Category Archives: Music

Take a walk down Kentucky Avenue with Tom Waits

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Warning: This is a participatory post.

I’m not allowed to play Tom Waits at home while my wife is there, I can only listen through my headphones. The voice, well she just doesn’t get it. I can understand that, he is an acquired taste, but even she admits the power of his lyrics, well the ones she can make out.

I think everyone should listen to Tom, I know that ain’t gonna happen but I’m going to do my part to introduce you non-Waiters to one of the most original artists of our times via a song called Kentucky Avenue. It is a remembrance of his childhood and his friendship with a wheelchair bound pal stricken with polio. It is an amazing song, one that still moves and astounds me with its beauty. It captures that time so perfectly that it transports you.

So  click here, hit play, then come back to this page and read the lyrics below as Tom sings, do this, you will not regret it.

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Well Eddie Grace’s Buick got four bullet holes in the side

And Charlie DeLisle is sittin at the top of an avocado tree
Mrs. Storm will stab you with a steak knife if you step on her lawn
I got a half a pack of Lucky Strikes man so come along with me
And let’s fill our pockets with macadamia nuts
And go over to Bobby Goodmanson’s and jump off the roof

Well Hilda plays strip poker with the Mummers ‘cross the street
Joey Navinski says she put her tongue in his mouth
And Dicky Faulkner’s got a switchblade and some gooseneck risers
That eucalyptus is a hunchback there’s a wind down from the south
So let me tie you up with kite string and I’ll show you the scabs on my knee
Watch out for the broken glass put your shoes and socks on
And come along with me

Let’s follow that fire truck I think your house is burnin down
Asnd go down to the hobo jungle and kill some rattlesnakes with a trowel
And we’ll break all the windows in the old Anderson place
And we’ll steal a bunch of boysenberries and I’ll smear em on your face
I’ll get a dollar from my mama’s purse and buy that skull and crossbones ring
And you can wear it round your neck on an old piece of string

Then we’ll spit on Ronnie Arnold and flip him the bird
And slash the tires on the school bus now don’t say a word
I’ll take a rusty nail and scratch your initials in my arm
And I’ll show you how to sneak up on the roof of the drugstore
I’ll take the spokes from your wheelchair and a magpie’s wings
And I’ll tie em to your shoulders and your feet
I’ll steal a hacksaw from my dad and cut the braces off your legs
And we’ll bury them tonight out in the cornfield
Just put a church key in your pocket we’ll hop that freight train in the hall
We’ll slide all the way down the drain to New Orleans in the fall

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You’re welcome.

Kentucky Avenue is on the album Blue Valentine.

 

 

 

 

Overlooked, initially underwhelming and woefully underplayed classics.


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Before Jive Talking and Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees were a great pop band. Consisting of three brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb. They were responsible for hits like To Love Somebody, I Gotta Get A Message To You, Massachusetts, Words and many others. After the release of their 1969 double velvet encased album Odessa, Robin left the group to pursue a solo career. Odessa remains their crowning pop achievement, but it is the next release, Cucumber Castle, minus Robin, that we touch on here. From the album cover, with the two remaining Gibbs dressed as Knights, plumes intact, to the music’s over the top production, everything about Cucumber Castle is in excess.

Through my many years of listening to music, this is without a doubt the most overproduced, lush, bloated, garish, dense, beautiful mess I’ve ever heard and I love it. Don’t Forget To Remember Me, Bury Me Down By A River and I Lay Down And Die seem as if they were written in an English manor with a baroque quartet during the 17th Century then updated with a bit of pop sensibility pepper. The album is a masterpiece of production that holds up to any of today’s rock, pop or classical release engineering. It is stunningly beautiful. The only clunker on the album is the song My Thing, I’ve never understood its inclusion as it breaks up the thick sonic cycle before and after it.

Cucumber Castle was not a hit album release and didn’t birth the usual Bee Gees top singles. It was and is overshadowed by its predecessor Odessa, the follow up album 2 Years On, featuring the return of Robin and the smash hit Lonely Days, the subsequent Top 40 hits and finally the mega success of the Saturday Night Fever era and their mirror ball future. Buried in that hubris of great pop and decadent disco are the bold shining nuggets and crystals of Cucumber Castle. It is a place worth visiting.

Note: I have no idea why the CD of Cucumber Castle is so high on amazon, so here is a link to the mp3 version and a iTunes download.

