- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 24 November 2009
The Monsters of Folk "The Monsters of Folk" Shangi-La
I hate to sound like a grumpy old man, but I'm a little worn out with all of today's wacky collaborations between seemingly divergent recording artists. One need only check the YouTube footage of Paul McCartney singing "Yesterday" with Lincoln Park and Jay-Z to see how far south that idea can fly. And did U2 really need to re-record "One" with Mary J. Blige on vocals? Did they improve on the original version or did they cash in on the novelty of the event? It's a tired idea that had a full head of steam a couple of years ago, but it doesn't seem to know when to die. The new Monsters of Folk record is different. At least Jim James, M. Ward, Mike Mogis, and Conor Oberst have some stylistic similarities. Everyone's contributions on "Monsters" are within the bounds of reason, resulting in a cohesive piece of work that is totally engaging if not essential.
One of the neat things about "Monsters of Folk" is that it really is a folk album topically, if not sonically. "Dear God," for instance, is an open letter searching for meaning in the world and answers to our suffering. The programmed drums (courtesy of James) bring the familiar theme into the 21st century, giving the heavy subject matter a gentle lift in the process. "The Right Place" deals with keeping one's thoughts, words, and deeds in allignment while "The Sandman, the Brakeman, and Me" keeps the folky tradition of the train song alive. It's tempting to compare "supergroups" to each other and the most obvious point of reference over the last couple of decades would be the Travelling Wilburys. It's probably safe to say that the Wilburys had a few members that the Monsters would look up to, and "Say Please," and "Whole Lotta Losin'" both sound like they could have been pilferred from Jeff Lynne's songbook specifically. Lynne was the least popular Wilbury historically, but I'd bet the farm that the Monsters members hold his work in high esteem. The shimmery vocal harmonies and the shiny production values tell me that's a safe bet...
"Supergroups" don't ever seem to live up to the potential of the individual members (except maybe Blind Faith), and I'd say that the Monsters of Folk are no different. Each of the three vocalists (James, Ward, and Oberst) have their own obsessive fan base, but I'm most familiar with James' work, and I'd rather hear him on his own or with My Morning Jacket if I have the option. It's fun to hear him out of his usual context, and I enjoy his work with the Monsters, but I doubt that he'd have achieved the level of success that he has on the strength of this record alone.
And, on a personal note, I still get distracted by multiple vocalists trading verses on a single song. I'm focusing on who's doing what rather than the composition. That's not to say that this was a waste of time. "Monsters of Folk" is a fine record and I'm sure the artists appreciated the opportunity to branch out and explore new terrain together. They did the vinyl up right too. The records are heavy and the pressings are clean. The artwork is straight from the '70's and the set came with a digital download and a twenty page book too. Ultimately, the Monsters of Folk put out four sides of quality product that they all can be proud of. It's more timely than timeless, but it will get the artists' fans through until their hero's next release. Anyway, they're better than the Damn Yankees or Chickenfoot or any other modern supergroup, I can tell you that much.
The Stone Roses "The Stone Roses" Silvertone Records
I looked for a long time in a lot of places for the Stone Roses' self-titled debut album on vinyl. I knew it wasn't going to be easy because it's not the type of record that you take back to your local record store once you've heard it. It's a classic and I challenge anyone to find a better overall record from the '80's. In fact, it's one of my personal favorites from any era. I was a high school freshman when "The Stone Roses" was originally released and it found its way to my group of friends right away. (This was probably due to the strength of their single, "Fool's Gold," which was in heavy rotation on MTV back when that company still played music videos.) I've always kind of cherished the album as a semi-obscure masterpiece that I can lord over with my memories as if I were the only person to have ever heard it. The band lost its momentum afterwards due to contractual issues with Silvertone Records which delayed their follow-up release by many years. By that time, I'd moved on to other things and lost track of my former heroes. That was twenty years ago, and we finally have a high quality vinyl re-issue to remind us of what an awesome discovery this work was. Happy twentieth anniversary, indeed.
The vinyl reissue actually comes in two versions. I opted for the single disc option with the original UK version of the album. (This version actually doesn't include "Fool's Gold" and the album seems even more cohesive without it. It's a strong song, but was a little out of place next to the other compositions. It works better as a bonus track in retrospect.) I could have gone with the box set which includes demos, b-sides, DVD, book, and other stuff. I decided that I'd rather have the work in what I consider to be its truest form. I like it just as it is, and I don't see any room for improvement. There's not a single "skipper" on the disc, and it floats and flies by so quickly that I'm always surprised when it ends.
"The Stone Roses" was supposed to be the pinnacle of "the Manchester Sound," but I never figured out what that meant. The group was lumped in with other purveyors of the movement which included the Happy Mondays and the Inspiral Carpets. I've never gone back to explore those bands as I kind of assumed that other works from the era would have found their way to me by now if they were that great. I can tell you that "The Stone Roses" has some of the best beats in the history of rock music and that the melodies lodge themselves in your brain for all of eternity. Ian Brown's whispery vocals wash over you like a warm rain shower and John Squire's guitar work is pretty brilliant too. We could go through a song-by-song write up of the material, but I think that would miss the point.
