Tuesday, January 22, 2008

R.I.P. John Stewart

John Stewart, probably best known as the author of the Monkees' "Daydream Believer," died on Saturday at the age of 68. Stewart traveled with RFK during his ill-fated 1968 campaign, and was also a member of the Kingston Trio (he replaced Dave Guard in 1961). But what Stewart should be most remembered for is the string of very interesting solo albums he released in the late 60s and early 70s. Not quite folk music, not quite Country, and not quite rock, Stewart was a pioneer of what eventually would become known as "Americana." Artists like Peter Case, Lucinda Williams, Wilco and The Jayhawks owe him a huge debt.

I only recently discovered Stewart's music myself--almost by accident. Before Christmas my 5-year-old son asked me to take him to our local record store so he could pick out a present for me (he knows what Dad likes). He didn't want any help from me picking something out--that would spoil the surprise. So he chose a record that looked interesting to him with no input from me. I figured this would mean I was going to end up with a copy of Boston's Don't Look Back, or something else with a spaceship on the cover, but I was pleasantly surprised when I unwrapped a copy of John Stewart's 1970 LP Willard on Christmas morning. The surprise was even more pleasant when I put it on the turntable and discovered it was actually quite good. As he later explained to me, "I figured since the cover looked so plain, the music on it must be fancy." I've been enjoying the music ever since, and plan to track down some of Stewart's other albums.

Stewart is survived by his wife, Buffy, and his children, Mikael, Jeremy, Amy and Luke. Here's hoping his music gets rediscovered now--it should have been years ago.

Big Joe [right click to download]

George Jones - Complete United Artists Recordings

It's about time George Jones got the Bear Family box set treatment. I have literally been waiting for the release of She Thinks I Still Care: The Complete United Artists Recordings 1962-1964 for the past 15 years.

This box set documents a transitional period for Jones, between the hardcore honky-tonk of the Mercury/Starday years and the Countrypolitan leanings of the Musicor and Epic years. As was common practice in Country music during the 60s, many of Jones' albums from this period--Sings The Hits Of His Country Cousins, The New Favorites of George Jones, Trouble in Mind, as well as tributes to Bob Wills, Little Jimmie Dickens and Hank Williams--contained a lot of repeated tracks across albums. These things were meant to be product, not art. Which makes a concise 5 CD box set like this extremely useful. I own around 10 Jones CDs and LPs from this era, but when I get my copy of this box 30% of the material on it will still be new to me.

Jones was with UA for a mere 2 years, but recored 150 songs (and he would be even more prolific during his Musicor years). There are lots of Country weepers here, the best of which is the title-track, "She Thinks I Still Care," along with novelties like "Root Beer," and "The Race Is On," re-recordings of old-hits and covers of others' hits. But mostly what you get is the sound of the best male country singer ever really coming into his own as a singer. As great as the raw honky-tonk of the Mercury years is, it was during the United Artists period that Jones really figured out what his remarkable instrument was capable of--and it was capable of a lot.

Those less obsessed with Jones than myself might be better off tracking down a copy of the 2 CD United Artists "best of" Razor & Tie released in the 90s (it's currently out-of-print, but I suspect a few people will be dumping their copies once they get their hands on this box set). Although if you settle for a compilation you'll miss out on such classics as "Brown To Blue" and who knows what else.

Despite being memorably covered by Jones fan Elvis Costello on Almost Blue, "Brown To Blue" rarely shows up on Jones anthologies. This version was transcribed from a pretty beat up LP called Trouble In Mind. I'm looking forward to finally hearing Jones' version of this song without a lot of distortion (I suspect the previous owner of this album wasn't familiar with the idea of replacing worn-out needles).

Now bring on that sure to be massive Complete Musicor box set!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Peter Holsapple & Chris Stamey - Mavericks

Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey's 1991 album Mavericks is another welcome recent reissue. As with most things dB's related, this album was criminally overlooked when it was originally released. Collector's Choice seems determined to right past wrongs, having reissued a bunch of dB's related material over the past several years. Kudos to them.

The reissue has a handful of bonus tracks and freshly remastered sound, making it a worthwhile purchase for new and old fans alike.

This is currently my 5-year-old son's favorite album. He fell under the spell of Holsapple and Stamey while listening to this album in the car. He was quite excited when I told him the two were at work on a brand-new album, and he now asks me if it's out yet every other day. Considering it's been over 15 years since the first one was released, he may have to wait a while longer. It seems Mr. Holsapple and Stamey are teaching my son the virtue of patience--the last time I told him it wasn't out yet he replied "I'm sure it will be worth the wait!" At least now he will have some bonus tracks to hold him over.

