Miles Davis – It’s About That Time

Live at the Fillmore East (March 7, 1970): It's About That Time

Miles DavisLive at the Fillmore East (March 7, 1970): It’s About That Time Legacy C2K 85191 (2001)

What Dark Magus is to the tail end of Miles’ fusion period, It’s About That Time is to the early part of it.  Both represent versions of his electric band at their most wild and unhinged.  While this album is a good one, it probably is only essential for addicts of this period of the Miles Davis discography.  It actually is closely related to Black Beauty: Miles Davis at Fillmore West, which was recorded about a month later at the other Fillmore, on the other coast.  The lineups on It’s About That Time and Black Beauty overlap substantially, but It’s About That Time represented the final performance of saxophonist Wayne Shorter with the group before leaving to form Weather Report.  Steve Grossman replaced Shorter, and that personnel change did have an effect on the group’s sound.  Grossman provided merely window dressing with Chick Corea taking command of most of the soloing, while on It’s About That Time Shorter and Corea, along with Miles, are jointly the workhorses of the group.  Because the Shorter lineup had only been documented on record once before this release (on the Japanese-only release 1969 Miles – Festiva de Juan Pins), It’s About That Time has taken on a certain amount of hype of the “holy grail” variety.  Don’t expect too many revelations though.  Shorter plays well, and he stretches about as far out as he ever did here, but he still sounds more or less like the same Wayne Shorter featured on Davis’ early fusion albums like Bitches Brew.  Critic Thom Jurek made the pointed observation that on Black Beauty Grossman “plays everything he knows in every solo.”  But because Grossman is only providing color, that’s not so bad.  The extra space allowed Corea, and the generally tighter sound from the band as a whole, to make Black Beauty the better of the two offerings, even if bassist Dave Holland is less audible in the mix.  Though, to repeat, if you are an addict of this period of Miles’ career–and if you like this period at all you probably are or will become an addict–then It’s About That Time is worth your attention at some point.

Sly & The Family Stone – Dance to the Music

Dance to the Music

Sly & The Family StoneDance to the Music Epic BN 26371 (1968)

In 1968 Sly’ second album turned pop music on its ear. His energetic blend of funky vamps with a host of rock influences left an indelible mark. The bright idealism and overflowing energy take this music to a higher level. Sly’s confidence and sheer willpower transform what seems laughable on paper.

Where the group’s debut had decent results employing a shotgun approach to contemporary soul styles, Dance to the Music explodes by digging into the dazzling musicianship of the group, highlighted by Sly’s expertly textured production. The title song is considered the classic song of the album, but it is perhaps the least interesting as it sits. Most of the tunes build off big vamps. Actually, many of the songs use the same chords. Vaguely resembling modal jazz, the group’s interpretations add rich color and flavor to the songs without adding bulk. The bounce of the grooves hint at psychedelia but stay true to roots in gospel.  “Dance to the Medley” pulls together everything that makes the album as a whole great. That song also ends with some fuzzed-out noodling that sounds way ahead of its time.

Grandmaster of the electric bass Larry Graham gets plenty of opportunities to shine. This album, more than any other, showcases his power while still utilizing all his finesse. The rest of the band is on fire as well (unique at the time was a horn section that was part of the group). Dance to the Music shines brightest as the group interacts and builds up the songs by feel.

Not everything is perfect here. The lyrics are at times thin or even a bit hokey. But the group sings along with charm. They seem to enjoy making the music. Listening to it, the fun is infectious. Just listen to the organ and piano on “I Ain’t Got Nobody (For Real)” to get a taste of the careening, soulful forces packed into this album.

Many do not consider Dance to the Music Sly’s best work; however, it was the turning point. This is still a hugely influential album. Sly gave Miles Davis a copy and Miles couldn’t take it off his turntable. Miles wore out the copy and had to ask for another. These sounds were revolutionary to say the least. Yet with such snappy results there is hardly time to waste being critical–just dance to it baby.

Van Morrison – Astral Weeks

Astral Weeks

Van MorrisonAstral Weeks Warner Bros. WS 1768 (1968)

Astral Weeks is full of hope and possibility. Van Morrison weaves his tales through that nasal Irish voice and survives on his wits alone. There are no prominent hooks. There are no hit songs. This is just a beautiful album. It is a blend of romance and desire. Van Morrison lets nothing fall through the cracks. He holds every emotion dear, contemplating the simple joys of obscure coincidence and universal hopes. Morrison forgives his faults and circumvents the dangers of perfectionism. He accepts fully his reality. His love, therefore, feels as comprehensive as any ever heard.

