The Flying Burrito Brothers, Last of the Red Hot Burritos
File Between: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Poco
Comments: The Flying Burrito Brothers put out one great album and one okay album, and then Gram Parsons left and there was really no point in going on, but Chris Hillman did, and this is the last gasp of that band, a live album with plentiful studio overdubs that sometimes make it feel like the crowd noise, not the crystal-clear instrumentation, is what’s being dropped in after the fact. Neither Hillman nor Ricky Roberts is a strong singer — certainly not on Parsons’ level — and while the playing is proficient the songs are formless and the banter excruciating. From being the first, foundational country-rock band to being a barely-competent country-rock band in just four short years must have taken a lot of drugs and self-delusion; but the band really only comes to life in instrumental passages, where they get to display the chops that listening to thousands of Bill Monroe, Buck Owens, and Allman Brothers records had given them. The bluegrass sequence at the end of the first side is probably the record’s highlight.
A Keeper? I think I’ve complained before about live albums. This one is no better or worse than the average, and all the moments of brilliance sound studio-overdubbed.
Vinyl Rip: High Fashion Queen
Stevie Wonder, Talking Book
File Between: Marvin Gaye and Paul McCartney
Comments: It’s hard to even think of things to say about such a seminal masterwork in twentieth-century music. Stevie would go on to make more ambitious, more thematically dense, and even in their way more progressive records, but I don’t know that he ever made a more complete record than this. It’s his second album of the year, and when we looked at Music of My Mind I sort of hinted that it was the better album, and it would be even if it was just “Superstition” on one side and the other side blank. But of course it’s more than that — just as much a protest album as Come from the Shadows, only if possible shrewder in its analysis and righter on in its irony (just listen to “Big Brother” and marvel at the compactness of his writing), an album about interpersonal relations and broader social issues, race very much included, but more than anything an album about sound, music sculpted from studio clay by Stevie and a small handful of hired guns (Jeff Beck, David Sanborn, and Ray Parker, Jr. among them), bookended by two of the most impossibly sweet love songs ever written, songs which reached back to the fluffy innocence of early Motown but rode a wiser, smoother rhythm. Among many other things, it’s one of the first great adult contemporary records, insofar as adult contemporary is a sound and a mood; that it’s also a great funk record, a great soul record, and (you could make the claim) a great jazz record is only further testament to the twenty-two-year-old Stevie Wonder’s genius.
A Keeper? Dude. Don’t even joke about it.
Vinyl Rip: Tuesday Heartbreak
Joan Baez, Come From the Shadows
File Between: Shirley Collins and Utah Phillips
Comments: There is a certain kind of music listener who believes that Yoko Ono made more substantially meaningful music than John Lennon. I’m getting to the point where I might believe that Joan Baez’ music is more truthful than Bob Dylan’s. Come From the Shadows refuses the gnomic self-obsession that’s characterized Dylan’s music ever since 1966, and engages fully with the political world. From the cover shot of two elderly union strikers flashing peace signs while being frogmarched away by bemused cops, to Baez’ sleeve notes, full of righteous indignation about American atrocities in Vietnam, this is a deeply liberal, even radical record — her notes end with a call to abandon capitalism, the army, and the nation state — and the music in the grooves, if it doesn’t quite reach as far (she covers Arthur Alexander and Kenny Rogers, and fronts a collection of Nashville session players), is still lyrically unsparing. She calls for the abolition of the prison system, expresses solidarity with the people of newly-independent Bangladesh, delivers a hurt and scathing rebuke to Dylan’s dropping out of political music, and draws parallels between unionism and feminism in a series of songs that are, sickeningly, no less relevant today than in 1972 — and given how utterly false the myth of the middle ground has proven to be, may be even more so. I don’t know of anybody making such clearly engaged, forcefully expressed, and seductively beautiful music today: even if idealistic liberalism remains the default political stance of most musicians today, Dylan’s isolated self-plumbing is the default mode, and everyone (except a handful of rappers) is too afraid of being called strident. Many, many records have ended with a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” — this is one of the few that deserves to. Thank God for Joan Baez.
A Keeper? I think so.
Vinyl Rip: The Partisan
Captain Beefheart, The Spotlight Kid
File Between: Howlin’ Wolf and Tom Waits
Comments: Of Beefheat’s two 1972 records, this is the more (relatively) conventional and even commercial, almost a standard boogie album. Lots of groove riding and blues riffs, with little of the formal and structural play that characterized his 1969 peak; the only instrument that would sound out of place in a standard choogle-rock outfit is the marimba. Unless, of course, you count Beefheart’s voice, an amazing instrument that has more texture available to it in the slightest choke, growl, mutter, or whimper than most singers get out of a lifetime’s use. Again, though, his lyrics stay relatively coherent, if certainly spacey, and the overall effect is to suggest that maybe latter-day Tom Waits was never all that groundbreaking to begin with.
A Keeper? I mean, it’s still Beefheart.
Vinyl Rip: Click Clack
File Between: The Cake and the Carpenters
Comments: I was shocked when I found this in the local Half-Price Books, going cheap thanks to a clipped corner but otherwise pristine; I had been led to believe that it was one of the rarest of sunshine pop rarities, the low-selling and therefore low-print-run vanity project of Brian Wilson’s wife and sister-in-law, on which Brian and the boys helped out, just about the time the Beach Boys were running terminally out of steam themselves. A quick search later, and of course I had been overstating its rarity; but I’m still proud to own it. If you have an appreciation for the post-Smile Beach Boys, particularly as they start to drift into cosmic nothingness in the 70s, you should certainly hear this (more often reissued as American Spring, because I guess the UK already had a Spring and they’re the ones driving reissue sales, but I have a US printing, dammit). The arrangements are often startlingly beautiful, and the songs — if occasionally too sung-over to have much of value (Leon Russell’s “Superstar,” Carole King’s “Now That Everything’s Been Said,” Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz”) — are often quite good. This is especially true when a Wilson brother has a writing credit: some of Brian’s pet sounds are all over the record, and the lively, inventive vocal arrangements and sun-damaged chamber-pop are unmistakable marks of Brian, even a Brian on the wane. The outstanding highlight is probably Dennis’s “Forever,” which goes for hushed intimacy, leaning into the undeniable skid that is the fact that the Rovell sisters’ voices simply aren’t very good. They’re certainly no Wilsons; and the fact that the few dense harmonies we get were all provided by the Wilsons singing backup strikes me as a missed opportunity. Lovely of Brian to provide his then-wife the recording time, songs, and so forth, of course; but if he really wanted to create some deathless pop, a female version of the Beach Boys — with those dense, cut-glass harmonies — would have maybe brought about the end of the world, since nothing better could ever have happened.
A Keeper? No, really, it’s fine. It gets a little 70s Laurel Canyon soggy in spots, but the Beach-ier numbers make up for it.
Vinyl Rip: Thinkin’ Bout You Baby