I’ve missed My Morning Jacket during their 2018 hiatus, although the members haven’t been too hard to spot. One is playing keyboards in Roger Waters’ touring band. Others are taking the time off to explore their own musical visions, presumably enjoying the freedom of not having to worry about whether their inclinations fit the Jacket. Jim James’s latest, Uniform Distortion, shakes down in a variety of interesting ways, but mostly stays within the traditional Rock modality. This guy doesn’t seem to follow any rulebook. He’s a gloriously conspicuous individual.
And Ol’ Jimmy found his pet Rock again, y’all. Things will always get weird when he walks in the party, but this is as close to a straight Rock record as he’s produced as a solo artist, certainly. You’d probably have to go back to MMJ’s It Still Moves to get this close to the Rock ’n Roll bone. Uniform Distortion is weirder than that, but it’s also bereft of the synthesizer funk and grain silo ambience that James often turns out at his day job.
There’s a wistful quality to many of these tunes that would make Billy Joel or Springsteen proud. I can’t quite put my finger on how he does it. They’re not sonic equivalents, but hearing James singing about when he was young (“Throwback”) somehow creates an effect that I’ve previously absorbed when listening to the Ronettes. I also hear influences ranging from Simon and Garfunkel to the Doors (“No Use Waiting”).
And there’s plenty of Arena Rock leanings, which James should be entirely familiar with after years of rocking such structures to their collective foundations. None of Distortion’s guitar duels are necessarily going to bring the citizens to the town square at high noon. There’s nothing here that approaches the scope of the explosive climax to MMJ’s “Laylow,” for instance, but there are some six-string freak-outs for the faithful. A little danger for us thrill seekers…
James tries on different voices, and he attacks from crazy angles throughout. He builds his own laughter into the presentation more than once. Mostly though, you simply get to enjoy hearing a modern master cut completely loose. Uninhibited. Again. An acoustic version of this release has already been announced, and we won’t have to wait too long to hear it. James is as prolific as he is zany.
Not sure who pressed this disc, but they did alright with it. A little tricky at times, but nothing too distracting. The production is unobtrusive and doesn’t get in the way with any moonshot attempts at novelty. The soundstage has good depth, even if the work sounds a bit bright and jagged in spots. Comes with a download coupon and a lyric sheet.
It’s nice to have Ol’ Jim back on the block for a bit. This is a fun one. Can’t wait to see what he comes up with at his solo show in Oakland this November. It won’t be boring. I guarantee you that much…
The artwork for Margo Price’s latest album, All American Made, looks strangely like the Uniform Distortion cover. Or vice versa. Both records are dutiful to their respective genres while still maintaining a healthy amount of originality and novelty. Both artists can sing like angels, and both are accomplished writers. The obvious comparisons end there. Margo Price’s got her own thing happening. Don’t doubt that.
All American Made is a mostly clean Country recording made at that most American outpost, Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis. The edges are a little sharp for my ears in spots, but the instruments still sound lively with some appetizing three-dimensional effects. Tambourines and accordions float in and out of the room. Stringed slide instruments slither around the grounds. A punchy, playful bass keeps you grooving and moving, especially during “Cocaine Cowboys,” which shares some sonic similarities to latter day Grateful Dead projects. Odd as that may be…
Price isn’t exactly standing on the vocal shoulders of giants, but her approach is clearly influenced by some of the greats. Dolly and Tammy spring to mind through vocal presentation and lyrical subject matter. Price can write a clever turn of phrase as well as anyone this side of Mike Cooley, and they’re liberally sprinkled throughout All American. She warns her lover that “if you drink all night, you’ll be thirsty all day” on “Don’t Say It.” She nods to Levon Helm by name during “A Little Pain,” and tackles timely topics (“Pay Gap”) to boot. We’re a long way from the Florida/Georgia line on this release, gang. Mercifully so. The tone of Price’s tunes reminds me more of Dwight Yoakum’s approach than anyone else’s. I’ll take that all day.
And it must be cool to have Willie Nelson singing a duet and taking a nylon stringed solo on your own original composition. You feel like you wandered into the right saloon when his voice jumps out of “Learning to Lose.” It’s a nice moment, and one that’d make me proud as hell if I were in Price’s boots.
Price is a member of the Third Man Records team. At this point, I’d slot her in as the team’s leadoff hitter with President and Founder Big Jack White batting cleanup. Put the rapper Shirt in as the setup man, and you have the foundation of a strong squad. Third Man Pressing performed their job with honors as All American is knocking on the audiophile door. It lacks just a bit of presence though. You can never quite get all the way into the recording booth with the players.
All American Made is an enjoyable listen, and a Third Man release I’ll be turning to often, along with Shirt’s Pure Beauty. Two wildly varying titles under the same colorful umbrella. There’s a lesson for 2018 sitting right in the front row of that statement. And the messages on All American Made are easy to find…
J.J. Cale’s Troubadour has been available from Analogue Productions for what seems like forever. Certainly for a few years. I’ve had my eyes on it all along, and finally jumped in the pool during a slow era for new releases. It’s as laid back and engaging as any of his best work. And most of the records from his early career could count as some of his best work. If you’re a fan, you should get this version of Troubadour before it wanders on to the next town.
This is the album with “Travelin’ Light” and “Ride Me High” on the roster, so it’s essential listening for Widespread Panic fans as that band has been featuring those tunes in their sets (and on their albums) for decades. But that’s not how I found Cale. Panic introduced me to the Meters, and Traffic, Col. Bruce Hampton, and a gazillion others, but my dad turned me on to J.J. Cale. Grasshopper was one of the first CDs I remember hearing, and I remember the material sounding like what’s on Troubadour. “Cocaine” is Troubadour’s most famous offering, for whatever that’s worth to you. Almost certainly not worth as much as it was to Eric Clapton. I’ve never been Clapton’s biggest supporter, but I appreciate the influence that Cale had on him. There would be no “Lay Down Sally” without J.J. Cale, and that would be a shame.
