Gram Parsons, the nominal frontman of the early Flying Burrito Brothers band, was the living personification of a Cautionary Rock ’n Roll Tale. Part of that tale involves not living at all anymore, but he left behind a body of work that rewards years long explorations and study. Yes, he did. You can revisit his catalog over decades and always come away from the latest encounter with an appreciation of something you missed before. You might latch onto the relative novelty of his marriage of Rock and Country in the beginning. Later, you’ll come to appreciate the fragile power of his voice, and later still his command of Country songcraft. Beyond all that, there are stories: the legendary friends, the general debauchery, and the mythological death at Joshua Tree chief among them. We checked out the Intervention Records reissue of The Gilded Palace of Sin a while back. Now, we’re here for the Burritos’s second long player, Burrito Deluxe. Thankfully, Intervention took the reins on this one too. Unfortunately, they just didn’t have as much to work with as they had on Gilded. We’re not quite in “putting an earring on a pig” territory here, but we’re not swimming in the deep end of Classic Era brilliance either.
By the time the Brothers convened to record Burrito Deluxe, they’d endured lineup changes, a disappointing whiff of mainstream popularity, and a decline in the level of Parsons’s abilities within the badass band he’d founded with Chris Hillman. By all accounts, he was much more engaged with his buddy Keith Richards’s career than he was his own. Parsons was financially solvent (thanks to his trust fund), and he’d begun showing up at a little hole in the wall Burritos shows in a limo. The other guys were trying to make it. He was fired after Burrito Deluxe, and then he released a couple of iconic but somewhat uneven solo records before flaming out in the desert. This album sort of holds a mirror up to all that. I mean, he’s not loaded, and you can’t hear his disinterest, but you also can’t help but notice that Gilded Palace was a frigging asteroid in comparison to the common rock that was Burrito Deluxe. It’s the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing one. Palace is overrun with heady sounds and textures that encapsulated the late ‘60s experimentation and freedom within the confines of Country structure. Burrito Deluxe is just… good. “Lazy Days” is a classic that Parsons had been rattling around in various bands for years. “Older Guys” is a good time romp. It’s a blast of sonic fun. The album introduced “Wild Horses” to the world almost a year before the Stones released their version. “Cody, Cody” is great, and there’s a tasty version of the Gospel classic “Farther Along” to enjoy.
There’s also a version of Dylan’s “If You Gotta Go” that sounds like Scooby-Doo chase scene music along with some other songs that are slightly more serviceable than filler.
The intervention did their part, and they are easily the most exciting reissue company I’ve come across over the last few years. They mastered this one from a half-inch safety copy of the original master tapes. The pressing is flawless. All of that is in the service of a work that is far less essential than the one before it.
Start with the Gilded Palace of Sin, then grab Burrito Deluxe if you can’t resist the pull. You could do way worse.
(This album was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)
Like a lot of folks, I fell hard for Lucinda Williams upon hearing her Car Wheels On a Gravel Road record. I’ve not circled back for it in a while, but I remember Car Wheels as being a pretty perfect presentation of a strong cycle of songs that was just what 1998 needed. It’s easy to look back at that record in such wistful terms in 2019 as we wade through the morass of present-day popular music. We haven’t quite fallen to the overarching cultural nadir that we experienced in the 1980s. We’re in a pretty good spot as far as popular television programming goes. There are plenty of fine books to read, and the occasional great movie. We’re bleeding from the ears though, gang. There’s no point in pretending that we’re not. The wolves are at the door, politically speaking, and the only thing we seem concerned about lyrically is the size of our collective ass. The bigger, the better, it seems. At this point, it’s necessary to hop in the time machine and head back to Lucinda’s Happy Woman Blues from… 1980. The irony is not lost on me.
The ’80s started when I was six years old, and I knew exactly how bad things had gotten by the time I escaped that sad collection of years as a raging teen. I mean, there was some good stuff buried under the rubble if you had the time and energy to dig. But I don’t know how I’d have found Lucinda at such a time.
It’s not like I had a computer screen to look at for advice. Happy Woman Blues somehow sums that aspect of things up perfectly. It is no technological marvel. It’s a little over a half-hour’s worth of fine songwriting, strong playing, and emotive vocals. There is precious little artifice, and the production lacks gloss. I don’t think Lucinda was aiming for the top of the charts because the charts weren’t ready for nor deserving of her talents at the time. “Howlin’ At Midnight,” theoretically, could be a hit in any era. It’s timeless and uplifting, but it doesn’t try hard enough. You have to come to it. Like most of Happy Woman, it’s comprised of strings and wood, sticks and skins, and not much in the way of electricity. The vocals are languid throughout, while only hinting at the guttural attack and venom that would pour forth from some of Lucinda’s later works. I love them all, but Happy Woman Blues is especially warm. There will always be something to come home to here. We’re in good hands.
