Elvis (Second Album) by Elvis Presley

February 28, 2009

Elvis Presley released his second long playing album, Elvis, on October 9, 1956. Elvis was then a star. His first album, Elvis Presley, and the single “Heartbreak Hotel” had sold millions of copies. In the late summer and early fall of 1956 the double hit single “Hound Dog/Don’t Be Cruel” had topped the American charts for close to two months. In fact “Hound Dog” would be the first song to top the pop, country and rhythm and blues charts at the same time. Elvis was even reported to be dating Natalie Wood. He had it all – voice, looks, popularity, wealth and charisma.

Eleven of the 12 tracks contained on Elvis were recorded during a three-day period. This album was a tad different than the first. The songs were again selected from rock, country and rhythm & blues but Elvis was settling into his classic and unique vocal style. The rockabilly roots were giving way to straight rock and Elvis was now confident enough to record a number of ballads. RCA continued to leave his big single hits off of his albums as the label wanted them to have a commercial life of their own. Thus there was no “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel” or “Love Me Tender.” The CD release of this album would contain these tracks plus “Playing For Keeps,” “Anyway You Want (That’s How I’ll Be)” and “Too Much.” These tracks serve to make a very strong album better.

The first two songs are very different yet set the tone for what will follow. Little Richard’s classic song, “Rip It Up,” is given the full Elvis treatment as he tears through it with frenetic energy. “The ballad, “Love Me” follows and provides a wonderful counterpoint. His female fans would always flock to this type of Elvis performance.

Elvis had the confidence to cover three classic country songs. While he remained true to the songs’ structures and form, it is his voice that changes them and makes them uniquely his own. Elvis had one of the best vocal instruments in rock music and was able to take almost any song and transform it into his own definitive creation. Bluegrass originator Bill Monroe’s “When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again,” Red Foley’s “Old Shep” and Webb Pierce’s “How Do You Think I Feel” all find Elvis exploring his country roots and then transforming and ultimately transcending them.Other songs such as “Reddy Teddy,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Paralyzed” are all solid. “Paralyzed” gives the writing credit to Otis Blackwell and Elvis. Elvis would only take a writing credit on a small number of songs during his career. It is a testament to his integrity that he would never force this issue.

Elvis has a good feel to it and shows some musical movement and an increasing maturity. This second excellent album by Presley is another critical stop in his musical journey and a fine example of ’50’s rock ‘n’ roll.

Elvis Presley (First Album) by Elvis Presley

February 28, 2009

Many people believe that the rock ‘n’ roll era began May 5, 1956 when the album, Elvis Presley, reached Number One on the National charts for the first of ten weeks. It was a far different sound than the other best selling albums of the day which included Belafonte by Harry Belafonte, The Man With The Golden Arm soundtrack, and Songs For Swingin’ Lovers by Frank Sinatra.

Realistically Elvis did not invent rock ‘n’ roll. Bill Haley recorded “Rock Around The Clock” as the B side of a single in 1954. Haley came out of the country swing side of music and added a sax and guitar to that sound. In 1955 “Rock Around The Clock” was added to the opening credits of the movie Blackboard Jungle. The record quickly became the most popular single in the country staying at number one for 8 weeks. Chuck Berry was also in the studio adding his unique guitar sound to his rhythm and blues roots. Elvis’ musical legacy can be found in the rockabilly side of country music. Elvis, however, had something that no other artist of the time had and that was a charisma that would give him mass commercial appeal and quickly make him a lasting cultural icon.

Elvis Presley was a popular southern country artist when his contract was bought by the RCA label for the unheard of sum of $35,000. Elvis quickly went into the studio to record in early 1956. The results were several single releases and his first long playing album. Seven songs from these sessions and five unreleased tracks from his Sun label days were combined to create Elvis Presley. Interestingly the number one single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” was left off the album because RCA did not want the LP to interfere with its sales.

Elvis Presley is essential to rock ‘n’ roll history and in a wider context to the understanding of the youth culture of the late 1950s. In many ways Elvis went far beyond just being a popular artist. He was worshiped by millions of teenagers. Very few artists ever attain that status. Only Frank Sinatra in the 1940’s and The Beatles in the 1960’s would equal Elvis in popularity.

Elvis’ first album reached into many types of music for its songs but all were interpreted and transferred to a rock setting. My favorites are the R&B hits “I Got A Woman” and “Money Honey” which are removed from their roots and become all out rockers. “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Tutti Frutti” were hits of the day and Elvis mainly copied what was popular. I tend to prefer the Little Richard version but feel sorry for Carl Perkins as Elvis gives a classic performance of his biggest hit. “I Love You Because” and “Just Because” find Elvis secure in a country setting. “One Sided Love Affair” was written for this album and eventually all his records would feature many newly created songs.

