Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker

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Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker

Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

2016 - Columbia

 

I have wanted to review this album for a while. When I first started doing my reviews, I had this on the short list to write about. For some reason, it fell off that list and I hadn’t picked it up again until now. I’m not sure why, but I felt a little intimidated to capture this album in in paragraph. The cause of this trepidation is still a bit hazy to me. I’ve written about much more complicated music, albums with similar instrumentation, and even a gravelly voice (Tom Waits). Perhaps it relates to my lack of history with Cohen. I know that there are plenty of musicians, artists, and others who cite him as a main inspiration, but this is the only album of his that I’ve ever listened to. Perhaps the lack of a deep dive into his work made me hesitant to write this. I’m not comparing this to his other work or his trajectory career-wise, I can only view this album as a stand-alone piece. As its own entity, this LP is gorgeous. All the elements mix together (instrumentation, songwriting, arranging, vocals) to create an album that, to me at least, is unique. There are elements of blues, 50’s music, choral, and something (as the name states) darker. There is an undertone to this entire album that is somehow both unnerving and comfortable all at once. Turn the lights off, drop the needle, and let this album take you over.

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Tortoise, It's All Around You

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Tortoise, It's All Around You

Tortoise – It’s All Around You

2004 – Thrill Jockey

 

As the rain creates its own symphony against my house, I dryly sit inside. Cocooned away, enjoying a few minutes of my vacation day allowing Tortoise to blend with nature and create a completely calming environment. “It’s All Around You” was the first Tortoise album I heard, and perhaps because of this, it is my favorite of their albums.  The instrumentation and layering of sounds represented here are nothing short of marvelous. As each sound creeps its way in and out, you are left with a feeling of completeness. This fullness, to me, is the essence of Tortoise. Their music takes you on a journey that you feel an integral part of. It doesn’t seem like you are just along for the ride, you are enveloped in their sound and partake in the quest through the two sides of vinyl. The use of space is also phenomenal. As I listen through this LP for the umpteenth time I am still surprised by little bits of sound that were previously unknown to me. This is where the use of space comes in; with something new hitting me every time, you would expect the music to be cluttered, but it is not. Everything has its place and allows everything else to breathe. Do yourself a favor and check this album out, you won’t be disappointed.

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Carla Bley, Escalator Over the Hill (Part 3 of 6)

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Carla Bley, Escalator Over the Hill (Part 3 of 6)

Carla Bley – Escalator Over the Hill (Side 3)

1971 – JCOA Records

 

As we start with side three of this album, we get our first taste of John McLaughlin. A quartet of McLaughlin, Bley, Jack Bruce, and Paul Motian kick up the energy for a fun rock piece. McLaughlin is a monster on guitar, and Bruce (with his rock experience) knows how to accentuate this type of playing. Motian is a bit restrained, which is nice in this instance, it keeps this grounded and reminds the listener that this is not an extended rock jam, it is still part of the wonderful jazz opera. As the tracks move on, the tune “Why” comes in featuring Linda Ronstadt. This might be the catchiest track of the whole album, featuring Charlie Haden taking up some background vocal duties. Themes keep coming back in various forms, instrumental arrangements harken back to other tracks; by this point in the album there is a basis to start picking up on some of these compositional tactics. The more that unfolds here musically, the more enjoyment you are able to get out of this album. On the next installment, we will start going down the second 3 sides of this triple LP.

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Primus, The Desaturating Seven

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Primus, The Desaturating Seven

Primus – The Desaturating Seven

2017 – Prawn Song

 

