Old/New Albums: Sheila E.’s “Romance 1600”

sheilae“Yellow is a happenin’ color, if you’re a banana.”

This line should tell you all you need to know about every single side project of Prince. One could argue that his solo work is pretty weird and out there, but one could argue that even moreso for his side projects.

And I’m not giving proper schrift to Sheila E. Technically, Romance 1600 is her solo album, but Prince’s presence is absolutely felt. He wrote or cowrote every song on the album, and the sound is unmistakably Prince. But unlike another one of his side projects, Vanity 6Romance 1600 feels more distinct because of Sheila E. herself. Vanity was a much weaker of a character, while Sheila E. is a true personality that is able to stand out from Prince’s weirdness and make it her own.

But as I said, you can’t listen to this album without hearing The Purple One’s fingerprints all over it. While Vanity 6 sounded very analogous to The Time, Sheila E.’s record skews more towards the instrumental Madhouse project that Prince did. Sheila E. played drums on the Madhouse record 16, so it makes sense Romance 1600 retains some of that “out there” arranging (“Merci For The Speed Of A Mad Clown In Summer” features a horn doing the circus theme song riff like it’s not the weirdest thing ever to hear in a pop song).

The only song that explicitly credits Prince is “A Love Bizarre,” but it’s a 12 minute dance pop number so that makes sense. A lot of this tune could’ve been cut in editing (coincidentally, a shortened version was this album’s most successful single), but Prince stretches this out and explores every weird instrumental adlib and flourish he can.

If you remember from my review of Vanity 6 last year, I was kind of surprised how much I enjoyed it. Conversely, I was kind of surprised that I didn’t enjoy this album more. It has all the elements in place, but it might be almost too serious for its own good. Sheila E. is too much of an artist herself to only play muse for Prince, and her record is far less fluff than Vanity’s. But I think I enjoy the fluff a little more, and as Vanity fit the muse role perfectly for Prince, her record was just wall to wall weird and fun Prince pop tunes. Romance 1600 has moments of sheer fun, like “Yellow,” but for as off the wall as Prince can get with tunes like this (again, referring back to the lyric I opened with), I was hoping for more songs I just couldn’t help but enjoy. Prince’s ’80s work is so awesomely weird, it’s like kids music for adults. This album feels just a little more mature than that.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Yellow
  2. Romance 1600
  3. Sister Fate

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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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