Bright Lights, Big City!
Speaking purely as a writer, I find it interesting that, after all these years of blathering about music, I need a certain…oomph…to begin the actual process of writing!
And so it is that tonight, only moments ago, I grabbed an unmarked CD—I have a lot of them—put it in my player, pressed "play," and, with no idea of what I was about to hear, heard what appeared to be a live audience, fading in and loudly chanting the word "Horslips!"
The CD was a reissue by the Irish rock band of the same name, mind you, from their 1980 live album The Belfast Gigs—but not really knowing that upon first listen, I must say that hearing an enthusiastic crowd chanting what appeared to be the words "horse lips" was stimulating in a very strange way!
Bummer that it was that it was an actual band name instead of the horrifyingly confrontational album opener I'd been hoping for—I was envisioning about 4 or 5 potential less-than-attractive artists, to be polite, about to start their respective sets—for 20 seconds or so my pulse was racing like never before!
I think all of us should take our thrills wherever we may find them!
Alanis Morissette: Havoc And Bright Lights (Collective Sounds) The first album in four years from singer Alanis Morissette comes at an interesting time: She was so huge in the mid-'90s, so widely discussed as a cutting-edge singer, so tied to that time, that it seems no matter what she does at all, no matter how good or bad, she's not likely to be given the same breaks by critics and opinion-makers as, say, Fiona Apple, another female singer-songwriter who favors plumbing psycho-sexual depths and wordiness but, on the basis of the calendar alone, seems intrinsically more interesting. No fair! For as fascinating as Ms. Apple may be for her freakish album titles—my favorite may be The Latest Fiona Apple Album Which Has A Title You'll Absolutely Never Remember And Due To Its SEO Failings Will Swiftly Descend Into Obscurity—I'm actually more captivated by Morissette's jarring way with album titles: While it's no Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie or Under Rug Swept or Feast On Scraps or So-Called Chaos, Havoc And Bright Lights is still an out-and-out winner! I mean, I couldn't even begin to formulate a fake album title for her! Previously Undisclosed Myopia? Bi-Polar Bared? Meet To Nice You? She is a grammar goddess and I in awe am standing!
Slaughterhouse: Welcome To: Our House (Shady) Like most of us, I'm thrilled with any new release that features Crooked I, Joe Budden, Joell Ortiz and Royce da 5'9"! And this, the second studio album by "hip hop supergroup" Slaughterhouse, could potentially be just what the doctor ordered when it comes to really cool albums to play loudly in my car while I'm stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic driving to work every day! Still, a part of me wonders: I'm not convinced that Royce da 5'9" is—can I be blunt?—simply as good as Royce da 5'8" or Royce da 5'10"! Frankly, compared to both of them, he seems…well…average! Still, at least two tracks here—the magnificent "Flip A Bird" and the upbeat "Die"—are deep, memorable musical moments that may well catapult Slaughterhouse into the superstardom they so profoundly deserve! Of course, were they to be randomly be hit by a giant meteorite, they'd be pretty well known as well! Which would you prefer?
Art Garfunkel: The Singer (Columbia/Legacy) Track for track, you'd have a hard time arguing with the 34 tracks that make up this two-disc set celebrating the career of singer Art Garfunkel, who made his name as one-half of '60s heroes Simon & Garfunkel and managed a very respectable solo career after that duo later went their separate ways. His voice remains scarily iconic, his selection of outside material (by Bruce Johnston, Gallagher & Lyle, Albert Hammond) was historically never less than impeccable, and his albums, for Columbia post-S&G and even later, were uniformly superbly produced. My only complaint here is the absence of "Crying In My Sleep," the Jimmy Webb-penned opener for his 1977 album Watermark, which for me easily equaled any of the singer's work with his more-famous former partner. And that he is not Mr. Paul Simon, who penned most of the music for which Garfunkel is most famous, seems to be the sort of thing people remember most about Art Garfunkel. Well, maybe that, his haircut and his funny name! Heck, that used to be Ringo's problem, too!
Roxy Music: The Complete Studio Recordings (Virgin/EMI) I am enormously grateful for opportunities like this—boxed sets that completely capture a major artist's work—especially when they offer up the opportunity to re-experience that artist's historic music with a 2012 perspective. This fantastic set, which collects all of Roxy Music's studio albums and features a pair of discs collecting B-sides and rarities, and is being trumpeted as offering up "flat transfers from the original analog master tapes (not the 1999 remasters)"—fascinating, that—comes at precisely the right time and, sure enough, reaffirms Roxy's greatness. Aside from sounding wonderful, the collection reinforces my own notion of the band's career span—that their first two (Roxy Music & For Your Pleasure) and last three (Manifesto, Flesh And Blood and Avalon) albums were their best works, for entirely different reasons, and the ones in the middle, the lesser defined ones, still offered moments of absolute greatness—the highlight of which may be Bryan Ferry's mid-song cry of "oy veh" from Country Life's "The Thrill Of It All." One or two solo albums that Ferry would release later—particularly 1985's Boys & Girls—came close to approaching that special Roxy chemistry, but the plain fact is that as recorded legacies go, this is about as strong as these things get. Highly recommended.
