Thursday, 28 February 2019

Tamla Motown Connoisseurs Volume Two




This is the second volume of impressive songs from the Motown vaults and is equally as good and interesting a listen. The sound is similarly powerful. As with the first volume, the stereo is impressive and the mono is positively booming, bass-wise. Check out the instrumental version of Diana Ross & The Supremes' "Come See About Me" by Choker Campbell.

TRACK LISTING

1. My Love For You - Marvin Gaye
2. What You Gonna Do With Me Baby - The Four Tops
3. You've Been In Love Too Long - Martha Reeves & The Vandellas
4. Come See About Me - Choker Campbell
5. Tell Me - The Vows
6. Let Love Live (A Little Bit Longer) - The Velvelettes
7. Take Me Back - Freddie Gorman
8. Way Over There - Edwin Starr
9. You Got Me Hurtin' All Over - Barbara Randolph
10. California Soul - Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
11. Blackmail - Bobby Taylor
12. If I Could Give You The World - Heart And Stone
13. It Happens Every Time - Barbara McNair
14. Tear It On Down - The Originals
15. Look What You Done Boy - Lollipops
16. Don't Tell Me I'm Crazy - The Fantastic Four
17. How Many Times Did You Mean It - Brenda Holloway
18. I Got Heaven Right Here On Earth - The Temptations
19. Don't Wanna Play Pyjama Games - G.C. Cameron
20. Red Hot Love - The Four Tops
21. Rilleh - Marvin Gaye & Oma Page

The are are more genuine rarities on this volume than on the first, and in their ranks are some absolute corkers. My favourites are Freddie Gorman's lively "Take Me Back"; the wonderful, thumping, Northern Soul-ish "Tell Me" by The Vows; Bobby Taylor's excellent "Blackmail"; "Tear It On Down" from The Originals (also recorded by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas); the extremely obscure and catchy "If I Could Give You The World" by Heart And Stone; and "Look What You Done Boy" by Lollipops.

There are also some solid tracks from established acts like "I Got Heaven Right Here On Earth" by The Temptations, "You've Been In Love Too Long" from Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, the punchy "Let Love Live (A Little Bit Longer)" by The Velvelettes and Edwin Starr's magnificent "Way Over There".

As with the first volume, this is highly recommended and easy to get hold of for next to nothing. Do it.

B+

Tamla Motown Connoisseurs Volume One



This is a highly impressive compilation of lesser-known Motown tracks. Along with Stax, Atlantic and Northern Soul, there are so many truly wonderful comparative rarities in the Motown vaults, it is a pleasure coming across them. The sound quality on here is good too, nice and bassy, and mostly stereo too. The mono tracks are punchy too, with a solid bass sound thumping right from the middle of your speakers, such as on Marvin Gaye's "Sunny". Check out that huge bass on The Contours' marvellous "It's Growing". I never tire of listening to this album.

TRACK LISTING

1. Here Are The Pieces Of My Broken Heart - Gladys Knight & The Pips
2. My Love Is Your Love (Forever) - The Isley Brothers
3. Tell Me Your Story - Brenda Holloway
4. Sunny - Marvin Gaye
5. Lone, Lonely Town - Tammi Terrell
6. Don't Stop Now - The Originals
7. Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) - Chris Clark
8. That'll Be The Day - The Temptations
9. Ain't That The Truth - Jr. Walker & The All-Stars
10. Forget You Ever Met Me Baby - Barbara McNair
11. It's Growing - The Contours
12. No One There - Martha Reeves & The Vandellas
13. You Got The Love I Need - The Undisputed Truth
14. Don't Be Afraid - Bobby Taylor
15. Don't Make Hurting Me A Habit - The Marvelettes
16. Where Did You Go? - The Four Tops
17. Hey Love - Stevie Wonder
18. Where Is That Girl - The Spinners
19. When We're Together - Marvin Gaye & Kim Weston
20. Flying High Together - Smoke Robinson & The Miracles

The tracks sort of speak for themselves. For me, "Don't Stop Now" by The Originals is an uplifting, lively rarity and it is interesting to hear Chris Clark's female vocal take on Frank Wilson's Northern Soul classic "Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)". The Isley Brothers' "My Love Is Your Love (Forever)" is  excellent too, as is Jr. Walker & The All-Stars' pumping (and in great stereo) "Ain't That The Truth". The Temptations' "That'll Be The Day" is bassily beautiful and ebullient (and not the Buddy Holly song). The tracks by Bobby Taylor, Barbara McNair and Brenda Holloway are quality too. McNair's "Forget You Ever Met Me Baby" is brassy, and full of soul. I also love anything by The Marvelettes. My beloved Undisputed Truth are on here too, with the criminally underrated, pounding "You Got The Love I Need". In fact, there isn't a duff track on the album. Highly recommended, particularly as you can pick it up for next to nothing.

B+

Martha Reeves & The Vandellas - Black Magic (1972)


  

Released March 1972

This was was Martha Reeves & The Vandellas' final Motown studio album. It featured two new Vandellas and, despite the group being near the end of their glorious road, it has a bit of an understated, little discussed appeal to it. There are real throwbacks to the group's classic years in places. It is, however, quite an incongruous work, in comparison to the socially conscious material Motown put out by Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Undisputed Truth and Stevie Wonder during the same period. It is rather similar to the albums that The Supremes in their Diana Ross-less incarnation released in the early seventies too. I have to say that it has been remastered superbly and has an impressive warm, bassy, stereo sound.

