Friday, December 18, 2009

Tony's Picks - 2009

It's that time of year where music critics everywhere list their "Top 10" music picks of the year. As for me, I didn't hear a whole lot of "new" stuff, but of what I did hear this year, here are my thoughts.

New Music

Alice in Chains – Black Gives Way to Blue

For me, this was the surprise release of 2009. This band is literally back from the dead. Lead singer Layne Staley died from a drug overdose in 2002, and guitarist/songwriter Jerry Cantrell hasn’t released anything since his 2002 album Degradation Trip Vols 1 & 2. With new singer William DuVall in tow, the band put together an album that finally fuses the elements of their best work [the electric Dirt and acoustic Jar of Flies] into one album. Black Gives Way to Blue is their first collection of new music since 1995 [the Alice in Chains CD]. The ease with which AIC fuses Black Sabbath menace with Beatles melodic sense is still there. William DuVall does not try to copy Layne Staley, but still manages to pull off the great harmonies with Jerry Cantrell that highlighted the band’s previous work. Cantrell’s sludgy-yet-melodic guitar is still present in spades. A new beginning indeed, and a very welcome one at that.

Heaven & Hell – The Devil You Know
Formerly known as the Ronnie James Dio-version of Black Sabbath, Dio, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, and drummer Vinny Appice finally record a follow-up to 1992’s Dehumanizer. In order to keep their fans from confusing them with the original Black Sabbath [and to keep Sharon Osbourne out of the picture legally], these guys renamed themselves after the Black Sabbath album of the same name. The Devil You Know is everything you’d expect from these guys – ear-splitting, skullcrushing, gorilla-stomping riffage. With Tony Iommi’s face-melting riffs, Geezer Butler’s pummeling bass, and vocalist Ronnie James Dio in top form, The Devil You Know is a more-than-worthy addition to the Black Sabbath/Heaven & Hell canon. A must-have for metalheads. On a side note, Ronnie James Dio has stomach cancer. The docs caught it early, so I think Ronnie will slay this dragon. Cross your fingers.

Gov’t Mule – By a Thread
With all due respect to the late James Brown, Warren Haynes is now the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. When Warren isn’t recording and touring with his own band Gov’t Mule, he’s touring with the Allman Brothers Band or The Dead. And when he isn’t doing any of that stuff, he’s working on solo stuff. After having recorded Déjà Voodoo, High & Mighty and Mighty High with Andy Hess on the bass, Gov’t Mule has a new bass player in the form of Jorgen Carlsson. He’s a more “in your face” kind of player in the mold of the late Allen Woody, Gov’t Mule’s founding bassist. The songs on By a Thread reflect that aggressive attitude. Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top makes a guest appearance on the opening Broke Down on the Brazos. It's fun to hear The Rev. Willie G. and Warren swap solos. My favorite is Railroad Boy, a smoking arrangement of a traditional blues song. Not far behind are the Hendrix-esque Any Open Window and Inside Outside Woman Blues #3. Almost every Gov’t Mule album ends with a long, slow bluesy number. World Wake Up, recorded while Andy Hess was still in the band, is it for this album. It has a weird Pink Floyd-like vibe. It’s a good way to end an album. By a Thread is not as good as Dose or Life Before Insanity, but it’s a helluva lot better than their last effort, the way-below sub-par dub-mix Mighty High. It’s pretty good.

The Allman Brothers Band – Live at the Beacon Theatre, New York 3/19/09 & 3/20/09
This year commemorates the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Allman Brothers Band. To celebrate this milestone, the band dedicated every one of the shows they played a during their 2009 Beacon Theatre run to Gregg’s older brother Duane. During the Beacon run, the Brothers played with many guest stars, a lot of whom knew Duane personally and worked with him “back in the day.” I got these two shows for one reason – it’s the first [and so far only] time that Eric Clapton ever shared a stage with the Allman Brothers Band. Duane was an integral part of the Derek and the Dominos album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, which is beyond any doubt EC’s masterpiece. Since the shows were a tribute to Duane Allman, EC was a must-have for the tribute. On both nights the band would play classics from Eat a Peach, Brothers & Sisters, At Fillmore East, then they’d bring out EC to finish the show. They played several selections from the Layla album [Key to the Highway, Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad, Anyday, Little Wing, and Layla], plus selected ABB songs [Stormy Monday, Dreams, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed]. Layla was the encore for both nights. I’ve heard other shows over the years where Warren Haynes took the lead vocal for this song, but for this special occasion, EC did the deed – it is his song after all. Not only are these shows historic, but the musicianship is fantastic. It was every ABB junkie’s fantasy finally coming true. It’s not likely the Allman Brothers Band will ever record another studio album, so I have to be satisfied with these live releases.

Ricky Skaggs – Solo: Songs My Dad Loved
If ever there was truth in advertising in an album title, this is it. Ricky Skaggs has an outstanding bluegrass group called Kentucky Thunder, but on this CD, this is Ricky Skaggs the one-man band. Ricky sings all the songs, overdubbed all the harmonies himself, and played guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass and piano. Unlike his albums with Kentucky Thunder, some of which contain a warning that listening to them will cause speeding tickets, this one has a more relaxed pace. Containing many traditional bluegrass numbers, this is a logical follow-up of the concept he did with his previous album from 2008, Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass: Tribute to 1946 & 1947. This is an excellent CD from an outstanding musician.

