EP Review: Back On The Mellow End With Norah Jones’ New ‘Begin Again’

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My travails, er, travels led me to the hometown of one of my old college roommates and closest friends last week. Over cold beers and bad hamburgers in a sports bar, naturally the subject of music came up. It seems to pop up wherever I go… maybe it’s me? Towards the end of the evening, my friend told me about a YouTube video he’d watched by an old music producer. The guy explained that the use of ProTools and AutoTune took the human elements (what I was describing as the warmth) out of music. It’s the mistakes we make that make it interesting, he said. I said if you want good ol’ fashion, human made music you need to listen to some Norah Jones. My friend, like most people who read this blog was somewhat surprised I was a fan of Norah. Our tastes around here at B&V tend to run toward the louder, rowdier end of the spectrum. The last time my friend and I had talked music it was about Judas Priest’s Sad Wings Of Destiny, so Norah was a bit of a stretch from there. And my buddy knew me in the “if you’re not Van Halen or Led Zeppelin, you need not apply” phase of my music fandom.

There’s just something about Norah Jones that I love. The obvious answer is that voice. Or as we should probably be calling it, “The Voice.” It’s deeper than that, though. She burst out in 2002 with the smash Come Away With Me. Often, initial success on that scale can ruin an artist. Rather than be confined by any genre or locked down in the soccer mom section of the record store, by her third album, Not Too Late, Norah was already expanding the palette from which she created her music. Actually, when you go back and listen to Come Away With Me now, all these years later you can hear the blue print of the diversity in her music already there, ingrained in the DNA of what she was doing. The track “Lonestar” was country, which she later mined more deeply with her side project The Little Willies. You could also detect a lot of jazz and roots music weaved in with what she was doing. It was all there from the beginning.

Norah has now returned with what is being hailed as a new “album,” Begin Again. At only 7 songs, I tend to think of it as more of an EP. In the old days, LPs or long players were full length albums. EPs, or extended players, were only three or four songs, longer than a single but not as long as an LP. Now, if you’re Led Zeppelin, you might be able to put out an LP with only seven songs, but that’s only because you’ve got tracks like “Achilles Last Stand” that ran over 10 minutes. Or the Allman Brothers who once had one song that ran across both sides of a single album, “Mountain Jam” (properly named, as it was hard to climb over). With all that in mind, I’m calling Begin Again an EP rather than an LP, but that’s because I’m a tad on the anal retentive side. And while it’s not rock and roll in the strictest sense, it’s not pop music. Pop music, which derived its name from bubble gum, was only meant to be enjoyed as long as the sugar lasted… once it was gone, spit it out and move to the next song. Rock and roll is meant to sustain you like steak or vitamins. It’s genuine music played sincerely. Norah may not have squealing guitars but it’s certainly genuine music played extremely sincerely. It’s music you’ll return to again and again.

This new EP has been hailed in most of what I’ve read as being “eclectic.” When I think of eclectic, I tend to think of the White Album from the Beatles. That’s a pretty high bar, I know. I can’t say this album is that eclectic, but what is? There’s no “Revolution No. 9” and then a pivot to “Martha My Dear” here. Norah does collaborate with different people across the songs so there are some different sounds here. She’s collaborated before with artists as diverse as Danger Mouse and Jack White to Ryan Adams and Keith Richards. Here we find Jeff Tweedy from Wilco and producer Thomas Bartlett working with Norah amongst others. And while she mixes it up, in terms of sounds here, it’s all held together pretty well because of her vocals. Apparently she wanted to keep it light, collaborate with a lot of different people and have some fun. She decreed that no song should take more than 3 days to record… the way they did it in the old days. I like that approach.

From the “eclectic” end of the spectrum, there are some different sounds from Norah here. The opening track, “My Heart Is Full” is the most “experimental” thing on here. It’s just her voice building over percussive and keyboard elements. The song is subtly political. As the song builds to a vocal climax, where Norah exclaims “I will rise, I will rise” I’m all in, but then it drops back to the quiet verses. I expected more of a musical explosion with that vocal declaration. It’s a good track but it feels underdeveloped. Another song that I’ll put on the eclectic list, is one of the two collaborations with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, “Song With No Name.” It’s an acoustic dirge of a song with some nice guitar (both acoustic and some electric atmospherics) from Tweedy. It’s got dark lyrics from the viewpoint of a lover whose been scorned… “if I had a gun, if I had a knife.” It’s one of the best tracks here. Finally the most eclectic thing on here is “Uh-Oh” one of the collaborations with producer Thomas Bartlett. It’s a modern, percussion and synth number but somehow still remains pretty laid back. It’s another tune about a lover threatening to strangle her man… Norah seems to want to take over the mantle of tough-chick from Loretta Lynn who famously sang about “Fist City.” All of these tracks are still top notch, they’re just not what you’d expect.

