Mark Knopfler - Tracker, Laura Marling - Short Movie, Nellie McKay - My Weekly Reader, Van Morrison - Duets; Now That's What I Call March Madness

Art by Kyle Lambert

Mark Knopfler - Tracker

Off the top of my head, when I think of current guitar gods, I think Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Eddie Van Halen, and I think Mark Knopfler. Knopfler has spent the better part of the last twenty years establishing himself as a singer-songwriter like a James Taylor or a Jackson Browne, or more precisely in the mold of J.J. Cale. One could make the case that Knopfler's entire solo career has been a tribute to Cale; certainly Knopfler has adapted Cale's laid back style of songwriting. Knopfler's seven solo albums have featured varying amounts of electric lead guitar, but his guitar never seemed to find its rightful place in the mix. And while the albums were all enjoyable, they were often shy of the guitar work that Knopfler's fans crave.

On Tracker, Knopfler seems to have finally found just the right mix that incorporates his electric guitar with his standard instrumentation. Whether it's carrying the song or just adding seasoning, the electric is always present. The rhythm section is mixed to sound more powerful, even on the softest, most beautiful songs.

Although Knopfler's last effort, Privateering, was a double album, I listened to it a bunch of times and could never quite get a handle on it. Not so with Tracker. With "Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes" the album opens with a jazz signature that could just as easily lead into Dave Brubeck's "Take Five". After about a minute we get a Celtic melody reminiscent of Knopfler's Local Hero soundtrack, with the jazz rhythm. This is one of the first person story songs that Knopfler favors and this time it's autobiographical. The inspired songwriting sucks you in and doesn't let up for the duration of the record.

"Broken Bones" sounds like it could just as easily be on a J.J. Cale album, complete with the loping rhythm and the pulsating wah-wah guitar. Beryl is the logical successor to Dire Straits' first two albums. The album ends with "Wherever I Go", which is perhaps the most beautiful song Knopfler has done since "Brothers In Arms". It's a sweet duet with Knopfler and Ruth Moody sharing the vocals over a slow and deliberate rhythm and a gorgeous sax solo with a gem of a guitar solo (listen below). Amazon has a deluxe version of Tracker that contains four bonus tracks.

The engineering and production on Tracker is extraordinary; the quality of Knopfler's voice, as well as all of the instruments, will amaze you. Knopfler's songwriting has never been better. I have enjoyed Knopfler's humorous side ever since "Industrial Disease", but there are no such songs on Tracker and I think that it's a stronger album as a result; the songs are exquisite and I think a joke song would break the flow. In my opinion, this is the masterpiece that we all knew Knopfler had in him.

Listen to "Wherever I Go".

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Photo Courtesy of Laura Marling

Laura Marling - Short Movie

Laura Marling's long awaited fifth album is here and it's a goodie. Marling alters the form of the popular song much as Joni Mitchell did during the 60s, 70s, and 80s; she twists and molds it to her purposes. Marling spent the last two and a half years in the US and when she returned to London she gave an illuminating interview to Tim Lewis for The Guardian. Lewis wrote: "By popular consensus, her records – which are broadly folk music, mostly acoustic, spiritually poetic – keep getting more intriguing and fully realized. And this turns out to be precisely the case with Short Movie, her fifth album, released in late March."

On the NPR First Listen webpage, Stephen Thompson wrote, "...Once I Was An Eagle, an ambitious 63-minute breakup album whose intricate acoustic arrangements sounded as stormy as the work of bands 20 times as loud. It was a virtually impossible act to follow, in terms of quality and scope — she reportedly scrapped one attempt prior to this one — and Marling ultimately tackles the job by initiating another left turn. Short Movie shakes up her rumbling acoustic arrangements with an influx of electric sounds, in the process giving her a greater arsenal with which to brood, search, seethe and menace."

I love hearing Marling's electric side. All the better when there are two or three instruments. Marling even rocks out with a full band on Short Movie. The bottom line of all this is that Marling can be completely compelling with her music, no matter whether she's playing solo acoustic or with an electric band. Short Movie also excels with its artwork and graphics; it's kind of a throwback to the time when records were vinyl and album covers were about 12 inches square. Check out the artwork and packaging for the vinyl version of Short Movie.

