Archive for critic’s picks

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.

critic’s pick 285: miles davis, ‘miles davis at newport 1955-75: the bootleg series’

miles davisOf the dozen or so boxed set anthologies chronicling the career of Miles Davis issued after his death in 1991, the new four-disc Miles Davis at Newport 1955-75: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4 is perhaps the most intriguing.

The other sets tended to focus on one band, one era, one tour or even unreleased material related to one specific recording. Newport centers at an event traced through time, and when it comes to jazz, Davis was a time traveler and then some. They didn’t call him Miles for nothing.

What this means is that by chronicling segments of eight different performances at the Newport Jazz Festival over a period of two decades, we are presented in as encapsulated a form as any box set can capture, Davis’ astounding jazz voyage, from the his ‘50s era of acoustic cool to his ‘70s rebirth as a fusion and funk renegade. The package offers plenty for Davis die-hards, too. With a whopping collective running time of 296 minutes, Newport boasts nearly four hours of unreleased performances.

Still, it’s the stylistic metamorphosis that stands out. The first disc has Davis introduced by no less a jazz icon than Duke Ellington before launching to a version of Hackensack that places Davis’ serene trumpet runs alongside the modal mischief of the tune’s composer, Thelonious Monk. This performance has been well chronicled already, but as a time piece within the larger canon of Davis’ Newport history, it is an integral introduction that bears repeating.

Fast forward a decade and we have the prize of the package – a full disc devoted to previously unissued sets from 1966 and 1967 of the great Davis quintet featuring Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and the especially devilish drum colors of a young Tony Williams. The diplomacy of these performances is often astounding. While the unison swing of All Blues is a thing of beauty, the ’67 ingenuity fortifying Shorter’s Footprints lets the pure musical cunning of Davis and pianist Hancock loose. The ensuing drama is Newport’s clear high point.

Davis goes electric for the rest of the package which is where the real transformation begins. The music becomes more groove-centric (and, in some cases, more static), but the sense of adventure, especially in a 1969 set featuring a young Chick Corea going wild on electric piano and a series of 1973 rumbles with saxophonist Dave Liebman, never relents.

A brief 1975 version of the percussion-heavy Mtume is the only real instance where the sound quality dips to actual bootleg level (an oddity, given how it’s the most recent recording in the set). The rest of Newport sounds like a dream. It’s a jazz journey of fearless and epic proportions.

critic’s pick 282: yes, ‘progeny – highlights from seventy two’

yes progenyIt is perhaps an inevitability that we now view Progeny, a diamond mine find from the concert vaults of prog-rock institution Yes, as a eulogy given the death two weekends ago of the band’s bassist and co-founder Chris Squire. Call it instead a case of coincidental timing.

Progeny, in fact, arrived a full month before Squire succumbed to leukemia at age 67. But it’s hard to imagine a more fitting parting shot for the one Yes member that served in every performing and recording lineup of the band through its 45-plus year history until this summer.

Progeny is a portrait of Yes in its prime. It brings to light recordings of seven full concerts by the band performed during the fall of 1972. At the time, Close to the Edge – still the band’s finest hour – had scaled the charts and the drum chair had switched from Bill Bruford to Alan White (who still serves in Yes today). The concerts were discovered as a search commenced for the master tapes of Yes’ studio recordings for a remastering and reissuing project.

The full concert sets are available as a massive 14 disc boxed set titled Progeny: Seven from Seventy Two. For more modest budgets, there is the vastly more affordable (about $18) double disc version, Progeny: Highlights from Seventy Two. The latter is being reviewed here.

What we hear throughout the double-disc edition, which replicates a typical concert by Yes at the time, is one of the finest rosters of the band (Squire, White, vocalist Jon Anderson, guitarist Steve Howe and keyboardist Rick Wakeman) going for broke. You hear the abandon within with hammering introduction to Heart of the Sunrise and again as the song eases off into melodic cool. Squire is in the heat of it all, too, driving the momentum in tandem with Howe and White and luxuriating under the more symphonic grace of Anderson and Wakeman.

Most prog bands are known best for their studio work, with Yes being no exception. But this lineup nonetheless revels in the youthful gusto that ignites Progeny readings of Close to the Edge’s 18 minute title suite, the radio hit Roundabout and what stands as possibly the band’s most powerful composition, Yours is No Disgrace.

