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John Scofield – Swallow Tales

John Scofield: Swallow Tales released 6/12/20 on ECM

John Scofield rivals Pat Metheny as my favorite jazz guitarist. I love his tones, his lyrical approach to improvisation and ultimately his funkiness. He is as comfortable in a traditional jazz setting as he is in a jam band. This album finds him in a traditional jazz trio with Steve Swallow (bass) and Bill Stewart (drums).

The “gimmick” of the album is to focus on Steve Swallow’s compositions. Although recorded in a day, it is the result of more than forty years of homework. John was a 20-year-old student at Berklee when he first met and played with bassist Swallow. They have remained close and they have continued to play together ever since.

“The rapport between Scofield and Swallow is evident in every moment. John: ‘Sometimes when we play it’s like one big guitar, the bass part and my part together.’ Behind the drum kit, Bill Stewart, a close associate of Scofield’s since the early 90s, is alert to all the implications of the interaction.”

Per ECM website

This is a beautiful album that is gentle and easygoing enough to play softly as background music and rich and complex enough to purely listen to. A great summary of Scofield’s tasteful and accessible approach to jazz. Beauty takes priority over guitar pyrotechnics.

Classic ECM release: great sound, minimalistic album art and music that is the fine art of balancing gentle and edgy at the same time. The vinyl is clean and well pressed.

The Replacements – Pleased To Me – Deluxe Reissue

Pleased To Meet Me is my favorite Mats album. Rhino Records has recently released a deluxe edition. It includes rough mixes on vinyl by studio engineer John Hampton that include the majority of the original album tracks along with non-album tracks like “Election Day” and “Birthday Gal.” A CD remaster of the original album by Justin Perkins, who was also behind the boards for the similar package: Dead Man’s Pop (Don’t Tell a Soul reimagined). Finally, two CDs of bonus material:
– 1986 demo session with Bob Stinson – his last recorded Replacements performance
– Additional 1986 demos with the band as a three-piece outfit (sans Bob)
– Studio outtakes from the album recording sessions (Memphis, 1987)
– Rare single mixes

The full package is available on streaming services if you can’t justify $65 for the physical.

The remaster sounds fantastic, but the treat here is the bonus material. The demos are well recorded. There are songs I have never heard before (gems – not left over turds). The rough mix of the album reveals a little more of the Mats’ natural rawness – if I have any criticism of the original album it was a bit too polished. The rough mix is not as revelatory as Dead Man Pop’s over due restoration is Don’t Tell A Soul, but still a treat for serious Mats fans. If you don’t believe me, check out this stellar Pitchfork review.

Prince – Sign O’ The Times Super Deluxe Edition

I am just beginning to sample this massive release via Tidal (streaming service – appears to be available on all services) and it is amazing. Granted Sign O’ The Times is one of my favorite Prince albums – so I come to this as a receptive vessel.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Jon Bream, who has followed and written about Prince’s career since day one, has a great review/article on the reissue. See link here.

I will be hard pressed to justify $300 for the vinyl edition, but it is sure tempting given the quality of material here.

Prince has always been known as a prolific artist and this super deluxe reissue of his 1987 classic Sign O’ The Times is evidence of that prolificity. It includes nearly four hours of previously unreleased material. The collection captures the scope of the Prince’s boundless genius: funk, jazz, gospel, rock, new wave, pop, singer songwriter pop symphonies – it goes on and on. The new material, is at its worst, intriguing experiments, most of it is good and there are some absolute gems. This is what bonus reissues are supposed to be: a true treasure chest.

Lettuce – Resonate

Resonate by Lettuce 5/8/20 on Round Hill Records

Long term readers of this blog may have picked up on my frequent use of the word “resonate.” Songs, albums and artists/bands either resonate with me or they don’t. The dictionary defines resonate a few ways, but the one that resonates with me is “to relate harmoniously: strike a chord.”