Some albums enter your life at the exact time when you need them. Whatever you are going through, or wherever you are emotionally, these albums stick with you. It could be the songwriting, the instrumentation, the lyrics, or nothing that can be easily pinpointed to that ingratiates a group of tunes to you. Even though I hadn’t heard “The Desaturating Seven” before this week, I can already tell that this album is going to be on constant rotation on my system for a long time to come. I’ve loved Primus for a long time, so I shouldn’t be surprised that I love this album. Much of my fond feelings for it, I’m sure, come from the fact that I heard it performed live before I heard the LP. The attachment to the live show experience gave this LP a real-world memory that I subconsciously, and apparently consciously, associate with it every time it spins under the needle. Now, I’ve seen Primus live a few times, so I knew to expect a great show, but there was something that struck me about this performance. The music was complex, but the trio was playing it so cleanly and with such precision that it seemed effortless. “The Desaturating Seven” is a concept album that brings together goblins and prog rock (how could you not love it?). The animated visuals of rolling hills and rainbows that played behind the band as well as the artwork on the album itself augment the music and show it from a different viewpoint than would be shown if they were absent. The playfulness reminds me of Jethro Tull while the arrangements and songwriting remind me of King Crimson (two of my favorite bands if you’ve been paying attention to past posts). Even though these influences are present, this album is clearly Primus. They have been together long enough to carve out their sound and bring together elements are uniquely their own. They are still pushing to new territories and different directions and I am excited to see where they go next. In the meantime, I’m definitely going to wear out this vinyl. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy for yourself!

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Carla Bley, Escalator Over the Hill (Part 2 of 6)

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Carla Bley, Escalator Over the Hill (Part 2 of 6)

Carla Bley – Escalator Over the Hill (Side 2)

1971 – JCOA Records

 

Part 2 of a 6-part series: Side two creeps in on you in two senses. One is that it goes from very quiet and slowly builds and two is that it puts you in a space of uneasiness. It is hard to understand what is going on, synthesizers create sounds that, mixed with the chorus, sound like they could be taken from a horror movie. Longtime readers of this blog can probably guess that I love that. There is a prepared piano in the first tune that takes its place in the background and adds to the mood. Side two is the first time we get a taste of the mixture of free jazz, orchestral music, and opera. It really works together, thanks to Bley’s beautiful arrangement. She has a way of knowing exactly what works together and how to make seemingly disparate things complement each other. The waltz theme that was represented in the overture is completely flushed out on this side. The vocals add an element that completely makes the recording. Near the end of the side, there are some really nice lines from Gato Barbieri. Jimmy Lyons makes an appearance here as well. So far, two sides in, I’m still completely enthralled in everything that is going on. Come back next week to get some insights into side three.

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Carla Bley, Escalator Over the Hill (Part 1 of 6)

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Carla Bley, Escalator Over the Hill (Part 1 of 6)

Carla Bley – Escalator Over the Hill (Side 1)

1971 – JCOA Records

 

This is one of those albums that I’d heard about for a long time, but had never actually listened to. When I saw it in an antiques shop for $10, I knew I had to pick it up. Since this is a triple LP (six sides), I’m going to break it up into a six-part series. The first side starts with some power behind it. A trombone (Roswell Rudd) takes some soloing and melody lines on top of held chords. Later in the overture, a tenor sax (Gato Barbieri) does the same thing, but instead of beautiful sweeping lines, he screeches and almost sounds like someone screaming (which is awesome). After the trombone solo up top, it almost feels like the band is slowly falling apart (by design). It leaves you unsettled until a creepy waltz comes in, unsettling you in a different way. As an overture is meant to do, a lot of the themes that are heard throughout the other five sides are introduced. There is some beautiful writing and arranging by Bley here. One part that jumps out to me is the way that the band lays back on the beat, they sound so comfortable. After the madness, Charlie Haden has a great solo, which is set perfectly here (arrangement wise) as a sort of palette cleanser. Out of the bass solo we get some resolution in the chords with all the instruments and we are ready to jump to side two. We will catch up next week with that, so make sure to stop back!

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Tony Williams, Civilization

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Tony Williams, Civilization

Tony Williams – Civilization

1987 – Blue Note Records

 

You can’t go wrong with Tony Williams in any stage of his career. He is one of the biggest names in jazz drumming history for good reason. His playing is instantly recognizable and I admire that he just put it all out there. Tony’s dynamic range was remarkable and he had no fear of really slamming a cymbal when the time called for it. This album is interesting for a few reasons: One is the stellar band he assembled (Wallace Roney, Billy Pierce, Mulgrew Miller, and Charnette Moffett), second is the interesting artwork, and third is that he wrote all the pieces performed. I think Williams is remembered for his sideman work (which was revolutionary) and not always thought about in terms of his composition chops. Listening to a song like “Warrior” showcases him wearing the composition cap. The melody is catchy, the chordal structure feels great, and the breaks sound awesome. You can tell that he wrote the drum part as a complement to the melody. Some of the fills and building that he does during the melody really makes the song pop. If I see some more late career Williams albums around, I’ll be sure to pick them up. It is very interesting to hear all the talents that he had to offer. I suggest you search out these albums as well.

