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Tony Williams – The Joy of Flying

A while back my son @pwelbs lured me into a Twitter game where you were supposed to name four albums you typically listen to from beginning to end. Like that was a unique thing! Millennials were raised on individual tracks and playlists. I was raised on LPs. It got me thinking what’s an album I don’t listen to all the way through?

I was recently listening to Ronnie Montrose’s Open Fire and that led me to recall drummer Tony Williams’ 1978 album The Joy of Flying. That is an album I have rarely listened to from beginning to end. At best I listen to side one, but most of the time I listen to the last song on side one: the album’s sole live cut featuring Ronnie Montrose and his song “Open Fire.” I love that track.

“Open Fire” was from a one time only Tony Williams All-Stars show performed on July 27, 1978, at Japan’s Denen Coliseum. Someday,  I hope to hear the rest of that show. It was reported to include “Rocky Road” and “Heads Up” from Montrose’s Open Fire, “Red Alert” and “Wildlife” from Tony Williams’ Lifetime album Believe It, “There Comes a Time” from Ego, “Dragon Song” from Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express and “Capricorn” with special guest Billy Cobham.

It is a great cut. It is hard rock with no hint of jazz and fusion on the rest of the album. Montrose has great riffs and face-melting solos. Williams makes Bonham sound like a lounge band drummer.

In light of the “listen to from beginning to end” challenge I gave the album a proper listen recently. On paper the album is a hodgepodge:

  • Two duets with Jan Hammer
  • A duet with Cecil Taylor
  • Two songs by a quartet with Jan Hammer, George Benson and Paul Jackson
  • Two songs by a quartet with Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke, and Tom Scott
  • One song with a quartet labeled the “Tony Williams All-Stars” with Ronnie Montrose, Brian Auger, and Mario Cipollina

In reality, it is a remarkably cohesive album. I have been missing out all these years not listening to it like a proper album. Give it an open-minded listen.

P.S. My wife, who edits my posts, noted that I rarely listen to an album all the way through – because I fall asleep in my chair before I get through the first side.  Touché!

Rose City Band – Summerlong

Latest from Rose City Band: Summerlong

I picked up the Thrill Jockey reissue of Rose City Band’s debut earlier this year and instantly became obsessed with it. I have been looking forward to the follow-up.  Summerlong sounds like the second chapter of the same book. That’s OK with me as I couldn’t get enough of the debut. The debut really hit me with its mellow psychedelic Grateful Dead vibe. The debut has a bit of low-fi vibe in its production, whereas, Summerlong is more polished. The debut was meandering and trippy, Summerlong is more conventional country-rock – a microdose of psychedelia vs the full dose of the debut.

The debut’s back story was as murky as the music. There was no back story, it just appeared. After much research, I discovered it was Ripley Johnson, the psychedelic bandleader of Wooden Shjips and one half of Moon Duo.

The new album has a little more PR, but still low profile by today’s standards. Per Thrill City’s website here is the story on Summerlong:

Rose City Band started purely as a recording project, with Johnson’s role mostly obscured for the self-titled debut album. Released with no promotion, in the style of private press records, it was a liberating act, a focus on music without any expectations. Explaining it with a chuckle, Johnson elaborates, “I always would threaten to my friends that I’m gonna start a country rock band so I can retire and just play down at the pub every Thursday night during happy hour. I love being able to tour and travel, but I also like the idea of having a local band … more of a social music experience.” Freedom from expectation and obligation gave Johnson the space to experiment with new instrumentation and arrangements. The introduction of lap steel, mandolin, and jaw harp enhance Johnson’s lean guitar work with radiant overtones, placing Summerlong more overtly within the country tradition than its predecessor.

The debut really captured me because it came out of thin air and surprised me. The new album is just as good, but it does not have the surprise factor of the first. I appreciate the perfection of the sound of Summerlong without it getting too slick. If you like the mellow, but guitar-heavy jams, of Jerry Garcia and J.J. Cale you will dig this album. Although it has a country feel, it is also funky and bluesy at times. This album goes down easy, listen to it with intention – there’s a complexity that is worthy of your attention.

