LP Review: Creativity And The Curious Case of Jack White & ‘Boarding House Reach’

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“It’s no secret ambition bites the nails of success…” – “The Fly,” U2

Creativity has always been a fascinating thing to me. I’ve always been impressed by artists, not just rock and roll musicians, but all great artist’s ability to tap into some unlimited font of ideas. Whether it’s Hemingway digging deep for The Old Man And The Sea later in his career or Picasso mining his sorrow in World War II to come up with La Guernica it all fills me with awe (I do love that when asked by a fascist if he painted La Guernica Picasso was witty enough to say, “No, you did.”). Ideas seem to come to the masters from all sources. Johnny Carson famously said to another comedian, “You use everything you have for a laugh.” I’ve never been blessed with that wild creative gene. Yes, your intrepid B&V blogger did spend about a year once writing a novel. It was a great experience and very cathartic and I’m proud I finished it, but it wasn’t a very compelling read. However, I really enjoyed the process of creating. If I had more time and any decent ideas, I’d try again… but to repeat, I don’t have that great of an imagination.

When I look to rock and roll, there are so many examples of bands or artists who took creative risks or at the very least, creative left turns. For the most part, I can sit and listen to a majority of the bands I like and there seems to be a linear growth in the way they created their music. Musician’s playing and writing skills evolve in a fairly similar, straightforward way. But then you look at bands like the Beatles. You could argue their development was linear, but when you realize the same band who did “I Want To Hold Your Hand” also did “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” merely four years later, it’s hard to call that growth “linear.” The Beatles developed and explored different sounds in an exponential way or perhaps it’s better described as an exploding sun, in every direction all at once. David Bowie is another example of an artist who consistently defied creative expectations and changed his sound… his theme song was “Changes,” for God’s sake. The guy went from Glam Rock (dressed as a sexually-ambiguous alien) to doing Philly Soul (with Luther Vandross on backing vocals, no less) to German ambient rock with Eno. Oddly for Bowie and the Beatles all these creative twists and turns just… worked. Wherever these ideas were coming from, they were all great. Ok maybe Bowie should have opted out of the duet with Jagger on “Dancing In The Streets.” The video still haunts me.

I have always subscribed to the “‘Great Man” theory of rock and roll, that there are certain great men or great artists who influence and shape the very genre of rock and roll. I have always considered Jack White to be one of those “greats.” White is a real dichotomy to me. On one hand, he’s an anachronism, which Webster defines as a person or thing that is chronologically out of place. His music has always been extremely rooted in the past. He is, in my mind, first and foremost a Bluesman. He ranks up there with Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Son House and Robert Johnson. His guitar playing and his whole ethos is bluesy. He also managed to embrace rock (like Hendrix) and a punk energy that singularly defined him as a “great” artist. His hobby is re-upholstering for God’s sake… who does that nowadays? I sometimes wonder if some day we’ll discover a photograph, similar to the shot of Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining, shot 50 years prior, of Jack White standing next Charley Patton… his pale white face framed with black hair, looking exactly the same as he does now, only in 1925.

On the other hand, opposite the anachronistic nature, is a quality in Jack White that can only be described as so futuristic that it causes me to occasionally wonder if he’s a space alien. The monochromatic, red/white theme he employed for the White Stripes was as futuristic as it was old-time. Is the upholstery hobby retro or possibly a sign he’s from another planet? For the most part in his career, White has followed  his muse more toward looking back to the blues or country for inspiration. Not so on Boarding House Reach. White’s new album is nothing short of a Martian Dance Party. He throws everything AND the kitchen sink into each song… And this leads me back to creativity. I applaud any artist’s willingness and ability to challenge himself and to take a creative left turn. The courage and the imagination should be applauded. Jack took four years off between records, to spend more time with his young children and clearly he wanted to do something grand on his return to recording. I am sad to say, it just didn’t work.

For the most part, White takes the typical structure of songs, verse-chorus-verse-chorus, and throws that out the window. There are a few spoken word pieces that don’t jell at all, like “Abulia and Akrasia.” There’s a song that sounds like an angry White is screaming into a megaphone…”Everything You’ve Ever Learned” that is the most puzzling thing the man has ever done. Towards the beginning of the album there’s a trio of songs, “Corporation,” “Hypermisophonic,” and “Ice Station Zebra” where so many sounds are colliding and firing in different directions, the songs are rendered unlistenable. “Corporation” sounds like a bad demo of Prince and the New Power Generation. In “Hypermisophonic,” the chorus “when you’re robbing a bank,” keeps getting repeated until you’re ready for the cops to show up and arrest the robbers. “Ice Station Zebra” has a jazzy feel but it’s a jazz that might get played by that bar band in the cantina scene from the original Star Wars. 

“Get In The Mind Shaft” has a robotic-vocal effect that makes me wonder if Jack will release a video of himself actually dancing “the Robot.” “Esmerelda Steals the Show” is an acoustic number that turns out to be an “anti-cell phone at the show” number… It’s message was clear, it’s music was not. “Respect Commander” and “Over and Over and Over” at least have a decent guitar riff… well, at least to start off with. Both songs take weird, alien keyboard twists.

The opening track, “Connected By Love,” reviewed earlier on B&V (Review: Jack White’s Two New Songs) is probably, while different, the most accessible song here. He also does a nice country weeper, “What’s Done Is Done” towards the end. The other song I enjoyed was “Humoresque,” an odd, acoustic lullaby that closes things down. Other than those three tracks, I’m not sure I can find anything to connect with on this album. Gone are the great guitar solos or even the great guitar riffs. I like Jack on keyboards, but here he mostly employs synths and weird, computer sounding keys. There’s very little on this record that sounds organic, something I’ve always found on White’s previous work.

