Happy Holidays to all

December 24, 2011

Nick Drake

“Northern Sky”


The holidays are imminent. It may sound hokey, but my accumulating years have taught me to be truly thankful for all that is good in my life. I am a simple man and my foundation begins and ends with my wife and son. Therefore, I am always caught up in an emotional whirlwind whenever I hear the song that ushered me down the aisle to be married to my soulmate and mother to my little fellow. The lyrics are apt, and I am ecstatic to blow “blow your horn on high” and celebrate the reasons why they make sense of this erratic life every single day. Happy holidays to you all and those who give meaning to who you are.

I never felt magic crazy as this
I never saw moons knew the meaning of the sea
I never held emotion in the palm of my hand
Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree
But now you’re here
Bright in my northern sky.

It’s been a long time that I’m waiting
Been a long time that I’m blown
been a long time that I’ve wandered
Through the people I have known
Oh, if you would and you could
Straighten my new mind’s eye.

Would you love me for my money
Would you love me for my head
Would you love me through the winter
Would you love me ’til I’m dead
Oh, if you would and you could
Come blow your horn on high.

I never felt magic crazy as this
I never saw moons knew the meaning of the sea
I never held emotion in the palm of my hand
Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree
But now you’re here
Bright in my northern sky.

Mark Fry-Dreaming With Alice

December 24, 2011

Mark Fry

Dreaming With Alice (RCA 1971)


Some albums effortlessly capture an era. Dreaming With Alice serves as a last gasp of the hippie mysticism and pastoral innocence of 60s English folk before it was co-opted by a more cynical decade. It celebrates the wide-eyed innocence and buoyant spirit of a psychedelic movement before hearts grew more calloused, drugs took their psychic toll and the promise of a technicolor society of flower power grew hollow and decayed. 1971 was a time of disillusionment with what wasn’t accomplished as everyone slowly realized the world was more troubled and complex than could be imagined. A song wasn’t going to change the world and the opponents of the counter culture were nibbling away at the lackadaisical corpse of the 60s. The era of arena rock and rock and roll as sheer spectacle were afoot and the time for a cycle of songs about paramours and playing a flute with a dude fingering the lute by the riverside while discussing their dreams was kind of passe by this point.

Mark Fry recorded just one of many albums that could be described as a bittersweet farewell to the 60s. Even the album’s title evokes the imagery of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and champions his kinship with a psychedelic landscape that was being slowly choked by the weeds of cynicism. Maybe it’s because Mark Fry was a noted artist before he tried his hand at music that he retains the  desire to paint an alternate universe when others chose to tackle the gritty realities that awaited them when they finally came down from their incessant high.

It’s hard to discuss Dreaming With Alice without conjuring the singular namesake of Donovan. Although Fry’s voice and songwriting echoes the imagery and vibe of Donovan, Fry doesn’t just draw inspiration from the source, but opens it up wide and takes it to a psychedelic extreme. Where Donovan relied upon his pen to summon images of tangerine dreams and sunshine supermen, Fry’s take is far more whacked and visceral. Everything is full of echoes and shadow as he slows the pace of his idol to a crawl. It’s a slow-motion opiate epic that invokes a darkness amidst the light, love and lazy pace. How can you speak poorly of an album that begins with such a flourish?

“Did you pass the glass mountain?
Where Salome opened her dress.
Did you see the dolphins feathered fountain?
Oh the King made a bloody mess”

This is just a stanza, but it speaks volumes about what is being attempted on this album. The subsequent song “The Witch” is a hypnotic paean to the power of dark magick and the power it wields. Amidst all of this dark hoodoo, Fry unleashes a raga-like jam for the ages. All at once, it invokes the lexicon on the 60s, but couches it in a context that is far more suited to a coven than a bed-in. It’s an album that lives in a limbo between the pagan and the pure as he crafts a narrative that straddles a line between the purity of a hippie ideal and the stains that marred it on the way down to earth.

World Party

“Put the Message in the Box” from Goodbye Jumbo


It’s a pain in the ass to write long-winded meditations on whatever album stumbles into my psyche. Sometimes I just want to write about a single song. To be honest, family, fatherhood and teaching are the prime real estate in my life these days and rambling meanderings fall somewhere near the excavation of my cat litter somedays. Therefore, I plan on offering some miniature dioramas of whatever song digs a hole in my heart on a more regular basis than once a week. Considering the fact that I have disappeared for entire years from this blog, my word in swiss cheese, but optimism is my forte.

