Author Archive for Ray Speen

15
Mar
19

Tamiko Jones “Tamiko”

I had never heard of Tamiko Jones when I picked up this record for nothing—I bought solely on the cover, a full size headshot of her, equal parts odd and beautiful, with painted on eyebrows and pale lipstick—kind of a hunting photo, really, with such a limited depth of field that her dark eyes are barely in focus, while her ears are part of the background blur. The stark red letters: “Tamiko” are in a kind of “Exotica” font that led me to believe this record might be in that vein, but it’s not at all—it’s kind of pop jazz vocalist stuff—pretty straightforward, but really nice, and to me has kind of an odd edge that I can’t really place. Sometimes she sounds a little like—it almost came to me—but I lost it. If we’re to believe Internet, she was born in Kyle, West Virginia and raised in Detroit, so it’s safe to assume she must have visited the Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio, during it’s prime years. It also says she is part Japanese, part British, and part Cherokee. The album has virtually no credits, but some is arranged by Jimmy Wisner, and some by Pete Dino. There is some standard sounding pop orchestra, and then some that sounds pretty otherworldly, with haunting vibes, some pretty prominent flute, and… do I hear a harp? There are some bossa nova songs, probably my favorites here. And a nice version of “You Only Live Twice,” my favorite Bond song (not in part because it makes no sense). A Bacharach/David number, which I always like. Really, I’m pretty captivated by this record, to the extent that I don’t want to ruin the spell by listening to it too many times right now—I know I can come back to it and have the same kind of curious reaction to it—at least I hope so. So I might write about it again.

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08
Mar
19

The Partridge Family – The Partridge Family Album

My copy of this record is trashed—I don’t think there is any chance of this being the actual copy I had when I was 10 years old—I’m pretty sure I bought this at a thrift store at some point—but my copy would probably be, if it still existed, this scratchy. This may be the first LP I ever bought—it was either this or a Tommy Roe LP. Before that, I did buy many 45s. I used to play my records on a “Show N Tell,” which was a kids’ toy record player—well, it worked—it looked like a little TV with a turntable on the top, and you played these slide shows with accompanying records. But I eventually used it as my hi-fi, and played my records on it—I don’t imagine the sound was great, and it probably had a stylus like a roofing nail. These things, and all memories of them, disappeared off the face of the Earth—but of course, I bet I could find one on either eBay or YouTube or both. It’s now nearly a week later and I’ve been doing little else but looking at Show N Tell videos on YouTube. Also, found my Niagara Falls motion lamp, vintage Hot Wheels, and a Major Matt Mason space station. I can probably find every odd and obscure thing I recall from my childhood on YouTube now, which is great, in a way, but you’ve got to limit yourself—like with angel food cake, coffee ice cream, Girl Scout cookies, potato chips, and purple drank.

This record always sounded great to me, even though you knew the band wasn’t a real band (it’s a TV show!) and it’s no doubt bubblegum, syrupy, and corny—but why is it so great? Little did I know (when I was 10) that the songs were written by some of the best pop songwriters of all time, and it was being performed by some of the best LA studio musicians of the era. “I Think I Love You” was the big hit—I think I had the 45, first. But then on this album, side two has two even better songs, “I’m On The Road” and “Somebody Wants To Love You”—both songs that give me goosebumps to this day. When I think about it now, this record, and the TV show every week, under the influence of my first heartbreaking crush, along with these songs and this music—no wonder I was scarred for life. The other odd thing—the memories that listening to this record beings back—is I remember finding out that David Cassidy was actually Shirley Jones’ step-son in real life, which confused me for some reason. I guess watching the show I got this weird feeling of an incestuous relationship between those two (or at least their characters)—which I couldn’t really put my finer on, or put into words. But when I think about it now—I guess with the variety of ages and genders of the kids in the family, much like the Brady Bunch, you were intended to maybe be infatuated with the one close to your age. But me, as a 10 year old, for some reason, had a huge crush on Shirley Jones. I wonder what that was all about.