The album is available now on some streaming services (e.g. it is on Spotify, but not on Tidal) and will be available on vinyl June 19.

Jason Isbell – Reunions

If there was an algorithm based on my taste, Jason Isbell would be a top suggestion. However, I wasn’t a fan, but it looks like Reunions may change that.  Isbell checks a lot of my boxes:

  • He is a little bit country, what we used to call country rock or southern rock and today we call roots, Americana or alt-country
  • He is a singer-songwriter
  • He is a great guitarist
  • He is a brilliant live performer (I saw him in a double feature – I was there for Father John Misty)

Somehow, I have not caught Isbell fever, until now. So what happened? Well seeing him live last summer was a good start. Recently I heard one of the teaser singles: “What’ve I Done To Help,” on the radio and it stopped me in my tracks. Then I heard him interviewed by Rick Rubin on Broken Record.  So I gave the new album a receptive listen and I liked it – more than liked it – I loved it. 

What do I like? The album reminds me of the 70s era Jackson Browne – in the lyrics, the country-rock arrangements, and overall emotional tone. He has a unique soulful country voice – a touch of Greg Allman in his tone. He shreds on the guitar, but in service of the song – he is not showing off. He tells concrete stories in his songwriting. He has not turned a corner – I could say this about all his albums (I have been backtracking through his catalog). But for some reason Reunions really resonates with me.  

Reunions has so many great lines and images:

  • Regarding drinking: “It gets easier but it never gets easy”
  • Remembering childhood: “A dreamsicle on a summer night in a folding chair/Witch’s ring around the moon/Better get home soon”
  • Marrying off a daughter: “It’s easy to see that you’ll get where you’re going/The hard part is letting you go”

Now that I have the Isbell bug, I am looking forward to digging into his catalog.  Reunions is going to be one of my summer of 2020 jams.  

EoB – Earth

I have said before that I have a love-hate relationship with Radiohead. Overall I am a fan, but some of their stuff is weird for the sake of being weird. It’s almost like they are trying to scare you away. Ed O’Brien, a guitarist in Radiohead, has made a highly accessible album, Earth, performing under the name EOB.

It is Radiohead-lite which is a good thing for me and Coldplay for others.  There are some Nick Drake pop-folk vibes, U2 (U2 producer Flood produced Earth), and New Order dance music.  There are plenty of guitars (thank you!), surprisingly solid vocals (Thom Yorke hogs the vocals in Radiohead so you wouldn’t have known), and excellent sonics. The album ends with a nice duet with Laura Marling (one of my favorite young artists).

There is nothing particularly innovative here, but I sure like it. If Radiohead lost you as a fan after OK Computer and you enjoy Radiohead imitators, like Coldplay and Keane, then you’re will probably dig this album.

Secret Sisters – Saturn Return

I checked out this album because of Brandi Carlile. I officially became a fan of Brandi after watching her performance of “The Joke” at the 2019 Grammys. I had listened to her before, but not really LISTENED. So when Brandi started to hype this album, I knew I was going to LISTEN.

The Secret Sisters are a singing and songwriting duo consisting of vocalists Laura Rogers and Lydia Slagle. Laura and Lydia are sisters from Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Their style is Americana and they remind me of the Everly Brothers, mid-70s Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, and of course Brandi Carlile.

The album was produced by Carlile and the Hanseroth twins and recorded in Carlile’s home studio in Washington state.

Per the Sister’s website:

The album is named after an astrological occurrence in which the planet Saturn returns to the same place in the sky that it occupied at the moment of a person’s birth. During this phase, which happens approximately every 29 ½ years, said Laura, a woman “comes into her own and has this awakening in herself about who she is as a person. It can also be a very traumatic time where your whole world just seems to radically shift.”

There is nothing better than sibling harmonies and the Rogers sisters are top-notch. They trade lead vocals song to song and sometimes within the song.

The sisters are great songwriters.  The mark of a great song is that it sounds familiar yet new; Saturn Returns effortlessly embraces that contradiction. They are able to comfortably convey both sweet and dreadful memories with élan.

The album has a gorgeous 70s singer-songwriter vibe. The Carlile/Hanseroth production modernizes that vibe into a perfect folk-pop sound that sounds timeless.

