LP Review: Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker” His Farewell Note, RIP

0004619802

There are some acts that I don’t seem to get into until late in the game. I get distracted pretty easily. In the case of Leonard Cohen, it would appear I waited too long. I knew very little about Leonard Cohen before his brilliant new release “You Want It Darker,” and his recent demise. I was always aware of Leonard Cohen but like so many other acts, I kept thinking I’d get into him later, when I get time. I had heard great cover versions of his songs by a diverse group of acts from Don Henley, the Civil Wars all the way to Jeff Buckley. I had never really heard much of Leonard Cohen actually singing. I was more familiar with Johnny Cash doing “Bird On a Wire” than Leonard.

I did a post a few months ago on Iggy Pop. He was another act I had waited to get into. His last record, “Post Pop Depression” just pulled me in. I did a lot of extensive research on Iggy, I went back and listened to the Stooges, and his early albums with Bowie. It helped me frame his career in my mind. With Leonard Cohen, I took a bit more spare approach. I only went back to his first album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen.” I had heard a lot of bad feedback about Cohen’s voice. I will say, for the most part, I can understand the complaints. He’s certainly no Steve Perry from Journey, but I’d tell you Cohen’s voice is infinitely more interesting. (And, to be fair, like everybody, I liked Journey.) Like Bob Dylan, people always told me that he was a great poetic lyricist but his songs were better performed by others. Even my friend Doug commented to me a couple of weeks ago that he couldn’t get into Cohen because of his voice and Doug’s tolerance for different music is pretty high. He’s more adventurous than I am, and I envy that.

“Songs of Leonard Cohen,” his debut, is a great album. The lyrics are as poetic as anybody not named Bob Dylan have ever written. The instrumentation was spare and frankly his voice, while not great, delivers the songs very well. To me it was a more poetic version of a singer/songwriter album. I can imagine my brilliant aunt, back in 1968, listening to Cohen’s debut album in her dorm room, smoking those Marlboro Red 100’s she was so fond of. She was a smart lady and probably dug how literate and intelligent the lyrics are. She was the type of person who would have enjoyed that debut album, turned off the stereo and then headed down to burn the Student Union or some other administration building. I do miss that woman. “Songs of Leonard Cohen” gave me a reference point for Cohen’s work but nothing had me prepared for “You Want It Darker.”

“You Want It Darker” is a deep, dark LP that will likely be rarely heard by anybody outside of the already Cohen converted. Other than me, I doubt anybody will suddenly start listening to Leonard Cohen as a result of this LP. And that is really too bad because this is heady stuff. Like Dylan’s voice, after all these years Cohen’s voice is all gravel and rust. If the tomb could sing, it would sound like Leonard Cohen on this album. Cohen’s voice conjure the infinite, the unknowable. There was a lot of commentary about Dylan when he released “Time Out of Mind” that Dylan, who had been ill, was writing about his imminent demise. I think that commentary was mostly hype, but in the case of “You Want It Darker” I think that’s true. This album is the sound of a man wrestling with mortality, with memories of lost loves and the battles that love brings. Some of these songs, “You Want It Darker” and “Leaving The Table” sound like a man telling God he’s ready to die. “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.” Holy shit man, that’s heavy. It’s a fascinating listen.

“Treaty” is the best song I’ve ever heard penned for a former lover. Lines like “I heard the snake was baffled by his sin” and “I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine,” brought chills to my spine. I think we’ve all had a relationship that ended badly. “On the Level” is another great song addressed to an ex. “When I turned my back on the devil, I turned my back on the angel too.” There is good and bad in every person and every relationship and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it so poignantly described. It’s like Cohen is settling all of his old scores on this record. Either with former lovers or as I said, with God himself. He doesn’t sound bitter here although I get traces of anger as he wrestles with his Maker.

There was a line in Dylan’s song, “Things Have Changed” that I always liked. He sings the line, “Don’t get up gentlemen, I’m just passing through…” I don’t know why that line appealed to me so much. It was like winking at the graveyard. Cohen’s song “Traveling Light” on this record reminds me of that sentiment. The lyrics “I’m traveling light,
It’s au revoir, My once so bright, my fallen star, I’m running late, they’ll close the bar” sum it all up for me.

The instrumentation is sparse like on his debut record. The production was done this time around by Cohen’s son and recorded in the home he shared with his daughter. The production perfectly frames that haggard instrument, Cohen’s voice. I just find this album hypnotic. I can’t stop listening to it and hearing something new in the lyrics. I’ve always been a sucker for a well written line. This is tumbler of bourbon, the sun is coming up and you’re ruminating on past decisions with your eyes on the horizon as you wonder what’s next.

So now I guess I have to start buying Leonard Cohen albums. It’s going to take me a while to get through this guy’s vast catalog but after listening to “You Want It Darker” I get the feeling it’s going to be very worth it.

I don’t know if anybody will be moved to listen to “You Want It Darker” based on this post but I strongly urge you to do so. Even though the Rock Chick said “I think I should be worried about you for listening to this music,” I still love this album.

Pour something strong and brace yourself.

Cheers!

Prince “Moonbeam Levels, ” The First Song From the Famous Prince Archives

mi0004157781

It’s been a tough year for classic rock and roll fans. From Lemmy and Bowie to more recent losses of Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell, we’ve lost some really great talents. No more surprisingly than perhaps Prince, who at such a young age succumbed to prescription drug addiction.

I became a Prince fan during the Dark Semester I spent at the University of Kansas. The guys across the hall turned me onto the record “1999” and I was hooked. I could tell the guy was a genius. When “Purple Rain” came out, I don’t think even Prince was prepared for the universal reaction. That album stayed at number one for months. I liked Prince’s music but I have to admit, I always liked his more “Hendrix-y” stuff, when he played his guitar. His guitar solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” during George Harrison’s Rock And Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony stands out in my mind as one of his singularly greatest guitar moments. After “Purple Rain” it was rare I heard that blistering guitar and I lost interest. The Rock Chick was into that New Power Generation era stuff but even she lost interest after that.

All during his career Prince was a workaholic. His work ethic was the thing of legend. I can remember hearing him interviewed in the early 90s and he was talking about how much stuff he had in the “vaults.” He had jammed with Miles Davis, “those tapes were in the vaults.” He said the best of the Revolution, his “Purple Rain” era band “was still in the vaults.” Unfortunately he passed away before he could curate this vast amount of material he left in his archives. Now I sporadically read about all the people who were related or pretending to be related to Prince suing each other over his massive estate. To me the biggest part of that estate is all those tapes down in the archives.

Today sees the arrival of his first posthumously released greatest hits package, “Prince4ever”. It collects all the usual hits, although this is the first package I can recall that contains one of his track from the Batman movie, “Batdance.” This is the first release that finally cracks into the vaunted Prince archives. “Moonbeam Levels” is the first song that was unreleased by Prince that his estate has finally released. It was recorded in 1982 during the “1999” sessions and it does sound akin to that time period. There’s also a non-album single, “Gotta Stop Messin’ About” that I’d never heard. That one didn’t impress me.

