It’s a self-titled release, but the Pearl Jammers call it The Avocado Album because of the cover artwork. The album grabbed me right away, but it didn’t occur to me to rush out for the vinyl version. By the time I thought to look for it, folks were asking $200 per copy. I didn’t like it that much. But the band has been involved in a vinyl reissue campaign of late, and Avocado is back in print at a much more reasonable asking price. $23 or so. Now’s the time…
Seems that the band went in to record Avocado with scant material at the ready. The songs were built in the studio around guitar riffs that had been worked up previously. The band wrote the entire record collaboratively (and a gazillion songs and alternate versions that were scrapped) in the course of about a week. The songs reflect that immediacy in their relative simplicity and straight-ahead Rockingness. Eddie Vedder was working through the death of his good buddy Johnny Ramone at the time, and the songs have a distinct political lean born of frustration with the Iraq War, the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, and the Second Bush Regime, in general. All of which is made that much more ironic by the fact that Johnny Ramone was a card carrying Conservative Republican. So there. We have a nice little side story about the power of respect and friendship to overcome even borderline extreme political leanings embedded within this album’s history. Neat. I remember my buddy telling me that Pearl Jam had “found their Rock” at the time of the records original release. And he was right. There’s not much to dislike about these songs unless you’re just determined to pan the band. I’ve always enjoyed much of Pearl Jam’s music. My issues have mostly been with Vedder’s vocals. But they work on Avocado. I mean, the characters in these songs are angry, disenfranchised, and in a hurry to let us all know how they feel. Vedder inhabits these personalities as if they were his own. And they might be. At least it feels that way. There are differing points of view, but one gets the impression that all of the songs’ narrators would get along just fine at the neighborhood poetry slam. Or support group. Or maybe they are all influenced by the same psychotherapist. Because that’s what this record feels like. Catharsis. Getting the bad stuff out. The music drives, and kicks, and punches while the vocals scream, and wail, and… live. This is a living document with all of the emotion and energy that is required for full-scale animation. And it all fits the histrionics that I’ve associated with Vedder’s performances for so long. I believe him this time. He ain’t faking his way through this one. That’s my take, anyway.
The band has always taken great care of their fans, and this release is no different. Cool book included with some gnarly art and printed lyrics. Two very well pressed remastered records. I’ve always found the band easier to support than to listen to. But I’m glad we got together on this one. Hats off, gentlemen.
I was a little bummed to learn that My Morning Jacket will be taking the year off from touring in 2018. I don’t know what that means for their recording plans, but I doubt that they’d release a record without playing in support of it. That, however, doesn’t mean that Jim James won’t be busy. He seems to have a few irons in the fire at any given time, and he just followed up last year’s solo full-length, Eternally Even, with the confusingly titled Tribute To 2, which is a follow-up to Tribute To – a 2009 EP of George Harrison covers. Whew!! Alright, let’s see…
Eternally Even was cool, but felt a little like James was simply indulging himself while exploring different soundscapes with lots of synthesized noises and maybe some sampling and the like. Good for Jim. He gets to make the art that calls him to make it. And Eternally Even was good. Tribute To 2 gives the listener a window into what James was (presumably) into when recording it. Because it’s a covers album, you understand. Not sure why this idea is so fun for me, but it’s not new. I love hearing old James Brown records where Brown would drop a Meters or Kool and the Gang break into the middle of an instrumental. Lets me know that JB had his ear to the ground, right? James’ take on Brian Wilson’s “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” has gotten all the press, but I was most interested in hearing what he’d do with Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” Not much, as it turns out. That one feels like a little sketch tagged onto the end of the record just for funsies. Artie Glenn’s “Crying In the Chapel” is much more compelling and gives James ample playroom to explore that ludicrously haunting vocal technique of his. There’s a Willie song on here (“Funny How Time Slips Away”) and a Dylan tune (“I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”), both of which a fan might reasonably expect. More surprising to me was the “Wild Honey” cover that I thought James had lifted from his buddy Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats fame. Turns out, Johnson was covering a song by Dianne Izzo all along. Live and learn. It’s a lovely song. A highlight.
