Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Brian Kinler Band: “Bragging Rights” (2020) CD Review

In recent years, jazz pianist Brian Kinler has moved steadily closer toward pop and dance music, where a good portion of his heart has always resided. A few tracks on his new album, Bragging Rights, are certainly in that realm, or use elements of pop. But that doesn’t mean that the tracks aren’t moving and emotionally engaging, for they certainly are. That is because Brian maintains that beautiful touch that he established on his earliest CD release, Two. And in these dark days when we are unable to physically reach out to each other, we need music that connects to us on a deeply human level, and Brian Kinler – even in his most dance-oriented moments – is able to provide that in composition after composition. This new release contains all original material, written by Brian Kinler. As with his previous release, Euphoric, this album is largely a solo effort.

The album opens with “Lift-Off,” which – after a brief countdown sound snippet from NASA – begins as a dance number. It has a positive and bright sound, and there are some unexpected changes here, creating a more interesting mood. Plus, the work on keys at times seems to fly, moving along at a good clip in an excited, joyous and almost carefree manner. Then we dip back into a more introspective section, before returning to that dance feel at the end. That’s followed by “Bragging Rights,” the album’s title track, which sort of works in the opposite way, beginning in a pretty place, a mellower spot, then bursting open with a delicious power. Nothing shy about the attitude there. This track goes back and forth between these two distinct locations and vibes. Steve Herrman joins Brian Kinler on trumpet and flugelhorn on this track, adding some absolutely gorgeous work in those quieter sections, and then cutting loose in the more boisterous sections, especially toward the end. I love the different moods he captures. Andre Mayeux did the horn arrangement for this track.

“Six Thousand Days” has a pretty and uplifting and romantic sound and style. There is a peaceful and comforting aspect to this track, even after it kicks in. This is a song that celebrates our most important relationships, the relationships that will carry us through whatever troubles may arise. Certainly this is exactly the sort of thing we are looking for and needing these days, particularly when we are distanced from others. The power of this song feels like the strength of the loves in our lives. Brian and his husband Steven took a trip to Vietnam last year, and this trip has clearly had an impact, heard in the composition of “Indochine,” and seen in the new music video for this song documenting some of that experience. This track has a steady dance beat, and is one you can definitely move to, but there is more going on here. There is a curiosity about the unknown and the foreign, as well as a joy in the discovery of special places. That’s followed by “Waiting For Her,” which has a more somber tone, and is incredibly moving. This is a song a lot of us first heard at Brian Kinler’s performance at Vitello’s last August, and it was probably the most beautiful moment of the show. This is an absolutely gorgeous piece of music. It develops a magical quality, like the ethereal touching the worldly. This is one of my favorite tracks.

“Gutterball” is pure fun, a dance song with a strong groove to raise our spirits and get our asses shaking. There is a joy to the playing, and it’s almost like the piano itself is smiling. And hey, does anyone else find that bowling is one thing you somehow get better at the more inebriated you are? Brian then slows things down again with “Suffocate,” a beautifully sad and touching piece. But when it might seem that hope is lost, the song kicks in with a renewed energy and power, like a hand reaching out to lift you up or to hold away the darkness. That is followed by “Me And Stevie P,” another one he introduced to folks at Vitello’s last August. There is a great happiness to this track. It is a love song that feels like that joy and lift you get just from seeing your partner nearby, when you feel that the whole world is a great place just because your sweet one is in it.

“The Honourable Mrs. Graham” is another beautiful track, a piece you can immerse yourself in. There is a sense of something approaching awe here at moments, and other times a complete understanding, a strong connection. This track features a string section written and performed by Andre Mayeux. Andre Mayeux likewise composed the string arrangement for the album’s final track, “The Heavens,” which is also beautiful. This song feels like a release as it begins, a letting go, and then a celebration of life as it goes on, a celebration of existence and the crazy miracle that any of us are here at all.

CD Track List
  1. Lift-Off
  2. Bragging Rights
  3. Six Thousand Days
  4. Indochine
  5. Waiting For Her
  6. Gutterball
  7. Suffocate
  8. Me And Stevie P
  9. The Honourable Mrs. Graham
  10. The Heavens
Bragging Rights was released on March 24, 2020.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Rory Block: “Prove It On Me” (2020) CD Review

Rory Block has been putting out excellent blues albums for several decades now, and has won multiple music awards, including the 2019 Acoustic Artist Of The Year. She has also been nominated for the Koko Taylor Award. She is an accomplished songwriter as well as singer, though in 2018 turned to the compositions of other writers in a tribute to Bessie Smith. Titled A Woman’s Soul, this album featured music that was recorded by Bessie Smith, and was the first release in a series dedicated to strong female voices in blues. Now she has released the second volume in the series, Prove It On Me, this one not focused on a single performer, but rather on several female vocalists from the twentieth century. Some of these women you are certain to know, but Rory also mixes in some lesser known artists, people who certainly deserve to be remembered. Rory Block gives us a fresh and personal look at some excellent material, and on this release provides all the vocals and plays all the instruments.

She opens the album with a cool rendition of “He May Be Your Man,” a song written and originally recorded by Helen Humes, who sang with The Count Basie Orchestra before beginning her solo career. I love the groove of Rory’s take on this song. She follows that with “It’s Red Hot,” a seriously delightful and playful tune written by Madlyn Davis in the late 1920s. This is one of Madlyn’s most well-known songs. Rory Block is clearly having a great time with this track, even offering little laughs, such after the line “Damn, that’s hot” and after “Spicy jelly” toward the end. Then Rory gives us her spin on another completely enjoying song, “If You’re A Viper,” a tune about getting high. Rosetta Howard was active in the 1930s and 1940s, recording “If You’re A Viper” in 1937. A line from this song that happens to stand out during this time of unemployment is “Don’t care if you don’t pay rent.” Let’s hope most landlords agree with that line because pretty soon a lot of us are going to be unable to do it, high or not.

Ma Rainey is certainly a famous name in the blues, often referred to as the Mother Of The Blues, and her song “Prove It On Me” provides this album with its title. “They say I do it, but ain't nobody caught me/Sure got to prove it on me/Went out last night with a crowd of my friends/They must have been women, 'cause I don't like no men.” How bloody cool is this song? And it was clearly ahead of its time. It was recorded in 1928. Rory then dips into gospel with “I Shall Wear A Crown,” a traditional number that Arizona Juanita Dranes recorded in the late 1920s. Here Rory delivers an unusual and wonderful lead vocal performance, as well as providing some gorgeous backing vocals. The guitar has a gloriously cheerful sound.

While this album pays tribute to some of the early women in blues, it does contain one original song, “Eagles,” a powerful track that fits in perfectly with these classic songs. “Now I’m a singer/Of roots, of country blues/You could say I love the music/You could say I’ve paid my dues.” Oh yes. This song is one of my personal favorites. And it is certainly not out of place for her to include one of her own songs on an album that celebrates important female voices in blues music. By the way, she talks a bit about this song in the disc’s liner notes. That’s followed by “Wayward Girl,” a song recorded by Lottie Kimbrough, who was active in the music scene in the 1920s. “I’ve been thinking all day/Thinking about the past/I said, thinking, thinking about the past.” It’s a moving song about losing one’s mother.

