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Special Review: Neil Diamond, “Melody Road”

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Melody RoadFor Neil Diamond, good times never felt so good.

The venerable singer-songwriter, a robust 73, continues his late-career winning streak with Melody Road, his 32nd studio album. It’s a record of firsts – his first LP under a new agreement with Capitol Records following 40+ years with Columbia Records, and his first of original material since 2008’s Home Before Dark. On this 12-track set, Diamond is in a contemplative mood, offering songs of age and experience in his still-resonant voice. But this brooding “solitary man” is now writing and singing from a place of contentment, embracing the sunshine and sentimentality of a life clearly enriched and inspired by his 2012 marriage.

Sonically, Melody Road melds the rootsy acoustic approach of the Rick Rubin-helmed 12 Songs and Home Before Dark with the widescreen orchestrations that were a major part of the Diamond sound in previous years. Significantly, though, Diamond’s guitar is still out front as on those two albums, and the “back to basics” style still prevails under the auspices of producers Don Was (The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan) and Jacknife Lee (R.E.M., Snow Patrol, Taylor Swift). He’s joined by a cast of musicians including Joey Waronker on drums, Richard Bennett and Smokey Hormel on guitars, and Benmont Tench and Greg Phillinganes on keyboards, plus The Waters on backing vocals and longtime associate Alan Lindgren for string arrangements. With these talents bringing his new works alive, Diamond’s craft as a songwriter remains undiminished, and Melody Road radiates the light in which he seems to be basking. As a result, it’s a less stark collection than either 12 Songs or Home Before Dark. But despite lacking the grit of those two albums, Melody Road still feels like the conclusion of a trilogy, or the light at the end of the tunnel.

The warm, inviting title track (“Melody from the heart/Melody from the start/Telling me things will be okay/I think that I just might stay/On Melody Road…”) bookends the album. With its “Song Sung Blue” lilt, it’s a balm that sets the tone for this sunny and frequently autobiographical album. Despite song titles like “Something Blue” and “Nothing But a Heartache,” Diamond is upbeat on this trip down Melody Road. The former is, simply, classic Neil Diamond. One of many songs here inspired by and directed to his new wife, it’s an expression of what the artist calls “the accident of love.” It’s set to a gentle bounce strummed on guitars and banjo with bass and brushed percussion, subtle horns, and a rollicking piano solo. One can easily see this perky pop gem taking a clap-along place at a future Diamond show.   (He’s embarking on a major tour in 2015.) As for the impassioned, intense “Heartache,” its full-throated delivery is reminiscent of “Beautiful Noise” crossed with “I Am…I Said.”   In it, a genuine-sounding Diamond paints love as one’s personal savior, or a light from the darkness. Sharp electric guitar adds to the textures on this track, the album’s dramatic centerpiece.

New wife Katie McNeil is also the likely recipient of the gently romantic “(Ooo) Do I Wanna Be Yours” and the straightforward, amiable “Marry Me Now,” on which low, oom-pah brass turns into an exultant, almost-Dixieland revel. As ever, Diamond is wholly believable even when espousing a simple sentiment like “Marriage is not an easy thing/But look at all the joy it brings…” The aura of sweetness continues on the appealing “Sunny Disposition.” “She had a sunny disposition/He had a cloud that never went away,” sings the famous loner in this heartfelt, third-person story song.

Other tracks on Melody Road look to Diamond’s past rather than present. The singer sounds like a man reborn on the upbeat, guitar-driven splendor of “First Time,” a note of encouragement to those just starting out. “Alone at the Ball” is a more pointed “word to the wise” from someone who’s been there. Diamond is likewise in reflective mode on the sad, ironically uptempo “In Better Days.” He’s touching as he revisits a past relationship in loving if conflicted terms: “Why do we promise forever and never stay that long? Why do we swear to care until we die? And what does it mean when two lovers sing a loving song/Then move along and not know why?” When listening to this confessional track, it’s hard not to think of the singer’s 26-year marriage to his wife Marcia, which ended amicably in divorce in 1995.

