Richard & Linda Thompson – I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight

I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight

Richard & Linda ThompsonI Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight Island ILPS-9266 (1974)

I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight is a landmark of British folk-rock, and a real treasure from the 1970s.  After leaving Fairport Convention and attempting a solo career with limited success, guitarist Richard Thompson met and married vocalist Linda Peters and the two began working together professionally.  The duo’s debut album is a wonderful extension of various currents in British folk music of the prior decade.  That Richard was a singular talent on guitar was already established.  But Linda’s voice filled out the duo’s sound in a way that becomes quite apparent on listening to Richard’s solo work before and since by way of comparison.  Someone once described legendary gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples as possessing a voice that was powerful yet uniquely de-sexualized — something that is unfortunately rarely accepted among female singers.  Linda also has something of that same quality in her voice.  With a warm and home-y tone, she had excellent command of vibrato and subtle rhythmic phrasing.  Richard’s fretwork is excellent as always, with mesmerizing solos littered all across the album.  But it’s the rich instrumental backdrop and superb songwriting here that make this album so endearing.  Unlike so much folk music that relies exclusively on acoustic instruments in drab and unstimulating arrangements, the Thompsons are backed with a rhythm section and an assortment of colorful sounds and textures, from unsettling double-tracked vocals and punchy horns on the title track and a warm electric keyboard on “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” to a somber concertina on “Withered and Died” and sonorous guitar reverb on “The Calvary Cross.”

All the aforementioned factors would make for a very good album.  It is the songs, though, that put this into another category entirely.  Many are portraits of lifestyles, if you will, often on the fringes of society.  “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” for instance, evokes an old-fashioned vision of a community of outcasts like the criminals around docks and ports that Jean Genet immortalized in his autobiographical novel Journal du voleur [The Thief’s Journal].  Tales of loss and loneliness in “Withered and Died” and “Has He Got a Friend for Me” strike tender, sympathetic chords.  “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” is the most rousing tune here, recounting the pent-up desire for adventure and unbridled energy lurking in the hearts of nearly everyone caught in the cycle of the working week.  Similar sentiments are echoed in “We Sing Hallelujah” and “When I Get to the Border.”  “The Little Beggar Girl” is quintessentially British folk music, revealing hints of the sort of rhythms and connivances that once inhabited Chaucer‘s medieval book The Canterbury Tales.  A much bleaker vision of those notions is found in “The End of the Rainbow.”  Concluding the album, “The Great Valerio” tells of adulation for and ambiguous emotional impulses to emulate a circus tightrope walker — a metaphor Richard would return to in his later solo career (“Walking on a Wire”).

It’s somewhat unfair that this is frequently described as a dark and depressing album.  Aside from “The End of the Rainbow” and “Withered and Died,” this music doesn’t adopt a particularly pessimistic outlook on life.  Instead it reflects an almost existential search for meaning, and on close inspection reveals a sense of camaraderie in facing rather universal toils for love and acceptance, told in each song through the microcosms of unique character studies.  The emotional range of the album may not be apparent immediately, but it’s there awaiting discovery.

The Thompsons made other great music, but I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight is undoubtedly their best, one for the ages.

Isaac Hayes – The Best of Isaac Hayes

The Best of Isaac Hayes

Isaac HayesThe Best of Isaac Hayes Enterprise ENS-7510 (1974)

