Staff Picks: Music
I have this weird passion for obscure, offbeat Christmas recordings. Bing Crosby and Paul McCartney are all well and good, but how about Jimi Hendrix playing “Little Drummer Boy?” Well, at least you’re on the right track. Or how about Robert Fripp doing “Silent Night” ala Frippertronics (yes, I mean the old school red flexi disc)? You’re getting there. Or… how about The Residents’ original “Santa Dog” single?? Now, that’s what I’m talkin’ about. The weirder, the better.
But truth be known, the lighter new agey type of ambient instrumental holiday stuff… you know, solo guitar, solo piano, acoustic ensembles… is one of my many guilty pleasures (don’t tell anybody, ok?). I have lots, but there’s always room for more. So that’s where this week’s Friends Finds come in. Of just that sort, I managed to grab a fresh copy of Ottmar Liebert’s Poet & Angels (1990) on Higher Octave. And what would the acoustic holidays be without the stuff on Windham Hill(?), so I snagged a couple of seasonal samplers that I didn’t have… A Winter Solstice Reunion (1998) with all the label regulars… Will Ackerman, Darol Anger, Liz Story, etc.; and Winter Wonderland (1999), a more mainstream but still likeable compilation with David Arkenstone, Alex de Grassi, Tuck & Patti, and others. At a buck apiece, I couldn’t go wrong.
And just to satisfy my need for “the road less traveled,” I also grabbed a copy of the Roches’ We Three Kings (1994) on Rykodisc. (Actually, it’s not weird at all… the Roche sisters are amazing.) And the best part is, there are plenty more where those came from (in fact, there’s a whole cart full!). So stock up, the holidays are coming!
Consider this little series my own version of “Flea Market Finds,” an ongoing report of the latest bargains unearthed in the lower level of Central Library. What a treasure we have (quite literally) in the Friends Bookstore. When you can grab high quality books, music, and movies for little more than pocket change, life is good. And all the proceeds go to a great cause, too. So shop often; you never know what you’ll find. And stay tuned… I’ll let you know what I find!
Even the most diehard music aficionados probably couldn’t tell you who Bill Fay was up until a month ago (I certainly couldn’t), before he and his music began to pop up in places like Mojo Magazine and NPR. Fay is a British singer-songwriter who comes from a long and storied list of forgotten or historically marginalized musicians whose little known work grew out of the legitimating influence of the artist appreciation network. This is how it works: the cult legend finds a famous rock-star like Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy (Tweedy has covered Fay’s songs in the past) to provide you a song of his own that you can cover (Jesus Etc.) and duet with him on your long awaited, comeback album. Your street cred will blow up and your Youtube hits will soar because of everyone wanting to go back in time (or at least to the internet) to listen to all of those great songs that you wrote that everyone had originally forsaken at the time of their release.
Fay’s early 70’s albums sound eerily like a melodic fusion of Dylan (if he played piano) and Wilco’s more plaintive tunes. They tend to be somewhat downbeat and often echo the sound of a lost but brilliant soul trying to stay true to his art while the music industry closes its door on his vision. Fay’s new album Life is People is worth a listen and has a much more upbeat vibe to it than his brooding material from long ago. Here is Fay's heartbreaking rendition of the Wilco song.
Life is people
Richie Furay’s 2006 release, The Heartbeat of Love, was this week’s worthwhile find at the Friends Bookstore. Ten tunes written by Richie and Scott Sellen, plus two old Poco standbys, performed with help from a bunch of familiar friends; Timothy B. Schmidt, Neil Young, Kenny Loggins, Paul Cotton, Sam Bush, Stephen Stills, and others. No new musical territory here; just a worthwhile batch of nicely executed Southern California country rock tunes. If you ever spin the likes of Poco, Buffalo Springfield, Eagles, or Loggins & Messina, this would fit right in. And it even came packaged in a nifty hardbound mini-book – definitely a worthwhile find!
Consider this little series the KPL equivalent of “Flea Market Finds,” an ongoing report of the latest bargains unearthed in the lower level of Central Library. What a treasure we have (quite literally) in the Friends Bookstore. When you can grab high quality books, music, and movies for little more than pocket change, life is good. And all the proceeds go to a great cause, too. So shop often; you never know what you’ll find. And stay tuned… I’ll let you know what I find!