It should be noted that Progeny does not duplicate any recordings from the band’s 1973 live album Yessongs. But the sonic clarity of Progeny greatly improves on the former collection. This is the sound of ‘70s prog cut at that rare instance when commercial popularity and artistic vision met. It’s also serves, quite unintentionally, as a magnificent career coda to one of the music’s most beloved heroes.

critic’s pick 281: richard thompson, ‘still’

RichardThompson StillTo grossly paraphrase an old cliché, you can take an Englishman out of England, but you can’t always make him dance to an American tune.

On his new album Still, British folk-rock forefather Richard Thompson teams with Wilco headmaster Jeff Tweedy as producer. But on the opening She Never Could Resist a Winding Road, Thompson sings of wanderlust and all the emotional wreckage left in its wake over a gentle melody that resembles a Celtic reverie.

The singer/guitarist has traveled this path before on the brilliant Beeswing (which remains a favorite among his concert audiences). But Winding Road is more ragged. It dances and clangs more severely against its elegant framework, sounding less like a Wilco-inspired collaboration and more like a sagely take on the folk-friendly experiments Thompson engaged in with Fairport Convention during the late ‘60s.

Tweedy approaches Still much in the same manner Americana chieftain Buddy Miller approached production duties for 2013’s equally fine Electric album for Thompson – meaning, he steers clear of the main attraction to fashion a recording that is swiftly streamlined in its sense of songcraft, stylistically faithful to folk tradition without becoming mired in it and spacious enough to let the roar of Thompson’s still-potent guitar work loose. That alone makes Still a fine addition to a canon of arresting recordings Thompson has released under his own name over the last three decades.

Life and love remain touchy subjects for Thompson on Still. Despite its ultra-Celtic title, Patty Don’t You Put Me Down is a lean, guitar-dominate rumination on the kind of twisted romance Thompson has become a scholar at writing about. “In your 10 watt world, it’s beyond any pleasure you know,” he sings with ample venom, “to stick your fingers in the socket and give yourself a glow.”

Josephine reverses the tension into a largely acoustic reflection full of poetically dour detail while No Peace, No End turns more topical (“In the big chess game, there is only one winner and it’s always somebody else”) with an electric rumble both unsettled and anthemic. The latter’s monumental string-bending is expanded upon in more playful fashion during Guitar Heroes, an medley-style ode that honors a bowler-full of stylistic innovators (from Django Reinhardt to The Shadows) before Thompson adds his two cents for a coda to prove himself a worthy disciple.

The killer, quite literally, is Dungeons for Eyes, a glance into a murderous soul now viewed by society with a puzzling acceptance. “How we forgive old rivalries half forgot,” Thompson sings with learned desperation. “We smile as best we can, but I can’t let it go.” The guitar work is as stinging as the storyline, yet in under four exquisitely tense minutes the storm passes and the song is complete.

How fitting it all seems – titling an album of such calculated restlessness and turmoil Still. That’s Richard Thompson for you.

critic’s pick 280: kacey musgraves, ‘pageant material’

kacey-musgraves-pageant-material“I’m not exactly Miss Congeniality,” Kacey Musgraves sings with youthful but knowing country candor in the title tune to her outstanding new album Pageant Material.

Building on the uncompromising lyrical tradition that distinguished her Grammy winning 2013 major label debut Same Trailer Different Park, the Texas born singer offers spin after spin on themes of family, smalltown life and restless romance that have long been staples of country music. But as attractive as her music is – from the effortless country lilt of her singing to the gentle arsenal of strings, twang and folkish charm adorning the new album’s 14 songs – Musgraves is a subtle rebel.

The storylines champion a human level of imperfection that ring out any sense of false sentimentality. What is left is often humorous, frequently plain speaking but, all above all, astonishingly real. So, no – congeniality is not the name of the game on Pageant Material.

As was the case with Same Trailer Different Park, Musgraves is nothing short of masterful when it comes to turning a phrase. “Just because it don’t cost a lot don’t mean it’s cheap,” she sings of the hard won pride pervading the travelogue time piece Dime Store Cowgirl. The uncomfortable rural confinement of This Town is later revealed just as matter-of-factly when she admits her community is “way too small for secrets” (“What goes around, comes around at Friday’s football game”). Best of all are the ways she outlines the bonds in Family is Family, a snapshot of a loyalty strong but jagged enough to outlast divorce, prison and perhaps even a medical emergency (“They may smoke like chimneys, but they’ll give you their kidneys”).

