Thursday, July 21, 2011

Numen by Phil Keaggy and Kyle Jones

Phil Keaggy has been recording albums on his own or with others for about forty years now. He has something like 70 albums in his catalog. So how do you make that much music and keep it fresh and creative? Phil does it by looking for new collaborators. Just over the past few years he has worked with Randy Stonehill, Jack Giering and John Sferra (known as the Phil Keaggy Trio), Jeff Johnson, Mike Pachelli, and Glass Harp in addition to a steady stream of solo albums. These collaborations have paid off. His album with Jeff Johnson, Frio Suite, is one of my favorites and is still in heavy rotation on my playlist. His Phil Keaggy Trio album, Interdimensional Traveller, is a lot of fun. Both of these albums stand out as being something quite different from the stuff Phil does on his own and have encouraged him to stretch out in new ways.
His latest album, Numen, is a duet album with percussionist Kyle Jones. Jones is a percussionist who uses lots of non-Western instruments and techniques. He brings these world-music sensibilities to this instrumental album giving it an Indian feel that is a welcome addition to Keaggy’s sound.
The album starts out with the sound of the tabla and acoustic guitar in “Ebullince,” a fine opening to the album (and one of my favorite tracks) that sounds different than anything Phil has produced before. The Indian percussion that Jones brings to the sound of this album has inspired Keaggy to go to places he usually doesn’t go on his own. There are some moments where it is obvious that you’re listening to a Phil Keaggy album – the tapping in “Ruach,” the electric riff in “Ziggarat” or the acoustic opening to “Dia Logos” for example – but then there are moments just a few minutes later where it is hard to give examples of similar playing in any of his other albums.
Clocking in at nearly an hour, this album might be a little too long, especially the nine-minute track “Kahawa” that appears near the end of the album and, generally speaking, I like the tracks that sound more composed as opposed to improvised but that may only be my interpretation of how they came about. It sounds to me like many of these tracks happened because Keaggy and Jones sat in a room together, played what they felt and then created fully produced tracks after the fact (something that Phil did to good effect on his Roundabout album.) This gives a sense of adventure to the album – you can hear the fun that they had at times as they found new things - and Keaggy’s innate sense of melody makes even improvised things interesting. The addition of electric guitar and even violin on some tracks makes for good variety.
Numen is a fun album and it is great to see Phil Keaggy still exploring and finding new things to play even after all these years. This album has not seen wide distribution (I don’t think it is on iTunes or Amazon, for example) so look for it at

Friday, June 24, 2011

Memorable McCartney Solo Songs

Earlier this week I stumbled across this article about Paul McCartney’s 12 Most Memorable Solo Songs and thought the list was interesting. There were a number of things on the list that I would not have included. The deal is to pick

McCartney’s best recordings without the Beatles or Wings or the Fireman. Granted, this is a bit artificial since Paul’s input on the Wings stuff is so strong that it could be thought of as solo work but, whatever … this puts the emphasis on his work credited to just “McCartney.” So that means his first two albums (McCartney and Ram) and then everything from McCartney II on except the Fireman stuff.

I thought the list on the aforementioned website was quirky and that my list would be different so I could not resist the challenge. The hard part for me is to keep it to just twelve. I will also admit that the popularity of a song tended to work against its inclusion in the list. No good reason for this except that familiarity breeds contempt. So hits tended to not get on here with a few exceptions that I just could not resist. So here are my admittedly quirky picks presented in no particular order, along with my list of honorable mentions.

  • Maybe I'm Amazed (McCartney) – perhaps is best ever solo song is from his first solo album. The album itself is quirky and uneven but it has a couple of fabulous songs on it – three of them made my list!
  • Pipes of Peace (Pipes of Peace) – McCartney is not only a very good writer but the man knows how to make records. The arrangement of this song is just spectacular.
  • Every Night (McCartney) – the second song on my from the first solo album is another prime example of a great tune and a fine recording.
  • Tug of War (Tug of War) – This was McCartney’s return to making a fully produced album with George Martin after Wings ended and his McCartney II experiment. At the time Rolling Stone called it his masterpiece. It’s one of his great albums and the title song is just great.
  • Through Our Love (Pipes of Peace) – I am a sucker for the big ballads that McCartney often puts at the end of his albums. This is one of my favorites.
  • Junk (McCartney) – another wonderful song from his first solo album – this one comes in two flavors, with or without vocals.
  • Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey (Ram) – A song made up of lots of snippets that somehow hangs together and works. A big hit besides.
  • Waterfalls (McCartney II) – This is a wonderful song which needs a better recording. McCartney even mentions that in the book that comes with the new deluxe edition of the remastered version of the album. But even without a nicely orchestrated version this song is very good.
  • Wanderlust (Tug of War) – This is a pretty obscure song which features one of McCartney’s favorite gimmicks – countermelodies that are introduced separately and then combined near the end of the song. (See “With a Little Luck” for another example.)
  • Beautiful Night (Flaming Pie) – another great piano ballad. This one sat in his archive for a while until he rerecorded it for Flaming Pie. The earlier version (available as the b-side of one of the Flaming Pie singles) is not nearly as good – apparently he knew there was a good song in there and that the first recording didn’t quite get there.
  • Back Seat of My Car (Ram) – an early version of the big piano ballad – this one from Ram.
  • Once Upon a Long Ago (All the Best) – this one was a single in the UK and we in the US only got it when All the Best came out but it’s a great song and worth finding if you don’t have it.