Few pop albums of the early rock era went as far as using a jazz band to back the vocalist. Richard Davis on bass and Connie Kay on drums provide unreal depth to the album, on top of other great performances by Jay Berliner, John Payne, and Warren Smith, Jr. Richard Davis particularly shines on “Sweet Thing,” “The Way Young Lovers Do,” and, well, all of them. His unique talents all come into the spotlight. He pushes with calmly funky rhythms; easy to like, but Richard can ignite your mind if you concentrate. Connie Kay has more restraint than most drummers, never overpowering the delicate songs. Kay is as cool as ever. His wispy accents add the illusion of grand orchestration seemingly impossible with such a small combo. Morrison and his backing band convey a pure energy. The motivations are so noble as to need no support.

Van Morrison established himself as a legendary vocalist with this release. Most would make fools of themselves with such a studio band. But the spontaneity of Van Morrison’s performance carries the record to its lofty stature in pop music. He thrives from Side One/“In the Beginning” to Side Two/“Afterwards.” Van Morrison shouldn’t be called a blue-eyed soul singer. No qualifiers are needed. He was a great singer, period, as Astral Weeks reveals.

No other attempted the unblinking idealism of Astral Weeks in the decades following its release. In that it is a singular work. Astral Weeks is far from the R&B Van Morrison made his name recording early on. Instead, it searches territory beyond any concrete probabilities for success. A proactive Van Morrison makes Astral Weeks an album that accomplishes something beyond its sound. It isn’t something you have to understand to appreciate. He believes. He lets you believe too. The world is a great place indeed, if you want it to be.

Ruth Fowler – The Problem With Hugs

Link to an article by Ruth Fowler:

“The Problem With Hugs”

This reminded me of a story on a local Fox affiliate TV news show in which they said that residents were trying to rebuild from the Ferguson protests, and I immediately thought they were going to show white people painting over graffiti.  The broadcasters proceeded to show what appeared to be a single family of white people painting over graffiti.  It perfectly symbolized papering over legitimate complaints with a self-serving plea to just return things to “normal” conditions of inequality and injustice that favor the white people painting over the graffiti.

Willie Nelson – Always on My Mind

Always on My Mind

Willie NelsonAlways on My Mind Columbia FC 37951 (1982)

Willie’s star soared in the late 1970s and early 80s.  Red Headed Stranger was a big hit, but Stardust blew it away with multi-platinum sales.  Riding high on that success Willie even began an acting career, culminating in a starring role in the film Honeysuckle Rose.  However, after Stardust he had released mostly soundtracks and niche albums like a holiday one, a gospel one, a tribute to Kris Kristofferson and an assortment of duet/collaboration outings.  He also issued what remained for a long time his definitive “best of” compilation: Greatest Hits (& Some That Will Be).

Always on My Mind proved to be Willie’s highest-charting album, and one of the best selling releases of his entire career.  He still had chart-busters left in him, but this represented the high-water mark of his popularity.  It also marked another departure for him, in a career that always veered (or some might say lurched) in unpredictable directions.  This was the arrival of Willie the 80s pop singer.

Producer Chips Moman comes on board.  He would work with Nelson a lot in the coming years.  Moman has an uneasy legacy, in hindsight often criticized for his clinical, overproduced destruction of numerous albums, from Townes Van Zandt in the late 1970s to The Highwaymen and Johnny Cash in the 1980s.  But, that legacy aside, Always on My Mind is among his more durable efforts (eclipsed of course by ElvisFrom Elvis in Memphis).  He lets this ride on the strength of the performances rather than a suffocatingly synthetic layer of studio and mixing gimmicks.  Willie is singing lots of pop and rock fare, tending toward lighter, slow-burn ballads and torch songs.  These are much much more contemporary tunes than on Stardust.  He takes somewhat of a cue from Elvis, who recorded the title track, Simon & Garfunkel‘s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Let It Be Me (Je t’appartiens)” during his 70s comeback.  Willie possibly edges out The King on the title track, though Willie hits the top of his vocal range on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and noticeably can’t go as high as he seems to want to go (no pun intended).  Much of the material is well-selected, like “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” and Procol Harum‘s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”  A couple of obligatory re-recordings of old Nelson hits make appearances as well.  One can forgive, somewhat, the fact that Moman seems to be pushing a few too many of his own songs because they happen to work, particularly the opener with its guest appearance by Waylon Jennings.  But this album does exhibit some serious lapses in judgment.  When a saxophone enters on “Let It Be Me,” it is as if Gato Barbieri stumbled into Nelson’s recording session amidst a marijuana haze and thought he was redoing the Last Tango In Paris soundtrack, or somebody was warming up for the “Lethal Weapon” soundtrack.  That sax (from John Marett) is probably the album’s biggest liability.  It is unredeemable.

