Vinyl View: Harry Nilsson – A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night

Delicately crafted orchestral arrangements accompany impeccable vocals from one of the ’70s greatest artists. Comfort music at it’s finest.  

It was between McCartney’s debut solo album McCartney, the new Rx Bandits LP Gemini, Her Majesty or a third record, and more importantly an artist that I had shrugged off for years — an artist I knew had some serious clout (this musician had been recommended to me by my musical pundit brother many times before) but was never given a fair chance.

Listening to a Harry Nilsson record always felt like a gamble — a Russian roulette of the turntable that could result in 45 minutes of precious vinyl time I could never get back. His name would pop up in conversations both familial and semi-social and I figured I would half like it, half think it was unworthy of spinning again. Thankfully, I finally gave this aforementioned artist a chance.

130717_CBOX_Nilsson.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeA Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night is incredible and sounds like something you would hear in a dimly lit café somewhere in Venice. The arrangements are spectacular (a tip of the cap to conductor and arranger Gordon Jenkins) and the production is absolutely perfect (thanks to Derek Taylor’s clean and crisp vision). This record is one part comfort and two parts fervor.

The real genius in this record lies within Harry’s ability to take a bunch of standards, sung previously by the likes of Nat Cole, Judy Garland or Frank Sinatra, and transform them into songs that feel more like “In My Life” (Beatles) than “That’s Life” (Sinatra). Nilsson was capable of taking these classic cuts and nudging them into the modern era with a contemporary twist. Even in 2014, these songs feel more like tracks from a lost Ben Folds album rather than songs you might hear at a rundown karaoke bar.

Nilsson’s tone is welcoming on nearly every song, especially album opener “Lazy Moon” and “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It).” Delicate string arrangements accompany his captivating voice all throughout A Little Touch with a prime example being the echoing orchestration on “For Me And My Gal.” But the highlight of his singing abilities is shown during the falsetto breakdown of “This Is All I Ask.”

Nilsson and Lennon John Lennon always spoke of Harry with very high regard and is reported as saying, “Nilsson’s my favorite group.” Nilsson has clearly mastered the art of dynamics with a perfect vocal delivery on every song. The album’s closer “As Time Goes By” sounds familiar at first but it quickly becomes apparent that Harry’s take feels warmer than any previous versions.

Each song takes the listener to a place where wine glasses never empty, the fireplace never goes out and good conversation never ends with tracks both full of comfort (“What’ll I Do”) and familiarity (“Always”).

Final View:  While the songs are borrowed, the passion is unique and Harry’s vocals are unmatched. Whether or not they realize it, the Adeles and Bublés owe something to Mr. Nilsson for bridging the gap between vintage 1940s singers and contemporary artists. A Little Touch gives you a taste of life where everything feels settled and placed right where it should be.

Overall score: 8.5/10

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Vinyl View: Miles Davis – Sketches of Spain

Cinematic jazz lead by a trumpet engulfed in purity, provacativity and unmatched prowess.  It begins as a romantic journey that develops into a dramatic apex and finally returns to a gentle, comfortable location.  More classical than the usual improv-based jazz that Miles Davis fans are used to.  

Let me preface this review by stating a very important fact: I am no jazz aficionado.  However, my qualifications for this review are as follows:

  • I own and enjoy multiple jazz records (including another Miles Davis/Gil Evans record, Quiet Nights)
  • I have always been extremely fascinated by 1940s Jazz, including Django Reinhardt’s two-fingered, French-Gypsy, swing-style
  • I believe that I have a good ear for understanding music that’s considered “different”, while enjoying modern progressive artists that reference Miles Davis as a major inspiration

Miles DavisSide I:

“Concierto De Aranjuez”

For the sake of this review, I have broken down this lengthy track into four sections – divided by tempo changes or other dramatic alterations

– Part I – 

The album starts with the mysterious clattering of castanets, followed by some distant horns, strings and elegant percussion that builds upon a slow cinematic experience.  Lead by Davis’ signature trumpet, the beginning of the marvelous “Concierto De Aranjuez” sounds like the start of a gentle rainfall. An elegant string section, gentle harp and perfectly supportive horn section join carefully placed hits of the high-hat and a muddled bass line.  This part of the song would go well with a cloud-covered walk along the beaches of Cadaqués, or any other coastal town in Barcelona.

