A Collection of New Vinyl Releases for the Audiophile – March, 2011

Drive-By Truckers “Go-Go Boots” ATO

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Drive-By Truckers

Folks who know these things’ll tell you about how the Drive-By Truckers can black out your night in a distorted ocean of guitars and whiskey-soaked rock and roll attitude. They’re right. On their latest, “Go-Go Boots,” they take a different tact. This is a cleaner affair, but that’s all relative, of course. A barroom bathroom is typically cleaner than a music festival portable toilet, but you still wouldn’t want to lie down there. Unless maybe you’d spent all night at a Truckers show, then maybe it’d make sense. Anyway, “Go-Go Boots” is an intimate affair. It sounds like the band has turned down to play a show in your living room. It’s quieter than what you’re used to, but your neighbors are still angry. And with good reason. They’re consulting their homeowners’ association handbook right now. “We regulate the color of our community’s window shades, surely there’s an ordinance about having the Drive-By Frigging Truckers in your living room?!” Let ’em cry, gang. You’ve got the world’s realest rock band in your living room. You might paint your shudders purple once they’re done. It’s that kind of party, now…

A friend once had the audacity to debate the merits of corporate bar-b-que with me. To me, there’s no such thing. His stance was, “sometimes a corporation gets their recipe right. You have to give them props when they do.” As a music critic, I try not to blow sunshine up the skirt of my favorite bands. I almost go overboard trying to find ways to critique them as a means of balancing out my passion. But sometimes your favorite band gets their recipe right, and there’s no denying it. “Go-Go Boots” is a hole-in-one, a first-round knockout, a perfect game. Maybe I’m biased because I’ve been following them for so long, but I can’t just invent issues with their record to avoid sounding like a fan. The issues just aren’t there. The songwriting chops are already legendary. I once read an interview with a Hall of Famer who said he’s happy writing songs with one good line in them. He felt like his song was a success if he could instill one thought provoking bit of cleverness into the grooves. This is rock and roll, after all. Not Shakespeare. Somehow, Mike Cooley writes songs populated with classic line after classic line. One rolls into the next without pause, concern, or any obvious effort. His contributions are fewer on “Go-Go” than they were on more recent records, but they all count – like they always do. “I think about you when I can and sometimes when I can’t I do.” Indeed. Mostly, this is Patterson Hood’s record though. He handles the bulk of the heavy lyrical lifting and makes his presence felt from the gate on “I Do Believe” with its a-cappella opening. This record doesn’t come blasting off the starting line like “Dirty South” did, but it doesn’t have to sneak up on you like “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark” either. “Go-Go Boots” feels comfortable as an old pair of jeans on the first listen, and it gets better every time. I’ve been challenged to listen to much else since it came out on Tuesday. The instruments’ separation is so pronounced, the sound so warm, that a listen feels like meditation. Maybe I’m just so used to the aforementioned ocean of sound that I’m thrown off by the clarity in the soundstage on “Go-Go.” Clarity to the point of hearing dirt in the volume pots on the electric guitars or shifting sounds of someone’s chair seat at the end of some songs. This more laid back sonic approach in no way compromises the band’s reputation for gritty realism or their Noir sensibilities. They still bookend their jubilant cover of Eddie Hinton’s “Everybody Needs Love” with songs called “Ray’s Automatic Weapon” and “Assholes.” The latter is a spritely number with perhaps the most direct lyrics I’ve heard from Hood who seems to be berating a former record executive in not-so-subtle ways. The juxtaposition of the cheery music with the subject matter is classic Truckers faire. It’s almost a distraction to me as I’m focusing entirely on the story to the point of forgetting that I’m hearing a song. That’s as close to a knock as I’m going to give this record. The temptation to review it song by song is great, but I will refrain. Restraint seems to be the order of the day when it comes to “Go- Go Boots.” I’ll play my part, I guess. We all do, right?

