Posts Tagged ‘Columbia’

Tony Bennett: The Classic Christmas Album

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Forty years of Tony Bennett’s Christmas recordings

Seventeen of these eighteen tracks have been selected by the vocalist from his catalog of albums and compilation appearances on Snowfall: The Tony Bennett Christmas Album (1968), The Playground (1998), Our Favorite Things (2001), Christmas with Tony Bennett (2002) and A Swingin’ Christmas (2008). The album’s one previously unreleased title is a Marion Evans arrangement of the traditional “What Child is This.” Bennett appears in orchestral, big band and small combo settings, and though the original albums can still be found, this provides a nice sampling across forty years of his stylish takes on holiday standards. Bennett sings with a jazzy cool unparalleled by his peers or followers, and together with some hot charts (particularly those for the Basie band), he gives new life to these holiday chestnuts. The Bennett fanatic in your family may be expecting the monumental 73-CD Complete Collection under the tree, but the rest of the family will be satisfied by this warm collection of classics. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

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Paul Simon: Songwriter

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

Idiosyncratic collection highlighting Paul Simon’s songwriting

This two-disc, thirty-two track collection (with a generous running time of 139 minutes) highlights the legendary songwriting of Paul Simon. The composer himself selected the tracks, touching on both hits and the lesser-known compositions of which he’s most proud. The result is an idiosyncratic tour of Simon’s catalog that will remind you of his broad commercial power, but key you into the depth of his craft as a writer. The selections focus almost entirely on Simon’s post Simon & Garfunkel career, with only a solo live take of “The Sound of Silence” (the set’s only previously unreleased track), Simon’s 1991 Concert in the Park recording of “The Boxer,” and Aretha Franklin’s 1970 cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” reaching back to his duo work.

The bulk of the collection cherry-picks from Simon’s solo albums, stretching from 1972’s Paul Simon through this year’s So Beautiful or So What. Selections from Simon’s well-loved albums of the 1970s and his commercial renaissance sparked by Graceland will be familiar, but deep album cuts, picks from Hearts and Bones and Songs from the Capeman (including the excellent 50s-pastiche “Quality”), and his contribution to the soundtrack of The Wild Thornberrys Movie will be fresh to many listener’s ears. The breadth of Simon’s writing mirrors both his own maturation as a person and the evolution of the society in which he wrote. The reactionary outbursts of his early songs were stoked by youth and the turbulent times in which he was living; his early post-S&G years found him developing a solo personality and indulging his musical interests in reggae, doo-wop, and South American folk.

Simon’s music has been as revelatory and memorable as his words, speedily evolving from the acoustic arrangements of the folk scene to sophisticated tapestries of instruments and genres. Decades before Graceland introduced African music to the American audience, Simon augmented his palette with American gospel, Peruvian folk and Jamaican reggae. He explored sounds from South Africa, Brazil and the American South, all the while embroidering his autobiographical, observational and imaginative lyrics with ideas drawn from his musical interests. His relationships seeded numerous songs, including ones of developing love (“Hearts and Bones”), family (“Father and Daughter” and “So Beautiful Or So What”), marital turbulence (“Darling Lorraine”) and dissolution (“Tenderness”). His evolving view of society provided bookends to the American unrest with the angry “The Sound of Silence” and the haggard “American Tune.”

Over the years, Simon’s craft sharpened, his characters multiplied, his philosophical and emotional insights deepened, and his favorite lyrics became more impressionistic and poetic. But winningly, his music remained accessible as he teased apart new layers in existing forms and interwove the fresh threads of his ever-broadening musical grasp. Simon sees himself first as a songwriter, secondarily as a performer and recording artist, but as these recordings attest, his words, melodies, arrangements and estimable guitar playing are all deeply intertwined. Simon always surrounded himself with carefully picked players who add original colors to his songs with their instruments and voices. Listening to a set of his recordings, it’s easy to appreciate the songwriter, but difficult to untangle that appreciation from the carefully crafted performances.

