Monday, July 30, 2007

Rickie Lee Jones | The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard

Anyone seriously listening to BeyoncĂ© singing ”You must not know about me” and warning her beau with “I could have another you in a minute!” (does this woman really think that would solve her problem?) is most likely not going to enjoy Rickie Lee Jones’s latest release.

As I understand it, Rickie Lee hooked up with some L.A. musicians, one of whom has written a book, The Words, in which he makes his own personal interpretations of the words of Christ. Rickie read sections of his book while standing in a makeshift recording studio and listening to tracks these musicians had prepared. She proceeded to spontaneously sing her own lyrical interpretations of various passages. After some embellishments (and adding a few songs of her own) these tracks became the new RLJ CD.

This collaboration has produced a work of great integrity. It’s extremely creative and most definitely a rock’n’roll record. Patti Smith comes to mind in light of the poetic, somewhat political, and quite serious intent here, but this record is more about the politics, if you will, of a raw Christian view of the world. It often moves between modern western culture and a New Testament context . . . “now” becomes Roman-occupied Israel and that troubled era becomes now. We get a “timeless” sense of the follies and insensitivities of mankind.

A record like this can’t be made without a true artist present, one with a strong personal vision for the project and a good singing and/or reciting voice. Rickie Lee is such an artist.

Perhaps you haven’t tuned in to her various releases for a while, but the high points have been great—did you hear her early nineties album Flying Cowboys? Don’t miss its title track and “Away from the Sky”. Did you hear her take on “The Low Spark of Highheeled Boys” and “Showbiz Kids” on It’s Like This? How about her “Jolie, Jolie” on Traffic from Paradise? Her last CD, The Evening of My Best Day, should have been a big seller (check out “It Takes You There”) and should have won a Grammy for technical sound quality at the very least!

Rickie Lee Jones’s excellent musical influences abound on The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard—Van Morrison’s super-emotional LP, Astral Weeks, Sly Stone’s nonchalant cool on his hit “Family Affair,” Vini Reilly’s Durutti Column moods, The Velvet Underground, The Jefferson Airplane’s “Comin’ Back to Me” (which Rickie Lee covered on Pop Pop)--the list goes on . . . maybe even a little Adam Durwitz/Counting Crows.

“How do you pray in a world like this?” she asks in the voice of someone observing people starving outside a restaurant. “Comin’ into town on your donkey, but you’ll be goin’ out on a cross,” she whispers. If you weren’t particularly offended by Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, you may find you like the way this CD sets you thinking and feeling. The final cut, “I Was There,” is rather flimsy in its connection to the Jesus theme, but the rest of this thirteen-song (one instrumental) endeavor really does somehow reach something in the neighborhood of its very lofty goals!

Originally posted to in June 2007.

Neil Young | Heart of Gold DVD

Superstar Singer/Songwriter Gets a New Lease on Life
(as does the material he released on his pre-operation CD)

The Heart of Gold movie, directed by Jonathan Demme and filmed at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, is a must-see. Don’t just put this on the TV while everyone’s rushing around the house. You need to sit down and watch the entire thing to get its real impact.
The major portion of this carefully staged production is comprised of nine songs from Neil Young’s recent Prairie Wind CD. Frankly, I wasn’t very interested in this film because I felt the performances on the original CD and its accompanying in-the-studio DVD lacked bite and the recording lacked any kind of special ambience; consequently, the songs didn’t seem so good either. This in-front-of-a-live-audience DVD version, however, corrects all that. Maybe it’s just a general sense of relief after his successful brain-aneurysm operation, maybe it’s everyone on stage being more familiar with the material, or maybe it’s more of a sense of shared purpose between the musicians upon being invited back for another go-round. Anyway, it’s excellent. Mr Young sounds damn near as good as ever. There have been a lot of releases from him in the last decade and, to me, few have had the right combination of elements. This “Prairie Wind take two” does.

Obviously, the songs on Prairie Wind were initiated by the loss of his father. A trip back to the Winnipeg area for the memorial service produced a palette of emotions demanding some sort of assessment. Take “The Painter” for example:

Green to green, red to red,
yellow to yellow in the light . . .
black to black when the evening comes,
blue to blue in the night,
it’s a long road behind me, it’s a long road ahead.

