Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Lenny Kravitz: Black And White America

I've been listening to some of the CDs that have been piled on my desktop for a while, and Lenny Kravitz's "Black And White America" rose to the top of the pile recently. I'm glad it did.

First off, I'm a fan. I love Lenny; have ever since "Mama Said". I admire his ability to synthesize hard rock and soul groove into an amalgam that very few others have ever succeeded in creating. Not everything he's done has been a slam-dunk (2004's "Baptism" is particularly off the mark), but he's never let a misfire keep him down.

Far as I'm concerned, "Black And White America" is a masterpiece. First up is the title track, which essentially says "Stop dreaming about the day when the races are friends - it's already here, if you'll open your eyes." I find this refreshing when compared to the message of much of today's R&B, which seems intent on widening the racial divide rather than healing it."Life Ain't Ever Been Better Than It Is Now" reinforces the positive vibes with a message of thankfulness overlaid by one of L.K.'s patented guitar-driven grooves. "Rock Star City Life" is another relentless track that stands with any of Lenny's best. A couple of things are formulaic; there's a dance track with Jay Z. rapping about bumping and grinding (yawn). "Sunflower" is a retro-Disco throwback, complete with cowbell and penny-whistle -- not quite as retro as Jamiroquai, but you get the idea.Overall though, the disc is a stone winner.

If I have one complaint about this album, it's that it's too long. Yes, I know - I'm complaining about getting too much for my money; slap me now. But at 66+ minutes, too much of a good thing can be too much -- especially when the slow songs ("Dream", "Push") are loaded at the end.

But no complaints: put it on, turn it up, and let the groove take you. That's what Lenny's always been about, and this is a fine addition to an amazing lifetime of albums. Shame it didn't get played on the radio (but that says more about the state of today's radio than about Lenny). Listen, lather, repeat.

For Further Research:

Monday, May 13, 2013

Booker T. Jones: The Road From Memphis

Even if you don't know anything about Memphis soul, you've heard of Booker T. and the M.G.s -- if only via their monster hit "Green Onions", still a staple on oldies radio. Although that's the only cut that gets on the radio these days, the M.G.s had multiple big instrumental hits in the 60's and 70's: "Time is Tight", "Hang 'Em High", "Hip Hug-Her", "Soul Dressing" and more. Besides which, they were the house band for Memphis' legendary Stax Records label, the home of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes and many more black artists who left an indelible mark on soul music - and most all of whose records felt the stamp of Booker T. Jones and his Hammond B3.

Although the star of Memphis soul waned, Booker T. never went away. He cut a number of records for A&M in the 70's, launched an M.G.s comeback with Columbia in the 90's, and continues recording; his latest, "The Road From Memphis", contains a return to roots and some auto-biographical songs that are quite welcome and pleasingly organic in this day of highly-computerized music.

Booker's B3 is front-and-center, of course. There's a classic Memphis groove that insinuates itself everywhere. I love the title cut, "Walking Papers," and "Rent Party", a minor-key affair that seems to underscore the fact that this is one party that's not truly a celebration, and "Representing Memphis", a Southern-fried groove featuring a duet between one of my favorite soul shouters, Sharon Jones (of the Dap-Tones), and Matt Berninger, frontman for Cincinnati's The National. And there's also "Down in Memphis", on which Booker T. himself sings about coming up in the poor South and the way it was back then.

This is a good disc, not a great one. But for fans of Memphis Soul Stew there's a lot to like here. Booker rides the classic Stax vibe while bringing the mood into the present -- it's not a nostalgia trip, but it's got enough of that savory, meaty funk to take you back. Good stuff - I'm looking forward to what he does next.

For Further Research
  • Booker T.'s page on the Stax Museum Website
  • The legendary Hammond B3 organ was an integral part of the Sound of the Sixties. It showed up everywhere, from Abbey Road to Electric Lady Studios to the Capitol Tower. Would you believe there's a documentary about it? Check it out here. (I grew up playing a B1 myself.)
  • Live from the Sixties: Booker T. & the M.G.s perform "Green Onions" live in Europe on the 1967 Stax-Volt Tour. Dan Penn on killer lead guitar!
  • Booker T. plays "Down In Memphis" on Daryl Hall's "Live From Daryl's House" with Daryl duetting.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Foghat: Fool For The City

Sometimes, hard rock albums from the '70s don't hold up well. I'm sure you've had the experience of throwing on an album you haven't heard in years; something you had fond memories of in high school or college, but 25 years later (or so), doesn't have the charm it once did -- think Uriah Heep, or maybe Iron Maiden.