“Moonbeam Levels” is a decent Prince song, if you like Prince. It does take me back to those “1999” days. It’s a strong vocal over a key board. It’s poppy and catchy. The lyrics are the typically spacey, odd lyrics that he wrote back then. There is no guitar here, which is usually what drew me to Prince’s songs in the first place. There is a touch of guitar at the end but not enough to really draw me in.

This is an interesting peak into the archives but in the end all it does is whet my appetite for more. There’s got to be amazing outtakes down there with that awesome lead guitar. I think it’s going to be an interesting series of archival releases, perhaps greater even than the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series.

I can’t say I recommend “Moonbeam Levels” to anybody but the true Prince fans out there, but it was a big moment that they actually opened the archives and I felt compelled to comment. Fingers crossed for more to come!

Cheers!

Metaphysical Wisdom: The 1986 Ozzy Concert, The Preacher and the Pot Smoker

0000559663

It’s rare that you find any “Universal Wisdom” at an Ozzy Osbourne concert. Somehow, in the 80s, I managed to do so.

It was 1986, right in the heart of the 80s, when a group of friends and I loaded up in the car and drove from Manhattan, Kansas down to Wichita to see the Prince of Darkness, Ozzy Osbourne, in concert at the Kansas Coliseum. We were especially excited to see the Oz-man in Wichita because the arena had “festival seating,” where you show up, line up at the door, and when the doors opened, you sprinted as fast as you can to get a seat near the stage, or better yet, get to the open area in front of the stage. I saw Van Halen in Wichita once and actually stood right in front of the stage, hanging on to it for dear life. God Bless Eddie Van Halen, but as usual, I’m off topic. The opening band for Ozzy was some dark metal band we’d never heard of, Metallica, but that’s another topic. We didn’t fight to get down to the stage but found some nice seats on the lower deck, really close to the stage.

This being the 80s there were a lot of stimulates among the pirate crew I’d journeyed to the concert with. We were drinking a lot of beer that day, which could be said of most of our days at the ol’ University. As the old song goes, “for it’s not for knowledge that we came to college but to drink beer while we’re here…” We had a rule when road tripping, not a very smart one, that you had to have a six pack for each person in the car at all times. (Don’t Drink and Drive kids, it’s a bad idea.) I was with several herbal enthusiasts as well. I’ve always been a fan of dark, murky fluids and was never a smoker but I’d probably list myself as a “pot sympathizer.” You enjoy your vices, I’ll enjoy mine. For some reason we had a bunch of black beauties with us. I was never big into stimulates, but speed was always prevalent at college, especially during finals. If you needed to stay up cramming, rather than drink a pot of coffee, take a black beauty or a “No Doze” and zoom, you’re up. Soon we realized it was fun to take one with beer – one foot on the gas, one foot on the brakes. We were so riled up by the heavy metal and speed, we were on our feet, high-fiving like amateurs and sloshing beer all over. Even before Ozzy came on, the poor high school kids in front of us politely moved off to find safer seats. We were young Vikings on a quest for Heavy Metal Valhalla.

Finally, after playing louder, faster, louder, faster these dour guys calling themselves Metallica (how did we not realize what we were seeing, perhaps it was the beer?), left the stage and after a short intermission to remove Metallica’s white-cross cemetery stage set, a giant Ozzy Ghoul descended from the rafters. The stage prop was designed to look like the cover of his latest album, “Ultimate Sin.” The arms/wings of this Ghoul opened up and sitting on his throne was Ozzy, in all his glory. He leapt out of the chair, launched into “Bark At The Moon,” and didn’t stop moving all night. We went bonkers. I think at one point I may have actually barked in the general direction of the moon…Ah, youth.

Ozzy had had an up and down decade. He’d started his surprisingly successful solo career with the legendary guitarist Randy Rhodes but then Randy was killed in a freak airplane accident. Ozzy had finally recovered and pulled a new band together with Jake E. Lee as his new lead guitarist. Jake was with Ozzy that night and while he was no Randy Rhodes, he held his own. The man could “shred” as the kids say. The song “Shot In the Dark” was our favorite and we went appropriately insane when Ozzy played it. “Never Know Why (We Rock)” was another highlight because let’s face it, Ozzy was right when he sang “they’ll never know why we RAWK!” By the time Ozzy played “Paranoid” as the encore, we were certain we’d reached that Heavy Metal Valhalla we had been seeking.

We slowly began to file out of the Kansas Coliseum to find the car when, in the midst of the exiting metal fans we saw a giant cross. I couldn’t help but wonder what the heck was going on, was this more Ozzy theater? It was then that I heard the Preacher’s voice over the loud speaker, decrying the “Evil” that we had just been a part of. The 80s were a weird decade. Ronald Reagan was President and it was “morning in America.” Out of nowhere Heavy Metal and hard rock came under siege from religious groups. Ozzy and his fellow Metal buddies, Judas Priest had been sued for their dark music being wrongly considered to cause suicides. You had the PMRC, the Parents Musical Resource Committee (or was it Center), led by the uptight Tipper Gore who was attempting to censor rock lyrics. For me this all reached it’s apex when my mother went so far as to warn me that Rush was Satanic, “Ruled Under Satan’s Hand.” Sigh. Ozzy in particular seemed to like to goad these “enemies of rock” as we dubbed them. The Ghoul on the cover of his album and the LP title “The Ultimate Sin” seemed to be aimed right at his religious critics.

Apparently inspired to respond, this Preacher had set up a giant cross in the parking lot and had a bullhorn he was shouting scripture through, along with extended diatribes about why we were all going to Hell for attending an Ozzy show. I never thought nor do I think the music you listen to can condemn you to a life of eternal damnation (unless you listen to Wham) but sure as shit, this guy was telling us it could. My friend SB and I stood at the edge of the crowd that had assembled around this guy, merely for amusement purposes. The guy was really into it, screaming into his bullhorn and foaming at the mouth. Most of the Ozzy fans around him were chuckling and a few had the temerity to make fun of the guy. I was worried the Preacher might stroke out in front of us and we were going to need to clear out of there pretty quickly if that happened. I never liked to hang around when the cops showed up.

It was then that a diminutive kid in the hard rock uniform: jeans, concert t-shirt and flannel shirt over it, came forward to ask a question. “Excuse me, Sir…” The Preacher looked stunned and frankly a little joyful that someone had paid close enough attention to ask him a question. Most of the concert goers were merely walking past him. The intrepid Pot Smoker then posed this metaphysical question to the Preacher, “So, if God created the natural world, and pot grows in nature, doesn’t that mean God put pot here for us to enjoy? I mean, doesn’t that mean God wants us to smoke pot?” My mind was blown. Unfortunately for the Preacher, I think his mind was blown too. He didn’t have an answer. The stunned look on his face betrayed his confusion. He began to sputter and stutter into his microphone…The crowd was hanging on what his response was going to be. After what seemed an eternity, the Pot Smoker turned and walked off toward his car. He was pretty sure, as we all were, that the Preacher couldn’t answer that “Big Question.” When the Pot Smoker walked away, the Preacher suddenly composed himself and muttered unconvincingly, “He doesn’t want an answer, look, he’s walking away…he doesn’t want an answer.” Like the rest of the crowd, I just shook my head and we headed to the car. Game, set and match for the Pot Smoker. As we walked to our car, I could hear the Preacher bellowing through his loudspeaker again and maybe it was my imagination, he seemed to have lost a little of his vim and vigor.