TRACK LISTING

1. No One There
2. Your Love Makes It All Worthwhile
3. Something
4. Benjamin
5. Tear It On Down
6. I've Given You The Best Years Of My Life
7. Bless You
8. I Want You Back
9. In And Out Of My Life
10. Anyone Who Had A Heart
11. Hope I Don't Get My Heart Broke                              

There are some underrated tracks on the album, such as the post Diana Ross Supremes-ish, easy groove of the opener, "No One There". "Your Love Makes It All Worthwhile" is a lively, handclappy echo back to the early/mid sixties. By 1972, it would be considered a song done in nostalgic style. It has a Northern Soul feel about it. Some infectious percussion at the end too. On late sixties/early seventies Motown albums, it seemed obligatory to cover a Beatles track, usually an "easy listening" one too. Here it is George Harrison's "Something". Martha does it justice, of curse, but it is totally inessential. "Benjamin" is a bit of a cheesy, big production ballad, but it has its moments. It is very "supper club" fare, however. There were always a few tracks like this on any Motown albums.

"Tear It On Down" is a different matter - a big, brassy, punchy number chock full of full-on soul. It is the last great track from this seminal group. A typical "psychedelic soul" buzzy guitar introduces another fine track in "I've Given You The Best Years Of My Life". What a voice Martha Reeves had. Always in the shadow of Diana Ross, unfairly in my opinion, this track exemplifies just how strong her voice was. Was there time for one more copper-bottomed, joyful Motown classic? Of course there was - the glorious joie de vivre of "Bless You". That great Motown sound never dies with singles like this - that trademark beat, the deep, sonorous saxophone break in the middle and the soaring vocal. Motown heaven.

"I Want You Back" is a cover of the iconic Jackson 5 number, but done slightly differently with a new introduction and a funky, jazzy feel in places. If it wasn't for the Jacksons' version, it would be pretty impressive. As it, you just can't help thinking of the wonderful original. "In And Out Of My Life" is a  an uplifting mid-pace sixties-ish Motown number. "Anyone Who Had A Heart" is the Bacharach/David song made famous by Cilla Black. Here it is done very much in the style of Dionne Warwick's original recording of the song. Both hers and Reeves' versions walk all over Black's one. "Hope I Don't Get My Heart Broke" may be grammatically incorrect, but it is soulfully on the ball. Big and powerful. This was Martha Reeves last track on her last Vandellas album. It was a great one on which to end the truly classic era of her career, 1963-1972.

B-

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

The Undisputed Truth - The Undisputed Truth (1971)


  

Released July 1971

This was The Undisputed Truth's debut album. The group were the creation of Temptations producer Norman Whitfield. Their sound mixed traditional Motown sounds with psychedelic soul and often expressed an awareness of contemporary social issues. They had an infectious, harmonious vocal style and their backing was often more funky than that of other Motown acts. Lead singer Joe Harris had a great voice, but is rarely mentioned when great Motown vocalists are listed. A lot of their material was cover versions of Temptations songs, but often they were lengthy, almost jam-like versions, as opposed to note for note. These were all impressive, but it did mean, however, that the group found it difficult to forge their own identity.

TRACK LISTING

1. You Got The Love I Need
2. Save My Love For A Rainy Day
3. California Soul
4. Aquarius
5. Ball Of Confusion (That's What The World Is Today)
6. Smiling Faces Sometimes
7. We've Got A Way Out Love
8. Since I've Lost You
9. Ain't No Sun Since You've Been Gone
10. I Heard It Through The Grapevine
11. Like A Rolling Stone                                                

"You Got The Love I Need" is a rousing, upbeat, very typically Motown-ish number, with excellent vocals and horns. It actually uses the same backing track as was used on The Temptations' 1965 "I Got Heaven Right Here On Earth". "Save My Love For A Rainy Day" is a soulful, very Temptations-esque song, with vocals that almost be David Ruffin. Again, the song was originally recorded by The Temptations on their 1967 album  "A Lot O' Soul". "California Soul" was a Nickolas Ashford/Valerie Simpson song, previously recorded by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, amongst others. Here it is given that harmonious, funky Undisputed Truth treatment.

"Aquarius" taps into the contemporary hippy free spirit thing, man, with a cover of the lively number from the musical "Hair". The Undisputed Truth also were known for extended socially conscious songs and the first one on here is a cover of The Temptations' iconic "Ball Of Confusion". Their version is ten minutes long and pretty different in arrangement to the original. There are similarities, of course, but theirs features more vocal and musical ad-libbing. It out-psychedelics The Temptations, which was no mean feat. They used The Funk Brothers' original, extended backing track that they laid down for The Temptations' version.

"Smiling Faces Sometimes" was most definitely The Undisputed Truth's song (despite The Temptations doing it later). It is pretty much their signature tune. It is a gospel meets street funk, Staple Singers-influenced classic of a song. "Can you dig it"? Sure we can. Great stuff. It was deservedly a hit single for the group. The catchy "We've Got A Way Out Love" was originally done by The Originals in 1969. Up next are two more Temptations covers - the beautifully soulful "Since I've Lost You" and "Ain't No Sun Since You've Been Gone". The former is a slow soul ballad, while the latter is given an energetic, bassy, funky backing. The vocals and percussion are superb on this. Gladys Knight & The Pips also covered it, by the way.

The Truth's cover of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" is punchy and full-on, offering something different from both Marvin Gaye's iconic version and the original, by Gladys Knight & The Pips. It is full of buzzy guitar breaks and pounding drums. The last track is a brave, souled-up, slowed-down take on Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone". It works, however, giving the song a deep, soulful passion.

Much as I have always loved The Undisputed Truth, I feel it would have been better for them if they had been given full albums of songs written especially for them. That is not to say I don't love all their covers, because I do. Everything they do, they do well. Highly recommended. This is a great soul album.

