Author Archive for Ray Speen

19
Jan
20

Lena Horne “Stormy Weather”

This is a record I imagine a lot of people having in their collections in the late 50s—it’s got a classy cover, a photo of Lena Horne spotlighted in the darkness, maybe next to a piano—what I’d imagine to be a studio photo replicating a concert setting, but I don’t know. She was a huge star—the liner notes on back talk about how she was a star of first name recognition, like Ella and Frank—and those two come to mind listening to this record of standards—as her singing is every bit as singular as theirs—though none of them sound remotely like each other. So I like to think about a time when this record was on the normal person’s turntable—it’s anything but a boring record. I wonder if younger people know her? I suppose when you say “Lena,” now, more people think of Lena Dunham. As familiar as she is, I know nothing about her really—she lived into her 90s, had a 70 year career, passed away 10 years ago. She was at some point married to Lennie Hayton, who was known to wear captain’s hats, and conducted the orchestra on this record. One wonders if they are an inspiration to the Captain & Tennille. This LP is beat to hell, yet it plays—and just takes me back to a time before I was born. The first song, “Tomorrow Mountain” (Duke Ellington/John Latouche) is spectacular—crazy lyrics—the first I’ve ever heard it. Some of my favorite songs are here, including “Summertime,” “Stormy Weather,” “I’ll Be Around,” and “Just One of Those Things.” All 11 songs are good—nothing bland here, actually—you can’t really call this easy listening—there’s nothing easy about it. It’s out there, it’s jazz, it’s art—even a little challenging. I guess I’m going to have to keep an eye out for other old Lena Horne records now—I’m certainly happy to open another door to the richness of the past.

10
Jan
20

Gil Evans “The British Orchestra”

Up until now, Gil Evans didn’t crack my top ten Evanses—somewhere behind Bill, Bob, Dale, Jeff, Robert, etc.—a formidable list, sausage or not—Monsieur Jeffrey being the one I’ve met, and my hero. Bob (the sausage king) not to be confused with Robert (The Kid Stays in the Picture). Dale, the only woman here, partner of Roy Rogers (see: “a Roy Rogers roast beef sandwich). Bill and Gil both played piano, were important collaborators with Miles Davis—of course it gets confusing if you’re just not a jazz enthusiast or record collector. I count myself as someone with an encyclopedic gap of knowledge about just about everything, jazz included. Though I’ve spent hours and hours listening to Bill Evans—never get tired of that stuff. Gil, however, I know nothing about—I picked up this record with my fingers, put it on. The label says: Mole Jazz, it’s a British pressing, recorded live, March 14, 1983. I could probably tell you where I was on that day—Kent, Ohio, Spindizzy Records—listing to the new shipment of British punk and new wave records, not liking much. I probably wouldn’t have given this much of a chance either, since the first track is pretty guitar heavy, and guitar jazz just put me off for the longest time. I’m still pretty much on the fence when it comes to electric guitar jazz. Maybe I’m on the fence with jazz in general. I’ll wake up every morning at 4 AM and turn on WKCR, and sometimes it’s jazz that I love, and other times I’ll be kind of blocking it out until I realize how much I hate it, at which time I’ll say: “Why would anyone play that on purpose?” I think what it comes down to is that in general I don’t like “jazz fusion”—it’s just not my thing. I know that’s a huge generalization, but there you go. Any time I hear an exception, I’ll be glad to point it out. I’ve listened to this record a few times now, and all this nonsense I’m writing is my way of not having to write anything biographical about Gil Evans (you can easily go elsewhere for that). And also not have to make any decision about this record. There are four long instrumental songs, all live with a large band. The second one, “Friday the 13th,” is a Thelonious Monk number, and my favorite—probably because it sounds like a Thelonious Monk composition, and reminds me of him—not only my favorite jazz musician, but my favorite musician, ever. As far as the rest of it, there are moments I like, but entirely too much saxophone here, guitar there—so, the closer it sounds to noise (seemingly formless and chaotic) the more I like it, and the closer it gets to rock (the dreaded rock, the insipid), the less I like it.

