Talk From The Rock Room: July 2016

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) - Tell Em I'm Gone LP 'Times Have Turned'

Spinning on the turntable today in the rock room is the most recent release (2014) from legendary and sometimes controversial troubadour Yusuf Islam, also known as Cat Stevens. The LP Tell Em I’m Gone is a record split between inspirational new originals and influential cover songs hailing from Yusuf’s musical past. 2014’s Tell Em I’m Gone was Yusuf’s first full length since 2009’s Roadsinger an intimate and noteworthy return to form for the famed singer/songwriter. Stevens, who changed his name and redirected his faith in the late 1970’s, began to feel the pull of his acoustic guitar early in the new millennium after an absence of over twenty years. After reconciling his religious beliefs with the strange world of popular music, Yusuf realized his ruminations and melodies were still needed and wanted by his fans and admirers.

This recent collection of songs is not only a spectacular return to Yusuf’s popular form of the 1970’s, but a return to his formative ‘pre-Cat Stevens’ influences and loves that helped to shape the artist we are able to witness today. Somewhat obscured beneath the numerous ornate melodies and smooth recitations of his popular catalog lies a gritty edge of R&B, blues and ethnic influences. Digging his sandy boots into the soils of his past Yusuf reveals the roots of his influences through graceful reimaginings of traditional songs and cover tunes. Intermingled with profound new compositions and a number of friends and guests, Tell Em I’m Gone is a fresh gust of inspiration to blow across a sometime barren landscape of new music.

Co-produced by the contemporary and famed Rick Rubin and mixed by long time musical collaborator Paul Samwell-Smith, Yusuf is consistent in his approach to keep one foot in the past and one firmly in the future. What started originally as an album of blues covers developed into a complete LP of originals and favorite songs. Most if not all of the album was laid down live in the studio with a minimum of overdubs adding to its lively and organic approach.

The album delicately balances originals and cover songs with a five to five split between the ten tracks. The collection opens on the crystalline weaving guitars of Yusuf and special guest guitarist Richard Thompson. Yusuf’s voice sounds as if it has emerged from a sealed and submerged time capsule, hardly aged, as emotive as it has ever been. ‘I Was Raised In Babylon’ is an original Yusuf composition, sparse and spooky, a flexing commentary on truth and faith.

The first covers of the collection follow, first with Yusuf’s reading of the blues standard ‘Big Boss Man’. Hearty Fender Rhodes and knee knocking percussion lock into a tribal version that retains the original melody, but updates the arrangement with a roots funk attitude. Blues legend Charlie Musselwhite also lends well-timed silver harp blasts to the track. Alternately the following ‘You Are My Sunshine’s’ classic melody is distorted by Yusuf’s dusty Southern blues arrangement which is then tastefully augmented by award-winning and Sahara Desert roaming musicians Tinariwen. The third cover in a row is of Edgar Winter’s powerful early 1970’s ballad ‘Dying to Live’. True to its original arrangement the song is a fitting statement for the often misunderstood Yusuf and a vocal highlight of the album thus far.
Yusuf original, ‘Editing Floor Blues’ comes next and is a gruff blues collage, its texture created by gravely alternating guitars and straight-faced serious verbal exclamations. The song is a conglomerate of blues changes and lyrical snippets, but twisted originally to fit Cat Stevens new-found aesthetic. This aesthetic sometimes reminds me of Dylan’s 1997 Time Out of Mind in attitude and fearlessly expressed musical truth. Both dip a ladle into the well of traditional ifluence. The urgent vocals and autobiographical lyrics recall an updated version of Cat Stevens 1970 track ‘Pop Star’ and is a major highlight of the first half of the recording.

‘Editing Floor Blues’, a commentary on the media’s misunderstanding of Yusuf, segues perfectly into ‘Cat and the Dog Trap’ another new Yusuf original that contains obvious lyrical connotations to the troubles of Yusuf’s not so distant past. The songs circular picked central lick and fresh Spring green melody is one of the most powerful Yusuf has produced since his return to music. All of the instruments excepting bass are played by Yusuf allowing for his trademark compositional hallmarks and aural fingerprints to be left all over the glass.