B

Fox - Fox (1975)


  

Released in 1975

Fox were one of those groups that grew out of glam rock but had a more pseudo-sophisticated, quirky sound. Sparks and 10cc were probably the best examples of this sort of group, but Fox weren't far behind, albeit briefly, just for this one album, really. Producer Kenny Young created the group, using Australian vocalist Susan Traynor and renaming her Noosha Fox, giving her a bit of mysterious allure. Of course, all of us sixteen year old boys fancied her at the time.

TRACK LISTING

1. Love Letters
2. Imagine Me Imagine You
3. The Juggler
4. Patient Tigers
5. Only You Can
6. The More
7. Spirit
8. He's Got Magic
9. Pisces' Babies
10. Love Ship
11. Red Letter Day                                    

The album opens in low-key fashion with a piano and organ-powered cover of Ketty Lester's "Love Letters". It highlights Noosha Fox's smoky, breathy voice, however. The group's second chart hit was the catchy, beguiling "Imagine Me Imagine You". It has that arty but commercial rock sound that was around in 1974-75, inspired by Roxy Music, 10cc and Cockney Rebel and taken up by bands like Fox, Sparks and even ones like Pilot. "The Juggler" goes all a bit hippy/mystic. There was also a little bit of classy pretension about Fox. It has a nice, deep bass line and another sexy vocal. "Patient Tigers" continues in that vein too. There seemed to be a conscious effort to sound beguiling, mysterious and enigmatically sexy (the album's cover backed that up too - Noosha in a wicker chair in a floaty, attractive dress looking thoughtful), and certainly the big debut hit single fitted the bill. "Only You Can" began with a "false" intro of another melody before it launched into a maelstrom of "Judy Teen"-esque Steve Harley and Russell Mael-isms. It was beautifully, kookily perfect.

The ambience and lyrics do tend to sound a little like sixth-form poetry at times though particularly in the quasi-philosophical, grandly orchestrated "The More". The airy, breahless and catchy "Spirit" is a good one, though, and Noosha's Fox floats sexily all around, captivatingly. It was always my favourite from the album back in the day. Quite what "oh - vla, vla, vla, vla, vla Spirit.." meant though is unclear. "Vla"? Were they inventing a new language too? Another one I liked was the thumping, singalong commercial, country-ish rock of "He's Got Magic".


"Pisces' Babies" had another hippy-ish lyric but it has an airy (but also bassy) inviting rhythm to it and another seductive Fox vocal. "Love Ship" is also floatily appealing. "Red Letter Day" begins with some string orchestration before a catchy chorus fades in. It is once more an instantly attractive song. You can sing with it immediately. There is some good material on this album. I find the occasional listen to this album to be a refreshing breath of fresh seventies air. There is still a place for this album in the world.

*** Two interesting pieces of trivia regarding this album are that Kenny Young wrote "Under The Boardwalk" for The Drifters and that Ben Goldacre MBE, a noted British physicist and academic, is the son of Noosha Fox.

B-

Al Green - Green Is Blues (1969)


  

Released April 1969

This was Al Green's first album for Hi Records and began a run of truly classic Willie Mitchell produced offerings. This was his first work with Mitchell. You can tell instantly. That Al Green sound just hits you right there in your soul. Al Green had arrived.

The sound on the remastered version is just so good, thumping bassily right out of your speakers with one huge soulful punch. This album is true soul heaven. The backing is provided by the Hi Rhythm section and is just lip-smackingly good.

TRACK LISTING

1. One Woman
2. Talk To Me
3. My Girl
4. The Letter
5. I Stand Accused
6. Gotta Find A New World
7. What Am I Gonna Do With Myself
8. Tomorrow's Dream
9. Get Back Baby
10. Get Back
11. Summertime                                                          

"One Woman" is an example of everything that Al Green's brand of soul was gong to be about for the next six or seven years - it is in possession of a beautiful, gospelly vocal and that intoxicating Stax-style churchy organ backing. It is perfect slow and dignified soul. When it finally builds up into its horn-powered chorus it is so uplifting. Great stuff. "Talk To Me" is Sam Cooke meets Stax soul. Oh Lordy, that bass line those Memphis horns. Heavenly. Green's cover of The Temptations' "My Girl" is sublime. Only in the hands of someone like Green with Mitchell's production can such a cover succeed. It does, superbly. The same applies to a cooking cover of The Box Tops' "The Letter" that just drips with bubbling soul. Green's ad-libbing vocals are mouth-wateringly good.

A beautiful gospel-influenced organ break introduces "I Stand Accused" (made famous the following by The Isaac Hayes Movement). The sublte percussion backing is infectious and Green's vocal once again just soars over the stately horns. "Gotta Find A New World" has another wonderful, deep bass line and effortless vocals. The soul here is just so pure, man.

"What Am I Gonna Do With Myself" has an unusually sharp, loud, cymbal sound that threatens to dominate the track, but Green's vocal ensures that doesn't happen. The warm, deep soul sound returns with the sumptuous "Tomorrow's Dream". For some reason, though, Green's voice is a little low down in the mix on this one. "Get Back Baby" has Green getting the funk, James Brown-style, for the first time. Continuing the "get back" theme comes a cover of The Beatles' "Get Back". It is a rousing, organ-driven pumper, giving the rock track an injection of Southern soul, wonderfully. Ella Fitzgerald's "Summertime" is given the Memphis treatment as well, with impressive results.

Al Green released many more albums for Hi Records, some truly great ones too, but this is up there with the best. It is a purity and joie de vivre about it that makes it one of soul music's greatest works, for me.