Don’t be deceived by the gentle beauty of this album, this is deep and soulful art.

Lucinda Williams – Good Souls Better Angels

Damn!  Lucinda is pissed, but not without hope. This is an artistic reaction about the devil in our midst. A devil who has leveraged organized crime, political corruption and racism – as Lu says in  “A Man Without A Soul:”

You’re a man without shame

Without dignity and grace

No way to save face

You’re a man without a soul

The album was recorded at long time Williams’ collaborator Ray Kennedy’s vintage-equipped studio. According to Williams website, she and

“…her longtime band – guitarist Stuart Mathis, bassist David Sutton, and drummer Butch Norton – cut most of the songs in two or three takes, with the rhythm section’s rock-solid pulse and Mathis’ versatile sonic attacks backing Williams’ distinctive passion-drenched vocals.”

Musically this album rocks. It is bluesy, swampy, rootsy and at times is out right hard rock. There are raw and gentle moments. The production and arrangements are absolutely perfect.

The band is fantastic and Stuart Mathis guitar playing is otherworldly. His scorching licks are the perfect foil to Lucinda’s drawl/growl.

Lyrically Williams volleys between poetry and slogans. The songs have anger and sadness, but they also have compassion and hope.

Good Souls And Better Angels is good therapy in these troubled times. In an NPR interview Williams says:

I was going to say earlier when we were talking about “Not a good time to put an album out”: Ironically enough, [for] this particular album, this is probably the perfect time for it to come out.

This is a perfect time for the album to come out. In a time when:

Liars are venerated

Losers, congratulated

Cheaters, celebrated

Please compensate it

Vultures satiated

Murders, exonerated

Guilty, vindicated

Innocent, incarcerated

Perfect indeed.

Batch 1 of Wheel Horse Rye

I saw this on the shelf at my local liquor store (Top Ten) on sale for $25 and gave it a try. It is excellent, it is sweet and hot (101 proof). Per the whiskey’s web site:

Wheel Horse Rye is a sour mash whiskey, distilled and matured at O.Z. Tyler Distillery in Owensboro, KY. We us a 95% rye (5% malted barley) mash, and distill exclusively in copper stills. Maturation is done in 53-gallon, charred American oak barrels for a minimum of two years. Our barrels age in rick houses that have been on the property for up to 90 years. We do not chill-filter our whiskey. We do not adulterate our whiskey in any way.

My first reaction was that it was hot maple syrup. But further savoring has revealed more nuances: vanilla, caramel, and of course rye. It is sweet, but not too sweet. Served neat it burns your nose hairs when you take a deep whiff – got to love the 101 proof! So the sweetness is a nice balance to the heat.

This is an excellent value whiskey. For me it is too flavorful to mix – that would seem like a waste – I like it neat or over a big piece of ice, even my wife likes it neat. Give this new whiskey a try.

Bob Dylan – I Contain Multitudes

Dylan dropped another treat late Thursday night (4/16/20). Bob has never had a more autobiographical song title.

I put this on repeat and walked around the lake. I love it, but I worry. This sounds like the last words of a dying man. But I will remain calm as Bob wears a mask better than any artist I know.

I sing the songs of experience like William Blake

I have no apologies to make

Everything’s flowing all at the same time

I live on a boulevard of crime

The song’s narrator is trying to explain himself:

I’m a man of contradictions, I’m a man of many moods

I contain multitudes

Like all great Dylan songs, it sets a mood and is a fascinating puzzle.

Musically this is similar to Dylan’s other recent song “Murder Most Foul.” Sparse: an acoustic guitar and a little pedal steel. Again, he is borrowing the croon of his recent standards album. The song is of a normal length.

After nearly drowning us in the great American standards, Dylan is back with a couple of original masterpieces in “Murder Most Foul” and “I Contain Multitudes.” Hopefully, a full album is on the way.

Puss N Boots – Sister

I have been a Norah Jones fan since day one. This is an artist who I fell in love with on her debut album, released February 26, 2002. I had been introduced to her a few months earlier on Charlie Hunter’s album Songs From the Analog Playground.

She was noticeable on that album, someone to pay attention to in the future.

