The Paul Zollo Blog: Overlooked Albums From 2017

Jules Shear
One More Crooked Dance


Listening to Jules Shear’s new album, One More Crooked Dance, I feel the same way I did when I heard Peter Case’s most recent album, HWY 62: That it doesn’t have to be this good.Nobody insists that songwriters keep writing songs at this level, which is the level of, as Warren Zevon once said, “high art.” In other words, this isn’t about going viral, or creating a radio hit, or even getting nominated for a music award. This is about seriously dimensional and inspired song craft. About the undeniable power of a great melody, and a beautifully realized lyric, and that crucial balance when they are wed with an inevitable rightness.. This is about creating timeless songs, songs which enrich our lives and help us make sense of the madness of these modern times. Songs that remain and never, as Van Dyke Parks once put it, “fall apart like a cheap watch on the street.”

We’re in an era now where great sounding records get more more celebration than greatly written songs. As Dylan said, one can make anything sound good with great production, but that without a great song at its core, “those things won’t last.” Indeed. So it’s a genuine joy to receive many of the albums about which my words follow, as I know several are sure to last.

Starting here with Jules. For those not in the know about him, Jules is one of those songwriters who has been steadily writing brilliant songs for decades, songs which go on his own albums and those of others. Countless singers have recorded his songs, most famously Cyndi Lauper (“All Through The Night”), The Bangles (“If She Knew What She Wants”), and Alison Moyet (“Whispering Your Name”).

He’s been in bands (Jules and The Polar Bears, Funky Kings, Reckless Sleepers) as well as having made many delightful solo albums, bringing his total to 20 albums in release. Regardless of the setting though, the songs of Jules always shine with the same qualities: brilliantly poignant, intimate and often funny lyrics wed to melodies of great majesty and moment. Melodies discovered in ingenious, often deceptively simple, chord progressions. His uncanny brilliance with chords, and the resulting rich melodicism of his work, has led songwriters over the years, when finding that one beautiful unexpected chord that shifts the entire mood of a tune, to identify those as a “Jules Shear chord.”

So receiving this, another album chock full of songwriting at its highest level, is an absolute joy. And if there is any question about his attitudes towards songwriting, he brings us an album which plays by none of the rules currently accepted as the norm. Not only does this album have no bass and drums, and therefore no easily digested grooves, it has hardly any production at all except his voice, one piano (performed by his pal Pepe), sparse harmonica by his friend and Woodstock neighbor John Sebastian, and harmonies by Molly Farley. Though it’s an approach which might ensure many never connect with these songs, it is one which focuses all the attention on the song itself, the essential song, words and music. And when you have an artist and craftsman at the level of Jules, it’s an approach which not only works, but succeeds powerfully, bringing home just how powerful a well-written song can be.

And it goes a long way in underscoring that which we need now more than ever: real songs. Songs written from the heart of the songwriter.

This isn’t meant as a castigation of great radio records, or the layered recording methods that are at the heart of hip-hop and much of modern pop. A great hit single is something that we’ve always loved and always will. But we also love candy, yet can’t live on it. We need some real meals. Some nutrition. Jules gives us that with gusto by delivering these essential songs.

Time was when the test of a true song was whether it could stand up to a performance of just one instrument (piano or guitar) and voice. Stipped down to that essential form, the song is forced to fly only on the force, merit and grace of its words and melodies, and that crucial balance between the two. These songs all soar.

And perhaps to highlight his own happily idiosyncratic disinclination to play by the rules, he even opens this album with a song about rules, “Rules of the Game.” A song with one of those Jules’ melodies that crawls into your consciousness and stays there, emerging at unexpected times. With poignant lyrics that touch on the flashy, transitory nature of our current lives in which there’s not enough time for any resolutions (“no sense taking time to explain… no sense taking time to go insane…”), he delivers this straight to the heart with delicious melody. (In E major, he deepens the melody by going to a great Jules chord in the middle of it all, a G major. Though it’s not in the key, somehow it works perfectly, lifting the entire song into a bright place.)  

