Saturday, November 22, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE NEW BASEMENT TAPES - LOST ON THE RIVER



If we are to believe the story, Bob Dylan or someone close to him recently discovered a stash of his old lyrics, written during the time he was knocking them off at lightning speed, recorded the famous Basement Tapes in 1967. I express some skepticism about this convenient story, as it magically timed up with the release of the full Basement Tapes this month, and this isn't the most honest industry in the world. Bob Dylan's been telling tales since he showed up in New York too. He's always liked embellishing the whole Bob Dylan character, the one he considers another person.


That's minor griping. Even if these have been sitting around for decades, or don't even belong to the Basement Tapes period, it doesn't matter. These are fun, old-fashioned and plain-spoken, certainly in the spirit of the Basement Tapes words. Instead of recording these himself (which would have been cool too), he gave them over to producer T Bone Burnett, who assembled a group to write music and record them over a two week period. Funny, that sounds exactly like what happened with Dylan's idol, Woody Guthrie, and the old lyrics he had left behind. That project turned out very well indeed with Wilco and Billy Bragg doing the duties, so maybe Dylan liked the thought of that too.


The musicians assembled to write and perform were long-time Burnett buddy and Dylan appreciator Elvis Costello, plus a group of relative newcomers from the Americana field. There's Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Marcus Mumford from you-know-who, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. They worked either along or in small combos on the music, then backed each other up in the studio. Wisely, Burnett didn't try to recreate the lower-fidelity situation where Dylan and The Band worked. This wasn't about the interplay of incredible musicians working on the fly, but rather about the chance to bring to life twenty songs.


For the most part the songs have that Basement Tapes spirit though, celebrating the vintage American music, from 1850 to early rock, whatever worked. Instead of his beat poet wordplay, Dylan was using cliches and vernacular, such as "getting out while the getting's good", and making up stories based on phrases he liked. It's simple, he'd think about the Florida Keys for instance, and there would be a song called Florida Key. Or he'd take Cab Calloway's old chorus from Minnie The Moocher, and create a new song called Hidee Hidee Ho. Another is a fish tale, about the most dangerous one in the sea, the shark. In this case, he's writing about the Card Shark -- "get him on the nose!"


The music is certainly not Dylanesque, and that's fine as well, the performer has to bring something to the table. Costello handles the title cut, one of the best songs here, and brings a lovely gospel quality to it, but Dylan wouldn't have had so many nice notes in his melody. There probably would have been more blues as well. But there's not one song here that disappoints me, and quite a few that delight me. I don't know quite where to put this in the Dylan archives; I don't think you should look at it as a lost collection to place in his late 60's work. It's a novelty really, a very enjoyable one.

Friday, November 21, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: QUEEN - FOREVER

The big selling point is three previously-unreleased Queen songs, at least in these versions, the first "new" tracks since the posthumous album Made In Heaven in 1995.  And of course, you have the added excitement of a duet with Michael Jackson too.  Ah, don't get too excited though.  The track, There Must Be More Than Life Than This, is pretty uninspired.  The cut has already appeared on the Mercury solo album, Mr. Bad Guy, but this features a backing track the group did back in 1981, and vocal by Jackson that sounds like it was recorded during a different, quieter session.  It's underwhelming, a minor effort, and sounds like it took a lot of effort to match up the various parts into something not quite seamless.

The other two new ones are better.  Again they are both 80's songs, out-takes for the album The Works, with Let Me In Your Heart Again eventually being release by Brian May's wife Anita Dobson, and Love Kills seeing life on the Metropolis soundtrack.  Here we get the original foursome.  Let Me In Your Heart Again is a pretty good example of a bombastic Queen ballad, Mercury ascending, lots of group vocals, some big guitar from May.  Love Kills is this form is now a ballad.  There's probably a lot of contemporary work on this, but it doesn't really matter, May keeps things Queen-sounding.

