Friday, December 29, 2017

Songs of 2017 - "Turn Out the Lights," Julien Baker

The sound of Julien Baker's "Turn Out the Lights" is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of "the Memphis sound."  Hearing it for the first time, it reminded me of the songs on Sufjan Stevens' "Carrie and Lowell" - songs with such a sense of fragility that you feel they might crash on themselves any second.

But near the end, Baker's guitar takes the fore, and it dawns on you that the song is not one about loss, but rather triumph - triumph over the daily circumstances which threaten to pull us all down, every now and then.

"Turn Out the Lights," Julien Baker.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Songs of 2017- "At the Purchaser's Option," Rhiannon Giddens

There was little doubt before 2017 that Rhiannon Giddens was a singular artist, but whatever doubt might have been left was thrown out with "Freedom Highway," her album released in February.

"At the Purchaser's Option" is the album's best song, a shattering testament to a time that should always be remembered.

There have been few songs as powerful in recent memory, much less the past year.

"At the Purchaser's Option," Rhiannon Giddens.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Songs of 2017 - "Grow Old With Me," Sunny Sweeney

Sunny Sweeney is just one of the many terrific woman artists who have risen to the top of the country music universe in the past several years.  A fair amount of her work crosses over to the rock side, but she is more than capable of handling what most would consider a traditional country gem.

"Grow Old With Me" is a good example of the latter, and if there is any justice in the world, it will become a staple at wedding celebrations for years to come.

"Grow Old With Me," Sunny Sweeney.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Songs of 2017 - "Carry Fire," Robert Plant

This comment may give some hardcore Zeppelin fans heartburn, but it seems to me that their post-band careers have proven that Robert Plant contributed just as much to the iconic band's success as Jimmy Page.

If you're not willing to go that far, than surely one must concede that Plant's post-Zep output has far outpaced that of Page, both in terms of quantity and quality.

"Carry Fire" is an outstanding album, one of the year's best, and the title track is an excellent distillation of everything that Plant does well.  Heck, this almost sounds like it could be a Zeppelin song, if you close your eyes and let your mind wander a bit.

"Carry Fire," Robert Plant with his band The Sensational Shape-Shifters.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Songs of 2017 - Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile

The album "Lotta Sea Lice" came out in the fall, and it's definitely one of my 2017 favorites.  Part of what I like about it, and what comes through in the performance below, is that it's a bit messy.  On different parts of the album it feels as if Barnett and Vile are having a contest to see who can sing and play over each other more than the other, but that just adds up to a glorious cacophony.

"Over Everything," Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Songs of 2017 - The New Pornographers

Rolling Stone is doing it, Pitchfork is doing it, NPR is doing it, and I'm sure I've left out a few.  Everyone is choosing their top songs of 2017, so why not get in the act myself?

First up are a couple of songs from The New Pornographers, and their outstanding 2017 album "Whiteout Conditions" - their best since 2008's "Challengers," which still sounds to me like their masterpiece.

Both of these songs display with the Pornographers do best - pop songs with an edge, highlighted by melodic tunes and terrific vocal interplay.

"This is the World of the Theatre":

"Avalanche Alley":

I defy everyone to stay sitting down during either of these.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Chris Stapleton is the Real Deal

With two outstanding albums released in the span of 8 months, it's safe to say that "Traveller" was no fluke, and that Chris Stapleton is one of the most distinctive male voices to hit the country scene in a long time - and maybe ever, if he keeps up this pace.

If there was any drawback to "Traveller," it's that it was almost too much of a good thing.  It was great, don't get me wrong - but with 14 songs clocking in at an average of 4:52, I rarely had the patience to listen to it all the way through, in one sitting.  In contrast to their predecessor, the two volumes of "From a Room" (Volume 1 was released in May; Volume 2 on December 1) are about half the playing time of the debut, each hitting the finish line in a little over 32 minutes.  That's certainly not a long album in this day and age, but in the end the relative brevity of the songs is a plus - hitting the perfect balance between "this is the exact right amount of time I need to make my point" and "let's leave 'em wanting just a little bit more."

