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.