Saturday, March 26, 2016

"Heart Like a Wheel," Linda Ronstadt (1974)

One of my Christmas presents in 1974 was an AM/FM clock radio, on which I began my slow transition from listening almost exclusively to AM radio over to the more adventurous climes (at least in those days) of FM.  I wasn't quite ready for the "free-form" format of KZAP, which went deep into album cuts (in many cases, of artists that I'd never heard of), but embraced "K-108 FM" which wasn't quite as adventurous but did introduce me to such classics as Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks."  

Even though it was Christmas vacation, just for the heck of it I set the alarm on Christmas night, and the song that woke me up the next morning was Linda Ronstadt's "You're No Good" - one of the best singles of its time, and the song that really turned Ronstadt from a popular cult artist into a massive superstar.

I'm not sure that Ronstadt really gets her due today, but I think part of the reason for that was her turn towards Sinatra-style ballads in the early 1980s.  While very popular, her versions of such classics as "What's New" paled in comparison to the originals - her wonderful voice was as beautiful as ever, but she brought little in the way of emotions to her interpretations.

"Heart Like a Wheel," on the other hand, is a great album; one that demonstrated Ronstadt's ability as an interpreter of other people's songs as well as anything she ever recorded.  I actually prefer her version of the title track to the original by the McGarrigle sisters, and on the record she proves that she's up to covering both Hank Williams ("I Can't Help It If I'm Still in Love With You") and Lowell George ("Willin').  She even breathes life into an old Paul Anka song, for cryin' out loud.

Christgau: A-.  "For the first time, everybody's sexpot shows confidence in her own intelligence. As a result, she relates to these songs instead of just singing them. It's even possible to imagine her as a lady trucker going down on Dallas Alice--and to fault her for ignoring the metaphorical excesses of Anna McGarrigle's title lyric just so she can wrap her lungs around that sweet, decorous melody."

Monday, March 14, 2016

"Yesterday and Today," The Beatles (1966)

27:33.  That's how long the album is.

Story #1:  This was another birthday present; what I really liked at the time was "Hey Jude," but at the time I think my parents thought the song was a little too "hard rock."  

At the time, I had no idea that this was basically an album made up of leftovers from the U.K. versions of the Beatles albums (in this case, Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver, plus the Day Tripper single).  It all sounded great to me.

Story #2: When I was in the 4th grade, I was part of a group that was allowed to help out in the Kindergarten class.  One day, we were playing 45 records with them on a very lo-fidelity record player, with headphones on - and the record we played was "I Saw Her Standing There," because we loved the scream in the middle of the song.  And then one of the teachers heard us, and that was pretty much the end of that.

Story #3: At the time, our family record player was a Magnavox, really more a piece of furniture than anything else.  And there was only one speaker, so when you had an album like this one that was "stereo enhanced," there were some things that you never heard - like Ringo's vocal on "What Goes On?"  I could never figure out what was up with that.

At the end of the day, this wasn't really an album at all - just an attempt (probably successful) by Capitol Records to rake in a little more cash from Beatlemania.

On the other hand, it was (and is) a great album.  Call it a mix-tape of the Sixties.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

"Sundown," Rank and File (1983)

Rank and File was a relatively short-lived band from the early 1980s that fell into the “country punk” genre, of which I’m guessing there were few members.  “Sundown” is a perfectly pleasant and enjoyable record (if short – barely 30 minutes long), but there isn’t much about it that makes me think of punk.  The band must have been a marketing nightmare for Slash Records – I can’t imagine punks of the time wanting to listen to it much, and it seems a fair bet that most country fans would question the wisdom of any band associating themselves with those “damn punks.”

Trivia note: one of the band’s guitarists was Alejandro Escovedo, who remains an active (and strong) artist today.  I’m not sure what became of the Kinman brothers (who wrote most of the songs), but they wrote good enough songs that I hope they made a decent career of it eventually.

Christgau: A-.  As rock concepts go these days, the idea of making like the fourth-best bar band in Wichita Falls is plenty warm-blooded, so that even though I disapprove in theory of the loud, klutzy dynamics of this ex-punk country-rock, its zeal wins me over every time. Helps that they leave "Wabash Cannonball" etc. off the album and explain their excellent motives in their own words, fleshed out with a few of the guitar licks they found lying around that bar.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

"Out of Time," R.E.M. (1991)

A few years back, I put together a list of what I thought were the best 50 albums of all time, and then started writing a short essay on each of them for my blog.  I ran out of steam a couple of different times, after which I'd return after a couple of (or few) months newly determined to make it all the way to #1.

