Brandy Clark – Your Life is a Record
Brandy Clark may not be a household name to many other than country music fans, but she’s one of Nashville’s elite songwriters. A six-time Grammy nominee, she’s penned several number one hits on the country charts and several that have come very close to the top. And written for (and with) a litany of notable acts like Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, The Band Perry, Reba MacEntire, LeAnn Rimes, Toby Keith, and Sheryl Crow, among many others. She did her time on Nashville’s famed Music Row, cranking out the consistent hits in the early 2000’s for many of country music’s first-line acts. Your Life is a Record is her third album, and her often poignant and insightful songs are brought to life on a record that mostly seems less like dyed-in-the-wool country music. And more like a really good album by a great and upcoming singer/songwriter who’s reaching her peak.
Growing up in rural Washington state (Morton, population 900!), Brandy was steeped in traditional country music from the likes of Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, Ronnie Milsap, and Dwight Yoakam. But she also explored the music of popular singer/songwriters, including James Taylor, Carole King, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Randy Newman (who makes a guest appearance on the track “Bigger Boat”). She first picked up a guitar at age nine, dabbling with songwriting at the encouragement of her mother. Also a talented athlete, she received a full scholarship to play college basketball at Central Washington University. But eventually left to pursue her dreams of a life in music, when she moved to Nashville and enrolled in a music business degree program at Belmont College. She played in several local bands and in the college’s annual music showcase, and upon graduation, landed a job with a music publishing firm. Her talent as a performer was hard to conceal, and in no time she’d signed a publishing contract and quickly became one of Nashville’s go-to songwriters.
The album is a truly great listen; Brandy Clark has a great voice, and she sings entertaining, but literate and well-written songs that tell remarkably compelling stories. Many of them about her experiences in the music industry—it’s no wonder that she’s in such high demand as a songwriter in Nashville. But only on a couple of songs do you get the hard-sell impression that this is even a country album. The album is somewhat sparsely orchestrated, with only guitars, drums, bass, and keyboards, with strings and brass accompaniment brought in on a couple of songs for good effect. All my listening was done through Qobuz’s 24/48 high res stream, and the sound was sheer perfection. Highly recommended!
Warner, CD (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Google Play Music, Apple Music, iTunes, Deezer, Spotify, Pandora, YouTube)
King Crimson – Cat Food 50th Anniversary (Maxi Single)
King Crimson had enjoyed a remarkable level of success with their debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, which charted at number five in England and number 28 in the USA. Not too shabby for a debut record, but the aftermath of the tour that followed the album’s release found the band in discord and disarray. Ian McDonald and Michael Giles split shortly after the tour’s conclusion, and Greg Lake was keen to join his future bandmates Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer in ELP. Lake was basically bribed to stay and contribute vocals to Crimson’s follow up album, In the Wake of Poseidon; if he stayed, he’d be given the band’s PA equipment as payment. The finished album, while stylistically similar to its predecessor, wasn’t quite as memorable and somewhat more muddled in its execution. Despite that, In the Wake of Poseidon managed to better the chart performance of In the Court of the Crimson King, landing at number four on the British charts and number 31 on the US charts. That said, ask most people to name a song from Wake, and most anyone will say “Cat Food.”
A heavily jazz-influenced ditty, “Cat Food” intros with a smooth walking bass line accompanied by some wildly stylistic piano playing from newest band member Keith Tippet. And soon segues into a howling guitar signature from Fripp; Greg Lake’s screaming vocal is just sheer perfection. The song is in such strong contrast to the rest of the album thematically, it just begs you to remember it above all the others, and showed how wildly creative King Crimson could be at their peak. Especially with a band that was essentially held together with some string and wires, and maybe a bit of studio trickery.
Qobuz has been rolling out a series of King Crimson maxi-singles over the last year or so; the band hasn’t (until recently) authorized much in terms of full catalog albums for release on any of the streaming sites. Thankfully, that’s been mostly rectified, but the maxi-singles still have a considerable amount of interest to the collector or die-hard Crimson fan. The four songs here compile three different versions of “Cat Food,” including the 45 rpm single release, a live version of unknown provenance (but sounding very good, and very much from the era of the album release), and of course, the album version of the song. But the really compelling reason to check this music out is the instrumental fourth song, “Groon,” which was the “B” side of the “Cat Food” 45, and has basically taken on a life of its own in King Crimson lore. For years, unless you happened to have the 45, you didn’t have access to “Groon,” and you maybe never heard it until much later in King Crimson’s career, when it popped up on an occasional Japanese compilation LP or CD. And eventually much later as a bonus track on the 30th and 40th anniversary releases of In the Wake of Poseidon.
