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.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

An Interview with Leo Moran of the Saw Doctors (March 14, 2004)

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, I am reprinting this interview that originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.

Working at The Green Man Review has made me aware of many different types of music I had previously missed, and my favorite of all the bands to which I have been introduced through reviewing is the Saw Doctors. Ever since I heard Play It Again, Sham!, it has never left the couple dozen or so discs that are in my constant rotation. This band from Tuam, Ireland, have managed to take their influences from their home country and from American rock and make their songs universal, while writing solely of their own experiences.

"We've never had a problem about the songs being too local," said Leo Moran in a recent phone conversation conducted during the annual spring leg of their American tour. "People often ask that question. We just hopefully write things about our own lives, and people can draw parallels and see themselves in some of the songs." And they have a sense of humor, which always helps.

When the new CD/DVD release, Live in Galway, became available, I jumped at the chance to hear/watch them, especially since until that point I wasn't familiar with their more popular songs like "N17" and "I Useta Lover" — two of Ireland's biggest selling singles ever (and I call myself a fan!). The American leg of the tour began with a CD launch party in Manhattan on March 10th.

The expression, "If it's March, it must be the Saw Doctors" doesn't seem entirely out of place, as — according to a separate interview included on the Live in Galway DVD — the band has been asked back repeatedly to play the States during the month of the year most closely associated with Irish culture.

I answered the phone on the afternoon before their Chicago concert to greetings from tour manager Niall Barrett. While confirming my credentials, he requested I not keep Leo on the phone too long, as he had a sound check to make soon. I assured him that this would not be a problem. After a moment's conversation, he went to fetch Moran, who co-fronts the band along with Davy Carton.

This early in the tour, Leo expressed fatigue due to the hectic schedule. "It's a bit exhausting at the moment because we just arrived in J.F.K. on Tuesday and then Wednesday we had the CD/DVD launch in Manhattan. Then we got on the boat and Thursday night we did Detroit and upstate New York, and then we drove across to Cleveland. We were a bit tired because the stamina and the time zone change hadn't completely clicked in, but I think it's fairly clicking in now today."

What a schedule! Maybe I should have been concerned that they wouldn't make it a few more days until I could see them in Boston. But I wasn't, and they did arrive (in the middle of a typically rough New England snowstorm) and still put on a great show.

I started with the obvious questions about the new releases: Why release a live album now?

"It just happened now. People have been asking us to do a live album and DVD for a long time, and we were always kind of putting it off. We'd recorded a lot of shows over the years and done well, but not nearly good enough. Maybe we're not ready to release a live album, and maybe we should never release a live album because it wouldn't really capture what people want to bring home from the show.

"Then, a man who made a documentary for us in 1991 called Steven Lock — the documentary was called Sing a Powerful Song — he decided he wanted to make a follow-up TV documentary, that we would go down to Clare Island on the boat and play around at home and at the pub and rehearsing and all that good stuff. We were just thinking when we were out there that we should go out there more often. It was great to have the excuse to go out there, and we'll have to find another excuse to go out in the future.

"Part of what he wanted was to film two shows at Galway in July. So, they filmed with six cameras, and a lighting man called Tom Kenny who was a friend of ours — he normally did the Who and Eric Clapton and MTV stuff and all that — worked under the table. We couldn't really pay him to do the kind of show we were doing. We just had to hope that it turned out well and that it got recorded.

"We did two nights. The first night, we thought was very good and we were very happy with it, and we went away thinking that if it doesn't work out the second night, at least we have enough to get away with. Luckily enough, then we did the second night, and it was actually better, and we ended up using all the second night. We were very lucky, really, and I think an element in that was that the pressure was off. We didn't have to worry any more about it.

"So we ended up having two shows completely recorded, audially and visually. That became the DVD, with 70 minutes of the concert and the hour of the documentary, and automatically we had a live CD album. It all kind of fell into place, and there was a natural enough rhythm about it, and you don't argue with that, really."

Both Moran and Carton sing and play guitar, with Carton singing lead on most of the songs and Moran tackling the majority of the lead guitar duties. Both are founding members of the Saw Doctors and met after Davy Carton's previous band, Blaze X, split up. I asked Leo about their history.

"This band was absolutely fantastic," Leo remembered. "It was like an Irish version of the Ramones." He was a huge fan of the band and regretted their breakup. "I knew that there were all these songs hanging around that Davy had, and that Paul Cunniffe (who, unfortunately, passed away in 2001) had written, and that nobody was maybe ever going to hear them. I just thought it would've been a shame.... So, I started going up to Davy's house on weekends and we eventually tried to put a little band together.... The songs, thankfully, were songs that people did want to hear, and the ones that we wrote subsequently were ones that people wanted to hear as well."

