Friday, March 29, 2013

Jim’s Big Ego: “Stay” (2012) CD Review

Jim Infantino’s work has always seemed to me to have something of a carefully crafted lunacy about it.

Often it feels like Jim is standing at the edge of the abyss, and he’s the only one who knows it’s the edge. And so he watches folks as they gleefully, ignorantly tumble in, and he describes it all in his songs. Sometimes it’s like he studies humans as an alien culture. You hear it in a lot of the tracks on Stay, the newest album from Jim’s Big Ego. He’s not completely detached, however; there is definitely a heart to this music. There’s something serious in even his silliest songs, and something humorous in his most serious songs.

As you might expect from a Jim’s Big Ego album, this release features some wonderful lyrics, like these lines from “Chill”: “I medicated all my cares away/But they came back to me the very next day.”  And this from “15 Seconds Of Fame”: “I wonder if you wonder how I’m doing now that I never think of you.” That song also asks the important question, “Where’s my yeti?” This is a really fun album. It had me dancing, like during “Earworm.”

Stay opens with “In My Cult,” and its beginning a cappella moment pulls us right into Jim’s church. And even though he might have a big ego, several lines into the song we learn he himself is not the leader of the cult. “Our leader loves big thighs.” There are lots of little gems of lines in this song, like “In my cult/There’s nothing to believe” and “We knew the truth but we forgot” and “We all tell little lies/In my cult/We wear a similar disguise/In my cult.

The album continues somewhat in the same vein with “Another Thousand Years” which has a theme that’s similar. This one is about the end of the world, but the tone is quite different. “The rapture’s gonna wait.” No one can use the simple “Na na na na” like Jim’s Big Ego.  But this song does have something serious to say, which you hear in the lines like “I want to see my kingdom come/I'm praying for escape/Or else we’ll have to fix/What we took so long to break” and “How do we go on/Living day by day/With only human hearts/To guide us on our way.”  I also love the line, “Throw away our filth/Until we smell it everywhere.”

It’s interesting that Jim chose to revisit “Big Old Dark Green Car.” This song pre-dates the Big Ego by many years. It was first released on the 1992 cassette (yes, cassette) The World Of Particulars (an album that wasn’t released on CD until 1995), and then included also on the 1993 CD Strawman. This version is a bit different, with the full band sound, and the groovy (but short) instrumental section. But that insane energy is still there, perhaps even a bit heightened. And that great donkey-like vocal bit is still included. This is a song I always loved, and I’m always happy to hear it.

There is one error regarding the order of the tracks presented on the back of the CD – “404 Blues” actually comes before “Can’t Stop Foolin’ Around.” “404 Blues” is a great, groovy blues song about how we have too much information with all of our electronic gadgets (which remove some of the magic from our lives). It opens with the lines, “Too much information/Ain’t no more mystery no more.” It takes the old line, “I’m walking to New Orleans with a suitcase in my hand,” then plays with that familiar line by adding, “It says it will take me twenty days, twenty hours and twenty-three minutes/On foot from where I stand/And that’s just too much information for me.” There’s a great call and response section, with Jim asking random questions and the band shouting the answers. I love this song, and want to play it for all those people who say they can’t live without their GPS, all those people who are constantly using their phones to check stuff on the internet.

“Can’t Stop Foolin’ Around” is another of my favorites. It has a different feel from a lot of what this band does. It sort of borders on something Reverend Horton Heat might do. I absolutely love it, and love its vibe. This is a lot of fun.  It’s about all sorts of fooling around. Jim sings, “And now I’m getting married, but we almost missed our wedding/Because we can’t stop foolin’ around.” Then later, “And my wife is packed up and she’s ready to leave me/Because I can’t stop foolin’ around.” And of course these guys take it to an extreme level. “And I’m shooting Roman candles at his oxygen tank/Because I can’t stop foolin’ around/Now I’m at his funeral and everyone is crying/And I can’t stop foolin’ around/I run up to the roof and I jump off and I think I’m flying.” Even dead, he keeps fooling around, asking “Saint Peter to sing like Tom Waits.” This is gloriously silly.