‘Gold Digger’ follows next, unique in its construction, catchy in its sparkling intent. The song snaps its filament fingers with a jazzy swing, cartoon like in its simplicity, but containing a more serious underlying attitude in the panoramic world view of the words. The song is a well placed anomaly in the context of the album even featuring vocals hailing from the South African Vocal Choir.
An imposing version of Procol Harum’s ‘The Devil Came from Kansas’ comes next and emanates triumphantly with big chords and a striding groove. Dropping like a coin in a slot the song falls into a bobbing groove and adds another unique take on one of Yusuf’s favorite songs.

The title track of the LP, ‘Tell Em’ I’m Gone’ is placed next to last and encapsulates the vibe of the collection with a muddy thump and recitation of the traditional ‘Take This Hammer’ melody. The band Tinariwen joins again for claps, vocalizations and percussion assistance. Similarly to Yusuf’s contemporary Paul Simon’s excursions into World music influenced recordings, Yusuf has successfully assimilated various musical influences into the creation of this particular record as played out on the title track. The ambiance and musical heartbeat of this song epitomize the soul of this album. Most excellent.
Yusuf has a history reaching back to his Cat Stevens recordings of closing his albums with perfectly placed poignant and inspiring compositions. Examples range from‘Lilywhite’ on 1970’s Mona Bone Jakon, ‘Peace Train’ on 1971’s Teaser and the Firecat and ‘Never’ from his final Cat Stevens album, Back To Earth. Here the song ‘Doors’ takes on the same position and reveals a collection of opposing images used to conjure a feeling of hopefulness and freedom. The arrangement is scented with a unique gospel flair and reaches an orchestrated climax that swirls with inspirational Hammond flourishes and peaks with Yusuf’s reassuring vocals.

Yusuf’s collection of music, Tell Em’ I’m Gone, is not a well recorded piece of nostalgia. It is the work of man comfortable with his life, faith and the musical legacy that he is responsible for. Yusuf still has music in his heart; both his own, as well as the music of his idols and influences. The music he has developed elicits a feeling of self-awareness, freedom, comfort and peace. Though the title of Yusuf’s album is Tell Em’ I’m Gone, I assure you he is right where he is supposed to be. Stay tuned for more music from Yusuf who is reportedly crafting another collection of music.

The Story of Tell Em I'm Gone

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Small Faces -'Here Come the Nice - The Immediate Years'

Today in the ‘rock room’ I am taking a courageous jump into the substantial 2014 Small Faces box set, Here Come the Nice. After years of sub-par compilations, best of collections and generally below-standard packaging and repackaging of their recorded output, those mod dignitaries the Small Faces received a respectful and proper tribute with this box set.

Here Come the Nice, covering the band’s 1967-69 tenure with Immediate Records years and limited to an edition of 3,000 copies worldwide, features four discs crammed full of rarities and alternatives, as well as four unique vinyl records, posters, art prints, lyric book and other stunning ephemera. The added bonus is that each of the limited edition sets has been signed by the remaining two members of the band, drummer Kenny Jones and keyboard legend Ian McLagan.

The revolutionary forerunners of the 1960s mod movement, in conjunction with the Who and the Kinks, the Small Faces have been severely underrated and under appreciated until their recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. Hence, the impetuous for the rediscovery, reappraisal and reissuing of their influential catalog. In addition to the restructuring of the bands musical output through specialized Record Store Day releases and re-masters, this definitive collection also showcases the best of the rest, making for a welcome expansion of the Small Faces legend through outtakes, live tracks and rarities, each of them important glimpses into a band caught unaware in times of creation, intimate moments and live on stage.

The Small Faces brand of music is a raucous, pulsating R&B/rock hybrid. No one in rock could bellow like the late Steve Marriott, whose voice and guitar work will always be some of the most expressive in modern music history. Ronnie “Plonk” Lane coaxed heavy warm drones from his oversized bass, while writing melodies that still reverberate. McLagan is an anomaly, one of the finest piano/keyboard players to grace a rock ‘n’ roll stage, and always uniquely expressing melodies in unusual ways. Finally, Jones’ corpulent feet and arms, the solid rock on which the band would stand steady.

Ranging from rave ups to rhythm-and-blues instrumentals, the Small Faces mirrored the changing times and regurgitated them through their stunning interpretation. The band’s terribly short career contained a super-concentrated blast of creativity, fiery and successful, but also volatile and unpredictable. Unfortunate issues with management, as well as musical differences, ultimately started to wear on the group. The Small Faces would eventually fracture, splitting into two of the 1970s towering rock acts, the Faces and Humble Pie, respectively.
Punk, funk, rave up or jam on, the Small Faces excited and incited the mod youth with their stony and groovy aesthetic. The partnership of Marriot/Lane was quite prolific, creating a plethora of mod/pop standards included on disc one of this collection, which compiles the a- and b-sides of their worldwide singles, as well as EP releases, all presented in pristine quality.

