Archive for January, 2012

Townes Van Zandt “The Late Great Townes Van Zandt”

There are numerous passing references to Townes Van Zandt in these pages, but until now the nearest he’s come to a dedicated post is the uReview of his 1968 freshman album For The Sake Of A Song which examines its debatably elaborate orchestration and production. But whatever the issues concerning the debut, there’s no doubt that by this 1972 offering, the last from his fertile five-year period on Poppy/Tomato, he’d got his recording process exactly right. The accompaniments on this collection display a variety appropriate to the varying nature of the songs, yet the playing is so restrained and spare and the production so sympathetic that they never intrude: indeed, the fiddles, Dobros, mandolins, pianos, electric guitars, bass and drums, whilst played by a coterie of lesser-known Nashville virtuosi, are often almost ghostly in their presence. This of course suits what another reviewer called Townes’s “thin maudlin voice” down to the ground and results in as atmospheric an outing as anyone in the country-rock genre had ever produced up to that time. The subsequent long line of haunting Americana featuring such luminaries as the Cowboy Junkies, Uncle Tupelo and Lambchop could be said to start here.

Beyond the two covers of fifties country standards and one Guy Clark number, Townes’s own songs generally evoke the solitude and destitution of his chosen beat/hobo life and are inevitably coloured by his prodigious alcohol intake and substance abuse; indeed the album title itself, though actually about twenty-five years premature, is a wry reference to the near-death episode prior to this recording in which fellow toper Jerry Jeff Walker discovered him comatose after a cocktail of heroin, cocaine and vodka and obtained medical assistance just in time. Townes harks back to the debut album with a less limpid reworking of “Sad Cinderella”, relying mainly on a gentle piano to support the more homely vocal. The peerless ballad “Pancho And Lefty”, probably his best known composition and covered by enough A-list country artists to guarantee him a modest pension had he survived long enough to draw it, juxtaposes his own Kerouac-style wandering existence with those of the bandit/folk hero Pancho Villa and Lefty, a blues singer who ends up broke and busted in Cleveland; the disconcerting chord changes in the verses are soothed by gorgeous Mariachi trumpets on the choruses. “If I Needed You” is perhaps the simplest and most effecting yearning country love song since Dylan’s “If Not For You” and has also been covered by the likes of Emmylou Harris. Townes makes one of his occasional offhand forays into acoustic blues on “German Mustard” accompanied only by fine slide guitar from one Rocky Hill, who presumably also provides the Dobro on the cover of Clark’s almost-optimistic “Don’t Let The Sunshine Fool Ya” and smooth lap steel on the respectfully authentic rendering of Hank Senior’s classic “Honky Tonkin’”. The penultimate “Silver Ships Of Andilar” is an untypical maritime folk ballad recalling Coleridge’s Rime Of The Ancient Mariner with unexpectedly powerful orchestration and choral decoration. To my mind the only weak track on the album is the closing “Heavenly Houseboat Blues”, a flaccid spiritual not quite rescued by fine fiddle and mandolin playing.

If Cecil Ingram Parsons was the tragic Crown Prince of country rock, Townes Van Zandt was its Great Pretender, forever waiting in the wings and seemingly resigned to doing so. Despite a much longer career than Gram, he remains one of country rock’s better kept secrets. Gleaners of his legacy can do a lot worse than starting here, but anyone strongly into this sort of music who decides to go straight for the amazing-value Texas Troubadour box set won’t be disappointed.

mp3: Pancho and Lefty
mp3: If I Needed You

:) Original | 1972 | Poppy | search ebay ]
😀 Reissue | 1994 | Tomato | buy ]

Jesse Ed Davis “Jesse Davis”

While Jesse Ed Davis’ legacy has finally started to see the light of recognition, there is still a long way to go in establishing his rightful place in the pantheon of rock and roll legends. The Kiowa guitarist’s career encompassed work with everyone from Conway Twitty to John Lee Hooker to Bob Dylan, and his time served in the original Taj Mahal band would be highly influential on up-and-coming guitar slingers like Duane Allman (he being the inspiration for the latter’s taking up bottleneck-style guitar in the first place). Davis never really managed to establish himself as a commercially successful singer in his own right, but that did not prevent him from cutting a series of strong and invigorating records in the early 1970s, the first and foremost of these being Jesse Davis.

