Category Archives: Review

Old/Newish Albums: Curtis Mayfield’s “Got To Find A Way”

mayfieldAs with a lot of classic black soul music, I was led to this album by way of D’Angelo. His first performance in the United States in over a decade was a monumental covers jam at Bonnaroo, backed by several members who would eventually become known as The Vanguard, along with a few others. They played covers alone, no D’ originals, but the set ranged from Led Zeppelin to Ohio Players to The Time. One of these covers was “Mother’s Son,” found on Got To Find A Way.

It’s been interesting to hear the song in the context of the rest of this album, because while D’Angelo and his Superjam band made the song an enticingly funky affair, the original is fairly tame, along with the rest of the album. Mayfield is known for mixing funk and soul really well, but this album falls flat.

There’s just very little memorable here. To be fair, I don’t know Mayfield’s discography well enough to know if this is a trend or not. I know his first few solo albums pretty well, but I don’t know the album immediately preceding or following Got To Find A Way, so I only have a few points of reference off of which to base my thoughts on it. But compared to his 1975 album There’s No Place Like America Today, this is a muddled work. That album (which I reviewed at the beginning of this year) has a distinct vision and identity. The songs coalesce but they don’t blur together, which is exactly what happens on Got To Find A Way. The two real stand outs are “Mother’s Son” and “So You Don’t Love Me,” and even these have their faults.

“So You Don’t Love Me” is the requisite ballad on the album, and I really do like this song a lot. It’s got a nice orchestral flavor to it and Mayfield does those flowery arrangements so well. But again, not groundbreaking. And “Mother’s Son” never quite reaches a real funky groove, although it comes close. I would’ve liked it better if the song was about two minutes shorter and had stuck to the musical theme that’s laid out in the opening. But instead, Mayfield takes it all waaaay down low in the verse, stripping the instrumentation down to a sparse drum beat and the bass riff, with light guitar flourishes thrown in. It saps all the energy that was built in the beginning. Again, this is a funky tune but I feel like it could’ve had so much more fire to it.

So I’m left with the feeling that this isn’t a standout in Mayfield’s catalog. A couple good tunes but he’s got better albums to seek out if you’re interested.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. So You Don’t Love Me
  2. Mother’s Son
  3. Cannot Find A Way

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Old/New Albums: Average White Band’s “Person To Person”

averagewhitebandThis is a first for me in this blog series. Person To Person is a live album, and I’m curious if it might’ve been a better experience had I chosen a live album by a band I was more familiar with. If only because I’d have a fuller understanding of the studio incarnations of the tunes and could view the live versions through that prism.

But here I am, listening to a concert album from 1976. It’s not a bad record. It certainly shows that the band could easily recreate the magic funk they had done so well in the studio. And as almost all live shows do, it gives the band room to breathe on all their tracks, giving longer spaces for the various band members to solo.

This is shown most effectively in the band’s best-known song, “Pick Up The Pieces.” The version on this album is notable for a couple reasons. First, it runs over 18 minutes long. Even on live albums, very few current bands would bother putting an 18 minute song on their record. The length of this tune kind of betrays its age, back when people would want to listen to an instrumental for this long.

It’s not that it’s a bad song, it’s just really long. You’ve got to be in a very specific zone to jam out to an instrumental piece for that long. Bands in the ’70s loved letting their songs loose in this long form kind of way. Led Zeppelin, Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead. But I was a little surprised to find a band like Average White Band, not commonly categorized as a “jam” band, doing the same thing.

The other interesting thing about this song is that it is actually culled together from several different live shows on this tour. Since it features several members doing solos, they recorded several different shows and each member was able to choose the specific solo they wanted to featured from a specific show. It’s all spliced together and sounds fluid enough that I wouldn’t have noticed had I not uncovered it in doing research.

But there are parts of this album that could’ve been tightened. I would’ve rather heard another original cut from the band than a 10-minute cover of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” to close the album out. The long cuts of “T.L.C.” and “Pick Up The Pieces” also could’ve been shortened and left more room for other songs.

There are some awesome tunes on here though too. “Cloudy” and “If I Ever Lose This Heaven” are both slices of almost Bee Gees-level tightness in the soul/pop arena, and “I’m The One” and “Love Your Life” both have sample-ready horn parts (Exhibit A: A Tribe Called Quest’s “Check The Rhime”). But ultimately I’m left with the feeling that I’d enjoy the studio versions a bit more. A little more palatable than 18 minutes of the same song.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. If I Ever Lose This Heaven
  2. I’m The One
  3. Love Your Life

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Old/Newish Albums: Crosby, Stills & Nash’s Self-titled

converted PNM fileI can objectively say that this is a great album, and I can subjectively say that I only think about half of it is good (a healthy amount of this review was contributed by my wife, as she likes this album a lot and had more thoughts on it than I did).