What jumped out on Volume 1 that wasn't immediately apparent on "Traveller" was Stapleton's sense of humor; it was hard to listen to songs like "Up to No Good Livin'" and "Them Stems" without ending up with a smile on your face.  But Volume 2 is even stronger - it's an absolute killer from start to finish, with love and hard times prevalent among its themes.  From "Tryin' to Untangle my Mind:"

So if you see me
and I'm lonesome and stoned
so far down the devil's looking high
I'm just trying to untangle my mind

And from "Nobody's Lonely Tonight," which just might take its place among the great "last call for alcohol" songs of all time:

Sitting here it's closing time
You've got your troubles
And I bet they're just like mine
Somebody told you goodbye

But I know a way
We can't go wrong
And nobody leads nobody on
And nobody's lonely tonight

To these ears, the album's standout tracks are "A Simple Song," which is anything but, and "Midnight Train to Memphis," which apparently is an old tune that Stapleton sings in all of his shows.  Taken together, the two songs show off Stapleton's range, the former being a quiet tune about a man facing a fair amount of despair in his life but still hanging on enough to be able to say:

But I love my life man it's something to see
It's the kids and the dogs and you and me
It's the way it's alright when everything goes wrong

...And the latter being a "crunch rocker" that sounds as if it came right out of the Drive-By Truckers playbook. 

What ties this all together is Stapleton's voice, which is his strongest instrument.  It's a voice that transcends labels - sure he's country, no doubt about that, but he's also rock 'n roll, soul and the blues.  And while it may have taken a while for the Stapleton Express to get rolling, he's going to around for a long time.  There's no question that "From a Room, Vol. 2" is one of the year's best albums, with Vol. 1 not far behind.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Essential Christmas Albums, according to Jeff

I've been saying this for a while, but I'm bound and determined to get this ship sailing again.  Whether it's college football, this year's films and records, the petulant 9-year old that this country saw fit to elect as President of the United States, or the amazing transformation that is taking place in the work places of America (thanks to some very brave women), there is no shortage of things or issues to write about.

But let's start with something to - hopefully - get everyone in the mood for the holiday season.  No doubt there are some of you out there who have no use for Christmas music, and if that's the case you should stop reading now.  Let's just say that I'm a fan, although I'm not one of those who begins to listen incessantly as soon as Halloween is in the rear-view mirror.  (Although to be completely transparent, I did finish my annual compilation CD in July).  For the past 11 years, I've made a compilation CD of Christmas music for my friends and colleagues - a mix of the sublime, the ridiculous, the well-known, and the completely obscure.  With each passing year finding the obscure becomes a little more difficult, particularly since the demise of a couple of blogs that I relied on heavily to pad out the REALLY obscure stuff.  But no matter, now I lurk in the used Christmas sections of the few remaining record stores that exist in Sacramento.

It's not easy to find a non-compilation Christmas CD that is a consistent killer from first track to last.  Below are those that I turn to most often, the ones that to these ears come closest to that high standard.  And even the compilation CDs can be hit-and-miss - for example, there's never been a perfect "Very Special Christmas" collection - but every one has a high spot that makes the entire package worth whatever you spend for it, especially if you can find them in the used bin.

These are in no particular order; it would be splitting hairs to the extreme to try and pick between some of them.

Enduring Classics from Childhood

The Andy Williams Christmas Album.  Andy Williams was a great entertainer for a long time, but few (any?) would argue that he had a body of work that matched that of Frank Sinatra.  But there's no question that Andy's Christmas album was better than Frank's.  I would have loved to hear a Sinatra holiday record that was produced by Nelson Riddle, but he chose to do one with his "dark night of the soul" producer Gordon Jenkins.  I know some people swear by it, but I am not one of those people.