Hit the jump to keep travelling down Melody Road! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

October 21, 2014 at 14:30

Posted in Neil Diamond, News, Reviews

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The Nashville Sound: New Set Spotlights Chet Atkins’ Collaborations

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Chet Atkins - Master ClassFourteen-time Grammy winner Chet Atkins (1924-2001) was a man of many hats. At RCA Victor between 1947 and 1982, as a performer, producer and executive, he was a key player in the creation of the “Nashville Sound” which made country palatable to crossover audiences.  Indeed, though the style has changed, the pop influence on the country genre certainly hasn’t, and fans of Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney and Carrie Underwood all owe something to Chet Atkins.  Also one of Nashville’s most pioneering and virtuosic guitarists, Atkins notched a number of hit singles while at RCA and embarked on a series of collaborative albums with other guitar greats including Les Paul, Mark Knopfler, Jerry Reed and Tommy Emmanuel – all four of which are represented on a new 2-CD set from Australia’s Raven Records. Chet Atkins – Four Master Class Albums 1978-1997 collects four Atkins LPs originally released on the RCA and Columbia labels and continues Raven’s series of Atkins reissues.

The earliest album here, 1978’s Guitar Monsters, was the second full-length collaboration of Atkins and Les Paul following 1976’s Grammy-winning Chester and Lester.  Though Atkins pioneered the “countrypolitan” sound of Nashville, the tracks on Monsters are stripped-down and tight with no strings anywhere in sight.  Randy Goodrum (piano) and Larrie London (drums) returned from Chester, and were joined by Paul Yandell (rhythm guitar), Buddy Harman and Randy Hauser (drums) and Joe Osborn (bass).  As on that first duo album, a loose, informal atmosphere prevailed on Guitar Monsters.  You’ll want to turn your volume up to hear the faint in-studio comments preserved.  Sometimes the gents are calling out chord changes; other times, they’re just laughing or making wry observations.  But of course, the main attraction here is the music – standards like “Over the Rainbow,” “I Want to Be Happy,” “Limehouse Blues” and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s bossa classic “Meditation.”  There’s plenty of breathing room for tasty solos from both men over these eleven tracks, with friendship as well as competition likely keeping Chet and Les at the top of their respective games.

The set then jumps to 1990 with Atkins’ Mark Knopfler collaboration, Neck and Neck.  The elder statesman and the hotshot Dire Straits leader/axeman picked up two Grammy Awards for this joint effort, on which they were joined by Guy Fletcher on drums, bass and keyboards, Edgar Meyer and Steve Wariner on bass, Larrie Londin on drums, Mark O’Connor on fiddle and mandolin, and Paul Franklin on steel, with guest spots from legendary Nashville pianist Floyd Cramer and vocalist Vince Gill.  Knopfler supplied the original song “The Next Time I’m in Town,” with other repertoire coming from the classic country (Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams” and “Just One Time”), pop (Gus Kahn and Isham Jones’ “I’ll See You in My Dreams”) and jazz (Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt’s “Tears”) songbooks.

There’s more after the jump including the full track listing and order links! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

October 21, 2014 at 12:32

Wilco Celebrate 20 Years with Compilation, Rarities Box Set

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Wilco - What's Your 20Roger Wilco! We’ve received the transmission that, on November 17, two new collections will celebrate the 20th anniversary of Chicago alt-rock band Wilco in high style!  Nonesuch Records will issue Alpha Mike Foxtrot, a new box set (4 CDs, 4 LPs or digital) of rare studio and live recordings culled from the band’s archives.  And on that same date, the label will offer What’s Your 20, the first-ever compendium of Wilco’s previously released studio recordings, on 2 CDs or digital.

Formed from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo, Wilco began in a similar alt-country vein before expanding its sonic palette to touch upon folk, rock, punk, avant-garde experimentalism and vintage pop textures.   Though the alt-rockers’ lineup shifted frequently during its first decade, the band has been stable since 2004 with a line-up consisting of vocalist/guitarist Jeff Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, guitarist Nels Cline, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen and drummer Glenn Kotche. Since its inception, Wilco has released eight studio albums, a live double album, and collaborative albums with both Billy Bragg and The Minus 5 (the “floating line-up” supergroup which featured Scott McCaughey, The Posies’ Ken Stringfellow and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck on the Wilco project).  Wilco picked up two Grammy Awards in 2005 for A Ghost is Born, and has received four further nominations over the years, most recently for 2012’s The Whole Love.