The four additional tracks are what I’d describe as more traditional Norah Jones tracks. “Begin Again” is a jazzy number with some fierce piano playing from Norah. Never underestimate how great she is tickling the ivories. This is an even more direct political track, which makes me love it even more. “It Was You” is classic, sexy Norah. The sound of that song evokes the feeling of revealing who you really are, your true self, to a lover. It’s hypnotic. “Wintertime,” the second collaboration with Tweedy is also one of the best tracks here… I’d almost like to see those two do a whole album together… my only regret is Tweedy doesn’t duet with her. “Wintertime” is just a great love song. It wouldn’t have been out of place on Come Away With Me. “Just A Little Bit” is as jazz-inflected as Norah gets. It’s another seduction tune. I’ve already gone in-depth on that one in my earlier write up about the first few tracks released, On The Mellow End: Norah Jones’ Three New Songs From Upcoming EP, ‘Begin Again’, so I won’t belabor it again. It’s my favorite track here…she saved the best for last.

It’s brief, at 7 songs, but Begin Again is another brilliant entry in Jones’ catalog. The woman is so talented she makes it look easy. Put this one on with someone you love, pour something strong and just see where the wind and the music take you…

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

B&V Playlist: Happy 4:20 To All!

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*Image from the internet and likely subject to copyright

I must admit, straight away, that I’ve never been a big fan of the hookah. I chose my poison long ago and it’s in the form of a dark and murky fluid, an elixir known as bourbon. However, while I’m not a fan of the hookah, I’ve always been a friend of the hookah. Call me, pot adjacent. I always liked the stoners in high school and enjoyed hanging out with them. They were generally more laid back than most teenagers. They were also typically more intelligent and quite frankly they had a better sense of humor. I can’t count the times those stoners turned me on to great music. It would have taken me years to find Pink Floyd without those guys. Those few attempts to be a groovy, turnt guy, smoking weed, ended in paranoia and fear. However, the Rock Chick is a big fan of 420. After all these years, I find myself again, pot-adjacent. Even her cat’s birthday is 4/20.

I feel like pot is pretty pervasive these days. It wasn’t always that way, or so it seemed. I remember watching the comic, David Steinberg, on Johnny Carson one night when I was a kid. He told a story about his only pot smoking experience without mentioning the words “pot” or “smoking” so fearful was he about being censored. It was a funny story. He was at a party where people were smoking pot so he partook in an attempt to look hip. He was a little paranoid so he jumped in his car to drive home. This was before Uber people, we all drove impaired, sadly. A cop pulls him over and asks Steinberg, “Do you know how fast you were driving?” A stoned Steinberg, gripped with the fear, responded, “I don’t, maybe 80 miles per hour?” The cop, now apparently amused, responded, “No sir, you were going 8.”

I remember David Lee Roth coming on Rockline, the weekly rock and roll interview show that was on back in the day. My roommate and I went up to the top floor of the building we lived in and rigged a home made antenna so we could hear the KC radio station, KY/102 since they didn’t have any rock stations in Manhattan, Kansas. Roth referred to a joint as a “behavior modification device” and smoking pot as “burning local herbs for strictly medicinal purposes.” Those immediately became part of our vernacular. Ah, Roth was cool, once upon a time.

The first time I ever tried to be cool and smoke pot ended in disaster, at least emotionally.  A friend of mine, who I’ll call Nately procured a joint from his big brother. He and another friend of ours, who I’ll call Orr (names changed to protect the guilty) sat on Nately’s back porch and smoked it. We could see a family eating dinner like a Normal Rockwell painting, in the house behind Nately’s which we found hysterical for reasons, well, unclear. Suddenly, in the distance we heard a police siren. We joked that it was coming for us, that the Norman Rockwell family had called the cops. Oh, that was hysterical alright… until the siren got louder and louder and louder. We all reached the same conclusion at the exact same time – Jesus, the cops are coming for us. We all three scrambled in different directions. I remember Orr dove under the deck. I seem to recall punching Nately’s cat, who had snuck up on me, and diving into a bush. At some point I just panicked and ran the two miles to my parents house, where I promptly locked myself in my room and hid under the bed until my stoned friends showed up to retrieve me.

