Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Scarecrow by John Mellencamp

John Mellencamp is a singer and writer from Bloomington, IN.

More info about him can be found here.

Scarecrow is his eighth album.

Mellencamp takes credit for creating the "no depression"/Americana genre with this album.  While this may or may not be true, it certainly serves a great testament to that type of alternative country genre.  And it boasts a few hits to boot.  I tend to see it as a document of the artist coming into his own after years of fighting with the industry to be his own person.

Mellencamp came out in the mid 70s and seemed to live in the shadows of that other working-class songwriter, Bruce Springsteen.  It's easy to dismiss Mellencamp as a poor man's Springsteen, but that's not entirely fair.  Springsteen occupies that tough Jersey spot, while Mellencamp represents the middle-class middle American heartland.  Scarecrow is the place where he takes that mantle and proudly displays it.  He'd garnered a few hits inthe early 80s, so he was probably awarded with some more creative freedom to make the kind of record he'd always wanted to.

Scarecrow can almost be described as a concept album.  All of the songs deal with small town, farm life, and family.  It's no surprise that Mellencamp helped organize the annual Farm Aid event to help small family farms.  It's a cause that he still proudly supports and lends his talents to.  The album's opener "Rain on the Scarecrow" could almost serve as its unofficial theme.  Anvil drums and ominous chords make this modern Woody Guthrie.

The album does boast several hits that you probably know.  Beside the title track, "Small Town" is well known with its instant classic chorus and steady back beat.  It's an anthem right along the lines of "Glory Days"...wait, there's that Springsteen comparison again.  Well, I like it better than "Glory Days," so there.  The kickoff and jangly guitars kick off "Lonely Ol' Night."  It's a working man's R.E.M.  And the final hit from the album is the totally dancable "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. (A Salute to 60s Rock)."  It's a toe-tapping barn burner.

That covers the hits, but the other songs are just as strong.  There's not one second of filler to be found here.  The rest tell tales of life, love, and family.  Each one is fleshed out and fully realized only rounded out by a big rock sound of guitars, bass, and drums.  Most of them are worthy of shaking your ass to the strong beats.  It's dance music!  There is a unifying concept that drives the entire record making it a total listening experience.

I can't quite qualify it as the invention of a genre, but it is certainly would do to represent a sound and theme.  If you close your eyes, you can almost see the fields and smell the inside of an old pick up truck. 


Monday, July 25, 2011

After The Goldrush by Neil Young

Neil Young is a singer/songwriter/guitarist and one of the founding members of American 60s band Buffalo Springfield.

More info can be found here.

After The Goldrush is Young's third album.

After the folky solo debut and the rougher, rockin' second record (recorded with the band Crazy Horse) Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, After The Goldrush pretty much sums up what Neil Young is all about.  It is completely representative of everything this artist is capable of. 

The beautiful harmonies (Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young) can be found in several of the album's  key tracks like the opener "Tell Me Why" and the track "I Believe In You."  Both are slow ballads with gentle melodies.  Neil's high tenor vocals soar above.  The gorgeous harmonies also carry the chorus of "Birds."  I think one of the most overlooked aspects of Young's music is the harmonies.  While his voice is not known for being conventional and may be an acquired taste for some, there's no denying that he is able to include some exsquisite vocal arrangements to his music.

If there is any doubt that Neil Young is a writer of the highest degree, take a listen to the title track.  Surreal lyrics about Mother Nature and silver spaceships create a specific mood.  You can't really pinpoint what exactly this song is about in concrete form, but the images paint a vivid picture and sets the tone.  It's complete with some light orchestration that Young would take to new levels with his next album, Harvest.

The harmonies come back with the waltz "Only Love Can Break Your Heart."  It's a light. easy tune as would definitely fit right into place on later albums like Harvest and Prairie Wind.  The Beach Boys could have done a cover of this song and it would have been a nice fit.

Of course, Neil Young is known for the incredible noise he can make with his electric guitar.  While not really known as a master of the instrument al la Eric Clapton., he is know for conjuring some amazing sounds from his guitar.  "Southern Man" is the first example of this.  Rambling, yet scorching guitars help paint this Southern nightmare.  This track may have pissed Lynyrd Skynyrd off, but there's no denying the fact that song burns.