“When It’s Right” has one of those choruses that you get at least once on every Jules album, if not more. A chorus that is so deliciously melodic that it resounds like a standard the first time you hear it. The kind of melody, as many say, nobody writes anymore. And as always it’s merged with words of delicate but funny wordplay, toying always with meter and rhyme, the sign of a songwriter in love with writing songs. For example, in this song, when he sings, to an achingly ripe tune, “I know I’m sick but who’s not sick…” he lets that odd admission hang before completing it, poignantly:

“I know I’m sick
But who’s not sick…. of trying?
Nobody claims the power I have
To keep from crying.”

From “When It’s Right”
By Jules Shear

But it’s the song “Painkiller” which has haunted me most since the first time I heard it. To a darkly beautiful minor-key melody, he sings of his reflections on this modern dilemma, the painkiller. Like Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab,” it’s brilliant songwriting, transforming a modern, well-trod word and concept into timeless song, concluding with a line that says everything:

“This painkiller does everything
It’s got no shame
This painkiller does everything
but kill the pain.”

From “Painkiller”
By Jules Shear

So many other gems like “Oh Marlena,” “The Hunter and The Hunted” and “Wrong Again” make this one of the strongest albums to come around in a while. It stands up well to repeated listenings, as I know from first-hand experience. There’s so much other music to listen to, yet I find myself wanting to return here over and over. Produced by Jules with Lee Danziger in Woodstock, this is rich and compelling work from one of the best songwriters there is.



Sandy Ross
All My Heroes Sang The Blues

Sandy Ross started her next great adventure in 2017, leaving this realm, but before her departure she got one last job done. She made a final album. Even in her last days, from her hospital bed on days when speaking was impossible for her, she quickly wrote down her instructions for her beloved wife, Lee Hirsch, to perfect the completion of this album. Like Leonard Cohen, Frank Zappa, Warren Zevon, David Bowie and other great songwriters who knew their life was coming to a close, rather than devote their final energy to any other earthly endeavor, they turned one final time to the source: song. It’s powerful proof, especially to non-believers, that songwriting is more than a vocation. It is a calling. It’s the last act on earth for many people, intended not to generate income or elevate their status. But simply to make more music. To bring more song to this world before leaving.

Sandy loved to sing, and that joy was infectious, whether singing one of her own songs or a cover. Her heart was always connected to the blues, so it’s right that her last act would be to make a full album of blues. But when Sandy sang the blues, as did all her heroes, she sang them with joy. They were happy blues.

All of these songs, most of which are originals, were first included on previous albums, though she re-recorded brand new versions of “All My Heroes Sang The Blues” and “Stay And Be My Baby, Tonight.” These new tracks, colored delicately by the great playing of longtime collaborators Jeff Gold (on guitar) and Tim Emmons (on upright bass), are delightful. The title song’s celebratory explication of why exactly musicians – especially those deep in the blues- are heroic, goes a long way in explaining Sandy’s life. Making music, she knew, and writing songs of meaning and moment even in a world of darkness and chaos, is heroic. It’s why Sandy Ross, for the multitude of us who knew her, her music, and her infectious joy, has always been a beloved hero. And she remains one forever.  We all miss you Sandy. Thank you for the music.

Rumer
This Girl’s In Love With You

Here’s a a one-word answer for all those forever bemoaning that, in this age of soullessly competitive over-the-top TV singing, that truly great vocalists no longer exist:


Rumer.

For several years now, as those in the know in the UK and elsewhere have known for some time, she’s been steadily making great records of her own songs and songs by our greatest writers that stand with the finest albums our best vocalists have made. Her voice has a rich purity and smoothness which is always seasoned with great reverence for the song itself, for the melody as written.

It is the very reason why so few singers, with the obvious exception of Dionne Warwick, can sing and record Bacharach songs right. His melodies, famously, are both achingly beautiful but also notoriously difficult to sing, as they dance around often odd, unexpected intervals. Melodic cadences in the classic “Alfie,” for example, land not on a normal note, but sometimes the 2nd or 9th of a chord, which is outside of most modern singer’s ability to sing, as it requires an ear – and pitch control – at the level of Ella Fitzgerald. It’s all about precision and soul merged, and in this day and age, that is such a rare commodity it is almost non-existent. Rather than strive to dazzle  a listener with constant improvisational variations on a melody, Rumer lets the song be the star, and by singing the actual melody, allows it to shine.

