Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Scrapomatic "Alligator Love Cry" (4.5*)

Cut, like its predecessor, in Louisiana at Dockside Studios the second album from Scrapomatic has the duo of Mike Mattison (vocals) and Paul Olsen (guitar) working with a basic rhythm section of George Rush (vocals, tuba, acoustic bass, electric bass) and Jeffrey Ryan Lipstein (drums, percussion) and a bit of help from fiddle player/vocalist Kristina Beaty to deliver thirteen tracks of prime blues based Americana.

From the opening of Louisiana Anna with the tuba wheezing away behind Mattison’s gruff vocal lines to the gospel testimony of I Belong to the Band you’re looking at a collection of thirteen excursions into the gritty backstreets of the urban landscape and through the backwoods and bayous.

Take, for example, Horsemeat, where Olsen throws in some greasy electric blues lines behind Mattison’s tales of hookers, sleazy motels and back seat assignations, and contrast it with the rustic countryish elements in Long Way Home. Different stories, but part of the same big picture.

The contrasts keep coming. So Much Love, three and a quarter of fairly straightforward declaration of affection, is followed by Lotus, an intriguing blend of vaudeville, Crescent City jazz and mouth trumpet that’s right back in quirky lyrics territory.

Variety, in short, is the name of the game. There’s fairly straightforward chugging blues (Graveside Blues), a dash of funky R&B with growling guitar (Monkey Card), jumping electric blues straight out of the Chicago playbook on Ain't Got the Smile and a heartfelt Kristina Beaty ballad about addiction (The Other Side) where Beaty’s soulful wail matches up neatly with Mattison's throaty roar. God Damn Job covers an old track by The Replacements while the tempo drops back for Tired Weak Legs, with Mattison heading into gospel territory and tasty harmonies from Kristina Beaty and staying there for Raw Head and Bloody Bones before I Belong to the Band winds things up with  Mattison firmly in the gospel camp.

There’s not much here that’s new, just an imaginative fusion of gospel and blues elements with a good dash of New Orleans, delivered with panache, living music that’s aware of where it’s coming from (equal parts urban sleaze and bayou simplicity) with Mattison’s vocals playing off Olsen’s guitar parts and vocal contributions and added instrumentation that works a treat.

Not, perhaps, an album that was ever in danger of setting the world on fire, but those seeking an unobtrusive album of soulful music that’ll reward repeated listening and repay any attention the listener devotes to the contents could do a lot worse.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Various Artists "Return of the Mac - In the Studio With Mac Rebennack AKA Dr.John 1959 - 61" (3.5*)

Head into this little collection expecting something along the lines of the regulation Dr John and you’ll more than likely be disappointed.

Not that there’s actually a single recognisable entity you can clearly label Dr John once you remove the characteristic Rebennack drawl from the mix, but if you’re looking for the something in the familiar New Orleans seventies fonk groove, you won’t find too much of it here. Some pretty good R&B tinged rock’n’roll, sure, but light on for the fonk.

When Rebennack dropped out of Jesuit High School in New Orleans in 1955 he already had around a year’s involvement in the New Orleans music scene as a member of the Spades (later the Night Trains). He’d been taught guitar by Walter 'Papoose' Nelson and Roy Montrell, both of whom played guitar with Fats Domino and went on to die of drug overdoses. Rebennack, of course, had a lengthy involvement with narcotics.

He had, however, started writing songs with Leonard James of the Spades, and later with Seth David and had started to pick up the occasional sideman gig at Cosimo Matassa's studio before he was tempted over to Johnny Vincent’s Ace Records as a session muso and producer for the not-inconsiderable sum of of $150 a week in 1957. The gig gave him the opportunity to work with Huey 'Piano' Smith, Joe Tex, Jimmy Clanton and Frankie Ford, and by the end of the decade he’d been accepted as a peer by the likes of Lee Allen and Red Tyler, something that had a fair degree of bearing on his later career.

Kicking off with five instrumentals credited to Mac Rebennack (Storm Warning (Long Version), Foolish Little Girl, Good Times, Sahara, Feedbag and South Of The Border Town) all of which rock along pleasantly enough without doing anything to attract your undivided attention the vocal contributions kick off with Ronnie And The Delinquents’ Bad Neighbourhood (a little essay on the petty side of juvenile delinquency) and veer off into B Movie land with Morgus And The Ghouls’ Morgus The Magnificent, an off the wall oddity that’s not quite Mondo Bizzarro but is approaching the neighbourhood.

From there, Lonely Boy (Frankie And Mac) is a fairly average teenage slow drag smoocher, Roland Stone reworks Junko Partner territory in Down The Road and there’s a one-two combo from Big Boy Myles as he revisits the Gary U.S. Bonds New Orleans and invites his girl to (Put On Your Old) Gray Bonnet. Chuck Carbo is Out On A Limb, Gene And Al's Spacemen are back in instrumental territory for Mercy while Ike Clanton needs someone to Show Me The Way (to your heart, of course), another bit of teen romance. Enough said.

Better is Bat Carroll’s Aw! Who? which at least has a bit of character to go with the schmaltz, Joe And Ann’s Gee Baby (Baby You're So Fine) is pretty much as you’d expect the title to sound, as is Sugar Boy Crawford’s Have A Little Mercy, though there’s a tad more oomph in the vocal and the backing chorus.

Gerri Hall’s I'm The One is another lightweight ballad that doesn’t hit any great heights and The Ends pick things up slightly with It Ain't No Use, Jerry Byrne is pretty much going through the motions when he fears You Told Me You Don't Love Me, Jimmy Donley’s fairly subdued about his Forbidden Love and Big Boy Myles might claim I Still Care but doesn’t seem to be doing much to convince anyone.

Ronnie And The Delinquents have a problem with something that Keeps Dragging Me On, Carl Greenstreet rocks out a bit on Hey Mama, Joe And Ann have a slight problem with their Curiosity, Al Reed is checking his dog’s health on Roll Over Rover and a lively run through The Honeydripper Part 2 credited to Mac Rebennack winds things up.

Not, perhaps, essential listening but there’s enough of interest to justify buying if you’re into fifties rock and R&B and want to explore some of the obscurities...

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Bob Dylan "Tempest" (4*)

Having spent a good forty-five years musing on various aspects of the cultural phenomenon formerly known as Robert Zimmerman I reckon I’ve just about got him figured out. That might seem like a big call, what with the chopping and changing that has gone on through thirty-five studio albums and fifty years of twists, turns and changes of disguise.

Given that chopping and changing the first thing you’re tempted to do when faced with a new Dylan album is to figure out where it fits into the jigsaw puzzle, but I’m inclined to go back to the formative era of the fifties and look at what followed filtered through a sensibility of a bloke who plays some guitar and a bit of piano, writes stuff and has a go at vocalising it.

Much of the prodigious output of written commentary that has emerged over the five decades he’s been with us has, I think, come from the multitude of proto-Dylans you’d have found scattered across the countryside sitting in dimly lit bedrooms, bedsits and college dormitories, reading the Beat poets and their antecedents, musing on various forms of mysticism and tapping things out on typewriters under the influence of whatever substances they were using to fuel their visions.

Most of them, in one sense or another stayed there mentally, many of them forced to modify the old bohemian tendencies by the need to earn a living and provide for wives and children but one of the multitude of proto-Dylans didn’t, and that’s where things get complicated.

A combination of opportunism, manipulation, plagiarism and fusion shaped a career that progressed to the point where Dylan has been able to do more or less what he likes, and what he delivers is misunderstood and misinterpreted by a multitude of thought they could have beens who base their reaction to Dylan on what they think they would have thought, done, written and sung in the same perceived position.

So when Duquesne Whistle kicks off Tempest with a jaunty Western swing most of us are left scratching our heads, wondering if there’s anything more to it than meets the first glance and, when we decide there must be, trying to figure out what it is.

What it is, of course, is a bloke who plays some guitar and a bit of piano, writes stuff and has a go at vocalising it who’s managed to get a pretty decent road band together and, from time to time, has a go at some new material with that band and a few extra instrumental assistants like Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo.

That’s why we get the predictable kerfuffle about plagiarism and related issues. The old bower bird’s never been too concerned about lifting bits and pieces from all over the place, and I’m sure someone with a better knowledge of Western swing than I have would take a listen to Duquesne Whistle and rattle off a couple of tracks that work around a remarkably similar set of licks.

Flick over to Early Roman Kings and you could spend a couple of minutes enumerating the Chicago blues tracks he’s borrowed.

On that basis I’m inclined to be choosy about my Dylan albums. Up to John Wesley Harding, through what I’m inclined to call the classic amphetamine and red wine powered word spinning era I’m fine. Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited are the incarnations I particularly like, but looking back on things in the cold hard light of historical reality he probably went into those sessions with a couple of sheaves of typescript and a few rudimentary ideas about tunes they might fit in with.

Which probably isn’t too different from what he did when the time came to cut Tempest.

There’ll be a couple more runs through the album once this review’s posted, but I’ve already discarded the title track and Roll On John isn't far off the same fate. Of the rest, Duquesne Whistle is a definite keeper, swinging along like it’s going out of fashion and it genuinely sounds like everyone on board is having a good dash of old-fashioned 100% fun.

