Saturday, June 30, 2012

Ron Sexsmith "Long Player Late Bloomer " (4.5*)

There’s a point, from time to time, where peer recognition and cult status spills over into mass recognition and commercial success, but if that happens, it usually comes before your twelfth album. The list of artists who rate Sexsmith as a singer-songwriter aren’t quite legion but include enough heavyweights (Elvis Costello, Ray Davies, Sheryl Crow, Steve Earle, John Hiatt, Elton John, Paul McCartney) to have made some of us sit up and take notice.

The problem, however, is that while elegant melancholic folk-tinged pop might sound good you need an avenue to transform peer and critical recognition into mass success and by this stage it’s obvious Sexsmith doesn’t have one. In the current environment, with the old regime in tatters, the download as king (and, from what I can gather, there’s almost invariably a free, illegal source to obtain virtually everything) it’s obvious no one’s going to make a fortune unless they’re out there and gigging steadily, can land a song or three in most of the multitudinous let’s discover the next best thing contests on TV or wangle a duet with the likes of Michael Bublé.

Well, he's managed the Bublé bit, and he's gigging reasonably regularly.

One avenue that could be explored is recruiting a name producer, and that Bublé duet brought him into contact with fellow Canadian Bob Rock (Michael Bublé, Metallica, Mötley Crüe, The Cult). It mghtn’t be the most obvious artist/producer match, but the result is recognisably Sexsmith in an environment that would probably be radio-friendly if Ron could find a way of sneaking onto the mainstream airwaves.

Another collection of quality songs, buffed up just right by a producer who knows his stuff, playing up the melodic strength of the songs and delivering a result that’s engaging and  approachable. Try MIchael and His Dad, a song that hearkens back to Sexsmith’s arrival in Toronto with infant son in tow, Heavenly, or Love Shines, an attempt to write a song like Buddy Holly’s True Love Ways.

If you’re after perfectly crafted melodic pop delivered with a wistful sincerity and you haven’t encountered Mr Sexsmith to date, he’s definitely worth checking out. There’s not much here that he hasn’t done before, so long term fans won’t be disappointed unless they’re looking for some radical reinvention. Given the fact that he hasn’t managed one to date you wouldn’t be expecting one now, but as long as he can maintain the quality I’ll be buying.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Tedeschi Trucks Band "Everybody's Talkin'

Half way through the opening Everybody’s Talkin’ someone unfamiliar with Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi and the Tedeschi Trucks Band might be wondering what all the fuss is about. Their debut album Revelator had taken out the 2012 Grammy for Best Blues Album, which says something, and was described as a masterpiece in Rolling Stone, which doesn’t exactly have the critical clout it once enjoyed.

So what’s all the fuss about?

If that’s the reaction, and you’re thinking the Nilsson cover’s a routine workout through a song that hasn’t quite been done to death but isn’t far away from that status, if you haven’t reached the tasty solo from Mr Trucks that kicks in around the three minute mark, shuffle forward to the Swamp Raga intro to Midnight in Harlem, and things become much clearer.

Let things run through to the end of the trademark Trucks solo that concludes the number and you may well be convinced, if not, leave things in place into the growling guitar intro and blasts from the three-piece brass section that kick off Learn How to Love and we’re just about in I rest my case territory.

You might think that’s a little extravagant, and when you’re talking an eleven-piece touring outfit musical extravaganzas are definitely on the cards, but when you start with Derek Trucks, one of the best slide guitarists going around, and throw in his missus, Grammy-winner in her own right Susan Tedeschi, you’re probably guaranteed something reasonably classy from the word go.

Just how classy (assuming Midnight in Harlem hasn’t blown you away) becomes obvious as Learn How to Love veers off into an instrumental break that has both guitars firing off each other, riffing in with Oteil Burbridge’s bass lines and punctuated by that brass section and...

There’s plenty of light and shade possible with all those elements, and as Bound for Glory kicks off I’m reminded of the old adage about what you leave out being as important as what you actually play. Around the four minute mark everybody else drops out as the Burbridge brothers step to the fore. Kofi on keys, Oteil on bass with the rest of the band gradually sneaking back in over the next couple of minutes. 6:30 in and there’s a swell of acknowledgement from the crowd that leads into a Derek Trucks solo that builds past the nine minute mark before his missus is back with the vocal line, Mike Mattison and Mark Rivers harmonising in the background, and there’s still close to three minutes to go. That’s enough time for Mr Trucks to sneak back in for another little shredding solo before the track reaches a triumphal conclusion.

So we’re not talking the old three or four minute routine here, folks. Everybody's Talkin' runs to five and a half, Midnight In Harlem a tad after ten and a half, Learn How to Love about a minute shorter, and close to thirteen for Bound For Glory.

Even the shortest track, an interesting reading of the old Muddy Waters Rollin' and Tumblin' clocks in just under five. Around ten and a half minutes of Nobody's Free gives Susan Tedeschi a chance to give an impressive set of pipes a thorough working over, as does Darling Be Home Soon. Until I heard this reading I didn’t realise it was a case of not being able to wait an extra minute if you dawdled and waiting since you toddled/For the great relief of having you to talk to.

That’s enunciation alongside soul, folks. Going back to the Lovin’ Spoonful original and the Joe Cocker cover and you realise, yes, it is dawdled and toddled and scratch your head wondering why you didn’t notice that before.

There’s not much question about the lie of the land in the band’s cover of Bobby Bland’s That Did It either, as Susan lays down the law. She did a great take on this one during the Allman Brothers’ Beacon run in 2011 and it has become a TTB staple as well. Take a listen and it’s obvious why that has happened.

