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Friday
Jan 09 2015

Front-to-Back Album Friday: Rodrigo y Gabriela - 9 Dead Alive

Let's start this episode of Front-to-Back Album Friday with a short discussion about the click track (stick with me this is will be brilliant). But before we can talk about the click track we have to talk about your amygdala and hippocampus – yes that amygdala and hippocampus. Studies have shown that when a person listens to music, their heart and breath rates synch up with the music being listened to. You truly become one with your music.

Human beings all perceive time differently, that is to say, musical time. Live, song speeds can vary quite a bit because of the energy inherent in a live performance, but even in a recording studio, time varies because human beings are not machines. Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones starts at 132 Beats per Minute (BPM) and ends at 140 BPM - a 6% increase in speed. As listeners, we don't notice those variations in terms of numerical calculations, we instead notice them as emotions – excitement, joy, anger, etc.

But, with the advent of multi-track recording came a small problem: the tempo (or time) of a song varies sometimes slightly, sometimes wildly, over the course of the song. Choruses tend to speed up and breakdowns tend to slow down, so when another musician would come in to play along with a previously recorded track with tempo variations, madness would ensue. And I mean anger- and rage-type madness, because it can sometimes be impossible to play over a track with tempo variations if the exact energy of the original performance can't be replicated.

So engineers began to record single tracks with just a click or beat for the musicians playing on the track to use as a reference. Admittedly, there are a lot of drummers (and other players) out there who can't keep a beat even with a click track, but that's another story for another day. It's a common practice today for record producers to actually speed the click track up during choruses or other parts of a song to induce emotional excitement in a listener. Basically, you are listening to mechanically induced excitement rather than emotionally induced excitement – that's why so much modern music sounds so aloof and plodding.

That's also why when you hear really good musicians playing free from mechanical time keeping devices you get so emotionally involved in the music. That's also why 9 Dead Alive is this week's Front-to-Back Album (and why you should buy a copy for yourself), but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Released April 29, 2014 on ATO Records

Produced by Rodrigo y Gabriela

Engineered by Fermin Vasquez Llera

Recorded at Lumbini Studios, Ixtapa, Mexico

Mixed by Andrew Sceps at Punkerpad West Studios, Van Nuys, CA

Mastered by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering, LA, CA

Length: 40:57

Peaked at Number 22 Billboard Top 200 (2014), Billboard World Albums: #1 (2014, January 2015), Top Digital Albums (#12), Top Independent Albums (#5), Top Rock Albums (#7)


Personnel:

Rodrigo Sanchez - Guitars (typically in your right channel)

Gabriela Quintero - Guitars (typically in your left channel)

2014 was a banner year for me musically – I bought more complete albums in 2014 than I did in probably the previous five years combined. There was just a lot of really good music released last year. If I was inclined to rate the albums I was exposed to last year (I'm not), 9 Dead Alive would certainly be in the top three.

In terms of frequency range, this is basically a recording of two guitars, so don't expect to work your system out too much from bottom to top, but, in terms of dynamic range, there's a lot of it to be had here. Listen to this closely and on a decent system and you'll be amazed at how many different noises and sounds come out of a guitar body. Especially when performed by musicians who can play like Rodrigo and Gabriela .

I bought this on vinyl, so we'll list the tracks per side.

Side 1

The Soundmaker (4:52): The title of the album refers to the nine largest influences in the dou's lives and the set opener is dedicated to Spanish luthier Antonio de Torres Jurado. This one is adorned with a somewhat simple and repetitive melody which sounds like I mean that in a bad way, but I don't. The Soundmaker will burrow its way into your head and stick there just like all good songs are supposed to do. It's also in the early parts of this track that you'll hear those tempo variations I spoke about earlier. Remember, when done right, tempo variations are a good thing, and this song is an example of all that is good in live music.

Torito (5:03): I don't know about the CD, and I am sure the digital download doesn't contain the sparse-yet-cool liner notes that come with the vinyl LP. As you listen to the tracks you can actually read something on a piece of paper without getting a splitting eye-headache. This is why I know this song is dedicated to animals and nature, and as you listen to the track you get the connection between the two the artists were trying to convey. This song does a great job of transporting the listener to the hot and dry climate of Mexico (or interior Spain for that matter), but it does so in a positive and spiritual manner that's just fun to be a part of.

Sunday Neurosis (5:16): This is another example of two musicians breathing together as they play. The time wanders a bit (if you pay close attention), but it's in the wandering that the essence of the song comes out. They are completely in synch with each other and that's all that matters when you are listening to music. Your job as a listener is to keep up. This is a beautifully evocative song with a hint of organ (uncredited) lilting gently under spoken word excerpts that allow Sanchez to segue beautifully into his best solo lines on the record. This single song is an entire musical experience. Then of course there's the jet.

Misty Moses (4:38): Listen closely to the left channel to hear Quintero's masterful flamenco-style percussion work and the delightful thud of Quintero's guitar as she keeps the beat will give your subwoofer a nice little workout. Hats off to the recording engineer for capturing the in-tight sounds of both guitars without losing the sense of space by removing all of the air from the recording. The arrangement is in perfect harmony with the production on this one – turn it up!

Excuse me while I get up and flip the record.

I'm back.