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When your first two albums are true musical masterpieces the third has the potential to add to your legacy, disappoint and question the preceding work or take a back seat to it. In the case of The Band’s Stage Fright the majority view lies with the latter, mine the former, very few the middle. A tiny number of artists create their seminal works with their debut and sophomore release, but with Music From Big Pink and The Band (aka The Brown Album), The Band did just that. Seasoned musical veterans of years on the road with Ronnie Hawkins, a tour as Bob Dylan’s backing band and months of wood shedding songs together gave birth to these two incredible albums. Hailed as heroes of the new country rock genre with a cover feature in Time Magazine, lauded by critics worldwide, the pressure on their third release was enormous.

The critics were not kind to Stage Fright, but every critique was based on what came before, and what came before was different. There was less cornfield and more rock in the grooves of Stage Fright. Less sharecropper observations and more street views. Less in-the-moment songs and more remembrance. It was also a work by a successful band instead of struggling musicians in search of not only a career but a steady paycheck. They had stopped living and working together,  they now had families and separate lives and paths. Looking back on Stage Fright, time has lessened the critical web surrounding it. It was unfair to expect The Band to stay the course and not explore their rock and rhythm and blues alleys. And really, how can any album containing songs as rich and remarkable as Stage Fright, W.S. Walcott Medicine Show, The Shape I’m In, Daniel And The Sacred Heart and The Rumor be considered anything other than triumphant.

Though musically estranged from its older siblings, I believe Stage Fright stands with them as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, consecutive first three albums by any musical artists.

Jackson Browne – Standing In The Breach, still fits.

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To me Jackson Browne is that old worn flannel shirt that you love to wear. You’ve had it for almost 40 years but it still fits great, it’s well worn and reminds you of your past days with a smile of remembrance. It’s your go-to shirt for rainy days, perfect with a hot cup of coffee and a dog curled by your feet.

I think Jackson Browne’s first five albums (Jackson Browne, For Everyman, Late For The Sky, The Pretender and Running On Empty) are at the pinnacle of the singer/songwriter genre. Each one is heartfelt, introspective and beautifully rendered. They make up the majority of the material on that flannel shirt. The work after those seminal albums is very good, singular moments are as good as his strongest moments, but as albums they don’t measure up.

Standing In The Breach not only measures up but adds to the shirt’s wove.

Starting with a tune he wrote as a teenager, The Birds of St. Marks could be an early Byrds’ album cut,  full of jangling guitars and hook laden it’s like a letter from an old friend. And after all these years his voice remains as beautiful and expressive as ever. Later he returns to the scene of one of his early successes in the song, Leaving Winslow. It’s beautiful bouncy jaunt that’s a perfect sequel to Take It Easy.

Like much of his “Post Empty” work many of the songs are political, but here they are more spoken to you than preached, approached in the same manner as his songs of heart and heart break. The Long Way Around and If I Could Be Anywhere are the best examples of this softer but just as moving approach.

The album closes with Here, a beautiful love song that would fit seamlessly on any of his first albums.

Standing In The Breach is Jackson Browne at his best, ten songs of love, honor and hope, all conjured by the affairs of the heat and of State.

 

 

Counting Crows – Somewhere Under Wonderland, A Review

 

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I  am a fan of Counting Crows. I am the first to say sometimes I find them ponderous, especially in ending their songs and in their signature drop out vocal interludes. That said, after seeing  the first track on their new CD, Somewhere Under Wonderland, clocks in at 8:22, well, I thought the worst. Fortunately Palisades Park is a tight composition in movements flawed only a little by the two aforementioned Crows’ traits, but the ear candy hooks make up for it.

But what follows are four of the tightest, rock solid compositions that Counting Crows have ever unleashed.

Earthquake Driver is a uptempo rocker that gallops along with melody and vocal hooks that grab you from the first listen; if there was still AM rock radio this puppy would capture lots of airplay.

Dislocation reflects Adam Duritz ever changing views on fame, but again most of those views are fascinating in a voyeuristic frame. The song is a guitar driven rocker with all the patented Crow dynamics present, a standout rhythm section pushes it in overdrive.

God Of Ocean Tides slows the pace and proudly displays this band’s overlooked Americana roots. I never understood all the Van Morrison references, from the start Counting Crows took some earth from Big Pink’s basement and built their own foundation, something Van aspired to but his Gaelic blues usually beautifully betrayed him.  God Of Ocean Tides is not only the best song on Wonderland it may be the best song in the band’s strong and varied catalog. Lyrically it’s just beautifully rendered:

Truck stops and river Gods
Gas stations of the Cross
Following a ghost,
Following a ghost,
I pray the water wash away
The memories and the cost.

