Reviews of my musical collection.

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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Shovels & Rope

I want to promote Shovels & Rope which is a band made up of a husband & wife team. They have a sound that is just so raw & roots-based. My wife says that Carrie Ann Hearst’s voice is a combination of Macy Grey & Cyndi Lauper. I’m not sure I agree, but her vocals mix a rawness with range that help to provide harmonies with her husband, Michael Trent, that weave together in rich & intricate patterns. This weave is based on Trent’s even tone, while Hearst bends around his vocals like an out-of-control Billie Holiday. I’m going to talk about both of their albums, O Be Joyful & Swimming Time, which offer great songs & a tone of weary exuberance that I love. Yes, they aren’t treading new ground as far as roots music goes, whether the ragged guitar & eccentric percussion or the lyrics harkening back to depression era pain & suffering. Yet they have an ironic note in the lyrics, which often speak of facing disaster & staying strong & connected while doing so. Their lyrics are complex & have great images of struggle. For example the song “The Devil is All Around”, offers up a troubling image of submission “on your hands & on your knees with an apple in your mouth/You will know how far you’ll go to make your peace with God” that later finds them pushing back with “It’s too late to turn back now, gotta get the lead on out/ Gotta find some way to make it right on” before the shared refrain “And nobody knows it like you do babe/the lengths that we will go to”.

Take the song “Tickin’ Bomb” with a great shuffle beat & the lyrics “Well, all bottled up/A beggin’ dog with my tongue out/I’m in my shell/and only you can make me come out”. Again the lyrics offer up an artistic relationship mixed with love: “Well play my song/All night long/I’ll be a tickin’ bomb/Tickin’ all night long.”
"Birmingham" is another great song off O' Be Joyful. "Pulled her covered wagon off the BQE/Said this'll be the last you'll ever see of me/Well the cowboy laughed said I know it's not true/Cause there's nothing I could do to get loose from you" hints at the relationship built between two musicians with distinct voices coming together to beg "Rock of Ages, cleave for me". This mix of sacred, biblical imagery with the wayward road of traveling musicians has such potential that this band seeks to meet.

The most important aspect of Shovels & Rope though is the combination of playing the instruments themselves & finding new ways to perform their songs, something popular music has forgotten. See them here on David Letterman, playing "Coping Mechanism", a song from Swimming Time:

This group is seeking new ways to make Americana music swing & sway, & the artistic tension that must rub in a friction fraying their relationship at times. It certainly makes for great music. See them here playing acoustic at Pickathon with "Lay Low":

Again, they find a way to incorporate their collaboration as artists & musicians with their relationship, "Fumblin’ through all of the letters and notes/The ones that you wrote/Do they keep me afloat/Or just wrap around my throat like a noose on a rope?" It's a fresh sound.

I want to promote music like this: music that comes from people who spend their lives trying to master their art, master their music, master their instruments. Whether musicians work alone or collaborate, I want music that people can play whatever the venue & audience. I've dedicated this blog to promoting artists like Shovels & Rope. Give them a listen!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Da Cruz "Sistema Subversiva"

What is it about this music that I like? Just about everything. I have no idea what the lyrics say in Portuguese, & I don't really care. It's the rhythm that I'm grooving. The first song, "Boom Boom Boom" lays out the rest of the disc. These are beats to march, to rebel, to subvert the system. If Mariana Da Cruz & Ane H.wants to be a subversive system, I'm ready to be part of the system.

They're music is funky, jazzy, irrational, & explosive. The best tracks, IMHO, are "Boom Boom Boom", "Curumin", "Chega", "Warm Leatherette" (the Grace Jones cover), & "Tschu Tschu" which have so much energy & randomness. Mariana's voice is sexy & raw.

While some of the tracks are slower than others, they all have very danceable beats. Sometimes the accompaniment is very electronic, but it also uses acoustic guitars. It reminds me of Yaz, not so much as similar in musical style as the contrast of Mariana's vocals from the music much like Alyson Moyet's voice made the electronic music of Yaz more raw & human.

These are funky fun songs that have great beats & leave me feeling energized. I'll using this in my headphones when I run. I highly recommend them to you, just be in a place where you can shake your booty!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Miles Davis' "Sorcerer"

 "Miles Davis Sorcerer" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.
 Miles Davis Sorcerer is the first Miles Davis albums I owned. I went to the record store with the intention of buying a jazz album, so that I could learn about jazz. Miles Davis was one of the few jazz names I knew outside Louis Armstrong. I chose Sorcerer for two reasons: 1st being a college student with limited funds, it was the cheapest Davis album at the store & 2nd because I loved the cover with the profile of Cicely Tyson (not that I knew it was Cicely Tyson at the time). It has the classic lineup of the MD Quintet: Miles, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock & Tony Williams.

