Elvis At Stax (Deluxe 3-CD Version) by Elvis Presley

September 5, 2013

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Elvis may be long gone but his music just keeps on coming in various incarnations and combinations. The latest release is the 3-CD box set, Elvis at Stax, the “Deluxe Edition.”

While all the material has been available in various forms and on multiple albums, the concept for this release is solid. Gather together the tracks from the last major studio recording sessions of his career, which took place at Stax Studios in Memphis, add in a number of outtakes, put them in some semblance of order, select a number of archival pictures, put together a booklet that provides a history of the sessions, and you have a cogent look at a specific period in the career of Elvis Presley.

The 1970s were a hit-and-miss period for Elvis. His studio albums were somewhat haphazard affairs of hastily recorded songs of the day. Some worked and some did not. Many of his live albums repeated the same songs over and over again. The one constant during this period was his single releases. They were polished, well recorded, found Elvis engaged, and were consistently excellent. The tracks issued as singles from his various Stax sessions are the highlights of the release.

Included in the set are rocking versions of “Promised Land” and “Raised on Rock,” country hits “Take Good Care of Her,” “It’s Midnight,” “If You Talk in Your Sleep,” “Help Me,” and the pop songs “My Boy” and “Thinking About You.” They prove that even as his health and enthusiasm were beginning to decline, he could still produce extremely good music when motivated.

The album tracks are a different matter. Most of them were issued on the albums Good Times, Raised on Rock/For Ol’ Times Sake, and Promised Land. While there may be a good performance here and there, the albums are not among the best of his career and many of the songs demonstrate why.

There are almost two discs worth of alternate takes. There is always the somewhat interesting question of why such takes as number four of “Your Love’s Been a Long Time Coming” and take nine of “Girl of Mine” were selected over others, but so be it.

The sound is good but limited somewhat by the Stax Recording Studio’s equipment of the day. It still had an eight track system rather than 16, which had become fairly common. On the positive side, Elvis always surrounded himself with the best session musicians available. Guitarist James Burton and drummer Ronnie Tutt were part of his touring band and they were joined by such artists as bassist Donald Dunn, drummer Alan Jackson, vocalist Kathy Westmoreland, and the ever present J.D. Sumner & The Stamps, among others.

Elvis at Stax [Deluxe Edition] is not the place to introduce yourself to the music of Elvis Presley. It is a release for the fan who wants everything or the collector who wants to dig a little deeper into his legacy with this snapshot of his time spent at Stax.


Sweatheart Of The Sun by The Greencards

August 19, 2013

 

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A decade ago, transplanted Australians Kym Warner (mandolin) and Carol Young (bass and vocals) found themselves in Austin, Texas, where they met English fiddler Eamon McLoughlin. The result of that meeting was the formation of one of the underappreciated gems of the American music scene. Their newest album, Sweetheart of the Sun. will be released next month.

The Greencards may not have been formed by Americans but they play a distinct brand of American music. They can best be described as a progressive bluegrass band. Their music may mix in some folk and rock but it is firmly rooted in American bluegrass traditions. The lyrics at times take it all in an Americana direction but it all works out to a blend that has been labeled newgrass.

Ten years after their formation, Warner and Young remain the core of the band. Guitarist Carl Minor is now the third permanent member. They use a rotating cast of musicians to create the sound in the recording studio, plus they use a pedal steel guitar for the first time here.

Their latest album finds the band moving in some new directions. Their early releases had a jam-like feel. Now they’re more sophisticated as they have honed their sound so that it has a polish and even a sonic quality at times. The use of additional musicians gives the band a much fuller sound than in the past, yet one can still discern the acoustic guitar, mandolin, and bass foundation, which is probably how the music will be presented on stage.

The new music also has an underlying concept as it explores their connections to water and movement. It is an album that evokes a mood as the songs build upon one another.  It is one of those releases that needs to be listened to in its entirely, as the whole is better and certainly more complete than the parts. Songs such as “Black, Black Water,” “Paddle the Torrens,” “Ocean Floor,” “Midnight Ferry,” and “Fly” create an ambiance that will take the listener on a journey through their world.

Sweetheart of the Sun was an ambitious project for the Greencards and they were able to bring their vision to fruition. It is an album that shows their growth as a band and is well worth a listen.


