- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 18 December 2012
The Old '97's "They Made A Monster: The Too Far To Care Demos" Omnivore Recordings
My Guy In Nashville Who Knows Things tried to turn be on to the Old '97's when we were roomies in college, but I couldn't dig it. I felt like my buddy was just into anything that would go "twang" at the time. There were lots of bands going "twang" back then as Uncle Tupelo had kicked the door down and a bunch of jokers rushed in behind them to stake their claim to the burgeoning "alt-country" movement. Or "Americana." Or whatever handle the marketing pros could latch onto to make us all understand that we were hearing music with country leanings. I wouldn't have admitted to listening to country music back then if you had offered me all the moonshine in West Virginia because I equated "Country Music" with "Garth Brooks." But I learned. And I enjoyed the hell out of the Old '97's set that I caught in Golden Gate Park a couple of years ago. So I went back to see what I'd missed. All the way back...
Omnivore Recordings recently reissued what many Old '97's fans consider their watershed, "Too Far To Care." I didn't buy that. I bought the collection of demos that would later become "Too Far To Care." I wanted to get behind the curtain if I could and to see what was happening beneath the fuzz and the fury. And, in so doing, I finally came to see what My Guy In Nashville Who Knows Things saw so long ago. That is this: Rhett Miller is an accomplished songwriter who can express himself quite eloquently with a few simple lines and a guitar that he treats just like a drum. I'm here to tell you that this guy can strum it. I feel like that's actually where the meat of the matter resides on these tracks and I was struck by the same feeling in the Park a while back. Miller's not fancy. He's powerful. He walks a delicate line between camp and candor, but never strays too far towards either side (see "Barrier Reef"). His vocals aren't going to spin your head around, but they fit the mood of his tunes perfectly. There is as much energy and brawn in these performances as you'd expect from a bunch of Texan rockers, but there's precious little electricity to make it fly. These demos get by on the quality of the content alone. No bells. No whistles. Just a guy, his acoustic guitar, and his voice. Almost. There are some harmony vocals throughout and some bass too, but Rhett Miller is the star of this show. I still don't know what it all added up to, but I'd wager that "Too Far To Care" is a twangy good time, and I aim to find out for myself soon enough. I'm famously late. So it goes.
Omnivore did a pretty swell job with this one. They put the yellow album in a nice inner sleeve to avoid scuffing and added a separate inner with the liners and lyrics printed on it. No digital copy of any kind is included with this set. There's no need to get too deep into a sonic exploration as these are, after all, demos. But you can hear the lyrics and you can feel the energy coming through Miller's acoustic guitar. Even I can appreciate that. Fifteen years later...
(This record was purchased at www.MusicDirect.com.)
Dwight Yoakam "3 Pears" Warner Brothers/Via Records
I finally got my chance to see Dwight Yoakam at this year's bluegrass festival in the Park back in October. I'd wanted to for years, but he was always playing in some sad casino somewhere or playing on a school night or whatever. Goodness gracious, that man is full of talent. I'm not sure if he gets any airplay these days, but I bet he sounds completely out of place on a Country station if he does. That's because he actually does play Country music. California Country, that is. Bakersfield is an obvious influence, but Hollywood is more prevalent at this stage of the game. And I can't get enough. The new one is called "3 Pears," and it beats the other Dwight records I have in my collection all to hell. The others are from the '80's. This one feels confusingly fresh and classic. Simultaneously. "3 Pears." Check it out...
If the measure of a great song is that you can remember it in detail after one listen, then "3 Pears" is full of genius. The songs sounded familiar that day in October when I'd never heard them at all. I swear, I could almost sing along to every song when I took "Pears" for a first spin a month later. And the Little Lady could too it's probably universal. When I listen to the record, I can remember exactly what was happening at the show that day. I can remember what weirdo was dancing next to me during what song. I can remember where I was standing during album (and show) opener, "Take Hold Of My Hand," and where I'd moved to for "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke." The latter of those two songs sounded so familiar that I thought it was a cover. And it was. But I have no idea where I'd heard the song previously and I've never heard of the folks that wrote it. It suits Dwight even better than his cowboy hat. "3 Pears" has a crazy energy about it that almost lends the record a Social Distortion vibe, but that may create a misleading image for the reader. Really, the vibe is all Dwight's, and, as one would expect, you know exactly who you're hearing the second he sings. But he chose some unexpected collaborators on "Pears" as a couple of the songs ("A Heart Like Mine" and "Missing Heart") are produced in partnership with none other than Beck Hansen. How 'bout them apples? I mean, pears. You get the picture. I think Hank would be proud.