01
Mar
19

Mountain “Flowers of Evil”

The guitars on this record just won’t quit. They may well outlast the demise of almost everything else on the Earth. In some future time, just after the cockroaches have even finally all died out, those guitars might still be going. But it’s just one guitar, right? Do I have to look this up? Sometimes I want to deal with a record just at face value, which is why I so enjoyed staying at various cabins in the “North Woods” where the internet is just a rumor, yet they have an old hi-fi and a stack of moldy LPs. This one has everything you need, pictures of the four guys in the band and simple descriptions of the instruments they play (guitar, vocals, bass, drums, keyboards), songwriting credits, some lyrics, but like a lot of older records, no date. (It’s from 1971.) Great front cover black and white band photo—the guys wearing their best stuff, but trying to look casual, and like the photographer was able to expend exactly one photo. On one guy’s shirt it says “Gerken”—but I think that was written there by the former owner of this LP—Gerken is a company that moves dirt from point A to point B. Or it could be a misspelling of gherkin, a type of pickle. Or it could be an obscure weed reference. Or the former owner’s name. At any rate, any of those things could explain the condition of this record (dirt, weed, pickle juice)—it’s close to unplayable. There are also liner notes explaining how side two—which is live—is really long (almost half an hour) which—considering that it was not really recommended making LPs that long due to diminishing sound quality— is really not all that bad sounding.

There has been nearly a half century of guitar heavy rock played, recorded, performed, and practiced by too-loud-neighbors since this record came out, which is a staggering amount, enough to sink the world and float the Titanic. So it’s kind of hard to appreciate what was likely the mind-blowing and groundbreaking nature of the hard rock this band was playing—but it’s just really difficult to put into perspective. I could probably enjoy it more if the record didn’t sound like it was being simultaneously murdered as it played. To be fair, I looked for some stuff on the internet, and there is some really great old footage of them playing live, and I very much enjoyed that. The guitar player and singer, Leslie West, is a big, sweaty guy, and really fun to watch play. I always love when a guitar player makes his guitar look like both a toy, a weapon, and an unwanted growth he’s trying to eradicate. I also really like certain guy’s names that are more often women’s names—not the unisex names, but the ones that kind of throw you off, like Leslie and Tracy. I don’t know why that’s important—and why names are important—but it is and they are.

28
Feb
19

Richard Harris “Slides”

This record is thrift store gold, not because it’s a rare find and worth anything, or even that it’s a great record, but because you will see it in thrift stores—usually recycling back through several times because people will buy it on a whim because of its whimsical cover (designed to look like a photographic slide, but record album size, with a clear plastic window revealing a very corny photo of Harris in a matching denim jacket and hat). Then they find they can’t deal with Harris-world, and send it back into the system. But if you do see a copy—and if you haunt the thrift store record bins long enough, you will—you should really buy it and give it a chance, because maybe, like me, the Harris-switch will flip in your brain and you’ll understand him as the genius that he is. I normally will never use the word genius—even for an undeniable one like Thelonious Monk—though sometimes I’ll use the word in a somewhat ironic way, like the genius who drives his car through something destructive but non-life-threatening. But then there is a certain type of genius where the word must be used hyperbolically to make your point, because pretty much no one agrees with you (though in the case of Ricard Harris, I bet there is a legion of people who do agree with me, but they’re people kind of like me—old guys, smoking pipes, who generally complain a lot, but love a few things passionately about which they spout their feeling via blogs to a totally indifferent and uncaring world wide nothingness).