B+

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Al Green - Back Up Train (1967)


  

Released March 1967

This was Al Green's (credited on the cover as Al Greene) often overlooked debut album. He had not yet taken up with producer Willie Mitchell, so that horn-driven Stax-type sound that so characterised his excellent output on Hi Records was largely absent. The material is often up-tempo at times and Green's voice is younger and livelier. The sumptuous "Let's Stay Together"/"Tired Of Being Alone" style slow tempo and soulful delivery of Green's successful early seventies albums was not here yet. It is actually a good soul album, representative of its era, but obviously it pales in comparison with his later work. If this had been his only album, it may have been revered, however.

TRACK LISTING

1. Back Up Train
2. Hot Wire
3. Stop And Check Myself
4. Let Me Help You
5. I'm Reachin' Out
6. Don't Hurt Me No More
7. Don't Leave Me
8. I'll Be Good To You
9. Guilty
10. That's All It Takes
11. Get Yourself Together
12. What's It All About
13. A Lover's Holiday                                        

The title track is a laid-back, slow pace soul song that sounds as if it is from an earlier period than 1967. Green's voice is soft and melodic, however and there is a nice, gentle bass sound on the track. "Hot Wire" is a lively, organ-driven, very sixties number. There is a poppiness to it. It is the sort of track that would have done well on the Northern Soul scene. I am not sure it ever did, but I think it should have done! "Stop And Check Myself" is an Otis Redding-influenced slow burner of a soul ballad. It has the first hints of the bassy, Stax-y sound that Green would have such success with a few years later. It is the one track that was written by Green himself. You can hear the roots of what was to come on this one.


"Let Me Help You" has one heck of a bass line, some Northern Soul-style backing vocals and some infectious, exhilarating drums. The horns make a welcome appearance too. "I'm Reachin' Out" is a joyous, pounding number of the sort Elvis Costello tried to replicate on 1980's "Get Happy!". It is a really enjoyable track. Once more, the bass is delicious. There are hints of Lulu's "Shout" on it too. "Don't Hurt Me No More" is a stately, solid, slow ballad with some great falsetto from Green at times. Now, the thumping beat of "Don't Leave Me" was definitely a hit on the Northern Soul scene in the late sixties, particularly at Manchester's Twisted Wheel club.

"I'll Be Good To You" is a punchy number with a very Otis Redding-esque vocal. "Guilty" is a beautifully orchestrated track, with some great percussion. "Thats All It Takes" is a cooking, horn-powered upbeat number, very typical of the soul that was around in 1967. "Get Yourself Together" is an energetic cut that sounds somewhat dated. Its sound quality is inferior to most of the rest of the album, as if it had been recorded in the late fifties/early sixties. "What's It All About" is a slow burner very typical of early/mid sixties Atlantic/Stax/Volt output. A similar slow, bassy groove backs "A Lover's Holiday". Of course, we all know better was to come from Green but check this pleasing album out if you can.

B-

Jamming With Edward! - Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, Nicky Hopkins & Ry Cooder (1972)

   

Released January 1972

The material on this album dates from The Rolling Stones' "Let It Bleed" sessions from 1969. It contains six loose jam sessions performed by the band, plus pianist Nicky Hopkins and guitarist Ry Cooder, while waiting for Keith Richards to return to the studio. The story goes that he had walked out, unhappy about Cooder's presence. Whether this is apocryphal will never be known, but Keith also had initial problems when Mick Taylor appeared on the later sessions for the same album.

Mick Jagger said of it - "I hope you spend longer listening to it than we did recording it...". It was laid down on one alcohol-loosened evening in London. It is, therefore a fans' curio - inessential to many but interesting none the less. I certainly am unwilling to write it off as a fair few reviewers have done over the years. Firstly, I quite like jams. I like George Harrison's and Eric Clapton's from the early seventies. Secondly, one thing that hits you is just how great the sound quality is, especially for such an ad hoc creation. It was, of course, never intended for release. I actually find it provides a nice breath of fresh air to listen to every now and again, particularly while doing something else.

TRACK LISTING

1. The Boudoir Stomp
2. It Hurts Me Too
3. Edward's Thrump Up
4. Blow With Ry
5. Interlude A La El Hopo
6. Highland Fling

"The Boudoir Stomp" recycles the "Midnight Rambler" riff, with accompanying similar blues harmonica. It sounds very like the middle instrumental bit from "Rambler", to be honest. "It Hurts Me Too" features a muffled, distant Jagger vocal and can be listened to as a bona fide song. It is a cover of an Elmore James blues song, delivered in that typical slow, grinding blues rock style. "Edward's Thrump Up" is a solid jam featuring Hopkins' rollicking piano (Hopkins was "Edward", by the way). Some good harmonica on this one too.

You cannot deny the quality of Ry Cooder's blues guitar on "Blow With Ry". Watt's drums are loose and relaxed. I really like this. Jagger again contributes a detached-sounding vocal which has echoes of "Parachute Woman" about it. "Interlude A La El Hopo" is a jaunty but ultimately pointless couple of minutes. Hopkins rocks the traditional Scottish "Highland Fling" tune on piano before it morphs into a sort of jazz meets rock workout. I bet Charlie Watts enjoyed this. Bill Wyman's bass on this is delicious. Throwaway it may be, but these guys can play, as obviously we all know. Many bands may well have stuck a couple of these instrumentals on their albums. Santana were doing it all the time in the late seventies/eighties, and Jeff Beck too.

Casual Stones fans will probably not get much out of this release but anyone with an interest in the band's minutiae will enjoy it, I think. Just as many did so with the material from The Beatles' "White Album" sessions. I reiterate, as well, the sound is bloomin' marvellous!

