Music reviews, January 2016

Band-collage

The Band
The Capitol Albums 1968-1977
Capitol/Ume (LP Box set)
4 out of 5 Stars

“The Capitol Albums 1968-1977” is an impressive vinyl box of the The Band’s first seven studio albums plus the four-sided live set, “Rock Of Ages.” The vinyl is sturdy 180-gram heavyweight style. The packaging recreates the covers with colors that pop. The sound is warm, as they say, trebly for the ping of Levon Helm’s hi-hat yet bass-centric for that extra oomph. Remastered anew, it’s as if you bought each and every album at one time with the years in between non-existent. This is the original way Band fanatics were meant to hear this music.

And what music it is!

No one could have possibly been ready for the world-changing “Music From Big Pink” debut. Here’s the South in all its manifestations from antebellum and reconstruction to industrial revolution and modern day, as written by Robbie Robertson from picking the soul of the Arkansas-reared Helm who served as a human template for his four Canadian bandmates. It is without doubt one of the greatest debut recordings in rock ’n’ roll history.

The self-titled album that followed was their masterpiece. Such majestic brilliance as “Rag Mama Rag,” The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Up On Cripple Creek” and nine more gems makes this sound more like a greatest hits compilation.

These two albums have left their mark on Americana, country music, folk rock, country rock, even George Harrison wanted to leave the Beatles and join The Band.

As fate would have it, although it sounds just fine today what with “The Shape I’m In” and “W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” (two beloved career-long concert staples), album No. 3, “Stage Fright,” was a major disappointment after the first two. I won’t soon forget rushing to the record store at the age of 19 in 1970, tearing open the album and listening to it in my room for the first time trying like hell to like it.

The Band would never again equal the brilliance of those first two albums.

Still, “Cahoots,” “Northern Lights—Southern Cross” and “Islands” have their pleasures: the harmonies, vocals like stretched-out rubber bands, Robertson’s quirky guitar leads and Garth Hudson’s multi-instrumentalism made each album unique unto itself. They never followed trends. The covers album, “Moondog Matinee,” is a total joy, as it harkens back to an earlier era. The live album sounds amazingly good considering the year it was recorded.

All in all, this is as close as we’re ever going to get to the initial rush of one of America’s greatest bands.
— Mike Greenblatt

WakemanRick Wakeman
British Live Performance Series
Rainman Records (CD)

4 Stars

The British Live Performance Series (from California’s Rainman Records), an exciting new series of live performances recorded over the Atlantic between 1979 and 1991, released its first two CDs on September 18, including the British prog-rock keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s 1990 Nottingham, England show.

For those not familiar with Rick, he’s a longtime member of the rock band Yes, as well as being an accomplished solo artist. He is revered for his eclectic playing style that’s deeply rooted with classical influences. The Nottingham show is composed of fan favorites from his three early 1970s classical-concept masterpieces, “The Six Wives of Henry VIII,” “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” and “The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.”

Backed by drummer Tony Fernandez and bassist David Paton, Rick gives his nine keyboards an Olympian style workout and clearly enjoys himself. On this evening he dazzles audiences with his virtuosity and emotion, combined with a strong and engaging stage presence. The fan reaction and applause is overwhelming. It’s obvious that they’re witnessing a stellar performance, as Rick possesses a theatrical style that has earned him global acclaim from fellow musicians and fans alike. Rick responds back to the applause with messages of kindness, gratitude and humor.

The evening’s set list contains five lengthy cuts. The concert begins with “Catherine Parr,” an instrumental piece where Wakeman dives right into his keyboard gymnastics, and closes with “Merlin the Magician,” where Wakeman plays piano and synthesizer to backup Ashley Holt’s expressive vocal delivery.

As a longtime Yes fan, I enjoyed this album. The entire concert is very beautiful and the sound quality is excellent for a live performance.
— Lloyd Gross

Doors2LPThe Doors
Other Voices + Full Circle
Elektra/Rhino (CD, LP)

3 Stars

Based on what radio stations of all kinds have regularly aired through the years, one might think the recording career of The Doors ended with the band’s sixth studio album, “L.A. Woman,” released mere months before singer Jim Morrison’s mysterious death on July 3, 1971.

