Thursday, March 29, 2012

Forgotten Music Thursday: CPR - CPR (1998)

CPR was a band that included David Crosby, his guitarist Jeff Pevar, and keyboard player James Raymond. I'm sure the trio's name was inspired by the acronym used for the Hall of Famer's legendary outfit, CSN&Y.

CPR has an interesting back story. Crosby is Raymond's natural father. He gave the child up for adoption in the early 60s and for decades Raymond didn't know anything about Crosby (except possibly that he was a famous musician). After the younger man discovered his roots in 1992 the father and son talked on the phone, hit it off quite well, and met two years later. Ironically, Raymond was also a musician who majored in music at Cal State – San Bernardino so Crosby asked him to join a new band he was organizing. They began writing songs together and this led to CPR's eponymous debut CD.

Too appreciate this disc at all you have to be a fan of Crosby's work. He always wrote the least accessible music for CSN (that does not mean bad) and this album follows that path. His lyrics are never lightweight, and his melodies are not always readily apparent, but the group's vocals are impeccable. Of the eleven tracks Raymond sings lead on three, Crosby the other eight, and Pevar adds to the excellent group harmonies that often remind the listener of CSN. The leader wrote or co-wrote all but one of the songs on the album with assistance from his bandmates. The other track, "One for Every Moment," was written by Raymond alone.

The CD's best song is the opener, a Crosby-Raymond composition titled "Morrison," about the lead singer of The Doors. It's Crosby's impression of The Lizard King and his comments on how the world views the late frontman. It's a bit preachy but still a fine piece of work. On the chorus he sings, "I have seen the movie and it wasn't like that."

CPR is the first of two albums the group recorded. They also released a live double set in between the studio efforts. Although the group officially disbanded Raymond still performs with Crosby to this day as part of the CSN&Y road band. Pevar continues to work with many well known rockers, especially the recent versions of Jefferson Starship.

Click here to listen to "Morrison."

Thursday, March 22, 2012

An Appreciation of James Taylor

It's unusual to do a tribute to someone while he's still alive but James Taylor is a man who deserves all of the accolades he receives because, while he didn't invent the sub-genre, he is the person most associated with kick starting the entire singer-songwriter movement into the popular mainstream.

Details about Taylor's young adulthood, his hospitalization, his serious heroin addiction, and his upper middle class upbringing have all been well documented so we're not here to discuss those titillating parts of his life. It's only his music that matters, although as his folk-rock masterpiece, "Fire and Rain," from his first hit album, Sweet Baby James, proves it's not always possible to separate the two.

What is it about Taylor's music that gave him such widespread appeal even with people who were into the hardest rock and roll?

The soon-to-be star came along in 1970, when rock was at one of its most creative and loudest eras, and to those people who craved something more comfortable, less flamboyant, and more thoughtful, Taylor was the perfect antidote. Part of the reason is the Massachusetts native's soothing and reassuring vocals. His contemporary female counterpart, Carole King, did not possess that easy flow in her singing and that's one of the reasons why he became the bigger star of the two.

Taylor's songs range from very moving and introspective like the career making hit mentioned above, to the humorous ("Traffic Jam" and "Mona"), and he can even rock out on occasion ("Honey, Don't Leave L. A."). His songs appealed to women because he showed a sensitive side that Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and The Who never revealed.

Men liked Taylor too. His ability to appeal to everyone came naturally. He never had to force the issue and that was another factor contributing to his huge popularity.

Ironically, for a composer who has been so influential for more than a generation he has had a surprisingly large number of hit singles with new versions of other people's songs beginning with King's "You've Got a Friend." Other covers included "Handy Man," "How Sweet It Is," "Mockingbird" with Carly Simon, his wife at the time, and "Up on the Roof." All of these releases prove he respected other people's work. Too many singer-songwriters wouldn't think about issuing tunes by their peers as singles, especially one as highly regarded as Taylor.

In concert, Taylor is a fine performer. First impressions during his rare interviews may lead fans to believe that the folk-rocker is quite shy. To the contrary, he's often funny and personable with the audience whether it's in an intimate setting such as performing with King at the Troubadour or in a large arena.

Taylor has to go down in history as one of pop music's more important figures. Every guitar strumming singer-songwriter appearing at coffee houses today, as well as those who went on to greater successes, owe him their eternal gratitude.

See more at James Taylor's website.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Bett Butler - American Sampler (2012)

Not recording an album of standards once an artist is eligible to join AARP (American Association of Retired People for you non-patriots) must be a violation of international law. Paul McCartney's recent, semi-successful attempt and Rod Stewart's four unspeakable atrocities are just two examples that prove the rule, so it's really a good thing when someone who was born to sing these songs actually croons into a microphone. Such is the case with San Antonio’s Bett Butler, a jazz singer and pianist who just released her third CD.

