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Robert Plant – Carry Fire

“Led Zeppelin is one of the great bands of the classic rock era” – Captain Obvious.

Various sources estimate the Zeppelin’s record sales at 200 to 300 million units worldwide. Not that sales equate to greatness, but sometimes it is an indication (e.g. Beatles, Stones, Doors, Nirvana, etc.). Led Zeppelin are hugely popular, yet critically scorned (at least back in the day). They are influential on indie darlings like Jack White and Soundgarden to name a couple. They continue to influence young rock bands, for example Greta Van Fleet.

Led Zep is extremely important to forming my taste. In my youth, they were so obviously great, that they were almost taken for granted. For me they have stood the test of time.

When they disbanded after the death of drummer John Bonham in 1980, I assumed guitarist Jimmy Page would have the most distinguished post Zeppelin career. We all assumed he was the musical genius and Plant was merely a peacock lead singer. But in the nearly forty years since Led Zeppelin’s demise, it has been Robert Plant that has been the most productive and interesting. I have enjoyed all his post-Zeppelin work. Jimmy Page’s post-Zeppelin work has been unremarkable – his greatest accomplishment has been shepherding Led Zeppelin reissues.

Which brings us to Plant’s most recent solo album Carry Fire – just another excellent album in his catalog. For the last decade Plant has gone down a very interesting route combining folk, electronica, atmospheric, world music, blues and rock to create a sound that is uniquely his own, yet not out of character of his Zeppelin roots. Plant has aged gracefully and his LPs have been consistently adventurous without being weird. Zeppelin is so big, it is easy to forget that Plant’s solo career has been three times longer than his Zeppelin career. He has refused to be defined by his membership in an iconic band. If you have not followed his career post-Zeppelin, you are missing out on one of the greatest second acts in rock music.

Plant long ago shelved his scream for a coo on his solo work (although as late as 2007 he still had “it” as evidenced by the live concert film Celebration Day released in 2012). The coo has reached perfection on Carry Fire. This is his second album with his band the Sensational Space Shifters. On their first album, lullaby and …THE CEASELESS ROAR the band overshadowed Plant a bit.  The band was so cool and interesting that is was a bit distracting. On Carry Fire the band dials it back a bit and the result is Plant’s vocals.  They are appropriately spotlighted and not lost in the elaborate arrangements of the band. Although, I fully appreciated the bold ambition of lullaby and …THE CEASELESS ROAR, Carry Fire is the more successful album for my taste.

The LP opens with “The May Queen” which has a deceptively simple acoustic guitar riff. If you are a fan of Zeppelin’s “Going To California” you will dig “The May Queen” and most of Carry Fire. Plant’s quiet storm is on full display here. Early listens suggest a mellow vocal, but the more you listen the more you hear the subtle histrionics.

“New World…” goes electric with a nice heavy riff.  Lyrically Plant reminds us of the greatness of our immigrant nation.

“Seasons Song” is a gorgeous love ballad that has a Daniel Lanois feel. The song is chiming guitars and Robert singing with his sweetest coo.

“Dance With You Tonight” continues the Lanois vibe with another love song. This one has a more epic feel.

“Carving Up The World Again…a wall and not a fence” is a solid rock song with Robert singing in a quick cadence. He has a lot to say about the world powers abusing their powers.

“A Way With Words” has an amazing piano part.

“Carry Fire” is the titular track and is a doozy. It has a cool middle eastern feel. It builds in intensity over the course of the song.  If you only have time and patience to check out one song from this album this is the one.

“Bones Of Saints” is the most Zeppelin-like song on the album. But it is fresh and not a reprise.

“Keep It Hid” has a cool electronica feel, yet has an earthy blues feel too. This is classic Plant synthesizing several styles to come up with his own thing.

“Bluebirds Over The Mountain” is the only cover on the album. It was first popularized by Richie Valens and then The Beach Boys. Naturally, Plant reinvents into something totally unique. Plant is joined by The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, whose voice is a perfect foil to Plant’s. Plant has never been shy about sharing the mic with amazing female vocalists.

“Heaven Sent” ends the album on a quiet spooky note. This song gives us some wise advice from the after life:

All that’s worth for doing, is seldom easy done

All that’s worth for winning, is never easy won

All the long goodbyes, all the goodbye songs

All the love for giving, never really gone

This album came out in the fall of 2017 and I have been sitting on this post since then due to other distractions.  I have found that I have consistently come back to this album more than most of 2017’s releases.  It somehow missed getting on my best of 2017 list – which was a huge oversight.  What recently pushed me over the finish line was a great interview with Plant by Steven Hyden on his Celebration Rock podcast.