The rest of Forever is collected from regular albums.  There are two versions available, a single disc with twenty cuts, and a double, that includes 36.  Since there's only a three dollar price difference, and both include the three new cuts, you might as well get the double.  That is, if there's enough to attract you.  There are some new remasters for better sound, and some intros omitted and fades changed, but these are mostly trainspotting details.  The catalogue songs include only a couple of the usual greatest hits (Crazy Little Think Called Love, Somebody To Love, You're My Best Friend).  Instead, the stated mission was to show the group's musical development.  That's a tough call.  I never think of any great improvement in Queen's albums over the years, but rather that they learned to do things differently.  If anything, they became more comfortable with emotion on the ballads, fun on the rockers, extravagance on the experiments.  This is mostly softer material, from A Night At The Opera's Love Of My Life in 1975 to Made In Heaven tracks such as Too Much Love Will Kill You.  It could just have easily been Queen - The Ballads, but that might turn off some buyers.  What I found is that it reminded me there are some very strong and unheralded songs past the hits on the regular albums.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: WILCO - ALPHA MIKE FOXTROT: RARE TRACKS 1994 - 2014

Wilco is a band that has always been great to the fans.  Member John Stirratt says leader Jeff Tweedy has an empathy for them, and his writing reflects that.  In the liner notes to this new rare cuts collection, he states what Tweedy knows best is "the listener's relationship with rock 'n' roll music."  In other words, the band tries to get us what we want.  As a fan, what I always want is more.  That can mean more new and exciting music, and more from a period that I love.  If I love an album, I want to hear what the songs sound like live, maybe early versions, maybe discarded songs from the same sessions.  Not everybody is like that, but there is a whole rabid fandom that is, and Wilco fans tend to be that passionate type.

Part two of the Wilco 20th birthday celebration is this new four-CD collection of rare cuts, to accompany the two-CD best-of set What's Your 20? reviewed earlier this week.  The group has been sneaking out this gems over the past two decades every chance they get.  When they released a single, it would get non-album B-sides.  Sometimes those would differ in Europe.  If a radio station wanted, they would play live, and that would come out, maybe on a local-only disc.  The group's label would send out special promotional items to stations and reviewers (thanks Warner!) that had obscure numbers.  Songs were remixed for airplay.  Movie soundtracks would get new stuff.  There were downloads for fans. Now, here it all is.  There's a lot of it, and it's grand.

There are plenty of versions here that differ from the originals, some for better, some worse, some that take on new forms live, some that are played for a lark, and are treated as such.  The nice thing is, Tweedy doesn't try to edit this too much.  For instance, he says he can't see why anyone would want to listen to the band do Steely Dan's Any Major Dude Will Tell You, which they contributed to the soundtrack of Me, Myself & Irene, but I love the thing, almost as much as I love the original.  A crazy, punked-up version of Passenger Side from a 1997 live show is nothing special to me, but I'm sure there will be some that appreciate it.  There's that connection with the listener again, Tweedy lets us decide.  He couldn't stand the radio remixes insisted on by the label in 1999, but played ball and let them be done.  And even though he thinks they still sound dated and desperate, they are here as well.

The biggest surprise is just how much there was once it was all brought into one spot; a dizzying 77 tracks.  I'm pretty interested in the group, but I had forgotten they did a tune for the SpongeBob SquarePants movie (Just A Kid), or the great version of One Hundred Years From Now, where they punk up a country tune for the Gram Parsons tribute disc.  And those were some of the few I already had.  There are so many terrific works-in-progress, like the demo for Monday, that are new to me.  This really is a present to fans, especially for those who never got to see all those delicious promo and B-side treats over the years.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ROLLING STONES - FROM THE VAULT: L.A. FORUM (Live in 1975/HAMPTON COLISEUM (Live in 1981)


Lord knows there is no shortage of live Rolling Stones material around, both visual and audio.  Each one, we are told, marks the pinnacle of something; Jagger as a front man or Keith as a human riff factory are the usual accolades.   It's pretty sad when the opening notes of You Can't Always Get What You Want, one of the very best songs by anyone, can make you roll your eyes and think, "not again."  Every tour, every show is sold as an incredible, exciting event when in truth, the job of appearing as The World's Greatest Rock Band means the shows are pretty predictable and conservative.

