Friday, October 2, 2015

Sitting, Thinking, Rocking, Rolling

In my endless quest to appear cool I have been doing my damnedest to stay current and Actually Buy An Album That Came Out This Year.

Son Michael helped out with Sufjan but it was time I did my part. So I grabbed this $5 download from that awful company that exploits its workers. (But I won’t anymore.) Thank God I got this before I found out.

Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Just Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

This young woman got me from the first song. The first second, really. Right out of the gate, she sings the tale of the young man who may or may not be depressed, but who gets help from that older lady you thought was just a nasty bitch.  Heartwarming, uplifting, and you can dance to it.

She’s not afraid to dump a lot of words on you, and you don’t mind it because they’re all so funny or perceptive or both.

With her small, but very committed combo, she varies the pace and tone, going fast then slow, loud then soft. And she plays a mean guitar! She can go soft and smooth, loud and crunchy, or slow and bluesy as the moment requires.

These changes of pace and tone are crucial in holding your interest from song to song. Oh yeah, the songs. They’re kind of good, too.

She can be mean, as in:
I think you’re a joke 
but I don’t think you’re very funny

She stretches out the last word to fu-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-ny. You gotta keep the beat, after all.

She can also be matter-of-factly self-revealing, like:
I used to hate myself
but now I think I’m all right

So she earns the benefit of the doubt that in the former couplet, the intended target deserves it, and in the latter, she means it as advice for us, too.

And by the time we get to the bouncy, funny, angry “Debbie Downer” I’m ready to jump up and down. And that’s quite the sight to see!

That sense of humor, that irresistible Australian drawl, those songwriting chops, that guitar, that band. They almost almost single-handedly rehabilitate the electric piano!

And all this rock and roll is more fun than sad, sad Sufjan. (Not better, mind you, but more fun.)

And even though she ends it with two slow ones, by then you need the rest.

She’s funny, smart, tuneful and a damn good guitar player, and her band follows her wherever she goes.

I don’t blame them a bit.


“Debbie Downer”

Sunday, September 27, 2015

They Were Better When They Weren’t So Good

I held off a long time in getting this, afraid that at the end of the day, I’d consider it overrated.  But then
I’d keep hearing how Radiohead’s first great album was not their third OK Computer, but rather their
second.  And I’ve always been a sucker for the old they were better before they got real famous line.

Alas, I was listening to it around the same time I was playing a lot of Aretha Franklin, and well, it’s a matter of (Radio’s) head vs (Aretha’s) heart.  The Brits didn’t fare well in the comparison.  Plus, I'm not convinced they outdo Aretha in the head department, either.

It may have been my mid-year anti-music funk, but even though the three(!) guitars sounded good - clear, chiming, echoey and very sharp when necessary - and Thom Yorke's voice is pretty - I find it to be that kind of near-great album that I'd normally rush to put on, but that is actually kind of boring.

Being the pre-Ok Computer - and slightly less pretentious - Radiohead, the tunes keep coming and it’s certainly less cluttered, But I’ve concluded I like them better pretentious and cluttered.

So why am I not loving it? Why am I not rushing to put it on? And when I put it on, why does my mind wander so easily?  

Well, the two pretty songs are good but utterly predictable. And the loud ones are kind of there. I can’t make out any of the words and haven’t had the slightest interest in looking them up.

In other words I have no good explanation why an album loved by many is doing (next to) nothing for me.

But finally, after about six months there are a couple of songs that are getting stuck in my head. It turns out to be pretty good painting the house music. Not enough to make me want to paint more, though.

So, it’s the end of the day, while I’m not in love with it, I still hold out hope, and can understand why some people are.


Saturday, September 19, 2015

Aretha Five: The Thrill is Back

In the early seventies everyone got to make a live album, so why not Aretha?  

Luckily for us, it’s not your usual run through of inferior versions of hits.

If I’m hearing it right, she seems to be playing for a largely white crowd and is not sure they’re going to like what they hear. So she hedges her bets by using most of “side one” (you know what a “side one” is, don’t you?) for covers of popular songs of the day before getting to her own songs.

And, for me now, it works. It might not have then, though. I was a stickler for faithful versions of cover songs. Especially the melodies. And that’s not how Aretha rolls. For her, feelings come first.

And now after hearing “Love the One You’re With”, “Make it With You”, “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” and “Eleanor Rigby” thousands of times, I can stand a change. And change them, she does, in the best possible way. I wanted to hate these versions, but now after her “Bridge” I’ll live if I never hear Art Garfunkel’s voice again.

Having a great band - courtesy of King Curtis - helps.

The vocals on this record are amazing. Duh. But coming from a rock and roll fan all too often  disappointed by live performances, I can say that she sounds even better here.

