CD Review: Vanilla Fudge “Spirit of ’67”

February 18, 2015

by Brian Arsenault

(Done as a letter to my college roommate.)

Dear Flashman,
You remember in 1967 when we were living in that basement room and the two lunatics in the room above us had those three foot high speakers so hip at the time and they played only two songs? The one they played the most of course was “In A Gadda Da Vida” but that’s another story. The other one was Vanilla Fudge’s overpowered remake of the Supreme’s hit “You Keep Me Hanging On.” Who woulda thunk it but somehow it worked, works.

So a half century goes flashing by (nice way I worked “flash” in, huh) and here’s Vanilla Fudge, or three quarters of the original anyway, back with Spirit of ’67 (Cleopatra), a whole bunch of songs from that year . Do I remember it wrong or did we spend most of our time listening to music then? It was time well spent.

I remember for sure that we weren’t sure about Vanilla Fudge, who kinda symbolized when the beer crowd took over loud rock from the acid eaters. It was bound to happen in the Land of Budweiser but unsettling nonetheless.

Started the inevitable march toward great songs by The Who becoming theme music for shitty detective shows and such.

On this album, though, brave is the word I keep coming around to. Brave to take signature songs of the era and make music of your own with them. I mean there’s millions of us boomer minds that can still hear the deep Hollywood jungle drumbeat of “Heard it Through the Grapevine” and have “miles and miles and miles” echoing somewhere in the recesses. How could you improve on that Townshend song?

Well, you can’t and for me it might be one of the least successful songs on the album. Still it’s very good with a Fudge pounding drums (Carmine Appice is a seminal American rock drummer, n’est pas?) quality that’s all over the album. You’re not surprised, I know.
And it gets better.

Vanilla Fudge: Carmine Appice, Vince Martell and Mark Stein with Pete Bremy on bass/vocals.

Early on in the album the Fudge are showing that after all these years they are a very solid, tight band. They’ve heard Cocker’s version of “The Letter” which turned a bland pop record into a screaming aching for love ode. Fudge’s version shifts from a piano rich bluesy tone to a Mad Dogs and Englishmen frantic pace.

And it gets better.

The guitar based soul of the Smokey Robinson classic “Tracks of My Tears” is for me the surprise success of the album. The yearning, broken-hearted mood of the song comes through and they pull off the harmonies and everything. Just terrific.

The Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” starts as a lounge song, a good lounge song, like when everybody stops talking over drinks all at once to listen, as if on cue. But soon they need to pound those drums and lean heavy on the organ and guitar riffs. Heck, it’s who they are. But after each chorus they sneakily take you back to the lounge.

Really, you probably don’t buy CD’s any more and listen to Pandora (I thought that was jewelry) or get individual tracks from one of those services. Whatever and however, get “Ruby Tuesday.” It’s special.

The track on the album that sounds most like their long ago megahit “Hangin’ On” is their version of “I’m a Believer.” Big orchestral intro, big, big sound throughout which makes you almost forget it was a Monkees hit. Almost. The Monkees were the only band I wanted to kill in that era, remember? Three Dog Night came later.

“Gimme Some Lovin'” Great when done by Spencer Davis. Great here and a little more r&b.
Can’t say much about “Break On Through.” I never could fully appreciate Morrison’s ‘Ain’t I sexy’ angst. “Whiter Shade of Pale” probably comes closest to being a true cover of the Procol Harum original.

“For What It’s Worth” pays tribute to Buffalo Springfield’s original with a neat military drum-beat opening. It’s more atmospheric, more threatening in a darker way, I think. But the times they may be a little darker.

The album closes with the only original song written by lead singer/organist/pianist Mark Stein — “Let’s Pray for Peace.” Peace was hard to find in 1967 but we believed in it.

Remember? Peace is still hard to find but I’m not sure many believe any more. Maybe we’re just tired.

Hope to see you again in this life.

