Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Essential Bluegrass Discography - By Special Guest Blogger Brendan

Today we have a special guest appearance from Brendan of The Rising Storm, one of my favorite music blogs. The Rising Storm is a great place to discover lost gems in the genres of garage, country rock, psych folk, and psychedelic rock. If you haven't checked it out yet, be sure to get over there soon. Like me, Brendan is also a big fan of bluegrass music, and he's got a great record collection. So, without further ado, take it away Brendan...

The discography of bluegrass music is chock full of collections, compilations, box sets, and best-of's. Of course, you can't go wrong with The Music of Bill Monroe [Box Set], The Complete Columbia Stanley Brothers [Anthology], or 1956-1968 [Box Set] by the Osborne Brothers, but what's an LP hound to do? If you're like me, you dig your music in that long player, album-length-statement kinda format. So here are the classic and utterly essential bluegrass LPs that I have found so far:

The Country Gentlemen (1959) Country Songs Old And New (buy album)

Country Songs Old And New

The title of this album says it all about these boys, known for their ability to incorporate modern sounds in a traditional framework, a kind of gentle nod to progressive bluegrass. Only the Gentlemen could turn a Manfred Mann tune into a bluegrass standard (Fox on the Run). The perfect voices harmonizing on this historic record are nothing short of magic and the record is quality through and through.

The Country Gentlemen - Roving Gambler

Flatt & Scruggs (1961) Foggy Mountain Banjo (buy album)

Foggy Mountain Banjo

An instrumental blueprint. They might consider reissuing this one with the full album repeated at half speed, as many a banjo picker sat analyzing Scruggs' revolutionary lightspeed picking on this LP by slowing it down on their reel-to-reels. To put it in context, there's two styles of banjo picking: clawhammer, and Scruggs style. A big reverb sound with Earl leading the way on each tune, but marvelous contributions on dobro and fiddle throughout. With 12 songs ranging in length from 1:50 to 2:28, I have never heard a tighter set.

Flatt & Scruggs - Home Sweet Home

The Dillards (1963) Back Porch Bluegrass (buy album)

Back Porch Bluegrass

The Dillards are best known for their work as "The Darlings," a fictional group on the Andy Griffith Show that served to associate bluegrass with comedy in 'hillbilly' music, as well as their later work on the groundbreaking Wheatstraw Suite and Copperfields albums – early country rock staples with strong bluegrass elements. The Dillards' 1963 debut proves their bluegrass blood runs red deep as they tear through some of the purest traditional bluegrass you can find. Must have been the hoppingest back porch in Salem, MO.

The Dillards - Reuben’s Train

The Kentucky Colonels (1964) Appalachian Swing (buy album)

Appalachian Swing

An absolute must for six-stringers. The Colonels could sing, but on this all-instrumental record they let Clarence take it. Clarence White, country music's coolest guitar player, redefined the rules of what the guitar could do on this record. It's not just virtuosity, but a sexiness to his licks that separates him from the pack. For more KY Colonels, don't let the early-90s sleeve design of Long Journey Home deter you from investigation; this '64 live set is a serious cooker.

The Kentucky Colonels - I Am A Pilgrim

John Hartford (1971) Aereo-Plain


John is the man. Those somewhat skeptical of bluegrass will still love his music. Heck, anybody who gives him a proper chance loves his music. It edges on parody but delivers with real experience and heart. This site has previously covered John, but you can't stop finding more. Morning Bugle, Radio John, Mystery Below, Gum Tree, Mark Twang... His music is an inexhaustible treasure trove of glorious (and humorous) bluegrass joy.

John Hartford – With A Vamp In The Middle

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (1972) Will The Circle Be Unbroken (buy album)

Will The Circle Be Unbroken

You won't find this record excluded from any lists; it contains a healthy meeting of the greats riffing with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band like it were a big family reunion. That being said, I find the record is so packed with dialogue and asides that the flow of the album is somewhat hampered. It becomes more of an historical recording than a truly great record. I won't deny its essential status but I haven't felt the magic from this one yet.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band - Nine Pound Hammer

Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard (1973) Hazel & Alice (buy album)

Hazel & Alice

It wasn't always about progression and chops, as exhibited by the brilliant Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard on this 1973 record. They recorded a traditional album called Who's That Knocking in '65, but on Hazel & Alice they brought it way back to a heart wrenching Appalachian sound, with raw guitar, mountain tuned banjo, auto-harp parts and powerful vocal harmonies. Some tracks feature a full bluegrass combo, with the singers feeling all the more raucous. Watch them give Dr. Ralph a run for his money on this a cappella cut.

Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard - A Few More Years Shall Roll

J.D Crowe and The New South (1975) The New South (buy album)

J.D. Crowe & The New South

Just read the scoreboard: J.D. Crowe, Tony Rice, Bobby Slone (bass), Jerry Douglas, and Ricky Skaggs. This was the new style of powerhouse, all-you-can-handle-grass – the best players of the day just working it out together. There are only tasteful progressive licks here and this album was such a trailblazer that it sounds as fresh as any album put out in the last 20 years. Honestly, I can't think of any real traditional bluegrass coming after that doesn't sound something like this record.

J.D. Crowe and The New South - Old Home Place

Old & In The Way (1975) Old & In The Way

Old & In The Way

Another superpower lineup featuring Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Vassar Clements, and Peter Rowan, Old & In the Way's debut has been ridiculously out of print for way too long. One might think the Grateful Dead leader was just joking around playing that throwback hillbilly music, but that one would be wrong. Garcia was a first rate banjo player who got his start playing bluegrass, and this reverent album with beautifully penned originals is a must for grass and Dead fans alike.

Old & In The Way - The Hobo Song

New Grass Revival (1975) Fly Through The Country (buy album)

Fly Through The Country

Sam Bush is the king of newgrass. While I don't care much for his more new-agey material, his earlier work with Bluegrass Alliance and the New Grass Revival set the standard for all newgrass acts to follow. This record is the perfect bridge between trad-grass and new. A few numbers exhibit those classically inspired runs and quick start-stops that are just about as progressive as my tastes have yet allowed. The New Grass Revival, however, simply must be acknowledged. Here's Good Woman's Love – not to portray the sound of newgrass, but to show off John Cowan's killer vocals.

New Grass Revivial - Good Womans Love

Doc Watson (1976) Doc and the Boys (buy album)

Doc and the Boys

This one feels like bluegrass meets roots rock, and it feels real good. As a boy, Doc practiced fiddle lines off the radio with his guitar, inventing the technique of flatpicking. He paved the way with a straight-ahead style that never approached unnecessary flair. I was lucky enough to see Doc Watson perform in NYC last year, and he is still the cleanest and nicest flatpicker alive. I'd say this 1976 slab is as far as the purists will let it go. Bluegrass with drums? But it's Doc!

Doc Watson – Little Maggie

Del McCoury Band (2001) Del and the Boys (buy album)

Del and the Boys

A modern day classic. I realize how out of step my chronology is here, but I have to include this more recent album because the Del McCoury band is the sharpest traditional bluegrass band out there today. Del is a legend, and this is the album that converted me. All Abooooaaarrd! 99% chance you'll find me at the first annual DelFest this year, hawking Del Dogs. Listen to that voice!

Del McCoury Band - Vincent Black Lightning 1952

Bonus: Bluegrass Country Soul (1971) Documentary Film (buy DVD)

Bluegrass Country Soul

If you've read this far you've probably already seen this fantastic documentary of one of the first bluegrass festivals. If you've read this far and haven't seen it? Stop reading and go get it. It features just about everyone with a fantastic performance of Ruby by The Osbornes, a young Del, and some great footage of the rarely spotted Japanese band, Bluegrass 45. It's an amazing document, and an excellent conversion tool for those near the edge.

Finally, I'd like to add that bluegrass is a community-based music. As in jazz, there are standards and forms that everybody knows, and it's a great deal of fun to play with friends and even strangers. So pick up that axe, start ripping some G-runs, and hit up your closest festival this summer. You'll appreciate these recordings all the more.

A million thanks to Paul for letting me post this list here; opinions expressed herein are my own and not necessarily those of STWOF.

Obviously, I've missed much, but I want it all! If you wish to add to this list, please tell us your essential bluegrass favorites in the comments.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

What now?

