Album for the Weekend

[Collected here, in reverse chronological order, are all the Friday posts in which I suggest good listening for the coming weekend. — AB]

May 10: Walls and Bridges, John Lennon (1974)

If angst is the fuel of true creativity, then John Lennon had plenty of firewood for Walls and Bridges. The legend is that Lennon, separated from his wife Yoko Ono at her insistence, took off for Los Angeles with the couple’s personal assistant. Lennon had an affair with her and dove into some pretty hard living, so much so that ever after, he referred to the year-and-a-half period as his “Lost Weekend.”

WallsBridgesBut as a true artist, Lennon was above monochromatic moods. This is not a dozen songs of dark longing and loneliness. Sure, there are earthy Lennon introspections, such as “Scared” and “Steel and Glass.” But listen also to the hoppy ecstasy of the most famous track, “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” (that’s Elton John on piano and backing vocals on both the album and the link to an Elton show at Madison Square Garden). And I’m convinced that the Saturday Night Live late-night stage band sound owes a lot to the saxophone step-out by Bobby Keys on that song.

You’ll be hitting the replay button again and again to squeeze every last endorphin out of the otherworldly “#9 Dream” (“Revolution No. 9,” this ain’t.) And enjoy that musical gem of yesteryear that’s been completely abandoned on most modern rock albums: the instrumental, in this case the meaty-funky “Beef Jerky.”

Some say this was Lennon at the very peak of his powers. I long ago gave up on such analysis of this particular musician. Sure, some Lennon albums are better than others. But in some ways, everything John did seemed like some kind of summit. He simply got up there and never came down. Rest in peace; we’ll give it every chance we can.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr except album art and linked music

May 3: Madman Across the Water, Elton John (1971)

I had the good fortune to see Sir Elton John in concert a few years back. He was touring to support an album called Peachtree Road, which never got much notice, being something of a late-career add-on. But during that concert, he ended a song, got up from his piano bench, and walked back to where his four background singers were standing. He made a grand gesture of thanks, something between a high-five and a prayer, and returned to the front of the stage to speak with the audience.Madman

That moment has stuck with me because it’s testimony to Elton’s lifelong insistence on a high standard of musicianship. He got the sound he wanted, and he was overjoyed. (If there was ever another side of that coin in his musical moods, I never heard about it.) He was also generous with credit, as I saw in that very public display at the concert hall in Orlando.

Reach back to the beginnings of his career, and you can see where it all started. Madman Across the Water, Elton’s fourth album, is as musically tight and adventurous as anything he has done since. And no one knows better than Elton, who mentions it at nearly every show, that his musical genius is only half the story. Bernie Taupin‘s lyrics heave a lot of psychic weight. The man could word up a picture, and Elton could sing it. Witness the most famous song from the album, “Tiny Dancer“:

Blue jean baby
L.A. lady
Seamstress for the band
Pretty eyed
Pirate smile
You’ll marry a music man

I don’t know about you, but that conjured up a complete picture of a woman in my young mind.

But the whole package deserves a late night headphone listen. “Levon” is among the best indictments of generational bullying in all of rock. “Holiday Inn” provides a three-day-shadow look at life on the road, and “Razor Face” has a nervy backstory notion that we, too, will be old one day. Perhaps the most intriguing song on the album is “Indian Sunset.” What’s an English guy doing getting into the head of a Sioux about to be set upon by the cavalry? But listen to it a few times, and you see that Elton and Bernie’s point of view wasn’t English, American or Indian. It was human. (The linked version is Elton alone on piano; it’s just as moving as the full-orchestra album track.)

