Monday, July 26, 2010

Johnny Cash • With His Hot and Blue Guitar

In honor of the passing of my stepdad Dennis E. Blurton on July 13th, I hereby review this classic album...

Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar was the first LP Sun Records ever put out, and it's a veritable greatest hits collection of the Man in Black at his youngest best. Basically a culling of his first singles and some cuts that hadn't been issued yet, Hot and Blue Guitar is the album to judge all country records by, which means topping this one will be a feat of major proportions. "Cry! Cry! Cry!" was Cash's first 45, followed by "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line," which are three superb slices of mid '50s country, mixing blues, folk and primal rockabilly into a unique music that hadn't been heard before. Also on the record are "(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle," "Rock Island Line" (a traditional folk song), "So Doggone Lonesome," "Wreck of the Old '97" and a few more, all showcasing Johnny's different sides... his spiritual side ("I Was There When It Happened"), his dark side ("Doin' My Time"), his downhome "ah, shucks" side ("Country Boy").

The subjects Cash takes on on this record were the foundation for all that would follow in his storied career. Though he would later get more and less political, do full albums of gospel or spiritual records, and take cracks at things that were surely suggested by the record label (like his version of Marty Robbins' Gunfighter Ballads) and not altogether successful, we all know that there will never be another Johnny Cash.

With His Hot and Blue Guitar
was in my stepdad's meager record collection, and when I was nine or ten he hired me and my stepbrother Dave to transcribe the songs on the album so he could play them on his old Gibson acoustic. Dave and I wrote out the lyrics as best as we could, definitely getting some of the words wrong, but having a great time. When we thought we had each one down, I typed it out on Denny's old typewriter. Eventually he wrote in the chords, or just played along to them, and David and I learned a few ourselves ("Folsom Prison Blues" being our favorite to play). We found the folder of all these songs in our dad's stuff last week, and it brought back lots of great memories. Here's to you, DB, for instilling in me the confidence to learn a song and then sing it in front of my friends and family. I owe you one!
5/5 (Sun; reissued by Varese Sarabande)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

R.E.M. • Fables of the Reconstruction (25th Anniversary Ed.)

'Twas a difficult album for R.E.M. to make, that's for sure. After the nonstop touring and promotion of their first two LPs and an EP, 1985's Fables of the Reconstruction was high time for the band to take stock of their assets and see if there was anything new they could do with them. What they came up with, along with producer/folk music icon Joe Boyd, was a moody album that made both the band and their fans feel gravity's pull. Another album of Murmur/Reckoning-ish tunes, produced by the team of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, might have been a safe move, but on the other hand, laying down some quick 'n' dirty demos and then flying halfway around the world to record them properly might be a better way to do it.

In hindsight, Fables feels more like the introduction to their next album, Lifes Rich Pageant, than it does an addition to the foundation they had already laid down. You still couldn't understand half of what Michael Stipe was singing, but the music Bill Berry, Peter Buck and Mike Mills came up with made Stipe sound like an instrument, and that's what made this record so great. The multi-guitars, bass and drums, plus a horn section here and a string section there, were a harkening back to the '70s, when vocals weren't mixed so far in the front, yet the album was like nothing from that decade. Kudos to Joe Boyd (read his book White Bicycles for more about him and the era he came from) for doing it the way he did, in England instead of the States, and to R.E.M. for having the balls to jump off the bandwagon they'd soon find they created.

This 25th Anniversary edition has been remastered, and I'm still not sure if I like it better than the original vinyl or the first and second CD editions that came out, but I do like the presentation. Two discs come in a nice box that will stand out on your CD shelf (if it even fits), and there are four "postcards" and a huge poster (I think I had the same poster when the album first came out in '85), too. The second disc features 14 demos of the songs intended for the album, and that includes three that didn't make it. What's great about these demos is you can really hear the basic ideas for the songs, so you can make the leap to Boyd's eventual production and really appreciate the final LP. And what's more, you can understand most of what Michael sang! (There are a few tunes where he doesn't quite have the lyrics finished, though.) Unadorned they may be, but they're a valuable touchstone in trying for yourself to reconstruct the fables of the reconstruction.
4/5 (IRS/Capitol)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Katrina and the Waves • Katrina and the Waves [An Appreciation]

Those of you who already know me can blow me. 'Cuz I know what you're thinking: "I always knew he was a pop wimp." Well, I don't care what you say because I've always loved this band, even before they had that ubiquitous pop hit 25 years ago with "Walking on Sunshine," so there.