The version of “Groon” that appears here is the three and a half minute original take; divinely inspired Crimson madness, with some remarkable guitar work by Robert Fripp and Michael Giles’ (who returned only as a hired gun and not a member of the band) superb, jazzily-animated drumming. And the song seems to end about four times, only to have Fripp and Giles kick back in maniacally and repeatedly until the tune’s close. It’s simply breathtaking! If you have a Qobuz account, it’s well worth checking out, and is also available from British label Panegyric as a CD and 10-inch single.
Discipline Global Mobile/Panegyric, CD/10-inch single (download/streaming from Qobuz)
Charlie Parker – The Savoy 10-Inch LP Collection
The Savoy 10-Inch LPs that Charlie Parker recorded from 1944 to 1948 are among the cornerstones of his work, and contain some of his finest and most inspired playing on record. Bird was one of—if not the—most influential sax player(s) of all time; his amazing work set the standard for everyone who would follow. And he was surrounded on these sessions by the likes of Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, John Lewis, Bud Powell, and Max Roach—could it possibly get any better? Good luck trying to find—or possibly trying to get financing—for mint originals.
The real problem with any later reissues of these seminal sessions is that the sound quality of either: a) the original recordings, or b) any subsequent releases has always, always been highly variable. I mean highly variable to the point of darn nearly unlistenable! Lots of bootlegs, lots of really bad CD remasterings. Craft Recordings has done a very commendable job of presenting these sides in what is quite possibly the finest sound they’ve ever been made available in. I’m willing to bet that these new digital remasters sound superior to even mint originals. It’s mono, of course, but it’s shockingly good and spacious mono; the bass is surprisingly deep and firm, and the horns sound impressively great. With very little of the screechiness that you often associate with remasterings of material of this vintage. Parker’s sax is especially tuneful with a superb instrument tone; for fans of this repertory, it’s quite literally a dream come true. And there’s barely a hint of groove noise throughout, even at close to reference levels.
I did all my listening via Qobuz, but an audio compatriot got the LP box set, and he just raved about it, saying it’s probably the finest reissue of its type he’s ever encountered. The attention to detail in the outer box and the LP sleeves (which replicate the originals for the first time since their original issue) is off-the-charts, crazy good. And the supplied booklet has new liner notes and tons of really cool vintage photos of Bird and all the other jazz legends who were part of his regular ensemble. He also raved about the LP’s mono sound; if you can swing the $90 asking price for the box, I’d definitely go for it. Highly recommended.
Craft Recordings, 4-LP box set (download/streaming from Amazon, Qobuz, Tidal, possibly others)
Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
Tame Impala is basically Australian Kevin Parker’s one-man band; the new album The Slow Rush comes five years after his previous release, Currents. Which essentially made Tame Impala a household name, and found him touring incessantly, filling arenas and headlining festivals. The time in between albums saw him confabbing and co-writing with luminaries like rapper Travis Scott, neo-soul singer SZA, Kanye West, and Lady Gaga.
The title of The Slow Rush reflects Parker’s nature as a dabbler and tinkerer; he wanted to release the album last year closer to Coachella, but felt it needed more work—hence the long delay. Even at an unofficial release party last November, he kept hearing things that he felt needed more work, and immediately went back into the studio for more tweaking. Parker strikes me as a bit of a control freak; he plays every instrument on the record, and is completely responsible for every aspect of every sound that appears on the production. I can’t even begin to imagine how he manages to recreate these soundscapes live in a packed venue. Tame Impala appeared on one of the late night shows last week; unfortunately, I missed the performance, but would have liked to have seen the translation to a live show.
This album came highly recommended to me; I have to be honest—this type of overblown production isn’t really my cup of tea. And Parker’s breathy, overly-processed falsetto vocals don’t push any of my buttons either. This album has been described as “shimmering disco,” “gleaming synth-pop,” and “epic neo-prog balladry.” I love a lot of current music, and I can get down with some heavy beats, but I’m not really getting the shimmer or the gleam here, and neo-prog?? I’m generally really struck by records that seem nearly indispensable to me—I just can’t get enough of them. I didn’t feel like I could get away from this one quickly enough. Sorry, Frank. YMMV.
Universal Music, CD/2 LPs (download/streaming from Amazon, Qobuz, Tidal, Google Play Music, YouTube, Spotify, Deezer)
Header photo (cropped; see link for original format) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Lisa Gansky.