After that I just stuck to beer. Pot left me a mute, catatonic, fearful, drooling moron. But since I hung out with stoners I was always approached with different sales pitches on different types of pot that I should try. Edibles, that’s the answer to your weed anxiety, it’s a different high. My one pot eating experience resulted in me vomiting on the shoes of a sober person and yelling, “Eating pot sucks.” Hash, you’ve got to try hash, it’s a different high. Yes, hash is different, it’s more terrifying. I made the mistake of listening to the Velvet Underground after hash and again, I ended up under my bed, convinced Lou Reed’s voice was the voice of Satan. What you need is indica, that will relax you. Nope. Nowadays people always seem to recommend CBD, which is the non THC component of pot. I have bad news for you folks it’s all the same high. I haven’t touched a hookah in over 25 years. But I will drink and toast those who are getting toasted. Like sexual preference, practice that which makes you happy, just don’t try and convert me.

When I realized today was 4/20, I felt compelled to do something for our herbal enthusiasts out there. There are so many great songs about pot. I was thinking Neil Young’s “Roll Another Number” or Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf.” While I think I could have cobbled something enjoyable for our B&V stoner fans out there, I just felt I was out of my element. We’ve never had a guest contributor here at B&V but I turned to the foremost weed enthusiast I knew, the Rock Chick and asked her to compile some music for this, the National Holiday for Weed Smokers. Below, you will find her list. You can find it on Spotify under BourbonAndVinyl.net 420. Enjoy burning your local herbs for strictly medicinal purposes today and please, don’t get in your car and drive 8 miles an hour some place. And always… don’t bogart that thing, pass it around.

  1. “Legalize It” – Peter Tosh. I do think pot should be legal everywhere, not just a few states. Even if it’s just to allow medical experts to study it for help in PTSD, anxiety and depression.
  2. “Kaya” – Bob Marley. You knew Bob was going to be here and the name of this song, says it all.
  3. “Hits From the Bong” – Cypress Hill. This one, like many of the Rock Chick’s brilliant selections was new to me. This is hysterical.
  4. “Young, Wild And Free” – Snoop Dogg (with others) – Well, like Bob Marley, you knew Snoop would be here.
  5. “One Draw” – Rita Marley. I was glad to hear a little something from Bob’s wife.
  6. “Smoke Two Joints” – Sublime. When one is not enough and three is too many.
  7. “Officer” – Slighty Stoopid. This is a band I might have to do a lot more investigating into.
  8. “Indo Smoke” – Mista Grimm. This song is guaranteed to make even the most hard core pot smoker laugh his ass off.
  9. “Cheeba Cheeba” – Tone-Loc. This is a great song with a wonderful Stevie Wonder sample. To think I thought of Tone as a one hit wonder.
  10. “The Next Episode” – Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg. Dre and Snoop, together again. It’s money.
  11. “Smoke The Weed” – Snoop Lion, Collie Buddz. “Smoke the weed, not the seeds.” It seems like sound advice, but what do I know?
  12. “I’ve Been High” – Khia. I think we all have. Don’t trust anybody who hasn’t at least tried weed.
  13. “Let’s Go Get Stoned” – Sublime. I think Ray Charles has a song with the same title. I don’t think he’d fit in on this list, though.
  14. “Easy Skanking” – Bob Marley. Today I’ll be “Skanking it slow…”
  15. “Bowl For Two” – The Expendables. A track for all of you romantics. “I packed a bowl for two.” Share a bowl with the one you love?
  16. “Mile High” – The Movement. Having just been in Denver, where the smell of weed is pervasive, this song is perfect. And my beloved whiskey gets a shout out here too. Everybody wins.
  17. “Gin and Juice” – Snoop Dogg (with others) – A story as old as time… your mom is out, you’re  having a party with the ho’s and drinking gin. Your friend shows up with some “bubonic chronic” and “yeah, I’m fucked up now.”
  18. “Fat Spliffs” – Slightly Stoopid. The only way to roll one, I presume.
  19. “Blueberry Yum Yum” – Ludacris, Sleepy Brown. I’ve loved Luda since “One More Drink.”
  20. “Who’s Got the Herb” – 311. I’ve seen these guys in concert and they’re a great band.
  21. “I Got 5 On It” – Luniz, Micheal Marshall. I don’t know where she finds this music, but I’m glad the Rock Chick is out on that wall…
  22. “Smokin’ Love” – Stick Figure, Collie Buddz. This Collie Buddz keeps showing up on songs about weed… Could it be the name?
  23. “Legal Dub” – Sublime. I fear our next cat may be named “Legal Dub.”
  24. “Kush – Main” – Dr Dre and Snoop. Dre and Snoop are like peanut butter and jelly. They just belong together.
  25. “My Medicine” – Snoop Dogg. This is my favorite song on here. It’s Snoop doing a country track that he dedicates to Johnny Cash, a personal hero of mine. This is the funniest track on here.
  26. “This Joint” – Slightly Stoopid. Perhaps if they didn’t smoke so much weed, they’d be slightly smarter?
  27. “Burn By Myself” – The Dirty Heads. Where our hero laments the fact that he has to smoke his pot by himself.
  28. “Because I Got High” – Afroman. Is there a message in this song? I seem to remember my wife and daughter both being fans of this one back in the day… Hmmm.