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The Who, the Who by Numbers

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The Who, the Who by Numbers

The Who – The Who By Numbers

1975 – MCA Records

 

With the entire canon of Who material to sort through, I’m sure that this album gets looked over by many. There is only one “hit” on here: “Squeeze Box”, and it departs from what people would expect form this band. That being said, overlooking this album is definitely a mistake. There is a lot of great material here. One thing that stands out to me is that Keith Moon plays a more restrained role here. His normal style is over the top, full of fills, and unhinged. While there are hints of that style, “However Much I Booze”, overall his playing more straight ahead. What you would expect from a drummer in a rock band. On one hand, it is nice to hear him play this way, and on another, I miss the craziness. This album as a whole seems more restrained, and as a result, seems more sophisticated. Pete Townsend commented that it was an introspective album and by doing a little research, it seems like the band was disengaged from this album when they were recording. That really doesn’t come across in the music. It sounds great to me. There are songs like “Imagine a Man”, “Blue Red and Grey” and “How Many Friends” that seems to come out of left field for the Who. I wouldn’t expect these tunes to come from the band that brought you “Baba O’Reilly” but they work perfectly. The cover art is a cartoon of the band and drawn by John Entwistle (who comes up with some really great bass-lines throughout this album as well). This may be my favorite Who album (maybe tied with Tommy) and it should be listened to. If you are looking for a different side of a classic band, make sure to listen to this album, you won’t be disappointed.

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Keith Jarrett, El Juicio

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Keith Jarrett, El Juicio

Keith Jarrett – El Juicio (the Judgement)

1975 – Atlantic Recording Company

 

When your backing band is Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian, you really can’t go wrong. This group has a few recordings together, and their cohesion shows here. There are so many aspects that I could look at this album from, but I think I’m going to look at it through the bass. Charlie Haden is a madman. He has times where he hits one note multiple times, moves it chromatically up and down, builds and releases tension throughout others solos. He lays such a solid foundation that everyone is clear where they are at all times, no matter how much moving around he is doing. Even in spots where there is no clear beat, he pulls the band together and makes everything sound planned and written out. His groove is unbelievable and he always seems to know when to play, what to play, and when to leave space. The drums and bass sound like they are one. This kind of musical divinity doesn’t happen very often. The way that Motian and Haden push and pull the pulse (between the two of them and with the others) is a masterclass in itself. Listening to this album, it sounds like they were all having a fun time playing. The songs are interesting, the musicianship is excellent, and the cover art is awesome. Pick this one up if you find it, I grabbed it for $2.99, so that tells me it is pretty readily available to find. You won’t be disappointed with the purchase!

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Radiohead, In Rainbows

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Radiohead, In Rainbows

Radiohead – In Rainbows

2007 – XL Recordings

 

This is a great album. There is no denying that, and much has been written in that regard. I’m going to take a different approach with this post. I am going to focus in on one element that solidifies the entire album for me: the ride cymbal. I think it is a combination of the way it was recorded and mixed and that it is probably a really nice cymbal makes it a shining point of this LP. It cuts through the mix on a few of the songs and adds a brightness that might be lacking without it. Radiohead can get a little melancholy, even when their songs are upbeat, and I think the ride cymbal keeps adds a bit of freshness to it. Listen to “Reckoner”. The cymbal work here is sublime, the melody moves along behind the beat, there are strings that set a mood, and then the cymbal rings out on top, letting you know everything is alright. Near the end, when the guitar chords break down with just the bass and drums, you feel like the clouds have been lifted, and I think a lot of that is because of the cymbal. The next time you listen through this album, pay attention to the ride. You may hear what I’m talking about, or you may think I’m crazy, either way, you’ll be listening to a great album. Enjoy!

