Sunday, July 27, 2014
Norah is the queen of side projects, giving us both The Little Willies and the Billie Joe & Norah sets, and she'll duet with anybody who asks, especially if they are country. She's been gigging with this group since 2008 for fun, mostly to learn guitar and do country songs without any pressure. Joining her are Sasha Dobson, another jazzy kind of singer on her own, and Catherine Popper, bassist for a bit in Ryan Adams and the Cardinals and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.
All three take turns at the vocals, look for nice harmony moments, and bring originals to the table. But it's the covers were they seem to have most fun. The album features both studio and live tracks, and everybody pitches in where needed, Dobson handling drums if needed, Jones supplying a little fiddle, all playing acoustic guitar, and nobody playing piano, it seems to have been banned, making sure we realized this is not a typical Norah Jones album (whatever that is now.)
I'd be just as happy if Jones never did another of her old style albums. Listen to her Don't Know What It Means, an old country twanger with a Bo Diddley guitar sound, and its clear she could easily just continue in the alt-country world. She has the right taste too; the covers here include a grand live version of Neil Young's Down By The River, with the best vocals that song has ever had, and more strong harmonies on the under-appreciated Band number Twilight. If anything, this is better than the Little Willies stuff.
Saturday, July 26, 2014
This is quite a different album for Hiatt. The overall feel is acoustic blues, not unknown in his repertoire but the furthest he's gone in that field. There is a band involved, his touring guys giving it the full sound, but Hiatt's acoustic is up front, the lyrics are largely dark and philosophical, the vocals slightly slurred and gruff.
The disc starts out with several world-weary numbers. The opener Long Time Comin' shows Hiatt might be tough to be around on bad days: "I've sang these songs a thousand times, ever since I was young/It's a long time comin' and the drummer keeps drummin', your work is never done." Wind Don't Have To Hurry is downright bleak, with the thought police taking your liberty, and your soul already sold for a bit of silver and gold. The mood does get lifted a little on Marlene, the girl the singer isn't good enough to win. Finally, by cut six, Baby's Gonna Kick, we get relief as the band goes uptown and we get a good groove. This is bad boy Hiatt again, admitting he's a wild one and that his lover will give him the boot when she's finally had enough, but it's delivered fun and sexy.
Hiatt must have sensed the dark side was winning on the album, because there's a cheap laugh tune included, Old People, which is a rant about senior citizens being a miserable, cheap, crafty bunch. It isn't up to the usual clever Hiatt standards, the chorus is dumb ("Old people are pushy/they're not mushy"), and feels like its there to placate the old fans who want some of his fun stuff. I'll admit it does take a couple of listens to appreciate the darkness here, but I think most will get there eventually, and the blues playing is sterling throughout. And if you want great Hiatt lyrics, you'll find them in the title cut, where he sings "Sometimes love can be so wrong, like a fat man in a thong."
There's another teaser offered in the deluxe edition, a live concert DVD. Of the ten cuts, only two are new, the rest being classic Hiatt numbers such as Slow Turning, Drive South and Have A Little Faith In Me. That alone is enough to grab this set, even if you do find the album proper a little too heavy.
Friday, July 25, 2014
Keira Knightley sings? Yes, and very well thank you very much. She stars in the new film about an independent singer/songwriter who doesn't want to sell out, despite Mark Ruffalo's attempts. The good news is that Ruffalo doesn't sing too, he's the record company guy. But Knightley's ex is played by Maroon 5's Adam Levine, and he has lots of cuts on the soundtrack too. Worrisome? As it turns out it's a pack of very fine pop songs, not exactly hip but real quality.
Credit goes to one Gregg Alexander, who at first I didn't remember. Checking credits, it's the same guy who ran the 90's band The New Radicals, who hit with You Get What You Give. I thought their album was first-class, so it comes as no surprise he's resurfaced with this set.
Cee Lo Green has a smaller role in the film, which is an excuse to get a couple of his songs on the disc, and surprise, even he's doing Alexander numbers. However, Alexander is a crafty-enough writer to fit right in with the star, and both Horny and Women Of The World (Go On Strike) are made-to-order Cee Lo, not classics but exactly what you expect from him, cheeky and fun. It's a rare quality soundtrack from start to finish, and with Cee Lo and one of the Adam Levine cuts, Lost Stars, getting airplay, it could be a sizable hit.
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
That's a lot of Johnny Cougar. 19 discs to be precise, each of his regular albums, plus the soundtrack to his 1992 movie Falling From Grace, in which he starred, directed, produced and put together the soundtrack. Just from that alone, you can tell Mellencamp has a healthy opinion of his talent. I'm not going to deny there's something to him, but after going start to finish with this gargantuan box, I'm not going to rave either.