"3 Pears" is nowhere near as glitzy as my older Yoakam records. It's still shiny and clean, but the edges are softer, the highs are not blinding, and the content is nothing less than stellar. I get some of the same feelings listening to "Pears" that I did when I first heard Dr. John's "Locked Down" back in April. The primary feeling is exultation. "My God, I've finally found it!" That kind of thing. The next one is something along the lines of, "The guy's obviously got the goods, why didn't he make this album sooner?" But I always land on gratitude in the end. I'm thankful for "3 Pears." 'Tis the season, I suppose. Let's hope the muse sticks around a while for Ol' Dwight. He's Country's last hope, after all.
The Doors "L.A. Woman" Elektra/Analogue Productions
Alright. Lately, I've gone back and revisited some of the bands that I was most into as a youth to see how they stood up to my memories. I enjoyed some success with my Grateful Dead project. I abandoned the Black Crowes project in 2011 as a lost cause. Then, I moved on to the Doors. Of all the rockers on the menu, Jim Morrison was my undisputed champion of the rock and roll universe until about the time I left for college. Then, I turned on him like the Republicans turned on Mitt. What once seemed profound suddenly seemed superficial. But I always loved "L.A. Woman," even as a Doors defector. I was right about that one - all the way. A while back, we took a look at "The Workshop Sessions" which would eventually spawn the masterpiece. Now, Analogue Productions has hit us with a double vinyl version of "L.A. Woman" cut at 45rpm. Put the two together, and you get a true insider's look at the creation of a classic.
I love the hits on "Woman," but I don't think they're very representative of what the band did on the rest of the album. "Love Her Madly" is a moody, lonely groove, but tunes like "The Changeling" and "Been Down So Long" are the ones that I most look forward to hearing when I drop the needle on "Woman." Put those alongside the band's take on "Crawling King Snake" or their own "Cars Hiss By My Window" and you've got yourself a juke joint on wax. I can almost taste the corn whiskey now. Neither "L'America" nor "Hyacinth House" made it onto the "Workshop" release which is a downer because I think they'd have been interesting tunes to hear the band develop. It's hard to imagine that either song just presented itself to the group as a fully realized idea whereas the blusier songs we've mentioned here may have. "L.A. Woman" actually features some additional players (bass and rhythm guitar) to help the group flesh out their new found muscle which is interesting as Ray Manzarek typically handled the bass duties with his foot pedals. I can't pretend to be able to pick out what the other guitarist's contributions are as opposed to Robby Krieger's, but I bet it was liberating to have the extra fingers around. The whole record sounds liberating. Sounds like Morrison finally finished flitting around in his frilly shirts and got down to business. And business was good for the Doors in '71. Until Morrison died or disappeared. The man had legendarily poor timing.
If you're a fan of "L.A. Woman," you should get AP's version before it's gone. And, if you're a fan of the Doors, you'll probably want to get the rest of AP's Doors releases too. I don't see how it could get any better. This is the promise of analog heaven come to fruition. I feel like I could almost draw you a picture of the room these songs were recorded in just by listening to these records. Every nuance is captured for posterity right in these grooves. You can hear occasional hooting and hollering in the background along with fingers on strings and the mechanics of Manzarek's organ. Basically, you can hear rock and roll without anything between you and It. And that's why we're all here, right?
(This record was purchased at www.MusicDirect.com.)
Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros "Friday 15th November 2002: Acton Town Hall, London" (???: None credited)
While thousands of grandmothers across the United States were stampeding each other at Wal-Mart on Black Friday 2012, I was standing peacefully in line with a bunch of other vinyl geeks waiting for my local independent record retailer to open its doors and to let the love flow. I look forward to the two annual Record Store Days like other folks look forward to Christmas. Or retirement. Whatever blows your skirt up, that's how I feel about Record Store Day(s). So I got my ass out of bed, hailed a taxi in the interest of speed, and headed over to the Haight to camp out for a bit with my Kindle. And I completely overshot the runway. I was first in line. Felt a little silly. Still do. Turns out, this wasn't going to be any kind of stampede at all and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that some of the records that I was so stoked about are still sitting on the shelves as I type. But the ones I wanted are also sitting right next to me right now. I can retire peacefully.
