Archive for critic’s picks

critic’s pick 301: weather report, ‘the legendary live tapes 1978-1981’

weather report“Legendary” might be a bit much to describe The Legendary Live Tapes 1978-1981, a new four-disc assemblage of previously unreleased concert recordings from the glory years of jazz-fusion juggernaut Weather Report. But the music, gathered and produced for release by the band’s then-drummer, Peter Erskine, is nonetheless remarkable. Promoting quartet and quintet lineups of the fabled ensemble, it presents fusion music that drives with the bluntness of a rock outfit and swings with the unshakeable groove of a jazz combo but also thrives in the exciting, nebulous areas in between where global and prog inspirations play key roles.

The performances captured on The Legendary Live Tapes come just after group founders Josef Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, along with electric bass renegade Jaco Pastorius, found crossover success with their Heavy Weather album and its unexpected instrumental hit Birdland. Erskine was on board by 1978, when the band temporarily whittled itself down to a quartet.

The quartet performances here are thrilling, from the way the neo-disco groove piloted by Pastorius for River People grows out of the rubbery bass clang of Continuum (on the second disc) to a 1978 version of the pre-Jaco Scarlet Woman (on the fourth disc) that operates as a sonic playground for keyboardist Zawinul’s arsenal of outer space synths and the eerie cosmic starkness of Shorter’s saxophone.

The first and third discs represent the true gems of The Legendary Live Tapes. By adding percussionist Robert Thomas Jr. in early 1980 to re-establish Weather Report as a quintet, the band ignites concert versions of works from two of its most underrated albums – 1979’s 8:30 (a double-vinyl concert record that devoted one side to new studio works) and 1980’s Night Passage.

The 8:30 tune Brown Street (on disc one) avoids the space travel of the rest of the set with a worldbeat groove that has Zawinul chattering away on keyboards under a tenor sax lead by Shorter that sets up a summery profile of Weather Report at its most luminous.

The third disc is devoted exclusively to Night Passage songs, mostly from London concerts in November 1980. All are full of startling variety. Zawinul’s synths blast away like a horn section under the rich swing of Duke Ellington’s Rockin’ in Rhythm while the 18 minute Zawinul original Madagascar is Weather Report at its most ingenious and volcanic, rising from Asian-esque chatter of percussion to a bouncy groove full of crafty runs by Shorter, monstrous fills by Pastorius and wonderful ensemble dynamics.

The Legendary Live Tapes 1978-1981 doesn’t represent fusion music in any conventional sense. It instead offers powerfully panoramic music indebted to jazz tradition but with ears keenly attuned to the voices and times of the world.

critic’s pick 300: billy gibbons, ‘perfectamundo’

bill gibbonsDigging into Billy Gibbons’ debut solo album Perfectamundo is akin to driving down deep Southern highways during the wee hours when the car radio is apt to pick up multiple stations on the same frequency.

You hear ‘50s and ‘60s rhythm and blues rooted in the B3 organ grooves of Jimmy McGriff. Intruding on that is the blues, but the structures sound all funky as they get criss-crossed with Latino jazz and Afro-Cuban percussion. But just as soon as you think the mix is decidedly retro, in pop accents of hip-hop, dance floor techno and assorted studio trickery that takes the music through multiple time warps.

Above it all, of course, is guitar. It’s immediately recognizable – the crunchy, fuzzy and combustible fretwork Gibbons has popularized over the past 45 years with his day-job band, ZZ Top. The sound is familiar yet displaced, which seems to be the general point of Perfectamundo.

What Gibbons has done on this workman’s holiday of an album is take the borderline boogie ZZ Top has specialized in for so long and expand upon it. That’s not to say the Texas trio wasn’t capable of variety. Its shamefully overlooked 2003 album Mescalero was a owner’s manuel of primal Mexicali-inspired rock and soul. Perfectamundo, though, lightens the load and widens the instrumental scope to where percussion and B3 are as integral to the music as guitar and Gibbons’ elder hipster vocals. But you still sense the blues within the lean grooves that sprout out of the heart of these tunes.