Side 2

Somnium (3:43): This is by far my personal favorite track on this album because it does such a good job of conveying a specific time and place. I'll let you decide what time and place that is, but for me, this song could have been twice as long and I wouldn't have complained. Listen closely around the 2:00 mark and you'll once again hear a pair of musicians who are breathing and whose hearts are beating in perfect synch. The tempo lifts, but it lifts in a magnificently human way.

Fram (4:30): This song conveys the manic times of a man who lived to save potentially millions of lives during and just after World War I. The beauty of instrumental music – when it's done right – is that the music becomes the lyric. That's another reason why having the liner notes is pretty much essential to your enjoyment of this record. The brief notes about each track help set you up for the journey you are being taken on. You can't get that with a digital download.

Megalopolis (5:00): Coming down from the frantic pace of the previous track, this song plays like a cool breeze blowing across the pampas on an otherwise hot summer evening. Unusual for an album of this nature, it's about this time that you realize you're thirty minutes into the set and you're a little disappointed it's almost over.

The Russian Messenger (4:53): Beginning at the 1:17 mark, this song takes an interesting turn away from itself – and the rest of the album. The rhythmic interplay and spaciousness is really a lot of fun to listen to and Sanchez shows off some of his solo chops after the breakdown. You can feel him step out and stretch a bit before returning right back into the rhythm. The song seems to end at the 3:47 mark but the rhythm comes back in stronger and more confident than before. Listen closely in here because there is a lot going on.

Les Salle Des Pas Perdus (3:02): A little bit of conversation opens this closer that evokes a medieval theme (read the liner notes). Sanchez plays a lot more notes on this track than on any of the others, yet the song still sounds sparse and open – a tribute to a musician who knows when to play and when not to play.

9 Dead Alive is best listened to:

  • Outside at night (if it's summer or you're lucky enough to live somewhere where you can do those things even when its not summer)
  • Inside at night with as little unnatural lighting as possible (e.g. lots of candles) if it happens to be 8 degrees out where you are (like where I am)
  • I hate to be lame, but seriously a nice Spanish Roja or a well-crafted sangria (not that store-bought stuff) is pretty much exactly what you need
  • I hate to say this, but if you're looking for background music for a nice little dinner or something this is a good record for that. That being said, this record deserves to be so much more than background music, so just sit back and listen

Jack Sharkey for KEF

Friday
Dec 05 2014

Front-to-Back Album Friday: Gram Parsons - Grievous Angel

Somewhere, on some highway, there's a place like the Grievous Angel. I'm absolutely sure I had a chicken sandwich and a glass of water there just outside of Tucumcari on the way from Amarillo to Albuquerque one day many years ago. That may or may not have actually happened, but I'm pretty sure in our collective American musical conscience it did (for all of us at one time or another).

Gram Parson's second solo album is not a particularly well-recorded record, but it wouldn't be half as good as it is if it was. This record is the single-span bridge on the western highway between all that came out of Nashville in the 1950s and 1960s and all that would come out of Los Angeles in the middle-1970s. It's easy to hear Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, and America in this record, but if you listen close enough you can hear Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and every honky-tonk band that ever played anywhere in between. I'll go as far as to say Fleetwood Mac and a whole host of other artists (Scot headbangers Nazareth!) wouldn't have had the careers they had without Gram Parsons and this album.

Parsons destroyed himself with drugs and alcohol before this album was released and in that sickly poignant fact lies the truth that in death Parsons became much bigger than he ever could have in life. Unfortunately, we may all have been better off if he had stuck around to prove me wrong.

Released January 1974 on Reprise Records

Produced by Gram Parsons

Engineered by Hugh Davies

Recorded at Wally Heifer 4 (Nashville) and Capitol Recording Studios (Los Angeles)

Mixed by Hugh Davies

Length: 38:06

Reached Number 195 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums in 1974

Personnel:

  • Gram Parsons - Vocals, Guitars
  • Emmylou Harris - Vocals
  • Glen Hardin - Keyboards
  • Emory Gordy - Bass
  • Ronnie Tutt - Drums
  • N.D. Smart - Drums
  • James Burton - Guitars
  • Herb Pederson - Guitars
  • Al Perkins - Pedal Steel
  • Bernie Leadon - Dobro, guitars
  • Byron Berline - Fiddle, mandolin
  • Steve Snyder - Vibraphone

When I scheduled this piece I listened to it first on the original vinyl I bought in 1975, and apparently as a teenager I didn't take care of my vinyl as much as I thought it did. Luckily I also had a new 180gm disk that is pretty much scratchless. The recording is kind of small and flat with not a lot of dynamic range to it, but since its largely percussive with a smattering of pedal steel and fiddle thrown about for good measure, that small dynamic range actually sounds exactly right. Sonically, you won't hear a lot of cymbals and upper register frequencies, so don't panic that your hearing is shot (it probably is, but that shouldn't affect your ability to listen to this record).

Parsons was first and foremost a story-teller and that is why this album needs to be in your collection. This is a set of stories about a guy who was struggling to find his way in the world and who ultimately lost that fight. It comes at a time when the bulk of American music was transitioning from '60s pop and folk flavorings into a darker, more austere period that existed before Big Pop (I'm looking at you BeeGees) took over in the latter part of the decade. There is an innocence amongst the struggle that could only have existed in this small window of time between the days when pop stars thought they could change the world and the time when they learned they were doomed to live in it (just like the rest of us).

