The Slide Brothers – Robert Randolph Presents the Slide Brothers (2013)

If Rock ‘n Roll is the Devil’s music then Old Nick owes a lot to the church. The history of American popular music is full of stars who started off in church and then decided to serve the Lord and Mammon (or tried to). A very recent example is the Slide Brothers.

The Sacred Steel tradition emerged in the 1930s when the Eason brothers, Willie and Troman, started playing lap steel guitar in services of the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth. Some versions of the story suggest that Willie took up lap steel because he and/or his congregation couldn’t afford an electric organ.

Willie recorded in the 40s and 50s, but it is only recently that this style crossed over into the world of commercial secular music with Robert Randolph as the trail blazer.

Randolph plays on one or two cuts here, but mostly the album is about players of an earlier generation, the guys that he grew up listening to. In particular there is Aubrey Ghent who is the nephew of Willie Eason and thus a link back to the origins of this genre as well as being one of its greatest players.

This album doesn’t so much walk a line between secular and gospel music as repeatedly cross that line in both directions. The holy and the profane are both here, and these devoutly Christian men bring the house down no matter which side they incline to on any particular track.

The playing is top notch through out, and the sound of the steel guitars (some lap steel, some the trickier pedal steel) is notable for it’s sustain, overdriven tone and vocal quality. One of the few lap steelers in Jo’burg, Richard Bruyns, once put it to me that steel guitar is the instrument that sounds most like the human voice, and listening to these guys you want to believe that. In the liner notes Chuck Cambell explains that “…Sacred Steel… is always about mimicking the voices heard in the church…. playing the steel so that you can almost hear the words as if they were sung by a voice.”

The album opens with Chuck and Darick Campbell’s steel guitars sounding off against each other before they burst into “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin'” by the distinctly worldly, not to mention hell raising Allman Brothers Band.

They also take on a blues classic in Elmore James’s “The Sky Is Crying” with a fabulous solo (from either Robert Randolph or Chuck Campbell, the liner notes tell us who played on each track but not who gets the solos). Indeed this record reminds me of why (like so many white boys) I fell in love with the blues years ago (and why I don’t like the soulless guitar wanking that passes for the blues these days).

This is a fine record made by players who combine fire with accuracy and conviction with technique. It’s enough to make an atheist want to pretend to be a believer so that he can sneak into the church and catch the groove.

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The Thompson Family – Family (2014)

No, you are not hallucinating! Your humble blogger finally got around to reviewing something current.

Richard and Linda Thompson separated romantically and professionally after a stormy tour to promote their 1982 release Shoot Out The Lights. With an irony that seems to have typified their career it was by some distance their best selling album together.

In recent years, since Linda’s surprising second coming (her 2002 release Fashionably Late was her first release in nearly 20 years) they have occasionally worked on the same track or even, and even more occasionally, taken to the same stage at the same time.

Now (this month, in fact) they both appear on a family album. Richard, Linda, their kids, a grand kid, Richard’s son from his second marriage, daughter Kami’s husband and a few others with claims to being part of the family.

Spare a thought for the offspring: Pa is an all time great guitarist with a glittering songwriting career behind him and, as far as anybody can see, ahead of him. Ma is a much respected, critically praised and influential singer with a younger generation of British folk singers still holding her in awe. You’d think they’d take up accountancy or project management, but two of the three have emphatically gone into the family business and a couple more are gaining experience and standing on the precipice.

It was said of son Teddy early on that he couldn’t play guitar like his father, couldn’t sing like his mother. He alludes to this in the opening track where he details the various curses placed on him by birth – including two drop dead gorgeous sisters, one of whom is a fine singer in her own right. He is, he sings, the red-headed middle son.

And it’s tempting to play amateur psychologist with this album, but probably best not to. So many folks over the years have concluded or just accepted the conventional “wisdom” that Shoot Out The Lights details the Thompson’s divorce, but the reality is that it doesn’t (details on request). So beware of reading too much between the lines with this family.

Not that there aren’t carrots dangling. Richard’s “One Life At A Time” is tantalisingly and not atypically misanthropic. Linda sings of longing for a fight to end in “Perhaps We Can Sleep”.

But there’s more here. Richard also gets in a good sing-along protest song with “That’s Enough”. Kami and her husband serve up two strong songs with healthy doses of wit and irony. Linda gives us “Bonny Boys”, a tender word of advice from somebody who is old enough to not sound corny dishing it out to the young men in her family.

Intriguingly – if you want to get into the family dynamics – grandson Zak Hobbs takes the guitar solo on “One Life At A Time”, rushing in where his uncle Teddy feared to tread. He sounds a LOT like the old man too.

This is an album that couldn’t have happened way back when. Producer and co-ordinator Teddy sent the tracks back and forth acrooss the interweb and the entire family never sat together in one studio. Seven studios and ten engineers are credited. Teddy declared himself in charge of the project and ordered overdubs and replacement performances as he saw fit. (In the liner notes he observes that “there’s nothing so satisfying as erasing your parents.” But we won’t get into that sort of Freudian stuff. No. Definitely not.)

