Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Squirrel Nut Zippers - Lost At Sea

Written by Fantasma el Rey

Squirrel Nut Zippers return with Lost At Sea, their first release since 2002’s best-of collection. Recorded live in Brooklyn, NY, on December 5th 2008, this is the Zippers’ first live album and contains seventeen tracks that span their clever career.

Going back to 1994, the Zippers have had a sound that is hard to classify, which is a good thing. Bringing together all the elements of 1930s music at its best (jazz, swing, jug band, country, and jump blues), the band blends them together well and creates a signature sound, living hot jazz with Harlem Renaissance-influence. With sizzling guitar, rolling thunder drums, at times aggressive vocals, and a dark sense of humor, the band truly cuts their own notch and stands above some others that got caught in the swing revival of the mid 1990s.

Lost At Sea finds key members of the Zippers, Jimbo Mathus (vocals, guitar, trombone) and Katharine Whalen (vocals, banjo) back in full force. They had put the band aside for a while to pursue solo work and new paths in life. The once-married founding members are now back to cooking and set to burn down more concert halls.

The album is a best-of collection with a live vibe, playing the hits while reaching back through all their albums. From ‘95s The Inevitable we get the rollicking fun of “Good Enough For Grandad” and the seductive “Danny Diamond.”

The majority of the 17 tunes hail from the band’s breakout album Hot. The seven slices of squirrel nuttiness include the big horns and rockin’ late night juke guitar of “Memphis Exorcism,” the hip-shaking “Prince Nez,” the toe-tapping ditty “Bad Businessman” and the sensual Whalen-sung numbers “It Ain’t You” and “Blue Angel.” Of course Lost At Sea wouldn’t be complete with out the punchy “Put A Lid On It” or the demon-driven hit song “Hell.”

Hot’s follow-up, Perennial Favorites, brings the jumpy, social satyr, jazz fun of “Fat Cat Keeps Getting Fatter” and “Suits Are Picking Up The Bill” along with the gypsy-flavored “My Drag.” The standout “Ghost Of Stephen Foster” is an eerie, fast-paced race with a ghostly chorus, spooky clarinet, crashing cymbals, and frenzied horns.

Rounding out Lost At Sea are two tracks from Bedlam Ballroom, the funky, soulful, Texas-guitar romp “Do What” and the Mardi Gras party “Missing Link Parade,” although we are only given an exciting sample on the latter.

Going all the way back to their earliest days, they bring us the quiet “You Are My Radio” with just a guitar and male/female duet. An amusing gem is the country-tinged “Happens All The Time,” which I can’t find on any of the band’s recordings and may be a hint of their rumored forthcoming studio album.

Flooded with the fun and frolic that made them the “hottest band in the hall,” the band is back in top form, ready to re-launch with hard-charging guitars, drums, horns, Mathus’ strong voice and Whalen’s Billie Holiday-inspired vocals. You’ll dance, you’ll sing, you’ll love being Lost At Sea with the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Definitive Vince Guaraldi

Written by Fantasma el Rey

Way back before he met the Peanuts gang pianist Vince Guaraldi was playing fine jazz either as a sideman or leading a trio. Cutting, digging, and jiving his way through the San Francisco scene, turning out platters on the Fantasy label for years. Here now is The Definitive two-disc collection of his finest works from those early days to his ‘60s hits, and of course, the tunes brought him to the masses.

Guaraldi began in the early 1950s as a sideman for vibraphonist Cal Tjader and then for clarinetist Woody Herman before forming his own trio around ’55. With years of side work under his cap and backed by hard-working kats who’d been gigging around like himself, he began his run at jazz stardom. From these years come jams like “Calling Dr. Funk,” which includes some good alto sax by Jerry Dodgion, and the flying “Fascinating Rhythm.” The latter is a fast-paced romp that has the ivories smokin’ while the guitar (Eddie Duran) and bass (Dean Reilly) are on fire as the trio race to the finish; listen to the last piano run, you can hear a bit of the future.

The trio can slow it down to a sleepy stroll with tunes like “Never Never Land” and “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing.” The boys can also swing a bit with the cool “Fenwyck’s Farfel” and the hep grooves laid down on “Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise.”

“Samba De Orfeu” begins a new phase in Vince’s career as he picks up a Latin beat and incorporates samba and bossa nova rhythms into the mix (“Mr. Lucky,” “Corovada,” and “Work Song”). Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete plays on a few tunes that include “Star Song,” “The Days Of Wine And Roses,” “Ginza Samba,” and “The Girl From Ipanema”

Guaraldi scored his biggest hit with 1962’s “Cast Your Fate To The Wind,” the song producer Lee Mendelson heard and kept in mind as he worked with cartoonist Charles Schultz while bringing Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip to television. The connection becomes clear after one listen to songs like “Cast Your Fate” and “El Matador” that this will be the music of the Peanuts gang and become Guaraldi’s signature sound: cheerful piano; plucky bass; and steady, easy-going brush drumming with a slight Latin kick. Overall mellow and cool, yet very playful. Mendelson made the call to Guaraldi and the rest is history.