White decided to record this album with an all new backing band. In many cases he went to the studio musicians who’d been used by various hip-hop artists. I applaud the idea, but for whatever reason it just didn’t come together. Every time I put this album on the Rock Chick runs from the room. It’s hard to tell a genius like Jack White, hey man, you made a bad album. I rarely write anything negative, there are enough haters out there. If I don’t like an album, I just stay mum about it… I try to shed light on good things people should go check out… White is such an important artist, in my mind anyway, I felt I had to weigh in here. I followed Jack from The White Stripes to The Raconteurs to The Dead Weather to his solo work. I imagine I will continue to follow his creative forays, whatever direction they take him for as long as he keeps going. I just can’t, in good conscience, recommend this album. This is clearly a case where an artist’s creative grasp exceeded his reach… maybe I’m not smart enough, but I just don’t get it…

I think I speak for everyone when I say, sincerely… Meg White… wherever you are… Please come back!

 

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HBO Documentary: The Must-See, Moving Tribute, ‘The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling’

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*Image taken from the internet and is likely copyrighted

It’s not very often that I see or hear something on a school night (or a work night as the case may be) that keeps me up this late writing about it. However, I just finished the 2nd straight night of watching the moving, in-depth documentary on HBO, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. The documentary was lovingly prepared by Shandling’s close friend and Hollywood “big shot” Judd Apatow who is not only a stand-up in his own right (I saw him skewer Bill Cosby in a fantastic routine), but also a director, producer, and writer of great renown. Apatow was not only a friend of Shandling’s but was mentored by Shandling from the time Apatow interviewed Shandling when the former was in high school. Apatow has unprecedented access to all of Shandling’s notes, diaries and archives and it makes for a compelling story.

It might seem odd that a classic rock/drinking blog like B&V would pause from it’s usual fare and take the time to discuss a comedy legend. But for us down here at B&V humor and comedians are almost as important as rock and roll. In the 70s one could argue the real rock stars were comedians. What a generation of comics… Robin Williams, Steve Martin (who I saw live at Kemper Arena, yes a stadium), David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, almost the entire original cast of SNL (John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Aakroyd, Bill Murray) and of course, Garry Shandling. That generation of comics took up the mantle of Richard Pryor and George Carlin and took comedy to new heights. The epicenter of all that humor was The Comedy Store in Los Angeles. What a scene that must have been.

The 2-part documentary isn’t all laughs. Shandling was a truly tortured soul. His life was really framed by the loss of his brother when he was only ten. His mother didn’t even let young Garry go to the funeral because “she didn’t want him to see her cry.” He got no closure, no chance to grieve. To describe his mother as “doting” with Garry after the loss of his brother is a polite way to describe her smothering behavior. No wonder he never married or had kids… After college at the University of Arizona, where he studied engineering, Shandling began writing. He moved to Hollywood and very quickly ended up writing episodes for Sanford and Sons and Welcome Back, Kotter. Shandling’s vision of comedy as art was too broad to be confined by the formulas necessary in sitcom television and after being hit by a car and almost dying, he made the decision to go into stand up comedy. The rest as they say is history…

His career kept gathering momentum until he finally made his first Tonight Show With Johnny Carson appearance, which was the brass ring for any comic at the time. It’s clear how much Carson thought of Shandling when you watch the clips. It’s hard to overstate what a big deal it was to impress Carson. After that Shandling’s stand-up career took off. Along with Leno he was named co-guest host for Carson but eventually bowed out of the gig as he found nightly comedy too confining. By then he was already working on his own show, the groundbreaking It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. He eventually also turned down replacing David Letterman when Dave moved to CBS to compete with Leno. After a five year run on his first show, Garry went on to do a second historic show, The Larry Sanders Show set backstage at a fake talk show. And since this is a rock and roll blog, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention I saw both Tom Petty and Warren Zevon on that show… In the documentary he’s also pictured with Ryan Adams, which surprised me. Shandling’s record collection must have been a lot like mine…

What is so special about this documentary is that it centers on Garry Shandling the man, not just the comic. Yes there are funny clips, but you see how important Zen and his spirituality was to Shandling. He saw comedy as a way to explore the truth of who he was. He brought an intelligence and thoughtfulness to his comedy that you don’t see/hear every day. The man was extraordinarily generous with his time and mentored so many people – Apatow, Kevin Nealon, Sarah Silverman. He truly was what Buddhism calls a bodhisattva. He held pick-up basketball games at his house every Sunday with comics and show biz types that were the stuff of legend. He was obviously beloved by his friends which surprisingly to me included David Duchovny.

That’s the fascinating thing about this documentary. Shandling was such a dichotomy of a person – at the same time, a comic/artist bent on applause and success and in parallel a spiritual searcher looking for the Zen ideal of calm, peacefulness. Those things seem so incongruous to me… Many of the shots start with hand written notes Shandling made to himself – “be yourself,” “let go,” and several other Buddhist themes run through his journaling. While he was a friend and mentor to many, he was also a mercurial artist, who had a lot of conflict in his life. Being a perfectionist is it’s own kind of torture… trust me, I married one. It’s all such an amazing portrait of a complete person struggling to make sense of life, career and love. You come away regretting not only his loss, but it’s hard not to wish you’d known the man. He was a special talent.

I loved this documentary. We should all have a friend like Judd Apatow, who does an amazing job with an obviously beloved subject. And lets be honest, I’ve never heard so many great dick jokes… Beyond that, I was moved to tears toward the end of the nearly four and a half hours. It’s really worth the time commitment. If you’re a fan of comedy or Garry Shandling, this is a must-see documentary.

Cheers!

