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FALLEN ANGELS by Bob Dylan Review

Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels (and Rising Prayers)

Review of FALLEN ANGELS by Bob Dylan

Darling, down and down I go, round and round I go
In a spin, loving the spin that I’m in
Under that old black magic called love

A few months from this time of writing, Bob Dylan will be performing at a big music event in California, sharing the bill with his contemporaries and fellow septuagenarians the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney. No doubt the Stones will be singing “Satisfaction” and “Paint it Black,” and no doubt McCartney will be singing “Yesterday” and “Band on the Run.” And no doubt Bob Dylan will be singing … well, “Autumn Leaves,” “All or Nothing at All,” and “That Old Black Magic.” You have to pause a moment to contemplate how wonderfully absurd and amazing that actually is. In his most recent shows, more than a third of the titles in his set list have been what we might call these “Sinatra” songs, and of the “Bob Dylan” songs in the show most have been from the past decade and a half or so, with only 3 dating back to the 1960s or 70s. And although some concert attendees have been heard griping (and when has that not been true at a Dylan show?), the most notable fact is that he’s actually been getting away with it in quite fine style. Dylan is conspicuously deriving great joy from singing the standards and puts his whole body and spirit into the effort. Singing these gorgeous old tunes (from songwriters he had some significant role in putting out of business) seems undeniably to be making his own heart feel young. Continue reading Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels (and Rising Prayers)

A Jolly Christmas Frank Sinatra

A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra

(Bringing this out of the archives to mark Frank Sinatra’s centenary)

Review of A Jolly Christmas from Frank SinatraThere’s a communal feeling about most Christmas music. Maybe this is because we generally hear the songs in the company of others, whether it’s as we’re elbowing our way down the aisles of the department store or perhaps singing along with them in church. I think that the most special thing about Frank Sinatra’s A Jolly Christmas
(Capitol Records, 1957) may well be how a very particular mood is created, quite different to that of the run-of-the-mill Christmas album. It is not so much a mood of lonesomeness (although Sinatra was well-skilled with evocation in that area) but a more nuanced and less inherently-sad sense of simply being alone at Christmas. Not miserable, and not necessarily overjoyed either, but simply contemplating and appreciating the season apart from the crowds and the relatives.

In the course of his long career Sinatra recorded plenty of Christmas music, from the sides with Axel Stordahl in the 1940s on Columbia (some very lovely stuff) to The Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas on Reprise in 1968 (predictably kind of cheesy). And these Christmas tracks get repackaged and resold over and over again. However, A Jolly Christmas is, to my mind, quite distinct. In 1957 when he went in to record it (during July in Los Angeles), Sinatra was truly at the peak of his artistic powers. Not only was his vocal ability (both the quality of his voice and his sense of how to use it) the best it had ever been or would ever be, but he was also at a peak of good taste. My theory is that Sinatra always personally had good taste, but later in his career he came to believe that his potential audience did not, and he dumbed things down at times in an effort to woo them. At this time, however, in the mid-1950s, Sinatra had a clear idea of what he wanted to do, musically-speaking, and what he was capable of, and he was able to work with arrangers and musicians of great excellence and taste themselves, and together they were able to put out records of a very high standard that in turn reached an appreciative and welcoming audience. All of these factors would never come together simultaneously again, and this is why Sinatra’s albums for Capitol Records in the 1950s stand as his greatest, and indeed as some of the most perfect examples of refined popular music that exist.

To put it in context, A Jolly Christmas was bookended by A Swingin’ Affair! (a sterling Nelson Riddle set) and Come Fly With Me (a masterpiece with Billy May). And released in exactly the same month (September of 1957) was Where Are You?, one of Sinatra’s great sets of lovelorn ballads, this one arranged by Gordon Jenkins, who likewise is the arranger for A Jolly Christmas. Jenkins had his strengths and weaknesses as an arranger, but there’s no doubting that his particular style is crucial in making A Jolly Christmas the unique kind of Christmas record that it is. Continue reading A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra

Sinatra Wee Small Hours

Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours

[Taking this one from the archives to the front page to mark the 17th anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s passing]

Review of Frank Sinatra In The Wee Small HoursFrank Sinatra passed away on May 14th, 1998. I recall thinking at the time that with Sinatra gone, all bets were off—anything might now happen in this sad old world. (And I think the record would show that my fears in this respect have proven entirely correct.) Continue reading Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours

Hendrick's Gin review

Hendrick’s Gin

Review of Hendrick's GinWhen some Scotsmen, already distillers of Scotch, decided in 1999 to begin distilling a gin, they had the good sense not to name it something like MacAlastair’s or MacFarlane’s. I think this counts as a case of mind over matter: no matter what the gin tasted like, with a name that evoked Scotland and Scotch whisky, it would simply not taste right. Instead they christened it Hendrick’s, a name seemingly well chosen for its lack of a very obvious national character. It sounds like a name from the British Isles, to be sure, but from where within them, precisely? It stands fairly solidly on its own, a fate that the distillers may well wish for their gin. Continue reading Hendrick’s Gin

Hullabaloo Cerys Matthews review

Cerys Matthews – Hullabaloo

Review of Hullabaloo by Cerys MatthewsHullabaloo is the eighth full-length solo album from Cerys Matthews, and the second to be devoted largely to traditional Welsh songs. It is in fact very much a sister album to 2010’s TIR, which was packaged similarly with sepia-colored photos from days gone by, with the songs’ lyrics lovingly laid out in Welsh and English along with notes on their background. In a certain sense Hullabaloo is a mirror-image of her first Welsh-traditional collection. While TIR included some lighter numbers it was anchored by such great, stirring ballads as “Myfanwy” and “Calon Lan;” whereas while Hullabaloo has some poignant ballads it is defined more by its uptempo and danceable tunes and arrangements. And while TIR was built upon voice and guitar, Hullabaloo flaunts a great ensemble of pipes, all manner of stringed instruments, esoteric percussion and whatever might be called for at the given moment.

Cerys Matthews excels at inspiriting and refreshing old tunes, and she also excels at finding and lifting up the common thread that runs through the really great songs from a variety of musical traditions. It’s very difficult (actually impossible) to define that thread in mere words, but one shot at it is to suggest that it is one entwined with insight into that which is fundamentally human and quite often that which is sacred; and, when it inhabits a melody and a lyric, it makes for a song that can stick around for centuries. Continue reading Cerys Matthews – Hullabaloo

The Cinch Review

Elton John – The Diving Board

Review of Elton John The Diving BoardI’ve always had a big soft spot for Elton John. As a kid, I was a real fan, and this was quite a while after his 1970s heyday, during a time when it was highly unfashionable to be an Elton John fan; so I endured much abuse over it, but that only made me dig in my heels all the more. And I will still make a case in hostile company for Elton John when he is doing what he does best. The question is, what does he do best?

The producer of this new album, The Diving Board, is the estimable T-Bone Burnett, and he characterizes it as being “an album of music by a master at the peak of his artistic powers.” (It would naturally be highly dismaying if the album’s producer said it was merely mediocre.) For T-Bone, it’s all inspired by the shows in America that Elton did in 1970, which broke him into the big time: just piano, bass and drums, and some incendiary performing. (Well represented on the album 11/17/70.) This album is based around the same basic trio, although there are occasionally some other colors added such as horns and backing vocals.

It’s my own conviction that Elton is at his best when he succeeds in channeling some kind of deep American rootsy-ness, letting it burst forth through his highly-English soul in his piano-playing and singing, and creating something rather unique, inspirational, charming and joyous. It might be a gospel kind of feeling, it might be R&B, it might be country and western, and Elton might be hamming it up to a ludicrous level, but when all the cylinders are firing and the song itself is good enough, Elton can really hit a height. He can get somewhere. A few examples I’ll just pick without regard to whether they are “greatest hits” or not, from the approximately 25,000 songs he’s recorded: “Honky Cat,” “Where’s the Shoorah?,” “I Don’t Care,” and “My Father’s Gun.” In addition to these kinds of tracks where Elton really “gets the feeling” (as Van Morrison might put it) there are also those occasional standout lush ballads that you just can’t not like (e.g. “Your Song“) and his super-catchy if quite inane masterworks (e.g. “Island Girl” or “Crocodile Rock“). He’s done so much stuff. But the space in between the things he does really well leaves a lot of room for things that don’t ultimately go anywhere (even if they go to the top of the charts). These are records that cannot escape being merely maudlin, or cloying, or bland. Continue reading Elton John – The Diving Board