Davis has surrounded himself with a real who’s-who of rock and roll musicians here, including Eric Clapton, Joel Scott Hill, Gram Parsons and the oddly-omnipresent Leon Russell. This is a hearty American brew; it’s only too bad that the liner notes do not include a track by track breakdown of who is playing what on which songs. Davis’ voice may be an acquired taste – being slightly nasally and, yes, sometimes a little pitchy – but it also has a lot of character, and its hard not to give the guy a break; in the end, whatever vocal limitations the cat may be accused of are more than made up for by his exemplary musicianship. In his guitar playing I have noticed that Davis exhibits a certain degree of Curtis Mayfield influence (similar to that of Woodstock-era Robbie Robertson) in his ability to always serve the song and the rhythm; that is, until it comes time to let loose into a sharp and jagged solo, such as that which leaps out from the end of the otherwise lethargic “Reno Street Incident” – an original composition which was also recorded by Southwind’s Jim Pulte. The expansive horn arrangement on “Every Day Is Saturday Night” falls somewhere between Memphis boogie-woogie and red dirt dixieland, with Davis’ sharp staccato guitar leaping and swerving through the collective improvisation until its gleeful collapse. Make a joyful noise, indeed.

Perhaps the most memorable number here is “You Belladonna You,” which not only manages to lock into a serious groove, but also boasts an inescapable vocal hook. The extended jam at the end is the reason I harbor such ill will towards “the fade-out” on rock and roll records: is this not where the real magic happens? On the other hand, the oddest moment on the record comes with “Golden Sun Goddess,” which is an uncharacteristic detour into Los Angeles yacht rock replete with groovy electric sitars and a lava lamp vocal choir. It sounds like the album’s closest thing to a hit single, though its Steely Dan-isms are pretty jarring. Pretty much everywhere else Davis leans on an earthy, deadpan charm that betrays his deep Oklahoma roots. “Redheaded woman wants me to get a haircut,” Davis grumbles at the end of Pamela Polland’s “Tulsa County” before cracking, “man, I can’t get no haircut. Redhead? That’s a redneck.” Alright, so the Byrds may have cut the definitive take on this one, but they never let themselves have this much fun in the studio. Davis may be criticized for relying so heavily on other people’s material for his own albums, but his takes on these songs are always individualistic, and anyways, the guy’s got some good taste.

Jesse Davis has been reissued both individually and as a set with the follow up release, 1972’s Ululu, but somehow both are currently out-of-print and demanding ridiculously high prices. Your best bet is to keep an eye out for some original vinyl or else sucking it up and purchasing a digital copy, which may in fact be the most affordable choice at the moment though it does entail missing out on the righteous jacket artwork.

mp3: Washita Love Child
mp3: You Belladonna You

:) Original | 1971 | Atco | search ]
😀 Reissue | 2006 | Wea | amazon ]
😎 Spotify link | listen ]

Dory Previn “Mythical Kings and Iguanas”

The life history of the woman born Dorothy Veronica Langan reads like an archetypal Hollywood biopic and is well enough documented elsewhere as to need no repetition here; a fine account can be found in Paul Pelletier’s booklet notes to the current twofer CD of which Mythical Kings And Iguanas is a part. Suffice to say that her father’s abuse and the breakup of her marriage to André Previn were just the two most high-profile of the stream of life experiences that coloured this woman’s approach to songwriting. Put these together with her poetic talent, her extensive career as a staff lyricist for MGM musicals, and her years – she was 45 when her first proper solo album appeared – and the nature and quality of the half-dozen astonishingly personal and almost uncategorisable albums that Dory Previn recorded as a seventies singer-songwriter become clearly explicable.