04
Jan
20

Deodato “Prelude”

If you have ever seen Being There (1979) and can listen to this version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and not vividly relive that opening scene, you must be suffering from brain damage and maybe want to get that checked out. If you’ve never seen that movie, I’m envious of you, because you have a great movie experience ahead of you—though I suggest waiting, hopefully, for a theater screening of it somewhere (I say that about all great movies, though it might not be realistic). If you’ve never heard this particular Strauss piece of music—no, that’s not possible. Anyway, this is an excellent version, and takes up half of the first side. The rest of the record is just as good, too. Actually, I think I like the rest of the record, on a whole, better, since it’s not weighed down with Peter Sellers or space stations. Particularly “Carly & Carole,” a Deodato number—and really, all of it. There’s a little of everything—bossa nova, rock and funk, jazz and classical, flute and a lot of space. The entire side two sounds like the soundtrack for an imaginary TV show about me—or at least a heightened, idealized version of fictional me. It’s got a great album cover too—a fine use of glossy deep green—kind of timeless—it looks like it might have come out yesterday, but it was 1973—at which time there was an offer on the inside cover to buy a print of the cover photo for $19.95, which seems like a steal to me, even then. This record was huge, I guess, at the time, though I was too young for it. It’s on the CTI label, and as I’m not a jazz collector, haven’t seen it a lot, but I guess it’s the label of Creed Taylor who seems to have been a big connection of Brazilian music to the popular US jazz market—is that right? Also, I noticed it was recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, a very familiar name, but just what all did he do? I looked him up and, Danger Will Robinson, there’s another gaping rabbit-hole just waiting for you to stumble into.

I admit to knowing nothing about this Eumir Deodato, apart from what I’m reading right now—he’s Brazilian, bossa nova pianist, likes that electric piano sound—composer, producer, arranger— still alive—wow, it looks like he’s got about 40 records. I’m going to keep an eye out for them—probably some are hard to find. This one is probably the easy one. He was fairly young here—his picture is on the inside album cover—and I’d guess he didn’t have a lot of trouble with dating. But anyway, if any of the others are even half as good as this record, they’re worth picking up. It would be funny if he got to be a major obsession with me, and I keep getting Deodato records—then the name of this one would be frighteningly apt. Not really related—I used to drive a Honda Prelude from the Seventies—that was a good car. Prelude is like an introduction to something else, right? So naturally you think, this is a taste of what’s to come… so I thought it was an odd name for a car, like, Oh, you’re going to get a better car. And an odd name for an album—it makes you think this record is just part of a bigger work. Which I suppose, if you consider all his work to come, even if it didn’t sell as much as this one, is apt. I can’t say how his other work compares, but I’ll keep an eye out for those records.

20
Dec
19

Hampton Hawes Trio “The Green Leaves of Summer”

I picked up this 1964 record knowing nothing about Hampton Hawes—sadly never had heard of him—and I wasn’t expecting much, certainly not that it would be so good, and instrumental jazz—piano jazz trio. I suppose I was guessing by the cover that it was going to be kind of mild crooner pop—only because of the bold yellow font on a blurry, bright green background, and bigger than life-size photo of a very handsome man, presumably Hawes, himself. And because he kind of resembles a young Harry Belafonte, naturally I just thought he was going to be a singer. Of course, that’s dumb of me. By chance, those two were born a year of so apart, and a few years before my dad. Though Hawes died pretty young, in 1977. I see that he wrote a memoir, so I’m going to check that out. (Found the book at the library, haven’t read any of it yet.) Apparently this record came out after he was in prison for five years for heroin possession. This is a fine jazz trio recording; Hampton Hawes on piano, Monk Montgomery on bass, and Steve Ellington drums. Great names—if you throw all six of those names in a hat, with the exception of “Steve,” it just oozes jazz. The liner notes, on back, by Lester Koenig is practically book length—I’m not going to read it now, but intend to later, like maybe when I listen to the record again. It’s one I’m going to leave out for awhile, for listening. It’s good, but subtle. Nothing jumped out at me on first listening, except maybe the first song, a Miles Davis composition called “Vierd Blues.” But often, subtle is a very good thing, calm and simple at first visit, like the Blue Hole, this little duck pond in Ohio that doesn’t look like much, but turns out to be bottomless and legendary.

