Thursday, December 22, 2011

John Denver - "Christmas in Concert"

In celebration of Christmas, which is this Sunday, I am breaking my usual alphabetical routine to write a Christmas post.

As you may remember John Denver is one of my all time favorites, his "Rocky Mountain Christmas" album is in a tie (with Carpenters "Christmas Portrait") for my favorite holiday album.

This album, "Christmas in Concert," is actually a recent gift from my parents. It was recorded in Washington DC on December 19 & 20, 1996. Denver would sadly pass away less than a year later in October 1997 in a plane crash. And this album was not released until 2001.

This concert showcases Denver with the World Children's Choir (led by Sandra Harness) and The National Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Richard Kaufman). The majority of the songs were featured on Denver's three holiday albums "Rocky Mountain Christmas," "Christmas Together (with The Muppets)" and "Christmas Like a Lullaby."

John Denver is his wonderful charming, goofy, and funny self. Interacting with the children and audience with ease, telling funny stories and anecdotes. His voice is also in top form with that gleeful laugh of his. The song choice is strong with a nice balance of familiar holiday songs, "Jingle Bells," "Silent Night" and songs that Denver made popular, "Christmas for Cowboys" and the wonderful "A Baby Just Like You." There are also some less familiar songs that appeared on Denver's Christmas albums, "Alfie, The Christmas Tree." The show closes with the little known Denver gem "Falling Leaves (The Refugees)" which has become an unintentional Christmas song. There is also a mini set of "Country Roads," "Annie's Song" and "Calypso" at the end of the disc.

This album is a wonderful addition to the Christmas catalogue of holiday records and a perfect companion to Denver's "Rocky Mountain Christmas" album. There is a short booklet in the liner notes, for the most part the sound is good, sometimes it does not seem mixed real well but by and large it sounds good. John Denver is one of those musicians that was so suited to the Holiday Season with his warm appeal and Colorado lifestyle. Thank you John for the Christmas gift.

"Merry Christmas EVERYONE!!!!!"

Friday, December 16, 2011

Billy Joel - "Turnstiles"

"Turnstiles may not have been a hit, but it remains one of his most accomplished and satisfying records, clearly paving the way to his twin peaks of the late '70s, The Stranger and 52nd Street." - All Music Guide

In my opinion this is Billy Joel's finest album and like the quote above says it may not have been a huge hit but it is an immensely satisfying record with many of the songs becoming fan favorites. After recording his first three records in California, Joel decided to return to the greatest city in the world his hometown area of New York City. Joel's song writing abilities were at their peak at this point (he also sustained his abilities for over a decade) and he uses the album not only a vehicle for himself but also as something of tribute to his idols.

The opening track "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" is a tribute to Phil Spector (even borrowing the drum beat from "Be My Baby") and the pop styles of the early 60s. "All you Wanna Do is Dance" and "James" are Paul McCartney styles the former a caribbean influenced number. "New York State of Mind," one of the best love songs to the city, is Ray Charles. "Prelude/Angry Young Man" has echoes of The Who's rock orchestras (and also influenced John Mellecamp's "I Need a Lover" as well as McCartney's "Rockestra Theme"). The Sci-Fi album closer "Miami 2017" is a Broadway style show stopper. Yet despite all the tribute being paid Joel never ceases to make the songs completely his, sure they are inspired by other musicians but they are purely Billy Joel songs.

Then there are two of Joel's finest songs "Summer, Highland Falls" and "I've Love These Days." Critics have often harped on Joel about his lyrics but with lines like, "They Say that these are not the best of times, but they're the only times I've ever known," will easily silence those nay-sayers. These two are pure Joel. 

His melodic skills are on full display and the album is full with beautiful sonic landscapes and stories. These turnstiles are ones you will want to pass through again and again.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Billy Joel - "Piano Man"

Billy Joel is one of my all time favorite musicians, his "River of Dreams" album was the very first CD I ever owned. Joel is one of those artists that despite a massive amount of hits, great songs, awards, and huge fan base he is still not given the credit he really deserves (much like Sheryl Crow and Joel's idol Paul McCartney). Well all us Billy Joel fans know how great a musician he is and love him for it.