Mythical Kings was the second of the six studio albums that Previn cut for three different labels between 1970 and 1976 and remains the best known, particularly here in the UK where she enjoyed a brief prominence during the “white room” singer-songwriter vogue that made heroes out of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. Musically it’s a restrained delight, with production and orchestral arrangements by Nik Venet and beautifully understated instrumentation by Clark Maffitt and Brian Davies on acoustic guitars, Larry Knechtel on Fender Rhodes, Joe Osborn and Ron Tutt as rhythm section plus the cream of the LA session mafia on other guitars, keys, strings and winds. The joy of the music here is that for all its quality it lets the words shine through, and what words they are! Previn’s lyrics are sometimes masked in allusion and symbolism, but at others they communicate unalloyed her raw hope and hurt, the prevailing themes on this album being unrequited love and the futility of personal ambition and spirituality. The leadoff title track rues the pursuit of the ethereal at the expense of the real to the accompaniment of an immaculately spare piano backing by Knechtel and a disconcerting slide guitar. “Lemon Haired Ladies” is a barely-disguised admonishment of her former husband and his new amour, while “Angels And Devils The Following Day” compares two former lovers: “One was an artist, one drove a truck / One would make love, the other would fuck” – guess which one came out preferred. “Yada Yada La Scala” implores a prospective lover to stop making small talk and get down to romantic business to a jazzy, hopeful beat and segues beautifully into the haunting “Lady Of The Braid” which starts with the line “Would you care to stay till sunrise?” and rides effortlessly on Maffitt and Davies sweet acoustics and muted orchestral backing. “A Stone For Bessie Smith” is actually a bluesy paean to the late Janis Joplin, and “Mary C Brown And The Hollywood Sign” uses the suicide of a failed actress as a symbol of the futility of the American Dream (and would provide the theme of a whole later album), set to a mournful New Orleans backing. Maffitt’s and Davies guitars provide a gorgeous accompaniment to “The Game” which uses gambling, cheating and lying as a metaphor for life – a lure to which Previn inevitably succumbs.

Mythical Kings is hard to find on its own in any format but is available on the aforementioned twofer CD along with the follow-up Reflections In A Mud Puddle, which includes the astonishing “Taps, Tremors And Time Steps” suite in which Previn juxtaposes the receipt of the news of her father’s death with the disaster of the Hindenburg.  At the end of my review on Chris Bell’s I Am The Cosmos I suggested that if you felt like getting emotionally wrung out one evening, you might try playing that album end-to-end with Tonight’s The Night, In Utero and Elliott Smith’s eponymous second album. Add this one to the list.

mp3: Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign
mp3: The Game

:) Original | 1971 | Mediarts | search ]
😀 Reissue | 2002 | BGO | buy ]

Bill Fay “Time of the Last Persecution”

Bill Fay’s is a name that has crept back into the underground consciousness in recent years due to some unexpected word-of-mouth publicity which has culminated in a series of commendable reissues of the artist’s work. Going into Time of the Last Persecution, however, I was unaware of such recent windfalls and totally unprepared for what I was delving into save for having read a record store tag-line which compared him to Ray Davies and Bob Dylan, or something along those lines. Sounded like hype of the highest order, but I was willing to take a chance; it was a somewhat impulsive bargain-bin purchase, anyways: cut-out bin at $2.99, and with a stark photograph on the cover that was hard to ignore.

