Posts Tagged ‘Essentials’

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

It’s easy to dismiss Hank Williams Jr. as a reactionary clown due to the conservative canards he long ago embraced, and a wide swath of America has done just that. At best, in their eyes, he’s the cartoonish buffoon who sings the Monday Night Football theme. At worst, they don’t think of him at all. Hank Who?

Which is a shame. From the landmark Hank Williams Jr. & Friends LP in 1975, when he embraced the outlaw ethos, through his last truly great album, Lone Wolf in 1990, he released a string of solid-to-stellar studio albums along with a truly stupendous live set, 1987’s Hank Live, and not one, not two, but three best-of collections. He was, as he brags in the live version of “My Name Is Bocephus,” the “platinum boy that does the rock ’n’ roll-country-blues.”

Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound, released in November 1979, rates among his greatest works. Remember that the Iranian Revolution early in the year caused the price of oil to soar, which upended the economy as a whole. Auto sales plummeted, and inflation – which had been a scourge on working people for most of the decade – ratcheted past 10 percent. It was, for many, a bleak time.

As a result, as a whole, the album’s mostly downbeat. The title tune, for instance, tells of a life on the road, and the guilt that comes from a booze-fueled attempt to remedy loneliness. Like many a country song, in other words, it’s about cheating. The woozy rhythm accentuates the lyrics, which find the narrator begging for certain jukebox standards – including one by Hank Sr. – not to be played, lest he be reminded of his failing.

“Tired of Being Johnny B. Good,” the second track, reflects the era’s anger to a T. (In some ways, to share an observation from my wife, it’s a Tea Party anthem from a pre-Tea Party time. I’d only say that the lyrics are actually democratic – note the lower-case “d.”)

“Outlaw Women”…well, what can be said about this other than it’s a classic? Here’s a great version from 2004, with Hank joined by Gretchen Wilson.

Another high point: Hank’s bluesy take on the Allman Brothers’ “Come and Go Blues.”

The album ends with Hank Jr. and Waylon Jennings joining forces for “The Conversation,” in which they trade stories about Hank’s famous dad. Here’s the two of them from sometimes in the early ‘80s…

Say what you will about Hank’s politics (which are pretty much diametrically opposite of mine), but don’t let his outspoken stances get in the way of what is a damn good set of songs. Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound is one of the touchstone albums in my life, in fact. It’s outlaw country at its best.

Side One:

  1. Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound
  2. Tired of Being Johnny B. Good
  3. Outlaw Women
  4. (I Don’t Have) Anymore Love Songs
  5. White Lightnin’

Side Two:

  1. Women I’ve Never Had
  2. O.D.’d in Denver
  3. Come and Go Blues
  4. Old Nashville Cowboy
  5. The Conversation

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

As I write, it’s a gray, damp May morning in the Delaware Valley. And while the Earth’s revolutions around the sun push us, ever-so-slowly, into a soggy afternoon, I’m spinning back into the past – to one of my favorite years, 1985.

On the very first day of the first post-Orwellian year, a new channel named VH1 debuted on many cable systems across the nation, including mine. Its name was short for Video Hits One, and it aired music videos. And only music videos. But unlike its sibling channel MTV, its focus was less on the hot pop and rock hits of the day, and more on adult fare. Like jazz, soul, adult contemporary and even some country.

College, work, and life kept me busy. I was 19, attending the commuter-college paradise that was Penn State Ogontz (now Penn State Abington), and working as many hours as possible as a sales associate at a department store at the Willow Grove Mall. What free time I had was mostly music-centered – LPs, stereo, headphones, music magazines. But one day that late spring or summer, and I can’t remember when, I clicked onto VH1 – and was greeted by this video:

I bought the corresponding LP, Rhythm & Romance, not long thereafter, on July 17th, and was instantly smitten with the album as a whole. It marries the SoCal rock aesthetic, updated for the ‘80s, with a country heart. The opening track, “Hold On,” features a taut guitar solo. 

The third song was a Benmont Tench-Tom Petty song, “Never Be You,” that Maria McKee first sang on the Streets of Fire soundtrack the year before…though I didn’t learn that for quite some time. (This was pre-Internet, remember. Not all factoids were a mouse click away.) 

Other highlights include “Second to No One.” I never saw the video before now, and must say that it’s quite stunning.

Also: “Halfway House,” which include these truly insightful lyrics: “We’re all in the halfway house/Or so it sometimes seems/Trying to find the truth inside/Instead of getting by on dreams.”

“Never Gonna Hurt,” another favorite, is as spiky as Rosanne’s hair on the cover – it sounds like a lost Jam classic.