It wasn't always the case, and since most of the available video is from 1989 and on, any old stuff is welcome, to see the band close to prime.  A new series first available on the Stones website has become so popular it has now moved into stores and such.  Called From The Vault, it features vintage shows released officially for the first time.  These aren't just getting dumped into the market in a bare-bones way.  Tons of work has gone into the restoration of the tapes, both video and audio, with strong packaging and multi-format availability.  You can get Blu-ray, DVD, CD, download files, all with top professional expectations met.  The audio is especially well-treated, in new 5.1 mixes, including one from the hugely-respected ears of Bob Clearmountain (Hampton Coliseum 1981).

Two concerts are now available, the older coming from the L.A. Forum in 1975.  This was the first tour for Ron Wood, subbing for the recently-quit Mick Taylor, and not yet an official band member.  But he fits in perfectly, at ease with both Richards and Jagger, Mick able to use him as a foil, something Richards wouldn't go for.  He plays a ton of lead guitar, a compliment to the work of Dr. Riff.  Still youthful, Jagger's leaps and bounds are choreographed like figure skater's routine, and no less impressive for it.  It's actually fun to see them putting on some showbiz moves, such as Jagger flanked closely by Wood and Richards for the chorus vocals to Wild Horses, all of them posing with their heads back and hair flowing.  Maybe it's just because we haven't seen this kind of footage much before, but it does seem more impressive than Keith's "who gives a crap" attitude from the 90's on.  And as much as we all loved Ian Stewart and the bond of loyalty he shared with the band, the addition of Billy Preston to the show was a substantial improvement.  He not only added lots of fun elements such as the clavinet and siren sounds, he was a great showman, and his two-song set in the middle of the concert, along with a dance-off with Jagger is one of the highlights.

1975 saw the Stones concentrating on the latter side of their career, with only Get Off Of My Cloud representing the early hits, and that only in a medley with If You Can't Rock Me.  Even Satisfaction was ignored.  Of course, when you had a run of albums from 1968's Beggar's Banquet on to the most recent, It's Only Rock 'n' Roll, two hours was not a problem.  It did allow for some side excursions, such as Star Star and Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker), or the Exile On Main Street numbers All Down The Line, Rip This Joint and Keith's slippery-slope version of Happy.  But the guts and glory of the program was found in Honky Tonk Women, Tumbling Dice, You Can't Always Get What You Want, It's Only Rock 'n' Roll, Wild Horses, Brown Sugar, Midnight Rambler, Street Fighting Man, Jumpin' Jack Flash and Sympathy For The Devil.  It's no surprise that the Steel Wheels tour of '89 and every one since, has really concentrated on that material.

The other Vault set is from the Hampton, Virginia Coliseum in 1981.  This comes from one of the earliest Pay-TV events, with viewers in a handful of U.S. cities able to buy the show, and listen in stereo on a local radio station.  Believe me, it was a big deal back then.  The '81 tour was somewhat notorious, not for lewd and lascivious Stones behavior like the good old days, but for the exact opposite.  The Stones were now acting like, and in cahoots with the corporate world.  They accepted a sponsorship from the Jovan cosmetics group for a million bucks, a pittance these days, but still a no-no in rock circles then.  I can remember this clearly, and it did feel like the band had crossed a line, and was letting fans down.  In many ways, it still does, and perhaps that's why it's seemed they have been pretending all these years since.  Anyway, I liked the Hampton show better than I thought I would.  Some Girls was still high on everyone's list, and When The Whip Comes Down, Shattered, Beast of Burden and Miss You fit in nicely.  There was still some boldness, with a couple of surprising covers in the middle, Eddie Cochran's Twenty Flight Rock and Smokey Robinson's Going To A Go-Go.  The current album Tattoo You was a big hit, and Start Me Up was all over the airways, and that and another five made the show, including Waiting On A Friend.  What's most surprising is how much recent material did make up the first 90 minutes of the concert, and even She's So Cold and Hang Fire could show up in the latter stages.  Not the best and brightest, but still new, and you didn't get the impression half the crowd was heading to the concessions during them.