The Honorable mentions

  • Too Many People (Ram)
  • Only Love Remains (Press to Play)
  • Motor of Love (Flowers in the Dirt)
  • Coming Up (McCartney II – although I prefer the live version that is on the US release of All the Best)
  • C'mon People (Off the Ground)
  • The Song We Were Singing (Flaming Pie)
  • Calico Skies (Flaming Pie)
  • Your Loving Flame (Driving Rain)
  • English Tea (Chaos and Creation in the Backyard)
  • Average Person (Pipes of Peace)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Country Music

This spring I’ve flirted with listening to country music. This is something that is a bit of a surprise to me since I’ve been a pretty serious non-country music guy for a while. The vocal style got to me and I had a prejudice against the music that made me resist it. But I had a long appreciation for 70’s country rock (early Eagles, Poco, Flying Burrito Brothers) and I’ve reacquainted myself with Poco lately so I was in a mood to appreciate it. I actually owned a couple of actual authentic country recordings – one Dixie Chicks album (Home), one Little Big Town album and a couple of Allison Krauss albums. But I considered them anomalies – ones that, for some reason I could enjoy despite my dislike for the genre as a whole.

But then last spring I stopped in Nashville for a couple of hours on a spring break trip and had a great time. I enjoyed touring the Ryman Auditorium, visited Gruhn Guitars and walked up and down Broadway where I heard six or seven bands each of which impressed me. I’d go there again in a minute.

So that left me thinking about why I don’t listen to this stuff – the players are great and there are some cool songs there. Meredith had sent me the latest Carrie Underwood album (Play On) so I listened to that and I realized that she is a wonderful singer – really good. So I decided to dig in a little bit more. Our local library is part of the “Freegal” system allowing me to download songs legally from the Sony catalog so I did some research and discovered a couple of albums that were highly reviewed. I then started listening to country music.

I started with Revolution by Miranda Lambert, the album of the year for many in the country genre. I also got albums by Sara Evans (Stronger), Allison Krauss (Paper Airplane), Taylor Swift (Speak Now), Brad Paisley (This is Country Music), Court Yard Hounds and Carrie Underwood (Carnival Ride.) Here is what I learned.

1. I still have some issues with some of the vocal styles. The ones I like best are the ones that are least “twangy.” I am a huge fan, though, of Carrie Underwood’s singing. She appeared alongside Steven Tyler at they ACM Awards and and sang “Undo it” and “Walk This Way” and they brought down the house. Watch it here .

2. There are amazing musicians who play on these albums. And Brad Paisley is a great guitar player.

3. The themes in country music still surprise me – lots of good ole’ boy talk with drinkin’ and hard livin’ right next to sappy songs about home and Jesus.

4. Novelty songs appear more often on country albums than they do on rock albums; “Camouflage” by Brad Paisley, “White Trash Wedding” by the Dixie Chicks, “Only Prettier” by Miranda Lambert to name three off the top of my head.

5. There are some really good writers in Nashville.

6. Sometimes country music is basically pop music with fiddles. That’s OK with me.

So my time of country listening might be diminishing as I get back to the stuff I listen to most of the time (I still listen to the Beatles and U2 a lot) but I’m a lot more open minded now and I’ve enjoyed listening to this stuff a lot more than I expected.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Favorite albums of the year

I’ve not updated this blog very much this year – my job has kept me especially busy lately. But I have been listening to a lot of music (I still have my 45 min commute) and, as I have done for the past few years, I have compiled a list of my favorite music for the year. So here they are, in no particular order - the albums that especially got me excited this year.