“Only a Dream,” the most moving song on the original CD, remains a standout here. The verses, obviously written quickly and not in entirely matching meter, add up the visions: a bad dream his wife or daughter wakes up with one morning; the Red River running through his boyhood hometown; a solitary boy fishing down by the bridge pylons; a description of a passenger train picking up passengers, picking up speed, and vanishing into the Canadian prairie, and a man in an overcoat stopping to chat with a policeman on an windy sidewalk of long ago. (Ben Keith’s steel guitar during the train verse—wisely captured by Mr. Demme—is musical excellence.

Between songs Mr. Young talks carefully about our age group’s time now—parents dying, questionable “progress,” juxtapositions of past and present landmarks (the old Ryman/the new Gaylord Entertainment Center).

An encore/finale of carefully selected older songs begins with “I Am a Child,” followed by “Harvest Moon,” “Heart of Gold,” and a story about Louis Avala, the ranch caretaker he wrote “Old Man” for so long ago: “Tell me, how does a young man like yourself have enough money to buy a place like this?”

With the performance of “One of These Days” from Harvest Moon, the movie begins to reveal its full message. In this song, he apologizes to old friends for bridges burned and acknowledges good things he forfeited with those broken ties. By this point, the camera is focusing more on Mr. Young’s wife, Pegi, catching some key looks between Neil and her.

The version of “Four Strong Winds” here is awesome. So is “Comes a Time.” I still smile at its trade-off between “proper” strings and a fiddle. And slipping in “Old King” from Harvest Moon is a good way for Neil Young to reiterate that he knows he’s still got a long and unknown way to go.

It’s hardly common practice to rerecord an album, especially immediately after its release (!), but in this case it’s a very worthwhile endeavor—brilliant, in fact.

Originally posted to in December 2006.

Old Friends & Brian Wilson Presents Smile: The DVD

Old Friends Live On Stage
Simon and Garfunkel

Brian Wilson Presents Smile: The DVD
Brian Wilson

Hey, these guys are good together! I wasn’t able to attend any of their concerts, but this Madison Square Garden DVD is evidence of a first-rate road show. My feeling these days is that the older guys are still far and away the best--that is to say, the top “acts” of the sixties who still have their central members and, of course, their classic material are the ones that can really do it right when they want to. That includes Simon and Garfunkel. For one thing, their band couldn’t be better. Jim Keltner is on drums and he’s as good as ever. Mark Stewart on electric guitar is of particular interest. It’s hard to believe cello is his main instrument! Some of the classic melodies are altered here and there, but not in ways that really damage them. I particularly like this version of “A Hazy Shade of Winter.” (For some reason they chose to avoid singing “that’s an easy thing to say, but if your hopes should pass away, simply pretend.”) “I Am a Rock” is excellent, the signature riff still great.

It’s somewhat of a miracle that these two guys from the sixties can call out their main influence, the Everly Brothers (from the fifties!), for a few numbers, all four singing together on “Bye Bye Love.”

“Parsley Sage” contains a Cuban/Latin detour that works perfectly and allows each musician a solo spot. (I remember when Larry Salzman was playing lead guitar with Shawn Colvin in clubs around the Village.) Yes, as a baby boomer I’m biased, but the sixties superstars that remain with us are the ones with both the material and the smarts/wherewithal to make the nowadays-commonplace over-$100-ticket price seem worth it, which leads me to the Brian Wilson Presents Smile DVD.

How ironic after all these years (nearly forty!) to see him succeed in putting the Smile pieces together (as a “rock opera”) and even performing it in front of a live audience! And managing to enjoy himself on stage!

I confess I never liked stray bits like “Veg-e-tables” or "Wind Chimes" that surfaced on Beach Boys albums . . . just too weird. It’s said throughout this special two-disc DVD set that the times have finally caught up with the Smile material. In truth, a lot of the “accepted at last” credit must go to musician Darian Sahanaja who put all the Smile vignettes into a computer for easy access and helped Mr. Wilson make some actually entertaining sense of it all. Keeping “Heroes and Villains,” “Surf’s Up,” and “Good Vibrations” strategically placed in the running order allows the stranger pieces such as “Vegetables,” the barnyard sounds, and even the fire thing (“Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”) to be pleasingly sequenced into the whole.