I felt like I’d walked away from that great concert a little smarter about the universe and how it works. While I’m a bourbon man, I certainly don’t think a little pot and a lot of heavy metal is gonna send anybody to Hell or anywhere else. I know I realized that night that you should never allow a judgmental individual or group to influence your behavior or your listening. As long as you’re not hurting anybody I say, go for it.

It’s a dark ride folks. Find someone you love, put on some good music and enjoy yourselves.

Cheers!

LP Review: Metallica “Hard Wired…To Self Destruct,” Holy Shit! Epic, Awesome, Heavy Metal

20160818_193928_7549_939483

My relationship with Metallica’s music got off to a rocky start. In the 80s, heavy metal and hard rock was all about hedonism and partying. Guys with more product in their hair than the Rock Chick jumping around in spandex. Metallica were the antithesis of all of that. Their lyrics were dark and serious. Their music was heavier than anything else around. I just always thought they were dudes who were missing out on a great party. At the time I was more into Van Halen and David Lee Roth’s ethos of “I’ve always been a sucker for a real good time.” Needless to say, I wasn’t one of the early converts to Metallica’s music. It turns out, I was the one who was missing out.

I actually saw Metallica in concert on March 27th, 1986. A bunch of friends and I drove down to the Kansas Coliseum in Wichita, Kansas to see the Lord of Darkness himself, Ozzy Osbourne. There was a lot of beer, black beauties and pot in the crowd. Needless to say all that speed and heavy metal was an edgy combination. We were partying pretty hard getting ready for Ozzy when the opening band came out. The stage was covered in white crosses like Arlington Cemetery, which I found out later matched the cover of the Metallica masterpiece (masterpiece or master puppet?) “Master of Puppets,” when these guys in blue jeans and sleeveless, ratty t-shirts strolled out and just started shredding. They all stood in place, leaned over so their long, long hair covered their faces and bobbed their heads in unison. We all thought this was a little ridiculous and didn’t really pay any attention. We’d never heard of this Metallica(?) before. We were pretty hopped up on speed and beer, we’d scared the people in the seats in front of us so that they’d actually left to go sit elsewhere. I can’t believe how thoroughly we ignored Metallica, which was hard because these guys played louder and faster than anybody but Ozzy.

My lack of attention to Metallica continued unabated pretty much the same over the next decade. In 1996 I went out to Smithville Lake to attend Lollapalooza which was a touring show back then, not just in Chicago. I was really there to see Soundgarden who were the next to last band to play that day. I remember they opened with a Doors’ cover, “Waiting For the Sun” that really caught my attention. I could have split after that, but lead singer Chris Cornell said, as he was leaving the stage, “I bet your glad now Metallica is going to play next.” There had been quite a bit of consternation amongst the grunge hipsters (was there ever such a thing as “grunge hipsters?” I digress) that Metallica was playing this “indie rock” festival. How dare they bring these heavy metal neanderthals to our perfect little fair. I must admit that anti-Metallica sentiment drew me toward Metallica, not away from them. They were great that night, despite Hetfield coming across as a bit of a dick. I think it’s good he’s off the sauce now. Lars hit the wrong drum at the end of a song and Hetfield gave him shit for the next two songs. I remember being particularly fond of the tune “Ain’t My Bitch.” “Until It Sleeps” also jumped out at me. I suddenly thought, maybe I’ve been wrong about these guys. I went out the next day and bought the “Black Album” and “Load.” And suddenly, I was a Metallica fan – not a big one, but I was on the band wagon.

Little did I know, I’d only scratched the surface. Metallica was stuff I would listen to when I was working out but they really weren’t in the BourbonAndVinyl Pantheon of Rock Greats until much later. From “ReLoad” to “St. Anger” I remained aloof from them but then something weird happened. In 2008 they returned with “Death Magnetic.” It was hailed as a return to their early, epic sound. I heard “That Was Just Your Life” and “Cyanide” and something in my head clicked. The long, epic songs with their signature time changes, very Sabbath-like – and I don’t mean that comparison to suggest they were derivative in anyway. Metallica are singularly unique in metal and in music. “Death Magnetic” made me realize how great a band Metallica is. I immediately went out and bought the big 4 – “Kill Em All,” “Ride The Lightning,” “Master of Puppets,” (how did we ignore that set in Wichita, the shame, the shame) and finally “And Justice For All.” I realized, very late in the game the awesome power and fury of Metallica. Do yourself a favor and buy all of those albums immediately.

What drew me in first with Metallica was the drums. Lars Ulrich’s drums are some of the best in rock and roll. He is the engine and the heartbeat of the band. After that it was the melodic, fluid guitar solos of Kirk Hammett. Beyond his solos were the great riffs that Hammett and James Hetfield play. Big slabs of hard guitar riffs served up fast and loud. The lyrics are dark, usually about feelings of anger, isolation and fear. Hetfield delivers the vocals in an anguished howl that conveys all the pain in the universe. What’s not to love. No wonder teenage boys are into this testosterone fueled music. This is the sound of a Panzer division rolling into town.

I wasn’t sure what to expect as a follow up to “Death Magnetic.” As is typical now, they took forever to get the record out. I had heard early rumors that this new record would be to the “Black Album” what “Death Magnetic” was to say, “Ride The Lightning,” or to put it succinctly a return to that style. Now, many purists say Metallica sold out around the time of the “Black Album” but I like both their early stuff and the latter stuff although I will acknowledge it’s much different. I’m not here to get into any purist battles over the Metallica catalog. I must admit I’m more drawn to the early stuff so I was worried that they would try and recapture that “Black Album” ethos of shorter, weirder tunes. Those reports turned out to be false.

“Hardwired…To Self-Destruct” isn’t so much of a return to that early style but an extension of it. I will say, right up front, that Kirk Hammett’s guitar solos are almost completely missing from this record. I read that he felt left out of the creative process. That’s a shame, it’s like Van Halen doing keyboard songs…why would you leave your strongest player on the bench? Other than that knit-picky complaint, this is an amazing album. It’s sprawling, ambitious, epic, heavy metal. Metallica is the only band who can pull this off. Lars Ulrich once again proves that his name belongs alongside Bonham and Moon in the drummer Hall of Fame.

