Saturday, December 27, 2008

What Are You Listening to Lately (Part 7)?

OK, I know I promised I'd get things back on track quickly and clearly I've failed in that, but at least it's because I've been too busy to make it happen in a timely fashion. See below for proof:

I've thrown in a couple extra reviews to make up for it. Sorry. See you in the new year, where I will most assuredly be very regular with my reviews.

Squeeze - East Side Story
Probably their finest hour, giving them the most room stylistically to test Difford and Tilbrook's songwriting skills in pop-soul, pop-rockabilly, or pop-country modes (oh yeah, and plain ol' pop music mode, too). Partly this is thanks to producer Elvis Costello, who's playing the overseer role here and probably encouraged D&T to work outside of their comfort zones. They're rewarded with a bunch of sparkling touches that light up the record in a way they never quite managed before or after - weird keyboards on "Heaven," Paul Carrack's famed white-soul vocal on "Tempted," backwards effects on "There's No Tomorrow," the entire menacing and relentless drive of "F-Hole," all of which serve to make this one really stand out. Add in the sequencing that Costello may or may not have pushed for, the fine melodic sense that D&T always had and their way with the small personal details that make their songs felt and you've pretty much pieced together the finest collection of Squeeze music that you could hope for. It's not just good songs, it's the album as a sum greater than its constituent pieces.

(Note: since writing this, I found out that the album is out of print on CD. We almost always have the vinyl in stock used though, and I recommend that experience over the CD, anyway.)

Al Green - Lay It Down
A good one. Individual tracks don't jump quite as much as even on I Can't Stop, but it's a palpable rebound from the perfectly-titled Everything's OK. Production by ?uestlove's (of The Roots) and his choices of players/guests is pretty choice too, - though someone so steeped in the mode of laid-back 70's groove that Al pioneered damn well better be able to replicate it well. So if it's not as perfect as the best Al Green/Willie Mitchell collaborations it'd be good to remember that they weren't infallible themselves and that even without Mitchell alongside him, Green's done some brilliant stuff on his own. So think of it less as ?uestlove's move to lead Green than Green's move to find a simpatico partner after his rekindled relationship with Mitchell stalled again and realize that he's put together a fine record backed by a cache of musicians who owe their careers to the style of R&B that he and Mitchell made a reality. And that with a few more songs that stood out as well as the title cut, this album could really be something that makes me hot to go find it when it's on the shelf instead of just enjoying it when it happens to find its way on around me. I hope this signifies the beginning of a good working relationship and, more importantly, a great songwriting team.

John Coltrane - Transition
Right out of the gate the title track lets you know it means business – things start intense and build from there over the track’s 15 ½ minutes into the screechy end of the tenor’s range, which I love but I understand turns some people off to this music. As with everything of this era of Trane’s classic quartet, these guys are totally in synch with each other – they’ve got a perfect understanding of where they – collectively – are moving with each piece. So if they come right out with “Transition” and knock you into a daze, “Welcome” will be a nice relief. They’re still taking things seriously, but they’re also taking them a little more slowly, giving some breathing room. Next up is the 21+ minute “Suite,” which moves through five segments that to me just sound like five solo sections, but then I’m not in charge of naming these things. I think it’s a fine slice of late quartet-dom, but not as programmatically strong as the suites he’d begin organizing later on this year of their development, even if the interplay is top-notch. But things get brighter in the close-out with “Vigil,” a superb duet between Trane and the mighty Elvin Jones that for close to 10 minutes simply burns – here is where the roles McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison play in the band start to become undermined; probably not a conscious move on Trane’s part, simply a piece of the transition he speaks of as he moves from one thing to the next in his development.

(Please note that this review treats the CD as though it were how the album was originally released and/or intended, though I am well aware that it consists of tracks added to and/or omitted from the original posthumous issue. But the recording sessions are close enough to each other that they can be considered very closely related and the sequencing of the CD is extremely well-done, creating perhaps more substance than was meant with the music, though obviously it does not fully obscure its somewhat fragmentary nature.)

Husker Du - Flip Your Wig
Bob Mould kills on the A-side of this while Grant Hart keeps a solidly lower profile throughout. Title track takes on both writers' views of impending stardom (that sadly never really came their way), then Grant's "Every Everything" sets the stage for Bob to introduce the greatest drum fill of the 80's, surrounded by one of his all-time best tunes and lyrics in "Makes No Sense At All" (which even to this day I think would adapt remarkably well to a twangy country reading, but never mind...). Up next - Bob's quick and catchy "Hate Paper Doll." Grant follows with his fine love song "Green Eyes" and Bob kicks out one of his best power riffs in "Divide and Conquer," which also offers up the unique trick of holding out on delivering its chorus until the very end. Bob's "Games" closes the side out with something more generic, offering a glimpse of what's to come on the second side, where the tables turn and Grant gets to showcase his best stuff while Bob flounders a bit. There Bob gives us "Find Me" and "Private Plane" while Grant steps it up with "Flexible Flyer" and the heartfelt "Keep Hanging On." They both throw out a goof in "The Baby Song" and close the record on two solid if unspectacular instrumentals that leave authorship uncertain. Grant is concerned mainly with relationships throughout - and maybe Bob is too sometimes, though he makes his words ambiguous enough that even when they're clearly directed at another person his meanings are still opaque. On the first side where he's as catchy and riff-happy as any point in his career the opacity doesn't bother me; on the flip where structure, noise and forward motion take the place of melody, I balk a little. Grant, on the other hand, starts out slow and makes gains with each song on the album, ending things on a high with his vocal performance in "Keep Hanging On." The instrumentals provide enough auditory damage and guitar madness to keep fans on their earlier work happy, but I think that their tune sense was improving around this time and that they put all the pieces - noise, tune, vocals, words - together better on their next one, even if it doesn't sport a "Makes No Sense At All" to anchor it. A solid record that's about 50% great, 50% good, but they did melody better next time out and noise better last time out.

Bill Evans - Alone
No multi-tracking, no band, just Evans solo, playing four across the A-side and one extended slice of genius over the B. The CD offers up alternate versions of all five tracks plus another two solos from the same sessions - a standards medley and the lone Evans original of the set. The original album though remains the focus. The shorter songs are lovely - nothing is terrifically fast here (it is, after all, Bill Evans), but they're not languorous either, just thoughtful, introspective, lovely. But when the 14:34 of "Never Let Me Go" kicks off, you know you're in for a ride. Evans states the song's melancholy melody and begins to spin off his improvisations, alighting regularly to restate the melody only to fly off again. If anything, it's too short for me at 14 1/2 minutes. I could listen to him work it over for 20 minutes easily. I guess that's where the bonus tracks come in again, offering up 10 1/2 more minutes of the song (and of course, the other alternates). There's not a lot of solo Bill out there, so it's good that this particular record is a pretty damn fine one.

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