Side 1

Return of the Grievous Angel (4:19): I’m not sure which is more iconic, the Al Perkins' pedal steel or Emmylou Harris’ vocals. The poetry of the lyric and the feel of the arrangement evokes everything we like to think exists west of the Mississippi River, but maybe never really did, or still does, I’m not really sure, but I love taking the ride whenever I listen to this song anyway. If you want to understand American music, you should familiarize yourself with this song.

Hearts On Fire (3:50): Walter Egan of Magnet and Steel fame co-wrote this semi-meandering tale of heartbreak and bad love. I always wondered why there were vibes in this song as they just didn’t seem congruous with what is essentially a country song, but then again what the hell do I know? I suppose the vibrato on the vibes evokes a sad pedal steel, but I still can’t really get past why its just not a pedal steel.

I Can’t Dance (2:20): When you work with Elvis Presley’s backing band (James Burton on guitars and Glen Hardin on piano) on a Tom T. Hall song you’re going to sound like the King, even if you’re just a wayward southern boy playing desert rock and roll. This song is a strong fiber of connection between Elvis and the birth of rock and roll and the LA sound of the mid-70s that still influences American music today. The vocals are noisy on this track in particular so you have to listen past that a little.

Brass Buttons (3:27): This is the set's best showcase of Parson’s beautifully plaintive voice and the acoustic guitar (in the right channel) is a perfect example of how an acoustic guitar should be recorded and equalized. This may be a sad song about either Parson’s daughter or the state of Parson’s life in general, but it’s a really poignant and beautiful song nevertheless.

$1000 Wedding (5:00): The strongest track on the album, this record is worth owning just for this one song alone. This track is a re-telling of Parson’s own failed attempt to marry the mother of his daughter, but it takes on a completely different meaning having been released posthumously. Sometimes the best music is the music that was written to salve a wound within the writer but that sends a universal message to the rest of us about our own lives. This is one of those songs. The words of this song are still chillingly prophetic forty years later.

Side 2

Medley Live From Northern Quebec

Cash On the Barrelhead (2:12): Some of you may look down on this song as a bit too much chip-kicker (as a radio-friendly Lyle Lovett puts it) for your refined musical tastes. It’s not, it’s American music and with very few exceptions, the music you listen to today at some point sprung from songs like this. Plus it’s just a helluva lot of fun to listen to.

Hickory Wind (4:15): First off all, as the band kicks in you hear what sounds like a glass hit the floor. Then as Parsons begins to sing you hear the glass being cleaned up. A bar fight in a honky-tonk? A waitress turning to slap an over-zealous drinker of hard spirits? A normal night in the kind of bar you want to spend time in but are too afraid to? Yes. And I’ll have another please, thank you. If I was inclined to drink a lot of whiskey and feel sorry for myself, I’d probably only listen to this song. Then I did some research on this one and it seems it was recorded in a studio with over-dubbed friends playing the part of the "audience." Damn, I hate reality. For forty years I thought this medley was recorded in some bar in some way-north lumber town that was filled with nothing but trouble. Screw reality, I'm going to keep this bar exactly in existence how it always has been for me.

Love Hurts (3:40): Before Nazareth had a monster hit in 1975 with the very first power ballad, Gram and Emmylou took the old Boudleax Bryant ditty about how miserable it is to fall in love and turned it into an amazingly poignant country song. And by the way, it always annoyed me that the guys in Nazareth claimed writer’s credits for this song even though they obviously got the idea to record it from this version. Parsons is panned full right and Harris is panned full left and they are completely alone in their duet with each other.

Las Vegas (3:40): The next time you drive somewhere, the supermarket, Wawa, to pick up junior from soccer practice, Tennessee, Las Vegas, wherever, put this song on loud and your trip will suddenly become EPIC! Or you can just sit at home and dream about hopping in the fam-mobile with built-in DVD player and traveling to some far-off exotic locale, like a Sheetz or something. The other best thing about this song, like the rest of the album, is that you’re listening to a live band play live music, all at the same time. That’s why, when you hear this song, you can’t help but offer to make that late night trip for Kitty Litter because the cat is being fussy.

In My Hour Of Darkness (3:42): By now you’ve gone online and ordered up some cowboy boots and denim shirts with pearl buttons, and maybe a hat, and it’s okay. Revel in your newfound love and respect for American Cosmic Music (as Parson’s called it). Or maybe just sit back and take a thirty-six minute trip back to a desert and a highway that must have existed somewhere at some moment in time.

Grievous Angel is best listened to:

  • On a juke box with a cool glass of water in a roadside café outside of Tucumcari, NM. I can testify this is the best way to listen to any track on this album, especially this one
  • Short of a trip on I-40 out of Amarillo, beer is good. Tecate is recommended, Southern Select is acceptable
  • By yourself with a pocket full of woes
  • As much as I really want you to sit at home and listen to this album on a great stereo system (you really should), this the quintessential mobile album. Driving unfettered by suburban traffic is the single best way to enjoy this record. Like I said, you can sit and dream too.