About three-quarters of the way through Short Movie, it sounds like Marling walks into a studio that The Grateful Dead used circa 1968, which has been left untouched. Marling picks up an electric guitar that is still plugged into the amp, she sits down and begins to play. She noodles for a few seconds, then picks out some notes, and begins to sing. She then delivers the last three songs on the album, the last of which is the title track (listen below).

In Pitchfork, Katherine St. Asaph concludes, "Short Movie has been called Marling’s 'quarterlife crisis' album, but the crises she's grappling here are the same ones she's confronted her entire career: love as a threat to autonomy, suitors as perpetual disappointments, wariness of intimacy but also of the alternatives." In "Short Movie", Marling sings:

I got up in the world today
Wondered who it was I could save
Who do you think you are?
Just a girl that can play guitar
I think I could get away with
Saying only half what I say
No, I can't give you up
Oh no, I'm not gonna stop
But they know
But they'll never know why
They know
But they'll never know why

Listen to "Short Movie".

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Photo Courtesy of Nellie McKay

Nellie McKay - My Weekly Reader

When I write this blog, I prefer to avoid the vernacular of social media, but when it comes to Nellie McKay's new album, there just isn't any better way to say it. OMG I love this album. That was my overwhelming feeling as I finished the first listen to My Weekly Reader, a title that takes baby boomers right back to grade school, which not coincidently took place in the sixties. The album is all covers of songs from the sixties, but unlike many covers albums it is not merely a collection of old favorites. By her song selection, McKay clearly expresses her multi-faceted personality; she does the same in her performance of these songs.

The last time I felt this way about a Nellie McKay album was her brilliant debut which was produced in 2004 by former Beatles producer Geoff Emerick. In this collaboration with McKay, Emerick seems to capture her at her best, and he also enables her to express, musically, her many moods. On the new album, that partnership is intact. Although McKay didn't write these tunes, this is every inch a Nellie McKay album. To do this record justice, we're going to have to go track by track.

1. Sunny Afternoon - McKay and Emerick produce a track that is worthy of comparison to anything that the Kinks or Beatles recorded, and that my friends is a major, major accomplishment. McKay changes "my girlfriend" to "my boyfriend's run off with my car and gone back to his ma and pa telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty", which delightfully turns gender expectations upside-down.

2. Quicksilver Girl - This is from Steve Miller's seminole 1968 album Sailor. This version is so musically perfect and the vocal so smooth, so assured, and so pure, that within just a few seconds it will reduce you to a giddy state in which you remember why listening to music is so much fun. This was a favorite by Miller, and now it stands with the best work that McKay has done.

3. Poor People / Justice - McKay has long been a crusader and agitator for social justice and animal rights. This Alan Price song is the first of several on this theme.

4. Murder In My Heart For The Judge - McKay takes on the legal system with Moby Grape's 1968 blues-rock classic. Guest Bela Fleck adds his banjo to this "deep track". McKay's an old hand at the musical stage, and her theatricality and lyric changes ("mean old bastard", "that bloviated turd") make this one of the most delicious tracks on the album. Did I mention that I love this record?

5. Bold Marauder - This one is from the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the 60s, and protest singers Richard and Mimi Fariña. After several listens, I still wasn't sure about the meaning of this song, so I took to the web. On a blog called The Domain of the Strange, which deals with resistance movements (in the Middle East among other places), after lengthy analysis of Bold Marauder came this nugget, "And Farina’s brilliant song echoes the words of another great American writer, Mark Twain, and his anti-war piece “The War Prayer” reminding us that although Americans and our government have long pursued imperial endeavors there remains among us a few voices that are unafraid to sing the songs of War as they really should be sung."