The first song, “Prince of Darkness” caught me off guard with Tony Williams’ propelling drumming that gave such life to the song. I don’t begin to know how to musically describe jazz, so I do it in literary devices. There is the refrain that comes forward like a theme that must be delivered on time, above the forward motion of Williams’ drumming. To listen to this lineup play on this album became something I obsessed over for some time in college. The compositions are so minimal, some refrain that is played for a period then solos that innovate & modulate on the refrain. Below is Tony Williams’ drumming, so many different elements creating the whole rhythm. What grabs me immediately is the softness, the coolness of the jazz even though it is so rapidly propelled. Besides Williams, Ron Carter’s bass is running around the sound-scape.

A friend who plays trumpet shared a thought about Miles that sums him up well. He was a bandleader, not a trumpet player. I’m don’t completely agree with the second half of that, but the first holds true across Davis’ career. Many of the most fascinating & original jazz players found their way into his bands at various times in his career: Coltrane, Jerry Mulligan, John Scofield, Keith Jarrett, Paul Chambers, George Foreman, Cannonball Adderly, Gil Evans, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinal, Bill Evans, the list could continue for several lines.

When I first heard this album, I had no context of Miles’ career, & so I had to evaluate it for itself. Now I know that it represented a transition period between his traditional acoustic jazz & his later fusion period. However, at the time, I felt that the movements of these pieces were leading me down paths I hadn’t explored before. If I sat and listened in quiet moments in my room, I learned how the interplay of jazz musicians created something unique and broad out of a rather simple or short refrain that was repeated occasionally. There are examples of the call & response of jazz music, especially in the title song, “Sorcerer”. In other parts I learned to recognize the interweaving of seemingly disparate sounds into a new whole. Coming from a small town in Oklahoma, the big city sounds weren’t there to help me. It was years later living in California that I began to recognize the cityscapes in some of these songs, as a Hancock piano movement could be a person wandering rapidly through foot traffic heading the opposite way, or Shorter’s sax being the sound of traffic flowing past.

So much happened in any moment of the songs that I was carried away by just trying to follow one of the instruments through the song. For instance in “Limbo” which begins with just Hancock & Carter playing, I followed the piano through the song, feeling as he set the pace & motion of the song, then provided a series of pillows that couched the solos of Davis & Shorter. Hancock’s playing is often just chords interspersed under the rest of the music, providing a bedrock of sound that allows the other players to take flight. At the same time if I listened to Tony Williams as he accentuated the solos with his impossibly complex drumming, the way he would just hit something with a rapid pace as the Shorter’s sax was careening nearly out of control, as if to push it back onto track or farther into the stratosphere. The cymbal work acted as not only a fast pace for the song but as crashing waves across the bow of Hancock’s chords as they progressed across the sound. Limbo, a place in Hell for the unchristened babes in Catholic doctrine, also a place keeping, a place where nothing happens but waiting. This didn’t sound at all like the limbo I knew.

The slower piece “Vonetta" let me enjoy Davis’ sense of the blues, which he makes into some of the loneliest music around. The sense of aloneness is syncopated by Williams’ martial-like drumming with its repeated rolls & marching cadence & Carter walks the sound along, down a winding trail as Shorter’s sax sails across your mind reaching highs & lows. The old album version ends with “Nothing Like You” which always jolts me out of the mesmerized mood with the vocal of Bob Dorough so jarring next to the smooth jazz of the song. The liner notes on the CD version tell me that this was recorded much earlier with Paul Chambers on bass & Jimmy Cobb on drums, & it has a different feel than the rest of the album. For a long time, it felt like a mistake, as though added to fill up space, but when listening now with more experienced ears (and having over 30 Davis albums to compare, more than any other musician of any genre) I realize that it shows the transition occurring throughout the album. For one thing, it is far more straight ahead ‘cool or modal’ jazz of the early MDQ albums like Milestones or Seven Steps to Heaven, while the rest of the songwriting at least has become much more fusion in its rhythmic challenges. These songs are much more like Filles de Kilimanjaro & Bitches Brew.

