Today’s post collects some of our favorite jazz pianists who also happen to be women. We think anyone who enjoys jazz piano will enjoy the music you’ll hear today.
Any collection of the great female jazz musicians must include Mary Lou Williams, who is so integral to the history of American music that she played with an early incarnation of Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians in 1922 (at the age of twelve) and later taught and collaborated with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.
Williams became the first jazz musician to perform with a major symphony orchestra when, with a rhythm section of Al Lewis and Jack “the Bear” Parker she performed her Zodiac Suite with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic. Williams again expanded the range of jazz with her 1968 Mass for Peace, a moving Catholic mass in the soul jazz idiom.
We have already posted a collection of her compositions (here), and instead begin this collection of songs with an extraordinary solo piano recording which was the first record Williams issued under her own name. She writes to jazz archivist Bernard Brightman (founder of Stash Records):
I didn’t know they were recording me. I was in Kansas City when Jack Kapp had Andy Kirk send for me to come to Chicago. I went and they sat me down at a piano. I composed this as I played. I thought they just wanted to hear me play. This became my first record. After that Jack Kapp insisted that I play on all of the recording dates for the Kirk band.
She was soon arranging the best of those recordings as well, and working for Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy launched a legendary career. The recording was made in April 1930.
There were many female jazz pianists before Mary Lou Williams, including two great ladies named Lil.
Lil Henderson fine accompaniment has been heard by millions, and she first got her start joining a li’l band called the Wildcats Jazz Band. Thomas Dorsey, the legendary “Father of black gospel music,” explains that in The Voice of the Blues, an enlightening collection of interviews edited by Jim O’Neil and Amy van Singel:
That was my band, with Ma Rainey, Gabriel Washington, Al Wynn and David Nelson. We only had about four or five pieces … Fuller Henderson was a trumpet player, yeah, and then we used his wife with Ma Rainey. I got sick and I turned the piano over to Fuller’s wife, and she traveled with ’em a season.
For a while Lil Henderson remained part of Ma Rainey’s Georgia Jazz Band, and it happens she was recorded backing “The Mother of the blues” in Chicago in June 1926, and it was for a fitting tune. Here they are performing “Trust No Man.”
The other Lil’s playing is far more documented on wax, although sometimes her role in jazz histories is limited to the moment she encouraged Louis Armstrong to leave King Oliver’s band in 1924. Yes, Lil Hardin (soon Lil Armstrong) gives some weight to the old phrase “behind every great man is a great woman,” but she was also an accomplished jazz musician in her own right.
She was a pianist, bandleader (in the 30s of an all women’s big band), and a composer. It’s for this last she’s best remembered, writing jazz gems like “Don’t Jive Me” and “Doin’ the Susie Q” and also songs which would be later be hits for Ray Charles (“Just for a Thrill” in 1959) and Ringo Starr (“Bad Boy” in 1978). Her “Oriental Boogie” was reworked by Austrian electro DJ Parov Stelar as the widely popular “Booty Swing,” becoming a dancefloor hit in 2010.
Camille Howard got her start playing in Roy Milton’s popular rhythm & blues band, but her most famous recording was made unexpectedly, much like Mary Lou Williams’ “Nightlife” we heard earlier. At the end of epic New Years Eve session — trying to cut as many numbers as possible before the advent of the second American Federation of Musicians’ recording ban on the first day of 1948 — Milton’s band had five minutes of studio time to kill before midnight. The time was given to Howard.
With Dallas Barley (of Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five) on bass and Milton on drums, Howard improvised “X-Temperaneous Boogie” just before those outside the studio heard church bells ringing in the new year.
Standing next to Mary Lou Williams in Art Kane’s famous “Great Day in Harlem” photograph is Marian McPartland. She is one of two women in today’s collection not born in the United States. She was English, and a classically trained concert pianist who fell in love with jazz.
During the Second World War Marian Turner enlisted in the UK’s Entertainment National Service Association, which entertained Allied troop in Europe. After a couple years she left to join the United Service Organization in part because it provided the opportunity to perform with American jazz musicians. She is probably also the only woman in today’s collection who went through basic training.
She met Jimmy McPartland in St Vith, Belgium in October 1944, and they were married the following February in Germany. McPartland was a well known jazz musician, a cornetist from Chicago. Marian McPartland had her first serious experiences performing jazz in the band he led in the USO, but he encouraged her to explore her own style rather than follow in his, which was based in traditional New Orleans jazz.
Back in the states she began leading jazz trios, and also played with Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins and Terry Gibbs. The longest lasting of her trios featured bassist Bill Crow and drummer Joe Morello, and recorded several acclaimed albums for Capitol (Metronome named them best small combo of the year in 1954). Still, she never received due credit for the quality of her work. Leonard Feather once opened a review with “she’ll never make it: she’s white, she’s English and she’s a woman.”