07
Dec
19

Skeeter Davis “The Best of Skeeter Davis”

There is a “Best of Skeeter Davis” record from 1983, and 1980, and 1973, and 1978, and 1965. There may be more, but I got tired of looking in the internet. For the most part, they are the same songs—I mean, the first one kept getting reissued—though I noticed some variations. Anyway, this one that I’m listening to right now is a fine vinyl copy from 1965, RCA Victor, mono, 12 songs, it sounds great. On the front cover there’s nice picture of Skeeter, kind of Olan Mills style, that’s in a squarish rectangle with rounded corners that resembles the screen of 1960s television. It says “The Best of Skeeter Davis” and lists the songs. The letters in her name is each a different color. People could get color TV in the early 60s, but 1965 is considered the year the damn burst. It was often advertised by making each letter a different color, such as with the “Color TV” signs at motels. There are brief, very introductory, uncredited liner notes on back, referring to her as a “vivacious blonde Kentuckian.” She was both young and old at this time (around 34) and was, of course, already a star, with half a dozen LPs, lots of singles, and some hit songs. A “best of” record already made sense.

Every song on this record is good, and I could write an article about each one, but I’m not going to even mention them, I mean, individually, at this point, since they’re all on other records that I’ve written about, or am going to write about. No… maybe should… I’m listening to this again. It’s such a great record… every song is good. It’s like the classic county record of all time. Twelve songs by 12 different people or songwriting teams (including one by Skeeter Davis and Carolyn Penick), but somehow, it’s like every song is a Skeeter Davis song, once she’s singing it. She’s like Sinatra in that way. I wonder if those two ever met. This record would be a great birthday or Christmas present for someone—someone who maybe isn’t already a big Skeeter Davis fan, and you want to introduce her to. If I ever see other copies of this for a reasonable price (or the reissued versions), I’m going to buy them and then give them away as presents. Instead of the guy who gives you books you don’t want to read, I’ll be the guy who gives Skeeter Davis records to people who don’t like country music and don’t have record players!

30
Nov
19

Lana Del Rey “Ultraviolence”

If you call your album “Ultraviolence” are you making a reference to A Clockwork Orange, either the book, or the movie, or both? Though maybe there was something (band, ad agency, hoagie) with that name—referring to the book, or the movie—in the vast cultural wilderness of the last four decades that I missed—and this record is actually referring to that. Is it a fragrance? If not, it should be! Well, in this case, it refers to a (seriously creepy) love song, on the album. I was happy to see a lyric sheet, but it isn’t a lyric sheet, it’s song by song credits, typed with a seemingly very, very small typewriter—I read some of them before my eyes hurt too much and I had to stop—but if you can find another woman’s name anywhere in the vast sea of dude-ness, Leave a Comment, and I’ll issue a personal apology. Like so many records by young people, this one has a thick cover, super heavy vinyl, and is a double record. I guess when I’m thinking back to some of the most exciting records of all time, like from the Seventies, quite a few were double records—I guess it was supposed to announce a spectacular surge of creativity, and also the record company’s boundless love for the artist. But for people who grew up in the CD era, maybe a record seemed like it should be 14 or 18 songs and well over an hour, and to put that on vinyl you need two records. Oh well, the important thing is, are there are good songs—and there are lots here. I think they’re all written by Lana Del Rey, along with someone else, in many cases. I like the songs, I like the sound, I like her singing—I should probably end this review here—the new concise and positive me. But I’m not getting paid by the word, so I’m also not getting paid for brevity.

“Cruel World” is pretty, and melancholy, and pretty damn melancholy, but at least, given that title, relatively free of irony? I love rhyming “Bourbon” and “suburban”—has anyone else used that rhyme? I’m sure, but I can’t recall any, offhand, you need the proper stars to line up. There’s a really familiar sounding song, maybe a hit? Or maybe it’s just growing on me from repeat listens. All solid songs here—I like this record—it’s just relentless in its dramatic, melancholy sound. You want to text her and say, “It’s not so bad. It’s all going to be okay.” But what if she texted back: “How do YOU know?” Well, okay, maybe not then. Keep doing what you’re doing. Apparently she has, with more records since this one, and they’re all hit records, I believe. It’s kind of hard to know, as least for me, anymore, the difference between relative stardom, and stardom, and superstardom, and the next thing. She’s definitely getting “paid by the tear,” as David Berman said. Of course, there can be a cost to that, of course, but maybe those bills have already been paid. Just last week I read an interview, by chance, online (as those things happen, these days, seemingly at random) with a woman singer and songwriter, apparently quite successful, though it was the first time I heard of her (and since forgot her name). What caught my attention was the seeming openness with which she talked about unhappy relationships—and it just struck me, made me kind of sad. I know these are rich people problems, but love is one place where we’re all equal, at least to a great degree—and being famous, or revered, or having money, doesn’t necessarily make it easier. Honey is wonderful, but it attracts everything, including dirt. I’m sorry I can’t remember who the interview was with, but Leave a Comment if you think you know, or maybe I’ll include it as a comment here, later, if I remember. Oh, also, that reminded me of Randy Russell’s excellent short story about falling in love with a singer’s songs, then meeting the person. It’s called “Fiddle o’ Blood,” and I recommend it.

