I have long been a fan, supporter, and proponent of Morphine. The jazz-influenced trio released 5 fantastic albums before the tragic early death of lead singer/songwriter/bass player Mark Sandman. Sax virtuoso Dana Colley has done great work since Sandman’s death with a variety of projects (A.K.A.C.O.D., Twinemen, Orchestra Morphine) playing new music and keeping the old Morphine music alive.
Colley’s newest endeavor is a great act that calls itself The Ever-Expanding Elastic Waste Band. Or maybe Members of Morphine with Jeremy Lyons. It’s unclear. (Maybe you can help me out, Dana.) Former Morphine drummer Jerome Deupree is with Colley again and a talented guitarist/bass player named Jeremy Lyons has stepped in to make them a trio. He plays and often sings Sandman’s parts when they cover Morphine tunes and has written some new songs for the band. As I mentioned in a previous post, I failed to get their disc, “Members of Morphine with Jeremy Lyons,” at the live show when I saw them, but my girlfriend came through and scored it for me for Christmas.
The album is great. Colley still has much to say musically. Deupree blew me away live and sits right in the pocket on this album. Lyons does fine work on the Morphine tracks they cover and he helps them into some great new territory the rest of the time. Check out a few winners off the disc.
- Hurricane – Lyons is credited with writing this song, but only the lyrics are new. The guitar and vocal lines are from ‘Goin’ Down South’ by R.L. Burnside (particularly the North Mississippi Allstars version). That’s not a criticism, though. There are only a dozen chord progressions in blues anyway. Everyone borrows. The lyrics are about God crushing Baton Rouge. The guitar work is cool without being flashy and Colley’s sax rumbles through the whole song.
- Different – The pace of this song is glacial but Colley’s atmospheric sax work is gorgeous. Nobody else sounds like this.
- Pulled Over the Car – This is unmistakably an old Mark Sandman song that they never released on a Morphine album. The guys performed this song when I saw them at the Beachland Ballroom this year. Fantastic. Sandman was such a clever and funny songwriter. They get a little help from some brass in the studio and the arrangement is hot.
- Know – I like the original songs EEEWB have written for this release. This is a heavy and slow love song. The baritone sax and electric guitar interact in unexpected and pleasing ways.
- Palestrina – What a beautiful instrumental. I believe it’s a live recording, too. It’s mostly Colley noodling on his saxophone but he gets some fine moody support from the drums and bass.
If you were ever a fan of Morphine and The Ever Expanding Elastic Waste Band comes to your town, you must go see them. In fact, even if you weren’t a fan you will like these guys. All three members are talented musicians with a fantastic catalog of new and old songs. It’s a fun show.
I’m sitting in the front window of a coffee shop writing this post. I have a hot mocha and I’m watching the snow fall outside. Seems like a perfect week to compile a mix of Christmas music. I have a Christmas mix on my iPod with 167 songs totaling 8 ½ hours of music. I like Christmas jazz because you get fresh and interesting takes on some standards, but I often have trouble finding links to the versions I love. Also, nothing is quite as Christmasy as the classic versions.
With that in mind, today I’m posting a mix of my favorite old school Christmas songs (except for Diana Krall, but she kind of leans old school anyway). I thought I had posted a version of this mix another year, but I went through my records and it looks like I never have. I think I always run out of time Christmas weekend.
Many of these songs have been covered well multiple times, but these are my very favorite versions. I hope you like them.
- White Christmas – Bing Crosby
One story says that when Irving Berlin wrote this song, he told his secretary, “Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written — heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written!” Bing nails this song and this particular arrangement is my favorite.
- Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer Mambo – Billy May
This was always my least favorite Christmas carol, but May’s 1958 version is hip and energetic, even now. This is a cleverly edited video, too.
- Baby It’s Cold Outside – Dean Martin
This is such a cute song and Martin is exactly the mischievous type to deliver it. Incidentally, there is a fantastic remix of this song on a great album called “Merry Mixmas” on which they regroove the classic vocal track. This is the original, though.
- The Christmas Blues – Dean Martin
Why not a double shot of Dean Martin? He never shied away from a double shot.
