I found Fruit Bats at a My Morning Jacket show. Please allow me to explain: I was a graduate student when the Jacket played a three-night run at a venue three blocks from my apartment. A band called Fruit Bats opened a couple of the shows, but I did not catch their act because I was studying right up until the headliners hit the stage. But the lead singer of Fruit Bats, Eric D. Johnson, sat in on a couple of the Jacket’s songs each night, and his voice sounded like the light emanating from that briefcase in Pulp Fiction. Flash forward a few short years, and I have five, now six, Fruit Bats records in my collection. Which I guess makes them one of my favorite bands? Anyway, they released one recently called Gold Past Life. We are here to shine a little light on that while the shimmering sounds reflect that light right back on us.
Maybe this has been in place all along, but I noticed from the first notes of Gold Past Life’s opener that Jim James (of My Morning Jacket fame) might have copped some vocal techniques from Johnson along the way. I could have it reversed, but my spider-sense says otherwise. To my ears, James has altered his attack over the last 15 years, and at times his timbre veers into a similar terrain that Johnson’s has been traveling all along. Ol’ Jim’s admiration of Johnson was palpable onstage. And mine is, generally. Johnson makes the most morose subjects sound like an inflatable party slide. But here is the thing: I don’t recommend Fruit Bats to too many friends. Certainly not to the ones who have been with me the longest. The band does not really fit my aesthetic. Or perhaps I am mellowing with age. The music doesn’t rock, you see — it’s kind of floats. Melody is the order of the day, and the melodies are borne aloft on the clean tones of a competent backing band as well as Johnson’s stellar songwriting. If you subscribe to the idea that a musician’s personality comes through in their art, you might envision Eric D. Johnson as a cerebral, mostly quiet type that only speaks up when saying something of consequence, something especially smart.
I would place a wager on him being brainy if I could find someone to take that action. He gets so playful during “Cazadero” that I fear the boys back home would stage a Rocker’s Intervention if they caught me nodding along. But I love the guy’s work despite the cleanliness, the downright safeness, of the sound. I mean, you probably would not think twice about letting your daughter date Eric B. Johnson – unless you dug too deeply into those lyrics. His voice is too nasally to be dangerous, but he hits all the notes and can harmonize with himself like a one-man barbershop quartet. And he does. The title track is like listening to disco without having to listen to disco.
I almost consider Fruit Bats a guilty pleasure, but I also carry more Rock ’n Roll baggage than most. And I am also just joking. There is no shame in these grooves. Unless we are discussing the pressing, which sucks. The sonics were docked points for that reason, not the production or mastering. Those are fine. I may get more play from the included download. It is good driving music anyway. Maybe for when your mom’s in the car. Not your heathen friends are funneling beers and flashing devil horns.
“I hit the weekend / Just like a freight / I got there early / I couldn’t wait.” Those are compelling lyrics. I would consider those to be well-written lines no matter who was responsible for them. But something about hearing David Rawlings and Gillian Welch harmonize while singing those words to kick off an album of restaurant-quality folk(ish) tunes gets me in the chest. The song, appropriately, is called “The Weekend.” It’s my favorite song on the album, so I guess I don’t technically consider the rest of the material on Nashville Obsolete to be as strong. But that’s like saying that I don’t think Abbey Road is as strong as Revolver. The greats have the built-in disadvantage of constantly having their work compared to their other work. And the Rawlings/Welch team can certainly be considered among the greats by now.
Nashville Obsolete sounds to me like someone stuffed Rawlings and his cohorts into a time machine, then flew them back to 1974 so that they could hijack Neil Young’s recording of On the Beach. It’s that moody. And the band’s approach seems to be the photographic negative of the Fruit Bats way.
The music suggests a sadder affair than what the lyrics describe. Mostly. I mean, there’s a high lonesome ethos that’s almost part and parcel of the genre. This ain’t no disco. This ain’t no fooling around. This is modern acoustic music from the ladder’s highest rung. And its somber tone does nothing to diminish my mood. Quite the opposite: it feels affirmative to me. If nothing else, Nashville Obsolete declares that there are still real people making real music without using whatever algorithm the suits employ to predict and generate radio-friendly unit shifters in 2019. (The album is actually from 2015 but was just released on vinyl for the first time, but I stand by my previous statement.)