Someone could arrive at a similar conclusion after watching “The Doors,” director Oliver Stone’s 1991 feature film. As it winds down, there’s a shot of Morrison’s actual graffiti-covered headstone in a Paris cemetery. Then the screen goes white, and these words appear: “Jim is said to have died of heart failure. He was 27.” After that, the end credits begin to roll while the actors portraying the band members are shown recording the song “L.A. Woman,” and the camera slowly makes its way to Val Kilmer as the bearded Morrison, belting out the last verse.

In truth, Morrison’s death didn’t immediately put an end to The Doors, nor did it really slow them down. The surviving members — keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore — recorded two studio albums for longtime label Elektra before disbanding. Long out of print, these overlooked titles have now been given top-shelf reissue treatment by Elektra/Rhino in the form of separate 180-gram vinyl versions and a twin-CD package.

According to the extensive liner notes, Manzarek, Krieger and Densmore were actually in the studio when they received the news about Morrison — and 20 minutes later, recalls Densmore, they were back to playing music.

Their first post-Morrison effort, the aptly named “Other Voices” (with Manzarek and Krieger assuming vocal duties), arrived in late 1971. It opens with the Manzarek-fronted “In the Eye of the Sun,” and sonically, it picks up where “L.A. Woman” left off (no surprise, considering both albums were produced by the band and Bruce Botnick). Not since “Tell All the People” (from 1969’s “The Soft Parade” album) has there been such an ordinary start to a Doors album, and the mediocrity continues on “Other Voices” with “Variety Is the Spice of Life,” featuring Bob Dylan-esque vocals by Krieger.

Long Doors tracks are known for interesting instrumental dynamics and interplay — but not “Ships w/Sails.” Nearly eight minutes long, this song is inexplicably tentative and screams for somebody to truly rise above the vocal-free sections, yet Manzarek’s keyboard stabs and Krieger’s guitar breaks come up uncharacteristically short. The garage-rock-styled “Tightrope Ride” (which spent seven weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 71) is solid all the way around, but the momentum it provides ceases with “Down on the Farm” and “I’m Horny, I’m Stoned,” easily two of the goofiest Doors songs ever. “Wandering Musician” has classy piano work from Manzarek, but he pushes his vocal limits — and that’s also a problem on the album’s closer, “Hang On to Your Life,” an interesting, complex piece of music with three excellent instrumental sections.

The band-produced “Full Circle,” released in 1972, is the better of the two Morrison-free albums, featuring stronger (and oftentimes stranger, but in a good way) material and more assured lead vocals. The celebratory opener, “Get Up and Dance,” gets a boost by female backing singers, and they make a welcome return on “Hardwood Floor” (which has a church-revival feel, just like the former). Sandwiched between these songs are the topical “4 Billion Souls” and the thick-grooved “Verdilac.” The latter is a close cousin to the “L.A. Woman” track “The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat),” right down to the ominous-sounding vocals, provided this time around by Manzarek and Krieger.

The extra instruments on “Full Circle” fit nicely: the speedy saxophone break when “Verdilac” shifts gears, the fluid flute lines throughout “The Piano Bird.” The album’s remaining songs all have merit, too, including “The Mosquito,” which hit No. 85 on the Billboard Hot 100. This oddity is really a head-scratching tale of two distinct songs: one outlandish (Krieger singing with a Mexican accent in the subtle verses, which are separated by a brief interlude) and the other outstanding (the breakaway high-energy jam so strong that it could have stood alone).

Included on the twin-CD reissue is “Treetrunk,” which was the flip side to “Get Up and Dance” in Britain. It’s an easygoing number about seeking cover from a rainstorm, and at one point, Manzarek sings, “Why don’t we stay here until 1974?” The three-piece Doors were done by early 1973, and in making “Other Voices” and “Full Circle” without Morrison, they made bold musical decisions that likely would have impressed their late frontman.      — Chris M. Junior

tommy-keene-laugh-in-the-darkTOMMY KEENE
Laugh in the Dark
Second Motion Records (CD)

