Music Reviews

Gram Parsons “Grievous Angel”

Ultra Fidelis’ Musical Favorites

parsons-angel(Reprise LP, Rhino LP, Warner/Reprise CD)

What is it about Gram? I remember the first time I heard about The Flying Burrito Bros. This, of course, was months before I actually heard them. Nobody was allowed to learn of Gram Parsons and actually hear him in the same sitting. It just wouldn’t work without the mythology first.

Our band was headed unalterably toward “country.” Exactly what a bunch of Wisconsin high school kids were doing leaning a good five hundred miles south was something we probably couldn’t have explained, but this stuff had us by the hearts. Great songs, tasty instrumental solos and a mother lode of unfamiliar history combined to draw us further and further down a road we knew nothing about. We came in the C,S,N,Y door which most everybody did and there was Poco, the Eagles and all the others, but Gram was it. This was the guy responsible for scaring Mr. Byrds, Roger McGuinn, to such an extent that the real versions of the songs on “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” were redone with old Mr. Spaceman singing lead. Kinda like Milli Vanilli overdubbing Nat King Cole. The guy who inspired the Stones and for whom they wrote “Wild Horses.” The guy who discovered Emmylou Harris singing folk music and molded her into the ultimate vocal foil for his plaintive, pain-ridden man-child.

The first time the stylus set down on The Burritos’ “Guilded Palace of Sin” I was… Well, I was a MESS. Here was a band that gave every indication it was the next cynical product of The Star Making Machine and yet the music was, and this is a little hard to explain, but it was me. How a Northern boy of sixteen raised by two Northerners could find such resonance in the music of the South was as stunning to me as it was certain. I didn’t know how to tell anyone how much this music meant to me, but it was speaking loud and clear.

I immediately bought “Burrito Deluxe.” You could hear Gram getting ready to leave the band, but still terrific. Then “GP”, the first solo album. Uh-oh. Absent the need to co-lead a band with Chris Hillman, Gram was spectacular. What he wrote sounded like it came from some amalgam of the Grand Ol’ Opry and The Great American Novel. What he didn’t write sounded as if he did.

Then I remember getting a call from a friend saying, “Look in the paper. Gram’s dead.” Within a week I was flipping through the records at Ludwig van Ear and there was the odd cover with Gram’s head looking out from three shades of aquamarine and the title, “Grievous Angel.” I grabbed it, haunted, like holding ashes from a cremation and it struck me, for the first time, how strange and big the world was. As someone was busy dying, his latest work was being shipped around the country in UPS trucks.

The record was mesmerizing. Heightened, no doubt, by its posthumous aura, it was, nevertheless, the finest pop music I had ever heard. It remains so to this day. The pedal steel opening of “The Return of the Grievous Angel” always causes my blood pressure to plummet. Oh, just let them keep singing these songs. Let this record never end and let them show me something new each time. “Them.” Gram, Emmylou and, essentially, Elvis’ touring band ‘cause Merle Haggard had a schedule conflict. Now I love old Merle, but I think he may just have been the least bit scared. Uncertain, maybe. You have to imagine this hippie mirroring back country music to the stars of the day in a way that would make them think, “Well, now, have I really done my best to be true to the muse each and every time I wrote, sang or performed like I swore to my mama I would?”

The voice is really the thing. It soars, almost high enough, then cracks. It whispers, then talks, but each time it’s a note, inarguably right and unique. At arm’s length, it can fail. Good thing there’s no staying an arm’s length away from Gram. You’ll either run away or come in. If you come in to “Grievous Angel”, you’ll hear the best (country) song ever written, “$1000 Wedding.” Get to know “Brass Buttons” about Gram’s mom. Discover a duet straight from heaven, “Love Hurts.” In fact tonight, listening as I write, I heard Emmylou hum a note just before the lyrics begin, sounding like a combination of making sure she’s on pitch and being moved to vocalize involuntarily by the guitar and their impending performance, perhaps an admission of truth beyond mere art. But highlighting a few is unfair to the phenomenally high quality of the whole because every song, every performance on here just works. And, although you would never have guessed, Elvis’ boys couldn’t be a better fit.