More of these shows are available as downloads only, including one as far back as 1973.  I'm all for this stuff, even as I criticize them.  You don't have to get them, but for big fans, the more the merrier when it comes to archive releases.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JACK DE KEYZER - VOODOO BOOGIE



Jack de Keyzer has been the man for a long time. We don't need to embarrass anyone here, but I haven't lived in Toronto since the mid-80's, and that's when I first saw him. How come when I try not to embarrass someone, I always end up embarrassing myself? Anyway, along the way, de Keyzer has won himself plenty of awards, and one of those was the blues Juno for 2010, for his CD The Corktown Sessions. That was recorded live in Hamilton's legendary Corktown Tavern, the oldest bar in Canada or something like that. It's a grand place to see a blues band, I can say from experience.


For his new album, de Keyzer returns to the scene of the crime. It's not a matter of re-booking the Corktown; instead, he checked out the original tapes of that night back in 2009, and found another album's worth of material worth releasing. It's not out-takes or also-ran's either. The band was hot the whole night, and it must have been hard not putting most of these on the first album. His cover of Muddy Waters' You Shook Me features ferocious guitar solos. At one point he plays a run that takes him away from the key but back into it seconds later with an ingenious progression, something jazz pros would love. The guy can play; he is a monster.


This disc is a little more covers-heavy, six tracks to four originals, and three of them are a little too common, All Along The Watchtower, I Heard It Through The Grapevine and Shake Your Money Maker. But even those shopworn classics de Keyzer manages to spruce up with his flair. A working-class bar in a working-class city, this is where the real stuff goes down.

Monday, November 17, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: WILCO - WHAT'S YOUR 20?

It's a year of looking back and wondering about the future for Wilco.  20 years in, few bands have gone through such major upheavals and kept growing.  There's few bands period that can say the best work wasn't during the first rush of excitement.  As this collection shows, there have been highlights throughout, no plunges and quite a substantial legacy.

What's Your 20? is advertised as essential tracks, 38 of them spread over two discs.  It would be pretty hard to argue with that title or the majority of the choices.  Each studio album is represented equally, including the Mermaid Avenue sessions, with three tracks, including the beloved California Stars.  The second album, Being There, includes the terrific one-two punch of Monday and Outtasite (Outta Mind), when Jay Bennett joined the group and helped steer the ship towards concise, and effective roots-rock.  But as was so openly documented in the break-up film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, Jeff Tweedy needed to be in charge, and needed to make more left-field and artistic albums.  Bennett was out, free-ranging avant-guitarist Nels Cline came in, and against the odds, Wilco became more popular, not less.  Perhaps it was simply that there were lots of great roots-rock bands around, but none like this. 

Disc two sees a whole new band, with Tweedy's lyrics a fascinating combination of sentiment and nostalgia, crossed with occasional bursts of surrealism and the feeling it's all a dream.  And when things get too pretty, he can unleash Cline to blast some newly-invented sounds from his strings.  There's a philosophical depth to most of the songs, and a playfulness that suggests Tweedy is winking at all this.  How serious is he when he suggests in Wilco (The Song) that his band will be there to love the fans?  Well, yes and no, they are genuine in their connection with the audience, and they have one of the richest relationships with the hard-core, but Tweedy's a disconnected voice in the headphones, happier to be the presenter of music folks love, and he's not going to have dinner at your house.

