Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Illinois Entertainer: 20 Random Reviews (2006-2009)

The Unfairground

A charter member of the British school of art rock, Kevin Ayers has always been a much bigger deal in England, where this album was released last fall to positive reviews and respectable sales, than he has in the U.S. One reason is that he has for decades done little to promote his music abroad. Another is that his charms are distinctively continental. His new music (and first in fifteen years) sounds a lot like what Nick Drake might be doing were he still among us: singing articulate, introspective lyrics in a smoky baritone ideally suited to the chamber-ensemble accompaniment provided here by members of Teenage Fanclub, the Ladybug Transistor, and other Ayers admirers. What results is a low-key elegance heard all too rarely nowadays.

Now It’s Tomorrow
(New West)

Randall Bramblett, who got his start in one of the 1970s’ more “faceless” bands (Sea Level), still keeps a low profile. His September tour, for instance, is limited to South Carolina and Georgia, and his fascinatingly surreal blend of meditative lyrics and futuristic roots rock has never been less fashionable. With Van Morrison he shares a mystic’s obsession with God (“Some Mean God”) and the “world of tears and lust” (“Where a Life Goes”), a musical restlessness fueled by R&B (“Used to Rule the World”), and an unpredictable way of putting them together. Nothing in his music seems inevitable until it happens. Or, as he sings in “Blue Road,” “We can’t get back to the same place. / Let’s get lost, baby, just in case.” He means it.

Bound to Go

Musically, these acoustic African-American spirituals, shout songs, prison ballads, and “rare secular songs” are a little dry, and there are too many undistinguished guest vocalists. But Calhoun, whose weathered baritone is anything but undistinguished, does most of the singing, and ultimately this collection is profoundly educational, inspirational, and political. For education there’s Calhoun’s sixteen-page liner essay and five pages of “selected bibliography” and “recommended recordings.” For inspiration there are the numerous spirituals. As for politics: “A few years ago I was delighted to see a Langston Hughes stamp on sale at the post office,” writes Calhoun. “It read, ‘Black Heritage.’ I said to the clerk, ‘My mother read me Langston Hughes’ poetry. It’s my heritage. Would they put “White Heritage” on a Mark Twain stamp’?”

Meet Glen Campbell

Like Johnny Cash with Rick Rubin, Campbell has taken material you’d never guess he knew let alone liked and let his once-natural instincts take over. It’s a formula of which he makes the most, authoritatively laying claim to songs by artists young enough to be his children atop a bed of shimmeringly picked guitars and deftly arranged strings. And not just any song. Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” Travis’s “Sing,” Foo Fighters’ “Times like These,” The Replacements’ “Sadly Beautiful,” Tom Petty‘s “Walls” and “Angel Dream”--each meaningfully enhances the other. Of the two by his peers, John Lennon’s “Grow Old with Me” doesn’t make sense (Campbell is already old!), but Lou Reed’s “Jesus,” after thirty-nine years on The Velvet Underground, has finally found its proper place.

Live in Pittsburgh 1970
(DMC/Bright Midnight/Rhino)

Carefully preserved and only slightly edited by the Doors’ latter-day producer Bruce Botnick, these tapes (portions of which first appeared on 2001’s Bright Midnight: Live in America) demonstrate what a thrilling experience the Doors could provide when Jim Morrison was (to quote Botnick’s notes) not “drunk and out of it.” The cover lists sixteen songs, but as most of them flow together, the audience must have experienced them as one long, bluesy, organ-stoked journey to the center of Morrison’s mind. (The twenty-two-minute “When the Music’s Over,“ for instance, encompasses the individually numbered “Break on Through,” “Push Push,” and “The Soft Parade Vamp.”) A not-out-of-it Morrison could also be funny. Already notorious for the “Miami incident,” he promises the crowd at one point a “special treat” and is greeted with cheers. “No, not that,” he says. “You only get that treat on full moons.”

Easy Come Easy Go

The subtitle, “Twelve Songs for Music Lovers,” is pretty funny. Finally, a CD for people who actually love music! It’s also inaccurate, as one of the songs--the experimental version of the Miracles’ “Ooo Baby Baby” that takes up eight of this album’s fifty-six minutes--is unlikely to be loved by anyone. The rest, however, is one impressive example after another of Faithfull’s unique ability to transform any room in which her music is played into a post-punk Moulin Rouge. No one else finds songs, whether old (Dolly Parton, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Randy Newman) or not so old (Neko Case, the Decembrists) better suited to her voice, and no one else has a voice like Faithfull’s. It’s enough to give cigarettes, if not necessarily heroin, a good name.

Save Me from Myself

People of taste can do without the phlegm hacking at the end of “L.O.V.E.,” but otherwise this soundtrack to the ex-Korn guitarist Brian “Head” Welch’s autobiography of the same name not only lives up to the book’s subtitle (“How I Found God, Quit Korn, Kicked Drugs, and Lived to Tell My Story”) but also makes as good a case for industrial metal as art as Kerry Livgren’s 1980 Christian-rebirth album Seeds of Change did for prog. Even Welch’s obligatory bursts into hellhound shrieking go down (no “head” pun intended) rather euphoniously. Not so euphoniously, of course, that Korn fans won’t dig it--each dirge retains the torture-chamber feel essential to the genre. All that’s missing is a cameo by Welch’s brother in faith and musical forefather (godfather?) Alice Cooper.