This is a recording which always rewards each visit, hundreds for me. Not “demonstration quality,” whatever that is, but easily good enough to let the delicate soul of the music shine through. It pays big dividends to proper high-resolution playback and is reason enough to pursue the World’s Greatest Stereophonic Music Reproduction System. Sonically, there is suddenly little reason to chase expensive, hard to find and often beat up original Reprise vinyl versions. Rhino has released a 180-gram LP which, despite every copy I’ve opened being warped, sounds excellent. Then there is the Warner/Reprise CD. This is the compact disc that made me realize the medium had come of age when I looked in the bin and saw that now familiar blue-green image only in miniature. Coupled with the nearly-as-essential “GP” on one disc and sounding as good as your CD player will allow (damn fine tonight on the Sondek CD 12) this may be the ultimate way to meet Gram Parsons, ’cause it ain’t gonna be so easy finding “GP” on vinyl. In any format, this record makes my Desert Island Short List. In fact, some nights, it would be on my list of one.

-Jon

 

The Waterboys “Fisherman’s Blues”

Ultra Fidelis’ Musical Favorites

waterboys_blues

(EMI/Chrysalis LP) 1988

The early output of the U.K. based band The Waterboys was nothing if not ambitious. Founded by Mike Scott in the early eighties, amidst a London music scene that seemed to be searching for a post-punk/post-new wave identity, The Waterboys carved out a niche with Scott’s self-described “big sound”. Scott fused elements of a new wave beat with layers of Ska-styled  horns and production that wouldn’t have been out of place on a George Martin or Phil Spector project. Never “slick” affairs, the resulting first three records were just a little too heavy-handed and Scott couldn’t quite deliver on his lofty “big sound” aspirations. After Karl Wallinger’s 1985 departure to form World Party, a musically frustrated Mike Scott and longtime bandmate Anthony Thistlethwaite were persuaded by Irish newcomer Steve Wickham to spend a few days in Dublin. Three years later, the Waterboys were still in Ireland, had hooked-up with some of the country’s finest traditional musicians and eventually released what I consider to be one of the best dozen or so recordings of my lifetime. Fisherman’s Blues is quite simply a masterpiece.

The fact that it took three years of roaming around the Irish countryside, collecting musicians and material along the way, and playing endless informal gigs, will not be lost on even the most casual listener. It seems, on the surface at least, paradoxical to refer to the playing as incredibly tight and, at the same time utterly relaxed, but that’s how the record comes off. From the opening bars of the title track, which some may recall from the soundtrack of “Waking Ned Divine” (a spectacular achievement in its own right), you’ll feel like you’ve been invited into a warm country home on a chill damp evening and are sharing a truly special experience – some very old friends making incredible music together. By the time they work through a stunning cover of Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing” and deliver a half-drunken attempt to remake, or at least forgive, Hank Williams’ decadent reputation (“Has Anybody Here Seen Hank”), you’ll be convinced these folks must have been playing together since childhood. After their romp through Scott’s self-deprecating reflections on his failed love-life (“And A Bang on the Ear”), the gorgeous haunting balladry of “When Ye Go Away” and Toma McKeown’s sung/spoken version of “The Stolen Child”, a W.B. Yeats poem set to music by Scott, you won’t want it to end. For most people it doesn’t; they just start the record over again and pour another Guinness.

Fisherman’s Blues is still widely available on both LP and CD. If you’ve got a decent turntable, seek out the original 1988 pressings in favor of the “heavy vinyl” re-issue from Simply Vinyl. The former can be found relatively easily in most decent used record shops and, like so many of their other re-issues, Simply Vinyl seems a lot better at delivering a plastic manhole cover than they do at getting the re-mastering right; either they just don’t know what they’re doing or their source material isn’t a first generation master tape. Whatever the reasons, eschew the “audiophile” label and stick with the thin floppy vinyl of the eighties pressings for the cleanest sound.

-Scott

 

Led Zeppelin “Led Zeppelin”

Ultra Fidelis’ Musical Favorites

zep_zep(A.K.A. Zeppelin I) Atlantic, 1969

It was bound to be on the list sooner or later so I might as well get it out of the way now. Zeppelin I, as it is usually called, is the genuine article, the original, the prototype for all of the future rock and rollers who would follow. But who would have thought that such a fantastic original could spawn such miserable copies for so many years to come. Led Zeppelin is credited with inventing hard rock; some even say heavy metal. But the Zep imitators most of us are familiar with are a far cry from what you’ll hear on Zeppelin I.