Setting the Woods on Fire is now entering its third phase of life as a blog. First I had to figure out how to work everything (i.e., html, hosting, feeds). Then I had to get noticed (i.e., elbows, hype machine, links). Now that I can work the controls and have a fair amount of readers, it's time to figure out what I really want to do with this blog.

My plate is pretty full these days. Like the man said, I've got chores to keep me busy (house), a clock to keep my time (work), and a pretty girl to love me with the same last name as mine (family). So what's the point of adding a time-consuming blog to the mix? Well, it’s a lot of fun. I’m learning more about music, and I’m getting in touch with great music fans and musicians. Maybe a few of you have even discovered some new music in the process. [Please let me know if you have. It would make my day.]

But I don’t want to feel obligated to feed the blog every day or two. This project will stop being fun when it becomes just another chore hanging over my head. So my new plan is to do fewer, but slightly better, posts. I want to spend more time digging deeper into things so that I can provide more thoughtful information along with the music. For example, I've been studying the work of Clarence White over the last few weeks, in preparation for a post about his career. It's an interesting story that I'm learning more about myself. But I can't just slap it together.

Don't worry, I’m not going to get thoughtful on every post—especially if I’ve had a few glasses of wine. (Or whiskey.) But I am going to try to step it up a notch.* So please be patient if you see a chunk of days go by without a post.

Now for some music:

The International Submarine Band – Blue Eyes (buy album).
Guy Clark – Come From The Heart (buy album).

*Disclaimer: Actual improvements to the quality of this site may not be readily observable to the untrained eye. But they will be there. Just take my word for it.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Harper Valley P.T.A.

Harper Valley P.T.A., authored by the legendary Tom T. Hall, has got to be one of the best confrontation songs of all time. It's the story of a mini-skirt-wearing widow who received a disapproving letter from the local P.T.A. and decided to respond by publicly pointing out the antics of the PTA members themselves. In other words, she "socked it to" them. Hypocrisy exposed.

I love a good story song and Tom T. Hall was a master story teller. In 1968, Jeannie C. Riley was the perfect singer to tell the story. Harper Valley P.T.A. reached number one on both the pop and country charts in 1968, displacing Merle's great song "Mama Tried" from the top spot on the country chart. (When was the last time one really great classic country song replaced another on the country charts? When was the last time there was a great song on top of the country charts??)

Syd Straw did a great cover version for the Tom T. Hall tribute CD, which is unfortunately now out of print.

Jeannie C. Riley – Harper Valley P.T.A. (buy album).

Syd Straw – Harper Valley P.T.A. (buy album).

Here's a clip of Jeannie C. Riley live at the Grand Ole Opry:

Here's a nice video made from the movie version of the song:

What are some other good confrontation songs?

UPDATE! Because of a very nice comment from my good friend "anonymous" (and dan's and joe's comments last week), I’ve decided to post one more track: Golden Palominos (featuring Syd Straw) – Kind Of True (out of print).

[Check the sidebar for more mp3 links.]

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Queen Of The Coast - Laura Cantrell, Bonnie Owens, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and more!

Photo by Ted Barron (who also has a heck of a blog).

Laura Cantrell is one of the most interesting country performers to come along in recent years. As I noted in a previous post, she sings a lot like Kitty Wells, but her music is innovative enough to have won high praise from the late great John Peel.

Cantrell is a student of music history. For years she has been the "proprietess" of a great New York radio show called The Radio Thrift Shop, which features great old country, bluegrass, and swing music scoured from "bargain bins, church bazaars and yard sales."

On her excellent debut LP, Not The Tremblin' Kind, Cantrell put her historical knowledge to use in a song about Bonnie Owens (pictured) called Queen Of The Coast. Bonnie Owens married and sang back-up for the two giants of California country music, Buck Owens (husband #1) and Merle Haggard (husband #2). She continued to sing back-up for Merle Haggard after their divorce, which plays into Cantrell's song.

Laura Cantrell – Queen Of The Coast (buy album).

She was the queen of the coast back in 1965,
Prettier than most, she could keep a room alive,
With the catch in her voice and the beehive on her head.
Do you remember anything she ever said?

Well, some stars fade faster than the rest,
And the promise wore off though she did her best.
She finally looked around for somethin' else to do.
What she found was a man who needed what she knew.

