Monthly Archives: November 2012

Sound ‘Round: Soul Christmas, Phil Spector

Christmas from Stax and Spector. 

Various Artists – Soul Christmas (Atlantic, 1968)

Soul ChristmasWhat separated Memphis soul label Stax from their Motown contemporaries was the rough, unfiltered and seemingly unpolished tone of the music. Where Diana Ross and The Temptations would glide seamlessly to the top of the charts on pristine production and crisp performances, Wilson Picket and Tina Turner grinded and grunted their way into history thus forging what I refer to as Grit Soul, with tangible emotions hammered home by iconic Stax house band Booker T & The MG’s. The most soul-filled track is Solomon Burke’s “Presents for Christmas,” a gospel tinged prayer that subtly asks for peace and racial harmony in the year of Martin Luther’s murder, while those who like their carols devoid of real world troubles will take to William Bell’s “Every Day Will Be Like A Holiday,” a simple anthem of love made all more merry thanks to an exemplary horn arrangement. Christmas purists who prefer their holiday songs on the “classic” side of the equation will have to settle for notable instrumentals from Booker T and company. The only vocalist to take a crack at a standard is the eternal Otis Redding on “White Christmas,” whose raspy plead for snowfall is almost as heartbreaking as “These Arms of Mine.” Dream away sir.  GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: White Christmas” / “Presents For Christmas” / “Every Day Will Be Like A Holiday

Various Artists – A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector (Phillies, 1963)

phil spector christmasReleased on the day John Kennedy was struck down in Dealey Plaza, and subsequently a victim of poor sales given the national mood, this former flop has come to be considered one of the quintessential Christmas albums — and rightfully so. For all of the eccentricities of producer Phil Spector, to say nothing of his 2009 murder conviction, his revolutionary “Wall of Sound” recording technique was the calling card for an entire generation of pop radio and an undeniable influence on the likes of Brian Wilson and the Beatles. Here he gives almost equal record space to Darlene Love (“He’s A Rebel”), The Ronettes (“Be My Baby”), The Crystals (“Da Do Ron Ron”) and Bobby B. Soxx and the Blues Jeans (“Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”) as each give decidedly Spector-esque takes on Christmas jingles and holiday standards alike. Each song is as sonically lush and rich as a Spector work ought to be, but for all the musical bombast, it’s the smaller, more charming moments that stick; the “Ring-a-ling-a-ling-a-ding-dong-ding” backing vocals and subtle key changes of The Ronettes’ “Sleigh Ride,” the harmonies of Darlene Love’s “Winter Wonterland,” or the brief pauses in the chorus of The Crystals’ “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” which Springsteen used as the template for his own version of the song. Those who prefer the misty-eyed classics of Crosby and Nat Cole have the right, but I prefer maximized pop to match the jolliness of the season. Ring-a-ling-a-ling-a-ding-dong-ding indeed. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: Sleigh Ride” / “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” / “Winter Wonderland

Sound ‘Round: Kid Koala / Crystal Castles

Canadian pixelation both inspired and insipid. 

Kid Koala – 12 Bit Blues (Ninja Tunes)

kid koala - 12 bit bluesWhile Eric San, a Vancouver DJ/turntablist (genre aficionados know the difference – I had to look it up), has been want to sampling jazz records lately, here he stitches a patchwork of blues relics into a herky jerky mix from a collection of songs and artists so varied and obscure, only historians and/or enthusiasts will recognize the source material. San’s arrangements never aim for a big hook (although hooks are there to be found), and coupled with the fact the music he borrows is prone to baroness, he slips into a sagged simplicity at times. But where he can be slow-footed and loiter, he can also craft songs of a rugged, raw and subtly turgid nature. Channeling the romp n’ stomp of John Lee Hoooker, jaggedness of Howlin’ Wolf and lonely wail of Muddy Waters (without sampling any of the three as far as I can tell), San pieces together soundbites that are tuneful enough to stick with enough small surprises to keep his merry song-hopping interesting.  GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: 7 Bit Blues” / “1 Bit Blues – 10,000 Miles” / “2 Bit Blues