From there we’ve got a fifteen and a half minute romp through Stevie Wonder’s Uptight, and eleven minutes of Revelator’s Love Has Something Else To Say, with Bill Withers’ Kissing My Love inserted before Wade in the Water concludes proceedings.

Those track times indicate plenty of jam-style interaction, but the thing that stands out (at least it does to this listener) is the understatement and taste that goes into the soloing and as someone hits the spotlight the rest of the band slots in totally simpatico. Classy stuff.

If you’re familiar with his playing, of course, you might be looking for a bit more Derek action, but this is an outfit that has been carefully put together with attention to detail, room for the individuals and egos are definitely parked outside the door on the way in.

As it is, there’s a generous helping of Derek, but where he had to carry most of the spotlight in the old five or six piece Derek Trucks Band, this time around he has a more than capable second guitar foil in the shape of Susan, additional light and shade in the shape of Kofi Burbridge’s keys and flute, a mighty fine horn section, a rhythm section that really cooks (well, you’d expect that with Oteil Burbridge on bass and a two man drumming department), a fine singer, two classy backing vocalists and Oteil to take the odd turn at the microphone.

When you look at it that way, there’s not going to be the same guitar dominance we came to expect through the old DTB era, but get that line up on stage and cooking and the result, as anyone who has seen the Tedeschi Trucks Band live will know, is a rich mix of musical influences, given room to interact as an ensemble of fine musicians interact.

The attention to detail that’s evident throughout extends to the recording process. Where other outfits might have been happy to record one or two shows and cull from there to get their album, Derek (in this interview) reveals they started by carrying our own console along and getting an extra trailer with a couple guys to run it, recording a round dozen shoes and ended up using three of the shows pretty evenly, three or four tunes from each. And then we spent time listening and mixing to be sure it felt seamless from track to track.

The result is, arguably, the best live recording I’ve heard since, well, the Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore East or The Band's Rock of Ages, a big band tour de force heavy on electric delta blues with side trips into the realms of funk, gospel, jazz and world music.

A definite five stars, and a hard act to follow, but if anyone’s going to manage it, this is the outfit to do so.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Neil Young & Crazy Horse "Americana" (3.5*)

I guess, when you’re looking to head off into Retro territory there are two extreme paths you can choose.

You can, should you want to employ twenty-first century technology and match it up with an attitude or sensibility that comes out of the era you’re looking to recreate, end up with something like a perfectly recorded period piece. That would deliver a seventies punk recreation where you could hear the singers’ spittle hitting the microphone or someone singing the acoustic blues with perfectly recorded fingernails scraping along guitar strings.

Alternatively you can take yourself back to the technology that applied at the time and produce something that sounds like it came directly out of the era you’re looking at without stopping along the way.

Most exercises in retrospectivity fit somewhere in between those extremes, with perfectly recorded reproductions played through vintage amplifiers (or whatever), but when you’re looking at the latest effort from Neil Young & Crazy Horse it’s worth stating those extremes because there’s a fair bit of both here.

It’s around nine years since Greendale, the last time Young let the Horse (in the studio sans guitarist Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro, though he played on the subsequent tour) loose on a fan base that, largely, yearns for the primitive garage band thrash the outfit delivers (basically because anything else is a fair way beyond their actual capabilities), and with the Horse in harness you’re more or less right back in the second approach outlined above, regardless of whether you’re using the latest techno wonders to do the actual recording.

Regardless of what you think about Neil’s recent recording history, there’s no denying the guy’s prolific. Possibly too prolific, in the sense that a little time spent on polishing the product might be better than first thought = best thought, which is where he seems to have been sitting for a while.

Regardless of how prolific you are, sitting down to write a book (Waging Heavy Peace, apparently semi-autobiographical, due out later this year) the effort’s possibly going to steer you away from writing songs and while you’re thinking about the past you’re going to remember things you were doing back when you were starting out in the early sixties.

Those reminiscences apparently included versions of Oh, Susannah by The Thorns and The Company's version of High Flying Bird as played in Ontario clubs and incorporated into the repertoire of Young’s band, The Squires, joining She’ll Be Comin ’Round The Mountain, Tom Dooley and Clementine in their regular set list.

That’s one part of the equation.

On top of that, it’s hard to avoid suspecting the origins of this particular exercise probably trace back to the preparations for the Young & Crazy Horse appearance at the MusicCares tribute to Paul McCartney in Los Angeles back in February, where their cover of I Saw Her Standing There was apparently one of the highlights of the show. If you’re going to go back to 1963, why not go all the way back?

Of course, when you’re talking Neil Young things aren’t that simple.

Sure, he might wake up one morning with memories of singing God Save the Queen at primary school and decide to have a bash at it here, but he also does a bit of research, digging out the oft-forgotten second verse, goes the full back to childhood kick with a kids choir thrown in for good measure and throws in some of My Country ‘Tis Of Thee (same tune, different lyrics), the unofficial anthem of the United States before The Star Spangled Banner got the official gig in 1931.

And if you thought it was just a matter of digging out a few old chestnuts and redoing them as garage rock thump after the artistic and political stances on Greendale, Living With War, Fork in the Road and Le Noise he goes to some trouble to spell out the fact that many of those old hootenanny staples everybody sang so cheerfully back in the day were concerned with murder, sex, and political turbulence in circumstances where physical danger lurked around the corner for those who were inclined to question the status quo.

So you have the original Old Left lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, and in interviews Young has talked about She’ll Be Comin ’Round The Mountain (covered here, but renamed Jesus' Chariot), generally held to be a Negro spiritual, referring to the second coming of Jesus, with she being the chariot he’ll arrive on but points out an alternative narrative. She, in this reading, is union organiser Mary Harris "Mother" Jones promoting union activity in Appalachian coal-mining camps.