Have you forgotten? Have you forgiven?
Tell me are you livin' just a little in your past every day.
Time sure has changed you; it's walked right on by you.
Does it satisfy you to have so little to say?

For the next ten years she rode around on the bus.
She did washin' and ironin' and pickin' up.
She had a place to stand at the back of the stage.
She was there every night, lookin' her age.

She lent her voice, but she gave her heart.
And, I guess, that must've been the hardest part.
She figured out exactly what was goin' on,
All the love she had given for a song.

Then things unravelled like they usually do.
She got her old heart busted up by husband number two.


I'm not quite sure when she got back on the bus.
But she's still washin' and ironin' and pickin' up.
If you look all the way to the back of the stage,
She's standin' at her mic, lookin' her age.

In a roadstop in Reno at supper time,
The waitress comes over with a look in her eye.
Says: "I saw you in Modesto almost thirty years ago,
And I can still remember every song in your show."

Please Help Me, I'm Falling, Don't Come Home A-Drinking,
Well, there's a pair of Swingin' Doors for every Cowboy's Sweetheart tonight.

Time sure has changed you; it's walked right on by you.
Does it satisfy you to have so little to say?
Here are the other songs mentioned in the last part of Queen Of The Coast:

Hank Lockin - Please Help Me I'm Falling (buy album).

Loretta Lynn - Don't Come Home Drinkin' With Lovin' On Your Mind (buy album).

Merle Haggard - Swingin' Doors (buy album).

Patsy Montana - Cowboy's Sweetheart (buy album).

Maybe the coolest thing about Queen Of The Coast is how the mandolin intro and outro mimics the guitar lead used in this classic Merle Haggard song:

Merle Haggard - I'm A Lonesome Fugitive (buy album).

Here are some Merle Haggard songs featuring Bonnie Owens:

Merle Haggard & Bonnie Owens – Just Between The Two Of Us

Merle Haggard & Bonnie Owens – Forever And Ever

Merle Haggard & Bonnie Owens – Too Used To Being With You

(buy album).

And here are a couple tunes from the great Buck Owens:

Buck Owens - Waitin' In Your Welfare Line (buy album).

Buck Owens – Love's Gonna Live Here (buy album).

Now back to Laura Cantrell. All of her stuff is great, in my opinion, but my favorite (getting the highest STWOF seal of approval) is Not the Tremblin' Kind. Here's a poppy song from that album that I really enjoy:

Laura Cantrell - Pile Of Woe (buy album). (Joe Flood cover).

Many more great Laura Cantrell downloads are available at her website.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Stuck under my good old desk...

Hello loyal readers, last week's spree of posts has left me buried under a stack of work, so I need to catch up on my "real" job for the next few days. But don't fret, I've got a lot of interesting posts "in the pipeline."

See the list at the bottom of the sidebar for a preview of coming attractions.

Until then, enjoy this cheerful little pop ditty:

Harry Nilsson - Good Old Desk (buy album).

Here's the video (thanks to "anonymous" for pointing it out):

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Why I Love Country Music, Vol 2: Ernest Tubb

See here for Vol. 1 of this series.

Man, everything about this Ernest Tubb tune kills me. In a good way! It's so country and just so perfect. I love the guitar playing and the words, but I especially love Ernest's delivery: Deadpan, with just the right amount of flare in just the right places (and the joke he makes at the guitar player's expense), it's priceless. Anyway, I really can't do it justice in this post, so listen and enjoy...

Ernest Tubb – I Know My Baby Loves Me In Her Own Peculiar Way (out of print).

If somebody can put into words why this song is so good (or why I'm way off on this one), please leave a comment...

Check the sidebar area for more mp3s.

Michael Stipe Sings Moby Grape

Time for a quickie post.

Here is the original version of Omaha by Moby Grape from 1967 and a cover version by The Golden Palominos (featuring Michael Stipe on vocals) from 1985:

Moby Grape – Omaha (buy album).
The Golden Palominos – Omaha.

The Golden Palominos' track comes from the star-studded album Visions of Excess which is out of print.

The players on this Golden Palominos track are:

Michael Stipe - Vocals
Chris Stamey - Guitars, Piano
Henry Kaiser - Guitars
Bill Laswell - Bass
Anton Fier - Drums

Check the sidebar for a completely different song, also called Omaha...

