Monday, February 25, 2013

Todd Rundgren "Hermit of Mink Hollow" (4.5*)

He’d been doing most of it on his own for a while, and as far back as Something/Anything he’d completed three sides out of four without assistance, but when Todd Rundgren’s eighth solo album arrived in 1978 it was credited to Todd Rundgren - Arranger, Instruments, Producer, Vocals and no one else. In between he’d been working with assorted session players and the members of Utopia, and had been pushing the limits of how much you could fit into the grooves of a single disc (A Wizard, A True Star) but Hermit headed back in the opposite direction, with eleven tracks clocking in just under 35 minutes (compared to Wizard’s nineteen and a tad under fifty-six minutes).

That mightn’t matter much in real terms, and Rundgren had been fairly prolific so you’d be inclined to suspect he’d have to slow down eventually. Alternatively, you could look at the breakup of his long term relationship with Bebe Buell, glance at the title and figure there’s this heartbroken bloke sitting in his cabin on Mink Hollow Road just west of Woodstock and this is all he’s been able to come up with.

Which would make sense if we were back in the Laura Nyro/Carole King territory he’d been working earlier, but despite the presence of a truly great break-up ballad (Can We Still Be Friends) and a couple of titles that might support that sort of hypothesis (Hurting for You, Too Far Gone, and, maybe You Cried Wolf) what we’ve got here is an interesting exercise in largely cheerful and upbeat power pop.

Actually, if you were looking for forensic evidence re. terminated relationships it might make more sense to return the tracks to the sequence listed on the back cover, which was what Rundgren delivered to the record label. Bearsville, in their wisdom, thought the original sequence was “too haphazard” and asked Rundgren to split the album into an “Easy Side” (comprising the lighter, poppier songs) and a “Difficult Side” with the cerebral or rockier songs, with the quirky Onomatopoeia, which would definitely qualify as “Cerebral” getting a guernsey on the “Easy” side...

A more combative Rundgren might have told them to butt right out, but he claims to have gone along with the request because it made no difference to him and, conceptually, the record didn’t suffer for it. The sceptical listener, of course, with plenty of hard drive space, a second import into iTunes and a bit of fiddling with the track numbers, assuming you’ve got a smart playlist or something to keep the two separate (I’ve got one called Unheard, where the Plays is 0, but there are undoubtedly other ways) can put him or herself in a position to compare and contrast.

Both versions kick off with the happy, upbeat and semi-anthemic All the Children Sing, and while Rundgren’s version followed it with Too Far Gone, Out of Control and Lucky Guy, the Bearsville resequence slots the gorgeous Can We Still Be Friends in as Track Two. Upbeat starter, followed by one of the all-time breakup ballads that sequences into the pure power pop territory with Hurting for You and Too Far Gone. The latter, with an airy chorus hovering over Latin rhythms delivers an interesting assessment of the ups and downs of Rundgren’s career from family and friends.

As far as winding up Side One is concerned, whether you’re looking at Easy and Difficult or One and Two, the very clever Onomatopoeia is followed by Determination, an impressive slice of power pop that winds up the first side rather well. Your mileage may vary as far as Onomatopoeia is concerned, but to me it’s a rather clever bit of studio wizardry that mightn’t have much point beside a demonstration of the man’s editing skills but still works as a combination of audio dictionary definition and word play. I do, after all, have a thing about word play...

Turning the attention to The Difficult Side Rundgren turns social agitator on Bread, three minutes of power ballad about starving Americans living below the poverty line, and continues in the same territory with Bag Lady, a piano ballad that verges on the melodramatic but has its heart in the right place.

After that the listener probably needs something a little more upbeat, and You Cried Wolf‘s bouncy assessment of an ex-lover’s false alarms in the commitment department meets that requirement fairly well. Rundgren drops it right back for the melancholic piano-driven Lucky Guy, which followed Out of Control in the original sequence. In the other setting, however, it’s about time for a howling up-tempo raver. Out of Control fits that requirement to a T and both sequences conclude with Fade Away an exercise in sumptuous harmonies that winds things up with a closing statement that works as well as All The Children Sing does as an opener.

With the tracks sorted into both sequences it’s difficult to say which one works the best, and I’m inclined to agree with Rundgren’s assessment that the Easy Side/Difficult Side idea wasn’t a problem and that the record wouldn’t suffer for it. As it is, I have ‘em both, and in an environment where you’re going to be playing your favourite tracks on shuffle the album sequencing isn’t really an issue, is it?

In any case, regardless of the actual sequence, what we have here is a collection of
snappy, cleverly arranged quality pop songs that’s possibly the best, and definitely the most accessible, thing he’d done since back around Something/Anything. That’s not to suggest they’re all classics, but it’s a remarkably consistent collection that’s remarkably free of duds and candidates for the shuffle button.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Richard Thompson "Electric" (4.5*)

I have nothing left to say/But I'm going to say it anyway is the opening line in Randy Newman’s I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It), a song that heads into the final choruses with the observation that Everything I write, all sounds the same/Each record that I'm making is like a record that I made/Just not as good.

Neither statement is in any danger of applying to a Richard Thompson album, and particularly not to his latest Buddy Miller-produced folk-power trio effort with Thompson’s electric and acoustic guitar work firing on all cylinders as Taras Prodaniuk on bass and Michael Jerome on drums pound away in the rhythm section he’s used for the best part of a decade.