Soon After Midnight might be rather obvious when it comes to rhymes (money/honey, fearful/cheerful, harlot/scarlet), but there’s a band locked into a languid groove and there’s a healthy dose of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde on the rollicking Narrow Way. It’s not quite Rainy Day Women but it’s not far off. Seven minutes of experienced road warriors running through something they’ve just about got off by heart (the feel, rather than the actual tune, though it’s awful familiar, as are those guitar licks behind the vocal).

Long and Wasted Years maintains that groove, with the band playing something that’s deeply internalised they could do it in a coma. Four tracks, four keepers that won’t have the shuffle button being called into action on a regular basis.

You could say much the same about Pay In Blood, where the weatherbeaten voice is an ideal match for the lyrical content. Some dodgy rhymes, sure, but that’s hardly a new development where Dylan’s concerned.

Things drop back a notch for Scarlet Town, though the minimal riff is as persistent as its brothers have been throughout and the bleakness continues through the lyrics. Your mileage may vary as far as Early Roman Kings is concerned, particularly if you have a degree of difficulty aligning the title with the lyrical content, though you might also see the riff as being a little too closely related to Muddy Waters’ I’m a Man. I’m inclined to think we’re talking the Mafia or some similar organization for the lyrical content, though mileages will invariably vary.

For mine, the wheels start to fall off once Dylan moves from observation, allegory or whatever figurative tag you choose into narrative. There’s plenty of narrative in the sources from which Dylan draws his material, and the murder/revenge quest manhunt tracking down an abducted wife in Tin Angel works reasonably well. On the other hand, close to fourteen minutes of Tempest has been moved into shuffle forward territory. I’m not overly rapt in Roll On John which is probably skirting dangerously close to the same fate.

So where are we on studio album number thirty-five?

Pretty much where we’ve been since the early days is my summation of the situation. A bloke who plays some guitar and a bit of piano, writes stuff and has a go at vocalising it. The voice might be close to shot, the writing may or may not be as good as it was (depending on how you define quality) but there’s no doubting the fact that the old buzzard has assembled a crackerjack band, and they slot into the material as well as any assemblage of musos he’s managed to round up in the past;

And, more significantly, he’s still going, and hasn’t, it seems, surrendered to the all-too-familiar urge to keep oneself going by regurgitating what we’ve done in our notional heyday.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

John Hiatt "Mystic Pinball" (4.5*)

I had Radio National’s The Music Show on in the background when I turned my thoughts to a review of John Hiatt’s latest recording and had already decided consistency was going to be the theme to riff off this time around. Andrew Ford kicked off with a track from the new Van Morrison, and that, I thought, was the way into this one.

Around fifteen years back I was aenjoying Van the Man. He seemed to have located a rather pleasant groove,  was mining that seam rather well and seemed to be displaying a fair degree of consistency with the odd flash of brilliance. I started to cool towards Mr Morrison somewhere around the turn of the century and while I haven’t heard all of the half dozen sets of new material between The Skiffle Sessions and Born to Sing I’ve heard (and read) enough to suggest we’re moving from groove into rut where Morrison’s concerned, largely due to an apparent willingness to surrender to an innate tendency towards Grumpy Old Man With a Substantial Chip on the Shoulder and a Simmering Resentment Concerning the Price of Fame.

In any case, what I heard at the start of The Music Show on 6 October sounded a hell of a lot like what he was doing fifteen years ago, so I’m inclined to give Born to Sing the old flick pass. The new John Hiatt, on the other hand, comes as a reminder that Hiatt remains on the automatic purchase list, and we definitely need to fill in the gaps in the back catalogue, starting with 2008’s Same Old Man.

The first thing to note is the continuity from Dirty Jeans & Mudslide Hymns. Hiatt has kept his regular road band (Doug Lancio on electric guitar, dobro and mandolin, Patrick O'Hearn on bass, and Kenneth Blevins on drums) for the instrumental component and producer Kevin Shirley in the control room.

Lancio has been on board since The Open Road and the rhythm section dates back to Same Old Man, so you’d expect them to be up to just about anything Hiatt can throw at them. Dirty Jeans had an uncharacteristic slickness to it, and this time around Shirley pares things back a little while still keeping the sound sharp and focussed.

See the opener, We're Alright Now for a close to faultless, radio friendly example  of what I’m talking about, straight into a chugging heartbeat rhythm, funky, roar it out on the highway chorus (complete with handclaps). Gets things moving right from the get go, very much in the tradition of Riding With The King.

As is often the case where Hiatt is concerned, it’s about character sketches rather than autobiography. There’s a girlfriend who gets her jollies from drawing blood on Bite Marks, and recollections of a former lover doing a hundred miles an hour through the trailer park on a motor cycle without a helmet before slamming into a concrete drain pipe on It All Comes Back Someday. Wood Chipper kicks off with an admonition to beware any conversation a man starts by calling you Skipper, has a bloke track his ex- and her new bloke on the run after an armed robbery down to a shack in the middle of nowhere. He bangs his knee on the wood chipper in the yard, winds up dead and ground up for bait and finishes the tale from the hereafter. Justice is done in the end since they’re ambushed down the road by the forces of law and order. She ends up dead and the cops are puzzling over what seems to be a coded note found in her breast pocket. The note, as it turns out, is a shopping list.

The casual listener might be inclined to dismiss My Business as a throw away, but the tune gives Hiatt and The Combo a chance to rock out as they head into Howlin’ Wolf territory (there’s a howl at the end to round off the Wolf style riffage), and the change of pace as they rock out leads rather neatly into I Just Don't Know What to Say  a slower number in the we’re losing it and I’m bewildered mode that features a rather tasty solo from Mr Lancio (whose playing is consistently excellent throughout) and some rather tasty imagery as the protagonist admits he’s lost for words as he surveys what’s left of a relationship he’s not ready to give up on.

The main character, whoever he is, in I Know How to Lose You has a slightly different problem. He’s been bouncing from woman to woman and playing the field, but it’s only a means to distract him from the memory of the one he actually loves. After those heavier themes, you need something to lighten the mood, and it comes in the form of a crunchy groove on You're All the Reason I Need.We’re back in lost love territory for One of Them Damn Days where an embittered alcoholic is back on a bender after sights his ex with someone else across town. He’s just not sure which day it was...

The lighter side of things gets another guernsey in No Wicked Grin, sweet without being cloying and Give It Up continues in upbeat mode, even if the narrator’s begging a mate to get himself off the sauce or whatever additive he’s using to make his life bearable. The pendulum swings back slightly for Blues Can't Even Find Me, with a protagonist who can’t see the big picture anymore if there’s even one to view.

By this point in a lengthy career long term fans know Hiatt’s not likely to be springing any surprises on you, but that’s not a problem. You’re virtually assured of a well-honed collection of songs with intelligent lyrics, each one more than likely telling a story or portraying a character, on a new Hiatt album, along with an instrumental accompaniment delivered with precision, down and dirty when it needs to be, crisp and clear when that’s the appropriate approach.

Another worthy effort from a master craftsman who has always been comfortably ahead of the pack, and not that far behind the likes of Costello, Thompson and Newman in my personal iconography.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Royal Fingerbowl "Happy Birthday, Sabo!" (4.5*)

The first episode in the Alex McMurray story comes in the wake of a quest for a gig in 1995, McMurray apparently informed the management at a Thai dive bar called the Dragon's Den on the edge of New Orleans’ French Quarter that he had a band, got the gig and therefore needed to find a rhythm section. Royal Fingerbowl was, essentially the result, with McMurray’s guitar and vocals supported by bassist Andrew Wolf and Kevin O'Day on drums, both of whom, like the leader, landed in New Orleans to further their  educations and ended up exploring the city’s musical traditions.

Two years later a demo recorded live during the day time in a deserted club delivered a contract with New York's TVT label, and Happy Birthday Sabo! followed shortly thereafter. Nothing But Time is a tasty opener, delivering a handy primer to some of McMurray’s lyrical concerns but the languid Manahawkin is the first sign that there’s something out of the ordinary on the horizon. There’s a drowsy summertime feel to a song that appears to deal with a kidnapping aimed at recovering lost emotional and financial capital.

At least that’s what I think it’s about. McMurray’s songs tend to wrap themselves around some odd ideas. Month of Sundays, for example, isn’t the sort of title you’d associate with your common or garden love song.

Which, of course, is fine because McMurray doesn’t write them. You’re so ugly my dog is afraid of you/But I can’t help thinkin’ I want to get next to you, he intones over a marching band brass section and rattling snare drums and before long he’s offering to teach the object of his affections how to do wheelies on her bicycle and we’re obviously talking kiddie for kiddie lust over the long summer vacation.

What happened to that dress that I stole for you/and Why can’t you fix your face like I told you to are the opening lines of Big Whiskey, a lethargic roam through Crescent City bars delivered in McMurray’s bourbon soaked drawl while Ozona, TX has an old man in an old house unable to dream an old cowboy dream. There are Homeric references in Rosy Fingered Dawn (McMurray’s background in Literature and Philosophy presumably kicking in there) and an easy shuffle leads into Fistful of Love, a swinging little ditty that’s probably about what you think it is.