There are quite a number of musicians in Brian’s core UK tour band here and, as on the Simon and Garfunkel DVD, each one seems perfect to me. Of particular interest are Probyn Gregory, trumpet and vocals, and Jim Hines, drums. Who would have dreamed that the infamous Smile project that caused Brian Wilson so much pain so long ago would ultimately bring us, and him, a great deal of pleasure?

Originally posted to in June 2006.

Al Stewart | A Beach Full of Shells

According to, “Year of the Cat was an unqualified hit, selling over a million copies and spawning the Top Ten title single. Time Passages duplicated both feats but Stewart’s creativity dried up soon afterwards.” How little attention that particular reviewer must be paying! I would suggest they give his 1995 release Between the Wars a listen, especially the songs “Sampan,” “A League of Notions,” and “Laughing into 1939.” They should also give his new release, A Beach Full of Shells, some consideration.

Here again Al is mixing his vast knowledge of history with his skills as a singer/songwriter .
No, these records are not for everyone, but I don’t think "everyone" is visiting my website and checking out my music picks. Many remember Al’s Past Present and Future LP (from the seventies), which featured songs about such subjects as the prophecies of Nostradamus and the life of a soldier resisting the Nazi invasion of Russia. Many will remember “On the Border” (from Year of the Cat) about the Spanish Civil War.

Al is certainly not your typical singer/songwriter and his unique songs would perhaps be merely academic exercises if he weren’t so good at writing and singing them.

My personal picks for standouts on A Beach Full of Shells would be “Mr. Lear,” “Royal Courtship” (in which he amusingly writes the same verse three times using different clever word choices), “Somewhere in England 1915,” and “My Egyptian Couch.” The latter describes some of his ancestors of a few generations ago wearing what were for them the latest clothes and staring out from a photograph. It is Al’s frequent musings about time and the way we relate to it that interests me most. Remember these words?

It was late in December, the sky turned to snow
All ‘round the day was going down slow
Night like a river beginning to flow
I felt the beat of my mind go
Drifting into time passages.
There’s something back there that you left behind
Oh, time passages.

From “Merlin’s Time”:

I think of you now
As a dream that I had long ago
in a kingdom lost to time

from “Laughing into 1939”:

The party draws them in
It breathes and moves
To a life its own
In its arms it’s gathering all time

Now the girl and the beach and the train
and the ship are all gone
And the calendar up on the wall says it’s ninety years on

(“Somewhere in England 1915”)

So they look from the photographs
and they’re curious now,
wondering how we turned out
Let’s say like the Chinese adage
We’re living our lives in interesting times

(“My Egyptian Couch”)

Visit Al’s website and you’ll see that, contrary to what might print, there are many people who know that Al Stewart is still alive and well and doing very special work. I might add that the sound quality on A Beach Full of Shells is exceptional. Recording at the legendary Capitol Studios in Hollywood was worth every penny, even moreso if this fine CD somehow manages to sell several hundred thousand copies!

*Click here to read two of Steve Forbert's own "Time Passages".

Originally posted to in June 2006.

Bob Dylan/Willie Nelson Live Review

Bob Dylan\Willie Nelson
Hot Club of Cowtown
Friday, August 20, 2004
Pringles Stadium, Jackson, TN

The Bob Dylan concert was fantastic. I’m presenting my “review” in the cartoon-like (without the drawings) form of imagining some of his thoughts during the show:

I’ve played enough guitar in public. This thing of just playing an electric piano for the entire show is A-OK. It doesn’t matter that the audience can hardly hear my playing. I might not even be playing keyboards at all, just pushing buttons and flicking switches to control a musical rock show of four musicians who are more center stage than I am, while I sing my traveling preacher poems into a microphone that’s angled way too low.

The new adjustments to the “Cold Irons Bound” arrangement are really working. It’s so much fun to sing lyrics creepier than Edgar Allan Poe. And if it wasn’t for ol’ O.J., I wouldn’t even have the song at all!