Anyhow, I always loved this song. At the time of its release in 1991, I was a misbegotten teen who somehow chased down the divergent pathways of Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Eric B. and Rakim as well as a maudlin fascination with the Smiths, Galaxie 500 and the Cocteau Twins. Those are just the good bands I listened to. I make no claims to premature cool. God knows I also owned albums by MC Hammer and the Dead  Milkmen too. Anyhow, I found myself immediately transfixed by this song whenever it reared its derivative noggin on 120 Minutes on MTV one night. I purposely avoided all classic rock out of some misguided aesthetic of cool that was ill-defined and its eminently hummable 90s alt-rock take on Bob Dylan seemed like something kaleidoscopic and fantastical to my undefiled ears.

“Put the Message in the Box”is a paean to optimism. It is an ode to speaking your mind no matter the consequence. God knows it is a timely theme that should be revisited today. However, the instrumentation transforms the hippie sentiments of the band into something more transcendent than mere encouraging words set to song. World Party is basically made up of one man, Karl Wallinger, and he was quite an effective chameleon for awhile. He basically summons all of the anthemic power of early 70s Dylan and marries it to country-rock by way of 120 Minutes and it somehow works despite itself. It’s a beautiful sentiment married to an equally beautiful song. That’s all I ask for in this world.

Hound Dog Taylor and The Houserockers

s/t (Alligator 1971)


It’s a goddamn shame that Hound Dog Taylor never recorded a full-length album until the ripe and raucous age of fifty-six. Although he plugged away on the blues circuit for years, Taylor only managed to release a few singles in the 60s despite a career whose genesis began in the 40s playing alongside Sonny Boy Williamson on a few radio sessions. Dig a little into his history and you’ll see why the unpredictable avenues of life led him on a rough and tumble pathway to a larger audience. A budding career as a bluesman was cut short when he was chased out of Mississippi by the KKK for sleeping with a woman of the caucasian persuasion. Understandably, his ambitions fell by the wayside and he spent the next fifteen years working odd jobs and building television cabinets until he decided to say goodbye to the straight life at age forty-two and reengaged with the world of blues as a changed man.

No longer tied to the tried-and-true canon, Taylor chose one hell of an era to reestablish his career in a 60s where the blues had sired rock and roll and subsequently taken notice of its brash amplification and nasty streak. Taylor was a stone cold natural for this newly electrified and electric format and his fascination with the ramshackle bottleneck playing of Elmore James opened up his playing to a new way of approaching his instrument. The fact that he had a larger than life personality didn’t hurt either. The man gained the nickname of Hound Dog due to his incessant chasing of the female persuasion. The fact that he sliced off his sixth finger with a straight razor while drunk didn’t hurt his reputation as a feral force. Yes, he did have six fingers on both hands, which may or may not explain why no one plays quite like him.

On his own, Taylor might have gotten lost in the sauce of the blues revival inspired by hippies infatuated with the B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. However, Taylor was blessed with the best backing band of any blues act of the 60s and 70s. The Houserockers were a two-piece consisting of drummer Ted Harvey and guitarist Brewer Phillips. Harvey’s drumming puts the boogie back into the blues and his relentlessly sloppy and insistent beats really lend the three-piece the feel of one drunken mess of a band. Phillips is the perfect foil for Taylor as they compete to see who can let loose the most while retaining a hypnotic, repetitive drive that centers each song. They perfectly congealed as one unholy drunken mess of a blues act that is more interested in conjuring some bad hoodoo with a mean streak a mile wide instead of bemoaning lost love like a motherless child.

Enough backstory, let’s get to the actual album. Released in 1971, their self-titled debut was recorded live over the course of two liquor fueled evenings and it sure sounds that way to these ears. Even Taylor’s take on his idol Elmore James’ “It Hurts Me Too” has a wild and deeply hurt vibe that replaces the pathos of the original with something more primal and angry. It’s a majestic version that drags its forefather through the mud and covers it with all of the grime it always deserved. However, Hound Dog Taylor wasn’t a man to wallow in misery for misery’s sake, so much of the album is fueled by more light-hearted spirits. You can see why they were such a popular live act in Chicago as their performances seem tailor-made for seedy stages  surrounded by barflies and lively souls. “Give Me Back My Wig” might be one of my favorite blues songs even if it is just a song about repossessing a wig from a former flame. It’s a silly and bizarre concept delivered with fire and passion accompanied by a thoroughly electric performance that has no business being married to such lyrics, but it somehow conjures some true magic as these three men play like their lives depended upon it. It is the undistilled sound of having one too many and ranting about what its bothering your agitated mind. Ultimately, this is a perfect statement of purpose, which was to present the essence of bluesy raunch at 2 a.m. in a dimly lit club where the soused outnumber the sober. To that end, it is a perfect album since that grimy dart has most definitely hit the bullseye here.

