The Fall 2021 Box Set Bonanza

As previously promised, a look at the big reissues landing in the next few months — especially those available in one or more box set formats. Ordering links are embedded in the artist/title listings below.

Out Now:

The Beach Boys, Feel Flows – The Sunflower and Surf’s Up Sessions, 1969-1971: between their initial impact and their imperial phase as timeless purveyors of fun fun fun, Brian Wilson and his family pursued heaviness and relevance in a market that thought it had outgrown them — at least for the moment. This slice of the Boys’ catalog features less slick, more homespun takes on their timeless concerns (the same amount of girls, less cars, more daily life), with Wilson brothers Dennis (on Sunflower) and Carl (on Surf’s Up) taking the lead. The brilliant moments — “This Whole World,” “Forever,” “Long Promised Road,” “Til I Die” for starters — outweigh the embarrassingly dated ones, and music to make you smile is never too long in coming. Available from The Beach Boys’ webstore as 2 CDs, 5 CDs, 2 LPs or 4 LPs (colored vinyl).

BeBop Deluxe, Live in the Air Age: when Bill Nelson’s avant-glam guitar heroics didn’t generate bigger record sales, a live album was the next obvious move for this sterling British quartet. Better chart positions weren’t forthcoming, but 1977’s Live in the Air Age is an exquisite slab of BBD at work — Chuck Berry updated for the Apollo era, with a bit of Bowie/Mercury panache in Nelson’s vocals and blazing solos aplenty. Available from Esoteric Recordings as 3 CDs (adding the complete 1977 London concert) or 15 CDs/1 DVD (adding all surviving recordings from the 1977 British tour and a live television special).

George Harrison, All Things Must Pass: the quiet Beatle exploded on his first album after the Fabs’ breakup, immersing his radiant devotional compositions in Phil Spector’s patented Wall of Sound and drafting Ringo, Badfinger and the embryonic Derek and the Dominoes as his rock orchestra. The new remix scales back the symphonic swirl, brings forward George’s vocals, and gives the rhythm section a kick in the pants; just right to these ears. A serious contender for the single best solo Beatle album, well worth an immersion course. Available from the Harrison webstore in Standard (2 CDs or 3 LPs — limited colored vinyl available as well), Deluxe (3 CDs or 5 LPs), Super Deluxe (5 CDs/BluRay or 8 LPs) and Uber Deluxe (5 CDs/BluRay/8 LPs/various bespoke gimcracks/”artisan wooden crate” — you don’t wanna know what it costs) editions.

The Elements of King Crimson – 2021 Tour Box: the 7th annual compilation of tidbits from the Discipline Global Mobile archives, doubling as a concert program. This year’s selection of rarities focuses on the nine drummers that have called King Crimson their musical home (sometimes two or three of them at once). Studio snippets – like the one with Fripp, John Wetton on bass and Phil Collins on drums – live tracks, oddities, previews of coming attractions, and more. Available from Burning Shed or on Crimson’s current USA tour.

Lee Morgan, The Complete Live at the Lighthouse: never a mass media superstar, Morgan was nonetheless a jazz icon — one of the finest trumpeters of his day who played with heroes of the music like Art Blakey and John Coltrane, recorded more than 20 albums as a leader for Blue Note Records, and even managed to score a Top 25 pop hit with his funky “The Sidewinder.” This box (another product of jazz archivist Zev Feldman’s boundless energy) sets forth an entire weekend’s worth of recordings by Morgan and his dedicated, powerful 1970 band. Bennie Maupin on reeds, Harold Mabern on piano, Jymie Merritt on bass and Mickey Roker on drums bring the sophisticated, challenging compositions and spirited solos and backing; Morgan takes it from there, lyrical and fiery in turn. This is a great potential entry point if you want to explore jazz as a newbie, and a serious desert island possiblility for those already into the music. Available from Blue Note’s webstore as 8 CDs or 12 LPs.