Williams, on the other hand, goes with the classic "secular songs on side one, religious songs on side two," and it nearly all works.  His recording of "White Christmas" rivals that of Bing's, and his recording of "The Christmas Song" rivals that of Nat King Cole.  And no one has ever done a better version of "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," or the "Happy Holidays/The Holiday Season" medley.  Andy also does a great job on the religious chestnuts, including "The First Noel," "O Holy Night," and "Silent Night."  The only real misstep is "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," which I believe remains to this day the only song that refers to Jesus as "sir."

Christmas at King's, The King's College Choir, Cambridge.  Every collection should have at least one recording by the King's College Choir, and one by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  The MTC recording that my parents owned on vinyl was awesome, but I've never been able to find it on CD.  Unfortunately, the one recording of theirs that I have is way too heavy on the organ, which is not what you want to hear when you're listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  The King's College recordings, which I have on a CD that includes songs recorded from 1959-65, is perfect - 35 songs in all, with the well-known carols on one CD and the lesser known songs on a second.  It's all great.

A Charlie Brown Christmas, Vince Guaraldi Trio.  This isn't just a great Christmas album.  This is a landmark album, period - one of the best in any genre released in my lifetime.  I'm just going to take a wild guess that you've heard it.  If not, please remedy that as soon as possible.  The pairing of Vince Guaraldi and Charlie Brown may have been a happy accident, but so is the fact that we are all here.

Elvis' Christmas Album.  OK, I admit that I laughed out loud the first time I heard Elvis sing "Blue Christmas."  What can I say?  I was young and stupid.  This would be on the list if it was just that song, plus "Santa Claus is Back in Town" - just one of the two best rock 'n roll Christmas songs of all time.  But that Elvis kid could sing a bit, you know?

A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector, aka Phil Spector's Christmas Album.  It had the misfortune to be released the holiday season after President Kennedy was assassinated, but was already a legend by the time I was in high school in the 70s.  From the incomparable Darlene Love ("Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home," the other greatest rock 'n roll Christmas song of all time) to the Ronettes to the Crystals to Bobb B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, it all works.  Even Phil's spoken "Silent Night" at the end is moving.

A Christmas Together, John Denver and the Muppets.  Scoff if you must, but just know that the version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" sung by John and Rowlf (Jim Henson) is one of the best versions of the tune ever recorded, that "Noel: Christmas 1913" is perhaps the best hidden holiday treasure of all time, and that the whole enterprise is one of the best distillations of the Christmas spirit ever committed to vinyl.

The Christmas Song, Nat King Cole and Merry Christmas, Bing Crosby.  There's a reason that these are perennial favorites, and it goes beyond their inclusion of what are almost certainly the two most famous pop Christmas songs ever written.  They could both sing as if their lives depended on it, and their choice of songs ranges from outstanding to inspiring.  You must have these in your collection.

The Second Wave

December, George Winston.  The album that put Windham Hill Records on the map.  Pristine beauty and profoundly moving.  Solo piano, for those of you not familiar with the artist.

We Three Kings, The Roches.  This is another album, like Guaraldi's that transcends the theme.  The Roches and Christmas songs were made for each other, and this is an album that I'll never tire of.

Carols, Sandy Owen.  Also solo piano, and good luck finding this one.  Owen is not quite the virtuoso that Winston is, but suffice to say that he's more than good enough.  Wonderful from start to finish.

The A Very Special Christmas series.  As I wrote above, none is perfect from start to finish, but there's something on each that makes them worth owning.  Perhaps a little later this season (I know better to make promises about future blog posts), I'll put together a "Best of" compilation.  It would be killer.

When My Heart Finds Christmas, Harry Connick Jr.  I think Harry has released four Christmas albums now, but the first is the best.  Among others, it includes "(It Must've Been Ol') Santa Claus," one of the best modern-day pop Christmas songs, "Christmas Dreaming," a great throwback tune that would have sounded great in every decade of the latter half of the 20th Century, and a near-perfect version of "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"

The Narada Christmas Collection, Vol. 2 and The Carols of Christmas, A Windham Hill Collection.  New Age music isn't exactly my thing (although I do enjoy George Winston's albums), but in many cases it works really well on Christmas music.  And if instrumental holiday tunes are up your alley, then you should definitely check these out.