Jack Sharkey for KEF

Friday
Oct 31 2014

Front-to-Back Album Friday: Lake Street Dive

I wanna show that gospel, country, blues, rhythm and blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll are all just really one thing. Those are the American music and that is the American culture .” ― Etta James

This quote came to mind the first time I listened to Lake Street Dive 's eponymous 2011 release. This is a quintessential American album that gives the listener everything that's great about American music. Another derivative Americana album you're probably whispering to yourself right now. Nope. Granted, country music has had to escape the bonds of pre-packaged beer-swillin', truck-drivin', rap-experimentin' good 'ol boys by rebranding itself as Americana , and to a certain extent that was a necessary thing to do, but this band is way beyond conventional roots music. They eschew guitar leads for trumpet leads for crying out loud. The problem is, in our never-ending quest to stick everything we see and hear into some cubbyhole of convenience, Lake Street Dive defies mindless interpretation. That may also be why this is the best band right now that you probably haven't heard of.

Released November 9, 2010 on Signature Sounds Recordings

Produced by Lake Street Dive and Jack Younger

Engineered by Jack Younger and Evan Ruscher

Recorded at Basement 247

Mixed by Jack Younger at Watch City Studios

Mastered by Nick Zampiello, Rob Gonella

Length: 55:05

Charts: None to speak of but that's our fault, not their's.

Personnel

  • Rachael Price - Vocals
  • Mike Olson - Trumpet, guitar
  • Bridget Kearney - Bass, vocals
  • Michael Calabrese - Drums, vocals
  • Alex Asher - Trombone
  • Lyle Brewer - Guitar
  • Jesse Dee - Vocals
  • Eric Lane - Keyboards
  • Margaret Glaspy - Violin
  • Kimber Ludiker - Violin
  • Luke Price - Violin
  • Alec Spiegelman - Saxophone
  • Emmen Zarookian - Piano
  • Liam Robinson - Accordion

First of all I would like to ask a question of the people who take it upon themselves to label music: I see this album come up listed as 'Country' more than I see it come up listed under any other genre. Why? Is it because they use an acoustic bass, or is it because the music on this album confounds you so much you don't know what to make of it? This is why labels and genre-stuffing is such a waste of time. Yeah, there's some country in there. Some jazz (a lot of jazz). Some blues. Some rock. Some Tennessee honey drawl. Some Massachusetts snark-rock. Some Louisiana swamp and some Motown cool. I could make labels too, but labels don't draw people to music, they push people away from music.

Now that I've got that off my chest let's talk about the music. Rachael Price could never win American Idol, the Voice, or any other television game show that purports to be musical in nature. She couldn't win because she is an absolutely fantastic singer. She's not a vocal gymnast, so she doesn't hit notes that will make the teeny-boppers (and their mom-jeans-wearing moms and dads) yell with contrived excitement every time she hits a run to a high note. Price is an artist, and a story-teller, and a musician, so if your musical tastes run to game show thrills, you should probably stop reading here.

Ms. Price and her bandmates are adults making sophisticated music that reaches back as far as American music can reach back, without being deriviative or ironic in the least.

1. Hello? Goodbye! (3:34): From the opening bossa-nova-on-steroids drums, you know you're into something a little different. That's a good thing. Then the vocals and the band kick in. What's that you hear, a trumpet you say? Indeed. Then a minute in, comes the hook. It sounds like every great hook you've ever heard before but it doesn't exactly go where you think it's going to go. Another good thing. You're going to have to be an active participant in this record. There's light and shade and subtlety and humor that you're just simply going to miss if you're waiting for Ms. Price and friends to don animal costumes and roar at you.

2. Don't Make Me Hold Your Hand (6:12): Interest piqued by the country genrefication of this record, I was waiting to hear some Florida-Georgia Line, or maybe some Jason Aldean, but instead I get this guitar/bass riff that has a bunch of notes and syncopation in it? Thank you Lake Street Dive! I'm afraid that this is a great song that may be too difficult for the unwashed masses to get their heads around. When America doesn't embrace songs like this, the corporate rock (and country) terrorist accountants have won. Don't let America fail people ― add this song to your playlists!

3. Henriette (3:28): If I walked into a gin mill and the band was playing this song, the next round would be on me. You know what happens when a great singer gets to sing great hooks? Songs like Henriette, that's what happens. But wait...at the 1:31 mark. What is that? A bass solo that messes with the time signature a little and sounds like it might have oozed up from one of those Greenwich Village jazz dives? I was shocked and dismayed at first but now I can't get it out of my head.

4. My Heart's In the Right Place (3:35): I like to listen to musical instruments that were played by humans. Drums, pianos, guitars. Horns. Especially horns. Brass that is too locked onto the note is actually difficult to listen to for me. It's too harsh and mechanical. I want to hear the notes glissando in and out a little (not high school marching band in and out, but you get the idea). Don't get me wrong, Olson is locked in to the pitch completely, but he's breathing and you can hear it. Pro-Tools users take a lesson from this ― you can "repair" the humanity right out of a song, even if your own heart is in the right place. It is utterly refreshing to listen to a middle-8 with just a basic rim-shot drum beat, an acoustic bass and a simple trumpet line. Music that actually breathes is such a good thing.

5. I Don't Really See You Anymore (2:42): Just vocals and bass opens this one as I look out my window onto a perfectly cloudy autumn day with orange leaves on the trees and brown ones on the ground. This song is as good as any standard written and performed in the last 100 years. If you're looking for a song to remind you how messed up your love life is, the feel and emotion of this is as good as anything you've heard before.

