Archive for the 'Folk' Category

26
Jan
18

Beck “One Foot In The Grave”

I was happy to see a Beck album squirreled away here in this North Woods cabin, because it’s been drawn to my attention how unfairly I treated Beck in earlier reviews (just as an aside)—as well as Jeff Beck—and I say unfairly, because I’m actually a fan of both those artists, but they are both an easy target for some cheap laughs. But I do have the highest respect for both, and neither of them can help it if they have to share a name with Glenn Beck. What is Beck’s real name, by the way? Since the internet is still out, I’m going to guess: Johnny Langetree. I’m probably not far off. This 1994 album is on K Records, my favorite label of all time—and this was released around the time his first really huge record came out and made him huge—I can’t remember the name of it, but Beck fans know the one. I’ve never heard of this one. It’s what would be considered “Lo-Fi” I think, and I love the sound—a lot of it is like a guy with a guitar in a room—but some songs with additional instruments and musicians—and both approaches work here.

The front and back covers are black and white photos of Beck, looking very young, outside with bare trees in the background. On the front cover there’s an underage looking blond guy, and I have no idea who he is—maybe in town for a Gus Van Sant shoot. They’re standing in what could be a cemetery (which would be appropriate, given the title), in front of what could be a coffin, with what looks like a children’s book sitting on it. Beck is holding a Silvertone acoustic guitar, and he’s wearing a Kool-Aid scarf, which he probably didn’t get paid enough to wear, and maybe didn’t even make the Kool-Aid big-wigs happy, at least until his next record went gold (or was it called “Gold?”)

The record starts with a traditional blues number, and for my money (which would be $0, as I didn’t buy this) it is a perfectly nice cover—though if the whole record was more of the same, I wouldn’t be real thrilled. I imagine there were blues snobs who took the record off after this song and never even heard the rest. Well, that’s your loss, because the next song, “Sleeping Bag”—with some simple drums and slide guitar—would have made me fall in love with Beck, had I heard this back a quarter century ago. There are a couple of songs where he’s joined singing by Calvin Johnson (you can’t mistake his voice)—the singer for one of my favorite all-time bands, Beat Happening (and producer of this record). The song “Asshole” is another standout, not just for the why-haven’t-I-written-a-song-called “Asshole” title, but for its catchiness, as well.

There’s one song that kind of sounds like people doing their interpretation of early Pavement, and another song that makes me think of the Silver Jews. The album cover doesn’t credit the additional musicians, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them were—or later became—well known for this or that (I mean, hopefully, good things, like music!) “Girl Dreams” is another good one. And “Painted Eyelids.” And the last one. Holy shit, this is a good record! And I might have missed out if I’d been able to go online and get tickets to the opera—that is, if there was opera around here, and I liked opera. Is that a Datsun, blurred in the picture on the back? Does anybody remember Datsuns?

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18
Dec
17

Bob Dylan “Self Portrait”

This is a double album that—in the tradition of double albums—announces the celebration of an explosion of creativity that is unable to be contained on the traditional single LP format. Or maybe it’s something else entirely, seeing how it’s Bob Dylan, and who ever knows what he’s thinking? There is a self-portrait painting of him on the cover with no words or frame. The album opens and there’s a list of the songs, on four sides, and also a list of 50 names; on further inspection, this appears not to be a random list from the phonebook, but likely a list of musical collaborators. Quickly glancing through the alphabetical list I see: Charlie Daniels, Al Kooper, David Bromberg, all the members of “The Band,” and many more names I recognize, and many more that I don’t.

I never heard this one before. It sounds like a Bob Dylan record, kind of, or maybe a parody of one, which you arguably could say about any Bob Dylan record. It’s kind of amazing, I’ve been listening to this dude for 50 years and I keep hearing stuff I never heard—kind of like the original Star Trek broadcast. There’s a few covers on this record, including: “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” credited to a C.A. Null, who I don’t know, but I know the song as sung by Skeeter Davis, one of my favorites (she has an album by that title). The lyric goes: “I forgot more than you’ll ever know about him.” Which is a woman singing to another woman, a rival, about a man, I believe, and when you change the gender it doesn’t quite work for some reason—but I also like to think of it as a general proclamation, to anyone, about anything.