Memphis Minnie is another well-known figure in blues. She recorded quite a lot of records in her time. Rory Block selects “In My Girlish Days,” a song written by Ernest Lawler and recorded by Memphis Minnie in the early 1940s. Rory delivers a great, raw and powerful vocal performance here, and this track is another of the disc’s highlights. Merline Johnson is someone I wasn’t really familiar with. She recorded a lot of songs in a rather short period of time, sometimes under the name Yas Yas Girl. Such was the case with “Milk Man Blues,” the song Rory chooses. Apparently, quite a few of her songs were suggestive. Here is a taste of the lyrics to this one: “I said, now early in the morning/Well, the milk man brings milk to me/‘Cause you know he’s got the best milk in town/It’s just as sweet as it can be.” Rory then wraps up this excellent album with a great country blues number by Elvie Thomas, “Motherless Child,” about a daughter not following her mother’s deathbed advice and regretting it. Yes, the loss of a mother is a theme running through several of the songs chosen for this release. Elvie Thomas recorded “Motherless Child” in 1930.
                                                                                                                        
CD Track List
  1. He May Be Your Man
  2. It’s Red Hot
  3. If You’re A Viper
  4. Prove It On Me
  5. I Shall Wear A Crown
  6. Eagles
  7. Wayward Girl Blues
  8. In My Girlish Days
  9. Milk Man Blues
  10. Motherless Child
Prove It On Me was released on March 27, 2020 on Stony Plain Records.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Club Passim Helps Artists During Coronavirus Pandemic

Like most other music venues across the country, Club Passim is closed until this pandemic passes. That means a lot of canceled gigs for musicians who are – or will be soon – struggling to pay their bills. To assist musicians in the community who have lost gigs, Passim has started the PEAR (Passim Emergency Artist Relief) Fund. To raise money for the fund, artists are streaming concerts from their homes. Antje Duvekot, for example, played a wonderful set from her place, with a banner behind her that read, “Club Passim (Kinda).” Sure, it’s not the same thing as seeing a performance at the venue, but there is a strong sense of community during these shows, a sense that we are all in this thing together. People are encouraged to donate directly to the PEAR Fund, or they can contribute to the artists during the live streams.

Here is a list of upcoming live streams:
  • Dietrich Strause – March 31, 2020 at 7 p.m. eastern time (from England)
  • Corey Laitman – April 1, 2020 at 3 p.m. eastern time
  • Jesse Dee – April 2, 2020 at 4 p.m. eastern time
  • Pamela Means – April 3, 2020 at 3 p.m. eastern time
  • Mary Gauthier with Jaimee Harris – April 4, 2020 at 6 p.m. eastern time
  • Matt Heaton – April 5, 2020 at 11 a.m. eastern time (a family show)
  • Arc Iris – April 6, 2020 at 7 p.m. eastern time
  • Goodnight Moonshine – April 10, 2020 at 7 p.m. eastern time
Funds raised during these live streams will be split between the artists and the venue. Times are tough, no question. But they would be so much tougher without music. Support the artists and venues if you can.

Click here for the link to the PEAR Fund site.
Click here for the link to the live streams on the Club Passim site.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Corinne Mammana: “Yes, No, Next” (2020) CD Review

Times were dark and strange even before the current coronavirus outbreak, but now things have hit an entirely different level of awful, and people are feeling anxious, worried, and fearful, and with good reason. One thing we can turn to for comfort, for joy, for a sense of optimism throughout this crisis is music. Thankfully, there is plenty of great music being released during these twisted days. Jazz vocalist Corinne Mammana’s new album, Yes, No, Next, is one that should help us get through this. Even a cursory glance at the track list for the album will indicate this release is designed to reach out and raise people’s spirits. Songs like “Blue Skies,” “Put On A Happy Face” and “The Best Is Yet To Come” certainly share an optimistic view that people are eager to embrace. Though perhaps “In Need Of A Good Night’s Sleep” is the title most folks will be able to relate to. Yes, No, Next is Corinne Mammana’s first full-length disc, following her 2016 EP Under An August Moon. Joining the vocalist on this album are Sean Gough on piano and keyboard, Gene Perla (whom you likely know from his work with Elvin Jones) on bass, Ian Froman on drums, and Lorenzo Branca on flute and harmonica.

Corinne Mammana opens the album with a groovy rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” This track begins with drums, gaining in volume as if the music is approaching us, and then the rest of the band joins in. There is a genuine joy to Corinne’s vocal delivery, particularly on lines like “Never saw the sun shining so bright/Never saw things going so right.” Her voice seems capable of pushing away storm clouds and darkness. We need this right now. I also really love the drum work on this track, which keeps things moving and exciting. There is also a delightful lead section on piano. The track ends at it began, with drums, now fading out. Corinne follows that with “Painter Song,” a mellower, more thoughtful number written by Lee Alexander and J.C. Hopkins, and recorded by Norah Jones (by the way, J.C. Hopkins Biggish Band has an excellent new album coming out too). Corinne’s rendition has a gorgeous late-night vibe, her voice sounding sexy and sensuous. This track also features some nice work on harmonica. She moves from Norah Jones to The Cure, certainly not a common transition, giving us an interesting take on “Lovesong.” This song was included on The Cure’s Disintegration, as well as released as a single. Corinne’s version is quite a bit different from the original, with something of a Latin rhythm. There is something both seductive and vulnerable about her vocal approach, which is wonderful. This track also features an excellent instrumental section. I especially dig that bass, even before that nice lead section. “I will always love you/Whatever words I say/I will always love you.”

“Smile” is such a gorgeous song, originally featured in Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times, and Corinne delivers a moving rendition, her voice backed by just piano at the start. This is one of those songs that might move you to tears while also making you smile. I love music that is able to do that. And after singing “You’ll find that life is still worthwhile/If you just – ” she suddenly switches tone and style as she segues into “Put On A Happy Face” (yes, in the middle of the line). Now things are firmly in a more cheerful land, her vocals having a bright sound. She then just as suddenly goes back to “Smile,” beginning with the word “smile,” as if finishing the line from earlier. Yet we are back at the beginning: “Smile though your heart is aching/Smile even though it’s breaking.” This has such an interesting effect, taking us up, then bringing us back down to Earth, but all while maintaining a sense of hope. This ends up being one of my personal favorite tracks.

Corinne Mammana also gives us a cool rendition of Matt Bednarsky’s “In Need Of A Good Night’s Sleep,” a song a lot of us can probably relate to. I have to imagine I’m not the only one plagued by strange nightmares and restlessness these days. Her version has the appropriate late-night vibe, and the way she delivers that first line, you can hear a weariness in her voice. Then her voice rises in power as the song continues. This track features some good work on flute. That’s followed by “Music Of The Night.” I’m not a big fan of the musical Phantom Of The Opera, but I like Corinne’s recording of this song, her voice backed by some pretty work on piano. That’s followed by “This & That,” the album’s sole original number, written by Corinne Mammana. It is a sweet and bluesy tune, with great stuff on keys, featured prominently during the instrumental section. But it is her delicious vocal work that makes this song something special. “You are the song I hear/When I close my eyes.” And I love that she adds a nice long “oooh” in the song’s title line, after “Just remember this” and before “and that.” It is delightful, and helps make this track another of my favorites.

“Yes, No, Next,” the album’s title track, which was written by Ramsey McLean, has a more somber tone, at least at the start. It gets brighter as it goes. “I just want something simple/No, not nothing complex/Brother, I’m down to/Yes, no and next.” I love her delivery of “But I’m in the mood for easy, can’t you see,” which has a playful quality. The album then concludes with “The Best Is Yet To Come,” which opens with some cool work on bass. Corinne’s delivery is just perfect. “You came along and everything started to hum/Still it’s a real good bet the best is yet to come.” Stay positive, stay healthy, stay safe, everyone.

CD Track List
  1. Blue Skies
  2. Painter Song
  3. Lovesong
  4. Smile/Put On A Happy Face
  5. In Need Of A Good Night’s Sleep
  6. Music Of The Night
  7. This & That
  8. Yes, No, Next
  9. The Best Is Yet To Come 
Yes, No, Next is scheduled to be released on April 17, 2020.

The Vinyl Revival DVD Review

Like a lot of music fans out there, I am thrilled that vinyl has made such a tremendous comeback. It means not only that new albums are often getting vinyl releases, but that many old favorites are being reissued on vinyl. Could it also mean that album cover art will return? Let’s hope so. The Vinyl Revival is a documentary film about the glorious resurgence of records. It is a loving look at records, those who buy them, and those who sell them, focusing on independent stores. From the moment its first line of dialogue is spoken – “Right now we’ve got a situation where music is actually being bought again by people” – this documentary has a cheerful, optimistic tone.