I usually just review the original release of an album but in this case I am going to recommend the CD reissue. While it will take you away from the intent and impact of the original album, included are six additions that are classic Elvis. The single releases “Heartbreak Hotel” and “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” only add to the quality of the listening experience. Also added are “I Was The One,” “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” “Shake, Rattle And Roll” and “My Baby Left Me” which take Elvis back to his raw rockabilly roots.

The music of Elvis Presley has been released in many forms over the years and has been re-packaged in a hundred or so different ways but if you really want to understand him and his musical legacy, this is the place to start.

Day Of The Eagle: The Best Of Robin Trower

February 27, 2009

Robin Trower has been producing accessible and mostly melodic hard rock for more than 30 years. He served a five-year stint as the lead guitarist of Procol Harum from 1967-1972 before embarking on his solo career. I was not a big fan of Procol Harum during that time period but became so after Trower left. Oddly I also became a fan of Trower’s solo work so it all goes back to the old whole vs. the parts.

Day Of The Eagle: The Best Of Robin Trower is a 17-song compilation that gathers together most of his better known and popular tracks from his lengthy solo career. At this point in his career, Trower has a lot of gold to be mined from his extensive catalogue and this album does a good job of assembling these musical gems in one place. The title song, “Day Of The Eagle,” is taken from his classic album, Bridge Of Sighs, and sets the tone for what will follow. Trower mostly recorded as part of a power trio with an occasional extra guitar. Here bassist-vocalist James Dewar and Trower’s guitar playing come close to a Jimi Hendrix sound. Trower is a master at improvisation but unlike many other guitarists never lets it get out of control. He always has the knack of returning his songs to their basic melodies and structures.

There are two excellent live songs presented on the album. “Too Rolling Stoned” shows off Trower’s technical skill and finger speed. “Althea” has an excellent and typical ’70’s drum solo plus some inventive wah-wah guitar by Trower.

Day Of The Eagle just rolls along once it hits its stride. “Daydream” is a slow bluesy number filled with Cream like chord progressions. “Caledonia” and “Man Of The World” provide ample room for more improvisation. “In City Dreams,” “Caravan To Midnight,” “Long Misty Days,” “Bridge Of Sighs” and probably the best song Robin Trower ever produced, “Victims Of The Fury,” take the listener on a ride through the 1970s and ’80s world of hard rock.

If there is one criticism I have of Robin Trower it is his sound has changed little over the years. If you liked the 1970’s Robin Trower you will like the Trower of today. This issue is not a real problem for me as I believe that within the musical confines he has set for himself he is a master of his trade. Day Of The Eagle: The Best Of Robin Trower shows this master at his best.

Down The Tracks: The Music That Influenced Bob Dylan DVD

February 27, 2009

The press release and full title for Down The Tracks refer to it as a 95 minute documentary that explores the music that influenced Bob Dylan. It is all that and more.

The first 70 minutes present an excellent review of the foundation and evolution of folk music from the early 1920’s through the 1960’s. Down The Tracks weaves classic clips and biographies of such artists as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt and more, with a running commentary and interviews, into an informative and entertaining presentation.

No artist influenced Bob Dylan or American folk music in general, more than Woody Guthrie. Dylan visited him in the hospital near the end of his life and just sang songs at his bedside. Guthrie’s legacy was one of proving that people could write significant songs that reflected life and protest. Many of his songs may seem obsolete today but his influence lives on. Initially Dylan would pattern himself vocally after Guthrie but long term it would be the lyrical influences that would serve him best.

Pete Seeger may have had less of a direct influence upon Dylan than Guthrie, but there is no denying his influence on folk music and the 1960’s musical protest movement. Seeger more than anyone else was the folk music link from Guthrie to Dylan. He was a collector of folk songs from around the world, but his greatest contributions were in the political arena. Seeger was relentless both in his singing and actions in establishing the foundations for Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and more to build upon.

Several early folk music influences are presented in depth. There is some fascinating footage of Leadbelly performing in prison and some contrived footage after his release. Blind Willie McTell may have played with a raw guitar sound, but his voice was a clear tenor making him unique at the time. Bob Dylan has always openly admired his music.

Mississippi John Hurt deserves his own documentary. He was more storyteller than straight blues artist which pushed him toward the formation of modern folk music. The clip provided showed Hurt’s technical mastery of the guitar which was superb.

