Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Mini-Review: Paul Simon So Beautiful or So What

Go out and BUY this record. 4 1/2 STARS.

It's right up there with Graceland, Rhythm of the Saints and his early classics. The Afterlife is a hoot ("You got to fill out a form first, then you stand in a line" and "all of the noses from Buddha to Moses got to stand in the line"). Also the title cut and Dazzling Blue and the one that says "Love is eternal sacred light". Getting Ready for Christmas will probably be hugely overplayed next Christmas, but it's vintage Simon. Lots of complex rhythms and intricate guitar figures that you'd expect from his Graceland/Saints days.

I've read some complaints about Simon being too religious on this album (meaning Christian). As a confirmed agnostic, I'd have to say, GET OVER IT. As the man said about 20 years ago, "The Cross is in the Ballpark. Why deny the Obvious, child?"

Can a New Age Buddhist pop song be hip? Review of Junior Burke’s While You Were Gone (2007)

This CD would be very easy not to find, and that’s a shame. It’s a really good record, by a really good songwriter and singer and I didn’t find it until about 3 years after it was released. I know that I would never have found it had I not been looking, but I was looking for Thom Bishop and not Junior Burke. This story starts in the late 1970’s in Chicago. I was learning how to play the guitar and spent a fair amount of time going to clubs like Orphan’s and Somebody Else’s Troubles to listen to a lot of young singer-songwriters. One of the ones that stood out the most was Thom Bishop. He had a trademark mix of smooth literate folk and pop. He was deeply romantic, but struck a jaded pose. You had no doubt that like John Lennon, he could carve you up with a few well chosen words.

He wrote a number of musical theater pieces, including one on Sonny Liston that he co-wrote with Jim Tullio. He put out an LP called Wireless Wonder in 1981. He had a song recorded but never released by Bob Dylan in some late-80’s sessions produced by David Bromberg. He went to LA to pursue songwriting, screenwriting and supposedly writing the Great American Novel. I went to Austin in the mid-80’s following my own path.

In those pre-Internet days, he pretty much vanished. I found his CD Restless State of Grace by accident (a review of one of my releases was on the same page as a review of his CD in Dirty Linen) in the early 90’s. My wife found another CD ( Feed Me a Dream) in the late 90’s. I would search the internet for him on occasion and would find nothing. About a year ago I finally found a reference to him on a Wikipedia page where the mystery unraveled. Thomas Burke Bishop Jr. had changed his name to Junior Burke, become the head of the writing program at Naropa University in Boulder Colorado, written a novel, and released a “debut” CD. That CD was While You Were Gone, which is a very fine CD produced by Chicagoan Jim Tullio.

The recording and production are first rate throughout, as are all the musicians. Jim Tullio has produced records for such artists' as Richie Havens, Dave Mason, Rick Danko, Rosalie Sorrels, Mary McCaslin, David Bromberg, Steve Goodman, John Martyn, Mavis Staples, and many, many more. He contributes electric and acoustic guitars, bass, BG Vox and Percussion. Ed Tossing is excellent on piano on a number of cuts. John Rice contributes Guitars, Dobro, Fiddle and Bazouki. Travis Bernhard and Mark Walker are sitting in on Drums. Billy Panda contributes electric guitars on a couple tunes and slide on another. Chris Cameron plays the Hammond B3 on Blessed.

The words that come to mind when describing Burke’s songwriting are sophisticated, ironic, and literate. He’s as comfortable with “Copeland and Foster and Bernstein” as he is with Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Muddy Waters and R&B and Blues Singer-Songwriter Doc Pomus. He lays out the tracks on the CD with a novelist or playwright’s sense of structure, to tell a story. It starts off with the premise that love and happiness are unlikely and proceeds to demonstrate it through a series of songs where he tries on a variety of personas and styles from Literate Rocker, folk singer, Irish balladeer, Soft Jazz crooner and others. In the process, he strips away the masks that he has worn until he arrives at his true self expressed best in the refrain of the title cut, It All Happened While You Were Gone. At that point he can express and obtain true love in The Cool of the Day. But that is not quite the end of the story.

The CD kicks off with Teleclone Universe. Telecloning is some pretty complex quantum physics about cloning and teleporting information to multiple receivers that boils down here to a world where anything is possible (this is more Star Trek than Los Alamos). Think of it as multiple parallel universes where John Lennon doesn’t die, Jack Kerouac gets sober and is still on the road, there’s no Atomic Age, and Reagan waits backstage etc. Good mind-bending fun in a blues rock package. The moral of the story is that “in the teleclone universe/life rings clear and true/you end up with me/I end up with you.” The rest of the album makes clear that this is an unlikely outcome, especially factoring in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. You won’t understand Quantum Physics any better after listening to this, but you will have a smile on your face.