This was Elton before the glitzy glasses and outrageous outfits. But even when those days started, we knew the music was at the center. We got the sound we wanted, and we’ve been overjoyed for a long time.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr except for album art and linked music

April 26: Live in Paris, Diana Krall (2002)

If you have romantic, or even just relaxing, plans for the weekend, I have the music side covered for you. (Note: For best results, please be male and above 30, or female and above 22. Otherwise, this advice is lost on you. Unless you’ve resolved to be hipper than your age group, and….yyyyyeah, I knew you were cool with this…)

DianaKrall_ParisThe incomparable Diana Krall (who my wife calls my Big Blonde British Columbia Homegirl) recorded this concert in Paris on what must have been a magical night. It’s hard to say what’s more attractive about Ms. Krall: her swingy-perfect piano style, or the vocal talent that works across an expressive spectrum from rich and deep to funny and chatty. Or is it her downright athletic femininity (how does she look like she could caress and/or beat you up — all in the same minute?). And you know she has broad musical tastes. She married Elvis Costello, fer Pete’s sake.

As a leader and a standout, Ms. Krall meshed nicely with guitarist Anthony Wilson, bassist John Clayton, and strings from the Paris Symphony Orchestra on this record, working some serious jump into the opener, “I Love Being Here With You,” then instantly shifting gears for the whimsical (but never dull) “Let’s Fall In Love.” French jazz audiences are said to be knowledgeable and compliant, and that might have helped amplify Ms. Krall’s ability to ease things down for a vocal absolutely aching with desire on “The Look of Love.”

Smoothness appears to be part and parcel of Ms. Krall’s jazz ethic; even the straight-ahead, paced-up numbers never seem too aggressive. “East of the Sun (And West of the Moon)” keeps it light, as does “Devil May Care.” Conversely, ballads never get draggy: witness “Maybe You’ll Be There,” a break-up torch song that gets to our universal nerve on that painful score, and a very creditable rendition of fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.”

Pour some wine, turn this one on, and turn down the lights. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. And, um…after 9, don’t call.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr except album art and linked music

April 19: The Cars (1978)

With Boston on our minds so much this week, I started to look for more uplifting reasons to think about The Hub. It didn’t take long. Boston’s music scene has given us plenty over the years: the band Boston, Aerosmith — and The Cars. Their debut album, self-titled, came out during an intensely trendy time. But it has aged well.

The_CarsWell, not exactly. The Cars sounds like it hasn’t aged at all. Back then, we were conditioned to look for oddity in sound, to expect punkiness and New Wave weirdness and disdain the mild. Fortunately, a lot of us bypassed that crap and went straight to the music. The Cars managed to move in the fashion-soaked New Wave world while still providing edgy substance. Their early music hasn’t lost any of that quality since the days when it rushed at me out of open dorm windows in Philadelphia.

Everyone knows about angular/skinny Ric Ocasek, with his penchant for fashion model girlfriends and his offbeat lead vocals. All well and good, but there’s so much more to listen to. Elliot Easton was a precise guitarist who worked adventure into a clean, out-front sound. He could dirty it up just a little, though, when it worked, such as on the solo that spins “Don’t Cha Stop” to its end. Drums are sharp too; the break David Robinson played to dive “Just What I Needed” from its introductory verse into the main part of the song has been air-played at more frat parties than “Paradise By the Dashboard Light.”

Even the recording techniques amp up the intensity. Check out the phasing on the opening drums of “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight.” And butting that song end-to-end with the lead-off guitar/bass thumps of the next one, “Bye Bye Love,” gives the pair a jumpy, live-show feel that keeps a party revving. (I always did like the lead vocal on “Bye Bye Love;” it was by Benjamin Orr, the band’s bassist and other lead singer. Sadly, Orr died in 2000 of pancreatic cancer.)

If you were there when people were self-piercing their earlobes with safety pins and obsessing about Adam Ant, The Cars will take you back. If you weren’t there, listen in and mosh.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr except album art and linked music

April 12: Let It Bleed, The Rolling Stones (1969)

Weather’s getting warm enough for folks to think about getting their ya-yas out, and who better than the Stones to shoot some electricity up your spine? Let It Bleed was one of a four-album blockbuster streak in that profitable stretch between 1968 and 1972 (Exile on Main Street, Beggars Banquet and Sticky Fingers were the others). By this time, the band had left behind any remaining clangy guitar, dance-hall-microphone aura and perfected the gritty, aggressive Stones sound so many people remember.

