Cat-Iron: Sings the Blues and Hymns

November 28th, 2016

catiron_singsbluesandhymnsObscure 1958 Folkways blues album returned to vinyl

If Christopher Guest were to make a mockumentary about the blues, it might open with a crate digger’s breathless recitation of time-worn details such as, “Louisiana native Cat-Iron was born William Carradine in 1896 and mis-nicknamed by the folklorist Frederic Ramsey, Jr.. Having converted to Christianity, Carradine was initially hesitant to lay down secular songs, but relented with a mix of blues and sacred hymns on a borrowed guitar, recorded in the front room of his house. The resulting 1958 Folkways LP included an eight-page booklet, was pressed on yellow wax, and quickly fell into obscurity.” What would make this absurd is its absolute truth in demonstrating how scholarly producers refashioned themselves into musical anthropologists who used hunches and recorders in place of maps and shovels.

Recorded in 1957 and released the following year, it was to be Cat-Iron’s only album, as he passed away in November 1958. Since then, two tracks appeared on anthologies [1 2], the album was reissued in the UK as a vinyl album in 1969, and domestically as a digital download and custom CD in 2004. Exit Stencil now returns the album to print as a limited distribution vinyl LP, struck on yellow wax, just like the original, with blues on side one and hymns on side two. Also included is a reproduction of the original eight-page booklet, including lyrics and Ramsey’s original liner notes. The latter sketch Cat-Iron’s background, the circumstances of the recording session, and provide Ramsey’s view of the blues as organic, communal literature.

As Ramsey noted, Cat-Iron sang everything with the combined fervor of the gospel and the blues, lending the former the grit of the latter, and the latter the eternal gravity of the former. The session began with the hymns placed on side two, with Cat-Iron accompanying himself on fingerpicked guitar that’s fretted with a glass medicine bottle and supplemented by the faintest, rhythmic thump of what was likely to be his foot. He’s carried away by the messages of “When I Lay My Burden Down” and “Fix Me Right,” and surprisingly melancholy on the first song he played that day, “When the Saints Go Marching Home.”

Of the blues numbers on side one, the most well-known (and regularly covered) is “Jimmy Bell.” It’s here that Cat-Iron’s regionalism is heard in the cultural themes he wrote and sang. As with most folk artists, Cat-Iron’s catalog is derived from lyrics he’d heard, borrowed, rearranged and augmented. The opening “Poor Boy a Long, Long Way From Home” is rooted in the oft-recorded “Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home,” with Cat-Iron changing the lyric from “Natchez,” where he resided and recorded, to “New Orleans.” He deftly weaves together lines from “Rambler Blues” and “Corinna, Corinna” for “Don’t Your House Look Lonely,” and sings “I’m Gonna Walk Your Log” with its similarity to “Baby Please Don’t Go” intact.

It’s something of a miracle that primitive field recordings, transcribed from analog to digital and back again, can transport the experience of a 1950s Mississippi living room into the twenty-first century. Cat-Iron’s voice is clear and strong, and balanced well against his guitar playing. There are hints of “studio” (that is, room) chatter around the edges of a few tracks, giving listeners a feel for the informality of the session; but once Cat-Iron gets going, his performances are authentic expressions of a hard life lived in a segregated nation that largely relegated its rural African-American population to clapboard shacks. For vinyl lovers who never crossed paths with the original artifact, this reissue will be a real boon. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Exit Stencil Recordings

MFC Chicken: Goin’ Chicken Crazy

November 26th, 2016

mfcchicken_goinchickencrazy_chrismooreGreasy old-school R&B with a bawdy sense of humor

If you like your R&B with shouted vocal, thick sax, garage guitar and a manic rhythm section, you may already be acquainted with this UK band. If not, their throwback frat-rock will have you asking the clerk to get you a copy of their record from under the counter. Whether rocking up a “Hooch Party,” lusting after “Women Who Jog” or extolling (Ben Vaughn style) the pleasures of “New Socks,” vocalist Spencer Evoy decorates every lyric with a suggestive smile. The core lineup of guitar, drums, bass and tenor sax is thickened by guest baritone sax and piano, allowing the group to cover ground from Little Richard to Bo Diddley to the Fabulous Wailers. The songs are both tribute and parody, nodding to ‘50s tropes with “I Ain’t Crying (That’s Just Pomade in My Eyes),” launching a worldwide dance craze with the honking sax and dynamic backbeat of “Roast Potato Time,” and throwing social mores to the wind with “Blackout Drunk” and “Baby Let Me Bang Your Box.” If Bob Seger is still looking for some old time rock ‘n’ roll – in the vein of Big Jay McNeely, the Sonics and Gary “U.S.” Bonds – he should look right here. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

MFC Chicken’s Facebook Page

Courtney Granger: Courtney Granger

November 25th, 2016

courtneygranger_beneathstillwatersA Cajun fiddle prodigy unleashes his inner George Jones