This documentary is based on the book The Vinyl Revival And The Shops That Made It Happen, written by Graham Jones, who also wrote Last Shop Standing, which interestingly had been about the decline of record stores. Graham Jones is interviewed in the movie, discussing the changes that had occurred in the music industry since that earlier book had been published. Now in the UK, where this documentary was shot, there are many new independent record shops opening up, some run by young folks, not just those of us old enough to remember a time before compact discs and streaming services existed. The film interviews several record shop owners, and also some music journalists, including the author of Why Vinyl Matters.

Record Store Day of course was somewhat instrumental in the resurgence of interest in vinyl, and the film does include footage of folks in line outside of record shops. There is a brief mention of the negative side of Record Store Day, that being how many of the records end up being sold online at jacked up prices, but as one guy says, “The positives just outshine all that.” But the film talks about the appeal of records themselves, how listening to records is more of an immersive experience than downloading. Philip Selway (of Radiohead) says that the appeal of the vinyl format never truly went away, that “it is a really accessible, tactile format.” Also, a turntable is not an easily portable item, so one has to make a commitment to sit and listen to a record, which gives it more importance. And then there is the album artwork. Adrian Utley (of Portishead) talks about how people who download music don’t look at the artwork the same way, or at all. Nick Mason (of Pink Floyd) says, “For me, the worst thing about streaming and downloading and all the rest of it is this thing of devaluing music.”

The film does get into the ongoing difficulty of music shops, due in part to the decline in CD sales and also to record companies selling directly to their customers. But most people interviewed are optimistic about the future of vinyl and record shops. As I mentioned, the film has a bright and cheerful tone. And at the very end, there is the sound of a needle stuck at the end of a record, which is a nice touch. For me, that sound is a signal that it is time to turn the record over and listen to more music, not that things are over.

The Vinyl Revival was directed by Pip Piper, and is scheduled to be released on DVD on April 10, 2020. The DVD contains no special features, but there is a booklet included. The film, by the way, is only forty-three minutes.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Brief Notes On New Jazz Releases

There is a lot of excellent music out there to help us through these difficult and strange times, and I am grateful for it. Here are some brief notes on a few new jazz releases you might want to check out.

Dave Askren/Jeff Benedict: “Paraphernalia: Music Of Wayne Shorter” – Well, the album’s title should tell you basically everything you need to know. This disc finds guitarist Dave Askren and saxophonist Jeff Benedict celebrating the music of one of jazz’s greatest composers, Wayne Shorter. Many of Shorter’s compositions have become jazz standards, and the tracks chosen for this release will likely be familiar to most people. Some information on each of the choices is provided in the disc’s liner notes. Wayne Shorter, in addition to being an excellent and respected composer, is an incredibly talented saxophonist. Jonathan Pintoff is on bass, and Chris Garcia is on percussion. However, there are two tracks on this album that Dave and Jeff perform as a duo – “Miyako” and “Infant Eyes.” Possibly my favorite track, however, is “Mahjong” (though I also totally love the funky groove of the album’s title track). Scheduled to be released on May 1, 2020.

Vito Dieterle: “Anemone” – Saxophonist Vito Dieterlo released two albums on March 1st, one of them a collaborative effort with pianist Joel Forrester titled Status Sphere. The other, Anemone, finds him performing in a quartet with Kris Kaiser on guitar, Ben Paterson on organ, and Aaron Seeber on drums. The album opens with a delightful rendition of Cole Porter’s “Dream Dancing,” and also features material by both Tommy Turrentine (a fun, breezy rendition of “You Said It”) and Stanley Turrentine (a cool, lively version of “Minor Chant”), as well as compositions by Billy Strayhorn, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Jule Styne. There is also one original composition, the album’s title track, which is a pretty and somewhat mellow number, a saxophone/guitar duet. This album was released on March 1, 2020.

J.C. Hopkins Biggish Band: “New York Moment” – From the moment the first track of this album begins, I am completely on board. There is joy to the playing, to the singing. The album swings and pops on some tracks, warms us on others, and what is more, it features mostly original material, written or co-written by pianist J.C. Hopkins. Yes, that’s right, we have some delicious new big band (sorry, biggish band) songs to move us, to keep us going, to make us smile. I am especially fond of “One Of Those Days,” which has a wonderful humor to it. This disc features five different vocalists, each with a distinct style, each with something special to deliver. How can you help but be pulled in by the sensuous singing on “The Wonderful Things To Come”? The album’s only cover, a lively rendition of Charles Mingus’ “Better Git It In Your Soul,” is also the album’s only instrumental number, and it features some absolutely fantastic work on saxophone and the other horns. Scheduled to be released on April 5, 2020.

The Lost Melody: “New Songs For Old Souls” – The Lost Melody is the talented trio of Joe Davidian on piano, Jamie Ousley on bass, and Austin McMahon on drums. This album features all original material, with each of the three members contributing compositions. There is a lot of joy and warmth to their playing, and it transfers to the listener. The first time I put this disc on, I was feeling seriously stressed out because of the daunting financial troubles I will face if work doesn’t resume within two months, and this music had me smiling in short order. What more can we ask for? Highlights for me include “Leaving Montserrat,” “Won’t You Sing This Song For Me?” and “A Sea Of Voices.” Scheduled to be released on May 1, 2020.

Paul Shaw Quintet: “Moment Of Clarity” – Paul Shaw is a drummer known for his work with Inside Out and The Swing Association. Moment Of Clarity is his first album as a band leader, and it showcases his writing talent as well as his skill on drums. All of the tracks on this album were composed by Paul Shaw. Joining him are Alex Sipiagin on trumpet, Brad Shepik on guitar, Gary Versace on piano, and Drew Gress on acoustic bass. The music here is exciting at times, and features excellent work from all five players. Right from the first track, “Heartland,” there are some fantastic lead sections, particularly by Alex Sipiagin on trumpet. One of my personal favorite tracks is “Peekaboo,” in large part because of the bass, but also because of that great trumpet lead, and of course because of Paul Shaw’s work on drums, including that cool and expressive solo. This album was released on March 27, 2020.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Dana Sandler: “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” (2020) CD Review

Dana Sandler’s new album, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, intrigued me from the moment I first heard about it. I’ve long been obsessed with stories from World War II, particularly about the Holocaust, and on this album jazz composer and vocalist Dana Sandler takes poetry written by Jewish children and young adults who were in the Terezin concentration camp and sets it to music. It is based on a book of poetry and artwork by the same name, which was first published in 1959. Dana Sandler dedicates the album to Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, the woman responsible for preserving the children’s art. She was an artist and educator who organized secret art classes for the children in the concentration camp and saved their artwork and poetry before she herself was sent to Auschwitz, where she was murdered by the Nazis. The suitcases containing the children’s art was found after the camp had been liberated. I have to admit I put off listening to this album for a while because I was afraid it would depress me, and, like most everyone else these days, I’m on the edge anyway. But this music has an uplifting power and effect. The music was composed by Dana Sandler, who also lends her voice to the children’s words. Joining her on this important release are Carmen Staaf on piano, Jorge Roeder on bass, Austin McMahon on drums, Peter Kenagy on trumpet and flugelhorn, Rick Stone on alto saxophone and clarinet, Michael Winograd on clarinet, and Rory Sandler McMahon on vocals.  

The album begins with an instrumental piece titled “Dear Pavel,” dedicated to Pavel Friedmann, who wrote the poem “The Butterfly” at the age of twenty-one in the concentration camp. He was born in Prague in 1921, and died at Auschwitz in 1944. This piece features some pretty work on piano, and has a gentle approach, like an arm around our shoulders guiding us through the world. That is followed by Dana Sandler’s delivery of “The Butterfly,” which was written on June 4, 1942. This track is incredibly pretty and touching. Here is a portion of the poem: “That butterfly was the last one./Butterflies don’t live in here,/in the ghetto.” After the war, the poem was donated to the National Jewish Museum.