The South Side Of Soul Street: The Minaret Singles 1967-1976 by Various Artists

August 14, 2013

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Thousands of music labels have been established in the United States and most have faded into obscurity because of a lack of commercial success. Despite the failures, there was a lot of good music produced and issued by many of these long gone and forgotten labels. One such label was Minaret Records, established in 1962 as a Nashville country and rock and roll label. It was purchased by Finley Duncan in the mid-1960s, who took it in a soul direction and had it distributed by Shelby Singleton’s SSS International Records.

Artists such as Big John Hamilton, Willie Cobbs, Genie Brooks, Doris Allen, Willie Gable, Johnny Dynamite, and Leroy Lloyd and The Dukes may not be household names or even recognizable to most music fans, but rhythm & blues aficionados consider some of their singles to be the Holy Grail of collecting. Now all 20 A and B-sides of the Minaret soul singles, released 1967-1976, have been released under the appropriate title, The South Side Of Soul Street: The Minaret Soul Singles 1967-1976, as a two-disc CD.

Big John Hamilton is the center of the CD as he appears on half the tracks, which include four duets with Doris Allen. He has a sweet soul voice that is perfect for everything from blues to gospel. He learned his trade during a stint with Hank Ballad & The Midnighters and Etta James’ backing band. “Big Bad John” (not the Jimmy Dean hit) could have been released by Stax. It has a funky horn section and a stinging guitar that serve as the underpinning for his vocal. “I Had No One” is a nice ballad featuring his silky voice, while “How Much Can a Man Take” is another ballad in the James Brown tradition. “Big Fanny” has pulsating rhythms to support the tale of the 300-pound chanteuse. His duet on “Let a Little Love In” with Doris Allen is a breezy and soulful redo of a country song. Their best collaboration is a soaring and rocking version of Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes.”

Genie Brooks was one of those local artists that many people couldn’t quite figure out why he didn’t make it in a big way. He had a flexible voice that could run up and down the scales. “South Side of Soul Street” is a typical late 1960s dance track but the other side of the original single, “Helping Hand,” is a passionate and socially conscious tale of prison and loss.

Perhaps the best track is the instrumental “Soulful Strut” by Leroy Lloyd and The Dukes. It has some bluesy guitar licks, but it is the brass that dominates the track.

The quality of the music makes one wonder why it didn’t sell well at the time of its release. One reason was small labels had limited funds for promotion and secondly, the larger labels, such as Motown and Stax, were releasing equally good and some times better music and more of it.

The major problem may have been the lack of a consistent sound. The album is a collection of very individual tracks and while many are excellent representations of late 1960s and early 1970s soul and provide a historical presentation of what was being issued by smaller labels, there is an inconsistency to the music.

In the final analysis, The South Side Of Soul Street: The Minaret Soul Singles 1967-1976 is a valuable release in that it resurrects a number of hard to find tracks that are still a worthwhile listening experience.


Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis Presley

July 19, 2013

1957 was coming to a close and Elvis Presley was about to release one of the memorable hits of his career.

Elvis’ third film opened in theaters October 21, 1957, the same day that its title song, “Jailhouse Rock,” reached number one. If you want the rock and roll Elvis, then this is a song for you.

Best Sellers In Stores Chart – 11/21/57 – 6 weeks at number one.
Most Played By Disc Jockeys Chart – 11/25/57 – 2 weeks at number one.
Billboard Top 100 – 11/4/57 – 5 weeks at number one.

It made a historic debut in England when it topped the singles chart during its first week of release.


About Time by Ellen Foley

July 17, 2013

A3Ellen Foley has been missing from the American music scene and especially the recording studio for a long time. Some may remember her as Meat Loaf’s female foil on “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” Television fans may remember her as public defender Billie Young on the second season of the sitcom Night Court. Music fans in the know will remember her for three fine solo albums; Night Out (1979), Spirit Of St. Louis (1981), and Another Breath (1983). Produced by the likes of Ian Hunter, Mark Ronson, Mick Jones, and Joe Strummer, they were the equal of any female rock albums issued during that era.

Foley is alive and well and living in New York City; married, raising a family, acting on Broadway, and working as a vocal teacher. Now three decades after Another Breath, she has returned with her fourth studio album, appropriately titled About Time.

Her big booming voice remains intact and is still a formidable instrument. She is also very much still a rock and roll woman. While some of the tracks may veer in a blues direction, rock remains the foundation of who she is as an artist.

About Time can be divided between up-tempo rock songs fueled by her over-the-top vocals and slower stripped-down bluesy tunes.