And with their unkempt look and unabashed lifestyle, Mick JaggerKeith Richards and the rest of the band were well on their way to a reputation for leering evil. Accusations of Satanism went hand-in-hand with the foregone conclusion that everything the Stones did, musically and otherwise, was anti-Beatles. (It’s not clear that the Stones intended any such thing; word is the two bands were friendly.) In retrospect, most of the Stones’ rep for “evil” (beyond some pretty hard partying) seems to have arisen from their failure to deny the wildest allegations.Let_It_Bleed

Strip away all that shizz, as my son would say, and there’s some great music waiting. Jagger and Richards were never shy about their fascination with American delta blues; the Robert Johnson standard “Love in Vain” is proof. There’s no effort to over-electrify the Mississippi sound, and the simple treatment adds that much more power. It’s hard to avoid being drawn into some deep thoughts upon hearing the forlorn lyric, “When the train left the station/There were two lights on behind/The blue light was my baby/And the red light was my mind.”

The straight-ahead rockers on the album show the Stones as unafraid to dive into some tough subjects. Murder makes its appearance in “Midnight Rambler,” and “Gimme Shelter” lays an echo-y desperation over antiwar lyrics. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” has been analyzed back and forth so much that to say more about it would be like interpreting the Mona Lisa. The song has meant so many things to so many different people (bland acceptance of ambition’s shortcomings? Druggie lament?) that it no longer matters who’s right.

The best song on the album is probably one of the least remembered: “Monkey Man” careens along on a sprightly riff that simply demands putting the top down, getting some lead in your foot, and cranking the stereo.

So much has been made of the fact that the Stones have been at this for more than 50 years — and that Keef is still alive, in spite of everything — that it’s easy to forget just how good they were in this, the first of their primes. Checking out Let It Bleed again is not so much remembering as rediscovering.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr except album art and linked music

April 5: The Who By Numbers, The Who (1975)

The Who By Numbers was derided when it came out as a disappointing mish-mash of Pete Townshend navel-gazing. Daft punters, as Pete would have said. Barmy reviewers didn’t know what they had, besides a hangover.

Who_By_NumbersSince Who’s Next in 1971, far too many fists had punched the air above throaty cries of “TEENAGE WASTELAND.” It got so loud among Who fans that few people noticed that other songs on that album, and on Quadrophenia in 1973, tried to get a little deeper into this thing called life than your typical rock shout. Indeed, that had been Townshend’s mission since before Tommy in 1969, and I had to scratch my head a bit when critics took him to task for being to self-exploratory, introverted, Platonic, cerebral, you name it.

Well, duh. Why else write songs? And fact is, few songwriters and performers have ever done a better job of combining the electricity and grit of rock with the innermost currents of feeling, desire, and whatever else is going on in there. On By Numbers, Townshend did it by putting himself out there for us all to see. And we could swing the mic cord at the same time.

Right out of the gate, we get grungy Gibson chords and unleashed Keith Moon percussion (I know, redundant) pushing the tension on “Slip Kid,” as good a song to belt while mowing the lawn as I’ve ever come across. “Dreaming From the Waist” is a pretty credible reflection on aging from a guy who had just gone 30, and with a rollicking beat at that. “However Much I Booze” features a nice, clean acoustic intro, some classy bass playing by the late John Entwistle, and by-now familiar angst from Pete on the contradictions of stardom. (No less compelling for that.)

Of course, it’s not all gut school. There’s the standard, “Squeeze Box,” which the band genially acknowledged at concerts as a fun little tossaway. And even in the serious songs, such as “How Many Friends,” some lyrics are good for a grin: “I’m feelin’ so good right now/There’s a handsome boy, tells me how I changed his past/He buys me a brandy/Or could it be he’s really just after my ass?”

Be sure to download the 1996 re-master; it includes bonus live versions of “Squeeze Box,” “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Dreaming From the Waist.”♦

© 2013 Adam Barr except album art and linked music

March 29: Damn Right I Got the Blues, Buddy Guy (1991)

Chicago Blues for Easter weekend? Isn’t that a bit…y’know, unholy?

Maybe. But it’s also very human. And you have to do something Saturday night, once the eggs are done. Right?