B-

Monday, 25 February 2019

Bryan Ferry - Avonmore (2014)


  

Released November 2014

This album continues in the same vein as "Mamouna" and "Olympia" - high class, sophisticated art/pop, delivered with the class of a 1930s Parisian nightclub singer yet with a sumptuous contemporary, laid-back, polished backing. "Here it comes - that old ennui..." is a line from Roxy Music's "If It Takes All Night" from 1974's "Country Life". It is so apt here. Ferry is a master of his craft, the relayer of reserved romanticism and the purveyor of polished perfection. As with those previous albums, the pace never gets above walking, gliding over the floor. It doesn't need to. It is all exquisitely seductive. Strangely, though, for such a mature, accomplished album, the cover shows Ferry as a callow youth.

TRACK LISTING

1. Loop Di Li
2. Midnight Train
3. Soldier Of Fortune
4. Driving Me Wild
5. A Special Kind Of Day
6. Avonmore
7. Lost
8. One Night Stand
9. Send In The Clowns
10. Johnny And Mary                            

"Loop Di Li" is an insistently shuffling, syncopated typical Ferry groove. Effortless and delectable. "Midnight Train" continues in the same appetising fashion, with some understated but melodic guitar lines floating around and Ferry's voice, as always, sounding classily detached. That voice is gorgeously croakily romantic on "Soldier Of Fortune". "Driving Me Wild" has a couple of hints of contemporary music in its "hey hey hey" vocal backing, but the overall ambience hasn't changed. It doesn't for "A Special Kind Of Day" either. I would say that "Olympia" actually had far more changes of style and atmosphere than on this album, where the vibe is the same, like on "Mamouna", from track one to track ten.

The title track does see the pace up just a little, however, with a more frantic, rolling drum beat and a luscious, enigmatic vocal from Ferry. It is an ebullient, buoyant number. "Lost" has a beguiling guitar line floating around all over it and Ferry's voice is engagingly "grey" (which is the only way I can describe its slightly high, throaty tone). "One Night Stand" harks back to the intoxicating Grace Jones-esque nightclub rhythms of "Olympia". It has some nice saxophone swirling about in there too. Despite a few slight changes in pace, the whole album plays pretty much as one continuous whole.

The final two tracks are cover versions - a haunting version of Judy Collins' "Send In The Clowns" and a bassy version of Robert Palmer's "Johnny And Mary". The track would seem to be ideal for Ferry. He does it full of laid-back, sleepy soul. As indeed he does the whole album.

B-

Cat Stevens - Catch Bull At Four (1972)


  

Released October 1972

This was Cat Stevens' final folky album before he bravely attempted to experiment with the following year's "Foreigner". He was at a bit of a crossroads, and he was definitely still trying to put the world to rights. He was never comfortable with being a "pop star" yet he seemed to be able to put out regular, appealing albums that always contained a killer hit single. This was not a "bedsitter" album of poetic tenderness, however, there was far more attack, disillusion and religious undertones to be found in its tracks. Were the old studenty fans still with him? Maybe not.

TRACK LISTING

1. Sitting
2. The Boy With A Moon And Star On His Head
3. Anglesea
4. Silent Sunlight
5. Can't Keep It In
6. 18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare)
7. Freezing Steel
8. O' Caritas
9. Sweet Scarlet
10. Ruins                                                          

"Sitting" is an Elton John-influenced, piano-driven solid ballad with Stevens on customary dominant vocal form. There is an impressive rolling drum passage half way through the song. "The Boy With A Moon And Star On His Head" has a T. Rex -inspired title and a very America-style acoustic guitar backing. It has a plaintive, poetic hippy-inspired lyric, as one had come to expect from Stevens in this period. It actually is a rather lovely song. however. "Anglesea" has a rapidly-strummed acoustic backing that reminds me of some of Neil Diamond's late sixties material. The track is energetic and committed and includes some wonderful keyboard riffs and some Greek folk music choral backing.

"Silent Sunlight" is a plaintively sung ballad with some lovely strings and a moving vocal. Yes, Stevens' voice has always brought accusations of melodrama, but one could never doubt his sincerity or indeed, his ability to move the soul. The jerky, catchy "Can't Keep It In" was the album's hit single, and deservedly so. It has a captivating organ riff and a typically uncompromising vocal.

"18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare)" also has echoes of Elton John about it. Surely Billy Joel was influenced by this too. Great orchestration on it and inspirational piano. "Freezing Steel" is in the same vein, but more quirkily energetic. "O' Caritas" is sung in Greek (until right at the end) and borrows completely from the Greek folk tradition. It is most atmospheric. "Sweet Scarlet" is a gentle, tuneful, sparsely-backed ballad. "Ruins" is slightly reminiscent of David Bowie's acoustically-driven rock from the same period. The thoughtful lyrics and instinctive sincerity that characterised Stevens' late sixties/early seventies work is still here. This is still a good album.

B-

Cat Stevens - Foreigner (1973)


  

Released July 1973

After four folky, sensitive, acoustically-driven, wordily titled albums in "Mona Bone Jakon", "Tea For The Tillerman", "Teaser And The Firecat" and "Catch Bull At Four", Cat Stevens decided to change direction somewhat. Possibly inspired by contemporaries in the prog rock genre, he went experimental, releasing an album containing only five tracks. The original "side one" was one continuous "suite" lasting eighteen minutes. All very ambitious. The problem with ambition is that it can over-reach, and to a certain extent that was what happened here. The concept didn't really work and, tellingly, the next album, "Buddah And The Chocolate Box" saw a return to the previous blueprint.

TRACK LISTING

1. Foreigner Suite
2. The Hurt
3. How Many Times
4. Later
5. 100 I Dream                                      

In many ways, the "Foreigner Suite"'s content could have been divided in to four four minute-something songs, as opposed to an amalgam of tempting, teasing vignettes. Stevens also employs a group of New York session musicians in the place of his regular ones and the quality is good, powerful but it loses some of the previous albums' homely, folky appeal. This is muscular, solid stuff. Much of the sound is keyboard-based (as opposed to acoustic interplay) and there are sweeping string passages, Beatles-esque brass sections and even some funky, rhythmic parts straight out of a blaxploitation soundtrack, plus some Jethro Tull-influenced flute. Some Elton John piano is in there too. I remember at the time that the whole "concept" of this didn't really catch on with the public.

