Waylon – Singer Of Sad Songs by Waylon Jennings

February 11, 2010

Waylon Jennings released ten studio albums for the RCA label between 1966 and 1969, wherein he was more or less forced to conform to the wishes and styles of the label’s vision of traditional country music. His producer, Chet Atkins, was a country legend and ruled the studio with an iron hand. Despite these limitations he had become a country superstar as his albums sold millions of copies and over a dozen singles reached the national country charts.

1970 was a big year for Waylon Jennings. The A&M label put together an album of his early singles and some unreleased tracks; RCA released a Best Of album; and six new recordings were issued on the Ned Kelly soundtrack. He even found the time to produce an album for his wife, Jessi Colter. This would have been a full year for almost anyone but Jennings still found the time to record and release two studio albums—and change was in the air.

Waylon and Singer Of Sad Songs began the transition away from his traditional country roots and set him on the road to the tough-edged outlaw style which he would help to establish and refine for the rest of his career. Collector’s Choice has now combined these two albums onto one CD. The sound has been cleaned and an excellent booklet is included which provides a history of each of the two releases.

Waylon allowed him to escape the shadow of Chet Atkins who was making a return to being a full-time performer. New producer Danny Davis was also very traditional but Jennings was able to challenge him in the studio and ultimately exert some control over his sound and style. His cover of Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” wound up a huge country hit and pointed to his future as he fused elements of country and rock. Mickey Newbury’s “The Thirty Third Of August” marked another departure from traditional country for Jennings, placing him squarely in the counterculture of the early seventies. Other highlights include “I May Never Pass This Way Again,” “When Love Has Died,’ and his own “Yellow Haired Woman.”

He traveled to California and into the arms of producer Lee Hazelwood for Singer Of Sad Songs. Except for the title track the album was recorded in three days which gave it an overall cohesiveness. Randy Meisner and New Riders Of The Purple Sage members Allen Kemp and Patrick Shanahan were very different from the house musicians which adorned his previous work and helped Jennings move in a different direction. He cleverly countrified Chris Kenner’s New Orleans rocker “Sick And Tired.” “If I Were A Carpenter,” by Tim Hardin, and “No Regrets,” by Tom Rush, were folk songs of the day and gave the album a modern, hip feel.

Waylon/Singer Of Sad Songs is the music that set the stage for some of the most influential country albums in history which would soon follow. These long-out-of-print releases make a fine addition to any country music collection.

2 Shows Nightly – Live At The Copa by Peggy Lee

February 11, 2010

Norma Deloris Egstrom—better known as Peggy Lee—was born May 26, 1920 and, in 1941, she launched a career as a popular music artist that lasted until her death in 2002. She began as the female singer with The Benny Goodman Band but within a couple of years had embarked upon a solo career. She recorded dozens of albums, selling millions of copies worldwide. Her sales dipped beginning in the 1970’s but she remained a popular club and concert attraction for the rest of her life. She received a Grammy Award in 1995 for Lifetime Achievement.

She may have produced a huge number of albums during her long career but none were so shrouded in mystery as 2 Shows Nightly-Live At The Copa, recorded over a three-night period at the famed New York City nightclub in April of 1968. The album was pressed and promotional copies were mailed to radio stations but at the last moment Lee decided she didn’t like the mix and so the album wasn’t issued. Only a few copies found their way into the hands of collectors and fans.

Now over four decades later this long-lost album is finally seeing the light of day. Collector’s Choice has remastered the original release’s twelve tracks, giving them a clearness which serves to enhance the quality of her vocals. It should be noted that some of the tracks were recreated in the studio and applause was later added in places. These original enhancements are maintained on this latest release.

Peggy Lee was a gifted pop vocalist who would cross over into a jazz sound at times. While she relied on standards and hits from her vast catalogue, she would also sing popular songs of the day, as her renditions here of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” “Until Its Time For You To Go,” and “Something Stupid” demonstrate. The other tracks move effortlessly from Broadway through Tin Pan Alley to some older standards, all of which she delivers smoothly and with aplomb.

The pot is sweetened with the addition of twelve bonus tracks. Songs such as “The Lonesome Road,” “Stay With Me,” and “Happy Feet” make their stereo debuts. “Reason To Believe” and “Didn’t Want To Have To Do It” are presented in their single release versions. “I Wound It Up,” written by Lee (and originally sung by Cary Grant) and “Money” make their album debuts.

