The Mahavishnu Orchestra – The Inner Mounting Flame

The Inner Mounting Flame

The Mahavishnu Orchestra With John McLaughlinThe Inner Mounting Flame Columbia KC 31067 (1971)

A great debut from one of the foremost jazz fusion outfits.  This one is much more rock-oriented than the later albums.  In fact, this one sounds more like a rock band exploring some very complex jazz themes rather than a jazz band incorporating rock rhythms, guitar riffs and the like.  The group’s next album, Birds of Fire, would take a very different approach and utilize purely rock instrumentation to achieve a symphonic sound within the auspices of jazz fusion.  Later albums would take a more prog-rock approach, with actual symphony orchestration set against more rock-centric noodling.

Duke Ellington / Charlie Mingus / Max Roach – Money Jungle

Money Jungle

Duke Ellington / Charlie Mingus / Max RoachMoney Jungle United Artists UAJ 14017 (1963)

Superstar collaboration albums usually go one of two ways: (1) they produce a clash of egos ending in disaster; or (2) they go out in a whimper of disappointment, because the whole thing was a producer or executive’s idea and despite some good chemistry the one-off nature of the project didn’t allow enough time for things to come together.  Money Jungle is something of the latter.  In that, it is one of the more promising collaborations of its type.  Yet it still feels like it could have been better.  Duke made many collaboration albums, but what jumps out about this one is that rather than the other artist(s) coming over to his turf, this time it’s Duke who migrates over to the territory of the bop/hard bop camp.  He proves he was an underrated pianist, though some of the slower tunes here feel almost like filler.

Chris Gilbert – “Why Socialism?” Revisited

Link to an article by Chris Gilbert:

“‘Why Socialism?’ Revisited: Reflections Inspired by Albert Einstein”

A very interesting essay, in line with late-period writings by Walter Benjamin, though what goes unsaid is that much of Einstein‘s views on this point were probably drawn from Thorstein Veblen.  Who would have thought sci-fi movies would be so relevant?

Bonus links: “Inside Einstein’s Mind” and “You Only Live Twice”

Loretta Lynn – Van Lear Rose

Van Lear Rose

Loretta LynnVan Lear Rose Interscope B0002513-02 (2004)

Maybe much of the music industry had forgotten about Loretta Lynn by 2004, and younger urban audiences may have never really heard of her in the first place.  But she was suddenly back in the charts with Van Lear Rose.  And this was a convincing new offering, earning as much (or more) critical praise as it garnered in commercial success.  Lynn wrote or co-wrote everything here, and it is the songwriting that makes the album what it is.

“Miss Being Mrs.” is a song she started co-writing with a friend back in the early 1980s, an idea that started with the title phrase, finished for purposes of the album.  It is interesting that the song had origins so long ago, because Lynn was widowed and it seems like a very personal song for her, even if its origins suggest otherwise.  It is the most spare performance on the album.  It is just Lynn singing with acoustic guitar.

The story behind “Portland, Oregon” is described in her memoir Still Woman Enough.  Lynn never drank much.  But she was in a motel in Portland with Cal Smith (she admits to having a crush on him in her younger days) and various band members.  Not knowing what to order, Smith suggests a “Sloe Gin Fizz.”  As she gets a little drunk, her and Cal goof around to try to stir up controversy — Lynn’s husband Doolittle was a notoriously jealous man always suspicious of her cheating on him (even though it was him who regularly cheated on her).  As she became pretty drunk Smith told her the bar was closing.  Undeterred, she asks the bartender herself only to find out that the bar wasn’t really closed yet.  So she orders a pitcher of sloe gin fizz to go.  When she got back to her room, she started writing the song.

“High on a Mountain Top” has a bluegrass feel, with a clunky beat, chanted vocal backing, and rough-hewn violin.  Lynn’s lyrics refer to her upbringing in the coal mining community of Butcher Holler, Kentucky.  The title song “Van Lear Rose” is a tale about her family, specifically her mother — Lynn nominated her mother as her greatest teacher and her mother then received an award from the Carter White House in the late 1970s.  “Story of My Life” is of course another autobiographical song, with more of a sense of humor than “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and with a longer time frame to draw from.  “Little Red Shoes” is another autobiographical tale, delivered as sort of a spoken monologue, but it is less coherent than the way Lynn tells the story in one of her memoirs.