– Part II – 

In the middle of a verse (near the three minute mark) the beauty is replaced by an outburst of electrifying sound, fronted by an aggressive array of horns.  As the beat changes into a swing, the mood is carefully altered.  Blistering horns and eerie strings support Davis’ provocative melody. The production here is superb – giving Miles Davis the ideal platform for showcasing his incredible talent alongside Gil Evans superb orchestral arrangement.  The end of this section sounds like a theatrical form of jazz with a dramatic eeriness (I’m guessing Sondheim may have found inspiration here for elements of Sweeney Todd’s 1979 musical score).

– Part III – 

Another significant development in “Concierto De Aranjuez” occurs right before the eight minute mark.  The castanets return as Evans, once again, alters the arrangement to deviate his orchestra into a new direction. Davis’ muted trumpet creates a pure sound that compliments the adventurous mood of this third act.  It now feels more like traditional jazz than any of its proceeding moments. An interesting bass line carries the majority of this section, until the climatic apex around the twelve minute mark.

– Part IV – 

Another intense outpouring of trumpets and other horns prelude this final section. Aggressive tambourine shakes lead directly into an anxious arrangement of brass.  A gentle array of woodwinds follow and seem to apologize for the previous hostility.  The listener is taken on a new journey as quiet becomes the leading element.  Davis’ signature trumpet closes out this track as the castanets return one final time – taking you back to the calming beach on Cadaqués. 

“Will O’ The Wisp”

The second track, “Will O’ The Wisp”, has a contemporary structure (especially when compared to it’s predecessor).  The catchy melody is easy to follow and the orchestra works to compliment Miles throughout the cut.  A soulful bass provides bottom something primarily dominated by high pitched trumpets.  “Will O’ The Wisp” feels more like an interlude than a complete song with the sole mission of preparing the listener for side two of the album.

Miles Davis Gil EvansSide II:

“The Pan Piper”

Side II begins with a brief declaration by Miles’ vibrant trumpet, followed by trailing flutes and breezy bells.  “The Pan Piper” is a great song that fuses together Gil Evans’ excellent sense of certain classical elements with upbeat jazz.  The real hero of this track is  found in the partnership established between the bass and drums which gives Davis the perfect canvas to sketch his playing upon. You’ll wish the rhythm track went on forever or at the very least, spanned the entirety of the track (instead of just the second half).

“Saeta”

If the Spanish military had a soundtrack, “Saeta” would definitely be on it.  Davis’ timbre is exceptional here as his instrument takes center stage.  But the rest of the song seems odd with a marching drum beat that dominates, droning strings and a horn sound reminiscent of a réveil from a bugle. “Saeta” is strange when set amongst the other cuts on Sketches of Spain and is the only questionable moment on the record.  It seems like there must be a backstory to this song, which could help give it context.

“Solea”

“Solea” also includes a similar military drum beat, but instead uses this more as a starting point, rather than the main basis for the song.  Maybe the strongest piece of work on Sketches of Spain, this final track has near perfect production.  A magnifying bass line fits in perfectly amongst the rhythm section.  Evans’ arrangements help to compliment Davis’ playing in a way that feels planned but not stale in any way.  For me, this is the song that includes everything I want from a Miles Davis record: a great melody played flawlessly by Miles, has both quiet instances and climactic apexes, and establishes a refreshing structure that is contained yet still feels improvised at times.  Listeners of “Solea” are guaranteed to start dancing or moving in their seat during the concluding moments as Sketches of Spain draws to a close.

Final View: Sketches of Spain truly is a masterpiece – but it also requires an asterisk (*): this challenging record is not meant to be played in the background of a casual dinner party, like some other jazz albums.  Careful listening is required to enjoy the moments of quiet beauty while the surprising outbursts of sound could send the wine glass of any casual listener flying across the room. Listener, consider yourself warned and appreciate this cliché – expect the unexpected.

Overall score: 9/10

Recommended if you like: Miles Davis albums, jazz with minimal improv, classical music

Vinyl View: The Doors – L.A. Woman

L.A. Woman is a challenging, yet wonderful record that feels like it was created by two completely individual entities.  The first being a somewhat uninspired and bored Jim Morrison, who still sounds great at certain moments (his involvement consisted of stepping into a bathroom recording studio infrequently throughout the sessions, only to lay down his vocal tracks). The second, a band who set out to prove that they were, in fact, worthy of their own individual praise – aside from the shadow cast by their ever-popular frontman. Overall, this is still an outstanding album (especially when assessed next to other artists – separately from Morrison Hotel or their near-perfect eponymous debut).

