Friday, February 11, 2005

Top 5: Highway Miles

I have been on the road for most of the last two weeks. I mean literally "on the road," logging miles by the hundreds--which means lots of hours spent with the CD player or tape deck on. So here are five notable albums and songs I've heard in the last two weeks.

Fleetwood Mac (expanded edition)/Fleetwood Mac. Unlike the expanded editions of Tusk and Rumours, which contain numerous alternate versions of familiar tracks along with new material, Fleetwood Mac is pretty slim. The only entirely new track is "Jam #2," which, like the jams on the other expanded editions, doesn't offer a lot, unless you're a hardcore fan of John McVie's bass. But the extra stuff the album does contain is valuable enough: the 45 versions of three hit singles, two of which have been fairly rare: a "Rhiannon" that's more ghostly than the album version, and an "Over My Head" that's so changed up instrumentally that it's almost a new song. (The 45 version of "Say You Love Me," with extra punched-up guitar, has been widely anthologized already.) There's also a proposed single version of "Blue Letter" that was never released at all. Extras aside, Fleetwood Mac is clearly the group's greatest achievement, Rumours notwithstanding. Most groups would do well to create songs as beautiful as "Warm Ways," "Rhiannon," "Over My Head," "Crystal," and "Landslide" in a lifetime of recording--the Mac did it on one album.

Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
/Elton John.
Classic mid-70s excess from Elton, from the absurd title to the over-the-top cover art to the extravagant extras included with the original album package. But in the grooves (as we used to say back when records had grooves), Elton recorded some of his most ornate and satisfying music--"Tell Me When the Whistle Blows" is a great Philly soul-style tune in "Philadelphia Freedom" mode, and "Curtains" is hypnotic and mysterious, and is one place where Bernie Taupin's opaque lyrics actually work. He concludes this semi-autobiographical tune on a semi-autobiograpical album with some of his best lines ever: "And just like us/you must have had/a once upon a time."

(Digression: As great a tune as it is, "Tell Me When the Whistle Blows" contains one of Bernie's most painful lines: just what the hell is "a cold vacant stare of undue concern"?)

Thirty-Three and a Third/George Harrison. In 1976, George was coming off a couple of critically panned albums, and when he assembled the same band for his new album, nobody was expecting what he produced--an album so instrumentally rich it seems almost three-dimensional, with gorgeous little sounds coming at you from all directions. George's liquid guitar lines are the most beautiful of all, and his singing is sweet and expressive. You know the singles, "This Song" and "Crackerbox Palace"--now get to know the other tracks, such as "Pure Smokey," "Dear One," "See Yourself," and the Cole Porter standard "True Love," normally done as a ballad, but ripped through at breakneck speed here.

"I'll Take Manhattan"/Dinah Washington. Dinah, the erstwhile Queen of the Blues, had gone uptown by 1960, singing with an orchestra, and she's the epitome of urban cool here. This song came along at a moment when New York City was just beginning to relinquish to Los Angeles its title as the capital of American popular culture. But people in Boise or Dubuque would still have hummed lyric lines from this song, about places like Delancey Street and Coney Island, as if they were native New Yorkers, even the ones in Brooklynese: "the city cannot spoil/the dreams of a boy and goil."

"The Things We Do for Love"/10cc. Here's a classic 70s radio hit that grabs you from the first millisecond and keeps you singing along all the way. Despite the lyrics, which are about the compromises lovers make to stay together, the feel of the song is all about the rush of falling in love, long before the compromises become necessary.

The Colour of Love/Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters. I discovered this group via Internet radio, which is a first for me, and not really a surprise, because if there was ever a group too good for our currently lame broadcast radio world, the Broadcasters are it. Earl, a former member of Roomful of Blues, is the lead guitarist and it's his band, but this 1997 album is utterly stolen by organist Bruce Katz, who gets down into grooves unknown to most normal mortals. One of the best smoky, late-night records ever recorded.

I have more highway miles in my future in coming weeks--which means much more music to be listened to. It's what makes traveling worth it. That also means more extended hiatuses for this blog, sad to say. Do be patient, however--I will be back now and then.


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