Author Archive for Ray Speen

10
Jul
18

Dave Van Ronk “Dave Van Ronk Sings Ballads, Blues & a Spiritual”

I never really listened to any Dave Van Ronk before, aware of him primarily as a name in the early Sixties (was it late-Fifties, as well?) NYC folk music scene—a time, place, and music I’ve pretty much ignored as not being my bag, exactly. But DVR had come to the forefront of my attention because of the movie, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), which was supposedly inspired primarily by Dave Van Ronk—though the main character, Llewyn Davis, doesn’t seem to resemble DVR in appearance, sound, or biography—at least not too much, to my knowledge. Anyway, these are some pretty serious folk tunes, performed well and reverently, and this is a serious record, put out by the label DOXY, full title: “dave van ronk accompanying himself on guitar sings ballads, blues & a spiritual”—and includes liner notes by DVR and detailed track by track analysis on the inner sleeve by Kenneth S. Goldstein.

I just listened to the whole record and it’s very good, surprisingly compelling. (I mean, for me, not a real cheerleader for traditionally played traditional music and seriousness, etc.) DVR’s voice is pretty great—it’s unique and expressive, and I especially like the more blues oriented stuff. Anyway, I’m not going to get too much into the history of this right now; there are lyrics and notes about each song on the inner sleeve, but I’m not taking a college course here! It’s just nice to know that I feel like I’ve had a big, heaping, hot meal of Van Ronk, and next time he’s on the radio I won’t change the station.

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28
Jun
18

Michael Hurley “Land of Lo-Fi”

If I was in my 70s (I think that describes the relative age of Michael Hurley) and someone called “Mississippi Records” wanted to put out, on albums, my recordings, then hell yes. It makes me want to move back to Portland, actually (there are a lot of things, day to day, that make me want to move back to Portland—maybe my favorite place I’ve lived, aside from the lack of snow and thunderstorms). Also, on all Michael Hurley records you get cover art that’s essentially his art, paintings, etc. (I’m assuming)—so that’s twice the reason to buy these records. Some of the songs, however, I can do without, like the ones that feature instrumentation that consists of air blowing through a reed-type sound maker (well, one sounds like a pump organ, which is nice, though I’m not sure). His lyrics are always worth paying attention to, if you can make them out. I best like the songs where he plays guitar—he has a pretty nice sound and style. “Old Doc Gieger” is my favorite one here.

20
Jun
18

Kinky Friedman “Kinky Friedman”

This is a true story. I went through a Kinky Friedman phase when I was living in New York. I read one of his mystery novels, and liked it a lot, and then read some articles about him, some interviews—maybe there was some particular thing I read or watched that I can’t remember now. Anyway, I didn’t go as far as seeing a live show or buying a bunch of old records, but I did find his website and order a kind of gift set of Kinky Friedman cigars, coffee, and coffee mug. He’s really into all that good stuff. So, one of the cigars was one of those big-ass killers, and I saved it for a particular evening, smoked it, and then had a horrible pain in my lower back, on one side, that lasted for like a year. I was too afraid to go to a doctor and admit I’d smoked a Kinky Friedman cigar and that’s what brought it on. Can you die from smoking one cigar (that isn’t an exploding assassination cigar, I mean)?

This record from way back in the gold year of 1974 (it may be his first, given the title) is pretty straightforward, like here’s a guy with songs he wants you to hear. There’s a picture of him on the cover either relighting a cigar or looking at a text on his flip-phone; neither option makes much sense, as I don’t think he’s a guy likely to let a cigar go out, unless of course he going on about some subject he’s more passionate about than cigars, which, who knows? The back cover has him holding a cigarette. An unrepentant smoker, as of this writing Kinky Friedman is still alive (though there are still three days left in 2016, so I’m nervous saying that). (It’s now one day before Summer 2018, and if we’re to believe Internet, he’s still puffin’ away!) The songs feature some fine musicians, but I think the lyrics are the thing, so I’m going to have to listen closely. A couple are too jokey—this was before the time people had discovered that humor isn’t best underlined by goofy accompanying sounds.

14
Jun
18

Bob Dylan “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits”

If you subscribe to the theory that BD died after Blonde on Blonde (1966) and was replaced with “Dylan 2,” then this record makes a lot more sense—the cover is a big, dark, head silhouette (which decades later would become a “thing”)—which makes you think of nothing so much as a statue, a monument to a legend, dead and gone, and the white lettering and song titles right over his head announce nothing so much as “this is a product.” The photo (BD in concert, blowing on that dreaded harmonica) looks oddly contemporary—even more so if you imagine he’s looking closely at a smartphone, which is how I’d suspect kids these days would interpret it.

