Talk From The Rock Room: September 2016

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark 1968 - 'Still Remembering What Is Me'

The focus of today's rock room rant is a collection of music born from casual jam sessions and good times amongst friends and legendary musicians. The October 1968 LP The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark, while labeled as a early proponent of the developing 'country rock' sound to emanate from the late 1960's, which it is; should also be identified by its special mixture of prime Gene Clark songwriting with a host of well known musicians steeped in bluegrass and country music. While 'rock' has always been a conglomerate of influences, in the mid 1960's it was under going a constant metamorphosis, melodically, lyrically and aesthetically. Rock and roll's best and most talented artists helped to develop a genre that would be in constant flux and subject to deep experimentation. These experiments in sound and vision not only distorted and redesigned rock and rolls fundamental elements but also initiated a rediscovery of the sturdy support beams of rhythm and blues music.

Bands like the Beatles, Byrds and Band took a glimpse into the rear view for inspiration when their own fresh well of ideas needed to be refreshed. While pundits discuss and dissect when 'country rock' really took hold, the roots of the genre can be traced to a number of important destinations. The Beatles 'I've Just Seen a Face' and The Byrds 'Time Between' are two songs that are often mentioned as early examples of 'Country Rock'. One important element to remember is that a number of the legendary 'rockers' to emanate from the creative stew of the 1960's rock scene had cut their teeth on early country and roots music music. John Sebastian, Chris Hillman, Gram Parsons, Levon Helm, Jerry Garcia and David Crosby to name only a few had deeps roots into the back woods of Americana prior to their rock and roll ascensions.

Gene Clark's 'Byrds' were the leader in this rediscovery and assimilation of country and bluegrass with rock. Aforementioned Byrds player Chris Hillman, who would play an integral part on the Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark album was an amazing and well known bluegrass musician and mandolin player prior to his picking up a rock and roll bass. McGuinn, Hillman and recent Byrds addition Gram Parsons would record the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album in 1967 which is basically a contemporary country album recorded by 'rock' musicians.

The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark was recorded in late 1968 and pulled from the influences surrounding it while expressing from its rustic grooves a stony homegrown blend of Gene Clark's innovative songwriting, country, rock, bluegrass and back porch bleary eyed serenading.Typical of Gene Clark's career the work received critical acclaim from musicians and writers while mainstream acceptance avoided Doug Dillard and himself until posthumous re-discovery of their work. The album is summed up by its cover, two smiling pals sharing a motorcycle while passing 'something' between their fingers. So, the 'fantastic expedition' begins.

The album is a 'who's who of 'country rockers' with contributions from future 'Flying Burrito Brothers' and Eagles' member Bernie Leadon, Chris Hillman, Byron Berline, Donna Washburn, Pete Kleinow, David Jackson, Michael Clarke and of course cohort Doug Dillard. As previously mentioned, the joy that comes from the collaborations is the essential element in what makes the music so wonderful.
Only the opening track of the album has the true aroma of rock. The Clark penned 'Out on the Side' begins with a fluttering organ drone and thumping bayou drums. Clark's vocals enter velvety and rich the focus of the track as the fuzzy edged backing looks in from a steamy winter window. The big collaborative chorus features Leadon and Dillard joining Clark in a smoky singalong. The track continues with the only true reference to Clark's Byrds remnants, a silver picked electric guitar that drizzles the perfect dressing to the song. 'Out on the Side' sits slightly separate from the rest of the LP due to its more 'rock' instrumentation, but acts as the perfect opener, contemplative like The Band's 'Tears of Rage' opener on Music From Big Pink released only a few months prior. 

The woody personality of the album starts to reveal itself with the following Clark/Leadon song 'She Darked the Sun'. 'Sun' has a drumless swing that trickles in with a diffused sparkling banjo and soon becomes a swell of mandolin and Byron Berline fiddle that easily meld into a stunning simpatico. The lyrics express the classic country narrative of the abuses of an 'evil' woman. Clark's syrup smooth vibrato supports the high and lonesome harmonies of the chorus while Berline's mournful fiddle acts as the melodic cement.

'Don't Come Rollin' begins with a solitary train station harp the calls home another drumless groove that invites the listener a shit kicking invite to come cruise the hills, but with a stern musical warning. An addictive rolling rhythm encapsulates the 'seat of the pants' fresh back porch jamming that permeates the record. A bounding collaboration for Leadon, Clark and Dillard 'Don't Come Rollin' is a highlight of side one.

The famed slow saunter of 'Train Leaves Here This Morning' could quite possibly be Clark's finest vocals committed to tape in addition to being one of his most beloved songs. (Also later taken for a spin by Bernie Leadon who co-wrote it) This is a landmark recording. The gently undulating groove elicits the weary traveler with bag slung low walking toward the pin pricked night horizon. Clark's hearty throat draws out the emotion of the song like infection from a wound, with the narrator's indecisiveness tangible. The song takes it time to the station while the smoky ambiance and Clark's blatantly earnest vocals ascent the recording to the next level. The centerpiece of the record and a must hear track per the 'rock room'.