It’s difficult to avoid the impression that Thompson goes out of his way to come up with a different format to use when it’s time to record a new batch of songs. There’s his Cabaret of Souls: a Folk Oratorio, a piece originally commissioned by the International Society of Bassists who wanted something that featured the double bass and ran for around six minutes and ended up getting a song cycle. Cast your eye back a little further and there’s Dream Attic, recorded live on tour with the same rhythm section and additional instrumentation from the versatile Pete Zorn and electric violinist Joel Zifkin.

2007’s Sweet Warrior had a few different players, and followed 2005’s Front Parlour Ballads, recorded at home with RT playing everything apart from the percussion provided by 1000 Years of Popular Music colleague Debra Dobkin. Skip back past Live from Austin, TX and the cottage industry live releases for the merch table (The Chrono Show, Faithless, recorded as far back as 1985, Ducknapped, 1000 Years of Popular Music, More Guitar from Washington D.C. in 1988) and you’re back in 2003 with The Old Kit Bag.

Five studio albums, a song cycle along with half a dozen assorted live titles in various settings (I failed to mention Live Warrior in that run through, make that seven) represent a fair swag of product for a single decade and suggests a canny operator who takes care to vary what he’s going to place out there in the market place, with a couple of box sets in there for good measure.

So you’d figure heading off to Nashville to record in Buddy Miller’s living room was part of a deliberate policy of doing something a little different for each new release, something to talk about in the promotional interviews as much as a conscious pursuit of interesting sonic possibilities. Along with the aforementioned rhythm section, Electric features some unobtrusive rhythm guitar from Miller, fiddle from Stuart Duncan as well as vocal support from bluegrass sweetheart Alison Krauss and Anglo-Irish Siobhan Mayer Kennedy, wife of Miller's engineer.

Recorded on analogue tape rather than digital media over just four days after a brief rehearsal (it pays to have had some of the new material in the live set for a while) with most tracks only needing a couple of takes and minimal of overdubbing, Electric comes across warm and crisp from the flurry of handclaps and thumping percussion that launches Stoney Ground, a stomping romp through the obsessions of a toothless unashamedly lust-filled pensioner who falls for a widowed neighbour and her “honey pot”, gets beaten up by the widow’s sons for his trouble and ends up lying, dripping with blood, dripping with snot, but he’s still dreaming of her you-know-what.

“People over 55,” Thompson points out, “still have urges,” though one’s not sure how closely such things approximate the regulation searing guitar solo that comes with the track’s play-out.

Bawdy English folksong meets greasy, grimy rock ‘n’ roll, is followed by a turn into more sedate territory with Salford Sunday, an impressionist number set in the same dreary town and similar circumstances to those that inspired Ewan MacColl's Dirty Old Town where the narrator wakes up with a morning head, the Sunday papers and recollections of a Saturday night that could have been better. There’s a gentle lilt, a dash of regretful whimsy, but in the end it’s a dreary northern town he’ll be glad to be out of.

Apparently Thompson met the model for Sally B at a fundraising event, and it’s here that the power trio really comes into play, with definite lashings of Cream in the interplay between Jerome’s drums and bassist Taras Prodaniuk as Thompson delivers a scathing assessment of an attractive, ambitious and exploitative opportunist (Who needs books when you've got them looks, Sally B?).

The power trio thunder continues Stuck On The Treadmill, with the beefy riff merging heavy metal and Celtic elements as Jerome thumps away and Thompson addresses the frustrations of a working class existence in hard times.

After that pounding a change of pace arrives with a delicate My Enemy with ethereal harmonies from Siobhan Maher Kennedy as Thompson reflects on the symbiotic relationship a bloke has with his nominal nemesis. There’s something lurking in the distant past that has left two stubborn old men each waiting for the other to make the first move towards a reconciliation that would, at least in my reading of things, undermine the relentless rivalry that, ironically, is the thing that keeps both of them going.

While the title suggests Good Things Happen To Bad People Thompson goes to some length to assert that this is a temporary state of affairs and looks forward to the possibility of a serve of schadenfreude (that’s pleasure derived from another's misfortunes, just to save you reaching for the dictionary) when the Jezebel who cried the day I walked you down the aisle gets her eventual comeuppance.

After the bile and bitterness that has gone before, Where's Home? comes across all bright, breezy and bluegrassy with Appalachian fiddle, yearning harmonies and jaunty guitar work. Ultimately, however, it’s an intermission rather than an escape as Thompson returns to the territory he works best in Another Small Thing In Her Favour.

There’s a husband assessing the ticks and crosses, the algebra of a failing relationship as his wife leaves home (Still, she kissed me once more/ As she gently slammed the door) a gently painful study of a breakup, a portrait of the about to be abandoned partner watching her go in a complex tangle of emotions. Sure, she’s leaving, but she’s doing it with a degree of tact and diplomatic sensitivity. He might be devastated, but there’s a certain degree of well, it could have been worse.

Straight And Narrow heads towards sixties garage rock, though your average garage guitarist probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with something like Thompson’s quicksilver solo, and the average garage lyricist wouldn’t have been able to come up with the image of a woman whose conformity (she walks the straight and narrow) is matched by a grim determination to ensure everyone around her does the same (she’s got eyes in the back of her head).

Delicate fingerpicking and understated but still heart-wrenching ghostly harmonies from Alison Krauss give the dreamlike The Snow Goose a charm that launches the ballad into the same territory Thompson explored in Waltzing's for Dreamers, From Galway to Graceland and Woods of Darnay. Sparse, achingly tender, and a reminder of just how good Thompson is as a lyricist in a setting where there’s nothing to draw the listener’s attention away from the words and the atmosphere.