- Christmas Everyday – Smokey Robinson & the Miracles
Smokey’s voice is classic and the great Motown sound is wonderful. The best thing about this song, though, is I haven’t heard it 1000 times.
- The Christmas Song – Nat King Cole
EVERYONE has done this song. I think my version is out there on YouTube somewhere. No one has done it as beautifully as Nat King Cole, though. This arrangement is gorgeous and Cole’s voice is as warm and gentle as a down comforter.
- Christmas Time Is Here – Diana Krall
You should already have the original Vince Guaraldi version of this song. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is the best Christmas album ever made bar none. Krall’s version of this song is lovely, though.
- Christmas Waltz – Peggy Lee
A lot of people have covered this song too, but Peggy Lee’s 1960 version of this great Sammy Cahn tune makes me feel like a kid when I hear it.
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Lou Rawls
I love the way Rawls swings this song and every note the horns drop is gold.
- Holly Jolly Christmas – Burl Ives
I know this isn’t a great song but, God help me, I still like it. I watched the claymation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer every year as a kid and this is the closer.
- I’ll Be Home for Christmas – Frank Sinatra
Bing Crosby and Perry Como both had hits with this song first, but I like Frank’s version. The lyrics were written by Buck Ram when he was a homesick college student, but they came to symbolize the wishes of American soldiers in both World Wars.
- Jingle Bells – Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sistes
Here is another song I don’t often like to hear at Christmas, but this zippy version with Bing and the Andrews Sisters is so much fun.
- Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! – Vaughn Monroe
Monroe himself recorded this song multiple times, but this is his best rendition. It’s the one they usually use in movies, too (Die Hard, for example).
- Little Drummer Boy / Peace on Earth – Bing Crosby & David Bowie
Best. Christmas. Song. Evah. The “Peace On Earth” counterpoint was added for this TV special, which was recorded just a month before Bing’s death, because Bowie hates “Little Drummer Boy” and wanted to sing something else. The music starts about 1:45 in.
- The Holly She Bears a Berry – The Chieftains
This is from The Chieftains’ pretty good Christmas album, “The Bells of Dublin.” Traditional Irish music is kind of Christmasy anyway, in my opinion.
- Please Come Home for Christmas – Charles Brown
More blues for your Christmas mix. We’ve all had a sad Christmas or two and this one might make you feel better.
- Winter Wonderland – Lena Horne
Another standard that has been covered over and over. I like Lena Horne’s version, if we’re talking old school.
Enjoy this mix with – what else? – egg nog with nutmeg and a generous shot of rum. Have a great week and a Merry Christmas.
I have a friend who once expressed the belief that Ben Harper is the guitarist who represents my generation, in the way that Jimi Hendrix represented those who came of age in the 1960s. At the time I thought he was a little caught up in the moment (we were at a show) and thought little of it. As I have watched and listened to Harper over the years, though, I must admit I am coming around to his point of view.
Harper is an amazing and prolific talent who has released no fewer than 14 albums. His songs feature honest, insightful lyrics that express emotions, characterize complex relationships, or just tell stories. He is comfortable in a variety of styles both somber and raucous, though his work is often rooted in blues. He is passionate about peace and helping your fellow man. Oh, and he plays the shellac off of his guitars.
He seems extremely cool, too. I’ve seen him live many times. He often sets up a big comfy chair on an area rug, particularly when he’s playing a lap slide guitar. He’s fit, well dressed, and he’s got more ink than Hewlett-Packard. We could do worse for a spokesman.
I first got into Harper in 1997 when I picked up his 3rd album, “The Will to Live.” It’s a fantastic album, and I will write that one up another day. Today, though, I want to recommend his newest studio release, “White Lies for Dark Times.” I will admit a few of the tracks on this disc felt a little flat to me. Some of these are ground he’s already covered and they don’t shine. On the other hand, “White Lies” is also full of songs that are masterfully crafted by an accomplished performer and songwriter. If you’re not already a fan, you might want to start with some of his older albums like, “Will to Live,” “Fight for Your Mind,” or “Welcome to the Cruel World” to get an idea where he’s coming from. Or you could start with this one. It’s good. If you are already a fan, you will be glad you gave this one a spin. Harper is not standing still. He’s moving forward and he still delivers. In particular, check out these songs.