“Hardwired,” the title track and first track starts things off in that galloping, breakneck-speed metal these guys are known for. It’s almost got a punk-rock feel, it’s so fast and hits so hard. “Moth Into Flame” is another fast paced instant classic that boasts one of the few Hammett solos. “Halo On Fire” which starts slowly and builds to an amazing crescendo may be one of Metallica’s greatest songs ever. Who would think, this far into the game, that these guys could deliver something that mind blowing. “Dream No More” is another great metal track. These guys don’t slow down the entire album. The tunes all clock in way past five minutes (for the most part). The closest they get to a “ballad” or a mid-tempo track is “Am I Savage,” which has an almost funky feel to it, but it ain’t slow. “Murder One” may be Hammett’s finest moment in terms of solo’s. It’s a face melting burst from him. Lars’ drums on “Spit Out the Bone” are as fast and manic as any drumming I’ve ever heard – if I have a heart attack, put that tune on and throw my body on the speaker, turn it up loud and I’m almost certain it’ll revive me. This entire album is intricate, well played, classic metal.

I did spring for the “Deluxe” edition of the record which stretches out to 26 songs. They originally planned on releasing early versions of the “riffs” that they built the songs on, but at the last minute changed their mind to release a few covers and a bunch of live stuff. I don’t have a lot of live Metallica, so I’d describe the live stuff as a nice to have but not as anything essential. I do like the covers, especially the “Ronnie Rising Medley” for Ronnie James Dio, RIP. “Lords of Summer” is a great tune that was purportedly released a while ago, but I’d never heard it and is probably the best of the bonus material. Put together with the actual, proper “Hardwired” album this thing is as sprawling as “Garage Inc.” I would advise getting the “Deluxe” version vs the base LP, but hey, I’m a completist.

“Hardwired” is an absolute must have for Metallica and metal fans. We should all pause and celebrate that a band who have been around this long, could put out something this epic, intricate and powerful. It’s LPs like “Hardwired” that B&V was founded on. A band this far into their career who can make music this passionate and immediate is something to thank the Metal Gods for. I feel that this stands amongst Metallica’s best work. I can only hope they don’t wait eight years for a follow up. Oh, and let Kirk play a few more solo’s next time guys…

Buy now, get some Southern Comfort, bob your head along with the loud music and as always, enjoy!!

Cheers! (Devil-horns to all of you!)

PBS New Series Soundbreaking: Stories From The Cutting Edge of Recorded Music – A Must For Music Fans

hqdefault

I was flipping around the channels tonight when I stumbled upon a great PBS documentary series, SoundBreaking: Stories From the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music. I always dig the PBS end of the television dial and I certainly love the work they do with documentaries. Frontline is one of my favorite shows. Throw in all that Ken Burns stuff and it’s pretty compelling television. I always feel like I’m doing my civic duty, like returning a library book on time, when I watch PBS. And let’s face it, I’ve always been fascinated by that mysterious magic that goes on in the recording studio.

Soundbreaking is a apparently an eight part series about the actual process of making, recording and producing recorded music for album and single release. At first I feared this was going to be too “musically wonky” for my tastes. I’m not, nor have I ever been a technical person. I have a number of friends who are musicians, and at least the guitar players are always getting into these deep, mysterious conversations about “pick-ups” and “open guitar tunings.” Listening to those guys and trying to follow the conversation is like trying to decipher and translate some ancient druidic runes. I will admit I enjoy the edifying conversations about amps. I mean, the amp is the key piece of equipment for a great sound on stage. (I feel like even this statement about amps will draw the wrath of my guitarist friends as I’ve likely stated something incorrectly.)

Luckily I was wrong about Soundbreaking being too technical or musician-y to follow. This is fascinating stuff. The series was put together, at least at first, by the legendary Beatles producer Sir George Martin. You can tell this is a labor of love. Alas, he passed away before he could finish the series, but many of his friends and admirers came together and helped finish the series. The spotlight is on the studio and more critically some of the more famous producers throughout the history of rock n’roll. I must admit that the Rock Chick did ridicule and laugh at me as I geeked out over seeing the interviews with some of the producers. As a music nerd obsessive, I used to always read the liner notes of every album I ever purchased. I got to know who a lot of these producers were/are and began to realize what an impact certain producers can have on an album. George Martin was probably the first guy I came to recognize. Tony Visconti who worked with Bowie and later Rick Rubin, whose worked with everybody, were a couple of others whose work I always seem to enjoy.

The series starts with the “cradle of rock and roll,” Sun Studios and Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins’ (amongst others) legendary producer Sam Phillips. There is some archival interview stuff with Sam and some great, rare film of Elvis. From there they move to George Martin, Phil Spector and the Wall of Sound, and keep going all the way to hip hop producers like Rick Rubin and Dr. Dre. It was almost too much to cover in merely an hour. Like the Elvis segment they talk about the different innovations of each of the producers. You see archival and sometimes very rare films of the bands in and out of the studio. There was a shot of the Beatles performing in the Cavern Club. I love some of the photos of these bands in the studio. The show really did a nice job of giving you a chronological history of producing. All my producer heroes were mentioned or interviewed.

There is a great group of musicians who are also interviewed or whose performances are shown during the course of the documentary. Elvis, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, The Beatles, Ike and Tina Turner, Ronnie Spector, and Sly and the Family Stone just to name a few. Sly Stone would eventually self-produce and play every instrument on his latter albums… he’s truly Lenny Kravitz’s spiritual father. It’s worth it just to hear the musicians talk about what can happen in the studio. Petty tells a great story about how producer/musician Jeff Lynne helped him “find” the song “Free Falling.” It was probably George Martin and Phil Spector who really turned the studio into an actual musical instrument in and of itself. So many of the things these guys did no one had done before them – multi tracking, introducing strings, so many innovations that if I list them all I’ll start to come across as wonky and God knows that’s the last thing I want.

The key thing a producer does in the studio, is draw the magic out of the artist he’s working with. Many artists are shy, or they play something as just a throw away riff and it’s up to the producer to say, “Wait a second, you’re onto something,” or “Play that again but do it slower.” This show gets right at the heart of the creative give and take between artist and producer. As a music geek I really found that interesting.

I have no idea what the remainder of the segments will delve into or how technical it’ll get. But I really liked the first one and will definitely be tuning into the next one. If you love music, and if you’re on a sight named BourbonAndVinyl, I’m gonna go out on a limb and presume you are, tune in! Enjoy.

Cheers!

LP Review: The Record Company, “Give It Back To You” Strong Blues Rock

mi0003992132

I was talking to a friend of mine one time. The topic turned, as it inevitably does when you’re talking to me, to music. This was guy was a bigger music fanatic than I could ever hope to be. This guy was into the some of the hardest, heaviest metal I’ve ever heard. He was espousing the virtue of a band that I hadn’t come across, Opeth. I think there was a band named Lamb of God. It was all what I call, scary monster rock. He even tried to play me one of those “cookie-monster,” growly vocal type of things. I shook my head. Frustrated, he finally asked, “So what music do you like?” My answer was simple and straightforward. The roots of everything musical that I like can be traced to the blues.

The Stones started as a blues cover band. Zeppelin exploded the blues to the limits of the form. The White Stripes, for all the trappings of being a punk rock band, are a blues two-piece masquerading as a punk band. They cover Blind Willie McTell for heaven’s sake. Give me a hummable melody, good vocals, preferably a great guitar solo, and I’m up and on the floor, headed for the volume knob.