And while I typically discount the crowd noises on a live album, here they’re so into it, it adds to the fun.

“Respect” is speeded up just to get the show off on the right foot, “Dr Feelgood” is slowed down to, um, get everyone in the mood, and “Spirit in the Dark” has Ray Charles.

She and Ray spend too much time on “Spirit”. It’s a single record and space is precious. Another couple of songs could have fit. Ah, but what’s a live album without one song dragged out?  

And in this way, all live albums suffer from the “you’re not really there” syndrome and one tends to enjoy them slightly less because of it. And since they almost always have songs you already know, you’re less likely to go back to them.

So, as entertaining as this record is, it's not quite essential. 

But it's very entertaining, and by the end Aretha herself seems surprised at the reception she gets.


Saturday, September 12, 2015

Aretha Four: After the Thrill is Gone

It’s the turn of the decade (1970) and Aretha, while doing fine on the soul charts, has her string of of pop smashes are a year or two behind her.

So what does a singing phenomenon (an overused word, but no more apt than here) do next? Get down to work on some new music. Pure and simple.

Instead of the bright colors of prior album covers, this one’s grainy black and white. And instead of Aretha all done up or dressed to the nines, here I can’t even see any makeup.

As for the music, the first thing I notice is the sorrow of the opening track - “Don’t Play That Song”, which I’m ashamed to say I was unfamiliar with. (Not Mrs. Jaybee, though. She seems to know everything. She just doesn’t blog about it. Don’t tell her I said that.)

It isn’t overwhelming, like “Respect” or “Natural Woman”, Just emotional in the best sense. That wonderful  gospel piano (which Aretha plays herself) is the key to it all. As sad as this tale of heartbreak is, you’re uplifted and singing along by the end.

“The Thrill is Gone” is even bluesier than B.B. King’s version.  Aretha’s batting average on covers remains high! (Ah, but is it a cover? She actually recorded it around the same time as BB.) All she’s missing is his guitar.

“Pullin’” is mid-tempo, piano-based gospel-soul, with great backup vocals. It’s very representative of the album overall.

And it’s here that the strategy of this album becomes clear. Aretha’s no longer interested in blowing the roof off your house, She prefers to just fill it with joy. Which means she’s dropped the volume a bit, leaning more on gospel than soul this time. 

Aretha is now "making an album" as opposed to recording a bunch of songs that may or may not end up together on the same record. She’s aiming to making every cut count and almost succeeds.

“You and Me” is slow, lovely pop-soul (no, she’s not done with soul). “Honestly I Do” is slow and bluesy but a bit forgettable.

The title song is anything but. But again, the goal isn’t to overpower you, but to sweep you along. And it works brilliantly.

“When the Battle is Over” is rock and roll, pure and simple.

The remainder of the record gets back to mid-tempo piano-driven gospel-ish soul. These cuts are not quite on the level of the first half of the record, but I feel like I’m just getting to know them.

She finishes up with her cover of “Why I Sing the Blues” and again she rivals the original.

So how does this record stand up against the classics?

Not knowing any of the songs on a record ahead of time can actually be an advantage for me, because I’m hearing the whole thing fresh, from start to finish. In that respect this is my favorite Aretha album because all the pleasures are brand new.

And Aretha proves (not that she needed to) that she’s in it for the long haul.


Friday, September 4, 2015

Aretha Three: Then

I’m still going through this $10 embarrassment of riches and get to...

There are no masterpieces here like “Respect”, from I Never Loved a Man… or “Natural Woman” from Lady Soul, but while the peaks aren’t as high the valleys aren’t as low, either.

It kicks off smartly with “Think”, which should probably end in an exclamation point. Her version of “Say a Little Prayer” beats Dionne Warwick’s. And “The Night Time Is the Right Time” is just about as good as Ray Charles’.  (But do hunt down the Creedence version with that bitchin’ electric guitar.) And maybe I’m just not keeping up with the (past) times, but I like her “You Send Me” more than Sam Cooke’s!

Things keep moving briskly almost to the end when the material dries up. Although she sings so well you might not notice.

This is her third record, squeezed out in the space of a year and barely a half hour long. I can’t really blame Atlantic for cashing in on her sudden fame.  Aretha’s Gold takes the cream of this and the other two records and thus ends up as one of the great Greatest Hits records ever. Not that I’m sorry I drilled down here...

And the fact that it’s the most unfamiliar one to me (so far) I'm liking it more than I probably should. So it's really only the third best of the three. To which I say, So Freakin' What?


Saturday, August 29, 2015

Aretha Two: And the Title Goes To...

Lady Soul

Such was the impact of I Never Loved a Man… that no one batted an eye at the title of this follow up album.

After the white hot vocals of I Never Loved a Man… she dials it back ever so slightly here. The rhythms are dialed back a bit, too. Not a problem. If anything she might be even more focused, and the band really cooks.