It’s been seventeen years – more than half of Courtney Granger’s life – since this Louisiana fiddle prodigy debuted with 1999’s album of French-language and Cajun instrumental tunes, Un Bal Chez Balfa. Though he’s been busy playing sessions and touring with the Pine Leaf Boys, there was apparently a classic country vocalist itching to sing. He’d hinted at this ambition with a 2013 rendition of “You’re Still on My Mind,” but on this all-covers album his fiddle takes a backseat to vocals heavily influenced by George Jones. Granger hasn’t the pinpoint control of Jones, and his growl doesn’t go quite as low, but he’s a terrifically thoughtful and emotive vocalist, whose more open-throated singing adds an original flavor to the Jones-styled runs, bends and slides.

Granger’s selected a number of songs associated with or sung by George Jones, including “Back in My Baby’s Arms Again, “Lovin’ on Back Streets,” “Mr. Fool” and “Beneath Still Waters.” But he’s also excavated albums and B-sides for terrific material written by Hazel Dickens, Dallas Frazier, Hank Cochran, Keith Whitley, Cindy Walker, Bill Anderson and others. He’s accompanied by fiddler Joel Savoy, pedal steel guitarist Kevin Barry, pianist Glenn Patscha and drummer Christian Dugas, and he’s joined in tight harmony by Christine Balfa. Granger’s transformation from venerated fiddler to chill-inducing vocalist may surprise many listeners, but it will please all who miss the Possum’s emotion-drenched singing. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Wayne Hancock: Slingin’ Rhythm

November 25th, 2016

waynehancock_slinginrhythmThe king of juke joint swing swings the juke joint

Twenty years into his recording career, the most surprising thing about Wayne Hancock is the lack of surprise in his unwavering pursuit of hillbilly boogie. What might have looked like a faddish nod at the start of his career has evolved into the heart and soul of his artistry, transcending the nostalgia that connects him to Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Thompson and others. His first album since 2013’s Ride is stocked with swinging original material, sublimely selected covers of Merle Travis’ “Divorce Me C.O.D.” and Pee Wee King’s (by way of Hank Williams) “Thy Burdens Are Greater Than Mine,” and steel player Rose Sinclair’s instrumental showcase “Over Easy.”

Hancock is front and center, but he gives his band (Sinclair, electric guitarists Bart Weinberg and Greg Harkins, bassist Samuel “Huck” Johnson and producer Lloyd Maines on dobro) room to stretch out and solo. You probably won’t even notice the lack of a drummer until someone points it out. Hancock writes of a working musician’s fortitude, the toll it takes on off-stage life, and the rewards it pays. Messy homes give way to mistreating and long-gone mates, with “Divorce Me C.O.D.” taunting a soon-to-be ex and the original “Wear Out Your Welcome” kicking the problem to the curb. The few moments of respite include the apologetic “Two String Boogie” and the sweet invitation “Love You Always.”

There’s a conversational looseness to the sessions, with longer songs, such as “Dog Day Blues,” designed to stoke improvisation that suggests the jazz side of Western Swing. The players are up to the task as the rhythm section vamps, the guitarists take their turns in the spotlight and Hancock picks his spot to return to the mic. “Thy Burdens Are Greater Than Mine” closes the set, reframing the album’s travails with the sympathetic observation that someone, somewhere always has it worse. And in Hancock’s case, a lot worse, since he’s found the thing he loves the most – juke joint swing – and carries it with him everywhere. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Wayne Hancock’s Home Page

The Blind Boys of Alabama: Go Tell It on the Mountain

November 21st, 2016

blindboysofalabama_gotellitonthemountainExpanded reissue of guest-filled 2003 Christmas album

Founded in 1939 and turned into a professional group six years later, it took more than fifty years for these gospel legends to record a Christmas album. Released in 2003, the album was third in a string of four Grammy-winning albums in four years, including Spirit of the Century, Higher Ground and There Will Be a Light. The album includes guests leading every track but the first and last, ranging from soul singer Solomon Burke, singer-songwriters Tom Waits and Shelby Lynne, to jazz vocalist Les McCann and funkmaster George Clinton. The wide range of guests lends the album a lot of variety, though in a few spots, such as Chrissie Hynde and Richard Thompson’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” it mostly obscures title group.

There’s no losing sight of the group as they provide Aaron Neville an intricate a cappella backing for “Joy to the World,” provide harmony backing to Meshell Ndegeocello’s “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” and add lively interplay to Mavis Staples’ “Born in Bethlehem.” One might lament how the cavalcade of guest stars cuts into the Blind Boys’ opportunities to sing lead, but the selection of guests and their interaction with the group and house band (John Medeski on keyboards, Duke Robillard on guitar, Danny Thompson on bass and Michael Jerome on drums) yields some nice moments. If you’re expecting a Blind Boys gospel Christmas album, you’ll be disappointed, but if you take this album as part of the group’s Grammy era artistic expansion, there’s much to like.