This is how I used to find music way back when. I’d simply endeavor to learn what my musical heroes were into, and then I’d listen to that. The Meters and Traffic were discovered via Widespread Panic. Eddie Hinton was found through Bloodkin and the Drive-By Truckers. On and on like this. Oddly, I rarely seek out music this way anymore, perhaps because I feel overwhelmed by the options and delivery formats, perhaps because I’ve got more music in my digital collection than I’ll ever hear. Because I never listen to my digital music collection. Anyway, this record is fun, and it might point the more intrepid listeners in a million zany directions. Jim James is all over the place (I’ve followed his lead to what turned into a dead end previously), but he’s not boring, and neither is Tribute To 2. It’s probably a little more accessible to the casual MMJ fan, but still dense enough for those of us who appreciate a friendly challenge. Pick this one up, and let it take you where it wants. You might find something good down there…
The early ‘90s were a drifty time for me and many of my friends. Maybe me and a few of my friends. Or maybe just me. I’d completed an undergraduate degree at the University of Georgia after starting my college studies at a smaller school in north Georgia. It only took me five years, which was remarkable considering the amount of bandwidth I had for class attendance and studying. I sometimes found my way to class, but rarely to the library. I was kind of just waiting for something to happen, same as I was after graduation. I’m still unsure of what one would do with a degree in speech communications. So I got a job working in the kitchen of an “Italian” restaurant. That’s where I found Morphine. The band. More specifically, we played their Cure For Pain record (tape, in fact) relentlessly. I loved it, then I forgot about it when I made my next career move. Into the burgeoning field of yard work. Yards were big in the early ‘90s. Bigger than Morphine, even, which is just too bad. Because they made at least one great record.
And Light In the Attic Records did a serviceable job on a reissue a few years back that I decided to check out this month because I couldn’t find much else around that interested me. It all came back with searing intensity right away: Mark Sandman’s laconic vocals that were right atop the slithery saxophone work that replaced any guitar sounds you might have expected to encounter. The 2-string slide bass that makes the whole thing wobble dangerously on the verge of collapse. The tasty drums that I would not have recognized as such in 1994. The record was only about a year old at that point, but it was already walking upright with a fully developed personality for such a young thing. The record sounded sexy, dangerous, dark, and weird. “Buena” and “Thursday” are two songs that stick out right away, maybe because they seem to make a kind of sonic team despite the distance between them on the track list. Both songs make use of lyrical repetitions that almost count as stutters. Both have a freight train’s worth of momentum contained within the tight confines of a pop song’s three-minute structure. There are melodies too. The title track, for instance, involves some crooning out of some well-placed full stops that almost make the song sound like a traditional pop ditty. I wonder if Sandman would have thought that was funny. I never got to ask him. He died of a massive heart attack onstage in Italy around the turn of the century. He was kind enough to leave us with Cure For Pain: one of the least predictable and most original Rock offerings of the 1990s. There was some exciting stuff going on back then if you felt like digging for it. We had a pretty close group in that restaurant kitchen. Lots of shift beers that turned into home beers that turned into sunrises at broken apartments. Morphine seemed to fit the soundtrack perfectly.
Light In the Attic did a passable job with this one. The pressing is good, the sources are mysterious, but I doubt they involved a full analog treatment. Still, this is a groovy record that rewards repeated listens. Come on in, unless you’re afraid of the dark. Then, come on in anyway. You’ll probably be alright.
Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy released their third full-length collaboration last November. The records have been released under Staples’ name, but Tweedy’s fingers are all in the clay. He wrote all of the songs on this one, a couple in collaboration with Mavis. Luckily, the title track was one of the joint ventures. They’d have had to say it was even if it weren’t so that Tweedy wouldn’t get slaughtered for writing a tune called “If All I Was Was Black.” That’ll give you an idea of what type of subject matter to expect. But it’s pretty much what the informed listener would have predicted anyway. Mavis Staples released her first recordings in or around 1956, one year before she graduated from high school. Her work as a solo artist and certainly as a member of her family band have kept civil rights concerns out front and obvious throughout her career. She’s a national treasure. A gift to the world, in fact, with an infectious, joyful energy that permeates her performances. I’m not sure that comes through as clearly on If All I Was Was Black as I’d have hoped. But there’s hope. Lots of it, according to Mavis.