Musically, Pageant Material is assured but often very modest in presentation. Sure, the album opening High Time screams to be a single with its girl group snap, sweeping orchestration and prairie whistling, not to mention an appealing humility (“You don’t need a thousand dollar suit to take out the trash”). But much of the rest of Pageant Material is scaled down in design, from the Beatles-esque riff that gently propels Miserable to the radio ready love song Late to the Party to the lovely but longing finale waltz Fine.

Everything converges, however, on Biscuits, a country mantra embracing not the cheap pandering and contradictory sentimentality of modern Nashville, but a kiss off of sorts that suggests tending to your own affairs or, as Musgraves puts it, “hoe your own row.” What that yields is affirmed in an absolutely golden chorus phrase: “Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy.”

Such are the irregular but sobering snapshots of life offered by, as confessed in the liner notes of Pageant Material, the 1991 finalist for Miss Tater Tot at the Golden Sweet Potato Festival in Musgraves’ hometown of Golden, Texas. The accolades then were probably meager. On Pageant Material, she gets the tiara.

critic’s pick 279; the rolling stones, ‘sticky fingers’ (reissue)

stonesThe riff fired off by Keith Richards that introduced Brown Sugar as well as the album it helped immortalize, Sticky Fingers, was the sound that shot the Rolling Stones into the ‘70s. But it was more, too. That wonderfully simple but potently infectious guitar hook signaled the launch of a new era for the Stones commercially as well as artistically. After ending the ‘60s with the death of guitarist Brian Jones and the horror of the Altamont festival, the band regrouped, enlisted guitarist Mick Taylor, started their own record label (a rarity in those days) and redefined for the rest of the decade the degrees of which rock stardom could reach.

Sticky Fingers returns to us this summer as the third ‘70s-era Stones album to be expanded with bonus peaks behind the curtain as to how the music was fashioned. As with earlier reissues of 1972’s Exile of Main Street and 1978’s Some Girls, the remastered Sticky Fingers comes with a bonus disc of unreleased gems, which is the real reason to check it out.

Not that there was anything wrong with the original album, mind you. It remains a rollercoaster of country regret (Wild Horses), brassy rock and party soul (Bitch), blues reveries (You Gotta Move and a savage, wiry version of I Got the Blues,) drug draped confessions (Sister Morphine) and two bonafide epics: the underappreciated orchestral parting shot Moonlight Mile and the sublime jam adventure Can’t You Hear Me Knocking that will forever remain Taylor’s defining recorded moment from his tenure with the Stones (even though his extended solo makes the band sound oddly like early Santana).

The material on the bonus disc doesn’t diminish any of that, not even an alternate version of Brown Sugar cut with Eric Clapton. But it does illuminate the seemingly organic soulfulness that drove the Stones in the early ‘70s, especially in a rehearsal-like run through of Can’t You Hear Me Knocking without Taylor’s solo and a wonderfully loose take on Bitch that is essentially a jam.

The real treat, though, comes from 30 minutes of unreleased concert recordings from a March 1971 show at The Roundhouse in London. With pianist Nicky Hopkins and tenor sax strongman Bobby Keys beefing up the sound, the Stones revisit five late ‘60s classics first featured in live form on 1970’s Get Yer Ya-Yas Out, a record that was literally half-baked (its concert cuts were supposedly heavily modified by studio post-production).

On these excavated takes, led by a typically boisterous Midnight Rambler, the Stones vindicate themselves from the sour coda of the ‘60s and by making the songs part of their wild’70s rebirth

critic’s pick 278: ryan adams, ‘ten songs from live at carnegie hall’

ryanadamsRyan Adams has long been one of those Jekyll and Hyde artists that intersperse performances of poetic intimacy with outings of full-tilt electric immediacy. It’s a balance that mirrors such classicists as Neil Young without ever sounding imitative.

Ten Songs from Live at Carnegie Hall is a curiosity that allows the Jekyll persona to emerge out of a Hyde outburst. Specifically, it documents two solo acoustic dates at the landmark New York venue last November that fell in the midst of nearly a year’s worth of grungey electric shows. That doesn’t keep it from being a wonderfully unsettled concert keepsake, though.

The entirety of both acoustic performances was chronicled in the spring on the limited edition, 6 LP vinyl-only package Live at Carnegie Hall. It sold out quickly but remains available for hardcore fans in digital form through the usual online outlets. This week brings us Ten Songs from Carnegie Hall – a fine 50 minute sampler split evenly between songs from both shows.