I like having Stu’s lead guitar here on my side of the stage. He’s really got the blues and plays some really tasty stuff. I also like this co-bill with Willie. Plenty of people are coming out for our reasonably priced tickets and his legendary friendly relationship with the crowd probably offsets my usual distance some. That talking-to-the-crowd thing doesn’t work for me. It only worked back in the intimate “folkie” days and of course I tried it during the Christian album tours. Hell, I don’t even have to stand center stage anymore! Does anyone think of me as looking like Ray Charles up here, or like Thelonious Monk or something? Would anyone see me as being like that old man in a white lab coat whom Neil Young described in that song “Sedan Delivery”? I haven’t been this free on stage in, like, forever. Does anyone notice that I’ve actually transcended my own self and am very close to being the person I was at age 13 when I insisted on playing the drums solo at my bar mitzvah? This is so “me.” I’m not a rock star anymore, I’m simply Bob Dylan and I’m having a ball. I’ve never worked harder and tried less! I wonder if Steve Forbert drove over from Nashville. He’d absolutely love this show!

I’m so glad I was able to find another great drummer after David left. It’s certainly not easy to find excellent drummers these days. Oddly enough, that “vary the set more every night” criticism I was getting a few years ago turns out to have been a good idea. Taking that to an extreme has helped me further escape the tentacles of the nostalgia/oldies act syndrome. I should have thought of that myself.

And hey, this back-to-the-past, pre-’60s, country-and-western, cowboy hat and expensive suit thing has really worked. I’m so glad I quit trying to keep up with pop fashion and tastes. The world situation may be getting pretty bad but, uh, life is good. And this minor-league-baseball-field tour makes a lot of sense. It’s not sold out tonight but it certainly isn’t a disaster. The audience is pretty loose and having a good time. And the weather is cooperating, too. Of course, if you listen to most of the lyrics I’m singing, I sound dejected and very angry. Oh well, that’s nothing new. Should I care that a large part of my personality and artistic drive seems to stem from some extremely intense anger? I wonder if it will mean much to anyone when we play a few bars of the Exodus theme right before my second-most-apocalyptic song, “All Along the Watchtower.” Oh look, what’s up? Larry’s laughing . . . because . . . oh, Tony’s bass strap has come unfastened.

Originally posted to in September 2004.

Air | Talkie Walkie

I've really liked Air's most popular songs to date, so when I saw their new release at CD World in Eatontown, New Jersey, I went for it. To be honest, I was able to blow through the CD itself rather quickly because the up tempo tracks just don't do much for me. What I like about Air are their atmospheric, pleasant things--and the sounds they select for them from their obviously vast knowledge of vintage synthesizers and record-making in general.

Why buy Talkie Walkie? Because three tracks make the full price more than worth it. You may already be hearing the single, "Cherry Blossom Girl," on your local adult album alternative station. It's an instant hit and, like track 5 ("Mike Mills") and track 10 ("Alone in Kyoto"), it is perfectly produced and arranged. Very pleasant and definitely reminiscent of the Cocteau Twins, it could take the CD into the top twenty, even here in the US (if they've got a video, etc.).

REM's bassist, Mike Mills, is no doubt pleased to see that track 5 is named after him. Like "Cherry Blossom Girl," it has a nice, intricately patterned acoustic guitar and Air's beautifully composed synth/string parts. It is wonderful. The same goes for "Alone in Kyoto," which is slightly more adventurous, features a beautiful little "Parsley, Sage"- like glockenspiel at one point and shifts into a seemingly tacked-on grand piano section before ending to the sound of ocean waves on the beach.

These three tracks are on par with, I feel, the best music ever made. It's quite possible that decades from now they'll be placed alongside "Clair de lune" on a regular basis.

Originally posted to in May 2004.

The Methadones

On a different note, get ready to be hearing about a rock'n'roll band called the Methadones. The CD isn't out in the US , but I'm told it will be soon. These guys, who are former members of assorted other bands, rock as hard as any band can rock and still be actually playing together, which sorta means they sound, for 2004, like the way the Ramones sounded in 1976. They're not possessed of a New York Cool like the Ramones or the Strokes (whose track, Modern World, by the way, was a classic), but they have enough of their own meat-and-potatoes attitude to go very far.

Originally posted to in May 2004.