Sunday, January 27, 2008

Being Good Isn't Always Easy...


Shelby Lynne channels the ghost of Dusty Springfield and exorcises some of her own along the way.


Cover, or tribute albums by their nature are a dicey proposition. On one hand you have an act trying to introduce one of their influences to their own audience whether they requested it or not. On the other hand you have a label telling you that an album of all Beatle or Dylan covers has never failed to sell this many copies. That number incidentally includes Sebastian Cabot and his album of semi-spoken word Dylan covers. (Trust me, you don’t want to search this one out.) Then, you have the vanity type tributes where an artist is so established, or so far down the food chain, that they can cover whoever they want for any reason they deem suitable. This particular album falls somewhere in between the latter. Lynne has sold her share of albums, but in recent years has slid down to more of a critics favorite than a force to be reckoned with. With little to lose artists have a way of delivering their most essential recordings. That is certainly the case here.

Without hearing a note of this album I was certain that she had recorded one of her best albums. The songbook of Dusty Springfield is vast and jumps many genres, but at its core is blue eyed soul at its finest. When I checked the song list and discovered that she chose not to cover “Wishin’ And Hopin’,” “Son Of A Preacher Man,” or “Stay Awhile” among others I knew she was a true fan that wanted to share what Dusty has meant to her instead of what an album of Dusty’s songs could do for her. As a result Lynne has done some of her best work yet.

At this point we should just drop the phrase cover and think tribute instead, because that is really what this is. There is no doubt that Dusty has had a profound effect on Lynne’s music and this album of soulful, almost gothic, interpretations is a rare album in these cookie cutter times for music. Her take on the iconic “The Look Of Love” is just one of the clues that lets you know that soul is not so much a sound as it is truly a feeling that is better shared. The only thing that worried me was seeing the Phil Ramone was the producer. I have no gripe with him at all and his work with Simon & Garfunkel, and even Billy Joel if laudable. I was more worried that the project would be weighted down with too much over production. My worries were unfounded, if anything the album is understated in the best of ways. Looks like a labor of love on everyone’s part here.

These songs of Dusty’s span about seven or eight years and the originals were presented as pop, soul, rock, ballads and even Phil Spector like anthems. What Lynne has done here is take them all to a laid back, stripped down soulful place that makes them all seem as though they were from the same session. That’s not as easy as it sounds, and this album will soon find a place with your late night, or Sunday morning listening pile.

When she does take Dusty head on with covers of “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” and “Anyone Who Had A Heart” she again finds that sweet spot that is best reserved for impossible to convey moments. Listening to this cut I was reminded of Patricia Neal’s wordless longing while washing the dishes in the movie “Hud.”

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a flaw, that while unforgivable, doesn’t sink the album. She has chosen to cover Dusty, covering Tony Joe White’s “Willie And Laura Mae Jones.” When I first saw this in the track listing my head began to spin at the possibilities. The delivered version here is a disappointment on several levels. For those not familiar with the song or the several other covers it may float by on the strength of its ambiance in regard to this project. However, for those of us who first heard this song in the late sixties and were shaken by the racial and political implications this is a major letdown. She decides to drop a verse in the middle and then inexplicably allows the song to fade part way during the final verse which is essentially the point of the entire song. I keep hoping the label will contact me and say there was an error during the mastering phase of the album. This performance of this song just makes no sense.

All of that said, one of the many things that makes this album so compelling is that cover albums, once a rare addition to an artists catalog, have become a burden. Thanks to the industry exploiting anything that was once unique and making it mainstream, even filler they (cover albums) now almost have a squirm factor attached to them. (You can also include “unplugged” and “duet” albums in this category at this point) Lynne could have coasted here and still come away with a fine recording, but instead of walking a familiar path, she instead steps out for stroll on the ledge. She has nothing to fear though, she can take that walk with all the confidence of someone with wings.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

There's a MONSTER on the loose...

A plague like presence invades my fair city...