Of course she does it with a voice that is like honey. Her dynamic sense and tender sensitivity to lyric is loving and great. It’s why this album is a pure delight. And the reason why the maestro himself – Burt Bacharach – makes a very rare vocal and pianistic appearance on this album. To let his fans and acolytes know what he knows: Which is that Rumer is the real deal, and if you want to hear Bacharach-David songs sung – once again – the way they were intended, look no farther. He makes a brief but very poignant cameo both singing and playing piano, leading into the title song. “This Girl’s In Love With You.”

Of course, Burt did not write the lyrics. Those were written by the less-celebrated Hal David, who succeeded in doing what few other mortals could ever do, write lyrics which graced Burt’s often complex melodies with simplicity and grace. His music said so much on his own, Hal always had the knack of discovering the perfect lyric to deliver, without obscuring, the melody. Rumer, being a gifted lyricist herself (check out “Aretha” or “Slow” if you don’t know), sings Hal’s lyrics with a sweet and soulful clarity.

The song choice is inspired, weaving together many of the most beloved classics, such as “Walk On By,” “The Look of Love” and “One Less Bell To Answer” with other equally gorgeous but not as famous ones, such as “Balance of Nature” and “The Last One To Be Loved.”

Rumer’s husband, Rob Shirakbari, is the musical director and pianist here,and his closeness to the material is real and earned: He was Bacharach’s musical director for many years. He brings great grace and elegance, as well as restraint, to the proceedings. This is a classic album, one for the ages.

Amilia Spicer
Wow and Flutter

An absolute delight. Long beloved on the Americana circuit for years, and with good reason. She’s a powerfully soulful and authoritative singer, someone who knows her way around storytelling in song well. She’s also a seriously gifted songwriter, producer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist. Her songs have achingly soulful melodies, but also grooves that keep them alive, rolling past us in time like mystic locomotives. Her lyrics are finely etched and essential, saying and showing so much but with a great economy of language, and so beautifully and organically wed to her tunes. Many have great haunting structures of simplicity and grace, such as “Train Wreck.” Some resound like new standards, such as “Windchill,”  which has an exquisitely gentle yet visceral melody, and a vocal of sweet assurance. If you were feeling worried about modern times – and who isn’t? – listen to this song. Over and over. It helps.


She also produced and arranged these tracks, creating beautifully textured but understated frames for these tender human stories, gently but persistent percussive tracks woven with acoustic guitars, banjo, harmonium, organ, mandolin and more. Each song also has beautiful beds of harmonies, voices which take the place of other instruments often, bringing cool harmonic counterpoints, like on “Shotgun.”  She’s also quite smart about getting great musicians to play, including Malcolm Burn (who also mixed this), Tony Gilkyson, Matt Cartsonis, Tom Freund, Sheldon Gomberg, Gurf Morlix, Mike Finnegan, and more. Not that she needed much help – on these tracks she plays most of the instruments herself, including acoustic and electric guitars, lap steel, piano, keyboards, melodica, and organ. This is one of those albums I find myself wanting to keep returning to, like the great albums of the past, filled with nothing but great songs and soul. A timeless brand-new Americana classic.

Ali Handal
That’s What She Said

A triumph.   From the first measure of the rocking “You Get What You Settle For,” you know you’re in good hands. Ali Handal, as her fans know well, is the real deal. A great songwriter and powerfully soulful singer, she’s also a tremendous guitarist. Her solos throughout and strong rhythm work are electric and alive on every track. (She’s an authority on the subject, the author of Guitar for Girls.) She’s funny and savvy as the same time lyrically, as in the great “Smoke More Pot,” which suggests her good behavior has kept her from being a rock star: “…“so in control, so not rock and roll, should have smoked more pot…”  Produced, engineered and mixed beautifully by Seth Atkins Horan, it sounds as good as it grooves. Jimmy Paxson’s deep-pocket galloping drums (which are mixed so well; drums rarely sound this present and real) set a solid and funky foundation, on top of which Ali sparkles on many guitars as well as organ, mellotron and even glockenspiel. Bikki Johnson is locked in on bass, and on keys Steve Aguilar and Juan Covarrubias weave warm textures throughout. In addition to her great originals, such as “Let Go,” written with Patricia Bahia, and the lovely closer, “Last Lullaby,” there are two cool covers:   Led Zeppelin’s “What Is and What Should Never Be,” by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, and a song by another righteous babe of song, “Not a Pretty Girl” by Ani DiFranco.  Ali’s already made a lot of great albums, but this might very well be her defining album, as it shines with everything that’s great about her — soulful singing, great musicianship, joyful songwriting – all connected and beautifully realized.  

