The intervening years have seen myriad changes in the group’s lineup(s) and sound. It’s Great To Be Alive! is a five-record register of where they were in the waning moments of 2014. (Hint: they were onstage in San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium. Killing it.) They can still run their rig hotter than the hinges of hell, but they’ve expanded their palette beyond the scope of anything I’d have foreseen when I found them just before the turn of the century. It’s Great To Be Alive! has it all. And there’s plenty of road left to ride.
I’ll go ahead and show my hand right now: This set exceeded any hopes I had for what it would contain and how it would sound and how it would be presented. If the Stones’ archival releases were of this quality, I may have had an aneurism by now. For the first few days, I just kept pulling the set off the shelf and looking at it. Taking everything out of the box, spreading it all around on the floor so I could take it all in at once. I’m not sure I can. It’s immense. The first time I saw these guys, they were playing in a rat infested parking lot out back of a little pizza/beer joint in Athens, Georgia. I’d come for the pinball machine (Theater of Magic), and I stayed for the Rock Show. This was the Punk incarnation referenced above. I was hooked. Then, as today, there was no artifice. There also weren’t many dynamics, harmonies, or melodies. The addition of Jay Gonzalez (and the songwriters’ development) has helped with all that, and the fact that the band members seem to like each other can’t be a hindrance. The songs in this set were recorded over the course of three sold-out nights. The show that I caught was a good one. They played great and the performances translated beautifully to the home listening environment. At first, I thought they’d held back a bit, but it all makes sense on record. I realized early on that questioning this band’s direction and decision making would only bear bitter fruit. It seems like they’re always a couple of steps ahead of me. The band’s tumultuous history is well documented, but, damn, things sure seem to have worked out. They might claim it was all luck, and that prudence and foresight are not part of their expansive repertoire. Most would probably say it’s "a combination of both," and that’s exactly the middle-of-the-road kinda response that exhausts me. The Drive-By Truckers are always closer to the ditch than the center line. That’s where the action’s at. That’s where things get deep. It’s Great To Be Alive! documents a career that has known depths, but is finer for the wear. It’s an achievement.
This set is comprised of five records, three CDs, four Wes Freed tour posters, and a book. The ubiquitous Patterson Hood essay (always a blast) is in there along with some really great live shots of the band in action at one of America’s finest venues. All five records are pressed flawlessly which, in light of recent experiences, is almost as miraculous as the band’s survival. The set list spans the band’s history and beyond (read the essay), and there’s a freakin’ horn section that includes Ralph Carney as a member. They made 2,500 copies. If you don’t dig this, then you don’t like Rock ’n’ Roll. I do.
I felt something akin to pride when I dropped the needle on the first record. Three hours later, I was trying to figure out why. It certainly isn’t as a result of any actions on my part. I just can’t believe how hard these guys worked to get where they are. I doubt they’d say it was easy, but I bet they’d say it was worth it. It’s sweet, man. Get in the ring and take a swing, then tell me if I’m wrong.
Sometimes I don’t get it. There are certain artists that history shines on so brightly that I feel compelled to try to like them, despite the protests of my ears. That’s a little strong, maybe. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with Buddy Holly or the Beach Boys, per se. Both outfits have songs that I like just fine. I just don’t see what the big deal is. Still, I try. And, to that end I find myself with Analogue Productions’ take on Pet Sounds. In glorious monophonic sound. And that part is absolutely true. There are some noble Pet Sounds in here. I still think we’ve gotten a little carried away though. Let’s see…
This album was produced in 1966. I wasn’t around, but I have no doubt that it sounded positively revolutionary at the time. And I’m aware of the history. I know that Brian Wilson was trying to find an answer to Rubber Soul which bucked the trend of adding a bunch of “filler” around the obvious singles. But the first side of Pet Sounds kinda defines the term. It features “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Sloop John B.” (What I always called “I Wanna Go Home”) along with a bunch of… filler. Those two singles are as infectious as the other five songs are boring. I’ll stand on Wilson’s coffee table in my boots and tell him as much. Side two is much more coherent, and it creates a lovely little listening experience, but I still think we jumped the shark in heaping on all the accolades that Pet Sounds has received. Using barking dogs and train sounds may have seemed crazy in the latter half of the ‘60s, but those sounds aren’t in the service of any songs. They’re just tagged on to the end of the album. They are in no way impactful. Employing a Coke bottle as a percussion instrument is cool, but I bet Tom Waits would have developed his Junkyard Drum sounds without Wilson’s influence (if Wilson was an influence). “Caroline No” is a beautiful piece of Pop craftsmanship. From a sonic perspective, the same could be said for a lot of the album’s filler, but there’s nothing there that outshines Phil Specter’s most famous work in that arena. The fact that Pet Sounds shares that producer’s initials is reputedly no coincidence. Swell.