Milder McAloon review

Quoted Out Of Context: Music by Paddy McAloon – (Joakim) Milder PS

Review of Music by Paddy McAloon Milder PSI guess that there are at least three obvious reasons why jazz musicians have always gravitated towards playing standards (at least as a part of their repertoire). By standards, I’m referring to the classics by the great composers of popular song of the first half of the twentieth century: the Gershwins, Porter, Arlen, Kern, Rodgers (with both Hart and Hammerstein), et al. For one, the songs are melodically appealing and harmonically interesting, and so make good subject matter for a musician and provide good jumping-off points for his or her own improvisations. A second reason—I would suggest—is that the songs are lyrically strong. Even when there is no singing (or perhaps especially when there is no singing) it is advantageous for the music to have an emotional and poetic anchor in words that may be unheard but are known to the players and likely to the listeners as well. And the third reason is familiarity itself: if your audience knows the songs, then they will more readily accept your performance and more easily perceive what you are adding to the music. Likewise, your fellow musicians know the songs, and the ways in which your rendition varies from those that have come before will define your uniqueness as a player.

When Swedish saxophonist Joakim Milder decided to record a whole album of songs by Paddy McAloon (Quoted Out Of Context – Milder PS), I guess he decided that two out of three wasn’t so bad. That is, McAloon (leader of erstwhile British band Prefab Sprout) writes songs that meet the criteria of being melodically inventive and lyrically strong, but I don’t think anyone could claim that they are well-known enough to constitute a common currency amongst jazz musicians. And in any case, Milder and his musical cohorts avoid the few obvious hits from the McAloon ouevre (e.g. “When Love Breaks Down,” “Cars and Girls,” and “King of Rock & Roll”).

The very broad and distinctly tasteful look at McAloon’s body of work that is offered by the tracklist is one of the things about the album that I liked instantly, including as it does songs like “Andromeda Heights,” “God Watch Over You,” and “I Trawl the Megahertz.” And on listening, it is simply a delight for a fan of McAloon’s songwriting to hear his material being performed with the kind of intelligence, maturity and depth of feeling that Joakim Milder and his colleagues bring to this record.

An example is better than any number of characterizations, and an ideal one is probably the version of “Nightingales.” The version by Milder and company can be heard below embedded via SoundCloud. (For comparison, the original Prefab Sprout version is no doubt easily found on YouTube, and one might even find a rare solo piano rendition by the songwriter).

The song “Nightingales” possesses a melody both gorgeous and perpetually teasing to the ear. By itself it would announce that McAloon is a rare talent. Lyrically, it is also teasing: a rhetorical, one-sided conversation about nothing less than the meaning of existence. Questions are softly posed, inadequate answers are brushed off, and a conclusion is offered that is all but proven by the existence of the song itself, in a kind of circular philosophical gambit.

Milder, with his saxophone, joins in the conversation, and adds to it. He contributes no histrionics, and does not stretch anything beyond its breaking point, but nevertheless imparts his own particular urgencies and poignancies. And the sound of the entire ensemble is a true joy of sensitivity and focus.

I could go down the list, and there would be similar observations to make about each and every track. It is that good an album. McAloon has had a fair number of cover versions recorded of his songs, but not to my mind (or my knowledge) by anyone with the kind of musical chops needed to lift the material out of a very contemporary pop context and into the more timeless zone which I think it is, at its best, worthy of occupying. That it would be a jazz instrumentalist who would do this is surprising, but surprises like this are very welcome.

Paddy McAloon Crimson/Red Prefab SproutThe album has been out for a while, and I’ve long had it on my mind to write something about it, but the timing now is perversely apt, because a long-awaited brand new album by Paddy McAloon is being released shortly. It’s under the moniker of “Prefab Sprout,” but McAloon (who some years ago developed ear trouble that prevents him from easily working with a band) provides all of the instrumentation. It’s titled Crimson/Red, and previews suggest it is (perhaps surprisingly) a very bright, energetic collection of pop songs.

I’ll be happy indeed if it has just one or two tunes as good as the great “Doo Wop in Harlem.” A live version from McAloon and Prefab is discoverable on YouTube. The lovely rendition by Joakim Milder and company is embedded below.