“Go-Go Boots” is like a microcosm of the Truckers’ work to date. It’s best enjoyed as a complete work. And it’s a complete work within the body of a much larger work which will best be enjoyed as such after the last salvo. The packaging suggests that the band would agree. Wes Freed handled the artwork just as he has since the band found its identity on “Southern Rock Opera.” And this one looks especially nice filed on the shelf next to the others. A body of work, indeed. Am I a weirdo for laying my complete Truckers vinyl collection on the bed to admire its vastness and detailed coolness including a 10-inch record and three 45’s? I probably am. And I’ll probably do it again. This is a band that cares, and I’ll continue to support them for as long as they do. “The Secret To A Happy Ending” is a killer documentary that was finally released on DVD on the same day as “Boots.” I bought them both at an independent retailer so I got a bonus EP (on CD) with some great live versions of the new material. That’s a lot of Truckers for a Tuesday and I still want more. “Go-Go Boots” is a classic and it’s presented in a manner consistent with everything else the band has done lately. That is to say, it’s a double record with tons of great artwork, a pristine pressing, an unbelievably detailed sound, and a CD of the whole shooting match. This one’s suitable for everyone so go check it out if you haven’t already. I can’t imagine you regretting it.

Wanda Jackson “The Party Ain’t Over” Third Man Records

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Wanda Jackson

Man, Big Jack White is at it again. He’s taken another brunette’s long expired career and breathed new life into it some forty-odd years later. It worked for Loretta Lynn and it’ll probably do Wanda Jackson some good this time. Why not? The First Lady of Rockabilly is back, and she has the planet’s last vital guitar slinger as her sidekick. Make no mistake: White is Jackson’s Robin on “The Party Ain’t Over.” He’s had plenty of time to play Batman anyway. This is Wanda’s party and she ain’t cryin’ even if she wanted to. She’s too busy rockin’ with a killer band, horns, pedal steel and all. There’s been a lot of years between now and her time as Elvis’s sweetheart and tour mate, but I can’t tell that she’s missed any time while I’m hearing the sounds of this “Party.” Seems like she’s doing just fine, thanks very much. She’s only about 75 years old, now. Seems like there’s still plenty of tread left on these tires too. Here’s to hoping…

I’d had a little forewarning about what would be found on “Party” since I picked up one of Wanda’s 45’s from Third Man Records in Nashville last year. Her version of “Shakin’ All Over” is spooky, and crazy, and rocking all over, indeed. White spices her vocals up with some sort of liquid flange effect that is kinda creepy on first listen. The second time around is a little less jarring and you just let the rock take you where it wants. Her versions of “Rip It Up” and “Busted” almost nod to New Orleans with the horn section’s accents. “Rum and Coca Cola” is a little bit too novel for my taste, but she closes out side one with an absolutely incendiary version of Dylan’s “Thunder On The Mountain” off his bluesy “Modern Times” album from 2006. Wanda’s thinking of Jerry Lee while Dylan was wondering about Alicia Keyes, but all I can think about is how fun it would be to hear Wanda Jackson perform this song live with the exact band that White put together for the record. A big part of that, of course, is my desire to see White blaze solos like the one on “Thunder.” He’s eluded me so far, but he can’t for much longer. I have friends in Nashville that can see to that, partner. Some guy named Joe Gillis can really wear out a piano too. I mean, this band smokes! A little more “in your face” than what White did on the Loretta Lynn thing, but then Wanda Jackson is famously more “in your face” than most. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel on pedal steel too. His inclusion leads me to believe that White is at least aware of, if not familiar with, Broemel’s “other band.” (The thought of a collaboration between White and MMJ makes me woozy. I’m a dork.) Side two starts with a cover of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” which is a song I’m unfamiliar with, but I can’t imagine Winehouse’s version being more compelling than Jackson’s. All of her raspy glory is on full display throughout along with those horns and Broemel’s steel. Absolutely smoking. I imagine that her grandchildren are scared sightless by Jackson after hearing “Party” if they weren’t already. I have nothing to base that on, but I’d have freaked out if my grandma made such guttural sounds over heavy rock riffs. There’s no filler on “Party” as there isn’t really much room for any. It’s a quick, welcome listen, and I’m excited to have some more rock for the collection from such an unexpected source. I have some of Jackson’s music in my digital library as part of a Rockabilly box set, but “The Party Ain’t Over” trumps the other material, hands down. “Nervous Breakdown” would be worth the price of admission on its own and that one’s buried squarely in the middle of side two. By the time I reach the album closer, which happens to be a lunatic version of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #6” with White on acoustic guitar, all I want to do is start it over. But February has been an awesome month for new music so I force myself to move on. I’ll be coming back to it though. Often.