While the full vinyl set serves essentially as a career retrospective, Ten Songs is a bookend affair that offers five songs from Adams’ first two solo albums (2000’s Heartbreaker and 2001’s Gold) with the remainder representing the here and now (three from 2014’s Ryan Adams along with two new tunes).

Sometimes these new readings vary greatly from their studio originals, like the reconstruction of the churchy, power chord-fueled Gimme Something Good into a pensive, internalized confession and a gorgeously delicate update of Gold’s Nobody Girl stripped of its mounting electric charge.

In other instances, these takes very much follow the lead of their previous incarnations, as with two Heartbreaker works that begin and end Ten Songs – a reflective Oh My Sweet Carolina rich with country despondency and the stark guitar/harmonica kiss-off incantation Come Pick Me Up.

For those thinking Ten Songs is a strictly melancholy affair (and the brooding piano balladry of Gold’s Sylvia Plath and the very Nick Drake-like cast of the new This is Where We Meet in Our Mind certainly enforce that notion), there is a bright retooling of Gold’s New York, New York to serve as a pop affirmation.

That Ten Songs leaves you hungry for more goes without saying. Loads of treats from the vinyl set are absent here, including the title tune from 2011’s extraordinary Ashes & Fire, the robustly brittle cover of Bob Mould’s Black Sheets of Rain and a truckload of hilarious between-song banter. Still, this is a sublime little trip through Adams’ brilliantly restless musical mind, complete with enough four-letter bombs embedded in the lyrics to earn Ten Songs a parental advisory label.

Having that plastered on the back and white cover photo of Carnegie Hall in all its grandeur was no doubt viewed by Adams as a point of pride.

critic’s picks 277: keith jarrett, ‘creation’ and david torn, ‘open sky’

keith jarrett creationAside from their alliance as bandmates on the ECM label, Keith Jarrett and David Torn exhibit little stylistic simpatico. But on their newest recordings, that very distinction expands the art of solo performance.

Jarrett has come to define the role of modern piano improviser over the past four decades, infusing his solo concerts with impressionistic rapture and chamber-like completeness. Torn is more of a sculptor whose solo work welds together shards of electric ambience, unrest and distortion for an unclassifiable sound both delicate and disturbing.

Each artist regularly performs and records in collaborative settings. But on their splendid new ECM releases, Jarrett and Torn explore their opposing musical worlds on their own.

Jarrett’s Creation differs from his other solo piano albums in design and well as temperament. In the past, his solo concerts have been preserved in essentially complete form regardless of length (1978’s infamous Sun Bear Concerts even went so far as to chronicle five full concerts on 10 LPs).

Creation instead opts for selections pulled from spring and summer 2014 performances in Tokyo, Toronto, Paris and Rome. Obviously, the full continuity of a singular concert is absent. But in its place is a nine part suite rich in exploratory texture that possesses a flow quite separate from the concerts themselves.

You hear a gorgeous transition, for instance, from the opening Toronto excerpt, which establishes a subtle but brooding tension, to the ballet-like grace from the Tokyo performance. It’s as if someone opened the curtains and let the sun pour in.

While Creation has its darker moments (Parts VII and VIII, both from the Rome concert, sound beautifully turbulent yet still pastoral), the overall feel is lighter and more understated than the music on many Jarrett piano records.

With hints of Jarrett’s debut ECM album Facing You also bubbling under the surface, Creation is a summation as well as reflection of a champion improviser’s musical intuition at work.

david torn open skyTorn’s Only Sky oozes in with waves of plaintive electric sound, an ambience that howls in the background before serving as a choral effect for the jagged and sometimes industrial guitar sounds Torn detonates on top of the music.

There are echoes of Robert Fripp and ECM veteran Terje Rypdal within sound sculpture pieces like At Least There Was Nothing, which zooms into the audio cosmos before Torn pulls the music back to earth with Eastern colors on the lute-like oud, the only real non-guitar voice on the record.

But Torn manipulates sound so completely throughout Only Sky that guitar takes on keyboard, string and even percussive qualities. Yet on Spoke With Folks, his sound is laid almost bare with a chattering, chiming folk melody that serves as a rootsy retreat in the eye of this sonic hurricane.

critic’s pick 276 : jeff beck, ‘live + ‘

jeff beck live +It has been said the worth of an artist is measured by the company he keeps. Seldom has that credo been shattered with more bravado than with Jeff Beck.

At age 70, he remains a guitarist so wondrously and radically impulsive that it’s tough to imagine any band being able to keep up with him. That’s certainly true of the personnel backing him up on Live +, a new concert recording cut during a North American tour last August.

