Sunday, September 22, 2013

Tin Men "Avocado Woo Woo" (4*)

The publicity material describes the Tin Men as America's premier sousaphone, washboard and guitar trio, which you might think is stretching things a tad given the possibility that there aren’t too many trios featuring that particular configuration.

I’m looking more towards the Tin Men as an example of the need to work a variety of gigs to keep the wolf from the door, with Alex McMurray having another source of p(l)aying gigs where he doesn’t have to work the spotlight on his own.

Here he’s got a counterfoil in the form of Washboard Chaz, who has his own set of alternative revenue sources. The Palmetto Bug Stompers work their way through traditional New Orleans Jazz,  Washboard Rodeo blend New Orleans and Western swing influences and the Washboard Chaz Blues Trio probably deliver just what the moniker suggests.

Third Tin Man Matt Perrine has the handy ability to contribute some stringed bass, but when you’re rated a virtuoso sousaphone player by Downbeat, co-founder of the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, one of the city's premier brass bands, the recipient of Offbeat magazine's award for best tuba player for 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 you might be tempted to stick to your stronger suit.

Perrine also picked up credits as musical director and arranger for the musical Nine Lives, composed by Colman deKay and former Cowboy Mouth guitarist, Paul Sanchez, a post-Katrina postcard from New Orleans with the score performed by an all star cast including Irma Thomas, Harry Shearer, Michelle Shocked, Alex McMurray and Allen Toussaint. He’s also, predictably, turned up on Treme, and keeps the wolf from the door by playing gigs with, among others, the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, Paul Sanchez and the Rolling Road Show and Jon Cleary's philthy phew.

On that basis you can expect to see the name popping up in these parts fairly regularly from here on.

There’s a fair percentage of original McMurray material in the Tin Men repertoire, and you’d expect various numbers that appear in other settings would make their way into the trio’s live set, but there’s a bit of cover material in evidence on Avocado Woo Woo, including an intriguing take on Stevie Wonder’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours, and Chuck Berry’s Maybellene.

Having heard McMurray in other settings a burst of gospel to kick things off mightn’t be quite what you’re expecting, but Jesus Always Gets His Man is a serve of street gospel that charges along without taking any prisoners and doesn’t seem to have any tongues in cheek. That’s seemingly at odds with the sentiments expressed in the slinky Swerve, a co-write with Washboard Chaz that’s typically McMurray.

Perrine overdubs some trombone over the regular instrumentation on Turn My Lights Back On, delivering a dash of Dixieland to the mix. There’s no real indication who Tano-San is, but he seems like a cool dude on What Tano-San Say, three minutes of raffish je ne sais quoi, and the title track may or may not be paying tribute to a snacky delicacy. McMurray’s I Got A Guy seems to announce a connection to figures in the local underworld who can get things done for you (and if he can’t, he’s got a guy who can).  

Why Don't You Haul Off And Love Me? is about what you think it’s about, but dates back to 1949 when earlier versions of the track features at the top of the Country and Race Records (precursor to Rhythm & Blues) charts. The Mississippi Sheiks operated around the time of the Great Depression and provide the source for Lonely One In This Town.

There’s a touch of Hugh Masakela (think Grazing in the Grass) about Perrine’s Living And Loving On The West Bank  that segues nicely into Maybelline.

Things are back in Mississippi Sheiks territory for I've Got Blood In My Eyes For You  and New Orleans producer and engineer Keith Keller gets the writing credit for Lies, a prime slice of power pop that contrasts nicely with what preceded it, while The Valparaiso Men's Chorus Boy's Auxiliary roar along on the chorus of McMurray’s If You Can't Make It Here.

All in all, having caught most of McMurray’s back catalogue (apart from the earlier Tim Men releases (Super Great Music For Modern Lovers and Freaks For Industry haven’t made their way into iTunes hereabouts, and I’m *that close* to ordering hard copies) there isn’t a great deal that’s new here, but the guy’s a class act, Washboard Chaz makes an interesting counterfoil, and I’m increasingly supportive of the notion that you don’t need an actual bass player if you’ve got a sousaphone handy.

Of course, it also helps if you’ve got Matt Perrine to play the thing.

Good time jug band influenced music with wit, charm and washboard. What’s not to like about that?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Aaron Neville "My True Story" (4.5*)

After close to thirty years (since I first heard Orchid in the Storm and his work with the Neville Brothers) I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion we’re not going to get a classic Aaron Neville album, at least not one that matches a unique voice to the stellar collection of material that would set it off just right.

That’s not to suggest there haven’t been great performances along the way, and if you were to grab any of Aaron’s recorded output (it’s a fairly extensive discography, as detailed here) you’ll almost certainly find something that sits comfortably on the continuum between sublime and outstanding. The problem is you won’t find an album where the contents (the whole contents, that is) sit there consistently.

It might be out there, of course, but if it is I haven’t found or recognized it.

And, in the meantime, My True Story will do until the real thing comes along.

Part of the problem is a tendency for whoever sits in the producer’s chair to select a range of material that shows off that voice in a variety of settings. That's fine if it works, but these things don't always work quite as well as you might hope. Don Was and Keith Richards deftly avoid that problem here by restricting the range to doo wop, which as it turns out, was Neville’s first love. Glance at the track listing and you’ll recognize a couple you mightn’t associate with the style, but there’s no question about the nature of the treatment Money Honey, Be My Baby and Work with Me Annie receive here.