Black Eyed Susan is co-written with Billy McKay. This is folk finger-picking gem about a dark eyed woman of mystery and the price that you pay for loving her. The theme and the monotone vocal are both reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s classic Suzanne, though you would never mistake Burke’s tenor for Cohen’s rasp. Indeed, Cohen is a major influence on Burke. This is one of the real stellar cuts here, but is very understated and might slip by your attention. Here’s a taste: “She will say she’ll stay forever/she will say that you’re the first/she’ll promise you water from heaven’s well/while you’re dying there of thirst.”

Bed Full of Blue is a beautiful ballad about dreaming of a long-lost love co-written with Jim Tullio. This is typical of the romantic wistfulness and seemingly effortless wordplay that colors many of Burke/Bishop’s ballads. The song starts out with “What were you doing in my bed last night? What were you doing in my head last night?” and ends wistfully with, “What were you doing in my mind last night? What kind of truth did I find last night?” He also manages to seamlessly integrate references to Muddy Waters and blues songwriter Doc Pomus (Drifters, Ray Charles).

Tunnel at the End of the Light is an old Thom Bishop song reborn in an Irish/Celtic folk tune arrangement. I remember hearing Thom do this solo many, many years ago. The story is a Modern Romance, a cosmic attraction. It starts out with, “They were a match made in heaven/ He would say she was his kind of girl/ She had that something about her/ That made him jump out of his skin.” But somehow their love takes a turn for the worse. After the inevitable flameout, she begins to pick up the pieces. “Now the years have imparted a distance/ She sees it all now as a dream/Just something that happened to someone/ Without so much pain in between.” All of this, complete with Tenor and Irish Flute, Button Accordion, Bazouki, Piano and guitars and drums. Imagine Van Morrison with the Chieftains backing him.

Walking My Karma is another co-write with Jim Tullio. Burke plays the soft jazz crooner (think Michael Buble) warbling a hip, pop-Buddhist lyric. But then can a New Age Buddhist pop song be hip? The song reminds us that we get what we pay for and that we pay for our mistakes, whether in this or a past life.

What the Devil Loves is a bluesy number co-written with Nashville songwriter Fred Koller. Junior sings with gusto that, “We’ve all got something that we’re hungry for, that’s what the Devil loves.” And for good measure he adds: “Devil loves a poor man, poor man got to eat/Devil loves to tempt him with the taste of something sweet/Open up your Bible, there in Chapter One/Adam bit that apple and the devil’s job was done.” Junior adds some solid harmonica touches to the Guitar, Bazouki and Fiddle accompaniment.

Key to the Kingdom showcases Junior’s smooth soulful vocals and vibrato in a shuffling little tune about feeling left behind and wanting to get ahead in the world. “One buck buys you nothing/five bucks not much more/ten bucks wins the door prize/then you've got to lock the door/give me the key to the kingdom/I'm in a terrible bind/everybody's grabbing something/I think I’ll go get mine.” The smooth performance masks and softens the selfish longing attitude of the lyric.

It All Happened While You Were Gone is another old Thom Bishop love song and the tangled webs we weave, the loss of a true love and losing and finding our true self. This is an interesting choice as the title for the CD. Perhaps the ending sheds some light on the dichotomy of Junior Burke/Thom Bishop and the uneasy truce between the two elements of his persona. “It’s a sin, it’s a shame /What is done in the name /Of true love, till that love wanders home/I can’t grieve anymore /For what was done before/‘Cause it all happened while you were gone….” The song is about making peace with the past, realizing that what's done is done and being able to move on.

The song Cool of the Day is a jazz-inflected tune of true love and the support that a true lover brings “In the cool of the day, I can feel you…” and “When my strength starts to stray, you surround me/All my fear goes away once you’ve found me.” There’s some great piano work by Ed Tossing (as there is on several songs).

Autumn Ending is a new recording of a song released previously on Feed Me a Dream. While this is a very good version of the song, again with wonderful piano work by Ed Tossing I was perplexed at first at why it might be here. The song invokes a moment of purity and innocence just before JFK’s assassination. The song is an attempt to recapture that moment of clear blue sky before winter comes and changes everything. This is the spiritual heart of the record and the clearest expression of Burke/Bishop’s dilemma. He truly wants to shed all the masks and cynicism to get to that pure and innocent feeling, but to him it’s more dream than reality. It slips away so easily. “When I awoke, it went like smoke” as he writes in another a song from Feed me a Dream.