Chicago blues guitarist Buddy Guy is 76 and still going strong, booking dates and festivals for lucky summer music seekers. When he made this record, he was in his mid-50s and at the top of his form. Word is he hasn’t lost so much as a quarter-step. He certainly knows his way around a fretboard, and his vocals are full of feeling and flex.Buddy_Guy

Damn Right came out while I was living in Chicago. In those pre-fatherhood days when my wife would travel to Europe every so often on business, I would bounce from blues club to blues cave on Halsted Street, usually ending up sitting on a doorstep at 2:30 a.m. eating food-truck chow mein from a takeout box and talking music with a total stranger. This album didn’t just hit home; it was home.

The songs provide a chalkboard menu of blues grit and elegance, sometimes from phrase to phrase. “Where Is the Next One Coming From” is an unapologetic look at the ravages of alcoholism over a forceful blues shuffle. Guy’s penchant for expressive singing makes “There Is Something On Your Mind” an aching love-in-trouble song. On the other end of the tempo spectrum is the hoppy blues waltz “Early in the Morning,” and Guy’s smokin’ take on Mustang Sally” is pure air-guitar fun. Jeff Beck kicks in on that track; the album also includes tasty guest riffs from additional guitar heroes and Guy fan-friends Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler.

Unholy? Holy smokes…♦

© 2013 Adam Barr except album art and linked music

March 22: Band on the Run, Paul McCartney & Wings (1973)

When it happened, the breakup of the Beatles felt like a tragedy. Shortly, though, the negative bloomed into a positive. The legacy is lot of durable music.

Fact is, by the time the Beatles left their matching-suit-mop-haircut phase and stepped into their Sgt. Pepper uniforms, you could pretty much tell a Paul McCartney Beatles song from a John Lennon Beatles song. Still, the convention of attaching a Lennon-McCartney songwriting credit to either man’s work for the band continued. And depending on which interview or Beatles historian you listen to, collaboration still happened; it was just a matter of magnitude. Instead of whole songs hammered out together, one might help the other get through the middle eight bars or work out a transition.

BandOnTheRunBy the time their solo careers were in full flight, though, Lennon’s and McCartney’s songwriting styles had staked out their own wide open spaces. It was fun to hear a lyric of chord progression and think, “That sounds a little like “Glass Onion,” or “Oh, I heard that in “I Will.”

That’s one of the things that makes Band on the Run such a bunch of fun. But it’s far from all. Sir Paul’s style was always more whimsical, but he never abandoned the need to rock from time to time. So you have the airily pretty “Bluebird” on the same side with the organ-bass heavy “Let Me Roll It to You,” two very different, very effective treatments of desire.

The title track is a major-key storytelling jaunt about escape and freedom — and linked up with the next track, “Jet,” the two make a failsafe musical fountain of youth. Stranger and more challenging is “Picasso’s Last Words,” with its abrupt style changes promoting the very idea that an iconic artist — maybe the most iconic — could seriously be the subject of a pop/rock song.

Two members of Wings quit just before McCartney, his late wife Linda, and guitarist Denny Laine left for Lagos, Nigeria to record. Undaunted, McCartney played a lot of the instruments himself. (There were a couple of key guest appearances, including Cream’s Ginger Baker on percussion.) Still, the musical quality of the album never suffers. Indeed, for 1973, the recording quality is outstanding (it was remastered in 2010 as well). It’s good enough to pick out the excellent acoustic guitar playing note for note — and an hour spent leafing through the separate and combined sounds on this record is very good reading for your ears.

© 2013 Adam Barr except album art and music links

March 15: The Next Day, David Bowie (2013)

Every damn thing I saw written in advance of his new album, The Next Day, seemed intent on making David Bowie some kind of bad-boy Dickens or Thackeray. “This recalls the schadenfreude of his Berlin period,” I read, or “hearkens back to Low, but not quite enough like Scary Monsters.” Brows lately grown scholarly furrowed, and fingers that used to raise lighters at concerts now suspended themselves over the keyboards of laptops. And agonized.

Screw all that. Fact is, the bloke can rock. Still.

