Thursday, October 25, 2012

Forgotten Music Thursday: The Iguanas - Nuevo Boogaloo (1994)

I've become a big fan of the great HBO drama series, Treme, (named after a neighborhood in New Orleans) in large part because of all the great music and nationally known artists the show features in every episode. A partial list includes Shawn Colvin, Dr. John, The Nevilles, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Steve Earle (whose character recently met an unfortunate, violent demise at the hands of a couple of street thugs). There was also an appearance by a very fine live quintet, The Iguanas.

For those of you unfamiliar with this cool little band from The Big Easy they have been making music together since the late 80s and, despite the abundant Cajun and zydeco influences of their hometown, the sounds they make are also heavily seasoned by band founder Ron Hodges' Hispanic heritage.

The Iguanas lineup includes two saxophones and sometimes an accordion mixed in with the usual rock instruments. They also weave a little piano into their arrangements. Their two sax players, Joe Cabral and Derek Huston, mostly play in perfect, harmonic unison but they can duke it out the way Dickie Betts and Duane Allman often did with their guitars. Either way, The Iguanas' reed men offer a unique sound that the band uses to their full advantage.

The Iguanas have often been compared to Los Lobos, the great band from East L. A. However, there are differences between the two groups. Nuevo Boogaloo, their second album, earned the Louisiana based band some well-deserved recognition back in 1994 in part because it has a sense of humor that is often lacking in Los Lobos' music. Both "Oye Isabelle, and "My Girlfriend is a Waitress" bring a smile to your face just by hearing the song titles. Even the album title is fun.

"Boom Boom Boom" and "Hey, Sweet Darling" are straight ahead, unadorned rock songs that so many Americana bands play so well.

Nuevo Boogaloo is a typical Iguanas album in that it offers a mixture of styles while never straying too far outside of the band's comfort zone. Like most ethnically charged roots rock outfits they're proud of their heritage and it shows in their music. The decision to follow their hearts is admirable but, unfortunately, it keeps their work off the radio and sends it into obscurity.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Stan Getz and João Gilberto featuring Antonio Carlos Jobim - Getz/Gilberto (1964)

Many jazz purists who hate the whole smooth jazz scene have partially blamed American saxophonist Stan Getz, Brazilian guitarist/singer João Gilberto, and their famous 1964 classic album, Getz/Gilberto, for contributing the DNA that allowed Kenny G and other related criminals to run amok in the music world. However, their hate is completely misdirected and after listening to this eight song set recorded by the first two "Gs" you’ll understand why.

Getz and Gilberto teamed with another famous Brazilian, pianist Antonio Carlos Jobim, who co-wrote most of the tracks on this album that jump-started an international craze for Bossa Nova. This somewhat dated, lighter jazz style thrives on vibrant melodies with upbeat tempos that are mostly supported by light and loose drum and percussion work. The guitar playing is mostly acoustic. The vocals are usually soft, tastefully refined, and often mysteriously sexy. All of these components thrived together in an atmosphere that created a very modern, cool, 60s groove without cranking up the amps. Bossa Nova is mood music that proves tempo and feel is often more important than volume.

The highlight of Getz/Gilberto is it's opening track, perhaps the sub-genre's most famous song, "The Girl from Impanema," featuring guest vocals by Astrud Gilberto who was João's wife at the time. Her performance on the song was not only her very first professional gig it supposedly was the first time she ever sang outside of her home. (According to Wikipedia, the single version of "Impanema," with Getz playing and Astrud singing without her husband, reached #5 on the American pop chart). She also contributed vocals to another one of the album's tunes, "Corcovado." Nevertheless, her two appearances on this blockbuster album turned her into a worldwide star.

João Gilberto sang on all eight tracks and always in Portugese, while both of Astrud's contributions were in English. Unfortunately, because 85% of the lyrics were sung in a foreign tongue much of their emotional value was probably lost on Americans so it's surprising that the LP racked up such large sales figures here at home.