The set’s booklet includes full lyrics, but no song notes by the author. Simon, most likely, sees the lyrics as the best possible explanation of the songs. Still, the stories behind the songs would have been an interesting extra. The absence of Simon & Garfunkel recordings leaves the listener to remember how Simon’s first blaze of glory sounded; the words are here in three early songs, but as noted, Simon’s lyrics are deeply wedded to his expression, which originally included Art Garfunkel. The set’s forward is written by painter (and apparent Paul Simon superfan) Chuck Close, and the liner notes are by Tom Moon. Full musician, production and release credits are also included. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

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Various Artists: The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

A tribute to the lyric writing of Hank Williams

Fifty-eight years after his death, rare Hank Williams material continues to surprise and delight his fans. Last year’s official release of the Mother’s Best radio transcriptions [1 2], and last month’s reissue of the remastered Health & Happiness shows, reacquainted listeners with Williams’ brilliance as a singer and live entertainer. This month’s surprise is a collection of songs fabricated anew from lyrics left behind in Williams’ notebooks. The songs are rendered by a few obvious picks – Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell and Merle Haggard; but also some less obvious suspects, including Norah Jones and Jack White, who turn in winningly heartfelt performances.

Given that Williams never recorded these lyrics, this is less a covers album than a tribute. Unlike the bombast of resyncing Elvis voice with modern arrangements (i.e., Viva Elvis), or even MGM’s overdubbing of Williams’ own recordings, the lovesick blues boy’s voice is heard here in the tone and temper of his lyrics. The artists revel in the opportunity to create the first musical version of these words, and their choices say a lot about their relationship to Williams. Alan Jackson, Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell are straightforward and solemn as their vintage arrangements of guitar, steel, bass and fiddle display their direct artistic links to Williams. Norah Jones, on the other hand, gives Williams’ “The Love That Faded” beautifully blue harmonies, tinted with jazz and a hint of Mexico in the guitar runs.

The singers, musicians and producers breathe life into lyrics that have been in stasis for more than fifty years. The results vary from tunes you could swear you’d heard Williams sing, to personalized tributes that meld the singer’s trademarks with the blue emotion Williams etched into his notebooks. Jack White drops the bombast of his recent production for Wanda Jackson, opting instead for an economic country sound dominated by Donnie Herron’s ghostly steel guitar; elsewhere, Vince Gill’s high-and-lonesome vocal is balanced by Rodney Crowell’s heartfelt recitation. Similarly to Will the Circle Be Unbroken, these sessions close a loop between generations, bringing the progeny full circle to the feet of the master. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Johnny Cash: Bootleg III – Live Around the World

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

A wealth of previously unreleased live material from the Man in Black

Volume 1 of the bootleg series, Personal File, documented solo home recordings from the ‘70s and ‘80s in which Johnny Cash explored a wide variety of American song. Volume 2, From Memphis to Hollywood, essayed the background of Cash’s transition to country stardom via a collection of 1950s radio appearances, Sun-era demos and a deep cache of 1960s studio recordings. Volume 3 looks at Cash’s role as a live performer from 1956 through 1979, including stops at the Big “D” Jamboree, the Newport Folk Festival, a USO tour of Vietnam, the White House and the Wheeling Jamboree. Among these fifty tracks, thirty-nine are previously unreleased, giving ardent Cash collectors a wealth of new material to enjoy.

The earliest tracks, from a 1956 show in Dallas, find Cash opening with a powerful version of the 1955 B-side “So Doggone Lonesome” and introducing his then-current single on Sun, “I Walk the Line.” At the end of the three-song Dallas set you hear an audience member call out for “Get Rhythm” and the band launches into it. Cash was always a generous stage performer, early on sharing the limelight with Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant, introducing and praising them, and giving Perkins a solo spot for the instrumental “Perkins Boogie.” By 1962 the Tennessee Two had expanded to a tight trio with the addition of W.S. Holland on drums, but even with Cash’s move to Columbia, the group’s appearance at a Maryland hoe-down is still rootsy and raw. They rush “I Walk the Line” as if they’d had one too many pep pills, but Cash is charming as he addresses the audience and hams it up with impressions and jokes.

Two years later at the Newport Folk Festival Cash was introduced by proto-folkie Pete Seeger. Cash is thoroughly commanding as he sings his hits and expands his palette with Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” Pete LaFarge’s “Ballad of Ira Hayes” and the Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side.” His 1969 trip to Vietnam was bookended by more famous live recordings at Folsom and San Quentin prisons, but the soldiers at the Annex 14 NCO Club in Long Binh were treated to a prime performance that included June Carter on “Jackson,” “Long-Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man” and “Daddy Sang Bass.” Cash continued to mix his hits (including a request for “Little Flat Top Box”) with folk and country classics, mixing “Remember the Alamo” and “Cocaine Blues” into his set.