Crosby, Stills & Nash was a huge hit for a debut, and this is a due to a number of reasons:

First, each of these guys had at least somewhat of a built-in fan base, as they’d all come from different bands. David Crosby had been a member of The Byrds, Stephen Stills came from Buffalo Springfield, and Graham Nash had co-founded The Hollies.

Second, they all brought something different to the musical table. Crosby was writing incisive political/social commentary, Stills was a skilled musician who was rooted in a strong folk and country background, and Nash was particularly adept at writing catchy pop melodies.

Third, these differences coalesced. It’s one thing to be varying musical talents and elements to a group, but it’s rare to see such musical diversity gel so well.

The blend of these three disparate artists really created a unique experience on record. It’s so hard for me to actually pin down a genre for this album, because of how specifically different some of these songs sound from each other. I’d almost argue that this is typical for Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young).  “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” doesn’t sound like “Long Time Gone” (which points much more towards “Woodstock” and the rest of their Deja Vu record), and that doesn’t sound like “49 Bye-Byes.” And then you’ve got “Marrakesh Express,” which doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before.

It seems like a real mish-mash, but somehow it works. There are places where it is sounds complex (“49 Bye-Byes”) and places where simplicity rules (“Helplessly Hoping”). It’s not often too much either way, and just strikes the right balances throughout almost the entire thing.

That’s not to say it’s not without a few duds. “Lady Of The Island” sounds like a poor emulation of Simon & Garfunkel and both “Wooden Ships” and “Long Time Gone” are a little heavy-handed for this album. Maybe it’s just that I dislike most of CS&N’s political work, not just on this album but on their subsequent releases. The places where this album excels are where they stay rooted in acoustic folk blended with a pop flavor.

And their voices, for crying out loud. These three guys blend so perfectly. And the harmonies they’re creating on this album aren’t just your typical “first, third, fifth” chord parts. The melody/harmony blend on this album is far beyond my understanding of music theory, but damn if it doesn’t sound great.

This is demonstrated to best effect on “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” and maybe I’m not crazy about this album because of how great I think the album opener is. The rest of the album can’t compare with this song.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Suite: Judy Blue Eyes
  2. 49 Bye-Byes
  3. Helplessly Hoping

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Old/New Albums: Randy Newman’s “Trouble In Paradise”

randynewmanIf you’ve watched a single Pixar movie from the last 20 years, there is a great chance you’ve heard Randy Newman’s music.

Specifically, you’ve heard Newman’s “nice” music. “You’ve Got A Friend” (Toy Story), “Our Town” (Cars), “If I Didn’t Have You” (Monsters, Inc.) are all fantastic songs, and just a small sampling of Newman’s musical output in the last couple decades.

But Newman made a name for himself with his earlier work, and Trouble In Paradise actually lands us just before the halfway mark in his nearly 50-year career.

Let me start by saying that I initially liked Trouble In Paradise. There are some catchy tunes, a lot of really cool melodies, and as always, Newman’s incredibly gifted piano playing.

That being said, Trouble In Paradise is just one of many examples of how the ’80s were a pretty rough decade for the male pop singer-songwriter crowd, comparatively speaking. I can’t think of one major solo musician whose output got markedly better in the transition to the ’70s to the ’80s. Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Randy Newman, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, all guys who had a really stellar decade and then went into the ’80s and released a few stinkers among the lot of them.

Again, I don’t think Trouble In Paradise is bad, it’s just a very ’80s record. Lots of slick production, a little bombastic. The production reminds me a lot of Paul Simon’s Graceland (arguably the best ’80s album released by any of these guys, possibly rivaled only by Springsteen’s Born To Run).

I feel like the ’80s were where these guys were trying to figure out how to stay on top of the pulse of pop music and not all were equally successful. This is one issue with Trouble In Paradise. It’s got some good tunes (“The Blues” reminds me of the best of Paul Simon’s ’80s work, most likely because it features Simon himself), but there are also tunes that end up sounding almost awkward in their experimentation or reaching for new melodic structures, like “Mikey’s.” This song is so odd, it reminds me of McCartney’s completely left-field “Temporary Secretary” from his McCartney II album from 1980. Musically, I’m split down the middle on this record.

Here’s another thing about Randy Newman. He doesn’t write songs so much as eye rolls and winks. Honestly, like 90% of his songs are sarcastic. In my opinion, that’s a notable difference than satirical. Satire can be subtle, and often, the more subtle it is, the more pointed and effective it is. Sarcasm is, almost by definition, heavy-handed. Sarcasm is accompanied with an exaggerated tone of voice or body language.

And that’s the best way I can describe Randy Newman’s writing style. “My Life Is Good” and “I’m Different” are perfect examples of this. They’re all sung from the perspective of people Newman clearly has no respect for and these tunes just rip into them.

