Monday, December 24, 2012

John Lennon - "Imagine"

I had originally wrote about John Lennon's "Plastic Ono Band" album for what would have been his 70th birthday in 2010 here is a link to that post

Lennon's second solo album "Imagine" was released in 1971 and became a number one hit. Again produced by Phil Spector who is able to incorporate more of his Wall of Sound techniques than he was on the previous "Plastic Ono Band" album.

"Imagine" finds Lennon moving toward the political activism that would comprise his next album "Sometimes in New York City" and his public life for much of the early 1970s.

The title track has become his signature tune and will always be a spectacular plea for peace and understanding that, for me, never gets old. It is Lennon being the master musician but also pushing a slightly political agenda. On my car I have a bumper sticker that reads "You may say I'm a dreamer but I'm not the only one."

"I don't Wanna be a Soldier" and "Gimme Some Truth" are straight forward political songs obviously protesting the Vietnam War and the latter calling out politicians. Despite the ranting lyrics (particularly on the latter track), Lennon is such a strong musician he makes them catchy.

The rest of the album focuses on confessional songs similar in content to "Plastic Ono Band." Yet where that album was raw and bare, the songs here are given smooth sweeping arrangements that slightly mask their raw emotions. "Crippled Inside" is a mix of two faced politicians and Lennon's own pain with his winking off-center humor. "Jealous Guy" is a beautiful apology (possibly to Yoko Ono) set to sweeping strings. "How Do you Sleep" is a snarling through gritted teeth confrontation with Paul McCartney (but Lennon later said the song was a way to separate himself from the Beatles). "It's So Hard," "How?" and "Oh My Love" are simple quiet emotions and would have fit well on his previous album.

This is a great album, especially for Lennon fans. The version I have has a lot of photographs and lyrics in the CD booklet. Thank you John for another gift of music

For Christmas 2012 lets imagine all the people living life in peace and the world as one. Merry Christmas Everyone.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Led Zeppelin - "The Best of"

"Been a Long time since a Rock and Roll" post.
After a long unintentional absence The Music Man has returned. Nice to see you all again.

Picking up where my alphabetical listings stopped about a month ago. (Last post was Carole King, check it out). Coincidentally my next album is Led Zeppelin who received a Kennedy Center honor this year.

My Led Zeppelin "Best of" collection was made for me by a gorgeous ballet dancer that was very special to me for a time, but I sadly have not seen her in many years. Anyway she and I used to trade music and she made me what she claimed was the perfect Led Zeppelin collection and I am inclined to agree. At the time the group had only released an expensive Box Set and "Early/Later Days" (the later of which was an affordable two disc set but poorly selected, no "Ramble On" what the hell?). So she made a wonderful two disc collection for me. She picked it pretty well because a few years later Zeppelin came out with "Mothership" an excellent greatest hits collection that is basically identical to the one my ballerina friend made me.

First off I want to say I enjoy a number of Zeppelin songs, "Over the Hills and Far Away" is my favorite, and the albums "Led Zeppelin II," "Led Zeppelin IV," and "Houses of the Holy" are very good. I am not a Zeppelin obsessive that thinks they are the greatest band ever, I think they are very good though.

Zeppelin make great guitar riffs, Robert Plant's vocals, and John Paul Jones is one of the best bass players out there. There is not much I can say about Zeppelin that has not been said already if you enjoy 1970s rock and have not checked them out you probably should. Pick up the compilation "Mothership" or the three album I mentioned in the paragraph above. If you are looking for they live performance (with excess jams that last 30 minutes!) check out "How the West Was Won" triple CD live album.

Well hope all is well and next time we will talk about John Lennon's "Imagine" see you then.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Carole King - "The Carnegie Hall Concert, June 18, 1971"

This legacy edition of this 1971 concert was not released until 1996. But it is a little gem.

Performed for a sold out crowd shortly after the release of King's landmark "Tapestry" album that was climbing up the charts and her song "It's Too Late" had hit number one on the charts the morning of this concert.

The audience is incredibly excited between songs and in sheer respectful awe when songs are sung. The audience is so quiet during some songs you can hear her voice bounce of the walls. King is obviously nervous as evidenced by her stage chatter, she does get more comfortable as the show progresses and as noted at this point in her life she had terrible stage fright.

While the songs are largely from "Tapestry" there are several excellent renditions from her forgotten debut album "Writer" and songs from her at the time unreleased  album "Music." For the majority of the concert King is alone with her piano giving even the famous songs a different spin. It is almost as if King is in your living with a grand piano, that is how intimate this concert sounds. Sometimes her voice is shaky as she was not really a performer at this point in her career. Well known California session guitarist Danny Kortchmar appears on a few songs; There is also a special appearance by James Taylor who duets with King on some of her old hits like "Will you still love me tomorrow" and of course "You've Got  a Friend."