Near the beginning of “You’re Delicious” Jim sings, “There’s a hole in my heart/But I can’t stop searching/It must be love/It must be love.” This is a pretty love song, but with that Big Ego twist. When Jim sings, “You’re delicious/I could eat you alive,” it’s sweet, but he means it literally. If you weren’t sure at first, you will be when the Big Ego guys go all zombie-like, echoing the word “Brain” when Jim sings, “And there’s a song in my brain.” It’s a surprising and wonderful moment. You know it’s true love, if nothing can keep you from devouring the object of your affection. This might be my favorite track on this release. (By the way, in another song, “In My Cult,” they mention Shawn Of The Dead.)

Stay concludes with a truly beautiful and heartfelt song, “Habits & Plans,” featuring the lines, “Who is this man/Just a bundle of habits and plans/Or the way that he grins or he stands/What do I own?” And there’s a section with strings at the end that is wonderful.

CD Track List

  1. In My Cult
  2. Another Thousand Years
  3. Where The Money Is
  4. Hate Street
  5. Big Old Dark Green Car
  6. 404 Blues
  7. Can’t Stop Foolin’ Around
  8. Chill
  9. You’re Delicious
  10. Earworm
  11. 15 Seconds Of Fame
  12. Habits & Plans

Jim’s Big Ego is Jim Infantino on guitar and vocals; Jesse Flack on upright bass and vocals; Dan Cantor on drums and vocals; and Josh Kantor on keyboards, accordion and vocals. Joining them are Loewi Lin on cello and Frank Shaw on viola.

Stay was released on April 24, 2012.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Albert King: “Born Under A Bad Sign” (2013 re-issue) CD Review

Albert King is known for his smooth vocals and, of course, for his incredible guitar work. On Born Under A Bad Sign, he’s backed by that great house band, Booker T. & The MGs, along with the Memphis Horns. Born Under A Bad Sign includes several songs that Albert King had released as singles, such as that great famous blues number, “Laundromat Blues.” But the rest is certainly anything but filler. Just check out that heart-tearing rendition of “As The Years Go Passing By.”

This excellent album is now being re-issued as part of the Stax Remasters series. This new edition features five bonus tracks, all previously unreleased. Four are alternate takes of songs from the album; the fifth is an untitled instrumental tune. This CD has new liner notes by Bill Dahl, though also included are the liner notes from the 2002 re-issue, as well as the original liner notes.

Born Under A Bad Sign opens with the title track. The first version of this song I heard when I was a kid was that by Cream (on Wheels Of Fire), and I was so taken with the tune that I needed to hear the original. And when I heard Albert King, that was that. I still love Cream, of course, but this version by King is fantastic. I’ve heard it countless times, and yet it still works every time I hear it. I really love the presence of the horns. “You know wine and women is all I crave/A big-legged woman going to carry me to my grave/Born under a bad sign/I’ve been down since I began to crawl.”

There is an alternate take of “Born Under A Bad Sign” included in the bonus tracks.  In this one, he reverses the order of a couple of lines, so the rhyme doesn’t work: “I can’t write/I can’t even read/My whole life has been one big fight.” He changes or adds a word here and there, like in the line, “carry me straight to my grave.” “Born Under A Bad Sign” was written by Booker T. Jones and William Bell, and was written specifically for Albert King.

“Crosscut Saw” is such a cool tune, mixing blues vocals with a funky soul hook. Those notes he lets hang in the air really make me love this song. They’re so bloody delicious. The bonus tracks include an alternate take of this tune, a longer version. “Crosscut Saw” was written by R.G. Ford.

“Kansas City” is a song that has always worked for me, no matter who is covering it. But Albert King’s rendition is definitely a stand-out. He states things so simply, and in such a straightforward manner in the vocals. So when he sings, “Well, I may take a plane/I may take a train/But if I have to walk I’m going just the same,” you know he’s telling you the truth. (By the way, the second time through he sings, “Well, I might take a plane/I might take a train.”) The horns add a certain fun element. And I love the bass line.