And it’s not just on this record. “Little People,” “The Story Of A Rock And Roll Band,” “Sail Away,” the entire Good Old Boys album. Newman has made a career of writing sarcasm. This is very one note, and it’s the reason I don’t come back to Newman a lot.

At the same time, the biggest thing that does keep me coming back is how confoundedly catchy his tunes are. “I Love L.A.” is arguably the most overtly sarcastic, winky song on this whole record, and it’s hands down the best tune. I first heard this done by Newman on The Tonight Show, accompanied by The Roots of all people. I liked the song a ton because it’s catchy as hell and the Roots add real panache to any old white fella they accompany, but listening to this song in its original setting adds the “Screw you L.A.” context to him playing on the New York incarnation of The Tonight Show.

This is one of the few albums of any of my blog series’ that I actually enjoyed less the more I listened to it. Aside from the couple songs that had unique/catchy hooks, the rest of the album just started to grate on me. I think it comes back to the album’s sarcastic through line. It’s hard to fully engage with an album that ends up coming off so pretentious. Newman’s a great songwriter, and if he had eased off the sarcasm and written more less-winky pop songs, I probably would’ve enjoyed this album a lot more.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. I Love L.A.
  2. My Life Is Good
  3. The Blues

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Old/Newish Albums: Bob Dylan’s “Blood On The Tracks”

bobdylanMan is this a tough one. Blood On The Tracks is generally considered a masterpiece of Bob Dylan. It wasn’t a huge hit upon initial release but history has been very kind to the record, and it’s often referenced as a cornerstone of the confessional singer-songwriter art.

Which is interesting, because while Dylan’s son, Jakob Dylan, has stated multiple times that this album is about the dissolution of his parents’ relationship, Bob Dylan himself has unequivocally stated that this isn’t a confessional record and was not inspired by the end of his marriage with Sara Dylan.

Whoever you choose to believe, the fact remains that Blood On The Tracks is a sprawling collection of heartbreaking emotions put on record. There are angry songs, sad songs, nostalgic songs, epic tales. Dylan runs the gamut of the rollercoaster one goes through when suffering through the breakdown of a relationship.

And while I can appreciate that to some extent, it’s difficult for me to relate and so this record doesn’t carry the same punch for me. With art, there’s the space where you can appreciate it and the space where you can relate to it. I’d argue the fullest experience comes with both, but Blood On The Tracks only hits me with the former rather than the latter. I just don’t see myself coming back to this album a lot.

And that’s a lot to do with Dylan’s voice. The guy was a voice of a cultural movement in the ’50s and ’60s, but listening with my 2015 ears, his voice just isn’t something I want to spend a lot of time with. There are points on this record where he reaches for a note and you’re not sure if he completely knows what he’s reaching for.

Musically, this is a decently typical Dylan record. It’s pretty stripped down, lots of acoustic instruments and pretty understated backing instrumentation. My favorite example of this on the record is “You’re A Big Girl Now.” It’s a beautiful acoustic number with a chorus of classical guitars. Weirdly, this is the one song where I really like Dylan’s melody and think his voice sounds great. It’s a very relaxed song, and overall, with the exception of “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts” and “Tangled Up In Blue,” it’s a pretty slow-paced record. Dylan isn’t rushed in telling you his woes.

I wish I liked this album more. Or least that I understood how it became regarded as such a huge album in Dylan’s body of work, much less a landmark album in the singer-songerwriter genre. I wouldn’t be quick to recommend this to someone who wasn’t already a Dylan fan. But then, if you’re already a Dylan fan, you’ve probably already heard this album.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. You’re A Big Girl Now
  2. Buckets Of Rain
  3. If You See Her, Say Hello

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Old/New Albums: Melanie’s “Gather Me”

melanieAs I’ve spent well over a year doing reviews like this now, I’m intrigued by the question, “Would I have liked this if I’d been age appropriate to listen to it at the time of its release?” It’s easy to say I like the Beatles or Bill Withers or 10cc or whoever now, in 2015, but that’s because these albums have had decades to permeate the culture. Time is often the most important thing in critical reviews. There are countless albums that were initially looked down upon by critics or commercial figures and only after much time have these critical opinions changed.

The whole reason I bring this up is that I’m curious if I would’ve enjoyed listening to Melanie if I was in the Baby Boomer generation. Melanie is the professional name of Melanie Safka, a folk singer who gained popularity in the late ’60s/early ’70s. She’s no longer a household name, but she enjoyed a lot of the same success as her folk contemporaries at that time. It’s interesting to wonder why she faded into history while singers like Carole King or Joni Mitchell or James Taylor became the singer-songwriter legends that they did.

