Watch for our newly
Blue Haze: The Songs
of Jimi Hendrix
Let me state right off
that I love cover songs (one of my slogans is, "Always judge
a band by its covers"). Which may seem strange, considering
that one of my main standards for judging music is originality.
I think it's the particular challenge which cover songs present
to an artist: can they do something new, something original, with
someone else's material. Which brings me immediately to greatest
weakness of this set of blues artists covering Hendrix songs. Jimi
Hendrix was one of the most innovative, most original, musicians
ever, in any genre. He had no fear of covers himself, but every
one he touched, from "Johnny B. Goode" to "All Along
the Watchtower", he made his own. In fact, his take on "All
Along the Watchtower" is so powerful and distinctive that the
song is more associated with him than Bob Dylan, who actually wrote
it (it is considered enough of a Hendrix song to be included here).
This collection demonstrates, by default, just
how inventive he was. None of these very talented musicians comes
close to producing something I haven't heard before. The closest
thing is Walter Trout's echo-drenched, but otherwise clean and pure,
take on "The Star Spangled Banner." These are all competent,
and usually enjoyable versions of these songs, but they too often
sound like someone striving for the highs Hendrix already laid down,
rather than reaching their own summits.
Not surprisingly, the highlights on the disc are
two songs which sound almost nothing like Hendrix, where the artists
truly make the songs their own. In both cases, one of Hendrix's
wildest hard rock freak-outs is turned into slow groove blues: "Purple
Haze" as rendered by Friend'n'Fellow, and especially Taj Mahal's
soulful take on "All Along The Watchtower." Overall, this
is an enjoyable album featuring a number of talented musicians (others
include Eric Burdon, Buddy Miles with Double Trouble, Vernon Reid
and Michelle Shocked). However, to a great degree it shows that,
rather than building on Hendrix's accomplishments, many of today's
musicians are still trying to catch up.
G. Murray Thomas
AND THE ECCO-FONICS
Rhythm, Rhyme and Truth
HMG/Hightone Records www.hightone.com
Like the housewife who
seamlessly manages everyone's schedule that they don't realize how
hard she works, the tunes on Deke Dickerson's third album present
such flawlessly perfect rockabilly, R&B; and rock and roll offerings
that it's very easy to enjoy listening to the CD without acknowledging
the incredible amount of work it must take to sound this smooth.
From the sweetly soothing "Will You Be Mine",
to the serious "Don't Push Me Too Far," Dickersons blast
from the past vocals fuel skillfully blended instrumentals to make
the perfect recipe for easy going, fun music. This is an album to
listen to when you want to forget US Sino relations, the Napster
crisis, and you phone bill. Low stress simple lyrics and easy-going
well produced music can be an amazing treat sometimes.
DAVE MATTHEWS BAND
EVERYDAY, the much-anticipated
4th studio album from Dave Matthews Band, finally sees the light
of day February 27. The long-overdue album took the fast track to
fruition after the band parted ways with longtime producer, Steve
Lillywhite, and jumped into bed with super-producer Glen Ballard
(of Aerosmith and Alanis fame). The change in direction comes after
5 years, 3 studio albums and 1 live disc with Lillywhite, whose
production had become heavy-handed in recent years. The band's carefully
crafted reinvention is a decidedly fresh, albeit ultra-commercial
disc, slickly produced for mass consumption. EVERYDAY will do well
in spite of the forgettable debut single, "I Did It."
EVERYDAY was written entirely by Matthews and
Ballard, the duo going so far as to scrap new favorites like "Bartender,"
"Grace is Gone" and "Grey Street," which rose
to popularity during the Summer 2000 tour, and were slated for the
ill-fated Lillywhite release. With 12 songs written and recorded
in 6 1/2 weeks, EVERYDAY boasts all new material that has never
been road-tested, and foregoes the extended jamming of the band's
'grass' roots. Overall, EVERYDAY has a new approach. The production
is crisp and deliberate, and musical elements are used sparingly.
If you're hoping for long violin solos from Boyd Tinsley and sax
solos from LeRoi Moore, you're going to be disappointed. Even Carter
Beauford tames his fusion-style drumming for a less busy groove.
The sound is tightly packaged and not unlike the pop rock that has
defined the early sound of the 21st century, with a throwback to
late 80's arena rock.
Funky songs like "So Right" and "What
You Are" should perform well on the Top 10, the latter a tirade-of-a-song
that has all the potential of becoming a powerhouse-of-a-live-anthem.
Definitive touches like the tricky time signatures of "Sleep
to Dream Her" and "Fool to Think" keep the album
interesting. Wrenching out clear strong lyrics ("If I had it
all, you know I'd fuck it up"), Dave triumphs vocally as well.
With his now-trademark gravelly voice, unusual phrasing and soaring
choruses, his ever-developing style has make him one of the more
distinctive vocalists of his generation.
The term 'all new material' is a debatable one;
listen for "#36" as the backbone to the title track, "Everyday,"
while the first few chords of "Angel" recall a one-time
live intro to "Jimi Thing." And note the painful wailing
chorus from "Little Thing" woven into the otherwise jazzy,
syncopated "Dreams of Our Fathers," creating a strange
counterpoint to its clever, rhythmic core. Some of that stuff is
Bottom line: EVERYDAY doesn't suck. "The
Space Between," the tender, ethereal second single, would have
made a stronger debut, but hey, no one's perfect. While nothing
has paralleled the 'magic' of 1994's UNDER THE TABLE AND DREAMING,
EVERYDAY comes the closest yet. Regardless of album sales and charts,
the best barometer of EVERYDAY's success will be how well these
songs translate to the live show, and how well they evolve over
Okay, I may not be the
best person to review this record. Frankly, I like my music a little
bit livelier. It took me a number of tries before I even managed
to listen all the way through. Not that it's hard to listen to,
it's almost too easy; it's just a very mellow record. And I had
to be in a very mellow mood to give it the listen it deserved. When
I did, I found a CD full of delicate versions of old blues, folk
and gospel, sensitively sung by Mr. Muldaur, backed up with equal
finesse by musicians such as David Lindley, Dave Alvin, the McGarrigle
Sisters and John Sebastian. Beneath the soft veneer lay a variety
of textures and styles, and a heartfelt delivery.
Still, and this, I realize is sacrilege for a
record in which the artist has obviously carefully chosen the arrangements
and style for each tune, I keep hearing, and wishing for, more rousing
versions of these same songs. Many of them, to my ear, demanded
a chorus of performers, anything from a campfire sing-along to a
full gospel choir, but something more than was provided here. But
that's just my taste interfering with my appreciation of what was
As I said, I'm probably the wrong person to review
G. Murray Thomas
The George Benson Anthology
Warner Archives/Rhino Records www.rhino.com
Thank the good Lord for
the term "crossover artist." In the course of researching for this
review, I found that George Benson's work pops up (no pun intended)
under numerous categories: Street Corner Doo Wop, R&B;, Pop, Contemporary
Jazz, Funk, NAC/Smooth Jazz, Quiet Storm, Slow Jams, Soul, Old School,
Crossover Jazz, Jazz Pop, Hard Bob, Soul Jazz--to name a few. George
Benson's career longevity is as much driven by his versatility of
style as his mastery of his instrument. His career spanning 48 years,
Benson has had plenty of time to bridge numerous musical styles
and build a few bridges of his own, and jazz, pop, and R&B; are all
the richer for it. Several critics argue a strong case that he singlehandedly
created the NAC/Smooth Jazz genre that now comfortably embraces
the likes of Sade (on the sublime end of the spectrum) and Kenny
G (on the ridiculous end of any spectrum). Certainly after the instrumental
"Breezin'" was released in 1976, easy listening/Muzak stations developed
hipper, more up tempo playlists.
Arguably one of history's greatest jazz guitarists,
Benson finds his way into Retro Hell because of his impressive stream
of R&B; hits from the mid to late '70s. Much in the way Louie Armstrong
and Nat King Cole are best and most widely remembered for songs
they sang rather than the distinguished mastery of their instruments,
George Benson is best remembered for his quicksilver tenor vocals.
What separates Benson from Satchmo and Cole is the fact that his
agile singing arises directly from his lissome fretwork. Thus, it
is an irony that guitar-style scat singing, not the guitar, made
George Benson a chart topping superstar (eleven hits in the top
30, all told), blazing trails for such singers as Al Jarreau and
Bobby McFerrin. However, his lasting contribution to American music
is the manner in which he innovated jazz guitar (beginning with
the creation of his first electric guitar--a $20 design of Benson's
own that his stepfather Frankensteined out of household odds 'n'
ends when Benson will still just a teenager). Well . . . that and
the fact that he didn't record one of those silly "Duets" with what
amounted to a cardboard cutout of Sinatra in the early '90s.
The George Benson Anthology offers 31 savory cuts
of Benson's finest work, vocal and instrumental, on a two-disk set.
Benson's mainstream fans couldn't ask for a tastier collection-all
of his big hits are present and accounted for: "This Masquerade"
(1976's Grammy for "Record of the Year" and a song noteworthy for
the fact that it was recorded in one take), the Quincy Jones-produced
"Give Me the Night," the live remake of The Drifters' "On Broadway,"
(used to staggeringly brilliant effect by the late Bob Fosse for
the audition number that opens the film "All That Jazz"), "Love
Ballad" (a superb showcase of Benson's highly danceable, kickass
scatting), along with the easy-listenin' "Breezin'." Hey, has anyone
noticed how much "Turn Your Love Around" sounds a lot like a slice
of Toto from the late '70s? Well, perhaps that's because Toto's
Steve Lukather is one of the three credited songwriters (go Grant
Lancers, Steve!). In his duet with Aretha Franklin, "Love All the
Hurt Away," Benson wraps his voice around hers so capably that not
only does she not blow him away on dynamics, but he also coaxes
from her the gauzy tenderness she exhibited in "Day Dreaming" and
"Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)."
For jazz fans
in general and for those Benson pop and R&B; fans who want the well-rounded
experience, the early tracks highlight the extent to which Benson
has transcended popular music genres, cultivated such a distinctive
signature guitar sound, and stayed ever fluid and flexible across
four decades of rapidly evolving tastes. Check out the cool, tangy
bop of 1964's "Shadow Dancers" from Benson's tenure with the Brother
Jack McDuff Quartet. Dig the George Benson Quartet's snazzy renditions
of Marvin Gaye's Motown topper "Ain't That Peculiar" and "A Foggy
Day" by the Brothers Gershwin, both circa 1966. An amusing jam titled
"Ready and Able" seems an appropriate number to represent an album
titled "The George Benson Cookbook," featuring great short order
solo work by Ron Cuber on baritone sax and Lonnie Smith on organ.
There are sly covers of "What's New," "Chattanooga Choo Choo" (which
sounds like Booker T. and the MGs killing time on Track 29) and
a surprising, Spanish-textured "White Rabbit" (yes, that one about
feeding your head) with such notables as Herbie Hancock on the ivories
and Hubie Laws jacking up the rates on the utilities. Laws returns
for an excellent, lush pass by "Summertime" (with, egad!, Steve
Gadd on the drums!). Benson's singing on "Summertime" is one of
the finest interpretations you will ever hear of this achingly lovely
standard, comparable in daring to Billy Stewart's 1966 interpretation,
yet the more sublime by far. Throughout this section of covers,
what keeps these standards from sounding like retreads are respectful
attention to what made the originals memorable, playful approaches
to the instrumentation, and Benson's unsurpassed improvisational
skills, which take the familiar melodies in unfamiliar (but never
self-indulgent) directions. About the only song I don't like from
this collection is "The Greatest Love," which suffers not from any
fault of Benson's (he could make the goddamn "Safety Dance" sound
like a musical milestone), but because it just sucks as a song.
Benson has describes his guitar technique (and,
it follows, his vocal technique) as a "bouncing off" from the other
musicians' lines. This likely explains not only the tightness of
his ensembles (he is, in fact, the suture, but we never see the
seams), it also reveals why his singing is so, well, purely musical.
He serves the lyrics of his songs well (listen, listen, listen to
"This Masquerade" if you doubt me), but he serves the songs just
as capably when his voice becomes the familiar of his guitarwork.
Singer, guitarist, handsome as all get-out (he looks about 20 years
younger than his actual age of 58), he is a national treasure, and
this CD collection is a treasure trove.
Some interesting George Benson facts:
1) Vindication is sweet: The first time Benson attempted to sing
along with his guitar, everyone in the studio booed. Benson went
on to win Grammies for "On Broadway (Best R&B; Vocal Performance,
Male, 1978), "Give Me The Night" (Best R&B; Vocal Performance, Male,
1980), and "Moody's Mood" (Best Jazz Vocal Performance, 1980).
2) Benson is an autodidact on the guitar. (Look that one up yourself.)
3) As a little boy, George's hands were too small to play his stepfather's
electric guitar, so he played a ukelele he fashioned out of a cardboard
4) Cutting his first single in 1953, George wound up with a real
hustler for his first manager--a 19 year old kid named Eugene Landy.
Their association was short-lived, and Landy went on to greater
notoriety as the Svengali-like psychologist who puppeteered poor
Beach Boy Brian Wilson.
5) George Benson received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
6) That's Doctor Benson to y'all. George Benson received his honorary
doctorate in music from the Berklee College of Music in 1990, no
thanks to Eugene Landy, who kept young George out of school too
much during their brief partnership.
The George Benson Anthology includes a photo-packed
45-page booklet, with outstanding liner notes by A. Scott Galloway.
For further information, I suggest you try breezin' to his official
site at www.georgebenson.com.
MARK OLSON & THE ORIGINAL
HARMONY RIDGE CREEKDIPPERS
My Own Jo Ellen
Hightone Records www.hightone.com
This is updated roots
music. The songs all sound like they've been sung for generations,
passed down through the dry desert history. The Creekdippers, a
loose collection of musicians anchored by Olson, his wife Victoria
Williams, and Mike "Razz" Russell, play a timeless form
of folk-blues, which still sounds modern. At times they reminded
me of Neil Young, specifically in the expert balance between electric
and acoustic guitar work. But they really don't sound like anyone
in particular, or maybe they sound like everyone.
Lyrically, the balancing act continues. Many of
the songs deal with such modern topics as nuclear waste, developer's
land grabs and the California Aqueduct. But these still continue
the roots music tradition of dealing with the eternal struggle between
the dispossessed and the powerful. On others, they continue the
universal topic of the individual longing for transcendence from
all levels of earthly struggle, whether through spiritual salvation
or simple love and friendship.
My Own Jo Ellen creates wonderful new songs which
sound like they've been around forever.
G. Murray Thomas
Poems From the Like Free Zone
Words Worth Ink
Taylor Mali proves that
poetry can be both entertaining and meaningful. Mali is a consummate
entertainer. His poems are often little stories, humorous and easy
to follow, dealing with subjects we can all relate to (such as love
and learning and learning love). But as any comedian knows, the
delivery is as important as the punchline, and Mali knows how to
deliver his poems. He puts every inflection of his voice to use
(this is especially showcased in the opening track, "Totally
Like Whatever"). He is also a master of timing, utilizing brief
pauses to great effect, not just for humor, but to illuminate the
meanings of his poems.
But don't let this talk about comedy give you
the wrong idea. Mali is not one of those poets who strings some
one-liners together and calls it a poem. His writing is about much
more than the humor. Mali makes his living as a teacher, and that
experience provides fodder for most of the work here. He writes
about the challenges and rewards of teaching. In "What Teachers
Make" he is challenged by a lawyer acquaintance, "Be honest,
Taylor, what do you make?" and, after outlining many aspects
of his job, concludes, "I make a difference./ What about you?"
Mali is an optimist, and does believe that he can change the world
"one eighth grader at a time" ("Like Lilly Like Wilson").
Teaching is not all of Mali's world, however. He also writes movingly
about love ("Falling in Love is Like Owning a Dog" and
"Playground Love") and loss ("My Mother's Ponytail").
My one complaint with the album is, having seen
Mali's power on stage, I wish he had recorded it live. Audience
reaction would have added a great extra punch to many of these pieces
(and trust me, he gets audience reaction). Except perhaps then it
would have sounded too much like a comedy album.
G. Murray Thomas
PUPPETS OF CASTRO
Andrew Lorand & Matthew Niblock
Taken individually, each
song on Andrew Lorand's and Matthew Niblock's odd collaborative
album, PUPPETS OF CASTRO, is a perfectly acceptable little pop ditty.
Some of them, like "Mr. Smith," "Planet" and "Piles of Leaves" are
truly exceptional, and "I'd Do Anything" is a lovely--and radio-friendly--number.
Unfortunately, all these great songs feel like they all belong on
different albums. There's something truly jarring about going from
the truly haunting "Mr. Smith," with Niblock's gospelesque vocals
and scathing dismissal of religious indoctrination, into "Weight
of the World," where Lorand's quirky singing style and unnervingly
peppy instrumentation is reminiscent of They Might Be Giants. Don't
get me wrong. I LIKE They Might Be Giants, but it's a difficult
transition. It takes a few listens to get a handle on this album's
idiosyncrasies. In the plus column, Niblock allows himself to explore
the more Country & Western facets of his singing voice, and comes
up with a dry whiskey tone that could make Hank Williams, Sr. jealous.
Also, taken on its own, Lorand's lyrics on both "Girls Like That"
and "Maria" manage to attain hysterical and heartbreaking in one
fell swoop. On the negative, I miss the depth and texture of Niblock's
lyrics from his work with "the Clear," and find it amusing that
the most subtly written of the songs here is "Mr. Smith," the only
one he wrote the lyrics to alone. Still, this is a thoroughly enjoyable
album, but if there's one significant flaw in this album, it's that
it collects two obviously talented singer/songwriters and backs
them with some fabulously talented musicians (such as Casey Arrillaga
and the amazing Kathryn Schorr) and then aspires to little more
than poppiness. If there's any redemption here, it's that they do
pop very, very well.
Victor D. Infante
REV. BILLY C. WRITZ
The Best of the Writz
15 Years on the Road with
a 77" Pianist
Mere words cannot describe
the silliness that is Rev. Billy C. Writz. I remember as an adolescent
collecting comedy albums that combined music, satire and rude sound
effects to create an escape from the relentlessly boring routine of
life. Well, here is a collection of stuff I would have killed to lay
my hands on as a teenager and find equally funny today. I must admit
some of the songs, like "Roberta" a love song/lament about
a failing relationship with a really overweight woman ("that
was the biggest mistake I made the day I wrapped my skinny legs around
your big fat butt"), make my PC antenna begin to quiver. However,
most of the humor is so over the top that you can only consider it
tongue in cheek and move on.
Aside from funny song tracks there are radio interviews,
live show song introductions so funny you don't need the song and
melodies put together like fake commercials. My favorite was one called,
"Baby Got Dot," which had a chorus of Indian (from India)
singing to the tune of "Who Let the Dogs Out" with the words,
"Who let the sacred cows out." Politics are also wielded
with the grace of a wounded sacred cow on "Right Wing Round Up,"
a squared dance tune that starts, "Circle to the right, especially
if your rich and white," and ends, "now all join hands and
block the clinic." Also worth note is his holiday broadcast about
the deep-south called, "Christmas in the Pecker Woods."
There is just not enough light-hearted humor in
the world anymore and it seems that everyone expects a little too
much philosophy in humor, which is just another way of being serious.
Rev. Wirtz seems to have decided to say "to hell with unoffensive
material! to hell with politically correct standards! let' just be
funny," And I say go!