Bowie_NextDayAs if 66 years and a tour-interrupting heart attack (in 2004) could stop The Thin White Ziggy Berlin Ultrapop Space Oddity Let’s Dancer. Yes, he was legendary for his partying. But the only thing more fascinating than Bowie’s decades of nighttime energy has been his unaggressive — but persistent — refusal to give up on the idea of the original musical idea.

It’s really not fair to take music that can stand on its own this well and compare it to what came before. Yes, I’m saying it: if you happen to be coming to Bowie for the first time, there’s something for you here. If you’re not (and no one from the Seventies is), you’re covered too.

The title track opens the album, in fifth gear right out of the garage with those wide-open, clanky chords Bowie sometimes favors: every note out for inspection, but still a tight, unified sound. But what’s been on David’s mind the past 10 years? “Here I am/Not quite dying/My body left to rot in a hollow tree/Its branches throwing shadows/On the gallows for me/And the next day/And the next/And another day…”.

O.K., so it’s a burnt umber world. Still, The Next Day doles out a different brand of heavy that makes you want more, not less. The devil’s personal horn section lures us into “Dirty Boys,” a peer-into-the-alley walk through a moist night world of sewer-grate steam and easy-access evil. The clean, engaging riff that starts “I’d Rather Be High” sets off some major-key musings on the very minor-key elements of mortality, plus some thoughts that might occur to any reasonable tight-bellied young soldier.

I’d rather be high
I’d rather be flying
I’d rather be dead
Or out of my head
Than training these guns on the men in the sand

Bowie’s voice has lost nothing to age. Whatever nasally art-pop twang he has given up from the Ziggy years is more than made up for by a rich Bourbon baritone that he can switch from rancor to richness at a sixteenth-note’s notice. He’s done enough for three artistic lifetimes, of course. Still, like the celebrities he sings about in “The Stars Are Out Tonight,” we wish he could live forever. Except we mean it.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr except album art and linked music

March 8: Holy Fire, Foals (2013)

Foals* go by that sticky-note label “indie rockers” in the Internet music press. Independent of what? Every sound is derivative in some way, and no shame in that. An old high school/now Facebook friend who knows his music listed the band’s latest, Holy Fire, as a don’t miss. Curious, I downloaded and got down to it.

Or rather, up. Listening on my morning walk, I noticed my pace picking up by itself. The techno sounds are thick and aggressive, shaved on the edges by guitar licks that move back and forth between gritty dirt-chords and super-quick, kalimba-like riffs. I stopped dead in my tracks upon realizing, “OMG. I could dance to this. Me.”Foals_HolyFire

And that’s the key derivation, a potential negative browbeaten into a positive. It’s true, there’s a house-music vibe to Foals that would ordinarily put me off. But there’s also something that makes me want to hear what happens next. I imagine myself staying in the kind of too-loud, too-stroby London club I would usually flee, even ordering another £13 beer.

What I’m listening for, says the music press, is the band’s signature “mathletics” sound, in which lead vocalist/guitarist Yannis Philippakis and lead guitarist Jimmy Smith duel/overlay each other with polyrhythms — one spreading four dominant beats over a measure while the other crams in five or six, for example. What sounds good stays, often with a synthesizer line draped on top.

The result is a driving, echo-y aura of sound that can create a dream world or help you pound through a workout. Your choice. At times the lead vocals get a little watered down in a Chris Martin/Coldplay way, but often they’re an intriguing primal scream. Especially good are the two leadoff songs, “Prelude” and “Inhaler.”

The young Englishmen who make up the group come from Oxford and Cambridge, but I’m pretty sure the dons never heard anything like this. Worth an ear-stretch.♦

Foals North American tour is scheduled to start April 10 in Reno. Click here for all the dates.

* Click the arrows above and below the letters in FOALS on the band’s website to yield FOWKE and click Unlock for a loop of “Inhaler.” Search the Internet for other codes that lead to other songs.

© 2013 Adam Barr except music and album art

March 1: Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd (1975)

Many who knew music in the mid-1970s said it would be impossible for Pink Floyd to adequately follow their groundbreaking album, Dark Side of the Moon (1973). Everyone, that is, except Pink Floyd.

