Album Reviews

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Michael Fremer  |  Sep 01, 2005  |  1 comments

Alec “Rice” Miller isn't the real Sonny Boy Williamson, but whatever, when the original “One Way Out” (later covered by The Allman Brothers) screams from your mono system (okay, your stereo system in mono) you'll know he's real whatever his name is.

Michael Fremer  |  Sep 01, 2005  |  1 comments

The idea of this 1956 session was for everyone involved to have a chance to blow the roof off Van Gelder's home recording studio. And why not when you have trumpeter Donald Byrd and trombonist Curtis Fuller joining the alto sax player's group for this session, with Sonny Clark on piano backed by drummer Art Taylor and George Joyner on bass?

Michael Fremer  |  Sep 01, 2005  |  1 comments

Today, Houston, Texas seems like one of the last places on earth a bluesman would want to call home (send those emails!), but Sam “Lightnin' “ Hopkins called it home, once he left his small town birthplace, nearby Centerville (population under 1000). His first Houston foray, sometime in the late 1930's, where he accompanied his cousin, the blues singer Alger Alexander, was a bust, so after working on a railroad and singing in the streets he returned home to Centerville.

Michael Fremer  |  Aug 01, 2005  |  0 comments

Produced, recorded and performed with love and respect for the “genius of soul,”-the artist for whom musical boundaries and genres had no meaning-this album of duets is nonetheless neither an important, nor an essential Ray Charles album. That doesn't mean it isn't an immensely pleasurable one, or one not worth owning and enjoying. It's just that there are a dozen or so Charles albums that should be in your collection before you buy this one. On the other hand, this isn't exactly a bad introduction if that's what you need. Do you really need one?

Michael Fremer  |  Aug 01, 2005  |  1 comments

Red Norvo and Mildred Bailey, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Karen and Richard Carpenter, The White Stripes, The Fiery Furnaces and The Kills. Husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfried, brother/sister duos have been with us for as long as there's been recorded music.

Michael Fremer  |  Aug 01, 2005  |  1 comments

Sundazed's Bob Irwin plays guitar and loves guitarists. In case you haven't noticed, go through the Sundazed catalog and you'll see. Hank Garland, best known as a Nashville session cat who played with Elvis, Eddy Arnold (in his touring band) and many, many others, was equally adept at playing electric jazz and this album on SESAC records issued in 1960 proved it. Adding to the interest here is the inclusion on the session of the very young vibraphonist Gary Burton.

Michael Fremer  |  Aug 01, 2005  |  1 comments

“Jazz” and “clarinet” usually equals Dixieland in the minds of many jazz fans, which may explain, in part, why jazz clarinetist Jimmy Guiffre, a most imaginative, and free-spirited musician failed to achieve the acclaim he deserved-not that there's anything wrong with Dixieland.

Michael Fremer  |  Aug 01, 2005  |  1 comments

This simple 1957 session featuring the mellow-toned tenor sax player backed by Oscar Peterson's trio (bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis) plus drummer Alvin Stoller doesn't set off any sparks but like a good Cognac, it goes down easy and brings great warmth and much pleasure, both musically and sonically.

Michael Fremer  |  Aug 01, 2005  |  0 comments

The South African trumpet and flugelhorn player Hugh Masekela first became known to American audiences as a pop star with his 1968 hit “Grazing in the Grass.” He played trumpet on The Byrds' hit “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star,” and among audiophiles, his song “Stimela (Coaltrain),” recorded live, is a sonic standout as well as an inspiring track.

Michael Fremer  |  Aug 01, 2005  |  0 comments

Duke Ellington in a hard charging trio session may surprise some listeners expecting the Duke's usual light touch. Spurred on by Charles Mingus's angry plucks and Max Roach's polyrhythms, Ellington hits the keyboard harder than usual, punctuating his flourishes with greater dynamic gusto than one hears on his big band recordings.

Michael Fremer  |  Aug 01, 2005  |  2 comments

There were good reasons British blues musicians like the original Peter Green led Fleetwood Mac or blues influenced ones like The Rolling Stones wanted to record in Chess's legendary Ter-Mar Studios in Chicago. One, of course, was the possibility of jamming with blues legends like Willie Dixon, Otis Spann, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolk and, well, you can run down the names yourself, including “Guitar Buddy,” what Buddy Guy had to be called due to contractual obligations. The other reason is to get that fabulous Ter-Mar Sound, which The Stones managed to do on some of their earlier albums.

Michael Fremer  |  Aug 01, 2005  |  0 comments

As you'll read in James Lyons's Iiner notes for this disc, Respighi was a nostalgic artist who preferred the melodic, romantic music of a bygone era to the atonal, serial, avante-garde constructions popular when these retro-impressionistic compositions were written in 1927.

Michael Fremer  |  Jun 01, 2005  |  0 comments

Having licked his wounds and moped us into a melancholic swoon on the sumptuous sounding break-up album Sea Change, Beck casts off his blues and self absorbed ballads, puts his ears to the ground and, reunited with Mike Simpson and John King (a/k/a The Dust Brothers), comes up with an Odelay style, beat based musical mélange sure to please fans.

