Willie Nelson “Red Headed Stranger” Impex
I was stoked by my discovery of Impex Records last month when we looked at their version of “Ellington Indigos.” It took all the restraint I could muster to take that one off the turntable long enough to explore this month’s five records. So when I saw that Impex had reissued Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger,” I didn’t waste any time snapping that one up too. Legend has it that Columbia was hesitant to release it in ’75 as the album seemed to them as not much more than a demo. But Willie had complete artistic control so they were kind of stuck. As stuck as you can be when your label’s latest release goes straight to number one and is certified platinum multiple times.
Columbia was right about the timbre of the work, at least. It’s almost entirely acoustic with not much more than a piano and some drums here and there behind Willie’s nylon string guitar and his inimitable vocals. It’s the perfect album to see what Impex can really do. There’s nothing to get between you and ol’ Willie on this one. It’s a sure enough intimate experience with Willie spinning his yarn of infidelity, murder, and redemption over some of the loveliest and lowliest true country music you’ve ever heard . I’ve owned a first rate original for years and was giddy with anticipation at the prospect of making the comparison. The perceptive reader may be detecting a “but” coming on. I’ll get right to it: my copy is distorted. I spent a little time with my ear pressed to my right speaker trying to decide if I was hearing things wrong, but in my heart I knew I had an issue. By that, I mean both that I knew it in my heart and that it caused my heart issues. Really, I was just hoping it was the record and not my system. And it was. So I pulled out my original, and it’s distorted too, but in the other channel and it’s not as noticeable. The Impex record has more depth and space, but I’d listened to the original for years without noticing the flaws in the recording. And I like humanizing flaws in my art. But I don’t like thinking something’s wrong with my stereo. To be fair, I did some online surfing for some other reviews of this record and it’s getting nothing but praise on other sites. Still, my copy is distorted as sure as I’m typing these words. The arrangements are so sparse that you can almost be fooled into thinking that you’re hearing Willie’s strings rattling around or the gravel in his voice, but it’s not. Through it all, it’s an album that you’ll want in your collection as the imperfection seems to be in the original recording, and it’s thrived all these years as one of the true country classics with no complaints. It has historical context and quality tunes. And distortion. So be it.
I tend to think that the Impex version is so clear and intense that it’s revealing a flaw that was buried before. “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” will damn near make you well up, and having Impex’s version is like having Willie sing it directly to you. If it comes down to having these songs as is or not having them at all, the choice is obvious. I’m glad Willie gave them to us. I’ll be keeping mine. Both copies.
Hacienda “Shakedown” Collective Sounds
Man, Hacienda is an exciting band. This review is going to be a “gusher,” I can tell you that much right now. They got my vote for “Album of the Year” at Secrets in 2010 for “Big Red and Barbacao,” and I keep thinking they’re gonna have to slip a little just based on the law of averages. But “Shakedown” is here, and I’ve learned not to bet against this family band from San Antonio. Especially if they’re going to keep Dan Auerbach in the control room. He doesn’t miss. And “Shakedown” is another brick in the formidable wall that these guys began constructing with 2008’s “Loud Is The Night.” It’s tasteful and groovy, classic and young. Timeless and new. This band is a living high wire act without a net. And this one already has me wanting to hear where they’re going next. Onwards and upwards, I’d say.
On first listen, I didn’t hear a “single” on “Shakedown.” After I let it settle in a bit, I realized that in my fantasy world every song on here could be a hit. Like most of my favorite artists working now, Hacienda’s work is best enjoyed in larger chunks rather than as individual songs or even albums. There’s a progression between their three records, but it’s far from linear. Each creates its own mood and immerses the listener in a complete experience. “Shakedown” feels looser than previous offerings. “Veronica” sets the tone and lets you know that these guys came to lighten the mood a bit – sonically if not lyrically. They’re bringing a little sunshine to these often too-dark times. We need that every bit as much as we need Springsteen’s recent social commentaries, and I doubt The Boss would contradict me on that. “Don’t You Ever” and “Doomsday” provide side two with a dose of consecutive guitar power pop that will send you searching for a beach or a dance floor or a beer or whatever your thing is. The riffs are infectious, the harmonies sweet. And they’ve always got that classic Vox organ sound running under the whole thing to soften the edges and smooth out the wrinkles. As always, Auerbach has the good sense and taste to stay out of the way and to just put the sounds in their proper places. No one’s going to blow you away with speedy solos or virtuosic anything. They’re going to gang up on you and create a sound as a band that spreads out and over you until you’re hopelessly addicted. At least that’s what happened to me. I can only hope the same for you.
This band’s time is now. They’ve come through San Francisco at least three times since I last caught them live. They’re always playing on a school night as an opener for another band. In fact, I’ve never seen them play as headliners. That should change with “Shakedown.” If there’s any justice in this world, they’ll be out of the van and onto a bus, rocking venues cross country to sold out audiences that can’t get enough. If there’s one knock on “Shakedown,” it’s that it’s too short, but everything on it works and leaves you wanting more. The vinyl pressing is surprisingly clean for a true independent release, and the band’s decision makers did right by providing a digital download coupon this time too. Anything to help get the word out. I’m doing my part…
The Grateful Dead “Skull and Roses” Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs
Alright, I’ve done it. A while back, I set out to populate my record collection with some Grateful Dead titles that I could enjoy all the way through. Some stuff that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to parade out in front of my friends. Part of this was an attempt, no doubt, to recapture lost youth. At least I thought I liked the Dead when I was a kid. I never grew dreadlocks or anything, but I played along with everyone else come party time with Jerry. Somewhere along the way I came to my senses. I started to actually listen rather than follow. I realized I’d been lead down a shady path that could, indeed, be beautiful in some parts, but catastrophically rocky in others. MoFi released “Skull and Roses” recently, and it’s a strong one. To push this project any further would be like Christopher Nolan making another Batman movie. It could only go careening downhill from this point. I’m done.
And the zany analogy doesn’t end there: As in Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, the three Dead records that I’ve acquired recently tie each other together in a way that renders deciding which is better a moot point. They’re best enjoyed as one long work. Each of the three installments can stand on its own merit, but they make more sense when experienced together. If you’re not into the incessant jams on “Live” from ’69, you might at least be able to admire the band’s direction when those jams coalesce into the tighter tunes on “Skull and Roses” from ’71. And, by the time you get to 1981’s “Reckoning,” you have a full-on, real life song slinging band on your hands. By “songs” I mean musical works that can fit three at a time on a single vinyl side. The exception to this rule on “Skull and Roses” is “The Other One” which weighs in at a heavy eighteen minutes and populates the entirety of side two. Still, there’s more intention to be found here than in most of what you’ll find on “Live,” I promise. And “Live” is pretty great. Bob Weir is all over this set, and I like the record anyway. Garcia’s contributions are and will always be the highlight of any Dead offering, but Weir had his rockin’ shorts on during this era. As opposed to his hot shorts from the mid-’80’s. Avert your eyes. You don’t want that image scarred into your brain. But you’ll want to keep Garcia’s 1971 guitar tone on your person at all times. It’s nastier than it would one day be, less definitive but more dangerous. And that’s when the Dead is at its best. There was a time when they had a darker edge, and as Nolan’s films have proven, we love the darker side of our heroes. I know I’m not the only one.
As always, MoFi has made a two disc set that could stop Bane with one swing. Their records come in heavy, heavy gatefolds along with MoFi’s proprietary inner sleeves and pristine vinyl pressings. They should last forever with proper handling and storage. “Skull and Roses” is no different and it ends my project on a high note, for sure. The quality of their songs are often overshadowed by their noodling reputation, but the Dead were killing it around this time. You’ve just gotta pick your spots, brothers and sisters. I found mine.
Sade “Lovers Rock” Sony Music / Music On Vinyl
I took the Little Lady to see Sade in Oakland a few months back because she loves that sort of laid back, mellow female vocalist stuff, and sometimes gets tired of the raunchy guitars that are constantly jumping out at her from the speakers in my tiny studio apartment. They make her nervous. Sade chills her out. I felt like I owed her. I expected to like the show too, but I didn’t anticipate being converted. At show’s end, I knew I needed Sade in my home, but I’ve still not been able to make myself listen to her more popular albums from the ’80’s. “Smooth Operator” isn’t a bad song, it’s just played out to the point that I’m not really even hearing it when it’s on – I’m hearing an era. One that I take a lot of pride in dismissing out of hand as the worst ever for popular music. Because it is. So, I went with “Lovers Rock” because I was completely unfamiliar with it. I’m quite familiar with it now. This is a strange turn of events, this Sade business. Let’s see…
I’m kind of a sucker for the “mellow hip-hop beats behind acoustic instrumentation trick” that Beck and the Flaming Lips make such good use of. And Sade takes it to the upper deck on “Lovers Rock.” She gets to it right away on “By Your Side,” and follows it through over the course of two sides worth of… Sade. She’s kind of her own genre, right? Do you ever wonder who you’re hearing while she’s singing? I don’t either. It’s not that her voice is overpowering (though I left the Oakland show pretty convinced that she could blow the doors off the place if she wanted), it’s that she’s always in total control of her instrument. She knows her spots, and she doesn’t miss her mark. This album has sold almost four million copies since its release in 2000 so I don’t think I’m exactly educating anyone but myself here. It’s kind of surprising that I missed it, even by my standards. It took “Lovers Rock” twelve years to make it across the mote, I guess. It seems like it could have just floated over on its own. The textures are so light and the space so open that the listener can almost float with it. Sade at least co-wrote every song on here, wrote all of the lyrics, and produced the album which credits multiple musicians as programmers, but none as a drummer. Basically, she took the proverbial bull by the horns on this one. There’s not much musical diversity amongst the songs so, by album’s end, the mood is firmly established. It’s bed time, essentially – sleeping optional. “Lovers Rock,” indeed.
Music On Vinyl, from the Netherlands, put this one out a couple of years ago, and it is still readily available. They reissue classic titles as well as handle new releases, but I can’t tell if they use original masters on the old stuff or not. “Lovers Rock” turned out well enough, and may have been recorded digitally in the beginning. This is a single 180-gram disc with a better than average, but still cloudy, quiet pressing. It includes a lyric sheet on the cardboard inner which will need to be replaced with a rice paper sleeve to preserve the record. The jury is still out on the company, the music itself is righteous. But you probably knew that already.
The Band “Music From Big Pink” Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab
My earliest memory of MTV is of seeing The Band perform “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” live. The vision of Levon Helm singing like his life was due to expire in the next five minutes always stayed with me. Luckily, Levon hung in there for another few decades after my first televised encounter with him in 1981. I sought the group out about eight years later when I grabbed their “Best Of” set on CD. I never regretted it. Until I started collecting vinyl. Mobile Fidelity has released their second version of “Music From Big Pink.” I never heard the first, but I’m all in on the second. I couldn’t be happier.
For a group that’s lauded as the original rock and roll “roots” act, The Band actually has a lot of left field sounds on “Big Pink.” Right off the bat, the listener is confronted by a mysterious wailing instrument that only reveals itself as a guitar after repeated listens. I’m not sure what it’s being run through, but it is almost certainly not a guitar amp. From there, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel trade vocal duties with Levon over the course of eleven tracks that are as strong as anything from the fertile era of the late 1960’s. Garth Hudson’s hybrid classical/carnival organ vaults “Chest Fever” into the pantheon of some of the most tragically overlooked rock classics, and Manuel’s “To Kingdom Come” isn’t far behind. You’d have to call up the Beatles to find comparable musicianship from the era as George Harrison was legendarily inspired by “Big Pink,” while the wayward Eric Clapton was blessedly redirected from his self-indulgent Cream meanderings by it. Of course, Clapton could never achieve the level of honesty, humor, and charm that The Band tossed out with the ease of a suburban paperboy back then, but you can’t knock him for that. No one else could get it either. While many bands were whipping their hair and riding their motorcycles through hotel lobbies, The Band was going to work in the basement of their shared home in Woodstock wearing blue jeans and boots, and eschewing the musical excess that was hanging over popular music like a cloud of reefer on Haight Street. Where had these folks come from? Canada, for the most part. Except for Levon who rose from the Arkansas soil carrying all the complexities of the American South in his throat. Listeners were given no clues from the album art which featured only an unaccredited Bob Dylan painting on the front cover. No mention of the players or the band anywhere on the outer cover. But “The Weight” was the last song on side one so that probably clued folks in pretty quickly.
MoFi’s latest version of “Big Pink” smokes the all analogue reissue I have from 2001. That one has tape hiss and is blindingly bright while MoFi’s is quiet and cool like the album itself. The same laid back sonics that weakened MoFi’s take on R.E.M.’s “Life’s Rich Pageant” make their “Big Pink” definitive. Somehow, MoFi has skipped The Band’s self-titled classic “Brown Album” and released the two Band titles that surround it. There has to be a reason for that and I can only pray that they work out a way to secure the rights for it. Amazingly, it’s even stronger than “Big Pink.” That’s like saying that Georgia is hotter than Tennessee in summer time. We’re splitting hairs here. And not long, luxurious hippy hairs either. The Band didn’t stand for that.