There were things happening in the late 1960s and early 1970s that could have never happened before.  There were new possibilities in the United States brought on by changing social and economic forces.  And there was music right there in the heart of it all.  Isaac Hayes represented a surging confidence in black america.  In a way, he also represented some of the excesses that tend to go hand in hand with newfound autonomy.  Though his voice is instantly recognizable, he wasn’t a great singer in the conventional sense like an Al Green, Candi Staton or even James Carr.  His records were also made without the expansive compositional skills of a Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder or Donny Hathaway.  Where Hayes made his mark was in bold, smoldering atmospherics, more like Bobby Womack or mid-seventies James Brown.  His best songs tend to be ones that turn conventional love songs around, with subject matter that’s a bit more mature than in typical pop songs but with DIY roughness in the music that’s more youthful than the lyrics.  “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (a short edited version is included here) is more spoken monologue than “song” — a daring move.  It is a brooding piece that works because of its sparse sense of drama.  “Walk on By” is another of Hayes’ best, though it’s in edited form here.  “Theme from Shaft” is of course Isaac Hayes’ signature tune.  It’s a one-of-a-kind showpiece for a boastful, hyper-macho male ego tentatively confronting the problems of freedom rather than the ones of oppression.  So the line “no one understands him but his woman” is both a little chauvinistic and a little existential, treading a line no one really walked before.  Like it or not, there is not another damn song like it anywhere.  The cover of “Never Can Say Goodbye” from Black Moses is a throwaway.  It misses the mark in being too tepid in the vocals and too extravagant in the accompaniment.  It’s probably representative of a lot of other stuff he recorded, because his good material didn’t run all that deep.  This particular collection is a bit shoddy because it features edited material, though that might hold the attention of casual listeners better considering how very long the album versions were.  But in the end, this album does still capture everything that made Isaac Hayes popular.

James Brown – Hell


James BrownHell Polydor PD-2-9001 (1974)

Monster #1: “He’s too strong, we can’t stop him.”

Monster #2: “That’s because he’s the Godfather.”

Dialog between the cartoon monsters on the album jacket gets it down. Hell is James Brown at his super-baddest. He definitely sticks something funky to the man on this mother. From the early 60s to the mid-70s, James’ music got increasingly complex and distinct. His bread and butter used to be fairly straightforward R&B numbers, like “Try Me.” After “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” that all changed.

James knew exactly what he wanted and how to achieve it.   His vision just happened to be completely unlike anything else in the world. Copycat funk groups–even really good ones–tend to wander through some beats and just fade out after a few minutes. This band is driven every second. Really, Hell couldn’t happen without some great supporting musician: Maceo Parker, Lyn Collins, Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis, David Sanborn, Jimmy Nolen, and Hearlon “Cheese” Martin are just a few.

The first half of the album (meaning disc one of the double-LP) features most of the hard funk (“Coldblooded,” “Hell,” “My Thang,” and “Sayin’ and Doin’ It”), while the middle, transition part moves into more ballads (“These Foolish Things Remind Me of You,” “A Man Has to Go Back to the Crossroads Before He Finds Himself,” and “Sometime”). It seems a bit odd to include a version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” plus a Latin-tinged remake of “Please, Please, Please,” but that little bit of self-absorbed madness keeps the album within reach. James Brown was still a singer of songs after all. On Hell he manages to call attention to just that, reinforcing his very clear messages. He throws aside smart maneuvering to focus on stupid, moving torch songs. Then he closes with some mid-tempo soul, including one of his best, “Papa Don’t Take No Mess.”

If for no other reason, this album is great because almost all the songs (10 out of 14!) start with the crash of a gong announcing James Brown’s entry–implying an entryway to the music. Only the Godfather. It can be difficult to put Hell in a proper context, but those gongs are constant reminders that Hell is about finding a new context.

The Tom Tom Club in their song “Genius of Love” spoke some remarkable wisdom: “who needs to think when your feet just go?”  James Brown made intelligent, innovative music, but our feet might be too busy to dwell on it.

Boris – Noise


BorisNoise Sargent House SH-120 (2014)

Boris is a band that is hard to put a finger on.  Back a decade or two ago, they revelled in nimble drone metal.  There were one of a rare few bands that had power and finesse.  Then they increasingly went for a more accessible type of music that had them releasing shorter songs, that seemed like songs as such.  This was fine and good.  But after about 2008, Boris albums started going off in all sorts of different directions.  In 2011 they released, almost simultaneously, albums of shoegaze rock, pop rock, and more of their recent brand of indie hard rock.