Many jazz musicians have laughed when I tell them that this is my first jazz album, usually with comments like ‘how obscure’ or ‘I’m surprised you kept exploring jazz’. It’s hard to say anything new about Davis’ classics like Kind of Blue or In a Silent Way, but there is something to be said for listening to the many albums that show the progress that this pioneer made over a career than spanned decades. I highly recommend exploring this album.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Jefferson Airplane "Volunteers"

I’m going to lay down this review of Volunteers, which begins with ‘We Should be Together’ by Paul Kantner. I think this album could & should be the soundtrack for the current movement building to a revolution. Lines like “we are the sources of chaos & anarchy/what they say we are we are” & “We are all outlaws in the eyes of America" have the defiant stance that measures the ad hominem attacks with “and…?” Other lines like “Up against the Wall, mother fuckers” & “Tear down the Walls” are rallying cries against the injustice that hasn’t changed significantly. We are all here and fighting together. We should be together. Forget our differences, forget what they say about us. Stand together & fight. Jorma Kaukonen’s guitar work acts as a common thread throughout the record, offering a sharp, angry pierce to the gorgeous vocals that tend to soften the fierce lyrics. His guitar continues into ‘Good Shepherd’ where his guitar sears the peaceful lyrics of the pastoral tune. In fact even this song gives a traditional tune a rebellious note. A note that leaves the listener comforted. Next up, ‘The Farm’ which is a hippy dream that espouses the bucolic life of simplicity, something today’s world needs to really seek out ways to fulfill. It’s easier said than done to move out to a rural setting & start farming, but with the organic, boutique farming happening across the country & urban farming sprouting up, the message holds. Another great line opens the next song: Either go away or go all the way in’ Grace Slick dares the listener. “How old do you have to be before you stop your believing?” This song makes a great argument that the production of this album leaves room for remakes that could be stripped down without losing the punch. I still love to hear a great guitar solo, but the attention span of most listeners today might drift during this 8-plus minute song. Another Jorma tune sang gracefully by Marty Balin, “Turn My Life Down”, gives a nice end to side one (for those of you who remember LPs). Again Jorma’s guitar work sparkles, & Marty’s vocals capture the sad lyrics of loss (especially innocence). Side two started with “Wooden Ships” which is such a better version than CSN’s. The bleak landscape of the lyrics, with band member voices speaking as survivors of some horrific event, is matched by the bleak soundscape & throughout, Jorma’s guitar flows freely with the vocals like Lester Young’s tenor sax mingled with Lady Day’s voice. Probably the harshest line is “Stare as all human feelings die/We are leaving, you don’t need us” imagines the hard decisions that come with disasters on the nuclear scale. David Crosby’s one of my favorite musicians, but the Airplane version wins out. Grace roars back in punk-on-an-LSD-trip mode with “Eskimo Blue Day” and lines like “You call it loud/but the human crowd/doesn’t mean shit to a tree” radiate a powerful, in your face environmental attitude that the movement could use against the forces of big oil & fossil fuel disasters. Jorma brings it, giving the song an edge as potent as the tree crashing at the end. Spencer Dryden’s “A Song for all Seasons” has a barroom piano that slurs along with the lyrics & the group vocals harmonizing loosely & tongue-in-cheek. A brief respite before we move to “Meadowlands” which opens with a harsh organ chord progression of a Soviet Army Song then fades into “Volunteers” and Marty calling the volunteers to arms. What I always loved about this song was that it called for revolution but a revolution of volunteers, not of soldiers, not of patriots, but of volunteers. It’s two-minutes of punch that I wish could never stop. As someone who writes about a cooperative process & finding alternative ways to exist and work together voluntarily without coercion, I’ve always had Marty singing joyfully “Look what’s happenin’ on the streets/got to revolution/got a revolution” in my head when I go out marching for peace & justice. Whether it’s the music or the lyrics, Volunteers deserves to be heard.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Rosanne Cash "The River & The Thread"