It's a set that keeps throwing favourites at you, especially on disc two, when tracks such as Jesus, Etc., Heavy Metal Drummer, Theologians, Handshake Drugs and Walken see the band come into their own.  There is nothing new here, but don't fear fans.  Instead of throwing on a couple of rare cuts, you'll find them and much, much more on a new four-disc set of non-album material called Alpha Mike Foxtrot.  I'm now going to digest that, and get back to you.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BOB DYLAN and THE BAND - THE BASEMENT TAPES RAW

As anyone with more than a passing interest in Bob Dylan has known for years, the legendary Basement Tapes still had many secrets to reveal.  The source of the first rock and roll bootleg, the goldmine of demos that gave The Byrds You Ain't Goin' Nowhere and Manfred Mann Quinn The Eskimo, plus the place where The Hawks developed their signature sound, and became The Band. Tears Of Rage, I Shall Be Released, This Wheel's On Fire, they all came out of these lazy days in Upstate New York.

So did Johnny Todd, Get Your Rocks Off, Baby, Won't You Be My Baby, and many more you probably haven't heard of, unless you were one of those still taking part in the underground economy that is Dylan boots.  For years now, a few hours of tape has been circulating with loads and loads more takes of songs featuring Dylan and The Band-to-be in sloppy glory, from low-fi, two-channel recordings, the way Garth Hudson (Band organist and assigned engineer archivist) recorded them back in 1967.  The aim was to get down a bunch of new Dylan songs as demos he could sell to other artists.  He was making a fortune doing just that back in the 60's, and since he wasn't touring (motorcycle injury) and wasn't making an album (same), the cash flow certainly would have been driving this plan.  But also, he was remaking his music, digging back in the raw and wild sound of American (and Canadian) folk music, basically inventing the roots or Americana genre with the help of his Ontario confederates (and later, Levon Helm).

There is a six-CD set of every last worthy take Hudson has managed to save over the years, as the tapes were left in his possession.  I can assure you it is on my Christmas list, currently sitting at the $125 - $140 range in stores.  This version is two discs, the highlights we are told.  It should be noted and stressed that these are not the Basement Tapes as sold to us in 1975.  For that set, Robbie Robertson was put in charge, and he polished up the whole thing, adding lots of new overdubs, remixing, and even adding Band-only songs from other sessions.  This time, we get the originals, as is, as was.  All that's been done is the usual cleaning job on ancient tape, what they could salvage.  There are some interrupted takes, some laughing, some distortion and buried instruments, but that's all part of the glory.

There's a charm to the muffled recordings, and some even claim they find a certain brilliance in the job Hudson managed to do.  I won't go that far, as there are plenty of other examples of amazing recordings done in bootleg situations. This is for history's sake, and the work done was stellar.  Dylan was knocking off lyrics upstairs on the typewriter, and recording them without polish, so sometimes the results are stunning given the limits, other times you know they could (and occasionally would) be polished up.  The two versions of You Ain't Goin' Nowhere found here show that in spades, the first almost gibberish, and the second the template of the beloved classic it has become.  

There are plenty of interesting 'new' songs for us here, including a blues version of Blowin' In The Wind, recorded who knows why, probably just a lark.  900 Miles From Home seems to be a mis-remembered run-through of Bobby Bare's hit 500 Miles, and I'm Alright is a R&B number that shows all the participants were into Curtis Mayfield.  Then there is the important job of returning the Robertson-produced 1975 versions back into the original versions.  Of particular note is Tears Of Rage.  When it came out in 1975, Robertson had added more harmonies.  Here we find Richard Manuel alone, singing an incredible part alongside Dylan.  It's live, probably barely rehearsed and the single-best vocal take of Manuel's storied career.  

Elsewhere, it's Dylan and The Band being themselves, expert musicians, singers and writers with the pressure off, the creativity soaring.  It's usually not perfect, but the combination of near-perfection and spontaneous creation is a wonder to hear, in its original form.  Two CD, that's great, but its only whetted my appetite for all the rest.