We are way out of ‘audiophile recording’ territory here, aren’t we? Well, yes and no. Musically, this stuff is too real and full of energy to be confused with most of the sleepy, empty, and contrived audiophile stuff. But sonically it’s actually quite amazing. Recorded back in 1969 onto analog tape, Zeppelin I can sound spectacular on a good system. Oh it’s not perfect, but strikingly vivid sounding at times, especially for a studio album of that era. Just listen to Robert Plant’s vocals on Dazed and Confused or How Many More Times. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a human voice come across with more conviction and intensity. This recording captures Plant when his voice was young and powerful. He is probably better recorded here than on any of the other nine Zep albums. Many of the tunes are blues-based but twisted in the way that only Led Zeppelin could manage to sound, where the line between blues and rock is completely blurred. If you enjoy a good scream, Plant will oblige on plenty of occasions, but most notably on “How Many More Times” where his range climbs so high that you wonder if he’s going to explode. For those who might be scared away by the mere discussion of screaming and quality of screams, there is more going on here than you think. You may not enjoy the heaviest tunes (i.e. “Dazed and Confused”) but the other stuff may be up your alley.

I suggest you listen to “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and “Your Time is Gonna Come” first. The latter is one of Jon’s favorite Zeppelin tunes, by the way. There is, of course, some great guitar playing from Jimmy Page and some spectacular drumming from John Bonham. But at the end of the day, it’s the band as a unit that is such fun to listen to. If there is such a thing as telepathy in a rock group doing a studio recording (and I’m not sure that there is) Led Zeppelin had it on their first effort. Everything just flows and comes together perfectly. Even when things sound sloppy (and they do at times) it just comes across as right.

As for the recording quality, it is damn good. The vocals sound particularly good. If I had to nit-pick about something, I would say that there is some thickness in the mid-bass that can make things sound a little bloated at times, but it isn’t severe. If your system makes the bass/mid-bass sound completely overblown or out of control, it is your system and not the album. A good system won’t “let go” of the bottom end. As for different versions, the regular CD is really good, about a B+ in my book. The re-mastered version is also good although the channels have been reversed for some reason. The LP remains a mystery because it goes against my theory that LPs always, always, always win. For some reason, I have not yet found a copy of the LP that can convincingly beat out the CD. And I have tried at least 30 different copies from originals (which actually are the worst!) to more recent copies, which are pretty good. A good copy of the LP will have some advantages over the CD, but also some disadvantages.

-Dave

(Note- Since the initial writing of this review, Classic Records had released Zeppelin I on vinyl. It is the best sounding version of the album I have heard, but not by the wide margin that LPs typically beat out CDs. For the record, Classic has since released Zeppelin II, III, IV, Houses of the Holy, Physical Graffiti and Presence. The sound quality varies dramatically, but in each case the Classic re-issues sound more true to the master tapes than any previous versions on LP or CD.)

 

Merle Haggard “Golden Classics”

Ultra Fidelis’ Musical Favorites

haggard_classics(CD Double Play DBLP4001.2)

Merle is just the man. He’s known as “The Outlaw” these days, not so much because of his years in prison and trouble with the law, but more because he is anything but a Nashville insider. Of course he did do three years in San Quentin at the end of a string of 17 incarcerations, but since then Merle has been on the straight and narrow, sort of. Aside from his many convictions, Merle has been married five times with six children, battled alcohol and drugs, womanizing and a re-occurring gambling addiction- all of which he has overcome in recent years. The good news is that all of that trouble provided Merle with plenty of great song writing material and a deep appreciation for the freedom to record and perform his music.

He’s such a great singer/songwriter that he makes the current crop of “country” artists seem like a bunch of rookies trying make it on American Idol or Star Search. Merle’s songs are mostly based on his own life, which is fascinating in and of itself. But it’s his voice and his incredible vocal control that makes him stand head and shoulders above everyone else.

This compilation is a perfect place to start if you aren’t yet a Hag fan. It’s one great song after another, and all of them are perfectly executed. After a while you get the feeling that Merle and the Strangers can do no wrong. Yet nothing about Merle’s style is predictable. Merle’s music reminds me of Mozart’s in that every melody takes a slightly different or unexpected turn yet comes out sounding just right in the end. Trying to sing along to Haggard’s music is tempting even when you don’t totally know the songs, but be careful because like the melodies, the words are far from predictable. I can’t tell you how many times my friend Soupy and I have driven around in his Bronco butchering Merle’s beautiful lyrics. At a time when the radio is flooded with Garth, Shania and friends, who have nothing meaningful to say and not enough talent anyway, it’s really refreshing to listen to a real guy like Merle who’s songs and stories are so provocative and so beautifully performed.

If you are at all reluctant to listen to country music, don’t let that keep you from appreciating perhaps the greatest voice of them all.

