Wednesday, February 10, 2016

"Where Are You?," Frank Sinatra (1958)

This was the first Frank Sinatra album I bought, sometime in the late summer of 1983.  I’d spent a good part of that summer reading the second edition of “The Rolling Stone Record Guide” (one of the Dave Marsh-edited versions, when you could still read a negative review every now and then), and as soon as I read Stephen Holden’s essay on the work of Sinatra, I knew it was only a matter of time before I picked up one of his records.

This was the best of Sinatra’s “dark night of the soul” albums, arranged and conducted by the great Gordon Jenkins.  Holden called it “their one perfect collaboration,” and wrote “Sinatra’s singing exuded a towering angst that bordered on the sepulchral.”  And yes, I do believe I did have to look that last word up.

With the songs, it’s hard to know where to start.  “Where Are You?,” “I Cover the Waterfront,” “Laura,” “Autumn Leaves,” “I’m a Fool to Want You” and “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” are all classics, but the best of them all is “The Night We Call It a Day.”  At the end of the song, Sinatra does something with his voice that I’ve never heard on any other of his tunes, and it is a thrilling moment.  Not to mention a moment of absolute brilliance.

In the period beginning in the mid-1950s through the mid-Sixties, Sinatra was at the absolute pinnacle of his powers.  Of all his great work, he may never have sung as well as he did on “Where Are You?”

Sunday, February 07, 2016

"She's So Unusual," Cyndi Lauper (1983)

The first side of “She’s So Unusual” is one of the great album sides in the history of rock music.  Had Cyndi Lauper been able to sustain that greatness across the entire album, her debut might very well have been considered the best debut album of all time.

The album kicks off with “Money Changes Everything,” written by Tom Gray and originally recorded by The Brains a few years earlier.  It’s an incredible song with incredible lyrics, and Lauper sings it as if the future of her career is resting on her ability to make you believe the story the song tells as if you were living it yourself.

From there we go to the massive hit, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” by Robert Hazard.  You’ve probably heard it.  In fact, one way or another you’ve made up your mind about it, so I’ll just say that I think it’s one of the greatest singles of its day, and likely of all time.

And then for good measure, Lauper decides to cover a Prince song, and not just any Prince song – “When You Were Mine,” one of his best.  How good is her effort?  Well, you could do worse than spending the rest of your life trying to decide whether her version is better than his.  It’s that good.

Closing off Side One is “Time After Time,” the first Lauper composition on the record (co-written with Rob Hyman).  Has that song been around long enough to call it an immortal ballad?  I think so.

I’m not even going to say anything about Side Two.  It’s good, but it couldn’t possibly match what preceded it.  And Lauper, notwithstanding a long and successful career, has never matched it.  But that’s OK, because it’s not every day of the week that an artist puts together 20 solid minutes of music like what one hears on Side One of “She’s So Unusual.”

Christgau: A. “Initially, this blue angel won my heart by covering the two most profound pop songs of the past five years, "Money Changes Everything" and "When You Were Mine." Now, with "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" the official pep song of the daughters of Ms. and Pepsi-Cola and "Time After Time" throbbing hearts by the millions, I've softened my strictures about her Betty Boop bimboism--if a kook who's loved, respected, and taken seriously by her sisters fools boys into believing she can be fooled with, more power to her. First side's an eternal classic. The second gets by on the one where she kisses me and the one where she diddles herself.”

Saturday, February 06, 2016

"Late for the Sky," Jackson Browne (1974)

“Late for the Sky” is my favorite Jackson Browne album, but it’s not one you want to put on if you’re feeling depressed.  Aside from “The Road and the Sky” and “Walking Slow,” this is pretty heavy stuff, but the songs really seemed to speak to me when I bought it in the Winter of 1977.  Yeah, all those emotional crises one dealt with at 17 could be overwhelming, right?  There are four bona fide Browne classics on the record – the title track, “Fountain of Sorrow,” “Before the Deluge,” and the haunting “For a Dancer.”  All worth taking the time to truly listen closely.