So… what? We have ourselves a good time Pop album from the mid-‘60s. Here’s what makes the whole thing sparkle for me: Analogue Productions has got this thing sounding righteous. Much more impressive than my buddy’s mono original. The bass is a little light in “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” but that song may have been recorded separately from the bulk of the album. While it never really gets into your lungs, the bass is much more present (though never particularly punchy) throughout the rest of the album. The clarity and imaging is everything you’d expect from an AP release while the three dimensionality is nowhere near what you get on the (relatively) recent Beatles mono reissues. I’m nothing if not stubborn. I may try another Beach Boys title in the AP series, but it’ll be one of the later ones if I do. Holland, maybe. I love “Sail On, Sailor.” And I love the textures that reveal themselves as a result of Kevin Gray’s mastering. For Beach Boys fans, these are a no brainer.
Signs of life in the Hip-Hop world, gang. I’m not kidding. Last year, Run The Jewels was blowing my mind. That one felt like a discovery. Finding Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly doesn’t really count for one. That’s kinda like Columbus “discovering America.” The discovering has been done. I don’t think this gentleman needs my help getting the word out. It’s out. And, as far as I’m concerned, the accolades are well deserved and hard won. This ain’t the same old crap. That much is obvious by the fact that the artist goes by his own name. And for good reasons. If I made a record like Butterfly, I’d make damn sure that everyone knew exactly who did it. This record’s a blast.
As is the order of the day, many of these songs “feature” at least two artists in addition to Lamar. Being as how I was totally unfamiliar with any of the rappers going in, I initially had a hell of a time figuring out when I was listening to Lamar versus his guests. It doesn’t help that Lamar seems capable of trying on a variety of voices and altering his vocal presentation from song to song. That makes identification tricky, but it also makes for a listening experience that keeps the listener gloriously off-balance throughout the course of the double album. Lamar is from Compton, and, like Dr. Dre before him, he leans heavily at times on P-Funk’s foundation to get his message out. On the whole, the beats are a little busier than the ones that Dre was producing in the ‘90s. but nowhere near as schizophrenic as what passes for instrumentation in 2016. “King Kunta” is pretty hectic, and it’s also my current favorite song on the record. It’s one of those that I just want to hear again as soon as it ends. Throughout, the hooks are as catchy as the production is clean. The bass is as heavy as you’d expect, but it’s also clear and in the service of the song. It never obscures the other instruments and certainly not the vocals which are by turns poignant, hilarious, sad, and always informative. “I” promotes a message of self-love as simply and effectively as it’s ever been done. And if there’s one message that the world could use now, respect of self and others is it. I could have done with a lyric sheet in the liners, but those are easily retrievable online. It’s just as fun to know what samples and inspirations Lamar is using and that info is included in the gatefold’s interior. The Isleys are prominent. Michael Jackson is a reference. There are string sections and saxophones and more fun than should be allowed. To clarify, To Pimp A Butterfly is one of the most important Hip-Hop releases of the century. It will endure.
While the soundstage is not as three-dimensional as one might hope, the recording is of a higher than average quality. It helps that the mastering was done at Bernie Grundman’s spot, I’m sure. You don’t get many extras as far as digital copies or extensive liners, but you get two well-pressed, heavy discs that are filled with enough information to keep you engaged through multiple listens. That’s what will be required to take a work of this magnitude in. There’s a lot to explore. And there’s hope for the future. Lamar is it.
I found Mose Allison back in the mid-‘90s shortly after I’d finished school. I was working in a kitchen and one of the managers was a fan. I’m not sure what kinda ears I was listening with when I thought, at first, that I was hearing a husky female vocalist. If I really try, sometimes I can catch a glimpse of what led to the error. But not really. I was probably just drunk, trying to make my way through another dish washing shift aspiring to become a line cook. There were lots of valuable lessons to be learned in that dish pit, but I never learned anything that endured as long as my affinity for Mose Allison’s music has. Pure Pleasure reissued Takes To The Hills which was originally released in 1962. This is the stereo version. I’d have preferred the mono. If we had ham we could have ham and eggs if we had eggs. Stereo it is. Things have been worse.