New Single: Chris Cornell’s Haunting Johnny Cash Penned “You Never Knew My Mind”

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*Image stolen from Wikipedia and is probably copyrighted

When I was a kid, I had to share a room with my brother until we were like, ten and seven respectively. It was not, as they say, an ideal situation. Somewhere over the years I inherited a small, black-and-white, rabbit ears-antenna television set. My brother on the other hand had Santa bring him a record player. He was always quietly smarter than me.  The reason my brother had asked for a record player was that he’d discovered my father had a bunch of old 50s era singles. These were small records, no bigger than 7 inches around, known as 45s because that was the RPM (revolutions per minute, I think) of the record. These 45s had a giant hole in the center and usually to play the records you had to have a round plastic adapter that you’d put in the middle of the turn table.

My father, in his youth, had amassed a collection of several dozen of these singles. They didn’t even have the paper sleeve that 45s had “in my day,” they were just naked pieces of 7 inch vinyl stuck in a wire rack, like you’d find dishes drying in the sink. These tiny discs were a virtual “History of Rock And Roll.” My brother treated that rack of records like it was the Holy Grail or the Rosetta Stone. There were songs by Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Dion, Buddy Holly (if memory serves me, and it usually doesn’t), there were even a few Beatles songs. My brother played the crap out of those old songs. When I wasn’t watching Kojak reruns in black-and-white, I would listen with him. One of my favorite artists in that stack was always the Man In Black… Johnny Cash. I can still remember hearing “Folsom Prison Blues” out of the tinny speaker on my brother’s dime store record player… that voice was haunting and almost scary for little 10 year old me.

As the years unfurled, Johnny’s career went up and down. By the mid-90s his career was pretty much in decline, he was playing supper clubs and Nashville had largely turned their backs on him. On my part, I’d completely lost track of Johnny save for fond memories of listening to him when I was a kid. Enter producer extraordinaire, Rick Rubin. In 1994 Rubin hooked up with Johnny Cash and convinced him to do an album. It was mostly stark, acoustic tracks with just Johnny’s voice and his guitar. I was dating a woman at the time, in what was a classic “on-again, off-again” relationship. Looking back I’m not sure who was torturing who there…best not analyze that one. During one of our spats, as a peace offering this generous woman showed up with Johnny’s Rick Rubin produced album, American Recordings and it knocked me out! That haunting voice from my childhood was back and rather than scare me, it was exhilarating to hear.

As an encore, Cash and Rubin brought in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as their studio backing-band and recorded the superb follow-up, Unchained. It might not have had the same impact as the stunning American Recordings but it was still a great record. Emboldened by the success of the first record, Cash and Rubin broadened their musical palette and recorded songs I hadn’t thought would fit Cash. For me, as a Soundgarden fan, the best track on that record was the cover of “Rusty Cage.” It’s hard to describe what it was like to hear Johnny Cash tear into a Soundgarden song for the first time. The sheer audacity of it was jaw-dropping back then. Year’s later, I made them mistake of telling the Rock Chick that Johnny’s version of the song was definitive. As a die-hard Soundgarden fan, her reaction was…explosive… Regardless of which version you prefer, Cash does a phenomenal job on that song. Not to say Soundgarden’s original isn’t equally impactful… marriage is compromise…

I remember thinking at the time, I wonder what Chris Cornell thinks about Johnny Cash singing one of his tunes. The thought faded with the years until we were a decade into the new millennium. Soundgarden had broken up, Cornell had worked solo, with up and down results and had also been part of the great Audioslave. It was around that time, say 2011, I heard that Cornell was going on a solo acoustic tour. I heard him interviewed and he talked about Cash doing “Rusty Cage” and how much he’d liked it. He said that many fans had approached him and told him that the acoustic-based version Cash did was the first time they’d actually understood the lyrics. I don’t know if that’s what gave Cornell the idea to do an acoustic tour, but I don’t think it hurt the idea. You can find the results of that tour on the great live album, Songbook. 

It appears we have come full circle. Johnny Cash over the years would jot down poetry or unrecorded lyrical ideas (if you’d rather). His son has compiled a number of those unpublished, unrecorded lyrics in a book. To commemorate that, he also recruited a number of recording artists to set those words to music. The resulting album is called Johnny Cash: Forever Words, The Music. This sort of thing is not unprecedented. There was the mini-super group The New Basement Tapes who recorded a batch of songs with unused Bob Dylan lyrics from the actual Basement Tapes era. Billy Bragg and Wilco got together and did an album of Woody Gutherie songs, Mermaid Avenue, using some old unpublished lyrics of Woody’s.

While the album, Forever Words hasn’t been released yet, there are a few tracks that have been released. It’s a real mix of artists… From Elvis Costello and John Mellencamp to Carlene Carter and Alison Krauss. There are also some newer country artists which I will avoid like the plague… Compilations are always dicey. But the artist whose name jumped out at me, and caused my earlier “full circle” remark, was the late Chris Cornell. I think this was one of the last things he recorded and I believe it marks his first posthumously released song since his untimely death (I Awoke To The Devastating News: Chris Cornell Has Passed Away, RIP). I’m still not quite over his loss… amongst others.

The song is entitled “You Never Knew My Mind,” and it is just a beautiful song. The Cash lyric is wonderful. Like Johnny doing an acoustic based “Rusty Cage,” this is an acoustic based song. It’s Cornell’s wonderful voice, acoustic guitar and some strings. Toward the end there’s some atmospheric electric guitar, quiet drums and some nice, understated backing vocals. The song builds and builds until it ends where it began with just Cornell’s voice and an acoustic guitar. The song takes me back to a word I’ve used a lot in this post… haunting. I had a person I knew, who passed away suddenly, who left me a voicemail a few days before passing. I’ve never deleted the message. It’s like holding on to a small part of that person… For some odd reason, this song reminds me of that voicemail… It’s like a hearing Chris Cornell’s voice fools me for that brief second into thinking maybe he is still here.