Sure, there are probably hundreds of 420 play lists out there but none of them have that touch of the Rock Chick’s magic. And I know that stoners probably don’t have the stick-to-it, gung-ho urge to search this stuff out, but before you light that bowl, dial up Spotify and enjoy!

Record Store Day 2019: Reflections On Going To The Record Store…

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Life comes at you fast and furious anymore… I knew it was Record Store Day today but I was on the road all week for, yes, the dreaded work. I went out to the websites of two of my favorite local record stores to check their store hours. On the surface, you’d think they’d have posted that they had special hours for Record Store Day, it’s their national holiday after all. But when you think about it, the folks that work and own record stores are probably a tad more… casual… about updates to their website. Had I been in town, I’d have driven by each of the places and learned that they both opened at 7am, not the usual 11am today. By the time I got to the record stores today, any hope of picking up any of the exclusive releases that were available had long since faded… I felt, frankly, embarrassed. I even drug the Rock Chick out today, for the first time in quite a while, to join me at the record store. She’s the one who’s saved the day by picking out two great posters, pictured above (which represent the sum total of my haul), about which she said, “These will look great framed.” The woman has a sophisticated eye.

Ah, going to the record store. It was such a joyful ritual for me, really my entire life. I’m glad they have Record Store Day every year, and that so many artists participate by releasing rare or previously unreleased albums, but it’s also kind of sad they have to do so. I will admit, the crowds at both Records With Merritt and Josey’s Records were higher than usual today. In the old days, those crowds would have been there anyway. I had left with high hopes of finding Dylan’s vinyl release of the recreation of his original acetate recording of Blood On The Tracks (which he quickly withdrew) or perhaps, the first ever vinyl release of Robert Plant’s Fate Of Nations, but alas, on Record Store Day, the early bird gets the worm. I hate it when work interferes with great rock n roll, and especially great vinyl.

The first few albums I received as a child were gifts. They were comedy albums by Steve Martin and Robin Williams. When I first began my music collection, I had to save my allowance and/or lawn mowing money and beg a ride to the mall with my mother in order to buy a record. As soon as she needed some make up, or a blender, or a flouncy blouse or something I’d bum a ride and she’d stroll off through the mall and I’d hit one or both of the two record stores – Musicland or Camelot Music – located in the mall. One was on the top floor, the other was on the bottom. Oak Park Mall, our local mall, was big, but I’m still a tad staggered that it could support two record stores. I’d spend as much time as I could perusing the new vinyl, looking for the records I wanted to add to my collection. It was there that I bought Some Girls by the Stones, my first purchase. I had gone into the store that day with what can only be described as a grim, focused determination to come away with that album. Other trips were more exploratory in nature. Pouring over the album covers, looking at the songs listed on the back, trying to determine if the album I was holding was worthy of parting with the 9 bucks it would take to buy it. I could usually only buy 1 or 2 albums at a time. I was never so stressed out as when I had to decide if I wanted to invest in a double album… and yes, The Wall and The River were both worth it. Eventually, my mother would appear at the store front, tapping her watch, indicating it was time to go.

