Posts Tagged ‘Sun’

Dale Waston: The Sun Sessions

Monday, December 5th, 2011

Texas honky-tonker conjures the Sun spirit of Johnny Cash

Dale Watson hasn’t exactly kept his musical debt to Johnny Cash a secret, but just how thoroughly he’s absorbed Cash’s roots has never been more apparent than on this new release. Recording in a trio (with “the Texas Two”), Watson’s baritone and tic-tac guitar, Chris Crepps’ upright bass and Mike Bernal’s snare drum are warmed by Sun’s famous acoustics and slapback echo. The fourteen original songs tip their hat more than once to Cash’s early works, but at the same time they stay true to Watson’s honky-tonk roots. He writes of loving, longing, losing, traveling and faith, and he sketches friends and acquaintances with a keen eye. Watson rides Cash’s train rhythm for a trip through Sweden to the country music hotbed of Gothenburg, and revisits Cash’s “Get Rhythm” with the Texas shoeshine man “Big Daddy.” The sessions have a vitality that’s lost in the bits-and-pieces method of modern studios, and the few muffed notes are quickly forgotten as the guitar twangs, the snare drum shuffles and the acoustic bass thumps out its rich tone. In lesser hands this homage to Cash ’55 might have sounded gimmicky, but Watson long ago established his country music bona fides, and as Steve Legett points out, this isn’t an homage to Sun records, it is a Sun record, and a good one at that. It’s also one of the most entertaining records in Watson’s already rich catalog. Highly recommended to fans of Watson, Cash and Sun. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Dale Watson’s Home Page

John Mellencamp: No Better Than This

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Mellencamp visits country, blues and rock ‘n’ roll ghosts

John Mellencamp is an artist whose depth continues to impress and surprise. His populist anthems of the 1980s demonstrated heartland roots that Springsteen could only write of, and even as he was charting with “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” and “Lonely Ol’ Night,” he was filling out his albums with the social commentary of “Rain on the Scarecrow” and co-founding Farm Aid with Willie Nelson and Neil Young. His commentary continued to mature and turned naturally introspective, and though he continued to place singles on the charts, his albums became increasingly whole in tone. He explored urban soul sounds, returned to rock ‘n’ roll basics, explored historic folk and blues songs, and wrote through a dark streak of social and eprsonal commentary on his last few studio albums.

In many ways, the winding path of his career, the early malice of the record industry, the misunderstanding of music critics, the fight to regain his name and his artistic bona fides, is the road that led to this collection of original songs. The roots introduced on Lonesome Jubilee and explored on Big Daddy are now taken for granted, both in Mellencamp’s music and across the Americana scene. The mountain sounds, slap bass and vintage blues tones are no longer seen as affectations or anthropological explorations, but as the foundation that’s always underlined Mellencamp’s music. On this new, brilliantly executed album, Mellencamp visits and records at three historical locations: the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Sun Studios in Memphis and room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio.

There’s a bit of fetishism in toting along mono analog equipment, lining up on the marks laid down by Sam Phillips, and reinstalling a wood floor in the hotel room, but the connections made to the musicians who first sounded out these spaces famous was worth the effort. Mellencamp doesn’t attempt to raise ghosts as much as he amplifies the echoes that have always threaded through his music. The slap bass of “Coming Down the Road” catches the excitement of mid-50s Sun records without imitating them. Best of all, the minimalistic live recording – no mixing or overdubs – is mostly shorn of T-Bone Burnett’s influences as a producer. What this record (and yes, it is available on vinyl) shows is that it’s not the recording, it’s what’s being recorded. The primitive sound serves to focus the listener’s ear on the artist’s lyrics and moods.

Mellencamp wrestles with the existence of life-after-death, opting to appreciate his time on Earth in the opening “Save Some Time to Dream,” and taking a more laissez-faire attitude (“I’ll see you in the next world / If there is really one”) in the defeated “A Graceful Fall.” The latter’s misfortune would play more darkly if not for Mellencamp’s large, near Vaudevillian vocal, as would the self-pity of “No One Cares About Me,” were it not sung to a country-rockabilly backing and tagged with an optimistic hint of redemption. That optimism segues into the album’s most touching song, “Love at First Sight,” which is matched by the heartbreaking wistfulness of the 50-years-later “Thinking About You.” The opening lyric of the latter proclaims “It’s not my nature / To be nostalgic at all,” but it’s only a device within the song’s story, as Mellencamp medicates on missed opportunities, unfulfilled desires and youthful lessons that only become clear with age.