“Dear Franta” is a very short instrumental piece for Franta Bass, who was only fourteen when he was murdered at Auschwitz. He was eleven when he and his family were sent to Terezin, and there he wrote several poems. Three of those poems are presented on this album. The first two – “Home” and “The Old House” – are presented together. The lines from “Home” can certainly be heartbreaking, but the music has something of an angelic and uplifting quality. “I look toward my home/The city where I was born/City, my city/I would gladly return to you.” One note: in the liner notes, the line is given as “I will gladly return to you,” but she clearly sings “would.” The horns then have a sweet energy, like they could magically lift and carry this child home. The piano again has a pretty sound. That segues into “The Old House,” which is sung by a child, and that child’s voice is unexpected and chilling, for it is an even stronger reminder of what was lost. “Now it is deserted, rotting in silence/What a waste of houses,/a waste of hours.” That is Rory Sandler McMahon on vocals. The third piece by Franta Bass, “The Garden,” is presented as a separate track. This song creates an innocent scene in its opening lines, “A little garden/Fragrant and full of roses,” and you can’t help but consider the incredible contrast between what these children were creating and the harsh world around them. The innocence is soon dispelled by the poem’s final lines, “When the blossom comes to bloom,/The little boy will be no more.” If you weren’t aware of where the poem was written, it is possible you might conclude the idea is that the boy is no more because he is now a man. But we know that is not the case. It is a heartbreaking final line, full of awareness of impending death. Anyone singing of a child’s death is likely to be compelling, but knowing that it was a child writing of a child’s death is almost too much to bear.

“Dear Alena” is a somber, introspective instrumental piece for Alena Synkova-Munkova, one of the few children who actually survived the camp (she died in 2008). This album offers three of her poems. The first is “Untitled,” which actually has a light and joyful sound as it begins, creating a peaceful setting before the vocals begin. “Therefore, I will wait –/until my life’s purpose/is fulfilled/And you will come.” At the end, Dana sings “I must not lose faith/I must not lose hope.” The opening lines of Alena’s second poem, “I’d Like To Go Alone,” are “I’d like to go away alone/Where there are other, nicer people.” Simply stated, certainly, but powerful nonetheless. I love that horn, which rises up as if searching for some other place, some other people, searching for a god to deliver them there. This is surprisingly positive too, with the lines “Maybe more of us/A thousand strong/Will reach this goal/Before too long.” Dana repeats these lines. That’s followed by a change in tone, led by piano, and we feel as if this better place has been found. It almost feels like people dancing at this point. However, Dana then chooses to return us to the beginning, repeating the song’s opening stanza, which feels like she has brought us back to that place they were hoping to escape. Interestingly, she then sings a bit of “Ani Ma’amin,” and the disc’s liner notes provide an English translation: “I believe with complete faith/In the coming of the Messiah, I believe.” “Tears,” the third piece by Alena Synkova-Munkova, is incredibly moving. As Dana sings of tears, I have to hold my own back. “Tears –/inspired by grief/tears/that fall like rain.” I really like the bass work here, that instrument seeming to provide a place for the child’s tears to land where they will not be lost, but instead will be bounce and splash and somehow produce more life.

“Dear Anonymous” is a wonderful instrumental piece that, as you may surmise, is about those children whose names are not known, those young poets who did not sign their work. There is a strong sense of movement to this piece, and so there is hope. The first of the poems is “On A Sunny Evening,” which also expresses hope, both lyrically and musically. It is a celebration of nature, of spring, of life. “I want to fly but where, how high?” And check out these powerful lines, which conclude the piece: “If in barbed wire, things can bloom/Why couldn’t I? I will not die!” The second anonymous piece, and final track of the album, is titled “Birdsong.” The bass begins this song, which also celebrates aspects of nature and has an optimistic quality. There is a gorgeous instrumental section led by piano. The lines “You’ll know how wonderful it is/To be alive” are repeated, as the music builds in power. Then it eases back, and Rory Sandler McMahon joins her to sing those lines again, so we have a blending of an adult’s voice and a child’s voice, a mixing of past and present. And that is how this remarkable album ends.

CD Track List
  1. Dear Pavel
  2. The Butterfly
  3. Dear Franta
  4. Home/The Old House
  5. The Garden
  6. Dear Alena
  7. Untitled
  8. I’d Like To Go Alone/Ani Ma’amin
  9. Tears
  10. Dear Anonymous
  11. On A Sunny Evening
  12. Birdsong/Butterfly Reprise
I Never Saw Another Butterfly is scheduled to be released on April 21, 2020, which is Yom HaShoah.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Willie Nile: “New York At Night” (2020) CD Review

There may not be much cause for celebration these days, what with the coronavirus outbreak and the country being in the hands of a racist game show host who seems bent on getting thousands of citizens killed, but one thing we can always celebrate is the release of a new Willie Nile album. And New York At Night is a fantastic disc, featuring all original material, written or co-written by Willie Nile. With this release, Willie Nile again proves he is one of the absolute best artists going these days. No matter your disposition in these rather dark times, some of these tracks are going to make you feel like celebrating, I promise. There is a rock ‘n’ roll party going on in this album, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean it is lacking in other areas, such as powerful and moving lyrics, humor, passion and that great dose of humanity that touches us all. Willie Nile delivers another excellent set of songs, this new album perhaps being the medicine we are all in need of.

The album opens with “New York Is Rockin’” and this song is rocking. If you are looking for some true rock and roll to raise your spirits, here you go. You are going to love this song. And hey, if it weren’t for the coronavirus, this one might make you want to gather in the streets to dance. There is even a section with vocals and percussion, like all the great rock songs from my youth. The lyrics are as fun as the music, with lines like “Wall Street is dressing up in old blue jeans/They’re jumping at the Garden for the New York Knicks.” This song is a celebration of the city, and all things we think of in relation to it. I love it when he yells, “Taxi!” That’s followed by “The Backstreet Slide,” which has a bluesy rock sound to start, and Willie’s vocals have a sly quality, with those lines about “a gentle hand/Or a cattle prod” immediately grabbing me.  He really knows how to pull listeners in. The song kicks in to become a cool, mean and timely tune, delivered with that great attitude that Willie Nile is so damn good at. “A climate change freeze/Or a presidential con/It doesn’t really matter/What side you’re on.” And check out these lines: “We’re all going down/One way or another/Tell your new best friend/Tell your sister and brother.” Those lines certainly have a dire vibe, but then Willie offers this: “We do our best to find our way/All around the world/There are songs to be sung.” Indeed.

“Doors Of Paradise” opens in a mellower place, drawing us in. When it kicks in, this song has more of a pop feel, and features some compelling lyrics. “You can break my heart/With a careless phrase/You can twist and turn/In so many ways/But the one who gets hurt/Is the one who pays/The doors of paradise swing both ways.” That’s followed by “Lost And Lonely World.” From the moment it opens with that great vocal section, this track seems a call to rise, a call to lift our chins and sing out. This is another strong track with a steady beat and excellent lyrics. Here is a taste: “You think you’re at the movies/You’re talking to the screen/You’re acting like the cover of a monster magazine/Take me far away/I don’t want to stay/I can’t anyway/In your lost and lonely world.” And another line that strikes me each time is “You’ve got me disappearing just like the ozone.” Seriously, this is a really good song. The entire album is fantastic, but this song in particular stands out for me.

The guitar part at the beginning of “The Fool Who Drank The Ocean” announces it as a rock song, and we are certainly not disappointed. This tune has a driving beat and more good lyrics. “I found success as a slave/But for a moment could you refrain from/Dancing on my grave.” Then in “A Little Bit Of Love,” Willie sings “We will watch the crazy world go by.” Yes, it is a love song for today. We always need love songs, and this one in particular should reach a lot of people. Plus, it has a Hamlet reference in the lines “Every dog gonna have his day/Equal rights with equal pay/From Times Square to the Milky Way/Every dog gonna have his day.” The line from Hamlet is “The cat will mew and dog will have his day.” And how can you help but feel good when Willie sings “A little bit of love goes a long, long way.” This is one of my favorite tracks.