My Money shuffles along as well, with McMurray specifying what he’ll do when he makes it big and strikes it rich and what Rick Koster describes as a Kurt-Weill-Lives-In-A-Rampart-Street-Flophouse-and-reads-Charles Bukowski approach to tunecraft (Louisiana Music p. 231) continues through Muenchentown, where the Octoberfest oompah backing builds to a feverish cacophonous ending.

Runaway psychopath Otis seems to be a recurring character and when Otis Goes Postal the situation is related to something about the moon that ain’t right, and he’s preparing for the Armageddon as the SWAT teams are poised to go into action.

Grandiose schemes are the ongoing order of the day in Toby, where someone’s planning to highjack a freight train and drive it to Rio or some such place, and Carny Boy, fairly predictably, takes a look at life in a travelling circus with fairground laughter lurking in the background. It’s a vaguely unsettling touch.

Winding things up, Magnets delivers a nine and a half minute meditation on the influences that operate just under the surface of the protagonist’s life, a languid reflection that turns unsettling as McMurray does a reasonable impersonation of a howling wolf. It’s not his fault, it’s those damn magnets.

Track by track Happy Birthday Sabo! stacks up pretty well against just about anything I’d be inclined to line up beside it. McMurray’s vocals have a fine low rent rasp to ‘em, while the band locks in behind them in a way that serves the song just right. McMurray’s guitar doesn’t head off into virtuoso extravagance, but it does what it needs to do when it needs to be done, a model of restraint on something like Manahawkin that put me in mind of Steve Cropper on Dock of the Bay.

But the greatest strength is the material McMurray are working with. The dude can write, and while things lean musically towards mid-tempo blues and jazz the songs, set in places where the buses might run but services are on the infrequent side of occasional and populated by people who might have heard of mainstream society but haven’t got within cooee of the concept are the real strength.

4.5* because I want room for a higher rating when he really hits his straps...

Sunday, October 14, 2012

John Fahey "Requia (and other compositions for guitar solo)" (3.5*)

While John Fahey wasn’t enamoured of the first of his two releases on Vanguard (Requia stinks. I was drunk during the recording sessions and they put the splices in the wrong places. Don’t buy it. It’s bad news) there’s enough here, particularly in the first half of proceedings to please the discerning fan, though your average listener may be tempted to give things the flick pass somewhere around the start of the second section of the four-part Requiem for Molly.

He’d already put out half a dozen albums on his own Takoma Records imprint and another (The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, later reissued on Takoma) on Riverboat but these were apparently deemed to be experimental. With a catalogue including a number of significant and pivotal folk and blues artists including Joan Baez, The Weavers, Mississippi John Hurt and Doc Watson (check the full list here), Vanguard Records was obviously a serious money-spinning concern capable of shifting significant quantities of product.

According to Denny Bruce, Fahey’s manager at the time, the idea was that Takoma would continue to release 'experimental records,' but Fahey would attempt to produce something more commercial for Vanguard, who could provide a recording budget Fahey and Bruce wouldn’t have been able to manage by themselves. Of course, controlling the purse strings also gave Vanguard a degree of control over what came out (see forthcoming discussion of The Yellow Princess for more on that matter).

The album opens with three extended solo pieces, very much along the lines of what Fahey had been doing on Takoma, which, of course, suggests they saw a degree of commercial potential there if they could snag the wider distribution and higher profile on the promotional side of things that Vanguard offered.

On that basis, Requiem for John Hurt, Requiem for Russell Blaine Cooper and When the Catfish Is in Bloom, deeply rooted in the blues are arguably among Fahey’s best work. Requiem for Mississippi John Hurt, subsequently revisited from time to time in both studio and live settings was, in Fahey’s own words played the way Charley Patton would have played it, had he ever thought of such a thing, which of course he never would have, based around Patton’s Jesus is a Dying-Bed-Maker.

Mississippi John wasn’t the primary factor that brought Fahey and the acoustic guitar together but he provided an early first technical and emotional model, while Russell Blaine Cooper is dedicated to Fahey’s great-uncle. Fahey heard the World War I veteran and teacher talk once in 1957 and the song allegedly sounds like the way he talked.

When the Catfish is in Bloom references Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman’s When the Cactus is in Bloom, pinching the title and not much else (typical Fahey, from what I can gather) while the concluding two-minute Fight on Christians, Fight On was based on based on a similarly titled 1927 track by Sam Butler (a.k.a. Bo Weavil Jackson) played on bottleneck guitar. A hymn, as always, in Fahey’s words on the liner notes, to end.

What comes in between those two tracks, the four-part Requiem for Molly is the source of Fahey’s reference to splices at the start of this review, and given the state of recording technology at the time you’d reckon getting these things right when you’re using a razor blade (or whatever) to do the splicing isn’t going to be easy.

Molly, Fahey’s attempt at musique concrète, comes across as an odd jumble of solo guitar interspersed with samples and tape loops put together by Fahey, Sam Charters and Barry (Dr Demento) Hansen (to be fair, there’s something similar in Catfish, but there it’s a case of weaving the effects around the guitar. The whole, to quote Fahey’s liner notes Molly's psychological destruction and the reaction of another person in observing this process, for which he was perhaps, to some extent responsible. Elsewhere he described it as a good learning experience though.

In cases like this, where you’ve got a mixture of sources as diverse as scratchy 78s (Sun Gonna Shine In My Back Door Some Day Blues, Circle Round the Moon by Charley Patton), screams, choral music, Charles Ives’ 4th Symphony, marching bands, speeches by Hitler, a bit of choral music and, believe it or not California Dreaming in Part 4 it’s something that may or may not work.

Obviously, as far as Fahey was concerned, it didn’t, presumably because what came out didn’t match what he’d heard in his mind (which would, of course, explain the gripes about the splices) but to anyone else it’s probably about the reaction to the source material. I suspect the twenty-first century listener will probably be slightly less turned off by the Hitler material than I was, but the twenty-first century listener probably managed to miss the regular resurfacing of these elements through late sixties sound collages (the Vanilla Fudge’s The Beat Goes On being a prime example).

But there’s a fair bit more than speechifying dictators there, and having progressed Requia to the point where the shuffle button in going to come into play it’ll be interesting to see where the four chunks of Molly end up vis a vis Hughesy’s Top 1500 Most Played. One wouldn’t be holding one’s breath in that department, but as things permeate their way up the play count there’s a fair chance the tracks from the first side will end up somewhere in that neighbourhood.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Frank Zappa "Lumpy Gravy" (3.5*)

Originally released on Capitol in 1967, re-edited and reissued by Verve shortly thereafter and subsequently independently reissued by Zappa himself, I missed Lumpy Gravy the first three times around so the Universal/Zappa Family Trust reissue gives an opportunity to catch up on something I would have loved to have heard back in the day.

Effectively his solo debut, Lumpy Gravy featured a lineup of session musicians rather than The Mothers of Invention, though the Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra did include The Mothers rhythm section (bassist Roy Estrada and drummer Jimmy Carl Black) and woodwind player Bunk Gardner. In its original incarnation it was an album of orchestral music written and conducted by Zappa, whose contract with Verve forbade him from playing on recordings for other labels (the contract apparently said nothing about composing or conducting), commissioned by Capitol Records A&R man Nick Venet, who invested $40,000 in the project.

Venet had signed the Beach Boys to Capitol and produced their early material, as well as working with (among others) Chet Baker, Lord Buckley, Nat King Cole, Ravi Shankar, Glen Campbell, Jim Croce, Bobby Darin, the Kingston Trio, Lothar and the Hand People, Mad River and Linda Ronstadt. That’s a fairly diverse range of artists and styles, suggesting Venet was able to see commercial potential in a variety of genres.

The first version of Lumpy Gravy appeared in August 1967 and Capitol were on the verge of releasing two selections (Gypsy Airs/Sink Trap) as a single(!) when Verve’s parent company MGM claimed the album violated Zappa's contract, threatened to sue, and finally bought the master tapes.

The re-edited Lumpy Gravy formed part of a multi-pronged project labelled No Commercial Potential, which also incorporated We're Only in It for the Money, Cruising with Ruben & the Jets and Uncle Meat.

The second incarnation, released in May 1968, is what we’re looking at here with two side-long fifteen minute pieces of musique concrète with selections from the original orchestral performance interspersed with elements of surf music and “piano people” dialogue segments recorded at Apostolic Studios in New York after Zappa discovered the strings of the studio's grand piano resonated if a person spoke near them.

Bits of those segments turned up elsewhere (including We’re Only In It For The Money, Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention and Zappa's final album, Civilization Phaze III). The speakers included Mothers Roy Estrada and Motorhead Sherwood, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Tim Buckley, Spider Barbour from Chrysalis, another group recording at the same studio, studio manager All-Night John and Louie the Turkey from the Garrick Theater audience, whose laugh allegedly sounded like a psychotic turkey, riffing on a variety of topics offered by Zappa as starting points, producing eight or nine hours of conversation covering sixties teen-age concerns (girls and cars), day to day life and ideological discussions of pigs and ponies (police and authority figures versus long-haired kids).

Musically, the album’s two side-long suites (much as I’d have liked to get something broken into individual segments a la the track listing below into my iTunes playlists, Lumpy Gravy works perfectly well as an extended listen) deliver fifteen minute chunks combining classical, jazz and rock (particularly surf music) elements with the spoken word bits holding the thing together.

