Archive for the ‘Record Reviews’ Category

Weller Country

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018

Late 1967 and 1968 saw many artists move in a simpler, more pastoral direction (think Friends, John Wesley Harding, Sweetheart of the Rodeo). 50 years later, Paul Weller has also moved in this direction with True Meanings. Weller, who has just turned 60, has been prolific , with six albums in the last 10 years, including last year’s A Kind Revolution. All of these recent records have been well-received, with Weller’s willingness to experiment and innovate earning favor with the critics and the public.

True Meanings may be something of a musical retreat to an acoustic, lightly orchestrated sound, but in the mayhem in 2018, this is no bad thing, especially when there are such gorgeous melodies among the fourteen tracks. All of the songs are well-crafted, but standouts include Aspects, Books and What Would He Say?

An Important Trip To The Country

Thursday, August 30th, 2018

Today another important album turns 50 – Sweetheart Of The Rodeo was a commercial failure with a mixed critical reception, but is now regarded as the first country-rock album and a major milestone in the ever-expanding palate of pop and rock in 1968.

The Sweetheart Of The Rodeo Byrds were a very different group to the band that popularized folk rock and took Mr. Tambourine Man to number one. Only Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman remained from the original band, while the iconic Gram Parsons was an important addition to the band.

The two Dylan songs were a link to the past, but these were two unheard Dylan songs from the Basement Tapes sessions, done in traditional country style alongside two Parsons originals plus seven older and newer country standards. While Dylan’s You Ain’t Going Nowhere and Parsons Hickory Wind are probably the standouts, especially in terms of the original music, it is the overall countrified sound across all the songs that makes the album an important listen throughout.

On release, the album managed to alienate both rock fans, who didn’t like the traditional country and possibly even the traditional values espoused by The Christian Life and some other songs, as well as country fans who didn’t like the idea of the long-haired hippies doing their music. 50 years later, the union of rock and country has inspired many an artist, and showed us that building bridges across differences is a lot better than building walls.

 

The Friends That Stay A Long Time

Sunday, June 24th, 2018

The hippie dream may seem long dead in the divided 2018 world, but it started unraveling in the chaos of 1968. And so 50 years ago today, the Beach Boys sent Friends out into a rock universe that was heading into harder, edgier territory. Seemingly at odds with Revolution, Street Fighting Man and Sympathy With The Devil and ignored chartwise, at least in the States, this album can almost be seen as the first “new age” album and has now become something of a minor cult classic.

However, if one moves away from the historical context of this album, one can also see it as an album celebrating what the Beach Boys do best- beautiful songs, beautiful harmonies. Another noteworthy feature is the emergence of Dennis Wilson as a songwriter- Be Still and Little Bird are his first serious songwriting contributions and neither disgrace this album. Brian Wilson is still very involved, at least co-credited on the remaining ten tracks and apparently uncredited as a part-writer on Little Bird. The Wilson brothers provide a thematic unity throughout the album of peaceful music, celebrating the simple joys of life, although this is shattered somewhat by Transcendental Meditation, the album closer and weak spot of the album. The remaining eleven tracks – while not absolute classics in themselves -work well together to ensure a quality album.

Friends remains an impressive achievement, and a definite refutation of any theory that great Beach Boys music ended with the 1967 demise of SMiLE. Sometimes simpler is better.

At The Philharmonic

Friday, June 22nd, 2018

It’s easy to knock the new Beach Boys album as a cash-in that quickly repackages known songs to make more money. But given the renewed chart interest that seems to have been created by the record, there is certainly no harm in getting Brian Wilson music known to a potentially new audience -and for that reason alone, this record is worthwhile.

As a record, the orchestral overdubs have mixed results -working better on the slower songs with less production like In My Room and Disney Girls. The up-tempo tracks feel a bit disco-fied, while the orchestral overdubs feel superfluous on the Pet Sounds/SMiLE tracks. A bonus is the opener California Suite, which while not a Brian composition, does invoke Brian’s melodic vision.

For completists, this may be the 50+ version of many of these songs. But if a few more people understand Brian’s genius via this record, then it is worthwhile.

Taking The Midland Line

Friday, May 25th, 2018

I’ve recently covered some great country pop albums by the ladies, so now it’s the turn of the gentlemen. On the recommendation of Jason Brewer of the Explorer’s Club, I explored Midland’s debut album On The Rocks, and I’m impressed. Ostensibly neo-traditionalist country, it is full of catchy and melodic songs that transcend the country genre and move into great pop music.  There are a lot of really strong songs here, but Drinkin’ Problem, Burn Out and Electric Rodeo are some of the standouts.

Darling Music

Monday, May 7th, 2018

They say good things come in threes, so here is a third great pop album from a country lady. This one is a bit older than the Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe records, but it has recently come to my attention. While the title says Dream Country, there is actually quite a wide range of pop styles, with some classic songwriting on tracks like the gorgeous romantic Montmarte, the classic Where Cowboys Ride and a cover of the Smiths Please Please Let Me Get What I Want.  You can order this great record here on her webpage.

Monroe Suede

Wednesday, April 25th, 2018

Like London buses, one good country pop album follows another. Three weeks after the release of Golden Hour comes Ashley Monroe’s new record, Sparrow. Monroe has always been on the neo-traditional side of country music, but here the tradition extends to the countrypolitan sound of Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb. The album is clearly personal, much of it written while she was pregnant with her first son, with titles like She Wakes Me Up and Daddy I Told You. As with Golden Hour, there are even forays into a more disco sound on Hard On A Heart, and the album still has a sultry core with songs like Wild Love and Hands On You. Good pop music may not be topping the world charts, but it is still around, courtesy of these country ladies.