“New York At Night,” the album’s title track, is another delicious rock tune, kicking off with a good beat. There may not be a party right now in New York, but it won’t be long before denizens of that city will be gathering together again. “There’s a party going on/You can hear the heartbeat/New York at night/New York at night/Everything’s all right.” The song is a celebration, and even those of us who might not care for New York are going to get caught up in its joy and excitement. “If you’re feeling blue, you won’t be for long.” That’s followed by a gorgeous song titled “The Last Time We Made Love,” his vocals backed by some gentle and beautiful work on piano. And by now it should come as no surprise that this song features some remarkable lyrics, with lines like “Our tongues were trading tender riddles with the wine” and “My ocean trembles every single time you sigh/Our bodies moving with no reason to ask why” especially standing out. Then “Surrender The Moon” bursts in and within seconds has me smiling for the pure joy of its sound. I love this song’s humor and energy. Check out these lines, the first of the song: “You’re boring/You’re dull/She hates you/Oh well/You moron/You fool/You know it/That’s cool/Surrender/The moon.”

Willie slows things down again with “Under This Roof,” which begins on acoustic guitar. This is a beautiful song offering comfort and companionship. “There will be times when darkness comes around/When all of your faith comes tumbling down/When heartache appears and gravity falls/Know there is a place behind all these walls/Under this roof, my arms will find you.” I love this song. He then returns to rock with “Downtown Girl,” a celebration of a different sort. In this song he sings, “we can watch the crazy world go by,” a line similar to that in “A Little Bit Of Love.” Is it a theme? It is certainly a theme for a lot of us these days. The album then concludes with “Run Free,” a tremendously appealing song that celebrates a sense of freedom. And though we can’t physically be running free at the moment, in our minds we are traveling by leaps and bounds, and this song certainly aids us in that. It is a strong conclusion to a powerful album.

CD Track List
  1. New York Is Rockin’
  2. The Backstreet Slide
  3. Doors Of Paradise
  4. Lost And Lonely World
  5. The Fool Who Drank The Ocean
  6. A Little Bit Of Love
  7. New York At Night
  8. The Last Time We Made Love
  9. Surrender The Moon
  10. Under The Roof
  11. Downtown Girl
  12. Run Free
New York At Night is scheduled to be released on May 15, 2020 on River House Records.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Be Bop Deluxe: “Modern Music” Deluxe Edition (2019) CD Review

Modern Music, a 1976 release from Be Bop Deluxe, gets the deluxe treatment with a new two-disc re-issue, complete with extensive liner notes booklet and small promotional poster. Be Bop Deluxe was a British progressive rock band in the 1970s, led by singer and guitarist Bill Nelson, who has since released an extraordinary number of solo albums, including many experimental albums. Be Bop Deluxe mixed elements of different types of music into their material, including glam rock and straight rock and roll. Like other progressive rock bands, they used some science fiction and fantasy imagery and themes in their songs. I was a child when this band was active, and though I was vaguely aware of them, mostly because of their cool and quirky name, I didn’t own any of their albums. So this deluxe edition gives me a chance to dive into their music. Modern Music was actually the second album that Be Bop Deluxe released in 1976. The first, Sunburst Finish, already got the deluxe treatment in 2018. All the tracks on Modern Music were written by Bill Nelson, who offers his memories in a written piece contained in the liner notes. By the way, in the photo on the album cover you’ll notice that Bill is sporting a watch with a screen on it, something that is now available, but certainly wasn’t in 1976. Fortunately, the current watches don’t require TV antennas, as shown in the photo. The image on the screen is the cover of Axe Victim, Be Bop Deluxe’s first album.

Disc 1

The first disc contains the original stereo mix of the album, along with a bonus track. It opens with “Orphans Of Babylon,” a groovy rock song that is part progressive rock, and part pop, with some rather catchy elements. It’s an enjoyable song, a good opener. It’s followed by “Twilight Capers,” which has more of a glam rock vibe and some unusual lyrics. These are the song’s opening lines: “All the white horses ran bleeding to the end/Shot through the heart by dear devoted passion.” I also really like these lines: “I can see his broken grin/His fallen hope, his glorious sin.” This track also features an odd and kind of delightful ending, like the studio was suddenly overrun by tiny aliens. Then we get “Kiss Of Light,” which was released as a single, and again shows the band’s talent for interesting lyrics. “She tortured my body and made me feel sorry/Though I thought I was right.” “The Bird Charmer’s Destiny” is a short, kind of pretty track, the vocals backed by some nice work on keys. It leads straight into “The Gold At The End Of My Rainbow,” which has its own peculiar beauty. “The night has had its way with me/This game is growing rather grim/And some of us must sink or swim.” That’s followed by “Bring Back The Spark,” which on the original record, was the final track of the first side. It is more of a straight rock and roll tune, a lively and fun song.

The original album’s second side is dominated by a series of songs that together make up one large piece of music, the Modern Music Suite, inspired by the band’s experiences during the tour of the United States. The first track begins with the sound of a radio catching bits of various programs as some unknown listener hastens to change it. Then finally he or she finds what he or she is looking for, a Be Bop Deluxe song, and in fact the album’s title track, “Modern Music.” I could do without that sort of silly introduction, but once the song begins in earnest, it is quite good, and ends up being one of my favorite tracks. “When you're lonely and you're far away/When those steel guitars begin to play/Please don't let them steal your heart away.” It leads straight into “Dancing In The Moonlight (All Alone),” which is a fun song with a lighter sort of vibe. “When will this journey be through/I’d like to make love to you.” That in turn leads straight into “Honeymoon On Mars” and then “Lost In The Neon World,” two short numbers. Those are followed by “Dance Of The Uncle Sam Humanoids” which has a sort of exciting vibe to it, with a hint of disco to its style at times. This is one to cut loose to, and is another of my personal favorites. This series of songs concludes with “Modern Music (Reprise),” which ends with a weather report, back on the radio.

Interestingly, though the series of connected songs is finished, “Modern Music (Reprise)” does actually lead straight into “Forbidden Lovers,” a nice dose of 1970s rock and roll, complete with cowbell. It would be difficult to not enjoy this one. “I’m glad they came/To taste your pain/We're both insane on a crazy night/Such a crazy night.” That leads straight into “Down On Terminal Street,” a more interesting song that opens with a bright burst of energy, a glorious explosion, which seems to clear the way for an intriguing set of lyrics, and a stronger, more vivid landscape. Check out these lines: “I heard a voice like winter call my name/Said very soon that I would join them there/And all the creatures born of ink and rage and lies/Crawled off my pen and ran across the page to die.” Now those are some damn good lyrics. The original album concluded with “Make The Music Magic,” a song that has a light, pretty feel.

The first disc ends with a bonus track, “Shine,” which was the flip side to the “Kiss Of Light” single. It has a sort of funky vibe, which I dig. And in fact, on the original single for this track, the band renamed itself Funky Phaser And His Unearthly Merchandise, a goofy name, to be sure, but fun, fitting with the feel of the song. This one is actually a groovy jam, nearly eight minutes long. It gets fairly goofy and ridiculous toward the end, when there is suddenly a spoken word bit: “Did you see what he did? Did you? I thought he was going to disintegrate.” But don’t worry, it doesn’t get too bogged down in that, and the funky music continues. Like all the songs on the original album, this one was also written by Bill Nelson.

Disc 2

The second disc contains the entire album, but with new stereo mixes, along with “Shine” and two other bonus tracks. These new mixes, to my ears, seem to bring the vocals more clearly into focus. Everything has a stronger clarity, and I greatly prefer these new mixes. The two bonus tracks at the end of the disc are early versions of “Forbidden Lovers” (complete with count-off at the beginning) and “The Bird Charmer’s Destiny.”