Sadly, you don’t hear a lot of blues rock these days. Gone are the days when bands steeped in the blues like The Animals, The Yardbirds, or even the early Stones ruled the airwaves. If I want to hear bluesy music I have to head down and get the genuine article, at Kansas City’s premier blues club, Knuckleheads. I do miss the days before I met the Rock Chick when the Grand Emporium was KC’s blues hub, downtown, but those records are sealed. Bad men doing bad things to the blues. I saw Koko Taylor there… amazing, but I digress. With these unsettling times, who couldn’t use a little blues music.

About six months ago I came across a great song by a new band, The Record Company. The Record Company is a little three man outfit from of Los Angeles. According to “the Wikipedia,” they were three like minded musicians who would gather together to share their latest blues LP finds. Eventually they put the LPs away and picked up their instruments and began jamming in one guy’s living room. The next thing you know they had an album put together. The tune that originally alerted me to these guys was a song called “Off The Ground,” a greasy blues rock number with a great slide guitar solo. I bought the song but neglected to check out the rest of the album. “Off The Ground” was the first single and I never heard anything else on my satellite radio and subsequently spaced them off.

Flash forward a few months to this week and the Rock Chick comes downstairs and says, “I think you need to hear this…” Never argue with a beautiful woman bearing music (throw in some bourbon and you have all three of my greatest distractions in one package…). I always trust the Rock Chick’s musical instincts. The LP she had was the Record Company’s debut album “Give It Back To You,” the one I had neglected to check out when I bought “Off The Ground.” It was so refreshing to hear some brand new blues rock. This whole album has gone into high rotation here at B&V.

“Off The Ground” and the second single “Rita Mae Young” are great bluesy singles. “Rita…” the second single, is a laid black bluesy tune with a great vocal. These guys do some great acoustic driven stuff. “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” is built around a great shuffling, acoustic riff. It sounds like something Muddy would have done in his early acoustic days. The title track, “Give It Back To You” is a great acoustic stomper, if you believe a song with that description actually exists.

It’s clear who these guy’s influences are. Naturally critics are likely to decry this as “derivative” but find me any music that doesn’t build on what came before it. “Feels So Good,” “Turn Me Loose” and “In the Mood For You” (a nice rolling blues tune) all feel like they were influenced by John Lee Hooker. About midway through “In the Mood For You” the band breaks into a gallop to the finish line and it’s a wonder to behold. The harmonica is all over that song. Speaking of harmonica, there’s a great harmonica breakdown that starts “On The Move” which also boasts some great, primal drumming. If John Lee Hooker is your reference starting point, sign me up boys. The song “Hard Day Coming Down,” another acoustic blues number has a chorus that makes you feel like you’re going to church, baby! And I mean that in a good way.

It’s probably too much to hope that the Record Company would spark a blues rock revival, it’s a good album, but it’s not going to convince the unconverted. “The Crooked City” is the only real quiet, ballad on this collection. Everything else is firmly rooted in the blues. Like Dan Aykroyd once said, “Pretty soon the music known as the blues will only be found in the classical music section of your local library…” and that is a damn shame.

“Give It Back To You” is a very solid rock album. Usually to hear music like this you have to find an older artist so I’m very encouraged to hear a new band who can play this kind of music. I give this album a definite purchase recommendation. And then, maybe, if you’re brave, it’ll lead you to some actual John Lee Hooker…. or if you’re really, really brave maybe some John Lee Hooker with Canned Heat, like say, “Hooker ‘N Heat,” but now I’m getting way too obscure.

Cheers!

RIP Leonard Cohen.

The Music of Cinemax’s Quarry Led Me To Big Star’s “#1 Record”

mi0002335286

I never used to watch much TV. Sure I watched my hapless Kansas City Chiefs over the years… actually I guess I can’t call them hapless any more. I’d watch the Olympics or whatever sporting event happened to be on at the time. When I was in college, after a big test I usually drank a bunch of beer and stared vacantly at the screen for hours while MTV played videos. Those were the days! These days “binge watching” has become a thing. The Rock Chick loves to binge watch television shows. Her tastes run toward the murder and mayhem type shows like, “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Sons of Anarchy.” While in the beginning I was a reluctant participant in all this TV viewing, I now enjoy watching these shows with her. I’m still not over “Breaking Bad.” That was a bad ass show.

In that tradition, the Rock Chick found this new show on Cinemax, “Quarry.” As usual, there’s murder and mayhem involved. The show is set in Memphis in 1972. That grabbed me right away because it’s a time in history that I’m obsessed with. The Nixon-McGovern election of that year looms in the background like a lurking villain. We follow our anti-hero Mac Conway as he returns from Vietnam where he was involved in some sort of controversial battle involving civilians. When I was a kid all the bad guys on TV were Vietnam vets which was a complete disservice to those brave young men who served in that conflict. Because of the controversy Mac faced in Vietnam he struggles to find a job. It’s then a mysterious figure named “The Broker” appears and offers him a job as a hit man. Mac drinks a shit ton of bourbon which of course, makes this a B&V approved television show.

While all of that backstory is interesting, what drew me into “Quarry” (besides the bourbon drinking, Four Roses!) was the music. The early 70s was such a fertile time for music. Rock and roll, country, soul, blues, R&B were all so commingled. Mac, our hero, is a huge Otis Redding fan which fantastic. The sound track for this show is amazing. Since it’s set in Memphis you get a lot of blues and R&B. Mac also digs gospel so you get some Soul Stirrers among others. They’ve played everything from Harry Nilsson singing in Spanish to Waylon Jennings to Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey.” Whoever is DJ’ing down at the “Quarry” studios knows what he’s doing. The music is great and it always fits the scene.

While all that is great, since this is a show about a hitman, Mac is often meeting his mysterious cohorts in a bar or a club where live music is being played. Memphis is a great town for live music. Having been thrown out of the Rum Boogie Cafe back in the 80s for attempting to play an organ solo when drunk on the dance floor, I can testify to Memphis’ great musical traditions. Reaching through the crowd and pressing down on the organ keys was not greeted very nicely and I do regret that. Anyway, the bar bands that play in the background in this show are worth the price of admission alone. You add these great bands playing with the actual soundtrack and you have one great musical atmosphere. Add it all up, murder, mayhem, bourbon and music and you’ve got one kick ass show.

There is one band that gets mentioned, almost as a background undercurrent in the show, Big Star. This being Memphis in 1972, when their seminal LP “#1 Record” came out it only makes sense. Mac, the Otis Redding fan, comes home to find his wife Joni, (played by the lovely Jodi Balfour, who based on her nudes scenes, I feel is going to be a huge star) listening to Big Star. It’s not the only thing that’s changed while Mac’s been away. Joni is a journalist and her first article, which she mails to Mac while he’s in Vietnam is a write up about Big Star. In one great scene, Mac whose just polished off a bottle of Four Roses is lying in the middle of their living room, surrounded by LPs scattered around the floor (and who hasn’t been there friends?) is listening to the great tune “Don’t Lie to Me.”