Rawlings might be my favorite working guitarist (he’s certainly my favorite acoustic player), but his vocals are worthy of merit too. His voice is so sweet that you almost expect him to sport wings and a halo instead of that giant hat that bobbles all around while he plays. Add Welch’s harmonies to the mix, and you are right in the slipstream being pulled along by the wave of a musical partnership that is so refined, tuned, and accomplished that the songs seem to play themselves. To just compose themselves out of thin air before drifting into vapor and leaving their shadow to linger in your eardrums. It is the most natural musical sound I am aware of in the popular landscape nowadays. If it can even be considered as such. The current state of popular culture is not worthy.
I am so thrilled that this team is finally releasing their back catalog in the proper format. They bought their lathe for that purpose, and they press their discs at Quality Record Pressing. I wish they used RTI, but QRP got the job done on this one. The mastering and sonics are first rate with transparency, depth, and clarity all around. Cliff’s Notes version: if you see a vinyl release from this team or their cohorts, get it and listen to it. You will be so glad you did.
I can’t remember for certain why I first took an interest in learning about the Beatniks and their figurative emperor, Jack Kerouac, but I think it was through Danny Sugarman’s book about Jim Morrison and the Doors. My fascination with and appreciation of the literary movement outlived my affinity for the Lizard King’s leather dance pants and led me through a galaxy-wide doorway of sonic experiences too. Because Kerouac led me to the Jazzers, it is how I found Charlie Parker, which would have been treasure enough to warrant the dive. But I also located Zoot Sims and his cronies through Kerouac’s posthumous recommendations. And that is where the relentless riches live. Audiophile presentations of Sims’s work are hard to come by, but not impossible. He plays on a stellar all-star long player that we explored at this site a while back called Tenor Conclave and that one would be a worthwhile addition to any Jazz collection thanks to the solid mastering and presentation by the folks at Analogue Productions. Now, we are checking out Down Home, credited to Sims alone, as reissued by Pure Pleasure. This one’s been available for a few years, and I’m not sure why I waited so long to jump in. It’s like realizing that you still haven’t changed out of your work clothes just before bedtime. You could have been luxuriating in your PJs all along. Better late than never, I reckon.
When I think of the Jazz that juiced Kerouac into unfettered spontaneity and days long jags at the typing machine, I think of the lightning-fast Bebop era defined by Bird, Diz, Monk, and the gang. Down Home is something different. It was originally released in 1960 but is populated mostly by songs that had been around for decades before that. Songs made popular by the likes of Al Jolson (“Avalon”), and Count Basie (“Jive at Five”) are revisited allowing the players to simultaneously pay their respects to and update the sounds of the Great Jazz Age. The band drives fast but stays out of the ditch and off the shoulders. Zoot’s phrasing rarely spans multiple bars. He makes brief statements and concludes them individually before moving on to the next. He’s speedy but restrained. Always in control with a tone that straddles the line between five o’clock shadow and baby smooth. The band’s metabolism is revved up, but not inflammatory. Dave McKenna’s piano playing serves as a worthy counterpoint to Sims’s volleys while the sparse rhythm section, composed solely of drums and bass, anchors the whole thing in the dirt – never letting the soloists float out of sight.
Dyed in the wool Jazzers have probably formed their opinion on this era and the players that helped define it, maybe even this album specifically. These people might be more likely to come to the party with preconceived notions of who they will and won’t dance with, but listeners looking for a point of entry into this rave-up might find Down Home to be just the ticket they’ve been trying to buy. These seemingly untamed wilds are much more hospitable than you’d initially suspect if you take the improvisations one at a time and don’t get intimidated by the tempo. The pressing is perfect, and the mastering is likely as transparent as it’s going to get. You can damn near get “in the room” with this one. The party is in Full Swing, daddy-o.
Long-time readers of the Secrets vinyl reviews will know that I was as enamored of the Blue Note reissues from Music Matters Jazz as I am of music itself. Simply put, they’re the best sounding records in my collection. Best looking too. MMJ put the brakes on their operation a while back, and I wept. They’ve recently released some additional titles with a new, proprietary pressing process that is supposed to be even quieter than the nearly flawless discs they were turning out previously. I’ve not had the pleasure of exploring any of those. They are pricey, and I suspect they’re worth it. I will jump in that ring soon enough, I’ve been suffering withdrawals for months, but until then I’ll busy myself with a new series from Blue Note that was inspired by the MMJ series.
They are calling this the Tone Poet series, which is the nickname of one of the MMJ honchos that they brought over to curate the set. And just like MMJ, Blue Note hired Kevin Gray to turn the knobs, they are pressing the discs at RTI, and they were even alleged to have mimicked the luxurious gatefold packaging with archival quality session photos, but you can’t prove that last bit by me.