It’s interesting—I must have been aware of this record—not when it came out when I was ten—but in later years when I started listening to Dylan records—it would have been in the record store bins, maybe even in cut-out bins like Planet Waves always seemed to be—but I avoided this one like a perennial golden turd in the sun. But listening to it now, on my third or fourth time through, I realize I’ve never heard a lot of this stuff and it’s some of the best Bob Dylan I’ve ever heard. It’s kind of like BD’s “Covers Record”—though a lot of the songs he covers are Dylan songs. (Idea: BD should do an entire record of Cat Power songs.) Here lies the best versions of both “Let It Be Me” and “Blue Moon” I’ve ever heard. A lot of this is BD singing in his “Jim Nabors” voice, which I’ve grown to love. Of course, this is the post-death-Dylan, or “second” Dylan, as the theory goes, and the future (1970 thru 2016) looks bright.

13
Dec
17

Leonard Cohen “Songs of Leonard Cohen”

The album cover says “Songs of Leonard Cohen” but the label simply says “Leonard Cohen”—I believe this is his first album. It’s the one with the back cover drawing of a naked, chained woman enveloped in flames and not so subliminal skulls. This is an old, scratchy copy of this record, constant scratchy record sound, which sounds very beautiful to me. Maybe it’s just that it sounds so good, the record, as opposed to the digital version through my computer speakers. If you cannot appreciate the scratchy record, however, I have no use for you—go listen to your digital half-life version, and if you claim to have a superior digital system, well okay, I realize my computer speakers suck, and yours are good, but you could also be spending that money on a half-decent record player and it would sound great.

This record is so much Leonard Cohen upfront that I can imagine thousands or even millions of people who can’t handle it, like oysters, or okra, and also some of these songs are amongst the most over-played songs ever, but if you are lucky enough to get hit by a low branch or something and your perception gets a bit realigned and you can hear the record a-new, you are very lucky indeed, because this is the most amazing collection of great songs on one record maybe ever. Any songwriter could call it a career with any ONE of these songs, and here they all are on this one record. The recording sounds at once very young and very old, like they were a little too much 20-something in their giddiness of recording (it was 1967, after all), but Leonard Cohen’s voice overpowers all of the instrumentation, which is a good thing, and he’s right there in your room. He was that odd person who seemed fully mature at a very young age and then just seemed to get younger from there (maybe we’re all like that, but it’s just not so much on display).

03
Dec
17

Bob McFadden and Dor “The Mummy” / “The Beat Generation”

Oh, no!—another novelty record. I suppose when you’re picking records up at thrift stores and yard sales, that’s what you’re going to get a lot of. These are two very different, but both goofy songs, by Bob McFadden (a singer and voice-actor—most significantly, to me—the voice of Franken Berry) and Dor (stage name for Rod McKuen, who wrote the songs, and was one of the few poets during my lifetime that I recall having household-name status). On “The Mummy” he uses an exaggerated silly monster voice, and the whole deal is not that interesting. I like “The Beat Generation” more, because the affected “hipster” delivery is a lot funnier to me. Also, I had no idea that this is the song that inspired Richard Hell’s “Blank Generation”—which is pretty inspired. This single is taken from the album “Songs Our Mummy Taught Us” which probably includes more of the same, though it does have a song called “Noisy Village.” Ha! Also of note: Bob McFadden shares a birthday with Randy Russell (as well as Edgar Allan Poe, Cindy Sherman, Larry Clark, Dolly Parton, Janis Joplin, one of the Everly Brothers, Frank Anderson, and Franke Martin)! He’s from East Liverpool, Ohio (which should not be confused with Liverpool, England) home of the Elite Diner!