Friday, February 15, 2008

Those Jangly Eighties, Vol 7: The Fleshtones & Full Time Men

[For the background on this series, see here.]

The Fleshtones really weren't jangly, but they were part of the same alternative-rock scene as the jangly bands, so I'm throwing them in this series. Besides having one of the coolest names in rock, The Fleshtones were the ultimate 1980s garage rock band. They called their style "super rock," which as far as I can tell basically meant fuzz guitar, farfisa organ, and a reckless attitude. Band members define it this way:

Peter Zaremba: "Super Rock is all of the great elements that make rock & roll the great and vital thing that excites people rolled into one, without saying, this is disco or this is garage rock. Putting it together and rolling it up into one big greasy ball."

Bill Milhizer: "Super Rock is taking the best, most exciting elements of rock & roll, and exaggerating and amplifying them beyond proportion, with no apology whatsoever."
This is kind of a timeless concept, so The Fleshtones sound less dated than a lot of their '80s contemporaries. Too bad their first two full length albums--both great fun from start to finish--are out of print.

Roman Gods (1982):
The Fleshtones – I've Gotta Change My Life.
The Fleshtones – R-I-G-H-T-S.

Hexbreaker (1983):
The Fleshtones – Hexbreaker.
The Fleshtones – Right Side Of A Good Thing.

The jangliest music in the post comes from a Fleshtones' side project led by guitarist Keith Streng (with special guest Peter Buck of R.E.M., whose Rickenbacker is pictured above). In 1985, Full Time Men released a three-track 12" EP called I Got Wheels. It's been out of print forever but is pretty darn good. I especially like the title cut, which is a great lost jangle pop classic:

Full Time Men – I Got Wheels.
Full Time Men – One More Time.
Full Time Men – Way Down South.

In 1988, Full Time Men (without Buck) released an L.P. called Your Face My Fist, which included this "lost Fleshtones" number:

Full Time Men – High On Drugs.

Unlike most of the 1980's jangle pop bands, The Fleshtones are still going strong. You can stream their new release here: Yep Roc Records.

Find more information about The Fleshtones (old and new) here: Fleshtones Hall Of Fame.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

For Maureen

Happy Valentine's Day!

Frank Sinatra – My Funny Valentine (buy album).
Frank Sinatra – I Get A Kick Out Of You (buy album).
Ella & Louis – Our Love Is Here To Stay (buy album).

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Writer's Block, Part 3: Townes Van Zandt

By now you've probably heard Steve Earle's legendary statement and Townes' reply:

"Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." — Steve Earle.

"I've met Bob Dylan and his bodyguards, and I don't think Steve could get anywhere near his coffee table." — Townes Van Zandt.
So what is that basis for all the love? Let's examine the song Pancho And Lefty, which is Van Zandt's most famous composition and a fine piece of songwriting:

Townes Van Zandt – Pancho And Lefty (buy album).

It's a story about two outlaws, once compatriots, who meet separate fates. Pancho is shot (alone) down in Mexico while Lefty continues to reside (alone) relocated to Ohio. The unstated implication of the narrative is that Lefty went north after betraying Pancho to the Federales. The magic of the song is the way Van Zandt gets the listener to sympathize with Lefty, the lonely snitch.

With an economy of language in four short verses, we get revealing glimpses of Lefty's relationship with his family, Lefty's personaltity, Lefty's relationship with Pancho, and the evolving relationships between the outlaws, the Federales, and eternity. [Read the AMG song review: here.]

The Lyrics:

Livin' on the road my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
And your breath's as hard as kerosene
You weren't your mama's only boy
But her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams

Pancho was a bandit, boys
His horse was fast as polished steel
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Well, Pancho met his match you know
On the deserts down in Mexico
And nobody heard his dyin' words
Ah but that's the way it goes

All the Federales say
Could of had him any day
Only let him hang around
Out of kindness I suppose

Lefty, he can't sing the blues
All night long like he used to
The dust that Pancho bit down south
Ended up in Lefty's mouth
The day they laid poor Pancho low
Lefty split for Ohio
Where he got the bread to go
There ain't nobody knows

All the Federales say
Could of had him any day
Only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose

Well, the poets tell how Pancho fell
And Lefty's livin' in a cheap hotel
The desert's quiet and Cleveland's cold
So the story end's, we're told
Pancho needs your prayer's it's true
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
And now he's growin' old

A few gray Federales say
Could have had him any day
Only let him go so wrong
Out of kindness I suppose

Here are some of the things I like about Townes' writing:

(1) The descriptive language is evocative and strong without being cliche.
"You wear your skin like iron."

