Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Second Five of My Personal Top Albums List

This is the second installment of my personal list of top albums. They're in order, so Randall Bramblett's Thin Places clocks in at number six. My list certainly may differ from yours, and I'm glad we all tend to have differing views of things; it makes for a richer existence. To help keep myself in line and to avoid a list that would be much longer than this, I made myself a few simple rules. 1 - No greatest hits, anthologies, or multi-artist compilations. 2 - It’s my personal Top 10 list, so I will try not to be overly influenced by the critics. 3 - There is no limit on the number of albums an individual or group can have in the listing. 4 - All songs on an album count, not just the best ones so a bad cut counts against inclusion.
Randall Bramblett - Thin Places Wonderfully jazz influenced rock and roll for grown-ups. If it can make a sound, then I’m pretty sure this multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter can play it, and play it well. You might know Randall Bramblett from Sea Level or from his many gigs as a session musician for everyone from Robbie Robertson to Widespread Panic to Gregg Allman.
If you haven’t heard Randall Bramblett, then this Jesup, Georgia, native will come as a wonderful surprise. Bramblett has several superior albums, but this one is my favorite.
There is not a bad song on this album. The lyrics are thoughtful, insightful, and make a lot of sense in a world that seldom does. The music matches the mood of the music perfectly, perhaps best exemplified with “Gotta Stop Somewhere” bouncing between nearly frenetic to more controlled statements. This is a great album that never got the listens it deserves and that’s a shame - not just for Bramblett, but more for the people who have not had an opportunity to listen. As Bramblett says in “Black Coat”: “There’s nothing left to do but to laugh and feed the angels . . .” And listen to this great recording.
Rod Stewart - Every Picture Tells a Story Rod Stewart’s embrace of disco in the late 70s nearly put me off him for life. I still abhor disco, but after a decade or two, I was able to go back and listen again to Stewart’s non-disco output and it was impressive. Stewart is thought of mainly as a singer and a songwriter, but there are only three Stewart original songs on this album. The three songs he wrote are brilliant, but it's the arrangements of the cover songs that shines here.
Every Picture Tells a Story features Stewart’s great songwriting (Every Picture Tells a Story, written with Ronnie Wood); Maggie May; and, Mandolin Wind) and brilliant choices of cover songs including the definitive version of The Temptations’ (I Know) I’m Losing You as well as the great Reason to Believe from Tim Hardin. Among the other covers is Stewart’s arrangement of the traditional Amazing Grace and Bob Dylan’s Tomorrow Is a Long Time. I’ve got to say, I love the the choice of instruments and how they’re used here. Listen to the drums fills at the end of the lines in the title cut and, of course, the mandolin, guitar, and steel guitar interplay across the album. The production is perfect; it’s straightforward and for these songs that is exactly what is needed. You’ll likely never hear the song Every Picture Tells a Story on the radio again; the politically correct would get a case of the vapors, but you can still hear it on the album. Once again, this is an album I can put on, sit back, and listen to the whole thing without the urge to skip a track or shake my head.
Bob Dylan - Blood on the Tracks If I run across anyone who has never really listened to Bob Dylan, this is the album that I recommend they listen to first. It’s a wonderful album, even though Dylan himself couldn’t understand how people enjoyed listening to it. In a radio interview, he told Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul & Mary), “A lot of people tell me they enjoyed that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that—I mean, people enjoying that type of pain.” Dylan associates the album with pain, but it’s hard not to see “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” as a love song about an amicable, but reluctant, parting. Perhaps it’s two sides of a coin, because Dylan’s marriage was in trouble during this period. Dylan denies that he writes from personal experience - with one admitted exception and this ain’t it - so perhaps that isn’t why he associates it with pain. I’m not saying there is no pain in this album, and I’m not saying there isn’t a lot on here that’s reflective of Dylan’s life at the time, but I am saying there is beauty.
“Tangled Up in Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate” are about star-crossed lovers, though in the latter only one of the two cares. “Simple Twist of Fate” is especially intriguing because of the post one-night stand role reversal. The thing that stand out for me about the lyrics are how descriptive and detail-oriented they are without being lengthy. Dylan gives just enough to flesh out his stories and the songs are easily excuses to call Dylan a genius. As for the production, for some reason Dylan was in a hurry to finish this off and the production suffered. Perhaps, Dylan was less forthcoming about the inspiration for these songs and the “pain” he refers to was very real and very contemporary. Either way, the shoddy production is a fact, but that cannot diminish the greatness of the songs. The songs make this a favorite of mine and number eight of my top ten albums. Continued after the jump.

