A Collection of New Vinyl Releases - February, 2009

Neil Young & Crazy Horse Crazy Horse at the Fillmore 1970 • Reprise

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New Vinyl Releases

Neil Young has been making music for well past 40 years now. His catalog is extensive. His disdain for his labels' expectations is legendary. The man was sued by his own company for making records that didn't sound like Neil Young. His live setlists are frequently populated by songs that the casual fan has never heard. His concept albums have been brilliant (see "Tonight's the Night") & confusing (witness "Greendale"). His next release is rumored to be an album about an electric car. I'm serious.

Neil seems to make music to entertain himself and his audience can either take the ride in the electric car or walk. His most loyal fans find this trait endearing while his more casual followers seem to think he's just lost it. His body of work, like Dylan's, is so vast that he's bound to have some inconsistencies. Luckily, Neil Young rolls tape every time he plays. All of his concerts, practices and studio sessions over the last few decades have been recorded. Even better, he is digging into his vaults and releasing all of what he feels is worth hearing. This is a project that he began in the 1980's, and we are finally starting to reap the rewards of his labor. Hallelujah!

Neil seems to know what his audience wants whether he cares or not. The first installment in the "Performance Series Archives" is from 1970, and features his long-time backing band Crazy Horse. These guys may not be the most accomplished musicians, but they know how to rock and that's all this set needs. It's the original Crazy Horse too, which means that Danny Whitten is featured prominently on guitar and vocals. There aren't a lot of songs on this set (six), but the selection is unimpeachable and the performance is otherworldly. It kicks off with "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," and never lets up.

Many of the songs have slightly different arrangements than their studio equivalents. Whitten takes the lead vocals on "Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown," and the lyrics are altered too. The band is given two epic numbers to spread out ("Down By The River" and "Cowgirl In The Sand"), and the results will amaze you. Whitten could have been a star in his own right, and the guitar machine that he and Neil build will blow your mind. It's the simplest formula, but one that I can rarely find in newer acts. This show could be used as a template by any band that's interested in playing rock and roll with no gimmicks or pageantry.

The quality of the vinyl on this release is everything that you would expect from a man who has refused to put out some of his earlier work on CD due to inferior sound quality. I mean, it's pristine. Perfect pressings on 200-gram vinyl. The depth of sound is extraordinary. I feel like I was there, and my parents had never even met at the time of recording. The liner notes are scant, but the interior of the gatefold has an article praising Crazy Horse's performance, and panning the opening act. Something about a boring quintet of jazz musicians led by a guy named Miles...

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds "Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!" • Anti- Records

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I don't know very much about Nick Cave, & what I do know isn't very useful. For instance, I know that I'm always confusing him with Nick Drake. (It's the similarity in their names that throws me - not their music.) I know that he was singing in a bar in a movie I saw last year wherein Brad Pitt played the famous outlaw Jesse James. And I know that I have a friend in New York City that wants to marry him. She can't though because he's married to some type of model-lady. (I guess I know more than I thought.)

So, I picked up "Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!" based on my friend's recommendation. I noticed, right away, that the folks at Anti- Records put the album out. That label has turned out some really great material recently by some other artists that I really admire. People with names like Tom Waits and Bettye LaVette. Their roster seems to be a little bit left of center, generally speaking, and that's where I tend to find what I like most frequently. These aren't the types of folks that normally get a lot of radio airplay (though LaVette was nominated for a Grammy as a result of her collaboration with the Drive-By Truckers), but there's not a lot happening on the radio now anyway, is there?

Just as I suspected, this isn't your run of the mill offering by your garden variety singer-songwriter. You realize that from the first strains of the title track which begins the record. But this doesn't even seem like a record, really. It seems more like a theatrical production. There's a story in there somewhere, but I don't have the attention span to follow it. It seems that Cave's stand-in for Lazarus is named Larry, and he moves from New York to San Francisco. He has some kind of freak-out, gets really famous, and ends up back in NYC in a soup line. (I think that's the gist of it, anyway.) There are other characters too. Albert and Janie come to mind, but I can't quite figure out what they're up to. They seem to be having a real good time. I don't really have another artist to compare Cave to either. He is obviously very literate. He's been doing this for quite a long time without benefit of a radio hit so he's clearly quite crafty too.