The "second" passage at about five minutes in, the "freedom calling" passage, would have made a fine Elton John-ish track. Each singing bit is linked by some impressive instrumental breaks. Stevens' voice, when it arrives, is strong and committed, the lyrics concerning his feelings about being considered something of a "foreigner" due to his Greek heritage, or so it sounds to me anyway. Stevens himself says it is about feeling a foreigner in attempting to play material influenced by black music. I'm not convinced by that, to be honest. While it has soulful aspects, it is certainly no exploration into black music.


The "there are no words" passage is evocative and Stevens' vocal is moving. This would have made a good track too. It is uplifting and inspiring, in a gospelly way at times. As I said earlier, there are several winning parts to this suite. The final piano part is infectious too. The whole suite is listenable, its eighteen minutes do not drag, due to its many changes of pace. Fair play to Stevens for attempting this.

"The Hurt" is a staccato rock tune with lots of female backing vocals and a strong vocal. "How Many Times" is a yearning ballad, with a solid bass, piano and drum backing. It is another emotive song. "Later" is probably the most "black music"-influenced number, with some funky wah-wah guitar and a pounding funk drum rhythm. It is a distinct change in style from anything Stevens had recorded previously. "100 I Dream" has a catchy, almost country rock feel to it, the one throwback to his previous material. It is instantly recognisable as Cat Stevens and is a fetching track. It also has a few subtle soulful/funky touches as well.

This album is currently available very cheaply, particularly to download. It is well worth it.

B-

Sunday, 24 February 2019

The Eagles - Hotel California (1976)

  

Released December 1976

This was The Eagles’ huge, multi-million selling album, the moment that they became a massive stadium-filling band. It arrived eighteen months after their previous outing, “One Of These Nights”. The departure of Bernie Leadon had taken much of the band’s initial country flavour from them and rock guitarist Joe Walsh’s arrival saw them taking a big leap from being a country rock band that tried to rock out heavily on occasions to a fully-fledged mainstream rock band. Don Henley also became the band’s main vocalist, featuring on six tracks here. In many ways, The Eagles on this, and on their final album, “The Long Run”, sound like a different band. This material is a long way from “Doolin-Dalton” and “Desperado”, it is far more big stadium or arena tour than dusty roadhouse.

TRACK LISTING

1. Hotel California
2. New Kid In Town
3. Life In The Fast Lane
4. Wasted Time
5. Wasted Time (Reprise)
6. Victim Of Love
7. Pretty Maids All In A Row
8. Try And Love Again
9. The Last Resort                                  

Everyone knows the atmospheric title track. “New Kid In Town” is laid-back, melodic rock balladry and the solid “Life In The Fast Lane” is The Eagles having learnt to rock out, stadium-style.


“Wasted Time” is very much like some of the material on Don Henley’s solo albums. “Victim Of Love” is a muscular but catchy mid-paced rocker. Both “Pretty Maids All In A Row” and “Try And Love Again” are big, powerful rock ballads once more. The latter has Randy Meisner on lead vocals, the former features Joe Walsh. This is classic rock as opposed to country rock. The final track, “The Last Resort” is a sublime slow romantic ballad, well sung by Don Henley. It is my favourite on the album.

Look, this album is undoubtedly an album that will be remembered as a classic of its genre, but whether it is an actual, bona fide classic is debatable. It is a short album of very listenable, immaculately played rock songs, but does it amount to an album of copper-bottomed classics? Probably not, in my opinion, but there you go. Nothing makes you think “wow”. On the other hand, you can’t deny it has something, particularly the opening and closing tracks. However many times you hear the title track, it always has that atmosphere to it. Overall, though, I prefer the more raw, unpolished feel of their earlier albums.

B-

Santana - All That I Am (2005)


  

Released November 2005

This is the third in the series of albums in which Carlos Santana seemed to be "guesting" on his own offering, such were the number of all the other artists present. Like the hugely successful "Supernatural" and "Shaman", Santana sometimes seems to be playing a bit part to the guests fronting up the songs. As before, he functions basically as a supporting artist to a parade of guests singing highly polished rhythmic pop songs. It is all very professionally done, with immaculate sound, but Santana comes and goes on the album, however good he is - and, of course he is - but what this is, for me, like the others, is a good, summery rhythmic pop album, not really a Santana album. A bit like those interminable series of Rod Stewart and Bob Dylan albums of crooners, though, it is another trip down the same road. There are only so many times you can mine the same seam. Even the cover is lazily unimaginative.

There is an argument that many of the numerous Santana albums, particularly those from 1976 onwards, have been similar - Carlos playing some guitar here and there behind a succession of vocalists and musicians and while all are listenable, none of them really get you by the scruff of the neck. They just exist, happily enough. This perhaps just follows in the same fashion.

TRACK LISTING

1. Hermes
2. El Fuego
3. I'm Feeling You
4. My Man
5. Just Feel Better
6. I Am Somebody
7. Con Santana
8. Twisted
9. Trinity
10. Cry Baby Cry
11. Brown Skin Girl
12. I Don't Wanna Lose Your Love
13. Da Tu Amor                                      

"Hermes" is a West African-influenced, lively groove, packed full of rhythm, addictive horns and classic guitar. "El Fuego" is a Salsa-rhythm powered Latin number, sung in Spanish. "I'm Feeling You" is a female vocal-led (Michelle Branch), poppy fast r'n'b meets rock number. "My Man" is a hip/hop-influenced workout that treads a familiar path "boom, boom, Santana's in the room...". It has echoes of "Maria, Maria" and "Smooth" from "Supernatural", in that respect. "Just Feel Better" features Steve Tyler from Aerosmith and is suitably "big" in its stadium rock sounds.