If there ever was a band with a sound that epitomizes what I'd call summer rock 'n' roll, this is it. Anchored by Kimberley Rew's muscular-yet-tuneful guitar and Katrina Leskanich's hard-edged vocals, Katrina and the Waves shot the band to #1 all over the globe. And though there was no followup hit as big as "Sunshine," the album had at least five (5!) tunes that could've should've been hits. The 1985 album, released on Capitol Records and somehow so hard to find on CD today, was made up of songs that first showed up on the band's two Canadian releases on Attic, Walking On Sunshine* (1983) and Katrina And The Waves 2 (1984). Some were re-recorded, some were bolstered by more guitar, horns or whatever, but almost all of 'em were brilliant. "Do You Want Crying?"—I can't believe this jangle rock power pop epic didn't make it to the top. "Red Wine and Whisky," another brilliant tune. Wanna slow it down some? Then try Katrina's blue-eyed soul on "The Sun Won't Shine." And don't even get me started on "Going Down to Liverpool," which most people know from the Bangles' first album (but which was written by Rew)! Of course, no album is perfect. There are a coupla tunes here that have some pretty silly lyrics, and I don't mean "fun" silly but more like "kinda dumb, really," such as "Machine Gun Smith," but when it comes along with quality hard pop like "Que Te Quiero," you should be willing to forgive a little.

If you wanna go back a ways, those two Attic LPs are available separately on CGB (a tiny US independent) and as a 2fer on Canada's BongoBeat. The first one contained a few great tunes that didn't make any of their Capitol releases, most notably "Brown Eyed Son" and "Dancing Street," while 2 had "Maniac House," for 1. They're a little thinner sounding, but you really get a feel for where the classics came from. And actually, if you wanna become a bona fide Waves scholar, you need to get Shock Horror! by The Waves (1983), recorded before they put Katrina's name on the marquee. Also out now on CGB, this 8-song EP had the first versions of "Liverpool" and "Brown Eyed Son," but also "I Caught the Milk Train" and "You Can't Stand Next to Judie." Rew was handling most of the lead vocals while Katrina sang along and played rhythm guitar, and the raw indie vibe is fully apparent and kinda kute. (The reissue CD has 4 bonus songs on it.) Finally, if Rew's songwriting really floats your boat, besides his more recent solo releases, The Bible of Bop (again, on CGB) features songs he cut with The Waves, The Soft Boys (who he played with prior to mega stardom) and even the dB's, such as "My Baby Does Her Hairdo Long," "Nightmare," and "Hey! War Pig."

Alright now, back to the beginning. Go ahead, throw all the insults at me you can think of. I don't care. I'll stand by my appreciation of Katrina and the Waves until the end of time, and I will listen to their records until that scarey man with the scythe comes knockin' on my door, because every time I hear "Walking on Sunshine" I can let go of every freakin' care I've ever had in the world and for three minutes just get carried away. And don't it feel good!

* Now called Katrina and the Waves, in order to confuse and amuse.
Katrina and the Waves (Capitol), 5/5; Katrina and the Waves (Attic/CGB), 3/5; Katrina and the Waves 2, 3/5; Shock Horror! 3/5; Bible of Bop, 4/5.

And for those of you who weren't around in the '80s, here's a bitchin' video of Katrina and the Waves lip syncing they're colossal hit, just to make you feel good!

Friday, July 2, 2010

New Releases Update • July 2, 2010

Peter Case | Wig! (Out now)
Peter Case, after a hiatus healing up from open heart surgery, returns to his Nerves/Plimsouls power pop roots with Wig!, a 12-tracker which includes "New Blue Car," perhaps a bookend to his solo track, "Old Blue Car"? Look for a review here soon.

Julian Cope | Floored Genius 2 [Deluxe Edition] (July 6)
An expanded version of the CD that featured a bunch of Cope's BBC recordings, this time there are 13 more, all handpicked by the man himself. The sessions span the years 1983-1991 and include never heard before tunes such as "Ballad of King Plank" and "The Mystery Trend" plus some tunes first put out by his band, The Teardrop Explodes. Speaking of which…

The Teardrop Explodes | Kilimanjaro [Deluxe Edition] (July 20)
THREE discs… Could be too many, but it looks like this Deluxo comes with a full disc of BBC sessions (many of the tunes from Kilimanjaro and the following album, Wilder, in very different arrangements), and a disc of b-sides and rarities, meaning you get their very earliest Zoo Records singles (very hard to find in any format).

R.E.M. | Fables of the Reconstruction [Deluxe Edition] (July 13)
A 2CD reissue with a bonus disc of demos, all previously unreleased (at least, legally) and including "Throw Those Trolls Away," which has never come out in any form. The albums are packaged in a special lift top box, and a poster and four post cards are also included. (The album is also being reissued as a standard, single LP.)

X | Under the Big Black Sun (July 13)
Porterhouse Vinyl continues their campaign to bring back all of America's best punk band's albums on vinyl. And this one, originally released on Elektra in 1982, is my favorite! The 180-gram reissue includes some of X's best-known tunes, like "Blue Spark," "Riding with Mary," and "The Hungry Wolf." If the pressing's as good as the one they did of Wild Gift, you better not miss this.