Archive for the ‘ Americana ’ Category

Gene Clark “Two Sides To Every Story”

Two Sides To Every Story

It was three years after Gene Clark’s infamous, cocaine-fueled mid 70s masterpiece No Other, teaming again with Thomas Jefferson Kaye as producer and employing the best musicians of the era, Doug Dillard, Emmylou Harris, Jeff Baxter, Al Perkins, John Hartford to name a few, Clark took things down a notch while retaining a tight (but not overly slick) studio sound on 1977’s Two Sides To Every Story. Even judging the albums by their cover, the excess of No Other gets stripped away to reveal a regular, humble Gene Clark in its wake. On the surface what appears to be a late, perhaps too-safe offering from a washed up Gene Clark (it did turn out to be another commercial failure) in hindsight is one of his finest moments on record.

A little bit a country, a litte bit rock n roll, a heavy dose of Gene’s trademark ballads and tender vocal deliveries, you’ll probably fall for one of the styles offered up on Two Sides more than another, but the varied mix works. Album starter “Home Run King” is an oddly great track as good as anything from the Fantastic Expedition, though Dillard’s pronounced banjo picking will surely turn off the less country inclined. In the same kind of feel, the band lends traditional “In The Pines” as much a ‘Gene Clark’ sound as Nirvana would do for themselves some fifteen years later. I’m less inclined to stay around for the barroom rock sound on his own “Kansas City Southern,” previously recorded for Dillard & Clark’s Through The Morning Through The Night, and a cover of Young Jessie’s “Mary Lou,” but these are still strong cuts.

The key to this record is to not let the soft ones sneak by. Like all good Clark tunes the slower numbers here are moody, dynamic, dramatic rides that pay off more and more with each new listen. The beautiful “Sister Moon” could have easily found a home on No Other.  “Give My Love To Marie” is a tender take on a sad track penned by the underrated James Talley. The final trio of ballads, “Hear The Wind,” “Past Addresses,” and “Silent Crusade” all originals where he does his thing; the growing beauty of this album further solidifies Gene Clark as one of my favorite singer/songwriters (a shame I hadn’t found this one sooner).

Perhaps a little more thought on the sleeve design (not that Gene’s big goofy grin on the back is without its charm) might have ensured Two Sides would be properly recognized as the classic it is. On the other hand, most of Clark’s material remains woefully unrecognized today, Two Sides no exception.

The fairly new High Moon Records issued Two Sides To Every Story on vinyl (with 16-page booklet) earlier this year. They plan to also put it out on CD for the first time this spring, included with an extra disc of bonus material. Apparently vinyl buyers will eventually be able to get their hands on the extra material as well through a download card. You can’t be a Gene Clark fan without this one.

mp3: Home Run King
mp3: Sister Moon

:) Reissue | 2013 | High Moon Records | buy from highmoon ]
:) Original | 1977 | RSO Records | search ebay ]

Fred (self-titled)

The band Fred emerged out of a late-sixties, rural Pennsylvania university scene with a unique sound born not only from its laid-back surroundings, but from a rather heady record collection spanning everything from The Band to the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Though they were only around for a couple years before dissolving into the Lost Annals of Forgotten Music You’ve Probably Never Head About, they managed to record a series of testaments to their musical development that have stood the test of time. The first of these, the dopily self-titled Fred, is definitely the crown jewel of the lot, and captures the band in a beautiful, early stage of development in which they are still experimenting at blending their eclectic interests under the spell of their mellow surroundings.

Perhaps nowhere is the band’s catholic tastes more in evidence than in the opening number, the cryptically entitled “Four Evenings.” Everything here swirls and meanders, but all around a central point. I have never been one for what is generally known as “progressive rock,” but Fred manages to borrow certain elements from that emerging genre and incorporate them seamlessly into a group sound that is clearly grounded in American country, blues and folk music (it doesn’t take much to identify the influence of ye olde favorites Crosby, Stills and Nash on their vocal harmonies, that’s for sure). The searing violin work never comes across as musically exhibitionist, or as one of those cliched attempts at transforming a collection of simple little rock and roll songs into some more respectable/bourgeoisie form of “high art.” Rather, the instrument serves as an accent where it is needed, and is not afraid to make itself scarce when it is not.

