SIGHTS & SOUNDS FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, National Music,   From Issue 716   By: Scott Baker

09th December, 2010     0

After a slow start musically, 2010 wound up being a wonderful year for revisiting old music, hearing comfortable familiar friends and venturing within some new styles from classic artists. Sights and Sounds have gone above and beyond the radar this year to offer up this holiday gift guide for your music fan. Whether your tastes are in downloads or actually holding the physical release, from this past summer to this early winter, great music has returned to the forefront.

Neil Young

Turning out new styles inside an already incredible history includes Neil Young’s Le Noise, an audio trip produced by Daniel Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan, many others) that featured just Young and his acoustic/electric guitar. It sounds like a mountain of men chiseling away like no one else, but is unabashedly pure Neil.  And Young’s lyrics are as real as the day is long….still.

Jazz master Pat Metheny wastes no time between sessions and when it comes to putting his name on the front of the release, you can bet it will be well thought out. Orchestrion finds the guitar genius stretching out in an unimaginable land. Late 19th and early 20th centuries offered a mechanical multi-instrument device that patched together actual orchestral instruments called an ‘Orchestrion.’ Metheny has found a way over many months of trial and error with a team of inventors to combine the instruments with the technology of today. Several pianos, a drum kit, marimbas, percussion, cabinets of tuned bottles (among others) are shuttled through solenoid switches and pneumatics. The result is stunningly original and extraordinary.  And there is no doubt, Metheny is at the forefront. It’s a brilliant listen and one can only hope for a DVD if you can’t make a show.

Another monumental release came from Richard Thompson, one of London’s finest singer/songwriters. On his new release Dream Attic, Thompson went in front of a live audience similar to what the Black Crowes recently did in order to cut his latest tunes. The result is another feather in a cap for a man that has paved the way in folk/rock/acoustic traditions for well over 40 years. The fact that he has pulled out his electric soloing cap is another reason to celebrate. Some of the tracks are incredibly reminiscent of Fairport Convention styles, complete with extended soloing and band vamping that can hardly be touched. Purely Thompson doing what he does best.

Elton John

Also ranking in the ‘how cool is that’ file is the new release from Elton John and Leon Russell. A collaboration of friends, John has given up his pop needs and requirements to live the rest of his life being creative and making the music he wants to…leading him to his mentor and still prolific pianist/vocalist, Russell. The Union, a 14-track collection of piano wrestling and classic lyric imagery helps bond the cement the artists have been paving all these years. Sometimes crunching, others soothing, two pianos are mixed going at it on every song, catching the ear like no other release either has produced before.

A T-Bone Burnett production, the sound and heart of the CD lies in the grooves of the music, much like releases of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Burnett has become a ‘Rick Rubin kind-of, go-to producer’ of sorts lately, showing up two more times in this article for the Sights and Sounds holiday guide. 

An artist who has recently worked with the producer legend is Robert Plant, returning to a style he has encountered as of late. Finding new harmonies in Southern Gospel and gothic orientations, Plant has dug deep for his latest platter. Since the monumental release with Alison Krauss and Burnett a few years back on Raising Sand, Plant wisps with a breadth of wonder on the new Band Of Joy largely in part due to the musical production he shared with Buddy Miller.  A great culmination of Plant’s solo output and style, mixed with his new found southern instrumentation, Band Of Joy is a headphone delight. Miller also worked with Plant on Raising Sand. Patty Griffin serves as a vocal collaborator highlight with Plant on the disc and blends well with him.

As far as Southern Gospel is concerned, John Mellencamp has banked his entire new CD on it along with Burnett behind the wheel once again. No Better Than This was recorded in churches and Sun Studio in Memphis all into just one microphone per song. That is an entire band, gathered around one mic, playing old school style. The mono recording works in spades and Mellencamp embraces acoustic, rock and the roots of his soul, captured like never before. One of the most fun sounding discs in his repertoire, No Better gets better with every listen.

Also heading in a rootsy direction is Elvis Costello on his recent platter National Ransom. Not pulling many punches as his catalog might suggest, Ransom delivers the rock and acoustic mix Costello has been known to jangle with. The 16-track disc is a wonderful listen on headphones, as well as for Costello’s wit. T-Bone Burnett produced the package and it’s another mountain crest for Costello’s high-output release career.

Los Lobos have brought the Tin Can Trust to the turntable. Known for their unique songwriting, reverberated sounds and catchy grooves, Tin Can locks in along with the best of Los Lobos’ catalog. The East L.A. squad who are seemingly endlessly on tour has found the time to create another great collection of songs. A cover of the Grateful Dead’s West L.A. Fadeaway and a killer opening track of Burn It Down (with Susan Tedeschi on background vocals) turn the music out in the best possible way.