“Down Don’t Bother Me” is a track written by Albert King. It opens with the line, “I’ve been down so long, you know down don’t bother me.” The subject is typical blues stuff – a woman who doesn’t treat him right – but Albert King totally owns it. He sings, “I bought you a fur coat for Christmas and a diamond ring/Now you’ve got the nerve to tell me that my love don’t mean a thing.” (Of course, the line about buying someone a fur coat for Christmas and a diamond ring was also in "Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good To You.") But he ends the song with the more positive line, “I’m gonna take all my troubles, and cast them in the deep blue sea.” (Though part of me wonders if he means to drown the woman.)

“The Hunter” has an intense, driving rhythm, which fits so perfectly with his smooth vocal delivery. And somehow when he says “love gun,” it’s not at all silly. He makes it work. I love those high notes on his guitar over that great groove. An alternate take is included in the bonus tracks – where you can hear the song counted off. “The Hunter” was written by Booker T. Jones, Carl Wells, Al Jackson Jr., Donald Dunn and Steve Cropper.

“I Almost Lost My Mind” is wonderful, and quite a bit different from the other tunes. Check out his vocal performance – it’s sweet and gentle, and completely moving. This is a beautiful song, and has some very nice stuff on piano too. “I Almost Lost My Mind” was written by Ivory Joe Hunter.

I love how “Personal Manager” allows itself to get nice and quiet at moments. While Albert King sings, “If you sign my contract, baby, you know all of your worries is over for you” he’s not overselling himself. He’s so smooth and sincere that you imagine the woman signing herself over immediately. And once she’s done so, around the song’s two-minute mark, then the band just plays. And man, do they play, with the guitar and the horns blending well. And then King keeps it going with a perfect solo. An alternate take of this song is included in the bonus tracks. "Personal Manager" was written by Albert King and David Porter.

The most surprising song on the record is a fantastic version of “The Very Thought Of You,” written by Ray Noble.  Again, we get to see what Albert King can do vocally. What a tremendous talent. This is a beautiful rendition. This song has some great work on horns, particularly Andrew Love on saxophone.

This re-issue concludes with the untitled instrumental track. This features a great simple groove with some excellent work on guitar, and some playful, fun stuff on horns. There are a couple of surprising (and seriously cool) moments. I totally dig this track.

CD Track List

  1. Born Under A Bad Sign
  2. Crosscut Saw
  3. Kansas City
  4. Oh, Pretty Woman
  5. Down Don’t Bother Me
  6. The Hunter
  7. I Almost Lost My Mind
  8. Personal Manager
  9. Laundromat Blues
  10. As The Years Go Passing By
  11. The Very Thought Of You
  12. Born Under A Bad Sign
  13. Crosscut Saw
  14. The Hunter
  15. Personal Manager
  16. Untitled Instrumental

This special re-issue of Born Under A Bad Sign was remastered by Joe Tarantino (the Stax Remasters Series Director is Nick Phillips). It is scheduled to be released on April 2, 2013 through Concord Music Group.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Steve Forbert: “Alive On Arrival/Jackrabbit Slim” (2013 re-issue) CD Review

Last September Steve Forbert released a new album, titled OverWith You. He toured in support of that album, and I was lucky enough to get to see him perform. While he focused on his new record, he of course played some of his older material, a lot of which is now being re-released on an excellent two-disc set. This special re-issue of Steve Forbert’s Alive On Arrival/Jackrabbit Slim contains his first two albums in their entirety, plus lots of bonus tracks.

Disc 1: Alive On Arrival

The first disc contains Alive On Arrival, Steve Forbert’s first album, originally released in 1978. It’s a pretty amazing debut album. Every track is strong, and each is different, from the catchy folk tune “Thinkin’” to the rock tune “You Cannot Win If You Do Not Play,” both of those featuring some nice work on harmonica. I love the vulnerability in Steve Forbert’s voice. There is a great combination of rough and sweet qualities, a bit like Rod Stewart, particularly on a song like “Settle Down.” (He reminds me of Rod Stewart on “House Of Cards” also, one of the bonus tracks.)