This Folkways reissue is well done. The pressing is almost perfect. The acoustic instrumentation is given ample room on a wide soundstage to spread out on with lots of separation and clarity to spare even if there isn’t a ton of sonic depth to examine. The textured cover is plastered with a matte sticker which carries the album artwork and track listing on the front and only half of the back. Lyrical insert included.
Happy Woman Blues will whisk you away to a simpler time if you need a ride. I’m standing by the highway with my thumb out, and this one found me just as I was running out of sustenance.
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)
We explored Uniform Distortion by Jim James here late last year. To recap: it’s a collection of pretty straight ahead rockers replete with Guitar God pyrotechnics by My Morning Jacket’s maestro. Now, we’re here to dig into James’s collection of acoustic renditions of the same electric songs that he compiled for that album. He called this one Uniform Clarity. Aptly.
I caught James performing these tunes in almost this format at a show in Oakland last November.
I was in the fifth row, dead center. As many times as I’ve seen James perform, I could never really see him perform. He used to be a whirl of hair and spinning activity under blinding lights and a mountain of glorious noises. Not only did Uniform Clarity and its attendant tour strip James of all that but he also ditched his career spanning (and, for some listeners, defining) reverb saturation. This is Straight Jim.
He could have just called the album that. I never thought I’d get any closer to the man’s sound than I did that night in Oakland, but I’m there right now. He’s in my living room, wafting from my speakers, doing all the crazy stuff he does with that lunatic voice. All the range, all the textures, all the nuance. And the laughter that he employs throughout Distortion has returned for an encore on Clarity too. Seriously, the guy has started laughing mid-song and leaving it right in the mix. Like that Beatles take on “And Your Bird Can Sing” from their last Anthology set when they’d eaten all the acid. Except those recordings were never meant to be released in the first place. James presumably had a plan when he went in to record the Uniform records. And it involved laughter. Whatever circumstances require, I say. It is 2019, after all…
The most fun thing about Uniform Clarity is that you get to hear James experimenting with different characters. The guy can do whatever he wants with his natural voice. Now, he’s moved on to using voices that could belong to any number of zany personalities. I’m into it, but the uninitiated might balk if this version of James was the one they first met. I don’t know. I’m so far beyond listening with virgin ears that I can scarcely imagine what it would have felt like if Uniform Clarity had been my inaugural exposure to James’s craft. At this point, James is the kind of goofy that you have to become famous to pull off. I mean, you’d get teased mercilessly for being this loopy in sixth grade, but now all of James’s former classmates are telling each other that they can’t believe that same kid is sharing the stage with Neil Young. Or Pearl Jam. Or Roger Waters. And that he’s laughing all the way.
James has realized his vision, and now it’s incumbent upon us to catch up before he’s on to the next one. I’d love it if his next one involved the full band that he is most famous for fronting, but you could get by on the Uniform material if needed. It’s more than engaging. The songs are well put together, and the Clarity record, especially, gives the listener a personal sonic tour of what James can do as a player and vocalist. It’s not fancy, but it’s a straight shot. It sort of pulls back the curtain to give the listener the most direct Jim James experience available to date. And that, as they say, ain’t nothing.
Man, if you haven’t seen the 20 Feet From Stardom documentary you should. If you have something against really great documentaries and can’t sit for the whole thing, then just fast forward to the bit where they isolate Merry Clayton’s vocal track on “Gimme Shelter.” Then, insert whatever cliched reaction best suits your fancy. I’m going with “makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.”