She began writing about jazz in the July 1949 issue of Downbeat with a firsthand account of the Paris Jazz Festival. Soon she was a frequent contributor, and her writing often reflected on the role of women in jazz. Some years later she would take her advocacy further by hosting the first ever Women’s Jazz Festival in Kansas City.
McPartland is best remembered today for hosting a NPR program, Piano Jazz, for more than twenty-five years. The program featured her at a piano with guests, playing and discussing jazz. In addition to being one of NPR’s longest-running cultural programs, it was one of the most praised.
Hazel Scott is the other jazz musician in today’s post who emigrated to the United States to perform jazz. Her family came to New York from Trinidad in 1924, when she was four years old. Just a few years later she was a student at Juilliard. As a teenager Scott performed in her mother’s women’s jazz band, which sometimes featured Lil Armstrong. She had a regular gig at New York’s Café Society, and was also frequently heard on the radio playing a variety of piano music, including jazz.
Hazel Scott appeared in several motion pictures, and in 1950 she was the first African American woman to host her own television program, The Hazel Scott Show.
She also recorded several albums in the 1950s, notably a highly sought-after trio LP Relaxed Piano Moods, which she recorded with Charles Mingus and Max Roach on their invitation to appear on their independent label, Debut Records.
Scott was an outspoken civil rights activist. As an actress she refused to take roles she felt represented black people poorly, and as a musician she would not play in segregated clubs. In one famous incident, she was led out of Austin by the Texas Rangers because she would not perform in a club after she learned that black and whites were seated separately. “Why would anyone come to hear me, a Negro, and refuse to sit beside someone just like me?,” she asked when interviewed by Time magazine. She also successfully sued a Washington restaurant for refusing to serve her and a friend “because they were negroes.”
In 1950, Scott was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and read a prepared statement which denied involvement with the Communist Party. A week later her television show was cancelled. Eventually, Scott left to live and perform in Paris, and did not return to the United States until 1967. Had she not left the country at such a critical time for the Civil Rights movement, and such a pivotal period in the history of jazz, she would surely be more well known today.
Here is a close up of our print of Art Kane’s famous photograph, “A Great Day in Harlem.” Mary Lou Williams and Marian McPartland are standing together, as one might expect — the only other woman in the group if fifty-seven musicians is singer Maxine Sullivan, standing next to fellow vocalist Jimmy Rushing. When Marian McPartland passed away three years ago, she was one of four figures in this famous photograph remaining. Today only Benny Golson and Sonny Rollins are alive.
In Friday’s post we’ll listen to more women play the piano, moving forward into the 1960s and beyond. We’ll hear Nina Simone, of course, and also a magnificent interpretation of Bessie Smith’s “Wasted Life Blues” and a legendary avant garde album from the Impulse! catalog which was arranged by a female piano player. Here’s a hint: it’s not Alice Coltrane. Wondering what it is? Tune on Friday.
There’s this li’l section here in your friendly neighborhood record shop we call “The movie is so bad, but the music is so good!” Its hard to find soundtrack albums which fit the bill, but sort of a fun project — the other challenge is that folks buy up the best ones right away because, after all, the music is so good.
Obvious examples would be movies like More American Graffiti: the unwanted sequel’s soundtrack was filled with sixties favorites. Other examples would be when an artist creates an original score which ages more gracefully than the album itself. Perhaps the best example of this is also an extraordinarily rare record: nobody on Earth wants to see She’s the One again, but countless Tom Petty fans would love to track down an elusive copy of the LP.
And The Big Chill, which was a completely unrewarding movie to anyone who wasn’t a self-absorbed baby boomer, but enjoyed the first wave of Motown’s licensing of its extensive catalog, making the soundtrack a sort of ‘essential 60s’ collection. It did so well a second volume was introduced the following year.
And Super Fly— probably the best example of a soundtrack album far superior to the film itself. In fact, it’s one of few films to make less money than its accompanying record.
Curtis Mayfield recorded more than twenty-five albums after leaving the Impressions, but his name is synonymous with the seventies soundtrack based largely on this classic record. Curtis Mayfield’s score for the 1972 movie fits better with the socially conscious albums by Curtis’ contemporaries Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder than the rest of the blaxsploitation genre. Super Fly is entirely different from albums like Isaac Hayes’ Shaft and James Brown’s Black Caesar.
In songs like “Pusherman” and “No Thing on Me” Curtis criticizes the glorification of dealers and pimps in films like Super Fly. and presents a more accurate picture of drug abuse. This is exactly what critics of the movie (like the NAACP) were asking to see. Super Fly is one of the best anti-drug albums ever made.
Also, the songs are some of the best Curtis ever wrote. “Pusherman” and “Give me your Love (Love Song)” are completely original arrangements only Curtis could have created — and the title track is one of his funkiest moments on record.
And its phenomenal success provided Curtis the opportunity to score several more films in the coming years.