6. Itchycoo Park - This is a worthy cover of the Small Faces' biggest hit. Musically, it has everything that was in the original right down to the flanging in the bridge, which you hear as kind of a whooshing sound. This psychodelic effect was created manually in the studio using two tape recorders. "Itchycoo Park" was one of the first hit records to use flanging, and it's a real nice touch to hear it again in this cover. Although "Itchycoo Park" was a big hit in Britain (#3 on their charts), I remember it as only a minor hit here in the states (peaked at #16 in 1968, a year after its British success). McKay's "Itchycoo Park" reflects her eclecticism as she takes this dusty old pop song and makes it sound shiny and new.

7. Mrs. Brown You've Got A Lovely Daughter - Unlike "Sunny Afternoon" which McKay made more interesting by changing the gender, with "Mrs. Brown" she gives the song a twist by not changing the gender. The arrangement is true to the 1965 Herman's Hermit #1 US hit, and even Peter Noone's thick Manchester accent is echoed by McKay's subtler one. She is singing so sincere and so sweet, you can either enjoy it at face value, or you can try to imagine what angles Nellie is working. Either way, delightful is the only word for "Mrs. Brown You've Got A Lovely Daughter".

8. Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine - Talk about taking a dusty old song off the shelf and making it sound fresh and new, I doubt that anyone thought of covering Country Joe and the Fish even five or ten years after the fact, much less forty eight years later. Even though Country Joe McDonald was best known for "The Fish Cheer" (as seen in the Woodstock movie, "Give me an F...") he wrote some blistering rock and roll tunes and this psychodelic blues from 1967. I might have thought Sweet Lorraine to be long forgotten until hearing this scintillating production, which sounds for all the world like it might have been written last week. McKay conveys so much with such a small turn of phrase, then takes on a whole different persona for the bridge, and gets theatrical again. I think I love this record. Listen to "Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine" below.

9. If I Fell - This is one of the best Beatles covers I have ever heard. Here's why (Steve Horowitz in PopMatters): "McKay’s charismatic personality always makes her stand out, but her talents as player, singer and producer cannot be overstated. Her piano work may be especially noteworthy, but she also plays marimba, concertina, clarinet, ukulele, congas, and many other instruments to add rich layers to the instrumentals. ...Not only does she sing John’s lead, but she adds her dubbed voice to create the Paul and George’s backup harmonies. The results are beautiful." McKay's talent alone can do almost anything, but one thing no one could do in 2015 is to duplicate the innocence of the 1964 original. You might think that the purity of McKay's vocals might mask a myriad of possible motivations, but I couldn't possible speculate. I will just offer her new video for "If I Fell", just released.

10. Red Rubber Ball - It should come as no surprise to long-time listeners, but McKay packs a lot of issues into her 3:38 cover of the Cyrkle's "Red Rubber Ball". It sounds like a freshly minted version of the 1966 hit record, complete with the carnival-like organ sound. "Red Rubber Ball" was written by Paul Simon and Bruce Woodley of the Seekers, who also recorded it. McKay's version has a harmonica intro and lengthy coda that is pure Dylan, so much so that it sounds like a mashup. Some reviews have mentioned that Dylan and Simon had a public feud back then, and that perhaps McKay's combination was meant to needle. I say, true or not, McKay likes the mystery of it, and so do I. The sequence of this following her Beatles cover is similarly satisfying. When the Beatles did their final tour of America in 1966, I saw them at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. Opening the show were sets by Bobby Hebb, the Remains, the Ronettes, and the Cyrkle.

11. Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying - The British Invasion portion of the album concludes with this 1964 top ten hit (both US and UK) by Gerry and the Pacemakers. The drama of the original vocal by Gerry Marsden with full band and orchestra is replaced in this cover by the simplest, sweetest rendition imaginable. McKay's ernest, yet relaxed, vocal combines with a gorgeous arrangement consisting of marimba and clarinet. This track is all McKay; she both sang and played the instruments. I'm left with the feeling that her talent is immense and that we have only just scratched the surface.