Perhaps a good reference point to give would be the British rock group Mighty Baby, who were in the process of cutting their excellent Jug of Love record. Both recordings manage to fuse a deep sense of popular aesthetics and traditional musical forms with innovative musical virtuosity and daring. Fred does not engage in the same measure of lengthy improvisations, but more than makes up for this by penning a series of beautiful (albeit surreal) ballads, such as “Soft Fisherman” and “Salvation Lady,” the latter of which includes a tasteful example of the aforementioned violin work. The longest piece here, the seven minute space odyssey “Wind Words,” is a pretty odd composition, and is perhaps the closest that Fred comes to jazz-fusion territory, though the gonzo vocal lines and wah-pedal guitar also hint at the Mothers of Invention influence claimed in the record’s liner notes.

One would think that such an unusual little nugget of a record would have managed to draw at least a little popular attention in psychedelic circles, but Fred still remains elusive. In fact, the record remained entirely unreleased until 2001, when the German record label World In Sound reissued this collection on both vinyl and compact disc, drawing together what would have otherwise been the group’s first record with the aid of several of the original members, who also contribute liner notes. Two additional releases have also seen the light of day, a sophomore album and a live set, both from 1974, but these make the full plunge into prog/jazz-fusion, sadly abandoning most of Fred‘s hazy, country roots.

mp3: Four Evenings
mp3: A Love Song

:D Reissue | 2001 | World in Sound | buy from world in soundamazon ]

Borderline “Sweet Dreams & Quiet Desires”

Here’s yet another gem I found tucked within these pages at the The Band’s best fan site. Involvement from a Band member or two can’t guarantee a record’s gonna be a good one, but most of the time, you can count on it.  Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson both grace this class act recording credited respectively as “Dick Handle” and “Campo Malaqua,” but they’re no show stealers next to some heavy hitting session men, a fine set of original tunes and Borderline’s down home, roaming feel.

Sweet Dreams and Quiet Desires somehow manages to blend classic rock with the Bearsville sound, Nashville country, even as far as bluegrass – albeit more of a laid-back and stoned grass-rock than that of the Dillards, Brummels or Goose Creek. Brothers David and Jon Gershen turn in 8 original numbers ranging from swampy groovers like David’s “Don’t Know Where I’m Going” to Jon’s strung-out, anthemic ballads “Please Help Me Forget” and “Dragonfly.” Traditional numbers arranged by producer and guitarist Jim Rooney (“Clinch Mountain,” “Good Womans Love,” and “Handsome Molly”) seamlessly flow next to classic sounding country numbers by David Gershen (“Marble Eyes,” Sweet Dreams”). In addition to the Band members, Band producer John Simon appears on piano as well as Billy Mundi on drums and Vassar Clements on fiddle.

Sadly, Sweet Dreams and the ill-fated Second Album remain criminally unissued.  For now, get yer Borderline info/story here. This record certainly deserves as much recognition as any other genre-forging classic country rock record I’ve heard.

Update:  Borderline is finally being issued, along with their never before released Second Album, by Real Gone Music! The CD includes new liners with a limited amount autographed by the band. Scoop this edition up before it leaves us again.

mp3: Don’t Know Where I’m Going
mp3: Please Help Me Forget

:D 2CD Reissue | 2012 | Real Gone Music | buy from real gone ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1972 | Avalanche | search ebay ]

Pete Seeger “Clearwater II”

While this record is technically credited to various artists, I’m calling it a Pete record here (he likely wouldn’t accept the credit) for convenience and recognition of the fact that it wouldn’t exist without the Hudson River Valley’s hero and national treasure, Pete Seeger. If you haven’t read up on Pete’s body of work, seen the excellent documentary The Power of Song, tried to learn 5-string banjo, or ever listened to an American folk tune, there is little doubt that Seeger’s music or social efforts have still reached you in some way. On this rarely found followup to 1974’s Clearwater, Pete and friends, including folk names like Judy Collins and Tom Paxton, deliver an outstanding set of traditional folk, sea chanties, and progressive folk numbers devoted to the Hudson River.