Clive Nolan and Rick Wakeman, Tales by Gaslight: keyboardists Nolan (Pendragon, Arena) and Wakeman (Yes, Strawbs) box up their out-of-print concept albums Jabberwocky (with dad Rick W. reciting Lewis Carroll’s nonsense verse) and The Hound of the Baskervilles, adding a bonus disc collecting rough drafts of a 3rd album based on Frankenstein. Separate booklets and art prints for each of the 3 CDs included. Theatrical as all get out, and surprisingly good fun if you’re in the mood for Victorian-flavored melodrama. Available from Burning Shed.

September:

Bob Dylan, Springtime in New York – The Bootleg Series, Volume 16, 1980-1985: Outtakes, alternate versions, rehearsals, live performances and more from the era that yielded Dylan’s albums Shot of Love, Infidels and Empire Burlesque. Out September 17; pre-order from Dylan’s webstore and elsewhere in the following formats: 2 LP Highlights, 2 CD Highlights or 5 CDs complete. (There’s also a subscriber-only 4 LP set from Jack White’s Third Man Records.)

Marillion, Fugazi: the band’s 1984 album, perceived as a “sophomore slump” at the time, is much more than a bridge between the feral debut Script for A Jester’s Tear and the early masterwork Misplaced Childhood, with plenty of gripping moments to recommend it. A new remix by Andy Bradfield and Avril Mackintosh compensates handily for the production nightmares recounted in this deluxe edition’s copious notes. Also includes a complete live set from Montreal; the CD/BluRay version adds bonus tracks, documentaries, and a Swiss television concert. Out September 10; pre-order from Marillion’s webstore as 4 CDs/BluRay or 4 LPs.

Van der Graaf Generator, The Charisma Years, 1970-1978: VDGG may have shared the stage with Genesis in each band’s formative years, but they were a thoroughly different beast. Peter Hammill’s desperate existential narratives and the wigged out instrumental web woven by David Jackson, Hugh Banton and Guy Evans made for a unique, highly combustible chemistry — bonkers dystopian sci-fi narrative over free jazz one moment, raggedly soaring hymns to human potential the next. This 17 CD/3 BluRay set collects the band’s 8 studio albums from the Seventies, adding extensive BBC sessions, a live show from Paris, all surviving television appearances “and more.” Now available from Burning Shed; the four newly remastered albums in this box (H to He Who Am the Only One, Pawn Hearts, Godbluff and Still Life) are available as separate CD/DVD sets for those wanting a lower priced introduction to this underrated band’s indescribably stirring music.

October:

The Beatles, Let It Be: the Fab Four’s star-crossed attempt to return to their roots – recording live in front of movie cameras – ultimately became their first post-break-up release, drenched with Phil Spector’s orchestral overdubs to cover the rough spots. With a new 6-hour Peter Jackson documentary on the sessions hitting Disney Plus Thanksgiving weekend, Apple unleashes a fresh stereo remix (the 4th in the series that kicked off with Sgt. Pepper’s 50th anniversary). Super Deluxe versions also include 27 sessions tracks, a 4-track EP and a test mix of Get Back, the proposed original version of the album. Out October 15th; pre-order from the Fabs’ webstore in Standard (1 CD or 1 LP), Deluxe (2 CDs with selected bonus tracks) and Super Deluxe (4 CDs/1 BluRay or 4 LP/1 EP) editions. (The companion book of photos and transcribed conversations from the sessions, Get Back, is released on October 12.)

Emerson Lake and Palmer, Out of This World – Live (1970-1997): a compilation of key live shows in ELP’s history: their 1970 debut at the Isle of Wight Festival; a career peak show at the 1974 California Jam; the 1977 full-orchestra extravaganza at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium; 1992’s comeback concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall; and a previously unreleased 1997 show from Phoenix, Arizona. Out October 29; pre-order from ImportCDs as 7 CDs or 10 LPs.