This album shouldn’t be as surprising as it turns out to be. The elements have been evident throughout Mellencamp’s career, but never before has he so thoroughly leaned on his influences or strained them through such a vintage sound. The edges of his voice mate perfectly with the live recording and mono production’s punch to make these performances weathered exhalations of emotion rather than manicured studio creations. This is a great example of how the artifice that multi-track recording, overdubbing and other studio manipulations have interjected themselves between artists and listeners; and when an artist is really digging into himself, his life and the history that’s fueled his music, the more immediate the recording the better. These songs capture a reflective time in Mellencamp’s life and the recordings serve to amplify his every thought. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

John Mellancamp’s Home Page

Jerry Lee Lewis: The Essential Sun Country Hits

Saturday, August 14th, 2010

The Killer’s original country sides for Sun

Few remember that Jerry Lee Lewis’ first recording for Sun was a 1956 cover of Ray Price’s classic, “Crazy Arms.” Lewis’ country roots were largely overshadowed by the string of incendiary rock ‘n’ roll sides he recorded in the late 50s, and all but buried by the scandal that derailed his career in 1958. It wasn’t until the mid-60s, at Smash Records, that Lewis once again found sustained commercial success, but this time on the country chart as a balladeer. His renewed popularity led then-Sun owner Shelby Singleton to dig up earlier unreleased country sides, including three from Lewis’ last Sun session in 1963, and release them as singles. Varese’s fourteen-track collection pulls together three sides released at the time of Lewis’ tenure with Sun, eight sides first released by Singleton between 1969 and 1972, and three sides that went unreleased as singles, but have turned up on various compilations over the years. Tht titles include several top-10s, 20s and 40s, but more interestingly, it shows that Sun had tried Lewis out on the country chart with a 1958 cover of Charlie Rich’s “I’ll Make it All Up to You” and used “It Hurt Me So” as a B-side. Lewis’ success at Smash comes as no surprise once you’ve heard these tracks he waxed at Sun in the late 50s and early 60s. He’s a talented and nuanced country singer and honky-tonk pianist whose love of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams is born out in covers of the former’s “Waiting for a Train” and the latter’s “I Could Never Be Ashamed of You.” What does remain surprising is how easily he dropped his outsized rock ‘n’ roll persona to sing these more intimate songs of woe.  To complete the picture of Lewis’ country career you’ll need to pick up a collection of his Smash hits, such as Killer Country, but the roots were clearly planted with these efforts at Sun. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

Elvis Presley: Elvis 75

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

Career spanning single CD skims the surface of Elvis’ greatness

This single CD, issued in celebration of Elvis Presley’s 75th birthday anniversary, includes twenty-five tracks selected from the more thorough 4-CD Elvis 75 Good Rockin’ Tonight. Much like the box set, this disc covers the length of Elvis’ career, including early sides for Sun, incendiary rock ‘n’ ‘roll for RCA, hits from the movies, post-Army comebacks, gospel, late-60s Memphis gems, live performances and later studio work from 1972. Unlike the box set, you’ll miss his pre-Sun acetate and his post-72 recordings. More importantly, each phase of Elvis’ career gets only one or a few cuts here, and the lesser known tracks that provide compelling context in the box set are dropped.

Obviously, a career as rich as Elvis Presley’s can’t be summed up in a single disc. Even his Top 10 hits won’t fit on a single CD, and there’s so much material beyond the charts that a fair hearing of the King’s catalog really takes multiple discs or sets. 30 #1 Hits painted a picture of Presley’s career through a recitation of his best-known hits; it’s a fair summary, as is the broader 2-1/2 CD Essential 3.0. But none of these short collections, this one included, provide enough depth on Elvis’ innovations, failures and resurgences to really essay the full arc of his career. A single disc such as this can serve as a map to an artist’s career, but it’s no substitute for a more thorough hearing.

What’s here is fantastic. From the early rave-up of Arthur “Big Boy” Cruddup’s “That’s All Right” through the deeply-felt “Always On My Mind,” Elvis is nothing less than brilliant. The disc is nicely programmed and plays well, but with so few tracks to provide context, you’ll have to figure out for yourself how Elvis got from “Viva Las Vegas” to “How Great Thou Art.” If you want to dig deeper, seek out the 4-CD box, or sets that survey his 50s, 60s and 70s masters, soundtracks, sessions at Sun and American Studios, his ’68 comeback special, and his numerous live recordings.