This may be the first Richard Harris record I bought—though I’m not sure. I can’t really remember if I realized I was in love with “MacArthur Park” and then sought out Richard Harris records, or if it was the other way around. I think maybe I had this record for awhile before I figured out that I loved Ricard Harris records—I think for a long-ass time I didn’t really play it—and just was aware of the pretty ridiculous song, “Gin Buddy.” I mean, that is a great song, but it’s pretty silly, too. “He ain’t drunk, he’s just foggy, so one more gin toddy, and then I’ll take my old gin buddy home.” A lot of Richard Harris’ earlier stuff is written by and in collaboration with Jimmy Webb, one of the best songwriters of all time, and certainly the greatest weird one. There’s no J. Webb on this record, but who there is a lot of is Tony Romeo—in fact you could pretty much call it a Tony Romeo album with Ricard Harris singing—he wrote or co-wrote all but one of the songs, produced it and played on it. A great and prolific songwriter, he’s best known for the Partridge Family hit “I Think I Love You” (a song I think about every year on this (almost) date, the birthday of the first girl I ever had a crush on (never got over it) and for that, T. Romeo will always hold a place in my heart).

If you are one of the impatient youth, and don’t take the time to fully digest an album like you need to do with this one, you might just drop the needle on the title track, “Slides” which has a kind of really nice intro, just Harris singing to harpsichord. Then he goes onto narrate an actual slide show (we get slide projector sound effects, and some visual accompaniment and lyrics on the back cover). I like it, but I can see how it might kind of freak out the casual listener. But then the last song, “There Are Too Many Saviours On My Cross” (the only one written by Harris) is essentially spoken word (aka poetry) with orchestral accompaniment that sounds like the soundtrack for a very grim period war tragedy. It’s well-done, over the top, but probably not everyone’s cup of tea. It would be a crime to judge the album by these last two songs, though, because there are some really beautiful pop songs earlier, and if you don’t believe me, play them one at a time. “Roy” sounds like it’s going to be a Partridge Family song, and it builds to an emotional climax, a great pop number. “How I Spent My Summer” is also good, and sounds eerily like a Jimmy Webb song. “I’m Comin’ Home” is almost ridiculously catchy, one of those songs that you find yourself singing along with the chorus the first time you hear it. “Once Upon a Dusty Road” is another one that starts out quietly and then builds dramatically, then subsides, then explodes again, which Richard Harris can really pull off. The song that really snuck up on me on this record, because it’s just kind of hidden in the middle of the first side, is “Sunny-Jo”—it’s a very emotional love song (and no, I never even have been in love with someone named Sunny-Jo) that just kills me. It’s my favorite song late in the evening on the last day of February. I like it so much I’m going to put it on again, and I don’t joke about things like that.

27
Feb
19

Sammi Smith “Mixed Emotions”

It might be hard to believe, but I had never heard of Sammi Smith (well, I probably had—after all, I used to listen to the radio and watch Hee Haw—but over the years a lot of brain cells have been eradicated, I’m afraid, and Sam Smith’s Oatmeal Stout had more prominently ghosted my radar, apparently), but I saw this older record of hers at the used bookstore (I haven’t written about it yet) and it had a very personality-rich cover, so I bought it, expecting it to be unlistenable, but it was great. Since then I’ve been on the lookout for Sammi Smith records. She was country and western singer who put out 17 or 18 albums in the Seventies, then moved on to other things. You can easily find a brief history on the internet if you’re interested. But I have a feeling that, just with my brief exposure to her, she was a fascinating person—maybe someone will write a biography about her.

The cover of this album (on Elektra records) is odd in that I would have guessed it was from the Eighties, just by the layout and graphics, the colors, the style. I admit I’m considerably more of a fan of things from the Seventies than the Eighties, in all forms of culture—including record albums and album covers. So I almost didn’t pick it up, but then I noticed it was Sammi Smith, and I looked at the back expecting to see a later date, and was kind of surprised that it was 1977. There is actually a really great photograph on the cover, but for some reason it is kind of weirdly cropped and vertical, with several inches of border on either side— why? A square version of this photo, blown up, would have been a much better cover.

