Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Monday, July 23, 2018

Deep Purple - Fireball (1971)

Band as well oiled beast best describes Fireball era Deep Purple. The breakthrough success of In Rock emboldened the band, individually and collectively, with a confidence level heretofore unknown. We must remember the path to continued success is assured for them at this point – road rot hasn’t quite set in yet and maintaining momentum requires them to reproduce In Rock, frankly not a tall order for this lineup at its peak power, and nothing more. There’s swagger galore permeating this release and a practically gleeful inclination towards upending listener’s expectations.

The album opens with a bracing salvo reminiscent of In Rock’s power. Title songs are usually tucked mid way through an album’s track listing and reserved for numbers in some way representative of the band. It became a staple of the live set and returned to prominence following Blackmore’s 1993 departure from the band. Ian Paice’s drums are propulsive and swing in a way few of his contemporaries ever matched – when intelligent and well intentioned music devotees want to slather John Bonham’s memory in laurel leaves and anoint him King of Rock Drummers, they’re counseled to remember Paice’s contributions before declaring the matter settled.

“No No No” is what happens when Ritchie Blackmore listens to Shuggie Otis. We get some lyrics of the era decrying the tyranny of the Man’s hold over the outsider, but Gillan gives the song stakes it wouldn’t otherwise have with a lung-busting vocal. Paice and bassist Roger Glover ride a potent groove for Blackmore’s fiery licks to fill in. We’re back in solidly rock territory for “Demon’s Eye” and Gillan distinguishes relatively pedestrian lyrics with a vocal fully dramatizing their possibilities, Blackmore’s lead guitar is especially biting and well tailored with this cut.

“Anyone’s Daughter” dizzies casual listeners. We go from the muscular rock posturing of “Demon’s Eye” into the shaggy dog country blues of this song with nary a blink and Gillan’s vocal plays it coolly straight-faced despite the lyric’s potential for mucking things up. He shows an expert stand up comic’s instinct for playing a joke with just the right amount of deadpan and it makes this all the more enjoyable. “The Mule” is largely an Ian Paice drumming showcase, but there’s some wicked good Blackmore guitar and contributions from Jon Lord woven into the song’s fabric. Gillan’s brief vocal signals a turning point of sorts in the song, but nonetheless hits its intended mark.

“Fools” is my favorite Deep Purple song. The patient build, orchestrated in just the right way, breaks out into the sound of Purple n full swing quite unlike anything else in the band’s catalog. The album vocal isn’t even the best – the set Listen, Learn, Read On included a scat vocal, lyric not quite fleshed in, which ranks in my mind as one of the best rock vocals ever, from anyone. He brings some of that same fearlessness to this performance and it makes for one of the band’s greatest moments. Blackmore’s guitar during the song’s second half is among his finest recorded moments.

Roger Glover’s insistent bass pulse begins “No One Came”, Ian Gillan’s deliciously cynical spiel about the perils of pursuing rock and roll success and the inevitable crew of leeches glomming on. It’s another cut where Gillan’s charisma carries the day every bit as much as his lung power and Blackmore responds with a scorching old school rock and roll guitar part ratcheting up its temperature. In Rock is the template realized, Machine Head is the formula refined. Fireball, however, is the DNA of Deep Purple, laid out regardless of other considerations, and charged with once in a lifetime confidence.

Led Zeppelin - Presence (1976)

I am far from Led Zeppelin’s biggest fan. There’s little they’ve done I haven’t heard and, while their best material and performances deserve ranking among the best in popular music history, I never sustained the same emotional connection with their music I enjoyed with their contemporaries like Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, among others. There are exceptions.

The band’s penultimate studio album, Presence, stays with me years after first hearing it because I think it’s the most personal, desperate recording in Zeppelin’s catalog. The mounting costs of the band’s colossal success chipped away larger and larger chunks from an once virtually impervious rock and roll juggernaut and self-doubt announced itself louder in band affairs. John Paul Jones nearly walked during this period. Robert Plant broke his leg in a car accident and contemplated bolting as well. The band’s six string maestro Jimmy Page sank deeper into substance abuse and rock star excess while John Bonham’s drinking raged on at a fiercer clip than ever before. This dire three in the morning mood infused the band’s material and performances with a back against the wall feel.