The liner notes are excellent as is the sound which is usual for Legacy releases. This is a great companion piece to the classic "Tapestry" album and a warm nice listen for a late cold night. Recommended for fans of King and "Tapestry."

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Israel Kamakawiwo`ole - "Alone in IZ World"

Easily the best of the many IZ studio albums released after his death in 1997. This is really a compilation of alternate performances and remixed/overdubbed songs from his previous albums. There are a handful of "new songs" one of which, a version of Nat King Cole's "Mona Lisa" is an outtake with IZ cracking jokes part way through. It is a nice insight into the man like he is talking to you. Most of the tracks are unplugged IZ and his ukulele which is wonderful and soothing.

There are several orchestral, wall of sound style remixes that work very well, "Starting All Over Again" and "In This Life" becoming big hits in these redone versions. Overall the album works very well because it picks some lesser known songs in the musicians catalogue and presents them in simple but pleasing ways. Also released after the massive success of "Facing Future" and IZ's untimely passing the album became a huge hit and a popular addition to many listeners libraries. Most original copies of the disc come with a Quicktime special version that plays some candid personal photos, press clippings, and a screen saver.

Note: the version of "Over the Rainbow" presented here is not the famous version, see IZ's album "Facing Future" for the famous "Somewhere Over the Rainbow/Wonderful World" medley.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Israel Kamakawiwo`ole - "Facing Future"

Israel Kamakawiwo`ole is one of the most popular Hawaiian musicians of all time and this album is his most successful. This is the first Hawaiian music album to be certified Gold and eventually Platinum.

Bruddah "IZ," as he is affectionately called, first gained fame as a member of the Makaha Sons of Ni`ihau with his brother Skippy and Moon Kaukahi, Jon and Jerome Koko.
Skippy, who also had a weight problem, died of a heart attack at 28 when the group was gaining their fame in the early 1980s.

In the 1990s the remaining four members became one of the most popular bands in Hawaiian Music but IZ wanted to take the music in a more contemporary direction while the other three members wanted to keep things traditional. IZ left the group after their biggest success with the hit song "Take a Walk in the Country."

He made several solo albums but "Facing Future" released in 1993 was his biggest success. Mixing traditional Hawaiian songs with modern arrangements and contemporary songs. Of the contemporary songs "Hawaii 78" became a Native Hawaiian anthem. A Hawaii-ized version of John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Road" changing some lyrics to make the song about Hawaii instead of West Virginia is a catchy winner. The epic Jawaiian style "Maui Hawaiian Sup'pa Man" is funny. catchy and educational all at the same time, it was one of the hits off the album. A solo acoustic version of "White Sandy Beach" is also a beautiful lamenting winner.

The most popular track is the ukulele led medley of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World." This song has been used in TV shows, Movies and Commercials. The song's success is really the reason this album is the first Hawaiian music album to be certified Gold.

"Facing Future" is a winning record and the best example of all IZ's abilities and styles.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Kalapana - "Blue Album"

Sorry for the long break in posts everyone, got a little side tracked but now I am back on track.

This is the last album of new material Kalapana has released to date. Released in 2002 it was something of a phoenix story for the band.

In 1999, Mackey Feary, one of the band's founding members committed suicide after a long battle with substance abuse. Kalapana performed a tribute concert in Waikiki in early 2000 but stayed out of the music scene until the release of this album in 2002.

"Blue Album" is the band's best album in years. They have written a strong batch of songs and have also found an excellent medium between their Jazz Fusion/Pop/Rock/Folk style of the 1970s and their more electronic sound of the 1980s and 90s.

Malani Bilyeu dominates the album with the excellent and super catchy "Another Lonely Night," "Ten Years After (featuring the group CHANT)," "Keala," "Lost Love" and "Coming Home to You."

Maurice Bega, a friend and former bandmate of Feary's, provides lead vocals on two songs and back up on all the others. Bega also performed Feary's vocals at the Kalapana performance in 2000. Gaylord Holomalia is great on keyboards and as engineer gives all the songs a great sound. DJ Pratt has some killer guitar solos.

The album is dedicated to Feary and it is a winner. It does, however, lose steam in the last four tracks but that does not diminish its excellence. After this album Kalapana was touring almost constantly with new member Zanuck Lindsey filling in on guitar and Mackey Feary vocals. Since 2008 the band's performances have become very erratic, particularly Bilyeu's stage antics and weakening voice. A proposed anniversary concert in 2009 was canceled and the band has since vanished from the music scene.