The players are all muscular in terms of chops and drive, especially formerly Wet Willie vocalist Jimmy Hall who helps Beck assemble a repertoire that stretches back as far as his 1968 debut album Truth. But throughout Live +, Beck operates with a level of instinct that leaves his band mates in the dust.

Take the boogie grinder Going Down, which Beck originally cut on the Jeff Beck Group album in 1972. Hall sings like a hurricane throughout the tune, a testament to his ageless voice but perhaps not his sense of dynamics. While the full tilt tone of the singing eventually becomes static, Beck treats the tune as a lab experiment, playing with the piece’s blues-based rhythm by bending funky power chords and screaming punctuation in a way that more or less ignores Hall altogether.

The same holds true for a wild cover of the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s You Know You Know. Composed over four decades ago by John McLaughlin as an ascending jam held together by a mantra-like melody, the piece becomes a playground for Beck. Bassist Rhonda Smith and Jonathan Joseph are generously afforded extended solos full of technical prowess but little sense of invention. Still, Beck has a field day by adding outer space hiccups and wiry bits of animation over the rhythm guitar of Nicolas Meier, luxuriating in the spaces McLaughlin wrote into the tune far more than the indulgences of his drummer and bassist.

The techno drive behind two new studio tracks, Tribal and My Tiled White Floor, are similarly unspectacular, yet Beck plays like a demon on both. But on the contemplative Where Were You and, of all things, a reading of Danny Boy, Beck downshifts to offer playing full of subtle grace and color.

That Beck’s band plays a failing game of catch-up is almost beside the point. Few outfits outside of the Jan Hammer Group in the mid’70s have proved a capable foil for the guitarist. What impresses most about Live + (and what ultimately recommends it) is the musicianship of an instrumentalist flexing not technique but instinct. Beck may be 70, but the playfulness he expresses on the recording sounds youthful and fearless.

critic’s pick 275 : the kentucky headhunters and johnnie johnson, ‘meet me in bluesland’

ky headhunters + jjThe release of Meet Me in Bluesland is akin to the surfacing of sunken treasure. The second recorded collaboration between the pride of Metcalfe County, the Kentucky HeadHunters, and veteran Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson, the recording was cut in three days but shelved for 12 years. It has finally surfaced to further fortify the legacy of both acts.

The story behind Meet Me in Bluesland goes likes this. Johnson was just shy of 80 when he jammed with the Rolling Stones (on Honky Tonk Women, no less) at Houston’s Reliant Stadium in January 2003. Then he caught a flight to Glasgow to join the HeadHunters on their home turf. There were never concrete plans to release the recording sessions that resulted as an album. Even after Johnson’s death in 2005, the music remained unissued.

Given how joyous Johnson and the band sounded on their first album together, 1993’s That’ll Work, sheltering the recorded possibility of a follow-up is tough to fathom. Now that we hear the results of those sessions on Meet Me in Bluesland, the record’s late arrival seems indefensible.

That Johnson sounds so vibrant on these tracks – 10 collaborative originals along with a deliriously fun cover of the Berry classic Little Queenie – is hardly a surprise. Though public recognition of Johnson’s sublime boogie woogie playing came very late in his life and career, he plays with the HeadHunters like a bonafide star by blasting out of the starting guide with the giddy but self-effacing Stumblin’ (“let’s go stumblin’ ‘cause you know we can’t dance”). The fun doesn’t subside until the sly slide groove of Superman Blues brings the record to a close 43 minutes later.

The song also underscores the HeadHunters own musical ammo – specifically, the Southern soul-soaked playing of guitarist Greg Martin. Even on the HeadHunters’ more country leaning albums, Martin’s playing has always been a rootsy anchor. Here, even more than on That’ll Work, he sounds like a player unleashed, from his Elmore James via Duane Allman runs on Walking with the Wolf to the chunky, summery groove he establishes on Sometime.

But Meet Me in Bluesland is ultimately Johnson’s party. His relaxed yet still rollicking piano accents color the whole album, especially the cheery rumbles he adds to Fast Train, that sound straight out of the Berry staple Memphis, and his extended solo during Little Queenie that the Stones would have killed for when they recorded it decades ago.

The killer though, is She’s Got to Have It, a lean saga of romantic immediacy that includes Johnson’s last recorded vocal performance. It’s a sagely compliment to one of the year’s most welcome root-rock archival finds.

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