Both of these upcoming collections have been produced by Grammy-nominated producer Cheryl Pawelski, co-founder of Omnivore Recordings and veteran of countless projects from labels including Capitol and Rhino. Pawelski notes in the press release, “Like a lot of fans, I had collected these straggling tracks over the past two decades of following Wilco’s every move. Alpha Mike Foxtrot includes almost every unique, essential performance that appeared on soundtracks, tribute albums and B-sides—and there are probably a few surprises for even the sharpest collector. This set presents an alternate history of the band, kind of a sideways view, and ultimately, it’s a super-fun listening experience.”

We have more details on these sets, as well as pre-order links and the full track listings, after the jump! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

October 20, 2014 at 13:02

O-o-h Child! Real Gone’s December Line-Up Features Five Stairsteps, Grateful Dead, B.J. Thomas and More

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Five Stairsteps - Two-ferO-o-h Child! Real Gone Music has announced its December 2 release slate, and following the label’s holiday offerings set for November 4, it’s packed with rare soul, classic rock and folk!

The Real Goners have a complete collection of Linda Jones’ recordings for not one, not two, but three labels – Warner Bros., Atco and Loma –marking the most comprehensive collection yet for the “Hypnotized” songstress, including tracks new to CD! Joining the Linda Jones set is a two-for-one release of two Buddah albums from The First Family of Soul, The Five Stairsteps: 1968’s Our Family Portrait and 1970’s Stairsteps, the latter of which introduced the Top 10 hit “O-o-h Child.”

On the rock front, you’ll find two collections from western-themed bands! Real Gone continues the story of Cowboy with 5’ll Getcha Ten, the band’s 1971 album featuring the legendary Duane Allman sitting in; and the label adds a couple of tracks to the lone album from the 1980s’ wild roots-rockers The Unforgiven!  And speaking of roots-rock of a kind, the ongoing Dick’s Picks reissue series for Grateful Dead continues with two 1973 shows from the Boston Music Hall!

The legendary Theodore Bikel makes his first appearance on Real Gone with a long out-of-print collection originally issued on Rhino Handmade. Theodore Bikel’s Treasury of Yiddish Folk and Theatre Songs contains 26 tracks from Bikel’s seminal Elektra recordings made between 1958 and 1964 at a time when popular music was rapidly changing, and will remind listeners, even today, of the enduring power of Bikel’s classic repertoire.

BJ2These six titles will be joined by two more releases originally scheduled for November 4. In the mid-1970s, “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” icon B.J. Thomas became one of the most successful artists ever in the field of contemporary Christian music, recording a series of record-breaking, Grammy Award-winning albums for the Myrrh label that reflected the style and high production values of his pop material but with a spiritual emphasis.  Home Where I Belong/Happy Man and You Gave Me Love/Miracle, with two albums on each CD, reveal a major chapter in the career of B.J. Thomas.  I’ve written new liner notes for both titles, with fresh contributions from B.J. himself!

After the jump, we have the contents of Real Gone’s full press release plus pre-order links for all eight releases! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

October 20, 2014 at 10:24

Review: Pugwash, “A Rose in a Garden of Weeds” (Or: The Best Band You Never Heard?)

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Pugwash

Pugwash is currently wrapping up its first-ever U.S. tour with two more performances scheduled in Los Angeles: this Sunday, October 19, on a bill alongside Wings’ great guitarist Laurence Juber and Now Sounds’ musical guru and all-around renaissance man Steve Stanley; and next Friday, October 24, with Love Revisited!  If you’re in the area, you just might want to check the lads out!

