Review: Springsteen’s New Solo Song, “Hello Sunshine” From The Upcoming LP ‘Western Stars’

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I took a little vacation down to the Florida Keys last week. It was good to get away. I was able to sit and roast in the sun (always use sunscreen folks, and don’t forget to slather your feet with it), put my headphones on and crank up the tunes… “Hello Sunshine,” indeed. The people the Rock Chick and I were traveling with, who live down there, are enormous music fans. Their principal interest remains classic rock and especially the blues. Every night ended with us sitting out on the lanai (a very fancy word for a screened-in deck/porch) cranking tunes on my little portable speaker and enjoying a nightcap, or two. I don’t think I’ve listened to that much Lynyrd Skynyrd since high school. Florida really is just Arkansas with coastline. Our traveling companions were laser-focused on finding live music every night which is always fun.

As part of an unplanned change-up during the trip, we left the Keys early and headed up to South Beach in Miami for that last night in the “Sunshine State.” At one point that evening, we ended up in a Salsa bar, which is a lot like ending up in marching band camp, all horns and noise…the horror, the horror. I was just trying to watch the Kentucky Derby and enjoy my bourbon. One might describe the week as a “musically immersive experience.” The best part of decamping early to Miami was the three hour drive up the Keys where my hosts played SiriusXM’s Spectrum station. The Spectrum plays classic and current rock. Over the course of the trip I heard the new Bruce Springsteen track, “Hello Sunshine” probably three times. It’s always better to first experience a new track in the car. There’s just something about driving and jamming.

Springsteen has been a busy man whilst on hiatus from the E Street Band. He had his very successful, one-man show on Broadway based on his autobiography, and won a Tony. He followed that up with a Netflix special of the show and the inevitable soundtrack there of, Review: Netflix’s ‘Springsteen On Broadway’ – The Artist’s Dialogue With Fans Comes to the Great White Way. I’d been hearing about a solo project he’d recorded either prior to his Broadway show or during that time frame. The new music was described as “beautifully orchestrated.” Springsteen hinted that he was looking for a certain late-60s/early 70s sound on this new mystery solo project. I also just read yesterday, in a sudden burst of creativity he wrote an album’s worth of material for an E Street Band album. Which is really good news for those of you fearing we’d never see those guys together again. For now at least, we have the new solo album to look forward to in June, Western Stars. 

When describing the specific 60s/70s sound he was looking for, Springsteen mentioned singer/songwriter Jimmy Webb. I’ll be the first to admit that Webb is not a household name. I have been fortunate in my life that I’ve always surrounded myself with music nuts. After college, many of us eventually ended up in Kansas City. The guy I spent most of my time with in those days was an old roomie of mine, who I’ll call Stormin (name obscured to protect the guilty). Storm is like me, a huge music fan. When we weren’t drinking beer and eating stolen t-bones, we liked to go to the record store, spelunking for new stuff. He actually purchased a Jimmy Webb album back in those days and played it for me. It had all these great old tunes, mostly made famous by Glenn Campbell, like “Wichita County Lineman,” “Galveston,” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.” I said, “Why is this guy doing all these covers?” Lo and behold, I found out that much to my embarrassment, Jimmy Webb wrote all those great songs and I’d had no idea.

Springsteen, of course, isn’t covering Jimmy Webb, he just wanted to capture that sound. The songs Webb wrote always had beautiful melodies and amazing orchestration. It’s easy to think that his stuff was made famous only by Glenn Campbell, meaning they are all country songs, but that would be wrong. His stuff was recorded by artists as diverse as Isaac Hayes, Waylon Jennings and the 5th Dimension. Disco queen Donna Summer even did “MacArthur Park.” Alas, Webb never found the success (commercially) as a recording artist that he did as a songwriter… the critics always seemed to like his records but not the fans in general.