This is an album to be heard in its entirety. Every note is important, and no space is wasted. I have no idea who we could compare the Stone Roses to today. I really think that "The Stone Roses" was a perfect amalgam of sounds that came together for one moment in time, and that the record stands on its own after all these years. There's nothing overly impressive about this re-issue except that it's on vinyl and is finally available. As I mentioned, you do have the option of buying the box set if you're looking for bells and whistles. I have most of the official releases on vinyl now since I picked up "The Complete Stone Roses" a few years back. After looking at the track listing for the box set I realized that I was only missing one song so I didn't feel the need to plunk down $130 for the box to complete my Stone Roses collection. I thought long and hard about it though and I'm still not sure I made the right move. That, in and of itself, should tell you something...
The Who "My Generation" Brunswick/Classic Records
I've never been the Who's biggest fan. I watched a concert movie of theirs on HBO many times with much fascination as a youth, but my interest waned as I aged. I'm not suggesting that you have to pit bands against each other based on their location, but the Stones and the Kinks always held more allure for me when it comes to early British blues-based rock. I never thought of the Who's sound as being overly influenced by the blues at all, really. But their debut long player, "My Generation" is another story altogether. I picked it up when I saw that Classic Records had released it in two versions. Both are in Mono, the only difference being the record weight. I chose the "regular" weight over the pricier 200-gram model. It's a fine sounding record by a band finding their true sound, and I much prefer the search to the discovery in this case.
Roger Daltrey, specifically, seems to be looking high and low for his style as he tries different voices on over the course of the disc. He has no writing credits on "My Generation" so he had a little extra time on his hands to go exploring, I guess. He sounds like Van Morrison here, a little like James Brown there. The band covers a couple of Brown's tunes ("I Don't Mind" and "Please Please Please") and they acquit themselves quite nicely for a group of white kids from half a world away. The real surprise on "Generation" is the vocal harmonies. They're closer to the Beatles than the Stones in that regard, especially on "The Kids Are Alright."
The subject matter is certainly indicative of the time as rock 'n' roll was still a few years away from entering the political arena. These are songs about guys and girls, mostly, with the exception of the title track. "My Generation" is the strongest original song on the record, and was an easy choice for a single. I always liked it, even after I'd decided that the Who's later sound was completely bloated and self indulgent. John Entwistle's bass solo seems pretty radical for the time, and it's a clear demonstration of his prowess with the instrument. "I'm A Man" is another standout track as many (if not most) rock bands covered Bo Diddley's original at the time, and the Who's version is as engaging as any I've heard. Daltrey really pours on the nuance here, sounding like a grizzled veteran when he must have been about twenty. Pete Townshend takes a vocal turn on "A Legal Matter" which wouldn't sound out of place on a Kinks record, and the band closes things out with an instrumental rave-up called "The Ox" which gives listeners their first real taste of what Keith Moon could do behind a drum kit prior to his untimely death. (Entwistle was also called "the Ox" for various reasons that have never been fully explained to me.)
The folks at Classic Records aren't going to put out a poor sounding record, and "My Generation" is certainly a fine example of their work. The original packaging is sparse and free of clutter while the sound is full and clear. I wasn't blown away by "My Generation" in the way that I have been by other Classic releases, but that has more to do with the production than anything else. In hindsight, I probably would have preferred the 200-gram release, but my local independent record store didn't have it in stock. I'd love to compare the two versions, but that would be as over the top as a rock opera, right? "My Generation" was a nice surprise if not a revelation, and I may pick up 1966's "A Quick One" as a result. It's still not enough to make me sit through "Tommy" though. Maybe age will take care of that, but I hope not.
John Coltrane "Blue Train" Classic Records/Blue Note
Writing about John Coltrane's "Blue Train" is a tall order. It's like trying to describe an out of body experience. If you're familiar with it, then you already love it and there's nothing I can say that's going to add to or subtract from your experience. If you're a jazz fan and you're somehow unfamiliar with it, then you have an issue that you're going to have to solve on your own. "Masterpiece" doesn't do it justice. "Perfect" doesn't get the point across. It's like the man was from outer space, but he made the most beautifully human record ever. It's the "Revolver" of jazz, maybe. This is the sound of a man with his mind, body, and soul in total agreement and creating as one brilliant entity. (This is probably inaccurate as Coltrane was legendarily troubled.) I don't know where it came from, but I imagine it put fear in the hearts of the other purveyors of "hard bop" at the time. I mean, how do you follow up "Blue Train?" At that point, the work has been done. Move on. Invent something else or drown in the wake.