The overwhelmingly ironic 1971 album Bill Cosby Talks to Kids About Drugs aside, there were few explicit anti-drug messages to be found in record stores in the early 70s, especially in the soul section. This is especially unfortunate because of the enormous societal toll drug traffic took from those in the inner cities. Curtis’ portrayal of dope fiends and dealers (especially in “Freddy’s Dead”) present a cautionary tale which presaged the crack epidemic of a decade later.
After finishing an excellent follow-up album of new material (Back to the World), Curtis turned to his next film project: the soundtrack for Claudine, a family drama which fit the demands of organizations like the NAACP, who wished to see more African-American films outside the blaxsploitation genre. The songs on Curtis’ soundtrack for Claudine were performed by Gladys Knight & the Pips, hot off the success of their top-selling album Imagination, from which came “Midnight Train to Georgia” and three other hit singles.
The movie Claudine carried heavy social messages about the African-American community, but Curtis translated few of these into his songs for the score, focusing instead on the film’s love story between a single mother played by singer Diahann Carroll and a garbageman played by James Earl Jones. The songs are more in the style of his later-period music with the Impressions than the heavy funk infused soul of Super Fly, but the song “On and On” was a top 10 single in that style.
Curtis again brought guests into the studio to perform the songs for his next soundtrack album, Let’s Do It Again. This time it was the Staple Singers, who had just signed onto his Curtom label after the Stax bankruptcy. The legendary gospel-turned-sou. group proved to be a perfect fit to Curtis’ sound, and the soundtrack’s title tune was a hit single.
Let’s Do It Again is the middle film in a trilogy of Sydney Poitier/Bill Cosby comedies set around zany schemes. The first, Uptown Saturday Night, had been scored by soul saxophonist Tom Scott, and Curtis would come back with Mavis Staples to produce the music for the third, A Piece of the Action.
Let’s Do It Again finds the pair rigging boxing matches by hypnotizing an underdog fighter played by Jimmie Walker, who starred as J.J. on TV’s Good Times., and had recently released his debut comedy album (which we posted last week).
It’s a pretty good comedy, but folks aren’t really scrambling to find classic Cosby these days. Curtis’ soundtrack, however, is well worth the work to hunt down a copy.
His score for the last film in the series was released as a Mavis Staples solo album. We couldn’t find a copy for this post, but you can enjoy the theme (plus watch the one and only Sidney Poitier dance) in its closing scene:
The 1976 period piece Sparkle starred Irene Cara (pre-Fame) in a Supremes-based story about singing sisters. The film received few positive reviews and would be entirely forgotten if it weren’t for Curtis’ soundtrack, which has Aretha Franklin singing all the leads instead of Cara.
Sparkle provided Aretha with her last hit single of the seventies, but it falls short of Curtis’ collaborations with Mavis Staples or Gladys Knight.
The last movie score Curtis produced until he returned to Hollywood to provide a few songs for The Return of Super Fly in 1990) was for Short Eyes, a prison drama based on Miguel Piñero’s award winning play. Unlike Super Fly, nothing is glorified in this harsh and realistic portrayal of prison life, which Piñero penned while serving in Sing Sing for armed robbery.
The story, which culminates in the beating death of a pedophile, has been praised for its presentation of prison hierarchy and race relations. Curtis’ album is equally gritty. He’d opened his first solo album with “Don’t Worry, If there’s a Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go,” and here starts off with a song which includes the line, “Ain’t no Heaven, ain’t no Heaven, ain’t no Heaven.” Short Eyes is our favorite Curtis Mayfield album. Highlights include some of his very best guitar work in the hopeless lament “Back Against the Wall” (where he sounds like Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel) and his brand of innovative high-production funk in “Freak Freak Freak, Free Free Free.”
The opening track, “Doo Doo Wap (is Strong in Here)” was one of Curtis’ last charting hits, and would belong on any “Best of Curtis Mayfield” collection, if such a thing exists.
Short Eyes hit shelves in the waning years of the American prisoners’ rights movement, which had previously seen some attention in popular music. Bob Dylan had a largely forgotten hit single (peaking at #33 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart) in 1972 with a song lauding prison writer and Black Panther activist George Jackson. His death — shot in the back during an escape attempt — led to prison protests around the country, notably the Attica uprising in upstate New York which began three weeks after Jackson’s death on September 9th, 1971.
The Attica uprising and its violent aftermath were the subject of many records in the coming years, including songs by John Lennon (“Attica State”), Paul Simon (“Virgil”) and 10cc (“Rubber Bullets”). Gil Scott-Heron referenced Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s culpability in “We Beg Your Pardon” and Charles Mingus implored listeners to “Remember Rockefeller at Attica” on Changes One.
Much of the prisoners’ movement came to a screeching halt with the Supreme Court’s Houchins v. KQED Inc ruling in 1978, which established there existed no “right of access” when it came to the incarcerated. This effectively shut off the movement’s ability to reach the masses via the media, and interest in the rights of the incarcerated waned just as, unfortunately, the war on drugs swelled to epic proportions. We can’t help to think of the tragic cycle described by Curtis in “Freddy’s Dead.” After asking, “Why can’t we brothers protect one another,” he describes another “Freddy on the corner now.”