The Bells of Dublin, The Chieftains.  The legendary Irish band provides the music, with a variety of singers - some obvious, some not - provide the vocals.  I've probably used about half of the album's songs on my annual compilations, and I'd be hard pressed to choose my favorite.

21st Century Gems

Christmas + Santa Fe, Ottmar Liebert.  Liebert is a guitarist who falls under the New Age umbrella, and has recorded three holiday albums.  I really like the way that he combines a well-known Christmas song with a section that he wrote himself.

Barenaked for the Holidays, Barenaked Ladies.  I'm not even sure how I ended up buying this album - I've enjoyed a Barenaked tune on the radio every now and then, but would hardly call myself a huge fan.  But this is a real winner, an eclectic mix of standards, original tunes, and damn funny asides - the funniest being "Deck the Stills," which consists entirely of the band singing (a capella, even) "Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young" as if it were a Christmas carol.

Songs for Christmas and Silver & Gold, Sufjan Stevens.  Stevens is like me, except way more talented, so he records his own Christmas compilations and then gives them to friends for a present.  Each of these is a five-disc set, and while each of them has at least one disc that is a bit spotty, both are well worth the effort to find the gems.  Especially on Songs for Christmas, the first collection, there are a lot of them.

Christmas Caravan, Squirrel Nut Zippers.  This is a wild one, and a fun one to boot.  Everything from "A Johnny Ace Christmas" (just Google his name) to "Carolina Christmas," to "Hot Christmas," and a version of "Sleigh Bells" that features nothing but brass.

A Christmas Celebration of Hope, B.B. King.  This one snuck up on me, and only after I'd included about half-a-dozen of its songs on my compilations.  An incredible album from the old master.

Christmas, Chris Isaak.  I think this might be his highest selling album, which is kind of a bummer when you consider the entirety of his career but kind of cool because it also is likely to provide an ongoing revenue stream sufficient to keep him afloat for however long he decides to continue in the music biz.  He seems to have embraced it, going on a Holiday Tour each year.  It's a fun album, and is great to have on in the background of a Christmas party.

Quality Street, Nick Lowe.  Yep, we always knew that the old warhorse Nick Lowe was going to cap his career with one of the best Christmas albums of the 21st Century, right?  Well, it's a winner.

And that is probably enough to get you started.  Feel free to share your own favorites!

Friday, October 06, 2017

Tom Petty: "He was happy to be upstaged..."

As great as Tom Petty was, I'm not sure he ever got his due.  Throughout the course of an amazing career, it always seemed as if someone else was getting more attention, getting more ink.  It might have been Bruce Springsteen, or Bob Seger, or Jackson Browne, or even someone a little more off the wall like Warren Zevon.

But think of the staying power.

I started thinking of all the times in my life I've listened to "Runnin' Down a Dream" and how with each listen, the thrill of the song never fails to catch me.  If it's on the radio or on shuffle, I never fail to turn it up as loud as it will go; certainly louder than is healthy for these 57-year old eardrums.  Then I think of the other songs for which the same thing is true: "American Girl."  "Here Comes My Girl." "I Need to Know."  "Jammin' Me." "Free Fallin'."  "Into the Great Wide Open."  "Swingin'."  "Learning to Fly."  "You Wreck Me."  "Out in the Cold."  Many others.

People who know me know how important music has been to my life.  I've always had a test to measure a song's true greatness - for a song to be truly great, it has to sound just as great on the 500th listen as it does on the first.  Not every song meets that test.  But Tom Petty had enough of them to fill up an entire album; perhaps a double album.  Probably more than that.

But as Greil Marcus noted, "he was happy to be upstaged," whether it be while backing up Roger McGuinn at Dylan's 30th Anniversary Concert, or setting the stage for what might have been Prince's most legendary performance, on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" during George Harrison's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  (Sheila O'Malley also nails this aspect of Petty in her great tribute).