4 Stars

Over the course of his 30-plus-year recording career (has it really been that long?), Tommy Keene has been conveniently slotted into the “power pop category” by fans of the genre and journalists (including this writer), but truth be told, his music has always run quite a bit deeper than that. As was the case with its predecessors, the excellent “Laugh in the Dark” is anything but anachronistic or Beatle-worshipping as so much power pop tends to be; rather, it showcases Keene’s trademark muscular guitars (he’s one heck of a lead and rhythm player, and handles both here), thoughtful, introspective lyrics, distinctive voice and melodies that don’t always floor you on first listen, but still manage to worm their way into your subconscious after two or three. Keene hasn’t really deviated from this blueprint too much over the years; he found his sweet spot around 1984 when he released his classic “Places That Are Gone” EP, and he has pretty much stuck with it since then.

So while “Laugh in the Dark” may be more of the same, it’s also his strongest cache of tunes in quite some time. “Out of My Mind” and “Dear Heloise” provide quite the one-two punch to open the album, while “Last of the Twilight Girls” takes the main riff from the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” (or is it The Kinks’ “Catch Me Now I’m Falling?”) and turns it sideways. Other notable moments include some fab guitar/drum interplay toward the end of the title track; Keene intoning, “You like country music ‘cause it always rhymes,” on “I Belong to You,” which sets him up to (of course) rhyme the subsequent lyric, the jaunty “I Want it to Be Over Now,” which marries a sparkling melody to a biting set of lyrics, and the slide guitar-spiked, Stonesy acoustic ruminations on “Go Back Home.”

The 10-song collection wraps up with the epic, six minute-plus “All Gone Away,” which recalls the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” without being obnoxious about it. It’s dressed up with some appropriately funereal-sounding organ flourishes at the outset, and then unfolds into a full-fledged guitar hero workout (with drummer John Richardson flashing some impressive chops as well), similar to Keene’s 1986 cover of Lou Reed’s “Kill Your Sons.” “Laugh in the Dark” is a dynamic, always interesting record, and a worthy addition to Tommy Keene’s impressive body of work.
— John M. Borack

Rockin-Rudolph-CD-Digi-Cover-e1438109752128THE BRIAN SETZER ORCHESTRA
ROCKIN’ RUDOLPH
Surfdog Records (CD)

3 Stars

This collection of Christmas songs is the second such album that Setzer and his very talented 18-piece band have released. It is a worthwhile purchase for those looking for Christmas music with some punch. Setzer’s band is fantastic, and they give new life to several standards. Opening track “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” sizzles, and it features a terrific sax solo as well as Setzer’s fantastic fretwork. “Yabba-Dabba Yuletide” pays a holiday homage to “The Flintstones” with swinging horns and a trebly guitar break by Setzer. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is the standout track of the album. It’s slower and more mellow than most of the other tracks and features a nice vocal from Setzer.

Other album highlights include a subtle “Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” the guitar work in “Rockabilly Rudolph,” a rocked-up “Here Comes Santa Claus,” a light and easy “Little Jack Frost,” and a slowed-down but great “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

The song selection on the album is very good, the horn arrangements are stellar, and Setzer’s guitar work is excellent. There may be one too many instrumentals on the album for some tastes and it probably was overkill to include two versions of “Yabba-Dabba Yuletide.” But those are minor quibbles. In a genre often filled with cheesy, cringe-inducing albums, this collection is a standout and well worth checking out.                                       — John Curley

glenGlen Campbell:
I’ll Be Me

Virgil Films (DVD)

5 Stars

This masterful documentary – which premiered on CNN earlier this year — documents country music legend Glen Campbell’s courageous battle with Alzheimer’s disease, and the 151-show farewell tour that he undertook in 2011-12.

The heartbreaking tone of “I’ll Be Me” is set in the opening scenes, as Campbell watches old home movies with his wife Kim and is often unable to recognize his children or even himself. From there we see him, accompanied by Kim, visiting the Mayo Clinic and receiving the devastating Alzheimer’s diagnosis after being unable to answer the simplest of the doctor’s questions (“What month is this? Who was our first President?”) and undergoing an MRI and a PET scan.