On “Hello Sunshine,” Springsteen has indeed captured that beautiful orchestration that Webb was famous for. The influence is very strong. Frankly, I’m thrilled Springsteen is paying this much attention to the sound of his music. Sometimes he can get a little too focused on the lyrics and the message. His music has become ever more topical of late, which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just nice to hear Bruce do more of a “pop” song (for lack of a better description). Over hushed drums and a wonderful bass line, Bruce sings in a slightly deeper register and manages to capture both the sadness and joy in the lyrics. It’s one of the most nuanced vocal performances I’ve heard from the Boss. The strings and piano kick in and the song takes off. There’s a beautiful pedal steel signature that plays throughout. The track does have an old-school country vibe, and I really, really love this song. Even the Rock Chick, who likes a fraction of Springsteen’s music said, “This could be a really great Springsteen album.” This song is almost an anachronism… it feels like it belongs in another time and place.

The lyrics are just great. The track is about a guy coming out of a dark time, perhaps a depression. The first lyric says it all, “Had enough of heartbreak and pain,
I had a little sweet spot for the rain.” Some of us get used to the darkness and come to be almost comfortable in it. It seems the “Sunshine” of the title may be a new love… “I’ve always liked my walking shoes, but you can get a little too fond of the blues.” I just think the lyrics perfectly fit the mood of the track. I love the sound and I love Bruce’s singing here. “Hello Sunshine, won’t you stay…” Don’t we all feel that way sometimes?

I don’t think this is Bruce’s “country” album. If “Hello Sunshine” is any indication, I think Western Stars has a chance of being a great, old-school, singer-songwriter type of album. You know, like Springsteen on his first album. This gives all of us at B&V something to look forward to this summer. I highly urge everybody check this track out!

Cheers!

 

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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!

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

On The Mellow End: Norah Jones’ Three New Songs From Upcoming EP, ‘Begin Again’

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*Above image taken from the internet and likely copyrighted

It’s no secret that all of us down here at B&V are into our screaming, loud rock and roll. Hell, the first concert I ever took the Rock Chick to, before I made an honest woman out of her, was AC/DC on the Stiff Upper Lip tour. I can still remember the topless woman who popped out of the roof of the limo in front of us after the show. The exuberance of rock and roll had sort of… overcome that woman, but I digress. Even last night, after a wicked cocktail the Rock Chick cooked up with tequila and prosecco, I quickly put on some Tom Petty, Playlist: The B&V Best Tom Petty Album/Deep Tracks from our Spotify playlists.

But as with all things, screaming loud rock and roll has it’s time and place. On occasion, the mood or the situation calls for something a tad more mellow. When I’m putting my smooth moves on the Rock Chick, for example, sometimes it requires more subtle music than Motley Crue. Typing that sentence makes me immediately realize two things: a) I am not smooth and b) I have no moves. Another good example of a time that require music that’s a little mellower is my physical feeling today, after a night of drinking tequila, prosecco cocktails… I believe the medical profession would describe my condition as a “hangover.” No risk in life, no reward as the saying goes.

When I’m in need of some music that’s a tad more cerebral, if I don’t put on Van’s Saint Dominic’s Preview, I find myself turning to Norah Jones. As I am prone to repeating myself sometimes in these pages, the woman has the voice of an angel. She could literally record herself singing passages from a newspaper and I’d probably listen to it, despite how depressing the news is these days. I’ve never had the privilege of seeing her in concert, she tends to shun Kansas City but I remain hopeful she’ll come my way.

I don’t know if it’s that voice, but something about Norah’s music is evocative for me. I spent most of my 20s and 30s a wandering, emotional gypsy. I had a series of emotionally damaging relationships. I tended to pick my girlfriends from the FBI’s Most Wanted List… However, by 2002, when Jones’ debut Come Away With Me came out, I had found love and with it a family. I was living in house (that was mine) for the first time in my life, instead of a suitcase or the back of a car. I tended to keep moving in the old days… I was living with the Rock Chick in 2002 and we were engaged. Her daughter, who I now describe as “our” daughter was living with us. I had been traveling for work and my plane landed right around sunset on warm, late-summer day. The sky was turning to purple, but the sun still shone it’s golden hue on the taller trees. As I was driving home from the airport that night surrounded by magnificent colors with my sunroof open, on the public radio station I heard “Come Away With Me” for the first time. We were looking for a song for our first dance at our wedding and I was instantly convinced in that magical moment I’d found the track (I got overridden on that, alas). As I drove that night, for the first time headed to a home and not just the place where I kept my stuff, I felt a level of contentment I never thought I’d know… Norah Jones’ song had completely captured and immortalized that moment for me.