Cash’s performance at the Nixon Whitehouse in 1970 is this set’s most legendary, and also its longest at twelve songs. Richard Nixon provides the introduction, including a few remarks on the safe return of Apollo 13. Cash’s set includes a then-familiar mix of hits and gospel songs, but is mostly remembered for his choice not to play Nixon’s requests for “Okie From Muskogee” and “Welfare Cadillac,” and instead sing “What is Truth,” “Man in Black” and “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” the first of which is included here. Nixon is self deprecating in explaining Cash’s rebuff, and Cash is deferential in addressing Nixon as “Mr. President,” leaving the political implications to seem more legend than truth. Still, Nixon couldn’t have been comfortable having his antipathy towards the younger generation questioned by “What is Truth.”

The remaining tracks collect an eclectic array of songs recorded at a number of different locations throughout the 1970s. The titles include Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” the 1920s standard “The Prisoner’s Song,” Gene Autry’s “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine,” Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans,” the Western classic “Riders in the Sky,” Billy Joe Shaver’s “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal,” and several of Cash’s Sun-era tunes. It’s interesting to hear Cash’s breadth, though not as fulfilling as the set lists elsewhere in the collection. The recording quality is good to excellent throughout, with the Newport tracks in especially crisp stereo. If you’re new to Cash’s catalog, start your appreciation of his performing talents with At San Quentin, but this is a terrific expansion (at nearly 2-1/2 hours) of the well-known, previously issued live materials. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Paul Simon: Still Crazy After All These Years

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

Paul Simon expands his catalog of jazz-, soul- and gospel-inflected pop

After a lengthy world tour and live album (Live Rhymin’), Paul Simon returned in 1975 with his third post-Simon & Garfunkel studio album. Simon’s comfort with his solo stardom is signaled in part by the return of Art Garfunkel for the album’s top-ten “My Little Town.” He also shares the microphone with Phoebe Snow and the Jessy Dixon Singers (the latter of whom had toured with Simon in ’73 and ‘74) on “Gone at Last.” On the other hand, the cover photo of a mustachioed and behatted Simon suggests some lingering insecurity, if only with his long-thinning pate; perhaps it was the final dissolution of his marriage (which was grist for several songs on 1972’s Paul Simon) that instigated the physical changes.

Musically, the album continued the successful commercialtrajectory his previous pair of solo albums, launching four hit singles (including the chart-topping “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”) and winning a Grammy for Album of the Year. Musically the new songs weren’t as far-reaching, sitting mostly in the jazz-, soul- and gospel-flavored grooves Simon had explored on his earlier albums. Columbia/Legacy’s 2011 reissue reuses Bill Inglot’s remastering and the two bonus tracks of Rhino’s 2004 reissue, including demos of “Slip Slidin’ Away” and “Gone at Last.” Legacy’s traded out Rhino’s digipack for a standard jewel case and an 8-page booklet of lyrics and pictures. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Paul Simon: Paul Simon in Concert: Live Rhymin’

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

Paul Simon live in 1974

With Paul Simon having licensed his early solo catalog to Sony, the Legacy branch has taken the opportunity to reissue four key titles on their original Columbia label. Of the four (which also includes Paul Simon, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon and Still Crazy After All These Years), this 1974 live album is the only one to get a fresh remastering (by Dan Hersch at D2 Mastering) and the addition of two previously unreleased bonus tracks. Given that this is the least consequential of the four albums, it’s a good marketing move to make it the sole title to be updated. Coming off two commercially and artistically successful solo albums, Simon hit the road for a series of solo shows that included the Brazillian group Urubamba and the gospel Jessy Dixon Singers.

The song list includes Simon’s recent solo hits and several classics from the Simon & Garfunkel catalog. Though he wasn’t ever going to replace Garfunkel’s award-winning vocal on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or duplicate the bite of the duo’s harmonies on “Homeward Bound” and “The Sound of Silence,” the net effect is a showcase of the Paul Simon songbook. The Singers’ take the spotlight for the gospel “Jesus is the Answer,” and in the original concert set, Urubamba was featured on several instrumentals. Legacy’s 2011 reissue adds solo acoustic performances of “Kodachrome” and “Something So Right,” but here’s hoping a complete rundown of the reported 24-song set eventually sees the light of day. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Paul Simon: There Goes Rhymin’ Simon

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

Simon expands his reach with third solo effort

Simon’s third solo album (including 1965’s The Paul Simon Songbook), found the singer-songwriter expanding upon the freedom he’d displayed on the previous year’s eponymous release. The branching out displayed with reggae, Latin and South American sounds was now expanded with bluesy doo-wop, New Orleans pop, gospel and Memphis soul. Simon deftly choreographed an impressive guest list that includes The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Roches, horns arranged by Alan Toussaint and strings arranged by Quincy Jones. His mastery weaves multiple studios, dates and backing bands (including the players of Muscle Shoals) into a surprisingly cohesive album.

