Monday, December 29, 2008
Monday, December 22, 2008
If you were to thumb through my record collection anytime after 1983, somewhere between John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf you would find an old album from a balding man with a perma-5 O'Clock shadow spotted wearing a garish cardinal red suit. The man leaning against an Oak tree didn't look like a hipster musician. If you had to guess you'd probably peg that man for a life insurance salesman. At about this moment, you, like most of my teenage friends at the time, would turn to me with mocking laughter and say "what the heck is this? Johnny Horton?". It was always a tough record to defend. Ninety-percent of the record was filled with corny historical songs about gold mining in Alaska and the Bismarck sinking. But hidden in there was a real gem. It was his first single ever (from January of '56) and it was a hardcore honky tonk diamond called Honky Tonk Man. The same song that, at that same time of the mid-80's would become a mini-hit for a budding young country musician named Dwight Yoakam. (Dwight and I knew what was cool even if others didn't!)
Friday, December 19, 2008
Busker rule number one: if you have to rely on money-maker songs, have at least five to draw from because I’m coming by every day at 6:55 PM sharp and I’m hungry and tired and I have two kids that want to jump all over me at home. OK?
That said, my favorite end-of-the-line busker is Sam Strong who plays the recorder. I hear the sweet intertwining celtic melodies as the sound of the departing train subsides and my hand instinctually grasps for the nearest bit of loose change on me. After donating regularly for over a year, one day I went up, introduced myself and asked to record. One of the songs I recorded that day is this short, sweet, Sam Strong composition, Frisco Fog. I hope you enjoy.
Monday, December 15, 2008
After World War II, in the northern hills of Mississippi, a music sub-genre grew like the honeysuckle vines that predominate the small farms of that area. It came to be known as Hill Country blues, and like it's older kissing-cousin to the South, delta blues, it incorporates finger picking, a healthy dose of bottleneck guitar, and stories of murder, deception, hard days working and, of course, the frustrations of love.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
ORIGINALLY POSTED ON:8/28/07
ARTIST: Screaming Blue Messiahs
ALBUM: Gun Shy
DESCRIPTION OF MEDIA: Pre-recorded cassette (Elektra Records)
IMPRESSIONS: Back in the mid-'80's I was a faithful viewer of MTV's 120 Minutes, which primarily featured bands that were a little too quirky for the Top 40 but not quirky enough to be 'underground' or 'college rock'. For the most part, the bands featured on the show didn't stray too far from standard notions of song-craft and musicianship (though Gene Loves Jezebel and We've Got A Fuzzbox And We're Going To Use It certainly tested the lower limits of the latter). The play-list changed very little (if at all) from week to week, but I tuned in anyhow, hoping I'd find something new and exciting. I rarely did. But when I first saw the video for the Screaming Blue Messiah's "Twin Cadillac Valentine", I knew my patience and endurance had paid off. I think I only saw the video a few times, but the image of a bald man wearing a smart suit and abusing a battered Telecaster was burned into my brain. And the ultra-hooky "ooh ooh ooooh" vocal hook (which I later discovered was stolen 'verbatim' from a Spencer Davis Group song) continued to rattle around in my head. I didn't find a vinyl version of Gun Shy at the time, but soon, when I was working at a record store, I found this (used) cassette version.
I have to admit that it took me a while to really appreciate this album. The sound is a little tamer than I expected, given the highly-charged images from the video. (Yeah, I know that music videos are marketing tools and can't always be trusted to give wholly accurate representations of the band in question. However, the "Twin Cadillac" video seemed gritty in an authentically low-budget manner, and the on-screen energy of this power-trio really didn't seem contrived, at least not to my 17-year old eyes.) Based on the accounts I've read about their live shows (I never had the opportunity to see them), it is apparent that the ferocity that they brought to their concerts was pretty difficult to reproduce in a studio environment.
Still, once I got used to the not-quite-in-your-face production, I really dug what I heard. The best way that I can describe the Messiahs is as a blues-based R&B Bo Diddley-ish punk rock band with a free-associating street-poet singing and shouting above the din. The song structures are pretty simple but there are some interesting layers to the sound mostly due to frontman/guitar-player Bill Carter's unique style. He's definitely not a 'guitar-hero" type player, he tends to be very rhythmic in a choppy, frantic manner (I think one of his idols was original Dr. Feelgood guitar player Wilko Johnson, who himself exhibited a very rhythmic, choppy, but groovin' style). His sound is pretty bare-bones, augmented by some delay, tremolo, and occasional wah-wah. His playing style, as well as the impressionistic/cryptic lyrics, are what elevate the music and songs above conventional, trite rockabilly/blues-rock.
I like most of the songs on this album, favorites being the aforementioned "Twin Cadillac Valentine", "Talking Doll", "Someone To Talk To", "Killer Born Man", and "Let's Go Down to the Woods and Play". Interestingly, all except that last song are on Side Two, and the only songs I really DO NOT like ("Smash the Marketplace", which sounds to 'dancey", and a cover of Hank William's "You're Gonna Change", which is just kinda 'blah') are on Side One. I don't know if this is coincidence or if there were different producers (or engineers, or studios) used on different tracks on the album. Whatever the reason, Side 2 seems to have the most energy and the best songs.