The album closes with Blessed , which is very reminiscent of late Leonard Cohen tunes like The Future and Everybody Knows . The song is an apocalyptic vision spoken over an insistent rock beat, Hammond organ, and electric guitars. Junior chants that “Blessed are the hopeless with too much to bear/blessed are the clerics for their twisted prayer/blessed are the fingers that shuffle the cards/blessed are the fires in the barren yards.” The song is filled with resurrections, saints, heretics, innocents, criminals and brides. There is some shred of hope in the lyrics, but you get more of the sense of Hieronymus Bosch or Brueghel. If we are to survive, we will have to overcome this reality. You don’t do that with wishful thinking or longing for lost loves. If at all, you do it by being who you are.

If you can find it, pick up a copy of Junior’s novel, Something Gorgeous. It’s a great read and an alternative take (think Teleclone Universe) on The Great Gatsby. It takes on many of the same themes of identity, true love, and fate that he tackles in this fine CD.

Monday, April 11, 2011

It's All Happening at the Zoo

I do believe it, I do believe it's true...

Yesterday afternoon, Laura and I went to the National Zoo. Got there around 1 pm and it was overcast and chilly. The main purpose of our visit was to go and see the lion cubs. There were seven cubs born in two litters last August and September. They did not disappoint and Laura took some cute video snippets that she's posting on her facebook page.

We also saw the "new" Pandas, zebras, cheetahs, and various and sundry other animals. By the time we left, the sun had broken through and it was warming up to a respectable Spring temperature.

Things happening this week - I'll be performing (weather permitting) at the Paradise Springs Winery in Clifton VA on Friday evening from 5:30-8:30 pm. For more information and directions you can go to http://www.paradisespringswinery.com/ .

Paul Simon is releasing a new album tomorrow. So far, I've read some reasonably good reviews, but I'm reserving judgement. Is a new album by Paul really relevant or necessary? I guess we'll find out. In any event, there's nothing he could release that would diminish his overall relevance to the musical conversation of the last 50 years. Hopefully, I can be as good or better than I am now, when I reach his age.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

CD Review: Bruce Cockburn, Small Source of Comfort

I’ve been listening to Bruce Cockburn since 1984. I read a review of a concert he had done in Chicago and I was intrigued, so I went out and found a cassette of Stealing Fire. I was captivated from the first notes of Lovers in a Dangerous Time and I’ve been listening ever since.

Bruce’s new release, Small Source of Comfort, is another worthy addition to the collection. Some reviewers have hailed it as a return to form and to his “folk” roots. While I would say that his last studio effort, Life’s Short Call Now, was somewhat of a disappointment, you can’t get much folkier than a live solo acoustic recording such as Slice of Life. To me, Bruce is working from the same sonic palette that he has been working with, to good effect, at least since 1991’s Nothing But a Burning Light. What’s new, or at least different here, are his collaboration with Jazz violinist Jenny Scheinman and his collaboration with Annabelle Chvostek on a couple of tunes. There are also five standout instrumental pieces. This is an unusually large number, although one or two instrumentals has become common over the last 20 years and more instrumentals have surfaced on some of the deluxe re-issues.

One thing that you can usually count on from Bruce is a strong opening track, which sets a tone and sometimes the theme for what follows: songs like Lovers in a Dangerous Time, Dream Like Mine, Night Train, Tried and Tested, If a Tree Falls, and Call it Democracy. Here, the song is Iris of the World. It reminds me a little of his song World of Wonders, especially the acoustic version on Slice of Life. It starts out with the mundane indignities and uncertainties of crossing a border in these post 9/11 days and how the minutiae that they check misses the bigger picture. That is followed by snapshot images from the road and the feelings that they spark. The third verse is kind of self-assessment, the kind of mental chatter that I can imagine myself getting into on a long solitary drive. Despite the indignities suffered in the passage, what comes through and what lasts is love. Driving is the source of many of the images that fuel the songs on the entire collection.