If this does turn out to be their final album they went out on a good note.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Kalapana - "Back In Your Heart Again"

So after 1978 Kalapana disbanded with each member going on to do a solo project. Mackey Feary had been moderately successful with The Mackey Feary Band. DJ Pratt and Alvin Fejerang stayed in Japan and formed a new group that they misleadingly called Kalapana and released a couple of Japan only albums ("Hold On" and "Live"). Kirk Thompson formed the Jazz Rock band Lemuria and had a hit with their self titled debut. Michael Paulo continued his Saxophone excellence working on a number of jazz and Hawaiian projects. Malani Bilyeu really hit is big with his 1980 solo debut "Islands" which featured the huge hit "Moloka'i Sweet Home."

In 1982 Hawaii concert promoter Tom Moffatt convinced Feary, Bilyeu, Thompson, Fejerang and Paulo to reunite for a sold out concert that was released as the album "Reunion." They then went on a tour in 1983.

In 1986 and 1987: Feary, Bilyeu, Pratt, Paulo with new members Kenji Sano (bass) and Gaylord Holomalia (Keyboards/production) recorded "Hurricane" and "Lava Rock" which were fairly successful, especially in Asia. Their tours of Asia, Hawaii and the Pacific were big successes.

So in 1990 came this album with the same line up as those 1980s albums. The music here is geared more toward a Japanese audience with breezy tropical pop that sounds really good while it is playing but is largely forgettable once the album is finished. The best song is "Fireside Blues" a solo acoustic tune by Bilyeu. The album also features some old songs "Blacksand" and "Julliet" and a new recording of "Many Classic Moments." A fine cover of "Here, There, and Everywhere" is also included.

The sound is closer to smooth jazz than the groups Rock/Pop/Fusion sound. Not a bad release but certainly not essential except for the above mentioned songs. This album is completely omitted from any hits compilations though so this is the only place to hear these songs. It is also something of a rare recording because it is no longer in mass production.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Kalapana - "In Concert"

A live double album recorded during four sold out shows, two in Japan and two in Guam.

The band is in good form.  It is the same line up from their two previous albums Malani Bilyeu, DJ Pratt, Kirk Thompson, Randy Aloya, Alvin Fejerang, and Michael Paulo. For these concerts Hiroshima keyboardist Kimo Cornwell joined the group.

Most of the tracks come from the albums "Kalapana II," "Kalapana III" and "Many Classic Moments." Most of the performances do not differ greatly from the studio versions aside from more energy, or changes in instrumentation.

Some of these performances, however, are pretty killer including the opening medley of "Jamaica Farewell/Banana Boat Song/When the Morning Comes," the jamming on "Nathen's Lament" and the jaw dropping guitar work by Pratt on "Can you See Him." This is a great time capsule as Kalapana disbanded shortly after these concerts. This is also the only live recording from their heyday, the other two records/videos are from later in their career. This shows how popular they were because very few Hawaii artists have the popularity to release double albums without losing money. Kalapana could do it. Finally many of these songs are no longer in Kalapana's live repertoire so it is neat to hear them in a concert setting.

Like their two previous studio albums this one is only available as a Japanese import CD. I got it as a Christmas gift one year. It is not entirely essential especially considering the import price but it is nice to have for the die hard Kalapana fan. Long live Kalapana.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Kalapana - "Many Classic Moments"

Kalapana's final studio album (discounting the Japanese "Northbound") before breaking up in 1979. Released in 1978 this is the soundtrack for the surfing documentary of the same name (the movie was recently released on DVD for the first time after never being put on VHS).

The same group line up from "Kalapana III," Malani Bilyeu, DJ Pratt, Kirk Thompson, Randy Aloya, Alvin Fejarang and Michael Paulo, are present on this album. They continue the Jazz Pop fusions that they started on the previous album.

The title track is a winner one of the finest songs Bilyeu ever wrote. "The Ultimate" is a pounding instrumental that makes the listener feel like they are inside a wave. The closer a cover of Batdorf and Rodney's "Can You See Him" is a seven minute acoustic guitar solo with three minutes of lyrics. DJ Pratt's guitar skills are on ample display and show that he is one of the great guitarists out there. "The Water Song" has some poor lyrics but soars on excellent music and Bilyeu powerful vocals. "Sunny Days" is Pratt going for a Mackey Feary vibe and doing a pretty good job. "Uptown Country" and "Down By The Sea" are enjoyable but they take a few listens to really get into. The album is short with only eight tracks (one of them being "Naturally" from their first album) so really there are only seven new songs. Nevertheless this is another winner from Kalapana and will certainly please their fans.