Your friend,

Brian


CD Review: Bob Dylan “Shadows in the Night”

February 10, 2015

By Devon Wendell

 

I doubt I’ll be buying Shadows in the Night, the latest Bob Dylan album. Aside from Love And Theft, his albums since the late ’90s have lacked the vocal phrasing that made Dylan so great. Some of them sound as if he recorded the vocals using a click track set to different songs.

 

I  don’t mind the raspiness of his vocals but the timing has been off for a while. And if you’re going to tackle Sinatra, timing and perfect phrasing are everything.

 

 

And we don’t need yet another minor key blues dirge about being old and miserable, though boomer consumerism and nostalgia know no bounds. So this baby will sell and at least get that generation into more sophisticated compositions and arrangements.

 

 

Hey Bob, try an album of Edith Piaf covers. Those dim-wits at Rolling Stone will give 4 or 5 stars to anything you do.

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To read more posts and essays by Devon “Doc” Wendell click HERE


CD Review: Diana Krall “Wallflower”

February 4, 2015

By Don Heckman

Diana Krall’s continuing quest to widen her already far reaching repertoire has led her to some of the most memorable songs of the ’70s and ’80s in this fine new Verve outing.  I’ve been hearing, seeing and writing about Diana in action since the ’90s. And I’ve been consistently awed by her capacity to apply her rich musicality to whatever genre she tries on for size.

Wallflower is no exception. I haven’t viewed the songs of the ’70s and ’80s with the sort of affection triggered by tunes from other decades in the Great Songbook. But sung with Diana’s remarkable story telling skills, virtually everything here comes vividly to life.

That said, it’s no surprise that the best known and most successful five or six numbers in the twelve song program have the greatest impact. The list begins with Diana’s laid back takes on the Mommas and Poppas’ “California Dreaming,” the Eagles’ “Desperado” and “I Can’t Tell You Why,” Leon Russell’s “Superstar” and Elton John’s “Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word.”

Add to that a pair of captivating duos in which Diana is joined by Michael Buble on Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again” and by Bryan Adams on Randy Newman’s “Feels Like Home.”

As if all that weren’t enough, there are a pair of lesser known, but no less compelling songs: the title tune, “Wallflower” by Bob Dylan and a new Paul McCartney song, “IF I Take You Home Tonight.” And top it off with Jim Croce’s “Operator That’s Not the Way It Feels,” the English band 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” and the Australian band Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over.”

That’s a daunting program of songs, one that would be a challenge for almost any singer who comes to mind. But Diana, as noted above, handles them all superbly, aided by the rich musicality and the touching emotional honesty at the center of her art.

Additional credit should also be offered to producer/arranger David Foster. His arrangements, lush with cushions of string textures, provide a perfect setting for Diana, allowing her to offer her lyrical narratives at every level of sound and feeling.

The only missing element in an otherwise irresistible musical banquet was the up front proximity of Diana’s piano playing. For the great majority of her career, her singing and her piano have been intimately mated, with one continually inspiring the other. And the bolder presence of that creative duality could have provided the energy to transform Wallflower from a fine album to a great one.

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Diana Krall photo by Bonnie Perkinson. 


An Appreciation: Remembering Joe Cocker

December 23, 2014

By Brian Arsenault

The memories are so intact. The Grease Band singing crappy falsetto behind him at Woodstock. The kickass chorus on the best damn live album ever, Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Belushi coming out to do Joe Cocker with Joe Cocker on SNL.
I know it’s that time of life when that generation, my generation, the greatest generation in rock ‘n roll, is gonna lose guys. Frequently. The ones who made it past 27 are getting to be old guys now and time is implacable in its demands. Still, it hurts. There was a time when he was rock life incarnate.

Joe Cocker Tie dye singing

Some Cocker fans will tell you that early stuff when he was pictured like a fat, greasy bar brawler was when it was best, pure, raw. They’re right.

