Tag Archives: Standards

NRBQ: Happy Talk

Playful new EP from the new NRBQ

Some of NRBQ’s longtime fans have a hard time accepting this revision of the band as legitimate, but with founding member Terry Adams at the helm, the new quartet has captured a chunk of the original band’s ethos as they move forward with new material. 2011’s Keep This Love Goin’ and 2014’s Brass Tacks each displayed the broad musical taste and sense of irreverence that were hallmarks of the earlier lineups. This five-song EP continues in the same direction with two originals, and covers of Roy Orbison, Rodgers & Hammerstein and the blues saxophonist, Abb Locke (“Blues Blues Blues”). The originals are playful novelties, while the covers are given original spins such as a tic-tac rhythm for “Only the Lonely” and the dreamy quality of “Happy Talk.” If it sounds a bit like a lark, that’s because amusement and adventure married to taste and musical chops have always been the band’s raison d’être, and that DNA has passed through to this revitalized quartet. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

NRBQ’s Home Page

The Platters: Rock

The mid- and uptempo sides of ‘50s ballad legends

Like many of rock ‘n’ roll’s founding acts, the decades have largely reduced the Platters’ memory to their hits – “Only You,” “The Great Pretender,” “My Prayer,” “Twilight Time” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” But, also like many of their colleagues, there was a great deal more to the Platters catalog than these iconic singles. Bear Family’s generous thirty track collection explores beyond the group’s familiar ballads, and focuses on mid- and uptempo tracks from the Mercury years of 1955-1962. The set’s most rocking tunes, including “Bark, Battle and Ball,” “Don’t Let Go,” “Hula Hop,” “I Wanna,” “Out of My Mind” and “You Don’t Say,” reach back past the pop balladry to the group’s R&B roots; but even the slower songs, including bass vocalist Herb Reed’s interpretation of “Sixteen Tons,” are more juke joint than supper club.

The group revs up the standards “On a Slowboat to China,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” and “Let’s Fall in Love” to show tempo, giving a sense of what they might have sounded like at a hop. All five Platters get lead vocal spots, and the group is supported on several tracks by the orchestral direction of Mercury’s David Carroll. Also heard here are Wrecking Crew regulars Plas Johnson, Barney Kessell, Earl Palmer and Howard Roberts, and on the scorching opening pair, saxophonist Freddie Simon and guitarist Chuck Norris. Bear Family’s crisp reproductions of mono and stereo masters are housed in a tri-fold digipak with a 36-page booklet of photos, liner notes and a detailed discography. This is a novel view of the Platters’ catalog, but one that sheds new light on their range. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Herb Reed’s Platters’ Home Page

Bobby Darin & Johnny Mercer: Two of a Kind

Swinging 1961 session reissued in 2017 with bonuses

From “Splish Splash” to “Mack the Knife” to “Simple Song of Freedom,” Bobby Darin showed off a restless artistic soul. In 1961 Darin teamed with songwriter (and Capitol Records co-founder) Johnny Mercer for a swinging set of Tin Pan Alley standards, arranged and executed with brassy sizzle by Billy May. The album’s joie de vivre is undeniable, sparked both by the principals’ chemistry and the band’s relentless push. Darin and Mercer seem to be unreeling these classics extemporaneously, with each inserting playful ad libs as the other sings. Imagine if Martin and Lewis, or Hope and Crosby, had both been vocalists first, rather than vocalist-comedian pairs, and you’ll get a sense of this duo’s playful power. Their 27-year age difference evaporates as they express their shared love of these songs, including a few of Mercer’s own titles.

The recordings, engineered by Bill Putnam, are crisp, fanning the orchestra out in stereo and leaving center stage for the vocalists. Omnivore’s reissue augments the album’s original thirteen tracks with seven bonuses, including five alternate takes and two songs that didn’t make the cut. The newly released songs are Dreyer and Herman’s mid-1920s “Cecilla” and Leslie Stuart’s late nineteenth-century British music hall tune “Lily of Laguna.” The latter had been shorn of its racial lyrics in the early-1940s, and it’s this swinging rewrite that Darin and Mercer tackle here. The CD release includes an eight-page booklet that features original cover art, Stanley Green’s original liners, and new notes by Cheryl Pawelski. Originally issued by ATCO, and reissued in 1990, this title’s been a hard-to-find gem in Darin’s catalog. Now, with bonuses, it has even more sparkle. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Vic Damone: The Lively Ones

Superb vocalist backed by sizzling Billy May charts

With Frank Sinatra having decamped to start his Reprise label, his former label, Capitol, signed the next best thing, Vic Damone. The Brooklyn-born Damone had the same working class roots as Sinatra, and after getting his first break on Arthur Godfrey’s talent show in the late ‘40s, he signed with Mercury. Damone had several hits with Mercury, as well as subsequently with Columbia, but in 1961 he began a five-year run on Capitol. This third long-player for Capitol, released in 1962, was also Damone’s second to pair him with arranger Billy May. The latter had worked with Sinatra in the late ‘50s on the seminal Come Fly with Me and Grammy-winning Come Dance with Me, and paired again with Sinatra for two more titles in 1961.