Mellencamp broke through at the end of the 70's and into the 80's, a time of album artists, and he's always acted like one. The thing is, he's really been more of a singles artist, at least in terms of popularity. Early albums John Cougar and Nothing Matters And What If It Did were really only noticeable for the hits I Need A Lover, Ain't Even Done With The Night and This Time. Things really got going with American Fool, which held Hurts So Good and Jack & Diane, but little else. But Mellencamp was moving like a heartland Springsteen, farms instead of factories. So there was a higher concept to this stuff. He hit us full-on with it for the next two albums, Uh-Huh and Scarecrow. We're celebrating the little guys and gals in the Small Towns, in those Little Pink Houses, where the walls are Crumblin' Down, trying to make it through the Lonely Ol' Night.
This was JCM at his peak, with an unstoppable string of hits, and you can add in Authority Song, R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A., and Rain On The Scarecrow to that. Everything he was writing fit into these fist-pumping mini-anthems, although the album tracks that went with them would usually fall flat. And didn't you find the writing a bit confusing? You had that ominous line, "Rain on the scarecrow...". As far as I know, farmers (and scarecrows) like a good amount of rain. What's Jack & Diane about, anyway? "Oh yeah, life goes on/and nothing actually happens in this song."
The next two albums saw him try to be a bit more reflective, and the music started to become more varied, but he still continued the annoying habit of using truncated sentences or forcing awkward sentences into existing melodies. Now, those melodies continued to be the best thing about the albums, and for awhile there would be a great-sounding single such as Cherry Bomb or Paper In Fire to enjoy. But the 90's were not kind to his career, and by 1999 he was doing acoustic covers of his old hits on the Rough Harvest album, to get out of the contract.
Only five albums have come out in the 2000's, a mixed bag at best. Cutting Heads in 2001 was pretty good, with a lot more songwriting variety, but not a hit in sight. Trouble No More I really enjoyed, and still do. It's his full covers album, a mix of old folk blues from Son House and Robert Johnson, some Woody Guthrie, and left-field tunes such as Skeeter Davis' The End Of The World. But Freedom's Road was a disaster, with Our Country a blatant truck commercial, and some Liberal 101 lyrics to counter the redneck vibe of that.
In the most bizarre move of T Bone Burnett's well-respected career, the producer teamed up with Mellencamp for the singer's latest two albums, Live Death Love And Freedom, and No Better Than This. While Burnett brings his trademark acoustic sound to the proceedings, he does nothing to save the songs. They are a mournful bunch, both albums plodding along with little relief. I The songs may say something meaningful, but I'll never find out, such is the dreariness of listening through. News that the duo have recorded a new one for this fall gives me no pleasure.
In 1989's Pop Singer, Mellencamp protested that he "never wanted to be no pop singer, never wanted to write no pop songs." But that is exactly what he did, and what he was good at. The millions of fans he once had loved it when he got all riled up and shook his mane. He seemed angry, defiant and a hero. The trouble was, he wanted to be like Bob Dylan, and have something important to say. In the end, you could put a cherry bomb to this box set, and be left with maybe a good two-CD set.
Monday, July 21, 2014
Here are a couple of must-owns for the roots fan. Parsons has long been the poster boy for alt.country, Americana, whatever it gets called when rock fans like country. Poor sellers when released, his death has pushed these up to equal status with his lone album with The Byrds (Sweetheart Of The Rodeo) and the debut Flying Burrito Brothers platter. They've been available in a nice CD set for years, but it's oh-so-cool to get them on vinyl again, reissued now in high-quality pressings.
GP was definitely the start of something, but as with all things Parsons, a bit of a shambles. His instincts were right; flush with inheritance money, he hired some of the best, including most of Elvis's TCB band, with James Burton on guitar, Ronnie Tutt on drums and Glen D. Hardin on piano. Then there was his new vocal partner, the unknown Emmylou Harris, whom he was in the process of schooling in classic country (she was a folkie before). Producing was ex-Traffic member Rik Grech, picked up in England after Parsons was booted out of the Rolling Stones orbit. What could go wrong?
Well, lots. Grech was a fellow traveler in the substance abuse sweepstakes, and Parsons was barely holding it together at the best of times. He was more concerned about authenticity than polish, and that meant some shambolic takes on covers We'll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning and That's All It Took. Harris wasn't smooth yet, and the poor woman could have used a few more takes at least to get her parts down, but Parsons was rushing things. Still there are grand songwriting gems and tremendous hurt vocals on The New Soft Shoe, A Song For You, and the great She, a doomed love song drenched in the oppressive Southern atmosphere of Parsons' youth. Parsons was getting close to his beloved and hoped-for Cosmic American Music, but it was greeted mostly with a big WTF?