The album opens by appropriating a pair of battle tested boogie classics – the 1957 Slim Harpo rumble Got Love If You Want It and the 1965 Roy Head hit Treat Her Right. Both have been covered scores of times through the decades, but here they serve to introduce the Perfectamundo sound – a sleekly rhythmic dance formula both elegant and erotic punctuated by guitar and B3 but with percussion setting the tone. That’s where the album pretty much stays. There are a few ultra modern embellishments, like the chant-style rapping of bassist of Alx “Guitarzza” Garza on three songs and the neo-disco momentum of Hombre Sin Hombre.

A tasty variation, though, surfaces on Sal Y Pimiento. In many ways, the tune is as elemental as its title (it’s Spanish for “salt and pepper”) with a celebratory piano roll at the core and guitar turns from Gibbons that are surprisingly jazz-like.

The tip-off to what awaits on Perfectamundo is the album cover art – a mug of Gibbons minus his trademark shades but with his Father Time beard and a wary expression in his eyes in full view. It’s as if he is daring us to a take a leap into this new musical brew. But fear not. This is a worthwhile plunge.

critic’s pick 299: van morrison, ‘astral weeks’ and ‘his band and the street choir’

astral weeksYou can easily envision the jaws dropping in the Warner Brothers boardroom when Astral Weeks, Van Morrison’s heralded 1968 debut for the label, was unveiled. Here was the Irish expatriate that had floored global audiences a year earlier with the radio smash Brown Eyed Girl. But Astral Weeks revealed a songsmith that sang like a Memphis soul renegade prone to gospel-esque fervor and wrote like a Belfast folk mystic. Where was the pop star? Where was the single?

Upon its release, Astral Weeks was dead on arrival commercially, but it created a firestorm of critical praise and set Morrison up for the record that finally established him as a star troubadour – 1970’s Moondance.

Astral Weeks has just been given the grand re-issue treatment – a sparkling new mix, the addition of primo unreleased takes from the original sessions and insightful liner notes that outline how Morrison was even able to make his way to Warners after a recording contract with Bang Records left his then-young career in shambles.

Released concurrently with the record is Morrison’s third Warners album, His Band and the Street Choir, which gets the same royal dust off.

We won’t rehash Astral Week’s greatness here. Instead, we will make note of the four alternate tracks that constitute the bonus material. At the head of class is the initial studio take of Beside You, a blast of Irish romanticism sung with an epic soul stride. Though not quite as unrelenting as the originally released version, it’s close. It is also a riot to hear producer Lewis Merenstein refer to the tune – jokingly, one presumes, during introductory studio banter – as “the single.”

Also of note is an unedited version of the album’s final track, Slim Slow Slider, a stark, folkish vigil that surrounds its mournful core with a deceptively summery (and decidedly jazz like) dressing. This bonus version, however, sports a forgotten coda that turns the tune into a requiem.

his band and the street choirThe vastly more soul and groove inspired His Band and the Street Choir was released in 1970, a mere 10 months after Moondance (which got the reissue treatment last year). It is an altogether looser affair bolstered by the popularity of two radio hits, Domino and Blue Money.

The new edition comes with five alternate takes, most of which don’t vary dramatically from their finalized renditions. A modest exception is I’ve Been Working, which shifts its groove to a jazzier flow more reminiscent of Booker T. and the MGs.

The bottom line, though, is these two splendid records are again in a spotlight where they might hopefully find a newer, younger audience. Eventually, Morrison’s entire Warners catalogue, which stretched into the early’80s, will be reissued. But Astral Weeks and His Band and the Street Choir keep the ball rolling by bridging Morrison’s poetic Irish instincts with richly American rhythm. The resulting sound remains glorious.

critic’s pick 298: john scofield, ‘past present’

john scofieldThere are probably a dozen different inferences you could take away from the title of John Scofield’s newest recording, Past Present.

It could be the return to animated and immediate jazz the guitarist was known for prior to when contemporary alliances with Govt. Mule, Medeski Martin & Wood and Phil Lesh introduced his music to a new generation of predominantly rock and jam audiences. There is also the matter of the band backing Scofield on Past Present, which harkens back to a trio of outstanding Blue Note albums he cut roughly 25 years ago. Finally, there is the whole sense of musical invention that cuts to the core of Past Present. Its nine tunes, all Scofield originals, may suggest a glance backward to a sound and band from years ago. But a flashback it isn’t. Past Present couldn’t sound retro if it tried.