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Gary Burton, the New Quartet

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Gary Burton, the New Quartet

Gary Burton – The New Quartet

1973 – ECM Records

 

The early 70s were an interesting time for jazz. Groups like Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report were melding jazz composition with the aggressiveness of rock music. Prog groups were sprouting up and doing a similar thing. The group on this album seems to be trying to fit into that mold a bit, but they lean more towards traditional jazz than rock music. The playing is excellent; with Mick Goodrick, Abe Laboriel, and Harry Blazer, you kind of can’t go wrong.  There is a nice mix of tunes here from a bunch of different composers, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Gordon Beck, Gary Burton, Carla Bley, and Mike Gibbs, but there is a definite continuity that runs throughout the album. “Mallet Man” was the first track I’d heard of this album, back in college. We played it in a jazz combo and I remember it being pretty difficult (luckily I was on drums so I didn’t have to worry about hitting all the changes for soloing). Nevertheless, it stands up to me even today. Lots of songs that I’ve played, or enjoyed, in the past don’t stand up with time or I grow sick of them, but this tune definitely is interesting time and time again. Some really nice playing all around. I only have one reservation about this album. Near the end of the second side, during a really cool piece, they all hit chords and play around on them. During one such chord, Gary plays a few seconds of “Deck the Halls”. It really ruins the mood for me. As a young jazzer, I probably would have loved that and found it super cool, but as I’ve grown, I find that kind of thing to be pretty corny. But it is but a small moment on an otherwise great album, so I can let that go and just enjoy.

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Allman Brothers Band, At Fillmore East

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Allman Brothers Band, At Fillmore East

The Allman Brothers Band – At Fillmore East

1971 – Carpricorn

 

Bluesy Southern rock should only be played on vinyl. There is something about the cracks and pops that adds so much to this music. I’d listened to this album before, both digitally and on CD, but when I was at a friend’s house and heard the vinyl, I knew I had never really heard it. Dropping the needle and hearing the slide guitar on “Statesboro Blues” gets you ready for the entire double album. With the extended soloing and great musicianship, there are some nice moments scattered throughout the two discs. Being a live album, it truly is a testament to this time in the band’s history. It is a living documentation of their development at that point. This was two years into the bands career, which is amazing to think of, as we know of them now as a fixture in classic rock history. At this point, they were just beginning. They had their sound, if not solidified, at least etched out very early in their career. Even more important that that though, is the music is really fun to listen to. It lends itself to cranking up really loudly and getting some housework done. My personal favorite is “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”. Do yourself a favor and check this album out if you get the chance.

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Carla Bley, Social Studies

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Carla Bley, Social Studies

Carla Bley – Social Studies

1981 – WATT/ECM

 

Carla Bley is one of the great jazz composers/arrangers of all time. Her work is wide, varied, and deep. I picked up this album without knowing of it just because I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed. All her albums offer something interesting to the listener. One of my favorite tracks here is “Valse Sinistre”, which is exactly what it sounds like; a creepy, sinister waltz. The way that Bley arranged for tuba and euphonium, without them playing over the other while playing complementary, is great.  Other than the composition and arrangement, the trombone is the star of the album for me. Gary Valente is a great player that can be heard on a lot of Bley’s recordings, as well as the George Russell Big Band. His solos are creative, interesting, and hold their own on top of the moving compositions. Steve Swallow also has some great moments on this LP as well. Overall, this is an album worth checking out. The playing from all the musicians is great, the arrangements are interesting, and the vibe created is awesome. Soon I will be covering Bley’s Escalator over the Hill album, and I think I am going to break it into a few weeks (it’s a triple LP!). Stay tuned for that, in the meantime, check out some of her other work and enjoy!

