Thursday, June 30, 2016

Chrissi Poland - Waking Hour, Her Brilliant New Album Is A Thing of Beauty, Updated With Live Video From The Album Release Show At Joe's Pub, NYC, 6/22/2016

Photos courtesy of Chrissi Poland

Chrissi Poland is a consummate singer, songwriter, and musician who has just released her third album, Waking Hour, with a release show at Joe's Pub on June 22nd. Waking Hour presents eight superb new Poland originals recorded with the cream of New York's session musicians, co-produced by Chrissi and Jamie Siegel (Joss Stone, Lauren Hill, Blondie and Sting).

Since the 2010 release of her first album, Songs From The Concrete, she's been mighty busy. She joined the Scissor Sisters as a backing vocalist and spent about three years circling the globe playing live and also recording with them. In 2013, Chrissi released her second record, The Reckless Ones EP. In 2014, she formed a bossa nova band, Bluebirds of Paradise, with singer-songwriter Ari Hest (now her husband), releasing a single, "Snow", for the 2014 holiday season. In 2015, the Bluebirds wrote, recorded, and released a six song EP, In a Night.

Somewhere among all of that she found time to perform in a pop/theatrical show in Las Vegas, to write the Waking Hour album, perform with Bette Midler, appear occasionally with jazz guitarist Vinny Valentino, to sing with the Fab Faux and with Blood, Sweats, and Tears. She has had a longstanding relationship with singer Sam Moore (Sam & Dave), to sing with him wherever and whenever he performs, including a memorable appearance at one of the 2009 inaugural balls for President Obama, which also included Sting and Elvis Costello. Chrissi has toured the eastern US, the UK and Europe, and the Caribbean. She has opened for the likes of Susan Vega, Tower of Power, and Blood, Sweat, and Tears.

Poland describes her time in Las Vegas, a move that proved most fortuitous as she not only found the inspiration to write the songs that became Waking Hour, but she also worked there with Jamie Siegel who went on to co-produce the album.
"So I decided to take a gig in Las Vegas last year. take a break from living in NYC and try something different. When I arrived, I promptly freaked out.

...This wasn’t like going on tour. This was moving to a new place, not knowing anyone, not really understanding what my gig was, all in a city that I had professed to hate for years …not being the champagne poppin club type. ...This was November of 2013.

And then a funny thing happened… I started to find my footing, make some friends. I found an apartment up near Red Rock National Park and was stunned by the desert beauty every day. My creative ideas were realized in the show, and it began to take shape. By New Year’s Eve, I had found a routine, a new day to day life, and I was enjoying crisp, lovely southern Nevada weather, while the East Coast had already begun to suffer under winter’s oppressive thumb.

...I started writing these songs in January of 2014. For the next nine months, I would continue writing the songs that would become this new record and head back to the East Coast to start tracking at the beginning of 2015" (PledgeMusic).

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While she prepared for her album release show at Joe's Pub, Chrissi took time out to answer a little Q & A, regarding the new album, for this article.

M & M: Let me say first that your new album, Waking Hour, is a mighty terrific piece of work. Reading your description of the recording process, considering that all the songs are new originals of yours and listening to the end result, it's abundantly clear that this project was a true labor of love. Now that the album's all done and ready to present to the world, what is foremost in your thoughts?
CP: Of course I'm super excited for people to hear the whole record, and I hope that the music finds it's way to many ears and hearts around the world. I hope it speaks to people, that's my foremost thought right now.

M & M: In retrospect, did you enjoy recording at Mission Sound in Brooklyn? Talk a little bit about the process of co-production with Jamie Siegel.
CP: Our day at Mission was great. We went in there specifically to track the drums and bass. I ended up using the grand piano there for some arrangements on "Dawn" and "Silhouette", and Oli Rockberger came in for some B3 organ. After we wrapped up there, the rest of the production was done in Jamie's small studio in Manhattan. We spent many days together there laying down the rest of the record. I wanted to make something that sounded modern yet classic. Jamie really understood the sounds I wanted to use for arrangements I'd written, so laying down the parts was easy. Recording all the vocals at J Rock was really great as well, I got the sounds I wanted and the vibe really comes across as warm, pretty nice on the ears.

M & M: So, which track is your favorite? Just kidding. Would you make a comment on each track and I will offer a few comments or questions as we go?