Joni Mitchell, Archives , Volume 2 – The Reprise Years (1968-1971): more archival recordings from the early days of Mitchell’s recording career. Home and studio demos, outtakes, unreleased songs, her Carnegie Hall debut and much more — a complete acoustic set recorded by a enraptured Jimi Hendrix, anyone? Out October 29; pre-order from Mitchell’s webstore on 5 CDs or 10 LPs (4000 copies only), The Carnegie Hall concert is available separately on 3 LPs (black or white vinyl).

Pink Floyd, A Momentary Lapse of Reason (Remixed and Updated): the 2019 remix of Floyd’s post-Roger Waters comeback from the opulent The Later Years box, now available on its own. “Sounds less like the 1980s, more like classic Floyd” is the party line here. Out October 29; pre-order from Floyd’s webstore in 1 CD, CD/DVD, CD/BluRay or 2 LP formats.

November:

Genesis, The Last Domino? Yet another compilation of Genesis’ greatest hits, fan favorites and core album cuts, released just in time for their first US tour in 14 years. No real surprises in the track selection, but the blurbed promise of “new stereo mixes” of four Gabriel-era classics is intriguing. Out November 19; pre-order from Genesis’ webstore on 2 CDs or 4 LPs. (The UK version of this compilation, out September 17, sports a slightly different track list.)

Elvis Presley, Back in Nashville: the King’s final sessions in Music City, stripped of overdubs a la last year’s From Elvis in Nashville box, that yielded material for three years worth of albums. 82 tracks encompassing country/folk, pop, religious music and Christmas music. Out November 12; pre-order from the Presley webstore on 4 CDs or 2 LPs.

In the Works (release date forthcoming):

Robert Fripp, Exposures: another exhaustive (and potentially exhausting) set from Discipline Global Mobile. This one promises to cover Fripp’s “Drive to 1981,” including his guest-star-heavy solo debut Exposure, the ambient Frippertronics of God Save the Queen and Let the Power Fall, and the egghead dance music of Under Heavy Manners and The League of Gentlemen. Tons of live gigs promised to supplement rarities and studio outtakes.

Marillion, Holidays in Eden: the new Marillion album (now officially titled An Hour Before It’s Dark) may push this further back on the release schedule, but Steve Hogarth’s second effort with the boys (an intriguing effort that tried and failed to go commercial) is next up for the deluxe reissue treatment.

Porcupine Tree, Deadwing: a promised deluxe set in the vein of 2020’s In Absentia. Internet gossip flared up when Steven Wilson, Steve Barbieri and Gavin Harrison were rumored to have reset the band’s legal partnership earlier this year; who knows how or when the Tree may blossom again?

Renaissance, Scheherezade and Other Stories: coming from Esoteric Recordings, the folk-prog quintet’s finest hour in the studio, melding orchestral grace with an Arabian Nights theme for the half-hour title track. If this is in the vein of other recent Renaissance issues, hope for a multi-disc set with a bonus live set and a surround remix.

— Rick Krueger

The Big Prog (Plus) Preview for Fall 2021!

What new music and archival finds are heading our way in the next couple of months? Check out the representative sampling of promised progressive goodies — along with a few other personal priorities — below. (Box sets based on reissues will follow in a separate article!) Pre-order links are embedded in the artist/title listings below.

Out now:

Amanda Lehmann, Innocence and Illusion: “a fusion of prog, rock, ballads, and elements of jazz-blues” from the British guitarist/vocalist best known as Steve Hackett’s recurring sidekick. Available direct from Lehmann’s webstore as CD or digital download.

Terence Blanchard featuring the E-Collective and the Turtle Island Quartet, Absence: trumpeter/film composer Blanchard dives into music both written and inspired by jazz legend Wayne Shorter. His E-Collective supplies cutting edge fusion grooves, and the Turtle Island String Quartet adds orchestral depth to the heady sonic concoctions. Available from Blue Note Records as CD or digital download.

