30 March 2008

With Tibet in the News

Of late, Tibet has been, and will continue to be, much in the news. For a quick, artful study of what all the fuss is about, see Martin Scorsese's biopic of the early life of the current Dalai Lama, Kundun (1997).

25 March 2008

Roy Orbison Collection: "Anything You Need, You Got It"

I've found another exception to my general rule against greatest hits collections. Again, it's a career-long retrospective made possible in the CD era. The Essential Roy Orbison is a solid, diverse sampling of the singer/songwriter's staggering career from the 50's to his passing in 1988. This essential set covers everything from his early doo-wop / rockabilly days to his going out on top with The Traveling Wilburys.

As with Patsy Cline, Orbison's majestic voice remains unsurpassed to this day.

I have a friend, turning 60 this year, who remembers skating with his girls to Roy Orbison over the loadspeakers at the rink between 1963 and 1965. What glorious, heady days those must have been -- to be young, in love, and have Roy Orbison's music new to your young ears.

Roy Orbison will always live on in our hearts, an essential part of our collective musical memory.

20 March 2008

Robert Christgau on Lucinda Williams' "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road"

Right about the time Rolling Stone magazine went from newspaper stock to glossy paper, I quit reading it. I was fed up with the arrogance of critics trashing records from some of the great artists producing lasting music in the early '70's. Some would argue that this traditional role of the artistic critic is essential. But things have changed.

Now, with this blog, I get to write about music I think is important, or sometimes, just fun to listen to. There are plenty of albums and or popular music trends I could trash, but I will leave that to the traditional critics. I feel no need to grind my axes here.

My readers tell me I get better at this all the time, but I'm in no way the peer of masters like Robert Christgau, the best rock critic I ever read. So here, in praise of Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998), I'm gonna move over and let Mr. Christgau take over. Car Wheels is so good, and Christgau is so eloquent in his review, I repost it here, from his website, in its entirety. One of our best rock critics, at his finest writing a positive review of an essential album:

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
[by Robert Cristgau]

Sometimes it seems Lucinda Williams is too good for this world. Since cutting her teeth on an acoustic blues collection for the Folkways label in 1979, she has released just four albums of originals in 18 years, each for a different company. The first--1980's Happy Woman Blues, also for Folkways--is merely wonderful. The other three--Lucinda Williams (1988, Rough Trade, then Chameleon, then Koch), Sweet Old World (1992, Chameleon), and now Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury)--are perfect. Immersed in time-weathered musical materials, demonstrating near absolute mastery of the pop songcraft that has been crystallizing at the conjunction of blues and country for half a century, Williams's writing is excellent only when it isn't superlative. Her lyrics are easeful, trenchant, imaginative, concrete, and waste-free, her tunes always right there and often inescapable. There isn't a duff song on the three records.

Yet beyond print media, where she's lionized whenever she sticks her head out of her lair, Lucinda Williams can hardly catch a break. She gets covered in Nashville, even won a songwriting Grammy after Mary-Chapin Carpenter cut the tongue out of "Passionate Kisses," and if Lucinda Williams maintains its steady sales pace, it will go gold around 2038. Smitten bizzers keep giving her advances, too. But she's never charted, and her labels have a terrible way of vaporizing. Say a little prayer that Mercury rides out the latest upheavals at PolyGram.

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, the album Mercury bought from American Recordings' Rick Rubin (who mixed all but one track), was a legendary six years in the making. Williams is such a perfectionist that she recorded it from scratch twice, and then folded in more guest solos and recut vocals than even long-suffering coproducer Roy Bittan could fully digest--always with the perverse goal of making it sound less produced. And astoundingly, that's what's happened. Not only is Car Wheels on a Gravel Road more perfect than the two albums that preceded it, which English grammar declares an impossibility. It achieves its perfection by being more imperfect.

Dubious instrumental add-ons are crucial to this strategy--Gurf Morlix's acoustic slide guitar on "Jackson," Bittan's wisps of accordion on "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten," Greg Leisz's blues mandolin on "Concrete and Barbed Wire." But the illusion of casualness is most palpable in the singing. Williams's big voice has always thrived on contained emotion--soul strengthened by its refusal of overkill. But not since the open-hearted Happy Woman Blues has she gotten so much feeling on tape. This she accomplishes without belting--although the music rocks like guitar-bass-drums-plus should, she's never as loud or fast as someone dumber might be. She skillfully deploys the usual roughness tricks, from sandpaper shadings to full-scale cracks, but her main techniques are the drawl, emphasized to camouflage or escape her own sophistication, and the sigh, a breathy song-speech that lets her moan or croon or muse or coo or yearn or just feel pretty as the lyric permits and the mood of the moment demands.