50 Years Undead

Thursday, April 19th, 2018

Today marks the 50th anniversary of a cult album released by a group that had already broken up. But the album has proved as “undead” as the group’s namesakes, and still growing in stature as a pioneering work. Here is my review of the album from 2007 with some corrections of text garbled by WordPress updates, and in the context of a series of reviews post the 40th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper.

 With Sgt. Pepper still on our minds, I thought it would be an appropriate time to look at some late 60s albums that were conceived with the same principles in mind such as classy pop songs,  harmonies, a sense more than substance of a unifying theme,  and some hints of psychedelia. The next three album reviews are what I will call the three “Os” -three album titles that begin with O that I believe meet the above criteria. Maybe you can start guessing what the next two will be…..

The first one is a true “cult” album, Odessey And Oracle (and yes, that Odessey is a typo by the record company that has never been corrected) by the Zombies. The story of the album seems almost like one of those scenarios that they could make a blockbuster movie…band on the verging of breaking up make one final classic album, album sinks without trace due to no publicity in 1968,  DJ starts playing a track a year later that becomes a big hit and pop standard, and the album gains cult status and critical acclaim over the years.

The big hit is Time Of The Season, which readers should know. It is a classic slice of 60s pop rock with a fantastic riff and harmonies, and it more than deserves its “standard” status.  But it is in illustrious company, as the album clearly shows a band that shows it has nothing to lose and is prepared to take chances and a lot of care over the songs.

The music is sophisticated, harmonic pop, with slightly jazzy arrangements tinged by the use of a Mellotron, which should definitely appeal to fans of both the Beatles and Beach Boys. Lyrically, there is some very interesting ground covered – most notably in the very personal war experience song, Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914). As with Pepper, there isn’t really a unifying theme, but the songs do feel like they belong together. And bits of it were recorded at Abbey Road studios.

My personal favorite song on the album is Hung Up On A Dream, an evocative journey through a “a dream…that gave me peace and blew my mind” that includes some stunning melodic and harmonic moments.

Some more good background can be seen on the Wikipedia article, and it is still very readily available on-line.  This is certainly an absolute must for 60s pop fans and anyone serious about having a complete collection of the great pop and rock albums.

Country Rebel Makes Perfect Pop Shocker

Sunday, April 1st, 2018

Kacey Musgraves  is known as something of a country rebel, and she certainly isn’t in the conventional Nashville mould, but her latest album is very much a conventionally great pop record. Golden Hour may be closer genre-wise to country than anything else, but the great songwriting hearkens to classic American songbook. The occasional uptempo hoedowns of her earlier work are replaced more mid-tempo pop sensibilities -with occasional nods to the dancefloor, especially on High Horse but always ensuring great melodies and real musical instruments dominate. The overall mood is a lot more positive and romantic than earlier works, linked to singer’s recent marriage, but hints of the rebelliousness and previous disappointments still linger.

Everything here is very listenable, with some noteworthy tracks being the beautiful Butterlies, played at my own wedding, the pop perfection of Space Cowboy and the lovely title track which hearkens to both a past nostalgic utopia and a future where great songwriting would be appreciated as much as in the golden eras of pop. We live in a world on edge, but Kacey Musgraves has made the world a much better place to live in.

The Beach Boys Christmas Surprise

Monday, December 18th, 2017

Exactly 3 months after the belated Smiley Smile, the Beach Boys released another album just a week before Christmas. It wasn’t a seasonal album but a collection of all-new songs that saw the band move from psychedelia and complexity to simplicity and basic R&B. It was also released just a few days before I was born, so as Wild Honey celebrates its 50th birthday, it will be last Beach Boys album featured in my 50 anniversary posts that is older than me.

After the trauma of the scrapping of SMiLE and the critical and public befuddlement at the “odd” Smiley Smile, the Beach Boys clearly needed to take another direction. However, coming so soon after Smiley Smile, this new album direction was released to a public that, in the USA, at least, was already indifferent to the Beach Boys.

The new direction took the “back to basics” element of Smiley Smile and added the boogie-woogie feel that Brian and his family had grown up. The result is a spirited, up-tempo album that still hinted at the melodic genius of Brian. It was also an album for Brian to “cool out” to, in Carl’s words, after the traumas of 1967, although as with all the albums in the immediate wake of the SMiLE sessions, there is still a connection to the material from those sessions in Mama Says, a fragment of Vegatables abandoned for Smiley Smile. Brian is, from a composers point of view, still very involved, although How She Boogalooed It is the first original non-instrumental track put out by the band not written by Brian.

Individual track highlights include Aren’t You Glad which hints at Bacharach, the beautiful, soulful Let The Wind Blow and Darlin’ which is a retread of the earlier tune Thinking About You Baby but features a fantastic Carl vocal and great production.

The rest of the songs all fit in well to the overall mood of the album, but the fact the harmonies, production and tunes are not all top-drawer prevents this album from being right at the top of the Beach Boys pile. Having said that, this is still a vastly underrated album that gives many other much more vaunted works of 1967 a good run for their money in the quality stakes, and this year’s release of Sunshine Tomorrow and the rich body of the band’s work at this time has helped with the critical re-appraisal of the record.

Indeed, the fact that 1968 releases from the Stones, Dylan and the Beatles reflected a “back to basics” ethos may indicate that Wild Honey was ahead of its time. While there were probably many other factors in these 1968 releases going in that direction, it is hard to believe that Wild Honey had absolutely no influence on this direction, even given the Beach Boys’ diminished “hipness” as that stage. Once again, the band put out a work ahead of its time, and for all times.