“Achilles Last Stand” is Page’s last major guitar epic with Led Zeppelin and one of the band’s top five tracks, full stop. Presence’s opener outstrips, in terms of imagination and compositional drama, the band’s previous forays into their sort of cinematic scope like “Stairway to Heaven”, “The Song Remains the Same”, and “Kashmir”. Plant creatively frames the mythological material in first person narration, making the ancient a little more familiar for listeners. Zeppelin’s rhythm section of bassist John Paul Jones and drummer Bonham turn in a tour de force outing undoubtedly inspiring Page’s playing to even greater heights. “For Your Life” finds the band’s subject matter in much more every day circumstances much in the mold of Physical Graffiti’s Sick Again – Plant paints a grim picture of dissolution that, coupled with the arrangement, rates as one of the band’s true sleeper gems. The remaining members proved their own regard for the track by giving it a live debut at the 2007 “reunion” – the only track accorded such a honor.

“Royal Orleans” goes in a completely different lyrical direction. This fragmentary narrative of sexual misadventures in the New Orleans French Quarter is reputedly based on some of John Paul Jones’ personal experiences on tour. The writing and performance alike represent a new benchmark of sorts for the band. Keith Richards once remarked that The Rolling Stones’ initial efforts with a country music influence often came off as parodies because the band didn’t believe themselves properly equipped to do the sound and feel justice to begin with, so they played it as a lark. He continued that it transformed the songs once the Stones gathered the necessary confidence to play in that style. You can draw a clear line from Houses of the Holy’s “The Crunge” and this track. Tackling a funk/soul template with the former song, Zeppelin paid loving and winking homage to their American musical heroes and it results in a self-conscious performance. “Royal Orleans”, instead, gets in listener’s face with a brittle, cutting funk edge and locks into a whip tight groove cut with just enough rock confidence.

“Nobody’s Fault but Mine” re-envisions Blind Willie Johnson’s desperate atonement to God in song as a stark, impassioned Robert Plant catharsis. It flows into Plant’s harmonica playing, his scat singing with Page’s guitar, and every elongated note. It’s another Bonham showcase, as well, and his masterful way building drama through timing alone makes this song all the more powerful. It’s, without reservation, another of the band’s greatest moments in the studio and culminates with an impassioned, eloquently phrased Page guitar solo. The woozy rockabilly vamp of “Candy Store Rock” sounds like a speed freak babbling away about their high, but the band shifts into secondary passages with a distinctly stronger rock thrust. What should be an otherwise unbridled ode to the joys of getting it on is colored with a kind of weariness that’s unannounced and unexpected.

“Hots on For Nowhere” achieves the same mood via different means. The inventive quasi shuffle arrangement gives John Bonham another forum, as if he needed it, to illustrate his importance to the band’s sound and he navigates the tempo changes with the sort of spot on fidelity you couldn’t fake as readily in the 1970’s. Page’s reverb drenched “lead guitar” break is either desultory or artfully dissonant, depending on your level of generosity, but there’s a number of similarly styled flourishes he brings into the song that add much needed color. “Tea for One”, a rare addition to the Page/Plant tour but otherwise neglected live, still has its definitive reading on Presence. Loneliness looms over this song and the whimpering, downcast guitar lines Page brings to bear accentuate the atmosphere without ever laying on a single extraneous note. It’s a note perfect, elegiac curtain for this often neglected or unjustly maligned Zeppelin album.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Astronomique - Sharp Divide (2018)

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

Pop, synth pop, whatever label you want to assign to Astronomique, it still rates as some of the most across the board compelling music released on the indie scene today. Their artistic vision slants towards the substantive end of the creative spectrum driven by the creative partnership of lead singer Logan Andra Fongemie and guitarist/vocalist Sean Hogan coupling a psychedelic flavor with popular culture imagery and a penchant for artsy, top shelf synth pop from the 1980’s. The music for Sharp Divide, the band’s longest collection yet, is a physical release whose music involves listeners from the first, but the songwriting engages listeners intellectually as well and appeals to the imagination in satisfyingly individualistic ways. The band’s influences are apparent, but they slip free of imitation or pastiche with an approach and style recognizable, but all their own.

The intense bass pulse thudding in the heart of “Forefathers”, the album’s opener, tethers the song’s foundation to earth and allows Astronomique’s synthesizer lines flash like quicksilver over the fat backbeat. There’s some tasty dynamic shifts recurring throughout the song and atmospheric interplay between Fongemie’s keyboard playing and guitarist Sean Hogan’s echo laden guitar near the song’s conclusion is worth hearing the song for alone. “Side of Your Mind” has a more overt pop attack than the opener and the sprightly rhythm shifts listener’s attention away from the opener’s pace. There are some imaginative twists scattered throughout the arrangement elevating this above your standard synth pop fare and Fongemie’s vocal performance, treated by some light post production effects, comes across every bit as command as “Forefathers”, albeit manifested in a very different way.