Not quite your usual good time campfire hootenanny interpretations.

As Young and the Horse stomp through Oh Susannah (Stephen Foster filtered through an early sixties arrangement by The Thorns with a nod to Shocking Blue’s Venus), Clementine and Tom Dula (both a la Fort William, spring 1965), Gallows Pole, and a dose of fifties doo wop withThe Silhouettes‘ 1957 hit Get A Jobit certainly sounds like they’re having a ball reliving bits of the past.

At this point I’m inclined to point out that Crazy Horse started off as a Los Angeles-based doo wop outfit called Danny And The Memories, so it’s not just Young’s past we’re revisiting.

Proceedings are rounded off with Travel On, the Haight-Ashbury folk-rock fave High Flyin’ Bird, Wayfarin’ Stranger and, just to wind things up, God Save The Queen. This one seems to have a few Yanks scratching their heads, but I have a suspicion The Squires and their peers, playing rock’n’roll for the kids on the Canadian prairies, were regularly told to finish the night’s entertainment with a rendition of the anthem, along the same lines as the situation where a Northern Ireland club owner insisted John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers finish with the anthem in November 1967 (as preserved on Diary of a Band)...

As with all things Neil, your mileage is likely to vary considerably, and I must admit initial exposure to the B-A-N-J-O on my knee in Oh Susannah produced a hessian underwear reaction that had me firmly in the anti-Americana camp but repeated exposure has scaled that back to minor irritation and there are moments scattered throughout that are quite sublime in a revisiting our garage rock roots kind of way.

Fortunately, in these days of iTunes playlists and other filtering devices it’s easy to avoid the dross (God Save the Queen has already been relegated to the digital back blocks) and it’ll be interesting to see which other titles will have joined This Land is Your Land in the lofty heights of Hughesy’s Top 1500 Most Played. I’d nominate Get a Job as the most likely candidate.

Some links:

Initial announcement in Rolling Stone

Neil interviewed for Reuters, Morning Becomes Eclectic, Fresh Air and All Songs Considered

On Thrasher’s Wheat, A Neil Young Critic Drifts Into Self-parody and The Unbearable Lightness of Being Neil Young

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Steve Nieve "Lazy Point" (4*)

Steven Nason, fresh out of the Royal College of Music joined Costello's backing band The Attractions in 1977, gaining a new identity after uncertainty as to the nature of a previously unknown (to him anyway) called a groupie. Ian Dury allegedly did that.

There is, however, nothing naïve about the mad scientist keyboard work he has contributed to Elvis Costello records and concerts since This Year’s Model. To be fair, there have been times when Elvis has dispensed with his services (he discarded The Attractions between Blood & Chocolate and Brutal Youth) and when that has happened Steve has managed a number of other collaborations, playing gigs and composer credits, including film soundtracks and an opera (Welcome to the Voice).

The actual Lazy Point of the title is a headland in The Hamptons, a group of villages and hamlets along the South Fork of Long Island, New York that are popular seaside resorts in summer and boast some of the most expensive residential property in the U.S.A.

A glance at the track titles (Kathy's Verandah, Ferry to Shelter Island, Amy's Adirondack In Sagaponack for example) should be enough to indicate the languid summer holiday vibe here and the visiting the seaside village, friends and acquaintance comes through when you see titles like Alison for Michael At the Music Store and Shipbuilding for T On Treasure Island.

Yes, that’s be Mr Costello’s Alison and Shipbuilding reworked, not quite in the manner of the keyboard extemporisations on the Costello & Nieve box set, but not a million miles away either.

Mileages may vary if you’re a classical piano fan, but for this long term admirer of Steve Nieve’s playing this fills a significant niche in the music library, and will be getting plenty of action when the right environment rolls around.

The Supervisor was quite taken by it as well.

Albion Country Band & Shirley Collins "No Roses" (4*)

Having left Fairport Convention because he wanted to explore traditional material rather than attempt to recreate a traditional vibe through original material and been pushed out of Steeleye Span, the band he formed to explore that inclination when they elected to pursue a more obviously commercial direction it probably comes as no surprise to find Ashley Hutchings launching another project in the same territory with his wife Shirley Collins.

Fairport Convention had started life as an outfit blending American singer-songwriter material, along with original compositions along the same lines on Fairport Convention, What We Did on Our Holidays  and Unhalfbricking before veering towards traditional material when fiddler Dave Swarbrick joined the band for Liege and Lief. An emerging interest in traditional material had Hutchings searching through the material collected at the English Folk Dance & Song Society Library at Cecil Sharp House, and the research had driven the contents of Liege and Lief, and the electrified versions of traditional songs on the first three Steeleye Span albums (Hark! The Village Wait, Please to See the King and Ten Man Mop, or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again).

A good ten years older than her second husband, Shirley Collins had grown up in an East Sussex family with ties to the area's traditional music, moved to London to attend teachers' college in the early fifties and through the early folk revival movement became involved with the likes of Ewan MacColl, who introduced her to American folk archivist Alan Lomax, in London avoiding the McCarthy era witch hunt in the United States. She’d collaborated with Lomax on the song collecting journey through the American south between July and November 1959 that produced the recordings released on Atlantic Records as Sounds of the South that went on to become a key ingredient in the Coen brothers’ film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou and once she returned to England recorded the jazz-folk fusion Folk Roots, New Routes with Davey Graham and collaborate with her sister Dolly (The Sweet Primroses, Anthems in Eden, Love, Death and the Lady) and the Young Tradition (Peter Bellamy, Heather Wood and Royston Wood).

The collaborations with her sister were built around Dolly’s pipe or flute organ with additional light and shade from the medieval crumhorns, recorders, sackbuts and viols of London’s Early Music Consort with 1969‘s Anthems in Eden featuring a twenty-eight minute song cycle about changes in rural England and destruction of ancient traditions that came about after the First World War.