Monday, April 30, 2018

The First Five of My Personal Top Albums List

The Allman Brothers Band - At Fillmore East (Live) From the dual slide guitars in the opening of “Statesboro Blues” to the gut-wrenching vocal crescendo at the close of “Whipping Post”, this album is 78:13 of perfectly blended musicians and genres. This album is exhibit one in the case that great live music trumps anything ever recorded in a studio. Two lead guitars swapping in-and-out seamlessly, two top-notch drummers filling in independently and then doubling up perfectly, and along with the rock-solid bass laying the foundation for the intricately woven melodies. And then there is legendary vocalist Gregg Allman on the Hammond B-3 organ, a young man with an aged soul and a voice that was as powerful an instrument as his brother’s guitar. While much attention is rightly paid to the mesmerizing guitar work of Duane Allman and Dickie Betts, it is the soulful voice of the younger Allman that pays the debt on the band’s blues card. Some vocalists float gently atop the instrumental sounds; Gregg’s voice carves through them, demanding to be heard. The obvious musical genres are blues and jazz, but there is more. Berry Oakley’s driving bass is pure rock and while the improvisational jazz is gloriously apparent, “Hot ‘Lanta” could have been a powerful, closely orchestrated, big band arrangement. The Allman Brothers were musical scholars and never shy about paying homage to their inspirational precursors, but that understanding is what led to the creation of the entirely new genre of Southern Rock. If you haven’t listened to this in a while, I invite you to give it another spin and listen with fresh ears. There are wonders that don’t grow old with age and new secrets can be heard even after nearly fifty years.
Derek and the Dominos - Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs This is the album that convinced me to buy a CD player. Even with a turntable that tracked at less than one gram, I listened to this on vinyl so much that I wore out multiple copies and I knew that I wasn’t going to stop listening anytime soon. I was right; I still love listening to this though these days it’s mostly in MP3 format. It started with a tragedy that would have done the Greeks proud: a man falls deeply in love with his best friend’s wife and is torn between his honor (and love of his friend) and the love of a woman he believes is his soul mate. Model and photographer Pattie Boyd Harrison didn’t launch a thousand ships, but she inspired an amazing album that continues to resonate. Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs is Eric Clapton’s attempt to deal with an impossible love. The result is a beautiful, yet bloody, autopsy of Clapton’s broken heart. The grief is so obvious, the distress so plaintive, that the initial response is to turn away - but the beauty and the truth in the music is undeniable and pulls us back seemingly endlessly. The group Derek and the Dominos was Clapton’s way of avoiding the over-the-top superstardom he had acquired in The Yardbirds, Blind Faith, and Cream. “Clapton is God” was frequently seen on handmade posters at Cream concerts. D and the Ds only lasted for two albums (including a very good live album), so, in that way, the group was a failure. Fortunately, in every other was, it was a success. Well, at least eventually. The album did not do well in the UK initially and the record label thought it was because people didn’t know of Clapton’s involvement in the group. Soon, the “Derek is Eric” badges emerged; so much for anonymity. Clapton put together a group of fine musicians for the album: Bobby Whitlock, on keyboards and backing vocals, co-wrote six of the album’s songs with Clapton, as well as writing a solo effort - the softly beautiful acoustic number “Thorn Tree in the Garden”; bassist Carl Radle; and, drummer and percussionist, Jim Gordon, who wrote the coda for “Layla”. Along with Clapton on guitar and vocals, this would make Derek and the Dominos a strong quartet of veteran musicians who could do Clapton’s songs justice, but the quartet was about to become a quintet and make history. In a providential stroke of luck - or perhaps an act of God, The Allman Brothers Band was playing a benefit concert in Miami at the same time Layla was being recorded. Allman was a real fan of Clapton and had asked the producer if he could come by and watch the album being recorded. When the producer, the great Tom Dowd, mentioned to Clapton that Allman was playing in Miami, the entire group went to see the Allman Brothers perform. Clapton decided he had to have Allman play on the album and Duane was happy to oblige. Clapton called Duane Allman the “musical brother I'd never had but wished I did” and it shows on this album. The two play together as if they had been doing so for years, not the mere days they were together in the Miami Criteria studios. Allman became the nitrous oxide in the fuel system of an already powerful machine and an overwhelming work of all-encompassing magic emerged. For the romantics among you, Eric Capton finally got his opportunity with Pattie Boyd Harrison with the blessing of his dear friend and her then-former husband, George. They were married in 1979. They divorced in 1989.