There are recognizable chunks of tunes that turn up elsewhere in the Zappa catalogue (recurring takes on Oh No from Weasels Ripped My Flesh, a quote from Uncle Meat's King Kong) and the record closes with a Ventures-style instrumental take on Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance.

There’s some nice stuff here, part cliche, part parody, part experiment, part sonic weirdness warped together into a collage of sound and dialogue that might have struck people was weird at the time but doesn’t sound particularly extreme forty-something years later.

Sure, in the days of digital rather than analogue media, you could do the editing with a computer rather than a razor blade which would make the whole thing easier (and quite possibly better, I’ve seen a couple of gripes about the crudity of the editing) but when you look back to the context of the time it delivered a package that few other sixties musical visionaries could have matched. Listen to Lumpy Gravy alongside, say Revolution #9 from The Beatles and you may well rate the Zappa performance on top.

It mightn’t be the pinnacle of Zappa’s achievement as far as ‘serious’ music is concerned and beginners are probably better off heading towards Freak Out, Absolutely Free and We’re Only In It For The Money, Lumpy Gravy is worth investigating, an interesting listen that provides a partial blueprint for the works that followed.

As one reviewer put it: The record sounds somewhat like a radio playing. In a circus big top. On the moon. (Source here).

Track listing

1967 version
Sink Trap
Gum Joy
Up and Down
Local Butcher
Gypsy Airs
Hunchy Punchy
Foamy Soaky
Let's Eat Out
Teenage Grand Finale

1968 version, part one
The Way I See It, Barry    
Oh No  
Bit of Nostalgia  
It's from Kansas  
Bored Out 90 Over  
Almost Chinese  
Switching Girls  
Oh No Again  
At the Gas Station  
Another Pickup 
I Don't Know If I Can Go Through This Again

1968 version, part two
Very Distraughtening 
White Ugliness 
Just One More Time    
A Vicious Circle
King Kong 
Drums Are Too Noisy  
Envelops the Bath Tub 
Take Your Clothes Off

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Anders Osborne "Black Eye Galaxy" (4.5*)

There’s inevitably a point where writing from and about personal experience threatens to tip over into too much information territory, and when confronted with the opening track of Anders Osborne’s latest recording you can’t help thinking things are definitely about to tip in that direction. Send Me A Friend kicks off with a thunderous riff straight out of Led Zeppelin territory, a howl of psychic torture pleading for assistance in the face of addiction.

If that’s how he starts the album where does he take it from here? might be an obvious question, but I, for one, was hoping it wouldn’t be more of the same. The prospect of spending a little under an hour faced with pile-driving riffs and tormented wails doesn’t hold much attraction these days, but fortunately Osborne understands the need for light and shade.

After that bludgeoning start, the personal experience bit continues through Mind Of A Junkie, seven and a half confessional minutes that threatens to head off into too much information as far as the lyrical content is concerned but sets things up for a lengthy guitar solo that’s a masterpiece of transcendental restraint and verges on the best aspects of Neil Young territory.

After the dark on the first two tracks the lighter side of things kicks in on Lean On Me/Believe In You and When Will I See You Again? Two love songs with a sunny West Coast groove that brings the Laurel Canyon troubadour school to mind in much the same way as the previous track invoked Neil Young work nicely as a contrast to what’s gone before and what’s in store.

Co-written with Little Feat’s Paul Barrere, a man who’s fought his own inner demons and come through pretty well, Black Tar reads best as another reference to former addiction but works almost as well if you read it as a reference to the notorious BP oil spill in the Gulf. Either way it’s big on Led Zep lurch and thunderously buzzy guitar riffage.

After that, there’s an understandable element of winding things back down in eleven and a bit minutes of Black Eye Galaxy, a track that starts off in the same territory as Lean On Me/Believe In You and When Will I See You Again?  and then, around the 3:40 mark meanders off into a lengthy solo that has definite elements of late sixties Jerry Garcia. Think Dark Star and you’re in the right postcode and I’d have thought Black Eye Galaxy > Dark Star was a dead giveaway as far as titles and influences go in this instance. There’s a dash of the old Jimi Hendrix 1983 just before the vocals come back for a final chorus.

A harmonica intro to Tracking My Roots leads into another folksy effort that looks back to Osborne’s Swedish origin and his subsequent wanderings, a theme that persists through Louisiana Gold and another Osborne-Barrere co-write in Dancing In The Wind sets things up for a strong finish, a sweet acoustic love song that contrasts nicely with much of what has gone before.

Co-written with New Orleans pianist Henry Butler Higher Ground closes the album with a gospel testament where the string section owes more to contemporary classical music than the blues or New Orleans tradition. With his daughter and wife singing in a choir of friends and family it closes the song cycle on a note of triumph and personal salvation that could be extended to take in his adopted city’s resilience in the face of the worst the weather, fate and humanity can throw in its direction.

Recorded at Dockside Studio in Maurice, Louisiana, and co-produced by Osborne, Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, and engineer Warren Riker, Osborne handles most of the instrumental work with assistance from Moore and Eric Bolivar on drums and percussion, Carl Dufrene (ex-Tab Benoit’s band) on bass and additional guitar from Billy Iuso.

Where American Patchwork dealt with Osborne’s past struggles with addiction, Black Eyed Galaxy offers the prospect of recovery and delivers a song cycle that runs from the close to too much information situation in Send Me A Friend to a sense of that’s good, hope he makes it at the end. It’s a journey from addiction to sobriety, dark into light, storm into calm and suggests Osborne is hitting his straps in the writing department alongside his considerable instrumental chops and heartfelt vocals. I’ll be watching eagerly for the next instalment.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Dylan LeBlanc "Cast The Same Old Shadow" (4*)

Given a Mojo review concluding Greatness beckons Dylan LeBlanc’s Paupers Field could be seen as an introduction to a significant talent. With the release of Album #2 it’s time to do some assessing of progress made.

My own view of the debut was that it sounds more or less exactly like you'd expect it to sound, given the fact that Mr LeBlanc credits Townes Van Zandt, Neil Young and Spooner Oldham as formative influences and while it was nothing earth-shattering very few things these days are, but in any case worth a listen and I’ll be watching out for his next effort, which was purchased as soon as it was sighted on the horizon.

A glance at the brooding figure on the cover suggests he’s working the Townes Van Zandt end of the influences this time around, and there’s a dreamy melancholy as the interestingly titled Part One: The End starts proceedings, and what sounds like a direct lift from I Saw Three Ships Go Sailing By (or whatever it’s called) leads into Innocent Sinner, three and a bit minutes of Americana noir.

Brother starts off in much the same vein, but lifts into the chorus, making a change of pace that’s as much about light and shade as an inclination to rock out. Lush strings and weepy pedal steel claim the foreground for Diamonds and Pearls (the only non-LeBlanc composition on the album) and the yearning continues through Where Are You Now, just under five minutes of passed over for someone else, a vibe that runs into the ageing alcoholic reflecting on his youth and lost love in Chesapeake Lane.

By this point in proceedings we’re looking at an album that goes to fit a mood or situation rather than working as entertainment. Bleak reflections on love and loss continue through The Ties That Bind and while Comfort Me sounds a little jauntier the pedal steel isn’t suggesting everything’s sweetness and light until an instrumental break around the 3:20 mark that leads back into the keening melancholy that’s LeBlanc’s vocal trade mark.

There’s no relief in store through Cast the Same Old Shadow and while there’s a momentary distraction in the form of a crackle of radio static and studio chatter leading into Lonesome Waltz the song itself is cut from the same cloth as what’s gone before, as are Our Great Sadness (a dead giveaway, that title) and Too Wise.

Cut, like his debut, in Alabama's Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and co-produced by three-time Grammy winner Trina Shoemaker, Cast the Same Old Shadow offers up a dozen songs of love and loss that work rather well as a suite, though uninterrupted bleakness makes it an album that needs the right setting if you’re up for a close listen.

If, on the other hand, you’re after something lush with a voice that filters Neil Young through, say, Chris Isaak and works as an element in a sonic landscape rather than a lead instrument that’ll operate at subdued volume and minimise the desolation while you’re reading late at night it could well go down a charm.

Greatness may well have beckoned, and while it hasn’t got here yet it’s definitely lurking just over the horizon.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Small Faces "Small Faces" (4*)

Here's another example of the quantum leap many bands managed in the early to mid-sixties.

If you're not one of Hughesy's baby boomer peers, of course, there'll probably be another instance of rolling the eyes and muttering something about people banging on about the sixties and how everything was much better then.

Actually, I'm not suggesting better. It's more a case of different and an environment that can't be duplicated, no matter how much you might be inclined to try.

Consider the transformation of the Beatles from Love Me Do (written as far back as 1958) and She Loves You (Yeah, yeah, yeah) to Tomorrow Never Knows. You were probably expecting me to say Sgt Pepper's, but Tomorrow Never Knows, according to Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head was one of the first tracks cut for Revolver in early April 1966, less than three years after She Loves You (1 July 1963).

That's a hell of a jump, and one you'll find replicated in many of the other acts that emerged in the sam time span.

Now, I haven't trawled all the way back to the first Small Faces (twelve tracks, five covers, very much from the looks of it in the pop R&B mould), issued on Decca in May 1966 and recorded three months earlier, but I do have the Decca odds and ends exercise From the Beginning (fourteen tracks, six covers) and the jump from there to here is substantial. Not quite as substantial as the one from here to Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, but substantial none the less.