Tracklist: To hear the album, click track name. To see the live performance at the album release show 6/22/2016, click "Live at Joe's Pub".

1. Dawn     Live at Joe's Pub
M & M: Right up front I have to say that although the pure pop of Reckless Ones was thrilling, I love that you've taken a more soulful approach to this album, blending genres such as rock, pop, soul, folk, and more as only you can. In one of your PledgeMusic updates, you teased the audience to guess who the choir is that appears on "Dawn". Is that all you?
CP: I really love the soul that comes across in "Dawn", thank you! Singing that song makes me feel emotional, so I know I tapped into something very real there. As for the choir, as much as I loved the idea of getting a whole group in to record, time and money were a priority to save, so I laid a good deal of the parts down myself and doubled them. I tried to change the tone of my voice to create the illusion of different people, but I needed a male voice to really counter the tones. So I had Ari Hest come in and do a few parts and lots of doubles, using different characters to his voice as well. I love how it came out, it really sounds like a choir! Just from two vocalists.

2. Why Lie    Live at Joe's Pub
M & M: Singer-songwriters draw a lot of songwriting inspiration from personal experiences. I would think that this cuts both ways on Waking Hour, most songs coming down on the good side of love and relationships.
CP: Yes, I agree. This was one of the earlier songs I wrote for the record, I wrote the music first and really liked the groove. The story is bits and pieces of past loves gone awry, and moving past it all. I love singing this one.

3. Shaky Man    Live at Joe's Pub
M & M: A lot of Waking Hour, but especially this track, has the quality of sounding both brand new and at the same time recalling those great soul singles of the sixties.
CP: This song speaks the most to that, I agree! I'm a sucker for that Stax '60's guitar...when the "hit" is on 2 (beat two, as us music nerds say), I get all happy inside. Matt Beck nailed it with the guitar parts and the sounds.

4. Silhouette    Live at Joe's Pub
M & M: Another gem of sixties soul-pop circa 2016. Some super strong rhythm and I just love that Wurlitzer organ in combination with the piano.
CP: I'll be releasing a music video for this song next. I love the production on it, and how it sounds sort of like a hot summer day to me. Lyrically it's about shedding your skin and stepping into whatever's next, all the while knowing that your past somehow stays a part of you.

5. Lonely Light    Live at Joe's Pub
CP: Most of these songs I wrote while living in Las Vegas for almost a year. I came home late one night to my house and took notice of the light I had left on, so I wouldn't come home to a dark place. I sat down that night and wrote Lonely Light, which takes on a deeper meaning as the song goes on.

6. Angel Weep For Me    Live at Joe's Pub
M & M: "Angel Weep For Me" is the one song I've seen you do every single time that I've seen you perform live. I thought I had heard about every possible interpretation you could do on this song, but this version sounds totally new. Chrissi, you've done it again.
CP: Thanks so much, Bill. I know you've been there to see the evolution of this song. When I recorded it for Songs From The Concrete, I was never fully happy with the final product. I thought the tempo was too slow, and it needed better arrangement. I wanted to give this song the proper platform it deserves, and I think it's finally happened.

7. Airplane    Live at Joe's Pub
M & M: I'm wondering who this could be about. I think this album disproves the old theory that the best material comes from a broken heart.
CP: All I'll say about it is that I wrote it as a relationship of mine was starting to get more serious, and I felt that I truly wanted to be with this person. It worked out.

8. Far From Love    Live at Joe's Pub
M & M: This one has some dramatic rhythm with some even more dramatic vocals. The lyrics provide the album's title and suggest that there's more going on than meets the eye.
CP: This was the last song I wrote for Waking Hour. I wanted something that expressed a sentiment about the world, society. Something that people could interpret their own way and felt powerful. There are parts of it that almost feel hypnotic to me.

M & M: Overall, I've got to say that the production and sound quality on this record is extraordinarily great. The songs are very strong and your vocals are awesome. This sounds like your best album yet.
CP: Thank you.. I do feel like it's my best work yet, for sure. I hope I say that every time I make a new record.

M & M: Have you played any drums lately? Do you still perform at drum camp every year?
CP: I play cajon pretty often on my shows, and sometimes on others' shows as well. The Drum Fantasy Camp is indeed happening again this year, with a slew of all stars, I'll be there performing!