6. Miss Disregard (3:04): So in the previous song I'm all chuffed that Ms. Price is really missing me whilst wistfully wishing I'd give her a ring or something. So much for that in this one. Three times in the first forty seconds she's telling me she is completely and totally and utterly done with me. Fine. I'm glad you're feeling so good about yourself. Oh wait, unlike most other things, this isn't about me. I got clued in to that by the she's "too old" and I'm "too cool" bit. And who is she trying to convince anyway? Herself maybe?

7. Elijah (3:12): If Rickie Lee Jones had been able to overcome her demons and write uptempo pop music, this would have been a huge hit for her. As it is, this is another really great song that will never get the exposure it deserves because it's kind of hard for accountants to dance to. I defy you to find a song, anywhere, that describes a relationship as an isthmus . Go ;head, I dare ya. By the way, pay attention to what Calabrese does on the drums here. The cat's got some feel, especially during the outro.

8. Funny Not To Care (3:50): Pay attention to the mix in the beginning of this one. It's a simple―but cool―trick that brings Ms. Price's emotions into sharp focus. While you're listening to the mix effects, listen to the vocals themselves and you'll hear singing that you'll never hear on a TV game show no matter how hard you try to believe you will. There's an interesting slap-back reverb on the percussion (especially toward the end) that echoes the effects used on the vocals in the beginning and really adds to the feel of the tune rather than becoming the reason for the tune. A really nice job with the production on this one.

9. Neighbor Song (4:32): Stark and lonely is the best way to describe this one that's about apartment living on a very shallow level and loneliness on every other level. When I was a kid I'd listen to jazz and pop albums from people who wore sharp clothes and spoke about sophisticated things and wondered if I'd ever get to be like them. Then I spent the next 40-odd years wearing denim pants and chukkas on my feet, and now I wonder if I'll be as sophisticated as the people who played this song for me. I doubt it, but I can hope.

10. Got Me Fooled (3:33): I still haven't heard any "country" yet. Of course, I'm still waiting for a bad song too, and I haven't heard one of those either. But maybe in this one I'm hearing a little Drive-By Truckers, or even some subdued Alabama Shakes, but, no wait, it's just Lake Street Dive turning it up a little bit. Speaking of subdued, the answer in the chorus has got Subdudes written all over it, so once again our friends from Massachusetts are literally all over the map.

11. We All Love the Same Songs (3:53): A song about being a touring band in the post-Big-Label era, you could translate this song to any aspect of your relationships. Next time you're taking a road trip put this one on the playlist. At the 1:04 mark there's a keyboard riff that happens once that reminds me of another song I just can't place. I'm sending a KEF tee-shirt and another cool little gift to the first person who correctly identifies it for me before I lose my mind. I brought in musical reinforcements and we thought it might have been Marvin Gaye's Too Busy Thinking About My Baby but it's not, so help a guy out here willya? There's also a great horn section on the back-end of this one: sophisticated and forceful without being over-the-top and in-your-face and other hyphenated phrases.

12. Don't Make Me Hold Your Hand (reprise) (0:38): They say if you don't want all of your music to sound like Led Zeppelin you need to keep the drummer out of the room when you're mixing. The same should be said about keeping the recording engineer out of the room as well.

13. My Speed (4:51): Great vocal interplay here between someone I assume is Michael Calabrese (the credits don't specify) and Price. The drums also sound way better on this track than in the previous 11 tracks. I'm not sure why engineers think the lower the tech on the drums the higher the authenticity (or is it maybe that good mics are too expensive?) but for as much as I love this album, I'd love it even more if the drums had been recorded throughout the set like they were on this track.

Lake Street Dive is best listened to:

  • In as quiet an environment as possible so you don't miss the delightful subtleties of Rachael Price's voice
  • With one of them fancy Cosmopolitan drinks with all the sweet flavors that mask the alcohol
  • At a party with limited invitations, like just one other significant person
  • The colder and nastier the weather, the better

Jack Sharkey for KEF

Friday
Oct 17 2014

Front-to-Back Album Friday: Donald Fagen - The Nightfly

Scottish Indie punks have a new album, Unravelled , out this month. I like the band, but I love the name. Because quite frankly, we were promised jetpacks, and according to the movies, all those rotten nasty teenagers who hang out with the Biff's of the world should be riding through the town square on hoverboards this time next year. It's all lies. Frankly, the most modern thing we have is the Smartcar and the smartphone. Both have promised us a better life, but seriously, neither has delivered.

I arrived on the planet at the very tail end of the Baby Boom. Through my childhood in the 60s we were promised, no we expected , to be adults in a cool world filled with all kinds of fun scientific innovations. Think Disney's Carousel of Progress with better hair. Again, it's all lies. I had eggs for breakfast this morning and they were cooked in a pan. On a stove. I might as well have eaten breakfast like a caveman. No space pack liquid eggs infused with lots of niacin and other science-y things. Ironically, people are actually opposed to science doing things like sticking GMO's in our food. Imagine that. In short, my life (and yours') is one giant disappointment.

There are no jetpacks.

We still have music even if science is rapidly trying to destroy it for us by making it sound all small and impotent and what-not. But back when science was still actually trying to make our lives better, Donald Fagen recorded The Nightfly , one of the first commercial (and certainly commercially successful) records to be recorded completely digitally.

