Monday, February 28, 2011

Eisley - "The Valley" (8.7 of 10)

Magic, magic, magic. Ok, I've been waiting for this one for a couple of years now - they've had huge contract disputes with Warner Brothers but now, fortunately, have landed on another label. Plus, after their completely magical and lovely first album (Room Noises), they put out a completely mediocre 2nd effort (Combinations), so it's been quite a wait for Eisley fans. Since "Combinations," the 3 DuPree sisters have had, unfortunately, a string of broken hearts and relationships, and it all comes tumbling out here on "The Valley." In a good way. The anger, hurt and disappointment are expressed in honest ways that don't overwhelm the songs, which is an art. To say that I prefer the melodies of Stacy's songs more than the "grittier" sound of Sherri's songs is simply a personal preference, but they're all good here. And both sisters sing their hearts out...with all that they are and all they have. What a performance! "The Valley" also displays an amazing leap of growth and maturity in their songwriting without sacrificing the loveliness of their songwriting. In many ways it could be said that nobody crafts melodies today with that intangible "pixie dust magic" (Gene Simmons' description of ABBA's music) that Eisley does. And that is a gift. And it's such a plus to have their original producer back at the helm! He knows what to do with these gifts of music given to him. The album closes with a glorious flourish of 4 fantastic songs, including the best one - the finale "Ambulance." Don't miss this! Great stuff, highly recommended, and it will take a great effort from other artists to keep it out of my "best of" Top-5 of 2011 list.

Ron Sexsmith - "Long Player, Late Bloomer" (7.5 of 10)

Elvis Costello has said that Ron Sexsmith was born in the wrong era. I really didn't know what he was talking about until listening to this new Sexsmith album - his 10th. For better or worse, this would have been a mega-hit in, say, 1977 or 1978. He sounds like a combination of Morrissey and Costello, except infinitely more melodic and less quirky. If I had one theory to leave the music world before I die, it is this: If a group or artist is labeled as being "woefully neglected" or "criminally un-lauded," there's a reason for it - they suck. However, Ron Sexsmith has gone a long way of being an exception to the rule with this release. Good stuff and recommended - especially the first 3 songs.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Re-Visiting Elton John's 1970-1976 Albums

Once upon a time I owned every single Elton John album....the 1st 7 or 8 anyway. In fact, my 1st album purchase was 1972's "Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player" when I was 9. Unless you are older than 40 years old (or so), you don't realize how HUGE Elton John was in the 70's. And how great many of his albums truly were (and are). So, as a favor to those of you who don't know where to start with EJ, here is a brief review of each of his 1st few albums. If your collection doesn't contain at least 3 or 4 of these, it is a deficient collection. Rather that go in chronological order, I will assort them from best to "worst."

1. Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975) - Has definitely aged better than any other EJ album because I would have put this maybe 3rd or 4th if you had asked me to rank these albums in college. The album artwork and liner notes, I am convinced, have lessened the positive impact of this album initially and over the years. I'm not sure I could say that about the artwork of any other album I know of! The band is tighter than ever, instrumentation perfect, production not as over the top, the lyrics are autobiographical so Bernie Taupin can't kill things with his cynicism and triteness, and the melodies are magnificent. And Elton actually sings his ass off for once. The only hesitation I have in giving this album the top rating is the last 2 songs which I find to be pretty weak.

2. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973) - Makes the "100 Best Albums of All Time" lists in many publications, and there was a time when I would have told you that it was the best album ever made. The reasons for putting it #2 upon further reflection over the years are as follows: 1. Clearly over-produced 2. Bernie Taupin's ridiculously (and un-necessary) sordid lyrics and subject matters. 3. Too many fillers....I think this should have been a single album.'s difficult to find any fault with the first 7 songs....a must-listen for any music fan before they die. Just the first 7 songs anyway.

3. Elton John (1970) - Tough call here, but the beauty of most of these songs (recorded in a 2 day period with the London Symphony) is too hard to ignore. "Your Song," "Border Song," "I Need You to Turn To," "Take Me to the Pilot" - one could argue that he never again penned songs as lovely as these.