It’s a good album cover, with big, casual photos. It’s kind of refreshing in that the photos on both the front and the back take up the the whole covers, with white letters superimposed, and they are both black and white, and look like from the same day, same photo session. Lana Del Rey is wearing the same kind of white, V-neck T-shirt I wear to work under my white work shirt, though hers looks pretty new, not gnarly like mine, and also, she’s wearing a bra under hers, which is a nice look—though not one I could pull off. On the front it looks like she’s getting out of a car, though I can’t tell what in the world is going on here, or what kind of car it is—from the small details, I’d say it’s a 1970s crap car. It’s a nice, kind of blurry photo—she looks like she’s about 20. Maybe she was at the time. It looks like there’s a tattoo on the outside of her left hand—the part you’d use to karate chop something. Then on the other photo you see a tattoo on the inside of her left hand. Or maybe they’re not tattoos at all, but simply reminders, written with a Sharpie (“Remember photo shoot,” and “Call Speen”). I’m kind of hurt that she needs a reminder, but on the other hand—well, I’m not sure what it says on her right hand. There should be a website that just tells you what famous people tattoos say. Oh, right, there probably is one. I’ll check that out now. On the other hand, no, that’s gross. I’d rather not know.

22
Nov
19

Gene & Debbe “Hear & Now”

I spotted this record used, a beat up but playable copy, and it was the first I heard of Gene & Debbe. It’s a great cover, with the words in a slightly psychedelic font, each a different color: ghost green, hot pink, acid orange, and boring blue. Mostly, though, it’s this big b&w photo of Gene & Debbe—Gene staring at the camera like you’ve got exactly four minutes to get this photo, and Debbe just in front of him in profile (she’s quite beautiful) with her hair up in a beehive that won’t quite behave. You know there’s an empty can of Aqua Net very nearby. Liner notes on back (as well as two songs, the saddest ones) are by my man, Mickey Newbury, short, but concrete dense. Not one for the light touch. Though he does slip a little—perhaps unnerved by Debbe’s luminance—and says, of her: “Like the cream in a morning’s first cup of coffee.” I, for one, forgive him. Gene Thomas and Debbe Nevills were a Nashville pop/folk/country duo who had a hit song (“Playboy,” on this record), a handful of other singles, and one album, this one, from 1968.

Odd LPs with great covers are often bummers musically, but I’m liking this one a lot. I’m guessing the hot playing by some uncredited Nashville pros doesn’t hurt. The eleven songs are all catchy, and six are by Gene Thomas. The cover song of greatest note is “Let It Be Me”—which happens to be one of my favorite songs of all time—recorded by everyone and their mother. Gene sounds more than a bit like Sonny Bono. Debbe doesn’t sound like Cher, that would be weird, but her voice is similarly striking—her voice is great. It makes this record, really. It’s kind of like the morning’s first cup of black coffee. You know, my life has been so much better since I got used to drinking coffee black. It wasn’t easy (kind of like quitting smoking), but now I prefer it. Truthfully, this record, as pleasant and listenable as it is, really comes to life every time Debbe sings. Gene’s a tad whole milk, or even 2%. I guess I’ve kind of developed a crush on Debbe, as I listen to this again. “Go With Me” sounds really familiar, I wonder if someone else did it? Debbe takes these kind of simple words (“take my hand”) and just twists them, so they just pierce your heart—and I don’t even think she knows. I guess they were a couple, for awhile, then broke up. I suppose it wasn’t easy, being either a duo or couple, with people like me trying to steal Debbe away from him—but who can blame us?




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