M & M: You've been beautifully eloquent in your writings about Prince and Michael Jackson. What other musicians would you say are at that level of inspiration to you?
CP: Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Aretha Franklin, and Carol King are top tier for sure. There are many others, but these are way high on the list. Prince's death in particular shook me deeply, I still feel a sense of unease that he's no longer in the physical world, doing what he does. The depth of Prince is all other artists, performers, writers and producers enveloped into one human. We were blessed to have him.

M & M: You just completed some successful touring in Europe and the UK, tell us about your touring plans for the coming months.
CP: I'll be doing some shows in the states, all dates will be on my website. There's a possibility of Europe again in the fall, and we're already looking at festivals for next year.

M & M: What other projects are you planning for the rest of this year and next?
CP: I've got a few things in the works, including recording new songs with Ari Hest for our group Bluebirds of Paradise. And I'll be writing for my next record as well. I have a bunch of new songs that I'm excited to record, and a covers project that will be fun to tackle. Oh, and always finding time to stand on my head now and then.

Chrissi often posts her yoga poses (photo by Chrissi Poland).

Watch the music video for "Shaky Man".

Chrissi had some superb session musicians from the NY area play on Waking Hour.

Chrissi Poland - Vocals, keyboards on all tracks, grand piano on track 1 & 5, cajon and shaker on track 1
Matt Beck - acoustic and electric guitars, lap steel on all tracks except 7
Oli Rockberger - B3 organ on tracks 2, 3 & 5, keyboard on track 2
Will Lee - bass on tracks 1, 4, 6 & 7
Matt Rubano - bass on tracks 2, 3 & 5
Gene Lake - drums on tracks 2, 3 & 5
Doug Yowell - drums on tracks 1, 4 & 6
Ari Hest - additional vocals on tracks 1 & 6
Jamie Siegel - additional guitar on track 8

"At the end of the tracking day, we took a little group photo. From left to right, Gene Lake, me, Matt Rubano, and producer Jamie Siegel. I’m a bit giddy because Gene is a long time favorite drummer of mine, and I’m kind of freaking out excited right here." (PledgeMusic)

All Songs Written By Chrissi Poland (c)2016 BMI
Produced by Jamie Siegel and Chrissi Poland
Arranged by Chrissi Poland
Executive Producer - Greg Williamson

Engineered and Mixed by Jamie Siegel at Mission Sound and JRock Studios, NYC
Mastered by Scott Hull at Masterdisk, NYC
Album Artwork, Layout by Martin Rivas
Album Photography by Sandrine Lee

Bonus videos: On June 22nd, Chrissi took an all-star band of musicians and singers and performed an album release show at Joe's Pub in New York City. It was a fabulous performance of the Waking Hour album in it's entirety, in track order. After all the thank you's and shout out's, Chrissi treated the crowd to three songs from her Reckless Ones EP. Concluding with an amazing version of "Possible".

09. Tether Me (Live at Joe's Pub)
10. Love Fool (Live at Joe's Pub)
11. Possible (Live at Joe's Pub)

Chrissi Poland's Website
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Monday, June 13, 2016

New Music Friday 6/03/2016, First Listen To Releases from William Bell, Judy Collins & Ari Hest, Tinsley Ellis, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Max Jury, The Lonely Heartstring Band, Brad Mehldau Trio, Maren Morris, Paul Simon, C.W. Stoneking, Tegan & Sara, and Train

Photo of Judy Collins and Ari Hest courtesy of Shore Fire Media

My normal process is to read the new release list every Friday, mark the ones that I'm interested in hearing, then I listen to them in their entirety over the next several days, then if there's something that I really like a lot, I will write about it if time allows. Every week I read at least the first one fifty items on the new release list, checking out a few tracks each of up to one third of them to see what they sound like. If I mark half a dozen albums to listen to, that's a pretty good week. This week I picked twelve albums for a first listen, the most ever I think, since I started using Spotify to audition new releases. This seems like such a good week, I thought I'd offer my first reaction after one spin. The best album of the week? There were two that stood out and their excellence was clear on one listen: The collaboration of Judy Collins & Ari Hest, and the latest from Tinsley Ellis. The debut from The Lonely Heartstring Band, the new one from William Bell, and Maren Morris' debut came close.