This is possibly the most unlistenable Dylan record for me, as it starts with the dreaded “Rainy Day Women” and is pretty much made up of the songs that have been played to death—which I don’t even think are close to his best songs. About the only one here I can still stand to listen to is “Like a Rolling Stone,” and then only on Nostalgia Thursday, and then preferably with a frivolous drink. If I had the internet right now I’d look up how many times in articles over the years someone has said, “I wish at an early age someone had stuck that harmonica right up his ass,” or “He really puts the ‘harm’ in harmonica.” I suppose it’s supposed to sound like a train whistle, but personally, any time someone tries to make a rock song sound like a train, I’m yawning like the Grand Canyon, and even a mention of a train has me nodding off. And I love trains.

08
Jun
18

Sly & The Family Stone “Greatest Hits”

I don’t think I ever owned a copy of earlier Sly and the Family Stone records, but I had this 1970 greatest hits record, it feels like, all my life, and everyone had it, and you know all the songs—they were on the radio, they were on TV, and they’re still being played here and there enough that you might hear one on any day somewhere and it wouldn’t be a surprise. But if you put the vinyl record on your stereo and listen to it closely, like I’m doing, it actually sounds fresh, since the reality of the music is different from my memory—it’s actually rawer, more innovative, and generally more interesting than the version in my memory. Particularly the songs: “Everybody Is A Star,” “Life,” “You Can Make It If You Try,” “Stand!”—really, all of them. No matter how well you know them in your sleep, it’s amazing how much better they sound “in person” (just you and your hi-fi).

I remember this time in junior high or high school when Sly and the Family Stone were on some variety TV show the night before, and everyone was talking about it at school the next day. Imagine that! There was some kind of confusion when the band took the stage, because then, Sly, or all of them, left the stage, I think, before coming back and playing. I don’t know what was going on, and it might be possible to find a video of that now, and even people discussing it, but I remember that as a very unique, very real moment, that really separated itself from the usual, over-rehearsed bullshit. He seemed like he had a great sense of humor, was having lot of fun, and had great style. This record has a just terrible cover, you’ve seen it, but over time it’s become kind of a classic, I guess. But the back is better, just a huge picture of Sly with a red knit hat and the best teeth I’ve ever seen. And the album cover folds open (and there are some liner notes, which I don’t remember being there—pretty good, too) and there is a giant vertical picture of the band, kind of out of focus, grainy, weird perspective, and Sly with those great boots—really, one of the best band pictures ever.

25
May
18

Richard Harris “The Yard Went On Forever”

First of all I’ve got about five Richard Harris albums, which is four or five more than normal people. It’s hard for me to explain his appeal to me—I guess it starts with him not being afraid to be way over the top, even ridiculous, and without irony, or if there is irony, a very convoluted version of it. Part of it is Jimmy Webb—it’s probably more accurate to call this a Harris/Webb collaboration than a Richard Harris album—but R.H. does almost equally as well with Tony Romeo (but that’s another record). This one is Jimmy Webb, sounding like he’s trying to recreate the MacArthur Park glory on the very first song here, “The Yard Went On Forever”—of course it does’t come close—but perhaps what it is is an allusion to it—indicating that this record is a continuation of MacArthur Park—for all those people (like me) who, as epic as M.P. was, wanted more. I believe this was R.H.’s second album, the first being from earlier the same year (1968, a half century ago!)—A Tramp Shining. There are those who found MacArthur Park the “pinnacle of human achievement” (that was me), as well as a fair continent who, if time travel was invented, would get around to eradicating that song only after assassinating Hitler.

For some reason I’ve listened to this Richard Harris album less than the other ones I own, so I’m happy my random system chose it on this evening. I’ve probably been mildly scared off by it because it’s so confusing, pretty much on every level. After I write this, I’ll be curious to see if anyone on the internet has tackled it. Just the cover makes no sense at all; I won’t even try to explain it. Find a thrift store and see for yourself. In the gnarly profile photo on back, R.H. looks like he’s been rolling in the dirt with several layers of historically accurate movie rolls (remember, he’s even more well-known as an actor). If that’s not enough, the cover opens to reveal a giant-size portrait of R.H., full cop-look, and the photo is so huge I got out my tape measure to measure his ear—over eight inches! I wonder how many people got high, over the years, and focused in on that photo? The ear is one part of the human body that you really don’t want to isolate and think about too much.

No printed lyrics, but maybe that’s just as well, as it lets me off the hook a little, interpretation-wise. You can understand them anyway—this guy enunciates like someone with theatre training. The songs are apparently all by Jimmy Webb, who is also the producer; he’s a great songwriter, as you know, and even his non-hits sound like they’re probably hits somewhere, or should have been. This record has full arrangements, backup singers, strings, horns, and a lot of atmosphere. Only four songs per side—I love how they used to do that—there’s enough space between the grooves and the label that you could grow crops there. I can usually listen to a record once through and pretty much get it, but this is going to be a two day project—and I’m going to go song by song. This mammoth achievement deserves that, and it’s fun to do that once in awhile. Plus, I’ve always loved, as an expression, “the yard went on forever”—without knowing what it means. I borrow it, as a non-sequitur, from time to time.