The disc is delivered in a two-section digipack featuring a pair of full-panel Presley photos. The 16-page booklet includes a short biographical essay by Billy Altman (seemingly excerpted from his much longer essay in the box set), additional photos, and recording and chart data. If you think you only need one disc of Elvis Presley’s music, this isn’t a bad place to get an earful, but be forewarned that it’s a gateway to a large catalog that you may find yourself unable to resist. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

Elvis Presley: Elvis 75- Good Rockin’ Tonight

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

4-CD anthology shines as brightly as a King’s crown

Elvis was not only the king of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Little Richard’s claim on the crown notwithstanding), but in his afterlife he has also become the undisputed king of reissues and anthologies. RCA’s four-CD set, spanning from his earliest self-funded acetates through late home recordings and live sides, his last major studio works and a post-mortem remix, offers no new tracks for Presley’s legions of collectors, but provides a superb introduction and deep overview for anyone who’s heard about, rather than heard, the King. Those who know a few hits or have sat through an Elvis movie or two will find the greatness of his musical catalog measures up to the hype and explains the dedication of his most ardent fans.

Collected here are one hundred tracks, beginning with Presley’s very first recording, “My Happiness,” waxed on his own dime as a gift for his mother. His earliest commercial sides show how he forged hillbilly, blues and country roots into his personal strand of rock ‘n’ roll, first for Sun with Scotty Moore and Bill Black, and then, with the addition of D.J. Fontana on drums and A-list guests like Floyd Cramer and Chet Atkins, for RCA. These early works aren’t so much primitive as they are elemental – the lack of production pomp or circumstance presents Elvis as an unadorned and raw rock ‘n’ roll spirit. The addition of a backing vocal trio, as can first be heard on 1956’s “I Was the One,” showed a crooning side of Elvis that would continue to reappear even as he continued to explore rockabilly and blues.

From the 50s through the 70s Elvis moved through a variety of producer’s hands and a number of different studios, and got something different from each. His studio recordings took him from Memphis to Nashville, north to New York, west to Hollywood, back to Nashville where he worked in RCA’s legendary Studio B and back to Memphis for his legendary late-60s sessions at Chip Moman’s American Studios. By the early ‘70s, on the heels of his televised comeback special, Elvis once again became a live draw, and selected sides find him in Las Vegas, Honolulu and on the road in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Elvis waxed his share of clunkers, but with each new direction and in each new setting he seemed to record something worthwhile, and producer Ernst Mikael Jorgensen has done a masterful job of picking highlights.

More importantly, Jorgensen has intermixed iconic hits with lesser known singles and album tracks, showing the depth of Elvis’ artistry and the catalog he created. Elvis often overwhelmed the charts with hit singles, leaving terrific performances such as the energized “One-Sided Love Affair,” a bluesy cover of Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and the gospel “Thrill of Your Love” to languish as album tracks. Even more surprising is a 1962 version of “Suspicion” that pre-dates Terry Stafford’s hit by two years. Elvis’ soundtracks included their share of dregs, particularly as the ‘60s wore on, but they also included hits and great album tracks like a scorching version of “Trouble” from King Creole and bluesy covers of Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time” from Spinout and Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” from Clambake.

While other artists reinvented themselves to fit the times, Elvis bent the times around himself (excepting “Yoga is as Yoga Does,” thankfully not included here), staying true to his voice as everything around him changed. His producers, songwriters, and musicians kept turning over, but in the center of it all Elvis sang a surprisingly straight line from ’53 to ‘77. Even as his voice matured and the productions were influenced by his Vegas stage show, the fire in his delivery remained. Whether singing rock, blues, country, soul, pop or gospel, his performances found a true line stretched from the Sun sessions through RCA studios in Nashville, New York and Hollywood, a stint in the army, a catalog of often mediocre films, his 1968 resurrection, a triumphant return to Memphis, and country sessions that brought him back to his roots.

For many listeners, disc four will be the least familiar. Covering 1970 through 1977, these selections find Elvis’ singles charting lower, but still delivering the goods. Only “Burning Love” made the top-5, and his other top-10 from that stretch, “The Wonder of You,” is not included. “An American Trilogy,” is at once bombastic and utterly show-stopping, his version of “Always on My Mind” made the country charts but should have found cross-over success before Willie Nelson ten years later, and his last single, “Way Down,” though given to ‘70s production sounds, finds his gospel fervor undimmed. The beat heavy remix of “A Little Less Conversation” that closes the set shows just how easily Elvis’ voice could slide into new contexts (the original film performance from Live a Little, Love a Little is worth searching out on DVD, by the way). These hundred tracks aren’t a complete run through every Elvis highlight, but they tell the entire arc of his musical career in a compelling and thorough way.