Carry me south, to the sea
Along with your memories of me
We are born in the water
Now we return to Thee.
Colored lights
And birthday cakes
Candle wax
On paper plates.

Breathe the water
Hush-a-bye, hush-a-bye.
You can see through water
All the way up to the sky.

The next track Scarecrow sounds like it dropped right from August And Everything After. It’s classic Crows and Duritz, both in composition and performance. You’ll be singing out Geronimo before the song ends.

The rest of the album is sturdy work, it holds up the running time with solid hooks, lyrics and musicianship. In fairness it would be near impossible to top the 4 previous tracks, tracks that stand with the best of Counting Crows work.

Somewhere In Wonderland is the best Counting Crows album and the best album I’ve heard in 2014.

The Zombies, an overlooked masterpiece risen from the dead.

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Released in America in February 1969, two years after it was recorded, The Zombies’ second album Odessey and Oracle (O&O) fell flat and never made a dent in the charts. At its release the band was not together, they had broken up due to stagnant sales and some inner band acrimony. The closet thing to The Zombies at that time was the newly formed band from their ashes, Argent. That band would soon have the hit Hold Your Head Up on their hands.

The shame of all of this is that O&O is one of the best examples of British pop/psychedelic ever recorded. Solidly in between Sgt. Pepper and Pink Floyd’s early work, it stands the test of time. To fathom the little faith their record company had in their work all you have to know this tidbit. The graphic designer/illustrator mis-spelled Odyssey, but the brass decided not to change it after it was discovered, before being printed,  due to the cost, which was minimal.

If it wasn’t for some smart American DJ’s discovering the year old single Time Of The Season, and it becoming a hit, the album would never have seen American shores. The songs are stunning and, just like Pepper, recored in Abbey Road Studios and engineered by Geoff Emerick. Graced with a great vocalist in Colin Blunstone and players such as Rod Argent and Chris White, the work soars with harmonies, guitars, keyboards and the go-to instrument of the day, the Mellotron.

O&O starts off with this track, Care Of Cell 44, and only gets better.

I admit, I was a very late comer to this work. I discovered it about 7 years ago. I feel bad for all the times I could have heard this gorgeous piece of work from a greatly under-appreciated band.

O&O is now considered one of the great 60’s albums and is ranked in most Best Albums Lists. Rolling Stone has it at #100 in its “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” and New Musical Express  placed it at #32 on their “100 Greatest British Albums Ever!” list.

If you have never heard it, I highly recommend you listen, also recommended is the Live 40th Anniversary Concert. It and The Zombies sound amazing.

 

 

Covers Better Than The Original? Yep.

Everybody loves a list so here’s mine on a topic that is on many music blogs and sites. Now most of the time I prefer an artist’s own rendition of their work. Many people prefer Rod Stewart’s version of Tom Wait’s Downtown Train. Granted Rod has a voice that is like a sandpapered angel, beautiful; Tom’s is a sandpapered frog . But Tom’s version is full of the city’s mean streets and its hard luck citizens. I believe it is the vastly superior version.

So here are five covers I like better than the original, it’s subjective and personal, just like music.

5. Turn, Turn, Turn – The Byrds. That shimmering guitar jangle and Fab-like harmonies make one beautiful song. The great Pete Seeger’s original, not so much.

4.  House Of The Rising Sun – The Animals. This was a traditional blues folk song brought to radio life by a great British Invasion band. Here is an original interpretation by blues legend Leadbelly and his wife.

3. Mr. Bojangles – The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Originally recorded by its writer Jerry Jeff Walker and released in 1968. It was a minor hit. In 1971 it was eclipsed by TNGDB and their excellent version.

2. Twist And Shout – The Beatles. Originally recorded by The Top Notes, then more successfully  by the Isley Brothers, the song is now on hold  to The Fabs and John Lennon’s throat tearing vocals. One of the great vocal performances in rock and roll.

1. All Along The Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix. Sorry Bob Dylan, I love you, but Jimi now owns this.

So, there are my favorite covers that outshine the originals, I’d love to hear yours.