Jonathan Wilson – Rare Birds

Every Friday I go to the Electric Fetus web site to check out new releases. Recently this blurb caught my attention:

Jonathan Wilson had a busy 2017, producing Father John Misty’s Grammynominated Pure Comedy and touring arenas around the globe as a guitarist and vocalist for Pink Floyd legend Roger Waters (for whom he also contributed to the lauded Is This The Life We Really Want? album.)

I navigated over to Spotify and gave the album a listen and I was instantly hooked. First impressions are that it reminds me of: Pink Floyd, War On Drugs, George Harrison, Radiohead, Father John Misty, Tom Petty, Gerry Rafferty, Gordon Lightfoot, Imperial Bedroom era Elvis Costello, Court and Spark era Joni, Wings era McCartney and Roxy Music. Yet it sounds original. The music is elaborate, ambitious and epic. This is the best Pink Floyd album since Ray LaMontagne’s Ouroboros.

I picked up the indie record store edition – which is a beautiful piece of packaging.

“Trafalgar Square” opens the album in true Pink Floyd style: slow, spacey, psychedelic and with a giant Floyd rhythmic riff. Wilson’s voice even sounds a little like David Gilmour. You can see why Roger Waters would hire this guy for his band.

“Me” again has the Floyd feel. The music floats and feels like a warm blanket. There is even a wild sax solo juxtapositioned on top of the mellow grooves to close out the song.

“Over the Midnight” has a nice long intro that evokes flying. When Wilson gets to the hook, he goes with R.E.M. harmonies – which is perfect. He has wonderfully bubbling sounding drums for the bridge. He then teases his David Gilmour meets Jerry Garcia guitar sound with a short solo. If you only have time to sample one song this is the one.

“There’s a Light” sprinkles a little country with some pedal steel on the lush George Harrison sounding song.

“Sunset Blvd” is a piano driven tale of carousing that is so mellow and lush that it sounds like a beautiful sunset looks.

“Rare Birds” combines the spacey rock of Pink Floyd with the a bridge the steals the hook from Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald.” Believe it or not, that actually works.

“49 Hairflips” opens with a brooding piano that would not sound out-of-place on Joni’s Court and Spark. It has a bit of a McCartney “Maybe I’m Amazed” feel to it (but lyrically darker). It soon evolves back to the Floyd sound.

“Miriam Montague” could have been on Elvis Costello’s 1982 masterpiece Imperial Bedroom. Father John Misty is a guest on the track, but his contribution is undetectable. The song is dreamy.

“Loving You” has an exotic middle eastern sound thanks to Laraaji who sings and plays zither. Lana Del Rey is on this track, but like Father John Misty on the last track, she is undetectable.

“Living with Myself” is a luscious ballad with Lana Del Rey in a more prominent role.

“Hard to Get Over” is a psychedelic mashup of Radiohead and Tom Petty. It has a beat and melody that recalls “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”

“Hi-Ho the Righteous” is alt-country due to Greg Leisz’s pedal steel guitar.

“Mulholland Queen” ends the album on a somber note with a piano driven dirge.

It is a gift when an album blindsides you – Rare Birds is such a gift – it is guaranteed a spot on my 2018 best of list. The album has a beautiful sound to it: great arrangements, lush production values and lots of separation over a wide soundscape. If you are a fan of Pink Floyd and spacey jams that make you feel like you are floating, you will love this album. Jonathan Wilson has two more LPs and one EP in his catalog – he has caught my attention and I will be checking those out. I will be listening for his contributions on the Father John Misty albums too.

Final note: just listened to Wilson’s 2013 release Fanfare – wow that one sounds great too. I think I have a new obsession.

Boz Scaggs – Boz Scaggs – Original 1969 Manning Mix (SD 8239) vs 1977 Perry Mix (SD 19166)

This LP is famous for the session guitarist who graces it with his Dobro and slide: Duane “Skydog” Allman. In addition, there is the almost thirteen minute “Loan Me A Dime.” That song was a staple on early 70s progress rock FM radio. DJs liked to cue it up and take a smoke break. It is a great song, not just a long song.

The album was originally released in 1969 on Atlantic and went out of print in the mid-70s. In 1976 Boz Scaggs had a huge hit album with Silk Degrees. I assume Atlantic wanted to ride the wave of Silk Degrees and dusted off this album with a remix by the same engineer who recorded Silk Degrees (Tom Perry). The original was mixed by Stax Records’ engineer Terry Manning (uncredited).