Noise hardly features two songs in the same style.  It opens with “Melody,” a song that could pass for the sort of hard rock/metal that has permeated “hard rock” format radio for the last 10-15 years, the kind payed on ninety something point whatever “X” FM stations–whatever the geography, these stations in the United States always have an “X” tagged to the FM frequency.  “Ghost of Romance” is a little better than most stuff here, with something approaching classic rock riffing but layered in echo.  “Taiyo no Baka” is pure pop, unlike the rest of the album.  It is lighter than everything else, linked to the fabric of the other songs only by the use of echo, here on vocals.  But, it is kind of catchy, and might be the best thing on the album, even if you’ll wonder if it is on the right album.  “Angel” is the sort of “epic instrumental” post-rock that was in vogue about ten years ago, the sort of more widely popular sort that Boris seemed to ignore when they made more intense music.  Why return to that stuff now?  “Quicksilver” is late punk, an obligatory change of pace to make sure something punkish makes the cut.  “Siesta,” the closer, is a short bit of drone, almost a kind of rushed drone music, and among the group’s more forgettable drone tracks.

The main problem here?  For one, Boris jumps from style to style without purpose.  The band seems to be out of things to say.  They jump from style to style not because the jumps say something in and of themselves, or because what they have to say requires a breadth of territory, but out of a kind of boredom.  This is an album that listlessly restates music that was alive some time in the past.  It is like a summary of a conversation that happened a while ago.  There are snippets that are interesting, but it’s like remembering only part of a joke from that conversation that is now fading from memory, with the punch line seeming to belong to a context that maybe isn’t quite the same as the one of the retelling.  So rather than an emphasis on content, Noise is all about delivery.  The album is slick, professional.  Ah, well, it’s still a mess and hard to fathom.  But at least Atsuo’s drums sound good, and there are some well-recorded guitar solos, even if none of them get past being flawlessly executed versions of rather superficial moments from the past.  Is Boris getting ready for the equivalents of the “county fair circuit,” playing to audiences in isolated pockets wanting nostalgia not relevance?  Let’s hope not.  But it might be time to start worrying.

Leonard Cohen – Live at the Isle of Wight 1970

Live at the Isle of Wight 1970

Leonard CohenLive at the Isle of Wight 1970 Legacy 88697 57067 2 (2009)

The third Isle of Wight music festival in 1970 was something of a disaster, with riotous gate-crashers disrupting many of the performances and with the stage and instruments being lit on fire.  Leonard Cohen, appearing with his band “The Army”, was featured toward the end of the festival.  He achieved what other performers had failed to do: to calm and captivate the unruly crowd.  “Let’s sing another song boys; this one has grown old and bitter.”  

This recording (CD + DVD) captures his performances admirably.  Cohen wasn’t the most refined musician around.  He didn’t play guitar particularly well, and despite having an unmistakable voice he wasn’t the best of singers.  But this “Army” in 1970 (assembled by and featuring producer Bob Johnston) was arguably the best band he ever performed with.  The era when schmaltz crept into his music was still a few years off.  While the schlock of his later years bothers me a lot less than most listeners, there is no denying that Cohen’s bands often leave a lot to be desired.  With a few exceptions (Sharon Robinson, Jennifer Warnes), Cohen often surrounded himself with performers that would otherwise be playing for a sparse, disinterested crowd at the Holiday Inn’s Sunday brunch.  Yet, what some of the interviews on this DVD sketch out is the portrait of a guy who maybe wasn’t all that concerned with posterity.  He opted to be a decent guy on a personal level who supported his friends rather than becoming a cutthroat entrepreneur seeking only the finest performances with no sense of loyalty.  “But I have many friends, and some of them are with me.”

The Isle of Wight concert came shortly before the release of Cohen’s best album, Songs of Love and Hate.  He offers a few songs from that album, but mostly featured are songs from his first two albums.  Cohen is really a one-of-a-kind songwriter.  He is every bit the equal of a Bob Dylan or Townes Van Zandt as a lyricist, with the imagery and wordplay of Dylan intact but with the dark and harrowing personal focus of Van Zandt too.  Though he came up at the tail end of the urban folk movement, and was around through the whole singer-songwriter movement, he never quite fit the stereotype of any of those kinds of performers.  The wisdom in his words is a rare thing.  Even listening to his songs for the 1000th time, there is always something in the juxtaposition of his words and themes that comes out to surprise.  You always get the sense that Cohen just could see the world with clearer eyes, and could put across the trying aspects of life with an alacrity and charm that made it all seem so comfortable: “like a drunk in some old midnight choir.”