The last part of Down The Tracks gets a little more tenuous. While Bob Dylan admired and would produce a significant amount of country music during his career, the links to Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers are not always clear. Dylan’s country style and sound would be more modern than Rodgers or Williams. It was the lyrics and the ability to tell a simple story that would connect him to these early country icons.

Finally the documentary tries to connect Dylan to the beat poets of the day. Spontaneity, being a free spirit and contempt for society are mentioned, but Dylan had those attributes anyway. Bob Dylan, for the past 45 years, has been basically a folk artist clothed in many forms and types of music. Down The Tracks examines his roots and beyond and emerges as a solid historical document of an important artist and art form.

Rebel Road by Edgar Winter

February 26, 2009

Some rock ‘n’ roll legends do not pass away but continue to release creative and listenable music. Edgar Winter will release his latest album, Rebel Road, in early July. It is basic, in your face, hard rock with a melodic foundation that brings it back toward the mainstream.

Edgar Winter is best known for such early seventies albums as Road Work and They Only Come Out At Night and his hits “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride.” Edgar Winter was also one of the early masters of the synthesizer and his use of this instrument as a foundation for his sound was groundbreaking. Such artists as Dan Hartman, Ronnie Montrose, Rick Derringer, and his brother Johnny all recorded with Edgar during this period. Today he produces a more guitar based sound but it is still entertaining and more importantly relevant.

Rebel Road starts out with three blasts of raw energy. The title song, “Rebel Road,” with guest artist Slash, features Winters gritty vocal set against a thumping guitar sound. The song is well written with enough hooks to make it agreeable for extensive radio airplay. “Eye On You” is a basic mid-tempo power ballad with just guitar, vocal, bass and drums. “The Power Of Positive Drinking” features Clint Black playing an amazing harmonica. This country classic is given a hard rock treatment that just shines.

“Rockin’ The Blues” finds Edgar joined by his brother Johnny who takes the song in a blues direction with some of his signature guitar licks. This track is a return to the days when the brothers were playing together regularly.

“The Closer I Get” is a ballad and provides a good interlude so that the listener can catch his or her breath. It is just a voice, acoustic guitar and some subtle strings in support. While Winter’s voice is better suited to an all out up-tempo mode, this is a good place for him to visit every once in awhile.

There are several other excellent tracks contained on this album. Clint Black and his harmonica return for another rousing performance on “Horns Of A Dilemma.” “Texas Tornado” is the only track where Edgar cuts loose on his sax. The song has a simple structure which allows Winter to improvise for a couple of minutes. “Oh No No,” which closes the album, is an ominous, alpha male, strutting, hard rock song with a horn section providing a solid background.

Rebel Road is a very solid album from Edgar Winter. He continues to tour with Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band. Now 38 years into his career, Edgar Winter has learned his craft well.

Around The World Live DVD by Deep Purple

February 26, 2009

I hereby declare myself an official member of the Deep Purple family. At least it feels that way as I have just finished watching and listening to the nine-hour, four-DVD disc box set by Deep Purple, entitled Around The World Live, chronicling the concert life of the group from 1995 to 2002, plus a few extras along the way.

Since their debut in 1968, Deep Purple has become recognized as one of the originators of the hard rock, heavy metal sound. Fourteen different musicians have contributed to 24 studio and live albums. Today’s group consists of vocalist Ian Gillan, guitarist Steve Morse, bassist Roger Glover, keyboardist Don Airey, and drummer Ian Paice. This is the lineup represented on these discs, except for retired member, Jon Lord, who plays keyboards on most of the concert footage.

Disc 1 is entitled “Bombay Calling.” This two-hour concert was recorded in India on April 18, 1995. I love intact performances rather than live albums that are pieced together. Just give me the good with the bad. This concert is a long listen, but is worth the effort for any rock fan and particularly for fans of Deep Purple. Steve Morse had just joined the group and it is interesting to see this early performance.

Deep Purple has always relied on a keyboard/guitar foundation, and Lord and Morse work well together. An excellent example of their growing relationship is heard on the song “Fireball,” where they trade leads until Morse takes off and shows just what an excellent guitarist he is. “Black Night” has been a concert staple for years, and here Morse is loyal to the Blackmore guitar lines until becoming inventive about half way through the song.

Ian Gillan is in fine form and leads the group through such staples as “Woman From Tokyo,” “Space Truckin,” “Speed King,” “Highway Star,” and “Smoke On The Water.” “When A Blind Man Cries” is a showstopper, as Ian Gillan provides a superb blues interpretation.