Others, a smaller more mature crowd, will tell you that the later albums of soft and soulful stuff extended his range as an artist. They’re right.

But for some of us, the crowd that was just about mad ourselves in those days, there is, was, will never be anything comparable to Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Oh those Leon Russell arrangements. Oh that incomparable backing band and chorus Russell put together.

I know Cocker and Russell despised each other by the end of the tour. That’s the legend anyway confirmed in more than one story and interview. Who cares? The music, damn, the music.

Who ever had two drummers going so frenetically? (Jim Keltner anyone?) The horn section just blasting. Leon pounding the keys. And the soaring chorus. (Rita Coolidge for one.) Sizzling.

Did you think that old torch song “Cry Me a River” could be done that way? Did anyone?

Could anyone else top the originals with covers like “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and “Honky Tonk Women.” With apologies to the Beatles and Stones of course. But they know. They know.

And I think crusty ol’ Leonard Cohen might have shed a tear when he heard Joe’s “Bird On a Wire.” If he didn’t he should have.

The energy that’s sustained on the album is just incredible. But that was Joe. Sweat dripping, arms flailing, back arching to seemingly impossible angles. A voice edged with whisky and cigarettes.

You half expected him to be Axl Rose surly. But no. He was the friendly guy standing drinks at the bar. A humble thank you after most songs.

That was Joe. Until maybe he got tired. And the gentle side came to the fore. Those sweet songs. “You Are So Beautiful” and so on. But that was always there. Mad Dogs and Englishmen also includes a lovely cover of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, though he should have done the whole song and not just in medley.

There’s Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” and Dave Mason’s “Feelin Alright.” Song after song.

But at the core, the madman core, is that crazy version of “Cry Me A River.” That’ll do.

(Joe Cocker died Monday, December 20 at his home in Colorado after a battle with lung cancer. He was 70.)

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

 


Brian Arsenault Takes On, or rather, Treasures: Peggy Lee

October 12, 2014

 By Brian Arsenault

Elton John had Marilyn Monroe but I had Peggy Lee. Miss Peggy Lee, pardon. No, I didn’t write a song for her but she did a song for me. Not really for me but maybe . . .

Peggy Lee at mic gesturesI was 11 or 12 when I first heard “Fever” in 1959 and it gave me a whole new, shall I say, feeling about girls. I was beginning to notice they were different in more things than hair and giggles but “Fever” was a revelation, even if I wasn’t quite sure yet what was being revealed.

As Don Heckman has written, she had so many strengths as a singer: deep sensuality, phrasing at a level only achieved by a handful of greats like Francis Albert and Mr. Bennett, and also like them, the ability to find the emotional center of the song.

An example of another artist finding the emotional center of a song: I was only recently reminded that Sinatra didn’t sing “Luck Be a Lady” in the film version of Guys and Dolls even though he was in it. (So was Brando, sheesh) Yet the song became a signature for Frank who showed it wasn’t really about shooting craps but seeking love. He found the center.

Peggy made “Fever” her own even though a guy named Little Willie John had an r&b hit with it that even crossed over to the pop charts. Still it’s like it was written for her. The song’s been recorded by who knows how many since Peggy, by performers as varied as Madonna and Beyonce, even Elvis. But does anyone doubt its Peg’s song.

Backed by just drum and bass, she just kills it with that deep voice you might have wished your girlfried had, with her funny fake Shakesperean take on the Romeo and Juliet verse, with a restrained eroticism that is almost palpable.

Miss Peggy Lee was singing professionally as an early teen. She fled a wicked stepmother and started by singing on a radio station literally for food. By 17 she was established as a radio singer. By 20 she was fronting the Benny Goodman band. At 21, she wrote “What More Can a Woman Do?” recorded by Sarah Vaughan with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

If I put exclamation points at the end of each sentence in the previous paragraph it would not have been misplaced punctuation. And I almost never use exclamation points. She was just getting started, one of the few survivors of the big band era whose career flourished into the 1950s and 60s and beyond.
Her early 60s appearance at the Basin Street East, mercifully preserved on a great album, just dazzles with its array of songs: “Day In -Day Out,” “The Second Time Around,” “Moments Like This,” “Them There Eyes,” and of course “Fever.” Hear her versions on the album and you don’t need any others. Consider also the limitations of live recordings, any recordings, in 1961 compared to today’s digital, if rather frozen, age.