4. Tumbleweed Connection (1970) - The follow-up to the 1st is the favorite Elton John album for many bohemians and gen-Xers - maybe it's the stripped down sound and alt-country feel - who knows? The 2 highlights for me are "Where to Now St. Peter?" and the epic finale 'Burn Down the Mission" which wowed Bob Dylan when he heard Elton play it at the Traubadour Club in L.A. in 1970. Other than that, it's sort of hit and miss for me...I just think some of the songs are way too long and waaaay too dull.

5. Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player (1973) - Wow, does this album have some great, great moments. Of course a lot depends on what you think about the opener "Daniel." I'm not quite sure why this song about a Vietnam vet polarizes folks, but whatever. "Teacher, I Need You" is one of my all-time favorite songs by anybody - maybe the apex of EJ's career. But this is the point where Bernie Taupin's lyrics become a needless distraction, and "Crocodile Rock".....let's just say it hasn't aged well. "High Flying Bird" is a very nice closer.

6. Madman Across the Water (1971) - Since I was 11 I have given this album chance after chance to be great and to grow on me....but after the first 2 classic songs ("Tiny Dancer" and "Levon") the album really drags. The title track is nice, as is "Indian Sunset," but that is IT. Too bad.

7. Honky Chateau (1972) - Y'know, now that I think about it, a very good case could be made to move this up to #4 or #5 on this list. "Honky Cat" and "Rocket Man" are 2 of his very best songs by a mile and that should count for something. It comes down to the "filler" songs I suppose, and I have always found the other songs on here to be depressing over the years. The tragedy here is that I love the sound/vibe/production on Honky Chateau....the last "non-Phil Spector" sounding album of this whole period.

8. Blue Moves (1976) - His last album with producer Gus Dudgeon and the curtain closer on the "Great Era." Completely over-produced....I think Dudgeon used every single knob/track at his availability on this one. the years go on this album has an endearing quality to it - hit and miss to be sure, but I really like a lot of the tunes. It's a double-album, so I'd better like SOME of it! The 1st 2 sides I like actually better than #4-7 on this list! Go figure.

9. Caribou (1974) - The first album after Elton had conquered the universe with "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." I was so freaking excited when I put this on the turntable for the first time - first day it came out in fact. "The Bitch Is Back" is fantastic as is the next song "Pinky." "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me" - classic. And "Grimsby" is pretty good. But oh my gosh...the rest of it is a complete mess. It gives me a headache.

10. Rock of the Westies (1975) - Elton fires his band for some reason, gets a new one, and decides to rock out. That's 3 strikes by the way. Honestly, there isn't one highlight on here unless you want to count the song about a 6-3" Jamaican hooker - "Island Girl." And yes, that sentence is accurate. A total embarrassment.

That happens to be a whopping 10 albums in 7 years. Amazing.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

New album reviews Feb. 15 2011

Bright Eyes - "The People's Key" (5.0 of 10) - It would be too easy for me to rip on Connor Oberst, so I will take a deep breath. A more "mature" and "accessible" Bright Eyes is on display here. The whining of earlier works are replaced on this album with (apparently) a wiser, more vulnerable outlook. He tries to go more up-tempo on most of the tracks, and that is appreciated, but his lyrics just don't connect as he crams together all sorts of metaphors and cliches that sound impressive enough, but I have no idea what he's getting at. Way too serious or vague - I guess I'd have to ask him.

PJ Harvey - "Let England Shake" (9.2 out of 10) - I wouldn't call it amazingly accessible for the general public and it's certainly not very radio-friendly. Her A and R man probably does not hear an obvious single (I'd go with "This Glorious Land" myself), and those who eagerly await a return to the stylings of 2000's "Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea" will have to wait another few years at least. This is a stripped down affair from her yet again, though with a jangly guitar/snare drum in place of piano. But..... this is brilliant stuff - both lyrically and musically...the contrast between this and the Bright Eyes offering is ridiculously stark. Her socially conscious lyrics are precise and almost nursery-rhyme like, but oh so effective. "I've seen and done things I want to forget/ I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat/ Blown and shot out beyond belief/ Arms and legs were in the trees." And delivered in that haunting, believable voice that is unique to PJ Harvey. Love the beats/percussion she has come up with...keeping everything from descending into so much preachy sentimentality. A perfect blend and a classic album.