By Chris Anderson
One Of Those Vinyl Nights…
After that big release day last month, things have slowed down a bit on the album front. A few things here and there but nothing really to report. So instead, this month we’re going to take a little journey through an evening in my music haven, known simply as “The Room”…and we’re gonna spin some records.
We kick the evening off with The Magnolia Electric Co, the 2003 release that was simultaneously the final album by Songs: Ohia and the first album by Magnolia Electric Co. Whatever you call it, this is one of the finest albums by one of the finest American singer/songwriters the mainstream world never knew. After several years of recording under the name Songs: Ohia, Jason Molina finally settled upon a static band lineup, and forged ahead, assuming the title of this album as his new band identity. Molina went on to record several stunning albums with Magnolia Electric Co. before his tragic death in 2013. As in most of his work, there is a lot of Neil Young in here….though Molina’s songs feel far more personal. One of my favorite songwriters, I deeply mourned his passing. Listening to the demo versions, which comprise the second disc of this reissue…I close my eyes and I’m instantly transported to a small café in the mid 90s, where Molina is playing solo, ten feet away from me. I sure do miss seeing this guy play.
After those somber demos, it’s time to crank it up. For that, there is no better choice than the Drive-By Truckers. Their latest release, American Band, is a solid affair that continues to grow on me. However, my money is still on their last album, English Oceans. On this album, Mike Cooley finally matches Patterson Hood, song for song, and he really holds his own. His opening salvo, “Shit Shots Count”, is one of his all-time best, along with the bouncy “Made Up English Oceans”, and the swingin’ honky-tonk of “Natural Light”. Patterson Hood is a barrel of sunshine as always, whether it’s the deep-south desperation of “When He’s Gone” and “When Walter Went Crazy” or the crooked politician of “The Part Of Him”. His songs always have this way of getting under your skin, in both good and bad ways. Long ago, they established themselves as the best band in America. Albums like this and American Band triumphantly reaffirm that.
It’s a bit hard to top the Truckers so the only option is go left-field. The debut album by Soft Machine suits the bill just fine. Their only release to feature Kevin Ayers, this album is Canterbury’s answer to The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. The jazzy grooves that permeated their later work is evident here, and the playing by keyboardist Mike Ratledge and drummer Robert Wyatt is fantastic from the onset. This is British psychedelic at its deepest and darkest, far from the whimsy of Pepper or Piper. The songs on here, mostly supplied by Ayers, are offbeat, unconventional in just about every way. But they are honest. There is no time where this band sounds like a put-on.
I have always considered A Love Supreme to be the greatest album ever recorded. Not just because this four-part suite was saxophonist John Coltrane’s most important work, the apex in his quest for enlightenment. And not just because the tunes are out of sight, and not just because the Quartet is at the peak of their powers. But also because you can put this record on at any time, in just about any situation, and the mood will instantly change – one of the greatest musical reset buttons. From the instant you drop that needle and you hear that flurry of tenor notes that Trane unleashes, this record absolutely owns the moment. Trane had reached wicked new heights as a composer, and this band is on fire, every note and nuance perfectly accenting this major work. Sadly, the Quartet would splinter soon after this session, as Trane ventured further into the avant garde. But on this afternoon, in December 1964, John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones showed the world exactly how good music could be.
Another product of jazz’s experimental side is “fusion” – the joining of jazz and rock approaches into a visionary new style of music. Mahavishnu Orchestra, led by guitar virtuoso John McLaughlin, was one of the most impressive of all the fusion bands. Their music never got cheesy like so many others…their sound was dark, heavy, and frenetic and stayed that way. Birds Of Fire, the band’s second album, from 1973, is my favorite of their works. The title track is six minutes of some of the most intense playing I’ve ever heard, and they never let up. Everyone in this band is a phenomenal player, especially drummer Billy Cobham, one of the finest to ever play.
After that instrumental whirlwind, it seems I only have time for one more. One From The Vault is the recording that officially turned me from a curious listener into a full fledged Deadhead. Recorded during a rare year in which the Grateful Dead was retired from the road and working on an album, this performance found the band introducing the newly-written Blues For Allah material to the stage. Bill Graham’s spoken intro that leads into the first-ever “Help > Slip > Frank” gives me chills every time I hear it. Throughout the course of this show, the Dead perform all of their new material, as well as a handful of classics, and they do so with a renewed sense of purpose. The Dead at their absolute best, it’s no wonder this show was selected as the band’s very first vault release.
So that’s it…a snapshot into a typical evening in the life of this writer. Stay tuned next month for the big year-end best-of list. There are sure to be some doozies on there. Until then, the happiest of holidays to ya!