The intro to the title track (and the album as a whole) is one that never leaves you once you've heard it. The casual fan might not remember if they heard it on a Coltrane record or a Miles Davis record, but they'll definitely remember it if they were paying attention on first listen. The theme (or motif) is established in the first measure before the song explodes into some of the most sublime improvisation ever committed to wax. By the time the dust settles and the main theme comes kicking through the door again, the listener has been taken on a ride the likes of which you can't prepare for. "Moments Notice" ups the pace a little, but is no less intense than its predecessor. It's just a little faster. I'm completely exhausted by the end of that one, and that's only side one. "Locomotion" begins side two at a break-neck pace before we finally get a reading of "I'm Old Fashioned," the album's only cover and ballad. It's like sitting down next to a fire with a glass of fine wine after a day of wrangling wild horses in a driving snow storm. Kenny Drew takes a piano solo on this one that could quell a riot.
It's safe to say that the band leader didn't hire any old body off the street to bring his opus to fruition, and Lee Morgan (trumpet) and Curtis Fuller (trombone) play off Coltrane's themes with such sensitivity that it makes you want to melt inside your speakers. The rhythm section is no less spectacular, and the whole thing adds up to something beyond jazz, beyond imagination. I don't want to sound overly dramatic. It's a sensational experience. I've been hearing it for years and it's as fresh to me as when I first found it twenty years ago as a Kerouac-obsessed youth. By the time "Lazy Bird" finishes the album, I'm exhausted and ready for sleep, but too keyed up to rest. It's always tempting to drop the needle on side one again. In fact, that's exactly what I did when I picked up this copy and I'll tell you why...
This particular copy is the 200-gram mono version by Classic Records. I've extolled the virtues of this label in recent reviews and they're my "go to" source for top notch vinyl as of this writing. I can't see how anyone's going to threaten their throne any time soon either. Their jazz releases are especially exemplary. They take great care to recreate these records to the last detail. (I noticed that the "Stereo" label on the stereo version of "Blue Train" is actually a sticker on top of the original mono cover. Just like the old days when the mono mixes were the industry standard. If only we were so lucky today.)
The pressing is flawless, and that's all this recording needs to remain alive for all of time until the end of days. There's nothing extra on this release. No updated liner notes, no digital copy in any format, no need for any of that anyway. The sound wouldn't measure up, and the sound is what counts. This is the purest experience of this recording that I can imagine short of an original reel-to-reel. I wouldn't have anything to listen to that on anyway, but I've got a turntable. And, if I didn't, I'd buy one just to play this record. And all my other records. You should too.
Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens "What Have You Done, My Brother?" Daptone Records
I don't exactly have my finger on the pulse of the current Gospel scene (is there a current Gospel scene?), but I can't imagine that anyone's doing it any better than the folks at Daptone Records. (See our review of "Como Now" from July of this year.) Their latest find is by Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens. The record's called "What Have You Done, My Brother?" and it's a fabulous mix of traditional Gospel standards and originals that touch on the war in Iraq amongst other current issues. It's a quick and moving listen containing no filler or fluff. It's as if Sister Rosetta Tharpe has risen from the grave to front a straight Soul band. And, if that's not enough, it's mixed in glorious mono.
Shelton's voice is the show stopper here, but that's not to take away from her band mates' contributions. We've got barrel house piano, smooth organ, and crispy backing vocals from the Queens. But Shelton has the uncanny ability to channel all of the soul greats, male and female, through just the use of her voice. You can hear Sam Cooke, James Brown, and Otis Redding in there as well as the aforementioned Tharpe which is the most obvious comparison. It's quite a gumbo, and it's impossible to imagine that it was recorded in the year of our Lord, 2009. (At least I think it was recorded this year. There's actually not a date printed anywhere on the release. Twenty years from now, no one will have any idea when this record was made.)
The songwriting stands on its own and it's impossible to tell the newer originals from the standards. The more cynical of us might write this release off as novelty or imitation, but it's nothing short of extraordinary, whatever you want to call it. The feeling's there, and that's where it's at when it comes to Gospel Soul anyway, right? "Am I Asking Too Much?" is a standout track reminiscent of The Staple Singers, Steve Cropper guitar licks and all. I can actually imagine this one on the radio, but it will never happen on a large scale. We're just not ready for it, and might never be. It seems like we're getting further and further away from real music by real players and there's no relief in sight. That's what makes this one so special to the few of us that care about that type of thing. This record is a testament (no pun intended) to the idea that great sounding, authentic Soul records can still be made. There's just not a market for it. I loaned a Sister Rosetta record to a preacher back home in Georgia a few years back and he said he couldn't use it because it was too dated. None of the kids in his congregation would listen. The preacher was in his fifties and he thought the record was too dated. I rest my case. Shelton and the Queens wrap things up on "What Have You Done?" with Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come." Let us pray that they're right.
The quality of the vinyl on this release is nothing to sing praises about, but somehow it doesn't detract from the listening experience for me. If anything, it makes the sound that much more authentic. This isn't clean music. Never has been. The release came with a digital download coupon which is easily the most modern touch on this offering. I mean, there's not even a bar code. Apparently, Shelton has a weekly Friday night gig at the Fat Cat in New York that features Fred Thomas (from James Brown's band) on bass guitar. I can't imagine how awesome that show is, but I can imagine making a trip from California specifically to see it. That's how strong my love is for this one.