Pittsburgh Union of Record Geeks electronic

Monday, July 17, 2006

Minutemen- Double Nickels On the Dime (1984)

This is my favorite album to play when it's hot out.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Mickey Newbury- ‘Frisco Mabel Joy (1971)

This is perhaps the most enigmatic album I’ve ever come across. I had heard about if for years, mostly in the same breath as Red Headed Stranger, Honky Tonk Heroes and the other classics of Outlaw Country. So when I finally got a copy and popped it in the stereo, I though maybe the drug-addled goon at the used store had slipped me the wrong disc. This album lies far off the beaten path that connects Nashville and Luckenbach.

First, the dominant sonic element (other than Newbury’s remarkable voice, which I’ll get to later) is what sounds like a blaring synthesizer, or perhaps it’s an air raid siren rigged to vaguely mimic a string section. If this wasn’t so unusual it would probably be unbearable. It seems to mask a horn section and maybe even some real strings in places. It’s weird and it’s stark and it’s haunting. But then so are the songs.

You may be familiar with the leadoff track, “An American Trilogy,” as a staple of Elvis’ latter day Vegas stage show. It’s the one where the King bellows lines from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and sprays sweat into the cheap seats. How Basically an embarrassing spectacle. In Newbury’s hands, it’s something completely different.

There’s not a lot of ambiguity to “The Battle Hymn,” nor “Dixie,” one of the other two traditional numbers Newbury melds together. But you get the feeling that Newbury is singing about something completely different than what’s in the lyrics. Something that’s gone, probably forever. Longing and despair are thick in his voice.

But this isn’t Johnny Cash’s longing and despair. Newbury sounds more like Steve Marriott than anyone you’d see on the Opry stage, veering from sinewy whisper to wailing cry. It’s nothing short of incredible.

There are certainly traditional country elements evident in Newbury’s songwriting throughout. “The Future’s Not What It Used To Be” could have gotten some play in a honky tonk in a more mainstream incarnation, and “Mobile Blue” is a gritty country rocker where Newbury sings like a more authentic John Fogerty.

But the songs where he writhes in pain are the clear strength of this album. “You’re Not the Same Sweet Baby” and “Swiss Cottage Place” are so good they’re almost tough to listen to.

“How I Love Them Old Songs,” a sprightly number that is the last song listed on the sleeve, makes you think that Newbury gave you the bad news first. But the rain isn’t over yet. Literally. The sounds of a thunder storm lead into a reprise of “San Francisco Mabel Joy,” a song from Newbury’s previous album, “Looks Like Rain,” which apparently inspired this album’s seemingly loose concept. Newbury picks you up with “Old Songs” only to make the unexpected fall even harder.

There are songs that can bring a tear to your eye, but this could be the only one I’ve ever heard where the despair is so palpable that you will be left simply staring, mouth agape, into the darkness Newbury has created. And that’s really how the story ends.

This is a remarkable album, but not an easy one. And as I’m sure Newbury would attest, it never gets any easier.

Gram Parsons- The Complete Reprise Sessions (2006)

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard these records (Gram’s two solo albums, GP and Grievous Angel), a million times. You’re probably used to the old Reprise two-on-one CD. And there’s really no reason for them not to be packaged that way except to take your money. But whatever. Gram Parsons is a legend and a god, and these remastered discs do add clarity to the timeless voices of Gram and Emmylou and the playing of their crackerjack band. The gatefold cover of the GP disc is cool, too, but you probably have the lp already anyway.

Like I said, you probably already know all about these albums, and everything that can be said about them has already been said. A lot of it was probably a little generous in its praise, as these records (I’m sorry) are not the be all and end all of American roots music. They don’t hold a candle to Gram’s best work on The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo or The Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Palace of Sin, and they have some weak moments.

GP’s leadoff track “Still Feeling Blue” is pure country-rock gold, and “A Song for You” is beautiful, but “She” and “The New Soft Shoe” border on just plain boring; Emmylou’s soaring vocal barely saves country standard “That’s All It Took” from the same fate; and the cover of the J. Geils Band’s (?) “Cry One More Time” and Gram’s own “Big Mouth Blues” fall somewhere between middling and uncomfortable.

