Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Very Rosie Christmas by Rosie Thomas (holiday music)

Though one is not supposed to judge a product by its cover, I have to admit that the photo on the front of A Very Rosie Christmas led me to believe that I was in for amateur night by the yule log. But the quirky appearance belies the heartfelt (and polished!) interpretations inside.

The eponymous Rosie Thomas offers a surprisingly faithful rendition of "Christmastime Is Here" (from A Charlie Brown Christmas), which is followed hard upon by the joyous pop confection — complete with horn and string sections — "Why Can't It Be Christmastime All Year?" (at this writing, currently available as a free download on Amazon). This is one of those songs that so captures the mood and tone of the season that it will become a favorite of all who hear it.

Like most Christmas albums, other covers follow, both of traditional favorites ("Winter Wonderland," "Let It Snow," "O Come O Come Emmanuel") and nontraditional selections and original offerings. She knocks the dust off the old chestnuts (her "Silent Night" is a creative reimagining), but it is through the other covers and new songs that the personality of A Very Rosie Christmas flows.

Thomas showcases her smooth vocals (reminiscent of Dar Williams) on Joni Mitchell's "River." "Snow Day" is an original instrumental that calls to mind the feeling of flying — or the closest thing to it on land: sledding — as well as snowball fights and other school's-out fun.

Also here is a straitlaced rendition of "Christmas Don't Be Late" (more famously known as "The Chipmunk Song"), which fares unevenly. Some powerful new verses have been added to the lyrics, but the nearly seven-minute length spotlights the original's musical weaknesses.

Another spotlight is the skit "Sheila's Christmas Miracle," where Thomas's alter ego Sheila Saputo meets a convenience-store manager who offers her a Christmas wish. Saputo is an engagingly quirky character, and Brian Shoop is kind and genuine as "Mr. Krinkle," as Sheila calls him. Lastly, Rosie sends us off with a Christmas wish, a perfect closer to A Very Rosie Christmas, an album that contains a great mix of holiday music and a great deal of Christmas spirit.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

'Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets! by Los Straitjackets (Christmas surf rock)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

I know you. You may think I don't, but I can prove it.

You've been looking all over for it. You may not have known it, but you were. What is it, you ask? You know, but I'll put it into words for you: An instrumental Christmas album with a surf-rock feel.

And now your secret prayers have been answered by Los Straitjackets. 'Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets! is exactly what you've been seeking. Ten traditional Christmas tunes (and three originals, but you'll think you recognize them, anyway) performed in the style of the Ventures, Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, and the Centurions by four men in Mexican wrestling masks. Classic surf rock entwined with holiday festivities. Christmas music to play at the beach.

I mean, where else but on 'Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets! can you get a version of Jose Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad" introduced by the opening to Ritchie Valens's "La Bamba," or "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" sounding like "Tequila" by the Champs, or "Frosty the Snowman" opened with the drum line from Glenn Miller's "Sing! Sing! Sing!," or "The Little Drummer Boy" where the bass shares the melody with a jangly guitar, or any of the other innovative additions Los Straitjackets have given their interpretations of these beloved songs?

From the beginning riffs of "Here Comes Santa Claus" to the final cymbal clash of a surprisingly mellow rendition of "The Christmas Song," 'Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets! is the ideal Christmas album. Oh, it's a novelty, to be sure, but one that will fit in wonderfully with the more traditional holiday albums in your collection.

You see, I do know you. I know you can't wait to get your hands on this masterpiece of mixed genres called 'Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets!. This festive bit of fun from four Nashvilleans with a faux Spanish moniker.

In fact, you're already tapping your mistletoes in expectation....

Friday, October 16, 2009

Hot Buttered Soul by Isaac Hayes (40th anniversary remaster with bonus tracks)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2009. Reprinted with permission.

Music legend Isaac Hayes began his career as a session musician and songwriter for Stax Records. (He and partner David Porter wrote "Soul Man" and "Hold On, I'm Comin'" for Sam and Dave.) Hayes's debut solo album Presenting Isaac Hayes was a flop, however, and he was intending to go back behind the scenes when Stax severed its relationship with Atlantic Records in 1968. This resulted in Stax's losing its entire back catalog.

Executive Vice President Al Bell (also a songwriter and producer) thought quickly and initiated extensive recording sessions with all of Stax's house artists, in order to create a new "back catalog" of twenty-seven albums by mid-1969. Hayes agreed to record this second album in exchange for creative control, though Bell would still sign on as producer.

