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album reviews

The Grateful Dead

Skeletons from the Closet: The Best of Grateful Dead

The Dead pretend they're a singles band in this collection of their best-known shorter tracks. The cumulative results are distinguished, not by profundity or virtuosity, but by a characteristic pleasantness. The album boasts attractive melodies and supple rhythmic patterns. But the anthology also exposes some ongoing weaknesses: dull recorded sound, thin instrumental arrangements, frail vocals (except for Bob Weir's occasional leads) and, more generally, music consistently without s... | More »

Van Morrison

It's Too Late To Stop Now Warner Bros.

Like the white middle class it entertains, rock music exhibits a certain rootlessness, a lack of a living history. This is rock's greatest asset — it is spontaneous and free, contemporary and temporary — but it can also be a liability. The ever-recurrent rock revivals and our fondness for golden oldies express the absence of a past, the very word "revival" indicating that the past is dead. Many artists are exploring that past, but the then and the now are so disjunct that mor... | More »

April 11, 1974

Etta James

Etta James [Platinum Disc]

Though the album was recorded in Hollywood, Gabriel Mekler's production of one of the great soul singers sounds as though it were made in Muscle Shoals, circa 1966 — the sight of great past sessions. Etta James socks home nine bitter songs in an unadorned gospel voice, backed by brass, strings and vocals that never detract from the main event — the phenomenon of James herself, an expressive vocalist without bogus pop pretensions. Of special interest: three Randy Newman songs ... | More »

Aretha Franklin

Let Me in Your Life

Aretha Franklin's Let Me in Your Life is one of the few recent R&B albums that places the emphasis entirely and deservedly on a voice. Many R&B producers have been making records on which the singer is outshined by the song, the arrangement and the sound. Treating the vocal as just another band on a 16-track tape, they sometimes prefer unobtrusive singing that highlights their production effects rather than strong personal singing that might deflect attention from it. Atlantic&... | More »

Muddy Waters

Can't Get No Grindin' Chess

Muddy Waters has caught up to his legend and made an album of straight Chicago blues, sounding as fiery and nasty as he managed to 20 years ago. His unjustly ignored guitar acts as a fine counterpoint to the lyrics, as well as providing extra energy in its own right. "Mother's Bad Luck Child" and "Garbage Man" are the best developed songs but there are good rockin' instrumentals, "After Hours" and the classic "Muddy Waters Shuffle," as well. The album's title tune and the deriv... | More »

March 28, 1974

Lou Reed

Rock 'N' Roll Animal

This is a record to be played loud. Like a Formula One car, it doesn't really begin to perform until it's pushed close to the limit. As background music it isn't much, but powered up on a strong system loud enough to make enemies a quarter-mile away, Rock n Roll Animal — recorded live at Lou Reed's Academy of Music concert December 21st — is, well, very fine. Making enemies is all tied up with Lou Reed, anyway. I first heard Reed when he was part of the Velvet... | More »

March 14, 1974

Willie Nelson

Phases and Stages

Willie Nelson has written some of the most chilling, bluntly honest portrayals of the anguish of separation and the shock of finding oneself suddenly alone. With his second Atlantic album, Nelson attempts one of the most ambitious country projects ever: a concept album on the subject of breaking up. Ordinarily, concept albums strike me as pretentious bores (someone will call this one "the Sgt. Pepper of C&W," "the shitkicker's Tommy"), but I find Phases And Stages extraordinarily con... | More »

Rick Nelson

Windfall

Over his last three albums, Rick Nelson has attained the heights of creativity which even the excellence of his early work never prepared us for. In the year or so since Garden Party, anticipation among his audience has run high. And now, Windfall fulfills most expectations, but with a few surprises. Nelson seems to be fronting an all-new Stone Canyon Band; the sound, though, is none the worse for the changes. The big shocker is in the songs themselves. After building his stature as a songwr... | More »

Billy Joel

Piano Man Columbia

Billy Joel's music has suffered in comparison to better establisled acts. His group Hassles were a Vanilla Fudge/Rascals spinoff, his work with Attila was bettered by Lee Michaels, and his only semi-hit was a bit of pop schlock. Recent gigs at a piano bar on the seamy side of L.A. have given him a new perspective and his Piano Man reflects a new seriousness and musical flexibility. Its production is reminiscent of Elton John's, and his music has the show-tune ambience of David Ackle... | More »

February 28, 1974

Joni Mitchell

Court And Spark Asylum

On first listening, Joni Mitchell's Court And Spark, the first truly great pop album of 1974, sounds surprisingly light; by the third or fourth listening, it reveals its underlying tensions. The lyrics lead us through concentric circles that define an almost Zen-like dilemma: The freer the writer becomes, the more unhappy she finds herself; the more she surrenders her freedom, the less willing she is to accept the resulting compromise. Joni Mitchell seems destined to remain in a state of... | More »

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Song Stories

“Stillness Is the Move”

Dirty Projectors | 2009

A Wim Wenders film and a rapper inspired the Dirty Projectors duo David Longstreth and Amber Coffmanto write "sort of a love song." "We rented the movie Wings of Desire from Dave's brother's recommendation, and he had me go through it and just write down some things that I found interesting, and they made it into the song," Coffman said. As for the hip-hop connection, Longstreth explained, "The beat is based on T-Pain. We commissioned a radio mix of the song by the guy who mixes all of Timbaland's records, but the mix we made sounded way better, so we didn't use it."

More Song Stories entries »
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