12. Hungry Freaks, Daddy - The protest song portion of the album concludes with this 1966 slice of American satire by the Mothers of Invention, the lead track from their double album Freak Out! This arrangement hews pretty close to the original, however, Frank Zappa's vocals couldn't be more opposite from McKay's. During his lifetime, Zappa was a polarizing influence; either you "got" him and loved him, or you didn't and the sound of a Mother's record would cause you to run screaming from the room. When I first encountered My Weekly Reader and I saw McKay's idiosyncratic song selection, even though I didn't immediately recognize "Hungry Freaks, Daddy", I figured that Frank Zappa had to be in here somewhere. Zappa's son Dweezil plays electric guitar on this track.

13. Wooden Ships - Could this album have a more perfect ending? I think not. Listening back to the originals released in 1969 by Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Jefferson Airplane, I'm struck, not only by how great the song is, but by how each group clearly injects its own identity into each respective version. McKay's "Wooden Ships" comes in soft and slow, playing marimba with an unhurried open rhythm that leaves plenty of room for guitar, clarinet, and the almost delicate vocal. In this most pleasing arrangement, McKay plays a clarinet part that imbues the track with an understated jazziness that implies the West Coast scene of the late '60s, the rock, the jazz, the drugs, the beat poets; all that with a lovely clarinet line.

The degree to which McKay is personally responsible for the music on this record is truly remarkable. Bob Glaub played bass (and you could not want a better bass player), Cary Park played banjo and guitars, and David Raven played drums. McKay played everything else; her instruments are listed above. These songs fall close to the heart of my musical memory, having lived during those turbulent years. With one or two exceptions, these are not songs you would expect to find on a 60s covers album. In McKay's capable hands, these 45 plus year old songs, all sound fresh and new.

Delightful, sweet, smooth, assured, pure, perfect, favorite, best, theatrical, and delicious, I should be running out of adjectives at this point, and that's only the first four songs. Let's cut to the chase. My Weekly Reader is a highly personal statement, a work of musical beauty, and I love everything about it.

I also really like this from Horowitz's review. "The assortment of different tunes here suggests that McKay understands the complexity of the past and reveals her empathy for a more hopeful time when love and peace were fresh thoughts rather than a debased slogan. Like the elementary school magazine from which she took as the title to her album, the album offers a fresh and optimistic look at the world. She’s not reliving her childhood, but McKay’s educating her and future generations about the not-so-distant past when life seemed more open to possibilities."

Listen to "Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine".

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Photo Courtesy of Van Morrison

Van Morrison - Duets: Re-Working The Catalogue

Van Morrison, for his Duets album, went through his amazing song catalog and selected the songs that he wanted to re-record with guest artists that he also hand picked for this project. It's nice that he skipped the hits and the obvious album tracks and chose some of his and my favorite songs. "Carrying a Torch" is one of said favorites, and here it gets a brilliant treatment with duet partner Clare Teal. Teal, according to Wikipedia, was signed by Sony Records to the largest recording contract ever given to a British jazz singer (listen below). George Benson both sings with Morrison and contributes his beautiful guitar work to "Higher Than The World". Mark Knopfler does the same on "Irish Heartbeat". Those three songs alone are worth the price of the album, but wait, there are thirteen more tracks.

Shana Morrison is Van's daughter and is herself an excellent singer. Here she duets with her father on "Rough God Goes Riding", the two Morrison's sounding like they were born to sing together. "Born to Sing", the title track of Morrison's last album, gets a rousing blues treatment with Chris Farlowe. Joss Stone sings slow and soulful on "Wild Honey" and the combination of her voice with Morrison's is oh so sweet. Mavis Staples shines on "If I Ever Needed Someone", and Michael Buble sounds like he's having a blast on "Real Real Gone". Van Morrison is at the top of his game now. On Duets: Re-working the Catalogue, it's great fun to hear Morrison reinterpreting himself with some tremendous guest artists.

Listen to "Carrying a Torch".

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Charlie Ricci said…
I agree with you about Knopfler. Long my all-time favorite guitar player & one of my all-time favs in general I haven't gotten into him very much since he began his singer-songwriter phase. However, he excelled in his famous band, on his many soundtracks (especially Local Hero) and on the CDs he made with Chet Atkins, Emmylou Harris, & the Notting Hillbillies.

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