I’ve had wives and I’ve treated them badly/And maybe a lover or two is the admission early on in Saving The Good Stuff For You, the Celtic waltz that brings the album proper to a close with an aging bloke who’s been around (I’ve seen trouble from every direction / My old head is peppered with gray / I could never resist life’s temptations / Oh, they just seemed to fall in my way), is about to embark on a new relationship and wants the new partner to realise he still has something to offer.

That’s it for the album proper, but the Deluxe version comes with the regulation serve of bonus tracks, a rocking Will You Dance, Charlie Boy with a great fiddle solo from Stuart Duncan that probably didn’t fit with the overall sequence of the album, while I Found a Stray would probably have been one too many in the slow ones department. I might be wrong, but I’d assume The Rival and The Tic-Tac Man were considered for the album proper but didn’t make the cut because there were other contenders that fitted (or, I suspect, worked) better. There’s some flow over from other projects in Auldie Riggs and
Auldie Riggs Dance, both of which are part of the Cabaret of Souls song cycle and, again the 1000 Years of Popular Music So Ben Mi Ca Bon Tempo.

The consensus around the traps seems to rate Electric as Thompson’s best studio work since 1999‘s Mock Tudor, which may well be true, but I’m inclined towards the view that this particular what’ll I try this time has worked better than the previous couple.

It’s not as if, after forty-five years’ worth of writing that has produced a remarkably consistent body of very high quality work, you’re going to come across anything new or radically different on a new Richard Thompson album, and you’re not likely to mistake him for anyone else or anyone else for him either.

You can place a substantial tick beside Buddy Miller’s name in the production department, since Electric is a mighty fine sounding recording, but based on the assumption that we’ll be looking at something different for the next studio project you might not expect him to be occupying that chair next time.

Assuming you’ve been aboard for a while there’s nothing here you haven’t sort of heard before. The guitar solos spark and arc, with emotional intensity to go with the pyrotechnics, the lyrics are immaculately crafted expressions of recurring themes and cautionary tales, the melodies remain simple, concise and affecting, the arrangements and the backing from an impeccable rhythm section well, um, impeccable and the recording sounds clean, crisp and live.

You might be inclined to disregard something that would attract an overall comment like here’s another excellent Richard Thompson album, but consider underlining that another, switching the excellent into italics and ponder the following, which puts it better than I could hope to.

Richard Thompson, in the words of one rather perceptive reviewer, is what you hope all of your favourite young artists will age into, but rarely do.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Todd Rundgren "Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren" (3*)

While Todd Rundgren’s second solo album was originally credited to the band (Runt) that’s probably because there were a couple of things Rundgren couldn’t do well enough yet. He wasn’t ready to play drums, and hadn’t quite got his head around playing bass, which explains the presence Norman D. Smart, John Guerin and Hunt Sales behind the drum kit and bass lines courtesy of Tony Sales and Jerry Scheff. Everything else (guitars, keyboards, synthesizer, saxophones, percussion and vocals) is Rundgren, largely worshipping at the Church of Laura Nyro and Carole King.

That’s noticeable from the beginning of Long Flowing Robe (great chorus) and on through The Ballad (Denny & Jean). Guitar comes to the fore in the riffier Bleeding, which doesn’t work as well as its predecessors, though the guitar solo is rather flashy. Wailing Wall is back in piano-driven singer/songwriter mode, pleasant enough, but pretty forgettable shuffle forward material for mine.  Better is the piano-driven The Range War which isn’t quite country & western, but is definitely Western, as in Wild, the Hatfield and McCoy feud sort of rewritten into Romeo and Juliet territory.

Don’t take yourself too seriously/there are precious few things worth hating nowadays, and none of them are me are the opening lines to Chain Letter and they’re probably the best thing about the track, at least until the sort of  anthemic “carry on” ending kicks in about half way through the track. Clever but, in the long run fairly pointless.

There’s some pleasant falsetto in A Long Time, A Long Way to Go, but the song itself is bordering on the fluffy side. Any lighter and it would blow away, and you could say much the same about the multilayered vocals on the piano-driven Boat on the Charles, which delivers some atmospherics sounds pleasant enough but doesn’t quite manage to grab the attention and Be Nice to Me, which exerts a bit of fragile charm, but doesn’t really insist on it.

Hope I'm Around is a tad catchier, another piano ballad that works rather well, building to a mildly anthemic ending and Parole brings the guitars back to the fore on a sort of I Fought the Law vibe that’s a little too clever to reach outlaw territory. Fifty seconds of Remember Me winds things up, concluding a collection of songs that are obviously the work of a skilled operator and, now that the play count has climbed to 8 aren’t likely to progress too much further.

Sure, there’s a degree of wit there and the album has its own charm, even if it’s a rather low-key who’s a clever boy then sort of charm, but in an environment where a track will need to grab the attention before Hughesy hits the shuffle button I don’t like their chances (assuming the play count reaches the point where they’re in the Top 5000 Most Played.

And for the Top 1500 in a library that’s crawling towards 40,000 tracks? Two words. Iceblock and Hades.

Todd Rundgren "The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect" (3.5*)

Todd Rundgren's tenth studio album is a close to perfect example of what happens when record company and artist stop singing from the same hymn sheet, due to a perceived lack of promotion for the artist’s preferred creative environment.