Those weren't the only times.  Think of all the songs when the thing you remember most about a Tom Petty song is the Mike Campbell guitar solo, or a gorgeous piano or organ line from Benmont Tench.  I absolutely love this story from Petty, about playing with Johnny Cash during one of his sessions with Rick Rubin:

"Rick Rubin called me and said, "Hey, would you like to play bass on this Johnny Cash record I'm doing?"  I said, "Aw shit, yeah, I love to play the bass."  I started out as a bass player and did that for years before the Heartbreakers, where I switched to guitar.  And of course any time I could work with John I'd be right there. To my surprise I turned up and Benmont Tench was there and Mike Campell and within a couple of days all the Heartbreakers were there, so we were pretty much Johnny Cash's backing band.  And you know what?  We've made a whole lot of records but I really think that was the truest Heartbreakers record I've ever heard.  And it's still really one of the only ones that I just absolutely put on and listen to.  John brought something out of this group that kept on amazing me day to day.  I don't know how he did it."

Honest modesty is a sign of true greatness, and Tom Petty was modest even though there's no doubting that he deserved to be right up there with every one of those legends.


Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Ara Parseghian

If you became a college football fan at any time from the mid-1960s through the mid 1970s, you were fed a steady dish of Notre Dame football, whether or not you rooted for the Irish. The team had its own program that aired every Sunday morning, with the legendary Lindsey Nelson narrating a summary of the day's previous game ("...and now we pick up the action in the second quarter, with Notre Dame driving..."). Of course, they nearly always won.
Their coach during that era was Ara Parseghian. Not particularly flashy, and certainly not as charismatic as his peers Bear Bryant, John McKay, Woody Hayes, Darrell Royal or Bo Schembechler, all Parseghian did was win, as evidenced by his ND record of 95-17-4 - with two national championships to his credit. And sure, while one could say that in Notre Dame Parseghian had a built-in advantage that no other school in the country enjoyed, the intervening years have proven that it takes more than a talented coach to win a national title at Notre Dame.
Parseghian could have stayed at Notre Dame for as long as he wanted, but he left about as close to the top as one could imagine - an Orange Bowl upset of top-ranked Alabama, once again vexing the legendary Bear, just as his team had done two seasons before in one of the greatest college football games ever played: the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Eve 1973, which ended with the Irish prevailing 24-23.
Parseghian led a good, if not always easy life - he was a World War II veteran, he would have celebrated his 70th wedding anniversary next year, and in his later years he was a tireless advocate for medical research, after his daughter was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and after three of his grandchildren died from a rare genetic disease.

And on a day when it once again appears that our "leaders" may be prepared to turn their backs on the words of Emma Lazarus, it is worth mentioning that Parseghian's father immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s, to escape the Armenian Genocide. In his honor and in the honor of his son, let's hope that future generations will have the opportunities to succeed that Ara Parseghian had.


Friday, April 14, 2017

Album of the Day - "Sanctuary," J. Geils Band (1978)

It's probably a fair bet that when the death of J. Geils was announced earlier this week, the mental picture that most people had in their minds was that of Peter Wolf. As the singer for the band that carried Geils' name, Wolf was by far the most visible member of the group, with the great harmonica player Magic Dick probably being second (if not him, than Seth Justman, keyboardist and co-songwriter with Wolf of the band's biggest hits).
Although they had been around since the late 1960s and held close to legendary status in certain parts of the country throughout the 70s, the band didn't really strike gold until the early 1980s, with the album and song "Love Stinks" and then the monster hit, and multi-platinum, "Centerfold." Not long after that Peter Wolf decided to leave the group, and not long after that, the band called it quits.
"Freeze-Frame" and "Centerfold" were both great songs, no doubt - and one of my favorite musical memories was the night in Deutsch Hall at UC Berkeley when a Cal Bear football player, fueled by a few too many beers (and who knows what else) decided it would be fun to do a crazy, naked dance to "Centerfold" to celebrate the end of finals week. His performance ended with about 8 of us chasing him down the hallway, to make sure he didn't follow through on his threat to repeat the performance over in the girls' only dorm.
For me, the band hit its artistic peak with "Geils" in 1977, and "Sanctuary" the following year. For this post I chose the latter, which I prefer slightly because of "One Last Kiss," a song I still consider to be one of the best of that decade. Produced by old pro Joe Wissert (who also manned the boards for Boz Scaggs' "Silk Degrees"), the album is a remarkably consistent example of what the band did best - hard rock, tinged with a touch of R&B and soul, and frequently featuring the unique harmonica solos of the Magic Man. No flashy guitar solos, just some hard-driving, well crafted, for lack of a better term, "classic rock."
R.I.P., J. Geils.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Top Sports Moments of January