The vinyl version of “Party” has all the Third Man trappings that you’d expect including a visually deficient but sonically perfect pressing on a single disc. Mine has a funny etching in the lead out of side two saying, “Oklahoma’s original Flaming Lips” as a nod to Jackson’s heritage. There’s also some cool photos with a quick blurb written by Jackson wherein she thanks Dylan for suggesting that she cover his “Thunder On The Mountain.” A man of true vision, no doubt. Not a lot of extras to report on, and that works fine for me on this release. It’s not a digital kind of party so I’m not lamenting the lack of a download coupon or CD. I’m not lamenting anything with regards to this release, really, other than the fact that I still want more. But therein lies the perfection perhaps. It beats a double disc with a bunch of lesser material included. I’ll be keeping an eye out for a shot at seeing Jackson live. Until then, I’m satisfied with the life in this record. It’s pretty hot. I’d recommend it to anyone with good taste in music.

Iron and Wine “Kiss Each Other Clean” Warner Bros.

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Iron and Wine

I think Iron and Wine fans are on to something. They remind me of Apple Computer geeks (myself included) from a few years back: A niche group of fanatics touting a product just south of the mainstream poised on the edge of becoming something bigger. Apple followed through. If “Kiss Each Other Clean” is an accurate indicator, Iron and Wine will follow suit. His sound has expanded to include more sonic dalliances than his fans probably could have predicted from his earliest offerings, much as I never could have guessed that I’d control my stereo with my iPhone just a few short months ago. I, of course, am working in reverse in that I’m completely unfamiliar with Sam Beam’s work prior to 2007’s “The Shepherd’s Dog.” This is liberating as I’m unattached to his previous catalog of acoustic home recordings. I understand that some of his followers have had a hard time letting go of the past and getting in step with what he’s up to now. I would suggest putting that mindset to bed because I’m hearing funk, A.M. gold, and a host of other influences converging to form a sound that’s pretty close to original on “Kiss Each Other Clean.” You don’t get that every day so lay your righteous indignation aside and come on in. The water’s warm.

And I really mean that. Somehow, Beam can mask his unidentifiable instrumentation and sprawling lyrical content in a glowing, warm bath of sonic relaxation, and it sounds like he’s dreaming his way through the process. Just when you’re nodding off, he’ll drop an “F-bomb” in there to wake you. I’m not one for pouring over lyricists’ works with a magnifying glass. I prefer to let the music make the mood and, if it sticks, the meanings behind the words find me in time. Beam’s lyrics can almost pull me out of my sloth and send me to the computing machine in search of clarification. Almost. There certainly was a time when I would have explored them more deeply, but the technology wasn’t in place for that type of research then. Let’s see what a quick search turns up while we’re here, shall we? Ah, yes. Here’s some from “Monkeys Uptown:”

“And it’s looking like you better do what they say

Those monkeys uptown, they told you not to f*** around

Heaven’s the name and the river is brown

With all the mud and the rain, it never settles down”