Beyond the album’s hits (“Kodachrome” and “Love Me Like a Rock”), Simon produced an album of memorable songs that set themselves apart from his earlier work with Art Garfunkel. The brass party on “Take Me to the Mardi Gras,” gospel backing vocals of “Tenderness,” Jamaican style of “Sunny Day,” and country underpinnings of “St. Judy’s Comet” were fresh to Simon’s catalog, and even the Garfunel-esque “American Tune” feels like a declaration of independence with Simon singing unaccompanied. Legacy’s 2011 reissue reuses Bill Inglot’s remastering and the four bonus demo tracks of Rhino’s 2004 reissue. Legacy’s traded out Rhino’s digipack for a standard jewel case and a 12-page booklet of lyrics and pictures. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Paul Simon: Paul Simon

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

Paul Simon sets out on a brilliant solo career

Though not technically Paul Simon’s solo debut – that honor goes to the acoustic performances he recorded for 1965’s The Paul Simon Songbook – this first post-Simon & Garfunkel album does represent the true beginnings of Simon’s massive success as a solo artist. Released in 1972, it came two years after Simon & Garfunkel bowed out with the Grammy winning Bridge Over Troubled Water, and the same year as the duo’s greatest hits album topped the chart. Simon’s re-debut was a strong artistic statement that was both commercially successful and the seedbed for experimentation and growth that would mark his solo career. The album opens with the reggae-inspired hit single “Mother and Child Reunion,” and along with the Latin influences of “Me and Julio Down By the School Yard” and haunting Andean instrumental breaks in “Duncan,” the melting pot of styles predicted the wealth of world music Simon would fold into his music.

At 32, Simon had matured from the sharp, at times bitter, worldview of his twenties. The difficulty of Simon & Garfunkel’s end had given way to the freedom of a solo act, and there’s a sense of renewed discovery in his characters and lyrical forms. The wayward “Duncan” recounts the education of a small-town fisherman’s son into a clear-eyed world traveler, while the fragmentary allusions of “Mother and Child Reunion” are surprisingly open-ended and poetically opaque. Simon’s marriage with his wife was apparently following his professional partnership with Garfunkel into dissolution, providing grist for “Everything Put Together Falls Apart,” “Run That Body Down” and “Congratulations.” Simon’s voice never sounded better, he asserts his picking talent on “Armistice Day” and “Peace Like a River” and vamps happily behind violinist Stephane Grappelli on the swing instrumental “Hobo’s Blues.”

Producer Roy Halee, as he’d done for Bridge Over Troubled Water, surrounded his artist with friendly, talented and inventive musicians. Together they crafted spacious, highly sympathetic arrangements that had the delicacy of an acoustic band, the depth of a jazz combo and the power of well-placed moments of electric guitar. Columbia/Legacy’s 2011 reissue reuses Bill Inglot’s remastering and the three bonus tracks of Rhino’s 2004 reissue, including solo acoustic-guitar demos of “Me and Julio Down by the School Yard” and “Duncan,” and an alternate version of “Paranoia Blues.” Legacy’s traded out Rhino’s digipack for a standard jewel case and an 8-page booklet of lyrics and pictures. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Mel Tillis: The Best of Mel Tillis – The Columbia Years