Because most of this album is in the same class as Blue or Tapestry. Her voice absolutely evokes the female folk singer subgenre that was such a hit around this time. “Shine The Living Light (Chant & Reprise)” reminded me immediately of Joni Mitchell, but with a tighter cadence in her singing. Melanie even evokes some of Dolly Parton’s classic country warble on “Little Bit Of Me.”

A lot of this album is good, and some of it is just OK. “Brand New Key” is the biggest hit and the one my parents might remember or recognize. And I like it a lot. It’s a cute little novelty song, kind of reminiscent of Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” or Mungo Jerry’s “In The Summertime.” Kind of a throwback tune, even for 1971. But “Some Day I’ll Be A Farmer” is even better; it retains just a pinch of that novelty feel, an almost winky-cute melody but staying grounded enough to not seem like a total joke and instead just a really catchy, great song.

But I’m listening to this album in 2015 instead of 1971, so I’m inclined to rate this album lower than I might have had I not had the last 40 years of musical context surrounding it. I feel the same about Blue or Mud Slide Slim & The Blue Horizon. There are a few really good songs, but overall (especially the last half of the album), I’m not in love with all of it. If you like other female folk singers from the early ’70s, this album would be a safe bet for you.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Some Day I’ll Be A Farmer
  2. Brand New Key
  3. Shine The Living Light (Chant & Reprise)

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Old/Newish Albums: Billy Preston’s “The Kids & Me”

billyprestonThis is something of a notable album in this series, because while I don’t know The Kids & Me that well, it does feature one song which I know super well. “Nothing From Nothing” is the #1 Most Played Song in my entire iTunes library and has been for about seven years. In fact, with the first listen of this album for this review, it bumped the play count of “Nothing From Nothing” up to be the first song in my library to break into the 200s.

But the rest of the album certainly shouldn’t be thrown away. It functions as a really great snapshot of Billy Preston’s solo career work. I’d almost argue this album could be viewed as a blueprint for the rest of Preston’s solo work.

Lyrically, this album is pretty wide-ranging. You’ve got love songs, a gospel tune, social themes, and a few instrumental pieces. I don’t think Preston is the greatest wordsmith ever, with some of his songs leaning towards a little too sugary sweet or a pinch cheesy. There are a few heavy-handed spaces on this record, but it’s forgiven because nothing is really awful and the good stuff is really good.

I’ve always found Preston’s strength to be his music. This guy was an unbelievable keys player, starting his career at a very early age (appeared in a W.C. Handy biopic at age 12, met the Beatles while playing organ on tour with Little Richard at age 16, released his first solo album a year later, etc.). He played with a lot of heavy hitters throughout the ’60s, culminating in contributing heavily to the Beatles’ final studio album, Let It Be. He was so influential in those recording sessions that he actually kept the Beatles from completely fracturing and he finished the record with them. He is one of the few people referred to colloquially as the “fifth Beatle” (John Lennon actually suggested to the other Beatles that Preston officially join the band) and is the only musician co-credited on a official Beatles-sactioned release (the single “Get Back” is credited to “The Beatles with Billy Preston”).

So Preston had the musical chops. This album displays those really well. For my money, the apex of Billy Preston’s keyboard expertise is “Nothing From Nothing,” but there is a lot of really fantastic keys playing on this record. Preston’s instrumentals are a testament to his forward thinking, by featuring a Clavinet (or soundalike instrument) all over this record to create some really bizarre, funky sounds (“Struttin'” sounds like mosquitos in your ear). These instrumentals are some heavily funk-inspired jams.

But again, “Nothing From Nothing” is the pinnacle, both of Preston’s songwriting and his musical skills. This is an overtly happy sounding song, with one of the best chord progressions and coolest chord voicings I’ve ever heard. There is a bouncing ragtime rhythm and horns that add so much flavor to the tune. But Preston’s piano solo is absolutely insane. It’s like his two hands are speaking different linguistic dialects. His left hand is steadily pounding the rhythmic chords on the beat while his right hand is banging out an intricate solo that is rhythmically all over the place. It’s a masterpiece solo and adds energy to an already really energetic tune. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of this song.

There are some other notable tunes on this album, like “You Are So Beautiful,” which is a pretty cheesy song but important as it is the original version of the tune, written by Preston, which was later covered to huge success by Joe Cocker. Also great on the album is “Tell Me You Need My Loving,” which is a partial rewrite of an earlier Preston outtake tune called “All That I’ve Got” and kicks the album off in a really funky, groovy fashion.

Overall, this is a pretty good album, not just for the fantastic “Nothing From Nothing,” but also due to the representative picture of Preston’s solo work. If you only get your hands on one Billy Preston album, make sure it’s this one.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Nothing From Nothing
  2. Tell Me You Need My Loving
  3. St. Elmo

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