Saturday, January 30, 2010

Three to Get. Ready?

From the ridiculous (see previous post) to the sublime...

Almost every fan of pop music (or jazz, or blues, or whatever genre) has his or her special favorites--not the big worldwide hits that every listener knows, and not the lesser albums by major artists, but those unknown works that seem like secret messages no one but the single lucky listener has discovered, brilliant works created by little-known performers laboring in obscurity.

No doubt someone will nominate a particular disc by Mink Deville, for example, or soulman McKinley Mitchell, or pop band Blue Ash maybe (I might on a different day), but I'm thinking at this moment of three other LPs, all dating from the late-Sixties/early Seventies. Two of them are actually underground classics in some circles, praised by "those in the know," while my third choice may cause some raised eyebrows--but, hey, I know a classic album when I hear it!

First up is that deft last one, dating from 1973: Loving & Free by Brit vocalist Kiki Dee, produced by Elton John as part of his private label (Rocket Records) deal with MCA, but better than many of Elton's own releases from that period, thanks to the canny selection of tunes (two by hit masters John/Taupin and four gems written by the singer herself), the use of several top English sessionmen (Paul Keogh and Davey Johnstone on guitars, Dave Mattacks, Gerry Conway and Nigel Olsson on rock-solid drums, Elton himself on keyboards, etc.)--and the wonderful white-soul vocals of Ms. Dee. John continued backing Dee on subsequent efforts too, shaping her hit single "I've Got the Music in Me" and then duetting beautifully with her for the massive hit "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," but it was her debut album that received the most loving attention, and subtler production too.

Elton found a variety of ways to support Kiki's warm and caressing voice--a smidgin of Mellotron and sax, a couple dashes of organ or pedal steel, some elegant strings (on two tracks only), and Elton John-styled piano almost everywhere else. But Dee and her sweet & soulful backup singers (including Lesley Duncan) had no trouble floating along or rising above each--hear "If It Rains," "You Put Something Better Inside Me," and "Sugar on the Floor" for the proof; and the latter two are just as warmly sexy as their titles suggest. Elton's piano kicks "Lonnie and Josie" like a sequel to his sorta-Western album Tumbleweed Connection, and Jackson Browne's "Song for Adam" gets a gorgeous, rhythm-spiked makeover. And there's room for some tougher rockers too--a blues-hot redo of Free's "Travellin' in Style" plus the fun, Elton-fueled, faintly generic "Supercool." But the lady will melt your cold, cold heart with her harmonized vocals on the post-coitus "Amoureuse" ("Strands of light upon a bedroom floor") and her title-tune original:

"Bound, I am bound like the knots in a string,
Eager to be where my life can begin.
Out of the shadow and into the sun,
So many things I should have done...
I will untangle myself,
So that I can see;
I will untangle myself,
Everything will be
Loving and free..."

Second of the three is the best Bob Dylan album that Bob didn't participate in, meaning Lo & Behold, the great homage-to-Dylan disc by Coulson, Dean, McGuinness, Flint--English sidemen and session dudes ex- of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and the Manfred Mann group (he helped produce) and other fine bands--offering a dozen Dylan songs that hadn't yet been taken up by Bob or others, gleaned from demos and the readily bootlegged Basement Tapes. (There were only ten tracks on the 1972 Lo & Behold LP, but the current CD has added two B-sides from singles, plus an alternate mix, so the version shown has 13 cuts total.)

Ironically the CDMF versions often are better than those sloppy-casual ones Bob and the Band laid down in the basement. Dennis Coulson has a good strong voice, and the guys together (with some extra session help) play 17 or 18 different instruments, enriching the arrangements nicely. Some tracks are still jokey ("Open the Door Homer," "Odds and Ends"), while others remind us of Dylan's plainspoken protest days ("The Death of Emmett Till") and soon-to-come religious time ("Sign on the Cross," which starts out strong and then builds inexorably to a seven-minute gospel shout).

There are two stunningly beautiful numbers that manage to turn musician-as-troubador images into something unique, going beyond ordinary love songs--"Eternal Circle" ("But my song it was long, And there was more to be sung") and "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" (acapella lead and chorus, then harmony with on-rushing piano and electric guitar: "And rest yourself 'neath the strength of strings No voice can hope to hum"). Blending English brass band, music hall jollity and a round-singing quartet of voices, "Don't You Tell Henry" is a wonderful one-off... but given a run for its money by the rollicking, off-beat arrangement (spiked by "Susie Q"-styled cowbell) of title track "Lo and Behold."

Yet most exotically impressive of all (to my ears) is "Let Me Die in My Footsteps," another of Dylan's then astonishingly neglected songs; but the CDMF version not only rescues an overlooked masterpiece but presents it as some sort of East Indian rocker with distant vocal, semi-sitar (electric guitar strung loose, it sounds like) and pseudo tabla drumming, those played respectively by lead men McGuinness and Flint, who deserve a big tip of the hat. It's a damn shame there was no sequel to this brilliant album.

Finally, going back 50-some years, first there was Vince Martin with the Tarriers, briefly, then there was the duo of Martin & Neil, princes of Greenwich Village, then it was Fred Neil in the ascendent and Martin in eclipse, escaping to Florida. And then--hosanna!--for one glorious, unique moment in 1969 there was Martin's out-of-left-field (actually Coconut Grove via Nashville) LP, If the Jasmine Don't Get You... the Bay Breeze Will, the best folk-rock-country-jazz-raga album ever issued--still almost totally unknown today, a small-print sui generis footnote in music history.

Seems a group of Nashville cats (Kenny Buttrey, Charlie McCoy, Lloyd Green, Norbert Putnam, Henry Strzelecki, and two or three others) had just spent several days showing Dylan again how the professionals worked (shaping the stunted Nashville Skyline just as some of them had earlier built both Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding); and right then into town came producer Nick Venet and reclusive Vince to work on something that might reintroduce Neil's ex-cohort to the world. (Martin & Neil together had sounded fine partly because their duets came up from below, Fred's bass-to-baritone voice meeting Vince's tenor-to-baritone. Fred supposedly attended the new sessions but chose not to sing.)

The players were hot and Martin gruff-edged and cool, and the results were purely amazing--great instrumental jams on both familiar tunes and quickly invented originals, with Vince singing, scatting, soaring, and sailing free, smoother and less spacey than, say, Tim Buckley. Inexorably rolling tracks like "Snow Shadows" or the gentler, guitar-sweetened "Summerwind," both powerfully sung Martin originals; a train-time reinvention of "Danville Girl," associated with Jimmie Rodgers long ago; free-flowing longer numbers, "Yonder Comes the Sun" (instantly swept up into the currents of music) and the 13-minute title cut, with the musicians refusing to give over and Vince caught up and bound to keep roaming too, on into a kind of folk/jazz/raga--the bubbling bass and streaking guitar solos simply brilliant... Indeed every cut acoustically balanced, richly nuanced, distinctly unique, well-nigh perfect.

I've bought a half dozen copies of Vince's masterpiece over the many years, and given each away to friends; and the response every time was a stunned "Wow!" Do yourself a favor... find the current CD of Jasmine, and then hoist sails with Martin ("like a wild bird flyin' blind") and those Nashville cats ("play smooth as country water"); let the salt air ("Talk about the bay breeze!") and the scent of jasmine and the acoustic country jazz take you away.

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