The Neal Morse Band, Innocence and Danger: another double album from Neal, Mike Portnoy, Randy George, Bill Hubauer and Eric Gillette. No overarching concept this time — just everything and the kitchen sink, ranging from a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to brand-new half-hour epics. Available from Inside Out as 2CD, 2CD/DVD or 3 LPs/2 CDs

Trifecta, Fragments: what happens when Steven Wilson’s rhythm section turns his pre-show sound checks into “jazz club”? Short, sharp tracks that mix the undeniable chops and musicality of Adam Holzman on keys, Nick Beggs on Stick and Craig Blundell on drums with droll unpredictability and loopy titles like “Clean Up on Aisle Five” and “Pavlov’s Dog Killed Schrodinger’s Cat”. Available from Burning Shed as CD or LP (black or neon orange).

Upcoming releases after the jump!

Continue reading “The Big Prog (Plus) Preview for Fall 2021!”

Neil Young’s Archives II: On 3rd Thought …

Neil Young has walked back his walkback at the NYA Times Contrarian:

Reprise Records, my record company for about 50 years, underestimated the demand for Archives Volume II.  We were all surprised.  It is a beautiful package that I am proud to have made for you.  I do feel badly that we did not deliver it to many who were waiting so long for it.

We don’t feel that offering more of a product sold as a limited edition is a good thing to do.  Thank you to all who purchased this set.

In 2021 we will be offering more Archives Volume II products as Reprise had originally planned, available in all outlets.  These, while not the boxed set, will offer all of the music and discs with a smaller book.  The original large book will be available for separate sale.

Thanks!  NYA

So what are the implications here? These thoughts hit me:

  • Note that Reprise was already planning a cheaper version of Archives II. Back in 2009, the basic edition of Archives I (pictured above) dropped the same week as the more expensive DVD & Blu-ray versions (which weren’t considered this time around due to the Archives‘ migration online). It’s arguable that this staged marketing effort was a major reason Archives II’s limited edition sold out; nobody told Neil Young fans that a lower-priced version would eventually be available! (Of course, I wanted the limited edition no matter what, so mission accomplished.)
  • As physical product’s market share in the recorded music industry has eroded, first in favor of downloads, then streaming subscriptions, marketing strategies have also shifted. For the big boys (tech companies and the three major labels) the industry’s physical product (7 percent of US sales in the first half of 2020, measured in dollars) is now mostly a means to wring maximum amounts out of legacy fans with money to spend. The mass market belongs to streaming (85 percent of US sales) — which furnishes them the lions’ share of those proceeds, through paid subscriptions and advertising. Hmm . . . that couldn’t have skewed Reprise’s estimates for Archives II’s limited edition sales, could it?
  • These new realities have also strengthened the power of major labels in relation to artists. If Neil Young — one of the true 800-pound gorillas of rock culture, absolutely used to throwing his weight around to get his way — can’t get Warner Music to pony up a second printing of the limited Archives II, what chance does a start-up artist have pushing back on anything against Warner, Universal or Sony BMG? As David Lowery famously wrote back in 2012, “meet the new boss; worse than the old boss.”
  • The focus on streaming has also changed how legacy musicians and their support staff (or their estates) conceive of box sets and high-end collections. For example, the new super-deluxe edition of Prince’s Sign O’ the Times has a bonus track listing explicitly designed so fans can assemble their own playlists without having to purchase digital or physical versions. And let’s face it, Neil Young wants to sell you a subscription to the Archives website if at all possible; in 2020, downloads (6 percent of US sales) and physical sales are the gravy on top, not the meat and potatoes.
  • In addition to streaming online, the relative shift to LPs offline (currently accounting for 62% of income from US physical sales — it’s the product with a higher value per unit, that outsells CDs about 3 to 1 at independent record stores and still has a small footprint for impulse purchases in big-box chains) has tilted manufacturing and distribution accordingly. What does it say about the industry’s current capacity for physical media that the new indie album by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Love Is The King came out online this past week, but CDs and LPs won’t be available until January? If the big guns are simultaneously bearish on physical sales and hogging CD and vinyl production, how do the little guys get a shot?