And then, like all good legends, he died. Look it up, it's crazy, and involves corpse theft and a partial cremation out in the desert. But he'd already gone on a game-changing tour with Harris and some of the band, and made the follow-up, Grievous Angel. Parsons had been cleaning up a bit, and the albums has a much-improved sound and cohesion. The brilliant Return of the Grievous Angel, with its calico bonnet and truckers and kickers and cowboy angels is the key, the song he'd searched for, the one that took the spirit of classic American country and placed it squarely in the now. The band was working beautifully, with Burton's licks and Emmylou's twang now essential to the sound. The sorrow of Brass Buttons and $1000 Wedding was heart-wrenching, and the welcome return of Parsons' Byrds-era classic Hickory Wind a masterstroke. Even the covers were essential, especially the duet with Harris on Love Hurts, perhaps the best-ever version of this song in a field crowded with the likes of The Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison.
Gram Parsons was talented, a visionary, and driven, but he was also lazy, troubled and foolish. He frittered away every great opportunity he was given, had great respect for the music but little for the talented people around him who helped him reach the greatest heights. Infuriating, especially when you hear these last two albums he made, and where it could have gone.
Saturday, July 19, 2014
If you want authenticity, Vest is the kind of blues guy who brings the real deal to the table. He's a boogie-woogie piano player with pedigree, who knows both the blues and early rock and roll styles inside out, being seasoned enough, and playing with some of Canada's best over the years. Vest learned his licks back in Alabama where he was born 71 years ago, but is now based in Victoria, B.C., where he plays with the likes of David Gogo, and wins Maple Blues Awards on his own.
For his latest, Vest has teamed up with Fathead's guitar player (Teddy Leonard), and Downchild's rhythm section (Gary Kendall on bass, Mike Fitzpatrick on drums). With a set full of originals (aside from two covers), Vest shows off several styles, including some barrelhouse, a little country and lots of piano-based storytelling. Streetcar is a number that could have come out of the Dirty Thirties saloons, while Freight Train Rolling is 50's Memphis. The weary-voiced Vest doesn't have a lot of range, so the story-song works best for him, plus you feel like you can believe everything he tells you, because he's seen it all.
He's really here to let his fingers do the talking, and hearing real piano played with that special boogie twinkle is a grand treat. The band is sharp and full behind him, and Leonard gets to chime in with some nice licks as well. These are veterans who know how to do it.
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
The Jayhawks had, seemingly, everything going for them in the 90's. They were the poster-band of a hot new genre, alt.-country, had a major league contract with Def American, and a buzz-worthy album, Hollywood Town Hall. Then there was the writing team of Marc Olson and Gary Louris, either one liable to come up with a sweet hit, and together the makers of Everly-worthy harmonies. But as Jayhawks fans know, they were the band who never quite made it over the hill.
Excitement was still in the air after the 1995 album Tomorrow The Green Grass, but that's when the big blow happened. Olson was fed up with having his music compromised by the record label and his bandmates, and abruptly left. The rest of the band decided to continue, but things weren't going to be the same.
Since a major reformation in 2011, including the return of Olson, the band's original albums have been receiving the deluxe treatment. Now it's the turn of the post-Olson works, a trio of high-quality discs that continued the familiar pattern. The songs were great, the true fans loved them, the shows were wonderful, but they couldn't break out of cult status. Some bands just aren't meant for it, no matter how good.
Each one comes with several period bonus cuts, and new historical liner notes, and are certainly worthy of an upgrade if you did have the originals. 1997's Sound Of Lies was the first with Gary Louris assuming sole leadership and writing most of the songs. Luckily, he was ready with the goods, although the country influence was on the decline. More rock and experimentation was moving in, the guitars crunched more and a more somber and cynical tone was cast on the album. Even the fun, Petty-like number Big Star was totally ironic, Louris acknowledging he'd probably never leave the club scene. Those who were drawn to the Jayhawks for their Americana/Gram Parsons nods would now need to broaden their horizons to stay fans.
Smile was next in 2000, and featured a big gun producing, hard rock vet Bob Ezrin. The disc started off with one of the band's catchiest singles ever, I'm Gonna Make You Love Me, but then got dramatic and large. The songs were more complicated, and the sonics thick. It's not an easy-breezy listen, although the same heavenly harmonies and major melodies are still in great supply. The words instead felt distinctly uneasy.
2003 saw the group shed a good deal of the darkness, strip back to a trio, bring in producer Ethan Johns and make what was the closest thing to an acoustic album since their formative late 80's work. Rainy Day Music was home to the most concise and accessible set of songs since the Olson days. That includes the should've-been-hits Tailspin, Save It For A Rainy Day and Angelyne. It should have re-energized their career, but once again, whatever needed to click didn't. Go figure. But don't let that stop you enjoying, be hip with the cult!
The bonus tracks come from demo tapes, obscure European b-sides, alternative recordings and a couple of live tracks to show how grand the band was at that time. Each disc has either five or six extras, and none of them are boring throw-aways. Highly recommended, as are all the other Jayhawks albums.