It's been about that long since I've listened to Foghat's "Fool For The City", which came out in 1975. When I was in high school, about every other guy wore a "Fool For The City" t-shirt; the album was that popular. And why not? It was a flat-out blues rocker, with plenty of AM and FM radio hits.

Foghat, for those that don't know, was built on the ashes of Savoy Brown, the legendary UK blues group of the '60s. Although the Savoys were universally beloved, they never achieved Top 40 success in the States - a situation Foghat would definitely remedy.

I half expected the disc to bore me when I slipped it on, but once the needle hit the groove it was immediately apparent that "Fool" was not one of those albums that was an artifact of a diminished memory. Cut in '75, pretty much at the peak of Foghat's popularity, it's got the AOR rocker title cut, the AM Top 40 hit "Slow Ride" (in an extended, eight-plus-minute version you never heard on the radio), and a fantastic cover of Robert Johnson's classic "Terraplane Blues" that scorches Side 2. And there's also a preview of things to come: a (lead singer) Dave Peverett co-penned number, "Take It Or Leave It", which closes out the album with a taste of the sound that would win Foghat many more fans a couple of years later.

So when all's said and done I'm pleased and mildly excited to find that this Lp is just as fun and vital now as it was back in the day. Worth grabbing if you find a stray copy, for sure.

For Further Research:

Monday, April 29, 2013

Cal Tjader Trio: The Cal Tjader Trio

Well, I guess it's no secret that I'm a bit obsessed with vinyl. This year on Record Store Day, I visited my local vinyl seller, Spin Records in Carlsbad, CA., to see all the cool goodies that the companies release on that day. There was a lot of neat stuff, but the one thing I had to have was this neat reissue of one of jazz' classic 10" Fifties offerings, the debut album from the Cal Tjader Trio, reproduced exactingly, down to the vintage Fantasy Records label and the colored vinyl (although the originals were released on red, not orange, wax).

The neat thing about this record, aside from the fact that it makes a very rare collectible available again, is that Tjader was one of the leaders of the Latin Jazz movement that culminated with Carlos Santana's work that began in the late '60s. Interestingly enough, Tjader himself was not of Spanish descent, but grew up in the Bay Area, where he soaked in all the local rhythms transplanted from down south (the same way the salsa scene in NYC appropriated rhythms and chords from the Puerto Rican and Cuban emigrees of the '40s and '50s).

Tjader was a multi-instrumentalist who played primarily xylophone and vibraphone, but also piano and bongos (dig that hip coffee-house cover!). He cut his chops with George Shearing and Brubeck, but soon graduated to leading his own band; after leaving Shearing's group he returned home to San Francisco, formed a trio and began cutting records for Berkeley's Fantasy Records, a hotbed of West Coast Jazz throughout the '50s (and later, the launching point for West Coast rockers from CCR to Tommy James, and the final resting place of the Stax catalogue).

This album was cut in '51 but issued in '53 as Tjader's first album under his own name. It's an absolute classic recording, squeezing 8 cuts onto 10 inches, and every one a winner. Where some '50s jazz feels dated, or derivative, Tjader's work still sounds fresh, cool and happening.

Tjader later went on to record for Verve, the Jazz label of the '60s, and was also a founder of the legendary Skye Recordings label, which, though short-lived, contributed enormously to the advance of jazz and jazz-fusion in the late '60s with artists such as Grady Tate. He died in 1982.

For further research:

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Richie Havens: Stonehenge

Richie Havens is one of my favorite folk singers ever, thanks to his gruff, straining voice - a voice that sounds like it's been used, by God, and used hard. He also write magnificent lyrics, when he's not covering others' excellent compositions.

Richie came to fame with his performance at Woodstock, but made a splash on the Greenwich Village coffee shop circuit 5 years earlier, where his one-man performances got the hipsters on their feet. He labored in obscurity for a while, and then came Woodstock, and the album "Mixed Bag", which featured "Handsome Johnny," the standout performance from that show. ("Mixed Bag" had actually been released two years prior, in 1967, and his record company hastily re-did the artwork to reflect the presence of "Handsome Johnny" - versions without that banner on the cover can be hard to find.)