Because my copy of Lou Donaldson’s Mr. Shing-a-Ling is housed in a traditional outer sleeve that folds nary a bit, but that’s not really what we’re here to discuss, is it?
Let’s stick with the music, which is probably even more accessible to the casual listener than the style that Blue Note is most famous for. Mr. Shing-a-Ling fits squarely into the Soul Jazz scene. The drums are in the traditional time-keeping role and rarely serve as ornamentation. This would free the bassist up to be more exploratory if there were a bassist. A young Dr. Lonnie Smith handles those duties with his organ and is simultaneous as exploratory as anything NASA ever sent into outer space. His accents and textures are groovy, but things get really cool when he goes for his solos. They’re almost conversational. Syncopation is the band forte, so the whole thing grooves way more than it swings. Perhaps therefore Blue Note touts Donaldson’s take on “Ode to Billy Joe” as the most sampled song in their extensive catalog. Donaldson’s playing is fluid, but he mostly stays between the lines when he colors. His tone is clean and light. There’s some tasty guitar fretwork and trumpeting happening too, but Smith and Donaldson are the stars of this show. And you can hear their dialogue in sharp relief. The bass response is especially noteworthy in that it is worthy of the notes that Smith is coaxing from his organ and is also alive and breathing thanks to Gray’s world-class work behind the boards.
The pressing is quiet so that the record mostly stays out of its way. The records in this series are priced at $35 each, which would have been considered lunacy a few short years ago, but it’s now right in line with the pricing for many single-disc audiophile records being produced in 2019. But just like seeing your favorite musician play in a good side project, listening to this record just stoked my desire to hear the more classic material from the new MMJ series. I’ll have to scratch that itch sooner than later, but this will not be my last foray into the Tone Poet vaults either. The return on investment is too good.
I sure have a lot of Grateful Dead vinyl in my collection for someone who actively denies being a Dead fan. I’m not sure why I feel so compelled to support them. They certainly have a cool story to tell, and an admirable business model that today’s bands might do well to emulate considering declining record sales everywhere. But, gosh, they can be frustrating. You know they had the goods to produce well-made Rock n’ Roll records both in the studio and as documents of their live performances. But the content often varied so wildly within the same release that you might encounter a side that is unplayable immediately after noodling around your living room in your cargo shorts and sandals with your smiling eyes wide shut scant moments before. (Disclaimer: I rarely wear shorts at all, and never the cargo variety. No sandals either. Or flip-flops. I was just trying to be funny when I wrote that bit about the living room business.)
I always thought that Jerry Garcia must have been as flabbergasted by his band’s lesser material as I was. I just figured he was non-confrontational and did not want to hurt Bob “Short Shorts” Weir’s feelings, so he just let the crappier material onto the albums as a concession to group chemistry. Then, I started to explore his solo albums. And I had the same maddening experiences as I did exploring the Dead’s catalog. The standards fluctuate in ferocious ways. Still, I persist. So, here we are giving a listen to the Jerry Garcia Band’s lone studio long-player from 1978, Cats Under the Stars because I love the idea of Jerry Garcia.
I was unfamiliar with all the tunes on this disc before purchase. I just knew that I liked the Garcia Band, and wanted to hear what they were doing before I climbed aboard in the early ‘90s. (I saw the Dead twice and left early both times. I saw the JGB once and would have stayed in that arena forever, but I like taking showers too much.) What I did know about Cats Under the Stars was that it was Garcia’s favorite of his records. I have to assume that he meant his favorite solo work because Cats Under the Stars is objectively not as good as Workingman’s Dead or American Beauty or Skull and Roses or Reckoning. Is not as good. It has one thing working for it, though: “Rhapsody in Red.” That’s a rocker. It almost sounds like Garcia is playing in open G or something. It would have been the strongest song on the Stones’ Black and Blue album in an alternate universe. It employs a questionable guitar tone in the main hook but mostly sounds pretty great. The rest of the album is hit or miss. Dead fans would challenge that assertion, but they can’t be trusted. I’ve never seen a band inspire more thoughtless devotion. No discernment whatsoever. Just drop the needle and watch ‘em flounder. (We’re taking about record player needles and hippie dancing, y’all. Get your minds out of the gutter.) Garcia said this album “had everything – chops, production, songs.”
Maybe it did, and I am just too jaded. But I would still steer the curious and uninitiated to his Jerry Garcia / David Grisman album from MoFi first. And maybe last. But that is just me. Now, pass the patchouli and the balloons. I feel like floundering.