When I got my drivers license I was stoked, as most of us are. I could finally drive and didn’t have to depend on others for rides. I could drive to a friend or a girls’ place without having to ask my mother. Most importantly, no one knew where I was. For me, though, there was the added blessing of being able to drive to the record store and not have to hurry because mom was waiting. By then, while I still went to the mall – I had a job as a bus boy at York Steak House, it was hard to avoid – I realized there were other, larger record stores in the suburbs where I grew up. All during high school, I’d make the long trek up Metcalf Avenue, to Peaches Records. It was a virtual cornucopia of vinyl. I was so blown away by the expansive selection. That was where I bought my first album crates, emblazoned with the Peaches logo. I wish I still had those damn things. The Rock Chick tossed them, along with everything else I owned onto the bonfire of my past, when we moved in together. I also discovered there was an independent record store, closer to home, at the intersection of 95th and Antioch – Tiger’s Records. Tiger was supposedly mobbed up and the albums were purportedly stolen, but I still shopped there. It was said you could buy bootlegs there… but those records are sealed. I do know you could buy concert tickets there. I waited out for Van Halen tickets outside Tigers… they opened at midnight and let us into the store to buy our tickets early…some of the best seats I ever had for a show. “Someone shouted “fair warning!”…”

These bigger, or more independent record stores were to me, the coolest places on the planet. There were rows and rows of albums, music blaring on their turntable, and racks full of posters. They had everything from porn stars, to black velvet Elvis to rock star posters. I think that’s where I picked up the iconic Farrah Fawcett in an orange bikini poster. There was the smell of incense and perhaps pot emanating from the folks that worked there. They were some of the most knowledgable music people you were ever going to meet. I felt like I’d joined a very exclusive club that I was not cool enough to be a part of. I’d spend hours in these places, looking for records by the bands I heard on the radio.

When I went away to college, I found a kindred spirit in my buddy/roommate Drew. He and I would drive down to the heart of Aggieville in Manhattan, Kansas where we’d spend hours perusing the selection there. It was tucked in amongst all the restaurants and bars in the entertainment area, which we also frequented, but the record store was the place we spent most of our time. For us, the record store was a communal place where we would bond over great rock and roll. I can remember all of us who lived together going down there the day that Springsteen’s Live 1975 to 1985 box set came out and we each bought a copy. Going to the album store when a big record came out was an event! It was around that time that I discovered “used” record stores. Just behind the Peaches on Metcalf, was a little place next to the Roxy Bar that sold used records. That was a revelation to me as well… you could sell albums you didn’t connect with and still buy great albums at a reduced price. It’s where I found the Faces Oo La La. Used record stores are even cooler and stonier than the retail chains were. I felt like I was getting deeper and deeper into a secret society… The place behind the Roxy, whose name I can’t find on the internet, was where my buddy Drew found the rare copy of Time Fades Away. The summer I spent in Boston, I found a place called In Your Ear, a used record store and it was there I found the rest of the Faces’ catalog. I was in heaven.

Eventually I graduated from college and went into exile, living in Arkansas. I lived in both Ft. Smith and Fayetteville. Or as I called them, Ft Hell and Fayette-nam. Each one had but 1 record store, located on their respective main drags and at times of deep depression and loneliness, of which there were many, that’s where I would go. I made a new friend, Joel, and he and I would go and hang out at the record store. He turned me onto the Allman Brothers, the Band and U2. It was during that time I finally made the transition from vinyl to CD… it was tough, but bands just stopped issuing vinyl.

Finally, I’d had enough of fucking Arkansas and I moved home. After a brief stint living with my parents – every parents’ dream for their kids – I moved to Kansas City’s midtown. They had a big record store in the heart of Westport, a bar area down there. It was all CDs, but it still had that stoney, record store vibe. The basement was full of jazz and blues discs. I remember arguing with one of the guys who worked there about Randy Rhoads and his legacy as a guitarist. It was friendly but where else are you going to get to have that debate. I signed up for their frequent flier or frequent buyer club and when I filled out the form, as my salutation, instead of “Mr.” I checked “Reverend,” which only confused some drunk neighbors of mine who thought I could marry them. It was during this time period I started taking women on dates to record stores… it was fabulous being able to share a passion for music, go home, drink wine and share some, well, passion.