The piano driven throwaway tune "Til The Morning Comes" is a pleasant melody but feels incomplete.  But it does manage to cleanse the palate of "Southern Man."  It also sets up the slow waltz of the depressing "Oh, Lonesome Me."  Hank Williams it ain't, but it certainly shows Young's ability to write a pretty good breakup song. 

To prove that "Southern Man" was no fluke, the burning guitars make a return an d "When You Dance You Can Really Love."  The rumbling guitars are here along with the harmonies.  It's a perfect sequel to "Cinnamon Girl" with a driving beat and a growling guitar riff.

The album closes with the singalong of "Cripple Creek Ferry," a short tale of a river cruise.  It could have been a Civil War ballad handed directly to Neil from am ghost.

After The Gold Rush is consumate Young and avoids some of the extremes that later albums would steer toward.  The next album, Harvest, may boast some of his biggest hits and brought him to prominence, but that record lives in a specific place and doesn't really give as complete a picture of Neil Young as this one does.  In other words, if you are curious about Neil Young and want to avoid compilations or hits packages, this is a very good place to start.


Friday, July 22, 2011

Changing Horses by Ben Kweller

Ben Kweller is a pop/rock songwriter from Texas.

More info about him can be found here.

Changing Horses is Kweller's fourth album.

Young Ben Kweller is an artist carving a mark in music by recording and releasing original records and touring in the meantime.  Chances are, you can catch him in your area at least once a year.  Needless to say, he's a hard working guy.  He's also an artist never content  to sit back and churn out safe power pop instead choosing to follow the Muse, thus ensuring releases of well crafted and melodic songs.  Changing Horses is his trip to the country.

One would think growing up in a small Texas town would give him instant country singer-songwriter cred and that his previous releases would reflect this.  One would be incorrect.  That would have probably been too easy for Kweller.  Instead, he chose to rock, making decent pop records.  Each of Kweller's albums have a sense of moving forward and creating music on his own terms.  This may have been an album he's had in him all along, but felt like establishing himself before recording it.  Or maybe he just felt like making an acoustic record.

Kweller has alway had a knack for melody.  One of the things that makes his pop music so enjoyable is the fact that you can sing along with it.  He applies this gift compeltely to this project.  The pop melodies are wrapped in acoustic guitars, bass, drums, and some slide and pedal steel guitars.  Most of these songs could have probably been given the rock treatment and still retained their appeal.  However, the more laid back country settings work better with the lyrics.  Titles like "Gypsy Rose" and "Sawdust Man" are not rock songs.

"Old Hat" is a pretty ballad with a very deliberate beat and gorgeous harmony-laced chorus.  The song is filled with alot of musical space, which makes the payoff evern better.  Underneath the space of the verses, a pedal steel whines over a melodic bass line and sparse drumming.

Every track contains Ben's Epiphone acoustic.  Gone are the distorted electrics.  But don't be fooled by the "country" tag associated with this album.  Ben Kweller may be able to make great drinking singalongs like "Fight," but he never dives into a twangy country drawl.  He sounds like Ben Kweller always has with a straightfoward singing voice.

The highlight of the entire album for me is "On Her Own."  It's a classic Kweller road song about a girl breaking free with a huge hook and wide-open lyrics.  It's all driven by a solid back beat and a lilting pedal steel. 

Kweller is definitely a student of the art because like most good country records, it's a short listen.  Changing Horses never demands too much from its listeners but makes a concise statement.  Longtime Kweller fans will likely appreciate this detour and fans of Americana country-rock will welcome it.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

I Feel Alright by Steve Earle

Steve Earle is a singer/writer who came to prominence in the mainstream country market during the late 80s.  Since then, he has maintained a career with touring and album releases.

More can found about him here.

I Feel Alright is his sixth album.

If you don't think you've ever heard Steve Earle, chances are, you have.  His songs have been featured in many movie soundtracks.  As a matter of fact, three songs from I Feel Alright are in Talladega Nights.  His sound is twangy country-rock mixed with a solid sense of lyrical style.  Steve Earle is a Texas songwriter in the vein of his friend and hero Townes Van Zandt who writes fantastic tunes. 