The first song scared me because of its prominent use of a kazoo—never a good sign. Never judge an album by the first song, though. The next song is great—it’s called “Touch Me” and is a classic Nashville sounding song—I tried looking it up, to see who else did it—but do you know how many people have recorded songs called “Touch Me?” When I start writing songs again, the first thing I’m going to do is write a song with that title! Then a really nice, slow, old-fashioned sounding version of “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” the Don Gibson classic that I most associate with Ray Charles. Next is “De Grazia’s Song,” written by Sammi Smith—I don’t know who De Grazia is (a painter), but he/she wrote the brief, but glowing liner notes. The last song, then, is jaunty to the point that she refers to someone as “you little booger”—making this one of those famous, “skip first and last song records”—though that’s just the first side. What will the second side hold in store for us?

“I’ve Seen Better Days” is a good one—it’s written by Red Lane and Danny Morrison—I’m sure I’ve heard it, but I’m not sure where—a lot of big names in country music did it—but I’m going to say, hearing this version, if someone can show me a better version than this one, it might be my favorite all-time song. “Hallelujah for Beer” is a song that you probably get the idea from the title—a song that is probably playing right now on a jukebox in Milwaukee. “Days That End in ‘Y’” is another beautifully heartbreaking country song—but I’m getting tired of looking up who else did these songs. It’s another title I’m going to steal, but change it to: “The Days That End in Why” (if no one else has). “A Woman Left Lonely” is my favorite song on the record—it’s just undeniably a killer song, written by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham—the most famous version, of course, being Janis Joplin’s. And I love Janis Joplin and her version of this song, but it’s an interesting comparison, her version and this one, because I’d argue that Sammi Smith’s is better, because it’s more about the song, while Janis Joplin’s is more about Janis. I don’t mean that critically, I love that about her—she could sing “Old MacDonald had a Farm” and break your heart. But I love how this version is also emotional, heartbreaking—but really, you love the song and the singer in equal parts. The last song, then, is the Tom Jans song, “Loving Arms,” and a beautiful, lovely way to end the record.

26
Feb
19

Randy Newman “Sail Away”

I first heard Randy Newman’s song “Sail Away” on a Warner Special Products box set LP called Superstars of the 70’s that came out in 1973 and was sold on TV. I heard a lot of music for the first time via that thing, but they placed “Sail Away” directly after Seals & Crofts “Summer Breeze” and The Beach Boys “Surf’s Up” so I kind of dismissed it as “Yacht Rock” (which wasn’t invented, or at least named, yet) and didn’t bother to listen closely enough to the lyrics to realize it wasn’t about… “sailing.” I’m sure I understood irony at the time, but at 12 and 13 I was (like a lot of kids) kind of a raging maniac, and it wasn’t until my first year in high school—when my English teacher Mr. Kimble used a lot of popular songs in his class—that I started to listen to song lyrics a little differently. It’s interesting how kids kind of mature at different rates—I mean it’s both different for each individual and each person has different parts of them maturing—so it’s all out of whack. I think this is fascinating, and can also be scary. Pretty much everyone is born into the pain of a raging narcissist, and you can even keep that childhood part of you vital—I think it’s really built into what’s necessary for “success”—and it’s possible to find a mate who supports it. It might even really not be a problem until you become a parent, or a boss, or the President. Other people keep other child parts vital, which can both make you happy, and suffer (often both simultaneously). I pretty much go by feelings more than intellect, to a fault, and my music listening often reflects that. Like, on that Warner collection, “Tumbling Dice” was my favorite song, and still holds me under its spell, and I still have no idea what Mick Jagger or the backup singers are singing. What’s it about? Tumbling dice, I guess, but also an unspeakable desire.

Anyway, this record is great, I love it from beginning to end. I feel like these songs will work on your computer, or MP3 player, at home, or while walking, but it’s nice the album has the lyrics inside—I think it’s one where you can eventually get more out of reading along at some point. I don’t know about you, but I never like to read lyrics when I first hear a song—I’d rather really get to know a song before I ever go to the lyrics. But it does have some value, I think, reading lyrics, to appreciate songs on different levels. You can find this one in a thrift store, too, but you might overlook it because it has one of the murkiest album covers you’ll ever see, of Randy Newman looking a lot like Ian Hunter—and it’s one of those that annoyingly folds out sideways—so no one ever knows how to put it on a shelf or in a bin. Opened up, it’s like a super closeup photo of him sitting at a piano wearing sunglasses and corduroy jacket in extremely low light, as if the photo was taken surreptitiously with a telephoto lens through door opened only a few inches without his knowledge. In the act, no doubt, of writing a song. Or maybe thinking about writing a song, which, I guess, is the same thing.