This is the first Lettuce album I have seriously listened to. I impulsively purchased it on a recent visit to the Electric Fetus. Before the streaming era this is how I discovered most new music. I’m not sure why it has taken me so long, as this is a band that is in my wheelhouse. I saw them live a few years ago at Lollapalooza and was impressed. My future son-in-law is also a fan. What got me hooked was a recent episode of Eric Krasno Plus One podcast. Kraz and guitarist John Scofield raved about what a great musician Lettuce’s drummer and founding member Adam Deitch is. I have been listening and needless to say Resonate resonates with me.

Lettuce is an instrumental (primarily) funk band that was born out of the Berklee College of Music in Boston. The young band attempted to play at various Boston jazz clubs, walking in and asking the club owners and other musicians if they would “let us play”, giving birth to the name Lettuce. The band has a Herbie Hancock Headhunters, Earth Wind & Fire and Tower of Power vibe, but also a contemporary jam band groove.

What I am digging about this band and album, is that despite mining instrumental funk, that in lesser hands typically sounds cliched, unoriginal and frankly boring, Resonate sounds fresh, original and diverse. I love horns and the band has a great horn section. I instantly recognized the funky drums from John Scofield’s Überjam albums. This is music that is both for the butt and the head. The funk makes you move and the psychedelia takes you higher. The recording is top notch, the vinyl pressing is clean and heavy.

Per their website: “The new 11-track collection, featuring the previously released songs “Checker Wrecker,” “‘NDUGU” and “House of Lett,” is a sonic continuation of the acclaimed sextet’s 2019 GRAMMY Award-nominated album Elevate, which earned the band their first collective nomination in the category of Best Contemporary Instrumental Album. On Resonate, which plays like a master class in funk sub-genres, Lettuce continue to be celebrated boundary-pushing innovators nearly three decades into their lauded career, blurring the lines and smashing it up with jazz chords, psychedelic passages, big horns, strains of soul and go-go, hip-hop elements and a joyful, uplifting improvisational sound all their own. Resonate was helmed by esteemed producer and engineer Russ Elevado [D’Angelo, The Roots, Erykah Badu] and written and recorded during the same Colorado Sound Studio sessions for Elevate, which hit #1 on both the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Albums Chart and iTunes Top R&B Albums Chart and has racked up more than 3 million streams.”

This is the kind of music that can be both background and and foreground music. Mellow and groovy enough to augment your reality and deep and sophisticated enough to be your reality. Looks like I will be going down the Lettuce back catalog rabbit hole.

Taylor Swift – folklore

This is a delightful and surprising release. This is the first significant release of quarantine pop. Hopefully, this is the tip of the iceberg.

TSwift shrewdly reached out to Aaron Dessner of The National to collaborate. Per Dessner in April:

I got a text and it said, “Hey it’s Taylor. Would you ever be up for writing songs with me?” I said, “Wow. Of course.” It was a product of this time. Everything we had planned got cancelled. Everything she had planned got cancelled. It was a time when the ideas in the back of your head came to the front. That’s how it started.

From Pitchfork

I was not a fan of the National until their 2019 album I Am East To Find. I love the dreamy atmospheric music of that album. It is like chamber music merged with folk. Dessner’s aesthetic adapts well to Taylor’s distinctive vocal style and lyrics. Although Bon Iver was only a minor participant on the album, his presence is strong.

My first few listens I heard the collaborators, but upon each subsequent listen TSwift’s presence dominates. Around the tenth time through it was obvious that this was TSwift’s vision – she just found some new colors to paint with.

This is adult music and teenage lyrics (in a good way) or as one reviewer said: bildungsroman obsession. This a brilliant pivot for a pop star – hook up with an indie rock cult hero and make some magic. This is not a gimmick or desperate posturing by Taylor to “take me seriously.” Instead, it is the right move at the right time. Without bombastic big arrangements, I really hear Taylor. Turns out she was hiding in plain sight for a guy like me. I now realize what a great storyteller she is and like all great rock and pop stars, an actor.

I don’t have a lot of context for TSwift. Since she came on the scene in 2006 and elevated to superstardom I pretty much ignored her. To regular readers of this blog, you should know by now that I am partial to female recording artists. So I don’t think my lack of interest in TSwift was sexist, I just assumed I was way out of her target demographic as an old man. At some point, my wife and adult daughter saw her live and raved that it was a great show. They have seen a lot of shows and so I took their word on it. I figured fine, she is a great performer, but still, this is not for me.