The River & The Thread
I first heard Rosanne Cash’s “Seven Year Itch”, which fit my acceptance of country as a young man from a small town with one radio station that had a music standard similar to the dive bar in The Blues Brothers: “We play both kinds of music here, Country & Western.” I had already swerved recklessly into punk, so my country had to be rockin’. Both Cash & Dwight Yoakam fit that mold more than Randy Travis or George Strait. However, I lost touch with Cash until I heard her album, “The List”, which is her choice of songs from her dad’s 100 greatest songs list. However that album didn’t strike me the way “The River & the Thread” has. First of all, this isn’t just a Cash album, but a collaboration with her husband, John Leventhal, who has played nearly all the music and co-wrote the songs with Cash. His playing sounds so natural & spontaneous, that the production feels like a sit-in session in someone’s living room.  The first song with its refrain of “a feather is not a bird, rain is not the sea, a stone is not a mountain, but a river runs through me”, has a raw beginning with a guitar playing four minor notes in a stepping pattern, but it is Cash’s voice of longing & the lyrics of wandering along the Mississippi that sets the tone for the whole album, of a region she loves & constantly travels, at least in her memory. The stark image of five cans in the dust begins & ends the song “The Sunken Lands” of an unsatisfied woman who finally leaves with the rising tide of the river, that flows like the shuffle of the backbeat. Another woman “Etta’s Song” praises the man who stays with her despite the wandering, drinking & pills. The refrain of “What’s the temperature, darlin’?” a question that remains rhetorical at best. “Modern Blue” details the dangerous curves of relationships which keeps Rosanne’s “head down” and “my eyes on you.” as she recognizes the many shades of modern blue. Again, as she’s traveled to Barcelona & Paris, she finds herself back in Memphis. “Tell Heaven” with its longing & suffering guitar unanswered except for the refrain’s suggestion that doesn’t necessarily sound like it will be answered. “The Long Way Home” returns to the wanderlust that has found it’s roundabout way back to the South, to “Dark highways and the country roads” that “don’t scare you like they used to”. There is a sense of acceptance, something that resonates with someone who has a mixed love of his homeland at best, but loves the memories of the dust, silence, and space that my home in New York lacks. “World of Strange Design” again offers a bleak spiritual landscape, one where nothing fits into the old ways of thinking, but to find an answer, you must “start at the beginning”. The music has a ancient feel like a Charley Poole guitar line, but Cash’s voice sings lyrics that are anything but ancient in their imagery. This is a new place, where old ideas find purchase only in the music, not in place or spirit. On the other hand, “Night School” provides the most nostalgic notes of the album, as Cash sings of Mobile and a lost love, where the lessons are of love and loss. The string arrangement here with the cello providing an answer to Rosanne’s memories. “50,000 Watts” finds a place of hope, where prayers broadcast redemption across the walking pace of the guitars. If she ever channels her father, it must be on “When the Master Calls” with its story of random love, defiant devotion, early death and a lifetime of mourning as a young woman watches her new husband take his father’s rifle and follow where the “tides demand”. It has Johnny’s sense of fate that will happen when “the master calls the roll”. The album ends with “Money Road” a song that speaks of the costs of searching and striving, perhaps best reflected in the line “But what you seek is seeking you.” The bluesy guitar and Rosanne’s voice make the point that this isn’t just “Country and Western” but American music, a sound that feels like my memories of my youth, of many road trips driving down dark highways, watching rainstorms blow up across the wide plains of my youth. Americana is a term I’ve used to categorize music as varied as Tom Waits and the Neville Brothers. “The River & the Thread” fits in there nicely.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Bruce Springsteen "Darkness on the Edge of Town"