You can find the Milder PS album through Amazon UK: Quoted Out Of Context – Music by Paddy McAloon


The full tracklist is:

1. Couldn’t Bear To Be Special
2. Doo Wop In Harlem
3. Anne Marie
4. I Trawl The Megahertz
5. Dragons
6. Nightingales
7. God Watch Over You
8. Andromeda Heights
9. Jesse James Symphony & Bolero
10. Pearly Gates

……

The Cinch Review

Another Self Portrait – Bob Dylan (Bootleg Series Volume 10)

Review of Bob Dylan Another Self Portrait Bootleg Series 10I burst out laughing yesterday. I was listening to “Wigwam,” the version of the song on the new release from Bob Dylan, Another Self Portrait: The Bootleg Series Vol. 10, without the overdubs from the original Self Portrait album in 1970. Heard this way, it is a very unassuming performance: voice, guitar, piano: a pleasant, contemplative melody. I think that it is, in its way, a joke, however, because, while there are no lyrics, Dylan sings “la da da da” type stuff throughout. Put that together with what he said (in 1984) about the original 1970 release of Self Portrait, and how he wanted to alienate the people who were looking to him for big statements and answers:

I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can’t possibly like, they can’t relate to. They’ll see it, and they’ll listen, and they’ll say, ‘Well, let’s get on to the next person. He ain’t sayin’ it no more. He ain’t given’ us what we want,’ you know? They’ll go on to somebody else.

What better way to do that than for the great lyricist and poet and “voice of a generation” to record a song with nothing but “la da da’s” in it? Continue reading Another Self Portrait – Bob Dylan (Bootleg Series Volume 10)

The Cinch Review

Lady Gaga – “Applause”

Review of Lady Gaga ApplauseLady Gaga has released a new single titled “Applause,” the first song to be heard from her forthcoming album Artpop. (Video at bottom.) Frankly, to these ears, it is three minutes and thirty-three seconds of brain-battering bombast. Not long ago, I wrote about the recent Miley Cyrus hit (“We Can’t Stop”) and—although both the song and the video have fairly obvious objectionable elements—it was possible to appreciate some qualities of the tune purely as a pop-record that were well-executed and attractive to the ear. It’s understandable why it would be a hit. Unfortunately this is not so for Lady Gaga’s “Applause,” although it is getting plenty of attention and views on YouTube and is likely to be a very big hit in the coming weeks. Purely from the point of view of sound, however, it seems like something she might have cooked up in her bedroom with an electronic keyboard in about twenty minutes. Of-course, people can dance to it in the clubs, and that might be all the success that really matters to her and her business colleagues, but as a lasting and worthy piece of pop-music it falls rather short; actually, it doesn’t even arrive.

Lyrically the song disappears into an abyss of self-regard. Gaga is aware that she’s been criticized for being highly unoriginal, and in “Applause” she seems to be basically calling out to her fans to defy her detractors:

Applause Lady Gaga ReviewI stand here waiting for you to bang the gong to crash the critic saying
Is it right or is it wrong?
If only Fame had an IV
Baby could I bare being away from you
I found the vein, put it in here

I live for the Applause, Applause, Applause …

This may all be very meaningful for Lady Gaga, but it’s a slight stretch to imagine listeners relating to it and singing along, or even remembering it a few months from now. Continue reading Lady Gaga – “Applause”

Miley Cyrus We Can't Stop

Miley Cyrus: “We Can’t Stop”

Miley Cyrus We Can't Stop reviewIt’s time to pause for an appreciation of what I’ve heard described as “the song of the summer.” That would be “We Can’t Stop,” by Miley Cyrus.Cyrus is twenty years-old, the former star of the Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana, a show that continues in reruns and is most popular with pre-teenage girls. Miley Cyrus has been maturing at a rapid rate since leaving that show, if maturing is to be characterized as becoming more provocatively and publicly sexual with each passing month. (For former Disney child stars, at least, that seems to be what passes for maturing.) This new record, then, “We Can’t Stop,” along with its accompanying video (embedded at bottom), establishes a new apex of maturity for Miley. The video features Cyrus and a bevy of youthful friends alternately boogieing and lounging in various states of undress in what seems like an extremely plush house that they have to themselves. Some are portrayed as sprawled either in states of exhausted unconsciousness or death. The lyric features a variety of declarations like the following:

It’s our party we can do what we want to
It’s our house we can love who we want to
It’s our song we can sing if we want to
It’s my mouth I can say what I want to

And we can’t stop
And we won’t stop
We run things
Things don’t run we
We don’t take nothing from nobody

I don’t think you have to dig too deep or enlist a professor of poetry to get at the theme of the song, which is something like this: “Life is a party. We’ll do whatever we want, however we want, with whoever we want. No one can stop us. We can’t even stop ourselves. And screw you if you don’t like it.”

The tune features two drug references, one to ecstasy (“dancing with Molly”) and one to cocaine: “And everyone in line in the bathroom / Trying to get a line in the bathroom.” Continue reading Miley Cyrus: “We Can’t Stop”