Friday, December 23, 2005

[Guitar] Calvin Russell - (1991) Sounds from the Fourth World

Let's move away from Mark Knopfler but stay in familiar territory with this second CD. This album also very guitar orientated but has a rawer, rootsier, more Texas/Country/Blues feel to it. A good prelude to the Blues up ahead in our reviews, while staying very melodic and accessible.

C.R. Sounds from the 4th World
Guitar - 1991
1 CD - 11 tracks
Total running time: 49:31

The pains and groans of a man hard done by life, brought to us by a deap, growly voice accompanied by a roughly strummed acoustic guitar and a heavily distorted electric guitar.

The artist & the album

The album's cover gives a pretty good impression of what Calvin Russell looks like and indeed, sounds like: rough, dirty, bitter, hardened by life. As far as I was able to find out, Calvin is from Texas, an ex-convict, and in general, a rather ragged fellow.

Now from that description, you might be expecting some typical 'bad guy' music but that's not to be found anywhere on this album at least. Calvin communicates his ideas quite subtely, using both musical and lyrical effects. However, unlike Mark's recent work, it stays very raw, with some rough, hard sounds and dark, bluesy melodies. I think the primary quality of this album is that it's honest: it's a real bloke who's been through a lot, telling us stories from his life without pretending to be something he isn't. So the music, just like the man, is rough around the edges, sometimes clumbsy but allthemore convincing for that very reason.

To his advantage, Calvin has a very deep growly voice which fits perfectly with the themes of his songs. Along with his rough, clumbsy acoustic guitar strumming and his howling, screaming electric guitar licks, it gives the album a very characteristic sound, a sound giving the ideas and the lyrics a certain credibility, a credibility one of these young kid superstars with their flashy shows and fancy tricks could never have.

A few favourite songs

The second track on the album is Last Night, the story of a guy who is obsessed with some woman and goes out looking for her in the bars at night to see what she's doing, who she's with. While the subject is neither very profound nor very original, the song is very nicely pieced together. The textures are good: rough and dirty as always with Calvin but they fit particularly well in this situation where an old, rough looking dog is running after some smart looking lady. The lyrics are quite vague but mention the important things like "Afraid I would find you, Afraid you couldn't be found" which is the typical thought you have when you're looking for someone. Finding her would be awkward and painful and not finding her would be just as bad because you wouldn't know where she is and start imagining the worst things. The details of the situation are not explained which allows everyone to interpret it how it suits him but the feelings are explained in detail: bitterness in the verse "The kind where you gotta dress right or they won't let you in" and pain and anger in "And you do the same damn thing to me". That last verse is one of the key moments in the song, the singing is particularly emotional and it's followed by a screaching, screaming lick on a heavily distorted electric guitar.

The next song, One Meat Ball, is one of my all time favourites when it comes to the 'Blues feel'. A poor fellow finds a dollar bill somewhere and wanders around restaurants to see what he can get to eat for 1 dollar. It turns out all he can get for that price is 1 meat ball. The situation is very silly but the thoughts racing through the little man's mind as he sits alone at his table and timidly orders his 1 meat ball aren't at all. Obviously, the waiter laughs at the poor guy when he takes the order and makes a big joke of it with the rest of the staff. There are two versions of this song on the album: acoustic with saxophone and an electric one. Each has its own qualities but the musical textures in both, wonderfully express how this little man sinks down deeper and deeper into his chair and into the floor in total humiliation, as the staff and the other guests in the restaurant laugh at him. That is, for me, the perfect example of what the Blues is about. Musically, the song hasn't got much to do with the Blues but the theme, a simple, everyday situation which emotionally turns into someone's worst nightmare, is the essence of any Blues song. One Meat Ball is the kind of song that makes you feel less ridiculous when you feel down just because the girl at the cash desk didn't say hello when you went shopping in the morning.

Calvin Russell's most successful song is Crossroads which is also on this album. It's a long acoustic thing which builds up to a dramatic solo at the end. The story is a guy standing at some crossroads wondering which road to take, an image for someone thinking over an important decision he has to take in life (just like that very tiresome Robert Frost poem, The Road not Taken). The voice is the star in this song. Calvin's deep, dark voice reflects the seriousness of the decisions to take in life, and the desasterous effects they can have. The voice is accompanied by a slow, reflective, acoustic riff all the way. The song ends with a magnificent acoustic guitar solo.


1You're my Baby3:45
Last Night
One Meat Ball
Maybe Someday
Rockin' the Republicans
Baby I Love You
Love Stealer
You Don't Know Me
Down Down Down
One Meat Ball (acoustic)


Monday, December 19, 2005

[Mark] Mark Knopfler - (2004) Shangri-La

For a first review, I'll go for a nice, easy, melodic and accessible one that will also please all those who think I only listen to Mark stuff.

Mark Knopfler - Shangri-La
Mark - 2004
1 CD - 14 tracks
Total running time: 1:06:22

A relaxing, heart warming album telling us stories from the 60s. Mark sings in a new mellow voice accompanied by rootsy, acoustic rythms, punctuated by his usual smooth electric licks.