Another thing about the album that needs to be recognized and saluted is David Lindley’s musicianship.  Whether on electric lead guitar, slide guitar or fiddle, Lindley is amazing throughout – adding vibrancy every song.  Jackson lets him take the spotlight on most songs, which is smart – it’s a battle he had no chance of winning.

And a classic cover, no doubt.

Stephen Holden, Rolling Stone review: “Its overriding theme: the exploration of romantic possibility in the shadow of apocalypse.  No contemporary male singer/songwriter has dealt so honestly and deeply with the vulnerability of romantic idealism and the pain of adjustment from youthful narcissism to adult survival as Browne has in this album.”

Thursday, February 04, 2016

"All 'n All," Earth Wind & Fire (1977)

This was one of the albums I had queued up for the next week, even before learning today of Maurice White’s passing.

For a solid decade-plus beginning in the early 1970s, Earth, Wind & Fire was on fire.  The first album of theirs I bought was “That’s the Way of the World” in 1975, and I’m pretty sure that I own everything they released from that point on, through 1983’s “Electric Universe.”  They were a great band, with incredible musicianship shining through on every instrument – guitar, bass, drums, percussion, and of course the incredible horn section.  Perhaps their most exciting songs were those which featured White’s vocals alongside the pristine falsetto of Philip Bailey – an interplay that played to the strengths of both singers.

I bought “All ‘n All” in early 1978, and based on a listen over the past weekend, damn near wore out the grooves on the thing.  It’s my favorite of theirs, featuring the great songs “Serpentine Fire,” “Fantasy,” “Jupiter” and “I’ll Write a Song For You.”  But my favorite then and now remains “Love’s Holiday,” written by White with his frequent collaborator Skip Scarborough.  As far as I’m concerned, it is the band’s best love ballad, surpassing even “Reasons.”  As a tribute to White, I may just make it a perennial choice for the annual Valentine’s Day CD that I put together. 

Christgau: B+.  “Focusing soulful horns, high-tension harmonies, and rhythms and textures from many lands onto a first side that cooks throughout. Only one element is lacking. Still, unsympathetic as I am to lyrics about conquering the universe on wings of thought, they make me shake my fundament anyway.”

Here’s hoping tonight that Maurice White is shaking his fundament up in Heaven.  R.I.P.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

"Life and Times," Jim Croce (1973)

The Jim Croce phenomenon that swept the nation in the first half of 1974 was unlike anything I can remember in the years I’ve been listening to music.

For those who weren’t around at the time, Croce was an immensely likable and completely unpretentious singer-songwriter in the early 1970s.  He basically wrote two kinds of songs – sensitive love songs like “Time in a Bottle,” “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song,” “Dreamin’ Again” and “Photographs and Memories,” and what I’ll call “slice of life on the road” songs like “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” “Roller Derby Queen,” “Speedball Tucker” and “Workin’ at the Car Wash Blues.”  His “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” which falls into the latter category, hit #1 on the charts in the summer of 1973, and it appeared that Croce would have a long, successful career ahead of him.

But it was not to be.  Croce, his longtime musical collaborator Maury Meuheleisen, and five others were killed in a small plane crash in September 1973, the day before his single “I Got a Name” was released.

And that’s when things got a little crazy.  “Time in a Bottle,” a song from his first album, was released as a single near the end of the year, and went straight to #1 – as did the album from which it came.  His other two albums, “Life and Times” and “I Got a Name,” both rocketed into the Top 5, and all three stayed there for about 4 straight months.  During that time, Croce had a string of Top 10 singles that finally ended when “Workin’ at the Car Wash Blues” could only make it to #17.  And then, it was over.

Listening to his albums today, it’s clear that Croce had limits as an artist, but at the same time he was a breath of fresh air compared to much of what could be heard on AM radio.  There’s no reason to think that he couldn’t have continued in the same vein for a long time.  And every now and then, with songs like “Operator,” “Salon and Saloon” and even “Leroy Brown,” he came up with songs that rose well above the rest.