As previously mentioned, the most surprising elements of this album exist in the amazing musicianship found on each of the ten tracks.  While Morrison’s vocals are irreplaceable, The Doors sound as good or even better on L.A. Woman than any other professional studio musicians who worked during that time period (i.e. The Wrecking Crew).

doorslawomansessionsSide I:

“The Changeling” is a groove-centered cut that weaves around a bass and keyboard riff that perfectly supports Melissa’s most electrifying vocals on the album.  The chorus takes quite the turn (is this what he meant by “The Changeling” from the title?) as the rhythm changes, followed by a bridge with a slow build-up and resonating apex. By the end of “The Changeling”, you’re definitely stomping your feet and rocking your head in soulful accordance.  This song stands out as one of the best on L.A. Woman.

While being one of the most popular songs on the record and in the band’s catalog, “Love Her Madly” sounds just as relevant and exciting in 2013.  Morrison croons gently (with plenty of effects laced atop his vocals) over the great backing of Manzarek’s skillful organ (that feels like a Western saloon serenade), Densmore’s simple drums and Krieger’s crafty guitar work (consisting of that signature upstroke riff).  “Love Her Madly” shows hints of the 60s hangover while looking forward with superb production quality.

Aggressive vocals and a heavy bass riff kick off the third track on Side I – “Been Down So Long”.  This bluesy number includes more swagger and soul than anything produced after 1980 while proving to be one of the best tracks on the record. During the momentary lapse in vocals,  Krieger grabs a slide to showcase his underrated guitar skills and Densmore shows off his impressive stick handling.  Morrison also sounds almost as good here as he does on “Roadhouse Blues”.

Four fifths of the way through the first side of the album, The Doors break into a slow rhythm and blues number called “Cars Hiss By My Window”.  This fairly standard 12-bar blues is a nod to traditional blues standards – lacking really any effort from The Lizard King and seeming more like a setup for the next song than an actual attempt at anything creatively appealing.

“L.A. Woman” closes out the first half of the similarly named album with one of the most famous intros of any song from the early 70s.  Morrison’s sloppy bathroom vocals contrast, yet compliment, the extremely tight backing track from the rest of The Doors until he breaks into the memorable chorus.  Clocking in at 7:49, this cut includes plenty of riffing, solos and jams to be considered historical proof of this band’s excellent musical abilities.  Although, cutting out the extra content (about 3 minutes worth of jamming) would have made this lengthy track a legendary rock classic without any faults.  I can imagine this track reaching its peak enjoyment level on a long drive up Santa Monica Blvd. with the windows rolled down on a summer night in L.A.

JimMorrison_MarkBenno_LAWomanSide II: 

Side II is much stranger than the first. Part two starts off with one of the strangest songs by The Doors, “L’America” is haunting and mystifying – introducing a very different vibe for the second side.  A marching drum beat carries the listener headstrong into Morrison’s vocals that don’t really seem to go anywhere…until the chorus.  “L’America” is interesting but doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the record. This cut resembles what a Carlos Castaneda novel would sound like put to music.  Seemingly, the bridge gives you reason to come back at a later time and give it another go.

“Hyacinth House” brings you back with an uplifting melody and welcoming keyboard part (sounding like a resonating church organ).  This song carries the listener along a journey perfect for awakening on a Sunday Morning.  Even though that music was written by Krieger, Morrison’s lyrics suggest finding something new in life – i.e. Jim’s immediate exit to Paris following the album’s completion.  An enjoyable track that feels like the calm before the storm…

One of the few covers ever recorded by the band, “Crawling King Snake” slithers along, as the name suggests.  This old blues standard puts Manzarek’s organ and Krieger’s trademark Gibson SG guitar sound front and center as the rest of the studio band crunches and attacks the empty space.  Although the lyrics are not his own, Jim seems to be relating directly to the reptilian themes found within the words (just as The Lizard King should).  It’s a great blues number, played by a band that idolized the blues and can pull it off as well as anyone.

“The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)” contains lyrics that were taken from one of Morrison’s poems – which is most likely obvious considering that most of the words are spoken, rather than sung.  While being intriguing, it seems like more of a piece of history than something a listener would want to return to.