Butler's first disc, 2001’s self-written, horn-drenched Short Stories was loaded with R&B influenced jazz songs. Six years later she issued Myths & Fables, another album full of original, more intricate and progressive jazz fare, and now she has released American Sampler, an eleven track collection of old songs she loves.

Butler plays piano and handles all of the vocals. Her husband, Joel Dilley, is a successful jazz bassist and band leader with his own recording career but here he functions as Butler's only sideman. Their very sparsely arranged sessions give the listener an idea of what a barren Christmas tree looks like in the woods without all of the artificial adornments. You can appreciate the tree just for being what it is and this album allows you to appreciate both the song and the singer just the way they are. There is no clutter, no mess.

Songs include "My Melancholy Baby," "I've Got Rhythm," "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," "Say It Isn’t So," "Over the Rainbow," "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," and five more.

Butler has released three very different CDs over the course of a decade. Each one has demonstrated her eclectic taste and versatility and, just like its predecessor, American Sampler was released with another very attractive album cover.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds (1966)

The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds,simply stated, is one of the most gorgeous pop-rock records ever to be released. Unfortunately, it took decades for the album to achieve gold record status and there are still a multitude of casual Beach Boys fans who are not familiar with it beyond the three huge hit singles it contained: "Wouldn't It Be Nice," its b-side, "God Only Knows," and "Sloop John B." A fourth single, "Caroline No," was issued in Brian Wilson's name only and it also did well on the charts. Never was his songwriting more mature, never were the arrangements more intricate, celebratory or sad, and rarely were the vocals of the five original bandmates plus Bruce Johnston more beautiful.

The album is notorious for not having any of the Beach Boys playing a single note on it. However, the sextet contributed all of the vocals. It's still their artistic vision, not the company's or any outsider's, because Wilson was in total control of everything that occurred in the studio. He not only wrote, arranged the instrumental and vocal tracks, and produced the album, he chose all of the musicians who played on it, and he sang many of the lead vocals too. The one thing he didn't do was write the lyrics and that was only because with all of his other responsibilities he believed he just wouldn't have the time to do them justice. So, Wilson hired an acquaintance, Tony Asher, for that chore, and he wrote lyrics around very firm ideas and instructions given to him by the group's resident genius. Together they produced songs that were emotional, heartfelt, and poetic.

The album contained all kinds of instruments and sounds that were unusual to pop music. Bass harmonica, kazoo, sleigh bells, oboes, vibes, violins, barking dogs, and locomotive sound effects were all part of the mix on a record that was considered by many to be a serious work of art and not just silly music for teenagers to dance to on a Saturday night.

Highlights include Carl Wilson's outstanding lead vocal with brother Brian and Johnston joining him on the group ending to "God Only Knows," the intricate arrangement of all six voices on "I'm Waiting for the Day," the acapella vocal break on "Sloop John B," and the forlorn and moving confessional "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times."

It's a shame that Capitol Records hated the disc and didn't put their full promotional machine behind it and, even worse, when Brian played the tapes for the always lovable Mike Love, he told Wilson he was "screwing up." Despite those violent reactions Pet Sounds deservedly goes down as one of the great pop records in history. It remains hugely influential (Paul McCartney said it inspired him to create Sgt. Pepper's) and is loved by virtually anyone who is familiar with it.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire (2011)

Ryan Adams has often been too prolific for his own good. Unable to edit himself, he released too much music over the last decade and often railed against his record company when they tried to reign him in. Since a successful, well publicized stint in rehab about four years ago cleaned up his lifestyle the country-rocker has mellowed, married Mandy Moore, a singer and actress with a squeaky clean image, and he's been more careful about the music his public gets to hear. All of this has led to the critically acclaimed Ashes & Fire, Adams' first new CD since breaking up his really nice backup band, The Cardinals.

Ashes & Fire is an album in which the lyrical content is far more important than the music so it makes sense that it's also one of the quietest efforts in Adams' catalog. Even so, the all-star veteran really knows how to construct a song and the seriously catchy "Lucky Now" deserves the substantial radio time it has won on stations interested in cultivating adult alternative audiences. The tune's lyrics show a maturity won through hard times. Adams sings, "I don't remember, were we wild and young? / All that faded into memory / I feel like somebody I don’t know / Are we really who we used to be? /Am I really who I was?" Throughout the disc his lyrics are reflective but not depressing.

Even though the CD emphasizes his songwriting Adams still solicited help from some of rock 'n roll's more extraordinary sidemen: Benmont Tench on keyboards and Greg Leisz on steel guitar. He got vocal assistance from Chris Stills, Norah Jones, and his wife. Glyn Johns produced and mixed the album. It also helps that Adams' voice is quite soothing so it all adds up to a disc that sounds as nice as it is intelligent.

The alt-country bad boy proves once again that when he's properly motivated he'll create a worthy set of music.