Ken Johnson revisits some Giant music favorites; and a surprise discovery !
Joan Armatrading, “Not Too Far Away”— On her earlier, major label discs, JA was badly served by her producers, who mucked up her big, expressive voice and sharp tunes with gratuitous synths and studio gloss and moved her away from her quirky soul/torch singer roots and towards more generic AOR bombast. Around 2000, freed from commercial demands, she began to self-produce and make consistently strong, varied jazz, blues and pop records which generally stripped back the studio embellishments and focused on her songwriting, her guitar and her distinctive contralto.
This latest is something of a one-man tour de force; kinda like a raunch-free Prince she produces and (except for a few well-placed orchestral passages) plays all the instruments herself. Her thematic range, as usual, is pretty narrow—she writes almost exclusively about longing and love—but she varies rhythm and mood nicely, veering from sprightly pop (Loving What You Hate), forlorn piano ballads (No More Pain, Always in my Dreams), New-Wavy folkrock (Any Place) and reggae (Still Waters).
Generally hopeful in tone, she’s refreshingly free of the dreary confessional whine of many of her peers-it’s personal without being self-pitying. With nary a duff track, this is the kind of record which would be a mainstream hit in a saner universe; that she hasn’t lost her muse after 40+ years is quite impressive.
Notes on sound quality: Ms. Joan knows her way around the studio—she keeps the arrangements spare and unfussy (surprisingly, she plays more piano than guitar), although her programmed drum beats sound stiff and well, like programmed drum beats (she should have used a live drummer). Signature is bright and open, with a lot of space between instruments, and her voice is, refreshingly, front and center.
John Coltrane, “Both Directions at Once”—Like Hendrix, Coltrane seems to have spent every waking moment playing his axe into a tape recorder; also like Hendrix not every slapped-together posthumous release is worth hearing. This 1963 studio set, however, is worthwhile if not groundbreaking, as he is just starting to move away from the rhythmically tighter, more earthbound classic bop of Blue Trane and My Favorite Things toward the exploratory, metrically free jazz of his smacked out later work like Ascension and Sun Ship. Ergo, while the outside compositions Nature Boy and Vilia are fairly familiar-sounding, accessible tunes, the longer original compositions like Slow Blues and “Untitled Original 11386” take off in a more improvisatory (though still structurally sound) direction, often with hints of dissonance and Eastern tonalities.
Coltrane’s sax is front and center throughout, to the point of exhaustion—this would have been a stronger set if he had left more solo space for Elvin Jones’ drums and McCoy Tyner’s piano. Production is unfussy and less polished than his Impulse records, which is a good thing, there’s a spontaneous, rehearsal quality to the recording which makes you feel like you’re hearing the artist in the process of creating.
This is as effective as any showcase of the best-ever saxman at the peak of his powers and good gateway drug to his more avant side. The second disc of alternate takes is gratuitous.
P.G. Six, “Starry Mind”—released in 2011 but just randomly discovered by me, this throwback sounds like an amalgam of classic 60’s folkrock ala Fairport Convention, Surrealistic Pillow and Workingman’s Dead—very familiar sounding without being slavishly derivative. The principal, one Pat Gubler, is an ace songwriter and guitarist whose voice, for better or worse, evokes Cat Stevens (his prior releases are quieter and closer in spirit to traditional British folk).
Almost all the tunes here feature solid, repetitive riffs, nice female harmonies and wiry arpeggio-heavy twin guitar interplay; they’ve clearly listened to a lot of Richard Thompson and Bert Jansch, and in its own understated way this is a good air guitar record. The longer songs like Palace and Crooked Way have a jammy, acidy vibe, with an exploratory edge ala Quicksilver or Television; the guitars probe at dissonance and jazzy tonalities but never drift off into the ozone.
Mostly mid-tempo, without extraneous orchestration, keyboards or effects, there’s a uniform feel to the record which can be either hypnotic or repetitive depending on your mood. Unabashedly unfashionable, low-key (though not wimpy) and uniformly tuneful; inveterate rockers would find this a nice change of pace from the usual sturm and drang. I’ve had this on repeat for weeks now.