Ealre's releases can be a varied grab bag ranging from acoustic singer songwriter to political statements.  I Feel Alright is certainly more commercially accessible as it does not require the listener to fall into Earle's left-leaning politics or extremes.  It's a collection of good country-rock where the sound puts the performance right in the room with the listener.  These songs are not only pretty good, but they sound good, too.

The album kicks off with the live-in-the-room sounding title track.  Earle is known for being pretty dour, but he states that he is "alright" despite the world around him.  Perhaps it's a sign of things to come, but this establishes the overall sound and mood of the entire record.

The tempo picks up with the third person narrative "Hard Core Troubador."  It's the tale of the roaming lifestyle of a...well...troubador.  It's a wolf in sheep's clothing with a catchy chorus and dancable beat.

After the big hook of the jangly guitars and harmonies of "More Than I Can Do", things slow down with the ballad "Hurtin' Me, Hurtin' You."  It's sounds like an update on the classic 50s/60s R&B sound.  You can almost hear Otis Redding doing this song.  Of course, this song is all about the huge guitars in the chorus.

Steve Earle has a gift for storytelling.  The first taste of this gift is in "Now She's Gone."  This is a tale of woman on the move and the broken hearts she leaves in her wake.

It's followed by the rockabilly beat of "Poor Boy."  This song could have easily been recorded at Sun Records by Elvis Presley. 

The ease of "Poor Boy" leads right into the heartbreak of "Valentine's Day."  An acoustic ballad with back up vocals by black gospel group The Fairfield Four.  The song is complete with a string break easily making it one of the prettiest songs on the record.  It's love song where love is all he's got to offer.

The guitars and drums return for the low twang of "The Unrepentent."  Earle sings that "someone's got to take the blame" with a dose of venom in his voice.  The sound of the lead guitar is just a howl, but you can almost smell the tubes in the amplifier smoking.

"CCKMP" expands country-raga genre Earle invemted with his hit song "Copperhead Road."  Earle, a recovering addict, seems to be working out some personal demons through the electric hum and manta-like lyric.  "Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain."  This is what it might sound like if Ravi Shankar had left Monterey and went straight to a Lousiana porch to learn the blues.

Earle breaks out the mandolin and strums through the story of "Billy and Bonnie."  The two young lovers break free and go on a crime spree.  Of course, the older Bonnie stabs young Billy in the back and turns him in.

"South Nashville Blues" is just what the title says.  It's an acoustic blues in the tradition of a Blind Willie McTell.  The song follows strict blues traditions and highlights Earle's ability to lock down some of music's rich heritages as well as his own influences.

The closer is the Lucinda Williams duet "You're Still Standin' There."  It's another jangly confection that brings the album full circle with a strong mid tempo backbeat.

This LP almost catches Earle in transition from his days of fighting with the Nashville establishment trying to find his sound and returning from jail time recovering from substance abuse.  He had been redeemed by a solid comeback effort and here is its aftermath.  It definitely sounds like an artist making music his own way and proving that he can have success.  Steve Earle has written better songs and recorded better albums that I Feel Alright, but none probably have the overall appeal this single record collects.  It never overreaches and it hits every mark with a bullseye.  Steve Earle is an artist who has made a reputation of little compromise, but this album can make believers out of the holdouts.


Monday, July 18, 2011

Showroom of Compassion by CAKE

CAKE is a band who came to prominence during the 90s, during the "alternative music" boom.

More info about them can be found here.

This is their sixth album.

CAKE built their sound on sparse arrangements, grooves, and a vibra-slap.  Much like AC/DC, their sound is one of music's sure things.  If you've heard CAKE, then you know what to expect: single guitar lines wrapped around a bass and drum groove with a lead trumpet and/or keyboard line thrown on top of monotone-like baritone vocals.  There's usually a weird or unlikely cover thrown in for good measure.  It's a sound that works with clever lyrics and a cool overall vibe.  The band has built something a cult following through the years with a steady regimen of touring and semi-regular album releases.

CAKE is a band that doesn't wear its influences on their sleeves.  They really don't sound like anyone and have made their own way on their own terms.  They've never bowed to commercial winds within the industry.  They have survived by being what they are.