CD Track List

Disc 1
  1. Orphans Of Babylon
  2. Twilight Capers
  3. Kiss Of Light
  4. The Bird Charmer’s Destiny
  5. The Gold At The End Of My Rainbow
  6. Bring Back The Spark
  7. Modern Music
  8. Dancing In The Moonlight (All Alone)
  9. Honeymoon On Mars
  10. Lost In The Neon World
  11. Dance Of The Uncle Sam Humanoids
  12. Modern Music (Reprise)
  13. Forbidden Lovers
  14. Down On Terminal Street
  15. Make The Music Magic
  16. Shine
Disc 2
  1. Orphans Of Babylon
  2. Twilight Capers
  3. Kiss Of Light
  4. The Bird Charmer’s Destiny
  5. The Gold At The End Of My Rainbow
  6. Bring Back The Spark
  7. Modern Music
  8. Dancing In The Moonlight (All Alone)
  9. Honeymoon On Mars
  10. Lost In The Neon World
  11. Dance Of The Uncle Sam Humanoids
  12. Modern Music (Reprise)
  13. Forbidden Lovers
  14. Down On Terminal Street
  15. Make The Music Magic
  16. Shine
  17. Forbidden Lovers (First Version)
  18. The Bird Charmer’s Destiny (First Version)
This deluxe version of Modern Music was released on December 13, 2019 through Esoteric Recordings. By the way, apparently on that same date there was released an even more deluxe edition, with five discs (the fifth being a DVD).

Monday, March 23, 2020

Jan Luby: “Night Window” (2020) CD Review

In my late teens in Massachusetts, I started frequenting a venue called The Old Vienna Kaffeehaus, and it was there that I saw some of the best singer/songwriters, established artists of earlier generations as well as the emerging group of talented New England musicians. Those of the latter group would often test out new songs at the weekly open mic. And soon I was learning about folk clubs all over the place, from the Coffee Kingdom in Worcester to the Nameless Coffeehouse in Cambridge. There was so much excellent music those days, a great deal of it coming from folks who were just starting out, people like Ellis Paul, Jim Infantino, Brooks Williams, Vance Gilbert, Greg Greenway, Dar Williams and Jan Luby. I consider myself lucky to have seen these performers at the beginning of their careers, and am thrilled to hear new releases from them now. Jan Luby’s new album, Night Window, features all original material, and her songwriting is as strong as ever. She has some special guests performing with her on different tracks, including Cathy Clasper-Torch on violin and cello, adding to the beauty of these tracks.

Jan Luby kicks off her new release with “Coloring Outside The Lines,” which starts with some bright, pretty guitar work. The song’s opening lines are of a childhood experience: “When I was a child, I colored grass orange/The princess’ hair light green.” Ah yes, a punk princess! “They said, ‘Clouds are white, the sky is blue.’” It’s a song about being corrected as a child, being told to conform to accepted ideas of how things should be, what things should look like. I think this happens to all kids, which is a shame (at least it did when I was growing up). But this song is about embracing that individuality and keeping an open mind, and taking that sense into adulthood, experiencing a life outside the lines. It is a cheerful, positive song, which we all certainly need these days. “Here’s a song to the ones who don’t follow/Who listen to a voice their own/While you tell them that they can’t make a difference/They’re busy growing the seeds they’ve sown.” Seth Connolly plays guitar on this track, and Joe Potenza is on bass. “With our hearts wide open to all we might find/Coloring outside the lines.”

Cathy Clasper-Torch joins Jan Luby on violin on “Fireflies,” a sweet and pretty number with something of a magical quality. There is a delightful innocence to its sound. I love that work on violin, which seems designed to ease our minds and make us feel better, lighter. And Jan’s vocals have a friendly and comforting quality. This is a wonderful song.  It’s followed by the album’s title track, “Night Window.”  Cathy Clasper-Torch plays cello on this one, an instrument I always appreciate. I love those deep, gorgeous tones. Of love, Jan Luby sings “There are no barriers it won’t pass through,” a line I find incredibly appealing. I also love this line: “Convince yourself that nothing matters while hoping that you’re wrong.” Cathy Clasper-Torch switches back to violin on “Black Sparrow Tattoo,” and Billy Novick’s work on penny whistle adds a delightful and enchanting sound. “I still dream about you when I can sleep.”

“Lullabies” features for me what is the most compelling vocal performance of the album. Jan’s voice has a fiercer energy at times. “So many years you blamed yourself/When all you ever did was try to stay alive/Singing lullabies.” This track also features more beautiful work on violin, including a lead halfway through. Joe Potenza’s bass is also a strong element here, and Seth Connolly delivers more good work on guitar. But it is Jan’s vocal performance that makes this my favorite track. “And here you are/You managed to survive/Singing lullabies.” Then in “Don’t Worry About It,” Jan sings “At times like these, sad to the bone, that’s when I want to hide.” Yup. But Jan’s vocals have a comforting quality, and as she sings “Don’t worry about it, there’s nothing to fear,” I am tempted to believe her. Hers is a voice you can trust. And yes, this track features more pretty work on violin. That’s followed by “Las Patronas,” a song about migrants, delivered with both passion and compassion, and featuring Cheryl Arena on harmonica. “Such kindness for strangers passing through.” Then “Living On The River” has a serious, somber tone, and features Tim Tompkins on cello. “A quick decision, or was it planned?/There’s no way that we could understand/Or wonder what you would have done/If you didn’t have a gun.”

Things are certainly tough out there, even scary. And in these dark and confusing times, we rely on those we love for sanity, and to provide a steady ground, making us feel secure, safe. And that’s what “Steady Ground” is about. “You’re the bedrock/Under my feet/When the whole world is sand/When the earth is shaking/Everything breaking/Here you are to take my hand.” While many songs are about that wild, confusing, thrilling aspect of early love, this is rather about that wonderful feeling knowing there is someone there in the center of the maelstrom who always has your back. “You’re the constant in the chaos/When nothing’s what it seems/When I’m lost, you find me/Once again remind me/To hold onto my dreams.” “Steady Ground” is followed by “Sea Glass,” a pretty song that has a particular appeal for me. My family has always collected sea glass from the beach in Gloucester, and now it’s wonderful to see my niece and nephew just as excited about it as my brother and I were when growing up. “Endless days and endless nights/Worn by waves and sand/Sea glass catching sunlight/In the palm of my hand.” Here sea glass works as a good metaphor. “And all that you’ve been through/Made you beautiful.” This song features a beautiful instrumental section led by Cathy Clasper-Torch on violin. Check out these lyrics: “Walking down by the sea/Feeling sad and old/You’re a gift to me/As I brace against the cold/Tiny treasure found/Made my spirits rise.”

“Crazy Streak” comes as a surprise, even a jolt. It is delivered a cappella, with Kim Trusty joining Jan on vocals. This song has an undeniable energy. “I got a crazy streak/Don’t mess with me/I got a crazy streak/When I feel threatened enough/Don’t care about your size.” This one ends with a little laugh. The album then concludes with “Age With Grace,” a sweeter-sounding folk song about aging, delivered with some humor. “Who is that person in my bathroom mirror/And what’s she doing in here with me?” This song features some nice work by Cheryl Arena on harmonica. “And, hey, I really don’t mind the wrinkles on my face/But I could do without the aches and pains.” I am guessing basically everyone I know is going to appreciate this song. I laughed out loud the first time I heard her sing that bit at the end: “What was I going to say?/What was I going to say?/What were we talking about?/Oh, maybe it’ll come around again.” For that is all too familiar to me.

CD Track List
  1. Coloring Outside The Lines
  2. Fireflies
  3. Night Window
  4. Black Sparrow Tattoo
  5. Lullabies
  6. Don’t Worry About It
  7. Las Patronas
  8. Living On The River
  9. Steady Ground
  10. Sea Glass
  11. Crazy Streak
  12. Age With Grace
Night Window was released on February 9, 2020.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Wayne Alpern: “Standard Deviation” (2020) CD Review

On the inside of the CD case for composer and arranger Wayne Alpern’s new release, Standard Deviation, there is a quote from Frank Zappa. It’s in capital letters, much larger than all the other printed material on the case, presented almost like graffiti. The quoted line is this: “WITHOUT DEVIATION FROM THE NORM, PROGRESS IS NOT POSSIBLE.” On this album, Alpern arranges the material of other composers, and though some of the song choices may seem standard, his arrangements are certainly not. This album follows closely on the heels of Alpern’s previous release, Skeleton, which came out on CD only in January. Unlike that album, this one contains no original compositions. With the exception of Nick Grinder on trombone, this release features different musicians from the previous disc.