Notes on sound quality: With a warm sounding treble mix, this sounds like it was recorded in a low-ceilinged club with the performers positioned quite close together. Live sounding, without digital artifacts, this recording definitely pushes electric guitars forward and dials back the vocals and rhythm section. Overall effect is very retro; whether by design or otherwise this disc sounds like it was recorded on 8-track in the late 60s.
Which, in context, may be a good thing.
Kinks, “Village Green Preservation Society (50th Anniversary Reissue)”—buy me a couple bourbons and I might convince you that Ray Davies was the best rock songwriter of the 60s—more tuneful than Dylan or Pete Townsend, more literate than Lennon/McCartney or Jagger/Richards, more musically ambitious than Chuck Berry and more relatable than any of ‘em.
This (debatable) assertion is perhaps best evidenced by this 1968 masterwork, which completely sheds his R&B/prepunk roots for a gentle, insular set of tunes loosely based on the concept of nostalgia for a simpler, happier era. Released, I believe, the same day as the Beatles’ White Album, “Village Green” is virtually its antithesis—untrendy, wistful and reactionary. This is the most subdued record in their canon—there’s no swelling fist-pumper like “Lola” or “Victoria” here—though tempos are mostly sprightly, almost show-tuney, and on the classic “Big Sky” and the atypically dark “Wicked Annabella” they retain enough rhythmic thwack and ringing guitar to remind you that they are still a rock band.
The songs, especially the title track and the (future camera ad) “Picture Book” are overtly sentimental but never treacly; arrangements (mostly acoustic guitars, organ, well-placed harmonies and barrelhouse piano) are understated but surprisingly nuanced and layered.
Hugely under recognized drummer Mick Avory, in particular, sounds great here; he plays without a lot of rolls and flourishes, which gives a real drive and life to the proceedings. Very parochial/British, and purposely avoiding the grandiosity of a “Sgt. Pepper” or “Let It Bleed,” though for my money this is a stronger album than either. The bonus discs, featuring (mostly rawer) alternative versions and live and non-album tracks are worth hearing, if ultimately .
Notes on sound quality: This remaster noticeably enhances the dynamic range of the somewhat compressed-sounding original vinyl release, with significantly cleaner separation between instruments and a crisper snare drum and piano sound; little subtleties like backing vocals and cymbals are more present, while Ray’s vocals seem EQ’d up in the mix and clearer than prior releases. That said, this is not a big-sounding production and its virtues are more subtle than the band’s later, arena-friendly output.
Teskey Brothers, ”Half Mile Harvest”—talk about looks being deceiving, these hirsute, lily white young Aussies recreate old school Memphis-style R&B so faithfully you’d think this was a 1965 Stax release. Their songs are hardly paragons of originality, mostly soul shouters in the vein of Albert King/Solomon Burke, but they vary mood and tempo nicely with some slower-burning gospelly moments like “Til the Sky Turns Black,” and “Honeymoon” which remind me of the Kings of Leon. The arrangements are lean in the manner of the MGs, with restrained horns and harmonica, and the guitar has a raw, live-wire sound although the rhythm section plods a bit.
Now, you may well ask why bother listening to this rehash instead of the matchless originals. The answer is that the singing brother, Sam, has an amazing, mike-shredding voice—the damn kid sounds like the second coming of Otis Redding, but can also show surprising subtlety on the comparatively quieter moments—he is really something to behold. Right now, these guys are merely skillful imitators, but on some visceral level you sense they have the innate goods to transcend their influences and find their own muse. In any event, they bear watching in the future.
Notes on sound quality: a very clean-sounding but not antiseptic recording, with lots of space between instruments with good Pace, Rhythm and Timing and lots of energy. The Soundstage is wide but relatively low-ceilinged. Electric guitar and vox are pushed front and center—this is mixed more for rock-trained ears than for old school soul; drums are miked cleanly and they use very little reverb or other effects. The recording has an in-concert feel to it and gives you the clear sense these guys would sound great live!
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