Showroom of Compassion is basically more of the same, which isn't a bad thing, if you're a fan of CAKE.

After opening with "Federal Funding," a topical tune for these recession-drenched times, we get "Long Time."  If you want to know what CAKE sounds like, this is it. 

"What's Now Is Now" is a Frank Sinatra cover, but it is run through the CAKE filter, which means it easily sounds like one of their own songs.

There's an odd instrumental called "Teenage Pregancy" that sounds like the closing credits to a Fellini film.

"Sick of You" is the single and in a fair world, this would be one of the biggest songs of the year.  The fuzzy guitar riff is almost "Day Tripper" by The Beatles.  It's guaranteed you will be singing this chorus after one listen.

The album gets country suddenly on "Bound Away."  This song really wouldn't sound out of place on an old country record by the likes of Merle Haggard.  A classic country waltz that provides a healthy diversion.

"The Winter" is a ballad that one could almost describe as pretty.  It's a nice closer, but it blends right into "Italian Guy" that shores up the band's funny side.  It's more an observation than an outright joke, but I'm sure it's not meant to be taken completely seriously.

CAKE is a very good band who make very good albums.  This music is probably not going to change anyone's life, but it's very easy to settle into the band's good humor and solid grooves.  There are no real revelations here and I'm glad to report that if you like CAKE already, this album will be a welcome addition.  If you've never heard CAKE at all, then this album is as good place as any to start.  Showroom of Compassion is a fun album chock full of decent tunes.

The record did manage to debut at number one, also setting a record as the lowest selling number one debut ever.  This is just proof of the band's die-hard fan base making sure they got it the day it came out.  It also says that CAKE fans still buy CDs.

One more note about this record:  It was recorded completely on solar power, which has no real bearing on the songs or the album itself.  It really only applies to the band's environmentally minded tendencies.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

All Things Must Pass by George Harrison

George Harrison was the lead guitarist in The Beatles.

More can be found about him here.

This is his first solo album.  I am reviewing the reissued version from 2001.

When he first heard this record, my best friend Rusty Spell, exclaimed, "John and Paul should be ashamed of themselves!"  That pretty much sums it up.

Those familiar with later Beatles recordings know that George was held to some rule about only two of his songs per LP and only one Ringo tune.  I don't know who set this rule, but they held to it, by God.  It even held true of the double "White Album"  with only four "Harrisongs."  Most will also agree that his songs were a couple of the highlights of Abbey Road ("Here Comes The Sun" and "Something")  Needless to say, George came into his own as a songwriter.  And most will know that by the time The Beatles broke up in 1970, he had an enormous backlog of quality songs.  And here they all are.

There's no shortage of excellent material to be found spread across these discs (it was an originally three LPs).  From the time you press "play," you will be treated to a series of top-notch songs all dressed up in Phil Spector's famous Wall of Sound.  George and John must have been more than enamored by Spector as both worked with him during the 70s, along with John giving him the Get Back tapes, which became Let It Be.  In his notes on the reissue, George states that he was tempted to remove the big production which seemed appropriate at the time.  I'm usually the first one to jump on the anti-Spector train when it comes to Beatles, but I'm glad George left it alone.  It's not as overbearing as it could be.  While it seems just right for a song titled "Wah Wah", it's too much on "Awaiting On You All."  The vocals are just buried in all that sound.  Still, it works, for the most part.
Of course, this album's greatest strength is the songs.  What beautiful songs.  Most probably know the hits like "My Sweet Lord" and "What Is Life", but most everything is on even keel here.  There's honestly not a weak link to be found.  There's even a Bob Dylan song, "If Not For You", that fits so nicely that you would think George wrote it himself.  Maybe this was the precursor to the easy relationship they had in The Traveling Wilburys.

Quite a few of the lyrics have an overtly spiritual bent, but it never punches you in the face.  The arrangement are basic rock band with the additions of Spector's usual strings, horns, and echo.  All of the playing is pretty economic and tasteful throughout.  In other words, the songs are the focus...