Some of these songs appear on Kalapana's "Best of Vol. 2" collection but most are only available on this album. Like their previous album, "Kalapana III," this one is something of a collectors item. Originally released on Vinyl everywhere but when CD's came around this was never released on CD in the United States. It is only available as a super expensive Japanese Import. My great friend Laurel lived in Japan for a while and sent me this CD, which I treasure.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Kalapana -"Kalapana III"

Kalapana's third album originally released in 1977 has become something of a collectors item. Originally available internationally on vinyl record, the album was only released on CD in Japan. This makes it very hard to come by in the US or even Kalapana's home state of Hawaii. My very good friend Laurel lived in Japan for a while and generously got this album for me.

After the massive success of "Kalapana II," group leader Mackey Feary left the band for a solo career. Malani Bilyeu the other band leader took over the reigns as lead singer. Guitarist DJ Pratt also began writing and singing here with two songs. Randy Aloya was added to the group on bass guitar and vocals. Saxophonist Michael Paulo and drummer Alvin Fejarang, who had been sidemen on the previous two albums, were now listed as band members.

This album features a stronger jazz fusion component than their previous albums. The arrangements and stylings are also more experimental and ambitious. The songs are excellent especially for fans but because of their stylings they are not as instantly memorable as the work on their first two albums. The best songs are dominated by Bilyeu: the hit "Girl," "Inarajan," "Another Time" and "Dilemma." Other winning tracks are the haunting "Alisa Lovely" by Pratt and Fejarang and "Songbird" by Bilyeu and Pratt.

Overall this is a great album for Kalapana fans but unless you want to pay a high import price or find a friend in Japan this will be hard to come by. Some of the songs have appeared on various greatest hits collections. It is sad that the record company cannot at least make it available in Hawaii since this is a pretty good album but oh well.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Kalapana - "Kalapana II"

My Dad used to have this cassette tape in the car when I was little. I bought the CD for myself when I was a junior in High School.

Kalapana's second album was another success coming just one year after their debut. This album plays up their Jazz Rock stylings with tracks like "Freedom" and "Black Sand."

There are the lovely acoustic ballads as well, "Dorothy Louise" and "Lost Again." The group expands their sound incorporating blues "Wandering Stranger" country "Way That I Want It To Be" and flawless pop "Moon and Stars."

The band shows immense growth in their lyrics and music compositions. If you are a fan of Kalapana this is another winner for your collection.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Kalapana - "The Best Of: Vol. 1"

Hello readers, if there are any of you left out there, sorry for the long absence.  It was unexpected and unintentional.  But now I am back for you dear readers.

This is the first "Hawaiian" music CD I ever bought. I put Hawaiian in quotes because technically this is not traditionally Hawaiian music. All the lyrics are in English and the music style is closer to 1970s American pop/rock. Kalapana is closer in style to The Eagles or Loggins & Messina than other Hawaiian musicians like Gabby Pahinui. The band is from Hawaii though and gained their fame and following in the Hawaiian islands before branching out to Japan and the rest of the pacific.

Kalapana were arguably the most successful group in Hawaiian music in the 1970s, possibly second only to Cecilio & Kapono.

This 1992 thirteen track compilation contains many of the biggest hits from Kalapana's mid 70s heyday. This disc relies heavily on their debut album with seven of that albums songs appearing here. Three tracks from their second release and two tracks from their third album round out the compilation. The two tracks from the third album are something of a rarity because the band's third release is not available on CD in the USA, it is only on CD in Japan and thus can be found only as a very expensive import.

"Best of Vol 1" focuses largely on the band's acoustic folk/pop/rock and not featuring their more Jazz based rockers. Nonetheless the album contains many of their best songs and is a great introduction to the band. Either pick this album up or if you would like a more complete overview check out their first two albums (Kalapana 1 and 2). Like I said earlier this is the only USA available CD to have the songs "Inarajan," and "Alisa Lovely."

This is the first Hawaiian music CD I ever bought and I have been a Kalapana fan ever since.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Elton John - "11-17-70"

As a music listener there are a number of Elton John songs that I love, yet despite his excellent songs his albums often leave me unimpressed. This is the only Elton John album I own and it is a live showcase recorded shortly before "Your Song" became a number one smash. It is a live in studio concert (with a small audience) that was broadcast on live radio at the time.

