Monday, January 19, 2009

Johnny Cash Remixed


Johnny Cash, The Man in Black as he’s been known for years was often ahead of the curve. An addition to all of his other musical achievements, he was a trailblazer. I think that’s important to keep in mind when considering the release Johnny Cash Remixed. People often have mixed feeling about remixes, especially when we’re talking about the work of a deceased legend. In this case I’d bet Johnny would have been on board with this project.

A baker’s dozen of Johnny Cash tunes remixed by a variety of artists make up this release. The highlights for me are Walk The Line which features the perpetually interesting and entertaining Snoop Dogg, Country Boy, Leave That Junk Alone, and Folsom Prison Blues. All of the tracks from this project are from the work Johnny recorded in his early Sun Studio days. In addition to working on the lead track, Snoop Dogg is an executive producer and heavily involved with this released. John Carter Cash, Johnny’s son was also involved with this project every step of the way, giving it some official family lineage.

My take on this release is that it’s like hearing some of Johnny’s work with a new filter on it. The classic elements are there, now they’re augmented and re-imagined by contemporary artists who each add their own spin to theses tunes. I’d guess that somewhere Johnny Cash is smiling with the knowledge that so many contemporary producers and artists chose to be involved in an album that serves as a unique tribute to the man himself.

If you like Johnny Cash and want to hear a fresh approach to some of his classics, Johnny Cash Remixed is a pretty fascinating listen.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Metallica - Death Magnetic

I've seen a ghost and its name is Metallica. After being a fan for years I wrote them off when they started releasing embarrassing albums full of half baked, unmemorable songs. Not being heavy anymore was one thing, releasing garbage is another altogether. When their self titled album (commonly called the Black album) landed in 1991 I assumed this was their left turn, the departure album. Every artist certainly has the right to experiment and that's what the Black Album sounded like. It was a huge success and turned this once cultish band into a stadium act. 1993 saw the arrival of a live box set and a tour in the summer of 1994. While the Black album was a bit soft it had good and occasionally great songs. Metallica remained an excellent live act. I saw them in the Summer of 1994 and they tore it up, one of the best gigs I've seen them play.

The real trouble started before Load came out. When I heard Metallica was changing their logo it was clear SOMETHING was amiss. Kiss has done some goofy things over the years, but they never messed with that incredibly recognizable logo. Iron Maiden has had three lead singers, but only one great logo. You can't buy familiarity like Metallica had with their logo, but they changed it. Then I heard Load. To be kind, it's terrible. The songs lack imagination, bite and have no heart, soul or really any redeeming value. Still the newer Metallica fans, the ones who discovered them with The Black Album, bought it. A year later they put out Reload. Things actually got worse. By this time it was embarrassing to have ever been a fan. Where were the uncompromising kings of thrash metal? Clearly they were dead. Oh well, they had released 4 classic albums and one decent one, more than many artists.

Four years later, after parting company with Jason Newsted they released St. Anger. Just when you thought things couldn't get worse again, they did. It got to the point that It was hard to remember that this was once one of the greatest bands in the world. For my own part I refused to buy anything after Load and I haven't seen them since 1994, my heart wasn't in it. So it's understandable that hearing they recruited Rick Rubin to produce didn't excite me. I figured they'd ruin his reputation and make another platter of steaming shit. Then a strange thing happened. I was in the car listening to my Sirius Satellite radio and I happened across a new Metallica song. It was hard to comprehend the sound coming from my radio. Simultaneously it sounded familiar and new. The double bass drum hit me first, then the screaming guitar, some bass and then, there it was, Hetfield's voice. He was growling as he should, when he tries to "sing" it sounds terrible. I was so overcome with shock I almost drove off the road. Was it possible Metallica had recorded a good song for the first time in 17 years?

Over the next few weeks I heard a couple of other songs, they were all good. The decision to get the new album, one that I would have considered impossible three weeks ago, was made for me by the songs I had heard. So today, I went out and purchased Death Magnetic. The first time in well over a decade I've put any of my money towards something created by Metallica.

I was immediatly glad to note that they've reclaimed their original logo. Listening to this album was actually an incredibly emotional experience. It never occurred to me that they had such an uncompromising album in them again. Death Magnetic is without question, hesitation or reservation the best album Metallica has released in 20 Years and 6 days (...And Justice for All came out on 9/6/88). This is undoubtedly a very good Metallica album that's likely to please people who are fans of the true, classic Metallica sound evidenced on their first four albums.

Rick Rubin has once again managed to extract a time-warp performance from a band that had lost their way. His knack for doing that warrants his consideration for a host of awards and perhaps even the Nobel Peace Prize.

Death Magnetic is heavy with double bass drums, ridiculous fills and all sorts of other tricks I can't wait to see Lars pulls off live. Kirk's guitar playing is probably better than ever, he's apparently learned some new sounds while they were recording those ill conceived albums. James, when he growls is still the best front man in thrash metal, not to mention a killer rhythm guitarist. And Rob Trujillo does a good and at times impressive job on bass.