After that, Havens was on the move. He became popular - popular enough, in fact, to get MGM, the parent company of his record label, Verve, to give him his own imprint - the Stormy Forest label. His album "Alarm Clock", issued in 1971, featured his acoustic cover of the Beatles' "Here Comes The Sun," which went on to be a Top 40 hit. That record also contains the signature track "Younger Men Grow Older," which is a concert staple to this day.

"Stonehenge", issued in 1970, continues to be one of my favorite Havens Lps, due in large part to the standout "Minstrel From Gault", a not-so-thinly disguised Viet Nam protest song, but one that - unlike others of the genre - wears its age well. In it, Havens talks about the constancy of war through the ages, wrapping his raspy voice inside a gorgeous cocoon of instrumentation that swirls and shifts around the listener, building to a climax that sends shivers down your spine. (At least, it does mine.)

That's not to say the rest of the record is chicken feed. There's a standout cover of the Bee Gees' "I Started A Joke" that nearly eclipses their original, a fantastic cover of Dylan's "Baby Blue", and "Open Our Eyes", the closest thing to a prayer on any Havens Lp. Only the disc-closer, the 8-minute "Shouldn't All The World Be Dancing", a pastiche of song and found sound, laced with bits of moralizing conversation, belies its hippie-era roots. Overall, it's a stellar set - well worth the listen for even a casual fan.

Oh, and the sound quality is fantastic for a recording of this age - it was recorded not to audio tape, but to 35mm magnetic film in the RKO General movie sound stage in New York city. True high fidelity, and clearly audible.

If you're wondering where to start with Richie Havens, pick up the excellent Ryko "Best Of" compilation from 1999. But if you're ready to dig deeper, start here. You'll be rewarded richly.

For further research:

Friday, February 8, 2013

Isaac Hayes: Branded

When you're going to release an album from an iconic singer, you use an iconic image on the cover, right? So for Isaac Hayes' first album in seven years, and his first (and last, as it turns out) studio album, Virgin's Pointblank label featured a cropped-in closeup of Ike's shaven head and sunglasses -- an image instantly identifiable to soul lovers everywhere.

Also instantly identifiable was Hayes' voice, that signature deep baritone that could shout, whisper and coo without dropping a beat. By the time this album was released in 1995, he'd become a genuine Godfather of soul and hip-hop, taking his place up next to George Clinton in the halls of the Funky Fathers.

Some comebacks can be disappointing. Not this one - Ike was in full form, with his signature brass and wah-wah chuck-a-lucking in the background, strings swelling, and the musical canvas awash with love, sex and booty-bumpin'. Just like the Hayes of yore.

The disc starts off with one of Hayes' signature extended atmosphere pieces, 12 minutes' worth of mood setting to get you into the proper frame of mine, y'see. Although listed on the jacket as four individual tracks, the pieces flow smoothly into each other, getting the groove lubed up for what's to come.

After the opener comes another Hayes signature: a slowed-down, extended vamp on the Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer In The City." And when Isaac intones "Back of my neck gettin' dirt and gritty," you'd best believe it - you can feel the sweat and heat in every syllable. As the album moves along, Hayes plays tribute to himself, with an almost note-for-note reprise of "Soulsville", one of the standout cuts from the "Shaft" movie soundtrack he scored nearly 30 years before. But just so you know he ain't no has-been, he launches into the album's closer, "Hybperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic", a 12-minute chunk of sharp hip-hop funk that features a sharp female chorus chanting the title 'word' at regular intervals while Ike raps on. It's since become a club classic.

It's a tour-de-force, and it turned out to be his last. After this disc, Hayes put recording on the back burner while he romanced his second love, acting. He was recording tracks for a new album in 2008 when high blood pressure claimed him; the album was never finished. He was just 65. "Branded" stands as one of his best, and a testimonial to a multi-talented, multi-faceted career.

For More Research:

Heart: Bebe Le Strange

Heart had a pretty amazing ride in the '70s. Coming from nowhere in 1976, they ripped up the charts with their debut Lp, "Dreamboat Annie", and the radio killers "Magic Man" and "Crazy On You". Fans were in love with Ann & Nancy Wilson, not only because they were smokin' hot, but because they were women who could rock. Ann's delivery was regularly likened to that of Robert Plant (it didn't hurt that a bootlegged concert cover version of "Battle of Evermore" leaked out from Heart fanboys). They were on fire.