Over the years I have remained a Norah Jones fan. I loved her last album, Day Break LP Review: Norah Jones’ “Day Breaks,” The Piano Strikes Back!. I recently heard she was releasing random singles. I made a mental note to go out and find them and gather them together on a playlist. Luckily it seems that Ms. Jones is handling that for me. She’s gathered together seven tracks that she’ll be releasing in April as an EP, Begin Again. For those of you keeping score, an album is called a “long player” or an LP. An EP is an “extended player.” An EP is longer and has more music than just a single (which used to get released with 1 song on each side), but isn’t quite as long as an album or LP.

From the new EP, Norah has pre-released three new songs. I’ve heard her new music described as “experimental” which may be why she’s releasing just an EP. If there’s nothing thematic or musically similar holding a group of songs together an EP release makes more sense. I like the immediacy of what I’m hearing in these three new tracks. And yes, it’s not hard to predict, I liked all three of the new songs. I like that Norah is willing to take chances. An artist who had so much success early on in her career could be tempted to rest on her laurels. Not Norah, she really pushes herself.

For me, the stand out track of the three is “Just A Little Bit.” It’s a jazzy, syncopated little number. If I close my eyes while I listen, it feels like I’ve just wandered into a basement jazz club, the sound bouncing off the brick walls. I feel the murmur of hushed conversations and smell cocktails and perfume as patrons huddle in the dark and groove on the tune. I can feel the horns as much as hear them. It’s jazzy in all the right ways. When she emphasizes the words, “I’m on fire…” I can feel the heat.

“It Was You” is a more straight up Norah Jones. A sultry, chanteuse style track driven by her beautiful piano and a sax. Norah’s voice drops down in the register and is at it’s very sexiest. “And I knew, and I knew and I knew it was you…” It’s more an invocation to love than chorus. Put this song on late at night and you won’t need my patented smooth moves…

The final track of the three prereleases is a collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, “Wintertime.” I love it when Norah collaborates. She’s got a great track with disgraced singer Ryan Adams, “Dear John” which is one of her career highlights. I loved the album of Everly Brothers covers she did with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, Foreverly. Tweedy doesn’t sing on “Wintertime.” It’s a laid back piano tune and Tweedy plays a rather subdued guitar… at least I think that’s him. The track has a slightly country feel, but that may just be my take on the guitar work. It’s a very solid track.

All of us at B&V are looking forward to hearing the rest of this EP. I love that Norah is continuing to experiment and push herself. This will be very interesting, evocative music from an important artist. Enjoy this one to keep warm in this punishing wintertime!

Cheers!

 

 

LP Review: Van Morrison Returns (Already) With the Bluesy Jazz of ‘The Prophet Speaks’

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“When the prophet speaks, you’ve got to listen” – Van Morrison “The Prophet Speaks”

I never dreamed, when I posted my thoughts in September of 2016 on Van Morrison’s brilliant late-period album Keep Me Singing, that it was going to be the beginning of one of the most prolific periods of his career. His previous album of all new material had come in 2012, four years prior (Born to Sing: No Plan B). The guy has been really busy since then. Since Keep Me Singing, he’s released four albums in the span of 15 months. This prolific period began with the exceptional Roll With the Punches, which I described as a laid-back blues party. Van had some friends jamming with him on that album, which included Jeff Beck on guitar, an inspired choice. He went on to release Versatile (a jazz and standards heavy record) three months after Roll With the Punches. He then recorded the jazzy You’re Driving Me Crazy with the Joey DeFrancesco Quartet last April. Now he’s already back with a new album, The Prophet Speaks, a mere 8 months later. He’s on a 2 album/year pace… Back in the sixties the record companies were always pressing their artists for new product. The feeling back then was you had to stay in front of the public with new stuff… The Beatles and Stones, early in their careers, put out 2 albums/year. These days, this kind of pace/output is unheard of.