By and large John performs like a rock and roll/blues/soul animal. This features his simple killer live trio of John on piano and vocals, Nigel Olsson on drums, and Dee Murray on bass. Many non-John fans seek out this album; not because of its rarity, it is readily available on CD and iTunes though it is a lesser known album. The song choices are why they seek it out.

He tears through a number of his lesser known songs with excellent readings of "Take me To the Pilot" and a killer cover of the Rolling Stones "Honky Tonk Women." All the tracks are either early album tracks, covers, or B-sides that did not appear on his albums. There is also that rock and roll jam style with all the seven tracks at least going five minutes, one over seven minutes and the closer an 18 minute medley that includes a section of The Beatles "Get Back."

The 1995 CD reissue, (the version I own) on John's Rocket Records as part of "Elton John The Classic Years" reissue series, has a decent booklet with historical notes but the sound is a bit softer than you would expect. Many Amazon reviewers prefer the out of print British CD import reissue from the same 1990s period.

Most fans will be happy with a good Greatest Hits compilation. Overall "11-17-70" is not necessary but a fun good live record and a wonderful showcase of Elton John before his massive success and before all his excess of the 1970s.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Billy Joel -"2000 Years The Millennium Concert"

On December 31, 1999 Billy Joel held a sold out concert at Madison Square Garden to celebrate the new millennium and he also labeled it his last concert (that didn't stick as about ten years later he went back on tour). The event lasted nearly four hours and acted as a history of his recording career and a great encapsulation of the 20th century and a warm welcome to the 21st. Equal mixes of heartfelt performance and sheer spectacle abound.

Two hours of that concert were released in May 2000 as this live album. It is not a bad album but not a great one either. At this point in his career Joel had released two live albums: the powerhouse 1981 release "Songs in the Attic" which shined a light on his lesser known great songs and thus made them big hits. Then there was the 1987 release "Kohuept" a document of his touring of the U.S.S.R. that was more of a historical release.

Here Joel tries to combine the two concepts. "I've Loved These Days," "My Life" and "Summer Highland Falls" all take on a special quality not only because it is the new millennium but also considering Joel's decision to retire from music and not tour for many years; they reach the "Songs in the Attic" feel. Many of those moments appear throughout the two discs but there are also lots of pure spectacle and average runs of a number of songs. Occasionally Joel's voice is pretty weak, the end of "New York State of Mind" really strains.

All in all this is a decent if unspectacular live album, better as capturing a moment in time and probably better if you were in the audience that night.  This is really for the most die-hard fans. His more recent concert album "12 Gardens Live" a compilation of his record setting 12 simultaneous sold out shows at Madison Square Garden is a far better live album with Joel in great energy and spirits. I keep this album because I became a Billy Joel fan right when he retired and this was his first non-Greatest Hits release between 1993 and 2000, so I picked it up.  Billy Joel is one of my favorites.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Billy Joel - "Greatest Hits Vol. III"

Released in 1997 four years after Billy Joel retired from Pop music. There had been a number of trials and tribulations between this Release and his previous hits collection released in 1985.

Between 1985 and '97 Joel had toured the USSR (1987), a great honor considering no American musician had been allowed to perform there during the cold war, which was documented on video and on album ("Kohuept"). He had two legal battles one with his manager who had stolen a large amount of Joel's money and his lawyer who had done similar things. He retired from music in 1993 and divorced wife of ten years Christie Brinkley in 1996. Also during this period he released only three new studio albums "The Bridge," "Storm Front" and "River of Dreams" all of which produced a number of hit singles and were big selling albums. Joel was also trying to recoup his stolen money so he toured extensively through the 1989-1994 era.

SO now we come to Greatest Hits III which by and large is a very well done hits compilation on par with his two previous comps. There are two big hits (which have actually been forgotten by most people and is possibly why they are not here) left off the disc, "Modern Woman" and "Big Man on Mulberry Street," but other than that this is a solid collection and a great document of the last part of Joel's recoding career.

The disc starts with two big hits that were left off his previous collection "An Innocent Man" and "Keeping the Faith" then flows into his late 80s and early 90s hits. These songs are very different from all his previous work as they are more slickly designed to be pop hits (the albums often contained a half hits and other half forgettable filler). But what is included here is excellent if slightly darker than his early work but great tracks one and all from "A Matter of Trust" to "River of Dreams" all his best latter work is here.

This compilation ends with three new recordings to entice big fans, all are covers however by Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Goffin and King respectively. All three are preformed in sleepy slow versions and only Joel's rendition of Dylan's "To Make you Feel My Love" sticks in the memory. But these three tracks are not on par with the rest of the hits and Joel seems to have halfheartedly thrown them on at the record company's request. Also as is par with Joel albums the booklet is just the song lyrics nothing more.