The result was Hot Buttered Soul, a four-song, forty-five-minute exercise in interpretation and improvisation that still astounds and mesmerizes to this day. I believe that the album's long-lasting reputation lies in its sound; it was ahead of time then, and modern artists still aspire to its originality. The multilayered music feels timeless, presenting, if you will, a sort of symphony of love gone sour.

If one follows the traditional four-movement format as perfected by Haydn and his students Mozart and Beethoven, this becomes clearer. In the opening track, the singer asks his former love to "Walk on By" so she won't see him crying. Hayes's interpretation of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David pop standard (popularized by Dionne Warwick in 1964) serves as the introductory movement, laying out the main ideas behind Hot Buttered Soul: specifically the thickly orchestrated (strings by the Detroit Symphony), lengthy interpretation — twelve minutes, in this case — of someone else's music. (The process of taking a popular song and expanding on it harkens back to the symphony, as well, since composers often used their local folk music as the springboard for their works.)

"Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic" (which has been inconsistently misspelled since its conception, even on the album cover — the backup singers are clearly saying "-nistic") is the fun and light second movement. Its lyrics, by Hayes and Bell, refer to the practice of using big words unnecessarily, and take a more active approach with an attempt at re-wooing the lost love through high-minded compliments: "Your modus operandi is really all right, out of sight. / Your sweet phalanges really know how to squeeze. / My gastronomical stupensity is really satisfied when you're loving me." (Although some doubt is laid on the singer's own knowledge since the chorus is, "Now tell me what I said.")

But the main attraction of "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic" (or whatever you want to call it), other than trying to decipher the lyrics, is the instrumental that fills out the latter six minutes of the song's nine-minute running time. Pianist Marvell Thomas spans the range of keys while the Bar-Kays' bassist James Alexander and drummer Willie Hall (who would later join The Blues Brothers Band) lay down a groove that hits somewhere around the coccyx and requires the hips to move in time.

While "One Woman" is not a minuet, or even in 3/4 time, it does serve as the "dance" on this album. The shortest song by far at only five minutes (and surprisingly never a contender for a single), its lyrics about what Mary McGregor called being "torn between two lovers" only emphasize this role. Its chorus could not be clearer — "One woman's making my home while the other one is making me do wrong" — though there's obviously some communication lacking in the former relationship.

Then the piece de resistance, Jimmy Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" — sung by a man who is finally leaving the woman who cheated multiple times but whom he had always taken back before — differs from the popular Glen Campbell recording in practically every thinkable way. First off, Hayes holds a single chord on his organ and drummer Willie Hall clangs a single cymbal for eight minutes while Hayes expounds on the story behind the song. I've never heard anything like it. It was reportedly performed live numerous times before recording, and yet it seems entirely extemporaneous. For the remaining ten minutes, Hayes draws out every single drop of emotion that can be squeezed from these powerful lyrics, turning it into a most-grand finale of this "symphonic" soul classic.

Stax has rereleased the album with liner notes by Jim James of the band My Morning Jacket (fan) and Bill Dahl (historian), digital remastering, and two bonus tracks: the single edits of "Walk on By" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." The sound is remarkably clearer than my previous recording of Hot Buttered Soul, and that will be the main draw for repurchasers.

The singles are novelties at best, with their only attraction being to compare where things were cut to make the songs playable on single-oriented radio. Since the lyrics are not what raise Hot Buttered Soul above the rest, and the singles make sure to focus on those to the detriment of the wonderful instrumentals, fans are unlikely to listen to these more than a couple of times each, though they may serve as relatively smooth introduction to newcomers.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Piano Starts Here by Art Tatum (Zenph Re-Performance: Live at the Shrine)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2009. Reprinted with permission.

Jazz pianist Art Tatum, over fifty years after his death, still has the power to impress new listeners and wow even the most accomplished pianists. Largely self-taught, Tatum's style was so original and his improvisational ability so seemingly boundless that few have even attempted to follow in his footsteps.

His classic album Piano Starts Here (never out of print since its release) is a compilation of four early recordings from 1933 and a 1949 live concert at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. The playing is, of course, stellar on these old recordings, but the sound quality on my cassette copy is lacking to say the least. Having been a Tatum fan for over a decade, I was excited to hear of a newer, clearer version on CD.