Actually – see the track list below? Those are the highlights. All 10 songs. Rhythm & Romance is one of those albums best listened to from start to finish.

A few years back, Rolling Stone published an excellent salute to the album in honor of its 30th anniversary. It included this surprising bon mot from Rosanne’s memoir, Composed: “I still cannot stand to listen to Rhythm & Romance,” especially the “sophomoric, navel-gazing songs.” It just goes to show that, sometimes, the artist is wrong. To my ears, Rhythm & Romance is a classic.

In the year since it was released, of course, Rosanne has released a string of good, great and equally essential albums; and Diane and I have seen her in concert many times. But whenever I hear or think of her, I can’t help but to think of this album.

Side One:

  1. Hold On
  2. I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me
  3. Never Be You
  4. Second to No One
  5. Halfway House

Side Two:

  1. Pink Bedroom
  2. Never Alone
  3. My Old Man
  4. Never Gonna Hurt
  5. Closing Time

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Following the success of the Harvest album and “Heart of Gold” single in 1972, Neil seemed sure to ascend to superstardom then and there. But, for reasons I partially covered on ROXY: Tonight’s the Night Live, it wasn’t to be – just yet. The self-mythologizing Journey Through the Past movie and soundtrack in late ‘72, and the ramshackle arena tour that followed in early ’73, left the MOR fans he’d just won over scratching their heads. And after those same fans plopped the rough-around-the-edges Time Fades Away LP, released on October 15, 1973, on their turntables? They probably didn’t buy another Neil album until he released the polished Harvest Moon some 20 years later, if at all.

Their loss.

Time Fades Away features eight “new” songs, and is relatively short at 35 minutes. (I put new in quotes because, although seven songs are drawn from the ’73 tour, “Love in Mind” dates to early ’71.) While the album lacks the polished sheen, and practiced precision, of Harvest, it packs a punch that, in some respects, is more powerful. It’s his primal-scream moment. It’s raw, ragged, and emotive. What else can be said about “Yonder Stands the Sinner” and the apocalyptic-themed “L.A.”?

Or the potent “Don’t Be Denied?”

Another high point: the nostalgic “Journey Through the Past.”

Both rate among his greatest songs – and among his most unknown. One reason: Most of the million-plus folks who bought the LP, cassette or 8-track tape in the early ‘70s likely listened to it once, maybe twice, and then moved on. It was too raw, too ragged. Another: His memories of the tour colored his opinion of the music. He didn’t include any TFA material on the Decade anthology, for example. And, after the music industry transitioned to shiny platters in the 1980s, he refused to reissue it on CD until 2017, when compact discs were all but anachronisms – and then only as part of a box set with Tonight’s the Night, On the Beach and Zuma.

No matter. It’s a great set. Shaky? Yes. If you go back to ’73, the odds seemed stacked against him – unknown songs performed in front of large audiences that would rather hear the known, and a backing band that’s not hitting on all cylinders. He pushes himself to the edge, time and again, and never falls into the abyss. It’s powerful stuff.

Anyway, I bought it on cassette about a decade after its release, on November 14, 1983, when I was a freshman in college. I played it to death that winter, and for the next few years. I even played “Journey Through the Past” on my old radio show, as the station had the LP in its massive library. Life being what it is, and like many other music fans, I eventually moved from analog to the aforementioned shiny platters. (It helped that I worked in a CD store for a time, and got an employee discount. My collection grew, and grew, and grew.) Fast forward a few decades and, perhaps as a Christmas gift to devoted fans, in late 2014 Neil released the album as a high-resolution FLAC download on his Pono store. While I haven’t played it to death in the years since – as my blog shows, I have a myriad of music interests – I’ve played it a lot.

It’s an essential. (And it’s also available to be streamed over at the Neil Young Archives.)

Side 1: 

  1. Time Fades Away
  2. Journey Through the Past
  3. Yonder Stands the Sinner
  4. L.A.
  5. Love in Mind

Side 2:

  1. Don’t Be Denied
  2. The Bridge
  3. Last Dance

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

It seems like yesterday, but it was long ago: As 1980 dawned, I was 14 and finishing my final year at Keith Valley Middle School, which housed the 8th and 9th grades in the suburban Philadelphia school district of Hatboro-Horsham. By year’s end, I was 15 and a newly minted sophomore at the Hatboro-Horsham Senior High School.