I don’t know how the rest of this record will be… I mean, Brad Paisley does a song… no thank you. But this song is certainly a gem worth checking out.

Enjoy!

New Single: Pearl Jam’s Feisty, Great New Song “Can’t Deny Me,” Their First New Music In 5 Years

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“You want me to breathe and be so thankful” – Pearl Jam, “Can’t Deny Me”

Well it’s about time we got some new Pearl Jam. I can’t believe it’s been 5 years since they released the incredibly strong LP Lightning Bolt. I think I listened to the ballad, “Sirens” on that record about a thousand times… in a row. I can get obsessive. I’ve always been a huge Pearl Jam fan. I was dating a woman who brought over their first album, Ten, and when we broke up I did everything I could to hang onto that CD. I probably should have worked that hard on the relationship, oh well. Eventually, like her affection, she returned to take her Pearl Jam CD with her…

I will admit, it hasn’t always been easy to be a Pearl Jam fan. They started doing everything they could to dismantle the fame and success that came after Ten (Artists Who Changed Their Music to Escape Fame). Even their second album, Vs was titled to let you know it was Pearl Jam against the world. While they were still a vital and important live act, their albums became more and more obtuse. They almost lost me at Riot Act. However, if you spend some time with that record it will slowly reveal itself to you… there are some great songs there. It’s a grower.

Prior to Riot Act Pearl Jam would put out an album about every two years. Since then, they’ve stretched out the periods between albums. Any more they take anywhere from three to four years between albums. Vedder does solo stuff or hangs out at Wrigley field watching Cubs games. Drummer Matt Cameron got back together with Soundgarden. The stuff they do solo or more appropriately, away from the band, probably helps re-energize them for the next Pearl Jam project. But even I have to admit that 5 years is a really long time between albums. Only the Stones seem to take longer… but that’s another post.

It was with great excitement that I heard that Pearl Jam had released a new single, at first only to their fan club known as The Ten Club. It’s actually a great fan organization. I don’t know why I haven’t joined… but if I did that for every band I liked I’d be broke. The Ten Club typically gets a free single every Christmas and gets an advanced shot on concert tickets. After a few days of listening to the new single, “Can’t Deny Me” on YouTube Pearl Jam have finally released the song this week to the general public and I snapped it up.

I like my Pearl Jam angry and “Can’t Deny Me” is a great, rocking single. Eddie Vedder spent a lot of time hanging out with guitarist Johnny Ramone before his demise in 2004 and that punk influence has stuck with him ever since. This is a punchy, feisty song. I love the fact that when they played it the other night, they dedicated it to the Parkland, Florida kids who are out on the streets protesting for some common sense gun control laws. I dig what Roger Waters and Randy Newman are doing in terms of socially cognizant music these days, but I needed a good rock and roll protest song and Pearl Jam have delivered. Pearl Jam, of course, are no strangers to making political statements in their music. “Bushleaguer,” and “W.M.A” just to name a few songs that addressed politics. Vedder famously wrote “Pro Choice” on his arm in black magic marker during Pearl Jam’s “Unplugged” performance, which to this day I still wish they’d release as an album. So it was great to hear these guys let loose on our current situation.

The song starts with a wicked Matt Cameron drum beat. Eddie Vedder sings like he’s a wounded animal. With lines like “The higher, the farther, the faster you fly, you may be rich but you can’t deny me,” there is little doubt who this is addressed to. Over Cameron’s insistent drum beat the guitars crunch and squall. “Your ignorance is sinful…” I love it. Pearl Jam’s music has always had a grandiosity to it, similar to U2’s music, which these days comes across stronger in their ballads. And while this song isn’t as epic as “Alive” or “Even Flow” it hits every bit as hard as “Go” or “Animal.” It’s brief, clocking in at only 2:44  in keeping with that punk ethos they’ve adopted.

The best news of all about a new Pearl Jam song is that it means there’s a new Pearl Jam album on the way. I haven’t heard anything about a release date but they have announced a number of concert dates… so it appears to be only a matter of time. All of us here at the B&V labs are eagerly awaiting a whole new Pearl Jam album. Hell, I was thrilled to hear Vedder sing “Room At The Top,” the gem by Tom Petty at the Oscars… imagine how I’ll react to an entire new album. I’m even hoping Eddie releases “Room At The Top,” his performance was that fabulous… he could do it as a charity thing perhaps?

Last, and certainly not least, Happy St Patrick’s Day to all of you out there. The Rock Chick and I will be out on the streets of Kansas City, dressed in green, drinking with the revelers. I’m told Kansas City has the third largest parade in the States. It really is the only religious holiday I still observe. I mean, Christmas sort of happens around me, I can’t avoid it, but I’m a full participant in St Patrick’s Day. Be safe out there and Erin Go Bragh to all of you!

LP Review: Jimi Hendrix, ‘Both Sides of the Sky,’ The Vaults Runneth Over…

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The Hendrix vaults, like my cup, runneth over… I can’t believe this long after Jimi Hendrix’s tragic, early demise that there are still recordings of this high quality that haven’t already been released yet. Of course, my friend Matthew will tell you there’s probably a second guitarist on the grassy knoll – there isn’t one Matt… These are, for the most part, fully realized, in-studio tracks that I’ve never heard before. Full disclosure, unlike Dylan, I’ve never been a Hendrix completist. I own a lot of his music, but no bootlegs whatsoever. Kudos to Eddie Kramer, Hendrix’s engineer back in the day, for pulling this together and making it sound so exceptional. I’m sure there are pasty guys in New York with goatees and grizzled visages who have book cases full of reel-to-reel tapes that they only handle when wearing white gloves, who have heard these songs bootlegged before… but for me most of the tracks on the newly released Both Sides of the Sky are new revelations. This album completes what I consider a loose trilogy of albums full of unreleased Hendrix tracks: Valleys of Neptune and People, Hell and Angels being the other two albums… All of which are essential for any Hendrix fan or fans of electric guitar in general.