- Number With No Name – In some ways this is typical of some of Harper’s angrier, more accusatory songs. It still has a freshness to it, though, as Harper’s sound continues to evolve. The chord progression surprises just enough, too.
- Lay There and Hate Me – OK, this one IS one of Harper’s darker, accusatory songs. It has some great lyrics in it. “Never trust a woman. Never trust a woman who loves the blues.” The arrangement is fairly complicated, with backing vocals, variable percussion, and layers of guitar, among other accents.
- Fly One Time – Harper gives us an odd kind of rocking ballad, full of longing. The guitar work and percussion are pretty simple, but it is an appealing pop song. It reminds me a little bit of Kings of Leon, actually, which is odd coming from Harper. I like it, though.
- Keep It Together (So I Can Fall Apart) – More honest, lyrical genius wrapped around a smoking hot guitar performance. How many songs of this quality can one guy write?
A final piece of advice. Go see Ben Harper when he comes to your town. Or, if he isn’t coming to your town, go to where he’s going to be. He puts on a tremendous show.
Serendipity! I picked up a rather unpromising looking disc called “Black Rock” from an artist of whom I had never heard, Joe Bonamassa. I came across it while I was browsing the library racks and only picked it up because I realized I had never borrowed that one before. I put it on and within the first few bars it was clear he was a contemporary blues artist. Not usually my favorite genre (Black Keys excepted, of course). Then I really started to dig into the music and discovered breadth and depth, soul and technique. I was as pleased as I was surprised.
Joe Bonnamassa was born in Utica, NY. He is a 4th generation musician whose parents owned a guitar shop. He showed an early aptitude for music, somehow got hooked up with guitar virtuoso Danny Gatton for a short time, and actually opened for B.B. King at the age of 11. King said of him, “This kid’s potential is unbelievable. He hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface.” Bonamassa cites King as an influence along with guys like Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, but likes the English take on the blues better: John Mayall, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck. On “Black Rock,” there is a blues foundation, but there is some southern rock influence and lots of British rock.
Joe’s solo career started in 2000 so I have barely scratched the surface of his work. I have ordered a couple of his other discs and I’ll write them up if they’re as good as “Black Rock.” Give these a listen and see what I’m so excited about.
- Steal Your Heart Away – This song has the simplicity of all great blues, but he doesn’t just play one of the 8 standard blues chord progressions. The song takes some interesting twists. Oh, and Bonamassa is a frightening technician on his instrument.
- I Know a Place – The power chords are an anvil on which he pounds out a groove sharpened with soulful voice and wailing guitar.
- Quarryman’s Lament – So here is some of the breadth I mentioned. Acoustic guitar, flute, and electric mandolin (I think) construct a song that shows a little Jethro Tull influence.
- Wandering Earth – When the dirty riff first kicked in, I thought this was going to be a disposable track. Instead, it’s a traditional blues lamentation that he plays with astounding facility and emotion.
- Look Over Yonders Wall – This is cover of an old James “Beale Street” Clark tune. It’s a predictable blues song, but it has a great turn of phrase and Bonamassa approaches it with a lot of energy.
- Athens to Athens – Another acoustic song, but this one is wholesome, fun, and beautiful. He even works in some Middle Eastern wind instrument I cannot name.
- Blue and Evil – An insanely heavy guitar riff sets up this rocker that sounds like a cross between Black Keys and Bad Company.
Bonamassa had some heavy hitters lend a hand on this album. Gregg Allman, Rick Derringer, and even Anton Fig were among the guest talent in the studio and they were all put together by producer Kevin Shirley (a.k.a. The Caveman), who has worked with Journey, Iron Maiden, Rush, and Led Zeppelin. This one is a winner, folks. Check it out.
I was writing up The Black Keys’ latest studio release, “Brothers,” when I discovered a project that got by me when it was released in November of 2009. The project is called “Blakroc” and I was so excited when I read about it I think I peed a little. Get this. Hip-hop record exec Damon Dash is a huge fan of contemporary blues rock geniuses The Black Keys, a band comprised of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney. His idea was to put together a rap rock album featuring The Black Keys and the talents and flow of Q-Tip (Tribe Called Quest), Mos Def, Raekwon (Wu-Tang Clan), RZA (Wu-Tang Clan), Billy Danze (M.O.P.), Jim Jones (The Diplomats), Pharoe Monch, Nicole Wray, and Noe (ByrdGang). Yeah. Read that list again.