Dave Morrison
Nothing Left To Lose


Another absolutely beautiful, heartfelt album from Dave Morrison. Not only is he a deeply gifted songwriter with a great penchant for songs both poignant and funny, and always resplendently grounded and real, he’s also an excellent singer. So sturdy and inspired is the songwriting that it’s easy to ignore the fact he’s one of the best singers around. He’s got a warm and resonant baritone, not unlike the late great Bob Gibson, and with a hint of Pete Seeger’s pointed yet amiable way of projecting a lyric. When Dave sings a story,  you listen, and you hear it. He sings with soulful authority, but also with a warmth that pulls you in, not unlike a great storyteller at a campfire, welcoming you with the warmth of his voice. Beautifully written and conceived songs abound, including the hopeful opener, “Happy Again,” as well as “Tattered Flag,” “St. Patrick’s Day” and “Idaho.”  Each song is invested with the full measure of his big heart and unique angle on life. He’s a great craftsman both as a lyricist and composer; his melodies throughout fit his words perfectly. Never do they seem contrived or overwrought, they simply seem right.

Elegantly produced by Mark Humphreys, each track is wrapped in rich acoustics,  with fine playing from Greg Krueger on lead guitar, mandolin and dobro, Chad Watson on bass, Cameron Stone on cello, Albe Bonacci and Chris Cooke on drums, Bobby Malone on keyboards, and Luke Halpin on fiddle. Mark Humphreys and Leslie Beauvais provide great harmonies, while Lisa Johnson both arranged and sang all the harmonies on the beautiful “Impossible.” As with all of Humphrey’s loving productions, this one sings with a intimate sweetness and warmth, like those great old albums we all grew up cherishing.  A gem.

 


The Motels
The Last Few Beautiful Days

The Motels are back! And they sound as strong as ever on this, their first new album since 2011’s Apocalypso. With powerfully soulful and strident vocals by the great Martha Davis, who opens the album with the intriguing suggestion, “I know you hate me now,” and inspired, dimensional songwriting, this is an album as great as their best work. With the current line-up of the always wonderful Marty Jourard on both piano and sax, Eric Gardner on drums, Clint Walsh on guitar, and Nicholas Johns on bass and keys, this is a thoroughly enjoyable listen from start to end. Highlights include the great opener, “Punchline,” as well as the haunting “Look At Me.” It all ends with the great title song,, “The Last Few Beautiful Days,” which springs from a beautifully old-fashioned melody sung against only solo piano at first, and then unfolds beautifully like a modern standard. Martha sings it with joy and power, leading us to the great moment when Marty’s sax takes over, and leads us to a place far beyond words. This is greatness.   

Fernando Perdomo
The Golden Hour


Fernando contains multitudes. With the dizzying grace of Prince or Stevie Wonder, he plays each and every instrument on this album, sings all the lead vocals and harmonies, and wrote all the songs. And like the aforementioned artists, Fernando does it all really well. It all starts with the songwriting, which is electric and vivid. Strains of Beatles, Todd Rundgren, Brian Wilson and move converge into a really fun and pleasing whole. His singing is passionate and poignant, set beautifully against the rich tracks of guitars, keys, bass and drums he cooks up. He wrote all the songs himself except one, the haunting and happily melodic “Look At The Moon,” written with the great Jordan Zevon, which not only has great verses, but also a wonderfully visceral, wordless guitar and vocal section. This is solidly great and inspired songwriting, excellent production and exultant performances, all adding up to a delightful new album by a genuinely gifted and seriously committed artist.