After marrying Hutchings in 1971, the couple set about recording No Roses at Sound Techniques, and Air Studios in London, with Collins’ vocals backed by a selection from a core group that included Hutchings on bass, Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol on guitars, Roger Powell (drums), and Dave Bland (concertina and hammered dulcimer), with additional toning added by what must have seemed a bewildering array of twenty-plus other musicians in various permutations and combinations.

That wasn’t the way things were supposed to go, but as different faces appeared at the studio door, it probably seemed a pity to let what they had to offer go to waste. Apart from that core group, the album included vocal contributions from Maddy Prior, Royston Wood, Lal and Mike Waterson, and Nic Jones, who also played fiddle (as did Barry Dransfield).

Additional instrumental tones were added by Dolly Collins and Ian Whiteman (piano), Dave Mattacks (sticks and drums), John Kirkpatrick (accordion), Tim Renwick (acoustic and electric guitar), Lol Coxhill (alto sax), Alan Cave (bassoon) and Steve Migden (French horn) with more esoteric notes added by Northumbrian small pipes (Colin Ross), melodeon (Tony Hall), hurdy-gurdy  (Francis Baines), ophicleide (a brass keyed-bugle that seems to have been an antecedent of the saxophone, played by Alan Lumsden) and the more prosaic jaw harp (Trevor Crozier).

But it’s all about the music, and having worked through Anthems in Eden and Love, Death and the Lady what’s on offer here has a more contemporary feel, sounding like (as someone put it) Shirley Collins backed by Fairport Convention, which is close to the money, but not quite on it.

Collins’ vocals are as Albion as they were on the preceding recordings, the instrumental work has a recognizably Fairport orientation, but the more exotic sonic contributions take it a step away from the early seventies folk rock scene but not as far as the pseudo-medieval early music present on Anthems in Eden.

As far as the material itself is concerned, we’ve got the returning sailor the faithful girlfriend fails to recognise (much the same territory as John Riley) on Claudy Banks (from Sussex’s Copper family), Romany fortune tellers who end up with the well-born squire (Little Gipsy Girl, from Louise Holms of Hereford), rejected suitors deemed unsuitable by wealthy parents (Banks of The Bann, from Bert Lloyd), notorious killings such as the Murder of Maria Marten (from Joseph Taylor of Lincolnshire), cautionary tales for would-be poachers in Van Dieman's Land (collated by Ashley Hutchings), returning lovers (Just As The Tide Was A'Flowing, from Aunt Grace Winborn, Hastings), cross-country hunting (The White Hare from Joseph Taylor of Lincolnshire), historical and mythical themes in Cornish mystery plays and spring rituals i.e. Hal-An-Tow (part of the May ritual in Helston, Cornwall) and the discovery and burial of unknown women (Poor Murdered Woman from Mr. Foster of Surrey).

All in all, the product of musicians with a deep love and understanding of the English music heritage and a desire to set the tradition in a more contemporary setting that works well provided you’re not put off by the breathy, slightly unearthly Collins vocal character, which may be a tad on the trad folkie finger in the ear style for some listeners.

Still, placing No Roses alongside the likes of Fairport Convention’s Liege & Lief and Full House or the early Steeleye Span it’s an interesting variation on emerging themes. More obviously traditional than Fairport, not quite as rocky as Steeleye....

Having delved back this far, I’m looking towards the albums that followed, or those that are available through iTunes (The Albion Dance Band’s The Prospect Before Us, Shirley and Dolly Collins For As Many As Will being prime candidates).

Bruce Springsteen "Wrecking Ball" (4.5*)

A few months back rumours of a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band tour of Australia had Hughesy doing a spot of calculating to see whether the finances would run to multiple shows on tour.

The conclusion I came to at the time was that, yes, starting from the first show which was probably in Brisbane, I could keep on trying for tickets (second show in Brisbane, first Melbourne, second Melbourne, first Sydney, second Sydney and anything tagged on after that) until I missed a ticket for a show and at that point I could stop.

Now, having listened to Wrecking Ball a couple of months after those rumours I'm beginning to doubt whether the rumoured tour was ever likely to have gone ahead.

The 2003 Tour, with set lists heavy on material from The Rising was, by all accounts, a financial disaster zone and you'd expect the subject matter on Wrecking Ball would have promoters Down Under wondering whether it'd be likely to produce significant bums on seats action, or enough action to recoup the costs of bringing a significantly expanded E Street Band and entourage half way around the world.

Now, the reader might be wondering what Hughesy's inclination to attend multiple concerts has to do with the new Springsteen album, but I should start by making it clear I'm a serious fan coming off close to forty years' exposure to one of the giants of the rock era.

That's a significant consideration since Down under reactions to Bruce tend towards the lukewarm as far as the average punter is concerned.

How you like your Bruce is, of course, the factor here, and if you're a non-Bruce type Wrecking Ball's hardly likely to change your attitude and bring you aboard the train that's heading for the Land of Hopes and Dreams.

From the opening notes of We Take Care of Our Own it’s obvious we’ve got a Springsteen album in front of us. Listen to that intro and you’re left with only two likely candidates, with the second one being a Bruce clone. Go a little further and the listener could be tempted to file Wrecking Ball into the same proudly patriotic category where certain misguided individuals tend to file Born in the USA, but a closer examination of the lyrical content reveals a degree of uncertainty lurking under what sounds, on the surface, like another exercise of tub-thumping chest pounding American exceptionalism.