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William Bell - This Is Where I Live: William Bell has a strong and appealing voice that sounds somewhere between Arthur Alexander and Robert Cray. It sounds so good in fact, that you would never suspect that he was in his seventies. Bell was once considered an icon of soul and blues at the original Stax Records of Memphis and he co-wrote the classic "Born Under A Bad Sign" (covered by Cream among many others). Bell has a first rate band backing him with excellent production by John Leventhal and a good set of songs. All but two tracks were co-written by Leventhal with songwriting partners Bell, Marc Cohn, and Rosanne Cash in various combinations. One track was written by Jesse Winchester and a new version of "Born Under a Bad Sign" (written by Bell and Booker T. Jones). Amidst the other new releases on Friday, this was a breathe of fresh air and when played in its entirety, it does not disappoint.
Listen to the lead track "The Three Of Me", "Born Under a Bad Sign" and the title track "This Is Where I Live".

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Judy Collins & Ari Hest - Silver Skies Blue: I first heard Judy Collins in 1968 when she had her first enormous hit doing Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now". Over the last several years I've come to know and love the music of singer-songwriter Ari Hest. Hest's association with Collins began several years ago when he was the opening act for a part of her tour and she took a liking to one of his songs. Collins frequently invites Hest to join her on stage to sing with her, including her Live in Ireland album and DVD. They co-wrote and sang "Strangers Again", the title track of Collins' duets album. Silver Skies Blue is a full-on collaboration where Collins and Hest co-wrote the songs and shared the vocals as well. It is quite remarkable that Collins' voice doesn't sound any different to me now than it did in '68, and there is considerable vocal chemistry when she sings with Hest whose voice has been described as velvet. The mostly acoustic production is supplemented by some sweet lead guitar and piano. The songwriting is first rate, too, and you will enjoy the two of them singing alone, together, and trading lines and verses.
Listen to the title track "Silver Skies Blue", "Slow Burn" and "Let You In". Watch the music video of "Strangers Again" (below).

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Tinsley Ellis - Red Clay Soul: This album is so good that I can't figure out how I've not run across Tinsley Ellis before. In any case, I'm glad to hear this Georgia-based blues rocker now. Red Clay Soul is a potent combination of soul, blues, and rock. The appeal of Ellis' voice is only exceeded by his lead guitar work, which is amazing. Every track on this album has lots of delectable lead guitar. This album was recorded in Nashville and produced by Ellis and keyboard player Kevin McKendree. The other backing musicians are also top notch. It was hard to pick tracks from this album because they're all so good that you really need to buy or stream this record to hear the whole thing. One track you must hear now is "Estero Noche", an instrumental that is all lead guitar with a melody so beautiful I am certain that Carlos Santana would be proud to have this track on one of his records.
Listen to "Estero Noche", "All I Think About" and "Givin' You Up".

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Michael Franti & Spearhead - Soulrocker: I've crossed paths with the career of Michael Franti & Spearhead a number of times including listening to one of his full length concerts on the radio a few years ago. Franti is an eminently likable frontman and his band plays a most agreeable mix of soul, rock, hip-hop, jazz, and reggae. So I jumped at the chance to hear his latest, Soulrocker. The thirteen tracks are all tightly written, almost pop-rock. Considering this group's songwriting and performing skills this would not in itself be a bad thing, but what bothers me about Soulrocker is that about half the tracks incorporate EDM (Electronic Dance Music). For me, the synthesizers and sequencers rob the music of much of its soulfulness. However, Franti's favorite themes of love and of social consciousness run deep in this record. I genuinely like Soulrocker, I just wish they had left the EDM out of those seven tracks.
Listen to the lead track "Crazy For You" and the EDM influenced "Get Myself To Saturday". Watch the music video of "Once A Day" (below).

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Max Jury - Max Jury: On Sunday, June 5th, I posted the following to my FaceBook page:
This morning I listened to the debut album by a singer/songwriter named Max Jury. His piano based ballads were good and all but when I just read what some publicist came up with, I had to laugh.
"A soft-voiced young piano playing singer/songwriter out of Des Moines, Iowa, Max Jury has struck a rich seam of pure, musical gold. His self-titled debut album is a classic in the making. Think of the bruised Americana of Gram Parsons, the rich piano storytelling of Randy Newman and Tom Waits, the lush melodicism of Paul McCartney and rough edged gospel heart of the Rolling Stones playing country ballads. And then trace a fragile link to the tender soul of Curtis Mayfield and Al Green all the way to the 21st century beats of Alicia Keys and D'Angelo. Weave together a magical tapestry of 70s Laurel Canyon acoustic confessionals and 21st Century Neo Soul and breathe it all out in a whisper of breathless emotion. Max Jury is a thing of rare beauty."
I can't think of any new artist who could live up to that kind of hype. Still, the Max Jury album is worth your time.
Listen to the lead track and first single "Numb" (or watch the music video below) and "Dreams".

