Year-End Odds and Ends: Rock, Pop & Blues

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by Pico

Before diving deeper into the stacks o’ jazz cd’s, I’d like to turn our attention toward a few records of the rock, pop & blues sides that I managed to sample over the last few months. With one exception, these are all by long-established stalwarts, falling right in line with our baby boomer point of view here on Something Else. We hold such a bias with no apology, especially when too often the interest in some artists seem to wane after a certain amount of time regardless of whether they stopped releasing good or interesting music or not; with a few excewptions, it’s merely assumed that they have nothing more to say.

Some of these old farts still had quality output in 2009, even if in some cases the recordings themselves are a a little old. Ah well, they’re new to us. So let’s examine a few of these new offerings by the mainstream:

Neil Young Dreamin’ Man Live ’92: This is the latest in Young’s Archive series which has so far produced albums that ranged from good to quite good. More importantly, these albums have filled in a lot of little gaps in his vast recording legacy. Dreamin’ Man is a track-by-track recreation of Young’s 1992 big seller Harvest Moon. These are all solo acoustic versions that Young tried out on various live audiences before recording them, a practice he’s done since early in his career. There’s nothing esoteric about a performance with just Neil and his acoustic guitar: he’s the classic confessional singer-songwriter who’s helped to shape the whole genre. The songs are held together by his reflections on this middle-aged time in his life, and Young hadn’t lost the knack for molding weighty songs out of simple melodies and straightforward lyrics, which become even more apparent in this stripped-down manner. “One Of These Days” is one of the best examples, as I’m reminded why Bill Frisell decided to cover it on his country excursion Nashville a few years later. Dreamin’ Man isn’t really essential Neil Young by any stretch, but it helps complete the picture in this one snapshot of time in one of rock’s most enduring and distinguished figures alive today. And that alone made it a worthy candidate for release.

Manassas Pieces: Neil Young’s vault-extracting Dreamin’ Man seems to have gotten all the fanfare lately, but his erstwhile musical partner Stephen Stills has trotted out some quality previously unreleased product himself a few months earlier. Pieces collects the alternate takes and songs omitted from the Stills early-seventies vehicle Manassas’ two proper albums. Manassas, which included founding Byrd Chris Hillman and other veterans of the folk-rock scene from that time, was truly a supergroup on a similar talent plane as Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young). The harmonies sometimes even reach the heights of Stills’ better-known group. Reflecting Stills’ own mastery of diverse styles, the band shifts between rock, bluegrass, country, Latin and blues with more than just a passing reference to any of it. The remastering on these old tracks were well done, too. This isn’t a weak sister leftover album, but a triumphant completion of a long-unfinished trilogy of albums. Pieces is also the first of Stills’ own retrospective project, and so far, the undertaking is off to a fantastic start.

Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers Levitate: Hornsby is one of those talented guys who delves in a variety of styles that are outside of the mainstream but who also happens to be a pop star. Lately, he’s taken to doing genre exercises, but as his recent bluegrass collaboration with Ricky Skaggs and the headlong plunge into straight jazz have proven, these exercises are far from empty ones. He’s got the chops and the intimate understanding to hang with the luminaries of these divergent styles. This time, the “pop star” Bruce returns with Levitate, an album credited to him and his post-The Range backing band, The Noisemakers. That’s the tipoff that Bruce is back in the radio-friendly mode and this one is a twenty-first century pop album through and through, not so much the gentle heartland pop of The Way It Is. Hornsby has folded in even hip-hop into his rangy soundscape on songs like “Space Is The Place” and especially on the odd rock/Appalachian/hip-hop hybrid “Prairie Dog Town.” That’s both the album’s strength and weakness. While the blending of styles done up in tight production puts it a cut above the clutter, Hornsby doesn’t have the coherent style he used to have with The Range. When he does harken back to the that era as he does with “In The Low Country,” and “The Black Rats of London” he seems to be at his best. The rest, well, it takes a little more time to absorb.

Homemade Jamz Blues Band I Got Blues For You: In 2008 we covered the debut album by The Homemade Jamz Blues Band and marveled at the time how well the three Perry siblings ranging in age from 9 to 16 could have such a great handle on the blues. Nearly one year later to the day the HJBB returned with their follow-up album I Got Blues For You. There’s virtually no change from the formula they used for their debut record: mostly originals written by their father Renaud with Little Milton’s classic “Grits Ain’t Groceries” thrown in. There isn’t much to distinguish this from the first record, except that the material is a little weaker overall. To to be fair, they still have vast potential that hasn’t been tapped yet, and going sideways this early in their career isn’t going to hurt them in the long run when they have plenty of time for further growth. In the meantime, fans of Homemade Jamz Blues Bands get a second helping of the same down-home electric blues meal.

Rickie Lee Jones Balm In Gilead: Like Hornsby, Rickie Lee Jones has left behind the template that made her a star long ago in favor to exploring other styles, other ideas. Following up on the artistic apex o
f The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard from 2007 might seem an impossible task, but that work was a singular occurrence, one that is so unique in Jones’ catalog, it deserves to be set aside from it. Balm In Gilead is more of an indication of where she is at musically. And truthfully, it isn’t a place that’s much less appealing than where she was when she was giving the Sermon. Sure, the carefully crafted production, the big name guest appearances and the jazzy inflections are back, but she remains largely a world away from that hippie chick who used to date Tom Waits. From the gentle country waltz of “Remember Me” to the soft pre-war swing of her father’s “The Moon Is Made Of Gold” and the instrumental soul-jazz fusion of “The Blue Ghazel,”, she makes a record that’s reasonably diversified. The element that holds it all together is the low key approach. Jones sounds like an singer-songwriter who is completely comfortable in her own skin, not having to uncork gimmicks or an overload of emotions to make good music. After the raw emotion of The Sermon that might seem like a retreat. I see it more as some blissful wind down time.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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