"Your breath's as hard as kerosene."

"His horse was fast as polished steel."

(2) Poignant lines, throughout.
"You weren't your mama's only boy, but her favorite one it seems. She began to cry when you said goodbye and sank into your dreams."

"Nobody heard his dyin' words, but that's the way it goes."

"Lefty, he can't sing the blues all night long like he used to."

"The day they laid poor Pancho low, Lefty split for Ohio."

"Well, the poets tell how Pancho fell And Lefty's livin' in a cheap hotel."

"Pancho needs your prayers it's true, but save a few for Lefty too. He just did what he had to do."

(3) Interesting verbs.
"Sank into your dreams." (suggesting a downward turn)

"Wore his gun outside his pants for all the honest world to feel" (as opposed to "see," which you expect, but which would have been weaker.)

"Lefty split for Ohio"

(4) Short, memorable lines that sum up the entire story, economically.
"The desert's quiet and Cleveland's cold."

And my favorite line in the song: "The dust that Pancho bit down south ended up in Lefty's mouth." Wow! Good stuff.

(5) The story unfolds indirectly, rather than hitting you over the head.
Never is there any explicit mention of any association between Pancho and Lefty, but we can see the relationship and Lefty's personality based on the fact that he used to sing the blues all night (probably with Pancho) but can't anymore (because of guilt/loneliness).

We learn about the betrayal this way: "The day they laid poor Pancho low, Lefty split for Ohio. Where he got the bread to go there ain't nobody knows."

The passage of time is shown by the insertion of the word "gray" into the last chorus about the Federales.

(6) No extra syllables.
The song tells its story but still flows from verse to verse smoothly. That might be the best attribute of Townes' songwriting in general.

That's a lot of great stuff going on in one short song.

Here are two popular cover versions to enjoy:

Emmylou Harris – Pancho And Lefty (buy album).

Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard – Pancho And Lefty (buy album).

P.S. If your i-pod says "Poncho and Lefty," change the "O" to an "A".
A poncho is a raincoat.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Stop Everything And Download This Caitlin Rose Song! (Plus five more versions of the Stones' Dead Flowers.)

There is a brilliant young talent down in Nashville who goes by the name of Caitlin Rose. Her debut EP, Dead Flowers, will be released in the near future. It's not available yet, but check this space for more details about how to get this recording as soon as it goes on sale. Believe me, I'll be more than happy to do another post to tell you how to buy it. It's great. Until then, please listen to her cover of the Rolling Stones' song, Dead Flowers.

I think this may be my new favorite version of Dead Flowers. Better than the almightly Townes Van Zandt (this song only). Better than the Eels or Uncle Tupelo, and maybe even better than Steve Earle's great live version. Heck, I might even like it better than the Stones' version. And she's only 20 or 21 years old. This girl's a genuine talent... You heard it here first.

(Caveat: I've had a glass of Old Grand Dad on the rocks, but I don't think that's impaired my judgment too badly. Judge for yourself.)

Enjoy this killer track. You won't be sorry:

Caitlin Rose – Dead Flowers. (Check back later for buying info).

Listen to more Caitlin Rose here: Caitlin Rose MySpace

Just for comparison's sake, here are some other versions:

The Rolling Stones – Dead Flowers (buy album).
Townes Van Zandt – Dead Flowers (buy album).
Steve Earle – Dead Flowers (buy album).
Uncle Tupelo – Dead Flowers.
The Eels – Dead Flowers.

So what do you think?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Those Jangly Eighties, Vol 6: Rank And File & True Believers

[For the background on this series, see here.]

After a brief respite, the jangly eighties series is back. Today's episode features two former bands of legendary Austin guitarist Alejandro Escovedo.