Then one of my rock heroes, Ryan Adams, covered her 1989 album. He was not being ironic – he genuinely loved it. I liked his take and so I gave Taylor’s 1989 a serious listen and I liked it too. I finally realized she was more than a typical pop star – there was some meat here and she was a real songwriter. Then came Taylor’s Reputation stadium tour. I was not that interested, but my wife insisted we go. Boy am I glad she pushed that. TSwift is phenomenal live and she is one of a handful of artists that can make a stadium small. I now officially got it. Then came Lover – my first experience meeting TSwift artistry in real-time. It is a very solid album.

But folklore is my first TSwift obsession. I think it is a combination:

  • Of quarantine
  • My finally getting TSwift as an artist
  • The fact she is performing in a style that is closer to my aesthetic
  • That it feels like her Joni Blue
  • But most of all because it is just plain great!

What I have learned (duh!) is she is a great songwriter. In hindsight that was obvious in Ryan Adams’ cover of 1989. I guess I just needed a quieter and more familiar setting to figure that out.

I can’t imagine the pressure cooker it is to be a star of Swift’s caliber. But as a true star, she appears to savor the heat and is emboldened to follow her North Star. She has taken a weird tangent and it works perfectly. I have read and listened to some TSwift experts and it appears this is not such a weird tangent – there are plenty of songs in her catalog foreshadowing this sound. I wouldn’t know (I will trust the experts on this) and I assume my typical reader is just as ignorant as I am. In summary, this is a great album and don’t let any preconceived notions of Taylor Swift hold you back. Give this a listen!

P.S. If you find yourself as obsessed with folklore as I am, check out these podcasts and reviews that dig into folklore:

  • Switched On Pop folklore: taylor swift’s quarantine dream
  • Popcast (New York Times): Taylor Swift’s ‘Folklore’: Let’s Discuss
  • Popcast (New York Times): Answering Your Questions About Taylor Swift’s ‘Folklore’
  • Pitchfork 8.0 review
  • New York Times review

Read more…

Margo Price – That’s How Rumors Get Started

Margo Price’s That’s How Rumors Get Started released on Loma Vista Recordings July 10, 2020

I am a Margo Price super fan. I can’t hear this new release with a clear head – we named our new puppy in her honor after all.

Margo the miniature dachshund puppy

Margo Price does not want to be boxed into a genre. After two magnificent country albums (I mean real country, not Nashville pop) she has released a 70s rock album and it is fantastic! There are so many influences: Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac, the Stones, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Linda Ronstadt – so many influences that it sounds original. Rather than copying her influences, she has been inspired by them.

For this album, she assembled an incredible team – starting with the production team of singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson and David Ferguson (Rick Rubin’s engineer for the Johnny Cash sessions). For the band, she has guitarist Matt Sweeney (Adele, Iggy Pop), bassist Pino Palladino (D’Angelo, John Mayer), drummer James Gadson (Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye), and keyboardist Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers) along with her main partner in crime, husband Jeremy Ivey. The production/arrangements are perfect for these songs.

There is not a bad song on the album, but some of the highlights for me are:

  • “That’s How Rumors Get Started” – the titular track has a Fleetwood Mac vibe with Margo purring like Stevie Nicks
  • “Hey Child” a remake of an old song from her Buffalo Clover band that has a Delaney & Bonnie psychedelic gospel feel
  • “I’d Die For You” an epic power ballad the is begging to be covered by Lady Gaga
  • “Twinkle Twinkle” a catchy rock song that is Margo’s autobiography in three and a half minutes

I am going to stop there, or I will end up listing every song on the album.

The album is streaming in Master quality on Tidal. The physical vinyl is in multiple packages depending on how you source it. I bought mine via Margo’s website/label. It is pressed in great-looking heavyweight gold vinyl with a 45 single as a bonus. The sound is top-notch. My only complaint is that Loma Vista Recordings went on the cheap and shipped via USPS media rate which meant it took eleven days to get from Chicago to Minneapolis – roughly twice as long as it would take to walk. I paid Loma Vista $6.19 for that slow walk.