Dismissing the track on that basis would be easy to do on a first listen, particularly given the fact it's the first single off the album but in doing so you'd be neglecting the way Springsteen works. A closer listen reveals a voice asking if this is the way things are supposed to be, why aren't things the way they're supposed to be? Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea? is a good and perfectly apposite question.

We tend to forget, and among the posturing of right wing nationalists forgetting isn't a difficult thing to do, there's a strong left wing tradition of co-operation and working class solidarity that dates back through the Great Depression and the Civil War to the American Revolution. It hasn't always been obvious, and was the sort of thing that troubled all sorts of commentators through the past two hundred and twenty years, but it has always been there lurking in the background.

And in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis it's starting to stick its head up again.

Springsteen was a supporter of Yes we can Obama, you can see similar sentiments turning up in his work as far back as The Promised Land and he’s always been addressing problems that confront the ordinary bloke in the street in tough times. The guy that wears a tie, Wall Street greed and corruption and the subsequent impact on main street America are more recent concerns.

So for half the album we’ve got the denunciation of the way things are, followed by the reminder that this isn’t the way things are supposed to go. While the album kicks off with We Take Care of Our Own and you could be forgiven for dismissing things as Born in the U.S.A. Revisited that veneer of patriotism in the chorus is undercut by references to the days after Katrina, abandoned ideals and the dark side of the American dream in a country that Springsteen sees as badly in need of help.

There’ll be candidates in the forthcoming election who might be tempted to appropriate the song for campaign purposes, but listening to the fist pumping anthemic, choruses the hey-heys about faith and country I was reminded of a cartoon in the late sixties or early seventies where a hairy revolutionary issues a reminder to his peers.

“Just remember, kids, when you’re smashing the state, keep a smile on your lips and a song in your heart.”

Or words to that effect.

We Take Care Of Our Own is unmistakably Springsteen, booming drums and chiming guitars, as Bruce outlines the theme that runs through the album. People in need of assistance have no choice but to help themselves and each other. There ain’t no help, he sings. The cavalry stayed home. We take care of our own, in other words, because there’s no other choice.

Through Wrecking Ball some of the angriest messages are wrapped around tunes almost guaranteed to get the toes tapping and the hips swivelling. The message on Easy Money and Shackled and Drawn might be a scathing attack on fat cats and the goings-on up on banker’s hill, but they’re danceable as all hell.

Easy Money starts out in Atlantic City territory, heading out for a night on the town and an escape from the reality of day to day burdens in a jaunty Irish-folk number that sounds like we’re out for a good time. Well, we are, but along the way we’ll be collecting what’s rightfully ours, carrying a Smith & Wesson .38 with hellfire burning in the belly in a get square with all them fat cats who’ve been getting away with murder and now it’s time for a little evening up.

And if it seems like they’re going a step or two too far, there’s Shackled and Drawn, which still sounds like we’re having a good time though a closer listen reveals things aren’t quite as cheery as the sound of the chorus suggests, and there’s no doubt about the sentiment in the words.

The outcome of that Shackled and Drawn situation comes as Jack of All Trades slows things down, underlining the message. Sure, he’s a man who’ll take whatever work he can find and do whatever he needs to turn his hand to, and, yes, Honey, we'll be all right, but he knows why his family’s in this pickle and if I had me a gun, I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight, says the guy from the new permanently freelance working class, without health or social security benefits or, by this point, patience.

So the messages don’t pull any punches. Death to My Hometown turns straight towards the greed of Wall Street bankers, congressional impotence and the crisis they’ve brought down on the average Joe’s head. There’s an obvious allusion to the nostalgia of My Hometown on Born in the U.S.A, but close to thirty years later the vacant storefronts are gone. The marauders raided in the dark/And brought death to my hometown, and though the damage is done, there is no point in wallowing in self-pity.

You need light and shade in a project like this, and after the rousing Irish rumble of Death,
This Depression delivers four minutes of droning guitar and a narrator on the point of giving up, and delivers the listener to the album’s turning point.

Wrecking Ball, originally a tribute to a venue about to be demolished when Springsteen and the E Street Band played there in 2009 and revised to cover the demolition of the Spectrum in Philadelphia was originally written from the stadium's point of view, but in the context of the album it becomes a call for perseverance and rolling with the punches.

If there’s a weak point on the album, You've Got It is probably it, sounding like the work of a rather inept Springsteen clone but it’s largely there as a precursor to another set piece in the form of Rocky Ground where a surprisingly effective rap and a massed gospel chorus call on the congregation to stick together through times of adversity. It’s the start of the run of there's a new day coming tracks that bring the album proper (there are a couple of bonus tracks tacked on at the end, as is S.O.P. these days) home in a rousing mood of This Land is Your Land defiance.

And that defiance comes through in Land of Hope and Dreams, first performed on the 1999 Reunion Tour, included on 2001's Live in New York City and tackled again during the sessions for The Rising. It proved surplus to requirements in that environment, but here, coming off the new day coming theme of Rocky Ground, echoing Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready and boosted by two Clarence Clemons sax solos, the train metaphor works the dream that’s the diametrical opposite of what Bruce was on about back in We Take Care of Our Own. That was the way it’s supposed to be but isn’t. This is the way it can be if we take that Rocky Ground defiance and work in together. People get ready/You don’t need no ticket/You just get on board, regardless of race, class or creed.

That race, class or creed bit comes through in the campfire song ambience of We Are Alive, invoking martyred strikers, defiant protesters, and oppressed migrant workers. There’s a mariachi horn riff that invokes Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire and a lyric line that draws the two halves of the album together as Springsteen invokes the subjugated dead, the ghost of Tom Joad,and the generations of freedom fighters in a nation that conveniently forgets that much of its early success was built on slave labour.