This is a record I’m still only scratching the surface of, and it could easily accompany me to my grave (I mean in a good way). A few years back I discovered the Randy Newman song “Wedding in Cherokee County” (from a different LP) and it became my favorite song for about a year, and an example of what songwriting can, could, should (and maybe never, for me, would) be. The twelve songs on this album are sitting there like the complete works of some (pick your favorite) writer, heavy on the shelf, but nothing but wallpaper until you tackle them with all the parts of you working as best as you can aspire to (at this point). What’s kind of amazing is 1972 is getting near half a century ago, and this music feels contemporary (at least to me). Also, several of these songs are under two minutes long and only one is barely over three and a half. The richness can’t be taken in all at once—I mean it can, it’s enjoyable—but to really get at it. I’ve got to go in for just a little bit, and then come back for more later. The title song is a complete experience, it’s just so beautiful on the surface and so angry and caustic just underneath. Randy Newman is an LA guy, but spent a lot of time in the South, has a kind of accent, writes a lot about the South, but it’s interesting there are a couple of songs on this record referencing Ohio. For one thing, he probably understands that southern Ohio is the South, and maybe he even knows, like I do, that so is all of Ohio. His song “Burn On” sounds like it’s in the tradition of southern river songs, but it’s about the Cuyahoga River which famously caught on fire in Cleveland (even much younger people might know about that). It kind of caught people’s attention about pollution, at the time, and provided fuel for those annoying environmentalists. Of course, now we’ve got a genius in the White House, who, if the river was to catch on fire again, would tweet that the river didn’t catch on fire, it was FAKE NEWS, and his supporters would believe him—shit, dude’s got it figured out.

25
Feb
19

Alec Templeton “Alec Templeton and his Music Boxes”

“If I were king, it would be a must that everybody have a hobby…” starts Alec Templeton’s intro, the first track of this record. And I agree, though I’d add, “but drinking and looking at pornography don’t count.” He then goes on to talk about his love for, and obsession with, collecting music boxes. I kind of like this thing of the first track being a spoken intro—kind of like an audio version of liner notes. Though you might get powerful tired of it if it’s a record you have “on repeat” (as the kids say). Though, maybe there is little danger of that here, as the remainder of this record consists of recordings of various music boxes—there are 45 tunes from 24 different ones, some of them quite grand, of course, and large, elaborate, ornate, and expensive. They all sound like music boxes. There are a few faded black and white photos of some of the boxes, but they don’t really do them justice. And some informative (written) liner notes that start out: “For the next 44 minutes, Mr. Templeton would like to take you away from the cares and tensions of today and transport you back to the gay, quiet era of not so long ago—the era of the music box…” There’s a signpost up ahead!

I could imagine (actually, I couldn’t) having a roommate who, this was his favorite record, and played it every day right after dinner. I’m afraid you’d have to kill him. I mean, this is an enjoyable record to listen to once or twice. I guess you could try to see how many tunes you can name. I have to say, that song, “A Bicycle Built for Two,” has just been forever altered for me after hearing HAL sing it while perishing in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). (Kubrick did that to a lot of music, actually—thanks, Stanley!) Talking about movies, if you are a filmmaker, this record might work really well into your resources—there could very likely be some scene in anyone’s movie where one of these music box songs is just the thing. The sound, the feeling of them, is far from neutral. I wonder why it is that we associate this music box music with some kind of ironic vision of the underlying tragedy inherent in our existence? Is it something leftover from past lives? Or just from other movies?




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