This is a great album and Margo Price is on a roll with three excellent albums in a row. If you like 70s Southern California soft rock (Eagles, Ronstadt, Fleetwood Mac, Jackson Browne, etc.) you are going to like this album.

 

 

 

Khruangbin – Mordechai

Khruangbin s Mordechai was released June 26, 2020 by Dead Oceans and Night Time Stories

I was unaware of Khruangbin until their recent project with Leon Bridges: Texas Sun. That EP had a vintage R&B meets the Grateful Dead vibe: psychedelic soul. I listened to their other stuff and it did not grab me. But the teaser singles from Mordechai clicked – enough so that I was looking forward to the full album. I liked the stream of the LP enough to pick up the wax.

At times Mordechai sounds like Chic as a jam band. Other times it sounds like instrumental Jerry Garcia. And yet other times it has a world music flavor: Latin, Middle Eastern, Asian and African spices. No matter what, it is always funky. Based on some googling about the band I learned:

Their debut studio album, The Universe Smiles Upon You (2015), draws from the history of Thai music in the 1960s, while their second album, Con Todo El Mundo (2018), has influences from Spain and the Middle East.

Per Wikipedia

I have not given those albums a fair listen, but Mordechai feels like a band hitting full stride. The band’s sound is fresh and hard to place. Of particular interest to me is the bass guitar. Give this album a listen and if it catches your fancy check out this podcast where the band explains how they built one of the album’s tracks (“So We Won’t Forget”). You will also learn a little bit about the band – they are fascinating. I highly recommend this album – give it a listen.

Haim – Women In Music Pt III

Third studio album by American band Haim. It was released through Columbia Records on June 26, 2020

I have been a fan of Haim since I saw them live at Lollapalooza in 2016. The combination of their Fleetwood Mac sound and goofy stage presence was irresistible. I liked their first album, 2013’s Days Are Gone, but I really liked their second, 2017’s Something To Tell You. The latest, Women In Music Pt III is their best yet.

For those of you not familiar with Haim, they are an American pop rock band from Los Angeles (per Wikipedia). The band consists of three sisters: Este Haim (bass guitar and vocals), Danielle Haim (vocals and guitar), and Alana Haim (guitars, keyboards, and vocals). In addition to their primary instruments, each member is also proficient on several others. 

Women In Music Pt III begins with “Los Angeles” which has a Vampire Weekend (VW) vibe. Not surprising given the album received production, songwriting, and instrumental support from VW founding member Rostam Batmanglij and VW producer Ariel Rechtshaid (and significant other of Danielle Haim).

Several songs continue with the VW vibe, but several songs also have the classic Haim Fleetwood Mac (specifically Lindsey Buckingham) feel. They double down on the Southern California groove with “Man From The Magazine” could have been on Joni Mitchell’s Blue (they even name drop “Both Sides Now” in “I Know Alone”). “FUBT” (Fucked Up But True) sounds like a Prince Purple Rain outtake/demo (in a good way).

Despite all the influences, WIMPIII (the band’s nickname for this album) sounds totally original and fresh. Haim has girl group fun accented with singer-songwriter gravitas. They have created delightful pop-rock with soul.

The production/arrangements go down easy, but on a more careful listen they are little pop symphonies in the grand tradition of The Beatles and The Beach Boys. It is pop perfection.

I love it when a band/artist is on a trajectory. Especially, when I have been along for the ride. Haim eclipses two good albums with a great one – dare I say a masterpiece! Every song is great – even the bonus tracks are not filler. This will be a top ten album on my 2020 list. 

P.S. the vinyl is a high quality pressing at 45 RPM for maximum fidelity. Signed poster courtesy of Electric Fetus.

 

Norah Jones – Pick Me Up Off The Floor

I was a Norah Jones fan even before I knew who she was – I was hooked by the cover of Roxy Music’s “More Than This” she did with guitarist Charlie Hunter on his 2001 release Songs from the Analog Playground. I was an early adopter of Jones. On the strength of her work with Charlie Hunter. I bought her debut Come Away With Me on release day in early 2002. That album eventually sold 27 million copies. So a rare moment where I was ahead of the wave.