Bearsville, according to Rundgren’s view of things, wasn’t supporting Utopia (his keyboard and synthesiser heavy prog rock outfit), and while he’d managed to extract the band from their clutches the label still had some idea that solo Todd was a marketable commodity and weren’t about to let him go without extracting another solo record from him.

In such circumstances, on the other hand, one wouldn’t be expecting the artist in question to be spending a great deal of time and effort fulfilling a contractual obligation, and the Tortured Artist title probably delivers a fair indication of the way Todd saw matters.

With Art Direction, Engineer, Instruments, Producer and Vocals credits to Rundgren, the album was released in November 1982 and even produced a hit in the form of the infectious Bang the Drum All Day. All in all, given the background it’s a fair bit better than the listener might expect, though I’m left wishing he’d stayed right away from covering the Small Faces’ Tin Soldier. That’s not picking on Rundgren, by the way. Tin Soldier, for my money anyway, is one of those gems that’s almost impossible to cover respectably, let alone match unless, of course, you’ve got a singer with a fair degree of Stevie Marriott’s throaty heartfelt roar. Sadly Todd ain’t got it.

Or perhaps that’s the point. The pop sound that runs through the rest of the album might be heavy on the synths and is probably the sort of thing Todd could knock out in his sleep, and even running on autopilot there are a couple of fairly classy bits of pop rock here.

One of them is the opening cut (Hideaway), which might be painting by numbers but presents a rather interesting picture, as does Influenza, which is clever, but not too clever by half. Don't Hurt Yourself is pretty good advice, delivered with a veneer of sincerity and rather attractive layered vocals in sort of Hall & Oates territory, with There Goes Your Baybay inhabiting a neighbouring postcode.

The cover of Tin Soldier can only be described as ill-advised unless, of course, it’s in there to prove a point. If it is, and the point is the one I suspect he may have been making (look how far things have gone and what I’ve been reduced to) it sort of succeeds, but not enough to escape shuffle on past this one territory.

It’s fairly obvious Todd has a thing about Gilbert & Sullivan, which is where Emperor of the Highway is coming from. Mileages will vary according to your G&S tolerance, or willingness to listen to reasonable approximations thereof. Bang the Drum All Day delivered a hit, and while it bubbles along quite merrily the first time or three, repeated exposure on a regular basis is probably something to avoid.

The synths send Drive off down the hard rock highway in a pretty much take it or leave it manner. It’s not annoying enough to have me hit shuffle, but I wouldn’t go out looking for it either), and Chant provides a lively way out of the album, and it’s one that hardly sounds like a tortured artist at work.

As a collection of pure pop with a fair dash of synthesised soul Artist works well enough, not quite Rundgren’s best work, but under the circumstances it was never going to be. It mightn’t be a match for, say, Hermit Of Mink Hollow, but it’s not bad. Infectious in places, and enjoyable enough in its own way, but worth going out of your way to track down?

A slot is the five album collection I found it in is, I think, around the right environment. I shelled out the dosh for Hermit and Faithful, got a bit of a discount, and, on that basis, a Tortured Artist comes as a bonus.

The Hot 8 Brass Band "Rock with The Hot 8 Brass Band" (4.5*)

Right from the start of What's My Name (Rock With The Hot 8), six and a half minutes of marching band mayhem (check the interjections, this mother must have been cut live in the studio) it’s obvious there’s something that kicks serious ass looming.

While there’ll be elements in this blend of marching brass, traditional New Orleans jazz, Crescent City funk, old style soul and contemporary hip hop beats that won’t be to everyone’s taste, it’s a case of the whole being more than the sum of the parts and there’s the old shuffle button if there’s something that doesn’t quite cut it as far as you’re concerned.

Take, for example, the start to Joseph Williams’ It's Real. You mightn’t like the generic sounding starting rap, but once the brass kicks in there’s no doubt where you are and it’s of a piece with the opening track which is, I gather a cover of a Snoop Dogg number. Click on the shuffle button when the rap comes back in and you’ll miss the exuberant ending that runs nicely into the traditional Fly Away, where the vocal fits comfortably into the song’s gospel roots as the band whoop and holler in the background.

I Got You kicks off in R&B territory before the brass steps in, and you can say much the same about the cover of Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing, close to nine minutes of unadulterated fonk complete with an uptempo a capella run through the lyric line (assuming a capella allows handclaps).  The band’s Keith Anderson contributes Jisten To Me, while We Are One is an R&B cover dating back to the early eighties. Both are delivered with the same exuberant verve that runs through the rest of the album, as is the group composition Skeet Skeet, and you don’t need to be Einstein to identify the reggae roots of Rastafunk, credited to Hot 8 member Joseph Williams, shot dead by police in controversial circumstances in 2004.

E Flat Blues sits firmly in traditional territory, and will be working its way up towards Hughesy’s Top 1500 most played, which is more than be said for Ziggly Wiggly’s Skit # 1, a forty second denunciation of tight-fisted parade organisers who fail to cough up for the band. I can sympathise, but it’s going to attract the shuffle button on a regular basis, specifically because it precedes a great Love Don't Live Here, which demonstrates what the Hot 8 are capable of doing to a late seventies chart topper. Finally, Get Up (credited to Hot 8 snare drummer Dinerral Shavers, fatally wounded while driving with his family in 2006) winds things up in suitably upbeat fashion as the band rags, the handclaps, whoops and hollers continue and the second line rhythms run on for close to seven minutes.