Our vice president slithered into town earlier this week. It was a fundraiser for some local clone or clown, or someone of his own ilk. It doesn’t matter. With his vice presidency in its last throes everyone is just going through the motions until this administration crawls off into the sunset. I’m sure there will be no shortage of rocks for them to sample before picking their new home. Too bad there won’t be a shortage of air awaiting them too. But I digress…

Anyway back on topic, if that news wasn’t depressing enough this song came out of my radio during my drive home that evening. It’s nearly forty years old, but sounds like it’s summing up the last few years. You don’t necessarily conjure up visions of Steppenwolf when it comes to prophetic or profound lyrics, but who could argue with the results. It‘s a history lesson that was well documented, but never learned and now thanks to those in power is in full repeat mode. Don’t skim these lyrics, take a minute and go through them line by line. I swear they weren’t written yesterday.

I won’t flatter the vice president (the phrase takes on a whole new meaning with him doesn’t it?) with a mug shot. Instead, here’s a nice poster featuring our musical guest of the evening in their prime.



Once the religious, the hunted and weary
Chasing the promise of freedom and hope
Came to this country to build a new vision
Far from the reaches of kingdom and pope
Like good Christians, some would burn the witches
Later some got slaves to gather riches

But from near and far to seek America
They came by thousands to court the wild
But she just patiently smiled and bore a child
To be their spirit and guiding light

Then once the ties with the crown had been broken
Westward in saddle and wagon it went
And 'til the railroad linked ocean to ocean
Many the lives which had come to an end
While we bullied, stole and bought our homeland
We began the slaughter of the red man

But still from near and far to seek America
They came by thousands to court the wild
And she just patiently smiled and bore a child
To be their spirit and guiding light

The blue and grey they stomped it
They kicked it just like a dog
And when the war over
They stuffed it just like a hog

And though the past has it's share of injustice
Kind was the spirit in many a way
But it's protectors and friends have been sleeping
Now it's a monster and will not obey

The spirit was freedom and justice
And it's keepers seem "friendly" and kind
It's leaders were supposed to serve the country
But now they were paying no mind
'Cause the people got fat and grew lazy
now their vote is like a meaningless joke

You know they talk about law, about order
But it's all just an echo of what they've been told
Yeah, there's a monster on the loose
It's got our heads into a noose
And it just sits there watchin'

Our cities have turned into jungles
And corruption is stranglin' the land
The police force is watching the people
And the people just can't understand
We don't know how to mind our own business
'Cause the whole worlds got to be just like us

Now we are fighting a war over there
No matter who's the winner
We can't pay the cost
'Cause there's a monster on the loose
It's got our heads into a noose
And it just sits there watching

America where are you now?
Don't you care about your sons and daughters?
Don't you know we need you now
We can't fight alone against the monster.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

All Summer Long...

Frank takes a walk on the beach, gets his heart broken and tells us all about it .

It’s late summer 1966 and there’s a new record out about a summer romance that only lasts until the leaves start to fall surfacing on radio. Standard fare for sure, the scenario has played itself out many times in music and movies. It’s even part of the public domain as far as life experiences go. We’ve all had our variation on the theme.

Standard fare except the song is by Frank Sinatra sporting an arrangement by Nelson Riddle and a lyric from Johnny Mercer. This trio had worked magic several time before in the fifties. Times were different now and the stakes went beyond mere sales. This was more about still being relevant than top of the pops. They were all more than up to the task with “Summer Wind.”

Time may wait for no one, but in the case of Frank it didn’t matter because he always operated on his own sense of it. Releasing the song in September after summers end dropped any notion of it joining the ranks of typical summer songs. This one was now headed for early autumn, late night, melancholy as only he could deliver. From there it headed straight to aural immortality.

The summer wind, came blowin' in - from across the sea
It lingered there, to touch your hair - and walk with me
All summer long, we sang a song - and then we strolled that golden sand
Two sweethearts, and the summer wind.

The steely organ sets the mood of the song from the first few notes. It doesn’t mimic the sound of the wind or do anything fancy. Instead it’s used to jar the memory of the singer and let him tell his tale. He doesn’t slip into self pity or point the blame anywhere in particular. He only points out that it left with the wind as swiftly as it came. We all know that even a few months with just the right person can equate to a lifetime of memories when the poet in us punches the clock. This song understands that aspect of human nature perfectly. No hard facts are dredged up, we get only the skeletal outline of the relationship. Her hair and strolling on the beach are enough clues for us to fill in the blanks.

