James Taylor – “Greatest Hits” (1976)

jamestaylorgreatesthitsWhat am I going to tell you about James Taylor that you don’t already know?  Nothing at all, most likely.  He’s pretty much the definition of a singer-songwriter with his style of folk rock, the minimal arrangements that showcase the emotion in his voice.  He’s sold over 100 million records (let that sink in for a minute…), and this particular record, his 1976 Greatest Hits is certified diamond in the US, having sold 12 million copies.  Hell, not only is he still putting out music, but his 2015 release Before This World finally gave him his very first #1 album after having put 10 of them into the Top 10 over the years.

The reason is, of course, because he’s stupid talented.  Yes, his style of music is easy to stick up your nose at in this day and age as quaint or boring or whatever.  But he continues to resonate with people, and that’s not an accident.  I’m not any kind of James Taylor fan – I’ve never owned one of his studio albums.  But guess what?  I know all 12 songs on Greatest Hits.  Every single one.  He’s the kind of performer that easily reaches across generations.  Sure, his style is “old,” but listeners can connect with and relate to what he sings about and the emotion he conveys with both his music and vocals.  Others have surely put out powerful minimal folk rock like this – Nick Drake certainly sticks out in my mind, but no one has done it as consistently well for as long

This version of Greatest Hits is fairly recent – a nice gatefold and some good looking blue translucent vinyl.  The sound quality of the recording is excellent – other than one loud pop at one point, there wasn’t a hint of noise, so if you’re interested in reliving your memories of AM radio in your parents’ car, it’s a fun trip down memory lane.

Pete Bernhard – “Straight Line” (2009)

Pete Bernhard is best known as a member of the folk-punk trio Devil Makes Three, where he is the lead vocalist and also plays both guitar and banjo.  They happen to be one of my favorite bands, and one we’ve seen live probably five or six times over the years.  Their shows are high intensity, both on the stage and in the crowd, and their songs are populated by outcasts and misfits whose stories the band tells in very non-judgemental and matter-of-fact ways.  They’re a slice of modern Americana.

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Bernhard put out a solo album in 2009 called Straight Line, which I believe is only available on CD/digital (no vinyl).  Interestingly, this same album was more or less released independently earlier the same year under the title 8th Ave and Main (also on CD format).  I picked up a copy of the first version, with it’s simple fold-over cardboard sleeve, at a Devil Makes Three show in Seattle that year, and when I compared the track list to Straight Line I saw that the two were identical, with the notable exception of the title track “Straight Line,” which didn’t make the self-released version.

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On Straight Line Bernhard sticks with the themes he’s known for in Devil Makes Three – people trying to make it through life, the lovers and the losers, those living their lives the best they can.  Musically I find the songs on the album more internally consistent that what I’m used to on the Devil Makes Three records, most of the tracks settling into a steady pace that showcases Bernhard’s voice and lyrics.  I won’t lie – there are times that I miss the harmonizing that I’m used to hearing from his bandmates Cooper McBean and Lucia Turino, but these are songs of a slightly different type.  A bit slower, a bit sadder perhaps.  And the single voice creates a level of heightened intimacy that allows Bernhard to connect both with his stories and the listener.

Called up a friend the other day,
Just to see what kind of words he’d say,

He said “I just met a man down here whose girlfriend don’t like you.”

Said, “Well gimme a number and her address,
And I’ll sincerely do my best
To avoid her the next time I’m passin’ through.”
— “Orphan”

So as near as I can tell, the same versions of all nine songs on 8th Ave and Main appear on Straight Line, with the addition of the tenth track, “Straight Line.”  What’s interesting is that particular song, which is also one of the two best on the album (along with “Sugar Cane”), is actually a re-done version of the song “straightline” that appeared on Bernhard’s 2006 solo release Things I Left Behind.  I discovered this by accident – the two versions share the same lyrics and underlying rhythm, though the original version remains slow and minimal throughout while the 2009 version has a quicker pace, especially in the chorus which has a more desperate feel to it.  I’m glad “Straight Line” got re-worked because I prefer the faster tempo version, but it’s still an interesting choice to take an older track, give it an overhaul, and make it the title track on a new album.

Lookin’ back now I always preferred, child,
My enemies to my friends,
It always just seemed logical to have something constant,
On which you could depend.
— “Straight Line”

“Sugar Cane” is the strongest song on Straight Line, with it’s minimal guitar playing and the sticky molasses sweetness of Bernhard’s voice.  It’s a love song, one of love lost but not forgotten, one that carries the feeling of continued longing and hope that one day it will be rekindled.  It’s the perfect song for Bernhard.

Do you ever get lonesome,
With what’s-his-name?
I’ll be back
This way again.

We were burnin’ hotter than the fallen angels that night,
And it was all over by the mornin’ light,
It was bitter like the blues
But it was sweeter than the sugar cane.
— “Sugar Cane”

Bernhard is a tremendous talented lyricist and vocalist.  Straight Line is available on iTunes, and I highly recommend it for anyone into singer-songwriter stuff, country, or folk, so go give the clips a listen and see what you think.

“Fix Og Færdig, Rock Mod Junk” Compilations

Sometimes vinyl buying is a shot in the dark.  This is especially true when you’re in a foreign country and therefore lack your normal smartphone internet access and you’re looking at local albums.  Since you can’t read the language, there’s some guesswork involved.