Rock with The Hot 8 does a rather wonderful job of delivering a brass band that’s definitely contemporary, and while the hip-hop elements are something I could probably do without taking them out of the mix would detract from what is a very impressive restatement of New Orleans tradition in a twenty-first century setting. If you’re looking to deliver traditional styles to new audiences this, I reckon, is the way to do it.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Los Lobos "The Neighborhood"

Looking at the eighth album by eminent roots rockers Los Lobos it’s useful to remind oneself of the chronology that lead up to its 1990 release. In the wake of critical rather than commercial success with How Will the Wolf Survive and By the Light of the Moon they’d done the soundtrack to the Richie Valens biopic La Bamba, hit the notional big time with the eponymous single and then run into a big problem.

According to drummer Louie Pérez, We had released a bunch of cool records and then La Bamba happened and we became this big thing. It almost eclipsed everything else that we had done before. I think the band went through a little bit of an identity crisis because, here we were, 'The La Bamba Band.

The reaction was to retreat to their folkloric roots with the all-Spanish La Pistola y el Corazón (1988), and then head back with a collection of new rock-oriented material with the disc under consideration here.

From the start of Down on the Riverbed to the title track at the end of the album, The Neighbourhood runs through a variety of settings and genres, from a bluesy rock exploration of a vagabond existence where you really don’t want to make anything resembling a commitment even though the offer is made (Down on the Riverbed), a countryish hoedown with vocal assistance from Levon Helm (Emily) and a rocking statement of self reliance (a sizzling I Walk Alone).

There’s a semi-Cajun lilt to Angel Dance, a subdued hymn-like vibe with mandolin and rangy vocals from Levon Helm on the delicately minimalist Little John of God before the rock returns for Deep Dark Hole and the muscular fatback stomp of Jimmy McCracklin’s Georgia Slop. I Can't Understand offers an interesting writing credit of Cesar Rosas/Willie Dixon (yes, that Willie Dixon) and rocks along very nicely indeed and, with Hidalgo’s accordion to the fore The Giving Tree heads back into Cajun territory.

They drop it back a tad for Take My Hand then it’s off into Mitch Ryder house party territory  for Jenny's Got a Pony, four and a bit minutes of old-style sixties R&B before the swirling, accordion-led Be Still and a swing back into the territory we started in for The Neighborhood.

A glance at the personnel listing reveals what looks suspiciously like a vote of no confidence in drummer Louis Pérez, with session musos Jerry Marotta and Jim Keltner getting most of the action, but that’s possibly explained by the guitars, jarana, hidalguer in the credits after Louie’s name.

Looking at the big picture (with the benefit of some twenty-odd years’ hindsight) you can trace an evolution in the Los Lobos catalogue from the first two independent releases to the dance/party band (...And a Time to Dance), to eclectic roots rockers hinting at good things to come (How Will the Wolf Survive, great album in itself, but hasn’t quite got there yet) to stretching the wings a bit (By the Light of the Moon).

In my reading of things La Bamba is an understandable flirtation with the mainstream since the preceding  recordings didn’t race out the door by the semi-trailer load and someone had to provide the music for the Latino rocker biopic, so why not?

Reassert the roots with La Pistola y el Corazón, which I suspect has a bit to do with the array of traditional instruments in the listing below. It’s difficult to go much further than I suspect in that regard, since The Neighbourhood is the only album where the Wikipedia provides those details and the other results at the top of a Google search for Los Lobos discography don’t provide ‘em at all. Pistola presumably had them as well, and with the possibilities in the process of being explored things are being set in place for what was to follow.

What followed was, of course, Kiko, one of the great (for my money, anyway) albums. With The Neighborhood they’re well on the way but not quite there yet. Kiko and the subsequent consolidation of the territory is, however, well and truly on the horizon and The Neighborhood’s bringing-it-all-back-home portrait of the ups and downs of an urban existence delivers a slice of Americana (before that label existed as a genre) blending strands of roots music into an intriguing mix that’ll offer plenty of room for subsequent exploration.

Personnel (according to Wikipedia):
David K. Hidalgo - vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, 6-string bass, tiple, accordion, bajo sexto, violine, Hawaiian steel, koto guitar, drums, percussion
Cesar J. Rosas - vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, bajo-sexto, huanpanguera
Louie F. Pérez, Jr. - drums, percussion, guitars, jarana, hidalguer
Conrad R. Lozano - vocals, fender precision and 5-string bass, guitarron, upright bass
Steve M. Berlin - tenor, baritone and soprano saxophones, organ, clavinet, percussion

Jerry Marotta - drums
Danny Timms - organ, wurlitzer, piano
Alex Acuña - percussion, shekere, hand drums
John Hiatt - vocals
Jim Keltner - drums, percussion
Levon Helm - vocals, mandolin
Mitchell Froom - harmonium

Friday, February 1, 2013

Los Lobos "...And a Time to Dance" (4*)

Despite the existence of a brace of earlier recordings, Si Se Puede! (Yes, we can!) and Just Another Band From East L.A. (a.k.a. Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles) this, I guess is where the Los Lobos story really starts, folks.

That first title, a charity album with proceeds from album sales going to the United Farm Workers of America, looks to be a collection of traditional Tex-Mex instrumentals dates back to 1976, and the second, a similar collection which appeared two years later, was self-released. Both, as you’d expect, are available on CD, and we may well find ourselves setting out to track them down at some point in the future, but as far as the general public goes this is, to all intents and purposes, the start of the Los Lobos we’ve grown to know and love.

