Thursday, 21 September 2017

Yusuf/Cat Stevens - The Laughing Apple, album review

Resonance of What Once Was

I have always liked Cat Stevens and I like this in both its revisiting of his earliest work and in his renaming himself as Cat Stevens alongside Yusuf. I stress that the renaming is no kind of alteration or rejection or whatever – it would seem to be a simple acknowledgement of himself as a composite character, proudly the whole of who he was and is.

When an album like this is released I do like to check out a few reviews. What I have just read seem generally positive. There are those which focus on the obvious echo of early Cat Stevens, and the simplicity of that then and now, and those necessarily doing the same though being more positive about this, mentioning the gruffer but still signature vocal and a mature presentations of songs from his first two albums as well as some new.

I veer to the latter, though both are fine. The lyrical preoccupations are as simple and naïve as ever – they are of their time after all – but what is inescapable as a listener is the gulf that exists between that childlike optimism of the late 60s/early 70s, from folk and other performers and their listeners, and the dismal reality of that optimism’s failure to be realised over this time.

But there is no harm in reasserting the positive innocence of that thinking. There are plenty of candid alternatives. Any album with the song Mary and the Little Lamb about cuddling and loving is clearly still pushing the sweet and the probably twee, but it is a naivety that doesn’t grate – not for me anyway – because it is carried on the historical weight, light as it is, of the musical comfort zone which is classic Cat Stevens. More than nostalgia, it is still full of this. And if this is two sentences of rather obvious contradiction, I think that is the enduring appeal, because my harder side wants to deny the pretty simplicities but being hopeful is attractive still.

The one 'darker' tracks is opener Blackness of the Night which is from 1967 and the New Masters album. But even this is framed within the context of being about a soldier who is ruing what he has become/done, so it exists within that 60s 'peace protest' outlook. I mention because one review I read this morning appeared to appropriate its meaning as a reflection of an older Yusuf/Cat Stevens, but I don't think you can drag out that notion from its original context.

One of the sweetest songs is the last one, I’m So Sleepy, also from his 1967 album New Masters. It is the quintessence of him gloriously sung with overdubbed harmony, a resonance of asserted belief in what once was.

Into the Distance Music 59

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Al Di Meola - Morocco Fantasia, album review

Live Then Recent Now

This is a recent release of a 2011 DVD of a 2009 live concert at Mawazine Festival in Rabat, Morocco. It features: Al Di Meola (guitar), Peo Alfonsi (2nd guitar), Fausto Beccalossie (accordion), Gumbo Ortiz (percussion), Victor Miranda (bass), Peter Kaszas (drums), and with special guests from Morocco, Said Chraibi (oud), Abdellah Meri (violin) and Tari Ben Ali (percussion).

It is stunning. The interplay in particular between Meola’s guitar and Beccalossie’s accordion is mesmerising, but the whole is glorious. It really is as simple as this.

Legs Music 23

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Willie Watson - Folksinger Vol. 2, album review

Energy and Sympathy

Former Old Grow Medicine Show member Willie Watson with banjo and guitar and Dave Rawlings on production goes nearly solo on a wonderful set of traditional songs, his vocal a warbling high tenor of energy.

John Henry, for example, is simply banjo and voice and pace; Leavin’ Blues is a guitar-picked gem where that voice soars at such a height your body rises with it, right above the lament: I got holes in my pocket mama sung with infectious rise and fall.

Opener Samson and Delilah has The Fairfield Four adding gospel harmonies to the delightful mix [accompanying wonderfully on two more]; second Gallows Pole is guitar and harmonica and darkness, a backing orchestration joining in, and eighth Ry Cooder’s Always Lift Him Up and Never Knock Him Down gets a beautiful cover, sweet flutes in sympathy. There is so much more of all of this and it is superb.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Michael McDonald - Wide Open, album review

Storm Surge

I’ve always liked Michael McDonald, from his Doobie Brothers days to more recent Motown covers, his jet-fuelled but also soulful voice a genuinely unique sound – that power alienating it would seem some in the history of his offerings, perhaps especially his duets that perpetuate pop musical melodrama, though I like all of this too.

I’ve been listening to his Motown covers quite a bit lately, much from live recordings on YouTube, and he has the capacity to take famous, favourite originals and give them that personal stamp which easily compares. That's quite significant.

This new album of original material is more of the dynamic same, and he has excellent accompaniment from the likes of Marcus Miller, Branford Marsalis, Warren Haynes and Robben Ford - horns and strings here and there as well. Opener Hail Mary has wife Amy Holland adding vocal harmonies and is an organ puffing, horn-dressed groove of a song. Followed by Just Strong Enough, the slow blues ballad timed by the every-8-beats snap of a drum-stick on the side, builds its instrumental accompaniment with guitar licks, horns and strings in an emotive rise to always try and match the innate pleading in McDonald’s vocal. They do meet up about five minutes into the nearly eight minutes whole, and it is now an orchestration of musical soap-opera, and I like this too.

Find it in Your Heart introduces the album’s first soft funk, leading to the vocal harmonising of sweet and rough that is his trademark, over-dubs layering. Half Truth has a bluesy harmonica with acoustic and slide guitars start, and then morphs into a heavier-set brood of a song. There is a mid-section of AOR and AOB [the B for Ballads] which is absolutely fine though not cracking open any safes, and then Blessing in Disguise is a vehicle for Marsalis and echoes of John Martyn Piece by Piece era.

Too Short is the penultimate track out of twelve at around 70 minutes and is a potent percussive and horn-hottish funk number. The album closes on Free a Man, written by Richard Stekol, and is the most wordy, and I haven’t been able to follow is all that well in its earnestness, but the opening line Say what you want about the gays, but the one thing they’re not, is afraid as a part of a declarative on the freedom of sexuality, gender and race is righteous enough if a little naff in its simplistic portraiture. This is a song that seems to get panned in what reviews I have read – not necessarily for the lyrics – but I like it for the intensity of its musical closing, a mix of Blood Sweat and Tears and Manfred Mann Chapter III with the horns, the wild sax, the electronic swirls and the guitar solo which is a jazzrockprog storm surge.

Vocal storm surge meets another: Does the sound of my voice still carry? Yes it does Michael. A fine album.