As long as Van keeps putting out quality albums like The Prophet Speaks, I say, keep them coming. Van has always been a prolific songwriter, but I believe one of the reasons he’s been able to put out albums every few months is that since Roll With the Punches his records have been heavy on covers. For Van, who can literally sing anything – folk, blues jazz, Irish, soul, rock and roll – doing covers isn’t a bad thing. Van may not be the singer he was in his 20s, like Geddy Lee or Robert Plant these days he’s singing more from his diaphragm than shredding his vocal cords, he can still sing with nuance and great feeling. He’s also got spectacular taste in material, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

One of the reasons I loved Roll With the Punches was that it was deeply rooted in the blues. As anyone who have read this blog for any time knows, everything we love at B&V springs from the blues. I will admit, I shied away from Versatile and You’re Driving Me Crazy as they were more jazz leaning than I’m typically drawn too. For years I felt I wasn’t smart enough for Jazz. It’s very cerebral music. Last year I went to a ClassicAlbumSunday event (an afternoon featuring a certain album, curated by experts) and heard John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. I’m still not smart enough for jazz, but that album blew my mind. The curator of that afternoon explained a lot about jazz and at least now I can groove on wonderful saxophone driven music that was here-to-fore a mystery to me. Still, Van’s Versatile and You’re Driving Me Crazy just didn’t hit me the way Roll With the Punches did.

With The Prophet Speaks, we find Van recording with the same crew as You’re Driving Me Crazy, the Joey DeFrancesco Quartet. Joey plays keyboards (most notably organ) and horns. He’s accompanied by Michael Ode on drums, Dan Wilson on guitar and Troy Roberts on bass and saxophones. This is a big, brassy album with a lot of great organ fills. When I hear this music, it transports me back to the old days when the Plaza III had a jazz club in the basement. If you knew somebody you could slip in after hours and listen to the old jazz guys, done with their paying gigs, jam until the wee hours. Nowadays to hear music like this, I grab the Rock Chick and head down to the Green Lady Lounge, order martinis and swing, baby. While this album is jazzy, it’s more like blues or R&B filtered through a jazz lens than straight up jazz. It’s very accessible music. As mentioned, this album swings. It is very apparent that Van, one of rock’s original curmudgeons, is having a blast here. You can hear him call out for sax solos, or moan, “Whoa” in reaction to a solo. He’s into this album and he should be, it’s great.

Van’s selection of artists to cover would make a great blues and soul record collection. He does a great, albeit less bluesy cover of “Dimples” by his old pal John Lee Hooker. He also does Willie Dixon’s “Love The Life I Live” made famous by Muddy Waters. While this version couldn’t sound more different from Gregg Allman’s recent cover of the same track, I still dig it. We also hear Van do “Worried Blues/Rollin’ And Tumblin'”… I think Van is the third artist to do that song this year (Billy Gibbons, Rod Stewart). Another highlight is the old traditional, “Teardrops” that finds Van and the band jamming in fine form. Van does a couple of great soul standards as well. “Gotta Get You Off Of My Mind” by Solomon Burke has a nice harmony vocal by Van’s daughter Shana Morrison. Another soul cover, and perhaps my favorite, is Sam Cooke’s “Laughin’ And Clownin’.” Sam’s influence is so broad, I need to write about him.

Beside all those great covers, Van blends in a number of originals. My favorites are probably “5 A.M. Greenwich Mean Time,” the story of a guy walking home at 5 a.m… and yes, it’s been a while since I’ve done that but we’ve all been there. Another great, bluesy tune is “Ain’t Gonna Moan No More.” It’s just a great Van Morrison song. Another great vamp is “Got To Get Where the Love Is,” Van’s first original on the album. The record ends with two songs more based in spirituality, “Spirit Will Provide” and title track. What would a Van album be without a little spirituality. 