I’ve always been a huge fan of rock journalism and Rolling Stone magazine in particular. Inevitably there’s some countdown of the greatest albums of all time. I’ve always sneered at some of the choices. There are always the bands Television and Big Star amongst others that no one seems to have heard. I’ve always blown those bands off, although 20 years ago I did get into the Velvet Underground and they just kick ass. Like the Velvet Underground apparently what few fans Big Star had went out and formed bands. Mike Mills from REM wrote the liner notes to the latest re-issue of “#1 Record.” When I heard “Don’t Lie To Me” I thought, wait a minute, maybe this is worth listening to.

Big Star suffered from a terrible record label and a complete lack of distribution for their records which was their death knell. They formed in Memphis in ’72 by Alex Chilton (who had been a childhood star) and Chris Bell, both singer/guitarists. They’ve been described as “power pop,” or “pop rock” but I think they rock. The Rock Chick hears a little April Wine in their music, I really don’t know how to categorize them. I have to admit, after sneering at Big Star all these years, I was wrong. “#1 Record” is simply put, amazing. These guys are hard to describe. Beatlesque might apply. When I put this LP on last night, I walked back into the living room to find the Rock Chick up on her feet, snapping her fingers and nodding her head. That doesn’t happen all the time. This stuff is catchy as hell.

“Feel” is the first song and right off the bat I’m hooked. Chiming, rocking guitars and beautiful vocal harmonies abound. If that’s power pop I’m in. “In The Street” and “Don’t Lie to Me” are great rocking tunes. The ballad “Thirteen” about young love is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful songs I’ve ever heard… it stirred up some bittersweet ghosts for me. “When My Baby’s Beside Me” is another terrific rocker with a great riff. These songs get under your skin and stay with you. I find myself humming or singing these songs in my head. “The India Song” is weird, trippy and funny all at the same time. “My Life Is Right” should have been a hit. I love the sound of the acoustic guitar these guys get on the quieter tunes. Really great strumming and it calls to mind Zeppelin’s “Tangerine.”

All these years later, it’s time to give Big Star a chance folks. This is great music that deserves to be heard by everybody. BourbonAndVinyl gives “#1 Record” a very enthusiastic  “Buy Now” review.

Put this one on, pour some Four Roses and thank me later. And when you’re done listening, tune into “Quarry” if only to see Jodi Balfour…

Cheers!

LP Lookback: Temple of the Dog – On Tour Now

mi0000045129

I staggered from my bed late this morning, as is my habit on weekends, after the Rock Chick yelled my name with the cursory “time to get up…” The Rock Chick runs a very military style weekend with plans and agendas… I have a more leisurely approach to my Saturdays. I can’t help it if I have a sleep disorder. At least waking to the Rock Chick’s shrill cry is better than waking to my father’s miserable singing voice, as he belted out “It’s time to get up, it’s time to get up, it’s time to get up in the moooooorning…” How very Ethyl Merman of him…Who says I don’t come from a musical family?

My Saturday morning ritual is a simple one: breakfast with strong black coffee and some hard rock. This weekend’s selection, as it’s been all week is Rage Against the Machine. I just felt like a little angry metal today… I’m feeling subversive. Blame it on the election. And as has quickly become part of my Saturday morning ritual, I checked “the Twitter” to see what was going on. I saw that the Temple of the Dog reunion tour had begun last night in Philadelphia. They played quite an impressive set list. Not only their own tunes, but some solo Chris Cornell, Mother Love Bone tunes (obviously) and an impressive array of cover songs including Zeppelin (“Achilles Last Stand,” are you fucking kidding me, how awesome!), Bowie and Free (who I’ve just recently gotten into). They even did a Syd Barret cover. To end the show they did “War Pigs” by Sabbath. Jesus, I hope they put out a live record after this tour.

For those of you not familiar with Temple of the Dog, it was a one-off “supergroup” of sorts. Although it would have been hard to call them a “supergroup” in 1991 when they formed as not many people outside of the Pacific Northwest had heard of Soundgarden or Pearl Jam whose members formed Temple. From Soundgarden, Chris Cornell did vocals and Matt Cameron (who later joined Pearl Jam after Soundgarden called it quits) mans the drums. From Pearl Jam you had both guitarists, Mike McCready on lead and Stone Gossard on rhythm. Also from Pearl Jam on bass guitar was Jeff Ament. An impressive line up in it’s own right, but they were also joined on a couple of songs by the then unknown Eddie Vedder, most notably on “Hunger Strike” where his vocal propels the song into the stratosphere. It’s one of his most impassioned vocals.

Temple of the Dog was formed as a one-off tribute to singer Andrew Wood. In the late 80s/early 90’s Andrew was the lead singer and frontman for Mother Love Bone. MLB was a great band with some great songs, “Stardog Champion,” “Crown of Thorns” and “Stargazer” just to name a few… I strongly urge anybody who hasn’t heard Mother Love Bone to seek out their music. As I am forced to write too often in the world of rock and roll, Andrew Young was found in a coma from a heroin overdose and died shortly after that. It was truly a huge loss, the man was meant to be a rock star.

Two of the members of Mother Love Bone, namely the aforementioned Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard decided to form a new band after Wood’s untimely death. They recruited a hotshot lead guitarist Gossard had seen play, Mike McCready and various drummers. It wasn’t until Jack Irons, erstwhile drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers passed them a demo tape of a singer from San Diego named Eddie Vedder, that the band coalesced under the name Mookie Blaylock… they were later to change their name to Pearl Jam, and the rest is history. The thing to remember here is that, without Mother Love Bone, there would have been no Pearl Jam.

Chris Cornell of Soundgarden had his own unique connection to Andrew Wood. The two had shared an apartment. In the Pearl Jam documentary, ‘Twenty’ Cornell talks about how he and Wood would challenge each other to each write a song every day to compare who had the better song that day. It sounds like the two were very close friends.

And so, to honor their friend and former bandmate, the members came together under the banner Temple of the Dog and did an album. This was about a year before PJ’s seismic “Ten” came out so these guys were relatively unknown at the time. I don’t think anybody was prepared for how kick ass this album was. Prior to this Cornell’s work in Soundgarden was more screaming metal than classic rock. The “Temple of the Dog” album sounded more like Mother Love Bone than anything Soundgarden had done which, when you think about it, is really the tribute to Andrew Wood here. The fact these guys could write and perform like he would really stands out.