Tom Winslow’s “It’s the Clearwater” kicks off this rather fine sequence of gems, a rousing and catchy anthem to the Clearwater Sloop that’s sailed the Hudson promoting environmental awareness since 1969. I had heard lot’s of Pete Seeger’s music recorded with the Weavers, solo cuts from scores of best-of albums, but I had yet to hear his “Golden River,” a gorgeous ode you could only imagine played on bank of the river, featuring lazily swift guitar patterns and a vocal as honest and pleasant as a voice could provide. This may be Pete at his finest, his banjo machine seeming to perform the melody by itself for “My Dirty Stream,” a plainly clear assessment of the Hudson’s polluted condition; the picking sounds almost accidentally natural. Several boisterous sea chanties lend a presence similar to Graceland, albeit a little more from under an Irish bar than African skies.  The tracks balance gently, never allowing one feel or another to steal the show.

A couple surprises turn up too, like side A closer “Jebah Brown” by the Womblers, a traditional sounding number hiding a dark, synth-padded almost-psych section, detailed with some nice electric picking and a good and out-there mix. Another gem is Frostwater’s “Haul Away,” a laid-back folkster groove educated with a slight taste of rock.

If you aren’t a serious folkie, you may not get down with every tune here, but Clearwater II stands as a sweet slice of American folk that while gravely honest, and to-the-point in message, feels like a celebration among friends. As local and homegrown as it gets, yet universal, and rich with life.

As stated on the back cover, “Proceeds from this album will be used by the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater to improve the ecology of the river.” If you manage to find this one out in the wild or enjoy the tracks posted here you can find out how to donate to the Clearwater cause at clearwater.org and you can find some of the tracks  from Clearwater and Clearwater II posted at their site as well.

mp3: Pete Seeger – Golden River
mp3: Frostwater – Haul Away

:) Original | 1977 | Sound House Records | search ebay ]

Doc Watson “Doc and the Boys”

There’s little doubt folk and bluegrass lost one of its legends in Doc Watson, a self-taught founder of flatpicking and popularizer of traditional American music for 60 some years. While you can’t miss on any Doc record, this one is my go-to favorite.

Though Doc and the Boys was Doc’s highest charting LP (41 on US Country), little mention is heard of the record today. A lot of the early pickers are subjugated to compilations, best-ofs, and box sets. Fortunately, this LP comes from a time when singles were eschewed for album length statements, and Doc and the Boys delivers a rock solid 35:00 straight from the prime of that funky, in-the-groove Nashville country of the mid-70s.

Starting from the studio recording side, we get a smoking kickoff in “Darlin’ Corey,” Jim Isbell’s zip-tight rhythm dispelling any doubt that a drum kit belong in a bluegrass tune. Merle trades lines with Doc’s harp on the deep-in-the-pocket “Cypress Grove Blues” and Doc proves his gifts with a song on Tom Paxton‘s very sweet “Can’t Help But Wonder (Where I’m Bound),” an easygoing “Girl I Love,” and a bouncy number called “Natural Born Gamblin’ Man.” Side one closes with the hottest rendition of “Little Maggie” I’ve yet to hear. He may be known for his picking, but Doc may have had one of the best rounded and perfectly suited vocal tones in the history of country music. Such a comforting, deep, and rooted voice.

Recorded live at the Hub Pub in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, side two doesn’t skip a beat in its sound. It took me a year to even realize the sides were split between live and studio! If anything, the live atmosphere only adds to the octane in the picking and harmonies. In any case, tunes like the a capella “Southbound Passenger Train” clearly had to be recorded live and we are treated to honest takes on gems like Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spikedriver Blues” and a fine original from piano player Bob Hill in “Southern Lady.” Cash may have done better with “Tennessee Stud” but it’s nice to hear Doc close with a happy take on a hit.