Sleep Through the Static

Jack Johnson has finally included in one of his album titles the only action verb his music deserves: “sleep.” Everything about his songs adds up to one big lullaby, or it would if its unrelenting somnolence didn’t annoy fans of rock ’n’ roll so much that their minds can't shut down. Compounding the effect is that all he’s setting to music, essentially, is niceness. This time he’s against war (the title cut), enemies (“Enemy,” which he pronounces “a-no-mie”), and “fighting” with his “baby” (“Same Girl”); believe me, peace has never sounded blander. “Sometimes time doesn’t heal,” he sings in “If I Had Eyes.” “It just stands still.” Never so much as when your music is on, Jack!

Picture Book

Nineteen years after their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and twelve years after their breakup, the Kinks finally get their box set. Has it been worth the wait? Other than the fact that “Come Dancing” appears only in a demo version and “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” is omitted altogether, yes. The eighty-two songs on Discs One through Three, which chronicle 1964 (when “You Really Got Me” exploded on both sides of the Atlantic) through 1970 (when “Lola” did the same), find the Kinks not only keeping quantitative and qualitative stride with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Who but also sometimes outstriding them. Alas, as Picture Book‘s lengthy booklet painstakingly documents, they could also be uncommonly volatile, insularly British, and bewilderingly inclined toward concept albums (see Disc Four). It took the back-to-basics Sleepwalker, Misfits, and Low Budget albums (Disc Five) to pave the way for their early-’80s success. Disc Six proves that their barely noticed late-’80s and early-’90s failures had their share of highlights as well.

Catnip Dynamite

Even when overdubbed into Queen-like choirs, Manning’s voice is a little too thin, and that’s the only thing wrong with this tour de force of what can only be called ace influence synthesis. Both the Beach Boys and Paul McCartney--heck, maybe even 10cc and the Osmonds--in their primes would‘ve killed for a song as sweet and buoyant as “Love’s Never Been Half As Good,” and Alan Parsons could’ve no doubt found places for “Survival Machine” and “The Turnstile at Heaven’s Gate.” But the most glorious result of Manning’s misspent youth is “Down in Front.” Combining a hook worthy of T. Rex or Sweet with the clavichord riff from ELO’s “Turn to Stone,” it could almost make one believe that bubblegum music really is the naked truth.

Written in Chalk
(New West)

If anyone (or, in this case, any two) can make you believe they really want to be taken back to the time when they had two mules instead of a tractor, it’s Buddy and Julie Miller on this album‘s “Ellis County.” Solo, together, or on other people’s records, they write and sing as if channeling spirits distilled long ago and far away. As usual, the Buddy-sung songs tend toward backwoods country blues, the Julie-sung songs tend toward late-night heartbreak, and the ones they share tend toward salvation by way of hell. The difference this time is the cameo duet partners. Regina McCrary and Patty Griffin get two songs apiece, Robert Plant and Emmylou Harris each get one, and while they don’t add much, at least they don’t subtract much either.

Keep It Simple
(Lost Highway)

There are two kinds of sub-classic Van Morrison albums: those that after repeated listening never kick in and those that after repeated listening do. Keep It Simple is one of the latter. The “simplicity” at which Morrison is “keeping” these days is a blues-based jazz or vice versa that sounds ramblingly repetitive at first but then eventually grooves its way into the subconscious. The singing and the lyrics function the same way, although not always at the same level of profundity. The uncharacteristically playful self-mockery of “Don’t Go to Nightclubs Anymore,” for instance, goes a lot further than the forced epiphanies of “That’s Entrainment” (“entrainment” being Morrison’s latest synonym for “enlightenment”) and “Behind the Ritual,” on which Morrison literally sings “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”

Live at the Fillmore East

Now here’s a sure-fire formula: Take six songs from the best proto-punk album of all time (the New York Dolls’ eponymous debut), two from the second-best proto-punk album of all time (their follow-up, Too Much Too Soon), and a Sylvain Sylvain-sung verse of Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory”; then add original lead singer David Johansen (who, though fifty-seven when these 2007 shows were taped, sounds a lot like his twenty-three-year-old self), surround him with gifted Dolls’ imitators (Sylvain’s “authentic” rhythm guitar matters only theoretically), and throw in two vintage-sounding cuts from the group’s 2006 comeback. The results beat all extant live recordings by the classic lineup. They also only almost equal the studio recordings that Dolls fans already own.

