Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Motown Revue

I didn't realize until we got home from Sunday yard sales that we had ended up picking up a Motown triple-feature: Thriller, Innervisions, and an early greatest hits compilation from Marvin Gaye. The comp was actually originally released by Tamla in 1964 and features hits from his first wave of success. "Hitch Hike" was familiar upon first listen. The rest I admit were totally new to me. The slow conga groove on "It Hurt Me Too" will be a revelation for anyone who thinks they know the early Funk Brothers song formula.

Blood and Chocolate

I came across both Blood and Chocolate and King of America for the first time just a few weeks ago. Coincidentally, these were albums I had never heard, recorded both in 1986, from a songwriter whom I had long ago targeted as one of my favorites. The albums also share the odd trait that they were released under half-baked pseudonyms: Elvis Costello goes by Napoleon Dynamite on the former and, well, his actual name, Declan MacManus, on the latter. You might think the aliases portend a change in style or departure from form, but both albums are characteristic of Costello's main influences: literate pop and, to a slightly lesser degree, country western.

Blood and Chocolate is the better album, with Costello firing off lines surreal and toxic over music that rocks harder than anything since This Year's Model. "Uncomplicated" is one of his greatest simple songs. "I Want You" might be the best break-up song ever written. But not surprisingly, Blood and Chocolate suffers from the same flaws as most mid-career albums from prolific artists. It feels rushed and inconsistent, like it was recorded by a singer who had too many songs to put out in one year. King of America (same year, remember) is even more spotty; Costello could have taken out a third of the songs and had a solid record led by "Brilliant Mistake," "Indoor Fireworks," and the story song "American without Tears." But what else can you expect from a guy who recorded nine albums in the 80s. After Get Happy and Trust, these were his best of the decade.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Tumbleweed Connection

I think Tumbleweed Connection is the only Elton John album you could buy at a place like Permanent Records and not feel like a total loser at the register. This was his 1970 semi-concept-album set in the outlaw American West and it has some standout tracks. The funky "Ballad of a Well Known Gun" could have been a Dr. John hit if it were set in Looziana and the first two tracks of Side Two, "Where To Now St. Peter?" and "Love Song", have the dramatic and melodic reach of a Joni Mitchell or Nick Drake song. What leaves a bad taste, however, is the album-closing "Burn Down the Mission", which is ultimately steered in the wrong direction by a careening train of horns and violins. John sacrifices restraint for the overbearing, cinematic pomp that became his trademark for the following four decades. I can't think of any good reason to change tempo in the middle of a pop song. Can you?

Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson

Recorded in 1979, this record is really a tribute to a master and often under-recognized country folk songwriter. The highlights here are "Sunday Morning Comin' Down", "Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again)" and "You Show Me Yours (And I'll Show You Mine)". So basically all of Side Two. Nelson's voice is solid and the band arrangement is sparse, similar to albums he recorded around that time, including The Troublemaker, which is worth a listen if you want to hear country-inflected spirituals mixed with an extended and confused metaphor about hippies and Jesus (check the album title for a hint). Anyway, this album was definitely worth my 50 cents, especially for the picture on the back. Kristofferson is such a hunk. It's like this, only taken 30 years earlier.

Gonna Take A Miracle

Laura Nyro's Gonna Take A Miracle is one of those enduring albums that I will probably listen to for my entire lifespan. I think many of us have these albums in our lives. We have heard them since before we can remember. We grew up with them because our parents played them around the house and it just seemed like they would always be there. Many have Rubber Soul, Thriller, What's Going On. I have Motown comps and this: Laura Nyro's 1971 collaboration with Labelle and Gamble & Huff on a set of perfect soul songs from Philadelphia, NYC, and Detroit. Here's a decent review that includes some back story on the album.

Live at Fillmore West: 1971

The double-fold image on the inside of Aretha Franklin's Live at Fillmore West is striking. It is a photograph taken from behind the stage, looking out on the band in the spotlight and the audience beyond. Aretha is holding court. There's Ray Charles to her right. Behind him, Billy Preston. To the left, King Curtis. And how could Bernard Purdie not be holding it down on drums for this kind of lineup? While Side One features the band moving through a variety of popular-turned-soul tunes (they take "Bridge Over Troubled Water" to church, for example), Side Two features the jam session party captured by this photo. Having Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin taking turns on electric piano in 1971 at the Fillmore pretty much required that "Spirit in the Dark" be featured on the album twice. A good example of a live record that captures the feel of the concert.