Released on Warner Brothers Records, October 1982.

Produced by Gary Katz, Robin Hurley

Engineered by Roger Nichols, Elliot Scheiner, Daniel Lazerus, Cheryl Smith, Wayne Yurgelun, Rogin Lane, Mike Morongell

Recorded at Soundworks, NYC, Automated Sound, NYC and Village Recorder, Los Angeles

Mixed by Elliot Scheiner

Mastered by Bob Ludwig

Length: 38:46

Reached Number 11 on the Billboard Pop Album Chart (1982)

Singles I.G.Y. reached #8 (Adult Contemporary) and #17 (Rock) and New Frontier reached #70 (US Singles - 1983)

Personnel:

  • Donald Fagen - Harmonica, Horns, Keyboards, Vocals
  • Dave Bargeron - Horns
  • Daniel Bazerus - Vocals
  • Michael Brecker - Saxophones
  • Randy Brecker - Horns
  • Larry Carlton - Guitars
  • Ronnie Cuber - Horns
  • Rick Derringer - Guitars
  • Frank Floyd - Vocals
  • James Gadsen - Drums
  • Ed Greene - Drums
  • Anthony Jackson - Bass
  • Steve Jordan - Drums
  • Steve Khan - Guitars
  • Abraham Laboriel - Bass
  • Will Lee - Bass
  • Hugh McCracken - Harmonica, Guitars
  • Leslie Miller - Vocals
  • Marcus Miller - Bass
  • Rob Mounsey - Keyboards
  • Michael Omartian - Keyboards
  • Dean Parks - Guitars
  • Greg Phillinganes - Keyboards
  • Jeff Porcaro - Drums
  • Chuck Rainey - Bass
  • Zachary Sanders - Vocals
  • Valerie Simpson - Vocals
  • David Tofani - Horns
  • Starz Vander Lockett - Percussion, Vocals

The credits are proof that it takes a good number of talented people to make a great record. But what also makes this record such a classic is that it was recorded with the assistance of machines and computers, not with reliance on machines and computers. Back in the Digital Dark Ages of 1982, digital audio was a new technology, generations removed from what we are capable of doing today, yet this album speaks to the listener with all the subtlety and grace of a record recorded with analog technology, or with great care in today's digital world. That is a credit to the producers and engineers who were operating on the vanguard of the coming technological revolution.

In my life as a studio and FOH engineer I have heard the songs (or at least snippets of) I.G.Y. and New Frontier more times than I could count. To this day, those two songs are used by many, many audio engineers to get a feel for the sound of a room or venue. I still use the two to check the sound of a new loudspeaker in a new environment, or as a reference when setting up a mix in the studio. In fact, I'll go as far as to say that a person who considers themselves a serious audiophile who does not have easy access to either of these two songs needs to re-think their description of themselves.

Setting the brilliant music aside for a moment, this is one album you should own if not for anything else other than to make sure your system sounds as good as it should.

1. I.G.Y. (6:04): I suppose the hipsters might call this Adult Contemporary of Old Person Rock or whatever phrase the kids are using today, but that narrow-mindedness is kind of sad. From the arrangement to the performance to the engineering, this song is very nearly flawless (even at 6+ minutes). iTunes classifies this as "Jazz" but since when did iTunes become the arbiter of all things music (I mean besides 2004)? " Undersea by rail, Ninety minutes from New York to Paris " seemed a certain reality in the 1950's, except it obviously turned out to be just a dream borne of a time when lots of things seemed possible. We live in an age where basically nothing seems possible and the dream has become ironic, but that's okay because irony is a language Fagen has always spoken fluently.

2. Green Flower Street (3:43): From the fabulous reverb on the Fender Rhodes in the beginning to the dueling guitars in the left and right channels, this is a very cool song to listen to. The music moves in waves under a story about parochialism and racial tension, a la West Side Story for the pre-politically correct generation.

3. Ruby Baby (5:39): The only song on the set not penned by Fagen (Lieber and Stoller), this arrangement of a basically very bland song is stellar. Listen hard for Valerie Simpson's unmistakable voice in the chorus. I really don't ever want to like this song, but then I listen to it – in context – and I am sucked in. You can hear the brilliant Jeff Porcaro lay down a rhythm that's a subtle echo of Toto's massive hit Rosanna which was released earlier the same year. The hi-hat work is worth the time alone.

4. Maxine (3:50): Ahh, the naive dreams of youth. Fagen perfectly captures the blaze of young love, which when combined with youth and a little smarts, invariably winds up over-stating the possibilities of the future. Do college-aged kids still have dreams like this, or have they all been dispensed with like our hopes of ever having jetpacks? But forget my cynicism, the vocal arrangement on this song should be required listening for everyone. Period. The vocals aren't particularly complicated or intense, but they are amazingly lush and, well, beautiful .

5. New Frontier (6:22): John Kennedy spoke of the New Frontier as a frontier of positive change and possibility, but there was always a dark side to it. If you're old enough to remember Fallout Shelters and practicing hiding under your desk at school because the expected nuclear annihilation was upon us, you'll know what I mean. If you were a little kid like me in the early 1960s, every time you heard a fire siren you figured the Russkies had finally decided to off us all. Of course, it wasn't all dark: There was still sex and music and beer (for the older kids anyway). If your dad had a bomb shelter in the backyard, wouldn't your New Frontier be slightly different than the one JFK talked about?