Flipping the record, side two begins on the galloping horseback of 'With Care from Someone'. Another co-write with Leadon, Clark and Dillard all contributing to the dramatic soundscape. The melody has the same emotional effect as a traditional folk ballad or salty sea chantey. Dillard's rolling clear water banjo is the driving current for the track, with Clark lending a moaning harp line to the pulsing theatrical melody. A wonderful mid-song instrumental break is highlighted by a sneaky and muted low profile Bernie Leadon guitar line. Choice opener to kick off side two. Highlight.

Next, 'Radio Song' follows playing like a sleepy highway meditation, white lines streaking by, churning miles and flipping radio dials. The woody bass sets the woozy rhythm for Clark's twilight statement of reflection and regret. Big 'Byrds' vocals adorn the chorus, but the unique aspect of the song is the antique music box keyboard blending with the soft acoustic trilling. Beautiful combination of words and music artfully creating a scene.
'Git On Brother' is the quintessential bluegrass cover. Played high speed like a party with collaborative vocals and chug a lug acoustic strumming. The group takes the Lester Flatt song around the bend while passing the burning ember of a joint below the line of sight. A well chosen song and tip of the hat to the influences contained on the recording.

'In the Plan' comes next and features fiddle, banjo, acoustic guitars and thumping bass interweaving on a creative loom of sound. Gene takes a sweet mid-song harp solo in this uptempo and driving track. Lyrically the song highlights Clark's penchant for deceivingly simple descriptions of human and life interactions but with slightly surreal twists. Here he asks the eternal question of existence in an unexpected musical package.

A personal favorite of the 'rock room' and the closing track of the LP, 'Something's Wrong' is stamped with the stellar perfection of an undeniable Gene Clark melody. The song opens with a crisp acoustically decorated descending introduction that is beautifully adorned with a slight sadness that is carried throughout the song. Similarly to the rest of the LP, there is a thread of longing for moments past as well as a fleeting regret contained in the lyrics. Clark's songwriting was always special for its delicate balance of hopefulness while still retaining a certain anxiety. 'Something's Wrong' encapsulates this ideal as Clark remembers images of being a boy with the acute ability to sense a prospective danger. Instrumentally, dolent violin pours itself over gently waltzing acoustic guitars. The combination results in a faded aural intoxication.

While Dillard and Clark would record one more album together with 1969's Through the Morning, Through the Night, the restlessly creative duo both besot with demons would continue to explore various creative outlets, just not together. The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark was the perfect album at the perfect time for these kindred musical spirits. The joyful collaboration was thankfully captured so that the two heady country honks and their best musical pals exploits could be immortalized forever.The duo's 1968 album has had a long reach due to its guests, influences and cross pollination of talents and abilities. Dillard's swaying bluegrass and Clark's folk rock sensibilities puzzle pieced into a generation of musicians searching for genre smashing ideas to combine with their own expanding horizons. The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark album is a vital frame when developing the musical development of rock and country in the 1960's and is a 'must hear' for fans of the era or of the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, and Eagles.

The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Van Morrison - The 1986 album No Guru, No Method, No Teacher 'Got to Go Back'

Released in 1986 and spinning in the ‘rock room’ currently is Van Morrison’s No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, an album that appeared at a time when Van and many of his contemporaries were struggling with relevance and constantly changing production values. Rock ‘n’ rollers had no map in which to guide their muse, and the era was filled with hits, misses and a search for musical identity. Morrison stayed consistent to his musical vision with No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, emerging with an earthy, soil-scented collection of organic songs. Images of rain, rolling hills, abandoned roads and thematic explorations of faith, love and art develop the foundation of No Guru, No Method, No Teacher.

Critics lauded a return to form that honestly really never had left Morrison. Regardless, they were correct in appraising the record as magical and highly invested in. No Guru, No Method, No Teacher contains a misty mystery and permeating sense of regret throughout, but also an encompassing sense of redemption by the album’s conclusion. With a gracefulness that only he can conjure, Morrison doesn’t shock with vocal gymnastics, but soothes with gritty replies and whispered inquiries.
The instrumentation acts as an ornate antique frame for the vivid lyrical watercolors created, while The production stays close to home — happily staying away from the artificial drums and keyboard sonics of the era. It feels warm, only adding a cavernous theater echo to Morrison’s throat on some of the tracks. The rich sylvan acoustic guitars, forest piano and breezy nature of woodwinds and strings blended with Morrison’s voice of the earth equate to, in my opinion, the most intimate record since 1974’s Veedon Fleece.

No Guru, No Method, No Teacher opens on the willowy acoustic groove of ' Got to Go Back,' swaying like a baby in the arms of its mother. Morrison’s lyrical recitation is smooth and low, a call and response with the female backing vocalists. The song introduces the meditative theme of the record where the songs pour out of the grooves, flowing and rolling musical water, rushing and blending into one another.

