Monday, December 20, 2010

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings - I Learned the Hard Way (LP, Daptone)

I think I'm going to update this blog roughly once a quarter, because I am incapable of updating with any greater frequency. In my defence, the past few months have been a bit hectic, with me relocating to a new country. Most importantly, I haven't found any reliable record stores here, which I can foresee will be a problem.

2010 has been a bit of a ho-hum year for music, I feel. True, we have a stellar release from The National (High Violet), but anything they put out out has to be good quality. The Soft Pack went mainstream (reviewed them here when they were the Muslims), but I don't like them as much. The 'Best of 2010' lists are full of releases from The Dead Weather (Sea of Cowards), Bob Dylan (another installment in the Bootleg series), Arcade Fire (Suburbs) & Black Keys (Brother), but few stand out as exceptional records.

One album that all the lists missed, however, is I Learned the Hard Way by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. I first heard Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings on the Dark Was the Night compilation (reviewed here), and was blown away. However, thinking they were an obscure 60's soul band, I forgot about them until I found a copy of I Learned the Hard Way in a local record store. What surprised me more was that it wasn't a reissue, but a brand new release.

One can be forgiven for thinking that Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings are not contemporary; they can easily hold their own against any soul acts from back then. The album has a warm, full-rounded sound, probably contributed by the fact that it was recorded on an old Ampex eight-track machine.

The album works simply because of the relationship between the singer and the band. They complement each other perfectly. The horns & strings never overwhelm Jones's spirited delivery, instead providing that perfect accent.

I, for one, hope that Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings don't release an album in 2011. However, I will gladly welcome them in my 'Best of 2012' list.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Rory Gallagher - Rory Gallagher (LP, Polydor)

For an artist as prolific as Rory Gallagher, he remains largely unknown outside the circle of true blues fans. Ask anyone who the greatest guitar player is, and chances are that they will answer Jimi Hendrix. However, there is an old story about Jimi Hendrix being asked by an interviewer after Woodstock what it was like to be the greatest guitar player in the world; Hendrix replied "Go ask Rory Gallagher".

Born in Ireland, Gallagher began his recording career after moving to London and forming a trio called Taste. The group's self-titled debut album was released in 1969 in England. Between 1969 and 1971, Gallagher recorded three albums with Taste before they split up. Gallagher began performing under his own name in 1971.

Rory Gallagher's solo debut picks up where his previous band left off - it's a solid blues rock outing with ten original tunes. "Laundromat", "Hands Up", and "Sinner Boy"'s distinctive riffs were early concert favorites, but the album's ballads were some of Gallagher's strongest. "I Fall Apart", "Just the Smile" and the acoustic "I'm Not Surprised" mixes strains of Delta blues with strong melodic sensibilities into songs of rare poignancy. Gallagher seems rather restrained throughout his debut, holding back the fret-burning in favor of strong songs. He opens up on the album's jazzy, seven-minute finale "Can't Believe It's You" which even features an alto sax.

Gallagher passed away from complications owing to liver transplant surgery in 1995, at age 47. For a good introduction to his unparalleled prowess as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter, there's no better place to start than this debut.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Rodriguez - Cold Fact (LP, Sussex)

The story of Sixto Rodriguez may seem like a mere footnote in the history of music, nonetheless it spans some four decades and multiple continents. Born in Detroit to Mexican immigrant parents his debut album, Cold Fact, was released in 1970 to a lukewarm response. His follow up, Coming From Reality, raised even less of a response and Rodriguez promptly disappeared. Well, not really - he went back to working in a factory.

Strangely enough this isn't the end of his story, but the beginning. Somehow, Cold Fact became a cult success in Australia, and more prominently in apartheid-era South Africa. So much so that for a period of time there were more copies of Cold Fact in South African record stores than in the USA.

For a record that's 40 years old, Cold Fact sounds surprisingly fresh and relevant. While not a lost masterpiece, one has to wonder how Rodriguez managed to escape wider recognition for so long. Rodriguez belongs to that category of artists that are not quite folk or folk-rock, but inspired by the genre. The only difference is that his lyrics are filtered through the prism of inner-city Detroit and not a coffee shop in the Village or London.

Opener "Sugar Man", a psychedelic plea to a drug dealer to "bring back all those colors to my dreams", surrounds a hypnotic vocal with a complex arrangement complete with horns, strings, and xylophone. The rest of the album consists of tracks whose lyrics are evocative yet hard to get a handle on even after repeated listenings, with song titles like "Hate Street Dialogue," "Inner City Blues" (not the Marvin Gaye tune), and "Crucify Your Mind". Through it all, Rodriguez has a commanding voice that is at once wise and completely unpretentious.

Rodriguez continues to tour South Africa & Australia, selling out 5,000-seat venues. Unfortunately, he's unlikely to repeat that success at home. Rodriguez is clearly a writer with a singular vision. Although it's impossible to rewind the clock 40 years and award iconic status retrospectively, he certainly deserves the acclaim.