Selah Sue: Selah Sue (Because) Must put in a good word for this utterly fantastic young singer from Belgium, a compelling, highly attractive artist who writes and sings emotionally gripping, original material that is sure to resonate vividly with anyone who hears it. A skilled, earthy singer whose talent especially comes across via stripped-down live performance, she's apparently set to tour the States with hot UK songwriter Ed Sheeran, which may provide her all she'll need to make a well-deserved US breakthrough. Her solo debut here includes a guest appearance by Cee-Lo Green on "Please"—a fine track that is by no means the highlight of this well-crafted, very memorable debut. Keep an eye out for her.
Richard Hawley: Standing At The Sky's Edge (Mute) Anyone who's heard any of Brit songsmith's Richard Hawley's past works, some of the most subtle, singer-songwriteresque albums of the past few years, will likely be jarred by the sudden change of pace that Standing At The Sky's Edge represents: It is loud, it rocks, and it isn't the sort of thing you'd want to listen to while driving around after midnight with a slight buzz and your eyes watering. Hey, what is? Still, it's a very strong album, another fine step in Hawley's quietly brilliant career, and the sort of thing people will probably be reaching for in ten years' time. Well, that and a great big bottle of pills!
Alvin Lee: Still On The Road To Freedom (Rainman) I find Alvin Lee one of the more fascinating figures in British rock: one of the original UK guitar heroes via his memorable work with Ten Years After—really, some of those early albums were spectacularly odd—his career hit some sort of zenith via his band's appearance at Woodstock that ultimately reduced him in the public's eyes to being a caricature of a speed-demon guitarist mumbling "goin' home…" to the point of incomprehensibility. But he kept at it, did some interesting outside work with people like Mylon LeFevre (the 1973 solo album to which this is theoretically the sequel), and stayed true to his muse, whether it took him to hard rock, metal, the blues, and even Nashville collaborations with the likes of Scotty Moore. He's still a fine artist, a true journeyman, and someone who can play the guitar like very few artists. A fine showing here.
The Dunwells: Blind Sighted Faith (Fantasy/Concord) Caught these dudes and enjoyed them immensely at this year's South By Southwest convention: A British quintet consisting of two brothers—Dunwells both—and three others who play a mix of melodies and harmonies that at times sounds distinctly American/roots-rockish, but still features a combination of hooks and mature songwriting that makes them more than UK wannabees. An interesting direction for any band to take in 2012—let alone a gang of Brits from Leeds—and one of this year's more substantial debut sets.
Various Artists: A&M 50: The Anniversary Collection (A&M) As hard as it may be to believe for the youngest among us, there was a time when major record labels actually had a sound, a consistency, a feel that wasn't wholly governed by the rules of commerce. Among the most sentimentally remembered are Warner Brothers during the late '60s-early '70s, maybe Island Records during the '70s, and—as this 3-CD set clearly illustrates—L.A.'s A&M Records, the little label founded in the '60s by Herb Alpert & Jerry Moss that, despite its small size, contributed a sizable and very memorable catalog of music that seems more impressive with each passing year. No point in listing everything, but between Alpert's Tijuana Brass, the Carpenters, Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker, the Police, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Free, Peter Frampton, Supertramp, Billy Preston, Milton Nascimento, Chuck Mangione , Janet Jackson and Sheryl Crow, I'd say most bases were covered. From their overall graphic approach, their quality vinyl pressings, and their distinct absence of a throwing everything up against the wall and seeing what sticks approach (unusual for its time), A&M were a complete class act from their very beginning to their, er, inevitable absorption into the mega-conglomerate that is today known as Universal Music. Not that there's anything wrong with that!
Harry Shearer: Can't Take A Hint (Courgette) Any album featuring a well-known humorist as well as guest appearances by Fountains Of Wayne, Dr. John, Nicholas Payton and Jamie Cullum, among others, is certainly worthy of mentioning in this column! As would be an album fully capable of self-propelled flight or of physical reproduction! Still, all would merit a chuckle or two—and isn't that what we all need now and then? I mean, aside from money?