And herein lies one of the problems. As good as some of the tracks are the album doesn’t quite hang together. Some of the tracks have a distractingly different sonic quality from the others.

It’s a curate’s egg of an album. Good in parts, but the uneven sound and, it has to be said, the uneven quality of the material are large-ish warts. A couple of numbers sound like home recordings – and the sort of recordings that should stay at home. If you have this on CD (and I do, for a change) then your finger will start reaching for the skip button at times.

But it’s by no means a waste of time or money. The good parts are good enough and in sufficient quantity that even if you don’t want to ponder the family dynamics (did I mention that Richard and Linda don’t thank each other in the liner notes?) there’s enjoyment to be had here.

There are even going to be some supporting gigs. Linda is not on the bill for these, but that’s more about a disability that renders her unable to sing on demand (the treatment includes botox shots into the vocal chords) than any lingering resentment.

Burt Bacharach – Anyone Who Had A Heart (compilation released in 2013)

The other thing that I really enjoyed were the early compositions of Bacharach and David. I thought that they were so good because prior to that time there had been little of bitonal or polytonal harmonic implication in American pop music, and we are to thank them for providing that through those early Dionne Warwick recordings.” Frank Zappa, interviewed for Songtalk, 1987.

OK… if you know what bitonal or polytonal harmonic implication is then drop me a line, but note that one of rock’s most left field artists found those tunes to be a cut above. What Zappa seems to have not known (or not bothered with) is that Hal David wrote the lyrics and Burt Bacharach provided the sophisticated melodies and, I presume, the bitonal wotchamacallits.

They were a phenomenally successful song-writing partnership. Growing up I’d be struck from time to time by a song with a really strong, unusual yet quite attractive and natural sounding melody. With the passage of time I found out that a lot of those songs were composed by Bacharach and David. “Trains and Boats and Planes”, “Alfie”, “Walk on By”, “Message to Martha”… the list goes on. Their go to vocalist was Dionne Warwick, and with her they put over 50 recordings into the American Hot 100 in less than a decade (Warwick’s first hit was “Don’t Make Me Over” in 1962). Add in the hits they had with other artists (Herb Alpert, BJ Thomas, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Gene Pitney) and the hits they had on the other side of the pond with the likes of Sandy Shaw, Dusty Springfield and Cilla Black (and Tom Jones) and you get some idea of what an outrageous hit making force they were.

But that was back then, right? What’s left for us now?

Note that the name on this compilation is BURT BACHARACH. His fame has survived much better than Hal David’s, and he had some hits after the two of them parted ways – though they are not his best work. David perhaps got a bit lucky in teaming up with Bacharach, and his lyrics certainly haven’t stood the test of time that well. It was a man’s man’s man’s world back in the sixties, and David’s lyrics repeatedly portray women who haven’t a life or a clue without their man around (a trend that reaches it’s heights – or plumbs it’s depths – on “Wives and Lovers”). The arrangements are often corny to modern ears and my! Some of those sixties recordings sound pretty bad.

It’s Bacharach that works the magic with memorable, rich, adventurous melodies and unconventional but pleasing song structures. These guys operated out of Tin Pan Alley and they broke all the rules in an era when writing to a formula was everything. The melodies were sometimes too long, ran for too many bars without repeating, their choruses didn’t fit in were they were supposed to and also went on rather longer than was deemed commercially prudent. But see above, Bacharach not only got away with it, he had astonishing success doing it.

The best songs here have marvellous melodies over rich chord structures. It’s no wonder that Paul McCartney – one of the best writers of pop melodies – and Elvis Costello – rock’s polymath – revere Bacharach.

So for the ages we’re left with the melodies (not to mention the polytonal harmonic implications, and I’m done mentioning that now, I promise) and some superb vocal performances. Some of the greatest singers of the time had hits with these songs. Dionne Warwick seems to have faded from the collective conciousness but Dusty Springfield and especially Aretha Franklin have fared better. Springfield delivers a great example of calculated 60s cool with “The Look Of Love”, and Franklin is great value with “Say A Little Prayer” (and so are her backing singers). Warwick, the definitive interpreter of the Bacharach and David song book, is under represented here but then if she got her fair due the album would start to become Dionne Warwick’s Greatest Hits. Still we get her on the classic “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” and her version, more understated than Cilla Black’s, of “Anyone Who Had a Heart”.

A lot of top vocalists recorded these songs, so there’s room to spread the joy around a bit, but Richard Chamberlain (AKA Doctor Kildare) is surely a bridge too far. If you don’t care much for the carpenters you’ll be choking for them after you hear Chamberlain’s version of “Close To You”. Twice we get two versions of a song. Cilla Black is a belter and doesn’t score well in the restraint stakes, but she still does a better job of “Alfie” than the oversinging Barbra Streisand (the prototype for the weapon of mass destruction that is Celine Dion), and it’s no contest between the pretty good Diana Krall and the fabulous Dusty Springfield for “The Look Of Love”.