Distant echos haunt this track.  Thunder and rain provide a chaotic backdrop.  The melody is unforgettable and the musicianship is unmatched.  Manzarek’s organ solo is intelligent and beautiful, while falling down like raindrops as it crescendos into another verse.  Elvis’ bass player, Jerry Scheff, lays down one of the most famous bass lines in The Doors discography. Morrison sounds unbelievable on this song – youthful, aggressive, confident, frightened and frightening all at the same time.  This “swan song” is the perfect ending to an amazing band that created an inspiring final album (at least, the final album with their singer) that is completely forward-thinking.

I can see Jim leaving the studio during the last few minutes of this track – leaving his band to make the final statement as he boards his plane to Paris.

Overall score: 8/10

Recommended if you like: Morrison Hotel (by The Doors), The Coral, blues, L.A rock and early 70s music

Vinyl View: George Harrison – Living in the Material World

For someone my age, I’m most likely one of the biggest Beatles fans around (my brother being the only other person I know that can run circles around my mop-top knowledge).  I tend to favor John Lennon songs over any other Beatle, with George Harrison coming in closely behind because of his unique guitar playing and honest lyrics. While George’s Beatle catalogue is somewhat limited, most of his cuts are gems and have become some of my favorite songs by the Fab Four (i.e. “Something”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “I, Me, Mine”).

To preface this review, I’d like to point out that my experience with George’s solo work is very limited.  All Things Must Pass remains one of my favorite albums of all-time by any artist.  But other than that, I’m unfamiliar with the majority of his post-Beatle career.

materialworld-lpSide I: 

Living in the Material World is wonderfully refreshing and full of slide guitar, stellar vocals and the influence of greatness.  For a an album that came out 40 years ago (1973), the songs could easily be shuffled in with newer releases by My Morning Jacket or Wilco.

The album opener, “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth) “, is the only track that I was familiar with before this listen.  In traditional post-Maharishi Harrison fashion, the lyrics discuss George’s relationship with the Lord and how it helps him cope with life.  It can be classified as a “nice” track – something that warms your heart.  Luckily for us, the album gets heavy very quickly.

“Sue Me, Sue You Blues” is a solid track carried by plenty of Harrison’s crafty slide guitar work.  Tumbling cymbals guide the song alongside a Bill Joel-esque piano riff and lyrics suggestive of an agressive legal battle.  The double-tracked vocals sound warm and powerful while never reaching the glossy pop feel of his previous vocal work with The Beatles – a feat that makes perfect sense on this song.

On most albums, track three tends to have a reputation of being the single or most radio-friendly track.  “The Light That Has Lighted The World” is instantly likable and could have easily been played on 70s radio. But to my knowledge, it is only heard by those lucky enough to find it within the confines of this album.  Like many of his songs, George’s vocal melody and carefully placed electric guitar accents add depth to a somewhat simple song. The piano dominates in terms of instrumentation but shimmering production on the acoustic guitar track cause it to outshine all of the other musical elements.

“Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long” is a great, GREAT alt rock song.  It finds Harrison singing portions of the verses in falsetto, before leading into “now don’t let me wait too long” with thunderous drumming.  Indie rock owes a lot to this song in terms of how George has crafted something that doesn’t necessarily sound complicated into an intelligent composition full of behind-the-scenes complexity.

George always had this ability to shape slower songs into adventurous ballads.  “Who Can See It” compliments the tracks occurring before and after but probably wouldn’t stand well played on it’s own.  The vocals are the definite highlight of this song with a powerful performance that follows a beautiful melody.

“Living In The Material World” is a mediocre track that upon first listen, seems like it could have been cut from the album.  While it stands out from other songs with a bridge that includes Ravi Shanker inspired instruments, an out of place sax solo gives it a bit of a pre-disco “Whatever Gets You Through The Night” vibe (possibly my least favorite Lennon song ever).    It even ends like an episode of Saturday Night Live, complete with synchronicity between the sax, drums and piano as the credits roll across the turntable.

material-world1-1Side II:

While Side I felt like a collection of individual songs, the second side feels cohesive with each song flowing into the next.  One of my favorite tracks on the album has to be (surprisingly) “The Lord Loves the One”.  Harrison’s guitar playing soars atop solid grooves to create a welcoming atmosphere.  While I can’t personally relate to the lyrical content (that which could have been found in many Sunday sermons), there is no doubt that Harrison is passionate about the contents of this song.