In February we had fun finding songs with sweet cowbell parts as a tribute to the famous Saturday Night Live sketch in which Will Ferrell plays the hell out of a cowbell as a member of Blue Öyster Cult.
The songs we posted were only the tip of the iceberg, of course. As we reported in that post, the cowbell could possibly be one of our oldest musical friends. Archaeologists date cowbells to the Iron Age, around the same time as the creation of the Indian Vedas and the earliest parts of the Hebrew Bible.
This second collection of cowbell songs shows just how pervasive they are across genres. In some cases you’ll have to wait a while for the cowbell, and in other cases there’s a whole lot of it. One song only has cowbell in the introduction. In at least one case we’re not certain it even is a cowbell we’re hearing, but it’s a good song.
“As One” by the Bar Kays and “What’s so Never the Dance” by Bootsy Collins (a favorite of ours).
“90mph” by Estus. Playing that cowbell is none other than Marc Steven Bell, who was re-christened Marky Ramone in 1978. This album was recorded five years earlier.
“She’d Rather be With Me” by the Turtles
You have to wait a while to hear Bill Ward hit that cowbell on “The Wizard,” from Black Sabbath’s first album, but when he does in the middle of a sweet run it’s all worth the wait.
Our year-end list of favorite local records is hardly intended to be an authoritative representation of what has happened in Minneapolis’ music scene over the past twelve months: it’s the records we have listened to and connected with since over and over again, the ones we’ve worn out. Our favorite new records of the year…
Ripple by Panther Ray
While most doe-eyed shoegaze rock leaves us at a loss (or feeling old), Panther Ray is a band with which we’ve comfortably connected. This exceptionally talented quartet is one of the most reliably inventive pop groups in the Twin Cities, and their live sets are not to be missed. After re-inventing itself a couple times, the band has settled into a sound which hits the sweet spot between the MC5 and the Mamas and the Papas, touching on everything we love about sixties psych records and our hazy recollections of bands like Dinosaur Jr. Their label, the formidable Forged Artifacts, put forward “Get To You” as a single (and we do love guitarist Dan Ries’ work on that tune), but we prefer the ear-wormy “I Want You,” an addictive pop tune if ever there were one.
Survival of the Prettiest by Bruise Violet
We really love this trio, who we first met when they participated in one of She Rock, She Rock‘s all-girl punk rock jams, which we hosted throughout this past year. The intent of these events (which are sponsored by a 501(c)3 non profit) is to encourage female and female-identified musicians to feel safe expressing themselves in a supportive environment, and Bruise Violet‘s success this past year suggests we’re overdue to make most spaces — record stores, venues, wherever — just as welcoming.
With just five well-produced tracks in a sweet spot between grunge and punk rock, the only problem with Survival of the Prettiest is how quickly it has come and gone. Bruise Violet’s lyrics are a lot like riot grrrl rock and more than a little entertainingly aggressive. The difference is that they’re delivered with much more complex vocal arrangements — all three members sing and do it better than most punk rock bands. The trio has done so well they’ve even earned praise from a member of the band who inspired their name (Lori Barbero of Babes in Toyland, whose 1992 album Fontanella had a classic single called “Bruise Violet”). That’s saying a lot.
Lonesome, Stoned and Drunk by Whiskey Jeff and the Beer Back Band
Our inclusion of Whiskey Jeff‘s album is entirely biased — we love this dude so much we released his record ourselves. He and his band have been regulars here at your friendly neighborhood record store for longer than we’d like to admit, and Lonesome, Stoned and Drunk is more than a labor of love to us: it’s also an awesome honky tonk country album. If that’s your thing — if you wish Porter Wagoner were still writing songs, or that Buck Owens were still out there on the road with the Buckaroos, this band is for you.
The Money’s Coming by Wizards Are Real
The most original instrumental rock band in the Twin Cities put out a new album this year, but it went entirely unnoticed. The Money’s Coming is the third release from Wizards Are Real, but it was released without the fanfare and hoo-hah which has become record release standard here in town because the band (bless ’em) put family first.
Wizards Are Real hasn’t had to reinvent the moon with each new record because the band is by definition iconoclastic. The Money’s Coming is just the next chapter in the band’s exploration of the outer rims of pop music.
Second Thursday by the Southside Aces
This year the Southside Aces celebrated their residency at our neighborhood’s Eagles Club with an album, Second Thursday, which featured songs the traditional jazz group has been performing on (you guessed it) the second Thursday of each month over more years we can recollect. While they’ve always featured classic jazz composers — commonly highlighting someone like Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller or Sidney Bechet for the evening — they’ve also introduced their own original tunes in the New Orleans jazz tradition.
A fine example is Tony Balluff’s “Little Duke,” which certainly swings as well as any classic, but also has the irresistible effervescence of Ellington’s 30s small group work. The band also has a sense of humor (highlighted in our pre-holiday post about “Santaphone”) — they’ve developed a loyal following with both traditional jazz purists and dancers. Both were out for their New Year’s Eve show at the Eagles’ last night, which will likely become a tradition.