Simplicity is the thing when it comes to the best of Mose Allison’s work. And taste. I can’t remember the first of his records that I bought because, upon first listen, I realized that it was not the representative record that I’d hoped for. He was playing some sort of space-aged synth. The Mose I like best is the one that sits behind a traditional piano and plays it (expertly) in front of a stand-up bassist and drummer. I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen him play a couple of times in the last decade. He was in his mid-‘80s and as vibrant and enthralling as on any of his best records. And I don’t know where Takes To The Hills falls in his pantheon of best works, but I love it. For the most part. He does this sort of “scatting thing” just off mic while he solos on the keys and that’s a little disruptive to my ears after a fashion. I don’t know who to thank for that trend, but it’s not specific to Allison. I’ve heard Dr. Lonnie Smith do it both in person and on record. I call it a “scatting thing” because Mose isn’t vocalizing the notes that he’s playing when he does it. He’s grunting and growling, and I get a little distracted by it. No biggie. Takes To The Hills has versions of some of my Mose faves including “V-8 Ford Blues,” and “Baby, Please Don’t Go.” His laid back vocal delivery and swinging piano playing moves these Blues standards into the Jazz realm. These versions certainly lack the grit of some of the older models, but Mose creates a mood, man. Makes me feel like I’m in a Jazz lounge in Manhattan circa 1964. If you ever get a chance to see him live, you won’t be disappointed. Time seems to have spared him. And Takes To The Hills is the perfect entryway if you’re looking for one.
That’s because the folks at Pure Pleasure had the good sense to stay out of the recording’s way and let it speak and scat for itself. Nothing too mind blowing here. Just a well recorded reissue on a single disc pressed perfectly. Mose’s vocals are clear as a bell, and the small combo lends itself perfectly to the mood. Allison is an American original. He’s done it his way, and his way works. Takes To The Hills is proof.
Whoever said that there’s nothing new under the sun must not have been familiar with the work of Benji Hughes. It sucks for me to say that I have no words to describe his music because my job here is to describe his music with words. I’ll do my best, but you really should pick up his latest and hear it for yourself. It’s called Songs In The Key Of Animals. Its pretty representative of what I think of when I think of Benji Hughes, but that won’t do you any good unless you’ve already experienced the Space Lounge world he created with A Love Extreme from about eight years back. Both are stellar. Both are bizarre. And neither accounts for what happens when you see him play live. There’s really no way to prep for that. Or any of it. Just hold your nose and jump in. The water is… weird.
Hughes is from Charlotte, North Carolina where one of my closest friends resides. Bobby knows the artist personally and turned me on to the first record. It felt like getting let in on a juicy secret. Turns out, Jackson Browne is a fan along with Jeff Bridges whose video Hughes popped up in a while back. He’s hard to miss. He’s hairy and obese and enjoys performing shirtless. In sunglasses. Animals, like A Love Extreme, is a keyboard based record, and that instrument has been nowhere to be found at either of the shows that I’ve caught. Onstage, Hughes is as much comedian as musician and humor plays a large role on record too. Normally, I’d turn tail and run for the hills based on that description, but it works for Hughes every time. “Freaky Feedback Blues” references an event at the San Francisco Zoo on Christmas Day in 2007 wherein some guys got stoned and started teasing the tigers. One guy wound up mauled to death while the others got off with just the mauling. Some folks called it a tragedy. I call it formula. Regardless of how you feel about it, the guys received the tiger’s feedback. And it was freaky. As the album’s title suggests, the animal motif is pervasive throughout although a coherent narrative is hard to discern. Meshell Ndegeocello plays bass and lends vocals to a couple of tunes. The only other name that I recognized besides Hughes’ is Andy Hess who played bass for Gov’t Mule and the Black Crowes previously. But I also know that Hughes has worked in some capacity with Jennifer Lawrence and that he wrote and performed the Captain Morgan’s jingle. He croons. He’s a multi-instrumentalist. He may be deranged. I spoke to him briefly at a show last weekend. He said nary a word. His music speaks volumes. At first, you find yourself chuckling at the lyrical content. Then, you start to hum along. Later, you can’t get the record out of your head, and you go back for another round with it to try to figure out exactly what it’s saying to you and why you can’t leave it alone. Under all the humor and hair and shirtlessness, you suspect that an accomplished musician is grinding the gears and pulling the levers. My advice would be to just go with whatever comes up for you. You will not be bored. I promise you that much right now.
Merge Records released Animals, and they did a fine job. It’s pressed nicely, contains a download code, and lyrics are provided for your entertainment. These don’t come around too often, and I wouldn’t want to be without a copy. I feel like I get it. Not sure what that says about me.