His band, the Bad Seeds, is competent and not overwhelming. The production isn't watered down with a lot of extra nonsense either. Every instrument is very discernible in the mix. No filler and no fluff. The choruses often sound like sea shanties. Pirates come to mind. Maybe I'm crazy. But the overall effect is something that sticks with you all day. You recognize the songs immediately during the second listen even if you don't know their titles. Kind of like people that you met once after a couple of drinks, and then you run into them again somewhere else a couple of weeks later. The organ is a prevalent instrument throughout, and it adds a spooky sort of ambience to the proceedings. I like it more and more with every listen.

Oddly, the LP version comes with a 45 RPM record too. You would think that this would be a bonus track, but it's part of the original release. (I know this because the vinyl comes with a coupon for a digital download of the entire album.) The digital track is called "More News From Nowhere." Side A of the 45 is called "News From Nowhere," and Side B is called "More News From Nowhere." The song fades out on the first side and picks right back up on the other side. It means a little extra flipping of records and switching things around, but I don't need a lot of excuses to hang out and fiddle with my turntable. I do it all the time...

Jenny Lewis "Acid Tongue" • Warner Bros.

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New Vinyl Releases

There's a lot to talk about when it comes to Jenny Lewis. You could talk about her as a member of indie-rock darlings, Rilo Kiley. You could talk about how she got her start in the entertainment industry as a child actor in a Jell-O commercial. You could talk about how she has appeared with Maude and the gang on "Golden Girls" or Bob Uecker and company on "Mr. Belvedere." You could talk about the role call of current heavyweights on her latest solo offering, "Acid Tongue." For that matter, you could talk about how she named her latest offering "Acid Tongue."

All I can think to talk about when it comes to Jenny Lewis is her voice. It's big. It calls to mind an old, overused saying from my youth. One that people used to say to me when it became apparent that I was never going to get much taller than I was when I was ten. Something about how dynamite comes in small packages... Lewis can tackle gospel, country, folk, and barroom rock with equal aplumb. She often does exactly that - sometimes within the framework of a single song. I'm not sure that it's always necessary, but it sure is fun.

As I mentioned, "Acid Tongue" benefits from a heady roster of contributors like M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel, Chris Robinson (of Black Crowes fame), and Elvis Costello. It's amusing to hear these artists outside the context of their more familiar roles, but no one on this album upstages or even approaches Lewis's performance. One listen to "Black Sand," "Pretty Bird" or "Bad Man's World" and you're haunted for the rest of your day. These songs, specifically, are laid-back groovers which feature Lewis's iron pipes with minimal accompaniment. By contrast, "The Next Messiah" has a full choir and multiple sections that are more of a mosaic than a melting pot. The various "movements" within this tune don't seem to be connected in any way, and I tend to think that Lewis could have made two or three compelling songs out of the ideas contained in this one track. Then again, it's her piece and she has given herself plenty of room to explore the range of her art over the course of this nine minute event. "Carpetbagger" (a duet with Elvis Costello) is a pure slice of Americana which would not be out of place on a Steve Earle album while "See Fernando" is a slide guitar driven rave-up that counts as the album's only misfire in my opinion. There's nothing offensive about it - I just don't think it measures up to the songwriting on the rest of the album.

The LP version of this recording is presented on high quality, heavy vinyl. It's actually a three-sided affair which I found interesting. (The fourth side has an etching on it explaining that it is not to be played.) The records are housed in a gatefold cover and the package includes a CD version of the entire recording. I enjoy having the digital version of "Acid Tongue" with me when I travel, but I get the most out of it when I'm at home with my record player. The piano sounds warmer and that voice of hers has even more humanity within it. I look forward to seeing her live one of these days. That, as they say, will be the final frontier...

Radiohead The Bends • Capitol Records

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I have a problem. I assume that any new music that is popular on the radio must suck. I've been this way for a while. I mean, you have to be pretty much everywhere (think "Living the Vida Loca") for me to even be aware of you at this point. I may know your name, but I have successfully avoided the radio and cable television like the plague for the better part of fifteen years now, and I couldn't be happier about it. My syndrome typically serves me well, but every once in a while I miss something valuable. I missed Nirvana during their heyday. Kurt Cobain had been gone for some time when I finally got around to listening to their "Unplugged" album. (I may never have known what I was missing were it not for their cover of Bowie's "The Man Who Sold The World.") I missed Radiohead, too. I still haven't caught up on their catalog, but I did pick up "The Bends" recently, and I'm a better man for it.