Robert Plant / Band of Joy – This album surprised me. I listened to Raising Sand, Plant’s duet album with Allison Krauss and, while I liked it, I didn’t spend much time with it. Band of Joy, though, is a bit moodier and the production is airy and interesting. Plant’s singing is, of course, great. I was a fan of Led Zeppelin in the 70s but haven’t listened to much of his solo work. Plus it is fun to hear Plant singing in his lower register.

Elvis Costello / National RansomMomofuku, Costello’s album two albums ago was great. I thought it was up there with his very best. But I was disappointed with the follow-up, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane. I found the melodies on SP&S to be not as intriguing and the sound of the album didn’t move me. National Ransom is like an extension of Secret except Costello branched out a lot more in style so, where SP&S was somewhat one style throughout, Ransom is quite varied. Every once in a while, when I’m listening to Costello, I realize what an amazing writer he is – his songs have interesting chord progressions and his melodies, which are catchy, are not obvious. I’ve noticed that on many of the songs on National Ransom. It ranks up there among my favorite Costello albums.

Sufan Stevens / All Delighted People / The Age of Adz – This year, Sufjan Stevens put out both and EP and a full album, although the EP was nearly an hour long so calling it an EP was a bit strange. Both of them are among my favorite albums of the year. All Delighted People features a lot of what we’ve come to expect from recent Sufjan albums, twittering flutes, interesting arrangements and heartfelt (if not a bit obscure) lyrics. It is great. Some of the eight tracks are long but the arrangements are complex enough to hold my attention throughout. This album (OK, he calls it an EP so that we realized it wasn’t meant to be his BIG STATEMENT) is great - maybe the lowered expectations helped me see as just a nice collection of songs. Then a few months later he delivered The Age of Adz, a big electronic serious album about schizophrenia and identity. When I heard it I realized that, indeed, All Delighted People was just the warm up. The album is complex and fascinating in it’s combination of quirky Sufjan flutes and other wind instruments mixed with the beeps and blurps of electronica.

Fistful of Mercy / As I Call You Down – Fistful of Mercy is Dhani Harrison, Beh Harpur and Joseph Arthur, all three interesting indie artists who have their own projects. I became aware of them because of Dhani Harrison, George’s son, and because I liked his album of last year with his band thenewno2. In fact, I named their album one of my favorites of the year. Their new project, Fistful of Mercy, is quite different – part Crosby Stills and Nash, part Traveling Wilburys. Not the most elegant or serious album in my collection but it features fine (although a little quirky) three part harmonies most of the time and a nice acoustic vibe throughout.

Eric Clapton / Clapton – Releasing a self-titled album more than 45 years into your career says something. In this case it says that this is a very personal album. While not as emotionally raw as Pilgrim, as radio-friendly as Slowhand, or as guitar heavy as Journeyman, Clapton is a warm relaxed tour through much of the music that Eric Clapton has found himself drawn to over the last few years. There are few songs with drums playing flat-out, for example. Most of them feature brushes or at least drums that are gently played or pushed to the background. But this isn’t an earthy acoustic album – this is a jazzy album that is a combination of blues and standards featuring Clapton the singer as much as Clapton the player. Some of the songs would be at home on an album from the 1940s while others would sit nicely on Clapton’s duet album with J J Cale and still others would be on a slightly softer version of one of Clapton’s blues albums like From the Cradle or Me and Mr Johnson. Don’t come to this album expecting to have your socks rocked off. Clapton apparently isn’t interested in that right now. But for a mature album by a veteran musician, this one is great.

Peter Gabriel / Scratch My Back – The reviews of this album are all over the map from “best ever” to “what was he thinking?” so I hesitated before getting it but when I did I quickly joined the “best ever” camp. Gabriel, who famously instituted a “no cymbals” rule for one of his early solo albums put in a “no guitars or drums” rule on this album and gave us a lushly orchestrated album of cover versions of songs by other artists. The arrangements are hauntingly beautiful and a few of the songs are slowed down to the point where you hear them in a whole new way. His cover of Arcade Fire's "My Body is a Cage" is gripping and Lou Reed's "The Power of the Heart" is just beautiful.

Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson / Frio Suite – Phil Keaggy has released a number of albums over the years but lately he’s been doing some interesting work with other artists. He’s released albums with Randy Stonehill, with Jack Giering and John Sferra and soon he’ll be releasing an album with percussionist Kyle Jones. (He gave me a copy of that album, called Numen, which may well end up on my next year’s list – it doesn’t seem fair to put an album on here that isn’t out yet so I'll wait on that one.) Frio Suite, with keyboardist Jeff Johnson is a beautiful, new-age-type album that is subtle and moving. The two of them recorded this at a distance, each adding their own parts in their own studio, but you'd never know it by listening. It sounds like a wonderful journey down a metaphorical river.

Finally, two albums that I really haven’t taken the time to dig into yet but I want to add to this list because I think they belong here:

Arcade Fire / The Suburbs – Another great Arcade Fire album – they’re three for three now. I like how they manage to tackle big issues while at the same time being not uber-artsy and inaccessible. I find their music often takes me a while to really understand and this one is no exception.

The Rescues / Let Loose the Horses – The Rescues was my big discovery last year and Let Loose the Horses is their first major label release. I don’t like it quite as well as their earlier stuff – yet, at least – but I’m a fan of their harmonies and their sound. Also of note, their cover of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” (unfortunately, not on this album – but available as a single on iTunes) is awesome.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Buy Bethany's Book

You should all buy The Book of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks. It is based on her popular blog and is now available though amazon and other fine booksellers.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Worship Songs

Recently on a friend’s facebook wall I engaged in a discussion about the lyrics to a song for worship. I argued that we need to choose songs well – that with the thousands of worship songs available we can only use a few and it is good for us to choose ones that work well and avoid the ones with questionable lyrics.

With that in mind when a song from Michael W. Smith’s recent worship album, A New Hallelujah, came on my iPod I started this discussion in my head all over again. The song is “When I Think of You” and I love to sing along with it. It has a great beat, the arrangement is very cool (it is sung with an African Children’s Chorus) and it’s really catchy. The problem is that I’m not really sure what it means. Here are the lyrics:

When I think of you, I see you dancing, You’re dancing.
When I think of you, I hear you singing to me
When I think of you, I see You praying
You’re Praying
When I think of you, I hear you calling for me

Yahweh, there is no one like You, Lord
Yahweh, Hallelujah, we sing
Yahweh, there is no one like You, Lord
Yahweh, Your banner for me
Your banner for me is Love

There is no one like,
There is no one like my Yahweh, my Yahweh

This all gets repeated multiple times. As I said, it’s real catchy and by the second time through I’m usually singing along. Here’s my question, though: what is it about? Who is “you” in this song? Who is thinking about whom? In the chorus, "you" is clearly the Lord - but what about in the verses? After thinking about it for a bit I’m beginning to think that this is just another example of a worship song in which the composer strings together a bunch of nice sounding spiritual words, which really don’t go anywhere. This was reinforced when, before the next song MWS sings “faith is rising tonight” a couple of times – I’m not sure what that means either. Now I like Smith a lot – I have almost all of his albums over all these many years and when he records a worship song it often becomes the definitive version. So, tell me what you think about this one.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Glass Harp’s best album

Recently Glass Harp released a 2008 concert CD that, initially I was less than excited about. That was before I heard it. You see, I figured I’d heard all these songs before. I have the original three albums. I have Hourglass, their reunion CD. I have the Carnegie Hall Live CD, the With Strings Attached set and also the massive Stark Raving Jams and they’re OK. But none of them (with the possible exception of Carnegie Hall, recorded in the early 70s) really caught the excitement and the improvisational power of these three guys. I finally got to see them about five or 6 years ago and I was thrilled – they rarely tour together anymore. But Strings Attached was just too calm and too scripted. Stark Raving Jams was too unfocussed and the recording quality wasn’t great.

So when I saw that Live at the Beachland Ballroom was being released I thought that this was just another live Glass Harp album with the same songs (they mostly still play the stuff from their three original studio albums) and that it was totally redundant. I was wrong.

Live at the Beachland Ballroom is the one Glass Harp CD that you need to have. I haven’t heard Phil Keaggy playing with this sort of abandon and fire on a recording in years. And Glass Harp is not just Phil and a rhythm section – Dan Peccio and John Sferra are totally on target here too and the connection between these guys while they play is amazing. They’re totally in sync and the band turns on a dime. This is clear in a number of places on the album but no more so than in the nearly 16-minute “Beachland Jam.” The band jumps in and out of multiple jams, mostly started by Phil on guitar but within seconds Dan and John jump in and join him. Vocally, they’ve never been better and instrumentally they’re at the top of their game. This is probably the best Glass Harp album yet. Buy it here.