Heartbeat of Love
There’s a lot to dislike about the 1970’s including bell bottoms, a gas shortage, and poorly managed sideburns to name but a few but musically speaking, the radio has never been as varied as it was during this decade that saw the birth of punk, progressive rock, disco, Philly soul, funk, and a slew of fantastic singer songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Nick Drake, Harry Nilsson, Billy Joel, Carol King and Elton John. One of the least recognized legends of the Nashville music scene of the early seventies was Mickey Newbury, whose contributions to Outlaw Country is well documented on Drag City’s recently released An American Trilogy. Like Townes Van Zandt, Newbury’s fans have mostly been fellow musicians who revere his beautifully crafted songs. Those who sing his praise include Will Oldham, Kris Kristofferson and Steve Earle. Known as the first “Hippy-Cowboy”, Newbury bucked the Nashville music establishment by doing things his way. He found little commercial success for his recording of the seventies but critics have long praised his touching ballads and lyrical writing. Those who have sung and recorded Mickey Newbury penned songs include Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, Roy Orbison, David Allan Coe, Willie Nelson and many more.
An American Trilogy
Josh T. Pearson’s stark country-folk album The Last of the Country Gentlemen is a plaintive and personal work that calls to mind the rustic laments of down-and-out troubadours like Townes Van Zandt. Pearson’s approach is to lift the veil on his bittersweet melancholia with a pained voice and delicate finger plucking of his acoustic guitar, drawing in the listener to his raw confessions on love, loss and redemption.
The Last of the Country Gentlemen
“Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” —Robert Hunter, ca. 1974
Advertisements in Rolling Stone for the double live “Steal Your Face” album proclaimed, “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.” I also remember reading an article in one of the hi-fi magazines at the time about the Grateful Dead’s famous “wall of sound” state-of-the-art concert sound system. While I might have been a bit too young to have seen the Grateful Dead during the hippie heyday of the late 1960s, I made it a goal to attend at least one of their shows during my lifetime. That goal was realized a few years later in 1979.
In the years that followed, I was fortunate enough to see the original band four times, a somewhat modest record when compared to some, I realize. (I know people who saw them play hundreds of times!) Indeed, there was always something special about seeing the Grateful Dead play live, especially out-of-doors during the summer. The sets were leisurely, and unlike most typical rock concerts, each event carried with it a unique “festival” atmosphere.
Sadly, those days are gone. Since Jerry Garcia’s passing in 1995, remaining band members have made several respectable attempts to carry on in various incarnations. While these projects are fresh and interesting, the era of the original band has clearly passed.
Yet, there are times when the music of the Grateful Dead is still the perfect complement to a warm summer afternoon with a cold beverage, and thankfully the legacy of those spectacular live shows lives on through an impressive collection of recordings. Even though the band only released a dozen studio albums during the course of its thirty year career, listeners are blessed with a plethora of live recordings—nine “traditional” live albums, more than a dozen concert films and videos, plus more than a hundred official archive releases (not to mention the many thousands of amateur recordings from the famous band-approved taper’s sections.)
KPL provides a generous cross section of the Grateful Dead story; in print, on film, and on record. Several books in the collection document the life and times of the band and its various members. Of particular note are Searching for the Sound : My Life with the Grateful Dead by bassist Phil Lesh, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead by Dennis McNally, and Jerilyn Lee Brandelius’ Grateful Dead Family Album. Films include The Grateful Dead Movie (a film version of 1974 “Steal Your Face” tour), and a pair of View from the Vault releases, documenting the band’s 1990 appearances at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh and Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California. For listeners, the collection includes decent retrospectives like Flashback with the Grateful Dead, The Very Best of the Grateful Dead, and Skeletons from the Closet. You’ll even find an archival release of a concert at the famous Fillmore East in 1969. “What a long strange trip it’s been.”
The Grateful Dead
I love to make music mixes for my friends. When I can get the response, “Wow I never would have listened to that song if it wasn’t on the mix you made me,” I feel like I have done my part to push good music out into the world. My seven year old daughter considers a good mix one in which you can roll down the windows and turn up the volume. Below is a playlist that consists of what I feel are the best tracks of the first six months of 2011. Mix it up and roll down your windows.