He can also write a good lyric, and create or evoke a very specific mood. Take “Steve Forbert’s Midsummer Night’s Toast” for example, with lines like “Here’s to people living lives that they regret/Work your fingers to the bone and sink in debt.” And yet with lines like that, there is this kindness to the song. And check out these lines from “It Isn’t Gonna Be That Way”: “If I were a god, I’d give you a clue/This minute would crack and I could go through.” There’s clearly no fluff here, and yet it’s a fun album.

Alive On Arrival opens with “Goin’ Down To Laurel,” one of his most well-known tunes. This song has such a great feel, but it’s the lyrics that really make me love it. “She is a fool for loving me/But she’s in love/And love’s a funny state of mind.” Right from the start, there is something endearing about him, about the way he presents himself and his material. It’s strange to look at his picture on this record, for he looks so ridiculously young, sometimes a surprise when listening to his music.

On a song like “What Kinda Guy” he goes for it with the gusto of Springsteen, yet with some of the humor of Jonathan Richman. As in the way he plays with language on this song on lines like, “What kinda guy am I really am?” This song is a lot of fun. Also a lot of fun is “Big City Cat,” a pop tune featuring David Sanborn on alto saxophone. He shows his sense of humor on this one too, with these lyrics: “There’s a man in the hall/It’s some kind of lunatic/He’s following me/He’s down by the john, so I can’t take a pee/I’m supposed to be happy.”

And between those two songs he puts the serious “It Isn’t Gonna Be That Way,” a kind of pretty song with a certain sadness, in which he sings about things that aren’t going to happen. “You think you can live and dream your own fate/You think you can wish and walk through the gate/Oh, it isn’t gonna be that way.” It’s always sad to hear or realize that the ideal state isn’t going to happen. This is one of my personal favorites on this album.

In “Grand Central Station, March 18, 1977,” he sings about playing at the train station, and creates that mood and atmosphere for the listener by presenting the song with vocals, guitar and harmonica rather than adding other instruments. He sings, “Well, think what you will, laugh if you like/It don’t make no difference to me/I’ll open my case, and I might catch a coin/But all ears may listen for free.” This song brings me back to Harvard Square and other stops on the red line in Boston, where all the folksingers would play.

Bonus Tracks

This disc has five bonus tracks. My favorite is probably “It’s Been A Long Time,” with its catchy country rhythm. I fell for this song immediately. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “The summer was kind/And we were kids in the heat/And the moon was a high moon/Hey, it rose in the twilight/It’s been a long time.” Though I have to laugh and marvel when he sings, “I look around, I’m getting older/I’m 23 now.”

“Song For The South (Time’s Gonna Take Me Back)” also has something of a country feel, and it’s a sweet love song. He’s in the city, singing about the girl he’s longing to see. I love the way he describes her: “She’s been living with a brain full of sunset fire too long.” This track also features a nice harmonica section.

For some reason it’s that “chit chat chat” line that makes me really dig “Steve Forbert’s Moon River.” Seriously – every time I listen to it, that part delights me. The first CD ends with “Lonesome Cowboy Bill’s Song, another catchy little gem. This line sticks out for me: “I waited for love/I guess I wasted my time.”

Disc Two: Jackrabbit Slim

Steve Forbert’s second album, Jackrabbit Slim, contains what is probably his biggest hit, “Romeo’s Tune.” He also certainly does some different stuff on this album, including adding a bit of a reggae feel to “Complications,” a song about all the common troubles folks have. The presence of horns on a song like “The Sweet Love That You Give (Sure Goes A Long, Long Way)” gives it quite a different sound from what had come before on the first album. His vocal delivery on that song is different as well, with a sort of urgency and power.  But he also gives us a sweet, straight-forward love song in “I’m In Love With You,” a tune which is helped by some nice backing vocals.