The moods that prevail are defiance, regret, and what has to be called nostalgia, although the reminiscences are so clear-eyed they deserve a stronger word. There's no single song here that makes as indelible a statement as "Passionate Kisses," and probably no hits, not even for Mary-Chapin Carpenter. But from the album's very first lines--in which the flat "Not a day goes by I don't think about you" sets up the ambush of "You left your mark on me, it's permanent [pause, we need a rhyme fast] a tattoo [gotcha!]," which is instantly trumped by "Pierce the skin, the blood runs through" and then swoons into a forlorn, unutterably simple "Oh my baby"--Williams's every picked-over word and effect has something to say.

Whether it's the interrupted childhood memories of the title track, the imagistic shifts of "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten," the one-chord rant-chant "Joy," or the re-recorded old song "I Lost It," Williams's cris de coeur and evocations of rural rootlessness--about juke joints, macho guitarists, alcoholic poets, loved ones locked away in prison, loved ones locked away even more irreparably in the past--are always engaging in themselves. And they mean even more as a whole, demonstrating not that old ways are best, although that meaningless idea may well appeal to her, but that they're very much with us. The emotional dissociation and electronic noise pop fans have learned to love feel natural to them, as they should. But we all subsist on a bedrock of human contact craved, achieved, and too often denied. This truth we repress at everyone's peril, and without melodrama or sentimentality, Lucinda Williams is one of the rare contemporary artists who can make it real. If that makes her too good for this world, then too bad for the world.

Rolling Stone, July 23, 1998

Note: In print, this was a four-and-a-half star review. Initially I awarded the record five, but I was importuned to control my enthusiasm by my editors, who told me what turned out to be inaccurate things about what records had and hadn't gotten five stars in the past. Both editors involved have since admitted they made a mistake, and Car Wheels is now regarded as a touchstone by almost everyone--except Greil Marcus, of course.--R.C.
Entering Lucinda's world is like slipping into a warm sea of love, with all the tranquility and all the storms. I learned this listening repeatedly to Lucinda Williams' Live at the Fillmore (2003); Car Wheels made this theory an axiom.

15 March 2008

Rock Operas: Short, Early; Long, Best


The Shangri-Las "Perform" (Remember) Walking in the Sand

Ultimate babe Betty Weiss, on lead vocals, and The Shangri-Las, in one of the earliest short form rock operas. {Addendum: 20May2008} Almost 20 years later, (Remember) Walking in the Sand is used as the musical backdrop to a key set of scenes in the most critically acclaimed mob film ever: Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas.

The best long form, important, rock opera -- ever! -- was just released:

13 March 2008

You Go Girls!

My friend and colleague at Carnal Reason tells me, "If The Ramones had been girls, they would have been The Donnas." I quite agree. Rock n' roll you gotta love.

Check out the ladies at the YouTube links below:

10 March 2008

Buddy Miles, 1947-2008


Buddy Miles, Down By The River (studio version)

We lost Buddy Miles in February of this year.

I saw Buddy Miles perform once, touring with his power trio in the early 1970's. I can still picture him on stage, still here his earth-shaking live performance of Down by the River to this day. I'd never heard the song before; it was one of those transformative moments when, for music fans, the power of the music changes your world. As much as I've grown to love Neil Young's original, that night in Tampa, Miles nailed it, summoning up all the power in this great song.

For further reading, I recommend Echoes in the Wind's post on Buddy Miles' cover of Down by the River -- there whiteray eloquently recounts the first time he heard it on the radio.

Rest in peace, Buddy.

05 March 2008

Never a Dull Moment


Ronnie Lane and Slim Chance, Debris (Live, BBC, 1974)

My Atlanta buddy Ybonix (pronounced ee-bon-ix) writes of rock in the age of parents being rockers. What's a parent to do? Ybonix discusses his approach in the letter quoted below. He also discusses my favorite Rod Stewart album (with some of The Faces, including Ronnie Lane), Never A Dull Moment (1972). I've made a name change or two to protect the innocent, and added a some links for clarity.

Let's all take a ride, both back in time and forward toward the future.

Hey Paco,

How ya been? I been thinkin' 'bout stuff, especially in the music world. The other day I picked my boys up at school, since we live in Atlanta it was no ordinary trip to the schoolyard.

In Atlanta you live in your car and have a house for your stuff. A round trip could be a half day trip so I armed myself with XM radio to protect myself from the five songs on "Classic Rock" radio (Which are in, in no particular order: a song by BTO; LZStairway to Heaven; a song by Chicago -- you know the one, every high school marching band played it during halftime in the 1970’s; something from Steel Wheels, and Ramblin’ Man.) plenty to drink and something for the boys when I finally arrive at the school.