The band that was to become the Saw Doctors almost seems to have been fated. Another founding member (the band's percussionist, Padraig Stevens) was Blaze X's manager. "He had been writing songs, and we started writing songs together, and it just started to work. It was one of those things," Leo continued. "I had been in bands before that were good bands, and it always felt like we were pushing hard at making something happen. But when the format of the Saw Doctors got on stage, it was easy." He referred to the combination of talents as "magic" and concluded, "If it happens once in your life, you're lucky."

When I mentioned that the easygoing atmosphere really comes across in the music, he agreed, "It's the songs that do the work, really."

What got him into performing originally? "I got such pleasure out of listening to other people's songs and records and going to shows. I suppose you just think that what they're doing — what they're sharing about themselves — is such a positive thing ... that it'd be great if you could do the same yourself. And it's a bit of a dream come true, really."

A dream come true? So is he happy with the level of success the band has achieved? "When we started writing songs and started putting the Saw Doctors band together, we could never have imagined that we'd have 37 U.S. tours under our belt in twelve years' time or whatever. It's hard to believe.... It's an amazing success, really, for anybody whose hobby becomes their livelihood."

Since most of the songs are credited to both Carton and Moran, I wondered if he and Davy usually wrote together, or if they had a Lennon/McCartney kind of arrangement. Leo laughed and said, "You're putting us up there a little high," but his further description made the songwriting process sound like fun. "I might write a few lines and Davy'll come up with a tune, then he might write a whole song himself or I might have most of a song.... There's all kinds of different combinations. There's no 'usual'. We don't try too hard."

The band's last two albums have recycled earlier material for the sake of their constantly growing audience who may not have had the opportunity to acquire their older recordings, many of which are not available in the U.S., so I asked Leo if he knew when fans might see some new material from the Saw Doctors. Plans are apparently already in the works: "We have to start recording in May and June and get an album ... out before the end of the year. It always goes longer than you hope, but we do know that much."

I'll definitely be looking forward to that new album. But even if it doesn't come out as scheduled [update: The Cure finally came out in 2006], with the level of care that the Saw Doctors put into re-releasing old material, I'm not too concerned. And hey, there's always that new Shambles CD to pick up.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Nine Lives by Aerosmith

It's hard to complain about something free, but somebody put Nine Lives on the swap table at work in the case for 40 Seasons: the Best of Skid Row. So, when I popped it into my car's player, I thought I was going to recapture my "Youth Gone Wild." Instead I got (to quote lyrics from the title track) a "stay of execution."

The last Aerosmith album I paid real money for was Get a Grip because, after "Cryin'" was such a megahit, it seems like every subsequent single has been trying to duplicate the formula. Which means you can identify an intended single in the first five seconds ("Falling in Love [Is Hard on the Knees]" and "Hole in My Soul," for example). This is fortunate because it means you can quickly skip garbage like "Full Circle" ("If I could change the world like a fairy tale, I would drink the love from your Holy Grail" — where's my toothbrush?) and get to the only good things about Nine Lives: the deep tracks hidden in the middle.

It seems that their blatant attempts to give the public what it wants have not hindered their creativity elsewhere. "Nine Lives" opens with kick-ass hard rock nicely reminiscent of Pump (still my favorite Aerosmith album).

Later, the band offers a "Taste of India" with sitar and sweeping strings grounded by the thunderous rhythm section of Tom Hamilton and Joey Kramer. "Something's Gotta Give" is a harmonica-centric track that would not have been out of place on Toys in the Attic.

"Ain't That a Bitch" starts out like slow jazz and turns into a groovy power ballad from the "What It Takes" songbook that nonetheless gets a little "Hey Jude"-y with its overstay-its-welcome ending. And "The Farm" is a fun little trifle with terrific orchestral support that would make a great party song (even if the Wizard of Oz clips are more than a little strange).

And ... that's it. The rest of the album is filled out with dreck. "Crash" is a mish-mash of pop-punk and metal that is just confusing. "Kiss Your Past Goodbye" is a weak ballad obviously geared toward tramps and the guys who screw them. "Pink" is an execrable waste of a good groove, spoiled mainly by the fact that the lyrics don't have the guts to be as suggestive as they really want to be. ("Pink is like red but not quite"? They need to take some lessons from AC/DC.)

Worst of all, "Attitude Adjustment" sounds like something that would have even been filler on some mid-'80s hair-metal band like Autograph. And "Fallen Angels" is a failed attempt at meaningful lyrics that falls flat when the song doesn't even know what it means ("Where do fallen angels go? I just don't know.... They keep fallin'") and yet manages to go on for eight minutes before simply fading out.

CDs these days have way too many tracks because people feel like they need to fill out the 80-minute running time to give listeners their money's worth. But Nine Lives has a solid 20 minutes of good music, which is more than a lot of CDs I paid full price for back in the '90s. And isn't that what the programmable feature on your CD player's for, anyhow?
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