Fourteen tracks, all original though there are a couple of finished versions of tracks that appeared on From the Beginning, playing time (in the original format) around half an hour.

That, of course, refers to the original U.K. release. For the American market it appeared as There Are But Four Small Faces, resequenced, some tracks dropped and three singles (Itchycoo Park, Here Come the Nice and Tin Soldier) slotted in, and the CD version that ended up in my shelves has no fewer than forty-eight (count ‘em!) tracks, largely due to the presence of monaural and stereo versions of just about everything, and for a little under twelve dollars when I bought it (twelve months ago, currently “unavailable”) it was remarkable value.

As far as I can see, there are at least three ways of looking at this.

First, of course, you can look at the whole reissued package, bonus cuts, double versions and all, and conclude yes, it’s pretty good value for money if you don’t have the material already. That’s fine as far as I’m concerned. I didn’t, although I did have the singles thanks to a couple of other packages.

On the other hand, strip out the extras, go back to the original fourteen track U.K. release and you’ve got a very interesting example of the speed at which things were evolving in the mid-sixties. There’s nothing here to match the heights subsequently achieved on Ogdens’, but you wouldn’t really be surprised by that, either.

As a substantial advance on what had gone before it’s interesting enough in itself. In mid-1965 Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane had pinched the riff from Solomon Burke’s Everybody Needs Somebody to Love but needed someone to supply the words for what subsequently became Whatcha Gonna Do About It, and about twelve months later they’ve got that first Small Faces album. Run things on another twelve months and you’re looking at a much more experimental approach rather than a continued mining of the R&B vein.

Looking at it from a twenty-first century perspective, there’s probably not that much that’s really remarkable here. Fourteen fairly short tracks, half an hour’s playing time. If someone whacked this out at full price in 2012 you’d certainly feel you were being short changed. As far as the actual contents go, most of it works pretty well, which is what you’d expect given a lead vocalist like Steve Marriott.

Actually, that’s the point, isn’t it? There weren’t too many vocalists like Marriott, so the project gets a substantial head start in the vocal department.

Not everything works as well as it might have done, of course. The opening track, (Tell Me) Have You Ever Seen Me is a bit overwrought lyrically. It’s one of those I know your face, but I can’t place it, so do you recognise me? situations that comes across a little clumsily (like that explanation). The work, for mine, of someone finding his lyrical feet.

Much of the rest, Something I Want To Tell You (no surprises as to the contents of the desired message), Things Are Going To Get Better (Really? Who’d have thought?), Become Like You, Get Yourself Together and Talk To You are pretty much as per the track title, but scattered through the contents there are a couple of little gems.

My Way Of Giving (It’s all part of my way of giving and I’m giving it all to you) mightn’t be the greatest lyrical theme you’ve encountered, but it works a bit better than (Tell Me) Have You Ever Seen Me did, and Green Circles runs around in a pleasantly psychedelic manner.

The first of the album’s real gems comes in the quite lovely All Our Yesterdays (though your mileage may vary as far as the Cockney intro from Mr Marriott is concerned, I reckon it gets old fairly quickly). Wonderful little Ronnie Lane vocal, quite charming.

Better still is Ian McLagan’s Up The Wooden Hills To Bedfordshire, which is where things veer off into psychedelia again, even if they are (at least this is the way I’m inclined to interpret things) climbing the stairs so the protagonist can retire for the night.

Finally, as far as the original content is concerned, the calypso tinged Eddie's Dreaming (Eddie being trumpeter Eddie “Tan Tan” Thornton, who toured with the band as well as working with the likes of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Georgie Fame and Jimi Hendrix), not quite psychedelia, but definitely working into the sphere of herbal enhancement, brings things to a pleasant conclusion.

From that twenty-first century perspective, of course, an album where nothing runs over three minutes and several don’t make it to two suggests the buyer’s being shortchanged. The buyer could, perhaps point to Elvis Costello’s Get Happy! with a See? Twenty tracks! It can be done, but that was a decade later and a numeric generosity that raised quite a few eyebrows at the time.

Padding things out, of course, explains the repetition and the bonus tracks thrown in, but if you’re going to make an objective assessment and fit into the milieu operating at the time, you’d probably say it’s an interesting exercise with hints of the greatness to come on Ogdens.

At the price I paid (a tad under twelve dollars just over a year ago) close to a no brainer. Currently unavailable through Fishpond, $14.99 from Amazon and $19.99 for a slightly different package at iTunes, and I’d probably have shelled that out if the el cheapo Fishpond option hadn’t been there...

File under: Signs of things to come.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Scrapomatic "I'm a Stranger (And I Love The Night)" (4*)

Their fourth album sees the Scrapomatic core duo of Mike Mattison and Paul Olsen joined by guitarist Dave Yoke, Ted Pecchio on bass and Tedeschi Trucks Band drummer Tyler Greenwell, and the result is very much a band record rather than the duo plus backing (admittedly, very classy backing, but still a group of session musos playing someone’s arrangements of the material the duo has delivered) on Scrapomatic.

In between, of course, we’ve had Alligator Love Cry (2006) and Sidewalk Caesars (2008) and a regular gig with the Derek Trucks Band and, more recently, the Tedeschi Trucks Band for singer Mike Mattison. That probably goes a fair way to explaining the four year gap before album #4. Olsen probably has plenty to keep him occupied on the writing, arranging and musical director side of things, so there mightn’t be quite the sense of financial imperative that comes with something that’s your main gig, but a run through the dozen tracks on offer here reveals an interesting mix of styles that fit comfortably under an overall understated blues rock umbrella.

Produced by Mattison and recorded at Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi’s Raga Swamp Studios in Jacksonville, what we’ve got here is another manifestation of the emerging family of related projects that brought us the Derek Trucks Band’s Already Free and the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Revelator, and on the strength of a dozen listens it’s another exercise in tasteful blues based rock that mightn’t demand your attention right this minute and hold it right there, but probably won’t have you reaching for the shuffle button either.

Two contrasting voices, Mattison’s rasp and Olsen’s croon and an increasingly rocky approach as Yoke and the rhythm section integrate themselves into the overall approach means there’s always something interesting going on, and when you focus on the lyrics there’s a little more than you might have thought, which I’m inclined to ascribe to Mattison’s background in literature.

That definitely seems to be the case with the serial killer exacting vengeance down on the bayou among the shotgun shacks and magnolia trees in Alligator Love Cry. Olsen’s I'm A Stranger (And I Love The Night) delivers an evocative take on the post-dusk autumn streets of New York City, and the tempo lifts for Rat Trap, which gives the rhythm section a solid workout and Yoke a chance to cut loose. The vibe continues through Night Trains, Distant Whistles, which isn’t quite the wistful number the title might suggest.

Things drop back a tad for Don't Fall Apart On Me Baby and I Surrender, but they’re rocking out from the kick off in Mother Of My Wolf, where the literary bit gets another airing (I said ‘I just come out from high school’/She said ‘I read Camus in jail). The down and dirty blues kicks in on Crime Fighter as Mattison’s falsetto gets a workout and Yoke delivers some guitar licks that are straight out of the less is more school of playing handbook, with shades of Mike Bloomfield in the precision cut solo.

The horn-driven Malibu (That's Where It Starts) grooves along nicely but comes to a rather abrupt end, pitching the listener straight into How Unfortunate For Me, one of the album’s highlights, with muted trumpet delivering a touch of New Orleans as Mattison wryly observes the pitfalls of infatuation (With you I am enchanted/How unfortunate for me).

If I’ve got a gripe with the album, it’s aimed at the sequencing, since despite the possibility that The Party's Over there’s the suggestion that we make it one more for the road, which might have been the right place to stop, but they’ve opted to go one more for the road.  While Gentrification Blues ties in with some of the album’s lyrical themes, it isn’t the strongest closer you’ve heard. At the same time I’m not sure else where else it might fit. One for the shuffle button, I fear.

Still, while it might have finished more strongly without that last track, I’m a Stranger (And I Love the Night) delivers a satisfying listening experience and a passing visitor a couple of days ago was heard to remark on the quality and ask who it was, so it definitely has something to offer.

There’s plenty out there that falls under the umbrella of Americana, but Scrapomatic’s semi-noir take on the genre is worth a listen, and I’ll be watching the horizon for rumours of album #5.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Jeremy Spencer "Precious Little" (3.5*)

If you haven’t been around as long as Hughesy, you might find the notion of Fleetwood Mac as a swaggering, slide-guitar-driven hard rocking outfit with substantial elements borrowed from the likes of Elmore James a little strange,

However, if you have been around that long and you’d been listening back in the Mr Wonderful or Blues Jam at Chess era, you’d probably recognise Jeremy Spencer as the slide guitar specialist until his departure from the post-Peter Green lineup in February 1971, dissatisfied with his performances and the rock’n’roll lifestyle.

The original Fleetwood Mac was, to all intents and purposes, a splinter off the John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers trunk (Peter Green, guitar, and the John McVie/Mick Fleetwood rhythm section that’s still in place today) with the nineteen-year-old Spencer added as a slide guitar foil for Green. The Green/Spencer axis didn’t work as well as it might have, which accounted for third guitarist Danny Kirwan’s arrival on the scene, so there wasn’t a whole lot of Spencer on Albatross or Oh Well and Then Play On was entirely lacking in Spencer compositions.

