Titles

Harry Belafonte, Belafonte Sings the Blues

Harry Belafonte, Belafonte Sings the Blues

OK, first things first: This isn’t really a blues album. At least, not in the sense of a Muddy Waters, or even an Eric Clapton blues interpretation. It’s a mix of some blues songs and some old standards, nicely accompanied and featuring the super-smooth voice of Harry Belafonte.

Back in 1958 when this LP was released by RCA (then available in both mono and Living Stereo—it would prove to be Belafonte’s first stereo release), Belafonte was riding high on his calypso wave. To some degree, the typecasting of the singer as a singer of songs such as the “Banana Boat Song” and “Day-O” must have contributed to his desire to release something a bit more down tempo and “serious”. I’ve read, but can’t confirm, that Belafonte Sings the Blues was the singer’s favorite album…perhaps precisely because it was a break from the usual fare.

This LP is a Classic Records reissue, which had gone out of print some time ago. The company has recently repressed the album, and it merits a listen. While not pure blues by any stretch of the imagination, it is probably what middle America was willing to accept in 1958: Smooth, middle-of-the-road music, performed with sensitive and skillful arrangements by a known singer with a really outstanding voice. read more…

Dusty Springfield – The Look of Love

Dusty Springfield – The Look of Love

Dusty Springfield’s voice is intoxicating: Smooth, sultry and sexy. On the audiophile old chestnut, Casino Royale Soundtrack, “The Look of Love” is a standout track for me. In fact, it’s thestandout track on the album in my view. This view is shared with others: The Bachrach/David song was nominated for an academy award for best song in 1967. I don’t know when I first heard “The Look of Love”, but I do know that I can’t remembernot recognizing the tune. In fact, I’m listening to the track as I write this (though sadly on my iPod, not my turntable, since I’m many feet under the English Channel in a Eurostar train).

Some time ago I bought the Classic Records 33rpm reissue of the Casino Royale soundtrack and put it aside for “later”. More recently I received from Classic this unusual 12” single, consisting of “The Look of Love” at 33rpm on one side and 45rpm on the other. A rather unusual release, yes, but this tune is one that in my opinion justifies such an “excessive” format. read more…

Villa-Lobos, The Little Train of the Caipira/Ginastera

Villa-Lobos, The Little Train of the Caipira/Ginastera

When I was a boy, my parents would often take us—in the Spring, of course—to Symphony Hall to hear Arthur Fiedler conduct the Boston Pops. We’d sit at a table, and the waitresses would bring us “Pops Punch”, cheese and crackers, and other treats. The music that we would listen to was excellent stuff, and the spectacle was impressive.

Listening to this LP brought back fond memories of childhood evenings at the Pops. (I’ve only returned once since Arthur died; somehow it’s never been the same for me.) The Little Train of the Caipira is exactly the sort of music that would have been played: Telling a story, straightforward, dynamically “out there” and—let’s admit it— fun.

The Brazilian composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos, is probably the best known classical composer from Latin America. (A cynic might say that this is like being the tallest Munchkin in Munchkinland, though a listen to Villa Lobos’ music should quiet any cynic.) Villa Lobos died in 1959.

Alberto Ginastera was an Argentine composer of classical music of Italian and Catalan background. He passed away in 1983, but not before one of the movements from his piano concerto was covered by Emerson, Lake & Palmer (Toccata, from Brain Salad Surgery). Reportedly, Ginastera both permitted ELP’s use of his music and approved of the final result. read more…

Frank Zappa, Hot Rats

Frank Zappa, Hot Rats

In many ways, Frank Zappa was an enigma. Somewhat clown-like in his personal presentation, this persona masked a kind of creative genius that—to the detriment of Zappa’s fame and, probably, financial success—refused to bend to the strictures of popularity. He just wasn’t a middle-of-the-road kind of guy…his music was usually challenging, not surprising from the man who, as a boy, chose the avant-garde classical composer Edgard Varèse as his favorite.