From there, the bonus tracks are a mileage may vary situation, and I could definitely have done without the mournful Swallowed Up (In the Belly of the Whale) in the slot it occupies in this running order (that won’t be an issue when we get into Hughesy’s Top 1500 Most Played shuffle mode, will it?), but American Land written and recorded during the 2006 Seeger Sessions and a regular inclusion in the set list thereafter delivers a barnstorming Irish jig about the American Dream and the way things should be. It’s a track that could have worked in the Land of Hope and Dreams slot, though LoHaD does the job marginally better.

By this point, of course, it should be fairly obvious to the discerning reader that Wrecking Ball is coming from a particular world view, and your reaction to the album is going to stem largely from the extent to which the listener’s viewpoint coincides with the sentiments expressed herein.

Springsteen is angry and accusing in these songs, and from where I’m sitting he’s got every right to be. He’s seeing a scorched earth America, razed by profiteers as charlatans and ideologues undermine democratic values while the line their own pockets in the name of freedom and the real business of politics in a democracy– responsible government and an equitable distribution rather than a steady accumulation and segregation of wealth– is pushed to one side.

We are, in other words, in Woody Guthrie This Land Is Your Land territory, and while there’ll be some of my friends and acquaintances who won’t agree all I can say is more power to your elbow, sir.

What we have here is a carefully designed collection of songs, sequenced to deliver a message, the work of a man who might have every right to take it easy and coast on the strength of past glories like the dude in Randy Newman’s I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It).

In other words, Mr Springsteen is firing on all cylinders. How many performers looking down the barrel of their sixty-third birthday can you say that about?

Some links:

Monday, June 18, 2012

Shirley & Dolly Collins “The Harvest Years” (Anthems in Eden, Love, Death and the Lady) (3.5*)

Here's a perfect example of how loose things were at the start of the rock music album era in the late sixties. It was a time when the major British labels were reefing in the big dollars through acts like The Beatles (Parlophone, part of the EMI Group), The Rolling Stones (Decca) and there was still room for independents and minor labels like Polydor (The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Cream) and Island (Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, Free, Spooky Tooth). There were different arrangements for American distribution, but let's stick with the British side of things for the moment.

There were also a number of independents which seemed to be doing quite well for themselves, thank you, including the British Immediate label and the American Elektra, which had, wonder of wonders, scored big time chart action with the Incredible String Band's The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter.

Those independents traded, to a large extent, on a hipness quotient that was probably best expressed in the roster of acts on the American Warner Brothers (Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, Little Feat, for example). Those acts mightn't have sold a whole lot of records but boy, were those labels hip!

Maybe the search for something similar impelled EMI to create Harvest Records in 1969 as an outlet for progressive music and competition for similar projects started by Philips (Vertigo) and Decca (Deram) along with the Islands, Elektras, Immediates and Warner Brothers. It was a fiercely competitive market, and Elektra managed to get The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter into the UK album charts for 27 weeks, peaking as high as #5, selling over three-quarters of a million copies over the years against fairly hairy competition including The Beatles, Beggars Banquet, Electric Ladyland, In Search of the Lost Chord, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake, A Saucerful of Secrets, Traffic and Wheels of Fire.

Well, if that could happen, why not put out a couple of albums of traditional folk tunes? Take one of the better traditional singers, back her with her sister's portative organ and the  viols, recorders, sackbuts and crumhorns of the Early Music Consort of London.

You never know. It might sell.

Harvest had acts on the roster that were likely to move large quantities of product (Deep Purple and Pink Floyd for starters) so the cash to pay for what might well be seen as an extravagance or two was probably in the coffers. And you never know. It might sell.

The result was Anthems in Eden by Shirley and Dolly Collins, an album comprising a 28-minute set of songs on the first side and seven individual pieces on the flip side. The version here on The Harvest Years pads out the original tracks with six more recorded in 1976 with a different lineup largely drawn from Ashley Hutchings' Albion Band that were subsequently aligned with the first side's song cycle and released as Amaranth.

That 28-minute set is a suite of traditional songs and a traditional tune with new lyrics that tell a basic story illustrating the changes wrought on rural English society and emerging folk traditions by the industrial scale slaughter of the First World War.

The song cycle had already been recorded as Anthems Before the Fall for BBC Radio in August 1968, and it’s fairly easy to pick up the plot line from the song titles. It’s not as if young girls watching young men go off to war is an unfamiliar theme, but there’s a twist towards the end of the cycle with a generation of young men were lost, and the memorial stone  rather than the maypole as the centrepiece of village life.

A Beginning / A Meeting (Searching for Lambs)/ A Courtship (The Wedding Song)/ A Denying (The Blacksmith)/ A Forsaking (Our Captain Cried)/ A Dream (Lowlands)/ A Leaving-taking (Pleasant and Delightful)/ An Awakening (Whitsun Dance, words by A J Marshall to a traditional tune)/ A New Beginning (The Staines Morris)

The rest of the album comprises a handful of songs drawn from the Collins' repertoire, most of them traditional (Rambleaway, Bonny Cuckoo, Nellie The Milkmaid, Gathering Rushes In The Month Of May, The Gower Wassail) along with Robert Burns’ Ca' The Yowes and God Dog, written by the Incredible String Band’s Robin Williamson.

Shirley Collins might not be entirely happy with the selection, but you’d have needed something to fill out the other side of the album. That’s not an issue in the era of the compact disk, but the alternative would have been to break the suite in two, which with the vinyl era need to get up and turn the record over wasn’t the optimal solution either.

Played as a whole in the digital download era the whole thing runs together seamlessly,  with the cornetts, crumhorns, sackbuts,recorders and racketts piping away over the harpsichord and portative organ in arrangements that influenced later efforts by the likes of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span (who applied the concepts to a more electric folk-rock setting) and lesser lights like Amazing Blondel (whose stage appearances were likely to involve the use of up to forty instruments) and Gryphon.