If Always on My Mind represented some of the worst tendencies of Willie Nelson’s music in the coming decade, it would be hard to tell from this evidence alone.  At its best, this ends up being one of his stronger pop outings.  Aside from some slight unevenness, it delivers a classic in the title track and has enough other successes to keep things interesting.  Warts and all, this is probably something that will appeal to casual fans of pop music, even without any particular interest in the artist, and ranks as a worthwhile second-tier Willie Nelson effort for the fan.

Willie Nelson – Tougher Than Leather

Tougher Than Leather

Willie NelsonTougher Than Leather Columbia QC 38248 (1983)

Anthropologist F.G. Bailey wrote in his book Humbuggery and Manipulation: The Art of Leadership (1988) that a leader has a need for an entourage, who make up a buffer and a sort of subordinate set of leaders to insulate the ultimate leader from the mundane.  But, such a leader must control his entourage, usually through strategic use of uncertainty and discord among the ranks.  If we take Bailey’s theories (right or wrong) and apply them to Willie Nelson, then maybe they provide an explanation of what went wrong in the 1980s.  Nelson developed a Pollyanna-esque “positive thinking” approach to life and steadfastly refused to focus his energies or attention on anything negative.  He did have an entourage, which between his backing band, drivers, bodyguards and assorted others, had grown quite large by the early 80s.  But his laid-back approach to life didn’t allow him any room to control this entourage.  So he was too often enveloped in a strange cocoon of celebrity.  His recordings, increasingly pop- and easy listening-oriented, suffered because of it.

Near the peak of his popularity Willie collapsed a lung, and had to recuperate in the hospital for a time.  While there, he planned his 1983 album Tougher Than Leather.  It marked a return to the stripped-down old-time acoustic country sound of Red Headed Stranger.  It ends up being Nelson’s finest album of the decade by a fair margin.  He had a lot of range, but he was always known first and foremost as a country artist for a reason.  He plays to his strengths here.  There are some old tunes and even some traditional chestnuts like “Beer Barrel Polka” tossed together with another loose (and barely recognizable) concept.  This time it has to do with reincarnation — a topic Nelson genuinely believed in.  The time spent on thinking this through provides warm returns.  This is the most consistent and convincing album Nelson would deliver for a while.  The reason may well be that being less reliant on his band and having more time to himself in the hospital Nelson freed himself briefly from the confines of his entourage.  This may not be his finest moment compared to the entirety of his career, but renditions of the likes of “My Love for the Rose,” “Changing Skies” and “Summer of Roses/December Day” (and more) are very good.

Willie Nelson & Family – Willie Nelson & Family

Willie Nelson & Family

Willie Nelson & FamilyWillie Nelson & Family RCA Victor LSP-4489 (1971)

Another middling offering from the time just before Willie really broke through.  He veers into the territory of singer-songwriters, with a cover of James Taylor‘s hit “Fire and Rain.”  The nagging problem is that Willie is making this music too grandiose, and is still clinging slightly to a crooner’s style in his vocals.  That, and the glitzy, Vegas-style backing singers, horns and strings on “I’m a Memory,” “Today I Started Loving You Again,” and “Kneel at the Fee of Jesus” seem too much for Willie’s style of guitar playing and singing.  Rather than take simple, spare music and dress it up as he does here, his next album Yesterday’s Wine would instead strip things back to simple, spare performances with greater success.  This plays well enough all the way through, and is better than some of Willie’s early Nashville albums, but it still pales in comparison to what was just around the corner from him.

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