Other than that this is a great compilation especially since Billy Joel's albums from this period were often half hits and half forgettable this is a really necessary collection for fans and novices.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Billy Joel - "River of Dreams"

The first CD I ever owned and Billy Joel's last pop album of new material.  After his massive 1980s success Joel had been riding high on "An Innocent Man" and "The Bridge" when he found that his manager, since the beginning of his career, had embezzled nearly all of Joel's millions (Joel would eventually gave some of it back after a long legal battle).

For much of the late 80s and early 90s Joel had to tour excessively and also churn out hits singles to try and regain some money. Thus many of his post "Innocent Man" albums were comprised of a couple winning songs with a lot of filler that Joel seemed not to care about.

By 1993 Joel was fed up and told everyone when the album "River of Dreams" was released that it would be his last album and to date 2012 he has yet to release any new original material (he did compose a new classical album though in the late 1990s).

When I first heard this album in 1993 I thought it was spectacular and one of the best things I had ever heard but as I grew older and went through Joel's back catalogue I found it to be his most labored and produced album to date, also none of the joy he had in his music (that appears on "Innocent Man," "52nd Street," "Turnstiles" etc.) is largely absent though it does appear occasionally, particularly on the title track.

Since Joel planned this as his last album there is a heavy reflective quality in the lyrics and songs which gives a very somber tone. The last track is called "Famous Last Words" and ends the album and Joel's recording career with a chorus that sings "These are the last words I have to say."

While the songs sound good it is slightly sad that Joel chose to end his recording career with such a dark album and only four or five really great songs the rest sound good but are largely somber filler. On the up side the album was a smash hit with the excellent gospel infused title track becoming a giant hit that everyone was singing at the time. Other than that there is the sweet song to his daughter "Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel)," "The Great Wall of China" (obviously directed at his thieving manager) and "All about Soul." Also there is excellent artwork by the then Mrs. Joel Christie Brinkley.

This is not his best album but it contains one of his greatest songs and it will always have a special place in my collection as the first album I ever owned.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Billy Joel - "Greatest Hits Volume I & II"

After the massive success of 1983's "An Innocent Man" album Billy Joel took a breather by releasing his first (and as the title suggests second) greatest hits compilation. Released in 1985 as a double album package (you couldn't buy just one volume they came as a set) does its job of being a very good example of Joel's career up to that point. By 1985 Joel had amassed a massive amount of hits as well as good songs and fan favorites that were not released as singles. So it is obvious that no double disc compilation could collect them all so it is refreshing that the songs present are so well chosen.

Volume 1 (also disc 1) covers the years 1973-1977. Ignoring his botched independent first album "Cold Spring Harbor" (which was released in 1971 at the wrong speed making all the songs too fast. Later Columbia records re-released the album with the problems fixed in 1983) and starting with "Piano Man" and running through his first smash hit songs from "The Stranger" album. Though not all of the songs on this volume were actually big hits they were his charting singles (save "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" which is a Joel and fan favorite that became very popular in his live shows) from the period and were popular on radio and eventually became very popular after Joel became a superstar.

Volume 2 (also disc 2) covers his superstar years 1978-1985 starting with songs from the album "52nd Street" through 1983's "An Innocent Man." All the songs here are smash hit singles and there is at least one song from all five albums he released during this period. The compilation ends with two new songs, only available on this album, both of which became hits as well. "You're Only Human (Second Wind)" is a fun catchy life affirming pop song and "The Night is Still Young" is a haunting powerhouse even though it is really just a great melody and chorus (it is still one of my favorite Joel songs).

While some may gripe that three BIG hits were left off, "Honesty," "Keeping the Faith" and "An Innocent Man," this double disc compilation does exactly what it sets out to do in being a excellent gathering of his biggest hits and a perfect example of why Billy Joel is one of the biggest superstars of the 1970s and 1980s.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Billy Joel - "An Innocent Man"

Billy Joel had been riding high as a music superstar since 1977's "The Stranger" and he had at least two hit singles every other year with a new hit album. Released just a year after the incredibly ambitious, critically praised, but low selling (by Joel standards) "The Nylon Curtain" this album "An Innocent Man" released in 1983 is one of Joel's biggest hits, second only to "The Stranger."
1983 was a year of mega albums, Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and The Police's "Synchronicity" were just two other smash hits released that year. Billy Joel's "An Innocent Man" was no exception seven of the album's ten tracks were hit singles and this album bumped Joel into the 80s music superstar ranks along with Phil Collins and The Police.