High school acquaintances David Hidalgo and Louie Pérez had bonded over an affinity for the likes of Fairport Convention, Randy Newman and Ry Cooder and spent a year listening, playing guitars, and experimenting with multi-track recordings of their own material before recruiting fellow students Cesar Rosas and Conrad Lozano to complete a core quartet that’s still together and functioning forty years later. The fifth member of the current lineup, sax and keys player Steve Berlin gets the co-producer’s credit here.

Hidalgo’s on record as crediting Fairport’s take on traditional English folk music as the inspiration for Los Lobos’ similar take on the traditional Mexican music they knew from their childhoods, and years of  playing weddings and dances in their own community sharpened their chops before they came to be noticed by the Hollywood hipsters, with their first major gig being an opening spot for John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten’s) post-punk outfit Public Image Ltd at the Olympic Auditorium in 1980.

Signed to Slash Records, the Los Angeles label that specialised in local punk and new wave bands and had major distribution though a deal with Warner Brothers, the band’s initial big label release was co-produced by T-Bone Burnett and Steve Berlin and garnered critical acclaim (voted best EP of the year in the Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll), attracting an A- from Robert Christgau and collecting a Grammy for Best Mexican-American Performance (Anselma).

It mightn’t have sold all that well (though 50,000 isn’t to be sneezed at) but the proceeds were enough to fund a van that allowed them to tour more widely and establish Hidalgo and Pérez as a long term writing partnership. Seven tracks, with the duo contributing three (Let's Say Goodnight, Walking Song and How Much Can I Do?) along with Cesar Rosas’ Why Do You Do and three covers set the pattern for subsequent releases.

While long term fans may well have most of what’s here on compilations $7.99 at iTunes is reasonable, and the EP’s inclusion in a Warners Original Albums series (five titles for around $30 though I picked this set up for $20) makes it an attractive proposition if you’re inclined to indulge those completist tendencies.

An accordion-driven Let's Say Goodnight kicks things off with a rocking surge, Walking Song might have slipped past the anthologisers but rocks along as a sort of blues-based polka and the cover of Anselma, as noted, was Grammy material and still turns up in the concert setlist from time to time close to thirty years later.  Ritchie Valens’ Come On Let's Go sets things in place for the band to pick up the soundtrack gig for the La Bamba movie, How Much Can I Do? sits rather nicely in the same territory, as does Why Do You Do and the accordion’s back to the fore for the cover of Don Santiago Jimenez’ Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio that winds things up with a lively crossing the border two step.

As a debut, it’s promising enough, but there’s no warning of the imminent leap forward that would come with How Will the Wolf Survive. Start from somewhere else and then head across to here and you may well be disappointed, but take a gander at the title. As a good time dance album, this works rather well, and works a treat with a chilled article and good company. There is, after all, a time for such simple pleasures.

Graham Parker & The Rumour "Live at Rockpalast 1978 + 1980"

The continuing non-appearance of the new Graham Parker and the Rumour album in the iTunes Store (and, coincidentally, it still hasn’t managed a general release in Australia) was what pointed Hughesy towards The Up Escalator, and it was that same Escalator that pushed me in this direction when I made another fruitless visit to iTunes a couple of days back.

A glance at what they had listed under The Rumour (I’m after a legitimate copy of Max) revealed these Rockpalast shows and a squiz at the track listings showed the second show featured most of The Up Escalator, so the natural curiosity took over. Escalator, after all, was widely panned on sonic grounds, so I was interested in seeing how that material sounded in a live setting.

That, such as it is, is my excuse anyway.

The hard copies of these two shows (also available on DVD) have the 1980 show as Disk One, and the earlier show on the second, which is strange, but ultimately not as annoying as the transposition of Thunder and Rain and Watch the Moon Come Down on the download, something that’s easily fixed but shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

Apart from that, the download has the shows in the right order, with the earlier one featuring what amounted to The Rumour horns (Albie Donelly and John Earle on saxophones, Dan Ellis on trombone and Dick Hanson, trumpet) while the 1980 version features the post-Bob Andrews Rumour with Nicky Hopkins on keyboards,

As far as the performances go, there isn’t anything here that will surprise, apart from the fact that the Escalator material works rather well in the live setting, which hardly comes as a surprise given Parker’s reputation as a white hot live act and The Rumour’s status as one of the better instrumental combos to emerge from the New Wave ruckus.

Parker delivers his regular archetypal angry young man posture, spitting the lyrics and declaiming his venomous disdain of anyone who sticks their head above the parapet. Fevered, impassioned and, ultimately, the prototype for much of what followed, he comes across as an Anglicised Springsteen or Southside Johnny, working the same sinewy post-Stones and Van Morrison as his stateside equivalents, driven on by a band that’s every bit as good as The E Street Band or The Asbury Jukes.

So, no surprises, just a reminder of how good this outfit actually was, and a scratching of the head as to the continuing non-appearance of Three Chords Good, an issue that will hopefully be dealt with at some point in the concert-going future.