Entitling albums Hot Rats and Weasels Ripped My Flesh (among others) was not a move calculated to ensnare the masses. Nor was naming songs “Willie the Pimp” or “I Am the Slime”. (At least you can’t accuse Zappa of inconsistency: Naming your kids Dweezil, Moon Unit and so on evidenced a certain follow-through.) It is perhaps Zappa’s unwillingness to compromise (he might call it “refusal to self-censor) that led to Hot Rats only charting at 173 in the US, but at 9 in the UK, following its October 1969 release on the Barking Pumpkin Records label. read more…

Stephen Stills – Just Roll Tape

Stephen Stills – Just Roll Tape

This LP, which is very much worth owning, is desirable for reasons that are, perhaps, different from those of other LPs that I’ve reviewed recently. More than new issues, or reissues, Just Roll Tape is a historical document. Classic live concerts (Woodstock, various Grateful Dead concert issues) come close to this LP in terms of their importance, but for those of us who grew up listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, this LP is a revelation. read more…

Charlie Haden – The Private Collection

Charlie Haden – The Private Collection

I love the acoustic bass. I love how it anchors jazz, and how in an intimate setting the bass becomes more than just a rhythm section…it becomes a voice of its own. Listen to Scott LaFaro with Bill Evans and Paul Motian on Sunday at the Village Vanguard, and I think you’ll understand what I mean. read more…

Warren Zevon – Warren Zevon

Warren Zevon – Warren Zevon

I was introduced to Warren Zevon when I was in college and his 1978 album Excitable Boy was released. Notwithstanding a few tracks that to this day I can’t stand (Nighttime in the Switching Yard and Veracruz come to mind), the album caught my fancy in a big way: The offbeat lyrics, superb tunecrafting and marvelous arrangements and performances instantly attracted. To this day, it remains one of the only rock albums that my parents, myself and my kids all like.

It took me a few more years to discover this 1976 Elektra/ Asylum release, and what a shame that is, because this is an album of greater depth and even better performances than his follow-up album. Suddenly I discovered who wrote all those marvelous songs that Linda Ronstadt sang. It clicked. read more…

Neil Young – Live at Massey Hall 1971

Neil Young – Live at Massey Hall 1971

The Neil Young Archives Performance Series continues with this release (“Disc 03”), a double album featuring Young’s acoustic performance at Massey Hall in Toronto on January 19, 1971. I reviewed the earlier release, Neil Young and Crazy Horse at the Fillmore 1970, in the August.

This performance could not be more strikingly different from the 1970 recording (of which I was extremely fond). Rather than featuring an electric backup band, this LP showcases Young as a solo performer, accompanying himself on guitar and piano in front of a very appreciative “homeland” audience. read more…

Leo Kottke – 6 and 12 String Guitar

Leo Kottke – 6 and 12 String Guitar

Leo Kottke is a talented and eclectic guy. Originally from Georgia, as a child the guitarist moved frequently around the U.S. with his family. It is perhaps this peripatetic existence that formed, or at least molded, his talent. And it is quite some talent… though more on that later.

6 and 12 String Guitar (an honest album title if there ever was one) was the 1969 album that put Kottke on the map. Also known as the Armadillo album (though credit must also be given to the ant pictured on the striking black and white album cover), this was not Kottke’s first effort—that would be 12 String Blues, issued earlier that same year. Nonetheless, it was 6 and 12 String Guitar that established Kottke’s reputation—and he was only in his mid-twenties at the time. read more…

Donald Byrd – The Cat Walk

Donald Byrd – The Cat Walk

A Detroit native, trumpeter Donaldson Toussaint l’Ouverture Byrd II was exposed to some giants of jazz at a tender age, playing with Lionel Hampton while in high school and joining Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers while in New York pursuing his masters degree. Education seems to have been a constant in Byrd’s life: Not only does he have a BA and an MA, but he has taught music at a number of universities. Byrd’s “style” has evolved over the years from the hard-bop of the fifties and sixties to jazz fusion and R&B in the seventies and beyond. Unlike many of the artists in this series of Blue Note releases, Byrd is still alive…a testament to good genes and/or a healthy attitude toward substance abuse. read more…

