Wednesday, December 23, 2015
Shawn Colvin - Uncovered is a Beautiful Set of Covers, Plus New Releases From the Anderson Ponty Band, Tony Bennett & Bill Charlap, CHVRCHES and More, A Particularly Good New Release Friday
Photo Courtesy of Shawn Colvin
I'm not exaggerating when I say that for every article on this site, there are ten more that needed to be written but time wasn't available. One of the nice aspects of Spotify is that I can listen to every new album on the day of release. Every week I go through the list of new releases and one Friday in late September there were a number of items that caught my eye. So, what to write about.
Fire it Up, the final album that Joe Cocker recorded before his death in 2014, finally got it's US release. Cocker's amazing voice is in fine form, but the choice of material and production did not make this the best way to remember Joe. The album that most befits his memory is Heart & Soul (2004 UK/2005 US). That had everything you could want from a Joe Cocker album, complete with four of the best session guitarists I've ever heard, plus a Cocker classic version of U2's "One".
The Jeff Lorber Fusion released Step it Up, another solid and enjoyable groove from this Philadelphia born jazz keyboardist. When I heard Uncovered by Shawn Colvin I knew that it had to be in the article. I was also excited by a new project in which Jon Anderson of Yes joined forces with violinist Jean Luc Ponty to form the AndersonPonty Band. There were also new ones from Tony Bennett and CHVRCHES; I knew I had to write about these too. So, we begin.
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Shawn Colvin - Uncovered
I'm a sucker for a seventies covers album and since Uncovered is drawn mostly from the seventies, it really hits my sweet spot. This makes the third such album that I've written about this year; Nelly McKay and Diana Krall each did their own covers albums. The early seventies were such a fertile period for music that these three records really only scratch the surface. I've been listening to Colvin ever since hearing Vin Scelsa play the demo of "Shotgun Down the Avalanche" on his Idiot's Delight radio show long before she released her debut album Steady On in 1989. Uncovered is actually Colvin's second covers album; she recorded Cover Girl in 1994.
Uncovered is one of the most enjoyable listening experiences you can have, with a terrific selection of material performed with a simple production style that puts the beauty of the song and Colvin's vocal performance center stage. Everything gets a relaxed treatment of bass, drums, acoustic guitar, and most importantly, pedal steel. Once belonging exclusively to old school country music, the pedal steel guitar as used here, makes for the most ear friendly and relaxing style of music and it doesn't necessarily seem country at all.
1. Tougher Than the Rest - When Bruce Springsteen disbanded the E Street Band and released the solo album Tunnel of Love in 1987, his songwriting raised the bar to a whole new level. This is a perfect choice with which to open the album. We start with just voice and acoustic guitar with some light pedal steel.
2. American Tune - Paul Simon is one of our best living songwriters and "American Tune" is one of his best songs. Colvin sounds right at home in this simple arrangement for voice and acoustic.
3. Baker Street - David Crosby guests on this lovely version of "Baker Street". The essence of this song is exposed by the absence of that giant sax riff on the Jerry Rafferty original, which you don't even miss here.
4. Hold On - The combination of acoustic and pedal steel guitars is just perfect for this song. Tom Waits is another of our greatest living American songwriters.
5. I Used To Be A King - The opening chords on acoustic, with the gentle lead on pedal steel, instantly evoke the feel of Graham Nash's 1971 solo album Songs for Beginners from whence this song originated.
6. Private Universe - Being that this song comes from Crowded House's 1993 album Together Alone, this must be the exception that proves the rule (I don't profess to know what that phrase means exactly, but I've always wanted to write it). Since it's been pointed out to me that this album begins with a song from 1987, all I will say is that this album is focused on the seventies, but there are exceptions. That said, this is a fine reading of "Private Universe".
7. Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away - This is a delightful, if unexpected, choice to cover from another master of American songwriting, Stevie Wonder, from his Fulfillingness First Finale album. I see what she's doing here; it's not specifically a seventies album so much as it a survey of our great songwriters. Either way, it totally works for me.
8. Gimme A Little Sign - Although Brenton Wood's 1967 hit was first, my thought upon hearing this was the 1989 cover by Marti Jones and Don Dixon. Marc Cohn guests on this tasty rendering on acoustic with a perfectly light hand on the drums and pedal steel.
9. Acadian Driftwood - When I was an FM DJ in 1976, this was my favorite cut to play from the Band's Northern Lights-Southern Cross album. The rhythmic acoustic guitar perfectly compliments Colvin's voice.
10. Lodi - Sometimes I think John Fogerty does not get the credit he deserves as one of our greatest American songwriters. "Lodi" was not one of Creedence Clearwater Revival's many great singles, but rather a gem from the Green River album. It gets the ideal combination of electric and acoustic guitars with bass and drums. I love that this song is on here.
11. Not A Drop of Rain - This Robert Earl Keen tune gets an evocative rendering with just an electrified acoustic guitar and voice.
12. 'Till I Get it Right - The album closes beautifully with the nicest pedal steel arrangement on this unexpected Tammy Wynette cover. It comes from her album My Man from 1972.
Colvin has given us a well chosen set of some of the finest songs ever written. She is in excellent voice and the production is so laid back that this album plays as comfortably as a favorite pair of broken-in jeans.