In some ways, all of the above is irrelevant to the main thrust of this website. Progressive music in all its forms is, whether we admit it or not, an incredibly small niche in today’s recorded music industry — but one that, between two solidly-funded labels that can get product to the mass market (KScope and Inside Out, which seems to have considerable freedom as part of Sony BMG), a multitude of independent and artist-run ventures and potent distribution channels like Bandcamp and Burning Shed, has proved remarkably resilient. The persistence of prog is a big part of why we love it so.

On the other hand, the music industry already caught one bug in 2020, with US physical sales declining in the second quarter of this year due to the first wave of the COVID pandemic. And if the Goliaths come down with another economic cold . . . could the fallout spread to the little guys with slingshots that we want to support?

–Rick Krueger

The Big Prog (Plus) Preview for Fall 2020!

As always seems to be the case, there’s tons of great music coming out between now and Black Friday, November 27. Below, the merest sampling of upcoming releases in prog and other genres below, with purchase links to Progarchy’s favorite online store Burning Shed unless otherwise noted.

Out now:

Simon Collins, Becoming Human: after 3 solo albums and Sound of Contact’s acclaimed Dimensionaut, Phil Collins’ oldest son returns on vocals. keys and drums; his new effort encompasses rock, pop, prog, electronica and industrial genres. Plus an existential inquiry into the meaning of life! Available on CD from Frontiers Records.

John Petrucci, Terminal Velocity: the Dream Theater guitarist reunites with Mike Portnoy on drums for his second solo set of instrumentals. Plus Dave LaRue of the Dixie Dregs and Flying Colors on bass. Expect lotsa notes! Available on CD or 2 LP from Sound Mind Records/The Orchard.

The Pineapple Thief, Versions of the Truth: Hot on the heels of their first US tour, Bruce Soord and Gavin Harrison helm TPT’s latest collection of brooding, stylized alt/art rock, honing in on the post-truth society’s impact on people and relationships. Available on CD, BluRay (with bonus track plus alternate, hi-res and surround mixes), LP or boxset (2 CDs/DVD/BluRay) – plus there’s a t-shirt!

Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly, Alone Together: Sjöblom spearheads a thoroughly groovy collection on vocals, guitar and organ, with Petter and Rasmus Diamant jumping in on drums and bass. Heartfelt portraits of daily life and love that yield extended, organic instrumental jams and exude optimism in the midst of ongoing isolation. Available on CD and LP (black or deep blood red vinyl).

[Upcoming releases follow the jump …]

Continue reading “The Big Prog (Plus) Preview for Fall 2020!”

Three Colours Dark, The Science of Goodbye

A welcome sighting in the latest issue of Prog Magazine: a feature on the debut effort from Three Colours Dark, a collaboration between vocalist Rachel Cohen (Karnataka, The Reasoning) and keyboardist/guitarist Jonathan Edwards (Karnataka, Panic Room).

Back in the heady early days of Prog, the magazine tapped both Panic Room and The Reasoning as hot new bands with fresh ideas and the potential for broader appeal.  While both groups had talent aplenty and made consistently solid albums, the big breakouts never quite came to pass; The Reasoning dissolved in 2014,  while Panic Room seems in limbo following their live effort Screens.   And while PR’s leader Anne-Marie Helder still pops up on occasion,  The Reasoning’s Rachel Cohen pursued a fruitful new career in academic mental health research.  Thankfully, Cohen recently re-connected with Edwards, who proved ready and willing to collaborate on new music; Three Colours Dark is the welcome result.