“Blakroc” is as good you hope it is. Wonderful melodies with fresh and organic instrumentation provided by The Keys make a fantastic backdrop for some varied, clever, and spirited raps by one of the best all-star casts I’ve ever heard on a rap album. Most of the songs are hard rockers with some blues roots – like most Black Keys albums – though a couple of the tracks are a bit softer. I ripped 6 of the 10 tracks on my copy of “Blakroc,” though I’m going back and forth on another that will probably make my iPod. Check out the ones I thought were the best.
- On the Vista – After he released “The Ecstatic,” Mos Def jumped into my top 5 favorite rappers. This is a great track to open the album. Mos Def’s flow is magic and instrumentation flows around his message like slow water.
- Hard Times – It’s so refreshing to hear a great rapping rhythm laid down by live instruments instead of some sterile and repetitive sample. You can hear the genius of this on this track, the guitar line repeats over and over, but it is subtly different every time Auerbach plays it. It just adds a lot of depth to the track.
- Ain’t Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo) – For the first few moments of this song it sounds like a straight up Black Keys song but then you realize it’s Mos Def singing and not Dan Auerbach. And then the flow kicks in, but it never loses the soulful Keys feel.
- Hope You’re Happy – Q-Tip and Billy Danze lay it down with some beautiful help from Nikki Wray over top of a blues/rock groove from Auerbach.
- What You Do To Me – The backdrop is vamping guitar and noodling Hammond organ. Dan Auerbach actually provides the lead vocals at the chorus on this track, which makes sense, since he has such a soulful and distinctive voice. The raps are cool and energetic. Great track.
- Done Did It – This track closes the album, and it’s a rocker. Heavy bass guitar, ripping electric, and Carney pounding the skins back some hard but fun flow.
I read about and tracked down an extra track that is not on my disc (what the…?). It’s called “Coochie,” and it features Ludacris and a recording of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Not my favorite track from the project, but certainly an interesting concept.
Kudos to Damon Dash for not only having this great idea, but for making it happen. The joy in the music is obvious and the photos I’ve seen and an outtake at the end of the album show that the musicians had a great time doing it. Everybody run out and buy it and maybe they’ll have to do another.
I realized today that although I’ve posted a few tracks, I’ve never done a complete write-up on one of the all-time college radio greats, Morphine. If you haven’t heard these guys, they’re a 3-piece outfit of bass, sax, and drums that bend jazz, blues, and rock into a wet, smooth coolness that is great with headphones or backing a party.
Front man Mark Sandman played a two-string bass and sang inventive and subtle lyrics in a smoky tenor made for crowded bars. Sax impresario Dana Colley played baritone, bass, or tenor (sometimes 2 at once) saxophones as big and good a thanksgiving turkey. Drummer Billy Conway joined the band after their first album and had all the right moves for the sound. At a time when a lot of Boston bands were trying to play louder and faster than their competition, Morphine was trying to play soft and slow. You are going to like these guys.
In their 10 years together, they put out 5 studio albums of increasing complexity and maturity that show a progression from the raw essence of passionate, young genius to realized exploration of their chosen musical space. I love nearly every song they’ve put out and will probably eventually write up all of their studio releases. Today, though, I want to recommend their 2nd album, “Cure for Pain.”
The whole album is good, really, but here are 4 outstanding tracks that will give you a good flavor for the ground they covered.
- Buena – The opening of this song has the feel of a true story. The band is playing a show and someone shouts out, “We want something good!” I’m not sure what his response means. It might be a drug reference. Or not. Anyway, it rocks.
- In Spite of Me – I think this is the most delicate and beautiful song they ever did. A little mandolin, sad lyrics, and nearly whispered vocals make this a heart wrencher.
- Thursday – Love. This. Song. These are some the coolest lyrics ever written. He used to have a regular Thursday tryst but he gets greedy and blows it. Funny and clever. Give it a listen.
- Cure for Pain – This is one of my two favorite songs by Morphine (the other being ‘All Your Way’). There is no studio version on YouTube, but I did find this outstanding live performance.