A cursory look at this collected group of singles shows one obvious thing: The Small Faces wrote some amazing music all while painting a virtual portrait of Swinging London in the 1960s.
The druggy insinuation of ‘Here Come the Nice’, the slightly na├»ve yet pure psychedelia of ‘Green Circles’, the pleading soul groove of ‘Talk to You’ and the definitive Small Faces epic ‘Tin Solder’ are all songs of such power and grace that the band’s failure to detonate in America is still confusing. How’did their music continue to linger out of sight excepting hard core fans until this recent resurgence? The pastoral tripiness of‘Itchycoo Park’ and “Lazy Sunday’, two of the Small Faces’ most popular tracks, gloriously protrude from the speakers, a reminder of their pop sensibilities, as well as the image they were vigorously trying to escape.

These aforementioned singles were all carefully remastered from the thankfully recovered original mono master tapes, investing them with a vibrant new life. Enjoying these tracks at high volume encourages me to make statements like, ‘These guys may have been the best band in Britain in 1966!’ The wealth of forward thinking arrangements and collaborative songwriting taking place in such a stunted period of time is stunning and a testament to the talents of the group.

Discs 2 and 3 contain pleasantly diverse and intimate session tapes, alternate mixes, and unreleased songs hailing from Olympic, IBC, and Trident studios. These rarities originate from the multi-track recording tapes. The sound quality is definitive, the access unlimited, some of the edges jagged, but the view of the band exclusive. The long and involved search for many of these tapes only increases the drama and joy in listening to the set. Tapes were discovered in various states scattered across the globe, in varying vaults, boxes, even appearing in Kenney Jones’s battered luggage from his Small Faces touring days.
Stunning highlights of these discs include an enlightening glimpse of the Small Faces recording Tim Hardin’s ‘Red Balloon’, wonderful and rare clips of studio dialogue peppered across both discs, as well as the experimental freak out ‘Mind the Doors Please’ and the unfinished backing track ‘Fred’ hailing from May 1968. These two CDs represent an epiphany for Small Faces fans or admirers of mod era of rock ‘n’ roll. Check out the stripped-down mix of ‘Things Are Going to Get Better,’ as an example of the rare aural treats to be unearthed.

Disc 4 of Here Come the Nice: The Immediate Years features additional out takes, as well as a speed corrected and remastered concert performance from November 18, 1968 at Newcastle Hall. This disc not only contains the PP Arnold single “(If You Think You’re) Groovy” featuring the Small Faces, but also the rare mono version of the ebullient “Don’t Burst my Bubble” and the sludgy backing track of “Piccanniny.” The aforementioned 1968 concert recording fittingly closes the set with an exclusively reborn capture, which in the case of the Small Faces is a unique proposition in regards to existing live shows: The performance ruptures with the aggressive slam of “Rollin Over,” as Marriott’s artfully shredded vocals are supported by Mac’s grindy and gritty overture on the organ. Heavy.

The concert tracks are best described using superlatives such as: monstrous, grand and explosive. Included in the set is also a hair-raising version of “All or Nothing” that encapsulates the Small Faces musical experience for the listener. This small slice of live  transitional and essential Small Faces is guaranteed to be the greatest thing you will hear on any given day.

While that concludes the compact-disc segment of the box, there are also four seven-inch singles of music on vinyl to be enjoyed. Included is a promo Small Faces album sampler listed as a very rare collectible, two French EPs, and a replica acetate of the song “Mystery” which would eventually reappear as “Something I Want to Tell You.” While these revolve on the turntable, I spread out across the floor this set’s impressive display of Small Faces goods. What a way to accompany my musical journey.

While there is a substantial amount of magic to be conjured from this deep box, the ‘rock room’ truly believes that including the Small Faces original releases into your listening habits must be part of the deal. Familiarize yourself with their catalog and aesthetic before diving into session tapes. It takes a certain kind of ‘rock geek’ to sit through the recording sessions of any artist and knowing that artists catalog is often a bonus. As musical big box collections go, this one is top shelf and while limited in production numbers it can still be found by those willing to search!

Kenney Jones talks about the box