The material, though, is slightly weaker. (The best songs lead off and end each side (if you remember what a “side” is, that is) I think she senses this. Yet she doesn’t overplay her hand by oversinging. Pretty smart, if you ask me.

Her covers compete with the originals: I think I prefer her version of “Money Won’t Change You” to James Brown (but I’ve still got that mountain to climb). “People Get Ready” is fine but not quite on the level of the Impressions.  “Come Back Baby” is up there with Ray Charles’ (and let’s not forget Hot Tuna’s!). “Groovin” is okay but I’m not sure it gives her room to add much to it.

Of course “Natural Woman” is one of the greatest pop songs ever recorded (Thank you again Carole King!) with a an utterly transcendent bridge (starting at 1:45) and perhaps the greatest use of strings on a pop record ever.  A great to be alive record.

“Since You’ve Been Gone” is just So. Damned. Insistent. Whew, I need to sit down.

And there's little old Eric Clapton showing up as a guest on “Good As I Am To You”, but you could easily miss it because of how Aretha wails. Who’s the idiot who said she was dialing it back?

The closer, “Ain’t No Way” tries to match this intensity of “Natural Woman”, and actually has a better vocal, but the song itself comes up short, but that just means instead of it being great it’s merely damned good.

As is the album overall. So I give the edge to I Never Loved a Man…, which is a little more consistent and has more songs. But if you want to be entertained, and amazed by that voice, and you can’t find your copy of that record, this one will do just fine.


“Natural Woman”

Friday, August 21, 2015

Record Store Day, Part Two: Respect

So I left Other Music with every intention of meeting up with Mrs. Jaybee - who was waiting for me a few blocks down at Barnes and Noble - but walked right in the middle of a street fair, where the record racks exert a gravitational pull on you, by which I mean me.

I managed to escape but not before wasting about at least fifteen minutes. (I thought it was five, but have since learned that 5 minutes of record store time is 15 in real time. I know, it wasn’t technically a record store, but somehow the same time/space rules applied.)

So then off to Barnes and Noble where - after a dozen visits without buying a single book (library lurker and cheapskate that I am) - I realized that they have a record section! And I had gift cards!

Which is where I got five Aretha Franklin albums. I know, it sounds like a real gluttony thing to do, but in this case I think it was the right way to go.

It was a five pack that somehow got marked down from $30 to $10(!). And while Aretha’s Gold covers a lot of this territory, it’s on vinyl way down in the basement. Here was a chance to give my knees a rest, and to give this major artist her due.

I’ve always been very intimidated by soul music. When I was a kid I saw a documentary about Aretha Franklin, and was taken aback by how all of these African Americans loved this woman who (I thought) only had that one hit, and who didn’t seem to need the Beatles at all.

And there was such pride and gusto in the music.  Back then, I was uncomfortable with African Americans being anything but meek and quiet. But there Aretha was, commanding the stage.

I’d eventually learn more about Aretha and other soul artists, but usually by reading interviews with Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, whose Anthology opened my eyes to all of these music makers I was not hearing, but who my heroes nevertheless played with and worshiped.

The best I would be able to manage over the years was to sample around the edges by getting Best-ofs and such by Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and, of course, James Brown..

Now I had a chance to dig a little deeper.

So let’s start with her Atlantic debut.

I Never Loved a Man.jpg

I’ve Never Loved a Man The Way I Loved You

Sometimes you hear something you’ve heard a million times before, but get to hear it  like it’s for the first time again. Imagine walking around telling people what a great movie The Godfather is. The response is, “Well, yeah.”  You end up belaboring the obvious. So forgive me for telly you how great a record -  “Respect” is. An impossible record, really. Especially if you’ve heard the Otis Redding original. With this one song, Aretha announces herself as the greatest popular singer of the era.

Of course, Aretha had been making records for years before this, but they were mainly blues and gospel. Now, she was leaping into the mainstream. Or was she dragging it back over to her?

“Respect” is followed by an excellent version of “Drown in My Own Tears”. Then the title song - which is one of the most potent soul songs ever.

“Dr. Feelgood” is about her primary care provider. And how.

I’m learning to hear that the B in R&B really is for Blues, which you can hear loud and clear in these songs. It just gets called Soul.

Except for “Save Me”, which is flat out rock and roll.

And her version of “A Change is Gonna Come” is almost as good as Otis Redding's. (I don’t know if he would have been able to deal with her topping him twice on the same album.)

Like a lot of albums from the era, not every track is a classic, but that’s also part of its appeal, hearing it so many years later. You get some classics surrounded by songs you never heard before but that are nonetheless delightful thanks to that great voice.


“Dr. Feelgood”

More Aretha Later