The contents rock along gently with the vocals front and centre and the instrumental touches firmly in the background, filling out the spaces where the vocals don’t reach and padding out a sound that’s decidedly retro but still clear as a bell. Much of the credit for that has to go to the quartet of backing voices drawn from actual original doo-wop outfits like The Teenagers, the Del Vikings and, particularly, the Jive Five, who provide the album’s title track.

There’s a deft touch of swing to the opening Money Honey, with Richards’ guitar prominent in the mix and operating in the less is more school, which is entirely appropriate here. The falsetto kicks in big time on My True Story, heavy on the heartbreak of an ill-fated romance with Eugene Pitt, who sang the Jive Five original, as one of the voices in the background.

The crew sashays their way through Leiber and Stoller’s Ruby Baby at a pretty lively clip while things are slowed down for a smoky reading of Curtis Mayfield’s Gypsy Woman, a prime slice of Impressions’ Chicago soul given a doo wop slant. Ting a Ling, a Number One hit for The Clovers written by Ahmet Ertegun and covered by Buddy Holly, gets a suitably swinging reading.

You might be inclined to slot the Jeff Barry/ Ellie Greenwich/ Phil Spector Be My Baby firmly into girl group Phil Spector Wall of Sound territory, but that’d be forgetting the role doo wop played in the development of that scene. Given how good things have been up to this point, with class oozing out of every selection you might think I’m stretching it when I reckon this is the highlight so far, but the interaction between Neville and the backing quartet is particularly fine here.

And it’s almost as good on the lively take on Little Bitty Pretty One.

The classic tracks continue through Neville’s take on Little Anthony and the Imperials' Tears on My Pillow and The Drifters’ Under the Boardwalk gets the old groove going perfectly before brother Art Neville turns up to sit in Hammond on B-3 for Hank Ballard’s Work with Me Annie.

This Magic Moment segues seamlessly into True Love, with Goodnight My Love (Pleasant Dreams) winding up proceedings without, for once, the seemingly obligatory slew of bonus tracks. .

Cut live in the studio with a crackerjack band (Keith Richards and Greg Leisz on guitars, Benmont Tench on organ, Tony Scherr on bass, saxophonist Lenny Pickett and George Receli on drums) My True Story comes across as a genuine period piece, delivered clear as a bell thanks to advances in recording technology with the voices the way they should be and everything else as window dressing.

A seemingly effortless recreation of a long bygone era, delivered with panache and best of all, there are at least a dozen other titles already in the can for a sequel, with Neville suggesting a likelihood of Doo-Wop parts 2, 3 and 4!

Bring ‘em on...

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Todd Rundgren "Runt" (3*)

Whether you regard this effort as the self-titled debut of a band called Runt or as Todd Rundgren’s solo debut there’s no arguing where it lies in the Rundgren chronology which is, as far as I’m concerned, all that matters.

At the initial time of release, Runt was identified as a trio consisting of Rundgren (guitars, keyboards, vocals), and brothers Hunt (drums), and Tony Sales (bass), sons of comedian Soupy Sales who went on to collaborate with David Bowie in Tin Machine. The entire album was written and produced by Rundgren,who’d freed himself from the Nazz, but wasn’t quite ready (by all accounts) to go solo. As he stated about the subsequent Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren there were some things he couldn’t quite manage yet, and most of them involved rhythm section duties.

What he had managed to get his head around, however, was the studio, collecting an engineer’s credit for The Band’s Stage Fright, recorded at Albert Grossman’s Bearsville Studios in upstate New York and persuading Grossman that he had something to offer from his own artistic bat.

That should have been obvious from his stint with The Nazz, but here he’s out to demonstrate his ability to cut it on his own, presenting a blend of guitar driven power pop and piano-based ballads that come across as an interesting fusion of elements and hinted at interesting things to come.

Rundgren’s guitar work drives Broke Down and Busted, a gospel blues psychedelic workout before the first of the piano ballads (Believe in Me). The piano’s at the forefront for We Got to Get You a Woman, the breezy slice of Brill Building soundalike that turned into a minor hit (as it should have, it’s a rather classy number, very well put together in a  Laura Nyro meets Carole King fashion) and the poppy stuff continues with a rocking and surprisingly cheerful (given the circumstances) Who's That Man.

Rundgren drops the Carole King vocal tone on the next piano ballad, Once Burned, which may or may not have anything to do with the guest appearances from The Band’s Rick Danko and Levon Helm. There’s a bit more drive in the hard-hitting and rather power poppy Devil's Bite and Rundgren’s sarcastic streak comes to the fore in I'm in the Clique, a biting commentary on the state of the music industry with bustling riffs and repetitive  robotic vocals in the verses.

That same quirkiness also lurks behind the absence of lyrics in There Are No Words, with echoes of Gregorian chant and dash of Brian Wilson, and the Laura Nyro piano elements are back (he even checks her by name) at the start of Baby Let's Swing/The Last Thing You Said/Don't Tie My Hands, five and a half minutes of classy pop medley before another pop suite (nine and a quarter minutes of Birthday Carol) takes the listener through a fair proportion of the tricks up the Rundgren sleeve.

Birthday Carol’s subdued classical intro, an instrumental passage that has odd echoes of early Steve Miller Band with subdued horns that drifts into blues-styled guitar workout, harmony soaked piano ballad, subdued folky bit that builds back into rocking guitar and horn-driven R & B that drops back into classical territory doesn’t quite add up to everything and the kitchen sink, but it’s not far off.

File under: Signs of things to come. If you’re not familiar with the man and his work this wouldn’t be a bad place to start.