This “comeback” album (Lynn saw 2000’s Still Country! as her real comeback) was her best-selling since the late 1960s.  Trendy indie-rock producer Jack White is on board.  He is quoted as being a big Lynn fan, and he sought her out to do this project.  In many ways, White is the album’s biggest liability — even though his very presence is what gave the album so much exposure and its commercial success.  He over-uses heavy reverb and sustain on electric guitar (“Little Red Shoes”).  If this is supposed to be a “crossover” effort, at times it seems like little more is done than put boilerplate (circa 2004) indie rock guitar behind Lynn.  Though, in fairness, White also shakes Lynn loose from complacency and recording more of the same.  He pairs her with his own hand-picked band, which Lynn nicknamed the “Do Whaters” because they did whatever was needed.

Lynn worked from within the Nashville system most of her career.  As a result, she churned out albums at a breakneck pace.  They were as a rule full of filler.  Against that historical precedent, Van Lear Rose holds up pretty well.  Lynn wasn’t know as primarily an album-focused recording artist.  Even the best here doesn’t quite stack up with the finest recordings of her career (see Honky Tonk Girl: The Loretta Lynn Collection for that).  Still, this comes close enough to belong in the conversation with her very best recorded work.

Public Enemy – Live From Metropolis Studios

Live From Metropolis Studios

Public EnemyLive From Metropolis Studios Universal 00602547228819 (2015)

If Public Enemy seemed to shun major labels in their later years, then Live From Metropolis Studios is an about-face.  Still, it’s a pretty strong album, recorded live in a studio before an audience of about 125, and is helped by a “greatest hits live” format (like, ahem, Fight the Power! Greatest Hits Live!; there is nothing from their recent studio album Man Plans God Laughs) and hi-fidelity made possible by the “studio” setting.  If live hip-hop usually only makes sense in person, with the energy of the interaction between the performers and the crowd fueling the experience, then live hip-hop recordings are often simply weak approximations of studio counterparts.  Of course, DJ scratching can take on a bigger, or at least different, role in a live setting.  But the real promise of recordings of live hip-hop is the use of a live backing band.  With Public Enemy, that means The baNNed, featuring Khari Wynn on guitar, Davy DMX on bass, and T-Bone Motta on drums.  Those guys lend some pretty tough punk/metal shadings to renditions of classics like “Black Steel in the Hour [of Chaos]” (which is performed sort of as a medley with snippets of songs like “MKLVFKWR” and “Do You Wanna Go Our Way???” worked in), “Shut Em Down” and “Harder Than You Think.”

Recorded in London in 2014, only part of the PE group is present.  Professor Griff is absent, and only Pop Diesel and James Bomb from S1Ws made the trip.  Although Terminator X reappeared on Man Plans God Laughs (his first recordings with the group in over 15 years), only DJ Lord appears here.

London is a special place for PE.  In the late 1980s they toured there, before they really broke to wide audiences, and snippets from London concerts were prominently featured on their classic It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

This album is a nice opportunity for old PW fans to catch up with the band, and hear a select few of their newer tunes of the last decade or so that they may have missed, and maybe there’s an off chance that younger listeners might tune in to one of hip-hop’s greatest acts for the first time.

The Mothers of Invention – We’re Only In It For the Money

We're Only In It For the Money

The Mothers of InventionWe’re Only In It For the Money Verve V6 5045X (1968)

This is hands-down the best album to come from The Mothers of Invention (it is often inexplicably filed under bandmember Frank Zappa‘s name in many record stores).  It’s the one time their goofy, satirical sense of humor materialized on record in a way that both stayed true to its nonsensical sentiments and coalesced into a consistently moving body of songs.

In a way, this is the group’s Triumph des Willens [Triumph of the Will].  If that seems an odd comparison, know that the cynical attitude here is kind of what allows the band to forge on.  The title may be “We’re Only In It For the Money” and that is supposed to be a joke, but aren’t they in it for the money in the end?  The way the group skewers Yippie/Hippie culture is kind of an attack on what was the greatest threat to concentrated elite control of society since the labor movement and the associated threat of the collapse of capitalism from the Bolshevik Revolution through the Great Depression.  Anyway, just like Triumph of the Will, this is still a great album because of the total conviction of what it is about, and the excellent execution.