The album “Temple of the Dog” had two great singles, that most people have probably heard: “Say Hello 2 Heaven” (a beautiful elegy to Wood) and “Hunger Strike” featuring the incredible Eddie Vedder vocal. It’s a shame Vedder isn’t joining these guys on this tour, but he’s busy drinking with Bill Murray in Chicago celebrating the Cubs historic win… and who doesn’t wish they were with him but I digress. The album is much more than those two singles, it’s an amazingly strong album – these guys had a great chemistry and it shows how close-knit the community was in the Seattle music scene. “Reach Down” is an epic 11 minute jam, turn that one up loud. “Pushin’ Forward Back” is a great rocker. On the quiet side is “Call Me A Dog” and “All Night Thing” both great songs. “Four Walled World” is another great tune with a fabulous vocal from Cornell. You can tell these guys poured their heart into this record, but no one more so than Cornell.

They’ve recently rereleased a deluxe edition of the LP with a few unreleased demo’s and outtakes. I didn’t see or hear anything that made me want to re-buy the record, but if you have never heard or purchased “Temple of the Dog” I highly recommend you pick it up post haste and turn it up loud. While you’re at the record store, pick up Mother Love Bone’s album as well. Most of their material has been repacked and rereleased so it’s not hard to find. These are both great 90s bands and should be heard by any true music fan. With the setlists I’m seeing, I am really hopeful to hear something live come out of this tour… let’s hope they’re dragging a tape machine around with them.

It appears that TOTD is only playing a few shows and mostly on the coasts but if you’re near a place where they’re playing, do what you have to, scalp if necessary but get to one of these shows. It’s time like these when great bands are only touring the coasts that I feel like I live in “concert flyover territory” and I regret living in theMidwest… oh well, someday maybe I’ll get up the gumption to move but then I’d miss going to Chiefs games. Life is such a give and take…

Cheers!

 

Playlist: The BourbonAndVinyl Election Day Playlist To Relieve Election Fatigue

cialis

And I ain’t no communist
And I ain’t no capitalist
And I ain’t no socialist
And I ain’t no imperialist
And I ain’t no democrat
And I ain’t no republican
I only know one party
And it is freedom  

– “I Am A Patriot” – Little Steven

I think I speak for everybody in America and beyond, no matter what your political persuasion, your political party, right or left, when I say, I’m tired of this Election. I am suffering and have been for quite a while now from Election Fatigue. Just once I’d like to watch television and during the commercial breaks see a wacky local car dealer who mistakenly thinks he should be in his own commercials. Or I’d like to see a commercial for Cialis with the couple sitting in adjoining bath tubs holding hands, which I’ve never really understood, if you’re on Cialis shouldn’t you be sitting in the same bathtub (the guns loaded, you need to pull the trigger)? Who would have thought I’d miss those commercials? All I see these days is point-counterpoint. I often see opposing politician’s commercials in the same break. Politician A accusing Politician B of being a traitorous bastard only to have the next commercial accuse Politician A of being the real traitorous bastard. None of this shit gives me a very positive vibe. I don’t know exactly when we became such a divided nation, but it appears to be getting worse.

Putting all the bile aside is becoming increasingly more difficult. I have stopped watching the news altogether, it’s too depressing. I am just pleased that in a mere five days, this great National Nightmare will be over. Don’t get me wrong, I am extremely lucky to have been born and raised in a free, democratic country. The fact that every four years the populace is allowed to stand in line and go to the polls for a peaceful transfer of power is one of the greatest things on the planet. Not only is it a great thing, it’s a God damn inalienable right. But as much as I love Democracy, it took a whole lot of bourbon to get me through this one.

Well, if you’re like me, although I’m five days early, the only thing besides bourbon that’s going to get you through this negative, spiteful election is rock and roll. I’m not a political person per se. I vote, I always have, in every election from Reagan to Obama. I’m not tied to any party, I’m just looking for the best guy at the time. I like to think of myself as a hedonistic, moderate, centrist independent who enjoys fermented liquids and loud music. Although to the right I look like a communist and to the left, well I don’t know what I look like to them. I am genuinely concerned about the state and direction of my country.

In reaction to this Election season B&V put together a little play list with tunes that I feel should be taught in high school Political Science classes. The lessons may not sink in, but what a fun class. There’s not strident stuff here. In music I always lean a little more to the hippy, freedom, peace thing. I feel like peace and freedom is something both sides in this quad-annual tussle can agree on. And if you can’t agree on that, you probably aren’t a B&V reader in the first place. As usual, my play list is all over the place – loud/quiet, metal/acoustic… The Rock Chick is probably right, I shouldn’t do play lists… So if I’ve missed any of your favorite Political Science songs, please make suggestions in the comments. I’m always looking to expand these things.

  1. Alice Cooper, “Elected” – What better place to start than some manic hard 70’s rock and it sums up what the goal seems to have become.
  2. Little Steven, “I Am A Patriot” – My favorite song about politics. Jackson Browne does a great version as does Pearl Jam if you can find it on one of their live bootlegs.
  3. Jimi Hendrix, “Freedom” – That’s what it’s all about.
  4. Warren Zevon, “Disorder In the House” – “Helicopters hover over rough terrain,” great guitar solo by Springsteen.
  5. CSNY, “Stand And Be Counted” – Great hippy voting anthem.
  6. Ozzy Osbourne, “Civilize The Universe” – Ozzy’s plea for world peace & one of the Rock Chick’s favorites.
  7. The Cult, “Wake Up Time For Freedom” – From the great ‘Sonic Temple’ LP.
  8. Green Day, “Revolution Radio” – “I wanna revolution, I wanna hear it on the radio.”
  9. The Doors, “Five To One” – “They’ve got the guns but we’ve got the numbers.” I almost went with “Peace Frog,” which is funkier.
  10. Credence Clearwater Revival, “Fortunate Son” – Also love the Dead Daisies cover of this one.
  11. The Who, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” – We probably will be…
  12. John Mellencamp, “Hard Times For An Honest Man” – Amen.
  13. Bruce Springsteen, “We Take Care of Our Own” – Damn right we do.
  14. Fitz & The Tantrums, “Dear Mr. President” – One for the kids…
  15. Jackson Browne, “For America” – I always liked this track.
  16. Bob Marley & The Wailers, “Get Up Stand Up” – I could have included half his catalog…”Them Belly Full But We Hungry” springs to mind… I settled on this one.
  17. Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come” – One of the greatest songs of all time.
  18. Little Feat, “A Apolitical Blues” – “The telephone is ringing, if it’s Chairman Mao, tell him I can’t talk right now.” Van Halen with Hagar did a great cover of this too.
  19. Pete Townshend, “Give Blood” – “Give blood, but soon you’ll find it’s not enough.”
  20. The Beatles, “Revolution” – There’s also “Revolution #1” for you more acoustically minded folks.
  21. Neil Young, “The Campaigner” – “Even Richard Nixon has got soul…” Did he? An acoustic gem from Neil.
  22. John Lennon, “Give Peace A Chance” – My hippy side is showing through…
  23. The Vaughn Brothers, “Tick Tock” – Stevie Ray with his brother Jimmy and a plea for a better world before the clock runs out. God we miss Stevie Ray Vaughn.
  24. Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth” – A little something for the paranoid.
  25. John Mellencamp, “Love And Happiness” – One of his best hard rock, political songs.
  26. Bob Dylan, “Political World” – Yes, I could have put all of Dylan’s first three albums on the list but I was trying to stay away from the acoustic guitar/harmonica stuff.
  27. John Lennon, “Imagine” – Well, you knew this was going to be on here.
  28. The Eagles, “On The Border” – “I’m just tryin’ to turn this water to wine…”
  29. The Clash, “Know Your Rights” – Something everyone should know.
  30. Randy Newman, “Political Science” – The funniest song ever written about geopolitics.
  31. Marvin Gaye, “What’s Goin’ On” – What the Hell is going on?
  32. Jackson Browne, “Lives In the Balance” – I double dipped on this record, one of my 80s favorites by Jackson.
  33. Bob Seger, “Long Song Comin'” – Great song about a blowhard politician. I can’t listen to one more speech.
  34. Cream, “Politician” – “Get into my big black car,” sounds more like a threat than an invite…
  35. Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Things Goin’ On” – “‘Cause there’s things goin’ on that you don’t know.” Great obscure track from their debut album.