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The Lonely Heartstring Band - Deep Waters: I was about three tracks into listening to The Lonely Heartstring Band debut when I thought to myself that even though I love both folk and country music, I generally draw the line at bluegrass. However, there are exceptions and since this band is comprised of some of the best musicians I've heard and they have some very agreeable vocals, by track six I was totally hooked and ready to say that I love this album. Then along came track seven, which knocked my socks off. Maybe the timing came into play, I'll detail my disappointment with the new Paul Simon album (which also came out this week) below, but this version of "Graceland" is so good that I would considerate it in a league with the original. This album nicely varies the tempos; there are some tender ballads and there are some barnburners. They even breathed new life into "If I Had A Hammer." I was prepared to appreciate The Lonely Heartstring Band but now I can't wait to see them live.
Listen to "Sophia", "Graceland" and "Big Bruce". Watch the music video of "The Tide" (below).

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Brad Mehldau Trio - Blues and Ballads: This album couldn't be more different from everything else in this article. This is pure jazz, unhurried and articulate. With all the pop, rock, country, blues, folk, etc. that I've been listening to lately, it took me a good five minutes into track one to decompress and tune into the slower pace of this piano trio. It's a good thing that the first track was almost eleven minutes long, and even still I must admit that I didn't immediately recognize "Since I Fell For You". In fact, there was only one tune on the album that I did recognize the first time through, the Beatles' "And I Love Her". It's a terrific rendition, Mehldau with his ultra creative piano playing in and around that familiar melody, accompanied by Larry Grenadier on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums. I've seen and heard Grenadier play many times backing his wife Rebecca Martin. I very much enjoyed this album in its entirety. It's a nice place to escape to, a respite from the fast pace of the world we live in.
Listen to the lead track "Since I Fell For You" and "And I Love Her".

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Maren Morris - Hero: Maren Morris and her single "My Church" have been the recipient of so much advance buzz that her debut has become one of the most anticipated releases of the year. Jon Caramanica, writing in the NY Times, compared her to "Kacey Musgraves, without the awww-shucks shrug." He continued, "Profanities — well, really just one — are sprinkled throughout “Hero,” this 26-year-old singer and songwriter’s outstanding major label debut album, and perhaps the canniest country record in recent memory." The Musgraves comparison is apt, however I'd place her somewhere between Kacey and Gretchen Wilson. If "My Church" brings Wilson to mind, then "I Could Use A Love Song" reminds of Musgraves. Hero was released last Friday to a flood of good reviews. On much of the album, Morris' vocals are multi-tracked, plus the songs are so lyrical that she is singing most of the time. Even though it lacks the usual hallmarks of country music (pedal steel and fiddle), this is not bland country rock. Morris has that big Texas voice and the songs win you over one after another. These songs are well positioned to cross over into pop and rock. Deep into the album, tracks 8 & 9 open up that wall of sound with some very nice guitar-based tunes that have single tracked vocals and both are becoming my early favorites. I'm especially fond of "I Wish I Was", which has a nice simple arrangement and lyrics that give the album it's name. Maren Morris co-wrote and co-produced every track. Hero is a bold, smart, and auspicious debut.
Listen to "My Church" (or watch the music video below), "I Could Use A Love Song" and "I Wish I Was".

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Paul Simon - Stranger To Stranger: My first thought after listening to Paul Simon's thirteenth solo album was, "Where's the melody?" There are tons of interesting rhythms suggesting that Simon has thoroughly incorporated African musics into his songwriting. It is impossible for Simon to make a bad album. His voice is so familiar that it seems ingrained in our DNA and he always has something interesting to say in his lyrics. According to his press release, this album is all about sounds; Simon sought out sounds for this project from an adventurous array of sources. "Paul Simon's collage of sounds for Stranger to Stranger also includes the Italian electronic dance music artist Clap! Clap!, whose sound he ended up putting on three of the tracks ('The Werewolf,' 'Wristband' and 'Street Angel')." He also says that he developed a conversational approach to his singing based on the idea that lyrics are akin to speech. I'm good with all that, but I would also like some melody with my sonic excursion, please. My early favorite on this record, "Wristband", was just released as a single. When I remarked (above) that this album was disappointing, I meant in the sense that Stranger To Stranger's melodies are so understated that there is no songwriting that comes anywhere near Simon's finest achievements like Graceland or American Tune.
Listen to "Wristband" (or watch the music video below), "Stranger To Stranger", and "Insomniac's Lullaby".