Call Me Rose is a pretty unique addition to the Cockburn catalog. I can’t think of the last time (if there ever was one) where he ventured into satire. This song has prompted some debate among reviewers and among the fans on the Humans group on Yahoo. While I can say that this is not great Cockburn, it is certainly intriguing. Despite the outrageous premise of Richard Nixon being reincarnated as a poor single mother in the projects, it doesn’t seem that far-fetched. Where it falls short is that it doesn’t really illuminate the condition of the single mother, and thereby is merely amusing rather than biting. Also, Richard Nixon seems like a pretty dated target for this kind of rumination. He also wasn’t that bad a President on the domestic front. He certainly didn’t advocate the undoing of the New Deal or even welfare. Perhaps having him return as a Vietnamese peasant in a sweatshop would have been more appropriate. Or just changing the subject to Richard Cheney would have been more delicious.

Bohemian 3-Step is the first of the very strong and engaging instrumentals, which is just guitar with a touch of light drums. Bruce provides the bass with his strong thumb. Radiance is the first tune that really highlights Jenny Scheinman. In contrast to the lyrics, the music is actually quite dark and mysterious with the violin and accordion giving it a European world-weary feeling. For me, this is not the kind of tune that Bruce’s vocals shine on. They come across as a little formal and stilted.

5:51 is a blues tune, another form that Bruce has used sparingly over the years. The last one I can think of is Soul of a Man from Nothing but a Burning Light. The “cops at the door in the middle of the night” harkens back to Peggy’s Kitchen Wall and the “diesel on the breeze” and "too much traffic on my mind" ties this song of waking up tired, aching and distracted to the road theme. Here, the vocals are more comfortable

Driving Away is one of two collaborations with Annabelle Chvostek. The liner notes suggest that the lyrics were mostly written by Annabelle and I would say that they are more impressionistic than Bruce’s lyrics usually are. The listener has to fill in the blanks on the story (if there really even is one). The song is about leaving something or someone behind and the images are of longing and regret. Lois on the Autobahn is another instrumental, written for his mother who died last year. It’s a jazz tune supported by Jenny’s violin. The collaboration really shines on this piece. While the guitar work could stand on its own, it would really lose much of its beauty without the violin part.

Boundless is the second collaboration with Annabelle C. According to the liner notes, this was mostly lyrics by Bruce. This song is marked by strong religious and spiritual imagery and is probably the song (aside from Iris of the World) that many long-time fans will gravitate to. It is certainly the “deepest” song on the record, and open to many interpretations depending on your spiritual bent. I also catch an echo of Wait No More where he says that “Lightning's a kiss that lands hot on the loins of the sky.” Here, Bruce says that he “feel[s] these serpents of desire ripple my skin like ropes of fire.” Perhaps to avoid getting too serious, Bruce places the humorous song, Called Me Back, right after this one. Humorous songs are another rarity in the Cockburn catalog. This is not to say that Bruce doesn’t have a sense of humor, just that he will never be mistaken for Loudon Wainwright or Jimmy Buffett. The song has some lyrical similarity to Anything Can Happen, from 1989’s Big Circumstance.

Comets of Kandahar is another instrumental showcasing Jenny Scheinman’s sometimes dissonant jazz violin over a strong, insistent drumbeat and, of course, Bruce’s steady guitar. There are also some vaguely Middle Eastern accents to some of the violin riffs. It was inspired by the planes taking off at night and Bruce described it as “Django meets John Lee Hooker.” The violin takes a more supporting role in Each One Lost, a simple folk melody about the ceremony for two dead soldiers at an airbase in the Middle East.

Parnassus and Fog is another guitar and violin collaboration, with some accordion and barely noticeable electric guitar from producer Colin Linden. Some of the guitar work harkens back to the instrumental style of late 70’s albums like Dancing in the Dragons Jaw. Ancestors is another instrumental. This time it is just Bruce and Gary Craig on Singing Bowl or chimes with some delay effects on the guitar. The album ends with the short song Gifts, something that Bruce wrote about 40 years ago. He used to close his live shows with it, but never thought it felt right to record it until now. It is a non-sectarian prayer of sorts, acknowledging our oneness with nature, with the rain and sunlight and rocky shore. The song of the rain becomes his song and his gift to us in the end.

After 31 albums it is a little difficult not to make comparisons. For example, you might ask if Bruce made a compendium of road songs similar to Speechless, would Driving Away or Iris of the World make the cut? The bottom line is that this is a good album by a consistently strong artist. I’ve made mention of connections to other albums and his past work, but this album stands on its own and would be a reasonable introduction to his music. For his long-time fans, this should have more than enough sonic and lyrical gems to satisfy.

Also posted on Nodepression.com