The first track on the first-ever North American release by Irish band Pugwash implores “Take Me Away,” but where to? A Rose in a Garden of Weeds: A Preamble Through the History of Pugwash, Omnivore Recordings’ new 17-track anthology drawn from five studio releases and one single originally issued between 1999 and 2011, will take you away to a world of jangly guitars, rich harmonies, unabashedly catchy melodies, bright productions, and vibrant colors, all delivered in a voice eerily reminiscent of Electric Light Orchestra hero Jeff Lynne. That voice belongs to Thomas Walsh, who much as Lynne did for ELO, wrote, sang, produced and played multiple instruments for Pugwash. A Rose in a Garden of Weeds, however, transcends pastiche – which, let’s face it, takes a great deal of skill to do well, anyway. It’s best experienced as a continuation of the story begun by The Beatles and continued by bands from ELO to XTC – as well as a number of other groups with more than three letters in their names.  Pugwash fits squarely in this tradition of smart, polished and exuberant guitar-pop practitioners unafraid to utilize the studio and all of the instruments it can house, among them organ, mellotron, sleigh bells, woodblock, harpsichord, strings, horns, vibes, glockenspiel, kazoo, and enough guitars and keyboards to sate even the most gargantuan musical appetite.

If “Take Me Away” is pitch-perfect ELO by way of The Byrds with a SMiLE-era Beach Boys interlude (and adding to the verisimilitude, Nelson Bragg of The Brian Wilson Band and The Now People plays on the track), the sounds in this Garden are, in truth, a rather diverse lot. This is in no small part due to the varied personnel. Sonic auteur Walsh is joined by a rotating cast on these tracks; Keith Farrell is the second most constant presence on a variety of instruments including Moog, Hammond organ and bass. The current band-line up with Tosh Flood (guitar/keyboards), Shaun McGee (bass) and Joe Fitzgerald (drums) is also represented. Andy Partridge and Dave Gregory of XTC drop by for good measure, and Jason Falkner of Jellyfish and TV Eyes adds various instruments to a number of tracks.

Falkner’s VOX Continental organ rides a cascade of acoustic and electric guitars, including Stephen Farrell’s George Harrison-esque inspired slide, on “Keep Movin’ On,” a wonderfully anthemic power-pop ode to perseverance. Another Beatle, John Lennon, is called to mind on the sincere, aching “Finer Things in Life,” on which Geoff Woods’ cello and strings add subtle elegance. Walsh has a knack for rhythmic yet attractive ballads, such as the yearning, vulnerable “Here” and the title track. The Section Quartet adds the baroque string ornamentation worthy of George Martin to both of those songs. (The liner notes tell us that the strings for “Rose” were recorded in Abbey Road 38 years to the day after “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Something was definitely in the air.) “Fall Down,” tinged with pretty melancholy, and the dynamic “Answers on a Postcard” – perhaps the most wonderfully realized production on this collection – pick up right where the Fab Four and ELO left off, and that’s intended as a high compliment, indeed. “Answers” incorporates some fleeting Brian Wilson-esque touches, too, and the master’s sonic approach is echoed, but not strictly recreated, on the effervescent, blissfully childlike “It’s Nice to Be Nice.”

Don’t miss a thing – hit the jump to keep reading! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

October 17, 2014 at 12:30

Posted in Compilations, News, Pugwash, Reviews

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Got To Be Real: SoulMusic Reissues Cheryl Lynn, Labelle and Johnnie Taylor

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LabelleWith a trio of recent releases from Labelle, Cheryl Lynn and Johnnie Taylor, Cherry Red’s SoulMusic Records imprint turns its attention once again to bona fide R&B royalty.

When Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles transformed into Labelle, the change was more than merely cosmetic.  The quartet was reduced to a threesome when Cindy Birdsong headed to Hitsville USA to replace Florence Ballard in The Supremes.  Moreover, under the direction of British manager, producer and songwriter Vicki Wickham, the girls ditched their traditional repertoire to pursue a gutsy new direction.  Their first album as Labelle, a 1971 self-titled effort for Warner Bros., had songs written by all three members – Patti LaBelle, Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx – as well as Carole King, Laura Nyro and The Rolling Stones.  1972’s Moonshadow saw Hendryx’s songwriting talent blossom alongside compositions from Dash, Pete Townshend (a searing cover of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”) and Cat Stevens (the title track).  Post-Moonshadow, Wickham and Labelle decamped for RCA.  SoulMusic has just reissued Labelle’s first and only RCA album, 1973’s Pressure Cookin’.