Mark Sandman collapsed on stage in Italy at the Nel Nome del Rock festial on July 3rd, 1999 and was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. Morphine disbanded. Colley and Conway have worked to keep Sandman’s memory and music alive but have also done some great work with other people. I hope they will bring the show to Cleveland soon.
UPDATE: I went to the Beachland Ballroom on Thursday and saw Members of Morphine and Jeremy Lyons or, as they apparently call themselves now, the Ever-Expanding Elastic Waste Band. Wow. Tremendous show. Lyons is a talented bass player and singer and, more importantly, he fits. Sax maestro Dana Colley shared front-man duties and they were personally engaging and musically amazing. Colley actually played some harmonica, which I had never heard before. Nor surprisingly, it was great. Jerome Deupree, who has played percussion with Morphine in the past, is a master of appropriate grooves. What an enjoyable show. I had to bolt out of the venue (my girlfriend had to work Friday) and forgot to stop and pick up a CD, but I have asked for it for Christmas. If they come to your town, check them out. Otherwise, grab the new CD. The old Morphine music was well-executed and the new music was really cool.
G. Love (born Garret Dutton) formed Special Sauce in Philadelphia, PA in 1993. When you hear him speak or sing, he sounds like he would be a great guy to hang around with and maybe share a few beers. Their music is relaxed and bluesy, though they don’t confine their sound to the 8 or so traditional blues chord progressions. They incorporate R&B, soul, and some hip-hop influences into their sound. They play sloppy without sounding crappy. Their music is more about feel than polish. That gives them a lot of freedom musically to take chances and they do, usually to good effect.
In 1999, they released “Philadelphonic.” I have a friend who is a huge G. Love fan – really rabid about him – but he isn’t crazy about this album. It might be his least favorite, in fact. For me, this is my favorite G. Love album I have heard. I like G. Love’s loose and sloppy sound, but on “Philadelphonic” the production is tighter and the grooves are catchier. There is infectious joy in a lot of the songs and I always like hearing songs from this album come on. Check out my favorites.
- No Turning Back – This is a great opener with the percussion and stand up bass intro. The energy is great and it really gets you up for the rest of the album
- Dreamin’ – “Dreams are like fish: you got to keep on reelin’.” A great R&B/funk riff is spiced with singing rap and a bit of scratching.
- Rodeo Clowns – Jack Johnson wrote this song and eventually released it himself on 2003’s “On and On.” I like this version he did with G. Love in 1999 better.
- Numbers – For all the sloppiness of the guitars, the vocals are polished and beautiful.
- Do It for Free – The best part of this song is the warm harmony vocals at the chorus, but for some reason they don’t get to it on this sample.
- Kick Drum – This is a peaceful groove with sweet harmony vocals and foul lyrics (almost).
G. Love played a part in the rise of Jack Johnson after they became friends when surfing. I actually haven’t heard their last two albums, released in 2008 and 2009. Hearing this stuff again makes me want to look them up.
It’s starting to feel like fall where I live. We’re getting comfortable days and just starting to see some color in the trees. I’m psyched. From here through Halloween, this is my favorite time of year. Alfred Lord Tennyson said, “In the spring a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love.” I always found fall to be a more romantic season. What could be lovelier than hiking in cool autumn air with the leaves looking like stained glass above you? The holidays loom ahead. It’s starting to get cool enough at night to build a fire. No. Fall is the season for love.
With that thought, I put together another mix of love songs, this one with more modern music. I hope you like it, particularly any readers who find themselves falling in love.
- Think I’m In Love – Beck
Beck is such a genius, especially when he writes honest songs about his life. Don’t get me wrong, I love his funky, fun songs, but stuff like this and songs from “Sea Change,” for example, are moving. This is what it’s like when you’re first falling. “I think I’m in love but it makes me kind of nervous to say so.”
- Fresh Feeling – Eels
E gives us a mellow and wholesome strings-laced groove about those first few weeks of love.
- Satisfy – Me’Shell Ndegéocello
When Ndegeocello is angry she writes emotionally charged, strident songs that can be jarring. When she is in love, though, she writes gorgeous ballads like this.
- