I wish I were cultured enough to be able to pick out Classical composers’ works by ear. However, I am not. I wouldn’t know the difference between Brahms and Verdi or Schumann and Mahler just by listening.
Yo-Yo Ma / Chris Thile / Edgar Meyer
Yo-Yo Ma / Chris Thile / Edgar Meyer
Bach Trios
Nonesuch
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I wouldn’t be able to pick them out of a lineup. Not yet anyway. I can’t tell the difference between Baroque and Romantic pieces, and I’m not even confident enough to say for certain that the record we’re here to discuss consists of Classical music at all. (If there are readers amongst us who can help, please stand up. And comment.) It’s called Bach Trios, and it’s performed by Yo-Yo Ma (cello, even I know that), Chris Thile (mandolin), and Edgar Meyer (double bass). I can tell you this much right now, it is the loveliest record I have unearthed in a while.

I’m currently in a graduate program doing my clinical fieldwork. Relaxation and rest have become scarce. I’ve been looking for some music to help with that, and I’ve gathered up some Living Stereo reissues from Analogue Productions to that end. Also got the Chopin thing performed by Martha Argerich as a solo pianist with the same hopes. And I’m stoked to have all of those in my collection. I’m happy to listen to them any old time. But the Bach record is what I’ve been after. The others involve peaks and valleys, and flights and nosedives. Beautifully bipolar rollercoasters with all of the calm and chaos you’d expect. The Bach Trios record is straight chill time. Thile’s mandolin work stands out mostly because the guy’s a master, but also because the instrument seems so novel to my ears in this setting. I believe it stands in mostly for the piano. We all know what Yo-Yo Ma can do with a cello when he’s not leaving his in a NYC taxi’s trunk. And Edgar Meyer is a legend in his own right. In summary, this record is performed by a trio with two instruments that I would typically consider redundant (cello and bass), and one that almost seems incongruous in this setting. And they add up to my favorite album of the last few years. Without hyperbole. I’m already onboard with Nonesuch as a label. I like a lot of their roster, and I think their releases are of a consistently higher quality than what most modern major labels can muster. This one is no different.

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The two records are of a pedestrian weight, which might throw some folks a curve in the 180-gram age, but I couldn’t care less. I’m mostly in it for the transparency and the pressings, and this one earns high marks for both. The pressings, especially. There is a micro thin layer of something between the instruments and my ears, and I suspect that the something is made of a “1” or a “0.” There’s no credit listed for vinyl mastering. It is a small chink in the armor of an otherwise legendary release. Nothing would thrill me more than to hear what would happen if Analogue Productions or MoFi took this one by the horns. Lord, have mercy on my soul if the folks responsible for the Music Matters Jazz Blue Note reissues did. I’d never leave my apartment. But this one is pretty near perfect. And I’m gonna wear it out. Comes with a download code too. I can’t recommend it enough. Almost makes a life seem manageable. Even in 2017. I say, “Do it.”

(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)

Jeff Tweedy
Jeff Tweedy
Together At Last
dBpm Records
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I might not be the only one trying to get away from the Crazy in this era of… Crazy Making. I’m only half joking when I say that I spend the majority of my time feeling disoriented and confused by almost everything that I read about the world in 2017. Jeff Tweedy and his band have been proficient at illustrating a wide swath of the human experience with their zany sounds and needlepoint lyricism over the past couple of decades. Tweedy takes a step away from the light show and lasers on Together At Last. When I heard that he was releasing a solo acoustic album comprised mostly of Wilco tunes I assumed it would be a live one. Turns out, these are studio takes. And there’s a harmonica involved. As Hunter Thompson might have said, “Once you get into a serious Wilco collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.” I don’t really need these versions of these songs. I have many of them in multiple forms and formats already. But I also have a complete Wilco vinyl collection. Minus some singles. And this one counts.

This is fun stuff, man. It’s not essential. It’s not going to alter your worldview, but it will likely confirm your belief in Jeff Tweedy’s talent, wit, and wisdom if you’re already a fan. And isn’t that what we most enjoy in the Crazy Making era? Having our beliefs confirmed even in the face of seemingly incontrovertible evidence? I’ve not seen any evidence to suggest that Tweedy is anything other than an artist that has worked long hours to hone his craft, whether you’re excited by it or not. I’ve been a little lukewarm to some of what has been released in recent years, and I’ve been downright bowled over by some of it too. This one lands squarely in the middle. I like all of the songs just fine. They’re not the ones that would be on the album if I’d been put in charge of the setlist, but I doubt that I ever will be. I met Tweedy once. It was brief. He didn’t ask me any probing questions, I can tell you that much right now. It was a much less intimate encounter than the one I have listening to Together At Last. Tweedy has a talent for filling large rooms with whispered vocals and acoustic sounds. I admire the clarity of his tone no matter what is going on sonically around him. This is like mainlining Tweedy. It’s a close up shot. I don’t think he gets enough acknowledgements for his guitar playing prowess. He’s slick with a pick or without one, and there’s much more picking than strumming in this set. There are a couple of songs each from some of Wilco’s more beloved long players (Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), and there’s Golden Smog and Loose Fur stuff too. If you like Jeff Tweedy, you probably have this one already. If you’re looking for a point of entry, I will be happy to direct you somewhere else. This might not be the most compelling start to a story…

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Together At Last was pressed at Quality Record Pressings, and they did a mostly fine job. This is the first Tweedy/Wilco release that I can think of that doesn’t come with a digital copy of any sort. Which is okay. You don’t want to fall asleep while driving, now do you?

(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)

Ry Cooder
Ry Cooder
Paradise and Lunch
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab
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Here’s what I know about Ry Cooder: he was allegedly the first person to turn Keith Richards on to open guitar tunings, and he’s never really been publicly acknowledged for that. Not publicly enough, anyway. He also hit one out of the park with that Buena Vista Social Club business in the mid-‘90s, but I wasn’t paying attention. Also, he was signing a book at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when I was there a few years back. But the line of people was too long, and I was in a hurry to go sit in an even longer line of cars on an interstate. On Sunday. Finally, he’s a badass guitarist. A guitarist’s guitarist. That’s it. That’s all I’ve had to work with. Until I picked up Paradise and Lunch. Mobile Fidelity has released a few of his earlier titles, and this was the first one that I jumped on. I doubt it will be the last. It’s pretty fun.

Paradise and Lunch was born in 1974. And it sounds like it. I imagine the recording rooms were carpeted, as were their ceilings. Some of the guitar tones are disagreeable to me. Too clean. There’s a string section on one of the songs. That’s all the bad news, right up in front. The best parts involve sly vocals, humorous lyrics, and guitar playing for days. Lots of slide. That’s ol’ Ry playing slide on Mick Jagger’s solo version of “Memo from Turner,” which slays the Stones version a million times over. He also plays on Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers, but we’re here for Paradise and Lunch. I only bring up his work with the Stones because I’d have been thrilled if Paradise had been recorded in a similarly raunchy vein. The material would fit that presentation, no problem. These are covers of old Blues songs and standards. “Jesus On the Mainline,” and the like. Hell, he even does a Reggae-styled version of “It’s All Over Now,” which I currently prefer to the Stones version, but that might be a bit biased. Based on what I’m hearing on this specific title, I’m not surprised that I haven’t heard Ry mentioned as one of Rock’s preeminent vocalists. And he probably wouldn’t have been mentioned as one of the genre’s top guitarists based solely on Paradise and Lunch either. He’s slippery and restrained at the same time. If you really concentrate and pay attention, his wizardry becomes overt, but the presentation is modest – light years from ostentatious. You’ve gotta listen with the right ears. And you’ll be rewarded for doing so multiple times. It’s rocking enough to scratch that itch, but laid back enough for dinnertime too. There’s something for damn near everyone, really. Everyone with a modicum of taste, I should say. If you’re only in it for the stuttering dance beats, you’ll leave the party early. But if talent and instrumentation are your thing, Paradise and Lunch will get you where you want to be. Lots of layers. Lots of genius to sort through. I intend to dig deeper. Stick around.

MoFi can be counted on for one thing above all others stellar record pressings from the folks at RTI. This one falls right in their wheelhouse for clean presentations too. They’ve vastly expanded their talents for Rawk, but these breezy tunes are what I’ve thought of when I’ve thought of MoFi for the last 20 years. If you like what they do, and you like real roots music, Paradise and Lunch should work just fine for you.

(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)

Leon Russell
Leon Russell
Leon Russell
Audio Fidelity
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And now, back to our regular scheduled programming. Relaxation and downtime are essential, but so is good, old-fashioned Rock ’n Roll. Leon Russell was a primary purveyor of that sort of thing, but you’d be forgiven for not having picked up on that. My folks were (and are) Joe Cocker fans, so I grew up on Mad Dogs and Englishmen. When I became of age, I got a copy of the movie on VHS and immediately set about wearing that tape thin. Those folks, all 1,000 band members and hangers on, were bonkers. None more so than Leon Russell. At the time, it looked like a fun scene. Now, it looks painful. And I’m still a little unclear on the timeline, but I think it went something like this: Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett put together a killer band. Leon Russell was in on the ground floor. When the band folded (possibly under the weight of its members’ numbers and their nefarious habits), Leon co-opted a bunch of the players to make his first solo record, and then Mad Dogs and Englishmen. We’re here to explore that first Leon Russell record. It’s called… Leon Russell.

And it’s a barrel of monkeys, man. There’s an old documentary that is finally seeing the light of day (and the dark of many wasted nights, I’m sure) called A Poem Is A Naked Person. It’s ostensibly about Russell, but it’s kinda just weird. Be that as it may, it has a lot of scorching live footage, and much of the material on Leon Russell is represented in the doc. Russell was from Oklahoma, and his music is a hodgepodge of Gospel, Country/Hillbilly Music, Blues, and traditional Rock ’n Roll. This record screams “Los Angeles” from the first notes, and it’s powerful enough to transport you back to that city’s fertile session scene in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Reminds me a bit of Dr. John’s LA work too. Some of the same players, lots of exuberant piano workouts, and there are times when Russell’s vocals make me thing of the Doctor’s. I was initially drawn to this record by Russell’s version of his own “Delta Lady,” which was made famous by Cocker. I stayed for “Shootout on the Plantation,” which has fired me up every one of the eight billion times I’ve played it by now. There are big names all over this record. Some of them belong to George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood… on and on in this vein. It’s a revelation, really. Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that I love the bare bones production qualities, and the general roughness of the whole shootout. There are a lot of dynamics built into the songs, and the material is diverse. Piano ballads, swampy slide battles, and Sunday church rave-ups. It’s a Rock ’n Roll record that drills down to the bone. I’m all the way in. You should consider it, if you haven’t already…

…If for no other reason than because Kevin Gray remastered this one for the Audio Fidelity label. The sonics are spectacular, and the pressing is too. I can’t find any info on the sources used, but this one’s warm and dynamic and 3D all the way, even if there were some digits introduced somewhere along the chain. It’s a limited edition, and I highly encourage you to jump while the jumping’s good.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Electric Ladyland
Experience Hendrix/Sony
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I’m not the biggest Hendrix fan you’ll ever meet. I like him just fine, but I rarely think to reach for the only record of his that I own on vinyl. That’s the Classic Records mono version of Axis: Bold as Love. I could reach for it more often because it’s pretty well done. The 50th anniversary of the Monterey Pop Festival came and went recently, and I thought to watch the Otis Redding and Hendrix sets that I have on Blu-ray to commemorate the event. That put Hendrix back on my radar, and I started thinking more and more about the one album of his that I truly love. It is Electric Ladyland. There’s been a version available for a few years now that’s alleged to be an “all analog remaster from the original 2-track master tapes.” I realized that I’m not in any danger of ever getting an original mono version (there were none made for the US or British markets anyway, apparently), and so I finally grabbed a copy of the reissue. Should have done that way sooner.

I’m not even sure that this is Rock ’n Roll. It feels like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)” sounds like someone took acid and broke into the Motown studio to make Cosmic Soul music with the house band. “House Burning Down” sounds like the house band burning down in many different ways. And “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” sounds like your face burning down. I’ve never tired of it. Hendrix’s guitar mastery is as evident as ever throughout, but it’s not the main event for me. The songs are. Some sound like brilliant sketches that never really were fully developed (“Still Raining, Still Dreaming”). Some sound like smoking rehearsals (“Voodoo Chile”) that just happened to be caught on tape. It all adds up to a frigging phenomenal snapshot of the breadth of musical exploration happening in 1968. I mean, damn. Some double albums from that era feel self indulgent and bloated, but not Electric Ladyland. Even the sketches are essential to the album’s flow. This was Hendrix’s last official release with the Experience, and they made it count. There’s really no point in digging too deeply into this release from a musical angle. I doubt that I am turning anyone on to anything they are not already aware of here. Unless maybe you’re a casual Hendrix fan that is mostly familiar with his “radio songs.” If that were the case, I’d encourage you to do a deeper dive on this album in particular. It’s a rewarding experience. There are so many layers and so many sounds that you’ll find something new every time.

Especially with a well-done vinyl version. This one counts for that, I’d say. It’s not an audiophile kind of party. There’s too much hiss in the tapes for that, if nothing else. But I’m glad it’s there. I’d hate to hear what would happen if we tried to take it out. There’s too much life in these grooves to risk it. This release was pressed at Quality Record Pressings, and they did a fine enough job. It’s not immaculate, but it’s way better than most. My copy is a standard black vinyl version, but they’ve been releasing colored vinyl versions for a couple of years now. It should be easy enough to find, and it’s well worth the time.

(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)