From what I can gather, "The Bends" didn't have any chart-topping singles like "Creep" (which I was completely unaware of) from Radiohead's debut album "Pablo Honey." It seems to have flown in under the radar in the U.S. while reaching number four in the band's native U.K. That's no surprise considering TLC and Bryan Adams were dominating the American charts in April of 1995. It's a bit of a shame though because "The Bends" is a really catchy record with a few really good songs. It hasn't changed my world, but it's given me a sense of nostalgia about an era that I never knew I missed.

"Planet Telex" gets things started on an upbeat note & segues nicely with the title track before the band weighs in with "High and Dry." I imagine the latter song would not have been out of place on a show like "The OC." That's unfortunate because the first two numbers are rockers that have held up quite nicely over the last fourteen years. Jon Greenwood's guitar work is prominently featured, and this is a good thing. The guy has a talent which first came to my attention while I was watching the 2007 film, "There Will Be Blood." Something besides Daniel Day-Lewis's performance was warping my mind pretty badly, and I figured out about halfway through the movie that it was Greenwood's score.

The guy has some interesting musical ideas and I'll be curious to see how they have evolved over the years when I check out the rest of the band's catalog. "Just" is another standout track that I'm actually somewhat familiar with if only because of some horrible remix that I hear occasionally at the gym. Lead singer Thom Yorke's falsetto is nowhere to be found on this one. The song gets by the old fashioned way: with killer guitar parts and catchy choruses. Overall, I'd say "The Bends" is a really strong record from a group that was well on it's way to becoming the biggest band in all the land. There is nothing that particularly jumps out at you about the vinyl presentation on this one, but it has to be as good a place as any to start if you're looking for an entry into this band's body of work. It worked for me anyway and I'm at least fifteen years behind schedule...

Dusty Springfield Dusty In Memphis • Atlantic Reissue: 4 Men With Beards

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Dusty Springfield has a voice that's not hard to spot. It's as distinctive as any of the old soul greats. You realize you're hearing Dusty almost before you can consciously articulate the thought. I don't know who coined the term "blue-eyed soul," but I do know that I think of Dusty Springfield every time I hear it. I'd have to look at Springfield and Bonnie Bramlett as the only two white classic female soul singers. (Bramlett was, in fact, the only white member of the Ikettes who backed up Ike and Tina Turner.) But Springfield's voice lends itself less to Bramlett's rock aesthetic, and fits in quite nicely with the lush string and horn arrangements on her classic, "Dusty In Memphs."

We all know "Son of a Preacher Man," and for good reason. It's a truly great sounding song with all of the elements of a classic soul single. It's a little like "Stairway To Heaven" (bare with me on this one) in that we've all heard it so many times that it's tough to tell if we even like it, now. "Stairway" is undoubtedly an unbelievable tune, but it would never occur to me to walk over to my stereo and put it on. Someone somewhere is going to put it on for me soon enough anyway, right? I have a similar reaction to "Preacher Man," and it's easy to forget that it came off of a legitimately great album. Quentin Tarrantino might have you think it was a single written for his most popular film, but "Dusty In Memphis" is a classic in it's own right and sits securely in many "Best Ever" lists.

None of the other tracks jump out at me the way "Preacher Man" does, but the entire album bleeds into itself and rolls over you like one long, beautiful, and intense work of art. There are orchestral swells that bring the emotional cheesiness out of the most devoted rocker. The background vocals, by The Sweet Inspirations, carried plenty of weaker albums on their own. Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd's production is legendary. And Dusty's voice is at the front of it all. Clear as a bell when needed, and able to break right on cue for heightened effect. Dusty performs the work of some of the industry's heaviest characters of the time - Randy Newman, Carole King, Burt Bacharach - and makes every song her own. Her version of Eddie Hinton's "Breakfast In Bed" could have been the biggest hit on most any other rhythm and blues album.

The original recording was released on Atlantic Records much like a lot of the soul hits of that era. San Francisco's 4 Men With Beards has done an admirable job with the reissue, and they put their own logo right on the front of the album cover to let you know it. (My copy was scuffed before I peeled off the wrapper. I don't know who to thank for that.) Stanley Booth's liner notes are faithfully included on the back, and they provide an interesting look at the prevailing sentiment towards Springfield's work in 1969. There seems to have been some concern as to whether or not Dusty's proficiency with ballads would match up well with the famous Memphis rhythm section. Can you imagine?