Trying To Get To You

Friday, May 29, 2009

Bootleg Friday: Dr. John & The Meters, 1973

After spending time with the wonderful new Allen Toussaint album, it only seems fitting that today’s Bootleg Friday be a wonderful 1973 Dr. John show, backed by the Meters, with who he had just recorded Right Place, Wrong Time. The sound leaves something to be desired, but put that aside and let yourself be washed away by the grooves contained within.

Download: Dr. John and the Meters, 3/5/73, Chalmette, LA

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Masterful Allen Toussaint & The Bright Mississippi

“Stately” is an adjective I rarely use to describe an album, but it fits Allen Toussaint’s new album, The Bright Mississippi, like a glove. The Bright Mississippi is a special album, demanding multiple listens to truly get the tapestry of American music – Ellington inspired jazz, r&b, Creole, ragtime – that it weaves with such effortless cool. It’s an album that contains the full experience that is life – its joys, sorrows, delights and hardships. That is to say, it's an album with soul.

Toussaint, of course, is an American Treasure; one of the masters of American R&B, a songwriter and producer who has worked with the likes of Dr. John, The Meters, Labelle, Elvis Costello, Solomon Burke, the Band and dozens of other greats. American R&B (and therefore, American music) is practically inconceivable without him.

But The Bright Mississippi is Toussaint’s first recorded foray into jazz, and with Joe Henry producing, and an all-star cast including guitarist Marc Ribot, clarinetist Don Byron, and saxophonist Joshua Redman providing loving support, Toussaint takes on some of the most treasured standards in jazz history, with complete aplomb. It’s the sound of masters playing for love, and out of complete respect for both the music and for one another.

There are too many sublime moments on the album to mention, but Toussaint’s version of “West End Blues” merits special notice. Toussaint’s piano runs almost inspire laughter with their ease and grace. Toussaint plays with the melody masterfully, like he's Michael Jordan taking over a game, and he then passes it off to Ribot and then Redman who play impossibly gorgeous solos – every single note perfect, with not one wasted.

This will be one of the best albums of the year – go out and get it. It’s not only that they don’t make albums like this anymore – it’s that no one before has ever made one quite like this.

Buy The Bright Mississippi at the Amazon Mp3 store

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Little Moments

I think we as people sometimes like to attach grandiose reasons to justify our love of a musician or band, when instead, our love is often kindled by smaller, more private and inscrutable moments of reverie. They're little moments of falling in love with the way a singer phrase a certain line, or a great guitar, piano or sax solo, or the way the horns swell in a very specific point in a song, and because they are so private, so unique to each individual, the importance of such moments to a music listener are unfortunately unheralded.

I've been going through something exactly like that over the past couple of days with David Bowie's "Ashes To Ashes." I'm a Bowie fan, but I'm not a fanatic like a lot of people. You could give me three or four Bowie albums to listen to (Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Station To Station, Scary Monsters) for the rest of my life, and that would probably be enough Bowie for me. I get his vast influence and I have an inordinate amount of respect for him - but for whatever reason, he's not an essential artist for me. (And given that he's the defacto artist for every bar in the E. Village and Lower East Side, I've heard him enough for a lifetime.)

But I've had "Ashes To Ashes" on repeat, just because of the way Bowie phrases the line, "I've never done good things/I've never done bad things/I never did anything out of the blue" at 1:56 in the song. It's a sublime piece of phrasing; it's very Lennon-esque, and the regret that permeates the line floors me every single time I hear it. It's the sound of a man who knows his time is coming to an end, is seeing the whole of his life flash before him and realizes his own foolishness in not living the way he truly wanted. It's an immensely soulful line - perhaps the most soulful line of his entire career, a career where Bowie has sometimes labored to find soulful moments.

I've listened to the whole song a dozen times or so over the past 72 hours, waiting excitedly for that line to emerge. I've also fast-forwarded through the song just to get to that line and sing it as loud as possible. And it's had me listen to a lot of Bowie for the first time in years, as I try to find similar moments of musical ecstasy.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Country Honk Soul Of Justin Townes Earle

For me not to post for six weeks is what I would, charitably speaking, call a slump. I’ve been working on several pieces, including a long piece on my ambivalence and, on occasion, my downright disappointment with the new Springsteen tour. I also have been writing a piece about American Idol, as I actually watched a few episodes this season, and found myself fascinated, if also a bit revolted. Mainly though, I’ve been way too much of a perfectionist, which doesn’t work. Writers write, and bloggers blog.

But like most slumps, it’s sometimes something small that gets you out of it, like the way a cheap hit can get a ballplayer in a groove. Tonight, I've been listening to the Justin Townes Earle album, Midnight At The Movies, for the first few times. I’ve been completely charmed by Earle’s fluency with seminal American music forms; country, folk, bluegrass and a little bit of Dixieland, all imbued with a punk spirit, a welcome dollup of subtlety and a whole lotta of love. The album seems modest, but there's an ambition that purrs at the very heart of the whole thing.

The son of Steve Earle and with a middle name given to him in honor of Townes Van Zandt, Midnight At The Movies is Earle’s second album, and it’s a huge leap forward for him. It would be easy to say that the sound of the album is retro, but that would be wrong. Instead, it’s a sound out of time, like the dance band for a bar on the Texas/Oklahoma border on a Saturday night circa 1947. It swings in all the right places, is warm when it counts, and possesses a very timely sense of humor.

In addition to his folk, country and bluegrass influences, Earle clearly grew up on punk rock, and from it he extracts the freedom to simply be who he wants to be, damn the conventions. He makes the Replacements “Can’t Hardly Wait” sound as though he wrote it himself – subbing melancholy for Westerberg’s grit, and with mandolins and fiddle that shimmer, it’s a beautifully resonant arrangement.

“What I Mean To You” is the album’s high point. With some gentle pedal steel and a rhythm section straight out of a Dixieland combo, it’s such a good song that you can easily imagine Louis Armstrong singing it. Earle is already such a strong lyricist that he can create vivid imagery with only a few words, and the longing and ache that’s at the heart of the song is so delightful as to be almost astonishing. Earle’s singing is there to support the song rather than call attention to itself; fortunately, his somewhat craggy tenor conveys every emotion that they lyrics may have left out.

This is great American music that’s deserving of your attention and an audience. And it’s got soul. I recommend it highly.

Download: "What I Mean To You"

Download Midnight At The Movies From Amazon