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Peter Brotzmann's Chicago Tentet, Stone Water

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Peter Brotzmann's Chicago Tentet, Stone Water

Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet – Stone Water

2000 – Okka Disk

 

For those familiar with Brotzmann’s music, this album will fall in line with expectations, but for those who have never heard this music may be shocked. It is definitely not for everyone, and not for the faint of heart. That being said, I love it. Brotzmann’s music is an assault on the senses. It defies what is conventionally thought of as music, in a good way. This album is not one to be put on in the background as a soundtrack to your life, it needs to be played while you are giving it your full attention. The interactions between musicians are brilliant. There are points where the whole band is playing, following their own trail, but little parts match up between some of them, focusing the listener into a thread. There is a point during the second side of the album where one of the drummers and one of the bassists (there are two of each), join together and give the only hint of a conventional beat throughout the set. It only works because it sits beneath the madness that is happening above it, and the other musicians keep doing their own thing. This mastery of improvisation isn’t something that is comes along very often. The balance of following your own ideas and interacting/reacting to other’s ideas is on full display here. Being confident in your playing so that you don’t have to react to everything going on around you is a tenant of the music here. And, honestly, it is part of what makes working with ten musicians successful. If everyone just reacted to everyone else, this would be a boring album and not very cohesive. The dissonance brings everything together. Do yourself a favor, sit back, put this album on, and let it sink in.

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Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble

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Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble

Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble

2014 – Prawn Songs

 

I had the pleasure to see this album performed live when it came out. The setup on stage almost looked as if they were performing in the middle of a cartoon. There were inflatable mushrooms, Oompa Loompas with oversized heads that danced around, and the whole band was in costume. This all took place around Halloween, and it was once of the creepiest, odd, and entertaining shows I’ve ever seen. The vinyl is great, but it can’t hold up to the live show. One thing that I really appreciate about this album, though, is the use of an expanded band, the Fungi Ensemble. Mike Dillon, on mallets, and Sam Bass, on cello, round out this album beautifully. When a band, such as Primus, has been churning out great music for decades with the same musical lineup, adding other instruments can shake things up and lead them in different directions.  The use of cello and mallets on this album takes the weird tunes and arrangements and gives them a creepy vibe, which is perfect. For an album like this, where a set of tunes are being covered, there needs to be something unique about it. I am not interested in hearing a band do their best imitation of another band, I would rather hear the original. For a covers album to work, it needs to have its own take on the tunes. This album definitely does that. There are some nice chord substitutions and embellishments on the melodies that honor the original, but takes it to a supremely Primus-y place. This probably isn’t everyday listening, but it is great to throw on once in a while, especially when you have some people over that haven’t heard it. Definitely worth a listen!

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Jethro Tull, Songs from the Wood

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Jethro Tull, Songs from the Wood

Jethro Tull – Songs from the Wood

1977 – Chrysalis

 

Although this is my first time writing about Jethro Tull in this blog, it is definitely not my first time enjoying them on vinyl. My collection has a decent amount of Tull releases, but this album is my favorite. I love prog rock from England. While a lot of the prog rock out of the US has a jazz influence on it, the European prog bands took a more classical/renaissance approach to it. Lutes and orchestra bells, folk melodies, and interesting instrumentation dominate bands like Jethro Tulls’ sound. Of course there are jazz influences here too, but the English folk hits harder.  I know it’s a little corny, but I love me some rock flute. The musicianship and songwriting on this album are awesome. Time signatures change constantly, but the transitions are smooth. On top of that, the tunes are catchy. Their unique instrumentation gets them stuck in your head. This album was part of a trilogy where Tull got really into folk melodies, with “Heavy Horses” and “Stormwatch”, but I’ve always gravitated towards this album more than the others. There is something so simple, yet complex, about these tunes. As I’ve stated, they have catchy melodies, but are complicated musically, which is a hard combination to hit. Tull was on top of their game when this came out, so if you haven’t heard much of them, I would definitely suggest starting with “Songs from the Wood”. Enjoy!