I recently purchased an LP of the remix not realizing it. I had an LP of the original in poor shape and I assumed this was an upgrade. When I dropped the needle and sat down and examined the jacket I realized this was a remix. I pulled my old copy and sure enough it was an original Manning mix. Most of my experience with this album is via the CD, which is the Perry mix. I was unaware there were two versions of this album. This is not going to be a straight album review, but a comparison of the two versions with the goal of crowning a champion. I know I come to the table with a familiarity bias towards the Perry mix.

The Spotify version is the Perry mix:

I just picked up a cleaner copy of the Manning mix to make it a fair fight.

“I’m Easy”  The Perry mix is vastly superior. The Manning mix is muddy and distorted. The Perry mix is crisper and has more separation. This will become a recurring theme.

“I’ll Be Gone”  Is a quieter song than the first cut. Similar to “I’m Easy” the crispness and separation Perry mix wins out.

“Another Day (Another Letter)” is a ballad, that with a different arrangement, that would not have sounded out-of-place on Silk Degrees. Clearly Perry is giving it the Silk Degrees treatment. However, I like the more organic Manning take.

“Now You’re Gone” sounds better with the cleaner Perry mix. All the unique instrumentation gets a bit lost in the Manning mud.

“Finding Her” benefits from the softer Manning mix – especially the songs ending: a gorgeous Duane Allman guitar solo. The Perry mix is a bit to sharp.

“Look What I Got” Although the background vocals are cleaner and more upfront on the Perry mix, I prefer the filthy dose of Allman’s Dobro on the Manning mix.

“Waiting For A Train” is a beautiful Jimmie Rogers country blues. The Manning mix is perfectly old timey. The Perry mix stays pretty close to Manning, but it is a bit too clean and so it sounds more like an impersonation, than the organic Manning original.

“Loan Me A Dime” is the song that made this album. The Perry mix is pristine and highlights all the instruments. Duane Allman is at his bluesy best. Boz’s voice is soulful. But this is a down and out song and it sounds better a little dirty (the Manning mix). As much as I like the pristine nature of the Perry mix, it is worth the mud of the Manning mix to fully appreciate the perfection of Duane Allman’s solo.

“Sweet Release” – the song remains the same: Perry is bright and clean and Manning is down and dirty.

Overall it is a bit of a draw, but in general I prefer the cleaner, tighter and more spacious sound of the Perry mix. Perry is pretty faithful to the original. He brightens it without distorting it. I would love to spin a mint copy of the Manning – perhaps my version is too worn. My guess is if I found a mint Manning it would win. As much as I prefer the Perry mix, the Manning mix serves Duane Allman better. And let’s face it this album’s specialness is Duane Allman. Sorry, to be so indecisive, buy both. If you are crate digging you should be able to get respectable copies of both in the five dollar range. But no matter what this is a great album. Realistically you are likely to find better quality versions of the Perry mix. If you can’t remember the catalog numbers they are pretty easy to tell a part – the Perry mix is clearly noted on the back cover. Don’t settle for a Perry mix that is not gatefold or matte – the picture of Duane Allman on the inside cover is classic and you don’t want miss it or see it shiny.

Podcasts – Current Favorites

I discovered Celebration Rock with Steven Hyden late last year when Hyden interviewed Wilco as they promoted the reissue of their first two albums. Hyden is rock critic, but without the usual snobby attitude. He is first and foremost an enthusiastic fan. The podcast is currently focused on an eight episode examination of Bruce Springsteen’s 20th century catalog. Hyden geeks out about the Boss with various punk musicians who were inspired by Bruce.  If you review the archives there are plenty of great interviews with musicians.

I have been reading the Lefsetz Letter for several years. Bob Lefsetz is primarily a music industry critic, but he also branches out as a general cultural critic. Lefsetz is wonderfully opinionated – quick to point out the emperor is not wearing clothes. On his podcast he primarily interviews music industry insiders. They tell their personal histories and opinions on current industry issues. Even though I have rarely heard of Lefsetz guests, I have always been fascinated by their conversations.

Catchgroove’s Hall Of Fame: Whiskeytown – Strangers Almanac

I “discovered” Ryan Adams on a Target store end cap in 1997. There are only a handful of music acts that I discovered on my own and Ryan is one of the few. I distinctly remember buying Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac. I had not heard of the band. I liked the band’s name, cover art and it was on sale – so I bought it. I had no idea what I was getting into. I have been a Ryan Adams fanboy for over twenty years, yet he never excited me more than this first shot. He has continued to hone his craft, but the template for his career was minted on Strangers Almanac.