There was a noticeable dearth of full-length releases this go 'round. I know the Dead had something and there were a few others, but the only one that really piqued my interest was Joe Strummer's two disc live set with the Mescaleros from 2002. I got number 741 out of 2200. It's about as DIY as you'd have expected from Strummer in that the artwork consists of a Xeroxed flier for the show and the set is housed in a single vinyl sleeve. The sound is more bootleg sounding than most official releases, but the energy is there and the set list is smoking (even if there is a fiddle solo in "White Man"). "Get Down Moses" is a highlight and Mick Jones apparently hopped onstage for the final public musical reunion of the two former bandmates. It's a keeper.
I also picked up an eponymous 12" EP from Eric Burdon and the Greenhornes. I had high hopes and was not entirely disappointed, but it's not exactly essential listening. There are only four songs to choose from and the last one is a total toss-off. The disc has some grit, but it feels a little half baked. My Morning Jacket's 10", on the other hand, feels totally baked. (Pun extremely intended.) This one is a live recording of the band's take on "It Makes No Difference" with Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes. The second side has a trippy instrumental called "Grab A Body" while the download coupon includes a bonus live version of "Honest Man." Proceeds from the sales went to the estate of Levon Helm. I also picked up "...Little Broken Hearts Remix EP" by Norah Jones. It came in a nifty 10" gatefold package and is comprised of four remixes by David Sitek of TV On The Radio. The original tracks were produced by Danger Mouse so you're dealing with a boatload of talent and the results are pretty smoking. Enough so that I'm going back for the full-length for next month's reviews. Stay tuned...
From there I went to the 7" section and picked up offerings from Lucero, Band of Horses, the White Stripes, and the Rolling Stones. The only clunker in the bunch came courtesy of the Stones who charged me $10 for a standard 7". Except the center hole is off center which renders that record unplayable so it's not really standard at all. That really sucks, but it didn't ruin my Record Store Day. At least I wasn't at Wal-Mart.
Jim Ford "The Unissued Capitol Album" Bear Family Records
My Guy In Nashville Who Knows Things turned me on to Jim Ford a couple of years ago. It's one of the nicest things that anyone has ever done for me. Ford's "Harlan County" from 1969 is an acknowledged masterpiece, but there are only about five folks doing the acknowledging. And I know four of them. Were it not for some genius at Bear Family Records, none of us would have acknowledged anything. Some reporter from Sweden located Ford in a Mendocino trailer park after he'd been M.I.A. for so many seasons, and the floor was littered with reels of Ford's old recordings. Now, Bear Family has released two albums worth of completed recordings that almost died with Ford in late 2007. "The Unissued Capitol Album" is a completely different animal than "Harlan County," but it's equally as impressive for entirely different reasons. It makes you realize that Ford could have done about anything musically that he put his intention on. If he only could have held it together...
The Capitol album was shelved by the company's executives after an incident with Ford that, according to the liners, is "best not mentioned in polite company." No matter what we might imagine that incident looking like, it was probably worse. Ford partied. Not the innocent kind, not a little bit, and not during an "experimental" phase either. Ford went pro at an early age. He holed up with Sly Stone in the "Riot" era doing God Knows What for days on end. He was even pictured on the rear panel of that album's cover. But you can't glean any of that while listening to the Capitol recordings. It has a distinct Gospel flavor complete with calls to Jesus and "hallelujahs" all around. The gritty soul-style recording fits the mood perfectly, and the playing is superb. There's lots of rhythm and blues chord figures played on acoustic guitars. Lots of organ. Lots of big hearted singing and choruses. The players on this session are rumored to be legendary with names like "Dr. John," "James Burton," and "Spooner Oldham." (I met Oldham once and would have loved to have asked him about Ford had I been aware of Ford's work at the time. Missed opportunity...)
Many of these songs are featured on "The Sounds Of Our Time" CD by Bear Family which includes "Harlan County" in its entirety. The CD's bonus tracks sound out of place next to the "Harlan" album, but they make perfect sense when heard as a stand alone record. It's a cohesive, self contained work. A classic, in fact. It's hard to imagine how close we came to never hearing it, and it's hard to imagine Ford never having had a hit of his own. He wrote an entire album that was recorded by the Temptations. Bobby Womack had a hit with Ford's "Harry Hippy" (Ford's version is included on "Capitol"), and Nick Lowe, Ronnie Wood, Bo Diddley, and Aretha Franklin all recorded his tunes too. Ford was a model in a Playboy spread set in the Wild West with a bunch of Naked Women, and he raised two of Marlon Brando's kids. And all we have to show for it is "Harlan County" (recently reissued by Light In The Attic) and a couple of bad ass posthumous releases that barely saw the light of day. But I've seen the light. Hallelujah, I've seen the light. You will too when you finally dig in. It's about time...
(This record was purchased at www.MusicDirect.com.)