Sunday, September 28, 2014

Ian Matthews: “Stealin’ Home” (1978/2014) CD Review

Ian Matthews is known for his early work with Fairport Convention and then with Plainsong, as well as for his extensive solo career. In 1978 he released Stealin’ Home, which included his big hit “Shake It.” The album has some original material, but also lots of covers, including an a cappella rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carefully Taught.” These are mostly mellow tunes, with a few exceptions like “Slip Away” and “Man In The Station,” the latter having just a bit of a disco thing happening, plus some nice work on harmonica by Duffy Power.

The new special re-issue includes the original album, plus a live recording from 1978, which was released previously only in Japan. The concert features a largely different band from that of the album, and includes Bob Metzger on guitar, a name that will be familiar to Leonard Cohen fans. The liner notes for this special edition include an interview with Ian Matthews.

The album opens with “Gimme An Inch,” which certainly has a mid-1970s mellow pop feel, with Ian pleading, “Gimme an inch, girl” at the start. It’s a cover, written by Robert Palmer, who included it on his 1975 album Pressure Drop. I much prefer the album’s second track, “Don’t Hang Up Your Dancing Shoes,” which was written by Terence Boylan. It features a really sweet vocal performance, a nice groove, and some catchy stuff on guitar.

But my favorite track is the absolutely beautiful “King Of The Night,” written by Jeffrey Comanor. Ian’s vocals are excellent, and this song gets right to me. Check out these lyrics: “So empty the bottle and tell us some more/What do you care if we’ve heard it before/The price of your victories cheapens you now/You were fearless and foolish/Forgotten somehow.” And I find this line perfectly depressing: “While the race still goes on without you somehow.”

“Let There Be Blues” is another pretty song, this one written by Ian Matthews. I love the mandolin, and there’s also a nice lead part by Mel Collins on saxophone, but it is those sweet vocals which are the heart of this one. “Let there be blues in the morning/Let there be tears in the night/Let there be blues on my shoulder/Then let me show you it’s alright.”

“Stealin’ Home,” the album’s title track, is an original tune about a problematic relationship. “You tell me I’m your man/And you’re giving me this final chance/To win you back again.” And I love these lines: “I thought I heard it on a jukebox/All the words I couldn’t say.”

“Shake It” was released as a single and was a hit, reaching #13 on the Billboard Hot 100. This one features Mel Collins on saxophone. It has such a good feel to it. Written by Terence Boylan, it includes these lines: “A mind that was made for love/She’s got a new way of dancing slow/She knows what you’re thinking of.” The song feels like a cool summer evening near the beach when you’re young and there’s a woman who catches your attention and won’t let go.

The Homecoming Concert

This special release of Stealin’ Home includes a recording of a concert Ian Matthews performed at Texas A&M University in 1978. Titled The Homecoming Concert, it includes some stage banter where Ian asks the crowd about the next day’s big game (and also says, “Hey, what do I know, I’m a limey, I know shit about football”). This is a fairly clean recording, by the way; the sound is good. It opens with a lively number, “Tigers Will Survive,” which features some great work on keys by Mick Weaver, plus some cool stuff on harmonica by Joel Tepp. (This song was the title track from Ian Matthew’s 1972 release.)

That’s followed by a good performance of the album’s title track and then “Shake It,” which Ian introduces by saying, “This next song is a single from the album, which seems to be doing pretty good right now.” A harmonica lead replaces the saxophone lead from the album.

I’m so glad the live tracks include “King Of The Night,” my favorite song from the album. And it’s a really good version, with some nice stuff on both guitar and keys. Ian also does “Call The Tune,” a song from Plainsong’s 1972 record, In Search Of Amelia Earhart (on this new release it's titled “Call The Tunes”). And he closes the show with “Payday,” a good bluesy rock and roll number written by Jesse Winchester, which gives the band a chance to cut loose.

CD Track List

  1. Gimme An Inch
  2. Don’t Hang Up Your Dancing Shoes
  3. King Of The Night
  4. Man In The Station
  5. Let There Be Blues
  6. Carefully Taught
  7. Stealin’ Home
  8. Shake It
  9. Yank And Mary (Smile)
  10. Slip Away
  11. Sail My Soul
  12. Tigers Will Survive
  13. Stealin’ Home
  14. Shake It
  15. Just One Look
  16. King Of The Night
  17. Man In The Station
  18. Don’t Hang Up Your Dancing Shoes
  19. Call The Tunes
  20. Payday

This special edition of Stealin’ Home was released on September 9, 2014 through Omnivore Recordings.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Leonard Cohen: “Popular Problems” (2014) CD Review

Leonard Cohen is the greatest living songwriter. I’ve said that before, and I’ll likely say it many more times. On September 21, 2014 he turned eighty. Two days later his excellent new album, Popular Problems, was released. Fans who caught shows on his recent tours will be happy that “Born In Chains” is included on this new release. Sadly, once again “Feels So Good” has been given a miss. But there are some surprises on this disc. For example, Leonard Cohen dips a bit into the blues on this release. Also coming as a surprise to me is the fact that only one of the folks who performed with him on his recent tours is present on these tracks – Alexandru Bublitchi, who played violin on the Old Ideas tour, plays on three of these songs. There are some odd rhymes on this album, like in “A Street,” which rhymes “bath” with “camouflage,” and in “Nevermind,” where he changes the pronunciation of the adjective “intimate” to make it rhyme with “fate.” But Leonard Cohen can do these things, and make them work. The majority of the songs on Popular Problems were co-written by Leonard Cohen and Patrick Leonard, who had teamed up for a few of the songs on Old Ideas.

A bluesy pulse opens the album’s first track, “Slow.” Then Leonard Cohen comes in, a deep intimate whisper right into our ears: “I’m slowing down the tune/I never liked it fast/You want to get there soon/I want to get there last.” He can make any line sound sexy, and he does so here with “Slow is in my blood,” and of course on these lines: “I like to take my time/I like to linger as it flies/A weekend on your lips/A lifetime in your eyes.” Charlean Carmon joins him on vocals on this track (and on several others).

Leonard Cohen follows that with another song with blues elements, “Almost Like The Blues,” this one combining blues and pop, but with some intense lyrics to start – “I saw some people starving/There was murder, there was rape/Their villages were burning/They were trying to escape” (perhaps bringing to mind some of the lyrics from his 1992 release, The Future). But there is always something of a sense of humor in his approach, as you can hear when he follows “There’s torture and there’s killing” with “And there’s all my bad reviews.”

“Samson In New Orleans” is one of my favorite tracks. Check out these lines: “So gather up the killers/Get everyone in town/Stand me by those pillars/Let me take this temple down.” This track features some deliciously sad and pretty work on violin by Alexandru Bublitchi.

“A Street” was co-written by Anjani Thomas, who also co-wrote some tracks on Dear Heather and one track on Old IdeasHere is a taste of the lyrics: “You put on a uniform/To fight the civil war/You looked so good I didn’t care/What side you were fighting for.” This song has a simple, steady beat, with Leonard Cohen delivering the lyrics almost like spoken word, and again with a feel of him being right there, speaking directly to you. There is more evidence of his sense of humor in lines like “Just like an extra in the sequel/To the old red white and blue.”

“Did I Ever Love You” is perhaps the most unusual track on the album. It begins with Leonard Cohen singing, “Did I ever love you/Did I ever need you/Did I ever fight you/Did I ever want to/Did I ever leave you,” and there’s a real need in his voice, a need for the answers. There is a really rough quality to his voice, approaching Tom Waits territory, which gives a feel of urgency and immediacy to the lyrics. And then the song becomes a bright, cheerful country tune, as Dana Glover takes over on vocals, singing the same lyrics, but sweetly. It’s such an unusual approach, and I love it. Alexandru Bublitchi adds some beautiful touches on violin.

“My Oh My” is another personal favorite on this album. This is one he was working up during the tours, but at that point the song sounded quite a bit like the previous album’s “Banjo.”  It has now developed to the point of having its own feel, and it’s absolutely fantastic. He can really imbue a simple line like “My oh my oh my” with a vivid background and a lot of emotion. “Drove you to the station/Never asked you why/Held for you a little while/My oh my oh my.”

“Nevermind” is an interesting track, with some excellent backing vocals by Charlean Carmon and Donna Delory. But it is the lyrics, of course, which really grab me, with lines like “Expressions of/The Sweet Indifference/Some call Love” and “You side with them/Whom you despise/This was your heart/This swarm of flies/This was once your mouth/This bowl of lies” and “My woman’s here/My children too/Their graves are safe/From ghosts like you.”

“Born In Chains” is a song Leonard Cohen introduced on the world tour, one which immediately became a favorite with fans. Its absence from 2012’s Old Ideas can now be accepted, as the rendition included on Popular Problems is excellent. (And now please, please, please include “Feels So Good” on the next release. Thank you.) Here is a taste of the lyrics: “But all the ladders/Of the night have fallen/Only darkness now/To lift the longing up.” I really like what Patrick Leonard does on keys in this version.

The album ends with “You Got Me Singing,” a really sweet folk-country song that raises my spirits every time I listen to it. “You got me singing/Even though the world is gone/You got me thinking/That I’d like to carry on.” It’s an incredible song, feeling like a warm smile just before the end of everything. This is one of my favorite songs of the year.

CD Track List

  1. Slow
  2. Almost Like The Blues
  3. Samson In New Orleans
  4. A Street
  5. Did I Ever Love You
  6. My Oh My
  7. Nevermind
  8. Born In Chains
  9. You Got Me Singing

Popular Problems was released on September 23, 2014 on Columbia Records.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sid Griffin: “The Trick Is To Breathe” (2014) CD Review

Sid Griffin is known for his work with the Long Ryders and as founder of the Coal Porters (the latter band having most recently released Find The One in 2012.) But he’s also released a few solo albums, including 2005’s As Certain As Sunrise. His newest release, The Trick Is To Breathe, contains mostly original material, the exception being an excellent rendition of “Get Together.” Sid Griffin has gathered some seriously talented musicians to help out on this CD, including Justin Moses and Sierra Hull. There is one instrumental track, “Front Porch Fandango.”

The Trick Is To Breathe opens with “Ode To Bobbie Gentry,” a good country folk tune about Bobbie Gentry leaving the spotlight. It’s told from her perspective in a style similar to hers, the title of course reminding us of her most famous tune, “Ode To Billy Joe.” “It seems like no one ever comes to no good in the showbiz world/I miss the Mississippi and me laughing as a little girl.” I really like these lines: “Look at me, I got it all, but oh lord, what now?/When you get what you wish for, you’d better not complain/Success is awfully costly, but it surely ought to hide my pain.”

Sid Griffin follows that with “Blue Yodel No. 12 & 35,” the song’s title being a combination of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel” series and Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35,” and reflecting the vocal approach to this fun tune. This track has some delicious bluegrass elements, including some excellent work by Sierra Hull on mandolin and Justin Moses on banjo. There are also some fun, goofy lyrics, like these: “They say it takes two to tango/So chew on this big mango/Don’t give me no boo hoo hoo/You’ve had so many lovers hiding under your covers/I knew that we were through.” (The liner notes give the line as “So bite on my big mango,” which I like even more.) (By the way, Jimmie Rodgers did have a song titled “Blue Yodel No. 12,” but I don’t think he had one titled “Blue Yodel No. 35.”)  Sid Griffin ventures into Dylan territory again on “We’ve Run Out Of Road.”

“Circle Bar” is a mellower, sadder, more pensive tune, and is one of my favorites. According to Sid Griffin’s liner notes, he wrote this for the Long Ryders when he thought they were to re-unite. It’s about getting older, the changes, the losses. Here is a taste of the excellent lyrics: “We watched a steamboat turn upstream, and you never did come back/And then one Sunday morning across a market floor/I saw you walking hand in hand, and felt alone once more.” I also love this line: “My endless youth is ended now, these new days seem so tame.”

Sid Griffin includes a couple of songs about war told from the perspective of soldiers. The first, “Between The General & The Grave,” takes place in World War I, and the second, “Everywhere,” during World War II. Both are really good songs. “Everywhere” tells the story of a young man who is friends with a Japanese man before Pearl Harbor is bombed. I particularly like the chorus: “Over here, over there/It’s the same everywhere/A young boy cries out for his momma/Before he dies for his home.” This song was co-written by Greg Trooper and Sid Griffin, and Sid included a live version of it on Worldwide Live 1997-2002, while it became the title track of Greg Trooper’s 1992 album. Billy Bragg did a really good version of this song on his 1991 release Don’t Try This At Home.

The CD’s only cover is a bluegrass version of “Get Together,” a song that is most often associated with The Youngbloods, who had a hit with it in 1967. This excellent rendition is sung with an earnestness that is needed for this song to work. This is no nostalgic trip, but feels current, as if Sid and his group of musicians wrote it. This is one of the best renditions of this song I’ve heard. “Get Together” was written by Chet Powers (also known as Dino Valenti), later a member of Quicksilver Messenger Service.

“Who’s Got A Broken Heart” is a sweet and sad folk tune about someone after the end of the relationship, with lines like “The good which should be in goodbye/Is summoned by the softest sigh/Now who, who’s got a broken heart.” This is one of the strongest tracks, and features some nice work on strings by David Henry.

The only track I could do without is “Punk Rock Club.” It’s a spoken word piece, collecting things said by audience members at a punk concert. Something about the slow, pointed delivery irritates me. And it really breaks up the flow of the album.

This CD ends with “I’ll Forget You Very Well,” a good, brisk bluegrass tune with a cute Beatles reference.

CD Track List

  1. Ode To Bobbie Gentry
  2. Blue Yodel No. 12 & 35
  3. Circle Bar
  4. Between The General & The Grave
  5. Elvis Presley Calls His Mother After The Ed Sullivan Show
  6. Everywhere
  7. Get Together
  8. Front Porch Fandango
  9. Punk Rock Club
  10. Who’s Got A Broken Heart
  11. We’ve Run Out Of Road
  12. I’ll Forget You Very Well


Musicians performing on this album include Sid Griffin on vocals, guitar, 12-string guitar, and mandolin; Sierra Hull on mandolin; Justin Moses on banjo, fiddle and dobro; Mark Fain on bass; Paul Griffith on drums and percussion; and James T. Brown on backing vocals. David Henry does the string arrangement on “Who’s Got A Broken Heart.”

The Trick Is To Breathe was released on September 16, 2014 on Prima Records.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Shirelles: “Happy And In Love/Shirelles” (2014) CD Review

The Shirelles formed in the late 1950s and are known for such hits as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Mama Said,” “Baby It’s You” and “Dedicated To The One I Love,” the last of which was revisited on Happy And In Love, one of the two albums included on the new CD put out by Real Gone Music. This CD includes two complete albums originally released on RCA in the early 1970s, as well as a few bonus tracks. Neither of these albums has been available on CD until now.

Happy And In Love opens with a good, funky cover of The Guess Who’s “No Sugar Tonight,” with an added moment of the girls singing, “So sweet, so sweet” over the beat, which is a nice touch.

That’s followed by “Boy You’re Too Young,” written by Kenneth Gamble, Archie Bell and Thom Bell. It’s an easy-going tune, with strings and a good groove, and is about an older woman interested in a young man – young enough that it’s still up to his parents to allow or disallow the relationship. “You’re just a little school boy/Growing up mighty fast/Let’s not get started/’Cause how long do you think this love will last.”

“Take Me” is a groovy tune boasting a powerful, energetic vocal performance. This is a song that was released earlier as a single on United Artists.

“Dedicated To The One I Love”

The Shirelles revisit “Dedicated To The One I Love,” a song they’d released as a single in 1959. This 1971 rendition is quite a bit different, sounding delicate at the beginning. They found a new spin to put on it, while keeping the song’s main elements in place, and turning in excellent vocal performances. I like this version, but it’s certainly no replacement for the earlier one.

“We Got A Lot Of Lovin’ To Do” is a sweet, fun, catchy tune with a positive vibe. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “And everybody tells me that it’s always raining/Well, I don’t mind the rain, but it’s plain to see that/We’ve got a lot of lovin’ to do.” I am really fond of this track. For me, it’s one of this collection’s highlights.

“Strange, I Still Love You,” the final track on Happy And In Love, was released as the flip side to the single of “No Sugar Tonight.” It features another powerful vocal performance. “Through the pain you’ve given me, I remember the pleasure/I guess I’ll never be free.”

The second album, Shirelles, opens with a cover of Carole King’s “Brother, Brother.” This track was also released as a single in 1972. It’s followed by the flip side to that single, “Sunday Dreaming,” a somewhat funky tune.

“Ain’t No Sunshine”

“Ain’t No Sunshine” is a song I absolutely love, and The Shirelles do an excellent rendition of it. They stretch out the “I know, I know” part longer than usual, making it an entire section with a build, before settling back into the song’s main groove. These girls do some interesting stuff with this song, and I wish the track were longer. Written by Bill Withers, “Ain’t No Sunshine” is a song that’s been covered by such artists as Freddie King, Joe Cocker and Michael Jackson.

They also cover the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” and Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” And they do a really good rendition of Carole King’s “Walk On In,” one of my favorite tracks from the second album. Another strong track is their cover of “Drowning In The Sea Of Love,” written by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff.

The second album ends with a Marvin Gaye medley of “Mercy Mercy Me,” “What’s Going On” and “Inner City Blues.” This is another highlight. I particularly like what they do with “Inner City Blues.

Bonus Tracks

This CD includes three bonus tracks, originally released on singles in 1973, including “Let's Give Each Other Love” and “Do What You've A Mind To.” “Touch The Wind (Eres Tu),” the best of the three tracks, was actually the flip side to “Do What You've A Mind To.” It’s a beautiful, powerful song written by Juan Carlos Calderon, and this rendition has some surprising country elements.

CD Track List

  1. No Sugar Tonight
  2. Boy You’re Too Young
  3. Go Away And Find Yourself
  4. There’s Nothing In This World
  5. Medley: Gotta Hold On To This Feeling/I’ve Never Found A Boy
  6. Take Me
  7. Dedicated To The One I Love
  8. It’s Gonna Take  A Miracle
  9. We Got A Lot Of Lovin’ To Do
  10. Strange, I Still Love You
  11. Brother, Brother
  12. Sunday Dreaming
  13. Ain’t No Sunshine
  14. It’s Going To Take Some Time
  15. How Can You Mend A Broken Heart
  16. Let’s Stay Together
  17. Walk On In
  18. Deep In The Night
  19. Drowning In The Sea Of Love
  20. Hung On Yourself
  21. Medley: Mercy Mercy Me/Inner City Blues/What’s Going On
  22. Let’s Give Each Other Love
  23. Do What You’ve A Mind To
  24. Touch The Wind (Eres Tu)

Happy And In Love/Shirelles was released on July 29, 2014 through Real Gone Music.