When I was a kid they called Adams’ music southern rock or country rock. By the time Adams hit the scene in the mid-90s it was called alt-country (which has morphed into a vague and meaningless categorization: Americana). My definition of alt-country is an artist who grew up on punk or metal and then fell, without irony, for country music. They must exist outside the shackles of Nashville – preferably they are openly hostile toward the Nashville machine. They are not constrained by a sound – they are free to go anywhere. That pretty much defines Ryan Adams.

The first time I played Strangers Almanac back in 1997 it had me hooked. It was the sound of the long and lonesome highway. It was slick and sloppy at the same time. The singer songwriter (Adams), who appeared to be the driving force of the band, reminded me of Gram Parsons, Springsteen, the Allman Brothers, Buckingham/Nicks era Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Mellencamp, The Replacements, etc.  Whiskeytown was inspired – not derivative of those acts. Somehow this young band hatched fully formed out of thin air. Most importantly – they rocked.

I have been listening to this album regularly over the last twenty years and I am on my third version:

  1. The original CD (what is available in streaming services)
  2. The deluxe CD reissue
  3. The deluxe LP reissue

I guess that is a sign of obsession.

The album opens with “Inn Town. It is a song that evokes aching feelings of regret and dead ends.

“Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart” is pure country: the arrangement, instrumentation and lyrics. It has a great guest vocal from Alejandro Escovedo (a brilliant cow-punk from Austin Texas music scene).

“Yesterday’s News” is a rocker with a Replacements/Paul Westerberg vibe.

“16 Days” might be the finest song in the Whiskeytown catalog. It would not sound out-of-place on a mid-70s Jackson Browne album. The specifics of what the song is about is unclear, but the emotion is clear: regret.

Ryan Adams uses a sweeter voice for “Everything I Do.” The arrangement is big – even horns.

“Houses On The Hill” evokes Gram Parsons both musically and lyrically.

“Turn Around” has some great guitar work. Adams is a bit underrated for his guitar work. He brilliantly mixes acoustic and big electric riffs.

“Dancing With The Women At The Bar” is classic country longing.

Man I love the feel when I go out

Dancing with the women at the bar

Man I love the feel when I go out

I always know my woman’s close somewhere

Close somewhere…

“Waiting To Derail” could have been a great punk song, but Ryan Adams and band are too good for that.

“Avenues” is an acoustic ballad that would fit nicely on a Paul Westerberg solo album.

“Losering” has a Neil Young and Crazy Horse feel.

“Somebody Remembers The Rose” again reminds me of Gram Parsons.

“Not Home Anymore” ends the album on a lonely note. It has an ambitious arrangement that has a cool spooky vibe.

Strangers Almanac is a timeless classic. There is not a bad song on the album. I never tire of it. It is the reference of greatness for every subsequent Ryan Adams album. Fortunately he continues to live up to this initial promise.

Crate Digger’s Gold – Tom Scott And The L.A. Expression

I recently dug up a pristine LP of this 1974 classic for a buck – damn I love crate digging. Snuck out before a snowstorm to Wayzata Brew Works for a record show with my bride. Dug for an hour and spent as little as a dollar and as much as fourteen dollars (but that is still cheaper than new). We shared a stout, sat at a lakeside table, inspected and tabulated. Total damage was seventy-one dollars for seventeen LPs. The snow was starting to fall so we headed home. It was a good afternoon to spin some wax at home and watch the snow flakes fall.

Whenever I have a new stack of wax I like to start with the cheapest album that looks in the best shape. Tom Scott And The L.A. Express was the first draw.

I was a big fan of the band’s Tom Cat. I first met the band through Joni’s 1974 Miles Of Aisles. I don’t know why I have never owned this album. I have seen it in the crates for forty years. Its provocative cover, for the time, is chaste by today’s standards, often caught my eye – but I never pulled the trigger. I am in a Joni state of mind these days after having just read a quality biography about her: Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe.

The band is led by reed man Tom Scott. Per Wikipedia, Scott’s best-known works are the theme songs for 70s TV shows like Starsky and Hutch and The Streets of San Francisco. His soprano sax solo and fills are on the 1975 No. 1 hit single “Listen to What the Man Said” for Wings. Not bad for a session cat.