Zenph Studios' "re-performance" process is an intriguing idea to say the least: Using the original master recording for best quality, every aspect of every note is loaded onto a digital file, which is then played back using a Yamaha Disklavier, an acoustic piano fitted with a computer. This reproduces the sounds exactly the way Tatum played them. Then, the songs are rerecorded with better quality equipment than was available back then, resulting in an amazingly clear performance. (Zenph first attained acclaim with their re-performance of Glenn Gould's classic Goldberg Variations. Next up is Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff.)

In this case, since the majority of Piano Starts Here was a concert, the rerecording was also done before a live audience at the same venue, in order to capture the same acoustics as far as possible. Thus, the "live" feel is still retained. This recording also restores material from the performance that was omitted from the original pressing. In addition, the track order has been fixed to more closely match the order played in the concert. So, as much as an old-fashioned fellow like myself objects to saying it, this "remake" beats the original in many ways.

The first thing you notice is the clearer sound. An informal side-by-side comparison with my cassette copy of Piano Starts Here shows just how superior the Zenph recording is. It allows the listener to hear every note of Tatum's signature speedy runs, where the original is often muddled. The high notes are no longer shrill, and there are some quieter notes that I had actually never heard before, such as the low note that ends the opener, "Tea for Two." In general, I feel that this album opens up the experience and should be embraced by Tatum enthusiasts, as it finally allows us to hear every note that was played.

Some will undoubtedly balk at the very concept of "recreating" the legendary Art Tatum's music, or will be concerned that Piano Starts Here will sound like a computer produced it. But the folks at Zenph have taken great pains to ensure that the fingering is Tatum's own. It's obvious they do it out of their love for the music and their desire to release it from the confines of inferior recording methods. Let go of the fact that a computer is playing the piano, and Art Tatum comes through loud and clear.

The tracks come in two versions: surround sound and binaural. The surround sound is of course best for those with a home stereo sound system. You will feel as if you were in the audience. But the binaural is the real ear-opener here; listened to with headphones, it is designed to sound as if you were on the bench with Tatum himself: the music is down and forward, and the applause comes from the right. If you ever imagined yourself a concert pianist, Piano Starts Here will make your dream come true, at least in your own head.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Fancy Blue by Tywanna Jo Baskette

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

Tywanna Jo Baskette's debut album begins with a breath and ends with a giggle. In between are nineteen improvisational songs about many diverse subjects. From her parents' deaths from lung cancer in "1985/1998" to "I Love Goat Cheese" — where she makes the word "udders" into something beautiful — to how "everything goes pop pop pop" ("Pop Pop"), Baskette travels with her "little girl" voice across her emotional landscape. And she had me enthralled the whole time. Her songwriting is also childlike — seemingly coming from nowhere with unconventional rhythms and changes, sometimes rhyming, always evocative.

Fancy Blue is so unlike modern popular music that, at first, it doesn't know where to go in my head. The closest comparison I can make is to the experimental pop of the Microphones. Their songs don't always jibe on the first listen, but when you let go of preconceptions, they burrow their way into your soul.

Tywanna Jo Baskette's "pass-alongs" are just like that. She is not musically trained and can't play an instrument, but she's been writing off-the-cuff songs since she was twelve. She'd sing them, then they were gone. It wasn't until a friend began following her around with a microcassette recorder that any of them survived at all.

These are songs she has written for herself, not for me or you, or to have a hit record. They're completely genuine. It will be difficult for some people to really understand what she is doing, and those people are likely to jump to criticism. But those who are able to, think of her songs as you would a song a child extemporaneously created — about pots and pans, or Rover, or whatever — except that her lyrics contain evidence of a close familiarity with death.

There are moments of joy and trauma on Fancy Blue, like how "Pinky" (co-written with Bobby Bare, Jr., and one of the few cuts with drums) turns from the shocking event of a beau seeing her in her pink underwear before their first date, into "someday my prince will come and he will call me Pinky." Free-association reigns supreme, calling into being lyrics that are connected by tangents. Memories, experiences, strange events, commercial jingles, all of these are worked into Baskette's "lullabies for adults."

This level of truth has been replaced so much by artifice that it is refreshing to see it surface again. She will likely get lost in the shuffle of singer-songwriter albums and that is unfortunate because Fancy Blue is a record that hits all the right notes, just not the ones you expect.
Related Posts with Thumbnails