Highlights of the year are many: The Far Side comic strip debuted; the Pittsburgh Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl; the U.S. Men’s Hockey Team beat the Soviets to win the Gold Medal at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY; The Empire Strikes Back flickered onto movie screens for the first time; Pac-Man first ate a ghost; CNN launched; the Robert Redford-directed Ordinary Peoplestill a powerful film – premiered; and the Philadelphia Phillies bested the Kansas City Royals in the World Series.

But for all that good, there was plenty of bad: Paul McCartney was busted in Japan for trying to smuggle in marijuana for personal use; the Iranian Hostage Crisis dragged on throughout the year; unemployment averaged 7.1 percent while inflation soared to 13.5 percent; the Philadelphia Flyers lost to the New York Islanders (and linesman Leon Stickle) in the Stanley Cup finals; and, in December, John Lennon was assassinated.

On the political front, Jimmy Carter’s mastery of politics proved to be nil. Don’t me wrong: He’s a good man, and a great former president, but he was the wrong leader for the times. In fact, after near four years in office, the only thing he could inspire people to do was vote against him. First, he faced a formidable challenge in the year’s Democratic president primaries from Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy; and then, in the fall, he lost in a landslide to Republican challenger Ronald Reagan.

There were also, I should mention, a slew of good-to-great albums released. Rather than replicate Wikipedia’s list, I’ll highlight ones that I added to my collection at the time: the Pretenders’ self-titled debut; Linda Ronstadt’s Mad Love; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band’s Against the Wind; Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass; Eric Clapton’s Just One Night; Paul McCartney’s McCartney II; the Kinks’ One for the Road; Pat Benatar’s Crimes of Passion; Al Stewart’s 24 Carrots; the Xanadu soundtrack; and Rockpile’s Seconds of Pleasure.

That wasn’t every new release I picked up that year, mind you, but – memory being what it is – they’re the ones that, off the top of my head, I remember dropping onto my turntable or, in the case of the Pretenders’ debut, slipping into my Realistic all-in-one stereo’s little-used cassette deck.

A few of those releases got tons of repeat plays in my household – Mad Love, Against the Wind, McCartney II, One for the Road, Crimes of Passion and Xanadu, especially. And at year’s end, as was my custom, I selected my Album of the Year from those six candidates – Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band’s Against the Wind came out on top.

Even now, I’d make the same call. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’s The River, Van Morrison’s Common One, Neil Young’s Hawks & Doves, the Jam’s Sound Affects, and a few other LPs would be in the running, but – when all is said and done – Against the Wind is it for me.

It’s why I have a framed lithograph of the album cover on the wall above my desk.

The 10 songs yearn and burn, ruminate and illuminate, and ride an interstate jammed with regret and hope. The songs rock (“Horizontal Bop”), roll (“Long Twin Silver Line”), cogitate (“No Man’s Land”) and contemplate (“Against the Wind”). And, like a fine wine, they’ve only gotten better with age.

One highlight is the mid-tempo “You’ll Accomp’ny Me”:

Another: the title cut.

And “No Man’s Land” –

To my ears, it’s one of Seger’s greatest (if lesser-known) songs. As I hear it, and I could be wrong, it’s a metaphor about the struggles faced by writers of every stripe – the difficulty of creating something from nothing. It also contains one of my favorite lyrics:  “But sanctuary never comes/without some kind of risk/illusions without freedom/never quite add up to bliss.” They sound more profound than they likely are, I think, but it’s no matter. They make me think, as do the lines that follow:

The haunting and the haunted
Play a game no one can win
The spirits come at midnight
And by dawn they’re gone again.

Who hasn’t had a great idea late at night only to have it fade come the morning light?

Lyrically speaking, the only song that probably hasn’t aged well is “Her Strut,” which was inspired by Jane Fonda. But the guitars are killer. (And, for what it’s worth, Jane likes the song.)

The album’s closer, “Shinin’ Brightly,” is probably the greatest song Van Morrison never wrote:

As a whole, the album proved a success: It became Bob’s first – and only – No. 1 LP, eventually selling more than 5 million copies. It’s also the home to three songs that made the Top 20 (“Fire Lake,” which reached No. 6; “Against the Wind,” which cracked the Top 5; and “You’ll Accomp’ny Me,” which reached No. 14.)

And, as with his other Silver Bullet Band albums, the band itself only plays on some songs; the others, which I’ve asterisked below, feature the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.

Side One:

  1. The Horizontal Bop
  2. You’ll Accomp’ny Me
  3. Her Strut
  4. No Man’s Land**
  5. Long Twin Silver Line**

Side Two:

  1. Against the Wind
  2. Good for Me**
  3. Betty Lou’s Getting Out Tonight
  4. Fire Lake**
  5. Shinin’ Brightly**