The box includes an 80-page booklet that features a biographical essay by Billy Altman, numerous photos, reproductions of original record labels, covers and picture sleeves, movie posters, master tape boxes, and detailed recording, chart and personnel data. RCA/Legacy is releasing a companion 26-track single disc that cherry-picks this box, and though it may prove useful as a guide to further Elvis purchases, it doesn’t provide the compelling, detailed portrait of this four-disc set. With more Elvis 75th-birthday anniversary reissues on the way (and a terrific 2-CD version of From Elvis in Memphis already out) you may be tempted to put together your own collection, but you’d have a hard time assembling a more compelling introduction than this box. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

Johnny Cash: Johnny Cash’s America

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

Superb Johnny Cash biographical documentary DVD and CD

Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s Johnny Cash documentary premiered on the U.S. Bio channel in late October, accompanied by this DVD/CD package, Johnny Cash’s America. The DVD includes the full 90-minute documentary alongside several video extras. The CD collects eighteen full-length performances of songs heard in the documentary, five of which were previously unreleased. The core documentary strings together archival footage of Cash in performance, television specials and documentaries, supplemented by interviews with family and musical associates, authoritatively answering the questions posed by the film’s narrator: “How did events shape Cash? And what did he reflect back on to the country? How can one speak his mind, without losing his voice?” Cash’s story is told in chronological order, starting with the hardscrabble Arkansas roots at the very core of his character. Cash’s earliest years are described by childhood friends and remembered by Cash in a filmed return to his first home.

Cash’s recording career, from Sun Records to Columbia to his last works with Rick Rubin provide the soundtrack to a life that’s both a product of America and an influence woven into the tapestry of the country he so vocally loved. Cash is shown as an artist who stuck resolutely to his vision, such as when he lampoons the notion he’d replace Elvis as the King departed to RCA. Clips of Cash communing with Bob Dylan in the studio recording Nashville Skyline and a roll call of non-Country artists featured on his primetime television show further demonstrate the breadth of his musical vision. As far as Cash managed to stretch the ears of his fans, he stretched their minds even further. In lending his voice to the plight of Native Americans and prisoners, and in offering forthright discussions of his own drug use (“I was taking the pills for awhile, and then the pills started taking me”), he repeatedly showed a willingness to challenge the status quo. His performances of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” and his own “What is Truth” at the Nixon White House (in lieu of Nixon’s request for “Welfare Cadillac”) found him speaking truth to the ultimate American power. Cash’s unabashed patriotism played out in both flag waving and a stern criticism, as he saw fit.

hough music was clearly one of Cash’s saviors, there were several human agents whose strength helped him wrestle with his demons. June Carter Cash is shown as the rock upon which Cash’s initial rescue from drugs was founded, Billy Graham helps him along in his rebirth as a Christian, and producer Rick Rubin revives his career with an introduction to a new youth audience. At each turn, it’s Cash himself who summons the strength to change and move on, but over and over there’s a catalyst setting him in motion. Neville and Gordon’s timeline is augmented with numerous clips and comments that provide viewpoint beyond mere facts, explaining what events and people meant within the context of Cash’s life, and what Cash’s life meant within the context of the times in which he lived. The directors expose the roots of Cash’s broad empathy, and create a story that may be less of a drama than the biopic Walk the Line, but is no less dramatic.

Interview subjects include Cash’s sister Joanne, daughters Cindy and Rosanne, son John Carter, and friends, associates and fans that include Al Gore, Snoop Dog, Sheryl Crow, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, Marshall Grant, Senator Lamar Alexander, Jack Clement, John Mellencamp, Steve Earle, Merle Haggard, Vince Gill, Jon Langford and John Mellancamp. The CD’s previously unreleased tracks are a pair of tunes recorded in Hendersonville (1969’s “Come Along and Ride This Train” and 1974’s “I Am the Nation”), and a trio of live recordings (1970’s “What is Truth” from the White House, 1971’s “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” from Denmark, and “This Land is Your Land” from Cash’s television show). The DVD’s twenty-three minutes of extras include additional interview clips, a 1961 television performance of “Five Feet High and Rising” from Star Route USA, color home movies from Cash’s 1972 performance at the White House, television outtakes of Cash delivering his trademark “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” over and over and over, and documentary footage of the Cash family visiting Johnny’s childhood home. Buy this to watch the documentary, keep it to enjoy the fine selection of Cash classics and rarities. [©2008 hyperbolium dot com]