Like his previous albums he finds his inspiration from other artists but Joel never ceases to make them his own and superproducer Phil Ramone makes sure everything is pure pop. And somehow even though everythign is decidedly retro it never ceases to have a 1980s feel and I mean that in a good way.
What is most interesting about this album is that it is a homage to the music of Joel's youth, focusing on styles of late 1950s and early 1960s Doo-Wop and R&B. "Easy Money" is a Wilson Pickett soul rocker, the title track is inspired by "Stand By Me," "The Longest Time" is straight 1950s acapella gold, "Tell her About it" is Motown pop, "Uptown Girl" is a Four Seasons popper and "Christie Lee" is pure Little Richard complete with Wooohooo's. "This Night" and "Leave a tender Moment Alone" are pure Joel love ballads and the album closing "Keeping the Faith" is a toe tapping gospel inspired number.
Aside from a great batch of songs, also helping the album sales were the retro style music videos that played on the then very popular MTV. The videos looked like mini musicals with "The Longest Time" having Joel and company dressed up like singing janitors at a high school and "Uptown Girl" featured him as a mechanic with a garage full of dancers and a supermodel as his customer. That supermodel was played by Christy Brinkley, at the time the most famous model in the world, and whom Joel was dating and would marry in 1985. Many of the songs on the album were inspired by her and proves the time honored theory (along with Eric Clapton's Layla album) that if you are a musician and you write a hit album about a woman she will fall in love with you.
On the down side once Joel and Brinkley divorced in 1994 he abandoned most of the songs from this album. This album also sadly marks an end to Joel's album excellence after a string of strong albums, this is his last to be fully formed. He would continue to write excellent hit songs but his albums would consist largely of filler after this. "An Innocent Man" is one of Billy Joel's finest albums and one of the pop classics from 1983, that has sadly become a little overlooked in his catalogue.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Billy Joel - "Glass Houses"

Ok my return to the alphabetical posts of my album collection.  The last time I was in order was Billy Joel's "Turnstiles." Here we have Joel's 1980 hit album "Glass Houses." In between the two albums were two smash hits "The Stranger" and "52nd Street" which had catapulted Joel from the sensitive guy who sang "Piano Man" to a music superstar and household name.

As always Joel was never praised much by the critics and that made him angry and music was exploring new territory with Punk and New Wave in the late 70s and early 80s. So this album is his response to all that.

"Glass Houses" was described by Joel as his punk rock album and while it really is not punk rock it is his most rock oriented album. Striping away much of the production aspects of his previous two records and focusing on his five man band. Producer Phil Ramone, who worked on Joel two previous albums, is back and makes sure that this is still a hit making pop/rock album.

While there is the tender "C'etait Toi (You Were the One)" and the McCartney-esque hit "Don't Ask Me Why"most of the songs are rockers "You May Be Right," "All for Leyna," "Close to the Borderline" and the excellent but often overlooked "Sometimes a Fantasy." Then there is the number one hit "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," which is really a new wave style song with some punk leanings.

Overall "Glass Houses" has a harder edge than any of Joel's other albums and has some great songs that can only be found on this album, one of my favorites is "I Don't Want to Be Alone" with its catchy chorus and relatable story.  This album will please his die hard fans and critics because he moves away from some of his more familiar aspects and it is a good mark in Joel's catalogue.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Emmylou Harris - "Pieces of the Sky"

This is a recent purchase of mine and I will return to my alphabetical posts on my next posting (Billy Joel Glass Houses).

I had been listening to John Denver's song "Wild Montana Sky" which Emmylou Harris duets on. Then I also watched The Band's "Last Waltz" film which Harris appears in. So I began researching her and this album sounded great in the music samples and it was on sale at my local Barnes and Noble so I picked it up.

This is a very excellent album, equal parts folk, country and pop. Harris has a beautiful angelic voice and an ear for good sounds. There is a nice nod toward Appalachian sounds as well as pop climate ("Coat of Many Colors" and "For No One") and old fashioned bar room country ("Bluebird Wine" and "Queen of the Silver Dollar").

There are also some songs that connect life with the natural world around us, the Gram Parsons tribute "Boulder to Birmingham" and "Before Believing." This last aspect made this album feel like a more countrified John Denver, now I am not sure about her other works but this one to me has a very Denver feel.

I will say this is a very good album, but if you do not like country or folk you should stay away. From my research, however, this is supposedly Harris' most open album even if it is not her most praised. The 2004 CD reissue adds two previously unissued bonus tracks and a wonderful booklet.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Allman Brothers Band - "At Fillmore East"

One of the best live albums ever released.