Standard Deviation opens with a quirky and fun rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” This song, and the album from which it comes, could not be avoided in my early teens. Those songs seemed to dominate the airwaves and our school dances for several years. While I’m not a huge fan of that record, “Thriller” is certainly the most interesting and enjoyable of its tracks. This rendition is powered by horns, which works quite well, particularly as the bass mostly maintains that familiar theme. John Challoner is on trumpet, Owen Broder is on alto saxophone, Adam Larson is on tenor saxophone, Nick Grinder is on trombone, Dave Baron is on bass, and Nathan Ellman-Bell is on drums. “Thriller” is followed by an unusual take on “Ode To Billie Joe,” featuring some groovy and funky percussion. My girlfriend brought up this song to me just the other day, and together we looked up information on the story, because she had her own ideas on just what it was that was tossed from the Tallahatchie Bridge (and it certainly was not what was used in the film inspired by this song). Apparently, songwriter Bobbie Gentry has never revealed precisely what she intended the object to be, saying that the exact object isn’t important, that it’s the family’s indifference to news of the suicide that is at the core of the song. Anyway, this track features fewer horns than the opening track, and Benjamin Sutin’s violin takes a prominent spot in the telling of the tale, along with Owen Broder’s alto saxophone, and Matt Podd’s piano. This rendition gets seriously fun toward the end, and I love that section with violin and percussion, which reminds me of the Irish folk music I love so much.

D’Layna joins the group on vocals for a soulful and cool version of Bob Dylan’s “Dear Landlord.” John Challoner delivers some wonderful work on trumpet, effectively a second voice, making the song a sort of duet. However, D’Layna doesn’t deliver any of the song’s lyrics, but rather riffs a bit. And Matt Podd delivers some nice work on piano. This is a thoroughly enjoyable track, something to put a smile on your face.  That’s followed by “Don’t Stop Believin’,” another song I heard a whole lot while growing up. Seriously, who didn’t own a copy of Escape? The moment this version from Wayne Alpern starts – on violin, no less – I become seriously happy. This track is delightful. Interestingly, there are some vocals on this track, provided by Jeff Burnige, but they are presented as spoken word, sort of in the background, like on an old radio. “Just a city boy/Born and raised in south Detroit/He took the midnight train going anywhere,” then skipping to “For a smile, they can share the night/It goes on and on and on and on.” I’m guessing any fan of this song (and who isn’t?) is going to dig this rendition. There is even a brief drum solo in the middle of it. Then the bass gets “Teenage Dream” going. This is the only song on the album that wasn’t familiar to me (it was written by Katy Perry, someone I haven’t listened to), but I am digging the bass line. The horns seem to be dancing at moments. There is certainly some joy here, which I appreciate. But for me, it is that bass line that really sells it.

I have loved the Zombies’ “She’s Not There” since I first heard it in my childhood (I had it on a cassette). And who isn’t thinking about zombies these days? It’s difficult to not see the parallels between our current situation and those zombie virus films, except of course for all the flesh-eating, which so far we’ve managed to avoid. Anyway, this is a wonderful rendition, with some great stuff from Benjamin Sutin on violin. And these guys keep it going, stretching the song to nearly eight minutes, adding a little nod to James Bond at one point. Wayne Alpern follows that with a cover of the 1975 hit song “Who Loves You” by The Four Seasons (here titled “Who Loves You Pretty Baby”). This one is all about the horns, and has a sweet tone at times, particularly on the title line. Then as the song nears its conclusion it takes on a cool vibe. Wayne Alpern also offers a good rendition of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know.” As you might guess, this track features a delicious bass line. It also features some excellent work by Benjamin Sutin on violin. There is a beautiful and moving section in the second half of the track.

This album contains a second Bob Dylan song, “As I Went Out One Morning.” Interestingly, this one is from the same record as “Dear Landlord,” John Wesley Harding, which was released in 1967. This track features just four musicians: Owen Broder on alto saxophone, Benjamin Sutin on violin, Dave Baron on bass, and Nathan Ellman-Bell on drums. So it ends up having a fairly straightforward sound, which works well. The album then closes with another classic tune from the 1960s, “My Girl.” This is another one that never fails to bring a smile to my face, and I love what Wayne Alpern has done with it. This is quite a pretty rendition, with more outstanding work on violin, and also by Owen Broder on clarinet. This track takes hold of us, and carries us on an emotional journey that surprised me the first time I listened to this disc. It’s really a phenomenal rendition.

CD Track List
  1. Thriller
  2. Ode To Billie Joe
  3. Dear Landlord
  4. Don’t Stop Believin’
  5. Teenage Dream
  6. She’s Not There
  7. Who Loves You Pretty Baby
  8. Somebody That I Used To Know
  9. As I Went Out One Morning
  10. My Girl
Standard Deviation is scheduled to be released on April 3, 2020.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Jerry Garcia Band: “Electric On The Eel: August 10th, 1991” (2019) Vinyl Review

In March of 2019, a Jerry Garcia Band box set titled Electric On The Eel was released. It contained three complete concerts the Garcia Band had performed at the same venue in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Then in April for Record Store Day, one of those shows, the one from August 10, 1991, was released on vinyl. The artwork on the cover was in green and purple. Then, in August, there was another pressing of that four-LP set, this time with a different cover, in orange and blue on a brown cardboard box. That’s the vinyl version I ended up getting. This record set contains a truly excellent concert, one that even casual fans will be able to appreciate.

Side A

Jerry Garcia opens the first set with “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” and right away his sweet vocals work to raise my spirits. This is a slightly mellow version, feeling just a bit slow, but I’m digging it. Its pace and vibe might help us ease into a better place, a place that might be nearby, but is normally hidden from view by daily worries and troubles. It takes a certain dose of magic to reveal it, and Jerry’s guitar is often just the thing. The jam is fairly loose, and Melvin Seals delivers some cool work on keys. There isn’t any real exploration in the jam; it’s more about letting the groove carry you. And as they finish the song, Jerry, Gloria Jones and Jacklyn LaBranch give us a beautiful vocal section. They follow that with a gorgeous and moving rendition of Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me,” with an easygoing vibe that should have you smiling before long. Everything about this is comforting, Jerry’s guitar like a beacon guiding us home. This is just what I needed, possibly what a lot of folks need now. Jerry’s voice sounds so good here, and accompanied by those soulful backing vocals, the song edges closer to a spiritual experience. And when Jerry starts to belt the lyrics out at the end, the universe feels all right. You know?

Side B

The Jerry Garcia Band turns to rock and roll with a cover of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell.” This is a delight, with that innocence, that sense of fun that Jerry is able to tap into with ease. His approach to Chuck Berry’s material is about the soul, the groove, the joy of it. The band jams on this one a bit, and it’s wonderful. Every second of this track is a joy. And Melvin Seals delivers some great stuff here. I wouldn’t have expected this particular song to be a highlight of this show, but there it is. They follow that with Bruce Cockburn’s “Waiting For A Miracle.” It may feel like we’re all waiting for a miracle these days, one that refuses to come, but listening to this music gives us a certain strength, the feeling that we are able to handle whatever problems may come. The band then dips into reggae with a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Struggling Man,” a song I’ve always loved. The first reggae album I ever bought was not Bob Marley’s Legend, but rather a live Jimmy Cliff album, and I listened to that thing over and over. This song was on it. David Kemper in no way dilutes that reggae rhythm, but fully embraces it, and that is part of what makes this such a joyous and vibrant rendition. There is a great happiness to this track.