Entering the studio in 1962, Damone was an established star, and May was coming off a string of superb swing albums with one of Damone’s vocal role models. The result has the hallmarks of Sinatra’s great sessions – sizzling horn charts, swing surfaces, jazz underpinnings and thoughtful interpretations of material that leans heavily on standards. Winningly, however, this doesn’t sound like someone imitating Sinatra, as Damone asserted the beautiful tone of his voice on both ballads and up-tempo numbers. There’s none of Sinatra’s ring-a-ding-ding bravado here, and Damone sings with a friend’s smile rather than a pack leader’s wink.

Damone settles easily into the lush strings of “Laura” and “Ruby,” as well as the late-night feel of “Nina Never Knew.” He coasts smoothly through “Cherokee” and “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” with the band vamping energetically all around him, and swings both “I Want a Little Girl” and the album’s title track. The latter also lent itself to Damone’s summer replacement musical variety show, which he hosted for NBC in 1962 and 1963. The Lively Ones was previously available on CD as a two-fer with Strange Enchantment, but with the disc having fallen out of print, this digital download provides a value-priced option. Damone would record several more fine albums for Capitol before moving on to Warner Brothers, but this set is among his best. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Vic Damone’s Home Page

Paul Kelly and Charlie Owen: Death’s Dateless Night

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

Doris Day: The Love Album

DorisDay_TheLoveAlbumReissue of terrific 1967 album of standards

Doris Day’s success as an actress in the 1960s has often eclipsed her earlier renown as a vocalist, but it was with the big bands of the 1940s that she first became a star. Though her films fell out of step with the social changes of the late 60s, she found renewed success on television, and it was amid this transition that she returned to the studio to record a set of standards, newly orchestrated by Sid Feller. Having just parted ways with her longtime label, Columbia, the independently produced album was shopped around without success, and shelved until the UK Vision label dug it out of the vault in 1994. A 2006 reissued added three bonus tracks recorded in 1970 for a 1971 television special, and it’s that fourteen-track lineup that’s reproduced here.

Even with rock and pop having been pushed Tin Pan Alley off the radio, it’s hard to imagine there wasn’t a market for these superb performances. Day takes the songs at pensive tempos that highlight her superb control and the sweet tone of her voice. Feller’s use of a rhythm section, string quartet and woodwind player may have been motivated by economics, but it also created a perfect pocket for the vocals. The sound is full, but doesn’t require Day to compete with the arrangements. Day’s selections drew heavily from the songs she heard as a child, and the bonus tracks rework two of her catalog icons “It’s Magic” and “Sentimental Journey.” Liner notes by Will Friedwald round out a great package. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Doris Day’s Home Page

Sarah Vaughan: Live at Rosy’s

SarahVaughan_LiveAtRosysA vocal legend live in New Orleans in 1978

By 1978, Sarah Vaughan was standing at the confluence of nearly a decade of renewal. Her rebirth began with a shift to the West Coast in 1970, and included new recording contracts, first with Mainstream and later with Pablo, the 1972 introduction of “Send in the Clowns” to her repertoire, orchestral performances of the Gershwin catalog that netted her both an Emmy and a Grammy, and a 1978 documentary, Listen to the Sun. That same year, NPR’s Jazz Alive! caught Vaughan in this New Orleans showcase with her stellar rhythm trio of pianist Carl Schroeder, drummer Jimmy Cobb and bassist Walter Booker.

At 54, Vaughan was at a peak of artistic vision, vocal quality and technical control, and is nearly telepathic is communicating with her well-seasoned band. Her extraordinary vocal range was completely intact, and age had only added new shadings to a voice that was born rich with character. The set list was stocked primarily with the standards that had long been her metier, but her improvisational skills made every rendition fresh and seem extemporaneous. The original multitrack masters of her show at Rosy’s Jazz Club, including previously unbroadcast performances, remained in the collection of the show’s original procuer, Tim Owens, until this first-ever commercial release.