Now, say all of this content finds you on a table in your massage therapist’s treatment room. In this example, Beam is the therapist and the “F-bomb” is when he slaps you on your rear end lightly without warning. It’s not necessarily unpleasant, but it’s not for everybody. I mean, there should probably be a parental warning sticker on the cover or something. (Do they still do that? Is it only reserved for Hip-Hop? Because that’s messed up, if so.) I’ve spun off on a tangent about Sam Beam’s lyrics here after admitting that I don’t pay attention to lyrics which is a testament to his originality, I guess. They get across. I’ll give him that. But the real find is in the sounds behind the voices. And the sounds are at once dense and airy. I don’t know quite how to explain it, but it really does add up to something new for me. There are honest, real instruments (including a saxophone here and there which is new), and there are synthetic sounds too. I’m fine with it all just the way Beam sells it, and I really will work my way back to the beginning from “Kiss Each Other Clean.” His sound is pretty cinematic, and I settle in for a listen pretty much in that mindset minus the intense focus on plot (lyrics). I guess I’m more into the cinematography (sounds). So be it.

Sadly, there’s nothing too compelling about the vinyl version of “Kiss Each Other Clean.” I mean, I’m keeping mine and I’ll listen to it way more than I will the CD that came with it which is only good for zipping it onto my phone and waving it around at my 22 year old cousin to show her how hip I am. But the record is flimsy and not particularly pretty as far as pressings go. It’s a single disc in a gatefold cover so that’s kinda cool. I like a single record these days. They seem to be going the way of the dinosaur or Limp Bizkit. The industry standard seems to be CD’s with about 15 songs on them, and it’s tough to record 15 good songs at once. And why bother if people are only downloading singles anyway? But a single record, around 40 minutes in length, is still perfect for me when it’s stocked with quality tunes. “Kiss Each Other Clean” is stocked with quality tunes. Check it out for yourself if you don’t believe me. Bring some ear muffs for the kids though. Ol’ Sam can get a little randy at the strangest times.

Robert Plant “Band of Joy” Decca Records

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Robert Plant

The first thing I noticed about Robert Plant’s new album, “Band of Joy,” was that he sounds completely different than he did on his critically lauded Allison Krauss collaboration from a couple of years back. Now, he sounds like the former lead singer of Led Zeppelin. What was that guy’s name? He was kinda cheesy and prone to fits of vocal self indulgence, creepy moaning, and comical non-sequiturs. Still, his voice was unlike anything we had heard up to that point or have since. It could be likened unto a caged animal that was trained to play nice, but flies off the proverbial handle without notice. A beauty to behold until it goes nuts and jumps the barricade. A strong, vicious gladiator of a voice that could vanquish any foe and serenade a princess in the same breath. He was arguably the least talented member of his band, but he was the face of the franchise with (arguably) the flashiest instrument on display. What was that guy’s name and what ever happened to him? Someone told me he was spotted at a bluegrass festival in San Francisco a couple of years back playing with some yokels from Nashville, but I could never get a visual on him despite my best efforts.