Mavis Staples self-identifies as some sort of “love warrior” (my term, not hers). She seems determined to love no matter how much hatred she encounters. To be clear, she has seen a lot. And these songs are clearly designed to uplift, to motivate, and to educate. Unfortunately, this record feels more like something you might encounter on the Adult Contemporary charts (if there’s still such a thing) than on the front lines of a civil rights protest. I don’t know that the message is going to find the audience that could most benefit from it. There are some noisy guitar flourishes on “No Time for Crying” that jolt the listener awake in the midst of an otherwise static, driving groove. The title song’s most prominent guitar work almost sounds like it could have been sampled from Neil Young’s “Walk On.” It’s a pleasant tune, but it’s a little too vanilla for my taste. The pen is certainly mightier than the sword, but I could use a little more fire in this fight. Staples’ voice is never really unleashed on If All I Was… Which is a shame because it is so powerful. In all fairness, Mavis Staples is approaching her eighth decade on this rock. So an Adult Contemporary flavored offering is entirely appropriate against that backdrop. But I know she’s still got it. I’ve seen her do it. Hell, she did it at a little brewery in Northern California recently, and Tom Waits jumped onstage for an unannounced sit-in. A magical moment of that magnitude would have juiced this record a bit, maybe. Still, there’s a depth to the record that reveals itself across multiple listens. Its impact is more pronounced than I initially realized. “Build A Bridge” has some funk in its grooves, and involves some nifty falsetto choral work. “We Go High” is a clear reference to a Michelle Obama quote from 2016’s debacle of a Presidential campaign. Lord, I miss that lady. Like Mavis Staples, she seems to have a genuine concern for the human condition. And like Mavis Staples, she’s encountered much resistance due to the color of her skin. The message is more pertinent now than it has been at any time since the Civil Rights Movement. The way out is clear. And it doesn’t involve hate. Long live Mavis Staples.
We looked at a fine reissue of Leon Russell’s eponymous debut (some would debate whether a previous collaboration with Marc Benno counts as his first) by Audio Fidelity recently, and I got so involved with the music that I decided to double down with Carney by Analogue Productions. I’d been skating along with the vague knowledge that Russell was some sort of badass for years, but these two records have made me a true believer. Dude seemed gloriously touched by lunacy according to a documentary I watched and some videos I’d seen. Some of that shines through on Carney. Hell, it shows on the cover. It’s a bunch of fun.
The album leads with “Tightrope,” which was an improbable hit. I hear a strange novelty song with some cute vocal tricks when I listen. “Out in the Woods” uses more of a Voodoo swamp approach with a little more lightness in the high end than one would expect from Dr. John, for instance. I’ve compared the two musicians before, but I’ve never heard of anyone else making the connection. There are times when it seems like the most obvious thing in the world to me, but perhaps my ears confused. Ironically, “Cajun Love Song” employs many of the Zydeco effects that one might predict by the song’s title – but none of the Dr. John similarities that I would have personally expected. Tricky, that Leon was. “Roller Derby Queen” finishes off the first side. It’s a rave-up rocker with Russell’s barrelhouse piano playing on full display. It’s fun to imagine the novel appearance of a female roller derby song in 1972, the year that Carney was born. The internet tells me that the sport had been around in its most popular form for about 35 years by then. I wonder if the tune was played prior to or during matches the way “Seven Nation Army” is heard at sporting contests today. Any old way, things get weird at the onset of side two. For about 210 seconds over the course of two “songs.” These are probably not what the common listener thinks of when imagining a song. The soundscapes (or collages, or whatever) are so striking and weird that they color the listener’s impression of the entirety of side two. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Dr. John has similar passages on some of his earlier records.) I thought that Carney’s second half was just a hodgepodge of crazy noises interspersed with a couple of actual tunes after first listen. Repeated sittings revealed that the zaniness was front-loaded and that the remainder of the second side contains some of the album’s strongest songs. There are some stripped-down arrangements that really allow Russell’s musicianship to shine (“My Cricket,” “Magic Mirror”), and some beats suggesting that Leon may have been an early adopter of the electronic drum machine (“This Masquerade”). Taken all around, Carney is a groovy slice of Americana from a bygone era. But I still think that the self-titled record is the stronger work. Luckily, they’re not in competition. They look great next to each other on my shelf.
And AP did a great job with Carney. Their production is mostly unimpeachable (impeachment on the brain?), and Quality Record Pressings seems to have caught up. That was not always the case. Now’s your time. I recommend you get both while the getting’s good.