Peggy Lee may not have been a rock ‘n’ roller but she was a star of of the highest magnitude. The reappearance of this long-lost album is a testament to that fact.

American Dream by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

February 9, 2010

Neil Young decided to rejoin his erstwhile bandmates in the studio for the first time since they released Déjà Vu together in 1971. The resulting album, American Dream, was issued November 1, 1988 to middling commercial success.

The album certainly did not live up to its title either in content or results although the precise harmonies are in place and a competent group of musicians are gathered in support. It is the caliber of the songwriting that drags the album down. While a few songs are fine, the majority just did not measure up to the group’s past standards.

Even the members of the group have spoken poorly as to the quality of this release over the years. Crosby thought much of the material was sub par and, to compensate, they lengthened the album.

Neil Young had promised not to record with them again until David Crosby was clean and sober and kept that promise when in 1988 Crosby put his additions behind him. I don’t know whether Young wrote his songs specifically for this project or if they were just leftovers, but they seem more suited to his solo career. Whatever their origins they are overall the best selections on the album. He composed four tracks himself and co-wrote three others with Stephen Stills. The title song is folk/rock with a simple bass and guitar foundation. The lyrics are clever satire as they poke fun at the fall of prominent people. “The Old House” tells the story of a family losing their home. “Feel Your Love” is catchy and contains some nice acoustic guitar work.

Crosby was responsible for two songs. “Nighttime For Generals” has a good rock beat but becomes bogged down lyrically and his political agenda was getting old. The gem of the album and one of the best compositions on his career is “Compass.” It is a gentle and poignant look back at life and Young’s haunting harmonica effectively adds to the mood.

Graham Nash had been responsible for many of the memorable tracks which the group had produced through the years. Here, though, his writing is disappointing. His songs are preachy and his politics and social concerns may have been relevant a decade before but on this album they were just repeats to a generation that was moving on. The passion may still be present but the execution and judgment are lacking.

Stephen Stills’ writing credits are limited to the three Neil Young and one which he authored with multi-instrumentalist Joe Vitale and bassist Bob Glaub. “Drivin’ Thunder” is the best of an average-at-best group of songs. His vocals are still essential to the harmonies, though, and his guitar playing remains excellent in places.

American Dream was not a stellar stop in the musical journey of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. “Compass” stands head and shoulders above everything else and only a few Neil Young creations are above average and, when taken together, do not make for an excellent album.

After The Storm by Crosby, Stills and Nash

February 9, 2010

Throughout their career, David Crosby, Graham Nash, and especially Stephen Stills had an off-again, on-again relationship with Neil Young. 1994 found that relationship in off-again mode as they entered the studio to record After The Storm.

What emerged was a pleasant if somewhat average affair. It reminds me of a nice meal at a good restaurant which is enjoyed, digested, but quickly forgotten.

When I listen to this album I can’t help but think it could have been better. In some ways it was overproduced and just had too many back-up musicians. CSN would have been better served to have stripped back the sound as much as possible and relied on their own voices and instrumental backing. Keep it simple should have been the order of the day.

The album starts out strong but runs out of steam as it progresses. The first four tracks are the equal of their best work. “Only Waiting For You” finds Stephen Stills cranking up his trusty guitar and proving that when properly motivated he is a master of the instrument. “Find A Dream” features more of Stills on guitar plus some wonderful harmonies. Crosby continues his trend of presenting one superior song for each album and on this one it’s “Camera,” which has a gentleness and lyrical beauty that he was so good at creating. “Unequal Love” is centered on Nash’s voice and, yes, more Stills on guitar.

The rest of the album is a hit-or-miss affair. “These Empty Days” contain more classic harmonies which make the song worth while. “It Won’t Go Away” is only saved by Stills on electric guitar. Their cover of The Beatles “In My Life” is not so lucky as it was a poor choice of material and gets bogged down in its own excess. “Street To Lean On,” “Bad Boyz,” and “Panama” just do not rise to any level of enjoyment.

After The Storm was Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s first studio album of the nineties and while it was competent—and even very good in places—overall it showed they were not aging gracefully, at least in the studio. As the years passed this type of release have become all too representative of their eighties and nineties output. Still they remain a popular concert attraction and have built a respected body of work which allows them to remain in the upper echelon of the rock pantheon.