If you’re a fan of “honest, down-to-earth” and damn good country music, track this one down. We’ll miss you, Doc!

mp3: Cypress Grove Blues
mp3: Spikedriver Blues

:D Reissue | 2003 | 2fer w/ Live & Pickin | buy here ]
:) Original | 1976 | United Artists | search ebay ]

Douglas Dillard “The Banjo Album”

Douglas Flint Dillard died in a Nashville hospital on May 16th, 2012, at the age of 75. He never became a household name – doesn’t even rate a personal Wikipedia page – but that was probably fine by this self-effacing, self-mocking virtuoso musician. On the plus side, he survived to an age not achieved by so many of his peers whose names are more widely celebrated. Sometimes it’s better not to become a rock’n’roll legend, especially if it’s posthumously.

Hailing from deepest Missouri and starting out as a bluegrass purist along with guitarist brother Rodney as the eponymous Dillards, Doug became part of the West Coast country-pop revolution of the late 60s, initially as a session player (it’s probably him on the Monkees’ “What Am I Doing Hanging Round”, although Peter Tork could handle the five-string instrument quite capably) and then as a band member touring Europe with the Byrds playing the Sweetheart Of The Rodeo material. Prior to the tour Doug struck up an enduring friendship with former Byrd Gene Clark, contributing to Gene’s album with the Gosdin Brothers, and on his return jam sessions with Gene, Bernie Leadon and Don Beck led to his own Banjo Album.

Coming as it does between Sweetheart and Dillard & Clark’s peerless Fantastic Expedition, the humdrum-titled Banjo Album occupies a seminal place in the evolution of country-rock, as the instruments and players of the standard bluegrass ensemble go in search of new and uncharted musical areas to occupy whilst taking a rockin’ sledgehammer to the traditional lightweight bluegrass sonic envelope. The historical notes by Joe Foster to the present CD put it more dramatically: “Eclectic is certainly a good description . . . jazz drums, harpsichord, djembek, tablas and various sound effects, as well as a manic attack poised somewhere between Earl Scruggs and the Ramones”. Amen to that. And yet despite the frenzied presentation of the numbers – most of the tracks rush along at breakneck pace and clock in at around two minutes – the oddball instrumentation and the thick rock production, this remains an instrumental bluegrass music album at heart. Bill Monroe fans have nothing to fear.

Whilst credited to Douglas Dillard, this is a genuine band effort: Doug on the five-string plus the core combo of Leadon on acoustic and electric guitars, Beck on Dobro, John Hartford on fiddle and Red Mitchell on upright and electric basses. LA session veteran Andrew Belling contributes the harpsichord licks, future longtime Ry Cooder companion Milt Holland adds drums and exotic percussion and there’s a cameo from Gene Clark on harmonica. Departing on “Train 4500”, surely one of the best musical train simulations ever recorded, the journey takes us through a landscape of familiar and rare traditional tunes spiced with Dillard’s piquant arrangements. Sometimes only the timbre of the instrument reveals who’s soloing, as Beck and Belling can both whack out the triplets damn near as fast as Doug. The other high spots are “Clinch Mountain Back Step” on which Doug slurs the notes like the skirl of bagpipes, never missing a triplet roll even through the deliberate lurch in the rhythm, and the closing Dillard/Leadon original “With Care From Someone” with its distinctly non-bluegrass descending chromatic minor chord progression, on which all the protagonists get a chance to solo and Belling produces some revolutionary rock harpsichord. The bonus track on the Rev-Ola reissue is “Runaway Country”, the one-off track Doug contributed to the movie Vanishing Point with scorching assistance from Byron Berline and Billy Ray Latham of Country Gazette.