Rank And File started with a bang in 1982, but soon fizzled. Their first record, Sundown, is worth hearing. In a review that will entice many regular readers of this blog, All Music Guide decscribed it as "a gem of tuneful, Byrds-ian pop, with a healthy dollop of Gram Parsons and Merle Haggard to boot." I don't know if I would go quite that far, but it's definitely an enjoyable listen. Try these two tracks:

Rank And File – Amanda Ruth.
Rank And File – Rank And File.
(buy album).

Not long after the release of Sundown, Escovedo quit Rank And File to form the True Believers with his brother Javier. The True Believers were a loud, three-guitar band. (I know how loud they were from first-hand experience.) They quickly became all the rage in Austin, and beyond, in the mid-1980s. Unfortunately, they couldn't capitalize on the buzz. Their first record, released on Rounder, failed to capture the raucous nature of their live show. It's now out of print.

The True Believers' "second" album, which was to be their major-label debut on EMI-America wasn't released at all. As explained in the All Music Guide:

"The second album was a far stronger representation of the True Believers than the debut, but shortly after it was completed, EMI-America's parent company decided to fold the label into another affiliated company, Manhattan Records, and much of EMI-America's roster was dropped, including the True Believers. The second album was pulled from the release schedule only two weeks before it was scheduled to ship, and the label's asking price for the master tapes was far more than the band could afford to pay."

The music business can be cruel. Years later, after the band broke up, the True Believers' debut and the lost second album were finally released together on a single CD called Hard Road, but that too is now out of print.

Here are one standout track from the debut and two highlights from the lost second album:

True Believers – The Rain Won't Help You When It's Over.
True Believers – She's Got.
True Believers – One Moment To Another.
(buy album).

Alejandro Esovedo's greatest critical success has come as a solo artist. A favorite of mine is this song from his 1992 solo debut album, Gravity:

Alejandro Escovedo – Five Hearts Breaking (buy album).

Just for fun, here is Whiskeytown's cover of The Rain Won't Help:

Whiskeytown – The Rain Won't Help You When It's Over (mp3). (This comes from the Those Weren't The Days bootleg, which you can find at Broadcaster House.)

Friday, February 08, 2008

The Flying Burrito Brothers Live At The Avalon

One of the great things about having a music blog is that they send you free records. Sometimes you even like them! Case in point, the good folks at Amoeba Music sent over a copy of the new Flying Burrito Brothers' live release. For marketing reasons its being billed as "Gram Parsons with The Flying Burrito Brothers - Live at the Avalon Ballroom 1969."

Gram Parsons gets special billing today because of his historical stature. His work is to country rock what Bill Monroe's is to bluegrass and Bob Wills' is to western swing: It defines the style. Through his work with the International Submarine Band, The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and his solo albums (featuring Emmylou Harris), Gram wrote the book on country rock.

If you're already a fan of the genre, you'll like the new Avalon Ballrom set. It's rock musicians playing country music to hippies. The sound quality is good and the set list leans to the country side. The highlight for me was the FBB's cover of "You Win Again," which is one of the greatest Hank Williams songs. Also on the album is an outtake of Gram working through his classic tune Thousand Dollar Wedding. It's interesting to hear an early rendition of what later would become a signature song. (Buy the album to hear that one).

It's also worth noting that the packaging is nice with liner notes by, of all people, noted rock groupie Pamela Des Barres. Hey, she was there, so she should know...

Check out a few choice cuts from the Avalon concert:

The Flying Burrito Brothers – You Win Again (Live) (buy album).

The Flying Burrito Brothers – Train Song (Live) (buy album).

As enjoyable as the live set may be, its not the place to start if you are new to Parsons/Country-Rock. I would recommend starting with the two-for-one CD with his solo albums G.P. and Grievous Angel. Two other seminal country-rock albums that every country and rock fan should own are the Flying Burrito Brothers' Gilded Palace of Sin and The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, both of which feature Gram prominently (or at least his influence).

Gram Parsons – She (buy album).

The Flying Burrito Brothers – Sin City (buy album).

The Byrds – The Christian Life (Rehearsal Take) (buy album). This bonus-track version features Gram on vocals.