Crystal Castles – (III) (Polydor)

Crystal Catles - IIIOh such misery! Such angst! Such tortured youth! Such inability to convey their vapid grief and aggression through the trappings of their own self import! Supposedly this lo-fi duo from Toronto focused their third album on the theme of oppression, something vocalist Alice Glass, and any sensible person, doesn’t approve of. But she’s not singing about North Korea, slave labor, the nether regions of capitalism or even overbearing parents. In fact, she’s not singing about anything at all. The general rule for music such as this is as follows; If they mumble or bury the vocals under a heap of production and sound, it’s because they either have nothing interesting to say, or are devoid of even the smallest creative bit. So leave it to beatmaker Ethan Kath to fulfill his side of the equation with a barrage of dull techno and dubstep gimmicks that bore to excruciating lengths and only serve to embolden Glass’ inanity. Oppressive? Yup. Sure is. GRADE: D+

Key Tracks: N/A

Sound ‘Round: Vince Guaraldi Trio / Louis Armstrong & Friends

Suck it Michael Buble. 

Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy, 1965)

Vince Guarldi Trio - Charlie Brown ChristmasThis soundtrack for the 1965 Peanuts Christmas special was the second one of its kind from San Francisco jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, and benefits from the unyielding popularity of the film for which it scores. Creeping on fifty years since its initial release, Linus’ famous monologue concerning the grace, simplicity and charm of the holidays still resonates just as Guaraldi’s sprite piano perfectly equates to the first snow of the season. All personification and mood setting aside, however, this cheerily brisk 35-minute record works so well on its own terms thanks to smart arrangements of old standards and astute musicianship from one of jazz’s most underrated figures.  Aside from the traditional carols, the originals are just as noteworthy. “Skating” shuffles along thanks to a subtle drum turn by Jerry Garnelli, and “Christmas Time is Here,” has become an instantly recognizable classic. Ditto for “Linus and Lucy,” the de-facto Charlie Brown theme and a showcase for Guaraldi at the peak of his powers. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: Linus and Lucy” / “O Tannenbaum” / “Christmas Time Is Here

Louis Armstrong & Friends – What A Wonderful Christmas (Hip-O, 1997)

Louis Armstrong ChristmasMore Friends than Armstrong, (eight songs versus six), this collection of singles, mostly from the 1950s, works better as an anthology rather than a straight ahead album – damn PR people. And while Armstong gets the shorter end of the stick, I’ll still take his throaty gruff, wailing trumpet and orchestras aplenty, who possess a bit more pep in their step, over his contemporaries. I’ll also take his original holiday tunes that give a decidedly black twist to an era of Christmas songs that’s all too white (“Christmas in New Orleans,” “Christmas Night in Harlem, “Zat You, Santa Claus?”). But for all the other singers to appear, including Mel Torme, Peggy Lee and Lionel Hampton, it’s Ertha Kitt’s sexy purr of a voice on “Santa Baby,” that’s the keeper. If Saint Nick didn’t get her the yacht she wanted, she could certainly afford one after her stint as Catwoman on the ’60s Batman television show. GRADE: A- 

Key Tracks: Christmas in New Orleans” / “Christmas Night in Harlem” / “Santa Baby

Sound ‘Round: The Coup / Rage Against the Machine

They won’t do what you tell them. 

The Coup – Sorry To Bother You (ANTI-)

12JACKET11073_Coup_TheHis affinity for communism pronounced over a decade ago, Boots Riley’s brand of political hip-hop has always been more reliant on a ruggedly simplified Oakland sound, complete with gnarly guitars, punk bass and neo-surf drums, than it ever was outrightly Marxist, elitist or preachy. In fact, his rhymes are as plainly stated as the music. “Home Ec  can teach you how to make a few sauces / And accept low pay from your Wal-Mart bosses,” he says on “Strange Arithmetic,” an old school garage dance number. Well into the second decade of his career, he can be just as bureaucratically minded as he’s always been, as the revolutionary-tinged “Guillotine,” shows. “We got the guillotine you better run!” he warns the one percent. But it’s the playful Clash-esque jam “Your Parent’s Cocaine,” and fuzzy funk of “My Murder, My Love,” which proves the 41-year-old would rather party than pontificate, which makes this album a mixed bag. No coincidence Das Racist and Killer Mike join in on the finale, they’ll do the heavy lifting for Riley from here on out.  GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: Strange Arithmetic” / “The Guillotine” / “WAVIP

