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.