Category Archives: Reviews

Carpenters – A Kind of Hush

A Kind of Hush

CarpentersA Kind of Hush A&M SP 4581 (1976)

A Kind of Hush was a bit of a lesser album from The Carpenters after a string of impressive ones in the early 1970s.  Of course, Karen still sings beautifully, and there are some good songs here (“Can’t Smile Without You,” “I Need to Be in Love”).  But the brother-sister duo seems to struggle to find enough suitable songs to fill the album, and Richard as the producer / arranger drifts into rigid formula, not living up to his best work.  He later admitted that this was a disappointing album, noting the poor song selection, and blamed it on his addition to sleeping pills at the time.  Celebrity was definitely beginning to take its toll.  For their next album, they tried to seek a different producer but had difficulty finding someone “major” willing, at which point Richard produced but made an effort to move out of his comfort zone.  Anyway, with all seriousness, the producer (or co-producer) that the duo should have used was Tiny Tim — think about it, this makes perfect sense when The Carpenters were recording pop songs from bygone eras like “Goofus” but also in that Tiny Tim would have added a sense of modern irony that would have reinvigorated The Carpenters’ sound at a time when their old approach maybe seemed less relevant.

“In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by the censors, he tells his friends: ‘Let’s establish a code: if a letter you get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it’s true; if it’s written in red ink, it’s false.’ After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink: ‘Everything is wonderful here: the shops are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, cinemas show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair — the only thing you can’t get is red ink.’ ***

“we ‘feel free’ because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.”  Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real! pp. 1-2.

At their best, The Carpenters were able to articulate the claustrophobic unfreedom of the (white) “American Dream” in the post-WWI “Golden Age”, presenting songs in “red” ink” or pointing out a lack of “red ink”. There is only a trace of that ability on A Kind of Hush.  At a time when punk was making overt attacks on society, disco was celebrating individual hedonism and even hip-hop was rising from the underground, The Carpenters seemed somewhat out of touch, merely responding to conditions that many people already relegated to the past.  Oh, and the album cover is indeed one of the strangest and creepiest on a major commercial release at the time.  The duo’s next album Passage would be a small improvement, flirting with disco and showtunes a bit, though still prone to a few (easily avoidable) missteps.

Johnny Cash – The Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me

The Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me

Johnny CashThe Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me Columbia KC 33086 (1974)

Ragged Old Flag was a transitional album in which Cash finished off with his folk-country phase that began with Hello, I’m Johnny Cash and started to establish a more contemporary sound with the help of producer Charlie Bragg.  The Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me finds the new style firmly established.  It’s clearly influenced by the big country stars from Texas, like Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings (those three would team up with Cash to form The Highwaymen a decade later).   Kristofferson especially looms large, with two of his songs featured including the great title track.  It makes this album a little grittier, looser and modern than typical Cash fare.  A few other songs take on more of a bluegrass flavor.  Funny thing, though, is that there are a number of songs here where vocals are handed over to guests–all part of Cash’s extended family.  On these he sometimes delivers only one line (“Ole Slewfoot”), or nothing noticeable for the entire song.  But that’s actually not such a bad thing.  The album’s biggest weakness is the lackadaisical effort Cash puts into his vocals.  Still, the album tries for a contemporary sound and achieves it without it coming across as forced, and it has aged sufficiently well.  This is another of those 1970s Cash albums that’s fairly decent in an average sort of way, and no classic.  His next few albums represented a step down in quality from this one.

Johnny Cash – Rockabilly Blues

Rockabilly Blues

Johnny CashRockabilly Blues Columbia JC 36779 (1980)

The songs are a bit spotty, but Cash is doing the best he can and his band is at least competent.  Rockabilly Blues has Cash putting a pub rock sheen on some of the material.  It has a synthetic and compressed sound, which has left it a little dated now, but far less so than Silver.  His then step-son-in-law Nick Lowe is on board, and some of this sounds exactly like what you’d expect a Cash/Lowe collaboration in 1980 to sound like.  Other parts are more standard Cash fare for the era.  “Without Love” and “It Ain’t Nothing New Babe” are the standouts here.  For the most part, this isn’t going to impress anybody new to Cash, but it’s marginally more listenable than some of his other stuff from the slowest part of his career.  It probably earns second place in the beauty pageant of his 1980s albums.  The curious may want to ponder how this sets out some of the same objectives as Unchained almost two decades later, but just doesn’t deliver nearly as well.

Willie Nelson – Both Sides Now

Both Sides Now

Willie NelsonBoth Sides Now RCA Victor LSP-4292 (1970)

Willie ups the folk-rock influence on this one.  There are a few very decent performances here, like “Crazy Arms” and “Pins and Needles (In My Heart).”  Although many of Willie’s early recordings that looked toward pop/rock music fizzled, the “folk” aspect of this means that there are no cheesy backing strings or horns, and very minimal backing vocals (on “Pins and Needles” the backing vocals recall certain Johnny Cash recordings).  “Everybody’s Talkin'” is a big swing and miss though.  Nothing here is especially memorable, but, overall, this is slightly better than Willie’s next couple RCA albums, which doesn’t exactly say a whole lot.  As another reviewer astutely put it, “All in all, Both Sides Now is a lackluster effort that does hint at his future direction, though it does so rather obliquely.”