After the high-water-mark of Fantastic Expedition Doug’s career would settle into a comfortable stream of sessions with just about every country-flavoured performer in California and subsequently Nashville, intertwined with recordings and live appearances with a procession of reformed Dillards, New Dillards, Doug Dillard Bands and Rodney Dillard Bands until Doug became too ill to perform around 2010. If his epitaph be sought, it’s probably fair to say that every subsequent outfit from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to Bela Fleck & The Flecktones that’s twisted the tail of banjo-powered country music into new and unfamiliar shapes can be said to owe a debt to what Doug and Co. did on The Banjo Album.

mp3: Train 4500
mp3: Clinch Mountain Back Step

:D Reissue | 2012 | Floating World | buy here ]
:) Original | 1969 | search ebay ]

Skip Battin “Topanga Skyline”

It took a while longer to appear than expected, but Skip Battin’s second solo album has finally surfaced on CD after thirty-nine years. The explanations for its shelving in 1973 include, depending on whom you read and believe, (a) the vinyl shortage resulting from the oil embargo following the Yom Kippur War, (b) the cancellation of the fall-of-‘73 national tour featuring Skip, Gene Parsons, Gram Parsons, Clarence White and Country Gazette through various city fathers vetoing the presence of “longhairs”, or (c) loss of heart in the recording project following the death of Clarence. Following Skip’s own passing in 2009, his son Brent negotiated with California’s Sierra Records to issue the “lost” album posthumously in celebration of the fortieth anniversary of Skip’s first appearance with the Byrds. Three years further on, we finally have it, and it’s been worth the wait despite the sad circumstances of its gestation and publication.

Clarence was killed on July 15, 1973, three days before recording was due to begin, but the sessions went ahead nevertheless. In place of the various Byrds alumni who backed Skip on his eponymous debut set, he received the services of members of the redoubtable Country Gazette and assorted friends: Bob Beeman and Herb Pedersen (acoustic guitars), Chris Etheridge (RIP April 23, 2012 – bass), Byron Berline (fiddle), Alan Munde (banjo), Roland White (brother of Clarence – mandolin) and Mike Bowden (drums), and in Clarence’s place came Al Perkins from the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band on electric guitar, pedal steel and Dobro. A more capable combo could not have been wished for, and the album resonates with their flawless musicianship behind Skip’s down-home Dylanish vocal and piano. If there was an atmosphere of sadness and loss in the studio, it doesn’t show in the music, which is relentlessly upbeat and powerful on the fast tunes and warm and sympathetic on the ballads. The bluegrass players shine both ensemble and as soloists, and Perkins’s contributions are remarkably assured given his last-minute drafting. Production by Skip’s longtime writing and recording partner Kim Fowley is exemplary, as you’d expect.

The CD package as released by UK imprint Floating World on licence from Sierra includes the nine original studio tracks completed before the decision to abandon. These are split between typically idiosyncratic Battin/Fowley country-rock originals – “Bolts Of Blue”, “Don’t Go Down The Drain”, “Stoned Sober” – and supercharged bluegrass covers – the Morris Brothers’ “Salty Dog Blues”,  A.P. Carter’s “Foggy Mountain Top”, the traditional ”Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” – plus a truly inspired reworking of the old 1959 Olympics hit “Hully Gully”. In addition to these there are several bonuses. “Willow In The Wind” and “China Moon” are taken from Skip’s 1981 album “Navigator”, an Italian-only release featuring Sneaky Pete Kleinow on pedal steel. The ghost of Clarence walks on an alternative version of “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and on “Old Mountain Dew”, two rehearsal tapings which are thought to be the last recorded work Clarence ever laid down. Rounding the package out is a short mpeg of a clean-cut Elvis-quiffed Skip performing solo on a 1965 Californian TV show similar to Ready Steady Go on which he lip-synchs a couple of pre-British Invasion teenypop songs, “Searchin’” and “She Acts Like We Never Have Met”. All in all, then, a lot of Skip for the money and well worth the investment if you’re interested in the long and varied career of this fine musician, in which case you’ll also want to see this astonishingly comprehensive history, rare photos and discography.