"I Am Somebody" is an energetic, contemporary-sounding workout with some fast-paced rapping (from the seemingly ubiquitous will-i-am) in the middle. It is quirkily catchy in its own way, but as with many of the tracks, not really "Santana", apart from the guitar interjections.

"Con Santana" is a more typical piece of Latin rhythm - all captivating percussion and Spanish lyrics. "Twisted" is a pleasant enough, melodic rock number that sounds fine, but doesn't particularly stick in the head. "Trinity" is an appealing instrumental, featuring some excellent guitar. "Cry Baby Cry" is a thumping hip/hop-styled number with accompanying vocals and the usual searing, knife-through-butter guitar. "Brown Skin Girl" is the sort of laid-back, tuneful rock ballad Santana can put out in his sleep. The same applies to "I Don't Wanna Lose Your Love". "Da Tu Amor" is a stirring Latin number to close the album on a pleasing note. As I said, it is all perfectly ok, but does it remain in one's consciousness or beg repeated listenings? Probably not.

C

Santana - Milagro (1992)


  

Released May 1992

After the refreshingly rocky "Spirits Dancing In the Flesh" from 1990, some have said this album is a bit more of an undistinguished "treading water" album, but it is not without its good points. Actually, it is pretty good, I have to say, being honest. It has been treated slighty unfairly. The tracks are all lengthy, and the sound quality is excellent - full and bassy. It feels as if it is somewhat run of the mill because it didn't sell well, and is not that well-known. You need to look beneath that, I think, and take it at face value.

TRACK LISTING

1. Milagro
2. Somewhere In Heaven
3. Saja/Right On
4. Your Touch
5. Life Is For Living
6. Red Prophet
7. Agua Que Va Caer
8. Make Somebody Happy
9. Free All The People (South Africa)
10. Gypsy/Grajonca
11. We Don't Have To Wait
12. A Dios                                                  

After a "live" introduction, the album then continues into studio recordings. The title track is a sumptuous, lengthy rock/Latin/jazzy rhythmic workout, featuring some nice bass, percussion and the usual impressive guitar interjections from Carlos Santana. This is certainly miles better than the synthesiser-drenched material on 1987's "Freedom". The musical soundscape was changing, as the nineties progressed, thankfully. The voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. introduces "Somewhere In Heaven". After such a rousing intro, it is a bit surprising that the track is a beautiful piece of ambient music and Carlos's beautiful soloing. The vocal from long-time vocalist Alex Ligertwood, is laid-back and soulful. Some seriously heavy rock riffage comes in half way through, however (the track is one second short of ten minutes).

"Saja/Right On" is sublime, rhythmic, seductive and captivating. It is full of a soulful feel. Carlos's guitar is seriously searing too. Great stuff. "Your Touch" is another appetising soully groove. The bass, percussion and guitar interplay are properly back on this album and, as I said, those accursed synthesisers are less prevalent. They return to augment the lively intro to "Life Is For Living", but quite impressively, I have to say. It is an infectious number with anti-apartheid lyrics and some Xhosa backing vocals near the end. "Red Prophet" has a deep, bassy, funky rhythm to it, different to the fast-paced stuff that has gone before.

"Agua Que Va Caer" is a Latin groove with typical Spanish lyrics and a Cuban-style beat. A great guitar solo on this one. "Make Somebody Happy" is pleasant enough, but unfortunately repeats the same two lines ad nauseum throughout the song. It doesn't really get anywhere. "Free All The People (South Africa)" is a chunky, vaguely reggae-influenced number dealing with the South African situation once more. "Gypsy/Grajonca" is a typical Santana guitar-driven instrumental. It is in two ambient parts. "We Don't Have To Wait" is an upbeat, powerful rock instrumental, full of swirling guitar, organ and pounding drums. "A Dios" is a short vocal and guitar ending, just over a minute long. Overall, this is a better album than many say, but is probably a couple of tracks too long. It loses effect after a while.

C+

Saturday, 23 February 2019

A Complete Introduction To Chess

  

This is a truly wonderful, invigorating, life-affirming compilation from the now defunct Chess Records, launched by Chicago brothers Leonard and Phil Chess in the late nineteen forties. The label was responsible for bringing to the world the sound of blues, early rock 'n' roll, original r 'n' b, some jazz and soul too. Artists such as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Willie Dixon were introduced to the world and notably to the young Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones, of course, and all the many UK blues-influenced bands like The Yardbirds, The Animals, The Kinks, Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall's Blues Breakers, Eric Clapton and many more. Then, lest we forget, there was Chess's biggest artist, the legendary Chuck Berry, who inspired so many.

The box set covers 4 CDs. They cover the development of the label, its artists and changing musical trends.

CD 1

This is a CD full of early blues material plus some ground-breaking early rock 'n' roll numbers. There is a case for 1951's "Rocket '88" by Jackie Brenston And His Delta Cats being the first true rock'n'roll record, (but many plead the case of 1949's "Rock Awhile" by Goree Carter). Chuck Berry's 1956 offering "Maybelline" pre-dated any Elvis rock 'n' roll recordings. Then there is the intoxicating rhythm of Bo Diddley's self-titled track. Lowell Fulson's "Reconsider Baby" was subsequently covered by Elvis. Thereafter it is blues all the way with iconic numbers such as Bo Diddley's "I'm A Man", Elmore James' "Dust My Broom", Muddy Waters' "Hoochie Coochie Man" and "Mannish Boy". Stuff like this would provide The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and many pub bluesers with covers for decades.