The mens’ names, of course, are one and the same, but the Instrument is being used in a completely different context now. More accurately, it’s being used in a manner more in line with its previous application from several decades ago. “Band of Joy” was the name of Plant’s band prior to his joining Led Zeppelin, and this makes sense in many ways. I can’t imagine that Plant joined Zeppelin as a fully realized vocalist. I suspect he found that persona from within the band rather than importing it as a complete character. And I imagine that the developing voice sounded a lot like it does on “Band of Joy.” It’s instantly recognizable with plenty of range, but not quite the powerhouse it would become – or once was. “Band of Joy” consists mostly of covers, but I guess he just chose songs that were influenced by “The Hobbit” rather than writing songs that were inspired by “The Lord of the Rings.” The record has the same “middle Earth” lyrical vibe of so many Zeppelin records before it. Buddy Miller, one of the Nashville yokels, handles the guitar work, and, while he’s no Jimmy Page, he handles the work quite well. Jimmy Page might create a “bull in a china shop” feel if he were invited to play the music on “Band of Joy” ain’t exactly what it was on “Immigrant Song.” I don’t mean to suggest that Page is an insensitive player. He’s one of the greats. He can probably play in styles that have never been committed to tape, but Miller seems simply perfect for the sound. I’m sure Plant is sick to death of being compared to his younger self, but what are you gonna do otherwise? It would be like Jerry Seinfeld starring in a sitcom and disparaging comparisons to “Seinfeld.” It’s not the most original form of reporting, but that’s how it goes. We think of Zeppelin when we think of Robert Plant unless we’re saddled with a strange affinity for the Honeydrippers, but I haven’t met anyone that is. Plant’s utilizing a hybrid sound made up of Appalachian and Gaelic influences. At least that’s what it sounds like to me. Lots of percussion and some droning met with high, lonesome harmonies courtesy of Patty Griffin equals Robert Plant’s new Band of Joy. In the end, the musicianship and tastefulness yields strong, if not dazzling, results. It’s Plant as an age-appropriate performer, basically, but this time he still sounds like Plant. Which is to say… crazy?

If there’s one thing I like more than a strong single record release (per this month’s Iron and Wine write-up), it’s a strong three-sided one. This takes away some concern for sonic quality on a single side longer than twenty minutes which is supposed to be the line of demarcation for optimum sound. The fourth side of “Band of Joy” has an etching on it which could theoretically cause problems for the less observant among us. Bad things would happen if you dropped the needle on that side, and I hope to never hear it. The three pressed sides are all of superior sonic quality. The records are 180 grams each and they’re housed in a sturdy outer gatefold cover. The inner sleeves are another story and could ruin a record on their own. I blame them for the visible scuffs that were immediately apparent upon first look. I had a tough time getting the discs out for a first spin and replaced them immediately with rice paper inners that won’t scuff or mark them further. It boggles my mind. It’s like painting a masterpiece and leaving it in the rain. Someone should write a letter…

Robert Plant isn’t sneaking up on anyone at this point. If you like his voice, this is a worthy addition to your collection and the vinyl package is worth the money, no doubt about it. If you don’t like his voice, you’ll probably want to get a copy of his last one with Allison Krauss instead. This one comes with creepy moaning and comical non-sequiturs included. You know the ones…

Gregg Allman “Low Country Blues” Rounder Records

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Gregg Allman

I think of a lot of things when Gregg Allman comes to mind. Motorcycles, drugs, Cher, other women, partying in Jimmy Carter’s White house. More recently: cancelled shows due to health concerns, liver transplants, well-publicized divorces and attempts at sobriety. I caught a live “Gregg Allman and Friends” show a few months back. Gregg Allman and his friends just about struck me speechless. The show was phenomenal. I love the way he plays an organ. His stage presence makes him eight feet tall. (The reality is that he’s only a little over six feet. I’d have guessed 6’5″ and I’m not joking.) But, through it all, the thing that still gets me about Gregg Allman is his voice. Lord, how do you decide to bestow an instrument like that on any one mortal? With great power comes great responsibility. Or in Allman’s case, great irresponsibility. He seems to have his act together now though. I guess it helps to have T Bone Burnett on your side when you’re trying to pull together a relevant album some 35 years past your last real heyday. And it all comes together on “Low Country Blues” which strips away any hint of bluster and leaves only what’s necessary. A bunch of old blues songs, some A-list players with names like “Dr. John,” some expert production that places all pieces in their proper perspective, and Gregg Allman’s voice. These things are what’s necessary, and these things are all accounted for on “Low Country Blues.”