The warmth and presence of the Analogue Productions take on Troubadour situates this release squarely in the sonic ballpark’s upper deck. The soundscape is rife for audiophile exploration. The work feels minimalist, but there is a surprising number of textures and sounds to take in. Troubadour employs horn sections, vibes, various wooden percussive touches, and a few synthesized surprises. But Cale’s own sparse and tasteful guitar solos are where the record really shines. His tone and his attack can lull you into a Rock ’n Roll reverie that few others could conjure. This release does, in fact, put you all the way in the room. Right there with the artists on a soundstage that is both deep and wide.
If you’re looking for a quick listen constructed in the old tradition with honest tunes and lingering leads, Troubadour is for you. It pairs nicely with the version of Cale’s debut, Naturally, that Speakers Corner did in the late ‘90s. Get both, and you’re pretty well set for J.J. Cale records. And that’s a good thing to have handled.
I’ve lived my whole life only vaguely familiar with Leadbelly’s sound. I’m way more acquainted with some of the many musicians that he influenced. They are, after all, legion. Since I was having a hard time finding titles that interested me this month, I decided to get to the bottom of the Leadbelly mythos at the ripe young age of 44. I’m not sure I succeeded.
The songs that comprise Huddie Ledbetter’s Best were recorded for Capitol in California around 1944. Pure Pleasure says their records are mastered “from the best available sources,” which is a little non-committal for my taste. I’ve had good luck with them in the past, but maybe I should have thought this through a little better. I just don’t know how close to audiophile bliss you’re going to get with folk recordings made 75 years ago. We’re a few rungs up the sonic ladder from what you might expect from a 78 recording, for example, but some of these tunes are still scratchy and ragged. Personally, I can embrace and resonate with the rough and tumble traits of the best old Blues records and any number of field recordings, but this stuff ain’t for everybody.
I did, however, find what I was looking for from a songwriting and performance standpoint. There are fun and engaging performances of the tunes I was most familiar with coming in. There’s some tasty piano work on “Good Night, Irene,” and apparently Johnny Cash didn’t do much to camouflage his take on “Rock Island Line.” A few of the performances are muddied up by the presence of a frigging zither, of all instruments. It’s far from a deal breaker, but I’d have preferred these songs served neat. Some tunes sound noticeably clearer and cleaner than others, which makes me wonder if the songs were recorded across multiple sessions. They sound like they were recorded over multiple eras, but the liners suggest otherwise. Kinda strange.
Some of the more trusted audiophile reissue labels have taken on Lightning Hopkins and Son House titles, but those are the exceptions that prove the rule. This type of music is hard to find in a pristine analog format at this late date in history. I suspect this version is as close as we’re likely to get to the artist’s and producer’s original intent. While I wasn’t as moved as I was upon discovering R.L. Burnside or Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters, the material here is great. Leadbelly guides you through some traditional high stake’s Blues scenes involving cheating, and drinking, and crime and punishment. Leadbelly was especially familiar with the latter. That’s the way he lived, and he gives it to us uncut on Huddie Ledbetter’s Best. It’s a bumpy, fun ride if you’re into that kind of thing.
Two years ago, almost to the date, we reviewed Analogue Productions take on Otis Redding’s classic Otis Blue. It’s mostly great, but I get a bit distracted by the stereo mix. Lots of hard panning going on. Vocals hard in the right, horns in the left. That kind of thing. Some hiss to contend with too. One of our readers commented on their love of the mono reissue that Sun dazed put out forever ago and recommended that I give it a go. Well, the day has finally come. I figured I might as well circle back while things were slow. I’m glad I did.
The Sundazed site says that their version was “mastered from the original mono tapes and pressed on pristine High-Definition vinyl.” I’m not sure about that last bit. Apparently, high def vinyl is in the pipeline, and we could get to the bottom of what that means as early as next year. Sounds like the manufacturing process will be zany. The “mastered from the original mono tapes” part is straight forward though. We can cut right to the chase and report that Sundazed hit a grand salami with this one. It’s great in so many tasty ways.
I generally prefer mono mixes, especially on ‘60s era recordings. Seems like studios were turning out some off-kilter mixes in stereo’s early days, just to see what they could do with the emerging technology. Some of the Beatles stuff, for example, was outright egregious. The stereo mix of Otis Blue isn’t that, it’s just a bit distracting.
The Sundazed mono version plays out on a deep stage without the hiss, and with clarity to spare. The pressing is superb, and the material is unimpeachable. Not a weak song in the bunch with “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” anchoring the lineup. Tom Dowd was at the knobs during the original sessions, so you know things were done right. There’s not much else to say about this release. It’s a terrific reissue of a bona fide Soul Classic. If you’re a fan of the genre, you need this in your collection. If you just need a single disc to represent the genre in a larger collection, you still need this in your collection.
It may seem like blasphemy because AP is right at the top of the audiophile vinyl reissue food chain, but if I had to choose between the two versions in a shootout, I’d take the Sundazed disc. I have a greater respect for the mix, the pressing is phenomenal, and it’s easier to manage since the AP take is cut at 45 rpm and spans two discs. Otis Blue is absolutely the kind of work that warrants multiple copies in a single collection. I won’t be letting go of my stereo version, but I’ll get more mileage out of the mono. It’s a winner.