Dark Side was the best-selling album of all time for awhile, with claimed sales of more than 50 million copies and 778 weeks on the Billboard 200 album chart. It strikes nerve after nerve with two generations of listeners, despite its depressing subject matter: aging, mental disease, futility.

Why? The music. The music, and the lyrics that support it, are flawless. This may well be because of Floyd’s vaunted perfectionism. It would be easy to see how that insistence on quality led to Wish You Were Here, the band’s next studio album.WishYouWereHere

The themes are no more cheery than on Dark Side, and yet it’s still impossible to tear your ear away from it. The soul-numbing greed of the music business, working its alchemy to change art’s chemistry into money, fuels “Welcome to the Machine” and “Have a Cigar.” Sound effects ranging from loud parties to rewinding tape machines, their clicking reels echoing like lock tumblers on a prison cell door, transition to another enduring gem, the album’s title track. The lyrics still resonate.

So…so you think you can tell
Heaven from hell
Blue skies from pain
Can you tell a green field
From a cold steel rail
A smile from a veil
Do you think you can tell?

Did they get you to trade
Your heroes for ghosts
Hot ashes for trees?

Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange
A walk-on part in the war
For a lead role in a cage?

The song has been seen by many to be an elegy for the sanity of Syd Barret, the band’s founding member, who left in 1968 as his increasingly erratic behavior began to eclipse his prodigious musical talents. But whether for Syd or an expression of leaden regret at paths that cannot be backtracked, the song is a heart-stopper, sure to have listeners staring into space, even as they are musically fascinated. (The link is to a tasty live performance, which is missing some of the ominous sound effects that lead off the studio track. But it is powerful nonetheless, and its guitar solo is an enriching variation on the studio version.)

The bookends of these three songs — the opening “Shine On You Crazy Diamond Parts 1-5” and the ending, same title, Parts 6-9 — are alternately rock dirges and jabby keyboard experiments that plumb the mysteries of genius, madness, and the fluid Venn diagram where they intersect and interfere.

Uplifting? No. Artistic, intriguing, and not to be missed? Decidedly. Shine on, you crazy listener.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr, except album cover photo and linked music

February 22: Northern Lights, Ola Gjeilo/Phoenix Chorale (2009)

Remember those sensory deprivation tanks that used to be all the rage? One would climb inside this soundless, dark chamber for an hour and float on water that had a lot of Epsom salts dissolved in it, which helped you be more buoyant.

Evidently the things are still current. But I can help you be more buoyant without depriving you of your senses, and you don’t even have to get wet.

Ola Gjeilo (pronounced “yay-lo”) is a Norwegian composer in his mid-30s. On Northern Lights, an album of choral music that won a Grammy Award, he has built what one listener calls “spheres of sound.” The chords and lines Gjeilo has made do seem to take shape, drawn by the capable voices of the Phoenix Chorale. But the key benefit, and where the real relaxation and elevation come in, is in setting aside an hour and letting the shapes shift, bend, twist and metamorphose over you like a sky full of clouds.Ola

Or stars. Much of the work Gjeilo does on this album has a night feel to it, so much so that it might be wise to listen to it late at night. That’s just me, of course; your mind and musical heart may lead you in a different direction. The good news is, even if you’re new to choral music — or not a fan — Gjeilo’s work is very accessible. Yes, some of the texts are taken from religious works. But this does nothing to diminish the enjoyment of the stunning composing and singing. Indeed, a little research into the words (a digital booklet comes with the iTunes download) is rewarding.