When I eventually meet the boys and pack them their sports equipment, cello and viola into the trunk, the first act of my thirteen year old is to find a rap (or hip-hop -- allegedly there exists a nominal difference, however we are dependent on infinitesimally illiterate do-raggers for the existential nuance) station.

Not sure which is which I refer to the noise as crap. In a desperate attempt to be tolerant I waited somewhere between 22.005 seconds and 25.99 seconds before rendering my faultless opinion. "Kevin, my ears hurt listening to this person repeat the same three words over and over. Okay, let's listen to a CD I loved as a kid. This album came out when I was fifteen years old, not much older than you are now".

I liked Rod Stewart and [The] Faces primarily because my brother liked them, but I especially liked this album: Never A Dull Moment, because it opened up and inside was a picture of Tampa Stadium, the place I saw my first NFL game. Furthermore, the album sported pictures of the band playing soccer, which in 1972 was a rarity, since rockers carried the stigma of being dopers and lay-abouts.

I listened to it for the first time on my way home from the playground. I dropped in on my brother, Joe, and [and his friend] George ... [T]he two were painting his new residence a block away from where I lived with my parents.

This album was so special because I think it was the first recording of a cover of a Hendrix song. I thought at the time it was pretty heady stuff, to cover a Hendrix composition. Ron Wood did a masterful job and really, Rod sang sweeter than Jimi. I think it was, perhaps the first time I ever heard a Sam Cooke song, since he was long gone by the time I started listening to rock music. George told me about Sweet Sam Cooke, the man with the silkiest voice in all of rockdom, and how he met his untimely end. On top of that there was a Dylan song, "Mama You've Been On My Mind", that makes me think ol' Bob could have made it as a composer if he never made a public stage appearance. The next to the last song on the "B" side was a blues classic by Billy Foster and Ellington Jordan, "I'd Rather Go Blind", made famous by the great Etta James. A song that made me wish I had a girlfriend to love so much I could feel that bad when we broke up.

"This album had it all,” I told my boys, “roots of rock, the pulse of the blues, the great song writer of a generation and the greatest of all guitarists. All that with mandolins, organs, accordions and pianos, composition, melody and harmony, fellas, with a little of the old home town thrown in for good measure.

"When we get home", I told them , "I'll show them the pictures of the band. None have their hats on sideways or saggy trousers, or gang finger signals, just-solid-as-a-rock rock music. Something that barely touches your ears but goes straight to your soul."

We got home, I found the album and decided to go to You Tube to show them what a real music video was once upon a time. A band playing a song as opposed to a mind numbing montage of images of shirtless boys gyrating next to a lip-syncing underwear model.

"Boys some of these songs are so much a part of our culture that you will hear them played as background music to car commercials. For instance this and some of the best Faces songs were written by Ronnie Lane, the bass player, next time you see a Buick ad you may hear "Oo La La", so here it is on You Tube,” I said sitting in front of my computer, “When we were kids we would stay up late just to see one of these songs on a show called ‘Don Kirshner's Rock Concert‘, which was broadcast at 11:30 pm on Friday. It was such a treat to see a performance of the band playing the songs we liked."

Did it help any? Will I still be assaulted by T-Pain for milliseconds the next time I sit next to Kevin in my caddie? Who knows, perhaps my boys will now understand the revulsion I have with the new stuff. They did, nevertheless, enjoy the Ronnie Lane song "Debris" with his band Slim Chance, seeing the strings in harmony on You Tube which made me go dig out Faces' "A Nod Is As Good As A Wink..." so they could hear Ron Wood play the lead. I told them I wore a hole in "A Nod's" listening to "Debris" when the house was empty.

Just doing my part to keep rock alive. Happy New Year 2008, [Paco],


01 March 2008

"None of Us Are Free", Solomon Burke / The Blind Boys of Alabama


Solomon Burke - None of Us Are Free (featuring The Blind Boys of Alabama) (2002)

I've heard Solomon Burke, one of Atlantic Records early recording artists (first release on Atlantic, 1962), described as the best classic soul singer ever. Here he joins forces with a world class vocal harmony group, The Blind Boys of Alabama. The result is an anthemic protest hymn as powerful as any you'll ever hear.

None of Us Are Free is from a more recent Burke album, Don't Give Up On Me -- one with impeccable credentials. As Wikipedia put it, "[Burke's] career was to some degree revived in 2002, with the release of [this album.] ... [H]e sang songs written specifically for the album by various top-rank artists, including Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and Tom Waits." None Of Us Are Free was written by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Brenda Russell. The finished product is an example of what's still right with popular music.

Thanks to my colleague at Carnal Reason for turning me on this great track.