May 212024
 

Long Distance LoveWell, how about that! On the same day as a still-going Little Feat put out a blues cover album, Sam’s Place (review incoming), so too choose Sweet Relief to put out Long Distance Love, a star-studded charity tribute to their late founder and lynchpin, Lowell George. Star-studded? Well, let’s say the likes of Elvis Costello, Dave Alvin and Ben Harper are all present and accounted for, with George’s own daughter, Inara George, also putting in an appearance.

Lowell George was a slide guitar maestro, a singer/songwriter with a penchant for complex swampland boogie, polyrhythmic shuffles to delight both brain and bootheels. He formed Little Feat back in 1969, after a short spell with Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. A set of well-received albums followed, until 1979, when George (a) dissolved the band, (b) released his solo album Thanks, I’ll Eat It Here, and (c) died of a massive heart attack at the age of 34. It took eight years before the relicts of what had assuredly been his band reconvened, and they remain a vital presence, with George’s songs still the ones the fans mainly come to hear. These are the songs that return to the spotlight on Long Distance Love, and the four and a half decades since Lowell’s voice was stilled have done nothing to dampen their vibe.
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May 172024
 

Talking Heads TributeThe quote attributed to Brian Eno about the Velvet Underground’s first album inspiring everyone who bought it to form a band applies differently to Talking Heads. If you were already starting your band in your parents’ garage or the art school lounge, surrounded (in either case) by the fog of weed, you would surely dream about being Talking Heads.

During a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career, Talking Heads retained and maintained artistic integrity, but sold enough records to establish and keep themselves in the public consciousness and charts. We can all name their biggest songs. They got to work with the business’s best, including Eno and Lee “Scratch” Perry, and create critically acclaimed masterpieces. If you needed to draft in legends from Funkadelic or Nigerian music to get the sound right, you could.

It was not all work. There was the opportunity to hang out, and get high with, the coolest people in the world. Mick Jagger might have been a little too high to interact fully with, but Sid Vicious was unexpectedly sympathetic, and John Martyn was expectedly an asshole. At least you knew personally. Later on, cool young people would be desperate to hang out with you. If you are Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth you would get to do all this with your soulmate and the love of your life. (All of this is well documented in Frantz’s memoir Remain in Love. Recommended.)

The lead singer might be a little, shall we say, self-absorbed. Of course, for an average band, between a third and a fifth of you are planning to be the lead singer, so you would regard your behaviour as an acceptable price for accommodating your genius. The rest of you, as talented and driven as you are, might have to suck it up a little. Your Wikipedia entry is much shorter than that of the lead. You can contemplate the injustice of it all as you take your ocean-going yacht down to your Bahamas holiday home and studio.

You can have side projects when the band is on hiatus. This might allow you to participate in an Oscar-winning soundtrack, or produce your biggest-ever hit records. You can be sought-after producers, further increasing your time in the Caribbean and your musical legacy. And at a certain point in your career you make the greatest concert movie of all time.

Stop Making Sense, directed by Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme, was released in 1984 when the band was at its creative, harmonious best. It is a work of art on several fronts, from the curation of the music from an emerging chrysalis to barnstorming romps, to the building of the set and band. It featured the iconic and meme-worthy “big suit,” which cemented the recording and band in the public consciousness. Forty years after its release, the film company A24 has polished up Stop Making Sense for a new generation, and now they’re celebrating further with the release of a new tribute album, Everybody’s Getting Involved. The range of moods, genres and languages on the album are a real testament to the influence that Talking Heads have.
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Apr 192024
 

The Power of the Heart: A Tribute to Lou ReedLou Reed was quite the fella. Initially a proto-Brill Building popsmith for Pickwick Records, he morphed into a leather and shades VU biker and glam-rock trans offender. And FX metal feedback noisenik, and elder statesman socio-political commentator, before closing his recording career with a soundtrack for meditation and mindfulness. Indeed, just about anything and everything, for nearly five decades, all while being a notoriously spiky literary curmudgeon, bane of any journalist trying to capture his essence. It took music, not words, to do that, and with The Power of the Heart: A Tribute to Lou Reed, it’s officially been done.
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Apr 122024
 

The Tompkins Square Records label is best known for their allegiance to folk, country, blues and gospel, usually through the application of acoustic guitar, with or without voice. As such, they have developed a name for promoting so-called American Primitive guitar styles. That’s always a misnomer, given the skills of the artist concerned. but the label has stuck and here we are. Amongst names grateful to get a Tompkins Square leg-up are Michael Chapman, Ryley Walker, James Elkington and Nathan Salsburg, classic and classy players all.