During that first verse the vocal has just a bit of restraint, as though he’s telling us more than he wants to talk about. We prod him though to tell us as much as he’s comfortable revealing. By the time the second verse comes into view he’s opening up a bit more, but not without reminding us that it was something from his past and not part of his present.

Like painted kites, those days and nights - they went flyin' by
The world was new, beneath a blue - umbrella sky

Then softer than, a piper man - one day it called to you

I lost you, I lost you to the summer wind.

In as few lines as possible we get a glimpse at that cherished summer. For a moment you can almost hear the waves hitting the shore as they claim their tracks. It ends so fast that we’re left to wonder how big the hurt that lingers really is. We have no indication as to what happened, we get only abstract clues masked in tight rhymes and matter of fact summations. Mercer was always economical with his lyrics and never wasted words if the singer could carry the sentiment. In Sinatra he had his singer. With just a simple vocal inflection Frank could save any writer a couple of lines here and there while devastating the listener.

The autumn wind, and the winter winds - they have come and gone
And still the days, those lonely days - they go on and on

And guess who sighs his lullabies - through nights that never end

My fickle friend, the summer wind.

At this point he’s grown tired of reliving the experience and wants to bring it to a close. The autumn and winter winds are dispensed with in a sing line. By the next line he’s back to that place where he’s been stuck since summers cruel end. In this instance the wind is like the sea that never returns what she takes. You can float on both the sea and the wind for a time. In this case though only for the passing of summer and nothing more.

When you examine Sinatra and his “love” songs there’s a pretty good chance that you don’t want to be the protagonist in very many of them. In his long career he suffered more through song than just about anyone. We all have our own ways of getting over a relationship. Frank’s way of getting over the hurt was motioning the bartender to pull something down from the top shelf, a rocks glass and fixing on that girl with the black party dress drinking alone across the room.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Can't Help Falling In Love

A way too long review of the Elvis album "On Stage." Honestly, you could listen to it in less time than it will take to read this. Enjoy anyway!

Visit any music store (if there are any) and check out the Elvis section and you will likely be overwhelmed by your options. Depending on your level of fandom you should be able to satisfy your particular needs. However, if your interest lies in a live performance then it gets a bit dicey. You see one that has all of his best known songs and think it must be the best one. But then here’s another one with a lot of those songs and some others. And here’s yet another one…you get the picture.

Other than this 1970 disc, “On Stage,” every other live set in the rack showcases him at his best and worst all on the same disc. (This was originally titled: “On Stage, February 1970,” but shortened for the expanded CD issue) This one shows him at his best and doesn’t slip into to parody which is always lurking in the next groove with his live recordings. Many have made their living impersonating him over the decades, and he was no exception during his final years on the road. He just made a better living at it than the others.

Looking back it’s hard to believe this one even got released. It’s the lone raw example what he was capable of in a sea of “here we go again” fodder. This would be the only live recording not to lean on his past glories. Instead, in its own way it was celebrating his recent glory and resurrection. Just like anyone currently on the charts he’d had several hits in recent years and was enjoying the accomplishment.

Instead of giving the people what they thought they wanted he gave them what they needed. He reminded them that at thirty five he still had no equal as a singer. His re-emergence as a more soulful vocalist starting in 1968 was now in full stride. At the same time he was trying to balance that with learning to become a performer in an era far removed from the fifties. Taking a big show on the road and trying to be all things to all people would prove to be an exhausting task. It was good to be king, but still hard work. The single name of Elvis on the marquee and the ticket stub meant that all eyes and ears were on him no matter how many people he could fit on stage with him.

Although he didn‘t know it at the time, he was laying the template for the single artist arena shows that would follow. Audience members like Neil Diamond, Wayne Newton, and Barry Manilow among others were taking notes between ovations. Only Diamond would achieve the level of accolades Presley had as a live act. Newton and Manilow would achieve riches preaching to their respective choirs though. Elvis was able to showcase the spoils of rock and roll history with his live show. Neil was able to showcase an immense catalog of original populist music. Wayne and Barry could only disguise weak voices on shopworn tunes that found a home in the pre-soccer mom era. Let’s call them soap opera moms for the sake of argument.