Vaughan is heard here to be uncommonly at ease on stage, joking with the audience and even riffing on Ella Fitzgerald’s “A-Tisket A-Tasket” in response to a wayward request. But when she sings, she’s all business, whether revving up the ballad “I’ll Remember April” into a scat-singing showcase, or stretching out with the band on the side one closer, “Sarah’s Blues.” The dazzling energy of her fast numbers is often paired with ballads whose tempos provide opportunity for exquisitely manicured notes. The control she exerts over pitch and tone is incredible as she annotates the smooth, beautiful core of her voice with vibrato.

There’s never any doubt who’s starring on stage (despite Vaughan’s habit of jokingly introducing herself as Carmen McCrae), but she was generous with her band, offering them spotlights and weaving their musical ideas into her vocals. The trio setting provides a flexible and surprisingly rich setting for Vaughan, allowing her to improvise and have the band follow, instead of weaving herself into a larger ensemble’s charted arrangement. Her voice provides both a lead a a fourth instrument, and pairs beautifully with Booker’s bass for a duet of “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon).”

The set list reaches back to Vaughan’s earliest days for Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s “Time After Time,” stretching into high notes that soar with operatic splendor. Disc one peaks with Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” stripped of Paul Griffin’s 1974 pop arrangement, and expanded into a tour de force ballad. The song would eventually cap Vaughan’s live sets, but by 1978 it was already a deeply emotional moment for both the singer and her audience. The only thing missing from this recording is the ovation that must have followed. Disc one closes with the instrument jam “Sarah’s Blues,” showing off how high this band could fly.

Disc two includes two pieces from Vaughan’s Gershwin songbook, the signature “The Man I Love” and a take on “Fascinating Rhythm” that somehow manages to break into a minuet. A pair of Rodgers & Hart songs showcase two very different sides of the group: “I Could Write a Book” swings as the band vamps behind Vaughan’s improvised lyrics, while “My Funny Valentine” searches for new layers and shadings in a familiar melody. Continual renewal was key to Vaughan’s stage greatness, and it made her chestnuts tower ever higher, year after year.

The one then-new piece in the set was “If You Went Away,” from Vaughan’s album I Love Brazil!, and while it’s a nice addition, it’s almost as if Vaughan needed to sing it for a decade or two before she’d really start to plumb its depths. Vaughan picked material that stood up to reappraisal and reinterpretation, and it’s fascinating to hear how her own approach to songs changed over decades of exploration. But unlike the Groundhog Day chase of a single perfect day, Vaughan’s perfection was ephemeral and of-the-moment, and captured in uniquely colored performances like this.

The trio disbanded the following year, amid Vaughan’s marriage to Waymond Reed, and Reed’s promotion to bandleader. Vaughan continued to perform and record through the 1980s, but this late-70s date stands at an especially strong point in her career. Resonance’s two disc set is housed in a three-panel digipack, with a 36-page booklet that includes essays from music journalists Will Friedwald and James Gavin, remembrances from Carl Schroeder and club owner Rosalie Wilson, and interviews with Jimmy Cobb and Vaughan’s labelmate Helen Merrill. It’s a rich package, but it’s a swinging trio, their finely selected repertoire and the Divine One that really make this set sing. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Resonance Records’ Home Page

Kinky Friedman: The Loneliest Man I Ever Met

KinkyFriedman_TheLonliestManKinky Friedman returns to the studio, but not to songwriting

For rock music fans of the 1970s, Kinky Friedman was the oddest of guilty pleasures. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen had drawn many to roots music with “Hot Rod Lincoln,” and then burrowed into the stonersphere with “Seeds and Stems (Again).” This led many listeners to country and folk, and with Friedman’s 1973 debut, Sold American, humor, satire and pathos, often at the same time. Even the names – “Kinky” and “Texas Jewboys” – implied a level of irreverence that didn’t prepare listeners for Friedman’s perceptiveness. His broad, comic approach often obscured the deeper layers on first pass, but his resolutions always turned out to be parable rather than punch line.

Following a trio of 1970s albums, Friedman released a 1983 solo effort, Under the Double Ego, and then turned to novel writing (with sides of politics and distilling) as his main occupation. He still performed, released a few live sets, and dropped in on his own tribute album, but it’s been 32 years since his last full studio collection. Other than the previously unrecorded title track (co-written with Tim Hoover, and dedicated to Tompall Glaser), the song list is all covers, selecting songs with special resonance from the catalogs of Willie Nelson, Tom Waits, Warren Zevon, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Lerner & Loewe. The latter, “Wand’rin Star,” was originally written for the stage musical Paint Your Wagon, and turned into a surprise UK hit single by film actor Lee Marvin!