As someone who clung to my LPs for decades, I have lost touch with several records that I haven’t converted to .WAV files or purchased a CD replacement. One  of these albums was Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. In fact my first version of this recording was on 8-track. I got it through Columbia House, which used to send you a recording every month, the latest issue they were pushing. Growing up in a panhandle town in Oklahoma, I didn’t hear a wide spectrum of music that was available even in nearby Amarillo or Oklahoma City. This was 1978, and I was just starting to drive. My best friend was Mike, a kid with a ‘72 Chevy Monte Carlo and the driving skills of a moonshiner. We would roll through the streets of the town or down the dirt roads surrounding it, listening to this album over and over. Mike’s taste in music was more toward the soundtrack of Grease or disco, but he humored me or else really liked the lyrics about driving, racing, and darkness. Even with our close friendship, Springsteen’s album felt like my own secret music. I just shared it with Mike. From the cover, which at first I thought, man, this guy looks like hell, to the growling moan and melancholy of his voice, Springsteen sang to me. I had spent the summer in Europe, and while in England experienced the sound of the Sex Pistols. Their brashness and irreverence, as well as Steve Jones’ guitar worked on my mind, and when I came back to the states, I fully expected to find their album in the stores and their music on the radio. Wrong. I couldn’t find the record in my local record store, and since I didn’t get to Amarillo or Oklahoma City very often, I lost touch with them. But I found Bruce.
Most people had found Bruce years before with Born to Run, but again, in the panhandle with one local radio station playing country western and the nearest Kansas station playing Casey Kasem, I hadn’t heard of him. So I got him fresh with Darkness. He blew me away. I must have listened to this album thousands of times, and when I recently went to the public library and saw a copy of the CD, all those songs immediately resonated from my distant past. When I got home and listened to it, the album still sounded as strong and immediate as it had to me then. The production and sound are still stark and don’t have the dated feel of Born in the USA or Born to Run. The stinging guitar, which is some of the best he’s ever done, still cuts sharply and interplays with his voice with the same intensity that Lester Young’s saxophone did with Lady Day.
Obviously a fruitful time for the Boss, he recorded a large amount of music that he pared down to the ten songs on the album. “Badlands” opens the album, and while it didn’t touch the charts, it may have to do more with how close Gary Gilmore’s spree still was in the psyche. The clear lack of options in a flat landscape with no hopeful horizon really made a connection to a teenager who used to climb the town’s water tower at night to look into the darkness surrounding him. The character spoke to me literally from the first person, but also as a man. He spoke to his woman, to his friends, to his community. He was angry but resigned as well. “Adam Raised a Cain” hit this young aspiring poet with its biblical allusions and twisting of the story to the son’s perspective, not the Father’s. This became my personal theme song, looping in my head as I committed acts of vandalism and wanton teenage angst. It’s charging beat and shamelessly defiant chorus still makes me want to punch a wall or some stupid adult. The ballad “Something in the Night” continues this desperate urge to run, to chase the dream down a dark highway into eternity. But it is Springsteen’s moan in the middle over the bridge that really haunts the song. No redemption from the neighborhood, no sympathy from the authorities, aid from friends and compatriots useless and futile against the forces that prevent finding ‘something in the night’, an unknown but clearly understood entity. How many miles did Mike and I put down chasing that something around the dusty roads of my hometown.
Then you’re hit with the drumming of “Candy’s Room” and Bruce describing a prostitute’s abode. This didn’t exist in my hometown, and the only prostitutes that I’d been exposed to were in movies or cop shows. They usually had a tired, hard look but a heart of gold. Well Candy’s got the look, but she’s no angel. The music accelerates from the opening on the drumming of Max Weinberg who churns the beat into a fierce drama. Candy let’s the narrator know that he’s not up to snuff, has a lot to learn, he needs to burn, burn holes in the night. No man can keep her safe, and those who try will fail. She’ll be there though with him, even if she has to invite other men to pay the bills. Another ballad, another character chasing dreams in a souped up automobile, “Racing in the Street” lays claim to all the dream chasing of the album, an anthem to working for something more than a paycheck and a house to call home. The narrator sets up the home with his woman, but their white picket fence life hollows out quickly with her “sitting on her daddy’s porch” and him racing cars for no reason. The dream chaser of “Something in the Night’ settled down, accepting that he couldn’t get out. He tried to make do with the dream that the town offers, but that dream has no depth, no meaning beyond wage slavery and “looking for something that just isn’t there”.
In the old-school parlance of the LP era, side two begins with “The Promised Land” a song that again alludes to Old Testament tales from Sunday school. ‘Mister’ that authority or smug outsider the character addresses needs to know what the promised land isn’t: a place of broken hearts, getting nothing for your hard work, not being torn apart by broken dreams. The character works in his daddy’s garage and has NO FUTURE, the same bleak realization that I’d felt in the Sex Pistols music and in my teen life in a small town of limited horizon dreams. “Factory” is an ode to the working life, with its chorus repeating that phrase without sentimentality, just reality. I didn’t come from a working family background, but many of my friends did, and even more so, the men and women caught in my small town did, where the meat processing plant provided most of the jobs outside of farming and ranching. The small businessmen who were my father’s friends and neighbors were just beginning to feel the bite of the corporate takeover, which they never saw as the threat it was. Even as they watched their friends’ businesses dry up competing with the bigger stores in Amarillo and Oklahoma City, they denied that it could happen to them, until it did. Today Walmart sells everything, and everyone shops there. Former proud small businessmen now greet their fellow townspeople and wheel them a cart. No wonder the Boss hated Reagan so much. “Streets of Fire” is another anthem made for dragging main street and flirting with girls, trying to be hard and tortured. The attempted hit “Prove it All Night” also makes for great posturing. The sexual overtones of the verse and the deeper sense that the singer will prove his love with more than just sex, with his life and his dreams give the song an ironic tint. Here Springsteen’s guitar solo burns in the night, cutting apart the apathy, the frustration unleashed in a searing fury. “Darkness on the Edge of Town” sums up the album with its ambiguous longing and searching for ‘darkness’ that cannot be understood but must be explored, the ‘darkness’ that calls from around the corner but disappears when one nears. Again the wail of Bruce’s voice, again the sear of the guitar evoke the sense of angst-ridden melancholy, a term that I’d heard as a teenager reading “Romeo and Juliet” but had never really understood wore me like a glove.
The sound and production values on this album are stark, and even with the Spector Wall of Sound that Bruce always follows, this album wears well after 30 plus years. It will go back into heavy rotation on my playlist.