The discovery of Campbell’s Alzheimer’s at age 76 occurred at the same time his full-length recorded swansong, “Ghost on the Canvas,” was released, and Campbell and his family made the decision to go out on the road and promote the disc as part of a “Goodbye Tour,” despite the grim diagnosis. Most of the 105-minute documentary follows Campbell and his family as they navigate their way through the 18-month tour despite the very real challenges that Alzheimer’s brings. (Campbell was “unrehearsable,” his wife states). Campbell’s children Ashley, Cal and Shannon all perform as part of the backing band, and speak eloquently about life with their father; Shannon mentions that he’s happy that “we get to celebrate his life while he’s still around.” Some nights Campbell appeared “on” and spun guitar solos with the technical alacrity that he has long been known for, and other nights, as Ashley says, were a “trainwreck.” Still, doctors and Campbell’s wife agree that performing helps Campbell, and that music is “the most deeply embedded thing in his memory.”

Interwoven into the story are interview segments with Campbell fans such as Bruce Springsteen, Brad Paisley, Kathy Mattea and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith, all of whom speak about having had their lives touched by Alzheimer’s. Former President Bill Clinton speaks about the need for federal resource dollars to be earmarked for Alzheimer’s research, and in a particularly touching segment (there are many to be found here), Paul McCartney briefly visits Campbell backstage after a show and says, “I just had come tell you I love you, that’s all.”

“I’ll Be Me” is directed by James Keach, and he expertly weaves the story together in a sensitive, compelling manner that elicits laughter and plenty of tears, showing Glen Campbell and his family not only banding together to battle the horrible disease, but also serving as advocates for Alzheimer’s research. It’s definitely a “must watch” and certainly one of the finest music-related documentaries in recent memory. DVD “extras” include the music video for “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” (recorded with members of the Wrecking Crew), as well as public service announcements for the Volunteers of America and the I’ll Be Me Alzheimer’s Fund.

Information on the I’ll Be Me Alzheimer’s Fund (which works to restore dignity and provide hope to families with loved ones suffering from Alzheimer’s disease) can be found at www.ibmaf.org.
— John M. Borack            

eloJEFF LYNNE’S ELO
Alone in the Universe
Columbia (CD)

4 Stars

The music — and production style — of Jeff Lynne and ELO has long been something of a love/hate proposition for many, with not much of a middle ground. Fans laud his facility in crafting memorable melodies with a dense, thickly-layered sound, while detractors point to that same sound (particularly from the ‘80s onward), with its stacks of vocal harmonies and compressed snare drum sound, as being samey and annoying. Lynne’s had the last laugh, of course, successfully producing high profile artists such as Tom Petty, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Brian Wilson, The Beatles (their two “new” Anthology tracks from the mid-‘90s) and, most recently, Bryan Adams.

Now he’s back with his first album of original material since 2001, under the moniker Jeff Lynne’s ELO. “Alone in the Universe” features 10 sterling examples (12 on the deluxe version) of the latter-day ELO sound, with each song sounding like a potential classic rock hit, production style be damned. The days of “Fire on High” and “10538 Overture” are long gone, replaced by a sleek, get-to-the-point batch of pop ditties that Lynne performs all by his lonesome. It’s a wonderfully consistent DIY effort that proves without a shadow of a doubt that Jeff Lynne’s still got it; at 67-years-old, the man hasn’t lost a step.

The leadoff track, the sweetly nostalgic “When I Was a Boy,” begins with a quiet, “Imagine”-inspired keyboard figure and a longing lead vocal, then takes off into the stratosphere with one of Lynne’s patented delicious melodies supported by some subtle synth strings and a compact lead guitar solo. It’s definitely one of 2015’s greatest bits of ear candy. Other high water marks — and there are many, to be sure — include “Love and Rain” (a distinct “Showdown” vibe going on here), the peppy “Ain’t it a Drag” (with a little vocal nod to fellow Traveling Wilbury Tom Petty in the first verse), and the loving, melodramatic Roy Orbison pastiche “I’m Leaving You” (which, in a bit of sequencing irony, is preceded by the heartfelt, beautifully sung love song “All My Life”). “Dirty to the Bone” is another ridiculously catchy radio-friendly number, while the bonus tracks on the deluxe version — the Everly Brothers/Ricky Nelson-like rockabilly bopper “Fault Line” and an early ‘60s-influenced charmer titled “Blue” — are both nearly as good as anything on the album proper. Welcome back, Jeff.                                   — John M. Borack

dylanDylan: Disc by Disc
By Jon Bream
Voyageur Press (Hardcover Edition)

3 Stars

For better or worse, there has never been any shortage of people willing to give an opinion on Bob Dylan’s music, and this weighty tome, 240 hardbound pages, brings together around 70 of them, paired together to discuss, in turn, each of Dylan’s 36 studio albums up to and including “Shadows in the Night.”