Ronnie Wood has stepped away from the Stones for a moment to offer another glimpse behind his psyche. I Feel Like Playing is saturated with wonderful guests (Flea, Slash, Jim Keltner, Billy Gibbons, Eddie Vedder, etc.), but it’s the fact that Wood takes lead vocals on every track that sets it separate from past ventures. Wood rocks out over 12 tracks and let’s himself really have fun with the guests. A brilliant all-star album in a sense that only Woody could pull off. It fits well with his early ‘70s creations.

Big Head Todd and The Monsters have returned Rocksteady, a firm dose of the singer/songwriting ability of vocalist/guitarist Todd Park Mohr. Like many other albums that have flown around this year, it’s no reason why this band is still around after all this time. Putting in Rocksteady is like finding your favorite shirt or coat and having a drink with somebody—stories are told, the path is similar and the band is better than ever. Big Head Todd has the ability to wear many shades of style and this classic blend is meant for repeat listening.

Another band who has returned better than ever is Asia who with their second CD since reuniting the original line-up of bassist/vocalist John Wetton, guitarist Steve Howe, keyboardist Geoff Downes, and drummer Carl Palmer, show there is more than art and progressions in their song blends. Omega could go down as one of the finest releases in the group’s career. Simply more adventurous, yet catchy, Omega is a surprise for fans of prog rock music and the artists’ individual career’s. They somehow maintain their radio friendly ideals, but write more sophisticated tracks. It is truly a CD worth the listen, no matter where you sit on the Asia fence.

Two hard rock bands that have somehow rekindled their legendary sound on record, while creating something better than ever before are the new releases from both Ratt and Iron Maiden. Ratt’s Infestation is equally as incredible as their classic Out Of The Cellar (yes, it’s that good!) while boasting better songwriting. Guitarist Carlos Cavazo (ex-Quiet Riot) joins the band, adding a texture to lead guitarist Warren DiMartini’s already famous tones. Cavazo also helps co-write songs and Infestation has the band sounding and playing better than ever. Stephen Pearcy can still snarl a mean tune. Maiden’s Final Frontier is complete with classic imagery and the glorious galloping sound the band has been known for. The sound that producer Kevin Shirley gets out of the band is outstanding as vocalist Bruce Dickinson still sounds timeless.  Recorded live in the studio, the band has hit a stride once again with performance and history. The CD takes on more of a concept album feel and unwinds like a brilliant novel.

Chicago blues rock favorites Steepwater are back at it again. They have just released Live At The Double Door and showcases why they are one of the hardest working bands on the road right now. The trio lives up to a high standard with guitarist/vocalist Jeff Massey, bassist Tod Bowers, and drummer Joe Winters swinging for the fences as an impeccable unit. The band has found their way into many national concerts over the last few years, putting their name on a higher pedestal as they continue to grow their fan base. Watch for a new album from them in 2011.

Janes Addiction has had a roller coaster career. The influential quartet reunited for a tour in 2009 for the first time with original bassist Eric Avery. The electrifying results have been pressed in a DVD/Blu Ray and named Live Voodoo. It’s no surprise to hear ‘Up The Beach,’ ‘Mountain Song,’ ‘Been Caught Stealing’  and ‘Ocean Size’ by any member of the band, but it turns exotic and cathartic to hear it the way the original four meant it to sound. ‘Jane Says’ is spectacular with a percussion-based layout as the New Orleans audience visibly takes in one of the most unique shows and best parties they’ve ever had tickets for.

Bad Religion

Punk fans will dig into the new Bad Religion CD, The Dissent Of Man. Totally upbeat and just as crushing lyrically as ever, time has been friendly to the group. Songwriting is still job one and Greg Graffin’s vocals now have a little more age in them—which only sparks even more reality into his reality/insightful lyrics. The band can still stop on a dime and find interesting chords to fill the air, motivating the disc in many different directions. Drummer Brooks Wackerman maintains a groove with the best out there. A nod to Tom Petty’s longtime guitarist Mike Campbell for his slide soloing on Cyanide—Bad Religion is in the ranks of the greats and obviously everyone wants to take part.

Two unique blues/folk/gospel releases have caught the Sights and Sounds ears once again. Mavis StaplesYou Are Not Alone and Mike Farris & The Cumberland Saints (former Screaming Cheetah Wheelie vocalist) The Night The Cumberland Came Alive both boast moods taking them to satellite radio and NPR in recognition. Staples recent surge of releases has sprouted many fans to come out of the woodwork for the former Staples Singers front woman. Jeff Tweedy of Wilco produced her new effort in Chicago at Wilco’s recording loft and the results are nothing short of stunning. Tweedy scoured some of her Staples Singers back catalog tracks and tossed in a few new ones as well. The 13-track disc is steeped in tradition with a modern story-telling groove. You can’t but help be moved by the songs and the arrangements and Staples sounds as fresh as ever. Farris’ release is yet another downtown live stomp with a portion of his proceeds going to the flood relief efforts in Nashville. The vocalist has always been able to bring the listener along with him and his edgy vocals pour emotional soul and rock the house like few can. A great listen with a fervent vibe.