On stage, on the other hand, Spencer came into his own, with impersonations of the likes of Elvis and Buddy Holly and songs like the incomparable rock’n’roll pastiche Somebody's Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight, the sort of thing that appeared on his 1970 solo album. The raucous on-stage persona was, however, quite at odds with his off-stage demeanour, and after Green departed in 1970 (replaced by keyboardist Christine Perfect/McVie) he contributed some fifties-style material to Kiln House before the band departed for a Stateside tour early in 1971.

There are various versions of what happened when the Mac hit the west coast, including dissatisfaction with what he heard on a concert recording, the aftermath of a mescaline trip, a fragile mental state, premonitions and an earthquake in Los Angeles shortly before the band arrived there, but on the afternoon before a gig at the Whisky A Go Go, Spencer headed off to visit a bookshop on Hollywood Boulevard and didn’t come back.

When they tracked him down he’d joined a religious cult, the Children of God, apparently of his own volition and that was more or less that. Forty years later he’s still a member, though the group is now known as The Family International. There were, over the intervening decades, various musical activities within the organisation, free concerts, an album (Jeremy Spencer and the Children), a record deal with Atlantic Records and a deal of travelling with stints in Brazil, Italy, the Philippines,  India, Ireland and Germany. These days his main gig involves writing and illustrating, but he’s still playing music and a visit to a Norwegian blues festival in 2005 resulted in a five day session that produced Precious Little.

Given the latter part of the back story, those looking for a return to the old raucous Spencer were always going to be sadly disappointed, and while there’s the odd track that doesn’t work as well as it might, it’s obvious that there’s still a spark or two left after thirty-five years, and the results are probably a bit better than most old-time fans would expect.

There’s a touch of cliche about Bitter Lemon (Take that bitter lemon and squeeze it into sweet lemonade) and more in Psychic Waste as Spencer has a go at the entertainment industry and popular culture, but there’s an elegant take on Elmore James’ It Hurts Me Too, with a precision to his slide playing that wasn’t quite there forty years ago, a return to early rock in a cover of Fabian’s Please Don't Stop that won’t surprise anyone who’s heard his Fleetwood Mac era fifties inclinations, a rewrite of Corrina Corrina (Serene Serena) that’s tasteful but doesn’t do a whole lot for Yours Truly, a healthy dash of twelve bar in Dr. J, complete with horns and a midtempo shuffle through a world of Trouble and Woe.

It’s back to Elmore James territory for a languid take on Bleeding Heart, with unhurried shimmering slide that’s very much in the less is more school of playing, something that’s also evident on the instrumental Many Sparrows. The chugging Trouble and Woe provides a suitable lead in to one of the album’s high points, Maria de Santiago, dedicated to Spencer’s patron saint and an antidote to the foregoing Trouble and Woe. Things drop back a notch for a cover of Slim Rhodes’ Take and Give before the album’s title track brings things to a close with fluid fingerpicked guitar lines.

If you’re looking for a return to the stinging Elmore James schtick from forty-plus years back, this won’t be your cup of tea, but on the other hand if you’re after a relaxed take on the blues from a guy who’s managed to make it through the intervening period with his chops more or less intact, this might just be your cup of tea.

Perhaps a tad too laid back, but there’s always a niche in these parts for well played late night blues, and this fits the bill for mine.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Ry Cooder "Election Special" (4.5*)

At the start of Randolph Stow’s Midnite: The Story of a Wild Colonial Boy the recently orphaned protagonist is sitting outside the house, whittling sticks and forgetting to cook his supper when his Siamese cat, Khat, takes things into his own hands (or, I guess, paws) and starts talking in an attempt to get things straightened out in the tucker department. Asked to explain this unexpected development (you never talked before) he answered there was nothing to talk about.

You might think I’m stretching things a bit by suggesting a correlation between Midnite and Ry Cooder, but consider the stats. Eleven studio albums between late 1970 and 1987 with a handful of tracks that weren’t covers. That situation is reversed in the batch of recordings that followed 2005’s Chavez Ravine, where Ryland had to cast around a bit to find a narrative that matched the theme of a Mexican-American community demolished to make way for public housing, a project that was subverted and turned into a baseball stadium.

That was followed by My Name is Buddy’s folkie exploration of Depression era issues straight out of Grapes of Wrath territory involving labour agitators, strikes, company cops and skid row hobos, I Flathead’s beatniks, salt-flat hot rod racers and pedal steel-playing country musicians (the post-war children of the Depression era Okies, or at least that’s the way I interpret it) and the Los Angeles Stories collection of prose about the city and the era he grew up in, covering some of the same territory.

Not bad going. Six years, three storytelling albums and a collection of prose by a bloke whose original material had landed almost exclusively on the fifteen movie soundtracks he compiled between The Long Riders in 1980 and 1998’s Primary Colours.

So he could write, if he wanted to. He just needed something to write about.

There’s a fairly obvious left wing social democratic mindset evident from Chavez Ravine onwards, something that shouldn’t come as a surprise given the presence of Woody Guthrie’s Do Re Mi and Alfred Reed’s How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live on his first album forty-two years ago.

Election Special kicks off in scathing style with Mutt Romney Blues as Cooder assumes the identity of the Republican Party candidate’s faithful hound, lashed to the roof of the vehicle as the family heads off on vacation (Boss Mitt Romney went for a ride/Pulled up on the highway side/Tied me down up on the roof/Boss I hollered woof woof woof), and follows it with a visit to the crossroads in Brother Is Gone, where oil tycoon Charles Koch and his brother David make a deal with the Devil, chasing political power and riches rather than musical prowess and fame. In this version, Robert Johnson’s crossroads have been shifted to Wichita, the brothers lay waste to the land and its people, but Satan turns up looking for the payment for his side of the bargain.

The Wall Street Part of Town dates back to the Pull Up Some Dust sessions but didn’t make the cut for that album. It’s a natural fit for the more pointedly political material this time around and while topical material attending a political agenda can get old pretty quickly, one suspects The Wall Street Part of Town and Guantanamo, which regardless of the political content rocks along very nicely, thank you and will both be kicking around the fringes of Hughesy’s Top 1500 Most Played for a while.

Pull Up Some Dust’s John Lee Hooker for President gets reincarnated as Cold Cold Feeling, a bluesman’s lament supposedly delivered by a sleepless Obama as he makes his way through the White House corridors in the wee small hours. Seems the Republicans are out to resegregate the White House and the incumbent’ll have to go in through the kitchen door.

Still on the subject of the Republicans Going to Tampa has one of the delegates bidding his wife goodbye as he heads off to get my ashes hauled. Never mind the family values, here’s the change to get your rocks off in an environment where Sarah Palin calls me honey. Given the string band country hoedown in the musical department this one’s another keeper that could well be around my playlist long after the 2012 election is done and dusted.

Delta-style blues get a guernsey on Kool-Aid, which deals with those who drank from the poisoned chalice of tax cuts for the rich. The protagonist (and, remember, on the tracks where there’s an obvious protagonist he’s not necessarily a good guy) falls for the Bush administration’s propaganda, enlists in the military and heads off to Iraq or Afghanistan and returns to find his job gone.

Themes from the Occupy movement come to the fore in The 90 and the 9, which is firmly in the Woody Guthrie/Joe Hill tradition, a workers’ song that stresses the belief that this may be the last time for the 99 percent of the population that includes America’s besieged unionists.

Election Special needs to finish on a strong note, and it arrives in the form of a militant blues, a snarling demand that the right wing ideologues Take Your Hands Off It, it being the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, though the final chorus extends things a tad (Get your bloody hands off the peoples of the world/And your war machine and your corporation thieves/That lets you keep your job and pays your dirty salary/Take your hands off us, you know we don’t belong to you).

Strong stuff, but stuff that reflects concerns that run right back through Cooder’s career. As son of liberal folkies, brought up on a diet of Woody Guthrie records, (Cooder: I’m 65; I’ve been listening to this shit all my life, and playing it, since I was a little tiny kid, startin’ with Woody at age five. Sourced here).

From there, once he’s figured out something he wants to say, it’s a fairly straightforward exercise to find an appropriate genre (or rather sub-genre) to deliver the message, and regardless of the perishability of topical song Cooder’s scholarly knowledge of a variety of styles and his proven ability to play them should allow him to continue to produce recordings of this calibre through the foreseeable future.

Much as some of us might want them to, you can’t help suspecting the issues that have attracted Ryland’s attention are going to disappear overnight.

Little Feat "Rooster Rag" (4.5*)

There isn’t, as has frequently been remarked, a superannuation fund for working musicians and given the nature of the beast it’s unlikely many of those who haven’t enjoyed the heights of commercial success and subsequently managed to hang on to the proceeds are likely to have too much stashed away to fund their retirement.

Which, of course, explains why so many of the musos I’ve been listening to for the past forty-five years are out on the road. Given the state of the record industry at the moment you could be inclined to attach a Why bother? sticky note to any plans to record new material, but when you’re on the road the merchandise table provides a vitally important income stream.