If he were still here today (Sorry folks, I’m one of the nutcases who think he died in 1977) I would think that Elvis would cop to the fact that he owed more than just a tossed scarf to Tom Jones when it came to his seventies live shows. Jones was already incorporating a lot of what Elvis would use to remake himself for his new role as a road warrior. I would also guess that Tom enjoyed seeing what Elvis could do as much as the rest of us. He‘s just that kind of guy.

This post is starting to drag, so let’s go to the tape as they say….

Standouts are many and with the expanded version we get even more to enjoy. His take on Del Shannon’s “Runaway” is one of the best covers of his career. He easily summons the emotional turmoil of the original but his vocal lends a bit more melancholy than Shannon’s. The call and response of the backup singers is mined to perfection. It’s about as fine a two minutes and eighteen seconds as he ever committed to vinyl. Then, several tracks later we get a rare live version of “Kentucky Rain,” which is just an update of “Runaway” if you think about it, that will have you reaching for an umbrella. It’s pretty close to the recorded version, but again, he injects it with enough passion to have us out looking for her too by songs end. I should mention that James Burton carries the day with his guitar on both of these “Have You Seen Me?” pleas.

What should have been an eye roller actually turns out to be one of the best vocal performances of his career with “The Wonder Of You.” I could probably write a whole post (don’t tempt me) on his approach to this song. Saddled with a lyric that Hallmark would likely reject, but redeemed by a rolling melody that he effortlessly rides without looking down we’re reminded that sometimes a singers job is to actually sing a song. He knows exactly when to zig and zag on this one. No doubt a lot of rehearsal went into pulling this one off live and they knew they were recording this show so it probably benefits from that knowledge. This one pops up on oldies radio now and then, try to hear it with different ears and catch the nuance of his vocal and the power of the melody. Listen when he sings the line “I guess I’ll never know the reason why you love me as you do.” At that moment he’s still that kid from the streets of Memphis filled with an ache to sing for anyone who’ll listen. A careful listen to the lyrics and one could argue that the song is really a simple Valentine to all of his fans.

Hard rockin’ but loose takes on “See See Rider,” “Proud Mary,” and “Long Tall Sally” let us know that Sun may be out of business, but rock never went out of style. MOR staples “Release Me” and “Let It Be Me” have been done by everyone so it’s no surprise that he wanted to put his stamp on them too. And stamp he does. These live versions bring the intended urgency to the more staid versions already out there. If the originals were a guilty pleasure before, his recording them gives you a legitimate reason to like them.

Rushed versions of “Sweet Caroline” and “Suspicious Minds” make you wonder what might have been, but they’re not toss offs either. He was clearly moved by the sentiment of “Sweet Caroline” and not ready to cease basking in the glow of “Suspicious Minds.“ Faithful and impassioned offerings of “Don’t Cry Daddy” and “In The Ghetto” prove that he could still be moved by a lyric just like the rest of us. A wild and rocking version of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” owes more to Springsteen’s “Seeger Sessions” than to Ray Charles‘ “Modern Sounds In Country And Western.” The band is hitting it hard on all fronts and he works overtime to be heard above them. This is easily the best take by him on this one. A couple of times he tries to ground it a bit, but finally succumbs to the band and tears down the house right along with them.

Lastly this would be where he would debut the soon to be live staple “Polk Salad Annie.” It wouldn’t be long before he would just end up riffing on this one and try to milk the drama from it with scripted interplay from the band. On this night though he sticks to the script and pulls it right out from under Tony Joe White’s truck bed. It starts out down in Louisiana fighting off alligators to eat some polk salad, but by the time he gets done with it it’s up river in Memphis and sitting next to some ribs. There’s no way White wasn’t thinking of Elvis when he was writing this song.

As you can see from the top of this post, this was also one of the best album covers he ever had in his lifetime. This would be one of the rare times that a candid, unguarded photo of him would be used for an album cover. It’s absolutely a stunning photo. I wish I could credit the photographer, but I can’t find any info on the shot. Juxtapose this photo with the one on his debut album and you get a sense of how far he had traveled. Gone was the teenaged rocker with a beat up guitar. He was now the king of the whole wide world. The clothes he now wore were that of royalty. One thing is present on both covers though, he’s deep into the song he’s singing and his eyes are closed on both covers. The guitar has been replaced by a microphone and the jewelry he’s wearing didn’t come from a Memphis pawn shop.