It’s so refreshing to see a certified legend do what they do best without the trappings of today’s music industry. I’d have no interest in hearing Allman sing a bunch of duets with today’s leading lights on the jam band scene, for instance. (Don’t roll your eyes, reader. It’s like an earthquake. It could strike any time without warning, leaving death and destruction in its wake. The only reason I feel even a modicum of insulation from the threat is that I can’t think of any leading lights on the jam band scene. Quick, let’s move on. The very thought disturbs.) I do, however, have a ton of interest in hearing Allman going back to the music that inspired him to form a band with his late brother in the waning 1960’s. We’ve heard the Allman Brothers Band’s version of blues music so much that they’ve been given their own genre, pretty much. But “Low Country” is different. It’s a sound that pre-dates the late ’60’s. It’s a sound as true as the story about Duane Allman shooting his brother in the foot to shield him from the draft. It’s a sound that’s sorely missing from anything you here on popular radio, but it’s a sound that I suspect is finding loads of airplay on Sirius or XM or whatever it’s called now. Many tunes are augmented by a horn section which is just fine for this type of thing, and these are the songs that I imagine getting most of the public’s attention. My favorite tunes on “Low Country” are stripped down numbers with guitars, bass, keys, drums, and The Voice. There’s only one original tune here which was co-written by Allman and Warren Haynes. It’s filled with worn out imagery concerning riders on the train to nowhere and it’s my least favorite on the record. That’s not to suggest that it’s bad. Gregg still sings it and Dr. John plays piano on it. It just seems a little pedestrian compared to the older material. These songs sound like they could have been recorded anywhere, but were, in fact, recorded in a studio in L.A. There’s no hint of the sterility or sonic doctoring that saps the feeling out of today’s music generally, but I still like to imagine these guys recording in a cooler setting. A soundcheck before a live show, for instance. Whatever. T Bone got it right, and I tip my hat to the guy. At this pace, he’ll soon challenge Rick Rubin as the taste maker for popular artists that need a little nudge towards doing what’s best for their sound. All the instruments are clear even if there’s not a sharp line of delineation between each of them. I prefer it that way as it creates the feeling of a bunch of players in a room playing at the same time. Remember when that used to happen? It was called “music,” and I really miss it sometimes. Mostly when someone’s trying to foist some auto-tuned “singer’s” latest sound collage on me. “Low Country Blues” is made up of actual songs played by actual players playing. That’s what Gregg Allman does, and I’m glad Burnett’s around to help him get it all down on tape. (I feel certain that this album was recorded to tape. If anyone knows otherwise, please don’t tell me.) Burnett’s production style on “Low Country” is the kind I like, which is to say that it’s unobtrusive to the point of being almost not there. Still, the record doesn’t lack character. Quite the contrary. It’s character is incorruptible. The instrumentation and the performances see to that.

I’m not losing interest in this record. There’s not been a day that I haven’t been in the mood for it since I unwrapped it earlier this month. I’d listen to it every day if the new Drive-By Truckers record would permit me to, but there’s only so much time on a clock. I’ll keep coming back to “Low Country Blues” even though I get a little bored with traditional blues progressions after a while. And I love blues music. But it’s gotten so watered down that the feeling is mostly absent now. That’s not the case with “Low Country.” The songs are old, this ground has been covered, the artist is theoretically well past his prime, and the album is still magic. The vinyl presentation is top shelf too. Two heavy records with slightly less than perfect pressings that sound phenomenally clean after a cursory cleaning. There’s a lyric sheet which accounts for “extras,” I guess. There is a cool pattern on the inside of the outer cover which is cool. It reminds me of the original “On The Beach” pressings by Neil Young. A nice nod to detail that makes the release just a little more special. But the goods are in the grooves, and in The Voice. He doesn’t seem to have lost any power, and he certainly knows when to use it. Allman looks a little cartoonish in his all black leather outfit on the cover, that’s about the only negative I can find. I guess it beats a picture of the Mississippi River with his weathered face superimposed over it or something. I didn’t buy “Low Country Blues” for the artwork anyway. I’m gonna play it. Over and over. You will too if you’re into this type of thing. And you should be if you’re not.