If you’re a fan of Van’s, and admittedly, I am (I’m currently reading a book on the recording of Astral Weeks), you’ll love this album. Don’t let the word “jazz” in this post scare you away. This is a great, loose, groove record and I highly recommend it. To paraphrase, when Van sings, you’ve got to listen…

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

LP Review: Smashing Pumpkins, Iha’s Surprisingly Tentative Return ‘Shiny And Oh So Bright’

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I had heard rumblings about a true Smashing Pumpkins reunion forever. As early as 2007’s Zeitgeist when Corgan ran a full page ad in the Chicago newspaper saying he wanted everybody back onboard there’s been talk of a Pumpkins reunion. Then a couple of years ago on, yes, social media we started seeing pictures of guitarist James Iha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin in the studio with writer/producer/guitarist/singer Billy Corgan. Sadly, most of the buzz and talk around the reunion was around bassist D’Arcy’s absence. Apparently Corgan didn’t feel she could carry the weight of playing on a record and a tour. It’s much the same thing with Axl and Steve Adler, who actually admitted he couldn’t have played a whole show. If you don’t play, you forget how, apparently.

When I think about the Smashing Pumpkins, I think back to those glory years. My dear friend Doug gave me Siamese Dream. Obviously, that record is a masterpiece. It was the Chicago answer to the Seattle wave that engulfed the 90s. If you subscribe to the “great man” theory of history, I don’t think Corgan gets the credit he deserves. (Just ask him, he’d agree). While Cobain was the voice of a generation, an honor he never wanted, Corgan desperately coveted that tag. People spoke of Vedder, Cornell and Staley in hushed and reverent tones but Billy never got that kind of love. I guess Chicago isn’t as cool as Seattle… although I’d argue that point. Of all the big 90s bands, I think Corgan was the most “classic rock” influenced. I bought the double CD Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness and remain blown away by it to this day. That tour was my first time seeing them in concert and they rawked.

But just when it seemed world-dominance was within Corgan’s grasp things went haywire. Chamberlin who had been struggling with alcoholism and heroin addiction for quite some time, OD’d along with touring keyboardist Jonathon Melvoin who tragically died. The band had had enough and Chamberlin was fired. The line-up of the Pumpkins has really been in flux ever since. They went with an electronica thing, produced by Rick Rubin on Adore and I think they lost a lot of people. I personally loved that record. The title track, “Ava Adore” and “To Sheila” remain among my favorites. I remember my friend’s wife turning to me during that concert and saying, “What’s this shit?” How Greil Marcus of her.

Chamberlin cleaned up and returned for 2000’s Machina/The Machines of Gods but by then D’Arcy had been dismissed for undisclosed reasons. The rumor was crack cocaine. I remember hearing she and her boy friend tried to rob a convenience store… I want to party with you, D’Arcy. After that the wheels came off and Corgan ended the Pumpkins. Chamberlin, who had at one time been Corgan’s roomie on the road, joined the short lived Zwan, an album apparently only I bought. Corgan did an un-listenable solo record and opened a tea shop. Finally he ran the ad calling his old comrades back to the band. Again, only Chamberlin showed up for Zeitgiest. After that, it was really a revolving door of musicians. Only guitarist Jeff Schroeder has seemed to stick. Tommy Lee of Motley Crue actually sat in the drummer’s chair for 2014’s Monuments to an Elegy.

I will admit, I’d been ignoring pretty much everything Corgan did since the Zwan thing. But I ended up picking up Oceania and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t a great record. I also bought Monuments to an Elegy but admittedly I was merely intrigued by the idea of Tommy Lee drumming for Billy Corgan. Those were both great, sort of midtempo records. Nothing as epic or earth shattering as “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” but enjoyable rock albums. Then the announcement that Iha and Chamberlin were both back hit social media… I couldn’t help but wonder what their presence would do to the Pumpkins sound.

It was a Joe Strummer documentary I watched late at night, by myself where I saw Joe say, “never underestimate the chemistry of four guys in a room.” I’ve always believed in that. No matter how badly those folks might get along, there’s something about band chemistry. You get the right guys in a room and magic happens. Chrissie Hynde just plays better when Martin Chambers is on the drum kit. He knows instinctually what she’s going to do before she does it. With Iha back, I thought some of that magic might return.