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C.W. Stoneking - Gon' Boogaloo: I saw C.W. Stoneking perform in 2008 and I was amazed by his commitment to his art. He not only played the country blues of 1930's Appalachia, but he had the mannerisms, tone of voice and style of speech of the period, plus he had the look, from his shoes to his hat to his steel National guitar. His music sounded like the roots of roots music. Like a Broadway performer, he dripped with authenticity. This seemed like someone who ate, slept and breathed the life of a 30's bluesman, right down to his hair style (see photo below). I had a chance to talk to him after the set, he was from Australia and I was so impressed that I bought his two CDs on the spot. Fast forward to last Friday. When I saw his name on the new release list I had to check in to see what he's up to now. In his world, time has advanced a little and "Gon' Boogaloo" finds him playing an electric guitar. All the other aspects of his portrayal seem intact, but now he sounds like a forties bluesman from the backcountry. Maybe even more remarkable than the totality of his persona is the fact that this is all original material that Stoneking writes, plays, and sings. It either sounds like an original Library of Congress recording, or we have time traveled back to his time period, or visa versa.
Listen to the lead track "How Long", "The Zombie" (or watch the music video below) and "We Gon' Boogaloo".

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Tegan and Sara - Love You To Death: It's funny how preconceptions often color our perception of music. I last listened to Tegan and Sara on their 2004 album So Jealous, and its totally irresistible track "Walking with a Ghost". Being that I had missed the intervening albums, I really had no good reason to have expectations one way or the other. Still, I was somewhat surprised to find that they have replaced the chunky guitar chords and 12-string textures with a full-on pop album. And it is quite a well crafted pop album, built on a foundation of rock. What hasn't changed is the magic that happens when the voices of these identical twin sisters combine. It turns out that they embraced pop on their last album Heartthrob (2013) garnering a gold hit single and a song placement in the Lego movie complete with a performance at the Oscars. I now have "Walking with a Ghost" in my head just from thinking about it.
Listen to the first single "Boyfriend" (or watch the music video below), "Dying To Know" and "100x".

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Train - Does Led Zeppelin II: The good news and the bad news about Train Does Led Zeppelin II is one and the same. Frontman Pat Monahan and his band are so crazy talented that they have successfully pulled off the feat of recording a note for note copy that is so close to the original that if you are not listening closely, it would be hard to tell which is which. Monahan does the Robert Plant vocals so well that it's scary. That said, I can't escape the feeling that this record is totally pointless. If you want to hear Led Zeppelin II, just play Led Zeppelin II. Because Led Zeppelin is no longer performing, Train audiences can take delight in seeing some masterful musicians play these iconic songs live. And that is a totally reasonable premise. I still don't see buying this record when the original is available, unless you are a Train completist. Oh, there is one good reason to buy Train Does Led Zeppelin II, "...the band's proceeds from this album will go to their charity of record, Family House in San Francisco."
Listen to "Whole Lotta Love", "Ramble On" and "Livin' Lovin' Maid".

Bonus Archival Photo: C.W Stoneking, Rockwood Music Hall, NYC, 9/10/2008.

Photo - W. Kates

Bonus Tracks: Official Music Videos

Judy Collins and Ari Hest - "Strangers Again"

Michael Franti & Spearhead - "Once A Day"

Max Jury - "Numb"

The Lonely Heartstring Band - "The Tide"

Maren Morris - "My Church"

Paul Simon - "Wristband"

C.W. Stoneking - "The Zombie" (Live recording at Record Paradise record store)

Tegan and Sara - "Boyfriend"

Friday, June 03, 2016

Bob Dylan - Fallen Angels, Dylan Celebrates His 75th Birthday With His Second Set Of Standards; Plus Great Tributes From Amnesty International and Ralph McTell

Photo courtesy of Bob Dylan

Back in the seventies, when we were playing Blood on the Tracks, if anyone had suggested that one day I'd be writing about Bob Dylan singing "Some Enchanted Evening", I'd have said, "Hell no!" One of the great things about music is it's ability to bring joy when you least expect it. Last week, Bob Dylan celebrated his 75th birthday and released his thirty-seventh studio album, Fallen Angels, his second straight release of standards. During his storied career, Dylan has repeatedly enjoyed confounding expectations, and he has certainly done so as a septuagenarian by singing selections from the Great American Songbook. It seemed crazy at first, to have arguably our greatest living songwriter record an album of songs he did not write.