That instrumentation gives a sense of timelessness, the sort of thing that was explored by those who followed, with Richard Thompson’s Henry the Human Fly being, to my ears, a prime example, but there’s the odd bit of electricity on Henry, whereas Anthems in Eden could have been performed at any stage back to the middle ages.

You could choose to simply look at the album as as a piece of musical archeology or a nostalgia trip but I’d see it as a defiant rejection of the rock'n'roll era, the march of capitalism, and conflicts on foreign shores from someone who’d collaborated with legendary ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and studied the traditional forms at length.

The entirely traditional 1976 content (Fare The Well My Dearest Dear, C'Est La Fin/ Pou Mon Cuer, Bonny Kate, Adieu To All Judges and Juries,  Edi Beo Thu Hevene Quene, Black Joker/Black, White, Yellow & Green) fits well tacked on at the end of proceedings here, though they’ve managed to sneak regular drums (Fairport’s Dave Mattacks), electric bass (Pat Donaldson, Ashley Hutchings) and Simon Nicol’s electric guitar in there as well. That’s logical, since the second of the Shirley and Dolly Collins Harvest albums, 1970’s Love, Death and the Lady, uses a sparser subset of the instrumentalists who appeared on Anthems in Eden.

Playing through The Harvest Years, however, you get the decided impression that someone’s getting a little fast and loose with the sequencing. Put the extra material that was recorded a couple of years later at the end of proceedings, fine, but we’ve got extra tracks recorded at the Love, Death and the Lady  sessions that appears before the tracks that comprise the actual album. It’s one of those cases where the digital edition comes up wanting, but the reader, of course, has Hughesy and the consolidation of various on-line sources so who needs digital booklets?

So, recorded at the same sessions that produced what follows, we have Sailor From Dover, Young John, Short Jacket and White Trousers and The Bold Fisherman duly followed by Death and the Lady,  Glenlogie, The Oxford Girl, Are You Going To Leave Me? The Outlandish Knight, Go From My Window, Young Girl Cut Down In Her Prime,  Geordie, Salisbury Plain, Fair Maid of Islington, Six Dukes, Polly on the Shore and Plains of Waterloo

Cast your eye over those titles and you can probably guess what’s in store if Love, Death and the Lady hasn’t given it away from the start. Murder, rejected love, parted lovers and betrayal were, after all, meat and drink in the traditional canon. Here we have an apparently motiveless murder in The Oxford Girl (predictably, the lover dunnit, so you’ve got death and betrayal in the one parcel), a serial killer in The Outlandish Knight and parted lovers and a tragic death on a foreign field in Plains of Waterloo.

It’s not quite music to slit your wrists by, but it’s not all beer and skittles either and the ancient instruments creak away in the foreground, Collins sounds like the girl from the village down the road and the whole package sounds like it could have come from anywhere in the couple of centuries that preceded the last one.

Not, perhaps, everyone’s cup of tea but an interesting listen, particularly when you line it up alongside Fairport Convention’s Liege & Lief and Full House or the early Steeleye Span up to Below the Salt. Those comparisons are quite deliberate. On Liege, Fairport had Sandy Denny, arguably the finest female singer in the English folk-rock sphere, while Steeleye’s Maddy Prior spent much of the seventies carrying traditional material as far as possible towards the middle of the road.

Shirley Collins, on the other hand, seems very much like the voice of the people.

Joe Henry "Reverie" (4*)

Although he’s probably better known as a producer (with Solomon Burke's Don't Give Up On Me, Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello’s The River in Reverse, Mose Allison’s The Way of the World being three of his productions that have had plenty of air time on Hughesy’s personal radio station) Joe Henry started out as a singer/songwriter, working in genres including alt. country, rock, jazz and folk.

Reverie is Henry’s twelfth studio album, though studio might be taking things a bit far. Recorded in Henry's living room with the windows open in some ways it’s an equivalent of The Basement Tapes, and while it doesn’t have the lo-fi rough edges Dylan and The Band managed to extract in the nether regions of Big Pink there’s much of the same homespun eclectic vibe here.

Recorded with what is, by all accounts, his regular crew (Keefus Ciancia on piano, Jay Bellerose on drums, David Piltch on bass, and Marc Ribot on guitar with cameos from Patrick Warren, Jean McLain, and Lisa Hannigan), Reverie comes across as an impressionistic collection of short stories or snatches from a movie.

They’re showing a movie on the side of the bay is the first line of the album’s opener, Heaven’s Escape (Henry Fonda on the Bank of America), a dishevelled, ramshackle number with the vocal running over a small jazz combo simple piano and a rattling, echoey snare drum. That’s followed by Odetta, a fragile statement of elegantly wasted yearning, with the same rattling drum sound as the narrator sets out in search of something that might be as inspirational as the singer's music. I couldn’t help thinking back to The Band’s Bessie Smith. Like The Band and Music From Big Pink it’s a sound that can’t be pinned to a particular era in a style that operates outside genres.

As a result you can’t be sure which war he’s referencing in After The War, a ballad that may well be one of those love lost fading memory of a wartime romance narratives or might not be about wartime at all. The key lies in the After in the title of a song about the barrier between past, present and future and a longing to climb over that fence, a theme that runs right through the album.

Three tracks in the mood is set, and Henry’s strutting guitar, strolling bass and the album’s characteristic drum shuffle continue through Sticks & Stones, Grand Street and Dark Tears, diverting into tango territory for Strung while Tomorrow Is October  and Piano Furnace provide a world-weary lead in to Deathbed Version, where  the opening line (How do you like your blue-eyed boy?) echoes the closing line from e.e. cummings’ buffalo bill’s defunct, though we’re talking Billy the Kid rather than William Cody. That deathbed theme continues through Room At Arles. Eyes Out For You has the narrator searching for a lost lover while Unspeakable urges the listener to Take my unspeakable song as your own.