6. The Nightfly (5:47): Some of Fagen's best lyrics live in this song. He's bored, he's tired, he's washed up, but it's the music that keeps him from being swallowed whole by it all. I feel sorry for people today who will never know the sheer joy of finding some far off radio station, with some overly-hip, overly-cool DJ spinning records from another planet. Pandora and Spotify just don't have the same ability to connect on a human basis like a DJ like Lester the Nightfly does. Technology is a good thing, until we let it steal things from us that matter.

7. The Goodbye Look (4:50): Deep, resonant marimba notes over a gentle shuffle open this one that's unlike anything you've heard before yet also comfortably familiar at the same time. You can picture actual real adults doing actual real adult things that none of us regular people ever get to do. Who among us has ever dreamed of being able to say to some mysterious barmaid in a politically unstable resort, Won't you pour me a Cuban Breeze, Gretchen? You know you have. This song is also a perfect example of the ability to arrange with space, allowing the instruments and melody to breath without choking them off with cleverness. Our 2014 brains may need some time to adjust to all of this space and air between the notes, but give it a try, you might just find that lack of clutter is a good thing.

8. Walk Between Raindrops (2:39): If you don't smile during this song you are either truly tragically stuffy or you still have unresolved issues with your parents because they were far too cool for your own good. A simple 2-beat shuffle, replete with cheesy organ and cheery walking bass, this little love song turns out to be exactly how sweet life can be, even without those damned jetpacks.

The Nightfly is best listened to:

  • While wearing non-ironic skinny jeans (for men) and for the gals a liberal amount of Aqua-Net
  • Your dad's cruise wear is probably a good choice too
  • Whilst drinking a Martini or Manhattan and talking to your more intellectual, and ironic, friends
  • Driving around the old neighborhood while falsely remembering everything as being peachy-keen
  • On as good a stereo system as you can get hold of with at least one lava lamp and a few large artificial plants

Jack Sharkey for KEF America

Friday
Aug 29 2014

Front-to-Back Album Friday: St. Paul & the Broken Bones - Half the City

I grew up in a house that had a little transistor radio that sat on top of the refrigerator and played from sun-up until sun-down. That little radio introduced me to an awful lot of music. Back in the day, I'd hear a song on the radio, it would blow my mind, I'd wait around to hear it again, then I'd run to the record store down the road and buy the single if was chicken, or the album if I was daring.

I miss that radio. Heck, I miss radio, period. But at least I've got my streaming music services to keep my habitual need for new music fed. I just wish they paid a little more to the artists for the music they use, but that's a subject for another day and another blog piece ( The Staples List: Comparing the Price of Things, KEF Blog, 8-25-14 ironically enough). All of this is leading to the musical discovery of the year for me. Heck, it might be multiple years since I've been this excited by a record.

It was and who introduced me to the sounds of Muscle Shoals, and it is St. Paul & the Broken Bones who have brought the sheer joy and ruckus of the Muscle Shoals sound back to me full throttle. But forget the retro-sound, the arrangements, the skillful song writing and the sheer emotion of the band and Paul Janeway's voice...this is a great [insert your own adjective here] record .

Released on Single Lock Records February 18, 2014.

Produced by Ben Tanner.

Engineered by Ben Tanner, Les Nuby.

Recorded at The Nutthouse , Ol' Elegante Studios and Up and In Studios.

Mixed by Ben Tanner at FAME Studio A.

Mastered by Steven Berson at Total Sonic Media.

Peaked at #56 on Billboard's Top 200 Albums.

Peaked at #9 on Billboard's Top Independent Albums for 2014.

Personnel

  • Paul Janeway - Vocals
  • Jesse Phillips - Bass
  • Browan Lollar - Guitar, Vocals
  • Andrews Lee - Drums, percussion
  • Allen Branstetter - Trumpet, flugelhorn
  • Ben Griner - Trombone, tuba
  • Al Gamble - Keyboards
  • Ben Tanner - Keyboards
  • Daniel Stoddard - Pedal Steel
  • Jamie Harper - Baritone sax
  • Ron Alexander - Upright bass

I'm almost afraid to put a label on the music on this record lest a vast majority of people reading this piece get instantly turned off to it. Let's just say that the soul of this record is in its raw emotion. The rhythm and blues -y feel of the music touches unlike anything out there masquerading as music that is designed to touch the soul . You gettin' me? Trust me all you kids under 40, you listen to this record and your opinion of the music you've been listening to will change abruptly. And permanently.

Half the City is a human record made by human beings for other human beings. Machines and computers simply cannot make this music, and I don't care how hard you try to argue otherwise. That being said, nowadays without the help of machines and computers, most mere mortals fall by the talent wayside. St. Paul & the Broken Bones are not mere mortals.

The thing that will hit you first: Janeway's wailing is emotional and raw and a fresh change from the stale and boring vocal histrionics and aerobic exercises we are assaulted with on a regular basis on television musical competitions and stale and boring pop and R&B recordings. Try a little tenderness wrapped up in sheer human rawness: you might just become a fan. But it's not just Paul Janeway. There is a band behind him that can play , and that's what makes this record work.