Jennifer Warnes, Famous Blue Raincoat

Jennifer Warnes, Famous Blue Raincoat

Jennifer Warnes is a singer of many talents, with a superb voice and decent range, and the ability to transcend many different genres of popular music. Most of us were introduced to her following the release of her country-inflected hit song Right Time of the Night. Other hits followed, often linked to film soundtracks, including It Goes Like it Goes from Norma Rae, Up Where We Belongfrom An Officer and a Gentleman and (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life from Dirty Dancing.

This album, released in 1987, is very different from all that. Covering a series of Leonard Cohen compositions, the feel is introspective and intelligent. That Warnes could interpret Joan of Arc as well as Up Where We Belong at their respective levels speaks well of her flexibility and ability to interpret.

read more…

Peter Frampton, Frampton Comes Alive! Vinyl Album Reissue

Peter Frampton, Frampton Comes Alive! Vinyl Album Reissue

The tide of vinyl reissues continues, not only unabated but apparently gathering speed. This month, the recording at hand is one of Universal’s “Back to Black” series of classic rock reissues “celebrating” the 60th anniversary of the vinyl record. The sticker on the outside of this attractively packaged release promises “Premium audiophile pressing on heavyweight 180 gram vinyl in all original packaging!”. I’m not by nature a cynic, but my experiences with other labels’ promises of audiophile quality sound and weighty slabs of vinyl have been, well, inconsistent, ranging from the superlative to the frankly disappointing.

Everyone knows this 1976 album right? Well, if you were a teen in the seventies, it would have been difficult to miss. Like most, I remember a number of hits from the album (Show Me the Way, Baby I Love Your Way, Do You Feel Like We Do), a result of the incessant radio play that they received at the time. But to be honest, this is an album I never owned. It may be unfair, but I always viewed Peter Frampton as, well, kind of a chick-friendly rock star…that is, girls really liked him mainly because he was cute. Was there a 16 year old red-blooded male who would have put up his hand and said that he loved Baby, I Love Your Way? It’s a song that competes for twee-ness with similar soppy efforts like Paul McCartney’s  Silly Love Songs. Didn’t like ‘em then, don’t like‘em now.

Nonetheless, I relished the opportunity to hear what Universal has done with this seminal Frampton work, and broadly speaking I have not been disappointed. First the performance: A good live performance, featuring versions of a number of songs that work better in concert than in the studio. He’s a very talented guitarist, Frampton is, and on this album he does not overdo the talkbox, which can become annoying really quickly. read more…

Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um vinyl

Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um vinyl

It is not only classic rock that is being reissued in vinyl at some speed these days, but some of the best jazz ever recorded is appearing on the shelves as well. There are specialists such as Analogue Productions (Fantasy & Blue Note reissues) and Music Matters (some of the most stunningly-packaged Blue Note reissues that you’ll ever find) that are reissuing in 45 rpm format for some of the most exceptional sound available. Likewise, Classic Records has been reissuing jazz titles at a clip for the past several years, both in 33 and 45 format.

Now jumping on the bandwagon are some of the major labels. It isn’t that they haven’t reissued their jazz back catalog (how many Take Five reissues have there been over the years? A million?), but now they are targeting the audiophile market with reissues.

The aptly named Legacy label (part of the Sony BMG machine) has recently announced a number of reissues, most of which are in the rock vein (Boston, Cheap Trick, Blood Sweat & Tears, etc.). There are a couple of titles that have put the fear of God into me: Nina Simone “Remixed and Reimagined”. Billie Holiday “Remixed and Reimagined”. This is a bit like having a property “developer” strip a beautiful house down to the frame and rebuild it as an oversized, butt-ugly McMansion. But I digress…

In the midst of all this, we have a few jazz titles. Herbie Hancock makes an appearance, as does Weather Report and the Trio of Doom. And, of course, Charles Mingus, with his Mingus Ah Um, recorded and released on the Columbia label in 1959.

This album is perhaps Mingus’s most popular and is certainly one of his more accessible. Working with a superb “workshop” of jazz musicians including Horace Parlan on piano, there isn’t a duff cut on the album. I won’t go into detail on the songs—this isn’t new music by any means, and there’s no lack of commentary available—but there is wonderful musical virtuosity on this album, and a pleasing mix of upand down-tempo tunes. There’s a bit of “hard left and hard right” in the stereo mix, but it isn’t off-putting and it is certainly no worse than I’ve heard on the recent Blue Note stereo reissues.

In the deadwax I see written: “J. Lambert” and “Tucker Sound”. I had not heard of Tucker Sound, but a quick trip to Google reveals that it appears to be a part of Foothill Digital, a New York-based firm. According to the abstract, “Foothill offers state-of-the-art CD mastering and DVD authoring, featuring Sonic Creator and HD systems in their new sound suite. Services: Music restoration and audio mastering services.” Allan Tucker is the Chief Mastering Engineer at the company. I guess this settles the debate over whether an analogue or digital source was used. Regardless of (and in fact, despite) the digital provenance, the sound on the LP is very good. The vinyl is dead-quiet: No obtrusive pops or clicks, and the music emerges beautifully. There is both a depth of bass and an extension of treble that is lacking from one of the titles I’ve heard in the “From the Capitol Vaults” series of reissues. You hear a lot of shouting and exhorting between the musicians going on in the background; this is reproduced clearly and adds greatly to the authenticity of cuts such as Better Git it in Your Soul. You won’t mistake the sound quality of this title for one of the Music Matters Blue Note reissues…not by a long shot.

Legacy has gotten the packaging down beautifully, with the classic Columbia cover reproduced beautifully (though the notes on the back are a little blurry, and the purists among us may object to the bar code printed on the back). The inner sleeve is shiny paper…no plastic lining to protect this 180 gram LP. For shame. Despite this, the vinyl emerged shiny and unmarred. The red “six eye” Columbia label provides a great retro look and lets us know that this LP is “nonbreakable”. Hurrah!

If you are unfamiliar with Charles Mingus, this album is a great place to start out. If you are already a fan, you undoubtedly already own this album. I’m generally an analogue kind of guy, and if you have an aversion to digital mastering you may think twice before deciding to pick up this LP. On the other hand, for the price it may well be a reasonable deal, since secondhand early pressings of this LP seem to go for silly money on eBay.

System Used for Review

  • Speakers: Anthony Gallo Reference 3.1
  • Turntables: Linn Sondek LP-12 with Ittok LVIII Tonearm, Hercules Power Supply and Grado Reference Sonata cartridge
  • Transcriptors Hydraulic Reference with Fluid Tonearm and Shure V-15 VxMR cartridge
  • Phono Preamp: Bellari VP129
  • Digital Sources: Toshiba SD-3950 DVD player with Vinnie Rossi mods
  • Apple iPod Classic, 160 gb
  • Digital Line Stage: Musical Fidelity X-10V3 tube buffer
  • Amplification: Marantz 2600 Receiver
  • Cables: Mapleshade Speaker Wire, Blue Jeans Cable and AR interconnects
  • LPs reviewed were sealed, and prior to playing were cleaned with LAST Power Cleaner

The Steve Miller Band, Greatest Hits vinyl

The Steve Miller Band, Greatest Hits vinyl

If you are a friend of the classic rock of the sixties and seventies, and are simultaneously a devoted fan of the vinyl medium and have some audiophile pretensions (I qualify on all three counts), then we live in a charmed age. Not since the heyday of Mobile Fidelity, DCC and other labels have we seen such a profusion of issues and reissues of the music to which many baby boomers grew up.

Many, probably most, of these reissues promote themselves based on their sound quality. Original masters! 180 grams! 200 grams! Quiex! SV-P! It all gets so confusing. read more…

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