I have to admit, on first listen I was a little surprised by Shiny And Oh So Bright, Vol 1. The title actually goes on for a bit longer, but I’m too lazy to type the whole thing. Don’t get me wrong, I like this record. I like most rock and roll. But I guess I expected a little more strum und drang. I was hoping for a bunch of bombastic guitar. Chamberlin’s drumming is, as usual, thunderous. For the most part, this is an all too brief, midtempo record in the same spirit of Oceania or Monuments. Iha’s presence hasn’t really fired Corgan up. I hear Iha’s distinctive guitar sound through out the record, but there’s nothing terribly heavy on this record. Rick Rubin has returned to produce this album, and he gives it the usual organic, clean production. I like the sound of this music and that’s probably due to Rubin.

The album starts off with a trio of pretty mellow tunes. I really like “Knights of Malta,” it reminds me of “Tonight, Tonight.” There are keyboards and strings. Then they slip into “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)” which has that same chugging rhythm as “1979.” That song slips seamlessly into “Travels.” And I mean seamlessly, I had to look at the stereo to see that it had gone to the next track. Finally the band catches fire on the rocking lead single, “Solara” (New Single: The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Solara”: The Original (3/4 of it Anyway) Line-Up’s Rocking Return). Other than “Solara” the only tracks that really rock are “Seek And You Shall Destroy” and “Marchin’ On.” “Solara” is still the pick of the litter but “Seek And You Shall Destroy” is a very close second. The only real miscue on this record is “Alienation” which finds Corgan at his cliched worst.

Overall this is a pretty good record. It just feels like a real tentative reunion, like they’re still feeling each other out. I think a little touring and time spent together will loosen these guys up. Then maybe they can get back to their usual window shattering, earth shaking rock and roll. Give this one a listen, it’ll grow on you.

Cheers and Happy Thanksgiving!

 

LP Review: Tom Petty, ‘An American Treasure’ – A Different Path Through a Brilliant Career

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“And may my love travel with you, everywhere” – Tom Petty, “Have Love, Will Travel”

As chance would have it, the day my copy of Tom Petty’s new box set, An American Treasure arrived at the house, September 28th (I’d pre-ordered it), I had to jump in the car to head out to points west to take my wife and daughter to see my KC Chiefs play the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football. It was tough duty to hold that box set in my hands and leave it behind… Family comes first. After a great, long weekend in Denver, the Rock Chick slid behind the wheel as we headed back home… I realized it was October 2nd, the one year anniversary of Tom’s sad passing… I commemorated the date in a way I’d hope would make Tom smile, out on the open road, cruising down the highway at top speed, blasting the Tom Petty playlist the Rock Chick put together a year ago to honor the man. That quickly led me to my playlist of my favorite deep tracks, Playlist: The B&V Best Tom Petty Album/Deep Tracks, now posted on Spotify.

While my driving, binge-listening to Petty was a nice memorial, I found a much more fitting tribute when I returned home to An American Treasure. This is a superb box set. It was lovingly curated by Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench and Petty’s wife Dana and daughter Adria. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the contributions of Ryan Ulyate, whose remastering of these tracks is nothing short of genius. Petty and the Heartbreakers released their first box set, Playback in 1995 and one might wonder, “another box?” Playback was a six disc box. The first three discs were a wonderful career retrospective of greatest hits and “best of” kind of tracks. The last three discs were b-sides and unreleased tracks. It’s an exceptional listen.

An American Treasure is simply put, a different journey through this artist’s or this band’s career. It reminds me somewhat of Bruce Springsteen’s epic box set Tracks, that Bruce described as a different road than what his journey had taken him on. If you’re more of a greatest hits type fan, this box will take you into some deeper cuts from Petty and flesh out the man’s artistry. Campbell, Tench and company actively tried to stay away from the greatest hits or anything that was previously released on Playback here. You won’t find “Free Fallin'” on this box. The familiar tracks are either live or released in an alternative version, which (while cliche) is a window into Petty and the Heartbreakers’ creative process. The goal on An American Treasure was to bring you inside the studio with the Heartbreakers to get a glimpse of their genius. I was surprised what a cohesive listen this was from start to finish. To me, what this box highlights, is Petty’s amazing and oft overlooked ability as a lyricist. He remained through out his career an “Everyman” who could tell stories and paint pictures with just a modicum of words and whole lot of emotion. What he’s able to convey with such an economy of words is amazing and perhaps something I should learn from. When you do listen to this set all the way through (at four hours it’s a commitment) you start to realize the cinematic scope of Petty’s writing. His songs, for me, evoke images in my head. I can see what’s happening in the song.