Jaco Pastorius
Truth, Liberty & Soul
Live in NYC, The Complete 1982 Jazz Alive Recording

There is much that is simply beyond words. Such is any attempt to express the true magnitude of Jaco’s music with mere verbiage. Like the playing of artists he emulated, such as Coltrane and Hendrix, the music of Jaco Pastorius was a miracle back when he was still alive and making it, and the timeless beauty of that miracle has not diminished in all in the 31 years which have already swiftly passed since his death. Recorded at Avery Fisher Hall in NYC on January 27, 1982 as part of George Wein’s Kool Jazz Festival, this album is a great gift for all of those who need and want more Jaco. Like Hendrix and Trane, he came to his instrument – bass – with unchained ambition – and made it sing in ways never heard before or since. His playing was a realm beyond a virtuosity, it was really miraculous, whether solo or with a group – always compelling, soulful, inspired, and forever unbound by anything which came before. Great thanks to those who preserved this performance and for persisting in waving the Jaco flag. Please never stop.

 


Jack Tempchin
Peaceful Easy Feeling, The Songs of Jack Tempchin

A momentous and inspirational collection of modern standards performed by Jack, one-half of the team that wrote them, presented here as a poignant tribute to his “musical brother,” Glenn Frey, Featuring Jack’s own renditions of twelve of their songs, performed solo and with guest vocalists Rita Coolidge, Janiva Magness, Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen, this is a delightful journey through years of great songwriting. .

“This album,” wrote Jack in the liner notes, “is dedicated to my great friend of 46 years, Glenn Frey. Glenn and I always had a fabulous time writing songs together. We would talk about our lives and laugh. He was the funniest person I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. It was my great good fortune that my buddy happened to be one of the best songwriters of all time. Goodbye my friend and musical brother. Thanks for all the wonderful times.”

Jack and Glenn were friends for a long time before either became world-famous, Jack as a hit songwriter and Glenn as an Eagle. It’s a friendship first sparked back in 1972 when Frey, then a member of the duo Longbranch Pennywhistle with J.D. Souther, spent a San Diego night at Jack’s big house and candle factory, a beloved hippie crash pad. Two years later at his friend Jackson Browne’s L.A. home, Jack played Glenn a new song he’d written about a waitress in El Centro called “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” So enthralled was Frey by the tune that he recorded it on cassette tape, telling Jack that he’d formed a new band eight days earlier, and wanted to play it for them. Jack’s reaction: “Whoa, yeah!”

That band was The Eagles. The next day Glenn returned with a recording of The Eagles singing this song. Hearing that track with those now-iconic Eagles harmonies blew his mind. “It was,” he said, “the best thing I had ever heard.” He already knew Frey was a fine solo singer, but had no clue about his greatness as an arranger and harmony singer. The song became one of The Eagles’ most beloved hits, a triumph Jack attributed more to the band than the songwriter. “It is not a normal love song,” he said. “But The Eagles, with their arrangement, breathed life into it.” Its success led him on a lifelong songwriting path from which he’s never veered since.

When Glenn chose another one of Jack’s songs for The Eagles, “Already Gone,” it also became a major hit. Written in fifteen drunken minutes in the back room of a San Diego coffee-house, it was a country song that Frey turned into rock. Now with two hits emerging from their alliance, the timeless magic of Frey singing Tempchin was undeniable. So when The Eagles broke up and Frey found himself faced with the formidable challenge of making a solo album in their wake, he turned, naturally, to Tempchin. Together they tailor-made their decade-defining song “You Belong To The City” for TV’s Miami Vice, as well as the 1991 gem “Part of You, Part of Me,” written for the movie Thelma & Louise. They also wrote “Smuggler’s Blues,” “The One You Love,” “I Found Somebody,” “Lover’s Moon,” “Soul Searchin’,”  “I Did It for Your Love” and “True Love.”

All of these and more emerged from their unique songwriting collaboration which they dubbed “El Blurto,” a name which, Jack explained, referred to their philosophy of “blurting out anything, and then then typing it up. ”You Belong To The City” was blurted out when Jack and Glenn were sent a tape of the show before it had yet aired. “The whole feel of that song,“ Jack said, “with the sax and all, was inspired by the style and vibe of that show. We wrote it quickly.”