Is this a good thing? It depends. While the cast of voices is certainly varied and does, as it says on the ‘tin,’ include musicians, songwriters and critics (plus teachers, DJs, authors and museum directors), their relationship to Dylan himself is largely non-existent, or at least confined to a game of Six Degrees Removed.

Some … the likes of Eric Anderson, Robert Christgau, Suzanne Vega, Ric Ocasek, Anthony DeCurtis and Garland Jeffreys … do have some additional name recognition, but without the “about the commentators” appendix at the back, it’s a largely anonymous crew telling tales about Dylan’s impact upon their lives.

And, as such, there is a definite sense of “well, that’s nice but … so what?” as the book goes on, and certainly as you wade through opinions on albums with which you may not be so engaged. And which, occasionally, you suspect the interviewees aren’t so keen, either. Even more alarmingly, there’s rarely any sense of anyone stepping out of the comfort zone when discussing a song or album, or even when disagreeing with their fellow commentator — although Joel Selvin gets some good digs in while sitting through “Knocked Out Loaded,” and 1973’s Dylan album is approached directly from the notion that it was rubbish to begin with. Which, in point of fact, it wasn’t (well, apart from “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Mr Bojangles”).

None of which is to say this book is the Dylan library’s equivalent of that much maligned disc. Beautifully produced, well-illustrated and certainly carefully constructed, it is ideal for dipping into when the fancy takes you, and if you happen to be listening to Dylan at the time, even better. Playing through “Street Legal,” for example, while reading the relevant chapter, it’s actually very easy (and rather fun) to start arguing back with its commentators, and were Dylan fans prone to such behavior, this book could probably kick off more Pub Quiz brawls than the collected works of any other Dylanologist you could name. And that’s not such a terrible accomplishment.                                                — Dave Thompson

QUICK PICKS
By Dave Thompson

drjohnDr. John
In the Right Place
Rhino/Atco (LP)
Genre: Classic Rock
Summary:
From 1973, this has always been such a glorious album. And it sounds as great as it ought to on 180-gram vinyl, with a monstrous fly on the cover.
OUR TAKE: BUY

stoneStone the Crows
Teenage Licks/Ontinuous
Performance

Angel Air (CD)
Genre: Blues Rock
Summary: Twofer catching STC’s final two albums, the deliriously great “Teenage Licks” and the sad-but-satisfying “OP.” Live bonus tracks, great liners.
OUR TAKE: Replace your scratchy vinyl

facesThe Faces
Stay With Me — Anthology
Rhino (2-CD box set)
Genre: Classic Rock
Summary:
Thirty-six cuts and the closest you’ll get to a Faces best-of without playing all the original LPs in their entirety. The hits are all here, of course.
OUR TAKE: Don’t you already have it all?

The-Passions-Michael--Miranda-300600The Passions
Michael & Miranda
Cherry Red (CD)
Genre: Rock
Summary:
Three bonus tracks append this glorious debut album, a startling slice of dark drama from back (1980) when we thought rock still had a future.
OUR TAKE: BUY

nilsNils Lofgren
UK 2015, Face the Music Tour
Cattle Track Road (CD)
Genre: Rock
Summary:
A truly stunning Iive album packed with new’n’old material, reminding us that, as ‘70s showmen go, the sun still hasn’t set on this boy. Highlights: more than you’d expect.
OUR TAKE: BUY

woodbine2The Woodbine & Ivy Ban
Sleep On Sleeping On
Static Caravan (CD)
Genre: Folk
Summary:
Nominally Folk Rock, but far more than that, a gloriously forward-looking concoction that is already being talked of as Folk CD of the Year.
OUR TAKE: BUY

Leave a Reply