After spending the weekend with this album and the other two I mention, I have to say, with all apologies to Eddie Van Halen (who I recently wrote about) and Jimmy Page (whose playing I adore), Jimi Hendrix is simply the greatest guitarist who ever lived. It’s not even close. I’m sure there are people out there who will want to fight me on this… I can remember when I was in junior high, sitting at the back of the school bus heading home one day. I alway sat in the back of the bus with the stoners. They were high but they were generally smarter people than the jocks up front. These two guys sitting in the rows in front of me got into an actual fist fight because they were arguing about what musical direction Hendrix would have taken if he’d lived. One of them made the mistake of saying Hendrix would have gone into jazz. The next thing I knew, punches are being thrown. I gotta say, those stoners were dedicated music fans.

Since Hendrix built and owned Electric Lady Studios, I like to think he’d have made a fortune from other artists recording there… I’d like to think, had he lived, Hendrix would be living in a condo above the studio, the reclusive ex-guitar God, who nobody sees or hears from unless he comes down on the street to score some weed. Maybe every once in a while he’d grant an interview where he’d say a few pro-Peace things, a few anti-Trump barbs and maybe drop the words “groovy” and “dig it” into his conversation. He’d refer to everyone as “Dude.” Eventually he’d have made the inevitable Rick Rubin produced comeback album – in Hendrix’s case it would have probably been an all acoustic, Blind Lemon Jefferson covers album. It’d probably win a Grammy. After a rambling speech accepting his Grammy, he’d return to his reclusive ways, where he’d only be seen occasionally wandering through the studio in a kaftan, headed out on the street to buy more weed. But then again, my imagination may be getting away from me on this…

The recordings that make up Both Sides of the Sky, from what I can ascertain, come from roughly 1968 to 1970. Since Hendrix owned a studio he spent almost all of his time when he wasn’t touring, recording what was to be the follow-up to Electric Ladyland. I think besides Electric Lady, he also spent a lot of time at New York’s Record Plant where some of these tracks were recorded. The line up of musicians on these tracks changes by track. Some of these songs feature the Experience, Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass. Others feature the guys who were in the Band of Gypsies, Buddy Miles on drums and Billy Cox on bass.

There are different versions of songs here that have appeared elsewhere. Each of the the three albums I mentioned above has a version of the blues tune, “Hear My Train a Comin’.” That may make you shy away from a compilation like this, but I can literally listen to each version and find something different in each one. Hendrix is like a painter, like say, Cezanne, who would paint the same water lilies repeatedly, but using different colors, different perspective, different arrangement of the subject. Like that, Hendrix approaches the song and the solos differently on each track. Hendrix was, at heart a blues guy. Like Dylan with folk music, Hendrix, no matter how far he strayed into psychedelia, would return to the blues. I get the feeling that “Hear My Train a Comin'” was his in-studio warm up jam. He gets the band together, the microphones get set up and to heat up the room, the band naturally goes to it’s comfort zone and they play the blues. The solo on this version is ferocious.

There are other titles you’ll recognize, but these are different versions of the songs. I’ve heard “Lover Man” on live albums, but this is the first studio version I’ve heard. I’d also heard “Power of Soul” on the live album, Band of Gypsies, but this is the first studio version for me. There’s what sounds like an earlier version of “Stepping Stone,” which appeared on the album First Rays of the New Rising Sun. All of these, if you’ve heard the other versions, gives you a glimpse into Hendrix’s creative process. They show how he’d often recut and rerecord his guitar parts endlessly until he got something that was revelatory to him. It’s great stuff.

He has a number of collaborations here. Stephen Stills shows up on two tracks. There’s what must have been an earlier version of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” on this record, before CSNY did it, where Stills plays organ and Hendrix plays bass. While I like that, Stills does a song “$20 Fine” where he sings and plays organ and Hendrix plays guitar that is fantastic. I can’t believe Stills never returned to that song. I knew these guys were friends, almost every other solo Stills plays now he adds in the liner notes, “Guitar solo inspired by James Marshall Hendrix.” I don’t know why he can’t just say Jimi. Sometimes, though talented, I get the feeling Stills is a bit of an asshole. The other collaborations, and they’re both “knock you out” awesome, are Hendrix with Johnny Winter doing “Things That I Used to Do” a track I first heard in the capable hands of Stevie Ray Vaughn. It’s as bluesy as hell. It’s fun to hear Hendrix and Winter, master blues guys, trading riffs. The second collaboration is Hendrix with his old friend, saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood and they do this fabulous tune “Georgia Blues.” I can’t believe this track wasn’t released. Lonnie sings on the song and it amazes me that Hendrix can step back, out of the spotlight and yet still stand out. All those years as a side-man on the “Chitlin Circuit” taught him well.

On unreleased compilations like this, there are usually instrumental tracks, stuff the band laid down but didn’t get back to in order to record lyrics/vocals. There are a few of those here. There’s an atmospheric thing called “Jungle” that just builds and builds. There’s an early version of the song “Angel,” here without the vocals called “Sweet Angel.” The best of the instrumental stuff here is “Cherokee Mist.” Hendrix is playing a sitar as well as guitar on that one. It starts off with a tribal sort of drum thing and then the band kicks in. It’s one of the best tracks here.