If you can get a vinyl copy you will know why. On the cover, Peggy smiles to the side, the dress low on her shoulders, an earring dangles. Simply dazzling. And then you listen and dazzling isn’t enough to say.
As an aside, I also love the message on the back of the album below the liner notes:
“This monophonic microgroove recording is playable on Monophonic and Stereo phonographs. It cannot become obsolete. (Italics mine).” Damn right.

Her gifts were enormous. She was a songwriter for the Disney animated film Lady and the Tramp, a cartoon feature done with a loveliness unknown today. She also did four of the voices, from the lovely Lady to those nasty Siamese cats. I have never been able to warm up to a Siamese since and I kinda like cats.

Peggy also wrote songs with luminaries like Duke Ellington. She wrote TV scripts. She hosted variety shows. She acted in movies. She wrote poetry.

Her last big hit was in 1970 with “Is That All There Is?” Could there possibly be another hit song ever with lyrics taken from a Thomas Mann story? The band on the song was conducted by Randy Newman. Anyone else’s singing career span from Goodman to Newman?

She was in great demand right into the 1980s when failing health finally took its toll. She’d had a near fatal fall in Vegas some years before and came near death again with heart disease and surgery.
Yet she carried on into the 90s when she even performed a few times in a wheelchair. Now that could break your heart, eh?

Miss Peggy Lee died in 2002 having risen above enormous life challenges and changes in popular music tastes over so many decades. But if she’d only ever done “Fever” she’d be great to me.


Brian Arsenault Takes on Buddy Holly

September 9, 2014

Not Fade Away
The Music of Buddy Holly

by Brian Arsenault

That ass Gene Simmons saying the other day that rock was dead got me to thinking about living through its whole lifetime. Not that Simmons was right. Hell, he wouldn’t know, coming out of a band so devoid of musicality they had to dress like clowns. Typecasting.

Then today, not consciously thinking about the life and death of Rock, I put on Buddy Holly’s Down The Line – Rarities and it was all there.

Rock. All of it.

Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly

It’s not an accident that during the British reinvigoration of rock there was a band called The Hollies. Graham Nash was in it. Before there were Beatles there were Crickets. “Not Fade Away” was a Buddy hit before the Stones and the Dead were around.

All there. The pain and pleasures of early love, first discoveries, teens dancing in the dark. It’s easy to be scornful of such themes but in truth what is more shape shifting for a lifetime than the first discovery of the other sex. (“Fool’s Paradise,” “Love’s Made a Fool of You,” “Oh Boy”) Or the same sex for that matter. Hell, how hard is that? We’re only beginning to recognize the early pain of that sexual urge.

Before acid and gurus, love angst was the theme of the Beatles. A theme that made them bigger than anyone. Ever. And underneath even the White Album, the Buddy Holly gentle, jesting, sensitive feelings never went away nor should they have. Obla Di, Obla Da . . .

It was all there. Acoustic guitar chords played fast, faster and then electric. Sometimes both in the same song.
It was all there. An actual bass lead in “slow version #1″ of “Slippin and a Slidin’.” Long before The Ox and Jack Bruce.
It was all there. Buddy stopping to tell the drummer to push it, push it. An early organ lead when Doors were only something to open or shut.

It was all there. Watch Keith Richards on stage now and he’s playing those neat little rhythm riffs. Just without the horned rim glasses though he could probably use some.

Buddy’s great fame was a little before even my time. The day the music died I was only just tuning in to the music of my life. Digging his stuff.