Young Sunset by Rupert Angeleyes
Several years ago, one of our favorite local albums was You and Me, Ghost by Sleeping in the Aviary — it had this one song which we absolutely thought was the greatest thing to happen to our turntable since we got it a Superchunk sticker. That song (“Karen, Your an Angel”) was the first time we heard Kyle Sobczak. Sleeping in the Aviary is sadly no more, although our favorite records list of last year featured his bandmate Elliot Kozel’s new project, Tickle Torture. And with the release of Young Sunset, we learn altogether too late that Sobczak has had his own side project all along.
He’s admitted Rupert Angeleyes had not been promoted well. Three earlier releases are so overlooked that the label’s website mistakenly lists Young Sunset as his debut album. It is, certainly, his very best yet: we have fallen hard for this record like we did the first time we heard him on You and Me, Ghost.
Young Sunset is a brilliantly crafted tour of American pop. Sounds from bubble gum and Motown intermingle with the XTC/Guided by Voices influence familiar in Sleeping in the Aviary. Hearing the rockabilly shuffle of “Out of my Control” it seems as if Sobczak has figured out what Buddy Holly would sounded like if he’d lived long enough to be produced by Todd Rundgren. In fact, Runt would probably love the self-depreciating, humorous lyrics throughout Young Sunset, on which poor Rupert just doesn’t seem to catch a break. Except of course that he’s no longer overlooked: the LP is already sold out.
Stumpjumper by Charlie Parr
There’s never really any doubt that a new album by Charlie Parr is going to be a success, but Stumpjumper was sort of a gamble for Minnesota’s most beloved barefoot bluesman. Recorded in Hillsborough, North Carolina, the album (Charlie’s sixteenth or so, depending on how you’re counting them) the album is the first to feature a full band: pianos, electric guitar, fiddle, and — gasp! — drums. When we first heard we were as worried as we were over whether Star Wars would be any good in the hands of Disney, not out of any distrust of St. Paul’s venerable Red House Records, who released Stumpjumper, but out of feat the addition of drums would somehow turn Charlie commercial.
That, of course, will never happen. Charlie remains as independent as ever on the album, which doesn’t stray from his roots tradition which fits as well with anything on Yazoo Records as with Koerner, Ray and Glover. In fact, its hard not to think of Stumpjumper as Parr’s own Running, Jumping, Standing Still, (Koerner and Willie Murphy’s 1969 album which made the same gambit).
For all that has been written about Charlie Parr we’re surprised how often people overlook the depth of his songwriting. Over his largely out of print catalog his storytelling has increasingly been expressed in a distinctive parlance all his own. Here’s what Charlie once had to say about songwriting:
By the time Jubilee came around I was pretty comfortable with the way songs come to me and just letting them be what they wanted to be. I don’t have a lot to do with it sometimes. A song is going to be what it is and you’re just waiting to write it down.
Stumpjumper‘s eleven tracks sound a little different than Jubilee, but there is no change to the humor and insight which has made Charlie Parr one of the most popular musicians in Minnesota.
“Fire of Love” by L’Assassins
We don’t always include singles in our end of the year favorites list. The reason we’re making an exception for this new one from L’Assassins is pretty straightforward: we didn’t want to exclude it because the b-side, “Liar,” is our favorite local song from 2015. Every second of this song is awesome, from the organ lick (played by guest musician Chan Polling of the Suburbs) to the sudden ending, which just leaves you wanting to pick up the needle and play it again. And again. We’re starting to wear out our copy of this single.
Here’s hoping L’Assassins records an overdue full-length album in 2016!
Tied to the World Behind Me by Alex “Crankshaft” Larson
Another act which kept the New Year’s Eve crowd moving is Crankshaft and the Gear Grinders. They presented their “pork neck country” blend at Magillycuddy’s Basement Bash in Anoka last night. Crankshaft’s just-out album, Tied to the World Behind Me, takes a turn towards darker subjects than What You Gonna Do? (a favorite of ours in 2013) but has the same combination of blues and garage rock we love. What we love about this multi-talented sometimes-one-man-band musician who goes by Alex Larson by day is how well he puts them together.
And while Crankshaft sings about how “life lives hard ’til you’re boxed and charred” on Tied to the World Behind Me, and he has the scars to back it up, there’s some notably positive messages on the album. We especially love “Made to Race,” which he performed here at Hymie’s last year, and there’s a truly hilarious song about eating chili (“Eatin’ Chili”). Another awesome moment on the record is a smoldering duet with Davina Sowers called “Loose Cannon” which falls somewhere in between the two sides of Crankshaft.
Crankshaft brings together an enormous amount of talent on this album, which is absolutely the most beautifully packaged local record of the year. The gatefold jackets include a book of stunning artwork by Tiffany Smith connected to each track. The entirely analogue recording sounds explosive, and Larson’s production is absolutely perfect. In the end, what’s makes it all work so well is what a good songwriter he is. If your life were a movie and everything in it were impeccably awesome, this would be the band playing whenever you went to the neighborhood bar.