Right By You by Stephen Stills

February 9, 2010

Stephen Stills spent the early eighties involved with Crosby, Stills & Nash. He finally released his only solo studio album of the decade in July of 1984. Right By You would be his last release for a major label and the last one to reach the American charts.

In many ways the album was a product of its time. The disco era was winding down but synthesizers and programmed percussion were in style and they adorn a number of his songs here.

As with many of his solo albums there is both good and bad. In fact, this is the last album by Stills which I own on vinyl. The first side is excellent and I don’t know if the material was recorded in the sequence it plays, but it seems as if he ran out of ideas after the first five songs.

Nevertheless, he assembled a stellar cast of musicians to provide support. Guitarists Jimmy Page and Bernie Leadon, mandolin player and vocalist Chris Hillman, keyboardist Mike Finnigan, drummer Joe Lala, and old friend Graham Nash are all on board.

Side one is consistently strong. “50/50,” co-written with Jo Lala, uses brass to fill out the sound and has a wonderful Latin flavor. “Stranger” is a nice pop rocker and proves that an eighties-synthesizer sound can be quite good when used properly and creatively. “Flaming Heart” features the dual guitars of Stills and Page. “Love Again” is a very catchy tune and is another example of an eighties sound that works well. “No Problem” is blues with a strong rhythm driving it along.

The second half of the album is a very different affair. Stills’ cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” is representative of the material’s problems. He just tries too hard, which only proves that Young’s own simple version was definitive. The remaining songs are just forgettable.

Right By You continued his trend of producing inconsistent albums. And if you are planning on listening to some Stephen Stills music this is not the place to start. Today it remains just a stop in his musical journey and is only for serious collectors of his music who must have everything.

Blue Suede Shoes 45 by Carl Perkins

February 6, 2010

Carl Perkins was a stable mate of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley on the legendary Sun Label during the mid-1950’s. While his career would be less successful than the others, he would be recognized as one of the musicians who formed rock ‘n’ roll.

He would only place five songs on the national charts and all of would be between 1956-1959. One of them, however, was “Blue Suede Shoes” and it would become one of the most important recordings in rock history. It would spend four weeks at number two and would cross over onto the country and rhythm & blues charts as well.

Perkins came out of the country rockabilly tradition but was able to fuse that sound with a driving rhythm which moved it over into a straight rock ‘n’ roll sound.

He would tour with Johnny Cash for years and continue to perform and record until his death in 1998. He would leave behind not only one of the best, but also one of the seminal songs in American music history.

Beautiful Star by Odetta

February 5, 2010

Highly influential and respected, Odetta Holmes (1930-2008) made her mark during the revival of folk music in the late fifties and early sixties, her style containing elements of the blues and spirituals of the South.

She was active in the American Civil Rights Movement and gave a classic performance of “O Freedom” at the famous March On Washington D.C. in 1963. Martin Luther King, Jr. called her “The Queen Of American Folk Music.” She also received honors from presidents over the years until her death, at age 77, shortly before her anticipated scheduled performance at President Obama’s inauguration.

Beautiful Star is a reissue of a re-recorded album. In 1988 she went into the studio for the first time in fifteen years to record the songs she had released two decades previously on the Vanguard label. The resulting Christmas Spirituals has long been out of print so it is nice to see it return with a new name and a wonderful, clear sound due to modern technology.

The star of the album is her contralto vocals, which have passion, soulfulness and depth. When Odetta takes center stage, whether live or on record, she is a preacher transmitting an emotional message.

The instrumental backing here is minimal. Acoustic-string bassists Bill Lee and Lincoln Goines, percussionist Carol Steele, and drummer Jeff Salisbury (who uses only a snare and brushes) support her acoustic-guitar playing. Many of the tracks contain only a muted use of brushes and bass, setting the rhythms for her vocals as they powerfully soar above.

The album’s original title, Christmas Spirituals, is probably an accurate description of the music and intent of the release. And while it may contain traditional music, it is not a traditional Christmas album. Rather than telling the story of Christmas, the music instead invokes its spirit. Songs such as “Rise Up Shepherd And Follow,” “What Month Was Jesus Born In,” “Shout For Joy,” “If Anybody Asks You,” and “Ain’t That A-Rockin’” take the listener to Africa, the cathedral, and the plantations of the South.

Odetta returns to her folk roots with a powerful version of “Go Tell It On The Mountain.” The album closer, “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” is a complete sermon in about three minutes.

Beautiful Star is a nice look at an elegant artist who shall not pass this way again.