At first I was a little uncertain as to Fay’s songwriting, which is quite strong in exploring the author’s religious ideologies, but that hurdle was quite quickly cleared. The truth is that Fay does not preach or praise so much as pray for understanding and salvation; here is the same tortured spirituality that haunts such landmark recordings as Satan Is Real or Dave Bixby’s Ode To Quetzlcoatl. For example, if it were not for the cracked desperation in Fay’s voice, a line like “Satan is in the garden shed, he’d like to screw you all” might come off as ridiculous. As it stands, however, it is both surreal and terrifying. Fay invokes all sorts of twisted black imagery here, from mental collapse to ecological disaster to chemical warfare. The music is a dynamic tapestry of melancholy piano tracks and heavy psychedelic guitars, often exploding into free-jazz inspired chaos as in the incredible title track. Guitarist Ray Russell is sure to blow your mind over the course of Persecution, capable of shifting between savory Nashville accents and volatile Sharrockian squalls. Horn players Tony Roberts, Nick Evans and Bud Parkes help to underscore the occasional free aspects here – this is the kind of jazz-rock fusion I’ve always hoped to hear. Mahavishnu, eat your heart out.

Most of the time, however, the sound of The Last Persecution is closer to Ernie Graham’s equally underrated self-titled record in that it blends elements of British folk-rock with imported American weariness. Alan Rushton and Daryl Runswick make for a crisp rhythm section whose propensity for laid-back grooves is not too far removed from Rick Danko and Levon Helm’s work in The Band. Runswick’s melodic playing on “Dust Filled Room” is a particular delight, though I’m surprised to find that his own artistic background actually extends the record’s free-jazz connections: he has spent time with Ornette Coleman, of all people! Which is all to say that these are some serious musicians, and even if you have trouble latching onto Fay’s songwriting or reedy voice there’s an entire world of delicacies to be tried within the music. Just take a listen to the frenzied coda to “Release Is In the Eye,” with Russell painting lightning all up and down his fretboard as the rhythm section latches on to a droning freight-train pattern.

Eclectic Discs reissued Time of the Last Persecution back in 2005 and did a beautiful job of it, too. This is a unique and heartfelt statement of a man searching through the darkness and while it may not be easy listening, its grooves are full of rewards for the dedicated listener. As Fay himself writes in Eclectic’s liner notes, “I worry to an extent about its ‘heaviness’ circulating out there in a small way, but at the same time I feel there’s maybe something of a therapeutic release in some of the intensity of the music,” which is about as fitting a description as I could ever think to assign.

mp3: Release Is in the Eye
mp3: Time of the Last Persecution

😀 Reissue | 2005 | Eclectic | buy ]
:) Original | 1970 | Deram | search ]
😎 Spotify link | listen ]

Southwest F.O.B. “Smell of Incense”

Northeast Texas heads Southwest F.O.B. can’t claim the same sort of critical attention lauded on such fellow statesmen as the 13th Floor Elevators or Red Krayola, but their one record, Smell of Incense, remains an indispensable slice of Lone Star psychedelia. Much more commercially-minded than any of the aforementioned collectives, the band nevertheless reveals an exciting instrumental virtuosity and willingness to draw FM gold out of esoteric regions. Thankfully, songwriters Dan Seals and John Colley betray little of the sickening soft-rock aspirations that would later drive them into their roles as England Dan and John Ford Coley, and show some surprisingly good taste in outside material.

The F.O.B.’s heavy, barnstorming take on the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s “Smell of Incense” is perhaps the clearest example of the group’s hip tastes and knack for redefinition; as strong as the original may be, the F.O.B. manage to take it in subtle new directions that streamline the song’s eccentric appeal, essentially rebuilding the rhythm section from the ground up. Zeke Durrell’s drumming really makes this recording; dig the intricacies between sections and those explosive runs following the hi-hat break just before the final chorus. You could never call the F.O.B. slick, but these cats are clearly no amateur musicians.

Another of the major highlights here is Seals and Colley’s “And Another Thing,” though its length, at just-under twelve minutes, may try the patience of some listeners – especially considering that about a quarter of those minutes are dedicated to a dizzying, tom-heavy drum solo. The cut never loses its drive, though; even the weird and loopy guitar improvisation in the middle manages to stick close to the song’s heavy rhythmic center. If you dig the warped, astral jams off Cold Sun’s Dark Shadows then there should be a lot for you to like here, though the band’s lyrics are never as interesting as what Bill Miller or Tommy Hall were writing around this time. “Beggar Man” may be one of the worst offenders in this regard, a woefully naïve and romanticized view of urban poverty hinting at the flower child sentiments of the decade.