Alas, eventually all these places disappeared. Peaches turned into, I think, a bowling alley. The place by the Roxy, the used record store, became a futon store. The Penny Lane spot in Westport became a bar, the Ale House, catering to snotty college kids. I began to despair that the experience of going to the album store was over. Thank god, vinyl began to make a come back. I discovered a couple of really cool used vinyl places that helped keep the fire alive. Now, all these years later, these places sell used records and new vinyl by current artists. It appears we’re coming full circle. I just hope the experience, the sheer enjoyment of going and hanging out at a record store, perusing through vinyl albums comes back on the level I enjoyed when I was growing up. I certainly encourage as many people who read this to get to your local record store to pick up some vinyl and to just hang out. Support your local record stores folks!

I doubt we ever see a day when there are two record stores at your local mall. Hell, the way things are now, with everything on-line, I doubt we see your local malls any more. We’re trying to save coal miners’ jobs, how about saving retail jobs. Anyway, with a little luck and perhaps some better planning, maybe next year and the years beyond, just maybe, I’ll get up early enough to buy a Stones album in a special, orange-colored vinyl edition…

Long live Record Stores!

 

 

 

Balancing A Band And Going Solo: The B&V Favorite Solo Albums

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I’m not sure I ever truly “belonged” to any group in high school. I had friends in different places. I was a good student so I could hang with the nerds which is frankly where I probably belonged. I was a beer drinker so I tended to hang in drinking crowds. I wasn’t a hemp enthusiast but I could hang out with the stoners because they were generally a pretty docile group and they had great music recommendations. While I liked sports I tended to shun hanging out with the jocks, they just had too much testosterone for me. I’m a lover, not a fighter. I just sort of floated around, allowing the wind to push me in whatever direction it happened to be blowing… at least from a social perspective. Although admittedly, the same argument could be made for my career choices. I’m currently at the zenith of a very mediocre career.

I say all of this, as I sit here thinking about how hard it must be to be in a band. I always thought every band was like Rush, just a bunch of dudes who share a passion for music who met when they were young and were friends for life. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ original line up all met in the same high school. The guys in U2 all went to the same school and remain close friends to this day. When I first started listening to rock and roll in the late 80s, that’s how I thought bands worked. It was like joining a gang. You were part of something bigger than yourself with a bunch of friends, nay brothers, and it was you against “them.”

It didn’t take long to realize my utopian vision of rock bands, like my utopian vision of women, was built on a lot of false assumptions. One need look no farther than my favorite band, the Rolling Stones to see a group of guys who may have started as friends, but now are just work associates. The guys in Van Halen seem to have despised each other. At least the Van Halen Brothers hated Roth and Michael Anthony which is a shame. Eddie’s legacy will be that he was an enormous asshole and not a great guitarist. The Who never got along, although I think Pete and Roger do now. To be a successful band, you need that magic…which boils down to one basic thing – chemistry. Nobody may like like the bass player because he’s weird or he doesn’t bathe, but damn he plays perfectly with the rest of us. For three to five minutes the four or five guys in the room can lock into something that is mystical and magical and create a song.

Different bands operate in different ways. I guess every band is as unique as the individuals who make it up. While it’s probably true that in the Eagles, Henley was the creative genius, but it was Glenn Frey’s band. Glenn was the guy in charge. Glenn negotiated many of the contracts, set rehearsals, and ran the day to day stuff so Henley could focus on lyrics. Some friends of mine in Denver formed a blues band and one of them had to take that same role. Surprisingly I guess it’s hard to get musicians to get organized. But when you find that magic line up, you have to stick with it. Fame and fortune await just over the next hill.

As many bands have found, the chemistry between band members, while sometimes magical, is also a very fragile thing. It was Joe Strummer who said famously (and I tend to repeat endlessly), “Never estimate the chemistry between four guys in a room.” It’s dangerous to fuck with that. And let’s face it, nothing fucks with band chemistry more than the infamous “solo project.” In the 60s and even into the 70s “going solo” typically spelled the end of a band. If the lead singer or the principal songwriter decided to go off and do something on his or her own, it would typically piss off the rest of the band and speculation would begin on whether it was over for the band. Rolling Stone would run articles about the demise of whatever band was going through it. I guess everybody was supposed to keep the creativity in the gang.