Born in Ohio and raised in San Diego, Jack became one of America’s most prolific and widely-covered songwriters, crafting classics for himself as a solo artist and band member (as part of the legendary Funky Kings) as well as for a host of other artists, including George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Tom Waits, Glen Campbell, Jackson Browne, Dwight Yoakam, Linda Ronstadt, Tanya Tucker, and many more. His most famous non-Eagles hit, first recorded by the Kings, was “Swaying To The Music (Slow Dancing),” a giant hit for Johnny Rivers, and now a modern standard. He’s one of those guys who just keeps doing it, keeps writing songs and recording them, and always expanding his artistry while retaining a purity of intention. This album is a triumphant and loving celebration of a lifetime spent songwriting.

Books.


Jimmy Webb
The Cake and the Rain
St. Martin’s Press

Any fans of Jimmy, his songs, or his brilliant treatise on the art and science of songwriting, Tunesmith, already know he’s got a way with words. Now he’s devoted that gift to a delightful journey through his personal history, and it’s a great, historic and unforgettable ride.  So many unexpected, hilarious, historic and momentous stories are beautifully wrapped in the maestro’s elegant language. These include many which serve as great lessons for songwriters, those sensitive artists who pour their hearts into their work only to have it often misunderstood or dismissed by those in the music industry employed to know better. A perfect example is Webb’s acceptance of producer Bones Howes’ invitation to write an orchestral suite for The Association.  Relishing the challenge, he worked around the clock, often falling asleep at the piano keys, to realize his grand Angeleno opus of heartbreak, romance, and ambition, “MacArthur Park.” As he recounts, he came into the studio with the gargantuan transcription of the song, and performed it live for the band. They listened patiently, smiled, and passed on it. Yet Jimmy knew what he had, even if conventional ears could not hear it at first, and when Richard Harris wanted something epic and dramatic, it was time for the song to be born. It’s one of so many unlikely turns in the remarkable career of this songwriter, which also includes great scenes with close friends Harry Nilsson, PF Sloan and Art Garfunkel. So many highlights abound, including the sad, funny tale of playing the Monterey Pop Festival with Johnny Rivers, carrying a single chime with him for days to strike at the precise moment in “Tracks of My Tears.” There’s also the harrowing account of almost dying with his pal and photographer Henry Diltz, while piloting his own glider, and intentionally crashing into treetops to survive.  Through it all, including romances unbound, strange times with different Beatles and much more, the spirit of the songwriter endures. A great read.  

Fire and Rain
The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970.
By David Browne
Da Capo Press

Admittedly, this book comes as a bit of a blow to those of us who considered ourselves expert on all aspects of this book. Yet even those of us who have listened, studied and obsessed on little else besides these artists profiled here for many decades will be surprised, and delighted, by the remarkable wealth of information Mr. Browne has compiled. A veritable valentine to the great music which emerged at that precise nexus of the 60s and 70s, this is a wonderfully compelling telling of this momentous musical history which is still so recent, and yet also so distant.  So much we once romanticized is put into realistic context, providing a whole other perspective on the creation and emergence of this music which shaped our lives, the culture and the music industry at that time. For example, the beautifully organic and rural textures of James Taylor’s classic Sweet Baby James,  featuring many of his most transcendent songs, including “Fire and Rain,” were created not in the verdant woods evoked in timeless songs such as “Blossom” and “Anywhere Like Heaven” but right on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, at Sunset Sound studios.  Or the behind-the-scenes view of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young making the landmark Deja vu reflecting little of the miraculous harmony attached to that album, but mostly dissonance between each band-member. Throughout we learn the sad truth that even within these groups and duos so famous for the beauty of their music and the resplendent human harmony they captured, whether Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, or CSNY, personal animosities arose in each instance, fracturing what once was perfect. Given that, the level of accomplishment – whether Deja vu, Abbey Road or Bridge Over Troubled Water, all created in the very midst of ongoing battles- is even more miraculous.

Browne is great at showing us the reality behind this music. His ability to weave together these many strands, connecting The Beatles in England with Simon & Garfunkel in New York and the others in California,, is inspired and musical. A must-read for all self-declared experts of this era, it is a great tribute to this magnificent era in music, and to all of the songwriters and musicians who made it happen.