The bonus feature on this disc is actually another concert. Deep Purple is presented live in Seoul, Korea. This eight-song, 55-minute set is very satisfying and in many ways an easier listen than the longer concert.

Disc 2 is entitled “Total Abandon.” This 1999 concert, recorded in Australia, has crisp production, excellent sound and solid camera work. Steve Morse has now been with the band for four years and the sound is tight. Ian Gillian is in fine form as a singer and front man for the group. It is good to hear and see such songs as “Bloodsucker,” “Lazy,” and “Perfect Strangers” played live. Also interesting is the ability to compare the renditions of such songs as “Black Night,” “Fireball,” “Woman From Tokyo,” “Highway Star,” and “Smoke On The Water” as they appear on more than one disc.

Disc 3 is the farewell concert for Jon Lord. “Live At The NEC” was recorded in England and features both Lord and Airey on keyboards. This was a unique concert in Deep Purple history as Jon Lord was making his retirement exit. Such songs as “Hush” and “Mary Long” are resurrected from the archives. This was an emotional performance as Lord’s thirty-year relationship with the band he helped form was coming to an end.

Disc four is a 90-minute documentary, which mainly focuses on their later years. Topics that are explored are Steve Morse joining the band, a live concert on top of a mountain in Switzerland in the middle of a snowstorm, and Jon Lord’s decision to retire. What quickly becomes apparent is that Lord is the emotional and intellectual center of the band. The extensive interviews find the group members intelligent and fairly introspective. There is a lot of good stuff here.

Around The World Live is a spectacular release and essential for even the most casual Deep Purple fan, however, it is a long journey and should be divided into several listening and watching sessions. When you finish, though, you will have caught up with the modern day Deep Purple; and you, too, will be an official member of the group’s family.

Forever Changes and Four Sail by Love

February 24, 2009

Arthur Lee and his group Love are honored and remembered today as one of the leading and most creative psychedelic rock groups of the 1960s. When taking the group’s catalogue as a whole this may be an overstatement but when focusing on Forever Changes this praise is more than warranted.

Forever Changes was released during the Summer of Love in 1967 and is a rightful classic. This is a rare album that goes beyond just the music. Layers of instruments with brass, piano and even strings create diffuse moods and emotions. However, the basic drum and bass foundation ultimately return the music to its psychedelic roots. It is these deep textures that make the album different from most psychedelic rock of the day which was very simplistic. As such it remains a brilliant and essential album.There are some real gems to be mined on this album. “Alone Again Or” is acoustic guitar straining against some blazing horns. “A House Is Not A Motel” and “The Red Telephone” are what psychedelic music is all about. Drums, bass, some fuzzy guitar, both acoustic and electric, plus Arthur Lee’s wonderful vocals rising above it all make these songs an essential listening experience. “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything LikeThis” is one of my favorite songs of summer.

Forever Changes is not a light listening experience. It requires that the listener take the same risks as the group. So grab a copy of the album, put your headphones on and set sail on a marvelous journey of sound.

Four Sail was released directly after Forever Changes but is a far different affair. Arthur Lee had fired the whole original group and had recruited new members. The most important addition was lead guitarist Jay Donellan who is one of the most under appreciated guitarists of all time. He took Love’s music in a more hard rock direction with his creative playing. His solo runs should be required listening for any serious fan of rock ‘n’ roll. The problem may have been he was too good and too creative. Arthur Lee wrote all the songs and was the lead singer and maintained an iron control over Love. Donellan would only last for a short time as a member of Love but would leave behind a worthy legacy.

Arthur Lee had just signed Love to the Blue Thumb label. He and his new band mates went into the studio and quickly recorded more than 30 tracks. Ten of the tracks were given to the Electra label to fulfill their contractual obligations. These tracks were released as Four Sail. Common sense would say that Arthur Lee would not have given Electra the best tracks and that is the case. The Blue Thumb releases would never find a consistent style but would explore rock, country, psychedelica, and even a jazz sound. Full Sail may not be as good or interesting but it is consistent as a rock album.

The two superior songs are “August” and “Robert Montgomery” which feature Donellan using Lee’s songs as a canvas on which to paint his guitar pictures. Lee’s voice and Donellan’s guitar were made for each other and it is too bad there is not more of their combined genius.

“Always See Your Face” is probably the most interesting song in that it departs from the basic guitar based rock sound and is filled out with beautiful orchestration. Four Sail catches Love at an in between period in their career. While it is, by far, not their best album, it does remain interesting for the Arthur Lee-Jay Donellan relationship.