I already reviewed his take on Muddy’s “Mannish Boy” (Jimi Hendrix: “Mannish Boy,” From The Upcoming, ‘Both Sides of the Sky’). It’s Muddy’s lyrics set to a rolling riff that explodes with guitar fury at the end. Another great headphones listen. The only track that jumped out to me as a “in studio creation” is “Send My Love to Linda.” It starts off as solo Hendrix voice/guitar and midway through they splice it with a band version of the song. The splice is pretty jarring. It couldn’t have been worse if they’d recorded Kramer pulling the scotch tape off the roll and slapping it on the magnetic tape. Still, the guitar work at the end is pretty amazing. I’d call that song a nice to have, not a have to have.

It’s been a wonderful weekend spending time with the master of all things guitar, Jimi Hendrix. I love this album, it may be my favorite of the trilogy of unreleased stuff. I advise anybody who loves Hendrix to pick this up. This certainly wouldn’t be where I’d start my Hendrix collection – pick up the albums he released in his life time – and then work your way through some of the live stuff. But when you end up here, at the unreleased stuff, his playing will change the way you think about guitar.

Cheers!

 

Album Lookback: B. B. King’s ‘One Kind Favor,’ His Final Studio Album

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“There’s two white horses in a line…” – “See That My Grave Kept Clean,” B.B. King

As frequent readers know, I recently wrote about blues legend Muddy Waters’ late career  albums produced by Johnny Winter (Muddy Waters: 1977 – 1981, The Late Career, Johnny Winters’ Produced Records). I received an interesting question from Moulty58, a follower of B&V and a superb blogger in his own right (see his blog on 70s British rock, The Future is Past, at https://thefutureispast.co.uk). Moulty58, after lauding Muddy’s landmark “comeback” album Hard Again asked me if I had any other “nominations” for a great blues album that aren’t just a “collection of songs.” Many blues guys, like the rock acts of the 50s (Chuck Berry, Elvis), were focused on singles not albums. It wasn’t until the 60s that artists began to think of the album as more than just a loose collection of songs. It was probably the Beatles who really elevated the album to an actual statement. So it’s hard to find an album like Hard Again, that’s a complete work of art from start to finish from the classic blues guys.

Off the top of my head, when I read the question in the comments section, I answered with John Mayall’s album with Eric Clapton or either of the original Paul Butterfield Blues Band records. Since Moulty58 had mentioned the Stones recent LP, Blue And Lonesome (LP Review: The Rolling Stones, The Superb “Blue And Lonesome” – They Come Full Circle), I also suggested one of their early albums, from when they were basically a blues cover band, 12×5. I could have thrown out Eric Clapton’s superb late career blues album, From The Cradle, but for some reason, it didn’t spring to mind. None of those acts were from the classic blues guys though and that bothered me. To be completely honest with you, I take all questions and comments very seriously and I have to a admit this question stuck with me. I didn’t feel like I’d given a definitive answer. I found my mind drifting back to the question when I was walking in the park or driving in my car. If I weren’t on a bourbon fast, I’d have likely pondered this question over a tumbler of dark and murky fluids during the wee small hours. When the answer finally presented itself to me, it was so obvious, I was stunned it hadn’t come to me quicker. The answer, in a name, was B.B. King.

I have always put B.B. King up there with Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf as the Mount Rushmore of Blues Gods. All the music I love, springs from the blues… While Muddy and the Wolf always conjure Chicago blues for me, B.B. always evoked the Delta and specifically Memphis to me. The man had a long and storied career and life, all 89 years of it. I have a number of B.B.’s old blues albums and consider Live At the Regal not only to be one of the best live albums, or one of the best blues albums, but simply one of the best albums of all time. B.B. didn’t really have anything to parallel Muddy’s late career triumvirate of albums working with Winter but I did buy a few of them.

B.B.’s late career was a bit of a grab bag. He had some live albums and the dreaded Christmas album. He did a great album of old standards, Reflections in 2003 but since they were standards, I hardly mark that as a blues album. He also did an album in tribute of the music of Louis Jordan in ’99 that was intriguing. B.B., like Frank Sinatra before him (who B.B. loved, Frank got him into the big rooms in Vegas, the Chairman was colorblind before everyone else), did a few duets albums. The first was all the way back in 1997 entitled Deuces Are Wild. He did a second one on his 80th birthday in 2005 entitled, creatively 80. Like Sinatra’s duets albums, B.B.’s attempted to cast a wide net commercially instead of creatively which only hurt the projects in my mind. There were R&B, blues, rock and roll and even country and hip hop stars who were paraded in to sing with B.B. I recommended Deuces to my friend Ron and he sent me a bill… he wanted his money back.

I understood Ron’s feelings. Mixing Heavy D with B.B. was one of those mistakes none of us will ever recover from, but if you edit the album, you can actually find some gems there and make it listenable. Van Morrison does an amazing job on his tune. It’s a true stand out track on Deuces. Naturally Bonnie Raitt’s duet is fabulous complete with her slide guitar. She always shows up when a bluesman calls. The guy who surprised me on the album was Joe Cocker, whose duet on “Dangerous Mood” conjures some real menace from B.B. on guitar. The act that made that first duets album worth the price of admission for me was the Stones doing “Paying The Cost To Be The Boss.” That one smokes, people, buy that song alone.

80 was much in the same vein. It had that one egregious mistake, in this case Gloria Estefan. Oh my god is that song horrible. But again, with some judicious cuts, the album does have some great moments. It’s fun to hear Glenn Frey, Elton John and Roger Daltrey tear into the blues. Sheryl Crow even acquits herself well, and that’s not something I’d have ever expected. The duets albums were fun, but it was more like going to a family reunion and seeing some folks you hadn’t seen for a while. The albums were kind of disjointed, loud, brassy affairs. B.B. sounded relaxed, almost too relaxed in some cases. They were an enjoyable listen, but nothing earth shattering.