CSNY 1974, a review

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They were the biggest band in the world at the time, unfortunately they were not together. Promoters and AR cats convinced the members of CSNY that a new paradigm of concerts could be written on their back; 30 shows at BIG American arenas and stadiums as well as one gig at Wembley Stadium in London. The concert sometimes ran as long as four hours what with material from the group’s canon and their solo careers, all successful let me add.

Apparently acrimony and old grudges were never put away doing the tour and it was full of rockstar indulgences and crazy behavior from the first night. It came to be known as the Doom Tour, not fondly remembered by the band. It did not heal the group’s fissures but only widened them. But recently, after going back to the audio recordings, the band heard some amazing stuff and realized what this release proves: In 1974 CSNY was a muscular, moody, mercurial and mesmerizing ensemble capable of music magic.

Containing three CD’s with 40 songs picked from the tour and mixed by Graham Nash, with a DVD of concert footage mainly from a show at the now gone Capital Centre in Landover, MD, CSN 1974 is jam packed. It also comes with a beautifully designed 188 page booklet. (Note: I was in attendance at one of the Cap Centre shows and was amazed at how loud they were, it was not their albums, they were a savage rock band).

If you are a big CSNY fan I would purchase this box, if you are a hits only cat then the single CD with some Nash handpicked cuts will suffice. So far I’ve only seen it available on iTunes.

What you will hear are some great performances, here are some of the my personal highlights, you will have your own I’m sure.

Disc 1

Wooden Ships, a steroid dozed version big and beautiful

Helpless is a hard song to screw up, they don’t. They also add a pathos and longing to it.

Johnny’s Garden is a treat played by this group.

Black Queen is a Stills’s blues rock rave-up that channels Hendrix.

Disc 2 The Acoustic Set

The Lee Shore is just beautiful here. Throughout the sets everyone is in great voice.

Our House has never been sung better live by Graham, if so I’ve not heard it.

Blackbird, yep The Beatles tune done here in stunning four part harmony.

Suite: Judy Blue Eyes is a hard song on any stage, it’s an amazing version on such a big stage here.

Disc 3

Pre-Road Downs may be the best cut here, a rollicking version that at the time betrays the gloom and doom of the tour, you can hear the fun on stage.

Chicago and Ohio close out the discs, and they both work. It’s important to fully realize the times, here was the biggest act on the planet putting their political foot down hard on the throats of American politics. Risks and consequences be damed. How many of the big names today would dare do that?

CSNY 1974 is a moment captured, a moment when four of the best and most successful musical artists of their or any generation go on the road and changed the game with voices high.

Greatest Hits are just part of the story and the music….

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In the new paradigm of the music buying machine, we have lost the concept of “album buying”. Singles are downloaded or watched on the computer screen, but before the digital age held sway, it was called the Greatest Hits album.  I’m not a Greatest Hits cat, to me they are a collection of an author’s best chapters from his or her novels. Albums are, well were, a document of a certain time in an artist’s creative journey. I cannot imagine downloading one song from The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper or The Stones’ Exile On Main Street, they are only pieces of the work, without context or companionship. The albums stand in testament to the work and artistry created.

That said, Greatest Hits are very popular and remain a vital piece of the artist, publisher and record company’s life blood. So let’s take a look at some of the top selling Greatest Hits collections; in looking at them I’ll give you an alternative path to absorb the root of that artist’s work.

1. The Eagles’ Greatest Hits. This is the one of biggest selling albums of all time and the number 1 Greatest Hits album. I’m sure you have it. To see where this band evolved from and to hear a great record, I recommend you listen to their second album, Desperado,  released in 1973. The work is steeped in Country Western music and cowboy imagery. The_Eagles_-_DesperadoThe songs are strong and are connected through a time and space. Here, surrounded by its family and a cycle of stories, the song Desperado is a poignant and moving elegy to a man and a time past. This is gritty and honest music by my favorite incarnation of the band. I don’t believe they ever hit this consistent height again, but they soar here.

2. Creedence Clearwater Revival Chronicle. If ever a band can be summed up by their singles and hits, it is surely CCR. The path not taken here is their fourth album released in 1969, Willie and the Poor Boys.  Unknown John Fogerty was on a roll here, from Down on the Corner to his political firebrand, Fortunate Son (still true and effective today). Every song is a winner. It Came Out Of The Sky explodes off the record, while covers of American classics Cotton Fields and Midnight Special add an authenticity to the work showing where the party started. This album is what the Americana genre uses as its blueprint, they just don’t know it.