Grievous Angel is stronger from beginning to end, even remarkable in places. The leadoff “Return of the Grievous Angel” is one of best songs ever written/sung/played and “$1,000 Wedding” is perhaps Parsons’ most fully realized composition. The Parsons/Harris duet on “Love Hurts” deserves the acclaim it receives. But while Tom T. Hall’s “I Can’t Dance” may have been a barnburner live it doesn’t really fit here, though more than the original “Ooh Las Vegas.”

None of this is to say that either of these albums is anything less than essential, or that I wouldn’t shell out top dollar for anything Gram’s voice appears on.

The third disc of alternate takes is like most discs of alternate takes. It’s clear a lot of the time why these takes were not committed to vinyl, as Gram, Emmy, and the band feel their way through the songs. More than most artists, though, Gram occasionally provides a reward in this format. His voice is such that even a different inflection or emphasis on a word or syllable can add something new to even the most familiar song. Most of all on these takes, though, an accomplished backing band featuring legendary guitarist James Burton stands out on the looser early takes.

The third disc also has two essential outtakes from Grievous Angel, covers of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s “Sleepless Nights” and The Louvin Brothers’ “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night.” Of course, you may have already had these on a previous high priced Rhino compilation (Grrrr).

But, hey, it’s Gram. It’s worth it.

The Move- Shazam (1970)

This album splits the difference between Pet Sounds and Black Sabbath to near perfection. Can’t imagine what that would sound like? Well, familiarity with The Move’s earlier cornucopia of classic psych-pop singles won’t make it any easier. This record was a major departure for the band, right from usually soulful pop crooner Carl Wayne’s rasping howl on the opening punk precursor “Hello, Suzie.” Fans of the time (likely British, as none of the group’s singles made the charts here) may have recovered from their shock with the second track—the beautiful, acoustic-based “Beautiful Daughter”—but were thrown for another loop by “Cherry Blossom Clinic Revisited,” a reprise of the closing track of the band’s classic debut lp. Formerly a 2½ minute pop nugget, the song is transformed into an nearly 8 minute epic whose complex twists and turns reflect its topic—mental illness.

While mastermind Roy Wood’s gift for pop songcraft is less evident on the longer, structured tracks that make up the rest of the album than on the band’s earlier work, his gifted vision is still clear. His acoustic and electric guitars and occasional keyboard flourish blend perfectly—as do the delightful shrieks of his well-placed vocal parts with Wayne’s far more conventional style. The shifting tempos and varying structures that occur within each track take place effortlessly and ensure that the listener doesn’t drift away when the band stretches it out.

Which is a good thing, as the songs only get longer.

“Fields of People,” which surpasses 10 minutes, is a flower power anthem a couple years past due, complete with its Eastern-tinged coda. The closing track, a version of the Tom Paxton standard “The Last Thing On My Mind,” could have been created in a West Coast ballroom rather than a British recording studio. Perhaps it was, as the The Move was unafraid to wear its American influences on its sleeve, but the band turns in a convincing rendition of a tune nearly everyone has covered.

Throughout the album, newly arrived bassist Rick Price and drummer Bev Bevan provide an awe-inspiring rhythm section and lay the foundation for the proto-metal direction the band would embrace (with mixed results) on its next album, “Looking On,” released later in the year. And Wayne’s man-in-the-street interviews with passers by on the state of British pop—interspersed between and even into the songs—are amusing as well.

It’s hard to say that this album is better than the group’s first collection of gems, but this is truly a horse of a different color and—rather than simply collecting songs—brings diverse styles and influences together in the context of one very talented band. This set is unfortunately overlooked in the pantheon of British rock classics, as is The Move itself as both a force in ‘60s pop and a stylistic influence as the ‘70s dawned. Shazam came at a crossroads for The Move and for rock, and consequently there are not many other albums quite like it.