Real Gone Music has reissued a couple of Clayton’s solo records, and I grabbed a copy of their take on her eponymous release from 1971. Let’s see…
Some of the tunes on Merry Clayton are instantly recognizable by title to fans of the era’s popular music. Clayton gives us serviceable takes on some Carole King songs, a hefty version of “Grandma’s Hands” by Bill Withers, an endearing reading of Leon Russell’s “A Song For You,” and an outright rampage through Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” The latter is featured in the documentary and leads this album off as it should because it’s the strongest song on the album. The rest of the program is really good, but you get the impression that somehow Clayton’s immense talents were not maxed out during these sessions. Similar to the way that Aretha Franklin was never really unleashed until she moved over to Atlantic Records, Clayton’s self-titled disc sounds a bit restrained, a little too safe, especially in comparison to what you hear her do to Mick Jagger on “Gimme Shelter.” She effectively does to him what he did to Michael Jackson on that “State of Shock” song in the ‘80s. That is to say; she blows Jagger out of the studio. It’s a high water mark on the gold record adorned wall of Rock ’n Roll history. Scaling that wall in the wake of such a flood could be too slippery for anyone to handle, but one gets the feeling that Clayton could have come a little closer if Lou Adler had pushed the right buttons.
Or maybe the team responsible for making this record got exactly what they wanted out of the deal. It’s a funky, fine compendium of interpretations of songs by some of the best writers of the day. Franklin’s influence and sonic fingerprints are all over the record, and almost certainly many others of the time. And that’s a daunting target to hit too. Maybe my experience of this work has been compromised by my expectations of it. I thought I might have been stumbling onto some obscure grail, but found myself drinking from a cup of Funk that’s more than passable, but less than life-altering. Expectations are killers.
I’d wanted to hear how the folks at Real Gone Music do things, so I finally jumped on a couple of titles that had piqued my curiosity. I’d rate their pressings and mastering as above average, in general, but not on par with the heavies in the audiophile world. I’d happily trade the colored vinyl for fewer ticks and pops in the pressings, and I’d appreciate more transparency and info on their sources. They seem to have a fine ear for interesting titles. Like Merry Clayton’s record, they’re better than most.
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)
Big Zac had a copy of the soundtrack to some movie called Mahoney’s Last Stand while we were living in Athens in the late ‘90s. Zac had gone all in on the Faces at that point, and I was familiar with that band’s more popular output but was still wallowing around in the Stones catalog like a pig in the mud. I wasn’t interested in much else. Whiskey, maybe. Anyway, I never got around to spending any time with the soundtrack, but I did eventually jump in the deep end with the Faces. Now, I have a pretty close approximation of their entire inventory between their stellar vinyl box set from a few years back, their incredible CD box set from a few years before that, and now, finally, the Mahoney’s Last Stand record as performed by two of their principle members, Ron Wood and Ronnie Lane. So much wallowing around to look forward to for so many years to come if the universe will allow it.
Ron Wood was Zac’s favorite Stone in those days, and I’m not far behind at this point. His guitar work often grooves in such a deceptively simple way. He’s proof that art doesn’t have to be too demanding. I mean, we’re not talking about Dutch Baroque realist paintings from the 1580s, here. It’s only Rock ’n Roll, after all, and Mahoney’s Last Stand fits the slipper. All the way. The record leads with its strongest song, an instrumental called “Tonight’s Number,” which is the only material from the soundtrack to find it’s way onto that Faces CD set, Five Guys Walk Into a Bar. Which makes sense as all the Faces are in attendance for “Tonight’s Number” minus Rod Stewart, plus Pete Townshend, Bobby Keys, and Jim Price. The horns take this tune from a head nodder to a foot stomper in no time flat. And it’s not the last you’ll hear of them on this record, praise the Lord. I mostly prefer the instrumentals on Mahoney’s, but “Chicken Wired” is a rocker with a pretty tight grip too. Once it gets going, the momentum gets borderline dangerous, hair blowing in the wind, tears streaming sideways across the face. Like the skateboarders I see bombing the San Francisco hills around my apartment near daily. It might be the prototype for James McMurtry’s “Choctaw Bingo.” Or a crazy coincidence. Great minds…
As fun as the soundtrack is, it mostly makes me want to listen to the Faces when it’s done. It’s almost like a sketch of a painting that will become a masterpiece. Or a stand-in doubling for the movie’s star. It was recorded around the time of the Faces’ last studio album, Ooh-La-La, which is also around the time that Rod Stewart’s solo career was about to disintegrate one of the world’s finest Rock ’n Roll bands. No one has fallen further from the heights of their finest work than that guy. But the others all did great stuff. Mahoney’s Last Stand is proof of that, and a fine shot at hearing a bunch of Ronnie Lane’s takes in one place. The folks at Real Gone Music did a good enough job with the reissue. The pressing is mostly fine, but a little noisy in spots. Hard to find much info on the mastering or sources. I might aim for an original pressing, but this will do for now. It is highly recommended.