And lest anyone think I am trying to shape my son into some sort of miniature indie-rock hipster--he also likes the Hannah Montana song that is currently tearing up the charts.

Robyn Hitchcock - Shadow Cat

Shadow Cat, a collection of 90s era demos and obscurities by Robyn Hitchcock is currently available from Robyn's homepape, The Museum of Robyn Hitchcock.

I already received my copy, and can recommend it to Hitchcock fans--for others this is obviously not the best place to start exploring Hitchcock's music. This is Robyn in stripped-down, mostly acoustic mode. A couple of the tracks--for no reason I can discern--feature vocoder treated vocals (perhaps Robyn was briefly in the thrall of Neil Young's Trans). Despite the fact that not every track is essential, there are nevertheless a number of very good tracks on the album--I remember hearing some of them live years ago.

"Never Have To See You Again" sounds like the bitter-but-liberated flip-side of "Beautiful Girl" or "So You Think You're In Love." "High On Yourself" features the great line "let's go shopping on painkillers" (as concise a statement on life in the late 20th/early 21st Century as you are likely to find). There's also an eerie cover of Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary" (obviously a Hitchcock favorite), and the creepy "Shadow Cat." This is dark of night, "I haven't slept in two days and my mind is starting to play tricks on me" music. Many of the tracks could have been polished up a bit and been highlights on any of Hitchcock's "proper" albums. But to those who have followed Hitchcock's career closely over the years, the "improper" albums like this one--or Invisible Hitchcock before it--are just as essential as anything else in his catalog. Before I'm buried, I wouldn't be surprised if I'll have listened to this album more times than say Globe of Frogs or Ole! Tarantula.

I suspect this album will mostly slip through the cracks because of limited distribution and the wealth of reissued Hitchcock available at the moment. Somewhere I have a cassette of 90s era Hitchcock demos and live obscurities, and only one or two of the tracks from that cassette surfaces here--obviously, there is a lot more where this came from. I'm still waiting for a legitimate issue of "Surfer Ghost."

The Feelies - Crazy Rhythms

See my update on this.

Good news! The Feelies first album, 1980's Crazy Rhythms, is being reissued by Water Records on February 5th. It's currently available for pre-order at Amazon and on some other sites.

According to the track list, it looks like the cover of "Paint It Black" that was recorded in 1990 for A&M's initial CD reissue of the album is included, but I can't vouch for that. Also no word on remastering, etc. Whatever the case, this is most welcome news. Crazy Rhythms was one of my favorite albums released in the 80s, and it's nice to see it back in print.

If you don't already own a copy, this is an essential purchase. I couldn't recommend this album more highly.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Groovy Decay

Yep Roc (or possibly Robyn Hitchcock) decided not to include Hitchcock's second solo album, Groovy Decay on the I Wanna Go Backwards box-set. Instead, they reissued the album exclusively as a digital download. It's now available directly from Yep Roc, on emusic and on iTunes.

It's hard to argue with the decision. Groovy Decay (and its demo-heavy doppelganger Groovy Decoy) is probably Hitchcock's least well regarded album. Hitchcock himself has all but disavowed it. Also, including it would have blown any chances that Hitchcock would be declared the godfather of freak-folk.

The truth is there are some very good songs on the album ("52 Stations," "America," "The Cars She Used To Drive"), along with a few clunkers ("Old People Scream," "Midnight Fish"). But the whole album is undeniably weighed down by its slick, "new wave" production aesthetic, and the reliance on horns and synths to carry the melodies rather than guitars. Unlike much of Hitchcock's work, Groovy Decay sounds dated.

Listening to the album I am reminded of the episode of Freaks and Geeks in which Sam is convinced by a clothing store sales clerk at the local mall (brilliantly played by Joel Hodgson) that all his troubles with the ladies will be over if he purchases a snazzy new "Parisian Night Suit" (which is really nothing more than a hideous powder-blue polyester jumpsuit). The results are predictably painful. No one should wear a "Parisian Night Suit," but some people (say, John Travolta) are capable of pulling off the look anyway. But poor Sam can't because the Parisian Night Suit is simply the opposite of who he is.

Groovy Decay is Robyn Hitchcock's Parisian Night Suit moment insofar as he dresses his music up in a style that simple doesn't fit his musical personality. Somebody convinced him that if he only adapted his style to the slick new-wave ethos of the era that he could have a hit. To his eternal regret he followed their advice, and the results, while not exactly cringe-worthy, are at least a little embarrassing in retrospect.