That’s how I’m inclined to read the proliferation of live albums, compilations and DVD material in Little Feat’s twenty-first century discography anyway.

A glance at the discography page here reveals four studio albums after 1998’s Under the Radar lined up beside nine live efforts, six compilations and three DVD titles (bearing in mind the coincidence of the two versions of Rockpalast). That’s a fair chunk of product to lay out alongside the T-shirts, stubby coolers, key rings and other paraphernalia on the merch table but you’ll also need a collection of new material from time to time. There are, after all, only so many ways you can repackage your back catalogue.

Initial reports about Rooster Rag, which is, just so we can get the statistics out of the way early, the band’s sixteenth studio outing, suggested we were in for an album of blues covers, and while the Rag kicks off with a tasty rendition of Mississippi John Hurt’s Candy Man Blues, and concludes with a romp through Willie Dixon’s Mellow Down Easy featuring the (underused, at least as far as I’m concerned) vocals of Sam Clayton, I’m glad they opted to fill the middle with new material.

Hair-splitters will, of course, question tagging the four Fred Tackett compositions here as new material, with A Church Falling Down dating back to his 2003 solo album (In a Town Like This) and One Breath at a Time, Tattooed Girl and Jamaica Will Break Your Heart making an appearance on Silver Strings around two years ago.

The album is fleshed out with a single contribution from Paul Barrere (Just a Fever, co-written with the late Stephen Bruton) and no less than five contributions co-written by keyboard ace Bill Payne. Of those five, four are co-authored by Robert Hunter, long time lyricist for the Grateful Dead, with the final co-write giving the band’s most recent recruit, drummer Gabe Ford a writing credit.

Ford had been Richie Hayward’s drum technician until lung cancer took founding member Hayward out of the mix, and the gig became permanent when Richie succumbed to pneumonia in August 2010.

As the band shuffles into Candy Man (one they’ve been doing live for a while, usually as a segue out of Down On The Farm) with the nudge nudge, wink wink sensibility that runs right through the band’s best material, it’s obvious Ford’s got Richie’s drum groove right down pat. That’s followed by the album’s title track, the first of the Payne/Hunter compositions, an exercise in jaunty Americana with good time fiddle from Larry Campbell.

Fred Tackett’s moody Church Falling Down drops things back a couple of notches, with mandolin and understated vocals on an evocative gospel ballad about changing times that contrasts nicely with the earthier themes in the Payne/Hunter Salome, set in a Louisiana houseboat that serves as a whorehouse and dishes up soul food on the side.

One Breath at a Time reworks the Fred Tackett solo version by splitting the vocal three ways, with Fred, Paul Barrere, and Sam Clayton going turn about through a ballad that has more than a dash of Mose Allison in the recipe.

The good time boogie comes to the fore in the Barrere/Bruton Just a Fever that grooves along merrily and is succeeded by a classic road song in Rag Top Down with Hunter’s highway imagery delivered by a warm Bill Payne vocal. There’s more of the same on Way Down Under (Payne/Hunter) while Paul Barrere rather than writer Fred Tackett gets the vocal slot on the wistful Jamaica Will Break Your Heart. Fred’s back in the limelight for Tattooed Girl, which shares much of the same mood as its predecessor and the blues are back for The Blues Keep Coming and Willie Dixon’s Mellow Down Easy, where a characteristically husky Sam Clayton vocal and some blues harp from ex-Fabulous Thunderbird Kim Wilson.

Considered as a whole Rooster Rag is another excursion through familiar territory with the regular Feat fusion of rock, blues, country, R&B and funky jazz with enough new elements (Hunter’s contribution being the prime example) to differentiate it slightly from what has gone before while retaining continuity. For mine, there’s no one else out there that sounds quite like the Feat and the production job from Bill Payne and Paul Barrere presents everything in a crisp, clear setting.

In the end, however, while it’s a rather tasty collection of fresh material there isn’t much that’s going to force many of what I’ve termed the night by night usual suspects out of the set lists.

Which, from where I’m sitting, is fine. Dedicated fans attending concerts probably want to hear the obscurities or new material, which is understandable. Those with a nodding acquaintance with the band probably expect the usual suspects (particularly the one long term fans have been known to term That Damn Chicken Song) and anyone who isn’t too familiar with the extensive back catalogue probably needs to hear the tried and tested material that tends to make the strongest impression.

In the absence of a superannuation fund for working musos, efforts like Rooster Rag are a vital component in keeping it going and maintaining a degree of freshness. On that basis, I can heartily recommend it with the suggestion that, if you’re new to the Feat (and face it, they aren’t exactly a high profile outfit on the international stage these days, regardless of seventies muso peer acclamation) and Rooster Rag tickles your fancy you’ll find plenty to explore in that extensive back catalogue.

Frank Zappa/Mothers of Invention "Freak Out!" (4.5*)

Here’s one that’ll have anyone who’s heard of Frank Zappa without having heard much of his actual output scratching their heads, I think, and, in the wake of a massive re-release program (the Zappa Family Trust are in the process of releasing the back catalogue in a couple of fairly massive tranches) there are likely to be a few folks out there wondering what the expletive deleted is going on here.

The answer to that question, of course, lies in the fact that the item under consideration here is the first album in an extensive discography, and it’s worth looking back to where we were in 1966 if we’re trying to make sense of what’s on offer.

There’s a fairly extensive body of writing on FZ and his work, most of which hasn’t lobbed on my bookshelves, but I’ve read a fair bit of it over the years and I do have a copy of Barry Miles’ magisterial Frank Zappa (Atlantic Books, 2004), which seems to have most of the bases covered after fairly exhaustive research and a reasonably close personal acquaintance with his subject, and Miles describes Freak Out! as the Bildungsalbum that summed up his entire life to that point (pp.49-50).

Up to that point Zappa had been playing rock, doo wop and R&B, as well as indulging his experimental predilections, so it’s hardly surprising there’s a heavy R&B doo wop influence in Freak Out! There’s also the not inconsiderable point that while the album was cut over a couple of days at Hollywood’s Sunset Highland Studios between 9 and 12 March 1966 and released in July, much of the material was written two to three years earlier (p. 101). Interestingly, the sessions started just over a week after they’d been signed.

So we’re not quite headed off into the further fringes of wayoutness, and, indeed, what you could get away with in a scatological sense in 1966 was an entirely different kettle of fish to what you could do, say, five years later. So if you’re looking for Billy the Mountain or the groupie related content that featured on Fillmore East - June 1971 this won’t be your favoured destination.

It’s also worth taking a look at the back story, since from the beginnings of Hungry Freaks, Daddy, we’re straight into some pretty straightforward rock’n’roll (although it comes with additional kazoo enhancement). It’s a background that runs away from the trendier areas of Los Angeles, the likes of Sunset Strip, the Hollywood Hills and Laurel Canyon (though that’s where Zappa was based for most of the next thirty-five years).

The urban sprawl extends well east of downtown LA, and out in the boondocks around San Bernardino (more specifically, a locale called Rancho Cucamonga) an aspiring composer, studio owner and guitarist was invited to join a local R&B outfit known as the Soul Giants after a disagreement between singer Ray Collins and guitarist Ray Hunt, who was duly shown (or chose to find) the door.

Zappa’s suggestion that the band switch to original material rather than the standard cover version fare they’d been dishing up didn’t go down well with original leader and saxophonist Davy Coronado, who reckoned they’d lose gigs and quit. Renaming the ensemble, Zappa took over the leader’s role. By late 1965 the band was playing Sunset Strip clubs, where MGM staff producer Tom Wilson offered them a recording contract on the strength of Trouble Every Day, under the impression he was signing a white blues band similar to Chicago’s Paul Butterfield Blues Band and New York City’s Blues Project. Wilson’s production credits included Simon and Garfunkel, Sun Ra, The Velvet Underground, Eric Burdon and The Animals and Bob Dylan (three albums and Like a Rolling Stone).

It was soon obvious what he was getting wasn’t quite what he expected, but Wilson was impressed enough to wangle a hefty recording budget and authorise Zappa to rent $500 worth of percussion instruments for a session with all the freaks from Sunset Boulevard on the Friday night. The results formed a substantial chunk of the unfinished The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet which occupied Side Four of the resulting double album.

By this point, thanks to their gigs on Sunset Strip, Zappa was a leading player in the Los Angeles freak fraternity, alongside Carl Franzoni and Vito Paulekas, the effective role models for Hungry Freaks, Daddy which may have sounded like fairly standard mid-sixties rock until the vibes and kazoo chimed in but was, in effect a nonconformist call to arms, and fair enough, that’s what the package suggested was coming.

Following it with I Ain't Got No Heart might seem like a step back from the brink, given the fact that it’s reasonably straightforward in the lyrical department, but it’s a rather clever bit of sequencing in a double album that gradually departs from the mainstream over its four sides, culminating in the twelve and a bit minutes of The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet.

Side one of the vinyl version went along a one bent, one straight formula, with I Ain't Got No Heart being followed by a posting from the edge in Who Are the Brain Police? which is, in turn succeeded by the three part doo wop harmonising by Zappa, Collins and bassist Roy Estrada on Go Cry on Somebody Else's Shoulder. Zappa was, of course, a major doo wop fan with a collection of more than 7,000 doo wop and R&B singles but his take on the genre, however affectionate it might have been, was cynically satirical (You cheated me baby/and told some dirty lies about me/Fooled around with all those other guys/That's why I had to get my khakis pressed).