-Dave

 

John Coltrane “Giant Steps”

Ultra Fidelis’ Musical Favorites

coltrane_steps(Atlantic CD, Mobile Fidelity CD, Atlantic LP) 1959

Let me state for the record that, while I consider myself a big Coltrane fan, I love the early stuff and can’t really get into the later stuff. Oh I’ve tried and I continue to try every so often. But so far, my tiny little brain hasn’t been able to absorb what Trane was doin’ in the last four years of his life. So while I own almost all of his later recordings I don’t fully understand them musically- at least not yet. For those of you who do, Mazeltov! For me, after Giant Steps, everything starts going downhill. So if anyone reading this is a big Coltrane fan who really digs the impulse stuff after A Love Supreme, I’d love to hear from you. Maybe you can shed some light on recordings like Meditations and Interstellar Space, cause I want to believe that there is some music in there- even if it’s pretty well hidden. I’m even willing to do a little work, if necessary, to find it. How’s that for dedication?

Anyway, Giant Steps was Coltrane’s first (and for me, best) record for Atlantic and marked a major peak in his career. All of the songs are Coltrane originals, and virtually all have become accepted jazz standards. Even if you’re not a jazz fan, listen to the whole album several times through and you might find yourself whistling these tunes in the shower. The songs are catchy, full of hooks and very memorable, making this album quite accessible to just about anyone.

By 1959 Coltrane’s mastery of the horn was nearly complete, something that becomes obvious as you hear him pull off one perfect solo after another. If you have ever heard athletes refer to being in “The Zone, ” a place of heightened sense perception and focus where everything seems to be happening in slow motion, allowing them to perform at an almost super-human level (a regular occurrence for Michael Jordan, for example), Coltrane appears to have found “The Zone” on Giant Steps. Every track is a masterpiece, with not one note out of place. While Coltrane has been criticized for being prone to unnecessarily long solos that can make some feel like they are listening to a jazz marathon, you will find none of that here. This is as efficient as John Coltrane ever got, packing more nutrition and less fat into each song than at any other time in his career. The mood of the album is cheerful and uplifting. There is a kind of joyful exuberance present on many of these tracks, especially “Cousin Mary” and “Syeeda’s Song Flute” that would rarely reappear on any of Coltrane’s later recordings.

The sound quality, while not quite as good as some of the earlier recordings for Prestige or Blue Note, is not bad either. The best digital sound available is from Mobile Fidelity, who with their “Gain System” re-mastering process, manage to capture a bit more of the detail present on the original LP than does the standard Atlantic CD. But if you can’t get the MoFi, don’t worry. This album is so good you could enjoy it on 8-track tape. (Ok, maybe I’m stretching just a bit). I especially hope that you’ll try it if you’re not into jazz. If you don’t get into it on the first listen, don’t give up too fast, it needs to soak in a little. Play it a bunch of times while you drive or do something else and hopefully it will stick. If after ten plays you still don’t get it, go seek therapy, I can’t help you.

-Dave

 

Fleetwood Mac “Fleetwood Mac”

Ultra Fidelis’ Musical Favorites

fleetwood_fm(Epic LP) 1968

Fleetwood Mac may best be characterized as a “franchise” rather than as a “band”. Ironically, namesakes Mick Fleetwood (drums) and John McVie (bass) share the distinction of contributing only marginally to the diverse sound of any of the band’s incarnations while comprising the glue that held this U.K./Southern California juggernaut together for almost three decades. Fleetwood Mac released some twenty albums that ran the gamut from stripped-down electric blues to slickly produced pop tunes, but talk about the ultimate crossover band! The vast majority of Mac fans profess an affinity for one genre and distaste for others, but the band was successful, both critically and commercially, throughout its history. Peter Green, and to a lesser degree Jeremy Spencer, dominated the blues-era Fleetwood Mac, which only lasted a few years. The “second coming” of Fleetwood Mac, under the collaborative influence of Danny Kirwan/Bob Welch/Christine McVie, abandoned the blues and embraced a more melodic and progressive style. Moderately successful abroad, “superstar” status eluded them until they relocated to California and recruited Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks in the mid-seventies. The next thing I knew, they were up on stage with Bill and Hillary celebrating their imminent move to a swanky Pennsylvania Avenue address.

I’m one of the few people who love nearly everything Fleetwood Mac recorded, but this 1967 eponymous debut (also called “Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac” on more recent re-issues) happens to be my personal favorite. This is a straight-up blues record and Fleetwood Mac pulled it off better than any of their contemporaries. The influences of Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Elmore James are all over this record, even though most of the songs are Green and Spencer originals. If you like Chicago-style electric blues this record should be right up your alley. (If “Rhiannon” is your holy grail however, you may want to take a pass!) The best sounding version for analog hounds is the original yellow label Epic pressing, but it is difficult to find in decent shape and a near-mint copy can easily fetch upwards of $50. The Simply Vinyl 180g re-issue is one of the few this label got right and the CD re-issue sounds pretty good as well.