None of this should discourage you from downloading the album. No, it's not Hitchcock's best work. Yes, it sounds more than a little dated. But it is still certainly possible to hear the good songs beneath the production.

A few things got left off the latest digital incarnation of Groovy Decay. The demo version of "Midnight Fish" was originally released on Groovy Decoy, which featured mostly demos recorded in advance of the Groovy Decay sessions. Even the demos, recorded with former Soft Boy Matthew Seligman, are slicker and more produced than anything Hitchcock had recorded up to that point in his career. Special "disco" versions of "Night Ride To Trindad" and "Kingdom Of Love," originally issued in 1982 on a 12" single (a misguided attempt to get played in clubs?) were also omitted from the program. Can the world survive without disco versions of Robyn Hitchcock songs? I suspect so. But you shouldn't have to if you don't want to.

Also, since this album is no longer available in any worlds but the virtual one (or perhaps in some other parallel universe in which people prefer dancing to Robyn Hitchcock over Rihanna and J-Lo) it no longer comes with any tactile artwork. But that is no excuse for the lo-rez image--gleaned no doubt from a quick Google image search--Yep Roc features on their website. Feel free to paste the artwork above into your iTunes library.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Wonderful World of Cat Butt

"Come on over tonight/We'll put on some Cat Butt 'n' do it up right." Guided By Voices "Pendulum" (Same Place the Fly Got Smashed, 1990)
For a band whose released recorded legacy consists of one 7" single, one compilation appearance and one EP, Cat Butt casts a surprisingly long shadow. It might be overstating things to say that Journey to the Center of Cat Butt was the most important album of the last 25 years, if for no other reason than that it wasn't even an album, it was an EP.

While many artists with dozens of albums to their credit get a mere one-line bio (or less) at AllMusic.com, Cat Butt has a 1,392 word essay devoted to their brief, glorious existence.

And why not? The band was great. Cat Butt neatly encapsulates everything about "grunge rock" that would need to be scrubbed out for it to become a mainstream, corporate success. Forget Nirvana, everything worth knowing about grunge is etched into the grooves of the six tracks on this EP. It's all there: the mud, the blood, the urine, the self-abuse and the utter, simpleminded stupidity. This is rock at it's purest.

Journey to the Center of Cat Butt--legendary as it has become--seems unlikely to be reissued anytime soon. The band so thoroughly burnt their bridges by trashing a label-owned tour van that no mention of them shows up on the Sub-Pop's website.*

Interesting (or not) fact: The 90s indie-pop label Flydaddy Records (Cardinal, Olivia Tremor Control, Number One Cup) was named in honor of Cat Butt guitarist Dean "Fly-Daddy" Gunderson.

*On the band's Myspace page, lead-singer David E. Duet says the van story is "pure bullshit."

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

My Favorite Albums of 2007

As I mentioned in my previous post, few people are less qualified than me to declare what the 10 best albums of 2007 were. My focus on this blog is on music of the past, and I don't keep up with new releases the way I once did. Nevertheless, any idiot can have an opinion, and I certainly have a lot of them. So without further ado, here are my favorite albums of 2007.

1. Wilco - Sky Blue Sky
I wanted to be a little more contrarian in my top choice, but there is just no getting around the fact that this was my favorite album released in 2007. I opted for the fantastic sounding two-LP vinyl release that is packaged with a bonus CD of the whole album. The quality of the pressing is outstanding, and I urge anyone who has yet to buy this album to pick it up on vinyl--it just sounds so good.

Perhaps I am showing my age by picking an album derided as "dad-rock" by the young whippersnappers at Pitchfork as the best of 2007. I suppose I can understand why fans who discovered Jeff Tweedy and company through Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (an album that alienated many of the bands older, alt-country fans as much as this one alienated their younger, post-rock fans). Compared to YHF, Sky Blue Sky sounds like classic rock, or perhaps the kind of music that might show up in a Volkswagon commercial. One can either hear this as a retreat into musical conservatism, or as paring the music down to it's essentials. I hear the later more than the former. Yes, there are elements of 70s soft-rock abundantly in evidence here. But the brilliant guitar interplay between Tweedy and Nels Cline recalls Television more than The Eagles. Whatever, I don't have to defend my choice--I just loved this album.

2. Iron & Wine - The Shepherd’s Dog
My friend Peter had this to say about this album: "Funny to think that many people saw Sam Bean as a Will Oldham bedroom-tape knock-off. It seems to me he's probably been way more successful in his maturity and growth than Oldham has in all of the 25 records or so he's released." I couldn't have said it any better, Sam Beam has shown remarkable artistic growth over the past few years. From the start it was clear that Beam was a gifted songwriter, but his early, lo-fi, acoustic recordings--lovely as they were--are no preparation for the intricate, fully developed music found in the grooves of this album. The sound of The Shepard's Dog is at once lush and inviting while also being challenging and difficult. Beam incorporates unexpected elements from juju and dub into his melodic, folky, psychedelia, and somehow it works. The effect is mesmerizing.