Mikal Cronin – MCII


Mikal CroninMCII Merge MRG475 (2013)

Take doo-wop and orchestrally inflected glam rock of the early 1970s (Wizzard, T. Rex et al.), combine with lyrical sensibilities resembling the mellower power pop of Alex Chilton and Big Star, and add just a hint of The Beach Boys influence, and you’ll have something very much like Mikal Cronin’s MCII.  It’s an album that welcomes the kind of grand, up-beat yet hesitant melodicism that permeated the aforementioned groups in the early 1970s.  Yet it updates things with an affinity for noisier guitar, which clearly places this after the punk explosion.  In all, its a wonderfully heady brew of positive thinking and soul searching.  (And there is none of that annoyingly common whiny, “twee” singing to be found here either!).

Herbie Hencock – Sextant


Herbie HencockSextant Columbia KC 32212 (1973)

To my mind, this is Hancock’s finest long player.  It’s the last album from his Mwandishi Sextet.  Most impressive was that this was the first for his new major-label contract on Columbia.  Different times…  Like the last two sextet albums, this is less concerned with melody and conventional song structure, but now things are getting funkier.  Influences from what Miles Davis was up to around this time are pronounced.  This is up there with the very best that the fusion era had to offer.

Bob Dylan – Triplicate


Bob DylanTriplicate Columbia 88985 41349 2 (2017)

How did you feel about Christmas in the Heart?  If you loved it, then you are in luck!  Here is a triple album of secular songs using a similar approach.  If you hated it, well, sorry, but here is a triple album in a similar style.  Although nominally a “triple” album, the content could have fit very comfortably on two discs.  Anyway, this is just as self-indulgent as Patti Smith‘s Twelve and Dylan’s pal Johnny Cash‘s The Gospel Road.  But I like to image that Dylan commissioned an academic study to determine what music best suits his ravages rasp of a voice these days.  He then read the graph upside down and went with the music least suited to his present vocal abilities.  Seriously, there are like good singers who have recorded this kind of music before, and those recordings are still available.  This music would have been better as instrumentals, frankly.

Bob Dylan – Christmas in the Heart

Christmas in the Heart

Bob DylanChristmas in the Heart Columbia 88697 57323 2 (2009)

This is some kind of sick joke, right?  Bob Dylan does ALL of the popular christmas song canon.  Well, to his credit, he puts together some good arrangements, and what was probably a near limitless production budget helps.  Yet hearing the man croak his way through this stuff is easily imagined like watching Dylan participate in a reality TV show (oh what awkward and pointless task will he have to complete next?).  But this just proves a corollary to the law of large numbers:  anyone on a major label for more than ten years (of a christian persuasion) will make a holiday recording.  No, this would actually be perhaps enjoyable if a decent singer was in place instead of Dylan, perhaps a competent female pop star, possibly PJ Harvey or even somebody from the country-pop realm (provided she could pull off vocals with a jazzy twist).  No, instead of that we get this spectacle.

Willie Nelson – Laying My Burdens Down

Laying My Burdens Down

Willie NelsonLaying My Burdens Down RCA Victor LSP-4404 (1970)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s Willie Nelson’s album displayed a clear interest in what was happening in rock/pop music. He had a few years of national touring under his belt, and had been exposed to the wider world somewhat. His records still adhered to the dictates of the Nashville system, but tried to combine Nashville country with pop/rock. The thing was, these were somewhat timid attempts. Willie latched on to only the most conservative pop of the day.  He also still clung to an old-fashioned way of singing for the most part. It was as if he took a correspondence course on how to be a successful singer and he dutifully followed a list of instructions that included “Enunciate clearly.” In a way, he still sang like a louder, southern Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra.  After his Nashville home burned, and he and his band briefly relocated to Texas under communal conditions, he finally did summon the courage to try bolder things with his music. That eventually led him to Atlantic Records in New York, where he made a string of classic albums and achieved stardom.

Laying My Burdens Down displays clear attempts to look beyond country music.  The results aren’t as awkward as on the following year’s Willie Nelson & Family, but they are cheesier.  The backing vocals retain a little of the classic Nashville feel, though they make overt attempts to combine pentecostal gospel chorus and 5th Dimension-style pop affectations.  The horn arrangements lean heavily on the style of Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass.  Willie does play his acoustic guitar Trigger some, but also an overbearing electric guitar much of the time.  In general, his guitar playing is aimless and confused.  The guitar ranges from being overbearing to indistinctly cluttered.  The strings are fine, if a little cheesy.  Willie’s vocals show signs of moving beyond the old crooning style, but only tentatively.  It would be a few more years before his vocals settled into the style that helped make him a superstar.  This album isn’t terrible.  It still is a lesser Nelson effort.  Some of the backing vocals and other orchestration was stripped away on a few songs for Naked Willie, released almost four decades later, which provides a somewhat contrasting perspective.  It is curious to think about how Willie’s interests in rock and the counterculture were problematic because he was a southern outsider, not able (if willing) to step into that milieu directly, but also having no one at his Nashville-based record label able (if willing) to help him connect with the predominantly northern rock music world.  Willie was kind of stuck between two incompatible worlds — a bit like the film Electra Glide in Blue from a few years later.  So this remains a transitional effort that pales in comparison to what hindsight shows was just around the corner.  Yet this does retain some kitsch value.

Judy Collins – A Maid of Constant Sorrow

A Maid of Constant Sorrow

Judy CollinsA Maid of Constant Sorrow Elektra EKL-209 (1961)

A nice debut from the sadly neglected Judy Collins.  At this time, she sang with a slightly husky tone as if honed performing belting her vocals at a near shout, without amplification, at some Greenwich Village coffee house.  Comparisons to folk stars of the previous decade like Pete Seeger are àpropos.  As Collins evolved, she incorporated elements of Broadway theatrics, with a lighter touch and more legato phrasing.  But those techniques lay in the future back in ’61.  Yet even from the beginning she clearly had quite a voice.  Enjoy.