr Doesn't, You Know, Suck.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Joyce Cooling - Global Cooling (2009)

Smooth jazz is often boring and redundant. In the worst cases I would even call it modern elevator music, the kind of stuff you hear on the telephone when you're on hold for twenty-five minutes waiting to speak with a customer service rep you swear doesn't exist. Fortunately, the music's stature may be improving due to San Francisco’s Joyce Cooling. She is an anomaly in the world of smooth jazz because her work is quite compelling. The award winning Cooling is not a musician who should be heard only on your speaker phone. Global Cooling, her seventh CD, needs to be experienced on a good set of headphones and it must have a permanent home on your ipod so you can take her jazz with you everywhere you go.

In addition to being a fine electric guitarist Cooling is also an appealing vocalist. Her singing adds an extra dimension to five of the eleven tracks on her latest disc but it’s her love of world beats and foreign instruments, more than her axe playing, that make this collection of tunes strikingly different from almost everything else in the sub-genre.

"Grass Roots" opens the disc and is a typical but pleasant smooth jazz instrumental with a horn section. However, the title track ups the ante somewhat with a heavier disco beat and synthesized strings that are reminiscent of Gamble and Huff's Philly soul factory. "Save This Dance For Me" has a nice vocal with a Latin flavored chart. On "We Can" Cooling combines some clean sounding, white-girl rap on the philosophical verses with a chorus that belongs on a modern dance record. The song is not jazz at all, and upon your first encounter it may feel out of place, but after several listens you'll find it to be a refreshing addition to the whole affair. Sitar and tabla add some Indian spices to the interesting "Cobra" while "What Are We Waiting For" has a radio friendly, sexy vocal. "Dolores In Pink" features Cooling’s good friend, Brazilian drummer Celso Alberti, who brings the marvelous rhythms of his homeland to the forefront. "Chit Chat," gives us more fine vocals and horns on a song about celebrity gossip. "In the Streets" has a percussion only instrumental arrangement percolating underneath vocals by Cooling, Alberti, and her musical co-conspirator, Jay Wagner, who, as usual, produced the album and wrote all of the songs with the star.

For music lovers who need a dose of something a little different, yet not too far out of the mainstream, Global Cooling is perfect medicine.