Omnivore’s 2016 reissue retains the a cappella rendition of “My Lord What a Morning” that was recorded for the 2004 CD reissue, and adds a pair of live tracks drawn from a contemporaneous holiday concert at New York’s Beacon Theater. The latter includes the title track and a closing rendition of “Amazing Grace” sung (as it was on Higher Ground) to the melody of “House of the Rising Sun.” The 12-page booklet includes photos and musicians’ credits, and Davin Seay’s liner notes add career context for the album and anecdotes about how the group, their guests and producers worked together in the studio. The album’s soulful productions and gospel backings will complement any holiday gathering and raise everyone’s spirits! [©2016 Hyperbolium]

The Blind Boys of Alabama’s Home Page

The Flat Five: It’s a World of Love and Hope

November 18th, 2016

flatfive_itsaworldofloveandhopeUtterly charming harmony group swings pop, jazz and R&B

Though only a part-time congregation, this Chicago quintet has brilliantly combined the cool swing of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, the complex arrangements of Curt Boettcher and the lush harmonies of the Anita Kerr Singers. Comprised of NRBQ’s Scott Ligon and Casey McDonough, the Decemberists’ touring vocalists Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor, and session ace Alex Hall, the Flat Five debut a mesmerizing blend of pop, jazz, R&B and folk that is laden with joie de vivre. The opening “Florida” is effervescent with harmonies and a chiming guitar hook, and the R&B “Buglight” sounds like a jivey mashup of the Andrews Sisters, Roches, Mills Brothers, Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks and Coasters.

The album’s ‘60s vibe recalls Boettcher’s work with the Association, Millennium and Sagittarius, along with the sunshine pop of the Free Design and Spanky and Our Gang. There’s a touch of Bacharach in the trumpet solo of “Birmingham,” a McCartney-like bass line on “I Could Fall in Love With You,” and the Latin-styled “This is Your Night” recalls Sergio Mendes and Brasil ‘66. Though to be fair to the latter’s playfulness, it’s unlikely that Brasil ‘66 vocalist Lani Hall ever sang anything like “don’t just sit around and mope / buy yourself a great big bag of dope / it’s a world of love and hope.” Those lyrics, along with those of the entire album, come from Chris Ligon, older brother of group member Scott, and a writer of uncommonly fine senses of melody and humor.

The group’s instrumental sound is the perfect complement to their harmonies, fluidly stretching from the banjo-lined folk of “Bottom Buck” to the languid guitar and accordion of “She’s Only Five” and Emmit Rhodes-inspired “I Could Fall in Love With You.” The waltz-time jazz “You’re Still Joe” has a tasty electric piano solo to complement the swinging rhythm section and a remarkable bell-like vocal round that plays the song out. The closing “It’s Been a Delight” is nominally a farewell from lovers who’ve loved the night away, but it’s also a clever thank you to the record’s listeners, and a fittingly sweet end to thirty-five minutes of vocal delight. This is the biggest, most unexpected and best musical surprise of the year. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

The Flat Five’s Home Page

Donna Fargo: That Was Yesterday

November 15th, 2016

donnafargo_thatwasyesterdayDonna Fargo’s late-70s return to the charts

Top 40 listeners will remember Donna Fargo for her pair of 1972 crossover hits, “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” and “Funny Face,” but country fans will also recall the decade-long tail of her career. After her commercial fortunes began to fade in 1975, Fargo moved from Dot to Warner Brothers, and reignited her chart success with “Mr. Doodles.” That song provides the launching point for this collection of Fargo’s Warner Brothers-era sides, running through 1981’s non-LP “Lonestar Cowboy” and “Jacamo.” There are a few singles missing (1979’s “Walk on By” and a pair of low-charting sides from 1980’s Fargo), but what’s here covers the core of her commercial success at Warner Brothers, including six Top 10 hits, and the chart topping title track “That Was Yesterday.” Unusually for the times, Fargo wrote most her own material, only turning to others for hits (including “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” “Shame on Me,” “Do I Love You (Yes in Every Way),” “Ragamuffin Man,” and “Another Goodbye”) in the late ‘70s. For her earlier material on Dot, check out Varese’s Best Of collection, but to fill out the second half of her hit-making years, this is the set to get. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Donna Fargo’s Home Page

Paul Kelly and Charlie Owen: Death’s Dateless Night

November 14th, 2016

paulkellycharlieowen_deathsdatelessnightFascinating set of songs requested for funerals

Having established himself as one of Australia’s premier singer-songwriters, Paul Kelly’s also established himself as one of the continent’s most creative musical artists. His recent releases include an album of Shakespeare sonnets set to song, a live collaboration and album with Neil Finn, and an A-Z tour and accompanying eight-CD anthology of his entire song catalog. His latest, a collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Charlie Owen, collects songs the two musicians had been asked to perform at funerals. It’s a remarkable playlist of songs selected by the deceased and as salve for the souls of those left behind.