This is something that I've been thinking about doing for a while, so I guess this falls into the "better late than never" category.  Each month, I'll pick what I thought were the Top 5 sports moments of the month, and at the end of the year will rank them from 1-60 (assuming there are 5 great moments each month, which probably isn't much of a stretch).

For January:

1. College Football Championship game, Clemson v. Alabama.  Hard to argue with a hard-fought, competitive game that comes down to the very last play.

2. Rose Bowl Game.  Longtime readers will know that I'm not a fan of USC, but I have to give them their props for coming from WAY behind to nip Penn State in an all-time thriller.  And just like baseball is better when the Yankees are great, College Football is better when USC is great.  Now I just hope the Cal Bears can beat them some day.

3. Federer v. Nadal, Australian Open Men's Final.  Two great warriors facing off in a great match.  Something we never thought we'd see again.

4. Williams v. Williams, Australian Open Women's Final.  See above.  Ranked lower only because the match wasn't quite as good.  This has been going on for almost two decades now - extraordinary.

5. Green Bay defeats Dallas, NFL Divisional Playoff.  Pittsburgh v. KC was also an excellent playoff game, but this one was for the ages.  AARON RODGERS!  (But props to Mason Crosby and the Cowboys' Dak Prescott as well).

Albums of 2016


  • The Weight of These Wings, Miranda Lambert
  • Blue and Lonesome - The Rolling Stones
  • 57th and 9th, Sting
  • Joanne - Lady Gaga
  • A Very Kacey Christmas - Kacey Musgraves
  • Walls - Kings of Leon
  • 22, A Million - Bon Iver
  • My Piece of Land - Amanda Shires
  • We're All Gonna Die - Dawes
  • American Band - Drive-By Truckers
  • Day of the Dead - Various Artists
  • Real - Lydia Loveless
  • Freetown Sound - Blood Orange
  • Eyeland - The Low Anthem
  • True Sadness - The Avett Brothers
  • Big Day in a Small Town - Brandy Clark
  • Blackstar - David Bowie
  • Hero - Maren Morris
  • Stranger to Stranger - Paul Simon
  • Hag - The Best of Merle Haggard
  • The Things That We Are Made Of - Mary Chapin Carpenter
  • HitnRun Phase Two - Prince
  • HitnRun Phase One - Prince
  • Painting of a Panic Attack - Frightened Rabbit
  • The Hope Six Demolition Project - PJ Harvey
  • Human Performance - Parquet Courts
  • A Sailor's Guide to Earth - Sturgill Simpson
  • Upland Stories - Robbie Fulks
  • Midwest Farmer's Daughter - Margo Price
  • E*mo*tion - Carly Rae Jepsen
  • Full Circle - Loretta Lynn
  • Untitled Unmastered - Kendrick Lamar
  • Ourboros - Ray LaMontagne
  • The Ghosts of Highway 20 - Lucinda Williams
  • Wonderful Crazy Night - Elton John
  • Palomino - Trampled by Turtles
  • Duluth - Trampled by Turtles
  • Divers - Joanna Newsome
  • Coming Home - Leon Bridges