Les Olivensteins-Ep

December 2, 2011

Les Olivensteins



I must resist the need to be verbose here since there is not much to go on here. All I know is that Les Olivensteins recorded a fairly amazing ep in 1979. I know they are from France and that this ep seems like a sturdy bridge from the utterly brilliant 70s French rock comp Tetes Lourdes(which can be found on this site) to its punk rock cousin. All I know is both releases emanated from France and never fail to capture a sense of urgency and sloppiness that is lacking from music today. Totally catchy with a nasty streak a mile wide, Les Olivensteins is okay with me anytime. Both Tetes Lourdes and this ep give me hope there is some undiscovered golden age in 70s French music that will someday be discovered by your truly. Please school me if I am deaf, dumb and blind to something brilliant beyond Metal Urbain.

Strawbs-Grave New World

December 2, 2011

The Strawbs

Grave New World (A&M 1972)


Amidst all of the psychedelic wayfarers of the 60s England, the Strawbs have always gotten lost in the shuffle of a deck stacked with Pink Floyds, Beatles, Cream, Incredible String Band and countless other seminal influences on modern music. All you need to know is that I discovered this album through the recommendation of my mother-in-law. Yeah, she’s a pretty cool mother-in-law to be sure, but it points to how their musical pollination never quite spread beyond a long-forgotten garden visited by far too few souls. That’s a shame because I’ve been dipping my toes into their pool and hate that they’ve become a criminally neglected footnote to the careers of original member Sandy Denny and later addition Rick Wakeman. Personally, I am enamored by the prospect of any band that combined the opposing viewpoints of the folks who sparked Fairport Convention and Yes, even if they contributed to different eras of the Strawbs. Sadly, the names of Denny and Wakeman obscure the legacy and immense talent of singer/guitarist Dave Cousins, who is the foundation of the band.

Cousins’ voice kind of reminds me of a folksier, gentle version of Cat Stevens, but with a bit more passion, grit and urgency. Although the instrumentation of Grave New World straddles the line between pastoral English folk and the orchestral bombast of 70s prog, Cousins grounds it all with a earnest, pleading voice that wouldn’t sound out of place on a lonesome folk platter lost to general obscurity. His timeless voice and knack for imbuing each track with a sad, weary pathos can be derived from his time playing skiffle and obsessing over the heartbreaking catalogs of Leadbelly, Bob Dylan and Elizabeth Cotten. Most important was his devotion to Flatt and Scruggs who inspired him to pick up a banjo and dedicate himself to its mastery. Don’t expect any hoedowns and juke joint paeans to wayward lovers since the Strawbs were a far different band by the time Grave New World was released in 1972.

Grave New World and its predecessor From the Witchwood are where the Strawbs really hit their stride. Folks tend to fixate on their debut with Sandy Denny, but it’s folk-rock sounds simplistic in comparison to their flights into the pretentious heavens of prog. Don’t fear–this is no Tarkus or The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Grave New World may be the most folksy, earthy prog album of the 70s and avoids the conceptual excess and pompous pitfalls of their brethren. At it’s core, Grave New World is 60s English folk album concerned with “lords of the forest”, changing seasons and the decay of true love. However, Cousins dalliances with prog enervates these tried and true themes and the familiar becomes electric. Just take a listen to “The Flower and the Young Man” and tell me that it doesn’t deserve a place besides “Calvary Cross” and “Come All Ye” in the sweepstakes for the penultimate English folk tune deserving of epic status. Awash in warm, buzzing organ, perfect harmony and a beautiful progression from serenity to frenetic guitar soloing, this song just nails everything I love about this era in music. Even the lyrics paint a perfect picture:

While seasons change in timely way
The salt sea ever flows
Where open moors lie cold and bleak
A single flower grows.

Though winter snows fall deep and long
The flower grows the while
The weary traveller passing by
Feels warmer for her smile.

Sunshine and the tender flower
Both melt the young man’s heart
But he who lingers waits his turn
Must learn to play his part.

Through summer days of warmth and love
The young man tends his flower
But blinded by their colours bright
Heeds not the passing hour.

The autumn trees once clothed with gold
Now frayed and sadly worn
The flower bids a chill farewell
The young man’s heart is torn.

While seasons change in timely way
The salt sea ever flows
Where open moors lie cold and bleak
A single flower grows.

It’s a classic tale that wouldn’t sound out of place as a traditional folk tune recorded long ago, but their instrumentation places it in a different musical context and it is simultaneously a twist on time honored themes and a declaration of their individuality and unique take on what others fumbled or rehashed. I’m not saying Grave New World is some game changer that will leave you slack jawed, but is peppered with bouts of genius that deserves to be treasured by more than my mother-in-law and I.