On first listen, The Science of Goodbye proves elegant, introspective and strangely irresistible, with a brooding power to the music and a darkly compelling lyrical vision to match.  Edwards’ lush, primarily acoustic soundscapes enfold subtle hints of unease, spacious enough to be warmly inviting, but suffused with enough fear and melancholy to disconcert.  They’re perfect settings for Cohen’s brave, quietly harrowing narratives of pain, bewilderment, and self-doubt.  Abetted by multi-instrumentalist Tim Cahill and stunning guest shots from — among others — blues guitarist Chantal McGregor, trumpeter Nathan Bray, and XTC/Big Big Train legend Dave Gregory (on a marvelous cover of Richard Thompson’s “Ghosts in the Wind”), you’re sucked into a tight, almost suffocating place — and you wonder how you’ll make it out.

Which is what makes the album’s last two tracks — as Cohen’s protagonist names, then frees herself from her nemesis in the heavy, throbbing “Monster,” then strikes out for open country in the soaring title track — deeply, delightfully cathartic.  From its claustrophobic onset to its inspiring end, The Science of Goodbye rings true as both testimony and art;  spying the “crack in everything” Leonard Cohen sang about in “Anthem,” Three Colours Dark follows the light that gets in to a new day.   A great listen from a great new duo, well worth your time and your cash.

Three Colours Dark’s The Science of Goodbye is exclusively available on CD from Burning Shed or as a digital download from Bandcamp.

 

— Rick Krueger

 

 

 

Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series: Trouble No More, Volume 13 / 1979-1981

by Rick Krueger

I’m not a hardcore Bob Dylan fan, but I admire quite a bit of his work: the early folk music, leading into the groundbreaking electric stuff (basically what’s in The Original Mono Recordings box set); Blood on the Tracks and Desire; the recent run of “old guy plays the blues” albums that started with Time Out of Mind.  I’m also grateful that Dylan’s music has midwifed some of the most resonant work by highbrow rock writers like Greil Marcus, Clinton Heylin and Michael Gray, along with poet Christopher Ricks’ masterful Dylan’s Visions of Sin.

To top all that off, Dylan’s Bootleg Series is, in my mind, one of the best-curated rarities/reissue series from a major artist.  Every volume has been at least an interesting listen for me, and I consider the last two releases, The Basement Tapes Complete and The Cutting Edge 1965-1966 (as well as Volume 4, The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert) downright essential.

I also remember, as a college freshman, reading Jann Wenner’s review of Dylan’s Slow Train Coming in Rolling Stone.  Wenner knotted himself into a human pretzel trying to reconcile the free-spirited, hippie picture of Dylan he had built up for himself with a new album of — shudder — “born-again Christian” music.  It was unintentionally hilarious.

I’d argue that Slow Train Coming was really more of an “lost Old Testament prophet” kind of record — and thus in line with Dylan’s long-term aesthetic.  It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it was quite good — and there were occasional fine songs on the other “Christian” albums, especially “Every Grain of Sand” from Shot of Love.

Thus, Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series, Volume 13 /1979-1981 is definitely on my want list.  8 CDs plus 1 DVD of live and unreleased studio material, to be issued (like King Crimson’s Sailor’s Tales) on my birthday, November 3.  I really need to find some long-lost rich relatives!

More info here.

Cloud Cult: Here and Back Again

Sing, Siren– and tell the tale of Cloud Cult, a band worth seeking. Though labeled as an alternative rock band, or sometimes called an “orchestral indie rock collective”, the Minnesota-native band is over 20 years old. My introduction, though, is very recent. I heard lead singer and songwriter Craig Minowa interviewed on the On Being with Krista Tippett podcast (episode “Music Is Medicine”); after listening to their latest album The Seeker and learning that Cloud Cult is having two concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra next April 7&8, 2018 (how cool!) – I am convinced they are a hybrid progressive rock band.

The Seeker is a visceral experience, starting slowly with “Living in Awe” and opening up in “To The Great Unknown”. Can we find humor in the cynic? Can we find faith in the Great Unknown? The sounds are upbeat and the lyrics challenging: “God gave you brains, so don’t go drowning in your own thinking. God gave you hands so you can pick up your broken pieces. God gave you feet so you can find your own way home.