The album makes two lasting and commanding impressions from the get go. The first deals with the musical simpatico between Scofield and his principal foil from the ‘90s band largely reassembled here – saxophonist Joe Lovano. The two converse with remarkable fluency throughout Past Present, especially on the immensely animated Hangover, trading swing riffs and playing off each other’s bright phrasing (especially in the way Lovano’s tenor melody cracks as if he were laughing at a joke). The tune is also a blast because its catalyst is the other returnee from Scofield’s ‘90s band, drummer Bill Stewart. A player of deceptive intensity, Stewart set the tune’s colorful pace with an introductory roll and remains in the rhythmic driver’s seat for much of the album.

The other impression deals with Scofield’s sense of groove. Maybe it’s the work he has engaged in with younger, less jazz-specific artists in recent years (he jams with effortless glee alongside the avant-jam trio Medeski Martin & Wood on last year’s splendid Juice album). But his construction of the rubbery rhythm to the Past Present opening tune Slinky, as well as the way it quickly engages into sly but giddy unison with Lovano before backing into a solo with obvious reverence for the blues, is a journey unto itself. The same goes for Get Proud, with a guitar groove born out of soul and blues that bounces about through the entire tune.

There is also a less specific influence at work. The guitarist has mentioned in interviews that several tunes on Past Present are indirect references to his son Evan, who died from cancer in 2013 at the age of 26, and boast titles taken from phrases adopted by the younger Scofield. One, Mr. Puffy, was Evan’s description of himself while undergoing chemotherapy.

But the music isn’t dour at all. Mr. Puffy is a spring-like embrace of melody and subtle swing, an affirmation by a team of longstanding pals at peace enough with the past to celebrate the present.

critic’s pick 297: joe ely, ‘panhandle rambler’

joe ely panhandle ramblerAs skilled as Joe Ely has been as a songwriter through the years, from the barroom air of his country roots records to the unassuming drive of his most ribald rock ‘n’ roll recordings, nothing quite beats the music that gathers the dirt of his West Texas heritage and tosses it into the prairie wind.

That happens time and time again on his splendid new Panhandle Rambler album. The album’s 12 tunes (10 of which are originals) are neither as honky tonk in nature as the elemental country works he fashioned in the ‘70s or as broadly assertive as his rock outings from the’80s. Panhandle Rambler is instead the work of a Lone Star storyteller who, at age 68, approaches his music with a sage-like subtlety. Every crease, every hard won tale and every slice of unease is translated not in sounds as obvious as country or rock, but with stark folk narratives, a flourish of flamenco or strains of Tex Mex mischievousness. It makes for some Ely’s most contemplative but deliciously unsettling music.

You hear it at once in the album opening Wounded Creek, a song that, lyrically, bears a construction similar to a traditional British Isles ballad. But instead of “walking one morning in May,” as the Celts were prone to do, Ely goes “out one afternoon for a walk down Wounded Creek.” From there, there is no mistaking where we have landed. Showers of flamenco guitar and strains of pedal steel guitar that seem to cry out from another county tell a story of misery and mystery so vivid that you practically feel the arid West Texas sun beating down and the red dust rising as doors slam and cars tear off in the distance.

That’s not to say Panhandle Rambler is all darkness and regret. Early in the Morning is a rise-and-shine parable with a lazy bones attitude. The relaxed accordion strains of Joel Guzman adds a cantina air to the wry detail of Ely’s vocals and, especially, the carefree feel of his lyrics. “I take a bus downtown, early in the morning,” Ely sings with wily reverence. “Then I just walk around.”

Ely covers a pair of tunes by two major contemporaries (and pals) – Guy Clark and Butch Hancock. But as a West Texas song stylist, he is without peer for eying the human detail buried within the bustle of slow yet unsettled Lubbock area life. His tales present Texas-style mood swings – from the busted giddiness of Four Ol’ Brokes to the perilous Cold Black Hammer to the country affirmation of Here’s to the Weary (one of the few instances on the album where the Texas winds blow in with a sense of honest cheer). But all are served with unassuming honesty by a champion rambler who is never at a loss when comes to spinning a golden Lone Star yarn.

critic’s pick 296: ryan adams, ‘1989’

RyanAdams1989Ryan Adams has decided on his costume for Halloween. Judging by his newest album, he will be making the rounds as Taylor Swift.