What got my attention about her debut album, even before hearing it, was learning in prerelease PR that Arif Mardin had produced it. A legend – this guy produced Aretha, Anita Baker, and Roberta Flack to name a few (I was reminded with the recent passing of John Prine that Mardin produced Prine’s debut). Mardin knows how to produce women and make big hits! I was going to buy Come Away With Me on release day no matter what. In those days there were no leading streaming singles. There was not even radio play early on for an unknown like Norah Jones on a jazz label (Blue Note). So I bought Norah sight unseen, it was a perfect album.

Eventually, Come Away With Me crept on to radio and it became a massive hit. It sold over 27 million copies worldwide as of 2016 making it one of the best-selling albums of all time. Jones won five Grammys in 2003.

Well anyway, I am a Norah fan – a big obsessive fan. This poster is from her first national tour and hangs in our home:

So based on all of that, I don’t know why I did not get into Puss N Boots’ first album. But I sure dig this new one.

The cool thing about Norah is she did not let the fame and money ruin her. She leveraged it; Puss N Boots is one of those leverages. A cool detour into an artsy modern girl group with Americana leanings.

Norah has hooked up jazz singer-songwriter Sasha Dobson and singer-songwriter Catherine Popper to create Puss N Boots. Their focus is alternative-country/Americana. They play mostly their own songs and occasional covers. Lead vocals are distributed amongst all three. Harmonies are heavenly, the arrangements and performances are relaxed. The vibe is deceiving laidback, but don’t be fooled this – it is a sneaky masterpiece.

Although Norah Jones is the big name here, this is a collaborative effort. Jones’ contribution is less as a lead vocalist, but through her ubiquitous minimalist guitar playing, drums and harmony vocals. All three vocalists are distinctive voices, yet there is a cohesive flow to the album. The three switch instruments (guitar, bass and drums) nearly as much as they switch lead vocals. This is a band and not a vocalist or instrumentalist showcase. Less is more, seems to be the plan here.

Of particular delight is Catherine Popper’s take on Paul Westerberg’s “It’s A Wonderful Lie.” This gem is from Westerberg’s third solo album Suicaine Gratifaction. An obscure, but brilliant choice for the ladies. I assume Blue Note label boss Don Was had a hand in that (he produced Suicaine Gratifaction).

This is a gentle album to spin in the background, but you will be rewarded if you give it a serious upfront listen. One of my favorite releases so far in 2020.

Pearl Jam – Gigaton

I am not much of a Pearl Jam fan, but I was motivated to check this new album out after listening to Bill Simmons’ podcast with the band’s Eddie Vedder and Jeff Ament.

It is hard not to be a rock fan of a certain age and not be a Pearl Jam fan. Their first three albums (Ten, Vs. and Vitalogy) were great. Those three albums, plus being a great live act, have allowed them to be the grunge Grateful Dead for thirty years. I have never seen them live and I have not kept up with them since their 90s heyday – so as I said earlier, I am not much of a fan.

The new album sounds fresh and energetic. It is a mix of punk attitude and classic rock influences  – my definition of Seattle grunge. Like their 90s best, the songs have great hooks. Eddie Vedder’s vocals sound fantastic.  It is probably not fair to call this a comeback, but it is for me – I have comeback to Pearl Jam because of the quality of this album.

There are some new sounds (at least for this marginal fan).  “Dance Of The Clairvoyants” sounds like a Talking Heads/Peal Jam love child – it totally works – it sounds like Bowie.  “Come Then Goes” is a beautiful acoustic piece. “River Cross” has an epic Springsteen gospel feel.  There are plenty of rockers too.

“Seven O’Clock” a protest song about Trump, accidentally has a message for the pandemic:

For this is no time for depression or self-indulgent hesitance

This fucked up situation calls for all hands, hands on deck

Then specifically on Trump:

Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, they forged the north and west

Then you got Sitting Bullshit as our sitting president

The 12 songs are perfectly sequenced.  Pearl Jam reminds me of The Who. The Who resurrected recently, so they have more than sound in common. This album is a welcome surprise and I am motivated to revisit their catalog and see them live.   This album is as essential as any of the albums in their 90s trilogy.