This is the album Metallica should have released in 1991. If they had, their path would have remained unfettered and uncluttered by the garbage they've filled it with the last dozen years. As it stands they have returned to form. Not only did I not think it was possible, it never occurred to me they wanted to be this band anymore. Thankfully they have seen the error of their ways and want to reclaim their crown. Welcome back boys, it's good to see you!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Thriving Ivory

Lush is the first word that comes to mind when listening to the self titled debut from the Bay areas Thriving Ivory. Piano and keys lead the way to create a mood as well as thick and layered sound. Vocalist Clayton Stroope has a voice that is strong,passionate and pretty unique. He wrings a range of sounds and emotions from it. At times their sound reminds me of bands such as Keane. On a few tracks I was having trouble figuring out who Stroope's vocals reminded me of. Finally it hit me, that of all people he was bringing to mind Stephen Pearcy of Ratt, albeit in a smoother, mellower manner.

The overall sound strikes me as progressive pop-rock. They're complex and full of notes and flourishes that emerge with repeated listening. At the same time the songs are catchy and immediately appealing. This debut album certainly has the sound and feel of a band that could be here for a long time. Stand out songs for me are the opener Runaway, Light Up Mississippi and Twilight. That said, their overall sound is such that if you like one track, you're likely going to be predisposed to the whole album. If you're looking for a physical CD of Thriving Ivory, it's exclusive to Best Buy.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis - Two Men With The Blues

When musical luminaries collaborate the results are often mixed. Sometimes, as with Sinatra’s late career Duets projects they can be downright dreadful. But then there are projects that regardless of how they came about sound organic and real. Thankfully the collaboration between Willie Nelson and Wynton Marslalis is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Each of their resumes is chock full of not only successful endeavors but respect from their musical peers which is often the most impressive sign of musical accomplishment. Country and Jazz are two musical idioms which can be claimed as coming from the United States. This collaboration has the benefit of two men at the top of their fields in each of those genres.

Last year they played at Lincoln Center where Wynton is the Artistic Director. Though it had been billed as “Willie Nelson Sings The Blues,” it was in reality collaboration between two behemoths in their respective fields. The two-night collaboration was recorded and turned into the album Two Men With The Blues.

The tunes on the album run the gamut from standards like Georgia On My Mind to the Jimmy Reed classic Bright Lights Big City, which acts as the opener. Other highlights include Clarence Williams My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It, and Willie’s own Rainy Day Blues. Blues, Jazz and Country sounds come together to form a wonderful homemade musical stew.

Throughout their performances they weave a fine line between showing off the impressive musical chops they share with their backup band to seeming as relaxed and natural as if they’re playing a backyard picnic for some friends. I can only hope that at some point they decide to hit the road together. If they do, it’s likely to be a show not to miss. For now though this album is a terrific slice of Americana to seek out if you're a fan of either of these men.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Pearl Jam - 6/25/08 - Madison Square Garden

Last night Pearl Jam played the second of 2 sold out nights at the Garden. When they were asked to headline Bonnaroo they decided that since they’d have the engine revved up they might as well play a few dates before and after that festival. Bands with a large catalog like Pearl Jam playing dates without a specific album to support often take one of two tacks. Some decide this is an excuse to take the easy route and do a greatest hits type set to appease the brain dead masses. Pearl Jam, not surprisingly, took the other road. Sure, their set was peppered with well known radio standards. However, the bulk of their show was made up of album tracks, rarely played songs and covers. I’m not sure if there’s such a thing as a casual Pearl Jam fan. If there is I doubt they were at the Garden for this show. Pearl Jam’s core fan base is loud, loyal and energetic. These are the people Pearl Jam plays to.

From the first note of Release to the last seconds of Yellow Ledbetter the Garden was rocked and swayed by Pearl Jam for 2 hours and 45 minutes and through 29 songs. Tracks like World Wide Suicide were joined by rarities such as All Night from Lost Dogs their double disc of outtakes and b-sides. It was on All Night that the first guests of the night appeared onstage. Three vocalists who Ed described as local friends sang backup and harmony vocals on this and several other tunes throughout the night. For every well known song like Corduroy that made the set list, a song like Who You Are not played in 10 years before this tour, also made the cut.

After delivering jabs and body shots for a little over an hour and a half the band left the stage briefly. When they returned for the first set of encores they got back to business immediately with Inside Job from their self titled 2006 album. A couple of songs later the next special guest emerged in the form of C.J. Ramone. He strapped on Jeff Ament’s bass and they played the Ramones classic I Believe In Miracles. This was followed by a rousing version of Better Man and then Rearviewmirror.