His latest rabbit-out-of-a-hat recording is a song-for-song remake of Swift’s most recent multi-platinum epic, 1989. But anyone dismissing what Adams has done as a joke is missing out on one of the fall’s more intriguing pop experiments.

Known largely as an Americana stylist, Adams has dabbled in practically every genre at his disposal, including metal, country, grunge, folk and pop. The latter shouldn’t be all that surprisingly. After all, he was married for over five years to pop princess/actress Mandy Moore. But to interpret a megahit work that was a stylistic departure for the artist who recorded it as recently as last year is something of a first, especially when you consider that artist is still out on tour promoting it (witness Swift’s Rupp Arena return next week).

For much of the record, Adams doesn’t so much reinvent Swift’s songs as fiddle with their temperament. Given the general introspective and often downcast tones of his solo work, Adams treats the jubilancy of 1989 with suspect ears. In short, he de-chirps these tunes.

Style is an arresting case in point. The tune snaps to attention with a battering electric riff, is sung with a kind of withdrawn circumspection and runs its course along an unsettled melodic shoreline. But once it hits the chorus, there is no mistaking who penned the song. Swift’s bright, anthemic hooks may sound weightier in Adams’ hands, but the sense of pop priority is unwavering.

Then there are songs like Wildest Dreams, a product of pure pop abandon when Swift sings it. But Adams takes a different highway with a jangly Byrds/R.E.M. accent and vocal delivery that is decidedly wistful. Later, I Know Places is an altogether dark tango when compared to what Swift imagined, but again the pop immediacy still glistens.

The big curiosity surrounding the album, outside of its very existence, is the treatment of the pop vocabulary that had Swift shutting the door on the country allegiance that brought her to stardom. Such a lexicon sounds largely retro when Adams addresses it.

Shake It Off, for instance, now sounds like a kissing cousin to Bruce Springsteen’s I’m on Fire, shaking off all of Swift’s synth-pop perkiness while Bad Blood possesses a lean but outward sadness that defies all the Kendrick Lamar dance accents of the Swift original.

Call it different strokes by different folks. Yet Adams’ 1989 is likely to achieve something else. It will get Swift’s music to ears that would have never willingly test-driven it before. What a relief. The poor dear really needed some exposure.

(Adams’ 1989 is currently available digitally. The CD version will be released on Oct. 30 with the vinyl edition scheduled for December.)

critic’s pick 294: los lobos, ‘gates of gold’

los lobos gates of gold“There I go, like a leaf that’s blown away, so like a child that’s lost his way,” sings David Hidalgo against a shuffle both murky and merry on the new Los Lobos album Gates of Gold. “I keep on looking. It’s all I can do.”

That’s an especially revealing perspective – an elder with a childlike outlook feeling lost in the ages. You could say that sums up Los Lobos’ place in the pop world of today. Critically cherished but largely forgotten by the mainstream, the East Los Angeles band soldiers on after 40 years without any defections from its initial lineup. While its mix of Americana, psychedelia, Tex Mex and Mexicali soul isn’t exactly the formula of a marquee act, Los Lobos long ago forged such a blend into a roots-savvy sound of its own.

The thing is, Los Lobos’ recordings – the popular, the obscure and the recent – are all little gems. Take the band’s last studio set, 2010’s Tin Can Trust. It seemed to cause little more than a commercial ripple, yet it was an astounding record full of soulful, but world weary songs that sounded positively sagely.

Gates of Gold falls just shy of Tin Can Trust’s high water mark, but it is still a feast of a record. The music is both restless and rocking as it fleshes out the exhausted world view Hidalgo and drummer-turned-guitarist Louie Perez write about on the album opening Made to Break Your Heart. The song chugs along with a solemn, Santana-like groove before cracking open a compelling contradiction (“Don’t you know love is made to break your heart”).

When We Were Free follows to both deepen the wound (“We forgot that moment, that so precious moment, and let this world steal it from you and me”) and then serve as a balm with a soothing pop-soul sway that blows by in light, percussive waves.