Side C

“My Sisters And Brothers” feels like a perfect song for right now (and I suppose it always does), with lines like “Through this world of trouble/We’ve got to love one another.” This has such a positive sound, I can’t help but feel optimistic. I’m not into religion, but sometimes a touch of gospel music is just exactly the thing to raise our spirits and ease our minds. No way to deny that. And Jerry delivers it with a passion, making believers of us all. The first set then concludes with a rousing rendition of “Deal.” This is usually not one of my favorites, partly because it was played so often, and seemingly always as a Set I closer, but I have to say I am seriously digging this rendition. I think it’s because of the joy in the playing by the entire band. And the energy toward the end is tremendous.

Side D

The second set eases in with “Shining Star.” Jerry was on this night, especially vocally, and here he delivers a passionate and pretty rendition of the song made famous by The Manhattans. Jerry can deliver an earnest love song like the best of them. The jam is pretty too. It has a gentle ending, which works really well. Things then get fun with a groovy, delicious version of “Think.” The jam here is great, with a glorious energy, particularly from Melvin Seals. Holy moly, he really delivers here, helping to make this another surprising highlight of the show.

Side E

Things are hopping with the version of “Lay Down Sally” that opens the album’s fifth side. It has a cheerful groove that should keep you smiling. Honestly, it seems this entire concert is designed to raise our spirits. What better choice of music could there be today? The band jams on this one, while John Kahn maintains that delicious groove on bass. That’s followed by “Twilight,” a rare treat. This is a mellower, more soulful, more thoughtful number, written by Robbie Robertson and originally recorded by The Band. This version by Jerry Garcia Band is much better than the original, much more moving, and includes a sweet jam. Jerry really shines on these slower numbers “Don’t leave me alone in the twilight/Because twilight is the loneliest time of day.”

Side F

Jerry Garcia delivers another soulful and passionate vocal performance on “See What Love Can Do,” which was also a rarity. This is a song I just want to wrap myself up in, let it keep the troubles of the world at bay. “I want to see a smile on every face/When you tell your story/Be sure that it’s right/Every single word is true/See what love can do.” The band then eases into “Lazy Bones,” and I love Jerry’s intimate vocal performance right from the start. It is absolutely gorgeous. This is Jerry at his best. There is something gentle and soothing about this track, which is another highlight for me. It is a seriously beautiful performance.

Side G

The show then concludes with a fun and kind of sweet rendition of “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love.” Jerry’s take on this song is quite a bit different from the version most of us know by The Blues Brothers. This has a more relaxed tempo, but still with a bright energy. And the band lets loose during the jam. The eighth side of this album, by the way, contains no music, but has an etching in the vinyl which reads, “Jerry Garcia Band, Electric On The Eel.”

Record Track List

Side A
  1. The Way You Do The Things You Do
  2. And It Stoned Me
Side B
  1. You Never Can Tell (C’Est La Vie)
  2. Waiting For A Miracle
  3. Struggling Man 
Side C
  1. My Sisters And Brothers
  2. Deal
Side D
  1. Shining Star
  2. Think
Side E
  1. Lay Down Sally
  2. Twilight
Side F
  1. See What Love Can Do
  2. Lazy Bones
Side G
  1. Everybody Needs Somebody To Love
This vinyl edition of Electric On The Eel: August 10th, 1991 was released on August 2, 2019.

Friday, March 20, 2020

The Cars: “Live At The Agora, 1978” (2017) Vinyl Review

Like basically all upcoming events, Record Store Day has been postponed. It was scheduled for April 18th, and has been pushed back to June 20th. Will things be back to normal by then? Who knows? In the meantime, I thought I’d enjoy one of the Record Store Day releases from a few years ago, which somehow until now I’d left unopened: The Cars’ Live At The Agora , 1978. This three-sided album contains the show The Cars performed at The Agora Ballroom in Cleveland on July 18, 1978, just after the release of their first studio album. This record captures The Cars at their most energetic and exciting time, and features some of their best songs, including “Bye Bye Love” and “Moving In Stereo.” In fact, they played every song from that first LP at this show.

Side A

After a brief introduction (“Ladies and gentlemen, and the rest of you…”) and a goofy sound effect of a car skidding to a crash, The Cars kick off their set with “Good Times Roll,” a fitting opening. How many songs have titles that are variations of “Let The Good Times Roll”? I’m not sure, but I can think of half a dozen off the top of my head. After that song, they thank the crowd, then launch into “Bye Bye Love,” and here the energy gets really crackling. This was always one of my favorites, and here they deliver a great rendition, with some excellent work on guitar. I was fortunate enough to see Cars’ lead guitarist Elliot Easton play with the Wild Honey Orchestra just a few weeks ago, a treat for me as for one reason or another I never did see The Cars in concert. Then we hear “Hey, it’s good to be back home,” which must be from Benjamin Orr. Though The Cars were a Boston band, I think only drummer David Robinson was actually born in Massachusetts (he also played with Jonathan Richman). Benjamin Orr, who died in 2000, was from Ohio. And the band goes into “Night Spots,” which also has an electric energy. This is a song that would end up on their second record, Candy-O. After that, someone in the audience shouts out a request for “Just What I Needed,” to which the band responds, “You’re just what we needed.” But they don’t play that song right then. Instead, they go into “I’m In Touch With Your World,” a kind of quirky number that I dig. And that’s how the first side ends.

Side B

So you’ve heard of us, eh?” they say to the crowd at the beginning of the second side. And they play “My Best Friend’s Girl.” The moment they start it, the audience responds. This song had been released as a single, as well as being included on that first album. It would later be included on that Greatest Hits album in 1985. It’s such a fun song. The band slides right into “Moving In Stereo,” which is my personal favorite Cars song. We all remember that scene from Fast Times At Ridgemont High, with Phoebe Cates getting out of the pool. A cool scene, and a cool song. From there, the band goes straight into “All Mixed Up,” a segue which works really well. “All Mixed Up” follows “Moving In Stereo” on the band’s first album as well. That’s followed by “Take What You Want,” a song not on the original debut album, but included as a bonus track on a later re-issue. I love the jamming on this one.

Side C

The third side gets off to a thumping and delicious start with “Don’t Cha Stop.” This is one you want to dance around to, or at least it’s one that I dance around to. They follow it with another fun rock song, “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight.” After that, the band thanks the audience: “Thank you up here and back there. Can’t see you all there. Are you back there?” Well, the moment they start the next song, “Just What I Needed,” I’m sure they’re aware of everyone in the place, up front and in the back, for the crowd is clearly excited to hear the band’s hit single. And the band delivers a fun rendition, certainly a highlight of this release. And apparently it was the set closer. But soon the band is back for a two-song encore. “Hotel Queenie” is up first, and is another song that was not included on that first album, but was included as a bonus track in an expanded re-issue. This is a wild, fast-paced rock song, with a punk energy, another highlight of this record. There is a slight pause before the band delivers the final song, a cover of the classic Eddie Cochran rock ‘n’ roll tune “Somethin’ Else,” a song that includes the lines “That car’s fine lookin’ man/It’s something else.” By the way, the fourth side is designed to look like a Cars tire tread across the vinyl.

Record Track List

Side A
  1. Intro/Good Times Roll
  2. Bye Bye Love
  3. Night Spots
  4. I’m In Touch With Your World
Side B
  1. My Best Friend’s Girl
  2. Moving In Stereo
  3. All Mixed Up
  4. Take What You Want
Side C
  1. Don’t Cha Stop
  2. You’re All I’ve Got Tonight
  3. Just What I Needed
  4. Hotel Queenie
  5. Somethin’ Else 
Live At The Agora, 1978 was released on vinyl on April 22, 2017. According to the Record Store Day website, it was a limited run of 4,000 copies, but a sticker on the album’s plastic wrap says “Strictly limited to 5,000 copies.” So, who knows? By the way, the packaging is not a gatefold. The two records are in individual inner sleeves tucked into the same outer sleeve.