Where I got stuck for good was (I think) #21 or #22, where I intended to plug in an R.E.M. album.  But I kept changing my mind over which one, and I was determined not to do what I did with Talking Heads, for whom I picked their first four albums in a four-way tie.  And then after a while, this particular roadblock sort of convinced me of the futility of the entire exercise.  Why confine myself to 50?  (Although someday soon I do intend to publish the top 20 list, just for the heck of it).

"Out of Time" was one of the four, and since today is the 25th anniversary of its release, is today's selection.  It is indeed a great album, one of the four of theirs that I would put in that category - the other three being "Murmur," "Document," and "Automatic for the People."

The album begins with the words, "The world is collapsing around my ears," which sort of lends it a timeless quality.  The great single "Losing My Religion" is also on the first side, but the song that really hooked me in from the beginning was the third, "Low."  Others can tell me whether this comparison is apt, but it always struck me as very "Lou Reed-esque."  Leading off side two is "Shiny Happy People," which I know a lot of people hate but which I love.  And hearing Kate Pierson's voice on the song along with Stipe and Mills continues to be a delight to this day.

Happy anniversary.

Christgau: A.  "Hiding political tics behind faux-formalist boilerplate, pop aesthetes accused them of imposing Solidarity and Agent Orange on their musical material, but in fact such subjects signaled an other-directedness as healthy as Michael Stipe's newfound elocution. Admittedly, with this one beginning "The world is collapsing around our ears," I wondered briefly whether "Losing My Religion" was about music itself, but when Stipe says they thought about calling it Love Songs, he's not just mumbling "Dixie." Being R.E.M., they mean to capture moods or limn relationships rather than describe feelings or, God knows, incidents, and while some will find the music too pleasing, it matches the words hurt for hurt and surge for surge. The Kate Pierson cameos, the cellos, and Mark Bingham's organic string arrangements are Murmur without walls--beauty worthy of DeBarge, of the sweetest soukous, of a massed choir singing "I Want To Know What Love Is."

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Pretenders (1980)

I bought this album on the strength of the cover alone.

On the cover photo, the boys in the band look more than a little silly – on the left, bassist Pete Farndon looks as if he’s lost in space (which apparently he was, R.I.P.) while on the right, drummer Martin Chambers and guitarist James Honeyman Scott look sort of goofy, as if they’re laughing to themselves at some lame joke.

Chrissie Hynde is another matter entirely.  Looking straight at the camera, she conveys a look that is best described as “I’m sorry, but you do not want to f*ck with me.”  And that is a pretty good description of the music on “Pretenders.”  The brief liner notes advise the listener to PLAY THIS ALBUM LOUD, and that’s not a bad idea.  As far as musicianship goes, you’re not going to hear a lot of subtlety or “tasty licks” on this record, at least not on Side One – it’s intended to be an assault on the senses (I mean that as a compliment), so if you’re going to take the dive, you might as well jump in the deep end.  Side Two slows things down a bit, although it does include “Brass in Pocket,” the hit single.

Money quote, from “Up the Neck:”

I remember the way he groaned

And moved with an animal skill

I rubbed my face in the sweat that ran down his chest

It was all very run of the mill

Like I said before…

Saturday, March 05, 2016

"Siren," Roxy Music (1975)

As Simon Frith noted in his Rolling Stone review of the album, six musicians were credited on the back cover of “Siren,” while eight people were credited with the cover design.  Frith’s review is worth seeking out; it’s a prime example of the best that RS used to offer in its Record Review section.

The cover model is Jerry Hall, who at the time was dating Roxy Music auteur Bryan Ferry.  This week Hall married Rupert Murdoch, and for years was in a relationship with Mick Jagger.  I’m not quite sure what to make of that progression, or if Ferry to Jagger to Murdoch even represents progress.  But cheers to her, nonetheless.

The first time I heard “Love is the Drug,” I was lying in bed on a lazy Sunday morning in early 1976, listening to “American Top 40.”  The song didn’t make it any higher than #30 (thanks, Wikipedia), but in retrospect is sure sounds like one of the best singles of the decade.

Reflecting today, Roxy Music was a real turning point in the evolution of my musical tastes.  They really sounded like nothing I’d heard or listened to up to that point, and they were certainly different than anything playing at that time on American radio.  And like the best rock music, “Siren” sounds as fresh today as it did upon release.  One might even say that Bryan Ferry’s world-weary approach to vocals is the perfect sound for any era.