Little Feat - Waiting for Columbus (Live) If you’ve only heard Little Feat’s studio offerings then you haven’t really heard Little Feat. This is lightning in a bottle, guaranteed to give you chills. The recording actually begins backstage as Little Feat warm up their vocals on a quick acapella version of “Join the Band” followed by the stage introduction. Lowell George’s iconic “Fat Man in the Bathtub” follows featuring his scorching slide guitar and vocals.
From the onset, you can hear that Little Feat has a superior rhythm section (Kenny Gradney on bass; Sam Clayton on congas and vocals; and, Richard Hayward on drums and vocals) and a solid front line of George on guitar and vocals, Paul Barrere on guitar and vocals, and Bill Payne on keyboards and vocals. Musically, this is a strong line-up and with a band full of songwriters the material is, with few exceptions, equally strong. The Little Feat staples are all here and done well and are all worth multiple listens. The “hidden” gem though is “Spanish Moon” featuring the outstanding Tower of Power horns. The ToP can be heard on many of these cuts and add atmospherics and a fullness to the songs. “Rocket in My Pocket” is an example of what they add. Even the more quiet cuts, “Willin’ ” and “Don’t Bogart That Joint” have a great live sound here so enjoy them. Then crank it up for the LF classics, such as “Oh Atlanta” and “Time Loves a Hero” and the aforementioned “Fat Man in the Bathtub”. I wonder if Spotcheck Billy ever made that special connection with Juanita. Ah, never mind, because it’s not nearly as important as the music. This is a California band that sounds like it’s from New Orleans or Macon or maybe Atlanta. It’s certainly the exception, not the rule, but great Southern Rock isn’t always from the South.
Van Morrison - Astral Weeks Van Morrison famously used jazz musicians to record this classic album. Everything about it sounded different than anything on the radio in 1968. In fact, it sounded different than anything else, anywhere else, and that is true even now. Astral Weeks is consistently rated highly among critics’ lists of great albums, but don’t let that stop you from listening. Sometimes the critics get it right. Please remember this is not “Brown Eyed Girl”or “Domino” so don’t expect that. This is an album you can listen to for a lifetime and not get bored. Just give it a listen. Every song is strong, both lyrically and musically. Morrison uses words and music to paint scene after scene from a young man’s life, his surrounding, and the people he meets. These are songs of innocence and wonder - an adult looking through the eyes of a child. The opening bass and the opening lines of the first - and title - song are not pop and they’re not folk, but they are pure Van Morrison: “If I ventured in the slipstream, between the viaducts of your dream; Where immobile steel rims crack, and the ditch in the back roads stop; Could you find me? Would you kiss-a my eyes? To lay me down easy; To be born again; To be born again.” Morrison’s spiritual quest and musical adventure began in earnest with this album.
R.E.M. - Reckoning I enjoyed Murmur and so I expected something good with this record as well, but it was the Howard Finster cover that captured my attention in the record store when I bought this. Lead singer Michael Stipe actually did the drawing and then Finster did his thing on it and while the cover is a bit dark and brooding, the music isn't always so. This album is the best place for a new fan to begin listening to R.E.M. It’s the most melodic of their albums. Peter Buck’s mesmerizing guitar and Michael Stipe’s vocals are out front and inspirational and it sits atop the mighty Macon rhythm section of Bill Berry (drums) and Mike Mills (bass).
“Harborcoat” offers some thoughtful reflections from Stipe. “Seven Chinese Brothers” takes off from the children’s story and brings it into the land of adulthood. The other songs are awash in Stipe’s vocals and Buck’s guitar which coat each song in a trance-like veneer that brings forth every nuance of sound and thought. Despite what could be taken as a low-key approach, there are deep emotions roiling that surface given voice by Stipe. Murmur was good and it was the album that put R.E.M. on the map with overwhelming critical acclaim, but I would match Reckoning against it all day and I think Reckoning wins. The first six cuts in particular are magnificent: Harborcoat, 7 Chinese Bros., So. Central Rain, Pretty Persuasion, Time After Time (Annelise), and Second Guessing. Camera and (Don't Go Back to) Rockville are also excellent. In fact, all of the cuts here are consistently strong and it’s easy to put this on and sit back and enjoy. And that is something I strongly recommend you do.
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