5:15 AM, the opener

The album kicks off with 5:15 AM, a track which, in itself, sets the atmosphere for the rest of the CD. The song starts with Mark lightly strumming his Les Paul. Soon, he starts singing in a dreamy, nostalgic voice. The song is the story of a miner coming home from his night shift, going past deserted schools and pubs on his bicycle in the wee hours of the morning. The scene is perfect for expressing thoughts about how coal mining affected the lives of simple people of northern England.

As the lonely miner's thoughts wander into darker and darker areas: a murder, the greed of the business men from the South, his family's desperate situation, the backing instruments gradually kick in, giving a stronger and more dramatic character to the song. This is a brilliant example of how music and lyrics work together. A minor chord rings out together with the word "Alone" in the verse "Together and alone" which in tern rhymes with "Paid the price of coal". You not only understand intellectually, through the lyrics, what is being said, you also feel the bitterness, the sentiment of betrayal the miner is expressing through the choice of chord and the rhyme.

Eventually, the backing disappears a we are left once again with Mark, alone, softly strumming his Les Paul. This is another great piece of composing: after the anger, the dramatic, tense middle part Mark reminds us, musically and lyrically, that this song is not about big companies, not about business men, not a bout greed and exploitation. It's about a simple man, alone, cycling back to his family after a night in the mine...

A pick of the rest

The album continues in the same style. Sucker Row, The Trawlerman's Song and Back to Tupelo are musically similar with an acoustic guitar in the background and occasional small riffs on the Les Paul in the foreground. They also have in common that they are all about opposites. Sucker Row is about the phenomena of people (suckers) in the US, sitting in rows in front of coin machines (such as the one featured on the CD cover) in the hope of making some easy money. While this behaviour is presented as pathetic, the song also suggests, very subtely, that these simple people are actually the most honest ones: "I never look down on a sucker stake; They all pay the bills". Back to Tupelo, my personal favourite of the album, has a similar subject: young talented musicians who are taken over by a desire to go to Hollywood. Words and music are perfectly adjusted in the chorus "Oh, it's a ways to go; Back to Tupelo" meaning 'Go for it, if you like, but the way back home is difficult'.

The Trawlerman's Song is a more up-tempo track with a strange mixture of melancholy and happiness: the story of a sailor and his journeys with his mates who simply wants to come home to his beloved. This song finishes on an intreeging outro where Mark sings a very light and cheerful "La la la" yet adding more than a touch of sadness with his guitar notes. This leaves everything very much open to your own free interpretation which is one of the best things about music.

The title track Our Shangri-La marks a turning point in the album. In Our Shangri-La and Everybody Pays, the Les Paul disappears and 'Spaghetti guitar' takes its place: the kind of sound you'd expect to hear in Western movies. Mark uses that kind of imagery to express other ideas. The album continues with more varied tracks but of equal quality and interest both musically and lyrically. I'll let you discover those on your own. I hope my views on the first tracks will insite you to analyse them in detail - they have lots of hidden subtleties

A word about the artist

Mark Knopfler is, of course, better known for his guitar hero days with Dire Straits. For those of you who know that, I urge you to listen to this album with an open mind. Do not expect impressive guitar solos, you will not find any.
For those who are not familiar with Mark's earlier work, simply enjoy (and comment!). I'm always fascinated to hear what people think of Mark when they start with his later work.


15:15 AM5:54
Boom, Like That
Sucker Row
The Trawlerman's Song
Back to Tupelo
Our Shangri-La
Everybody Pays
Song for Sonny Liston
Whoop De Doo
Postcards from Paraguay
All That Matters
Stand up Guy
Donegan's Gone
Don't Crash the Ambulance


Sunday, December 18, 2005


Hello World!

I will start by making a very bold statement:

This Blog has a purpose!

Now I know this is not the tradition among the blog community but I've always been an anti-conformist.

Anyhow, the purpose of this blog, as I've mentioned too many times already, is to provide no-nonsense album reviews to anyone remotely interested in music. I've seen too many people apparently content, listening again and again to the same mainstream tunes. Of course, jumping to the obscure word of Jazz or Classical Music is not easy and many feel discouraged. Mainstream stuff is nice because it's always available and you can always count on the fact that someone else is listening to it. However, it does horribly lack in diversity and expressiveness.

A crazed enthousiast's CD player

As mentionned, finding and appreciating "serious" music is a daunting task for most. CD reviews often target rather snobbish intellectuals who, by principle, reject all modern music. Don't worry, Piffles to the rescue. As one of the few who have had the luck of having relatives who know about music and also have time on their hands, I've been able to widen my musical horizons beyond what record companies would like me to be restrained to. I discovered that Blues, Jazz and Classical Music are fascinating areas of music and that younger generations can appreciate them just as well as popular music - albeit with a little effort - but well worth it in my opinion.

You will find the occasional Pop album in the reviews (As I said, I'm not against Pop, I'm just against ignoring all other music) and expect to find quite a few guitar albums, especially by Mark Knopfler of whom I am a big fan. I'll also include the most accessible, most melodic Classical and Jazz albums and gradually move on to the more technical, slighly more obscure stuff. The world of music is a big place and you have to start slowly.

I'm not an altruist so I'm also hoping to get some feedback on the music, get to know what everybody else listens to and maybe get lost on a few new musical roads.

Merry browsing!