Listen to the trailer for Uncovered
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The AndersonPonty Band - Better Late Than Never
The AndersonPonty Band (APB) is a new project formed by violinist Jean Luc Ponty and Yes' singer, songwriter, and vocalist Jon Anderson. Ponty is a master of the violin and the electric violin and he has performed solo and with others in the fields of jazz and rock since the '70s. Yes did their best work between 1969 and 1980, including a phenomenal run of four years starting in 1971, during which they quite literally defined the term "progressive rock". Yes was so intensely creative and melodically accomplished that they left a legacy that was quite impossible to compete with. Musically, the closest thing I can compare it to would be the concertos of Vivaldi or Handel. Not that they didn't try, over the 35 years since the seventies, the dozen or so musicians that passed through the Yes lineup have been aggregated in various combinations which toured the classic Yes material and tried at times to record new compositions. Of all of these musicians' solo careers, Jon Anderson's is by far the most interesting. I love that Anderson constantly writes new material and takes on new musical challenges.
The new album, Better Late Than Never, is divided half and half between new original compositions and well known Yes songs. Initially, it seemed strange that the APB would cover Yes, especially since anytime Anderson sings it sounds like Yes, his voice is so uniquely identifiable. But, since Anderson was the songwriting core of Yes (along with bassist Chris Squire) he has every right to record his songs whenever and wherever he chooses. Great songs like this work in every style and arrangement; I once saw Anderson perform Yes songs solo with only an acoustic guitar and it was compelling. The APB covers mostly sound different than the originals, but there are a couple that sound close. I think the real calling card of the APB is their new original material, mostly written by Anderson and Ponty. These songs all sound good and the performances are top-notch. In addition to the songwriting, what made Yes great was that every musician was a virtuoso. The same could be said of the APB, especially Ponty's violin. I love the guitar work of Jamie Dunlap, the keyboards of Wally Minko, and the rhythm section of Baron Browne on bass with Rayford Griffin on drums. And, don't forget those glorious Anderson vocals; imagine Yes with a violin (check out "Owner Of A Lonely Heart" below).
Over the years, I often search out new music that gets the "prog" label, and I must say that there hasn't been that much to get fired up about until I listened to Better Late Than Never by the AndersonPonty Band.
Listen to "Owner Of A Lonely Heart"
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Tony Bennett & Bill Charlap - The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern
For the past twenty years or so, Tony Bennett seems not to be getting any older, he is getting better. Just when you think Bennett could not be any more at the top of his game, he puts out another record and somehow ups the ante. Last year's Cheek to Cheek, a duet with Lady Gaga, could not have been more perfect. The album featured a set of well chosen numbers from the Great American Songbook, impeccably sung and beautifully played; it was a full production, swinging big band with stop on a dime precision.
Okay, so what does he do for a follow-up? On the new album, The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern, he dials it back to a personal session with Bill Charlap on piano and the simplest production with a light touch on the drums and upright bass. Put this record on and be instantly transported to the most intimate studio. Bennett's vocals are just dripping with artistic integrity, musical history, and downright cool. As for Charlap's piano, it feels like the spirit of Jerome Kern is in the room. How did we get to this? What follows is from the press release.
"The Songs of Jerome Kern is an appreciation of the genius of Jerome David Kern, one of the 20th century's most important American composers of musical theater and popular music. Jerome Kern was a major force on Broadway and in Hollywood musicals in a career that spanned more than four decades. He expanded on earlier musical theater traditions, from vaudeville to operetta, to embrace new dance rhythms, syncopation and jazz progressions and helped invent the modern musical template.
Playing alongside Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap on The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern are pianist Renee Rosnes (on the piano duet pieces), Peter Washington (bass) and Kenny Washington (drums). Unrelated, though sharing the same last name, Peter and Kenny have been performing with Bill Charlap for nearly two decades and pianist Renee Rosnes has been Charlap's life partner for close to 10 years.
With more than 700 Jerome Kern compositions to choose from, the set list for The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern is a distillation of essential highlights from a boundless catalog. With these interpretations of some of Jerome Kern's finest songs, Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap offer a definitive introduction to Kern's music while providing a deep understanding of the abiding and universal qualities of these songs."
Listen to "The Last Time I Saw Paris"
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CHVRCHES - Every Open Eye
Considering my infinity for bands and artists from Scotland, it's a mystery how Glasgow band CHVRCHES's debut album, The Bones Of What You Believe, escaped my attention when it was released in 2013. It only sold 500,000 copies and they only spent the next two years touring and playing 364 shows including every major festival on the planet. When their all important second album, Every Open Eye, was released September 25th, I listened to it immediately. Their sound is defined by the appealing girl group style vocals of Lauren Mayberry and the synthesizers of Martin Doherty and Iain Cook. Doherty and Cook also sing and Mayberry also plays occasional synthesizer.
Listening to Every Open Eye, their devotion to synth-pop is readily apparent. I would call this synth-pop with an edge; it has a persistent, high powered rhythm section. CHVRCHES' label Glassnote Records describes their music thusly, "Musically, Every Open Eye seeks to do more with less. To make big sounds without racking up endless tracks within Cubase sessions. To make something intense and urgent and visceral, using the basic tools of melody, rhythm and arrangement rather than the mentality that more is more. Sonically, Every Open Eye develops CHVRCHES signature style, juxtaposing the light and the dark, creating their own brand of twisted pop music that uniquely merges the organic with the electronic, molding sounds and ideas forged over two years on the road into an electronic-pop record with a heart."
Jon Dolan, writing for Rolling Stone, says "They're not big on verse-chorus structure, going instead for roiling anthems that start big and only get grander: "Clearest Blue" is Depeche Mode's "Just Can't Get Enough" as an elephantine EDM high-five. All that open space gives singer Lauren Mayberry loads of room to celebrate the power of post-post-breakup freedom ("Bury it and rise above!" she sings on "Bury It"), almost as if the fun of leaving fools in the dirt is better than love itself."
Listen to "Leave A Trace"