“Days to Remember”, “Chromatica” and “Come Home” are transition songs, mostly instrumental. They take you by the hand and lead you deeper into the journey – “the water’s warm, and the sun is shining; I just want to spend some time with you.” You almost feel the warmth, if you close your eyes, and appreciate the convergence of multiple voices with a varied combination of guitar, drums, violin, trumpet, cello, trombone, bass guitar, keyboard, and French horn in each song.

But this album shivers. The sixth and seventh songs of the album– “No Hell” and “Everything You Thought You Had”– are the middle of the road in this journey. “Time Machine Invention” is my favorite song of this album, serving a poppy beat and heartfelt story of a not-so-bright inventor who’s made up his mind to travel time: “I waste so much time a worryin’ I forgot to live my life; I’m not going anywhere ‘til I’m back to where it was we were before. I don’t need anything except always needing just a little more. ” Humanity’s searching in life is often “just a little more.”

The end of the album’s song titles set a descending tone: “The Pilgrimage”, “Three Storms Until You Learn To Float”, “You Were Never Alone”, “Prelude to an End” and “Though the Ages”.

The repeated theme of “faith in the Great Unknown” is what propels the Seeker of this album. But it is unclear: is the narrator or the listener the Seeker? That is a beautiful line never crossed; a mystery to embrace.

If life is a story we’re meant to live through,
then both me and you are the pages.
I’ll tell you a tale, and most of it’s true,
you see, I came here for you through the ages.

We are all on this walk, this memorizing loop across deserts and rainbows and streets and volcanos. Cloud Cult’s music is intimate enough to engage intellectually and broad enough to include its audience. The crescendo at the end of the album, after following a steady stream, felt like an enlightenment. Not a proper ending, tied in a bow– no, an awakening of understanding and senses.

On a side note, I love the line “There’s a reason God is doG backwards, we must chase the tail.”

It makes sense that tail would be spelled like a dog’s tail, but it’s also a play on “tale”, and the image of each of us chasing our own story is a glorious one.

soundstreamsunday: “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers

billwithers.jpgWhere Randy Newman and John Prine brought hyper-literate character study to the singer-songwriter genre, often inhabiting in the first person the figures they constructed in song, Bill Withers went for the emotional jugular, unabashed, and if there was any character being studied it was him.  Withers’ warm, supple voice, steeped in rhythm and blues and country, was his listeners’ point of entry, a vehicle in and of itself for delivering the musical goods.  Born in 1938, by the time he released his first record Withers was 33, had spent a decade in the service, and was working a factory job so soul-killing that a guitar and an empty notebook seemed as good a possibility as any for a better life.  His age helped him make records glowing with self-assured performances, and he became an unlikely pop star.  The hits came with that first record and kept coming through the 1970s.  By the time he did the unthinkable and retired in 1985, Withers’ legacy included some of the best American songs ever recorded: “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Lovely Day,” “Just the Two of Us,” and “Lean on Me.”

“Lean on Me” is kind of like “The Weight” by the Band — it’s almost hard to believe that an earthly person actually wrote a song so integral to the late 20th-century American experience.  There is a grandeur to it, musically, lyrically, and sentimentally, that, even in its ubiquity, still shines.  It hit number one in 1972, but didn’t do all the heavy lifting to raise 1972’s Still Bill to number four, packed as that album is with great songs and arrangements popping with gospel funk dynamics.  In its album context, closing side one of the LP, “Lean on Me” is a beautiful respite from the personal strife suggested in “Lonely Town (Lonely Street),” “Who is He (and What is He to You)?” and “Use Me.”  The song evens a delicate emotional balance, and as an affirmation of simple friendship, it’s the finest kind of pop music.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “Cowboy” by Randy Newman

randynewman1.jpegRandy Newman makes diamonds.  You can feel the pressure and time and heat that go into his songs, creating the effect of lush spaciousness in tunes typically clocking in under three minutes.  His eagerness towards satire is a product of his style, immersive first-person character sketches delivering broad social commentary and comedy in lines simply phrased, acidic, and wrought with compassion.  His skill at delivering his own songs is often eclipsed by his influence as a songwriter and his work as a hired gun — “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” from his 1968 self-titled debut has been covered something like 75 times, and his scores and songs for films are in themselves a major achievement — and yet his unmistakable voice, coupled with arrangements measured to plumb the intellectual and emotional depths, carry such weight that as a performer of his own music he’s peerless.