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

The missing chapter of Mel Tillis’ singing career

A decade before Mel Tillis found 1970s fame as a singer on Kapp and MGM, he recorded a number of terrific, often adventurous sides for Columbia. Tillis had been writing hits for years charting sides with Webb Pierce, Bobby Bare, Stonewall Jackson and others, but his own singles, including “The Violet and a Rose” and “Sawmill,” found only limited success. Legacy’s 24-track collection, a digital download reissue of Collectors’ Choice’ out-of-print CD, is a treasure-trove of Tillis originals, many co-written with Wayne Walker. Many of these titles were hits for other singers, including eight for Pierce, and while it’s a treat to find Tillis’ original versions of “Honky Tonk Song,” “Holiday for Love” and “A Thousand Miles Ago,” it’s even more interesting to hear the range of styles he tried out. There are Louvin-inspired harmonies inn “Georgia Town Blues,” a twangy proto-rock guitar in the tall tale “Loco Weed,” a calypso beat for “Party Girl,” and a cover of “Hearts of Stone” (which was also recorded by Elvis Presley, Connie Francis and Red Foley) that has wailing sax and Cameo-Parkway styled backing vocals. Tillis’ lack of hits at Columbia no doubt contributed to his stylistic flexibility, and though he sounds most deeply at home on honky-tonk sides “Heart Over Mind” (a hit for Ray Price) and “Tupelo County Jail,” he remained engaged and enthusiastic when singing the Johnny Horton styled historical tale “Ten Thousand Drums” and teen tunes like “It’s So Easy.” Tillis would found tremendous fame as a singer and personality in the 1970s, but these earlier sides for Columbia show convincingly that his success in the spotlight should have come much sooner. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

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Rosanne Cash: The Essential Rosanne Cash

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

Career- and label-spanning summary of a second-generation legend

For an artist of her stature, Rosanne Cash has been the subject of surprisingly thin compilation releases. Several 10- and 12-track single disc collections have been issued, but only Raven’s imported 21-track Blue Moons and Broken Hearts and to a lesser extent Legacy’s earlier Very Best Of really dug beyond the hits. That list is now expanded with this two-disc, thirty-six track collection, featuring a song list picked and programmed by the artist herself. The set opens with “Can I Still Believe in You,” from her 1978 self-titled Germany-only debut, and closes over thirty years later with a trio of tracks drawn from 2009’s The List. The latter selections include a cover of Mickey Newbury’s “Sweet Memories” previously available only on the Borders Books version of The List.

Included are all eleven of Cash’s country chart-toppers, seventeen of her twenty country chart entries, and tracks drawn from all twelve studio albums she’s recorded for Ariola, Columbia and Capitol/EMI. There are augumented with bonuses drawn from earlier antholgies, and duets from albums by Vince Gill (“If It Weren’t For Him”) and Rodney Crowell (“Its Such a Small World”). The bulk of the collection is devoted to Cash’s tenure with Columbia, with the second half of disc two stepping through her more recent work for Capitol/EMI. These latter tracks find Cash reinventing herself from a country hit maker to a writer, album auteur and Grammy nominee. This plays out as a worthy soundtrack for Cash’s recent memoir, Composed, provides a terrific overview of her hits and a useful guide to the rich album tracks in her catalog.

Though Cash isn’t prone to complimenting her debut, the strength of her songwriter’s voice is evident from the start. It may be difficult at mid-life to fully reconnect with the yet-to-be-fulfilled longing one felt at twenty-three, but the early songs provide telling snapshots of a young writer who was already able to express her soul in words. A year later, on 1979’s Right or Wrong, Cash sounds more confident, singing as an equal with Bobby Bare on “No Memories Hangin’ Round,” and producer Rodney Crowell deftly blended roots with radio-friendly touches. Her follow-up, Seven Year Ache, broke her career wide open with an album and title track that each topped the country chart; the single also crossed over, stopping just shy of the pop top twenty.

Cash’s songs and vocals, and Crowell’s production fit easily across a variety of styles, including pop ballads, twangy roots, countrypolitan jazz, and horn-lined soul. Several of the hits, particularly those in the mid-80s, tended to crystalline guitars, big piano and booming drums, but Cash also topped the chart with the locomotive rhythm of “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train,” the Brill Building soul of John Hiatt’s “The Way We Make a Broken Heart,” and most endearingly, an acoustic shuffle of “Tennessee Flat Top Box” that recalled her dad’s early days at Sun.

Cash’s introductory notes provide a peek inside the discoveries that occur when an artist anthologizes her own catalog – thinking back to the places and people that influenced one’s work, and wondering who they were when a particular song was written or performed. It’s hard to tell if the songs provide mileage markers for her life, or her life provides the events that demarcate the phases of her career; a bit of each, it seems. The set’s affectionate and perceptive liner notes are written by Rodney Crowell, to whom Cash was married and who produced her first five albums. The booklet adds detailed session notes, including chart information and personnel, and fleshes out this terrific overview of a second-generation country legend. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

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