I totally understand the desire to do something different. I feel that way every day at work. It’d be fun to work with a different set of musicians to see if they can spark something creatively within the artist. Maybe you’re in a metal outfit and you want to do an album of ballads, you know, just something completely different. Deep Purple’s ex guitarist Ritchie Blackmore is out there somewhere doing madrigals for god’s sake…probably at a Renaissance Fair somewhere. But for reasons unclear, perhaps loyalty, going solo was viewed dimly in rock band circles for a long time. Musicians are artists and I tend to think of bleeding hearts and artists as being fragile.

The guy who was a pioneer in being a solo artist and a member of a band was, of course, Rod Stewart. He had already put out his first solo album when he became a member of the Faces. He’d release a solo album and a Faces album every year. That shit was unheard of back in the early 70s. Robert Plant didn’t do solo albums, he just worked on Zeppelin albums. Rod pulled it off until his solo stuff got so much more popular than the band stuff, it crumbled the Faces… something I’m still not over. In the 80s it was, dare I say, Phil Collins who mastered the solo/band thing best. He was huge solo and somehow was able to transfer that love to Genesis and they just got bigger. Of course, I feel like my friend Drew about Collins, that we were all conned in some way. I hide those records… Collins not only did his own thing and remained in Genesis, but he was also Plant’s drummer. He taught Plant how to produce his own music…he’d learned on a lot doing Face Value and Plant had a lot to learn.

Last week I wrote about Keith Richards’ first, reluctantly recorded, solo album, Talk Is Cheap and it got me thinking about solo albums. While the concept wasn’t popular in the respective bands, there have certainly been some great solo albums recorded over the years. I thought I would compile a list of our B&V favorites. Now, I’m not talking about solo careers here – like Lou Reed after the Velvet Underground or any Beatle after they broke up, those are solo, post-band careers – I’m talking about the guys who took a busman’s holiday and stepped away from the band, recorded a solo album and then returned refreshed and jazzed up to the band. I would urge everyone to check these albums out. I’ll list the artist and the band he was in when the solo album came out below.