“Cowboy” is from the ’68 debut, and in its brief stay conjures Dvorak and Copland, the film music of Newman’s uncles Alfred and Lionel and Emil, and a particularly nuanced form of American songwriting that was then just taking shape and was particular to Los Angeles.  It leans heavily on cinematic structure and the idea of music as a vehicle for a script’s emotional power.  Consider the slightness of the lyrics:

Cold gray buildings where a hill should be
Steel and concrete closing in on me
City faces haunt the places
I used to roam
Cowboy, cowboy – can’t run, can’t hide
Too late to fight now – too tired to try
Wind that once blew free
Now scatters dust to the sky
Cowboy, cowboy – can’t run, can’t hide
Too late to fight now – too tired to try

In contrast to much of Newman’s work, “Cowboy” doesn’t contain the erudite wordplay and swing he shared with Mose Allison and it doesn’t betray his deep roots in New Orleans.  It’s instead a kind of beautiful dirge of disillusion, a Brave New World Symphony where the fantasy of open spaces bumps up hard against the darker angels of human nature.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “Into White” by Cat Stevens

catstevens2 - Edited

The best records — and I guess by “record” I mean the standard late 20th-century long player — feel like one long song.  But I don’t think this sense comes just from the record itself, although certainly most musical artists search for unity in their work.  Just as much it comes from the listener, the tricks of memory, emotions of sound and a tuned mind’s expectations.  I often hear musicians say that the meanings of their songs are ultimately as much up to their listeners as to themselves, and this, I deeply believe, is true:  We are not a raggle-taggle bunch of music nerds, we are the song’s second composers.

Composing the life of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam, Steven Demetre Georgiou has taken a long, and at times fraught, road towards himself.  His journey, written into his music early as if he was an oracle, reads like a movie script: young man finds himself an English pop star in the late 1960s and doesn’t care for it; reinvents himself as a singer-songwriter and becomes a pop star again, this time worldwide, despite his reluctance; has a life-changing experience in the late 70s that spurs a religious conversion and exit from the stage; finds himself in the center of controversy 10 years later based on his religion’s teachings — there is regret, denial, and heartbreak for him and for his fans, his co-composers, who so treasure the peaceable and gentle music music he once made; seasons pass; twenty years on he starts making records again.

A remarkable, and remarkably human, life, full of success and missteps.  It’s all there in the song “Into White,” from Stevens’ fourth LP, Tea for the Tillerman (1970).  But the same could be said of any of the songs from the three albums flanking that record, Mona Bone Jakon (1970), Teaser and the Firecat (1971), and Catch Bull at Four (1972).  With ex-Yardbird Paul Samwell-Smith producing and guitarist Alun Davies providing detailed flourishes to Stevens’ simple strumming, these albums largely defined a genre in the early 1970s, their consistency of sound — acoustic, breathing, mostly stripped of effects except for exquisitely executed mic placement and recording — matched by Stevens’ lyrics of personal searching and that incomparable voice.  “Into White” is, in Stevens’ own recounting, a song about color, and how when the color wheel is spun it turns white.  He turns the effect into poetry, surely, much as one might expect from the man who could make such an album and also paint an LP cover that so deftly illustrates his own music.  The images he makes in the song are ripe with Green, Brown, Yellow, Blue, Red, and Black, as he renders this waltz-time world a temporal illusion, with “everything emptying into white.”  Youth and wisdom and a turning universe reside here.

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