Better was the entire album of duets he cut with Eric Clapton and Eric’s band, Ridin With the King in 2000. That’s an album I can recommend. Clapton and B.B. just have a natural rapport. Clapton was deferential to his elder and B.B. responded. They did old blues tunes and a couple of standards. The title track, written by John Hiatt, is just fun. Clapton had members of his band write a couple of tunes. It’s a real solid blues album from a man paying respect to one of his inspirations.

None of all of that – the duets albums, the album with Clapton, the Louis Jordan thing, the standards record – prepared me for what I what I would behold on what would turn out to be B.B.’s final studio album, One Kind Favor. And yes, Moulty58, the answer to your question, which should have been so obvious to me, is this album. I had heard that big-time producer, T. Bone Burnett had lured B.B. King into the studio to record an album. I had been intrigued. T. Bone had just come off the huge success of the Robert Plant, Alison Krauss project, Raising Sand. I loved that album, and the way it was produced. T. Bone, like Daniel Lanois has a murky, backroom sound to his productions that I love. He went on to do a marvelous album for Gregg Allman, Low Country Blues. 

This is B.B. doing classic blues for what ended up being the last time. You look at the cover art, and it almost looks like it’s B.B. standing on the shore of the river Styx, waiting for Charon, the Ferryman, to come and take him across. B.B. has Lucille with him, so it appears he’s going to play his fare across the river to the promised land. The title, “One Kind Favor” is taken from the old blues tune, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” which opens the album in a hushed shuffle. It’s not until midway through the song that B.B.’s guitar notes puncture the gloom. While this isn’t wrapped in mortality like Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, it’s certainly in that neighborhood.

The backing band is sensational. On drums you have both famous session guy Jim Keltner and Jay Bellerose (who works with T Bone quite a bit). Dr. John, aka Mac Rebennack, is here on piano. Nathan East, who played with Clapton and I think Phil Collins, is here on bass. Neil Larsen is on the organ. There are horns on this album, like most B.B. albums, but they’re more muted in most cases. The focus is on B.B.’s voice and guitar and the rhythm section. On his late work B.B. had a propensity to sing big and sound almost joyful… if not joyful, at least one might describe his late singing as redemptive. He’s singing the blues like it’s 1945 on this album, there’s little joy to be found. He brings the blues in a classic way. Kudos to T. Bone for pulling this performance out of B.B. when he was well into his 80s.

The song selection is inspired. There are several songs by B.B.’s hero, Lonnie Johnson, “My Love is Down,” and “Tomorrow Night.” It’s interesting to me, as a side note, that Bob Dylan did “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” on his debut album and “Sitting On Top of the World,” “World Gone Wrong” (both songs performed by B.B. here) on his late 90s folk albums. It’s absolute proof of how connected folk and blues or if you will, folk-blues are. It’s all connected, people. King’s guitar on “I Get Weary” is something ferocious. He rips into that song. “Get These Blues Out of Me” conjures up the opening riffs of “The Thrill Is Gone,” King’s best known song. Most of these songs are tunes that B.B. had done before but here he imbues the songs with a weathered, knowing wisdom. “Blues Before Sunrise” is magic in B.B. King’s hands here…

I am just so delighted that B.B. King, blues master, once again stripped away the commerciality, the duets and all the glitz and made a down and dirty, gritty blues album. It’s the perfect send off for the man, the myth, the legend. Pick this one up if you love the blues or if you love blues guitar. It’s essential listening for all fans.

Cheers!

 

 

Album Lookback: Van Halen – The Smirking Menace of Their Debut at 40

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I’ve been traveling a lot lately. It’s hard to keep up with what’s going on in the world, especially considering how much is actually going on. All of that aside, I saw last month that on February 10th, Van Halen’s self-titled, debut album turned 40 years old. I was thirteen when that album came out and while that seems like a lifetime ago, I didn’t think it had been forty years, or an actual lifetime. As Dylan sang, “Time is a jet plane, moving way too fast.” I saw several of the rock websites and magazines give mention or even full articles to the anniversary, but I couldn’t help but think back to my own experience with this landmark album.

As I’ve often mentioned in the pages of B&V, the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls was the first album I ever purchased with my own money. It was money my Sainted Grandmother had given me for Xmas. She didn’t want to be the one to buy me Some Girls because the back cover was an old-time add for woman’s bras. Grandma was concerned those images might corrupt my young mind… oh, little did she know, that cat was out of the bag. My actual first album ever, which was a gift that Christmas, was Steve Martin’s Wild And Crazy Guy. Comedy albums used to be, as we say, a big fucking deal. Everybody had a copy of that album and would perform the bits in school to make the girls laugh, but that’s another post.

What I don’t often talk about, are the albums I bought after Some Girls. I had been a bit of late bloomer when it came to music. If my brother hadn’t insisted that my mother turn the radio to the rock station in KC, KY/102, while I was in the car, I never would have heard “Shattered” and gotten on this whole rock n roll train. Well, I probably would have, but it would have taken a lot longer. After hearing the Stones that fall, I started tuning into KY/102 regularly. Previously I had only turned on the radio to listen to sports. My God, I was missing out. After hearing the Stones, the world of rock and roll was rapidly opening up to me. Well, as much as it could in the midwest.

While I bought Some Girls over Christmas break of ’79 (again, I was late to the party), buying more albums came slower. To purchase an album you had to have almost $10, a major investment in those times. The second album I ever purchased, was the classic debut album, Van Halen. It had been almost the constant soundtrack of my early rock and roll experience, how could it not be my second ever album? Hearing that band, at that time, you had to own Van Halen’s debut or you had absolutely no street “cred.” We were young, experimenting with beer and other things, and girls were taking up more and more of our mental capacity… Van Halen captured all of that energy in one album.