What’s most fascinating are the new layers of meaning these songs gain in a funereal frame, and the philosophical continuities exposed by their juxtaposition. Stephen Foster’s nineteenth century parlor song “Hard Times Come Again No More” moves from a plea to the fortunate to a consideration of everyone’s equality at life’s end, and Cole Porter’s western-themed “Don’t Fence Me In” points to freedoms that eventually accrue to all good souls. Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” essays earthly bonds that may be released in the hereafter, and Townes Van Zandt’s soaring “To Live is to Fly” provides a hopefully ironic twist.

Owen’s atmospheric and largely spare backings of piano, dobro and lap steel couple with Kelly’s guitar to provide contemplative spaces for the vocals. Everything from the turn-of-the-century “Pallet on the Floor” through the Beatles “Let It Be” fit easily together. Kelly adds two originals (“Nukkanya” and “Meet Me in the Middle of the Air”), the traditional Irish farewell “The Parting Glass,” and closes with Hank Williams’ “Angel of Death.” The latter’s cautionary note to the living suggests that the previously essayed rewards aren’t guaranteed. The album’s frame is a remarkable idea, and its execution superb. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Paul Kelly’s Home Page
Charlie Owen’s Facebook Page

Peter Case: Peter Case

November 13th, 2016

petercase_petercaseA soulful rock ‘n’ roller creates a modern folk sound on bonus-laden 2016 reissue

Two years after the breakup of the Plimsouls, Peter Case returned with a solo album that departed from soul-tinged rock ‘n’ roll and moved to folk and blues rendered in modern hues. T-Bone Burnett’s production includes electric guitars and drums, but they’re layered carefully among acoustic and synthetic elements. Case’s new material sported more abstract surfaces and tackled introspective and socially conscious themes, and combined with Burnett’s production, led the singer to more subtle vocals. A few of the songs, including “Walk in the Woods” and the Pogues’ “Pair of Brown Eyes,” are narrative, but others, including “Echo Wars,” “Steel Strings” and “I Shook His Hand” remain more open ended.

Case’s is matched by Burnett and the assembled musicians, as harmonica and percussive guitar are backed by a Van Dyke Parks string arrangement on “Small Town Spree,” and Jerry Marotta’s drum machine adds texture on several tracks. Omnivore’s 2016 reissue includes a sixteen-page booklet with new liner notes by Case, and expands the original twelve-track lineup with seven bonuses. The latter features acoustic versions of “Steel Strings” and “I Shook His Hand” previously issued on the promo-only Selections from Peter Case, and five vault finds. Latter day fans who haven’t dug back this far in Case’s catalog now have a reason to do so, and fans have a good reason to upgrade. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Peter Case’s Home Page

Various Artists: Feel Like Going Home – The Songs of Charlie Rich

November 12th, 2016

various_feellikegoinghomeA tribute to Charlie Rich’s Sun-era songwriting

Though Charlie Rich found his greatest fame as a Nashville country crooner for Epic, the soul of his music was born in Memphis. Rich’s smooth countrypolitan ballads topped the charts in the mid-70s, but it was in fact a departure from the jazz, blues, rockabilly, gospel and soul flavors of his earlier work. And it’s those earlier flavors that are revisited here, as thirteen artists – including Charlie Rich, Jr. – perform songs written and performed by Rich during his years as an artist, sideman and songwriter for Sun and Phillips International.

In addition to the well-known “Lonely Weekends” (given a bluesy treatment by Jim Lauderdale) and “Who Will the Next Fool Be” (sung with sultry southern soul by Holli Mosley), the set includes non-charting singles and B-sides. Highlights include the Malpass Brothers’ crooned “Caught in the Middle,” Juliet Simmons Dinallo’s hot rockabilly “Whirlwind,” Johnny Hoy’s wailing “Don’t Put No Headstone On My Grave,” Keith Sykes’ snakebit “Everything I Do Is Wrong,” and Kevin Connolly’s heartfelt closing title song.

The sessions were held primarily in the same post-Sun Sam Phillips Recording studio that hosted Rich for the originals, and the collection has been released on the same Phillips International label. You can find Rich’s original sides on the single disc The Complete Singles Plus: The Sun Years 1958-1963, or the deeper box sets Lonely Weekends: The Sun Years, 1958-1962 and The Complete Sun Masters, but these new takes are a treat, as Rich’s early work informs new generations of musicians with his unique blend of country, blues, rock, soul, gospel and jazz. [©2016 Hyperbolium]