Until you get to the fabled "third record."  Originally, this was called the "Apple Jam."  Long instrumental jams that would have felt like bonus tracks even back when it was originally released.  If you're listening to these in order on the disc, the proper album ends for me with "Hear Me Lord."  I'm not sure if these were just off-the-cuff jams recorded while everything was being set up or just to loosen the band up before they got down to recording the songs.  Either way, they are worth a couple of listens, but they don't even approach the revelations of the songs.  The fact they are tacked on to the very end of the record pretty much means that they never intrude and are easily skipped.  Remove them and you have a masterpiece.  Included, they just fade into the background. 

That leaves All Things Must Pass as a perfect collection of songs that gives George Harrison a deserved place in the greatest pop band of all time.  It may well be the best debut Beatles solo effort.

The resissue includes some new remixes and demos that are nice enough, but don't really add anything.  The only real gripe I may have will be in the sequencing.  These bonus songs are added to the end of the disc, therefore breaking up the flow of the original album.  I would have preferred them added to the end of the original tracks.  Certainly worth having if you are already a fan of the record, which you should be if you're not.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Flo & Eddie by Flo & Eddie

Flo & Eddie would be the Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of 60s pop band The Turtles.  At the end of The Turtles, they began calling themselved The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie.  The gained some hip cred by fronting The Mothers of Invention with Frank Zappa.

More info can be found here.

This is their 1974 second album.

Let me just say that Howard Kaylan has got to be one of my all time favorite singers, so he's one of those who could sing a restaurant menu and make it pretty.  Take one listen to The Turtles' "Eleanor" or "Lady-O" for further proof of the sweetness of Kaylan's voice. 

The album opens with a classic, soaring vocal in the driving "If We Only Had The Time."  Long-time fans will be pleased, but this definitely not poppy Turtle soup.  A stinging electric lead guitar and a thumping horn chart throws this more into a rock vibe.  There's even a cliched organ swell thrown in for good measure. 

Ray Davies produced The Turtles, so the guys repay him by offering a rendition of "Days."  Davies is one of the greatest rock writers, so nothing has be really said about the song itself.  There's a big, echoey production that might put the tune into Phil Spector/Brian Wilson territory.  It's big.

So, if you've been waiting for a classic Turtle thing, "You're A Lady" would have fit right in with that material.  You could have easily stuck it onto one of those later albums.  Short and sweet.

Next is the inessential "Original Sountrack from 'Carlos and de Bull.'"  Perhaps this was included to play into their association with Zappa or maybe it's because Flo & Eddie are funny?  Needless to say, it's a narrative about a matador with a generic Spanish chorus and melody.  It's confusing, but at least it's not too long.

We get back to the big rocking with a cover of The Small Faces' "Afterglow."  While these guys are certainly capable singers, they lack the grit and substance of Steve Marriott.  A little too reserved for a song that requires a fair amount of soul.  It's still a worthy cover of a fantastic song.

A wacky doo wop follows with a cover of "Best Part of Breaking Up."  The guys are showing their early influences and giving it their own twist.  It's a little silly for my ears, but it segways into...

..."Sanzini Brothers."  If you're a fan of The Mothers' "Billy The Mountain," then you'll probably love this.  If you're a fan of music, then it will not matter.  Again, at least it's not overly long.

A scream kicks off the commentary of "Another Pop Star's Life."  Think if Todd Rundgren had written "Money for Nothing" instead of Mark Knopfler.  It's a driving rock number with a heavy backbeat and a wash of more big production.

"Just Another Town" is almost out of place.  Starting out with an acoustic strum, you might mistake it for a Neil Young song.  It's a "life-on-the-road" lyric coupled with a breezy tune.

So, now we get the fully orchestrated epic "Marmendy Hill."  Of course, everything about an epic is in the build up.  This one is no exception.  Sounding like a motion picture score at first, the drums and guitars finally kick in for little piece of pop.  It's bombastic and appropriately dramatic, but it's a little overreaching.  The results aren't quite as rewarding as the build up.  This sounds like it could have been leftover from a rock opera they were working on, but never completed.  There's even some Roger Daltrey screams!

It's not a terrible record, but it never quite makes its point.  Side One is pretty concise, but Side Two just wanders all over the stylistic playground.  After seeking these records out, they are finally available again, but you'd do better to start elsewhere.