“Be Here Now” is simplistically beautiful and includes everything you want to hear on an overcast November morning.  I feel like after some time, it will become one of my most favorite George Harrison songs ever.  The acoustic guitar is reminiscent of Nick Drake (only in tone, not necessarily in style) and compliments George’s double-tracked vocals perfectly.  A gentle organ gives this song depth while a heavy standup bass causes this track to be heavier than it should.

George is no stranger to the dramatic waltz (“I,Me, Mine” and “Long, Long, Long”).  “Try Some Buy Some” swings heavily from side-to-side with excellent orchestral accompaniment as Jim Gordon (of Derek and the Dominos) lays down the ideal drum track.  Including some of the best vocals on the album, this song could have easily have fit alongside some of the more theatrical work from McCartney on Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour.

“The Day The World Get’s ‘Round” and “That Is All” both tip their hats to Lennon and contain elements of “Imagine” in terms of lyrics and piano structure.  The first feels like it could be  great but ends up lacking any sort of originality.  While being my least favorite song on Side II, the intro and outro are refreshing and keep “The Day…” from becoming a skippable track.

The final track on the album, “That Is All”, starts with lyrics that carefully sum up Living in the Material World: “That is all I want to say”.  Although another piano balled, the bridge propels this track into excellence as George sings “Times’ I find it hard to say, with useless words getting in my way.”  A brief signature guitar solo adds familiarity to this cut – rounding out the album and leaving the listener feeling satisfied with another great album by another great Beatle.

Overall score: 8.5/10

Recommended if you like: The Beatles, Wilco, My Morning Jacket, Ryan Adams and the Cardinals

Lovedrug – Wild Blood : It’s A Killer, Not A Filler

What makes an album great? Is it the slick production that gets you? Maybe it’s the goosebumps that show up when you’re cruising down a dark highway and you hear a melody that just wont escape your head.

For me, it can be simple at times to tell when an album is great. The instruments will blend together like they were born for each other. In the same sense, vocals will sound like they don’t need any instrumental accompaniment to make sense and the lyrics that make an instant impact.

But usually, it takes a much more complicated scenario combined with the above to formulate what I consider to be a “great” album. Sometimes it’s a carefully choreographed soundscape consisting of one crunching guitar resounding through my left ear – while my right side is treated to a glistening lead guitar riff full of reverb and treble.  One factor that remains consistent is the need for me to listen to the album over and over (when I wake up all I want is to hear that one part of that one song). 

This “complicated” scenario can be found all over Lovedrug’s latest release titled Wild Blood. To categorize Lovedrug as an alternative band or even put them somewhere near the rock genre  immediately places restraints on a group of artists that have developed an album worthy of being described as entrancingly ingenious. Wild Blood combines beauty, sadness, virtue, energy and hope into an album that constantly blurs genres and rules.

One of my favorite tracks of the last year can be found on this album, the prehistorically named Dinosaur.  It starts with the bold lyric, “Fever – drugs – money – blood. Is it bad for love?”.  Dinosaur is a very different song both lyrically and musicaly compared to what I would usually consider to be my favorite cut on an album. The chugging rhythm guitar is answered with a clean lead guitar melody that gets you prepared for the chorus. “We were dinosaurs in the end…like we’d opt out of survival in lieu of some survival pretense”, referring to a companionship doomed from the start for extinction – something every romantic can relate to with a past relationship. In the middle of the song lead singer Michael Shepard whispers “we were”, making sure you are still listening and ready to be haunted for the rest of the cut.

Listen to Dinosaur here:

Another standout track, Pink Champagne, begins with circling cymbals and solid snare drum snaps. Everything feels like a pop song trudging through molasses until the chorus hits and everything changes. “Sure shot – you were always my sure shot” – describes someone whose guaranteed plans fell completely apart. As with every song on Wild Blood, this track combines solid rhythm work with a remarkable vocal melody.  Happiness can be found in the sadness (at least for the listener) because of the melancholic beauty trembling from this track.

Listen to Pink Champagne here:

Other notable tracks include the simplistically epic Premonition, the insanely catchy Your Country and the tender ballad Girl where Shepard’s vocals have never sounded better.

Overall this album contains some serious guitar work coupled with impressive drumming and solid bass backing. The vocals are on a whole different level as most songs could be listened to with no instrumentation needed. While Shepard previously resembled a young Billy Corgan, on Wild Blood he has found a home for his voice. That home is right at the point where beauty and chaos meet.

*Recommended if you like: Muse, Thrice – Beggars, and anything from piano rock to 90’s alternative

Download this album here: http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/wild-blood/id496739871

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