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Steve Reich, Tehillim

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Steve Reich, Tehillim

Steve Reich - Tehillim

1982 - ECM

 

Steve Reich has a way of using density that I haven’t heard from anyone else. There are no breaks in most of his music, but the way he uses repetition makes it seem as though there is space. By slowly changing aspects of the repeated patterns, he shifts what your brain is expecting, but he does it in such a slow manner that you sometimes don’t realize it is happening.  It is easy to zone out while listening and stay completely focused at the same time. You get so engaged in what is happening that it becomes your consciousness, a space that your entire world revolves around. As time ticks by, the fast passages seem to slow as you become more familiar with the patterns. This piece, though, does have actual tempo changes that flow seamlessly together. The harmonies and chordal movement keeps you engaged throughout and the way that pitched percussion creeps in near the end of the piece is a treat to hear. This would probably be a good record to have someone listen to as an introduction to Reich’s music.

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Case, Lang, Veirs

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Case, Lang, Veirs

Case/Land/Veirs

2016 – ANTI

 

This is an album that has a supergroup status that extends to the backing band. Obviously, k.d. Lang, Neko Case, and Laura Veirs are all great musicians with decades of experience, so it would make sense that when they got together, the session musicians would be top notch. Glenn Kotche (from Wilco) is on drums, Rob Burger (from one of my favorite groups, Tin Hat Trio) on keyboards, Ralph Carney (from hundreds of albums, including many Tom Waits’) on horns, Tim Young (who has played with everyone, including Beck and Mike Patton) on guitar, and Sebastion Steinberg (from Soul Coughing) on bass. With this amount of experience on one album, I had high expectations. Luckily, I was not disappointed. No one overplays, everything is tasteful, and there is a unified sound throughout. Case, Lang, and Veirs all take turns with vocals and harmonize really well together, never overpowering each other. The album almost sounds like it came from the 50s at points, and sounds very modern at others. Somehow it is unified and doesn’t sound disjointed. Their songwriting is great. Each tune can stand on its own and still falls in line with the others. The vinyl itself is a translucent orange, so that is cool too. This is definitely one to check out!

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Odetta at Carnegie Hall

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Odetta at Carnegie Hall

Odetta – at Carnegie Hall

1960 – Vanguard

 

A friend let me borrow this album recently and I have to admit that I had never heard of Odetta before this. The music is great, her singing and guitar playing are super entertaining. Doing some quick research shows she was a huge influence on the folk scene of the 60s, with the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Janis Joplin being fans. Martin Luther King, Jr. called her the queen of American folk music. It is probably appropriate that I am writing about this in February, Black History Month. I may not be the most educated about folk music, but I thought I knew the big players, but apparently I did not. Why are the white artists that cited her as an influence common names, but Odetta is not? Janis Joplin (who I wrote about recently) has become a cultural reference, just one of those names that everyone has heard of and knows something about, but I don’t feel like Odetta has reached the same notoriety. It seems reasonable that I may not know the major musicians in Indian or Chinese history, but to not know one right here in America doesn’t sit right with me. We all need to make sure that we are looking outside our immediate culture, and what is comfortable to us, to search out great art. It is not something that is necessarily going to be shown to you, you need to reach out to find it.

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Janis Joplin, Pearl

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Janis Joplin, Pearl

Janis Joplin – Pearl

1971 – Columbia

 

Janis Joplin is an artist that I’ve heard over the years, recognized her famous songs, but never really dug into her catalog. When I came across this album in a dollar bin, I knew it was time to check her out. I had heard of her in connection with the band Big Brother and the Holding Company so seeing that her backing band here is called Full Tilt Boogie confused me, as I’d never heard this name before. Apparently, her management convinced her to fire the Holding Company and she put together a new backing band,  Full Tilt Boogie. They all sound great here, I especially like the piano player, Richard Bell. He plays some really cool lines and flows in and out of the tracks, making them fuller and more memorable. This was Joplin’s last album, passing before it was released. There is one track “Buried Alive in the Blues” that remains an instrumental because Joplin never had a chance to record the vocals over it. She was a force to be reckoned with, her vocals are so forceful and her arrangements are great. She definitely found her niche, fronting bluesy rock groups. Her voice is perfect for that, although listening through, she may have been able to front a big band with some conviction. It sounds like she is pouring her soul into the songs, which is what you want from a singer. There is so much showmanship that comes through on the vinyl that I can’t even imagine what it would be like to see her live. In fact, I am going to check out some live videos of her now, which is what I would suggest you do as well!

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