Of special emotional note is “Pulchra es, amica mea” (“Beautiful thou art, my beloved”), which lays classic words of love from the Bible’s Song of Songs over simple but moving harmonics. Gjeilo said the inspiration for the music came from watching the aurora borealis (that is, the northern lights, of course) on a winter’s evening in Norway. Click on the video; it may be the best 4:27 you spend today.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr, except album art and linked music

February 15: Paper Airplane, Alison Krauss & Union Station (2011)

A friend who grew up in Kentucky shakes his head and declares that modern country music is “just pop music with a hat.” It’s hard to disagree. As fun and catchy as Shania Twain, Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw may be, they and many of their colleagues are no more country than the New York City Subway. Press enough buttons on your radio, and you hear a great deal of musical similarity between mainstream pop and mainstream Nashville.PaperAirplane

So when something as authentic as Paper Airplane by Alison Krauss and Union Station comes along, you jump down off the tractor and take notice. Here are real bluegrass sounds: banjo, subtle guitar, tasteful mandolin — played in a way that goes right back through Flatt & Scruggs to the common-man music that used to permeate the rural United States. Real country, that is.

Krauss’ chops as a serious musician — singer and fiddler — are beyond doubt, as she proved long before her crossover success with Raising Sand, which she recorded with former Led Zeppelin front man Robert Plant. There are some who find her voice a little thin, such as on the 1995 single “When You Say Nothing At All.” But balanced by such a textured band as Union Station, Krauss’ voice not only fits, it flows like a mountain stream into some very pleasant places. Through it, she lays out some hard truths, the kind that accompany sleepless nights, on “Lay My Burden Down,” “Sinking Stone,” and other tracks.

Krauss also knows how to be a bandmate. Most of the lead vocals on these songs of love, loss and longing are by her. But some serious Americana comes from earthy singing of guitar-mandolin player Dan Tyminski (he’s from Vermont!), who confidently narrates the Depression-era lament “Dust Bowl Children.” His riverboat story “Bonita and Bill Butler” is the closest we’ll ever get to accompanying Mark Twain in the pilot house.

The band produced its own work here, and the recording is flawless. Book some headphone time, close your eyes, and let your heart pick out every note. Not one is wasted.♦

©2013 Adam Barr

February 8: Duke, Genesis (1980)

The idea of a through-line in an album of rock music was nothing new when British prog-rock band Genesis started in on Duke in 1979. Tommy, The Who’s seismic rock opera, and Quadrophenia, its thoughtful follow-up, were already classics by then. But good as those two works were, they were out front and obvious, with characters who could have been listed in a program. They hung on bright-line structure and framework.Duke_Jacket

With Duke, Genesis took another step. You’re aware of a protagonist, you think you see him on the album cover, feeling pinheaded but massive as he gazes out a window at the moon and dreams…longs…wonders. And there are other characters — a wife (girlfriend?), children, fans, promoters — but all these personages move as shadows and flashes among the lyrics and arresting music. They are not drawn sharp. Instead; they float by, driven by winds that slide back and forth along the scale between breeze and hurricane-force gale.

Duke is an album, therefore, that you have to meet halfway. Sometimes a little more. But see it as an invitation. There are few more rewarding experiences in artistic rock ‘n’ roll.

The characters move with these winds in the usual uncertain, lurching ways of humans — overestimating, ignoring, biting, aching, hurting — and the music fits into every push point in just the right way. This was the tenth Genesis album, after all, and Phil Collins (drums/vocals), Mike Rutherford (guitars) and Tony Banks (keyboards and an immense catalog of sounds) brought a great deal of training and experience to the job.

Plus, the characters pack surprises — the life-changing kind. When I first heard Duke in 1980, including the Inner Voice that reveals itself (and its imminent departure from the hapless narrator’s soul) early in the work, I was wide-eye amazed. Holy crap, I thought…someone else has one too? When does his talk to him?

Musically, Genesis was afraid of nothing, as so many innovative riffs showed: “Behind the Lines,” an experiment in rocky funk, pumps pulse rates and engages listeners for the more serious matters of “Duchess,” where the problems begin. “Heathaze” may be one of the most beautiful songs Genesis ever recorded. “Please Don’t Ask” achieves that remarkable artistic miracle of making you feel an emotional tragedy deeply even if you’ve never been in the situation the song describes.

An eager circle closes when the themes you heard early in the album reappear near the end, much as they did on the band’s excellent Wind & Wuthering (1976). You know you’re absorbing a musical and emotional whole — made so because the band invited you to participate, and you accepted.

Click here for an interview with Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks about Duke.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr


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