mp3: Bolts of Blue
mp3: Salty Dog Blues

:D Reissue | 2010 | Sierra | buy here ]

Guy Clark “Old No. 1″

Guy Clark waited a long time to get himself on record, despite a proven pedigree as a songwriter penning sometimes joyous, sometimes bittersweet, frequently autobiographical, always poetic narratives of Western life. Jerry Jeff Walker had cut Clark’s “L.A. Freeway” and “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train” for his eponymous 1972 album, whilst Townes Van Zandt included “Don’t Let The Sunshine Fool Ya” on his sublime The Late Great Townes Van Zandt the same year. Meanwhile, Monahans, TX, native Clark had held down a day job as a TV station art director in Houston whilst playing the city’s folk clubs with the likes of Townes and K.T. Oslin, and, during a brief unhappy spell in Los Angeles, worked as a staff songwriter for Sunbury Music and as a luthier building Dobros. It wasn’t until several years after he moved to Nashville that he finally signed to RCA and released his own first album in 1975, effectively “covering” some of his own tunes that others had put down years earlier.

Under his RCA contract Clark turned out two country-meets-folk albums of such homely, unassuming beauty that it’s amazing in retrospect to think it took him so long to find his own voice on vinyl. On the first, Old No. 1 , Clark’s own belated versions of “Desperadoes” and “Freeway” proved peerless, and other future classics such as “Texas 1947”, “Let Him Roll” and “A Nickel For The Fiddler” rounded out a faultless ten-track set taking in folk, bluegrass, honky-tonk and the most lonesome of torch ballads in a respectful, authentic fashion that contrasted with both the bland country-pop of Chet Atkins’s Nashville roster and the hyperactive rawk’n’roll of Waylon Jennings’s Outlaw clique. Alongside Clark’s own masterful acoustic guitar picking, the album featured gorgeous, restrained accompaniments from a bevy of Music Row sessioneers including Reggie Young (guitar), Johnny Gimble (fiddle), Micky Raphael (harmonicas), David Briggs (piano) and Hal Rugg (pedal steel and Dobro) plus almost all of Emmylou Harris’s entourage as guest backing vocalists, with Harris’s own crystal soprano harmonies embellishing Clark’s warm, cracked Texas brogue in similar fashion to the way she’d counterpointed the fragile warblings of Gram Parsons.

None of which, sadly, provided Clark with a hit; there were no singles released and the album itself struggled only to a lowly 41 on the Billboard country chart. The next year’s follow-up Texas Cookin’ similarly made no commercial impact despite being of nearly as high a quality and including such wonderful waxings as “Virginia’s Real”, “Don’t Let The Sunshine Fool Ya” and the incomparable “The Last Gunfighter Ballad”, and that did it for Clark’s RCA contract. It would be another two years before he resurfaced on Warner for his third long-player, since when he’s put out infrequent albums on that and no fewer than seven other imprints with no-better-than-modest sales all the way. Yet his songs have been repeatedly covered by country royalty: Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Brad Paisley, Rodney Crowell, Alan Jackson, Bobby Bare, Jimmy Buffett and the Highwaymen. In 2011 a slew of the aforementioned plus Steve Earle, Joe Ely, Roseanne Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Ron Sexsmith, Townes’s son John and others returned the compliment with a double CD of Clark’s best known tunes entitled This One’s For Him: A Tribute To Guy Clark. Rarely has such a tribute been so genuinely justified, but if this sounds just too gratulatory, treat yourself instead to the twofer CD containing Old No. 1 and Texas Cookin’.

mp3: Texas, 1947
mp3: She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere

:) Original | 1975 | RCA | search ]
:D Reissue | 2fer | 2002 | Bmg | buy ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

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 ]
:D Reissue | 1994 | Tomato | buy ]

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 ]
:D Reissue | 2002 | BGO | buy ]