Is it just a coincidence that my two favorite purchases of 2007 were on vinyl? Sub-Pop includes a free MP3 download with purchase of the vinyl. Who needs CDs anyway?

3. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings - 100 Days, 100 Nights
Sharon Jones has been performing since the seventies, but has flown under my (and just about everyone else's) radar until recently. Damn, we've been missing out. On 100 Days, 100 Nights (and her other Daptone releases) this former corrections officer and her backing band, The Dap-Kings, deliver some of the most soulful and funky performances in recent memory. While the music sounds like it could have been recorded for Stax in 1966, it also sounds entirely fresh for 2007. Music this good is simply timeless.

4. Teddy Thompson - Upfront & Down Low
It should come as a shock to no one that the infant for whom "End of the Rainbow" was written would grow up to have a strong melancholy streak. While one might expect Thompson's voice to be a bit too light and airy to pull off these covers of hard-core honky-tonk classics, he finds a way to cut to the emotional core of the songs without replicating their rough-hewn, distinctively American twang. And Thompson's sole songwriting contribution, "Down Low" is a stunner that lyrically recalls his father's best (and darkest) work. Fans of Nick Drake will be happy to learn the brilliant Robert Kirby contributes some beautiful arrangements. This is an overlooked gem.

5. Glenn Mercer - Wheels In Motion
Glen Mercer has been pretty quiet since the break-up of his underwhelming post-Feelies band Wake Ooloo. This is by far his strongest outing since the Feelies' demise. The album is heavy on the atmospheric quality that characterized the best Feelies albums, but sounds altogether more mellow, relaxed and mature. If you wrote Mercer off after one too many mediocre Wake Ooloo records, you're missing out. This is a strong return to form.

6. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band - Magic
This is another strong album from Bruce Springsteen, who has been on something of a roll since releasing The Rising. "Living In The Future" sounds like classic Springsteen but speaks directly to 2007.

My only beef with this album is that the sound is too compressed. I like Phil Spector's "wall of sound" as much as the next guy, but the mix here is just too in-your-face and lacking in dynamics and subtlety. Does anyone know if the LP features a less compressed mix (as is sometimes the case)? If so, I'd buy it again, because the songs are really, really strong.

7. Linda Thompson - Versatile Heart

I'm glad we only had to wait five years for Linda's third solo album (rather than seventeen years we had to wait for her second).

8. Peter Case - Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John
If, like me, you lost track of Peter Case's music sometime after The Man with the Blue Post-Modern Fragmented Neo-Traditional Guitar, now is a good time to rediscover him. Case's voice and songwriting are as strong as ever, and the simple folk-blues settings for these songs work very well, better in fact than the slicked up Americana of his major label days.

9. Arctic Monkeys - Favourite Worst Nightmare
I admit it. I figured this band was nothing more than the latest great white hype when their debut album received all the glowing over-the-top praise in the British press. But this is a very good album, it sounds a bit like Wire circa 1978 if that band knew how to cut loose and party (which, granted, is hard to imagine).

10. The Innocence Mission - We Walked In Song

Thanks to Peter for alerting me to this lovely album that I would have otherwise ignored. He wrote very eloquently about this release on this blog earlier this year.

Honorable mention: Amy Winehouse - Back To Black, Bruce Springsteen - Live In Dublin, David Kilgour - The Far Now, Dean & Britta - Back Numbers, Feist - The Reminder, Kristin Hersh - Learn To Sing Like A Star, Meat Puppets - Rise To Your Knees, The National - Boxer, Nick Lowe - At My Age, Paul McCartney - Memory Almost Full, Richard Thompson - Sweet Warrior, Robyn Hitchcock - Sex, Food, Death... and Tarantulas (EP).

There is one more 2007 release I wanted to draw your attention to. It's called Song Poem Hits Of 2007 by The David Dubowski One Man Band. David--an eBay entrepreneur who sets other people's poems or lyrics to music in the grand song-poem tradition--gathered together some of his favorite song-poems that he recorded over the past couple years and released them on CD. Unlike most song-poems of the past, David actually put in a lot of work on these songs, and it shows in the music.

My own song-poem (previously featured on this blog) was among the songs included.

The David Dubowski One Man Band - Ballad of the Boy in the Plastic Bubble [right click to download]