Then came "Heartless", and "Little Queen" and "Barracuda", and "Dog And Butterfly". It seemed the band was unstoppable, but personnel changes behind the scenes were making things rough. By the time 1980 came around, Heart had already released 4 Lps; "Bebe Le Strange" would be their 5th, and it was the hardest rocking album to date.

The title track was an FM radio hit, played on every album-rocker from KMET to WMMS. And "Even It Up" was a Top 40 hit, but it only got to #33, a victim of the punk/New Wave tide that was sweeping over pop radio. The ladies tried to update their sound to match the trend, but it was a bust - songs like "Break" and "Down On Me" rocked hard and edgy, but the melodies were nowhere to be found. As a result, the record sounds unfocused and uneven, even with the presence of the two aformementioned radio hits and the gorgeous "Silver Wheels", which ends Side 1.

I think this album has aged poorly due to this lack of focus, but it's certainly not Heart's worst - that (dis)honor would come a couple of years down the road, when the Wilsons traded their guitars for synthesizers to regain radio play.

For further research:
  • "Magic Man" performed live on The Midnight Special, 1977, with original guitarist Roger Fisher rippin' it up. Ann is at her most Plant-ish here.
  • "Dreamboat Annie" recorded live on stage, but with no audience about the same time, 1976-'77 or so. This clip showcases Nancy fingerpicking her acoustic while the band harmonizes behind her.
  • The controversy surrounding Heart's 2nd Lp, "Magazine", is not only the stuff of legend but an inside look at how the music industry works. Read about it on Wikipedia.

Flatt & Scruggs: Hard Travelin'

After listening to the big 2LP set of Flatt & Scruggs (reviewed here), I dug out a studio album that I picked up on a trip to Lancaster, PA last year. "Hard Travelin'" was released in 1963, just about the time of the Beverly Hillbillies debut on TV - notice that the jacket calls out "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" prominently!

While F&S are renowned for their bluegrass roots, "Hard Travelin'" features precious little bluegrass - it's more of a straight country album in the mold of the early-60s. Don't get me wrong - there are plenty of bright spots, like "Ballad", and "99 Years Is Almost For Life", the story of a young man wrongly put away for a long time by a judge who wanted his fiancee. There's also "The Wreck Of The Old 97", a train song in the best Southern tradition of train songs, complete with "you'll be sorry" danger warning. And "Pastures of Plenty" is a farm-worker's lament, very much like that of Woody Guthrie's "Deportee", but from the other side of the coin.

All in all, not a bad record, but an average one. Listeners looking for a hard fix of bluegrass pickin' will not sate their lust here, but if you're in a Country barn-dance sort of mood, this might just fit the bill. (Later reissued as "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" by Columbia, who knew a good thing when they saw one.)

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Flatt & Scruggs: All Time Great Recordings

OK, I know it's not fair to judge an entire career on the strength of a greatest hits Lp, but you've gotta start somewhere, right? True confession time: I've come to country music late in my musical life. In my youth, I was a rocker, period - there was only rock and roll. Classical? Obsolete. Country? Hick music. Especially hillbilly stuff like Flatt & Scruggs -- that was music for a generation of Dust Bowl refugees, as far as I was concerned. Wisdom doesn't always come with age, but often, you do have to wait a while until all the parts of your brain fill out, yeah?

So, again, I've come to country and roots music late. I think it started in the 90s with the Alt-Country movement - I was playing Uncle Tupelo, Wilco and Golden Smog on the radio, and these guys had a sound I liked a lot. Which led to digging further into their influences, and hearing Lyle Lovett, Roseanne Cash and Rodney Crowell. Which in turn led to Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. And from there... well, here we are.

Now I'm first to admit that bluegrass, as a style, is an acquired taste. Pickin' and grinnin' don't go down so easy with everyone. But if you don't appreciate Flatt and Scruggs, you can't really appreciate the Greateful Dead or the Doobie Brothers -- no, really; you can draw a straight line between them.

Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were two of country's biggest stars, starting in the 1940s and going straight into the '70s. Flatt, who possessed the archetypal country voice and the ability to play guitar, teamed with Scruggs, a truly inventive banjo player - an innovator on the same level as Les Paul. He actually invented a three-fingered way of picking the banjo that gave his runs a sound no one else could duplicate.

Flatt & Scruggs were big in the '40s with the hillbilly cats, but when the '50s folk music revival came on, they got really big, scoring a string of Country Top 40 hits that ran for most of the '60s. They finally broke through to the general audience with the theme songs to "Beverly Hillbillies" and "Petticoat Junction", as well as the film score to "Bonnie & Clyde".