There are all sorts of notable musical flourishes across this album which stand out in the course of a listen, however, and many lay among the local horn section (itself rather unusual in these interim years between early-sixties frat rock and the approaching Chicago sound) of Dan Seals on saxophone and Randy Bates on trumpet. Bates’ background in mariachi music colors his playing across the record, adding a sharp Texas accent to the band’s thick polychromatic sound. On occasion Seals and Bates hit a rather tepid Los Angeles brass sound, such as on the band’s melodramatic non-album recording of Paul Simon’s “59th Street Bridge Song,” but such moments are reassuringly infrequent and in general the two add, rather than detract, from the overall group dynamic.

Originally released on Stax’s short-lived pop-music imprint Hip Records, The Smell of Incense has been reissued to great effect by the folks over at Sundazed. The compact disc release now includes a wealth of additional material, including alternate mixes (including a shortened version of “And Another Thing” for those with limited constitutions) as well as some more R&B-centric material from the band’s early years as Theze Few. Highly recommended all around.

mp3: And Another Thing

😀 Reissue | Sundazed | buy from sundazed | amazon ]
:) Original | 1969 | Hip Records | search ebay ]
:) Reissue | Sundazed | buy from sundazed ]

Norman Greenbaum “Spirit in the Sky”

Folks are going to recognize the title track of this one, the buzzing slice of pseudo-religious boogie that made Norman Greenbaum…well, maybe not a household name, but at least established him as the voice behind one of the most recognizable tunes to come out of the 1970s. It is actually more than a little surprising that, despite having scored such a serious smash single, Greenbaum would be so quick to drop out of the public eye. Few people have given the rest of his recordings a fair shake, despite albums like Spirit In the Sky and Back Home Again housing a wealth of strong and joyful material.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this one-hit-wonder status is the fact that “Spirit In the Sky” was a little unusual within the context of Greenbaum’s body of work (though not, I’d argue, to the extent that some critics have claimed). The spiritual lyrics would have appeared to herald a rising star in the nascent Jesus Freak scene, but in reality most of the man’s music was a relaxed blend of rootsy Americana and long-haired west coast blues. The lyrics pretty much entirely avoid religion, instead delving into such diverse subjects as back-to-the-earth living, spectral ex-girlfriends, and “smoking the tars of India.” Anyways, Greenbaum is Jewish. Go figure.

Though the cosmic guitar drone that drives Greenbaum’s most famous tune is also conspicuously absent from the rest of Spirit In the Sky, there are all sorts of inventive musical sounds being explored here, from the sunny wah-wah guitar of “Tars of India” to the swirling analogue electronics which dart across both “Alice Bodine” and “Marcy.” The former is a pretty haunting song, and impressively hard to pin down; the gurgling Moog and unusual lyrics would suggest disaster, but Greenbaum’s good taste and ability to walk the line between humor and sincerity let it do its thing. The band here, headed by producer Erik Jacobsen (best known for his work with fellow jugband disciples The Lovin’ Spoonful), is very tight, and really know how to get these songs to boogie. Cuts like “Junior Cadillac” and “The Power” even throw in a horn section for some pretty funky L.A. R&B. It’s to Greenbaum’s credit that these songs prove so memorable; indeed, this is one platter that burns all the way through. Just wait and see how many of these songs you find yourself humming after the needle’s lifted.

Spirit In the Sky was most recently reissued in 2001 with a handful of bonus tracks, but if you can find it a now out-of-print import edition on Demon Records also includes the follow-up album Back Home Again, which is a little rootsier and also comes highly recommended. Before retiring to farm life, Greenbaum would record a last, 1972 album with Ry Cooder entitled Petaluma, but this one’s a lot harder to find. I haven’t heard it, so I’m not sure if it’s as strong as the previous two, though I suspect it is. I mean, just check out that sleeve photograph with a grinning, overalled Greenbaum holding up a chicken. How could you possibly go wrong?