1. Weekend by Smith Westerns (Dye It Blonde)
2. Take Me Over by Cut Copy (Zonoscope)
3. Rolling In The Deep by Adele (21)
4. Sad Song by The Cars (Move Like This)
5. Discoverer by R.E.M. (Collapse Into Now)
6. Me, Me, Me by Middle Brother (Middle Brother)
7. Make Some Noise by The Beastie Boys (Hot Sauce Committee Part Two)
8. Dig A Little Deeper by Peter Bjorn and John (Gimme Some)
9. Don’t Carry It All by The Decemberists (The King Is Dead)
10. Barton Hollow by The Civil Wars (Barton Hollow)
11. Sim Sala Bim by Fleet Foxes (Helplessness Blues)
12. Shadow of Love by Sloan (The Double Cross)
13. Helena Beat by Foster the People (Foster the People)
14. If I Wanted Someone by Dawes (Nothing Is Wrong)
15. Future Starts Now by The Kills (Blood Pressures)
16. Till I Get There by Lupe Fiasco (Lasers)
17. Damn These Vampires by The Mountain Goats (All Eternals Deck)
I've discovered some of my favorite music and artists from watching television. When songs play in the background or at the start or end of a show, I often search for the lyrics online to find the name of the song and the performing artist. This has served me well. House and Fringe (as well as various commercials) have provided insight to artists and performers such as Massive Attack, Damien Rice, Editors, Langhorne Slim, and Ryan Adams.
When watching a recent episode of NCIS, Cote de Pablo's character, Ziva David, was singing Temptation--a Tom Waits creation. So, in true form, I went online to search for it to see where I could find a version of her singing it (beautiful rendition!). And, that is when I found that NCIS has two soundtracks available. I was able to easily check these two CDs out through our MeL interlibrary loan system.
While I recognized artists such as Jakob Dylan, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Keaton Simmons, Sheryl Crow and Norah Jones, I was able to add artists such as Oasis, Blue October, and Sharon Little to my list of new folks to investigate.
NCIS: The Official TV Soundtrack
The latest release from Emmylou Harris (her 21st studio album) is a collection of heartfelt tales of love and tragedy; stories about lost friends, family and deep-seated faith. Recorded in the home studio of her producer Jay Joyce, the production is lush and spacious, and her signature voice shines as always. The sound very much recalls the atmospheric feel of her work with Daniel Lanois, which is amazing considering that only three musicians play on the record; Harris, Joyce (guitars and keyboards), and drummer/keyboardist Giles Reeves.
Ms. Harris penned eleven of the thirteen songs herself (unusual since she’s only ever recorded a handful her own songs), but she includes a couple of tasty covers here, too... “Cross Yourself” is written by Joyce and the title tune is by Canadian singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith. Emmylou says that she finds songwriting difficult, but honestly, she should do more of it—her writing is articulate and her songs are genuine.
Standouts for me include the album opener, “The Road,” a fond remembrance of her early years with Gram Parsons. (If you’re quick, you can still grab a free download of this song on Emmylou’s website.) “Darlin’ Kate” is a tribute to her close friend Kate McGarrigle, who recently died of cancer. “My Name is Emmett Till” recalls the story of a 14-year-old African-American boy who was brutally murdered in 1950s, and considers “all that might have come” had he been allowed to live. “The Ship on His Arm” explores the life and love that her parents perhaps shared during the Second World War, while “Goodnight Old World” (written with longtime Steve Winwood collaborator Will Jennings) hopes for a better world for newer generations (Harris recently became a grandmother).
Like a glass of Pinot and a nap in the sun, Emmylou’s voice soothes the soul—melancholy never felt so good. Yet after 40 years as a professional musician, 25 albums and a dozen Grammys, she still drives a Hard Bargain.
Emmylou Harris: Hard Bargain
I’ve been listening to the music of Gram Parsons lately since I watched the documentary film Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel. Parsons musical gifts and passion for country and roots music was a major factor in his influencing of such legendary bands as The Rolling Stones and The Byrds. He is cited as the one who helped to usher in the genre of country rock during the late sixties when he worked with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. He later introduced to the musical world a young singer songwriter named Emmylou Harris. Parsons lived fast and died young but he left behind two very strong records, GP and Grievous Angel. If you’re interested in musical documentaries, you may enjoy:
Kurt Cobain: About a Son
The Velvet Underground: Vanishing Point
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould
The Devil and Daniel Johnston
The Heart is a Drum Machine: A Documentary Film About Music
Here is a video clip from the documentary.
GP [sound recording] ; Grievous angel