After listening to "River of Dreams" I went back into Joel's catalogue and started falling in love with his music. "Piano Man" was his second album and really the record that started his career. The autobiographical title track became Joel's signature song and he became know as The Piano Man.

Released in 1973 this album by and large takes a cue from other 1970s contemporaries by creating a series of characters and story style scenes, some of which Joel inhabits other times he is simply the narrator. His first album was firmly planted in the singer songwriter genre and this album employs some of those songwriter elements, "You're My Home" and "If I only Had the Words" but really he expands his sound into what would become Billy Joel trademarks. His excellent melody abilities are on massive display that make all the songs sound spectacular. He also employs Western/Cowboy theme through the album, such as the banjo hoedown of "Traveling Prayer," the "Magnificent Seven" style "Ballad of Billy the Kid" and the country tinged "Stop in Nevada."

Occasionally Joel sounds like Elton John, particularly on "Ain't no Crime," but by and large this is Billy Joel finding his musical voice and identity with three of his best songs, the title track, "Ballad of Billy the Kid" and the rocking album closer "Captain Jack."

This is one of his best albums even though it has a terrible and creepy cover that has nothing to do with the album. I almost did not put a picture up because the cover freaks me out. Billy Joel is one of the greatest pop/rock musicians of all time and this was his genesis.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Jefferson Airplane - "Volunteers"

I just want to say first off, I am not a huge Jefferson Airplane fan (or Starship for that matter) but I do think they have a handful of good songs, particularly "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit." I have always been interested in the late 60s and 70s counter culture rock arena and I think one of the best Anti-Vietnam songs ever is "Volunteers."

Released in 1969 this is a great bookend to the tumultuous decade. The band is in full revolution mode thumbing its nose at  the White House, calling the 60s youth to arms, and trying to instill a sense of Woodstock style brotherhood.

Airplane has fashioned a concept album of sorts that embraces the communal hippie lifestyle and return to nature over the confusing climate of the United States at the time. The opening track pop anthem "We Can Be Together" is a call for universal brotherhood and the country tinged "The Farm" blatantly calls up the wonders of living in a farming community. There are also the folky "Good Shepherd" which is a wonderful church/folk style song. "Eskimo Blue Day" is another virtues of nature song in which Grace Slick's chorus announces, "The human name doesn't mean shit to a tree."

Airplane returns to their psychedelic sounds on the over long and slightly weird "Hey Frederick" as well as their version of Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Wooden Ships" which Airplane singer Paul Kanter wrote with Crosby and Stills (who both appear here as back up). Though the lyrics are exactly the same in both versions CSN's, which I prefer, definitely links the song to the (at the time never ending) Vietnam War; but Airplane's version is more discomforting and focuses more on the Science Fiction elements that were the original basis of the song. It paints a bleak future in which all the war of the present day has led to a lawless state where people live in Wooden Ships, interesting and scar at the same time.

The album ends with the aforementioned title track, with its pounding surging fierceness that gets stuck in your head no matter what. One of the best protest anthems (even though it started simply because a "Volunteers of America" garbage truck woke Marty Balin one morning).

All members of Jefferson Airplane really shine on this album Kanter, Slick and Balin with their strong vocals, Spencer Dryden on drums, and Jack Cassady on bass. The real star of the album is guitarist Jorma Kaukonen with his killer razor sharp guitar lines and his wonderful interaction with guest pianist Nicky Hopkins.

The 2004 reissue has some great sound and an excellent booklet which features an essay/interviews by Airplane aficionado Jeff Tamarkin; as well as five live performances ("Somebody to Love" and "Plastic Fantastic Lover" included) as bonus tracks.

This album really marked the end to many era's: this is Jefferson Airplane's last really well received album in a string of hits, both Dryden and Balin left the group after this album, released in 1969 it was the end of the 60s, and shortly after the album's release Airplane performed at the now tragic and infamous Altamont Rock Concert (where Balin was knocked out by the Hell's Angel's "security") which essential put an end to the prolific San Francisco music scene of the 60s and ended the Summer of Love for good.

"Volunteers" is one of those wonderful time capsule albums, sure some of the songs have dated badly, but when you play this album it really takes you back to 1969 when Musicians were less interested in hits and more interested with creating music and speaking with their audience at a time when everyone believed music could change the world.