New Noir by Mystery Date
Piñata Records has promoted Mystery Date as “the best American power pop band since 1979,” and we’re not gonna dispute that claim. Especially not after New Noir was released early last year. The album was good enough to be named “Record of the Week” by Maximumrocknroll in March. Reviewer Kenny Kaos said it perfectly:
Like, this is Top 10 of 2015 material. This is pop music. And it’s punk and it’s new wave. It’s strangely catchy and poppy, while also a little bit eerie and dark. And this is going to sound a little corny, but it’s delivered with an honesty and sincerity and sense of urgency that can’t be faked.
One of the most fun rock trios we’ve ever had here at Hymie’s (check out this video of “Lightspeed Romance”), Mystery Date’s success comes in part from a genuine love for classic American power pop. Johnny Eggerman has started a new project, Private Interests, but we helped babysit for the drummer and couldn’t hear their first show — we’re hoping he won’t abandon Mystery Date because they absolutely nailed it with New Noir.
The Seven Secrets of Snow by Paul Fonfara and the Ipsifendus Orchestra
Paul Fonfara‘s album release show for Seven Secrets of Snow, a freshly finished mostly instrumental album which finds him backed by the Ipsifendus Orchestra, was one of our favorite live music experiences of the year. In addition to performing the album’s new compositions, Fonfara captivated the audience with a stunning performance of Eddy Arnold’s signature song, “Cattle Call,” and collaborated with legendary Americana songwriter Jim White. The one evening alone ought to make him one of the most awesome musicians in the Twin Cities, but Seven Secrets of Snow is far more than a souvenir.
Seven Secrets of Snow has become more and more a favorite for us each time we have listened to it. Our review of the album posted earlier this month focused on its jazz leanings and included comparisons to contemporary jazz composers, but what we realized during Fonfara’s performance at the Cedar Cultural Center was the extent to which the work — likely owing to its origin as a score for an as-yet-unfinished film — reflected the influence of late twentieth century classical composers. Fonfara’s eight original pieces are an amalgam of the minimal school and the Ipsifendus school. This latter, lesser known, would include members of several of the Twin Cities’ most talented groups: the Brass Messengers, the Poor Nobodys, Dreamland Faces, the Bookhouse Trio and Fonfara’s own Painted Saints. This draws in a comfortable base in eastern European folk traditions, but also a connection between Fonfara’s songs and the six fascinatingly mathematic string quartets of Bela Bartók, composed a generation before the minimals or Raymond Scott’s Secret Seven.
The Future Was a Long Time Ago by Chokecherry
The “little band that could” finally made the record we knew we’d hear one day: The Future Was a Long Time Ago was well worth the wait. We have loved Chokecherry for longer than we can remember — much longer than we have been taking care of your friendly neighborhood record shop. Just like Donnie & Marie, the band is “a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll.” Probably more a combination of rockabilly and punk rock, to be specific. In our original review of the album we compared them to the 90s punkabilly band the Gr’ups.
We also suggested The Future Was a Long Time Ago is an album for the so-called “Great Recession.” Jon Collins has always been an insightful songwriter, touching on serious subjects without berating the listener. This album has some lighter moments, especially the songs sung by both Collins and fiddler Pam Laizure like “Salt and Ice” and the hilariously sad “Spent Your Best Years.” Within just a few weeks we knew every single line on this album and were singing along.
The Blind Shake
2015 was another over-worked, over-travelled, over-loud year for the Blind Shake, who are nothing short of the best punk rock band in the Twin Cities, even if they don’t know it. They might be one of the best bands in America. The iconic trio released not one, not two, not three … but four LPs this year, working with various labels and recording all around the country.
Live in San Francisco encapsulates the frantic energy of the band’s live sets, but leaves the filling-rattling volume up to the listener (warning: you will end up turning this album up and uP and UP). Modern Surf Classics is a collaboration which finds the Blind Shake backing post-punk legend Swami John Reis through thirteen inventive instrumentals which live up to the LP’s hyperbolic title. It is certainly the closest the Blind Shake will ever come to a party record.
The strangest, and ultimately most compelling Blind Shake project of the year leaves drummer Dave Roper behind and features the Blaha brothers as a duo in which the younger adds a modified drum kit to his baritone guitar for performances. Shadow in the Cracks (which they are sure to remind us so we’ll tell you now: is not the Blind Shake) is concept piece which presents the Blaha’s darkest inclinations, but really sticks to your ribs. And seems to invoke “Ghost Riders in the Sky” more than once.
The first of the four releases (we think — Fuck this band’s discography has become confusing!) is Fly Right, a 12″ EP released by Memphis’ Goner Records. It seems like a strange bedfellow to last year’s Breakfast of Failures, but its collection of tracks moving in seemingly unconnected directions is likely to be a fan favorite because it encapsulates the band’s inventive potential. We will not so begrudgingly buy four more releases by the Blind Shake next year if they make them, because this year’s haul was absolutely awesome.