If this track list isn’t to your liking, put on something that you do like. Season to taste, as they say. We all need a little music these days. If the Election doesn’t break the way you want it to – celebrate Veteran’s Day (aka Armistice Day) on Nov 11th like my pal Drummer Blake, by playing some loud rock and roll (Although in Blake’s case he’s actually playing the instruments not the radio, like me). At least Veteran’s Day is something we can all agree should be celebrated.

These are dark times… pour something strong and turn it up loud… Cheers!

LP Review: Norah Jones’ “Day Breaks,” The Piano Strikes Back!

mi0004097721

Ah, Norah Jones… I remember the first time I heard that voice. It sounded timeless. The singer could be 20 or 70, I couldn’t be sure. I was in my car with the sun roof open on an unusually warm, late-fall evening in 2002 when the song “Come Away With Me” came on the radio. I had recently moved in with and proposed to the Rock Chick. My life prior to that was “unsettled” to be kind, rootless if I were to be honest. All that had changed. I had just landed at the airport and was driving home on that warm, fall evening and I flipped over to the Public Radio station and that’s when I first heard Norah Jones sing. Instead of landing and heading to a bar to meet a friend or home to an empty apartment, for the first time ever, I was heading to a house that was more than that – I was heading to a home. Norah’s vocal seemed to beckon me towards that home, toward that better, happier life with the Rock Chick. Her voice embraced me like a warm hug. It was one of the singularly most happy times of my life.

I bought her first album the next day. I was frankly surprised to find a work of that depth, and a voice that rich came from a twenty-something year old. There was a lot of buzz around that album, that this was a new “jazz chanteuse” who’d come out of nowhere to stun the world. I never quite followed that “jazz” label they hung on her. I always thought it was because she was on the Bluenote record label that they spun her music that way. That and she played the piano, which has a rich jazz heritage. Yes, there were jazz accents on the LP, “Come Away With Me” but there was also a bluesy feel and I detected some elements of country (which would later come to flower with her excellent, fun side project The Little Willies). If forced to label her music, to me, I’d have said she was more 70’s-style singer-songwriter than anything. I heard more Janis Ian than Nina Simone.

Her second album, “Feels Like Home” followed the formula of her first album, although the Dolly Parton duet showed that country flavor a little more strongly, and the LP was very successful. Then, like a lot of artists who have had that kind of success, Norah started to experiment and branch out in terms of her sound. She stopped writing on the piano and started writing songs on guitar. I think it’s essential for any artist in any medium to stretch themselves and that’s what Norah did. I enjoyed each of her next three albums which each employed a slightly different tilt on her sound. The one consistent element is that amazing voice. I say it all the time, she could sing the phone book and I’d buy the album. I probably liked “The Fall” the best of that trio of LPs, do yourself a favor and check that one out. “Little Broken Hearts” which was done with Danger Mouse was probably the farthest from her early sound that she got, but I enjoyed it too. “Little Broken Hearts” was where I began to notice that Norah has developed a penchant for marrying dark lyrics with light, almost happy melodies. There’s nothing like delivering bad news with a smile.

I was delighted when I saw that after a 4 year absence (not including the Billie Joe Armstrong duets record, “Foreverly”) Norah was returning with her new album “Day Breaks.” Once again, there was a lot of buzz around this record as being a “return to her early sound” or “a return to her ‘Come Away With Me’ sound.” I bought into all that when I heard the first single, “Carry On.” After hearing “Day Breaks” in it’s entirety and reading  Norah say “I couldn’t have recorded this album when I was twenty,” I tend to disagree with categorizing this as “Come Away With Me 2.” This album is more sophisticated and the music is much more complex than that of her early albums. This really has more of a jazz flavor to it. You can hear fingers popping bass strings on the stand up bass, and Norah’s piano playing is more aggressive, fingers hitting keys hard. There is some beautiful horn work courtesy of Wayne Shorter. It is similar to her earlier work in that it signals Norah’s return to writing on piano. The piano “strikes back” if you will…

No song captures the sounds I just described more than the first track, “Burn.” It sets the jazz mood. “Flipside” is a jazzy, chugging song that almost reminds me of an old train song, it has that kind of rhythm. “Peace” is a beautiful piano driven jazzy-ballad. “Sleeping Wild” sounds like a song you’d hear in a French cafe after the war. When she digs into the jazz sound her music is, like her voice, just timeless. It’s hard to tell the cover songs, like Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine” from the originals. The music on these songs is complex but I don’t mean in any way that they are difficult to listen to. They are as smooth and enjoyable to listen to as anything she’s recorded.

Beyond the piano-bass-horn-based jazz, she also has that patented Norah Jones sound. “Carry On” was the beautiful first single, already reviewed on BourbonAndVinyl. The standout track for me, the one that sticks in my head, is “Tragedy.” Over a beautiful, hummable melody she sings about the tragedy of alcoholism. I don’t know why but for some reason, perhaps because the word “Hallelujah” appears toward the end, I had a feeling this song was about Jeff Buckley and his drunken, tragic drowning. “Day Breaks” is another classic Norah Jones song, but with a spacey sound I really liked. Her taste in cover songs remains impeccable, and here she does Neil Young’s “Don’t Be Denied” with some lyrical tweaks and makes it her own.

I’ve read some reviews claiming this album is a culmination of all the sounds/styles that have come before it. I don’t hear that here, but there are some songs that sound like they could be on any Norah Jones LP – “Once I Had A Laugh,” “Then There Was You,” and “Wonderful Time For Love” are all great Norah ballads. “Once I Had A Laugh” in particular stands out for me. Her melodies just stick in my head.

This album isn’t a return to an earlier sound, this is the sound of an artist who continues to challenge herself and break new ground. I agree with Norah, I don’t think she could have made this album when she was twenty, but who could have? This is a really great album and gets a high recommendation from BourbonAndVinyl. This one is another of those, late night, tumbler full of bourbon kind of albums… only in this case, you might not want to be ruminating alone, this might one where you pull him/her onto the couch with you… if you follow me. It’s a dark ride people, love somebody.

Cheers!