I can still remember the spring of ’79, eager to show off my new stereo, after riding our bikes around the neighborhood one weekend (pretending we were a motorcycle gang), where there may have been some herbal remedies invoked and drinking a stolen 40 ounce beer between four of us, we made our way back to my room. I unveiled my turntable/radio/cassette unit and two big speakers to my friends. I had just made a major investment on this new album and played Van Halen’s debut three or four times. I decided to show off my depth of music and put my only other album, Some Girls on the stereo. I can still remember my friend (who to protect the guilty, I’ll call) Paul saying, “Dude, put the fucking Van Halen back on.” That’s how huge that record was for us. We listened to it constantly.

1978 was a weird time. The energy and fury of punk was slowly evolving into “new wave” best represented by the music of say, the Cars. Disco was still a poisonous and potent force, especially with my mother, sadly. The legendary rock stars of old had gotten slow… The Stones had sort of captured and absorbed the punk thing on Some Girls. Punk seemed to wake Pete Townshend out of his torpor and he at least came up with a response on “Who Are You?” Springsteen took a huge stylistic left turn from Born to Run and turned up the anger and the guitars (or perhaps the angry guitars?) and put out Darkness On The Edge of Town. Less successful at dealing with punk were Led Zeppelin who just added synths (although that might have been because Jimmy Page was in a heroin cocoon) or Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham with his experiments on Tusk. 

Hard rock was somewhat lost. Kiss was really big at the time, even with some of my comrades. I never got that. I didn’t like Kiss… Aerosmith were at their peak, but they never had the commercial reach of some of the older bands. Judas Priest and the new British metal were doing great things, but you didn’t hear a lot of that out in KC, or at least I didn’t get into that until much later in high school. We were too young to even realize the gravity that rock and roll, hard rock or heavy metal was in such peril. Enter Van Halen.

Their debut wasn’t without controversy. Many critics panned it and the band, especially for their lyrics. They thanked Gene Simmons on the album cover (he’d recorded some demos for them) and the biggest, most nefarious rumor, to my friends and I, was that Van Halen was actually Kiss without their make up. I remember a group of my friends staring at the inside sleeve picture of Michael Anthony, Van Halen’s bass player and harmony vocalist, and thinking, “Hmm, that might be Gene Simmons with his hair dyed.” I laugh now at what a big deal that was to we, the rock purists, a group I had only newly joined.

But my God, the music on this album. It was like nothing we’d ever heard before. It’s always hard to understand the magnitude of something that is so vastly influential that it colors everything that comes after it. The riffs that Eddie Van Halen played had no precedence in the Ritchie Blackmore, Jimmy Page, blues-based riffs we’d all heard before. Aerosmith, while good, didn’t really break any new ground. They were heavier, perhaps. You could draw a line from Chicago Blues to the Stones/the Yardbirds to The Jeff Beck Group to Led Zeppelin to Aerosmith. You couldn’t draw a line from anything to Van Halen. It was like Eddie was a space alien who had landed with his guitar to teach the world to shred. Nobody played like him. It wasn’t until I saw video of him playing up the neck of the guitar that I realized how he was doing some of this stuff. In the early days of Van Halen, Eddie played with his back to the crowd so other guitarists couldn’t rip him off. The song “Eruption” was the most amazing thing we’d ever heard. It was more influenced by classical music than anything I’d heard in the blues rock dominated scene of the time. There would have been no Randy Rhodes without Eddie Van Halen.

Looking at the inner sleeve of the record, and the pictures that had been taken at The Whiskey after a gig, these guys looked like the coolest people on earth. David Lee Roth, the lead singer, was THE MAN! Clearly these guys had discovered what Jeff Beck said when he recruited Rod Stewart to be his front man. The dudes come to see the guitarist, the chicks come for the big, blonde, good looking guy on vocals. There was a menace to the music of Van Halen, but Roth gave it a smirking wink. On the track, “I’m the One,” a great rocker, there’s a barbershop quartet breakdown right in the middle. Out of nowhere. Only someone as cocksure as Roth could have pulled that off. “Bop Bop Shoobie Doo Wah…”? What? Roth and Eddie’s yin/yang thing was magic. Every front man who came after him in the 80s, and many of them sucked, were emulating Roth… Don’t blame him for the pale imitations. Roth was, and in some respects remains, the ultimate teenage boy, full of lusty innuendos and drug references.

The first track I ever heard on the radio was their definitive take on “You Really Got Me,” a Kinks cover. I had to be told by a friend that it was a Kink’s cover. In Van Halen’s hands, they made it their own. The song that drove me to my piggy bank and then to the mall was the epic “Runnin’ With the Devil,” a song that still scares my mother. Although once Valerie Bertinelli married Eddie, she said, “Well, he must be a nice boy after all…” Jesus, mom. “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” was another epic, menacing rocker. I read somewhere that to record that track, Roth had been fasting from pot and booze and bad food. When he just couldn’t get the vocal right, he called for a cheeseburger, coke and a joint. After consuming all three, he stepped in and nailed the vocal in 1 take.

“Jamie’s Crying” was as close to this album came to a ballad. It takes the viewpoint of a young girl besieged by horny men after only one thing… “Atomic Punk” is a riff that still is so epic and so original that 40 years in, I’m still not over it. It makes me stand up every time I hear it. The most Roth song here is the only other cover, “Ice Cream Man.” Roth is at his comic best on this one. He starts off with “Dedicate one to the ladies…” In his day he was both cool and funny.

I listen to this album and even at the ripe age of forty it still sounds fresh and original. I wish these guys could have held it together after the wild success of 1984. At this point I’d settle for another reunion album, although this time, I’d like to hear Michael Anthony on bass and harmony vocals. I think that, like Pink Floyd, this is a band we’ll never hear from again. But I urge everyone who is a fan of rock’n’roll and hard rock to purchase this album. It’s essential to any collection.

Cheers!