As record collectors, we’re hoping this band will slow down next year, but we don’t imagine they will.
The songs throughout the triple album series are consistently catchy, balancing a Sandinista! range of studio experimentation with the more focused direction of an album like Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom, to which we compared Lady President in February. There’s a definite sense of new wave rock to all three, from Television to Talking Heads, but Rank Strangers hardly sound stuck in the past.
Mike Wisti, who founded Rank Strangers twenty-five years ago, writes lyrics like Costello, dense and witty, but throughout these new albums without the cruelty we associate with dear old Declan. In fact, Lady President, Ringtones and The Box approach subjects from natural disasters to overthrowing the government with an almost child-like sense of wonder. These might be the only three albums of 2015 which had us poring over the lyric sheets.
We couldn’t pick a favorite of the three, owing in part to the clever interplay which connects them (for instance, each album features the title track of another). Ringtone‘s penultimate track is a theatrical reworking of the recurring song “The Lone Piranha” which we found highly memorable. Each album opens with a great pop tune, especially Lady President‘s “When the Pendulum Swings,” and each includes a track which comes from seemingly outside the box — “Global Warming” (on The Box) and “The Sound of Tools” (on “Ringtones”) are especially memorable songs, surely ranked with our favorites of the year.
No Luck by What Tyrants
We struggle to explain how Earth-shatteringly awesome we find this album to be, and end up just telling people that it “kicks ass.” So look — since you’re reading a record store’s blog (and not even a particularly fancy record store) we’ll assume you love rock and roll in some form or another. We might not all agree on which is the Kinks’ best album or whether or not the Velvet Underground without John Cale is really the Velvet Underground, but we all love rock and roll. It helps us deal with all the things in life that don’t rock.
What Tyrants fits fits Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous remark: “I know it when I see it.” And what we know, hearing the unbelievably kick-ass tour de force of No Luck, is that this band rocks. These tapes should have come with a warning label, because they’re addictive.
So that’s that. There’s tons of other incredible new local LPs, CDs, tapes and singles from 2015 — and we don’t assume our choice of favorites is in any way authoritative. Most years we come across records we regret not including. All the great artists here in town are one of the best parts about working in a record store in Minneapolis.
Often mistaken for the Ventures, the Frantics were a successful Seattle surf group, who eventually re-settled in San Francisco and formed the nucleus of Moby Grape, a group whose penchants for the peculiar has procured for them a special place in our hearts. And if ever pressed to name our favorite Halloween song, we’d have to choose “Werewolf,” their eerie adaptation of Link Wray, accented with menacing howls and growls.
There’s a short introduction (unless you play the b-side of the 1960 reissue, “No Werewolf”) but other werewolf songs are much more narrative, probably owing to the presence of the lycanthrope in our mythology for centuries. The most famous of these is unquestionably Warren Zevon’s “Werewolf of London,” a minor hit in 1978 which has been a classic rock staple since.
In years since Metallica has implored listeners to “seek the wolf in thyself” and the Cramps have confessed to being teenage werewolves. And there’s Ozzy Osbourne’s “Bark at the Moon,” which presents the tale of an unspecified creature which has returned from the dead to once again terrorize a village. We’ve always assumed the creature was a werewolf (who else barks at the moon?) but Ozzy’s video turns the terror into more Mr. Hyde than Lon Chaney.
It’s hard to take anything Ozzy does too seriously.
Lenny Bruce’s sole attempt at pop music was a jaunty love tune set in enchanting Transylvania, lovingly arranged by jazz bassist Jack Weeks.. Originally issued as a single, and now pretty obscure if not valuable, you’ll most easily find “My Werewolf Mama” on The Real Lenny Bruce, a double-LP retrospective inspired by the Dustin Hoffman biopic Lenny.
Werewolf stories seem to bring out something silly in us, even though they’re supposed to be scary. This is probably why An American Werewolf in London and Teen Wolf are favorites for Gen Xers like ourselves. Speaking of silly, the restaurant in “Werewolf of London,” Lee Ho Fook, actually existed, proudly displaying a portrait of Zevon on its wall. We were just as proud when someone wrote a song about us. Sadly, whether or not a werewolf ever actually ordered a big bowl of beef chow mein is a mystery lost to the ages: Yelp reports Lee Ho Fook closed earlier this year.
They say we dress up as monsters on Halloween to ease our fear of them. There is, after all, enough to keep you up at night before allowing the supernatural to enter into your concerns. Werewolf stories are especially handy mythology because they easily personify the duality in our nature, the conflict between our animal desires and our supposedly enlightened humanity. This is what John Landis was telling us in An American Werewolf in London, but like Ozzy we’ve never been able to take him too seriously.