The Imaginational Anthems series has covered a lot of good ground lately. Volume XI was an exploration of modern pedal steel; Vol. XII included a tribute to Michael Chapman. Now we have Imaginational Anthem vol. XIII : Songs of Bruce Cockburn, a tribute to the work of a Canadian artist unduly overlooked in favor of his better known compatriots. A very lazy descriptor might be the Canadian Richard Thompson, given his agility with a six-string and teasingly lyrical wordplay, but Cockburn’s dreamy soundscapes pack an altogether different spiritual punch.

Here, a selection of Tompkins Square stalwarts offer their take on him and his songs. I guess it is his playing that gets the most attention, but there are vocal tracks as well. Curated by James Toth, who has recruited a squad of lesser known names, this works well as a primer for all, or most, those contributing, as much as it does an introduction, if unfamiliar, to Cockburn. And if you do know him, better still.
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Feb 212024
 

Nouvelle Vague is back with a new collection titled Should I Stay or Should I Go? I’m going to hesitate in answering that question, as there is the one more demanding, about how this lot are still going. No offense intended, mind; back in the day, Nouvelle Vague’s bossa nova revisiting of punk and new wave songs was really something to behold, with both the novelty and the application well worthy of praise and merit. But now? I know a version has been touring, but I hadn’t appreciated they were still marketing something new, or, more to the point, new to them. So, is this a soft sophisticated samba swirl through the song cycles of Eilish and Swift, Sheeran and whoever else the young people adore? Ummmm, nope. This is a further trawl through the hallowed dusty halls of the last century. Or, more to the point, hoping the audiences who loved them near two decades ago will still love them now, and are still listening to their tired old record collections.

I needed to check out the rationale, hastening to the requisite website. The fact that one of the originators, Olivier Libaux, is now the late Olivier Libaux should be enough confirm him spinning gently, counterclockwise, in his grave. I am presuming his then co-conspirator Marc Collin is still at the helm, as the agenda is seemingly unchanged, setting up a set of chanteuses unfamiliar with the originals, ironically perhaps all the more available as time flits by. So why does it seem now to, largely, pall, where it once delighted? Follow me…..
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Feb 142024
 

(hangs head) How did I not hear of this? How did Billy Valentine and the Universal Truth, a slice of prime r’n’b/jazz–acid jazz if you must–slip under the Cover Me radar last year? Alerted by the end-of-year lists of others, a quick shufti confirmed this demanded our attention. And it comes with quite an impressive back story to boot.

There are two Billy Valentines. There’s the 98-year-old blues and r’n’b man, William A. Valentine, and there’s 73-year-old who was one of the Valentine Brothers, r’n’b hitmakers of the 1970s into ’80s, best known for “Money Too Tight (To Mention),” to be later catapulted into ubiquity by Simply Red. (Their version is better…) This is the latter of the Valentines, however much I secretly hoped it the former.

After the brush with fame offered by “MTT(TM),” with their own version sinking under the lack of promotion capable of their then-tiny independent label, Valentine took on work with Bob Thiele Jr., as a writer for hire. Thiele Sr. was the boss of Impulse Records, when their roster covered acts such as Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane; later her served as the boss of Flying Dutchman Records, which had championed Gil Scott-Heron. Valentine and Thiele Jr. sold songs all over, ahead of some later traction of soundtracks: Valentine was one of the featured singers for The Sons Of Anarchy series, with a number of featured cameos. Come 2020, with Thiele Sr. deceased, his son felt it as good a time as any to revive the Flying Dutchman imprint, as part of the Acid Jazz family. Valentine was his first signing.

Taking a while to gather together the right combination of material and musician, Billy Valentine and the the Universal Truth dropped last March. It features eight songs drawn from the more militant factions of black music, or at least songs that reflect on that. There is some Gil Scott-Heron, some Curtis Mayfield and Pharaoh Sanders, with Stevie Wonder and Prince in there for good measure. Musicians include the likes of Immanuel Wilkins, Alex Acuña, Jeff Parker and Pino Palladino, so the album is class personified. Let’s play it!
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