Rage Against the Machine – Self-Titled (Epic, 1992)

rage against the machine - rage against the machineWith a lavish twentieth anniversary box set on the way, complete with live tracks, b-sides, alternate takes and concert DVDs for the die hards, (delivered just in time for Christmas – how capitalistic), I figured now is a good time to revisit the original album stripped of all the excess. Their rock/rap appeal isn’t as dated as their contemporaries, mostly because these radicals had a vision and a purpose for their sound other than it being a gimmick (sorry I’m not sorry Fred Durst). Tom Morello’s guitar licks, a mix of metal flashiness, blues grunge and hints of prog experimentation, hold up for the simple fact a good riff never dies. But it’s always been Zack de la Rocha’s garrulous nature which has hindered this band’s likability. His conviction is admirable, and even those who disagree with his politics can at least admit his verses are low on the bullshit factor. But it should never take almost an hour to sit through a paltry 10 songs. With the average running time of each tune over five minutes, these are sermons, not songs. “But that’s the point!” His like-minded fans and associates will say. True. But it’s a point I’m OK with missing. Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me. GRADE: B-

Key Tracks: Killing in the Name” / “Bullet In You Head” / “Bombtrack

Sound ‘Round: The Mountain Goats / The Henry Clay People

Beaten, not broken. 

The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth (Merge)

The Mountain Goats - Transendental YouthJohn Darnielle’s fourteenth effort leans dark, at times unrelentingly so. A series of character studies so well-executed they could almost be mistaken for self-portraits, every song sports a flawed figure full of angst, regret, apathy and boredom. Their living conditions are less than ideal, their friends fickle, their hopes drowned, their career prospects zero and their tattoos too stupid. Yet Darnielle’s universe of existential crisis is littered with  enough optimistic moments to make  for an album of determined bummers that would rather die trying than remain static and stuck. There’s Amy who hides in her corner because she likes her corner, but remains determined enough to “stay alive,” or the character from “Harlem Roulette” who knows that even an awful dream is a good dream. But the best songs come when Darneille refers to himself, as he does on”White Cedar” and “Until I Am Whole,” two quaint singles where he finds himself alone and discouraged, but unafraid because he knows he’ll be saved. By what? Could be God, friends, love, his own will. I’d like to think it’s the horns provided by Matthew E. White, whose subtle arrangements sound like redemption. A new day rising.  GRADE: A- 

Key Tracks: White Cedar” / “Until I Am Whole” / “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1

The Henry Clay People – Twenty-Five for the Rest of Our Lives (TBD)

The Henry Clay People - Twenty-Five for the Rest of Our LiveNostalgia is the driving force for this messy bunch of Jersey punks who spend 11 songs in a blistering 31 minutes relaying the lost days of their party-hearty youth. Now with all of the members closing in on thirty, they’re experienced enough to better articulate teenage jackassery and smart enough to understand adulthood aloofness. From their poster adorned bedrooms of high school to the empty living rooms they waste away in while looking for careers, these are down-and-out songs with just enough musical bunch to prevent them from being too whiny. They yelp a bunch because they don’t know what a melody is, and too many of their songs blend into each other making their reminiscing one dimensional. But if they wish to remain twenty-five forever, I suppose these are the kind of shortcomings we’ll have to expect from them. GRADE: B+ 

Key Tracks: “Backseat of a Cab” / “Anymore/ Any Less” / “25 for the Rest of Our Lives”

Sound ‘Round: Neil Young and Crazy Horse / Van Morrison

The perks of doing whatever the hell pleases you. 

Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill (Reprise)

Neil Young - Psychadelic PillStating the obvious first, this record is too damn long. At a tedious 87 minutes, Young and his galloping band of hippie gypsies’ first album of new material in a decade is nothing more than a long winded journey into nostalgia land. And with nearly two-thirds of the running time centered in three of the nine tracks, including “Driftin’ Back,” a half hour of Young making known his disdain for .mp3s and modern technology while pining for “the way things were,” it’s a chore to sit through from start to finish. But where he can be crotchety, he’s also sweetly reminiscent, as he is on “Twisted Road,” a sentimental recollection of the first time he heard Dylan’s “Rolling Stone,” and listened to the Dead on the radio. With so much time spent looking back, his story telling is centralized on “Ramada Inn,” a 16:50 slow burn about a couple of empty nesters who have nothing to do but love each other simply because  they have no choice. He mixes past and present on the 16:27 “Walk Like A Giant,” a sludge ballad which finds Young striving to dust off artistic complacency. “I used to walk like a giant on the land / Now I feel like a leaf in a stream.” The guitar solos (all four of ‘em) appease his belief in bigger being better, while the final four minutes of noise and feedback are the sounds of a legend stomping like hell because he’s earned the right to do so. Call it self-gratification. GRADE: A- 

Key Tracks: Twisted RoadWalk Like A Giant” / “Ramada Inn

Van Morrison – Born to Sing: No Plan B (Blue Note)

van morrison born to sing no plan bFrom the man who exchanged pop stardom and brown eyed girls for soul-searching and moondancing, comes a record that’s every bit as confident as the title suggests. Absent any big hooks, there are plenty of smaller, consistently tuneful moments sprinkled throughout; the bass runs on the protest jam “If In Money We Trust,” the ebb and flow of the horns on “Close Enough for Jazz,” the melody of “Open the Door (To Your Heart) and the piano fills on “End of the Rainbow”. Yet, for all of the cool-jazz charm to be found, the album peaks too early and sags too much the final two songs. Still, he knows how to make cruise control swing. Mostly because cruise control is the name of his game, and in jazz, as he says himself, sometimes that gets you close enough. GRADE: A- 

Key Tracks: Born to Sing” / “Open the Door (To Your Heart)” / “End of the Rainbow”

Sound ‘Round: Homeboy Sandman / Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

They just want to make the world a better place, yo!

Homeboy Sandman – First of a Living Breed (Stones Throw)

homeboy sandman - first of a living breedAngel Del Villar II is a word nerd who at times can’t spit em out fast enough. Blame his quick tongue on his even quicker mind which is preoccupied with a variety of topics; wack-ass politicians, his apathy with fame, why strong black women are never seen on television, the well being and education of the next generation, a certain lady who won’t text him back, zombie porn. His areas of interest are wide ranging, loosely related or outright random, but he zig-zags his rhymes so intricately through his subject matter it’s enough to bare the weight of his wanderings. He’d score higher if he could propel his stories a little further. Maybe cut out the zombie porn? GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: Not Really” / “4 Corners” / “For the Kids”

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – The Heist (self-released)

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - The HeistAn unabashed idealist who would be the first to admit he’s prone to being too bright-eyed, this Seattle rapper is so bravely plainspoken about his worldview he’s almost too optimistic for his own good. “Live on and be yourself.” “The greatest trick that the devil ever pulled was convincing women that they look better in their makeup.” “A life lived for art is never a life wasted.” “Make the money don’t let the money make you.” Such lines are truisms, but they’re also cliche and not as potent as he thinks they are. Still, it’s hard to not cheer for someone who knows the world isn’t as forward thinking as he pretends it is. But his schmaltz comes in handy on “Same Love,” a pro-gay marriage anthem that’s as overly sentimental is it should be, but also grounded by a healthy, and rare, dosage of realism. “A certificate on paper ain’t gonna solve it all / But it’s a damn good place to start.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Same Love” feat. Mary Lambert / “Thrift Shop” feat. Wanz / “Starting Over” feat. Ben Bridwell