3. Jimi Hendrix Smash Hits. If all you want to hear is Purple Haze or Foxy Lady this one is for you. Hendrix was a nuclear explosion and his albums contained detonators, ignitions and fireworks that need to be heard, not only in context but chronologically. His growth as a singer, songwriter and player on his albums was and is beautiful to hear. I’m going to go with his debut Are You Experienced as the one to explore.  2054522This was revolutionary stuff in 1967 crossing all borders of music; it was so fresh, raw, magical and expressive but soaked in classic blues. Hendrix took rock/blues guitar by the throat and shook the hell out of it until it surrendered to him. This is the starting point of the new language the instrument spoke.

4. The Essential Bob Dylan. Yep, it has Blowin’ In The Wind, Mr. Tambourine Man, Like a Rolling Stone, Knocking On Heaven’s Door and many more, as a matter of fact, they keep releasing it with new additions. Picking a path for you here is a thorny task, Bob is a chameleon and his albums roll and move with his interests, moods and whimsey. I believe he is THE greatest songwriter and is America’s true Poet Laureate, to pick one of his works is futile, but I acquiesce.  Unknown-11975’s Blood On The Tracks is Dylan focused and tight, it is work of great power and astonishing insight into this enigmatic man; it’s a close view he would not share again. I’ll put it this way when Tangled Up In Blue is not the best song on an album you are flying in rare air.

So, wagons ho! Go exploring, and be sure and post your travels.

Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes and the State of Our Country (Music)

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In May 1973 Waylon Jennings released his masterpiece album Honky Tonk Heroes (HTH) on RCA. The record company was reluctant to release it, but they had just renegotiated Waylon’s contract giving him full control of his recording so as not to lose him to Atlantic Records. They were worried this collection of Billy Jo Shaver songs were too raw, too honest, too off the Nashville map for success. They were leery of the players, for the first time the recording was done by Waylon’s touring band and not hired Nashville guns. What they released was the initial wave of a musical storm named “Outlaw”.

HTH set the benchmark and the blueprint for what was to follow, a turn away from the Nashville factory and to personal vision and artistic truth, not only to the songs but to the arrangements. This sound brought many aspects of rock and roll into the fold, one most notable was the rhythm section. Waylon, being the bass player in Buddy Holly and the Crickets, loved the thump of the bottom end locked into a perfect duet with the percussion. The ignition of HTH influenced many artists and songwriters: such as Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams Jr., Townes Van Zandt, Tanya Tucker, Jessi Colter, Sammi Smith, and Emmylou Harris.

The coming years would see this sub-genre explode with Waylon and Willie throwing most of the dynamite. HTH remains a powerful reminder of how great Country Music can be. I listen to the “new country” and it seems so safe and generic. I tell friends it’s mainly “bad Eagles music” or Jimmy Buffet with a cowboy hat, excuse me I mean a backward baseball hat. I know there are exceptions, but it seems to me we need a Waylon Jennings and a Honky Tonk Heroes to wash away lots of plastic on Country’s beach.

Honky Tonk Heroes is one of those seminal works that everyone should own, or at least hear once.

 

Jesse Winchester

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One of our great singer/songwriters left us too soon a few weeks ago, Jesse Winchester. I discovered his music in 1971 through my fanatical The Band love and bought his first album solely because it was produced by Robbie Robertson.

I was hooked, his gentle voice and graceful playing sold me. Also his Southern heritage struck a chord in me. Note: I know it’s hard to believe but Northern Virginia not too long ago was Southern in its ways and patterns, good or bad.

He never had the mass appeal, and I never found anyone who was a fan enough to ruminate with about his new work or his past catalog. I am happy my wife loves his smooth voice because she heard it often through the years.

I was lucky to see him perform once, he sat sideways on a stool, guitar in hand and for two hours took the audience by the hand and guided them through the fields of Mississippi and the caverns of the heart.

If I could have the world see just one Jesse Winchester performance, it would be the one below. It is from an Elvis Costello songwriter TV show, Jesse sings his beautiful and longing Sham-A-Ling-Ding-Dong and slays the audience and brings a tear to Neko Case’s cheek…. mine, too.

Jesse’s CD Love Filling Station on which you’ll find the studio version of Sham-A-Ling-Ding-Dong.

Jesse’s Gentleman Of Leisure on which you will find his beautiful I Wave Bye ByeTrust me