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However, Shadows in the Night, released in 2015, is a perfectly executed mood album. It's simple arrangements consisting mostly of pedal steel guitar, upright bass, and drums back some of the best vocals that Dylan has ever done. That, combined with genius song selection (reportedly by Dylan himself), set up a kind of low key wistful emotionalism that sounds like a great late night album, no matter when you listen.

"I'm a Fool to Want You", establishes the tone right there in track one, setting you up for songs like "Autumn Leaves", "Some Enchanted Evening", and "What'll I Do". Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do" perfectly encapsulates the feeling of this record, and it quite nicely sets up "That Lucky Old Sun" to conclude the record.

Telling Rolling Stone Magazine that he was not just covering the American classics, Dylan said, "I don't see myself as covering these songs in any way. They've been covered enough. Buried, as a matter a fact. What me and my band are basically doing is uncovering them. Lifting them out of the grave and bringing them into the light of day."

Often regarded as Dylan's Frank Sinatra tribute, Shadows in the Night wasn't quite, even though it did summon the ghost of old Blue Eyes. Dylan went to the sacred site of the Capitol Record Recording Studios in Hollywood that was where so many of the classic Sinatra sides were recorded. To prepare for his sessions, Dylan listened to Sinatra's versions of these songs. When Dylan went into the studio, he says it was not his intention to necessarily tribute Sinatra or sing them Frank's way, but to sing them his own way, and that he did quite well.

Photo courtesy of Capitol Records

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One year later, Dylan returned to the Capitol Studios to record and everything that made Shadows in the Night a great record continued on Fallen Angels with two differences. First, most importantly, the song selections include lots of love songs and the resulting mood of the album is happy. With Dylan celebrating number seventy-five, there could not be a better opening track than "Young At Heart".
Don't you know that it's worth every treasure on earth
To be young at heart.
For as rich as you are, it's much better by far
To be young at heart.
And if you should survive to 105,
Look at all you'll derive out of being alive!
And here is the best part, you have a head start
If you are among the very young at heart.
The real strength of both these albums is the mellow, simple arrangement of pedal steel, bass, and drums, like on "All the Way". There have been hundreds of standards albums and they mostly fall into two camps; one uses orchestral arrangements similar to Sinatra, while the other arranges these songs for jazz band (examples would be Ray Charles or Tony Bennett). I don't think I have ever heard standards arranged quite the way that Dylan has done, and the results are satisfying in the extreme. Both albums were produced by Jack Frost, a pseudonym Dylan uses when he is producing himself.

The second difference in Fallen Angels is that some other instruments are added without changing the basic character of the record. There is a good deal of very mellow electric guitar, acoustic guitar (picked, not strummed), some violin, and some very mellow horns that blend quite nicely with the pedal steel. All of the tracks on Fallen Angels are good, but after a few spins I am particularly partial to "Young At Heart", "All the Way", "Skylark", "All Or Nothing At All", and "It Had To Be You"

Both these records are a producer's triumph, and the fact that Dylan served as both performer and producer is a feat that cannot be overestimated. There was a time back in the '70s, let's say around the time of Rolling Thunder or Planet Waves, that even as accomplished as Dylan was the idea of him recording an album of standards would have been laughable. The vocal performances on Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels are unmistakably Dylan, but at the same time they're both serious and seriously good. In addition to the vocal performance and the production achievement, there is one more ingredient that needs mention. I absolutely love Dylan's touring band and the instrumental performances on these records.

Note: I would love for readers to be able to hear these songs as you read. Unlike the other albums that I've covered of late, these tracks are not available to stream on YouTube. If you subscribe to streaming services, you may stream Shadows in the Night on Spotify and if you are a member of Prime you may stream Fallen Angels on Amazon (which seems to have exclusive streaming rights).