The Allman Brothers Band were essentially Southern Rock and Blues band but by 1971, when this album was released, they were becoming well known for their powerful live shows. While all the members are excellent most of the popularity referred to the powerful twin guitar interplay between Duane Allman and Dickey Betts. Their long, but always lyrical and coherent, jams sometimes lasted 45 minutes on a single song. Though they were billed as a Southern Rock/Blues band they had a great Jazz influence which showed in their live performances with the flowing powerful instrumental jams that they created.

Other members of the band include two drummers, Jai Johanson and Butch Trucks, bassist Berry Oakley, and singer/organist/pianist Gregg Allman. All the members are able to shine on this album even if most of the hoopla goes to Duane and Betts' guitar playing. Also to credit for this album's excellence is super producer Tom Dowd who took two concerts recorded at the Fillmore East on March 12 & 13 and edited them into one album. Dowd condenses songs and merges two performances into one. While some may balk at this tactic, it works to the album's advantage by picking the finest moments in each performance and focusing on that excellence. And while some songs have been edited that does not mean they are short, two of the album's seven tracks are 20 minutes long and another is 13 minutes. The tracks, however, never bog down and the listener is always entranced.

I originally was very hesitant about buying this album for many years because I was leery about the length of some of the tracks. I was kept interested because of all the praise the album received over the years. I eventually picked it up when I had a sale coupon which got me the CD at a really low price. The album is excellent and the longer songs do not feel as long as they are because they are so dynamic.

The Allman Brothers Band, especially at this stage in their career, are a great band and really shine in the live format. The album was a big hit and gained The Allmans a wider audience. The original seven track album is highly recommended. There are also other box sets and deluxe editions which feature the original performances before they were edited but these longer editions are really for the die hard fan. The seven track album is a must for rock and electric guitar fans. Duane Allman is one of the finest guitar players ever and he sadly died in a motorcycle accident shortly after this album's release, but this is a fitting tribute to his immense talent.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Stephen Stills - "Stephen Stills"

In honor of one of my all time favorite musicians' 67th birthday I am writing this post to a true musical genius named Stephen Stills and reviewing his solo debut album (this also happens to be my first post of 2012!).

By 1970 Stephen Stills was on something of a winning streak, from his excellence on the three Buffalo Springfield albums, to "Super Session," through Crosby, Stills & Nash's debut album and CSN & Young's "Deja Vu" as well as the CSNY single "Ohio/Find the Cost of Freedom." He had nothing left to prove, yet he decided to prove himself again anyway.

Between late 1970 and early 1971 all four members of the recently disbanded CSNY released a solo album (in various formations at least two members worked on each other's  albums as back up) Stephen Stills' eponymous debut was the most successful of the four and in my mind the most enjoyable. Stills gathers a spectacular mix of great musicians of the era including, Jimi Hendrix (one of his last recordings, the album is also dedicated to him), Eric Clapton, Cass Elliot, Rita Coolidge, Booker T. Jones, John Sebastian, supposedly Ringo Starr is the drummer listed as Richie, and David Crosby and Graham Nash also lend their voices.

From Henry Diltz's excellent cover photo one might guess that this is a quiet singer/songwriter album, but in reality this album runs the gamut from pop to rock, folk, blues, and gospel. While it also has echos of his work with Buffalo Springfield and particularly CSN this album is completely different and fully Stills.

From the opening guitar strings along with the steel drum of the hit single "Love the One You're With" the album grabs you, the chorus of voices and a borrowing from the end of "Suite Judy Blue Eyes" are nods to CSN but then Stills moves into his own with the beautiful "Do for the Others" and superbly tackles gospel with "Church (Part of Someone)." "Old Times, Good Times" follows with some killer guitar by Hendrix and some great organ work by Stills on one of his best rock songs. "Go Back Home" is bluesy rock with Clapton and Stills trading guitar licks and Clapton turning in one of those great solos.

"Sit yourself Down" is one of Stills finest recordings with some great singing by all involved and I wish it was more talked about in terms of Stills' music, just such a great tune. "To a Flame" is a powerful piece of heavenly glory followed by the live acoustic blues of "Black Queen." The wall of sound of "Cherokee" would have fit well on his next solo album and the gospel style powerhouse closer "We Are Not Helpless" bring the proceedings to a epic close.

Throughout this album Stills gives one of his finest vocal performances ranging from bluesy to beautiful and etheral. His song writing is as usual flawless here. I can never pick which is my favorite Stills solo album this one or "Manassas" so I say it is a tie between the two.

Happy Birthday Mr. Stills and thank you for this wonderful album and all the wonderful music you make.