VERDICT: Keep it. It is getting pretty worn out and the sound is deteriorating, but I really like it. I don't think it is even available on CD, but until it is, and I obtain it, I'll keep the cassette.
Monday, December 8, 2008
It's pretty rare that I hear a song in passing and immediately become hooked. That's what happened the other day as I was flipping channels on TV. Somewhere between countless repeats of CSI: Poughkeepsie and Law & Order: The Tax Assessment Files, I ran across an HD music channel that was showing a bunch of one-off live performances. Click, click, click. What was that? I heard one little refrain and I clicked back. Live on stage was some band I didn't recognize performing a song I had never heard before. But, man oh man, that song had a nice groove to it. Before I could say "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" the song was over. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet and the obvious refrain of the song, I was able to piece it together quicker than those super sleuths on CSI: Youngstown. That little song I saw on the boob-tube two weeks ago is our Song of the Week. It's called Valerie and it is performed by some lads (and a lass) from Liverpool, England who call themselves The Zutons.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
The Cassette Tape Trials: YARDBIRDS/SPENCER DAVIS GROUP
ORIGINALLY POSTED ON: 8/8/07
ARTIST SIDE A: The Yardbirds
ALBUM SIDE A: Over, Under, Sideways, Down
ARTIST SIDE B: The Spencer Davis Group
ALBUM SIDE B: The Best of the Spencer Davis Group
DESCRIPTION OF MEDIA: TDK AD90 recorded from vinyl by my buddy Jeff. If I remember correctly, he gave it to me when he was "lightening his load" before going traveling in Central America.
IMPRESSIONS SIDE A: To begin, I want to mention that I think Over, Under, Sideways, Down is pretty much the same album as Roger the Engineer. I think this was akin to what happened with early Beatles albums where the albums would have different names and track-listings in England and America. I don't know which was the "import" and which was the "domestic" release, and I don't know precisely how they differ. But I think they were pretty much the same damn album besides the name and the cover art.
Anyhow, Over, Under, Sideways, Down flat out kills. I have long been a fan of Jeff Beck's solo work, beginning with his first Jeff Beck Group album through his jazz fusion-y stuff in the 70's. And I always liked the Yardbirds, though I am guilty of generally considering them to be inferior to the Stones. However, the more I listen to this album, the more I realize that that assessment was pretty unfair. I'm sure that my judgment was clouded in large part by the fact that the Yardbirds simply didn't last very long and didn't leave behind a large quantity of impressive recordings. However, specifically comparing the Beck-era Yardbirds with the Rolling Stones of the same time period makes choosing the "better" band much more difficult, if not impossible. I now think that the Yardbirds (all of them, not just Beck) were among the most accomplished players of that time, and the material on this album is some of the strongest and most "cutting edge" of the mid-sixties rock scene.
Though it seems totally "duh" to say so, Beck's guitar work is flat-out amazing. On the blues numbers he sounds like he's playing in a roadhouse from another dimension, and on the more obviously psychedelic songs he completely transcends 'normal' dimensional realities. His sound is great, his phrasing is great, his choice of notes is great—I can't say enough good things about him. This comes as no big surprise I guess since I'm a guitar player who tends to like the "guitar heroes" of the sixties. However, I am only these days realizing how good some of the rest of the band was, especially the rhythm section (Paul Samwell-Smith on bass and…Mr. McCarty, I think, on drums). The more I hear this album, the more respect I have for the entire band's abilities. And singer/harmonica-harmonica player Keith Relf only had ONE LUNG! (At least that's what my old buddy Morgan told me.)
I like damn near every song on this album. There are a few rather light-weight attempts at "groovy, man" hippy slogan-rock ("Farewell", "Turn Into Earth", "Ever Since The World Began"), but they are generally short and easily dismissed once the next song starts. For people who like the grittier side of the British Invasion this album is a must.
IMPRESSIONS SIDE B: The Spencer Davis Group are generally known for three things: Two classic songs ("I'm A Man" and "Gimme Some Lovin'") and one super-talented singer/instrumentalist (Stevie Winwood). This album has all three of these, and sadly, not much else, to recommend it.
However, those two songs, sung by that one guy, are pretty damn amazing (despite the fact that one of them has been hi-jacked by monster.com or some such slime-bucket company for their TV commercials). Pile-driving, canyon-sized grooves, fat slabs of greasy keyboards, and unfathomably authoritative singing from the then-teenaged Winwood make these prime examples of mid-sixties British R&B. In addition, "Back Into My Life" is a great slice of pop, and "Keep On Running" is a nice upbeat stomper. But aside from that, the material is pretty tame, and at least one song, "This Hammer", is flat out embarrassing. (There is no suspension of disbelief strong enough to make me accept that Winwood ever did much "real" work at all, much less "on the railroad for a dollar a day".)
VERDICT: Keep it. Someday I'll get a CD copy of Over, Under, Sideways, Down, but until then, this stays in the collection.