  1. Gregg Allman, (Allman Brothers), Laid Back – Laid Back is one of those great, seemingly forgotten albums that everyone should treat reverently. When he was on his own Gregg put a little more soul in the music. He redoes “Midnight Rider” in a completely different way than the band did it and it’s amazing. His version of his friend Jackson Browne’s oft covered “These Days” is the definitive version. This is a stone-cold classic album by a guy who also recorded Brothers And Sisters with his band the same year. Ah, the 70s.
  2. Stephen Stills, (CSN and/or CSNY), Stephen Stills – There were a lot of great solo albums to come out of the CSNY collective Artist Lookback: Crosby, Stills, Or Nash – The Essential Solo and Duo Albums… (I tend to treat Neil Young as a solo artist who dabbled in being in CSNY, so you won’t see him here.) The pick of the litter is Stills’ eponymously titled first solo album. Both Hendrix and Clapton show up to play lead guitar on different songs here. It was Hendrix’s last recorded stuff. Stills, dubbed “Captain Many Hands” by Graham Nash because he could play every instrument, save perhaps the tuba, does so here. He plays everything. “Love The One You’re With” is the hit, but there’s so much to love here. From gospel inflected tracks to gut bucket blues, this is Stills’ masterpiece.
  3. Joe Walsh, (The Eagles), But Seriously, Folks… – How do you follow up a smash like Hotel California? For the rest of the Eagles it was to hole up in a Miami studio, do a bunch of coke and do endless takes of “Those Shoes.” For the most likable Eagle, Joe Walsh, he merely snuck off and recorded his best solo album. Known mostly for “Life’s Been Good” there is so much more here. “Over and Over” and “At the Station” are two of my favorite tracks by Walsh. Sure, Joe was already a solo artist when he joined the Eagles which gave him some autonomy, but I thought he was done solo when this album surprised me.
  4. Rod Stewart, (the Faces), Every Picture Tells a Story – This was actually Rod’s third of five albums he’d record solo while in the Faces. This is his masterpiece. “Maggie May” is his signature tune, of course. “Mandolin Wind” is my absolute favorite Rod song. The cover tunes are all top shelf – Elvis’ “That’s All Right” and Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is Such A Long Time” are both exceptional.
  5. Stevie Nicks, (Fleetwood Mac), Bella Donna – Fleetwood Mac’s follow up to their life-changing smash, Rumours, was the momentous, double-LP, Tusk. Lindsey had taken over and pushed them into some really experimental directions. While I love that album, its sales of 4 million copies, yes 4 million!, was seen as a let down. It wasn’t all the break-ups in the band that caused the three principal songwriters to go solo after Tusk, it was the then perceived failure of the record that made them all go solo. Stevie has an all-star band behind her – Waddy Watchel, Roy Bittan, Ben Tench, and Jimmy Iovine as producer. This is an amazing album. She returned to Fleetwood Mac with so much confidence she made them do a country tune, “That’s Alright” on their next, play-it-safe album, Mirage. 
  6. Daryl Hall, (Hall & Oates), Sacred Songs – This may be the weirdest selection ever written about on B&V. I don’t like Hall & Oates. But let’s face it, everybody loves “Sara Smile.” I turned my daughter onto this song and she sent me a video of her and her friends singing along and dancing to this song. I deleted the video before the authorities could seize my phone… but I digress. To his credit, Hall stepped away from his Philly soul, balladeer role and teamed up with King Crimson’s lead guitarist Robert Fripp, fresh off his stint with Bowie on Heroes to record an amazing, guitar-forward, rock album. None of you have heard this record but you should. “Babs and Babs” is the stand out track. The title track and “Something In 4/4 Time” are rollicking rockers. This is an unexpected, unheard treasure.
  7. Mike Ness, (Social Distortion), Cheating At Solitaire – I love the tongue-in-cheek title of this record as Ness does have a lot of help on this solo record. The first time I heard “Misery Loves Company,” a duet with Springsteen from this record, I texted the Rock Chick and said “worlds collide.” I was a Bruce fan, she turned me onto Social D. Everyone should hear that song. It’s awesome. The rest of the album is a great selection of “cowpunk,” Ness’ combination of country inflected, punk rock. I can’t resist “Dope Fiend Blues.” He covers Dylan and Johnny Cash. This is another hidden gem of a record.
  8. Keith Richards, (The Rolling Stones), Talk Is Cheap – The solo album he never wanted to do… Keith Richards: ‘Talk Is Cheap (Deluxe Version),’ The 30th Anniversary Edition With Bonus Tracks.
  9. Mick Jagger, (The Rolling Stones), Wandering Spirit – Jagger’s solo stuff is so maligned, he’d already struck out twice so by the time 1993’s, Rick Rubin produced Wandering Spirit came out, people didn’t care. They should. Rubin got Mick focused on his strengths here. He does all the great things he does in the Stones, save perhaps the blues. The title track should be played at my funeral… “I’m a wandering spirit, yes I am a restless soul, I’m a wandering spirit, there’s no place that I can call my own.” “Wired All Night” is a balls to the wall rocker. “Sweet Thing” is a disco-y track that was the first single, which may have been a mistake, but I love it. “Don’t Tear Me Up” has shades of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” There’s not a bad tune on this record. Mick is the man! (Get well soon!).
  10. Bruce Springsteen, (The E Street Band), Nebraska – Sure Petty did albums that were “solo” but Heartbreakers’ guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Ben Tench played a heavy role on those albums. Here Springsteen really goes solo in every sense of that word. Nebraska is a dark, spartan record that Springsteen recorded alone. It sounds like a demo. It’s him with an acoustic guitar, by himself, in a room. It’s a masterpiece and a very hard listen. It’s been rumored for years, and recently confirmed, that there’s a full-on E Street Band version of this record that I’m hoping is coming to a box set very soon.
  11. Pete Townshend, (The Who), Empty Glass – I made the horrific mistake of buying this album on cassette. I’m a vinyl guy… but I wanted to hear “Rough Boys” in my car. It’s a great, rocking tune. “Gonna Get Ya” is an epic, 6 minute jam. “Let My Love Open The Door” is here. This is a drunk and drug-addled Townshend making sense of punk rock and his and the Who’s place in rock and roll. It’s a breath-taking listen.

There are so many more solo records that deserve praise and listening. I’m going to stop at these 11. I would urge everyone to check out any of Little Steven’s early work, where he stepped away from the E Street Band while Bruce was brooding over Nebraska. While he’s no Steve Perry, Ronnie Woods’ first couple of solo records away from the Faces and the Stones are great as well. Start with these records and explore as deeply as you can. Rock and roll is the fucking tree of life!

Dedicated to Mick Jagger and his speedy recovery!