Nona Hendryx continued to shine on seven of the album’s nine tracks, and she was particularly concerned with social issues of the day. In A. Scott Galloway’s fine essay which accompanies this reissue, Hendryx relates, “I was inspired by artists…like Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Stephen Stills and Joni Mitchell.  There was so much racism, sexism, drugs…there needed to be a revolution of the mind.”  Hendryx and Labelle provided one with the scorching title song, and even the album’s cover material reflected that raised consciousness.  A medley melded Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air” with Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken-word “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” with all three women taking raps. Hendryx found room for the personal, too.  “(Can I Speak to You Before You Go to) Hollywood” took aim at the people who might later have been deemed poseurs: “There were many people we knew who went from being new to major stars, i.e. divas, and things went to their heads…These were the same people that at one time you’d shared dressing rooms and chicken legs with on the chitlin circuit!”  (Some have suggested Cindy Birdsong was a possible inspiration for the song.)  On “Mr. Music Man,” Hendryx addressed the rapidly-changing musical climate, specifically the marginalization of certain artists from Top 40 radio.  (The more things change…!)  The funky “Goin’ on a Holiday” was co-produced by Wickham and an uncredited Stevie Wonder, and Wonder also wrote “Open Up Your Heart” for Labelle.

After the jump: more on Pressure Cookin’, plus Cheryl Lynn and Johnnie Taylor! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

October 17, 2014 at 10:44

A Case of Joni: Mitchell Curates New Love-Themed, Career-Spanning Box Set

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Joni - Love Has Many FacesIn 2007, Joni Mitchell released her last studio album to date, Shine.  That release was her first recording since 2002’s Travelogue and first collection of new songs since 1998’s Taming the Tiger.  Over the past seven years, the influential singer-songwriter has mainly made headlines for her candid and revealing interviews, on which she’s held forth about such topics as Bob Dylan’s alleged plagiarism and her own struggles with Morgellons disease.  So it’s refreshing that Mitchell is back in the spotlight for her music, thanks to a new box set to arrive just in time for the holiday gift-giving season.  On November 17, Rhino will release a new four-disc collection entitled Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting to Be Danced.

In the tradition of past compilations curated by Mitchell including The Beginning of Survival, Dreamland and Songs of a Prairie Girl, Love Has Many Faces promises to be a thematic exploration of the artist’s poetic, soulful and jazz-inflected music created over the decades.  The set includes 53 newly-remastered songs selected from her catalogue which began with 1968’s David Crosby-produced album Song to a Seagull and has encompassed such acknowledged classics as Ladies of the Canyon (1970), Blue (1971), Court and Spark (1974) and Both Sides Now (2000).  It’s promised that the remastered songs on Love will be “familiar but fresh,” with “a lot of sonic adjustment.” In a press release, Mitchell elaborated, “I am a painter who writes songs. My songs are very visual. The words create scenes …What I have done here is to gather some of these scenes (like a documentary filmmaker) and by juxtaposition, edit them into a whole new work.”

As the title indicates, the box set was initially conceived for the ballet stage.  “I wanted the music to feel like a total work – a new work,” Mitchell writes in the liner notes. “No matter what I did, though, at that [ballet performance] length, it remained merely a collection of songs.”  So the artist rearranged 53 songs into “thematic acts” like that of a ballet. Comparing her to that of a film editor, she offers, “I had 40 years of footage to review. Then, suddenly, scenes began to hook up. Then series began to form.” She elucidates, “Instead of it being an emotional roller coaster ride as it was before — crammed into one disc — themes began to develop. Moods sustained. I was getting there…When this long editorial process finally came to rest, I had four ballets or a four-act ballet — a quartet. I also had a box set.”

Hit the jump for more details including the complete track listing and pre-order links! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

October 15, 2014 at 12:06

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