Jackrabbit Slim opens with what is still possibly Steve Forbert’s most famous composition, “Romeo’s Tune.” It’s such a wonderful song – a love song, as you’d guess from the title. There is a lot to love about this song. One thing I especially like is Bobby Ogdin’s work on piano – it is greatly responsible for the delightful feel of this song. But of course there are also great lyrics, like “Meet me in the middle of the night/Let me hear you say everything’s all right/Let me smell the moon in your perfume.” If you’re not familiar with this song, you definitely owe it to yourself to check it out.

This disc also includes a live version of “Romeo’s Tune” in the bonus tracks. It was recorded in New York in 1979.

“Say Goodbye To Little Jo” is another of my favorites from this album. This one, like “I’m In Love With You,” is helped by those great backing vocals.  But it also has a catchy groove. It’s a song urging someone to let a woman go, and it pulls no punches. Check out lines like, “You’ve shown so much of your hate/She’s seen so much of your greed/She’s taken shit for so long, yes, yes/That you ain’t got nothin' she needs.” And if that’s not clear enough, Steve sings the line, “She doesn’t love you anymore” several times at the end.

“Make It All So Real” interestingly fades in with horn, but then has a loose country feel, with the piano sort of responding to the vocals. The piano delivers this song’s catchy hook. “Make It All So Real” is a song about a singer, urging him to “Sing your song, make it hurt/Sing the tears, sing the pain/Make it all so real.”  Meanwhile the singer’s girlfriend in the back is looking into another man’s eyes.  The crowd was stomping and cheering/She was breaking his heart.” The horn returns for a lead part in the instrumental section, which is really nice.

There is an alternate version of this song in the bonus tracks. That version is slightly longer, and doesn’t have that fade-in at the beginning. There are no horns in this version, and so it has even more of a country feel, especially with the slide guitar featured prominently in place of the horn. I think I actually prefer this version.

Bonus Tracks

This disc has seven bonus tracks, totaling more than a half hour of extra music. The first, “The Oil Song,” has this pleasant, happy country folk feel, yet is about oil spills in the ocean. In the chorus, Steve sings, “Don’t buy it at the station, you can have it now for free/Just come on down to the shoreline where the water used to be.” This is an excellent song, definitely one of my favorites from this singer/songwriter.

“Oh, Camille” is also a really good song, in which he addresses a woman in Italy – “Oh, Camille, read all about it in my letter/Oh, Camille, ain’t got no jokes to tell, just lots of books to read/Wild hearts and traffic sounds/All pounding everywhere."

CD Track List

Disc 1
  1. Goin’ Down To Laurel
  2. Steve Forbert’s Midsummer Night’s Toast
  3. Thinkin’
  4. What Kinda Guy?
  5. It Isn’t Gonna Be That Way
  6. Big City Cat
  7. Grand Central Station, March 18, 1977
  8. Tonight I feel So Far Away From Home
  9. Settle Down
  10. You Cannot Win If You Do Not Play
  11. It’s Been A Long Time
  12. House Of Cards
  13. Song For The South (Time’s Gonna Take Me Back)
  14. Steve Forbert’s Moon River
  15. Lonesome Cowboy Bill’s Song

Disc 2
  1. Romeo’s Tune
  2. The Sweet Love That You Give (Sure Goes A Long, Long Way)
  3. I’m In Love With You
  4. Say Goodbye To Little Jo
  5. Wait
  6. Make It All So Real
  7. Baby
  8. Complications 
  9. Sadly Sorta Like A Soap Opera
  10. January 23-30, 1978
  11. The Oil Song
  12. Make It All So Real (alternate version)
  13. Witch Blues
  14. Oh, Camille
  15. Smoky Windows
  16. Poor Boy
  17. Romeo’s Tune (live version)

This special two-disc set is scheduled to be released on March 26, 2013 through Blue Corn Music.