At 70, Friedman’s voice sounds more aged than the decade-older Nelson’s as they duet on the opening “Bloody Mary Morning.” But that same weathering conveys a lifetime of wisdom gathered between Friedman’s 1970s originals of “Lady Yesterday” and “Wild Man From Borneo” and today’s covers. Friedman cannily interprets “A Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis” more as a hushed confession than Tom Waits’ Satchmo-inflected original, and he returns Zevon’s “My Shit’s Fucked Up” from its mortal ending to the lyrics’ original lamentation of aging. Mickey Raphael’s harmonica adds a mournful sound to several tracks, including a properly haggard rendition of “Mama’s Hungry Eyes.”

These quieter, low-key performances offer an uninterrupted helping of Friedman’s introspective and empathetic sides, and the song selections – particularly the closing pairing of a show tune and a popular standard – reveal a streak of nostalgic sentimentalism. An album of covers provides insight into a songwriter’s tastes and influences, but it’s not a substitute for fresh reflections on today – and today’s society could really use a helping of Friedman’s audacious wit. Hopefully, this studio project will have been sufficiently enjoyable to spark a new round of songwriting. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Kinky Friedman’s Home Page

Anne McCue: Blue Sky Thinkin’

AnneMcCue_BlueSkyThinkinAnne McCue swings

Anne McCue is better known for standing in front of guitars and drums than clarinets and brass. Her previous albums reached back to the gutsy sound of 1970s rock vocalists, as well as contemporaries like Sam Phillips and Lucinda Williams; her latest reaches back several more decades, to the sounds of the 1930s. There’s always been a bluesy edge to her singing, and here those notes consort with the roots of swing and gypsy jazz. McCue dials down the ferocity of her vocals to an era-appropriate slyness, picks terrific figures on her guitar, and perhaps most impressively of all, writes songs that bid to fill some blank pages in the great American songbook.

Drummer Dave Raven nails the era’s blood-pumping excitement with Krupa-styled tom-toms on the opening “Dig Two Graves,” Deanie Richardson’s fiddle provides a superb foil for McCue’s six string swing, and Jim Hoke’s clarinet and horn chart fills in the period detail. The song’s bouncy tempo camouflages lyrics of noirish revenge, with San Francisco fog cloaking fatalistic fortunes. McCue turns to folk-blues with the finger-picked renewal of “Spring Cleaning in the Wintertime” and the old-timey “Cowgirl Blues.” She turns into a charming, coquettish chanteuse for “Long Tall Story,” and gets slinky, ala Peggy Lee, on the double bass and finger-snapping “Save a Life.”

Within the realm of swinging beats, McCue’s songs are quite diverse, ranging from the rockabilly “Little White Cat” to the fiery tango “Uncanny Moon.” There’s a nostalgic jazz core to the album, but it’s embroidered with elements of New Orleans funk, New York sophistication, big band rhythms, sinuous blues, stage flair and lyric craft. Dave Alvin guests as vocalist on the Cab Calloway-styled “Devil in the Middle,” and the album’s lone-cover, Regis McNichols Jr.’s contemporary “Knock on Wood,” fits perfectly with the standards vibe. McCue’s virtuosity is no surprise, but the ease with which she’s absorbed and restated the beating heart of swing music is impressive and thrilling. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Anne McCue’s Home Page

Ray Price: A New Place to Begin

RayPrice_ANewPlaceToBeginCountry and pop from the mid-80s, with unreleased sides

These sixteen tracks date to Price’s mid-80s deal with Snuff Garrett’s short-lived Viva label. At the time, their collaboration resulted in the 1983 album Master of the Art, seven low charting singles and several tracks placed in the films of Viva’s co-owner, Clint Eastwood. This collection expands on the released material with seven tracks that were left in the vault when Garrett’s illness sidelined the label’s activity. Price is in good voice throughout (as is his trademark shuffle rhythm), and arrangements featuring the Cherokee Cowboys and Johnny Gimble that range from fiddle tunes to pop standards. The country songs, including the previously unreleased “Old Loves Never Die,” have withstood the years better than the pop productions, though Price’s vocal on the steel and vibe arrangement of “Stormy Weather” suggests it might have been a good idea to follow Willie Nelson’s lead in recording standards. Newbies should start with Price’s essential honky-tonk and countrypolitan catalogs, but fans will find these mid-career recordings worth hearing. [©2015 Hyperbolium]