A plane crash. Over and again a goddamn plane crash. The Big Bopper and La Bamba went down with him. They were doing a tour of high school sock hops. Imagine.

Plane crashes. Left us wounded in Lynrd Skynrd. Bereft of that little guitar monster from Texas. Damn plane crashes. Do like Willy and drive to the gigs. You can smoke ‘em easier.

Chuck Berry invented the form. Elvis made it America’s music. But Buddy led the way. From country and bop, from blues and r&b. All you have to do is listen to an album like Rarities and know that he listened to all of it. And then he gave us all of it. Rock ‘n Roll.

Unfortunately Gene Simmons lives in the same world, just not the same musical universe. So now he owns a fake football team. Figures.


CD Review of the Day: Royal Southern Brotherhood’s “heartsoulblood”

June 23, 2014

Royal Southern Brotherhood

heartsoulblood (Ruf Records)

By Brian Arsenault

What the so-called blues “purists” don’t understand is called out on critic John Sinclair’s liner notes to the superb heartsoulblood recently released by Royal Southern Brotherhood.

To wit: “Here Cyril Neville points out (on the album’s second track) that ‘rock & roll is the child of rhythm & blues’.” I would add that r&b is blues speeded up, horned up and electrified. SInclair goes on to say that “blues rock is in turn the child of rock & roll, born and bred in the nasty bars and roadhouses of the South and transplanted into the imaginations of a bunch of teen-age blues lovers in Great Britain who took their version to the top of the international pop music charts.”

Exactly right and the shitheads who think that listening to anything other than BB King and dead Delta bluesmen, great as they are, is some securlar sin against “da blues” have cut themselves off from some very great music for the past half century.

Royal Southern Brotherhood continue and enhance that march through rock and blues (and funk and soul and rockabilly) generations.

Royal Southern Brotherhood band

Royal Southern Brotherhood band

Generations are part of the picture here. The band includes Devon Allman, son of Gregg and nephew of Duane, as well as fourth Neville Brother, Cyril. Sterling guitarist and vocalist Mike Zito and keepin the beat rhythm section bassist Charlie Wooton and drummer Yonrico Scott round things out and deepen the sound.

I don’t always know who’s singing or playing guitar on each track and in some ways I don’t want to know. It’s been a while since I’ve heard a band where, as the cliche goes, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

I feel rather like Red in The Shawshank Redemption who doesn’t want to know what “the two Italian ladies” singing opera on the record pumped through the prison speakers are saying; he just wants to continue the feeling he gets just to hear them.

“Rock And Roll” does just that just fine. “Groove On” brings memories of Duane and Clapton on maybe the best rock album ever, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. “Callous” (on my soul) may be an anthem for the dark side of our times or simply the hurt from lost love.

“She’s My Lady” would have been called Soul if sung by The Temptations or, dare I say it, one of the older Nevilles. It would be a summer hit if there were such things on AM radio, or any radio any more. “Let’s Ride” has echoes of the Allman Brothers understandably but also the Chambers Brothers, just as understandably. And on and on throughout the album. Quality.

South haters — says this far New England Yankee — who think everything in the South is racism and narrow mindedness should note that this is a mixed race band. Interesting isn’t it that such seems to happen more often with bands based in the south than in the north? Those advocates of voting rights laws — but only for southern states — should recall all those musical cross currents in that part of the country from blues to rockabilly, from Buddy Holly to New Orleans funk and yes, dammit, to Elvis before the star machine got ahold of him. Currents that enriched the musical life of the whole nation.

A final cultural note: The album closes with a hippie-like anthem, “Love and Peace.” Nice touch.

The only lyric: “Love and Peace will heal the world.” Of course the eternal question is how do we get there? Music? We used to think so. Dare we again? Maybe the young can take us where the old could not.

But forget such musings if you wish. This is music I can listen to every day like my old Stones’ albums and that’s the best I can say about any collection.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

 


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