15
Sep
17

Phil McLean “Small Sad Sam / Chicken”

I guess this is considered a “novelty record”—it’s a humorous, story song, backed with music. It seems like if you just pick up 45’s at random, like at yard sales and thrift-stores, you’re as likely to get novelty records as anything (like with Christmas records, for LP’s). Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound good and is not funny enough for me to have even focused on the story. I’ll try again. Okay. It’s the boring tale of a small guy who didn’t do something heroic. The B-side is called “Chicken”—which would normally be more promising, but it’s corny music with an annoying harmonica, and just going on and on—sounding like a musical interlude in a redneck moonshine and smokey movie—and then it pauses and Phil McLean’s low voice says: “I say you’re chicken.” It’s not funny and not weird enough to be interesting. On the other hand, there are much worse novelty records out there. The internet says it’s from 1961, and Phil McLean was a DJ on WERE radio in Cleveland, and this was put out as a parody of Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John.” I suppose if you heard this on the radio when you were little, this might strike you as nostalgic—or it might just bring back annoying memories. If anyone wants this, I’ll fling it in your direction.

16
Jun
16

James McCandless “Faultline”

Again with the goofy fonts; I thought it said “Asscandles”—but closer examination clarifies: James McCandless, someone I’ve not heard of before now. This record is from 1985, which to me seems like yesterday, and I have to keep reminding myself it’s over 30 years ago. Also, magic-markered on the front and back cover are the letters, WNKU, which sounds like a radio station to me, and research reveals it’s on the Kentucky/Cincinnati border. Somehow this record escaped.

Further research turns up a James McCandless website. Apparently he died in 2013, nearing the age of 70. He lived most of his life in the Chicago area, playing all over the place, folk music, and this is his first record, on his own label, St. Christopher. There’s a lyric sheet, which is nice, because the lyrics are worth checking out, even though you probably can understand them as his voice is clear as a bell. This is the good kind of folk music; it’s plenty serious but doesn’t take itself too seriously. Songs are funny and they are grim. Some just voice and acoustic guitar, and some with a full band and some fine musicians.

I could go on and on but I’m trying to keep things short, and many of you will see the word “folk music” and go no further. You’re making a mistake. But go to your grave close-minded if you want to, there’s plenty of eternity to come around to things. Anyway, I personally cannot resit a verse like this: “Last night after work we all went to a restaurant / I ordered my usual BLT and fries / and while I was hunched over my friend Jerry put on his sunglasses / he said the glare off my skull was hurting his eyes.” It’s from a song called “Kareem and Me” about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and going bald.

14
Jun
16

Billy Bragg and Wilco “Mermaid Avenue Vol. II”

This record caught my attention because of the life-size photo of a tabby cat slightly out of focus in a crude, black and white photo-collage of some old cars and buildings, presumably depicting Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island. I was just there, and had I known, I might have made a pilgrimage, and had a little more focus rather than just being sad. But this is the first I’ve heard of this record, which is a project initiated by Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, to put music to some of Woody’s tons of lyrics he left behind when he died. I imagine that any number of songwriters would have loved to get a chance to write music to these lyrics, but it was Billy Bragg and Wilco (including Jay Bennett)—and then they made some fine recordings, and albums and box sets were released, all too involved for me to go into, but anyway, this is Vol. II, with a huge cat on the cover.

There is so much variety here I can’t even begin to mentally encapsulate it. I wonder what Woody Guthrie would think! On my first listen I felt a little annoyed, just because there is so much all over the place, and so much confident instrument playing that I thought, these are a bunch of guys you probably can’t tell anything. And while that is probably true, I warmed up to it more on subsequent listens, like right now. Some I like way better than others, but some songs I’m liking a lot. There are a few songs that sound VERY familiar, so I must have heard them somewhere, and I’d imagine most likely in some coffee shop. Anyway, I feel like I’m committing the largest sin in not paying much attention to the lyrics, and that’s where you could go very much deeper, of course. There’s a lyric sheet, which is nice for those of us with hearing/making out words problems (if there’s a word for that). And if you want to go deeper, there’s Vol. One, of course, and then I guess there’s a complete set with outtakes and other stuff, so you can really get emerged. And I suppose if you wanted to go even further, as a songwriter, you could contact Nora Guthrie about possibly making another record of more songs based on more of Woody’s lyrics. I’m sure you won’t be the first one to make such a request.




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