Track listing:
23 January 1978

Heat Treatment
White Honey
Soul on Ice
Back to Schooldays
Heat in Harlem
Fool’s Gold
Watch the Moon Come Down
Thunder and Rain
Stick to Me
I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down
Don’t Ask Me No Questions
Not If It Pleases Me
The New York Shuffle
Soul Shoes
Hold Back the Night

18 October 1980

No Holding Back
Jolie Jolie
Love without Greed
Discovering Japan
Passion Is No Ordinary Word
Howlin’ Wind
Thunder and Rain
Don’t Get Excited
Beating of Another Heart
Empty Lives
Devil’s Sidewalk
Endless Night
Can’t Get No Protection
Nobody Hurts You
Don’t Ask Me No Questions
Tripe Face Boogie
Soul Shoes

Elvis Costello & The Imposters, State Theatre, Sydney, 30 January 2013

I'm inclined to think of it as a sort of post-post modern reaction to the realization that an artist isn't going to make a motza out of album sales. In an everything old is new again approach to things, the emphasis is back on touring, providing value for money and entertainment while keeping things fresh and interesting for the performers.

With the Spectacular Spinning Songbook Elvis Costello has got it just about right on all fronts, and I have to admit my first reaction as I walked out of the State Theatre on Wednesday night was along the lines of wanting every show to feature the Wheel, closely followed by regret that I hadn't been to the Melbourne show the previous Friday.

It didn't take much further thought to realize the every show with the Wheel concept was basically flawed, not least on the keeping it fresh and interesting for the performers front. It also rules out the possibilities of Elvis Solo (a la Brisbane 2009) where he's got the chance to draw on the full extent of his vast back catalogue, an Elvis/Steve duo show, a perfectly paced set from the Imposters that covers most of the obvious places and still has things to interest those of us who want the obscurities, or Elvis in an orchestral or big band setting either with or without some combination of Steve and The Imposters.

That's a fairly wide range of options. I can't think of many other performers who could offer that many choices, and Costello's flair and imagination means the Spinning Songbook isn't just a selection of sixty-odd songs shifted into a random order.

Other people might be tempted to do that, but not Elvis.

You need opportunities to work the randomness into something resembling a paced setlist, and he delivers some of that by including a number of nonspecific items in the options.

The first of those are a number of Bonus items, like the Time bonus, where all he's committed to is the vague idea that the songs have Time in the title, or possibly have some reference to its passage. A Time bonus might, therefore, feature Man Out of Time, which is on the wheel anyway, American Gangster Time which wasn't, Time is on My Side or The Last Time, or, conceivably, The Long Honeymoon.

Then there are a number of album versus album options, like King's Ransom, which will deliver two songs, one from each album, with the choice made on stage by your host, presumably based on a mixture of where the set list needs to go, what they've got ready to roll and what Elvis actually feels like playing.

Finally there's the Hammer of Song, a variation of the old fairground test of strength, with the successful dinger getting their choice played (assuming it's on the wheel).

The opening and closing sections of the show, predictably, don't feature the Wheel at all, and deliver the possibility of throwing in any of the usual suspects that haven't had an airing to wind things up and send the customers away satisfied.

So, all in all, the whole package delivers the possibility of a thoroughly enjoyable evening's entertainment, assuming everything runs to plan, and if it doesn't there are avenues there to allow them to be manipulated into something that's going to work better.

After a low key opening set by Joe Camilleri and friends George Butrumlis and (I'm guessing here, Joe didn't introduce the other guitarist) Tony Faehse that wasn't likely to divert attention from the headliner Elvis and the Imposters delivered a one-two-three-four salvo of I Hope You're Happy Now, Heart of the City, Mystery Dance and Radio Radio that was almost guaranteed to get things off to a rocking start and satisfy the not too many obscurities crowd. With the preliminaries (the Overture, according to the EC website, with terpsichorean styles of Ms. Kelly Kay Kelly) out of the way Costello (quite literally) changed hats, morphing into Napoleon Dynamite, ringmaster and entertainer extraordinaire.

And this, folks, is where the extra keep it interesting and fresh for the performer factor kicks in, because the interaction, which is going to vary from guest spinner to guest spinner, delivers the chance to vary the spiel and, quite possibly, add some new angles that can be incorporated into future shows.

It was, however, fairly obvious that the chosen ones tended to fit a fairly obvious demographic. The first couple up had a beanpolish be-hatted young dude, with the obligatory attractive girlfriend, and the majority of those who ended up in the spotlight tended to be young, female and easy on the eye. Hardly surprising, really. They're not likely to be looking for old grizzled blokes like Your Correspondent, who might do something tricky like ask for Shatterproof because he lives in the Little House of Concrete, which hopefully is and the bank manager who made it possible is in the audience.

You can loosen things up, but you're not going to want to be loosening things up that much.
In a miracle of alliteration, Beanpolish Be-hatted Dude’s spin produced the Beauty Or Beast Jackpot, which turned out to be All This Useless Beauty followed by Monkey To Man. Other possibilities could well have included anything from the All This Useless Beauty album (Distorted Angel? Almost Ideal Eyes?) if you wanted to head down that route, and if you wanted to widen the Beauty bit you could conceivably stretch it to, say Lipstick Vogue.

As far as Beasts are concerned, King Horse? Pads Paws And Claws? Leave My Kitten Alone?

See what I’m getting at?

There were plenty of options again when the second spin brought up a second jackpot, the
King's Ransom, which turned out to be Indoor Fireworks and I Lost You out of thirty-something possibilities, and the third spin went to Roses, which could have been A Good Year for the Roses, but we’d just been over into the country spectrum, so we got Song With Rose.

That, being a co-write with Roseanne Cash, delivered a complication when Cash came up next but we got Cry Cry Cry ahead of, say Complicated Shadows (which was, if I recall correctly, written for The Man In Black).