Of course, the beauty of Los Lobos remains its balance. If Hidalgo and Perez are the band’s reticent fortune tellers, co-vocalist and guitarist Cesar Rosas is its pragmatist. His Mis-Treater Boogie Blues storms in like a blast of mid ‘70s ZZ Top. “Boogie” and “Blues” are the optimal terms, because the song isn’t much sunnier thematically than the rest of the album, but the electricity within the tune is celebratory and almost primal. Hildalgo and Perez siphon a bit of that immediacy for Too Small Heart for turmoil (“Too small heart called last night; didn’t say hello, said only goodbye”) as succinct as the tune’s roaring electric groove.

Want more? Try the antique country feel of Gates of Gold’s title tune, the lazy back porch blues of I Believed You So and the luscious cantina feel of the Spanish-sung La Tumba Sera El Final. It all makes for another golden sleeper of an album from the tireless Los Lobos.

critic’s pick 293: keith richards, ‘crosseyed heart’

keith richardsThere is something about hearing Keith Richards embrace the Leadbelly classic Goodnight Irene in the midst of his new Crosseyed Heart album that is as charming as it is unexpected. On first listen, you would think you were listening to 1990s-era Bob Dylan as the boozy, scratchy but obviously enchanted vocals envelop a parlor-style backdrop. But Keith being Keith, the whole thing still dances like a ballet in a brothel.

The folkish sway isn’t entirely indicative of Richards’ first solo album in over two decades. There are also snapshots of blues, reggae, jagged pop and, of course, the sort of loose but turbulent jams that have long been second nature to the guitarist who remains the heartbeat of the Rolling Stones.

In essence, Crosseyed Heart is less of a studio album as it is a block party. The album’s opening title tune is a slice of relaxed acoustic blues, the morning serenade of a reveler temporarily at rest. A few songs later, Richards starts flexing his electric cunning with a roving bit of party fun called Trouble (“Maybe trouble is your middle name”) that celebrates the Stones sound of decades past. That leads directly into Love Overdue, a fresh blast of horn driven reggae sunshine. By the time he reaches Suspicious, Richards is playing the crooner on a twilight hued meditation that can easily be pictured sung under a streetlight (or in a back alley). Then you run smack into Something for Nothing, a churning celebration you hear initially from a distance, as though the song was marching from down the street in your direction. But when it hits, the party hits full force with pure, rhythmic cheer. In a blindfold test, the tune could pass for a Stones song in a heartbeat.

Amazingly, all of that covers only the first half of Crosseyed Heart. What comes next is the album’s biggest curve ball, a duet with Norah Jones in Illusion. But Jones is in Richards’ junkyard here and adopts a woozy vocal counterpoint that is strangely complimentary. But the whopper is a clanging, rumbling rumination of a head-butting relationship on the skids titled Substantial Damage (“What are we doing together? You got the broom, I’ve got the feather”).

The same co-horts that formed the foundation of Richards ‘80s/’90s side project troupe, The X-pensive Winos – specifically drummer/co-producer Steve Jordan, guitarist Waddy Wachtel and, posthumously, saxophonist Bobby Keys – are back on board for the party. But Richards is the soulful, happily battered star here. He wears his crosseyed heart like a badge of honor, discovering warmth and cheers in the heart of rock ‘n’ roll darkness.

critic’s pick 292: randall bramblett, ‘devil music’

devil music“There’s a crack in my dreams where the truth slips through,” sings Randall Bramblett in the midst of his splendid new album Devil Music. Like so many of the under-the-radar records he has fashioned over the last four decades, the veteran Georgia songsmith sings of things imperfect. Not tragic, necessarily, and certainly not sentimental – just people and places, often with a poetic Southern grace, that sit outside of the trajectory of everyday life. View any of the outstanding releases he has put his name to and you are met with a sense of elegant unease. Shoot, even the title Devil Music suggests something dark yet involving.