'Oh the Warm Feeling' begins with a comforting breathy horn and transparent percussion that quietly rattles under a plush blue bass. Summer ocean sun and salty air caress the narrator, the song’s balmy ambiance soaking into the skin. The song moves quickly in spite of its slow tempo, anticipation and hopefulness driving the invisible rhythm. This track is a terribly underrated song in the Morrison catalog and one of the finest on the record.
The mysterious and ethnic 'Foreign Window' follows, containing a harmonica that sounds suspiciously like one Mr. Dylan. While not credited to Bob Dylan on the record, this possibility makes sense as Dylan and Morrison would perform breathtaking acoustic versions of this song and “One Irish Rover” for a Van Morrison documentary.The song moves with the scent of lilac, developed with the imagery of a thousand classic memories that come into focus when a fleeting glimpse is caught of a foreign window framed above the suffering street below. Big imposing horns invest the song with a hopefulness that cuts through the enigmatic instrumentation.

The next track, 'A Town Called Paradise' skips on a stilted drum beat and hill climbing bass guitar. Containing the verdant mystery of Morrison’s best work, the song elicits a pastoral escape from the trappings of wise guys, thieves and crookedness of the world. Hearty saxophone and doo wop backing vocals drive the dynamic groove that rolls, gaining momentum, hiding around corners and curves, appearing at the crest of a ridge, increasing speed. The song is the first of the record where Morrison gets gritty, his voice rising with the music, his words appearing from behind a smoky veil.
The first side of the album concludes with a vintage Morrison concert standard, and arguably the crowning achievement of the recording. 'In the Garden' begins with precipitous piano, appearing through the mild steam after a summer afternoon rain. This song is one of Morrison’s finest moments, and possibly his greatest composition of the 1980s.

The deep tincture of religion, love and companionship blends with the essential and sensual appraisal of nature through Morrison’s reading. Morrison runs the vocal gamut, his voice ranging from holy hollers to revealing whispers that pull you in close. The title of No Guru, No Method, No Teacher is drawn from the lyrical content of this epic track, as well. Morrison has said it’s his statement of purpose, as he subscribes to no particular method in his thinking or his faith.

The second side of the album begins with 'Tir Na Nog,' a track that shares a similarity through natural imagery with the side one closer. The concluding narrative of side one and beginning tale of side two make this record essential listening. 'Tir Na Nog' brings to the surface deeper elements of reincarnation, spirituality and destiny. The instrumental journey is round as a wagon wheel and braided like aged vines, a Celtic mantra in which Morrison’s individualistic phrasing is weaved. Detailed strings reflect Morrison’s voice, slicing through the humid instrumentation with dexterity and clean lines.

'Here Comes the Knight' is the token soul number of the recording, as Morrison digs in with Renaissance hyperbole around a straight 4/4 drum beat. The most straight-forward song of the album, “Knight” features an arrangement that allows Morrison to just sing it. It’s yet another Van Morrison song that a listener can put on the turntable and completely control the vibe and ambiance of a room with.

'Thanks for the Information' is kinetically electric when contrasted with the previous compositions on No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. The song is a bluesy strut, based around stabbing red-warning siren guitars, a sly and sarcastic commentary on self improvement, self confidence and the ongoing battles with other people as well as yourself. 'Information' is powered by slick horns that butter up the gritty rhythm track and glorious gospel chorus lines.

'One Irish Rover' plays as an aged folk ballad regardless of its electric keyboard opening, and acts as a poignant anthem for Morrison and his history. Containing one of his most endearing melodies, the song plays like a self-penned testament to Morrison’s history as a tale teller. The song is one of the better known and appreciated tracks off of this album, and a song that has become inseparable from its author. A delicate china-cup acoustic holds the fragile vocal lines in a bed of cotton, safe and warm. The song would have been a fitting closer for No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, but Morrison must have wanted to exit on a rocking note.

'Ivory Tower' was one of this album’s singles, charting just outside the Top 20 and concluding the collection on a rock ‘n’ roll note. The song sits in contrast to the previous songs, being less about meditation and contemplation and more about the realities Morrison faces in his life. Lyrically, Morrison is asking for a realization about how real life issues conflict with the aforementioned spiritual themes of the record. Typically amazing vocals and restrained but rocking instrumentation close out the collection.

No Guru, No Method, No Teacher arrived in an era where music sometimes took a backseat to the flashiness and neon sensibilities. Van Morrison, however, has always stayed on course with his artistic direction. With this record, he created one of his most long-lasting pieces of work. The introspective themes combined with a subjective analysis equate to a project that not only expands on Morrison’s own thoughts and dreams but exposes themes that the listener can easily relate to and meditate on.

Considering this album in the context of a discography as extensive and varied as Morrison’s is a tall order. In my opinion, the record can nestle comfortably in any era of Morrison’s artistic output whether it be the 1960s or the first decades of the new millennium.

Complete Album