With this sort of anthology there is a balance to be struck between hits and history, so I won’t get steamed up over the inclusion of “Magic Moments” (one of the duo’s first big hits, but also one that they wrote before they really hit top form), but I will cock an eyebrow at the omission of Warwick’s first big hit.

Burt Bacharach was one of the greatest melodists of popular music in any era. This collection bears witness to his craft and also to the craft of some great singers.

Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, Yo-yo Ma – The Goat Rodeo Sessions (2011)

The so-called “new acoustic” movement has provided us with a number of musicians with phenomenal skills, a restless spirit and great collaborative gifts. Mandolin player Chris Thile epitomises the school. Supposedly a “Bluegrass” player – and to be fair, that is the foundation of his art – he has the inclination and the skills to investigate and take on a wide range of music. Bassist Edgar Meyer is an even more eclectic musician with formidable chops and an oeuvre that speaks of his wide ranging interests and sensibilities – from Bach to Bluegrass.

On this album they come together with the justly lauded cellist Yo-yo Ma and top Nashville studio fiddler Stuart Duncan. Ma has engaged in this kind of collaborative cross-genre work before, working with some of the finest players in contemporary bluegrass – including Allison Krauss and Mark O’Connor and, several times, Meyer – but this is arguably the most successful such project he’s been involved in.

There seems to have been little in the way of preconceptions about what the results would be. Intriguingly Ma felt unable to improvise, a mode of operation that comes very naturally to the others, and Duncan, for all his deserved reputation as a top studio player, doesn’t read music. So they quartet had to figure out a way of working that facilitated both approaches without compromising the performance. Great players – and these guys deserve the G… word – are able to extend themselves and to cover wide ground, and so it is here – and very successfully so.

The Goat Rodeo Sessions presents us with a highly skilled quartet of stringed instrument players who manage to cross borders and plough a new furrow at the same time. The listener can detect traces of Ma’s classical background, the country and bluegrass on which Thile and Duncan cut their teeth and the jazz that Meyer brings to the party, but the fusion produces music that is not easily pigeon holed, which some critics feel is effectively a new American style of music and in which the various influences come together in a very natural sounding and non-jarring way.

The album opens with a mandolin motif that is fresh and as American as a stream running down a slope in the Rockies. From that start they conjure up an intriguing and very melodic set of performances that are full of top-notch playing and rich with ideas and surprise.

Everybody except poor old non-improvising Ma reveals themselves to be a high-quality multi-instrumentalist. Thile turns to guitar on “Helping Hand” and even to fiddle on “Where’s My Bow”. Duncan, who, for a while, played electric guitar behind Allison Krauss and Robert Plant, takes over the mandolin when Thile is having fun on the guitar and also adds banjo on a couple of tracks. Meyer lays down some piano tracks. In each case the performances are high class. Ma sticks to what he’s good at (and he IS very, very good). The three non-classical players reveal themselves to be every bit the player that Ma is – though if you’ve followed their careers and have heard them on other projects this may not actually be a big revelation.

Meyer and Thile conjure up marvellous grooves on “Quarter Chicken Dark” (which gets downright funky at times) and “Less Is Moi”. All compositions are credited to Thile, Duncan and Meyer – so Ma misses out again despite being the most famous name involved.

The album was released on a classical imprint, and it’s recorded the way that orchestral albums are – with microphones suspended over a stage rather than having the individual instruments close-miced and isolated. This approach, and a lack of processing on the audio tracks, gives the recording a large dynamic range and these players – and occasional guest vocalist Aiofe O’Donovan – have the skills and the judgement to explore this full range of expression. Like an orchestra they can move from a roar to a whisper as required. There’s a very nice ambience to the recording too. Frustratingly (for me) this adds up to a record that can be a difficult listen on earbuds whilst riding a train. You turn it up on the quiet passages and then a little later you get the wax blown out of your ears as Ma and Co crank the handle. But the transitions in volume, the use of dynamics, are always to very good musical effect – a notable example being O’Donovan and Thile’s vocals on “Here and Heaven” where they build up to a great climax, mixing control and emotion.

There’s a lot to enthuse about here. The playing is top-notch throughout, with all the players showing enviable technique and great clarity. The recording is simply marvellous and marvellous in it’s simplicity. The compositions are challenging but also rewarding and ultimately satisfying and enjoyable. And throughout they play with a relaxed precision and the spark that comes from working together in real time – effectively performing live – and my imagination fancies, and it’s not that implausible when you LISTEN to this album, that they’re all completely stoked at being able to work with such high class and open-minded players and loving every minute of it.

It isn’t rock ‘n roll nor is it bluegrass nor, despite the martketing, easily described as “classical”. I’m not sure what it is. And it doesn’t matter because it’s a marvellous collection that will reward repeated listenings.