The album closes with The World And All I Know, a final scene that summarises everything that came before in muted tones. It’s an almost perfect close to an album that comes across as a series of moments in time, random glimpses of distant memories, cinematic without hyperbole, filtered through a musical curtain drawn from across the spectrum of jazz, blues and folk.

File under: World-weary fireside reminiscence for rainy windswept winter nights.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Chuck Leavell "Back To the Woods: A Tribute To the Pioneers of Blues Piano"

Start talking blues and the first instrumentalists that come to mind will, more than likely, be guitarists, probably electric players, and when you cast your gaze further back it’s easy to be distracted by the portability of the acoustic guitar in the hands of wanderers like the legendary Robert Johnson. We forget, rather conveniently, that there’s a considerable tradition when it comes to the blues piano.

That comes down, I guess, to the dominance of the electric guitar, hardly surprising when you place the axe in the hands of Muddy Waters or B.B. King, Eric Clapton or, say, Duane Allman. The Allman reference is particularly apposite in this case since it was the post-Duane Allman Brothers Band that first shot Chuck Leavell into prominence. You don’t do a like for like swap when you’re looking to replace someone like the late great Duane, and rather than aiming to continue the Allmans’ twin lead configuration, 1973‘s Brothers and Sisters saw the lead roles shared between Dickey Betts’ guitar and Leavell’s keyboards.

From there (for those unfamiliar with a man who’s seemingly been happy to play a side man’s role for the past couple of decades, Leavell went on to an Allman’s spinoff outfit (Sea Level, which started out playing the opening set at Allmans shows) and joined the Rolling Stones touring outfit in 1982 as the second keyboard player, moving to the forefront after Ian Stewart’s death and ending up as the Stones’ musical director.

Along the way he’s also worked with Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Gov't Mule and The Black Crowes, recording three solo albums on top of a fairly active gig schedule. He’s also a noted conservationist and tree farmer.

Back to the Woods: A Tribute to the Pioneers of Blues Piano came about as the result of a suggestion from Leavell’s son-in-law, an academic specialising in American history, the visual arts and roots music, who noted that while there have been a number of tributes to blues guitarists, songwriters and singers and significant figures in the world of jazz, no one had come up with a tribute to the pioneers of blues piano.

He handed over three CDs of archival recordings, around a hundred and fifty tracks in all and Leavell went about narrowing down the selections, first to fifty and finally to the fifteen tracks presented here, covering the likes of Leroy Carr, Skip James, Little Brother Montgomery, Otis Spann, Memphis Slim and Ray Charles, names that will be familiar to blues scholars but would probably fail to register on the average fan’s radar.

Except, of course, for Ray Charles, but Losing Hand dates back to 1953, well before his commercial heyday, and apart from Otis Spann’s Boots and Shoes most of the remaining material dates back to the days before World War Two and the dominance of the electric guitar.

With basic tracks cut in Studio 1093 in Athens, Georgia, with a core band of Leavell (piano, organ & vocals), Chris Enghauser (acoustic bass) and Louis Romonos (drums) and overdubs and extras added at Electric Lady Studios in New York and Muscadine Studios in Macon the album features an impressive lineup of guests fleshing out the basics as Leavell sets out to interpret them in a more modern setting, more modern arrangements…but keeping the essence of the songs intact.

Those guests include Keith Richards and John Mayer on guitar, sax from Randall Bramblett (sax), Danny Barnes on banjo, guitar and tuba along with vocal contributions from  Col. Bruce Hampton and Candi Staton. Leavell had been after Susan Tedeschi or Grace Potter to provide the female foil, but Candi Staton lived close by and had a background in R&B and gospel rather than the disco material associated with her name Down Under (if, that is, the name registers anything other than vague recognition).

As far as the music goes, we’re solidly in Leroy Carr territory (Evening Train, Low Down Dirty Dog, Naptown Blues with a Danny Barnes vocal, Mean Mistreater,  a Candi Staton Leavell vocal duet, Memphis Town with Danny Barnes as the vocal foil for Leavell).

The set opens and closes with covers of Little Brother Montgomery material, No Special Rider kicking off proceedings by showcasing Leavell's skills on the ivories and Vicksburg Blues winding things up with a piano and vocal solo. In between, apart from the Leroy Carr, there’s Memphis Slim’s Wish Me Well, Otis Spann’s Boots and Shoes (guitar work from Keith Richards and John Mayer), Ray Charles’ Losing Hand and a couple of more obscure names in Charlie Spand (Back To The Woods, Keith Richards on guitar), Barrelhouse Buck McFarland (I Got to Go Blues, Col. Bruce Hampton vocal).

Southern Casey Jones rocks along merrily, Skip James might be more often thought of as a guitarist, but If You Haven’t Any Hay has a solid keyboard riff and a fair degree of the old nudge nudge innuendo and the Candi Staton vocal on the penultimate The Blues Is All Wrong is one of the album’s highlights.

At $16.99 on iTunes for just under an hour’s music, there are far worse places to start investigating the blues piano tradition, but, given the benefit of hindsight I should have shelled out the extra $2 for the version that includes the digital version of the sixteen-page booklet with song annotations by Leavell and an essay by blues historian Larry Cohn outlining the backgrounds of the original artists, and the role of the piano in the evolution of the blues.

If you’ve got an interest in blues piano without a whole lot of background knowledge this wouldn’t be a bad place to start, but I’d suggest shelling out the extra $2...