They aren’t scary stories anymore. Now that everyone can film everything, we’re too busy watching the police knock our children around to look for the things we tried for centuries to document. In the spirit of the silliness of werewolf stories, here’s a song by the Five Man Electrical Band (most famous for the 1971 hit “Signs,” strangely apt to the direction we’ve taken this). Their werewolf story opens with some silly exchanges between Billy’s parents, who are concerned he’s been acting strange lately…
So the dust has settled, so to speak, on Ryan Adams’ cover version of 1989. Its due on LP soon, but likely reached its largest audience when first released online last month. Taylor Swift called it “an honor,” and reviews were mostly kind, if skewed in a sexist direction. Everyone has something to say about the best selling album of the past year. We did, but it was mostly that we love it. And Ryan Adams’ version, eh… it’s not all bad, but its missing something.
We have an on-again, off-again relationship with Adams, who is as prolific a songwriter as he is a producer of successful cover versions. He’s one of those artists where a fan could get frustrated, and spend a fortune, collecting the discography. We’ve been fans since we first bought Whiskeytown’s penultimate disc because it had a brief appearance by Alejandro Escoveda, but Adams’ solo records are a disappointing mixture of gems and duds.
You can’t entirely separate Adams’ output of albums from the entertaining drama to which he seems attached. Between his hostile retirement announcement and the “Summer of ’69” incident, his esoteric side projects like Werewolph and Sleazy Handshake, and his frequent changes of direction, Adams sometimes seems like a relic of the seventies, when rock stars were larger than life. It definitely makes us interested in each new album.
As the title of today’s post suggests, we’ve been thinking about one particular seventies singer, who bounced from band to band, and whose albums were a similar combination of compelling originals and clever covers. Ian Matthews first performed as a member of Fairport Convention, a British group featuring folks who clearly loved California bands like the Byrds or the Grateful Dead. At one point Matthews was sort of un-invited to a recording session, leading him out in to the wilderness of a solo career where he never settled in one place for long.
Matthews’ work included stints in short-lived bands, some of which are occasionally revived: No Faith, More than a Song, Matthews Southern Comfort, Hi Fi, and Plainsong. With these, and under his own name, he’s appeared on at least thirty albums, but even a seasoned collector would be confounded by a quest to find them all.
For today’s post we’ve recorded a few songs from Matthews’ early albums which we have enjoyed. These first two are from his 1974 album, Some Days You Eat the Bear, which is mostly covers. In addition to Tom Waits (whose “Ol’ 55” seems to have been ubiquitous on albums issued by Elektra and Asylum around the time) and Steely Dan, there’s an early cover of “I Don’t Wanna Talk About It,” which was written by Danny Whitten for the first Crazy Horse album. The song later appeared on Rita Coolidge’s best-selling Anytime…Anywhere and Rod Stewart’s Atlantic Crossing, both albums which certainly eclipsed anything Matthews recorded, but we really love his take on this beautiful song. The second tune from this album is one of the songs Gene Clark wrote while performing with the Flying Burrito Brothers.
These next selections are from the single album by Plainsong, a band which Matthews founded with Andy Roberts, whose previous work included playing guitar arrangements to accompany poetry in esoteric English acts the Liverpool Scene and the Scaffold. In Search of Amelia Earhart is heavily influenced by Fred Goerner’s 1966 conspiracy theory book, but isn’t entirely a concept album (not all the songs are about the famed pilot’s mysterious disappearance). Matthews’ fans consider this one of his best albums, and while it received positive reviews and they toured that year, the band didn’t last.
Matthews and Roberts revived Plainsong in the 90s and released several CDs, each of which were all but un-available here in the states. A 2005 double-disc collected the original 1972 album and also songs recorded for what would have been their second LP.
A cover of “Shake It” by Terrance Boylan (no, not “Shake it Off”!) was the only hit of Ian Matthews career. A single from his sixteenth album, Stealin’ Home, it reached #13 here in the United States. With Hi Fi he released a couple albums in the early 80s, exploring his songwriting in power pop instead of folk rock and also covering Prince’s “When You Were Mine.” For a while after this he worked in the A&R department at Island Record and then at new age staple Windham Hill. He has, on more recent solo records, used the original spelling of his name, Iain Matthews.
Here are two songs from Tigers Will Survive, Matthews’ second solo album, on which his Fairport Convention bandmate Richard Thompson appeared as “Woolfe J. Flywheel.” This album is much more directly connected to his roots in the English folk scene, but the title tune seems like a fitting theme song for the singer, who at sixty-nine is still performing infrequently. His last album, The Art of Obscurity, was released a few years ago on a fittingly unknown label called Fledg’ling, and billed in the notes as his last.
This last song, “Please be my Friend,” reminds us of “Friends” from Ryan Adams’ ’05 album with the Cardinals, Cold Roses. This is the sort of song that makes us think of the two as similar — in their original songs, both are often reaching out for the connection of a friendship. The Plainsong album is deeply concerned with what we do to get through disillusionment in a way that several songs on Adams’ solo debut, Heartbreaker, is as well.