This two-record set was issued about 1970, and contains 20 songs that were pretty big winners chartwise during the 1960s. It's a good showcase for Flatt & Scruggs' talent ("Foggy Mountain Breakdown"), humor ("99 Years Is Almost For Life"), influence ("Salty Dog Blues"), and country sentiment ("When Papa Played the Dobro"). Some of the music is just stunning - "Foggy", of course, is a seminal country song that's been covered by nearly everyone of note who could lay claim to proficiency with banjo or fiddle over the past 60 years. Other songs show that they were in touch with changing times - first a cover of Johnny Cash's 1958 smash "I Still Miss Someone", then a downhome version of Mel Tillis' "Detroit City".

There's nothing here from their '40s or '50s catalog, of course, but this set is what it is - a decade's retrospective from a duo who'd made their mark, and then some. If you see it, pick it up! Mine cost me a whole dollar in a ratty thrift store, and I consider it the find of the month, no doubt. The entire country-rock movement of the early '70s would not have happened but for these two.

For further research:

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Budos Band: The Budos Band

If you've known me any length of time, you know that I'm a freak for funk and soul music. To me, the best period in modern Black music was from 1967 to about 1982 - after Sly Stone and James Brown broke up the joint, but before hip-hop and rap became all-pervasive.

If you dig hardcore funk like I do, you will absolutely LOVE the Budos Band. This is a big unit, consisting of no less than 11 highly-skilled musicians from the bad streets of Brooklyn, funkin' it up with a full horn section just like the J.B.'s and Manu Dibango used to. I mention him specifically because the Budos' identify themselves as Afro-Funk, a musical subset made popular in the early 70s by artists such as Dibango, Osibisa, Hugh Masekela and Mandingo. Even War dabbled in this arena a bit (but with more of a West Coast feel underlying the funk).

Afro-Funk fuses a hardcore funk rhythm with harmonics and melody structures that borrow heavily from traditional African music. It is relentless, sometimes tribal, and always danceable.

The Budos Band are instrumentalists first and foremost. Which is to say, they ain't no words on this record. What there is is a rock-solid backbeat that never, ever lets up, coupled with a driving horn section that pummels you with straight-up funk, the kind that would make Bobby Byrd come up out of his seat and start to boogie uncontrollably. Budos works in a minor key on most of their songs as well, which gives you an almost uneasy feeling of foreboding, even as you're shaking your rump to the funk.

Formed in 2005, The Budos Band is one of a solid lineup of retro-soul acts that record for Brooklyn's Daptone Records, which grew out of the (in)famous Desco Records neo-soul combine of the Nineties. Suffice to say that when you hear The Budos Band, or any of their labelmates  – such as the Sugarman Trio or Sharon Jones – you will swear that it's 1974 again and you're listening to some new, undiscovered gem about to break wide open. But this isn't derivative aping of a bygone style — it's heartfelt performances made by people who are truly devoted to perpetuating a classic genre. This is the first of their three (so far) albums.

If I graded albums, I'd give this an A+, but I don't so just go order it, willya?

For Further Research:

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Rod Stewart: Every Picture Tells A Story

Boy, talk about a moment in time... this was it. Rod Stewart was at the absolute top of his game in 1971, and if you need proof, simply reference this masterpiece, "Every Picture Tells A Story." Still working with his mates in Faces (who rocked hard behind him on this album), but so filled with creativity he had time to record 4 solo albums of his own for Chicago's Mercury Records between 1969 and 1972. This is the 3rd in the series, which began with "The Rod Stewart Album" and "Gasoline Alley" and ended with "Never A Dull Moment".

Just look at all of the amazing music piled into this one Lp: "Reason To Believe," " Mandolin Wind", "Maggie May", the wonderful title track, and his awesome cover of the Temps' "I Know I'm Losing You" (of which "Maggie May" was actually the B-side of the 45 at first). If there is only one Rod album you own from this period, this one should be it. Timeless music well worth searching out on vinyl, although easily available on CD these days.

These days, no longer the sex symbol in the leopard pants, Rod is comfortable in his suit and tie, crooning Andy Bennett covers with what's left of his gin-soaked voice. But I'll take my Rod straight up, thank you; no chaser needed or desired.

For Further Exploration: