Thursday, February 28, 2013

Music In Movies: Pirate Radio (2009)

Howdy, folks. One thing I haven’t really done yet with this blog is mention some of the great films that are related to music. It hadn’t really occurred to me until just now when I watched Pirate Radio, a wonderful film that really celebrates rock and roll. It was written and directed by Richard Curtis (who was one of the creative minds behind Blackadder, a favorite show of mine; he also wrote Four Weddings And A Funeral). And it boasts a tremendous cast, including Bill Nighy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh, Jack Davenport, and Emma Thompson.

But what is most important, perhaps, is the music, and the way the film uses music.  It truly is a celebration of rock and roll, and music in general (well, good music anyway). As it takes place in 1966-1967, there is some great stuff by The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Procol Harum, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix and The Yardbirds. It’s not just rock and roll, however, and of I was particularly happy to hear “So Long, Marianne” by Leonard Cohen. I’m a big lover of vinyl, and it’s definitely a bit difficult to watch a sequence toward the end of the film when records are… well, being damaged. But don’t let that keep you from watching this movie, as it’s a whole lot of fun.  This is a movie you’re going to want to watch with the sound turned up quite a bit.

And be sure to watch the hour of deleted scenes with the introductions by Richard Curtis. One scene in particular will remind you of what a great song “Get Off Of My Cloud” is. And Richard Curtis recounts some of his early memories related to The Beatles. Very cool.

Enjoy.  Oh, one other thing: See how many of the albums from the closing credits are in your collection. As far as I can tell – and some of them go by pretty quickly – I have only thirty-three. (How do I not own Astral Weeks?)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Otis Redding: “Lonely & Blue” (2013) CD Review

Otis Redding could sing a sad song like nobody else. You can hear it throughout Lonely & Blue, a new collection of some of his most heartbreaking recordings. Listening to the incredibly moving weariness in his voice on the opening track, it’s hard to believe he died at the age of twenty-six. How did so much pain and heartbreak get into his voice in such a short time? And how was someone so young able to express it so perfectly? It feels so natural, so real, that it can’t be an affectation. His is a voice custom-made for songs of heartbreak and longing.

This new collection of songs, Lonely & Blue, seems designed to get right to our hearts, to tear into them. Though not to destroy or hurt us, but rather somehow to make us feel better in our misery. It’s amazing how Otis Redding is able to do that. He’ll fill you with longing and have you smiling simultaneously. For all his cries of loneliness, he makes you feel like you’re not alone.

If you have a girl coming over, someone you’d like to get closer to, put this CD on. If she’s not in your arms by the sixth or seventh track, she’s probably a pod person and you should make every effort to stay awake to avoid a similar fate.

Most of these songs are ones you’re familiar with, but this is not a Greatest Hits collection. These are songs picked for their subject matter and their emotional impact, not for their chart position on the Billboard Hot 100. So while you get “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” you also get “Gone Again,” one I wasn’t that familiar with. It’s a great song – I love those bursts of horn on this track. The majority of these songs were written or co-written by Otis Redding himself.

This collection opens with Otis Redding crying out “Please” in “I Love You More Than Words Can Say.” Many of these tracks will find him begging and pleading. And this song’s first line has him asking for something so innocent, you wonder how anyone could turn down his request - “Please let me sit down beside you.” He draws out certain words in this song, like “painful” on “Living without you is so painful.” By doing so, he really makes us feel that pain

On “Open The Door,” he again is saying “please” in the first line - “Open the door, please let me in.” There is such a need in his voice, and he sounds so vulnerable as he repeats “Let me in.” But then his voice becomes forceful later in the song, as he warns at the end, “Or I’ll bust this door down.” And I believe him.

He makes “A Waste Of Time” sound even more personal by including his own name in the song. He sings (in a sort of spoken word style), “I’ve been told by many different girls, Otis, I love you/Oh boy, they tell me this from the bottom of their soul/But they didn’t mean it/Listen, I’ve been let down.” You really feel for him. And if you’ve felt heartbreak ever in your life, Otis Redding knew exactly how you felt. You can hear it in this song, one of my favorites on this CD.

“These Arms Of Mine” is one of the first Otis Redding songs I ever heard, and it stuck with me. It was on a compilation I had in my childhood, and it stood out. It felt truer, more real than the rest of songs on that cassette (yes, cassette).  It felt more personal. This is a beautiful song, and though there is definitely a longing in his voice, this one is not as pained as most of the others in this collection. Oddly, it didn’t reach higher than #85 on the Billboard Hot 100, but did reach #20 on the R&B chart.

Probably the most famous song in this collection, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” reached #21 on Billboard Hot 100. It’s an incredible song. He draws you in by lowering his voice, and then picks his moments to really belt out a line.  It’s another song that finds him begging – “I’m down on my knees/And please don’t make me stop now” - and ends with him shouting out “I love you” several times as the song fades. Wow.

“Send Me Some Lovin’” is a happier-sounding love song, at least in the music, if not in his voice. It’s that steady piano that makes it feel more positive and optimistic. And yet he sings, “I need you so bad/I miss you so much/My days are so lonely/Honey, my nights are so blue.”

CD Track List
  1. I Love You More Than Words Can Say
  2. Gone Again
  3. Free Me
  4. Open The Door (Skeleton Key Version)
  5. A Waste Of Time
  6. These Arms Of Mine
  7. I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)
  8. Everybody Makes A Mistake
  9. Little Ol’ Me
  10. I’ve Got Dreams To Remember (Rougher Dreams)
  11. Send Me Some Lovin’
  12. My Lover’s Prayer
Lonely & Blue is scheduled to be released on March 5, 2013 on Stax through Concord Music Group. It is also being released on vinyl, which is great. By the way, the CD cover art is designed to resemble a record that’s been in your collection for decades. And this CD will likely remain a staple of your collection for decades to come.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Howlin’ Brothers: “Howl” (2013) CD Review

It took only a couple of moments of listening to Howl before The Howlin’ Brothers became one of my new favorite bands and I was calling friends to rave about them. I love the way they belt out the lyrics. There is something deliciously raw in their delivery, particularly on the first couple of tracks. Not that they can’t sound sweet when they want to. Just listen to “Just Like You” or “Mama Don’t You Tell Me.” Then they show they’re also accomplished musicians on a bluegrass tune like “Julia Belle Swain.”

But this band is not just bluegrass – it’s country, folk, blues, even some New Orleans grooves on a song like “Delta Queen.” And whatever type of music the band is playing, they infuse it with their own infectious energy and enthusiasm. This band seduces you with the subtlety of a freight train. (These guys would be a great double bill with Holly Golightly And The Brokeoffs.) Most of the album’s tracks are originals.

“Big Time,” the album’s opening track, sounds just a bit like “Walkin’ Blues” at the beginning before the vocals come in. But the moment the vocals start, any similarity ceases. This is great raw kick-ass country folk. It is not refined, not polished – just some damn good fun. The song’s lyrics are simple, with lines like “Goin’ down south, gonna have a real big time” and “Goin’ down south/Gonna make you moan and howl.” And yes, the song even has a bit of howling in it. There is also something of a good jam. Warren Haynes co-wrote this one, and performs on it. (You know him from his work with the Allman Brothers, Gov't Mule and Phil Lesh And Friends.)

“Hermitage Hotstep” is like back porch folk, if the porch were attached to a brothel with a dance floor. Take your medicine, dance with your cousin (but only ‘cause she’s prettier than your sister). “No, I don’t want no gal who lives in NYC/I just want a gal with me in Tennessee.”

They get to the bluegrass on “Julia Belle Swain,” a tune written by John Hartford. This song shows these guys really can play, and its quick tempo will get you moving.

“Gone” has a seriously catchy groove, plus features some fun stuff on fiddle and some delightful lyrics.  She warned me once, warned me twice/But I don’t take no woman’s advice/And I’m gone, gone, gone.” And before the end of it I am singing along, shouting “Gone” along with them. On an album that is truly full of excellent material, this might be my favorite. “You stole my heart, and now you want to give it back.”

“Delta Queen” has that great New Orleans groove. I can totally imagine Dr. John digging this and covering it. It has that great Mardi Gras party atmosphere. (I could do without the false ending, but that is a small matter.)

They then do an interesting version of the blues on “Tennessee Blues,” a song with a somewhat jazzy feel to the drumming. This is a groovy late-night gem. I enjoy the backing vocals, which surprised me the first time I heard them, and which help to give the song an old-time feel. The backing vocals feel more like those from an old cowboy song, and they totally work.

“My Dog Can’t Bark,” written by Otis Smothers, is a wild tune that quickly sneaks up on you. It’s a fierce, bluesy song with some good jamming.

It’s that “whoa” part that really gets me on “Tell Me That You Love Me” and makes me love the song – like a demented choir left on the range by an evil nun with a whip and a nearly empty flask of whiskey. The song has a great urgency, as he repeats, “Tell me that you love me/Tell me that it’s true/Make my heart bleed/Make me feel real.” It’s sort of a love song, but it’s not about sweet talk, as there’s no time for that as he’ll likely be bitten by a rattlesnake soon if she doesn’t yield.

“Just Like You” has a wonderful, easy-going bluegrass groove, with a dose of blues-folk. “Blues in my whiskey/Blues in my tea/Ain’t it just like you, babe/To put the blues in me.” And hell, it has a kazoo. So there.

“Take This Hammer” is more of that fast-paced manic bluegrass music that we all love. Their playing is seriously impressive on this track. And when they slow it down near the end, their vocals sound wonderful.

Yonder Mountain String Band turned me onto the tune “Boatman Dance” years ago. The Howlin’ Brothers do more of a hoedown-type version, and it’s a lot of fun. And the backing vocals on the “Steamboat John” lines have me laughing out loud every time.

“Mama Don’t You Tell Me,” the album’s last track, begins a cappella with several guest vocalists, and sounds beautiful. This is a sweeter tune, and I really like it.

CD Track List

  1. Big Time
  2. Hermitage Hotstep
  3. Julia Belle Swain
  4. Gone
  5. Delta Queen
  6. Tennessee Blues
  7. My Dog Can’t Bark
  8. Tell Me That You Love Me
  9. Just Like You
  10. Take This Hammer
  11. Boatman Dance
  12. Mama Don’t You Tell Me

The Howlin’ Brothers are Ben Plasse on upright bass, banjo and vocals; Ian Craft on fiddle, banjo and vocals; and Jared Green on guitar, harmonica and vocals.

Howl is scheduled to be released on March 5, 2013 on Readymade Records through Thirty Tigers.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Townes Van Zandt: “Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions & Demos 1971-1972” CD Review

Years ago I looked up my birthday in a book to see what famous folks shared my day. Some cool people like Rik Mayall, Bret Easton Ellis, John Heard, and Peter Wolf (yes, from J. Geils Band) were all born the same day I was. But the one I was most excited about was Townes Van Zandt. Interestingly (to me, at least), the year I was born, Townes Van Zandt joked about being dead by naming his new record The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.

I’ve always loved his voice. It’s the voice of that friend who’s seen it all, and stops in occasionally (unexpectedly) to regale you with tales from the third ring of hell over a drink (your whiskey, of course). Plus, he was such a damned good songwriter. Check out these great lyrics from “Lungs”: “Gather up the gold you've found/You fool, it’s only moonlight/And if you try to take it home/Your hands will turn to butter/You’d better leave this dream alone/Try to find another/Salvation sat and crossed herself/And called the devil partner/And wisdom burned upon a shelf/Who'll kill a raging cancer/Seal the river at its mouth/Take the water prisoner/Fill the sky with screams and cries/Bathe in fiery answers.”

Though known for his serious lyrics, like those of “Lungs,” Townes also had a good sense of humor. I mean, check out these lines from “No Deal”: “The man down at the used car lot tried to sell me four wheels and a trunk/I said but man there ain’t no engine/He said the engine’s just a bunch of junk/You don’t need no engine to go downhill/And I can plainly see that’s the direction you’re heading in/And he handed me the keys.” (Later in that song he jokes about his own drinking too.)  I was fortunate enough to see him in concert once, at a small bar in Eugene, Oregon. I wish I’d recorded the show.

This new collection of previously unreleased recordings, Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions & Demos 1971-1972, is two discs of excellent material. The first disc is studio sessions. The second disc is demos. Some of his most well known songs are presented here, including “To Live Is To Fly,” “Pancho & Lefty” and “White Freight Liner Blues.” (And yes, I do wish there were a nice, rough version of “If I Needed You” in this collection, but maybe I’m getting greedy.)

Townes Van Zandt is known as a folk musician, and of course also does some country. But he shows he can do a bit of tough, kick-ass blues with his convincing cover of Elias McDaniel’s “Who Do You Love.” On the second disc he does another good blues tune, “Diamond Heel Blues,” this one an original with lyrics about Muhammad Ali, “the champion us long hairs love the most.”  He does a bit of bluegrass folk, with fiddle and all, on the wonderful “Blue Ridge Mountains” (in which he sings “I’ll lay a joint upon your grave, sir,” something most of the bluegrass musicians I know would appreciate).

The first disc opens with “T For Texas,” a Jimmie Rodgers song that finds Townes yodeling. There’s a certain humor to this recording, in its loose style, and in the line, “I’m going where that water tastes like Robitussin.” This song is some good-feeling country-folk, and I really dig Townes Van Zandt’s rendition.

The first lines of “Sunshine Boy” are “You won’t learn nothing from the sunshine boy/’Cept how to get away from home/You won’t learn nothing from the darkness boy/’Cept how to die all alone.” This is an intense song that grabs you from its opening lines. There is something deliciously mean about this song, and it’s one of my favorites. This is the song that gives this collection its name.

“Pancho & Lefty” is one of his most famous songs. It appeared on The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, and it’s been covered by Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. This version is an alternate mix from 1972, without strings and horns. And it’s wonderful. Just let his voice tell you the story. This is a song that I appreciate more each time I listen to it.

“To Live Is To Fly” is one of my favorite songs of all time. It’s a truly incredible and moving song. If you like music at all, you’ll love this song. And this CD set has two versions. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “We all got holes to fill/And them holes are all that’s real/Some fall on you like a storm/Sometimes you dig your own/The choice is yours to make/And time is yours to take/Some dive into the sea/Some toil upon the stone.”  I love the demo version on the second disc. This song perfectly fits the vulnerable, slightly awkward feel inherent in demos.

“White Freight Liner Blues” is another that’s been covered a lot, and has always been a favorite of mine. (I always enjoyed Fur Dixon & Steve Werner’s rendition when they’d perform it in concert.) The version here has a cool rhythm, and a loose feel. This song has such a happy feel to it, such a playful quality, which is even more interesting when juxtaposed with lines like “It’s bad news from Houston, half my friends are dying.” I absolutely love this song.

The first disc concludes with his cover of that great Rolling Stones song “Dead Flowers.” I’ve heard dozens of versions of this song over the years, and nary a bad one. But Townes’ is one of the best. This song is perfect for his voice, his style, his disposition – it’s like it was written for him.  The demo version on the second disc is interesting, but I kind of wish the percussion was cut from it. It’s a bit too peppy, working against the sound of his voice and guitar. In that version, is he singing, “And I won’t forget to put roses on your tail”? Sounds like it; and then he sings the proper line at the very end.

There is a bit of him getting ready at the beginning of the first track on the second disc.  I love that they included that on this disc rather than trimming it. “Heavenly Houseboat Blues” is a song he co-wrote with Guy Clark. I’ve always liked this one.

The second disc also includes a version of “Old Paint,” an old cowboy song with the lines “two daughters he had/One went to Denver, the other went bad,” and “Standin’,” a really good folk tune (“Well, if I hurt you, I did not mean to/I beg your pardon, I did not want to/When I leave you, don’t you think about me/I won’t be back, babe, I’ll be long gone”).

By the way, the second disc ends with an unlisted track (but not a “hidden” track). It’s an instrumental tune, with guitar, and is just over a minute long.

CD Track List

Disc One
  1. T For Texas
  2. Who Do You Love
  3. Sunshine Boy
  4. Where I Lead Me
  5. Blue Ridge Mountains
  6. No Deal
  7. Pancho & Lefty
  8. To Live Is To Fly
  9. You Are Not Needed Now
  10. Don’t Take It Too Bad
  11. Sad Cinderella
  12. Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold
  13. White Freight Liner Blues
  14. Two Hands
  15. Lungs
  16. Dead Flowers
Disc Two
  1. Heavenly Houseboat Blues
  2. Diamond Heel Blues
  3. To Live Is To Fly
  4. Tower Song
  5. You Are Not Needed Now
  6. Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold
  7. Highway Kind
  8. Greensboro Woman
  9. When He Offers His Hand
  10. Dead Flowers
  11. Old Paint
  12. Standin’
Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions & Demos 1971-1972 was released on February 5, 2013 through Omnivore Recordings and Capitol Records.