The title song is first (I like when they do that) and it starts with an angelic choir sounding kind of ominous (“Has everybody got a place to hide?”) and then R.H. sings “Can you hear them singing, the women of Pompeii, with Kansas City housewives…” If that doesn’t baffle you, the song fades to silence, two minutes in, and then starts up again with him singing about “The volcanoes and tornados on doomsday.” Then the angels again, but now R.H. is standing with the Nagasaki housewives. Then the angelic choir singing something I can’t understand—is it Esperanto, or Latin? This is not a song, it’s an art film! “Watermark” then is equally hyper-dramatic, with full strings, and I have no idea what this is about either, but this line jumps out: “I keep looking through old varnish at my late lover’s body.” This is heavy stuff. Then “Interim” which sounds like a convoluted lover’s lament (addressed to “you”) with lines like: “We were wound about so tightly that we couldn’t touch each other with a straw,” and “I have several lives to live/and each one of them continues without asking/it’s all that I can do to count my skeletons/and take my paid vacations.” Insane. Finally, “Gayla” which I believe is a woman’s name (not “Gay L.A.”)—the song starts out quiet and sentimental, and then turns on a dime and goes into another show-stopper chorus (for the fourth song in a row), then back to being quiet—then again to an even bigger finale, singing “God damn you, God damn you, and your dirty joke.” Somewhat bitter and sad? And then a reprise of the angelic choir: “Is everybody safe”—all this in three minutes.

If all that wasn’t enough drama for one LP, the second side starts off with a monster nine minute epic called “The Hymns from Grand Terrace.” It’s another movie, a love story, lush and emotional, that begins with, “He married her…” and he’s not speaking in the second person, if you know what I’m saying. That’s interrupted by a jaunty western traveling sojourn, then some truly happy imagery of happier times: “Cars would pass, we were out of gas, and didn’t care.” Then a total fade-out followed by a kind of song-length bridge with a really cool guitar part that could have been the foundation of a hit song if it wasn’t in service of this monumental epic. Then back to the drama, of course: “If I could face the fate that waits to cast me into shambles/and sit across the velvet boards from God, then I would gamble.” And when the song ends you’re not sure it’s over, because the next one, “The Hive,” starts right in like it’s part of the previous song. I’m listening closely, trying to figure out what this “hive” is—it’s not real happy. “And now they’ll all get roaring drunk/pretending they’re essentially alive,” and “God blessed our happy cubicle/keep it safe and sanitized/homogenized and pasteurized/there’s no place like numb.” There’s an orchestral segue into “Lucky Me”—a sad song masterpiece: “Lucky me, there’s no more we,”—that post-breakup justification that it’s better now—“No more I love you’s I could not return”—not fooling anyone, of course. Maybe one of the purest expressions of misery known to man, how much happier he is now, without her. And we end with “That’s the Way it Was”—a totally corny lament about a past time, a far off town, an idealized childhood, with each image punctuated by “And the honey bees would buzz”—which—after just a song ago, sinking into the horror of the hive—is hardly convincingly happy. And it ends with an overlapping of the angels, now singing part of the chorus from the first song, while R.H. barely holds back the tears with, “There once was a town… where a man could fall in love,” and finally, “And the yard went on forever.” At which time it’s supposed to all make sense. And it does!

12
May
18

Harpo Marx “Harpo”

This 1957 LP doesn’t know if it wants to be called “Harpo in Hi-Fi,” “Harpo featuring Harpo Marx,” or simply, “Harpo.” The cover is a zany photo of Harpo Marx peeking through strings of a harp, pulling them apart as if he’s parting curtains—as if we can’t see him fully through the harp strings, anyway. This album features a dozen excellent tracks with various instrumentation, all including Harpo Marx on harp. It almost seems too perfect that a person known for being one of the Marx brothers, named Harpo, would also be an accomplished harpist. But then, truth is stranger than fiction. And why wouldn’t it be.

The accompanying musicians belong to the Freddy Katz Orchestra, though some of the songs are arranged by Harpo’s son, Bill Marx, who went on to be a theater critic. There are some standards here, as well as a some of Harpo’s compositions. There’s a lot of variety, and a lot to pay attention to, though it’s all very lovely. I could listen to this record from the beginning of the day until twilight, each number throwing me into a different mood, from nostalgia to melancholy to romantic. I’m afraid if I let myself, even, I might be compelled to mix myself a cocktail and sit on the veranda, neither of which are healthy options for me, but are both sounding good right about now.

The other interesting thing about this record is that it’s intended as a Hi-Fi test or demonstration record, as Harpo apparently was a Hi-Fi buff—and so the liner notes, besides noting the composer of each track, also reveals the particular instrumentation (including Harpo whistling) so you can better assess how your system is preforming. There is even technical information about the recording process, including details about the studio and mics, which should delight the technical geek. But that doesn’t mean you can’t just sit back and enjoy this record, and I find it highly suitable for: romantic dinners, cocktails on the veranda, crafts, reading magazines, and making love. All of which I’ve tested, with the record, at least to some degree.




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