While his solo albums have been amazingly consistent – especially the string of records he has released since 1998 – Devil Music ups the rhythmic charge a notch. These tunes are fueled by rugged, swampy grooves with fewer time outs for ballads. The resulting music is churchy and soulful, as on the opening Dead in the Water where Bramblett’s Hammond organ playing whips around the tune like a late October wind. That’s a neat trick, too, considering the guitar artillery mounted for the song. Squaring off are Davis Causey (Bramblett’s guitar sidekick since the ‘70s, including his stint with Chuck Leavell in Sea Level), Nick Johnson (the young guitar buck that has been an integral member of Bramblett’s touring band) and, in a dynamic cameo, Mark Knopfler.

Devil Music’s title tune, on the other hand, works off a more cross-generational feel. The music is all Muscle Shoals soul, right down to the blues laced lyrics (“Wolf cried all the way to Memphis, ‘cause his mama turned him, turned him away”). But the music is just as indebted to modern loops and syncopation, which makes this blast of righteous folklore sound anything but vintage.

The groove subsides late into the album for Ride. The attitude is blues (“There is a rock where my pillow used to be”), but the music is ripe with a mix of nocturnal jazz and the combustible soul so prevalent in much of Bramblett’s previous music. His mix of piano and Hammond sets the scene, but the vocals, a gentle and sagely reflection of the music it leads, sells the song.

There are numerous other treats, too, like the dirty swing of Reptile Pilot (which unleashes Bramblett on saxophone with Leavell sitting in on piano), the unsettling soul shuffle of Thing for You (“You’re in and out of trouble but you’re always on mind”) and the rolling, restless Southern R&B of Angel Child (“It’s so quiet, I hear my ‘frigerator running”) that triggers wiry guitar color from another top drawer guest, Derek Trucks.

Wrap all this up and you have a nasty little delicacy of an album from one of the most prolific and uncompromising Southern voices of our age.

critic’s pick 286: amy helm, ‘didn’t it rain’

amy helmAs soon as the studied cool and rich, rootsy drive settles in on Amy Helm’s sumptuous debut album Didn’t It Rain, you sense a welcome though unexpected sense of stylistic displacement.

A native of the Woodstock region of New York, the singer possesses a singing style steeped in Southern gospel-soul as well as a pure roots rock immediacy that sounds like it was conjured on the West Coast at the dawn of the ‘70s. Her tone is assertive but sweet while the delivery is wildly confident yet unhurried. In the case of a tune like Sky’s Falling, the great R&B empress Ann Peebles comes to mind. But you could probably find a vintage inspiration to pin to any of the dozen songs that make up Didn’t It Rain, eight of which the singer wrote or co-wrote. But Helm dresses this music with a voice that uses those inspirations simply as reference points. The album’s effortless poise, vigor and soulfulness ae all her own doing.

The drum rumble of the album-opening title tune nicely sets the mood with a bone rattling groove and colors of slide guitar that rain like buckshot over a punctuated melody. Helm’s singing is churchy to the point of being incantatory with a gliding wail full of grit and grace. The party just gets hotter from there.

Among the general influences that greet you is the kind of Bonnie Raitt/Little Feat rock and soul feel that Warner Brothers Records cooked up in California over four decades ago. Part of that is unavoidable. Feat co-founder Bill Payne guests on Sky’s Falling, but also helps orchestrate the glowing soul affirmation Rescue Me on piano with subtle shades of gospel that Helm sings gloriously to.

Bassist Byron Issacs, Helm’s bandmate in the great New York Americana/soul troupe Ollabelle, doubles as producer. He also pens several tunes here with Helm, the best being Heat Lightning, a commanding rocker that employs a nasty, jagged guitar riff to trigger to a country shuffle that sets up Helm’s soul-savvy vocal lead.

There is, of course, a prime guiding spirit throughout all of Didn’t It Rain – the singer’s legendary father Levon Helm. Drum tracks cut by the elder Helm prior to his death in 2012 are featured on three songs including a rapturous version of Martha Scanlon’s Spend Our Last Dime. You even hear his voice, raspy but defiantly robust, kicking the tune off. The resulting music unfolds like a country waltz with daughter Helm proudly piloting the ensuing celebration.

Didn’t It Rain may mark Helm’s arrival as a solo artist. But her extensive work in Ollabelle and her father’s final recordings (and famed Midnight Ramble performances) have fashioned her into something of a roots-rock scholar. Such wisdom flows richly and openly on this sublime record.

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