Just for fun, here's the original version of The Christian Life, by The Louvin Brothers:

The Louvin Brothers – The Christian Life (buy album).

Check the sidebar area for more mp3s

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Fat Tuesday

New Orleans is one of my favorite places. I've only been there three times. Once in the Springtime for a college road trip and twice in the muggy heat of July. Each time has been a blast. No other location has the same combination of music, drinking, history, character, and spirit. But I've never been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Maybe one of these years...

In the spirit of the day, here are some New Orleans tunes to enjoy with your chicory coffee (or Hurricanes):

Professor Longhair - Mardi Gras In New Orleans (buy album).

Louis Armstrong - Basin Street Blues (buy album).

The Wild Tchoupitoulas - Hey Hey (Indians Comin') (buy album).

Beausoleil - Zydeco Gris Gris (buy album).

Professor Longhair - Jambalaya (buy album).

Louis Armstrong - When The Saints Go Marching In (buy album).

(If you happen to be stuck in Detroit instead of New Orleans, at least you can still enjoy a delicious paczki.)

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Super Bowl Is Today

Pick your team:

GIANTS: John Coltrane - Giant Steps (buy album).

PATRIOTS: Gordon Lightfoot - The Patriot's Dream (buy album).

Saturday, February 02, 2008

You Whispered At Horse's Ears

Don't let the first track throw you. Notwithstanding the typically old and twangy nature of this space, rest assured that your proprietor is hep to all the latest tunes flowing through the internets. Here's a funny one from The Teenagers about their favorite starlet, Scarlett:

The Teenagers - Starlett Johansson (buy mp3 album).

Favorite line: "You whispered at horse's ears." (That's just genius. They could have said "in," but they said "at." Perfect.)

Read more about The Teenagers here: MySpace. And jump on The Teenagers' bandwagon here and here. (Download the song "Homecoming" for more fun.)

The real Scarlett would probably prefer these songs:

Tom Waits – Rain Dogs (buy album).
Tom Waits – Tom Traubert's Blues (buy album).

The first comes from Waits' tour de fource 1985 album by the same name. The organ intro is amazing. Actually, the whole darn album is musically and lyrically stunning. It's a STWOF Five-star must buy!

The second song comes from Tom Waits' early-period masterpiece, Small Change. Both of these albums have been regulars on the STWOF turntable for years, especially while enjoying a spot of Bushmills.

What's the connection between Tom & Scarlett, you ask? Well, if you haven't heard already, check this out: Scarlett Johansson Covers Tom Waits. Of course, the definitive female-artist-Tom-Waits-cover-album has already been made:

Holly Cole – I Don't Want To Grow Up (buy album).

And here are three more great songs with a Scarlett Johansson connection:

Pretenders – Brass In Pocket (buy album). (video).
Roxy Music - More Than This (buy album). (video).
Elvis Costello - What's So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding? (buy album). (video).

For further info on Ms. Johansson, check out: Movie Hotties

And finally, in honor of That Truncheon Thing (a superb music blog that officially closed its doors this week), enjoy some live Elvis Costello: Elvis Costello - You Belong To Me (Live). If you've never been to TTT, get there now while all the great music is still available. There are some fantastic rock bootlegs to be had.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Pocahontas, Marlon Brando, and Me

Listen: Johnny Cash - Pocahontas (buy album)

Wasn't that good? It really works for me. Powerful images, understated yet dramatic delivery, bold and intersting instrumentation (cello, flute). Epic. American.

It's rare for a popular musician to produce such compelling music so late in their career. So this song, a Neil Young cover available on the excellent Unchained box set, stands as a real testament to the abilities of both Cash and producer Rick Rubin.

Pitchfork's reviewer didn't agree. He objected to Rubin's decision to add the cello and flute, a la Eleanor Rigby, and wished that Johnny could have just stuck to his old "tunk-tukka-tunk" style of the 1950s: Pitchfork review.

I give it "two thumbs up": One for Cash's intense delivery and one for Young's striking, if somewhat unusual, lyrics. Each part compliments the other.

Let me know what you think (and I won't be offended if you agree with Pitchfork).

Here's Neil Young's original version of the same song:

Neil Young - Pocahontas (buy album).

Question: Is Johnny doing his best Marlon Brando impersonation in that photo above?