You might be inclined to dismiss Motherly Love as a lightweight affair, at least until the groupie references kick in, by which stage it’s obvious the Mothers are out for as much of the old horizontal mambo action as can be arranged, and I have to admit the Kazoo choruses have a particular charm when lined up beside the lascivious intent being expressed in the lyrics.

And you can imagine them delivering How Could I Be Such a Fool? as a fairly straight ballad in a club setting, though in this setting it’s a fairly obvious send up, as is the absurdist semi-bubblegum Wowie Zowie, coming a good two years before the Ohio Express and the 1910 Fruitgum Company.

The affectionate yet mocking take on the doo wop R&B ballad continues through You Didn't Try to Call Me and Any Way the Wind Blows, one of the first tracks cut for the album (the other one, Who Are the Brain Police? was probably the one that had producer Wilson on the phone to headquarters) and there’s a darker touch to I'm Not Satisfied before things start to take a consistent turn away from the mainstream.

There’s still a bit of the mainstream in You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here but it’s being firmly pushed aside as Zappa’s lyrics set about mocking the straight elements in the Mothers‘ nightclub audiences. At least that’s the way I read it.

Things get really serious with Trouble Every Day. Close to fifty years later you might tend to forget just how ugly things were getting in the black ghettoes right across the States. A perceptive take on 1965’s race riots in South Central Los Angeles and the police response to them is delivered in a Dylanesque rap with the crunch lines You know something people, I’m not black/But there’s a lotsa times I wish I could say I’m not white around half way through the close to six minutes.

From there, eight and a half minutes of Help, I'm a Rock meander along in a manner best experienced on headphones, but probably won’t make a great deal of lyrical sense in that environment either. I’m inclined to think of this one as a freak ‘em out performance piece, though they’d moved on from there by the time the album hit the racks (if the setlist from June 1966 here is any indication).

After that, the acapella ramble through It Can't Happen Here (who, indeed would’ve imagined they’d freak out in Minnesota, though one suspects that in March 1966 freak outs in that part of the country would have been few and far between) leads fairly seamlessly into The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet which sets out as a cross country percussive ramble through a couple of twists and turns and, as previously mentioned, covers the entire fourth side of the vinyl double album.

Given the vagaries of record company releases in Australia and the difficulty of laying your hands on some of this stuff, my high school acquaintances and I had a much closer relationship with Absolutely Free and We’re Only In It For The Money, and by that time Zappa was far more inclined to experiment in the studio but the remastered and re-released Freak Out with its blend of straight rock, doo-wop, experimentation and a razor sharp analysis of the straight/freak divide has aged remarkably well.

And, of course, as a precursor of what was to come it’s probably the best place to start a re-examination of Zappa and his work, and an obvious starting point for the Zappa neophyte.

The Mothers Of Invention (the initial recorded incarnation):
Frank Zappa – Guitars, Vocals
Ray Collins – Harmonica, Cymbals, Tambourine, Vocals, Finger Cymbals
Elliot Ingber – Guitars
Roy Estrada – Bass, Vocals
Jimmy Carl Black – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Little Feat "Barnstormin' Live Volume One", "Barnstormin' Live Volume Two", "Rocky Mountain Jam" (all 4*)

Here are a couple that slipped past in the changeover between buying hard copies of new music and rocking over to iTunes to grab the digital equivalents.

The purpose of these selections from the Feat's extensive tape archive is, as far as I can make out, to provide new items that can be sold through the website and, more particularly, at the merchandise table at live gigs. That sort of thing is a vital component of a touring outfit's bottom line.

Barnstormin' Live Volume One hit the market and the merch table back in early 2005, and Hughesy was off to the website for a hard copy tout suite. Volume Two sneaked out later that year, by which stage I think I'd run across the problem of storage space so I'd put off buying a hard copy, and the reappearance of Volume Two in a two disk box with its predecessor wasn't going to result in a purchase either.

Rocky Mountain Jam appeared in 2007, aimed at much the same target, and by that time, with the purchases almost exclusively in the digital domain it was a case of we'll get around to it someday while financial and other considerations stepped in.

A glance at the three track listings doesn't reveal much in the way of fresh material. Apart from a take on Little Walter’s Last Night on Barnstorming One and a segue from Down On the Farm into Candy Man Blues to kick off Volume Two there’s a selection of titles from across the band’s history from Sailin’ Shoes to tracks from the then-most-recent studio effort Kicking It At The Barn without most of the night by night musical suspects. Those turn up on Rocky Mountain Jam, presumably because their absence on the earlier two titles had been noted.

As such, the three titles a fair portrayal of mid-noughties Little Feat in the seven piece configuration. One doesn’t ask too much about these things, but vocalist Shaun Murphy was cut loose in 2009, presumably as a cost-cutting exercise and the death of drummer Richie Hayes leaves keyboard wizard Bill Payne as the only survivor from the original quartet. Guitarist Paul Barrere, percussionist Sam Clayton and the bass playing Kenny Gradney climbed aboard for Sailin’ Shoes and multi-instrumentalist Fred Tackett had been on the fringes of the Feat scene for years before he was officially recruited when the post-Lowell George outfit reconvened to Let It Roll in 1988.

There will, of course, be those who’d question the need for any of these rebundlings, and that’d be a fair point if the Feat were inclined to regurgitate exact facsimiles of their studio output. As they don’t, it’s a matter of whether you like your Feat live (I do, mileages will vary), whether you need a bit more live material to go into the iTunes playlist (ditto) and whether you’re willin’ to pay the asking price (@ $16.99 over at iTunes you could say it’s a bit steep, but I can afford it, so...)

As far as the contents go, Barnstormin' Live Volume One has a fairly straightforward reading of Rocket in My Pocket, followed by a tasty trumpet (Fred Tackett) intro to Keepin' Up with the Joneses. Changin' Luck surges along just fine, with Shaun Murphy in characteristically fine voice, Spider's Blues is a spirited run through a relative obscurity and the album’s showpiece comes in the form of One Clear Moment > Just Another Sunday, an extended fifteen minute workout through two of the best post-Lowell era tracks. Your mileage may, of course, vary, but this is how Hughesy likes his twenty-first century Feat (right down to the bit of Representing the Mambo thrown in round off Just Another Sunday).

After that little tour de force you need a little light and shade, and Walkin' as Two provides just that. Sam Clayton growls his way through Little Walter’s Last Night and Paul Barrere leads a languid quest to Roll Um Easy. The Blues Don't Tell It All lifts the tempo a tad or three before Why Don't It Look Like the Way That It Talk lands things back in the languid zone to close things out.

Overall it’s a tasty sample that visits some of the less frequented quarters of the repertoire.

Barnstormin' Live Volume Two is a bit further away from the laid back side of things, opening with a jaunty Down on the Farm > Candy Man Blues before Bill Payne drops things back with a restrained reading of Under the Radar in its original rather than the subsequent reggae influenced incarnation. The restraint continues as Paul Barrere takes the vocal lead on Fool Yourself with a little vocal help from Fred Tackett and Shaun Murphy. It’s a tasteful reading of one of those Feat numbers that tends to be overlooked in favour of the usual suspects (Easy to Slip is another one).

There’s a rather nifty guitar, mandolin and understated swirling keyboards intro to Sailin' Shoes, and though Paul Barrere and Shaun Murphy go verse for verse through the song the version’s close in feel to the original second album version. After a couple of slower numbers, a tempo change is probably needed, and it comes with a rollicking Night on the Town, before things drop back a notch for an old favourite in Apolitical Blues, with a bit of Muddy Waters’ Long Distance Call inserted midstream. Shaun Murphy gets a spot of limelight for A Distant Thunder, and there’s a jaunty reading of Down on the Farm’s Six Feet of Snow. Bill Payne heads off Fighting the Mosquito Wars, and things are wound up neatly with A Day at the Dog Races, which Mr Barrere, judging by his comment at the end of the eleven and a half minutes, thoroughly enjoyed.

Rocky Mountain Jam kicks off with a spirited six and a bit minute Marginal Creatures, follows it with close to a dozen minutes of One Clear Moment > Sunday Jam, which is probably where anyone who isn’t into lengthy jamming will want to jump ship, since Spanish Moon > Skin It Back fills a solid quarter of an hour and the take on Dixie Chicken tips the scales at just over twenty-one minutes. In the light of those two, close to seven minutes of Rocket In My Pocket and a slightly leaner Feats Don't Fail Me Now might be seen as light relief, but if you’re Jam-averse, Rocky Mountain Jam ain’t gonna be your scene (man).

On the other hand, if you’ve heard a lot of sub-par mindless boogie with limited dynamics you might just be inclined to have a listen to what half a dozen musos with substantial playing chops (check the list of collaborations for individual members here) can do when they’ve decided to stave off boredom with tracks they’re probably expected to play every night (Dixie Chicken) or have to include in the setlist on a regular basis (Spanish Moon, Skin It Back, Rocket In My Pocket, Feats Don't Fail Me Now).

Mightn’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but it goes down just fine in these parts, and if it sounds like the sort of thing that floats your boat comes with a hearty recommendation from the Little House of Concrete.