While I have fond memories of Foley’s earlier rock material, I find myself constantly hitting the back button on the slower blues-type songs. “Guilty,” “Madness,” and “Any Fool Can See” have a late at night, smoke-filled lounge feel. Her voice reaches out and grabs your attention as she spins her tales.

She can still rock, which is represented by such tracks as “If You Can’t be Good,” and “Nobody Ever Died from Crying.” “I’ve Been Around the Block and Back” covers the middle ground between the two styles.

The lyrics tend to travel a reflective and sometimes darker route, which reflect her having aged three decades since her last release. Getting older and looking back on life can be heard on “If You Had a Heart” and “Worried Woman.” There is always hope as evidenced in the album-closing “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.”

Three decades after her last release, Ellen Foley has returned with a mature, personal, and powerful album. Hopefully her old fans will embrace this next chapter in her life. She will find a few new fans to journey with her as well.


In The Wake by Tea leaf Green

July 9, 2013

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San Francisco’s Tea Leaf Green is an independent band that has been on the road and in the studio for nearly 17 years. It has produced gritty and catchy rock and roll, while carving out a nice niche for itself on the American indie music scene.

The group began as a party band during the second half of the 1990s. Now, keyboardist Trevor Garrod, guitarist Josh Clark, drummer Scott Rager, bassist Reed Mathis, and percussionist Cochrane McMillan have released In The Wake, which is the most personal and in many ways the most powerful album of their career.

All the songs are originals, as Clark (4 tracks), Garrod (6), and Mathis (3) explore themes of their life journeys such as loss, separation, and ultimately healing that the passage of time brings. The lyrics are encased in catchy and sometimes melodic rock and roll with a touch of strings and horns in places.

“Penny Saved” is the album’s strongest track; it fuses a piano with some strings and places it on top of a solid bass beat. “All Our Love” uses the strings in a more delicate manner as they fill in the gaps in the more rock-oriented sound. “Give Me One More Chance” has a soul flavor to it and is an uplifting piece of music.

I don’t know if it’s the best but the most interesting music is Josh Clark’s space trilogy, for want of a better description. “Space Hero Pt. 2,” “Space Hero Pt. 3 (Forever in Space),” and “…Pt. 4 (Letters Home)” are joined by concept and would have been connected by the music had they not been interspersed throughout the album and instead presented together in a mini-suite style. When listening to them in a row, it is a better experience. The use of an acoustic guitar among the keyboards before transitioning toward a harder sound and connecting the songs together is an adventurous leap for the band.

In The Wake catches Tea Leaf Green in transition and it’s good to see a band explore new directions at times without leaving their past party/jam roots completely behind. It has produced a thoughtful album that hopefully will serve as a foundation as it moves into the future.


Blaze Of Glory by Marshall Chapman

July 3, 2013

Marshall Chapman is now over 40 years into her stellar music career and she has become more prolific with the passage of time. During the past three years she has had a book published (They Came to Nashville), seen her musical Good Ol’ Girls open off Broadway, acted in a movie with Gwyneth Paltrow (Country Strong), and released the well-received album, Big Lonesome. She has now returned with the 13th studio album of her career, Blaze Of Glory.

It is a comfortable release that picks up where her last one left off. She provides the lead vocals and rhythm guitar, supported by lead guitarist Will Kimbrough, drummer Casey Wood, keyboardist Mike Utley, and bassist Jim Mayer.

She has always been able been able to fuse her Americana lyrics with a pop rock sound and Blaze of Glory is no exception. If there is one area in which she has consistently improved, it is as a songwriter. She wrote eight of the 11 tracks and co-wrote one more. She is able to put her thoughts and stories into words and wrap them in memorable melodies.

The album starts out strong with “Love in the Wind,” which has a 1950s rock and roll vibe. She shares the lead vocal with Todd Snider as they explore her inner feelings. She then transitions to the power pop of “I Don’t Want Nobody.” Songs such as “Dreams & Memories,” the title track, and “Not Afraid to Die” reflect the personal side of her songwriting and life as they explore her philosophy and life journey.

The two cover songs were chosen well. Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You” is delivered in a laid back style, while the Delmore Brothers’ old country classic, “Blues Stay Away From Me,” is moved over from its bluegrass roots to Chapman’s Americana style.

Marshall Chapman is now in her mid-60s and has carved out an impressive career. Blaze of Glory will add to her legacy as it is an album of mature music by an artist who is confident in her skills.