CD 2

This kicks off with Chuck Berry's rocking "Rock 'n' Roll Music". The classics come thick and fast now - Jimmy McCracklin's quirky, infectious "The Walk", Howlin' Wolf's totally iconic "Smokestack Lightnin'", Berry's "Johnny B. Goode", Dale Hawkins' "Susie Q", Etta James' magnificent "I Just Wanna Make Love To You" and Howlin' Wolf's "The Red Rooster". The Stones used the latter for "Little Red Rooster". Some really good cuts on here. There is also some rock 'n' roll- style doo-wop soul in Harvey & The Moonglows' "Ten Commandments Of Love" and some jazzy, swing in "(I Don't Know Why I Love You) But I Do" by Clarence "Frogman" Henry.

CD 3

Here we have Chess beginning to delve into soul, with numbers like "Rescue Me" by Fontella Bass, the Northern Soul classic "Landslide" by Tony Clarke and also jazzy material like "Wade In The Water" and "The In Crowd" by The Ramsey Lewis Trio. These two also became Northern Soul floor-fillers. Chuck Berry contributes two stonking rockers on this disc in "The Promised Land" and "No Particular Place To Go".

CD 4

Some copper-bottomed blues still finds its way on to the final disc - the lively "Wang Dang Doodle" by Koko Taylor and "I'd Rather Go Blind" by Etta James. Gritty, urban "blaxploitation" soul/funk arrives for the first time now in the shape of the marvellous, evocative "Woman Of the Ghetto" by Marlena Shaw; the impossibly funky "Evil" from, would you believe, Howlin' Wolf; and the psychedelic, hippy, trippy funk of "I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun" by Minnie Riperton and Rotary Connection. Why, even Muddy Waters went funky with "Tom Cat".

There is classic soul like Solomon Burke's "Let Me Wrap My Arms Around You" and Irma Thomas's "Good To Me". Also Northern Soul stompers like The Valentinos' "Sweeter Than The Day Before" and "Hold On" by the Radiants. We also get some novelty recordings in the infuriatingly singalong "Here Comes The Judge" by Pigmeat Markham and Chuck Berry's "My Ding-A-Ling". The less said about that one, the better. Other than it is the only duff track in one hundred of them.

B+

Friday, 22 February 2019

Amy Rigby - Til The Wheels Fall Off (2003)


  

Released April 2003

Amy Rigby sings wry, witty, guitar-driven country rock. She far is less earnest than Mary Chapin Carpenter and more cynically world-weary than Lucinda Williams, but she has that strong woman but angst-ridden thing that so many contemporary female country rock singers have. Some of her songs are amusingly observational which renders her more unique in this respect than many of her peers.

TRACK LISTING

1. Why Do I
2. Til The Wheels Fall Off
3. Shopping Around
4. Don't Ever Change
5. Are We Ever Going To Have Sex Again?
6. The Deal
7. O'Hare
8. How People Are
9. Even The Weak Survive
10. Last Request
11. Here We Go Again
12. Breakup Boots
13. Believe In You
14. All The Way To Heaven                          

"Why Do I", after a low-key intro, burst out into a powerful, bassy, rocky number, with, for me, echoes of country singer Tish Hinojosa in the vocal delivery. It has a nice jangly guitar backing too. "Til The Wheels Fall Off" is a livewire Elvis Costello & the Attractions-influenced, organ-driven rocker. It has some excellent guitar and brass on it as well. "Shopping Around" has a plaintive vocal over an acoustic and thumping drum backing. These first three tracks have been all upbeat and punchy, however, the album gets slightly more quieter in tone from now on. This starts with the gentle, acoustic "Don't Ever Change". It is a rather moving and sincere song sung by Rigby to her daughter. Underpinning the song is a delicious little bass line. Quite appropriate for a lovely song.


"Are We Ever Going To Have Sex Again?" is the album's best known track, no doubt due to its up front subject matter and its honestly expressed and amusing lines. It will surely strike a chord with many people. "We used to be triple x rated - look at us now, so domesticated...". Great line. It has some bluesy guitar backing it up. "The Deal" is a jaunty, quirky sort of Paul McCartney-esque number, with a few vague Beach Boys early seventies airs about it too. It features some oddball synthesiser at the end. "O'Hare" is a bleak but melodic rock ballad-style track with a convincing, annoyed-sounding vocal from Amy and a killer mid-song guitar solo. It is a song that begs repeated listens. Each time you hear it, it sounds better, as indeed does the album.

"How People Are" is a quiet, acoustic song with echoes of Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush in places.  Half way through it benefits from a brush drum, jazzy interjection. It is a serious, reflective track. "Even The Weak Survive" is another Elvis Costello-influenced track, this time in its slow, stately beat. The vocal is excellent and the song has, once again, a growing appeal to it. "Last Request" is a short, sharp, powerful, crashing rock number, full of riffs and shredding guitar lines. It finishes a bit too soon, only two minutes in. "Here We Go Again" has spoken vocals on the verses and an addictive, shuffling rhythm. It is another example of the different types of song contained on here.

"Breakup Boots" is more of a traditional-ish sort of country song about putting on her breakup boots, unsurprisingly. "Believe in You", apparently, is a tribute to George Harrison. It is a worthy one, too, full of psychedelic sounds and Eastern bits. Of course, it is Beatles-esque. The final track is the quiet, evocative "All The Way To Heaven". This has been an album that explores quite a few different styles over its songs - there is punky rock material, Costello, Beatles, McCartney, Beach Boys and Harrison influences, traditional country, full on rock, soulful stuff too. As I said earlier, it is an album that requires several listens. With each one I found I liked it more.

B-