Another very quick break later, Ed emerged, acoustic guitar in hand to play No More by himself. The rest of the band returned and the body shots and jabs in the form of tunes continued. Little did I know that two and a half hours into their show Pearl Jam had a left hook up their sleeve no one could have seen coming. Eddie said that the next guest was not for the crowd so much as it was for them. Specifically the guest he said was for drummer Matt Cameron and guitarist Mike McCready. He said they’d be sharing vocals on the next tune which their guest would play lead guitar on. With that he said words I’ve heard in concert many times, just not at a Pearl Jam show. “Ace Frehley Lead Guitar,” is what Eddie said. The next sound I heard was a collective gasp from an incredulous crowd. Out wandered the Space Ace, and make no mistake, Ace wanders more so than he walks. His gait is as unmistakable as his guitar sound. With that they tore into the KISS Classic Black Diamond. It was an inspired version with a particularly engaging lead and solo from Ace. After that I would have been fine calling it a night but Pearl Jam played a couple of more tunes and completed their knockout of the crowd.

With their performance at Madison Square Garden last night Pearl Jam displayed that they are a live act with few peers. Certainly there is not a single band from their generation that can hold a candle to them live. In the pantheon of rock history there are but a few acts whose live show towers above everyone else. Pearl Jam can stand proudly with those legends. They are everything a great and legendary rock band should be live. Loud, passionate, spontaneous, tight and breathtaking.

Official Pearl Jam Bootlegs from every night of their tour can be purchased for a reasonable price through their website. They are available either in downloadable file form or as CD's.

Pearl Jam 6/25/08 MSG Set List:

Main Set: Release, World Wide Suicide, Severed Hand, Corduroy, All Night, Cropduster, Garden, Marker In The Sand, I'm Open, Wishlist, State Of Love And Trust, Even Flow, Who You Are, Rats, Given To Fly, Do The Evolution, Go

First Encore: Inside Job, W.M.A., Lukin, I Believe In Miracles, Better Man (Save it for Later), Rearviewmirror

Second Encore: No More, Last Kiss, Why Go, Black Diamond, Alive, Yellow Ledbetter

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Aimee Mann - @#%&*! Smilers

Since 1993’s Whatever Aimee Mann has been releasing solo albums at a pretty consistent clip. While each of them is distinct in their own right she’s certainly honed a sound that’s all hers. That continues to be true on her latest release @#%&*! Smilers. Her previous release was a holiday album, One More Drifter In The Snow.

@#%&*! Smilers continues Aimee Mann’s string of strong efforts. One of the benchmarks of her solo work has been the ability to create indelibly vivid imagery with her words. Songs like “Thirty One Today” on this new release continue that trend. Accompanying the unshakeable images her words create are palettes of sound that set a mood and feeling that listeners would be hard pressed to ignore and not become part of, for a little while at least. On the one hand her songs seem perfectly suited to create accompanying videos for. Conversely though it’s preferable to let her words and sounds create slightly different images in each of her listeners heads.

Songs such as the lead single “Freeway” are reminiscent of the more keyboard laden songs of her 2002 masterpiece “Lost in Space” while a song like “Phoenix” has a more sparse sound to it than most of the material on her recent releases. And that’s what sets @#%&*! Smilers apart from her last few albums, more diversity within the album itself.

It’s too soon to say where @#%&*! Smilers will rank within Aimee Mann’s body of work. But considering how incredibly strong her solo work has been, it’s praise enough to say that it lives up to what she’s created before.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Willie Nelson - Moment of Forever

That at almost 75 years of age, and close to 50 years after the release of his debut album, Willie Nelson still manages to release music is impressive. The fact that he can release an album as fresh and timeless sounding as Moment Of Forever in 2008 is astounding.

Willie’s career has taken on many phases, sounds and shapes. He’s been a legend so long now it’s hard to think of him as much else. Before he reached those heights though he had many other stops along the way. Outlaw is one of the titles he seemed to wear most proudly. It’s fitting then that he had Kenny Chesney produce this album. Chesney is one of the most successful acts in country today, yet at least by perception and reputation he seems to stand outside the Nashville mainstream and go his own way.

Moment Of Forever does a fine job of combining Willie Nelson originals with well chosen covers. Dave Matthews’ “Gravedigger” retains enough of the original versions funky vibe while simultaneously being unmistakably Willie. “Takin’ On Water” has some organ parts that bring to mind mid 70’s Stevie Wonder in their soulfulness. “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore” with it’s old juke joint stomping feel to it is the best of the Nelson originals on the album. The closer though, a cover of Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody,” delivered with stirring conviction is the definitive highlight of the album.

Chesney’s production is clean and streamlined. He doesn’t bog the album done with any unnecessary layers. He acts as a conduit to bring Willie and the songs directly through the speakers to the listener.
Detractors might point out that “Moment of Forever” isn’t quite ”Shotgun Willie” or “Phases and Stages.” And while that is true, “Moment of Forever” goes beyond what one can rightly expect from someone 50 years into a recording career.