(Note: Other great examples of this part of the Fleetwood Mac repertoire can be found on “Albatross”, “Mr. Wonderful”, “Pious Bird of Good Omen”, and “Live In Chicago”. The last chronicles a number of loose studio sessions with Otis Spann, Honeyboy Edwards, Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy and is also a gem, in spite of some modest shortcomings in terms of the recording quality.)

-Scott

 

Nic Jones “Penguin Eggs”

Ultra Fidelis’ Musical Favorites

jones_eggs(Topic CD, Shanachie CD, Topic LP)

I was once asked to nominate an “All Time Great” album… It scares me a little to choose this recording as my first “All Time Great.” One of the fantasies anyone who engages in this sort of nomination entertains is a vision of the rousing “amens” from his audience as his selection brings to mind a nearly overlooked gem in the history of recorded music. The imaginary high fives for bringing up that dusty old bottle from the dark wine cellar of his record collection. Lured by that glory, I stewed over my selection for a month trying to divine the one recording that would elicit the loudest unison, “Oh, yeah!” on the day after this mailed.

Then on reflection, it occurred to me that 16 percent of these newsletters are returned as undeliverable. Probably a good half are intercepted by some other party at the addressee’s home with a strong vested interest in bypassing all the steps between mail delivery and refuse removal. Another 19 percent make it to the intended target as another thick piece of faceless direct mail, perhaps causing a raised eyebrow a nanosecond before they begin their decent into that same oblivion. If my calculator is working, that leaves 15 percent of you, maybe, who actually see the inside. From this select group, adding the twelve of you who have told us you read it cover to cover (bless you and please seek help) to the six percent who will only read a story accompanied by a picture and factoring in those of you who are interested in what we like for music, I realized I might as well invite you into our listening room and play this damn record for you rather than write about it, but we live for our delusions. So I muster my courage and nominate Nic Jones’ “Penguin Eggs” in print for all to see. I know… Not one “amen.” High fives aborted in midair. It’s a life devoid of celebrity we lead, we guardians of art.

I can’t deny a strong factor in my enthusiasm for this record is the serendipity of its discovery. As a Rega dealer in 1984, I was virtually forced to stock the recordings selected by Rega as worthy of the attention of the world. Given the testiness of their US importer, I willingly succumbed to a onesy, twosy order of twenty or so titles. It was an odd box of vinyl that arrived, but I hung them on the wall to see what would sell. One night I snatched this record down and took it home to listen to because I was tired of old Nic looking up at me. A true grab bag special.

So where do we talk about what kind of guitars and microphones they used? And how about the band member resumes? Forget it. I don’t know a single thing about this recording technically except that it sounds good: woody, dense and intimate. I have never heard of any of the few musicians who contributed to it. I have serendipped across no other Nic Jones records before or since. But I do not fear that it will fail to meet any of the above criteria for selection. Besides, another fantasy is that reviews suddenly get very simple: DO or DON’T. Like Goofus and Gallant. Or Glamour magazine. Siskel and Ebert seemed to have it briefly, but now there are “Two thumbs up, way up!,” “Two very enthusiastic thumbs up,” etc. I’m waiting for, “Two rather indignant thumbs tilting downward.”

As for “Penguin Eggs, ” may I just say DO. Especially if:

-Fall is your favorite season.

-You pronounce Celtic with a “k” at the beginning.

-Literature with a maritime theme is in your wheelhouse.

-You cringe when you hear the term “folk music” nowadays mostly because it’s applied to people with no ability, no soul and too much enthusiasm.

-You like deciphering the meanings of old words from context.

-Music soothes you and takes you away.

-Guinness is a beverage, not a book.

-When you retire, you’ll move north.

-Fishing beats golfing.

-Recordings should be documents of artists’ work.

-Producers should be drawn and quartered.

-Hard work is its own reward.

Format-wise: Topic LP: the music comes through with flying colors. Topic CD: the music comes through in all the 16 bit colors it can paint. Shanachie CD: slightly aggravating because it is the worst of the three, but the music still transcends. We’ll stock the Topic CD and try for the LP.

Can I get an “amen?” And maybe a wee dram of your best Highland single malt.

-Jon

(Note- Since this was written, I have spent a goodly sum chasing and acquiring all of Nic’s solo records, the rarest records I have ever sought. Each one rewardsimmensely. For the fascinating story behind the man, check out http://www.folkmusic.net/htmfiles/inart338.htmand for a thorough discography, see http://www.kneeling.co.uk/pages/nicjones/.)