Spirit in the Sky
mp3: Tars of India
mp3: Marcy

Back Home Again
mp3: Hook & Ladder

:) Original | 1969 | Reprise | search ]
😀 Reissue | 2001 | Varese | buy ]
😀 Reissue | 2fer | Demon | buy ]

Dave Davies “Hidden Treasures”

The recent release of The SMiLE Sessions must mark the ebb tide of the steady stream of retrospective issues of mythical “lost” albums from the Sixties. Surely with the debut of The Holy Grail Of Rock these have all now finally appeared in one form or another? But one other such offering that crept out with much less fanfare in the same month as SMiLE is the “lost” solo album by Dave Davies, purveyor of revolutionary guitar licks and falsetto vocal harmonies to the Kinks. Despite its enticing title, as with SMiLE the majority of its songs have already been in the public domain in one form or another for some time, but again like SMiLE the new release represents the first legitimate attempt to bring it together as nearly as possible in its originally-intended form.

The CD contains what are believed to be the genuine original stereo mixes of the twelve proposed album songs – three of these unissued in any form until this release – with some alternative versions in mono, plus the other Dave songs that did see the light of day as solo singles, as components of Something Else By The Kinks or as B-sides of later Kinks 45s: twenty-seven cuts in all. Despite their piecemeal production over two years, the proposed album tracks exhibit commendable homogeneity and the quality is consistently high with respect both to composition and to performance, offering a set of well-crafted pop-rock songs, many with country-rock overtones. Setting them apart from the Kinks’ oeuvre are Dave’s distinctive proto-punk vocals and his frequent use of modest time signature changes and modulations to add further musical interest, whilst the lyrics are in the form of acerbic interpersonal dialogues and wry observations on love, eschewing his brother’s wistful nostalgia. The best of the bunch are the inexplicably-unsuccessful second single “Susannah’s Still Alive” with its great piano riff and homespun harmonica, the Byrdsy jangle of “Mindless Child Of Motherhood”, the twelve-string-driven, string-laden “Lincoln County” with its good-time Lovin’ Spoonful vibe and the lyrically-contentious “Creeping Jean” which recalls Beggars Banquet-era Stones. Despite these comparisons the twelve tracks are distinctly Dave and would indeed have made a fine late Sixties album. The extras naturally include the peerless non-album single “Death Of A Clown”.

The music is solid despite the convoluted circumstances of its genesis, which was lengthy and full of hiccups and about-turns as admirably explained in the fine booklet essay by Russell Smith that accompanies the CD. In 1966 the Kinks’ management proposed a parallel solo career for Brother Dave, on the basis that his good looks and immaculate dress sense might attract a separate teenybopper audience and perhaps lead to films. The man himself was initially resistant to individual promotion, but the other band members were fully amenable and every Dave-credited track was actually a proper Kinks recording, with Dave taking the writer credits and handling the lead vocals but all three other members contributing fully and Ray generally arranging and producing. The initial “Clown” single was a massive 1967 hit and the solo album was immediately proposed, but for some reason from that point on the band’s management and their record labels seemed to lose interest, possibly because of the campaign to rescind the Kinks’ touring ban in the States, possibly because of the success of their increasingly Anglocentric albums there in contrast to their steady decline at home where they were by then widely regarded as a somewhat dated singles band. Specific sessions to cut Dave’s songs were nonetheless held sporadically over the next two years and the twelve-track tape was finally delivered to the Kinks’ US label Warner-Reprise in the fall of ‘69, only to be shelved immediately without either a title or a final running order. Forty-two years on, we finally have it as near as dammit, and Kinks fans and lovers of good Sixties music will agree that it’s been worth the wait.

mp3: Do You Wish to Be a Man
mp3: Creeping Jean

😀 Reissue | 2011 | Sanctuary | buy ]