Reviews of my musical collection.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain View, California, 94041, USA.

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.