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And sometimes you guess wrong, like I did with this 1980 Norwegian comp Fix Og Færdig, Rock Mod Junk that I picked up in Oslo a few weeks ago.  I made the right connection that this was part of a “war on drugs” kind of thing, and I also got the year right since the reverse refers to something that happened in October 1979.  But I thought it was probably something kind of punk rock.  The time frame was right, the anti-drug stance was right, the cover seemed right, and there was a band called the Lost Kids… so it all seemed kind of punk rock.  And it’s not.  Not at all.  Really it’s mostly folk type stuff… protest rock probably.  While I don’t have a problem with that kind of music, and I don’t have a problem with songs sung in languages other than English, the combination of the two is a big snoozer for me, which is the reason I have a hard time getting into the Icelandic folk rock master Megas.  It’s music that is trying to deliver a poignant message, and if you don’t speak the lingo it’s just people with guitars.

There’s some decent sounding music on here, but other than Delta Cross Band’s “Look At Me” I wasn’t able to follow along.  Sometimes the vinyl dice come up craps.

Gordon Lightfoot – “Gord’s Gold”

gordonlightfootgordsgoldGordon Lightfoot has one of those weird celebrity careers.  He’s a world-reknown folk musician, one of the all-tme greats of the genre, though it’s a genre that wide swaths of the population don’t know very well.  And as a result, he’s most well known for one song.  “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald.”  A song about  freighter sinking in Lake Superior.  Now, that’s not any attempt to minimize how great a song that is, because that would be dumb; it’s fantastic.  But Lightfoot has a massive body of work that spans five decades.  But he’s still primarily known for one song he wrote in 1976, almost like a musical footnote or a trivia question.

I was pleased to see that Rhino is putting out a re-release of his 1975 greatest hits compilation, the double album Gord’s Gold.  Not only would I get a chance to hear a wider range of his material… but “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald” isn’t even on it to distract me!  Rhino did a great job on the gatefold release, with high quality and clean sounding heavyweight vinyl.  From the first needle drop I knew it was going to be good.

There were a few songs I recognized once I heard them – those AM radio classics you probably remember hearing in your parent’s car, most notably “If You Could Read My Mind” and what I personally think is Lightfoot’s best song, “Sundown.”  This is Gord at his best, singing about hard living people and a hard living world, one that doesn’t bend for anyone.  His guitar playing is top notch, but his voice is the real magic, especially with the warmth this vinyl re-release brings to your speakers.  Your hearing the best quality recordings of one of the all-time greats performing in his prime.

Even if you’re not a folk fan, this one is worth checking out.

“The Folk Box” Vinyl Box Set

There’s something very right about simple music.  Sure, I love hearing grandiose epic songs, or hearing Icelandic metallers Skálmöld play with a full orchestra, and I certainly enjoy the deep electronic complexity of Gusgus.  But the simplicity of one person singing with minimal accompaniment, perhaps just a guitar, or even acappella, that yields the primal, emotional content of the music and artist.  Now, I’ve never been big into folk per say, but I’ve always had a soft spot for acoustic tracks and street buskers.  So when I crossed paths with a copy of Elektra Records’ re-release of The Folk Box it caught my attention even though it wouldn’t normally be the kind of thing I’d take home.  But long story short, I did find myself with copy, and I have to admit after seeing it sitting on the shelves for a few weeks I was looking forward to cracking into it.

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The re-release came out this year, the first time it had been in print in half a century.  Let that sink in for a minute.  This bad boy came out in this form with the same artists and songs 50 YEARS AGO.  They remade the box and huge 40+ page booklet, with the only real change from the original being the inclusion of a 7″ that includes Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing On My Mind” and Judy Collins’ “I’ll Keep It WIth Mine.”  And I have to say I’m massively impressed with the entire package – the heavy box, the wood grain cover, the book… even the records themselves – I’ve never had records come out of their sleeves looking so clean and pristine; all four of them looked absolutely immaculate.

The songs are organized into groups/categories of 10-12 songs each, with each group occupying one of the eight total sides:

  • Side 1 – Songs of the Old World and Migration to the New
  • Side 2 – Settling, Exploring and Growing in the New World
  • Side 3 – Work Songs
  • Side 4 – Many Worshippers, One God
  • Side 5 – Country Music – From Ballads to Bluegrass
  • Side 6 – Nothing But the Blues
  • Side 7 – Of War, Love, and Hope
  • Side 8 – Broadside, Topical Songs, Protest Songs

In looking at the track list on the reverse there weren’t many artists I recognized.  Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Blind Willie Johnson, and Tom Paxton… but that’s probably about it.  And in all honesty I couldn’t have named a song by any of them, so this was going to be a pretty new experience for me.  Surprisingly though, I heard a familiar tune right from the opening chords of “Greensleeves,” I song I immediately recognized but could have never put a name to.  There were a few other familiar songs as well, like “John Brown’s Body” with its chorus of “Glory glory hallelujah…” and the “If I had a hammer” of “The Hammer Song.”

The earliest songs, the work songs, and the blues numbers were by far my favorites, most notably Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” and the whooping and hollering of Sonny Terry’s “Lost John.”  “Kentucky Moonshiner” was another solid number, as were two of the “work” numbers, Horace Sprott’s “Field Holler” and the song “Grizzly Bear,” credited only to “Negro Prisoners,” which is more than a bit sobering.

The later protest songs admittedly didn’t do a lot for me, but that still left a ton of music to enjoy.  With 83 songs (85 if you count the 7″), you’re bound to find a group of them that you like.  My compliments to Jac Holzman for curating this collection back in the 1960s, and to Rhino/Electra for not only re-releasing it, but also for doing such a quality job.  I guarantee I’ll be pulling this one off the shelf from time to time to give it a spin.