Michael Fremer  |  Jun 01, 2005  |  1 comments

Johnny Shines labored long and unfairly in the shadow of Robert Johnson, who he'd met and traveled with briefly, shortly before the blues legend's death. Like Johnson, Shines was a genuine country-bred Delta bluesman. Even when he moved to the city, he retained his rural sound.

Brent Raynor  |  Jun 01, 2005  |  1 comments

1969 Velvet Underground Live (Mercury SRM 2-7504) starts off with Lou Reed talking up the crowd for a minute and a half before even starting “Waiting For My Man”.  He asks the crowd if they have a curfew, if they prefer one long set or two sets: “Whichever makes it easier for you”.  He encourages the handful of fans to “Settle back, pull up [their] cushions…and whatever else you have with you that makes life bearable in Texas,” and even mentions how the Cowboys killed the Eagles earlier in the day.  Pretty standard pre-show preamble—yet completely bereft of the ego-adrenaline fueled yawp of, say, “Hello Cleveland” that Spinal Tap made famous and that Van Halen apparently took as gospel.


I nearly lost my best friend in one of the worst taping accidents ever. Lending him my copy of 1969... to dupe for a much anticipated road trip, I was mortified when upon pushing it into the Blaupunkt that it went straight into song.  When I questioned (alright, interrogated) him, his response was: “I wanna hear tunes, not some schlep talk about football.” 


Suffice it to say, things were never the same between us again, and after losing him to the great Guns N’ Roses-Nirvana wars (he fought for the Axl of Evil) of the early nineties, we lost touch altogether.  However sad, and even true this story is, it proves that along with religion and politics, one should not discuss the Velvet Underground.


Bright Eyes, however, is a different story.  Conor Oberst is the petite protagonist of the piece in question, and for all intents, he is Bright Eyes.  What greets your ears when you drop the needle in the groove (or, ahem…push play) is not music at all, but the groggy voice of a young man who coolly sips at a glass of what I hope is water, and who proceeds to tell a story of a woman flying on a plane to see her fiancé.  After a futile attempt to converse with a fellow passenger, she reads an article about a third world country she can’t even pronounce to fight the boredom. Suddenly, an engine gives out and as the plane plummets towards the ocean, she asks the silent passenger where they are going.  His response is that they are going to a party: a birthday party—her birthday party, and that they all love her very, very, very much.


Just as with that Velvet Underground album, many a soul will be tempted to pass over the prose and get right into the lead song, “At The Bottom Of Everything.” A mistake really, as his rambling offers an important introduction to the piece you’re about to hear.  Indeed, it sets the tone and feel of the entire album, and is not some exercise in self-indulgent fulfillment, but an odd statement of purpose that makes the album wholly complete and understandable in such a way that you end up wishing it hadn’t.  Listening to I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is like stealing someone’s micro-tape recorder cassettes that have been filled up with disturbing thoughts and observations that are so personal you can’t help but to feel ashamed as you listen from the confines of a locked washroom stall.  Like our recent voyeuristic-fetish fascination with “Reality TV,”  I’m Wide Awake evokes the feeling of a guilty pleasure.


The album is as New York as anything by Paul Simon or Lou Reed, but from the perspective of a transplanted Nebraskan who’s young enough to feel he can change the world, but wise enough to know he can’t.  He’s lovelorn and fragile, melancholically sedated yet hopeful in his new land of child prostitutes, drugs, and neon signs that call to him in a language he vaguely understands.  Yet at the end of day “it all boils down to one quotable phrase: if you love something give it away.” That line, from “Landlocked Blues”, can almost be seen as a signifier for the entire album—that he is in the excruciatingly painful limbo of awaiting the second half of that quotable phrase: if it truly loves you, it will come back.


The songs are wonderfully recorded with spare, mostly acoustic accompaniment that features: mandolin, vibraphone, trumpet, and pedal steel to round out the guitar, drums, and bass that typify the alt. folk sound that Conor Oberst has come to represent.  So affecting is his voice (delicate and nasally soft yet with an ability to scream out lyrics like he just punctured a lung), that combined with his lilting arrangements, it took me a while to realize the woman harmonizing with him on three of the tracks was indeed Emmylou Harris.  No small feat considering the impact her voice can impart on a song, and doubly so considering I’m a die-hard Gram Parsons fan who after many years still sheds a tear every time I hear “A Song For You” and “Love Hurts.” It’s a refreshingly uncompressed sounding album that has a live-in-the-studio type feel to it, with cracked vocals and bum notes (however few and far between) left on for time to judge; and for audiophiles to drool over as they call up their friends to see if they too heard the cough on track three coming from the left speaker that is undoubtedly to be blamed on that damn pedal steel player.


Yet for all the audio-knobery (an affectation, I promise) and great melodies this album offers, it’s Conor Oberst’s ability to express dark feelings that every human at one point in their lives has felt that makes him so engagingly endearing.  It’s not some gloomfest, “my world is falling apart at the seams” type diatribe going on here, but rather a heart- felt outpouring of emotions that most of us are too self-conscious and ashamed to verbalize in any real way lest we be seen as abnormal and weak that sets this album apart from others; that more often than not come off as self-serving and contrived.  Oberst has had enough of, to quote Modest Mouse mainman Isaac Brock, "that Mad Max bullshit,” and has in the process served up a platter that almost approaches Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks in transcendental- soul scouring- scope and complexity.