Note: It's probably next to impossible to get the original pressing of this album on the Sussex label (catalogue no. 7012 for those who are interested). However, Light in the Attic have reissued both albums on vinyl.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Blind Faith - Blind Faith (LP, Polydor)

Blind Faith was either one of the great successes of the late '60s, or it was a disaster of monumental proportions - I'm not too certain myself. In actual fact, Blind Faith was probably both. The band compiled an enviable record - they generated some great songs, still regarded as classics 30-plus years later; they sold hundreds of thousands of concert tickets and perhaps a million more albums at the time; and they were a powerful force in the music industry. And they did it all in under seven months together.

Blind Faith's beginnings dated from 1968, the initial spark for the band coming from Clapton and Steve Winwood amidst the break up of their respective bands (Cream in Clapton's case, and Traffic in Winwood's). The notion of forming a band took shape as an eventual goal during jams between the two that lasted for hours. These ideas took a sharp, more immediate turn when Ginger Baker turned up to sit in with them. The results were impressive to all concerned, and the drummer was eager to be let into the group they were planning. The final version of the band came together with the addition of Rick Grech on bass. The name Blind Faith is a cynical reference that reflected Clapton's outlook on the new group.

Their first (and last) album remains one of the best albums of the era, despite the crash-and-burn history of the band. The album merges the soulful blues of Traffic with the heavy riffs & sprawling jams of Cream for a very unique sound. Exceptional tracks include the electric blues of "Had to Cry Today", the acoustic-textured "Can't Find My Way Home" and the lifting "Presence of the Lord" and "Sea of Joy". The biggest disappointment would have to be Ginger Baker's "Do What You Like", which is quite frankly a waste of vinyl. Unfortunately, despite the band sounding cohesive, fate had other plans for them, leaving us with only these 42 minutes as their legacy.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

John Martyn - Solid Air (LP, Island)

Solid Air was released in 1973, and regarded by many to be the seminal John Martyn album. The title track was written for close friend Nick Drake, who was under considerable mental strife at the time (Nick Drake took his own life the following year).

While the sound of the album is adventurous & dynamic, the breakthrough in Martyn's sound had really come with the previous album, Bless The Weather. Firstly he'd joined forces with a man with whom he'd be linked for decades to come - ex-Pentangle bass player, Danny Thompson. Danny's double bass is the perfect accompaniment to John's fine finger picking. Next was the adoption of the Echoplex tape delay machine that he used when it came to laying down the smoky, fuzzy vibe. The third was his voice. The slurry, laid back delivery matches perfectly with his finger picking.

Above all, this was folk filtered through jazz. The inclusion of Tony Coe on sax complements Martyn's slurred delivery throughout. This, combined with the finest in British folk rock (most of Fairport Convention, including Richard Thompson, make an appearance here), lifted Solid Air above previous efforts.

The album kicks off with Martyn's lament for close friend Nick Drake on the vibe and sax-assisted title track. Of course, the one track that most will remember is "May You Never" - his paean to brotherly love that was to be a staple of every performance he's given since.

John Martyn may not be the finest folk artist, but with his characteristic backslap acoustic guitar playing, his effects-driven experimental journeys, his catalog of excellent songs, as well as his jazz-inflected singing style, John Martyn will remain an important and influential figure in both British folk and rock.

Through the Past, Darkly

I suddenly realised that the main focus of this blog (on the rare occasion when I update) has been on contemporary artists. I guess I've been trying to cover albums that are easily available and don't have to be hunted down. However, digging is probably the best part of collecting vinyl, so in the next few posts I will cover some of those dusty old gems we all might have forgotten about.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Big Pink - A Brief History of Love (LP, 4AD)

I have been AWOL again, unfortunately other commitments and an elevated state of repose set in. However, if there's any band out there who can help shake off a state of self-imposed somnolence, it would have to be the The Big Pink.

A Brief History of Love? That's a mighty big undertaking. Despite being named after The Band's seminal Music From Big Pink, there's no folk-rock here. The Big Pink's own musical palette of influences is mainly drawn from shoegaze's more cryptic qualities. Comparisons have been drawn far and wide with The Jesus And Mary Chain, but to my mind the duo of Robbie Furze and Milo Cordell sound a lot like The XX (almost eerily similar on the title track).

However, on repeated listens the broad strokes of shoegaze peel away to reveal muscular subtleties. There may be shades of lad-rock in Furze’s inebriated croon, but it’s Milo Cordell’s progressive electronic leanings at play that come to the surface. This is an album created from a sensual palette of sound, with the emotional resonances deriving from the method of its construction. The album's glorious opener "Crystal Visions" closes with a climactic tirade of distortion detonations and points to a hefty, guitar-laden album; that is until it's met by "Too Young To Love"'s improbable breakbeat funkiness, and then by the album's soon-to-be terrace anthem, "Dominos" (trust me, you'll be humming the line "These girls fall like dominoes..." for days to come). "A Brief History Of Love" - a gorgeous duet between Furze and backing singer Jo Apps - would be the highpoint of many an album were it not for some of the exceptional highs that have passed here beforehand.

To be fair, the album is not perfect. There's a dispiriting drop in standards towards the end of the album, with pedestrian fillers. However, the high points of the album are definitely worth it. Yes, there are weaker tracks towards the end, but this album's best moments are the music equivalents of a beating heart.