If you will indulge me in a metaphoric detour, I would compare An American Treasure to my old days, driving up to college. Between my hometown and my college, there is a 4-lane, interstate highway, part of which is a toll road. It was the fastest way to get there… hit the on ramp, pay the toll, speed to college. But there were many of us, mostly to avoid the 75-cent toll, who would skip the interstate and take back roads… It was slower on the two-lane black top roads but the ride was much more interesting. You had to slow down at every little village and hamlet on the way, but you saw a lot more of the country side. There was even a bar or two one might stop at, if you were so inclined. If I was at one of those places now, I’d be highly motivated to put this box set on the stereo… “a round for everyone, I’m here for a little while” to quote Petty himself… An American Treasure is that slower journey down that road less traveled.

There really is something on this box for everyone, no matter what kind of fan of Petty’s you are. If you’re only into the greatest hits, there are deep/album cuts here that will deepen your understanding of Petty’s work. From “Rockin’ Around (With You)” from the first album to “Crawling Back To You” from Wildflowers, there are a bunch of tracks that you won’t find on a Greatest Hits compilation but are of such a high quality one must wonder, “why wasn’t this a single?”

Stepping in a little deeper, there are a lot of unreleased live versions of songs here. While Petty released a big multi-disc live set, Live Anthology the live versions of tracks you find here are revelatory. You get to hear the band develop as a live act. Especially of interest to me was a live version of “Breakdown” that was recorded live for a special radio broadcast at Capitol Studios, in front of a very small audience. That version of “Breakdown” was the only version of that song played on my local radio station, KY/102. This is the first official release of the song and it’s about time! When I bought their first eponymously titled album, I was disappointed when I realized the version of “Breakdown” was a studio version. It’s nice to finally hear this released in a clean copy. There are great live versions of tracks, including ones by Mudcrutch that are worth exploring. The Heartbreakers, Campbell on guitar, Tench on keyboards and either Ron Blair or Howie Epstein on bass, Stan Lynch or Steve Ferrone on drums, and utility infielder Scott Thurston on, well, almost everything, were one of the tightest bands around.

For those of you who own all the albums, many of the familiar tracks are here in “alternate” versions. “Here Comes My Girl” is the same track as originally released, but rather than fade out you get to hear the band jam a bit at the end. “Fooled Again” from the second album was sped up when it was originally released, and I like this slightly slower version. There’s something new to discover in these different versions. Special kudos to Ulyate for his work on bringing out features and sounds on these alternate versions that you might have missed on the first go around. Many of the alternate versions were earlier versions or have different arrangements or lyrics. There are enough differences in the alternate versions that kept me highly interested. The redone version of “Rebels” with a different drum track (without that 80s echo) is perhaps definitive here.

Finally, for me, the intense collector, there are a host of previously unreleased tracks. It’s an American treasure trove. I’d heard a few of these before, in different versions, “Surrender” (here a first take) and “Keeping Me Alive” (a Long After Dark leftover). There’s a great, funky little, Leon Russell-like track from Mudcrutch, “Lost In Your Eyes,” that makes me wonder, why’d they hide this amazing song so long. Of course, the first single, “Keep A Little Soul,” also an out take from Long After Dark, remains one of my favorites Tom Petty: New Single From The Upcoming Box-set, “Keep A Little Soul”. “Walkin’ From the Fire” is an excellent track from the Southern Accents that should have been on the album. There are just so many great tracks – “Gainesville,” Chuck Berry-style rave up “Lonesome Dave” or the jam “Two Men Talking” – everyone needs to hear these songs.

An American Treasure, which is a term we all use to describe Tom Petty, is an aptly named, wonderful tribute to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ career. This is a must hear for all fans. Lock the door, turn off your phone and spend the evening with an old friend, Tom Petty, and may his “love travel with you, always.”

Cheers!