2010 also is marked as the year The Doors story and many unreleased footage clips have finally emerged in a new collection. When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors on DVD and Blu Ray captured the spirit correctly and emotionally for fans of the band and the late Jim Morrison.  Narrated by Johnny Depp and filtered through the direction of Tom DiCillo, every stop along the path from their debut (’66) to Morrison’s death (’71) is captured and explained in live concert footage and unreleased studio film that has long needed to see the light of day. Bonus footage includes an interview with Morrison’s sister and the first ever recorded thoughts from Morrison’s father, who has until now, never done interviews about his son. Mindful and breathtaking, it’s as great as it is rewarding to see how The Doors unwound into the world’s musical psyche.

Rolling Stones

It’s also been an exciting year for Rolling Stones fans as the legendary album Exile On Main Street vaults have opened with the remastered CD and bonus disc of never-before heard tracks, The Stones in Exile DVD/Blu Ray, and the hip-shaking live concert just released, Ladies and Gentlemen The Rolling Stones. Ladies and Gentlemen is a 1972 concert of the band on the Exile tour and sounds just as rocking as it must have live back then. Filmed in Texas, the Stones with Mick Taylor on lead guitar pairing off with Keith Richards, find a groove in their ‘at-the-time’ new material. For some fans, the band was in their prime and this live concert is the ideal target argument for that. Slamming versions of ‘Bitch,’ ‘Happy,’ ‘Sweet Virginia,’ ‘Rip This Joint,’ and the usual cavalcade of big hits grace this collection.

Frank Zappa’s famous 1982 Halloween concert has finally made it to DVD. The Torture Never Stops has found the light of day this fall, giving life again to the MTV-aired concert from New York filmed live at The Palladium. In full direction of a great band (as usual!), Zappa parades through some of his best work like ‘Black Napkins,’ ‘Montana,’ ‘Harder Than Your Husband,’ ‘You Are What You Is,’ ‘The Illinois Enema Bandit,’ among many others. A young guitarist by the name of Steve Vai makes one of his earliest appearances on the DVD and the band is at a fun, yet creative peak. 

Rush have released one of the finest gems in their career—especially for long time fans with Beyond The Lighted Stage. One of the most comprehensive views of any rock career on video, the footage contains interviews, old photos and video footage from each of the three member’s families and interviews with the group from then to now. Beyond The Lighted Stage let’s you into the life of each member of the Canadian trio in a way no other band has allowed. Original drummer John Rutsey even gets his long deserved mark in the band’s fame chain, with live footage of some of the earliest shows and interviews now on the making of the group’s legend. Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson even venture back to their high school now and tie together their past with their present. One of the finest documentaries to ever be released, this is a must see.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have gone back and revisited Damn The Torpedoes under Eagle Rock’s Classic Albums DVD/Blu Ray releases. Interviews with Petty, keyboardist Benmont Tench, guitarist Mike Campbell, bassist Ron Blair, and original producer and engineer Jimmy Iovine and Shelly Yakus take fans of the album into the depths and terms of how the masterpiece was developed. Footage from the era, track break downs, alternate listens, and surprise guest appearances are all unveiled. Another monumental release in the Classic Albums chain of great recollections, Damn The Torpedoes unlocks how magic was developed in the band for many great albums to come.

Marking a seasonal release is Shelby Lynne, who earlier this year also released the brilliant Tears, Lies, and Alibis. The Grammy award-winning vocalist has been hitting her stride lately and this year has been a good one. Tears, Lies, and Alibis is one of the strongest singer/songwriter CD’s in the past five years. Lynn gets downright groovy and swinging on tracks such as ‘Why Didn’t You Call Me,’ ‘Like A Fool,’ ‘Loser Dreamer,’ and ‘Home Sweet Home.’ At times she can break your heart and others, make you laugh. Lynn is in a league of her own. Surprising fans with the release of Merry Christmas this fall, Lynn continues to interpret and design music on her own terms. Now on her own label (for both records--Everso), Lynn has been producing everything she has been wanting to…and more is to come. Nine standards and excellent originals—‘Ain’t Nothin’ Like Christmas’ and ‘Xmas,’ complete a holiday package for the artist that has crossed genera’s between country, folk, acoustic, and rock, putting her in the realm that many artists wish they could maintain: a lengthy career with many highlights.

Enjoy the season and Sights and Sounds will return next year with more monumental releases you need to search out.

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