With all the pieces in place, Guaraldi, a Peanuts fan in his own right, put it all together and gave us the classics we know and love today: the bouncy “Linus And Lucy” and “Skating;” the mellow “Oh, Good Grief;” and the quirky “Charlie Brown Theme.” Let’s not forget the holiday titles that go hand in hand with those original specials, “Thanksgiving Theme,” “Christmas Is Coming,” “Christmas Is Here,” and “The Great Pumpkin Waltz.” The holidays wouldn’t be complete without seeing these specials or hearing these songs somewhere as you shop for gifts or pick up that last-minute can of yams.

So go grab The Definitive Vince Guaraldi because without him and his cheerful piano playing we wouldn’t have those jazzy memories of holidays gone by. And if not for his years of knocking around San Francisco soaking up the sounds, it wouldn’t have all come together and given him the fame he knew he would achieve. It’s too bad a heart attack claimed Guaraldi at 47 before he knew the lasting effect his music would have on the world.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Rosanne Cash - The List

Written by Fantasma el Rey

Rosanne Cash, daughter of the legendary Johnny Cash and a great songwriter herself, is back with her twelfth studio album. It is a treasure of twelve of country music’s most essential recordings given Rosanne’s special touch with her wonderful vocals. The idea for the album came to her while touring for her last album, 2006’s Black Cadillac. Rosanne remembered a key lesson her father taught her about her country roots and thus through Johnny’s wisdom shines The List.

Black Cadillac was Rosanne’s way of expressing the loss she felt over her father, mother Vivian, and stepmother June Carter Cash in the album’s reflective tunes. In concert she told the audience about a time when she was 18 and her father realized her knowledge of country standards was limited. A few hours later Johnny came back with a list of what he titled “100 Essential Country Songs.” Rosanne recalls the list covering a wide range of songs in the country spectrum (including some of his own) from early folk and blues to the more modern sounds of Hank Williams Sr. and rockabilly, right up to what at the time, 1973, was current. She learned them all and came to embrace those songs as a “standard of excellence.” It was a reminder of who she was and where she came from.

In past covers Rosanne has done, including the Beatles’ “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party,” she has always managed to make them her own and nothing has changed here. I have always been swept up in her beauty and her voice; she is the female voice of country I remember most from my youth. Her version of Johnny’s “Tennessee Flat Top Box” would have me smiling and singing along, and my mother would always call me to the television whenever the video came on. Rosanne was probably my first crush. I thought she was the prettiest girl (I loved her black hair and style of dress) with the most beautiful voice; I was smitten, and still am.

From the start, Rosanne’s voice takes center stage with the slow, country waltz of Jimmie Rogers’ classic “Miss The Mississippi And You.” Something in her smooth delivery, timing, and overall soothing voice captures me in a trance, as if I were a child again lost in her voice, and the story she tells is of simply missing someone and someplace. A sad story I can understand.

“Motherless Children” picks up the pace, and we get snapping, solid drum beats by Shawn Pelton, great string picking by John Leventhal (producer and Rosanne’s husband) on guitar, bass, and mandolin while Larry Campbell strokes the fiddle. Rosanne puts more in her vocals here too, digging deeper, getting more soulful and powerful as the band stays steady behind her.

“Sea Of Heartbreak,” which her father covered on his acclaimed Unchained album on American records, finds the first of Rosanne’s friends turning up to help her out. We get The Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen, providing his ragged vocals that actually fit well with Rosanne’s, making this well-done little remake a classic itself. I love the fact that she went slow with the tune as opposed to Johnny’s jumpy, high-energy version. Perfect.

Other guests include Elvis Costello on the Harlan Howard tune “Heartaches By The Number,” Rufus Wainwright on Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings” and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy on “Long Black Veil,” another tune done by Johnny at one time. These sad songs of loss never lack feeling and are done well as the men trade vocals and harmonize with Rosanne wonderfully.

Two songs I looked forward to most were the Hank Cochran/Patsy Cline song “She’s Got You” and a song her father and Bob Dylan did together, one of my all-time favorites “Girl From The North Country.” Rosanne carries both well and makes them new by putting her loving touch on them. On “Girl From The North Country” as well as “Long Black Veil” she doesn’t change the lyrics to reflect a women’s point of view. A bit odd, but she pulls it off as you can picture her singing these songs to herself somewhere like any other women who loves these songs would have done.

Rounding out the album are “500 Miles,” “Take These Chains From My Heart” (Hank Williams), “I’m Moving On” (Hank Snow) and “Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow” (The Carter Family). Rosanne works her magic on all wonderfully, leaving her heart and soul on the recordings she has adored since her youth.

The List is an album her fans will love and have waited for while fans of real country music can appreciate it for the love and care that Rosanne Cash has put into reworking these fine country staples, blending perfectly the traditional with the modern through her band and beautiful voice.