The jackpots continued with Time resulting in a predictable Strict Time and Out Of Time and it wasn’t until Spin Six that we got something that didn’t leave a great deal of leeway with Less Than Zero being specified.

Asked for their choices the next couple up on stage named Pump It Up and Long Honeymoon, a strange enough combination to bring The Hammer Of Songs into play (successfully, as it turned out) and while I could have done without Alison again, I’m glad it turned up because something sparked Elvis around that point.

Alison sort of morphed into I Hope which was followed by a rapid fire I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down, High Fidelity, Oliver's Army and Watching The Detectives, all apparently spur of the moment decisions.

Spin Eight came up with the Time Jackpot again, so we got Beyond Belief and (I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea to wind up the main set.

With the crowd already on their feet, as they had been for a good twenty-something minutes, so when Elvis and Steve appeared to begin what the published setlist labels the Finale, he kicked off with what he labelled the Joanna Jackpot, which gave Steve the excuse to do a little ivory-tinkling on She, followed by Everyday I Write The Book and Napoleon's Spin, which turned out to be Accidents Will Happen. Wind things up with Man Out Of Time (Spin Eight honoured) and Peace, Love and Understanding and there you have it, in all its semi-random glory.

As I remarked to The Pope of Pop over a chilled article in The Marble Bar afterwards, a five track Finale was a bit different from the repeat one encore after another that EC usually seems to favour (two encores, ten songs here), but a hard rocking half hour before the encore break meant that we were never going to get more than one closing salvo.

We were back at the stage exit to catch Elvis and band on the way out, a good forty minutes after the show closed, and it was fairly obvious that the man was, not to put too fine a point on it, stuffed, which seemed to confirm the one encore’s all you were ever going to get theory.

Looking back on it, you’d be hard pressed to find anything to complain about, or at least anything that might approximate a reasonable expectation, and a squiz at the setlist from the previous Friday’s show in Melbourne reveals how much things can vary from night to night with this formula.

That, in turn, explains why I’m looking forward to the Return of the Wheel at some point in the future, and when it does reappear on these shores, come hell or high water, Hughesy’s off to the lot, the judge’s decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.

And that, in turn, delivers a fairly clear commercial message to any promoters out there. Slot him into the right venues and you can probably turn an Elvis Costello tour into a reasonable little money spinner. Some Wheel shows interspersed between a run around the wineries, non-wheel Imposters shows in, say Hobart, Sydney and Melbourne, ship Davey Farragher and Pete Thomas back to Jack Shit territory outside Los Angeles and swing Elvis and Steve back across the country doing a duo thing and you could probably cover the expense of bringing the crew to these shores rather comfortably, and turn a tidy profit afterwards.

As far as Elvis is concerned, the whole thing, this whole range of viable commercial options verifies a justly earned reputation as a very canny operator as far as establishing a career path that allows him to make a comfortable living doing what he feels like...

Elvis Costello & The Imposters State Theatre, Sydney 30 January 2013

Overture - with terpsichorean styles of Ms. Kelly Kay Kelly,
I Hope You're Happy Now
Heart Of The City
Mystery Dance
Radio Radio

The Spectacular Spinning Songbook - with your hostess, Daisy Devotchka

"Beauty Or Beast" Jackpot - Spin 1
All This Useless Beauty
Monkey To Man
"King's Ransom" Jackpot - Spin 2
Indoor Fireworks
I Lost You
"Roses" - Spin 3
Song With Rose
"Cash" - Spin 4
Cry Cry Cry
"Time" Jackpot - Spin 5
Strict Time
Out Of Time
Less Than Zero - Spin 6
The Hammer Of Songs - Double Swing
Pump It Up
Long Honeymoon
Alison - Spin 7
I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down - IMPROMPTU
High Fidelity - IMPROMPTU
Oliver's Army - IMPROMPTU
Watching The Detectives - IMPROMPTU
"Time" Jackpot - Spin 8 (Deferred)
Beyond Belief

"Joanna" Jackpot - Spin 9
Everyday I Write The Book
Accidents Will Happen - Napoleon's Spin
Man Out Of Time (Spin 8 honoured)
Peace, Love and Understanding

In contrast, five days earlier:

Elvis Costello & The Imposters, Palais Theatre, Melbourne 25 January 2013

Overture - with terpsichorean styles of Ms. Kelly Kay Kelly
I Hope You're Happy Now
Heart Of The City
Mystery Dance
Radio Radio

The Spectacular Spinning Songbook - with your hostess, Daisy Devotchka
Oliver's Army - "Joker" - Spin 1
My All Time Doll - Spin 2
The River In Reverse/I'll Take Care Of You/This Wheel's On Fire - Spin 3
I Want You - Spin 4
Alison - Spin 5 - Split Decision
Shabby Doll - Split Decision - "Imperial Chocolate" Jackpot - Spin 5
Honey Are You Straight Or Are You Blind? - - "Imperial Chocolate" Jackpot
Deep Dark Truthful Mirror - Spin 6

So Like Candy/Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood - Spin 7
Accidents Will Happen - Spin 8
"I Can Sing A Rainbow" Jackpot - Spin 9
Blue Chair
Red Shoes
Purple Rain

Chelsea - "Melvis and Elvis Choice" - Spin 10
I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down - IMPROMPTU
High Fidelity - IMPROMPTU

The Hammer Of Songs:
Watching The Detectives - "The Songs Of Sneer"

Pump It Up
Peace, Love and Understanding