Levon Helm – Electric Dirt
Band singers Rick Danko and Richard Manuel are still dead, Garth Hudson is performing piano and vocal works with his wife as well as continuing as a much-in-demand session musician, and Robbie Robertson has confined himself to creating music for movies. That leaves Levon Helm, the lone American in The Band, to carry the torch for The Band. Electric Dirt, the follow-up to 2008’s Dirt Farmer, is full of blues-gospel shouters, soul-country laments, New Orleans jazz, and mountain-folk reveries. Not bad for a guy who almost lost his voice to throat cancer.

Bob Dylan – Together Through Life
This album originally started as one song. Director Oliver Dahan, the guy who made the movie La Vie en Rose about French singer Edith Piaf, approached Bob Dylan to contribute a song for his new movie My Own Love Song. Dylan gave him Life is Hard, but he soon found himself on a songwriting roll, and Together Through Life was born. Once again recorded with his road band, this album showcases not only a very tight band that can play honky-tonk roadhouse blues with a Tex-Mex flavor. The real fun is the lyrics – they’re Dylan at his caustic, sarcastic best and are [dare I say] fun. Included are tales of lustful desire [Jolene], henpecked husbands [My Wife’s Home Town – which, BTW, is Hell], repentant drunks [If You Ever Go To Houston] .. Then there is Dylan’s latest vision of the apocalypse, It’s All Good. The story starts off bad ("Big politician telling lies/Restaurant kitchen, all full of flies/Don't make a bit of difference"), and gets worse ("Brick by brick, they tear you down/A teacup of water is enough to drown"). In Dylan’s America, it’s survival of the fittest. When Dylan was much younger, he wanted to sound old. He’s there now, sounding grizzly, pissed off and lusty, all at once. Is this Dylan’s best since Blood on the Tracks? No [that honor goes to 2001’s “Love & Theft”], but this album is still worthy of more than just the occasional listen. Unless you’re my wife Carol, in which case “the less heard the better.” After all, Bob is an acquired taste.

Tom Waits – Glitter and Doom Live
What can be said about Tom Waits? On Wikipedia I read the following about his voice: it sounded "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” Good enough for me – I can’t think of anything better. Tom Waits’ voice is unique – it is his instrument. One cannot pigeonhole his music – he’s all over the stylistic map. He draws inspiration from folk, blues, country, jazz ballads, polkas, waltzes, cabaret, swing, popular ballads. In addition to the standard guitar/bass/drums/piano, he also uses such instruments and objects as such instruments and objects as the marimba; trombone; brake drum; banjo; bell plate; bullhorn; conga; accordion; mellotron; maracas; pump organ; basstarda; chamberlain; harmonium; viola; sticks; chairs and musical saw . His label’s website describes his live shows as “part distorted vaudeville, part big top, part piano bar and part stand-up, live shows are meticulously orchestrated to have all the grace and excitement of a derailing train.” That sums up what Glitter and Doom Live sounds like. It captures all those elements. It’s a two-disc set. The first disc is 17 songs recorded in various cities on his 2008 tour. That’s a shame because I got bored one day and counted the number of different songs he did on that tour – I think it was around 64, give or take a couple. But there is a podcast of the entire Atlanta show on NPR’s website. It’s a must-have for, well, ME! As far as the song selection goes, Tom Waits sticks to stuff released after 1990. The second disc is “Tom’s Tales.” These are lots of monlogues that he does in between songs that are all spliced together into one 36-minute recording. We get treated to such things as “Do you know how many omelets you can get out of an ostrich egg? Fourteen . . . that’s a lot of omelets. I’ve gotten along with most of the ostriches I’ve met.” "Shrimp -- they never give anything to charity. That always bothered me until someone told me, well, basically, they're shellfish." I learned the origin of the phrase of 'graveyard shift' and 'dead ringer'. I learned about Nazi alphabet soup. I wish I saw this tour. It sounds like it was a long, strange but very enjoyable trip.

Archive Releases

Neil Young – Archives Volume 1 [1963-72]
This sucker has been in the works for over 20 years, but it finally saw the light of day in three formats – Blu-Ray, DVD, and CD. If you want the Blu-Ray or DVD versions, take out a second mortgage. The eight-CD version is much more affordable. This volume of the archives covers NY’s beginnings in Canada, through his days with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and his work under his own name with and without Crazy Horse. Basically, these are the songs that made Neil Young famous. There’s quite a bit of previously-unreleased material here, different versions and/or mixes, and rare tracks. The stuff that has been released before sounds infinitely better than the CDs on which these tunes were originally released. Also included are complete solo acoustic shows in Toronto in 1969 and 1971, and a 1970 show with Crazy Horse recorded at New York’s Fillmore East. Hardcore NY fans probably have most of this stuff, but with the remastered sound, this archive is worth every penny.

The entire Beatles catalog remastered

Ok, what is understood need not be discussed. The entire Beatles catalog was finally remastered and unleashed on the world on Sept 9th, 2009 [Number 9, Number 9, Number 9…]. They all sound great. Buy them!