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Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of both the career of Bob Dylan and the organization Amnesty International, the four CD collection of Dylan covers, Chimes of Freedom, was released in 2012. With the proceeds going to Amnesty International, this enormous set is still available at the seemingly impossible price of $9 U.S. on Amazon. The 76 songs clock in at 5 hours and about 20 minutes and include artists such as Johnny Cash, Pete Townshend, Bettye LaVette, Diana Krall, Ziggy Marley, My Morning Jacket, Sting, and Mark Knopfler. And that's just a few from disc one. Check out any of the above links for the complete tracklist.

All of the performances on Chimes of Freedom were recorded specifically for this project or were previously unreleased. Which is why they used a live version of Adele performing "Make You Feel My Love". Adele's studio original was one of my favorite tracks on her first album, 19. That song is a perfect example of Dylan's songwriting prowess even later in his career, most folks don't even know that the song is his. Pop fans may know it by Kelly Clarkson or Adele. Country listeners know it as a Garth Brooks song. Both Brooks and Trisha Yearwood have had their share of success with the song. Rock fans may have heard it by Bryan Ferry. Billy Joel was first out of the box, calling it "To Make You Feel My Love", which preceded Dylan's own version from his Time Out of Mind album (1997). Listening now to all these versions I'm struck by how similar they all sound, regardless of genre. That's some powerful songwriting. Many more diverse artists have recorded "Make You Feel My Love", making it a modern standard. Just for fun here is Neil Diamond.

The pleasures of this set are far too numerous to list them all here, so I'll just mention a couple. Diana Krall does what sounds like an ultra personal version of a "Simple Twist of Fate" This selection from Dylan's Blood on the Tracks takes Krall so far afield of her comfort zone of jazz and pop that it feels like we're hearing a whole new dimension to her talent.

So many people have sung "Blowin' In The Wind" that this song is the very definition of iconic. Most singers of this venerable tune sing the melody as Dylan did. Here, Ziggy Marley alters the melody ever so slightly and in so doing shines a bright light on lyrics that we have long taken for granted; Marley gets us to hear them again for the first time. That would be an accomplishment with any cover tune, but to do it with "Blowin' In The Wind", that's quite amazing indeed. It's pretty clear that Ziggy inherited more from his father than just his name.

There's no real formula or science to what makes a good cover version. There are plenty of bad ones, but we know and treasure the good ones when we hear them. Chimes of Freedom has a much higher batting average than most.

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About this time, five years ago, British folkie Ralph McTell released the EP Don't Think Twice It's Alright: A Tribute to Bob Dylan on his 70th Birthday. Demonstrating that he is more than his 1974 single "Streets Of London", McTell applies his friendly voice and acoustic guitar to six well chosen Dylan compositions.

Track 1 - The download-only EP begins with "Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright", a song which Dylan released in 1963 as part of his The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan LP. Peter, Paul, and Mary had a top ten hit with it that same year. In 1965, the song again reached high on the pop chart; listeners were more likely to identify the artist, The Wonder Who?, than they were the song's author. The Wonder Who? was a pseudonym for the Four Seasons and the lead vocal falsetto was like nothing ever heard on a Dylan record. Many, many artists have covered the tune over the years, but I think, none better than Ralph McTell.

Track 2 - "Gates of Eden" comes from Dylan's 1964 LP Bringing It All Back Home.

Track 3 - McTell did a fine version of "Girl From The North Country" which was Dylan's duet with Johnny Cash from his album Nashville Skyline (1969).

Track 4 - "To Ramona" was from Dylan's 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan.

Track 5 - "I Want You" came from Dylan's brilliant double album Blonde on Blonde from 1966.

Track 6 - McTell dropped back to 1964 for "One Too Many Mornings" from The Times They Are A-Changin'.

In all, this is a most enjoyable set all drawn from Dylan's most prolific period.

Note: If you buy or stream this EP, you will find that tracks 2, 3, and 4 are misnamed on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, etc.). Track 2 (labelled "Ramona") is "Gates of Eden", track 3 ("Gates of Eden") is "Girl From the North Country" and track 4 (Girl From The North Country Fair) is "To Ramona". My track list above is correct. If you click the above links to listen to track 2, 3, or 4, disregard the incorrect name of the track on YouTube, the song you will hear is the one you clicked. It's crazy that this has not been corrected in the five years that this EP has been available, even though instructions to this effect are given on the Ralph McTell website.

Thanks Rob S. from Potomac, MD, for suggesting the Ralph McTell EP.

Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone

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