Trailer Park (Legacy Edition)

Because it was ahead of its time and because it wasn’t as celebrated here as it was in England, Trailer Park (Disc One of this thirteenth-anniversary reissue) might still strike Americans as contemporary. Not, of course, that “contemporary“ is synonymous with “brilliant.” While the London fog one hears in Orton’s voice gives the ear more to work with than the Nova Scotia sunshine in Sarah MacLachlan’s, Orton’s overriding sentimentality is, in the end, just as unrewarding to the brain. Where this edition really comes to life is Disc Two. Comprising her 1997 Best Bit EP and eight other previously uncollected B-sides and covers of the period, its patchwork nature makes for pleasant surprises. Best bit: her use of Tony! Toni! TonĂ© ’s “If I Had No Loot” riff in “Best Bit.”

Here & Gone

A liner-note thanks to Hank Crawford, songs courtesy of Crawford (“Stoney Lonesome”), W.C. Handy (“St. Louis Blues”), Ray Charles (“I Believe to My Soul”), and Percy Mayfield (“Please Send Me Someone To Love”), cameos by Eric Clapton (not bad), Joss Stone (not good), and Sam Moore (somewhere between)--in other words, another genteel Sanborn slink through the sunnier side of the dark end of the street. Like Crawford only more so, Sanborn has trouble not fading into the background, but, unlike certain younger, better-selling lite-jazz performers with access to big-budget distribution, he never seems bedazzled by his own hipness. Maybe because he’s not hip. Or maybe because he likes music that some in his social circle might not encounter any other way and he simply wants to share it.

Unglorious Hallelujah/Red Red Rose (And Other Songs Of Love, Pain, And Destruction)
(Back Porch/EMI)

About forty years ago Chip Taylor wrote the Troggs’ “Wild Thing” and Merilee Rush’s (and Juice Newton’s) “Angel of the Morning,” thus earning himself a place in rock ’n’ roll history. Ten years ago at fifty-six, he resumed his long-abandoned performing career, releasing since then eight albums of fairly dull Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver-styled singer-songwriter music, ten if you count this new one. (It’s a two-disc set, and each disc has its own title). Unglorious Hallelujah/Red Red Rose (And Other Songs Of Love, Pain, And Destruction) consists of twenty-four songs totaling eighty-eight minutes and thus demonstrates why Taylor and solo success remain unacquainted: namely, he’s all quantity and no quality. (2000’s The London Sessions Bootleg was a two-disc set too.) If nothing else he could gussy up the hooks. Besides not being sung by him, “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning” became instant classics because they were catchy.

Around the Bend
(Warner Bros.)

Checking his ego, or maybe his Protestant work ethic, at the door, Randy Travis handpicks eleven songs by an eclectic array of other composers for what’s being called his return to non-gospel country. Actually, it’s far from secular. None of the songs mention Jesus, and “Faith in You” is addressed to a woman; but the lighthearted “Every Head Bowed” takes place in church, and the heavyhearted “Dig Two Graves” expresses a husband’s wish to die and go to heaven as soon as his wife does. Then there’s “From Your Knees,” a shattering tale of a hellion’s prayerful repentance. Perhaps because he’s a repentant hellion himself, Travis sings the hell out of it. And on “Everything I Own (Has Got a Dent)” he sings the hell back in.

The Truckin’ Sessions Vol. 2

Despite his knack for writing and singing like the reincarnation of Merle Haggard--a knack made all the more impressive by the fact that Merle Haggard is still alive--Dale Watson can be uneven. But this, his second installment of paeans to the trucker life, is his most consistent effort since his honky-tonk masterpiece I Hate These Songs. Obviously, an album consisting entirely of songs with titles such as “Truckin’ Man,” “10-4,” and “Truckin’ Queen” (the first-ever tribute to a truck-stop transvestite?) risks coming off like one big novelty. What saves it is the fiddle, the interplay of greasy-spoon guitars (two electrics and a pedal steel), and lyrics so vividly detailed they make “toolin’ down the Interstate” seem like the essence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Deep Cuts

Technically a one-hit wonder (“Polk Salad Annie”), Tony Joe White has long been best known as a composer of hits for far more famous people. Now, at sixty-four, he has taken one of those hits (“Willie and Laura Mae Jones,” Dusty Springfield), six other songs of similar vintage, and three new (or at least previously unreleased) ones and recorded them with them with an ear to the electronica market (looped drums, eerily disembodied echoey effects). So in one sense Deep Cuts is a quick cash-in. In other respects, however--especially as most of the thirty-plus-year-old material is so obscure as to be new to most folks--it’s a solid, swamp-feverishly spooky introduction to White’s ominously whispery talk-singing and his muddy electric blues guitar.

Pacific Ocean Blue

Any album that is continuously declared a “lost masterpiece” is bound to sound a little disappointing when it finally materializes. And Dennis Wilson’s long-out-of-print 1977 solo album, now a two-disc set with bonus tracks and unfinished songs intended for its sequel (Bambu), is no exception. Untutored but gifted, Wilson often created songs in which the soaring sweetness of the melodies combined with the ravaged soulfulness of his voice to suggest a sensitivity and depth at dramatic odds with his image as the Beach Boys’ wild-man drummer. But he couldn’t hide his romantic desperation or spiritual confusion, and at least one song is as screwed up as he was. “Marijuana, beer, and wine is for me,” he slurs in “Time for Bed,” and he wasn’t kidding.

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