The digitized beginning to “Losing Our Control” establishes the initial outlines of a simmering groove soon filled out by another potent rhythm section performance from bassist Preston Saari and drummer Mitch Billings. Sean Hogan’s taut, nervy guitar playing drops some funky, often shimmering fills throughout the track and the band contributes some tasteful backing vocals to enhance another fine Fongemie performance. The title song’s moody march has an almost spectral quality thanks to a ghostly Fongemie vocal and more spartan but effective Hogan guitar. Guitar players often possess a tendency to flash their skills in brief displays of pride, sometimes longer than brief, but Hogan’s playing throughout Sharp Divide as an orchestral bent – he’s an important part of the tapestry, but ultimately a key thread in a larger mosaic.

Fongemie’s synth once again opens a song with the track “Smoke” and the rhythm section distinguishes themselves again with a chest rattling performance and the album’s overall production wisely highlights this strength from the first. “Smoke” has some of Sharp Divide’s strongest melodic ideas and fine lyrical content. There’s more of a hard charging quality at the heart of “Bleed Me” than we hear with a lot of the material on Sharp Divide, but the band retains their capacity for nuance despite the music’s insistent push. The nice gallop in the rhythm section’s performance, never pronounced, gives the song an added sense of urgency. The cheerfully entitled “Heading Nowhere” has a much more deliberate pace and a strong focus on guitars and synthesizers instead of the rhythm section. It has some of the album’s best atmospheric touches, particularly thanks to Hogan’s six string contributions, and it is a satisfying final curtain for Astronomique’s Sharp Divide. This is synth pop with an artistic agenda and they accomplish everything they set out to do with sophistication, sincerity, and polish.

Monday, July 2, 2018

David Allan Coe - Tattoo (1977)

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

David Allan Coe’s fifth album for Columbia, 1977’s Tattoo, is often singled out as one of his best moments from a time when his ascending star burned brightest. Its reputation is well deserved. It’s a ten song collection dominated by Coe’s songwriting, first class playing, and sympathetic production. Coe’s legendary pipes are, as well, in fine fettle and the opening number “Just to Prove My Love For You” has him engaged from the first and ably supported by female backing vocals deeper in the mix. The fiddle playing is especially tasty and provides a strong melodic counterpoint to Coe’s singing without ever overplaying its hand. “Face to Face” is an unyielding classic country weeper with Coe out Jones’ing George Jones with his lung-stretching dramatics. Ron Bledsoe’s production is note perfect for capturing the desperation Coe’s songwriting clearly wants to invoke. It’s an earthy, yet intelligent, one two punch to open the album and sets a high bar for everything following it.

The ambling fatalism of “You’ll Always Live Inside of Me” has bluesy overtones, but the treatment is pure country with spotless pedal steel and relaxed, confident fiddle playing further rounding out the sound. Bledsoe isn’t any Billy Sherrill with the latter’s arch distinctive style, but Bledsoe’s attention to balance and detail helps further ground these songs and presents them as unified performances with attention focused on where it should be – the song, singer, and band. There’s some stellar backing vocals accompanying Coe’s own heartfelt singing on “Play Me a Sad Song” and the languid pacing picks up a little nearly a minute in, but the song never rushes itself. Coe spent many of his prime years writing his own material and recruited a bevy of top flight talent to help him realize his craft – “Play Me a Sad Song” illustrates just how good David Allan Coe could be.

He opens “Daddy Was a God Fearin’ Man” with some spoken word and Coe’s penchant for storytelling, increasingly neglected as his career went on, helps this one shine. The pace picks up when Coe starts singing in earnest and fiddle laces over the top of its near shuffle tempo giving it added urgency. The continued presence of female backing singers doesn’t distract from Coe’s lead vocal but, instead, enriches it. Pedal steel and the aforementioned fiddle trade licks in a brief, but memorable, instrumental break. “Canteen of Water” is a rare cover, the song written by Jay Bolotin, and the lean arrangement has a light melodic touch distinctly different from the earlier songs. A light sheen of synthesizer brings an extra splash of color without ever sounding out of place. Bolotin shares a songwriting credit with Coe on the lightly Tex-Mex flavored “Maria is a Mystery”. The arrangement practically shimmers thanks to the interplay between the lyrical piano and stately violin response. The bottom end of the song, especially the bass, is pivotal for the song’s success thanks to its consistently melodic pulse. It’s one of the album’s most successful songs thanks to its wealth of specific detail.