In the 70s, a first call session musician could get a respectable record deal. Tom Scott And The L.A. Express were as first call as you could get. Their Joni gig was big time: Court and Spark was multi-platinum and was a Grammy nominated album of the year in a time when that mattered (1975). She lost to Stevie Wonder’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale. No disgrace in that loss.

Out of this heady time for a jazz band, came this LP. What a line up (thanks again Wikipedia): Max Bennett – bass (member of the Wrecking Crew), John Guerin – drums and percussion, Larry Carlton – guitarist and Joe Sample – keyboards (the latter two were also members of the group The Crusaders).

This is funky pop jazz with greazy grooves.The kind of stuff that could be the theme song to a TV show (as noted above, Scott was capable of that). These were the slickest studio cats in L.A. in the mid to late 70s.

Side One is funky and bluesy. It is like instrumental Steeley Dan, but looser. Side two opens with a romantic ballad – Tom Scott invented the stuff Kenny G ultimately ruined. After the ballad, side two continues in the funky and bluesy vibe of side one. Throughout there are great solos and jams. This is a group of guys who are very comfortable with each other. In the wrong hands this pop jazz could turn into schmaltz, but in the hands of the L.A. Express, it turns into R&B jazz fusion soul magic.

The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

I am a big fan of The War On Drugs’ 2014 album Lost in the Dream. That album was a big success critically and brought the band to a wider audience. When its follow-up, A Deeper Understanding came out late in the summer 2017, it sounded like Lost in the Dream – The Sequel. I dismissed it. At year-end, A Deeper Understanding kept appearing on “best of lists” so I gave it another listen. Still nothing, I figured they were just replaying the formula on their major label debut.

I was surfing the web recently, when I came across an article about the making of A Deeper Understanding. A big part of the article talked about the eleven minute song “Thinking Of A Place” from A Deeper Understanding.  That caught my attention and I listened to the song and I was hooked. Sometimes a whole album is too much to digest. When I wrote my post on Tidal, I used “Thinking Of A Place” as my reference music – I never tired of it through multiple A/B listens. It has to be a good song to survive twenty plays in a row.

I hear so many influences in this band: Dylan, Springsteen, Dire Straits, Neil Young, Grateful Dead, Daniel Lanois, My Morning Jacket, R.E.M and Tom Petty all come to mind.  This is a contemporary take on classic rock.

This is an album that should appeal to audiophiles because it is gorgeously arranged and engineered – lots of stereo separation and texture.

Ultimately, A Deeper Understanding is mellow 70s singer songwriter soft rock: Lindsay Buckingham’s version of Fleetwood Mac, post Blue era Joni, Jackson Browne, Dan Fogelberg, Paul McCartney, Mark Knopfler and Dylan at his rare pop moments. When soft rock is done well it can’t be beat. The War On Drugs is performing soft rock well.

What I like about The War On Drugs is that their music sounds great both quiet and loud. In classic Grammy fashion, A Deeper Understanding won Best Rock Album. Ironic for a somnolent album in the rock genre. This ain’t AC/DC.  Another thing I like, is that these guys know how to play big guitar AND keyboards/synthesizers.  I like that they mix 70s singer songwriter with 80s New Wave, current day jam bands and alternative rock, but in the end the 70s songwriter vibe always wins.  What I really like about The War On Drugs is that they are dreamy, yet epic. The kind of thing that Dire Straits, Springsteen, U2 and R.E.M. mastered in their prime.

This album is very similar to Lost in the Dream. However, it is noticeably better. The band’s success has allowed this recording focused band to invest in the business. Everything is more lavish. Fortunately the band has great taste. Lavish for these guys is elegance and not gaudiness.

I love when a band figures it out and adds a contribution to the popular music conversation. Most important when a band finds an audience.  For example, bands like Wilco are able to have prosperous careers – all because they have an audience. If The War On Drugs remains dedicated to their craft, they will have long and prosperous career. Prosperous means that they can provide for their family and fully embrace their muse.  In a hip hop pop dominated highway, The War On Drugs has found a sleepy byway to excel.

I am not going to go into a track-by-track commentary, instead I am hoping you will be infected by my enthusiasm for this LP.  If anything I have said so far resonates with you, give this album a listen. If you are not willing to invest an hour, try the 11 minute masterpiece “Thinking Of A Place.” Either way, you must listen on the best sound system you have access to – via the LP, CD or via a high resolution digital file/stream. A good sound system matters. If you don’t have one, find a friend who does.  If you can’t find a friend, visit your town’s locally owned HiFi store and ask them to play it on a system you could actually afford. You are going to like The War On Drugs.