Clearly the times were changing around him. In the next few years they would begin to swirl to the point that it was two completely different people on those album covers. He knew it better than anyone. For the rest of us it’s pretty much been one long case of denial.

Friday, July 27, 2007

What A Dream I Had Last Night...

A quick review of Art Garfunkel in Kansas City, July 26, 2007

(A recent photo lifted from the Rolling Stone website due to the no camera's enforcement here)

The thrill of seeing live music has been on the wane with me for many years. Probably too many shows when I was younger and too much to do now to allocate the necessary effort they require. That said, I still know when something comes along with just me in mind and will still go that extra mile. Catching Art Garfunkel last evening at the Folly Theater was one of those times. This was the latest, and best, in the Cyprus Avenue at the Folly Theater series. Topping this one should be their new mission statement as far as I’m concerned.

To me this was an event of the highest order come to our fair city. Legends come and go and on this evening one dropped by to serenade us. Just knowing the artist, the song catalog and the venue assured everyone there of a special evening. It was like knowing who was gonna win before the game starts, the only thing left to determine was the margin.

As a pure vocalist he has had few peers in his lifetime. And at sixty five his voice may have lost some edge if hitting the highest of notes is the assignment. The assignment though is to move the listener and he’s still able to do that in ways I wasn‘t prepared for. His voice now sports a richness honed over decades of singing and his phrasing takes its place among any of the great pop singers. His latest recording of standards proves that he’s never lost his love for the “song.” He may have been fortunate enough to sing the songs of Paul Simon for the past forty plus years, but he knows he’s in an ocean, not a backyard pool when it comes to lending his voice out. For fans like me it’s a joy to hear him tackle anything.

I won’t go song for song or debate this or that, the Kansas City Star did a fine job of covering the nuts and bolts of the show. For my money it’s the way he presented himself and the music that elevated the evening. Working with just a four piece group and sticking to basic, only slightly textured arrangements, he managed to make the theater resemble a large recording studio. His praise of the theater and the crowd was off the cuff and never once did you feel he was having any less an enjoyable time than the audience. Apparently this was the first night of a short tour and he admitted to some nervousness. I suspect he’s a perfectionist when it comes to his music. And why shouldn’t he be, he’s offering quite a canon of American Popular Music.

Opening with Paul Simon’s solo era composition of “American Tune” was an inspired choice on several levels. First it let us know that a lot of thought went into his set list. Second, that he’s still very much connected to the ideals of the sixties and other peoples dreams not just his own. Taking a thirty five year old song, that hasn’t aged a day when you examine the lyrics, sent out a powerful statement. The evening of course wasn’t all heavy handed and there were more than enough light hearted moments to go around.

Including his own version of “The Boxer” was for me, the ticket price, parking and a cocktail (plus tip) all rolled into one. The song stands for me as one of the greatest of the twentieth century. (This link will take you to an earlier blog entry I did going on and on about it) Many others have covered the song, but I’ve never heard anyone other than him and Simon do it justice. It’s just too personal a song and others just can’t seem to get inside of it. But, if I could sing I’m sure I’d take a swing at it too.

Other special moments included his take on “Kathy’s Song” and “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her.” Two songs that showcase the pure poet in Paul Simon. Either song could stand alone as a written poem without the music. Both performances bordered on a cappella and he had the crowd hanging on every word. And speaking of the crowd, they couldn’t have been better. There was silence while he was singing and silence while he was talking and enough applause to fill a much bigger hall. I may have to get out for a few more of these concerts.

I went there thinking an evening like this would make me feel young again by seeing someone from my musical youth. It didn’t. What it did make me feel was glad to be the age I am so that I could remember what it was like hearing all of those songs for the first time. (That was worth price of my wife’s ticket) To be a kid again and hear the DJ say that at the top of the hour he would play new music from Simon & Garfunkel, “a song about going to the Zoo.” Collecting all of their singles with the picture sleeves, then buying the album later, or seeing “The Graduate” and hearing their music used to such perfection up there on the screen. Youth isn’t wasted on the young, you just have to be older to enjoy it.

The Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones are no doubt the gateway through which the music of the sixties is filtered for the most part. No real argument here, but I would hate to think what my music collection would have been like without Paul and Art. Here’s wishing Art a successful rest of the tour and a nod to Paul, whenever we may find him.