Coe shares another co-writing credit with the slowly unfolding heartbreak ballad “Just In Time (To Watch Love Die)”. Coe and co-author Jimmy Townsend continue a trend on the album’s second half showing Coe’s deep love and appreciation for the sort of bleary eyed balladry made famous by earlier country singers par excellence. Coe’s voice, remarkably elastic and deceptively wide ranging, deserves mention among the elite in this style. Coe revisits songwriter Mickey Newbury with a cover of his “San Francisco Mable Joy”. It isn’t as affecting as Newbury’s “The 33rd of August”, one of Coe’s finest moments in the studio included on The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy, but it’s a fine song standing tall alongside the best Tattoo offers. Coe’s vocal may be his best moment on the album and both he and the band thoroughly inhabit the song as if they written it themselves and ripped it from their autobiographies. Coe closes the album with “Hey Gypsy”, co-written with Fred Spears, and there’s an elegiac quality to the song not carried away by another impressively full, dramatic arrangement. Some reputations are built on hype and often undermined by an artist’s personal or public indiscretions. The recordings are forever and Tattoo ranks among David Allan Coe’s best studio recordings.

David Allan Coe - Compass Point (1979)

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

Though the 1980’s will prove to be a challenge on a multitude of fronts for David Allan Coe, he ends the 1970’s with two strong studio releases. 1979’s Compass Point, the first of two albums released that year is produced by legendary Nashville booth wizard Billy Sherrill and has a thoroughly modern sound for its time. It finds Coe mining the same traditional/”outlaw” vein of bluesy country music he is renowned for during the album's first half. The ten song collection isn’t uniformly excellent, but concludes Coe’s arguably peak years on a generally consistent note and reaffirms his position as one of his generation’s finest vocalists and an occasionally inspired songwriter.

“Heads or Tails” may leave you torn. On one hand, you will likely enjoy the bluesy mid-tempo pace, the gritty harmonica, and on point guitar work. There isn’t a hint of self indulgence weighing the song or performance down, but there is a cookie cutter quality to the songwriting, a sense of Coe hitting his marks and nothing more. It sounds like a cut aimed for radio and, as such, it dampens the track’s potential. It’s a solid, if unremarkable, opener. “3 Time Loser”, another Coe penned number, is much better in every respect. The satisfying vocal melody has enough uplift to mitigate Coe’s serious subject matter and it’s further to his songwriting credit that Coe refrains from leaning too heavily on clichés. The song’s personal turn makes it a more compelling listen.

Harmonica returns for “Gone (Like)”, the closest thing to a classic country ballad thus far on Compass Point, and mixes nicely with some haunting pedal steel fills. Coe’s songwriting, once again, focuses on affairs of the heart with a sensitive, rueful eye. It’s clearly considered as one of Compass Point’s major songs with a six minute plus running time and proves worth each second. “Honey Don’t” is a kick out the footlights barnburner with lightning quick harmonica salvos spiking the track with bluesy flavor, but it’s ultimately a throwaway number not offering anything particularly new. Coe opens “Lost” like he’s about to take another whack at traditional country balladry, but the song unfortunately bandwagon jumps and cops a quasi-Jimmy Buffet feel with the remainder. He lived in the Key West area for a time and publicly feuded with Buffett but, ultimately, who cares? It isn’t excruciating, but ill-advised.

He retains some of the sunny bounce for the next song, “Merle and Me”, an entry in Coe's tradition of storytelling song.. It's one of the album's better lyrics and Coe gives us a typically strong vocal, but the tune and arrangement are mismatched and it never quite sinks its teeth into listeners. The album’s penultimate tune “X’s and O’s (Kisses and Hugs)” is a rousing track late in the album and Coe throws himself into the song with a slight rambunctious edge that kicks the song up several notches. The guitar playing stands out, as well, with a tasty instrumental break near the song’s halfway point. The finale “Loving You Comes So Natural” is the only Compass Point song not produced by Billy Sherrill and the sole track Coe doesn’t write alone. There’s a bevy of guitar players worked into this tune, at least five too many, but it’s an inoffensive final curtain – albeit one that shares much more in common with the album’s second half than it does the first. Compass Point has genuine highlights, particularly “3 Time Loser” and “Gone (Like)”, but Coe mars the overall effect with some uncharacteristic chasing the fashion of the moment in the second half.