This might be the best live Cohen album available.  Sure, we all know the timing of this release has quite a bit to do with Cohen going broken not long before.  But there is no compromise in this music.  “It’s time that we began to laugh, and cry, and cry, and laugh about it all again.”

The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat

White Light/White Heat

The Velvet UndergroundWhite Light/White Heat Verve V-5046 (1968)

White Light/White Heat is an album that demands, but also teaches, a most elemental understanding of rock ‘n’ roll. In spite of its demands, it also opens up limitless possibility. It writhes not in perfection but realization. A cerebral work of great complexity, White Light/White Heat is a very important creative turning point in the history of rock music. The Velvet Underground nullified prior rock conventions in making the loudest album possible. What they left in their wake was a new world where a specifically urban rock ‘n’ roll ideal could begin to truly realize itself.

This is the album that assured John Cale a place in rock ‘n’ roll heaven. He won the Battle of “Sister Ray” (rock’s greatest cutting session) because he had the loudest amp. But his organ solo on “Sister Ray” is something more. His minimalist keyboard pounding swaggered and twisted its way into rock ‘n’ roll lore.

Lou Reed played a customized super-guitar that was nothing short of a necessity. Reed had his 12-string hopped up with about seven pickups (one even borrowed off bandmate Sterling Morrison’s guitar!). Solos on “I Heard Her Call My Name” (recalling Edgar A. Poe’s The Raven) and “Sister Ray” are not trippy peace/love fare. They are original and timeless. Songs telling of amphetamine rushes, hallucinations and murderous orgies don’t shy away from any subjects. Call them goth drug vampires or whatever, it is indisputable that the Velvets had an unbelievably deep and inclusive understanding of the nature of their medium. The dark ambiance of it all was at bottom more optimistic than cynical.

White Light/White Heat is almost a live album by its off-handed and raw nature. Yet, that is exactly what makes it great. It is the closest example of what the Velvets in their prime sounded like live. Any refinements would spoil the divine noise they created. White Light/White Heat is also what any future guitar-rock must be judged against. This is the prefect soundtrack for a real revolution. It’s no wonder Václav Havel named Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution after the band as he did.

Lester Bangs said the Velvets “invented the Seventies.” This only partially explains them. It was as if The Velvets slew the great beast guarding the inner circle of illumination. Here was a band having some new relationship with their instruments. They were not a bunch of depraved punks working solely with forbidden forms. Shattering the dogma still remaining in rock ‘n’ roll, the Velvet Underground questioned every rule previously deemed inviolable, in a genre that already seemed premised on breaking from convention. No amount of shock value could do anything for an album of this ilk.

The Velvets made something that lasts because of its philosophical premise. Music could be more than previously conceived; and it could do it with less. The immediacy is paradoxically the enduring quality. The urges and desires thumping to Moe Tucker’s drum heartbeats are the stuff that sustains it. No routine survives. Maybe it’s not enough to say that White Light/White Heat breaks conventions. It provides somewhat of a guide. It points you in a direction along an axis you never knew existed.

It takes a journey to the edge to properly stupefy yourself with existence. This is the album to take you there, to that edge. The one True musical Statement does not exist. White Light/White Heat, however, is a singular assertion. Sell a kidney if you have to, but you must get this album.

Sun Kil Moon – Benji


Sun Kil MoonBenji Caldo Verde Records CVCD029 (2014)

Take the most self-absorbed, navel-gazing singer/songwriter you can think of, combine with an “outsider” folk musician who revels in tuneless warbling, then add a hint of alt-country twang (“alt” because it appeals to the middle class more than the working class).  Result: *meh*.  On Benji, Mark Kozelek basically offers nearly stream-of consciousness nostalgic monologues set to repetitive guitar strumming.  Has this guy not heard of “social media” web sites?  Perhaps you have heard the saying, “like singing the phone book”?  Well, this album is pretty much like singing a bunch of obnoxious personal commentaries off a glorified internet message board.  Guess what?  Everybody comes from somewhere.  Everybody has a personal history.  What is missing here is any sort of indication as to why an audience should want to listen to this person’s drivel.  Well, this isn’t that terrible.  There is at least some sort of attempt to be open and honest, in a slightly cheeky way.

PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love

To Bring You My Love

PJ HarveyTo Bring You My Love Island 314-524 085-2 (1995)

Music of the 1960s had this liberating aspect that promptly died out through the 1970s as the naïve dreams of the previous era withered and self-indulgent excess took over.  The punks came and went, but not everybody paid attention.  The vapid, albeit catchy, pop of the 1980s just coasted by.  Then by the 1990s, the stage had been set for “alternative rock” (whatever that means).  If the moment accomplished anything, it was to reawaken the simmering undercurrents that could be traced back to the 60s–a desire to tear down and cast off the old, and, maybe, reinvent it all–but cast with a deep cynicism and palpable sense of raw anger and frustration.  These things are all over early 90’s alterna-rock, grunge, etc.

PJ Harvey landed in the middle of all this.  She was right there, in the perfect place and time.  Rid of Me was the right kind of rock for its day.  With To Bring You My Love, she transforms her style into something less directly “rock” oriented and more widely informed as rock/blues influenced pop music with a mature sensibility.  It certainly recalls Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds (1994’s Let Love In being a particularly good reference point).

This music rumbles, roars and slinks.  It’s confident.  It just sounds ferocious most of the time.  The opening salvo of “To Bring You My Love,” “Meet Ze Monsta,” and “Working for the Man” are tough to beat with any other album of the decade.

What is great about PJ Harvey was that she introduced this sort of feminist aspect to modern rock.  Her music could bang as hard as anything from the boys, and her lyrical subject matter didn’t pull any punches.  The window for her to seize a major-label contract (and associated distribution) was disappointingly small.  She may have opened doors, but they were slammed shut right behind her.  A few years out, about all mainstream music had time for from women were bimbos singing dance song pap, and variations on that theme.  Yet all the proof anyone should need that it could be done properly is right here.

Air – Air Lore

Air Lore

AirAir Lore Novus AN 3014 (1979)

This has definitely grown on me since my first listen.  It’s now one of my most favorite jazz albums of the late 1970s, with “The Ragtime Dance” and “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” possibly being my favorite songs on the album (though it is hard to choose because all are great).  The only new composition here is “Paille Street”; the others are old tunes by Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin.  The performances make rather unusual choices in melding bits of more traditional styling with more modern improvisation.  But what is most unusual is which bits they update and which bits they leave alone.  The group changes up dynamics, timbres, rhythms, in ways I haven’t ever quite encountered before. One minute you can recognize this as music composed for piano, but the next you can’t.  Curiouser and curiouser.

Bob Dylan – Empire Burlesque

Empire Burlesque

Bob DylanEmpire Burlesque Columbia FC 40110 (1985)

Empire Burlesque first came to my attention when Richard Hell wrote something on his web site about liking it.  While the focus isn’t always on the lyrics–something almost guaranteed to turn off most Dylan fans – -the musical backdrop is far richer than on most of his albums.  It does sound a little dated.  But the use of (synth) horns and backing singers works better here than on Street-Legal.  There is a ragged decadence to the music that fits.  The songs evidence contentment, but with questioning, lingering doubt just below the surface.  Something about it all sounds mature.  Plus, for the skeptics, try going straight to the solo acoustic closer “Dark Eyes.”  Can you maybe admit that the young Dylan of the 1960s was still alive and well?  If you can answer “yes” in the context of an overtly “folk” song, then go back to the opener “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love?)” and “Emotionally Yours” and ask if there isn’t some of the same spark there in a whole different setting.  This album may be reviled by many fans, but it is probably my favorite of the post-Desire albums, edging out Shot of Love and Good As I Been to You.

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