I picked this record up on vinyl because it just felt like the right thing to do.

Side 1

1. I'm Torn Up (3:37): A melancholy guitar invites a set of melancholy horns to start this record. In this day and age of getting smacked upside the head (musically speaking), a mellow and melancholy song seems a strange choice to open a record, but when Janeway starts to tell his tale of lost love you get it. Indeed Janeway is torn between his broken heart and the assertion that the girl who broke his heart is somehow missing him more than he is missing her...that my friends is what soul music is all about.

2. Don't Mean A Thing (3:06): This is the first song I heard from this record and I was instantly a fan. To those of you who have forgotten: This is what a roomful of musicians sounds like when they're tearing it up without the aid of machines. If you've been listening to a lot of music with synthesized or unnaturally edited horns, it may take a few moments for your ears to adjust to the sound of a natural horn section, but when they do you won't listen to machine-made music the same way ever again. And by the way, nobody ever thanks the bass player. Allow me to personally thank the bass player for the lines he played on this song.

3. Call Me (2:51): You may think you've heard this song before, but you haven't, you have however heard hooks and feels like this before and that's a good thing. All music is a result of that which came before, and what St Paul & the Broken Bones have done, especially in this song, is taken what has made them whole as musicians and turned it into something that is solely their's while at the same time being comforting in its familiarity. It's funny how every song on the radio today sounds the same and we're told that's a good thing, but music that reaches back in its influence is scorned. Seems a little mis-aligned to me.

4. Like A Mighty River (3:23): At this point in the record you are Jonesing for more of what you've heard Copyright Sundel Perry so far, and this one does not disappoint. It's a little tougher with a little more bravado, and Janeway simply nails it. Speaking of things that don't get the recognition they deserve...listen to the 8th note figures Lee is playing on the hi-hats during the verses and the figures he plays (especially on the kick drum) at the start of the breakdown at the 2:30 mark. It's musicianship like this that dictates the need to be able to hear what the heck is going on in the light and shade of a song.

5. That Glow (3:04): This might be my least favorite track on the song, but that's kind of like having to tell you which is my least favorite Christmas present: It's all relative. On most other records this song would be a feature. And now that I am listening to it fairly critically, I may have to change my opinion, because this may be the type of song that creeps up on you slowly and doesn't let you go after it gets you.

6. Broken Bones & Pocket Change (3:04): Have you ever been treated really poorly by somebody (and no, I don't mean the ornery teenager you bought your coffee from this morning)? I mean really poorly. If you have, this song was written for you. Listen to it in good company. When Janeway sings the chorus, you feel it, way down deep in that place that only music like this can get to.

Side 2

7. Sugar Dyed (2:28): After getting up to turn the record over, you get back to your seat just in time for the drums and horns to put a smile on your face. In fact, if you don't smile when you listen to this song, we might not be able to be friends anymore.

8. Half the City (3:17): The first two verses of this song might be the single greatest lyric I have ever heard. Half the city indeed. Every guy wishes they were able to sing this song and every girl wishes someone would sing to her like this. It's not fair I tell ya. Listen to the nastiness of Lollar's guitar and tell me you are not inspired.

9. Grass Is Greener (4:14): By this point we're all in need of a rest, and quite frankly we're a tad worried about Janeway. All of that emotion can't be good for a guy in such a short period of time. Good for us, but at what price Paul Janeway, at what price? From the saturated-tube reverb of Lollar's guitar to the sweet church organ, this low-key lamentation is every bit as forceful as every song preceding it. Treat yourself and listen closely to the rhythm section of Phillips and Lee on the back-end of this song, then sit back and smile in the joyful knowledge that great music is still being made.

10. Let It Be So (3:19): They tried to take it down a notch on the previous track and failed miserably (much to our benefit and delight!). Forty seconds in to this one, just as you sit back and try to catch your breath, the band kicks in with a groove that demands you pay attention. Then as if to let us breathe again, the verse takes us back down. Then we're back up for the next chorus. Now we're breathing with the band as we fall into pace with an organ solo that takes us far away from where we normally hang. Three minutes and nineteen seconds of all the ups and downs of life.

11. Dixie Rothko (3:32): They tease us once again with some peace and quiet but we're not going to let them fool us again. Singers on game shows today, let me introduce you to a singer who has all the pipes and ability that you think you have, but this guy knows how to use the tools he has been given...that my friends is the difference between singing and showing off.

12. It's Midnight (2:31): If you listen closely enough, you'll hear what a real piano sounds like with all of its harmonics and overtones and real -ness. This is what music sounds like when it's not dependent on machines and it is glorious! I've been in clubs at midnight, tired and fading away,  and I've heard pianos that sound like this, and singers who have sung like this, and horn sections that have intermingled like this, and those were among the best nights of my life. I dare you and your machines to capture that experience for me.

Half the City is best listened to:

  • In a jacket and tie for you menfolk and one of those classy pleated skirts with polka-dots for the ladies
  • Patent leather shoes for both sexes are optional but recommended
  • At a cocktail party, as long as its a cocktail party where the music is louder than all of the mindless chitter-chatter
  • As loud and as late at night as is reasonable considering how your cranky neighbors deal with your re-ignited love of soul music
  • Personally I'd go with at least the 12 year-old Chivas if not the 25

Jack Sharkey for KEF America