Such was the impact of this LP that it won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1965. It was the only jazz album to be so honored until Herbie Hancock won the same award almost half a century later in 2008.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Avett Brothers - The Carpenter (2012)

The Carpenter, The Avett Brothers' sixth studio album, is their second major label release and it's also the second one in a row with the renowned Rick Rubin in the producer's chair. It's also a thoroughly enjoyable set that is doing well on the charts.

The Avetts are correctly labeled as a country-folk band. However, you can also call them yuppie-country or urban-country (No, They're not oxymorons). Once you hear their work you'll understand.

On The Carpenter the Avetts alternate soft, nice and easy ballads ("February Seven," "The Once and Future Carpenter," and "Through My Prayers) with up-tempo fare such as the banjo driven "Live and Die," a supremely catchy song that is getting all of the airplay it deserves on adult alternative radio. "I Never Knew You," with its 60s, Southern California vocal harmonies, is as effervescent as acoustic power-pop can get. "Down With The Shine," features a horn section and sounds like it could have come from from Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko and company.

The brothers have a rock 'n roll attitude that shows up in both their singing and their songs. They're capable of screaming their lyrics, and they don't always just gently strum or pluck their instruments, so it's not too hard to imagine them plugging in. When they do go electric, as on the strangely titled "Paul Newman vs. the Demons," they're capable of concocting an ear-splitting modern rocker with exploding feedback.

Those acoustic newcomers, The Lumineers, are making all of the headlines lately but The Avett Brothers make better music. Their melodies are prettier, they have better voices, and their overall sound is fuller, making their songs much more satisfying.

Buy The Carpenter from Amazon.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Booker T & The MGs - McLemore Avenue (1970)

In 1970, Booker T. & The MGs, the famous quartet and house band for Stax Records re-recorded The Beatles' Abbey Road almost in its entirety. They also copied the original's iconic album cover and even named the platter, McLemore Avenue, after the street that was home to their recording studio, just like the Beatles did for their classic.

This wasn't just a group trying to cash in on a good thing. The MGs were virtuosos paying tribute to the world's most famous rock band and one of their acknowledged masterworks. Booker T. Jones is on record as saying he was so enamored of the Fabs’ 1969 album that this was his way of saying thanks.

Just like The Beatles did on Abbey Road, The MGs assembled the songs on McLemore Avenue into medleys. Track one is more than a fifteen minute cruise through the three songs that made up Paul McCartney's "Golden Slumbers" medley with George Harrison's "Here Comes The Sun" and John Lennon's "Come Together" tacked on for good measure. At times the band was faithful to the original melodies but Jones (keyboards), Steve Cropper (guitar), the late Donald "Duck" Dunn (bass), and the long-departed Al Jackson Jr. (drums) used their imaginative interpretive skills to elaborate on the originals without wandering so far afield that they lost sight of The Beatles' artistic intentions.

In the hands of the MGs, "Something," the song Stax released as a single, became a low key R & B treat that proved Harrsion's much-loved ballad possessed more soul than anyone (maybe even its composer) ever knew it had. The track is more jazz than R & B with both Cropper and Jones playing stupendous stuff.

Side two opens with "Because"/"You Never Give Me Your Money." Lennon's soft ballad was given a much heavier treatment that completely changed the mood of the piece. McCartney's meandering melody on the latter tune already sounded like a mini-suite even before The MGs' version saw the light of day. Here, they use it as a way to show off their formidable improvisational skills.

Most of the rest of side two of Abbey Road is featured on the final 10:40 track with "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" included as the finale. Stripped of all The Beatles multi-layered production these unencumbered arrangements prove how good The Beatles were at composing melodies.

Overall, Jones and company instinctively knew when to be restrained, when to rock, when to follow the melody, and when to be expansive. It's not just the MGs best album, it just might be the best salute to The Beatles ever released. It's definitely one of the must hear discs from the entire Stax catalog.

The remastered and expanded version of McLemore Avenue, currently available at Amazon on CD or mp3, includes several other Beatles' songs the great Memphis band covered on earlier albums.