Norah Jones never let the fame or success get to her head. She never planned to be a pop star. She has pursued her North Star under her own name, in side-projects, and in countless guest appearances. She is a musician’s musician, yet she is highly accessible and easy to listen to – deceptively easy listening – so much so that she has been nicknamed “Snorah Jones.” But don’t be deceived, there is a lot of depth to Jones’ music. Pick Me Up Off The Floor is an example of that depth.

Jones is quoted in Rolling Stone:

“Living in this country — this world — the last few years, I think there’s an underlying sense of, ‘Lift me up. Let’s get up out of this mess and try to figure some things out,’” she said. “If there’s a darkness to this album, it’s not meant to be an impending sense of doom, if feels more like a human longing for connection. Some of the songs that are personal also apply to the larger issues we’re all facing. And some of the songs that are about very specific larger things also feel quite personal.”

Jones writes or co-writes all the songs on this album. Her old buddy Jeff Tweedy returns for a couple of songs – he was involved in a couple of songs off her last album Begin Again. Tweedy and Jones are a match made in heaven. Not just because I am a fan of both – their styles really mesh. Check out the song “I’m Alive” – it is a perfect duet without Tweedy singing a verse.

This album has a sadness that is pretty timely. Her vocal styling has aged well over time. It has transitioned from innocence to a beautiful world-weary vibe, but it is not hopeless (from “Stumble On”):

But I’ll kiss the dawn

Of a new day

And then I’ll stumble on

My way

This album is the fruition of all that Jones has been working on over career: she has developed as a songwriter, the experimentation has become her natural style, and her voice is self-assured. She is in complete control of her art. The results are magnificent – Jones has fully blossomed.

Bob Dylan – Rough And Rowdy Ways

At 79 Bob Dylan remains relevant as ever on his 39th studio album. After an 8 year dalliance with the Sinatra songbook, he returns with an inspiring collection of new original material. It is yet another masterpiece in his catalog – an amazing feat.

First, let’s talk about his voice. It has never been conventional and it has never been pretty, but it has always been uniquely perfect for his material. The voice on Rough And Rowdy Ways has been conditioned on the Sinatra material of the last several years and sure enough, it is perfect for the material. It is elegantly creaky and balancing on the razor’s edge of gravitas and humor. It is filled with nuance and is totally original – a voice that would make Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits proud. I find it oddly beautiful.

Dylan signaled he had yet another rabbit up his sleeve when he ambushed us with a fantastic 17-minute single in late March. If all he released this year was “Murder Most Foul” I would have been satisfied. He squeezed out two more quality singles and then dropped Rough And Rowdy Ways. The album does not have a bad song and there several total gems:

  • The aforementioned “Murder Most Foul” which you could spend the rest of your life untangling – a reference and allusion marathon.
  • Dylan creates his Frankenstein with “My Own Version of You.”
  • “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” a gorgeous love song both lyrically and musically – or is it? It could just as easily be a peaceful surrender to death.
  • The jaunty “Goodbye Jimmy Reed.
  • “I Contain Multitudes” – the last words of a dying man, or not.
  • The slow blues and mystery of “Crossing the Rubicon.”
  • “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” another long song that starts with a presidential assassination, but then flips into a meditation on Key West and self-reflection

Bob Dylan and his band have perfected their sound for twenty years now. They embraced the Sinatra songbook with their mix of Americana and blues and made those classics bend to them. That adventure prepared them to meet these songs. The arrangements are perfectly matched to the lyrics and Dylan’s vocal delivery.

It is intriguing to me that his last masterpieces, Time Out Of Mind and Love and Theft followed a fallow period reliant on cover songs. I guess the bard needs to recharge his batteries every once in a while. This is a deep and rich masterpiece, if this is Dylan’s last, it is a great way to go. But he throws it off so gracefully, he could go on like this forever. Thanks for one more Bob.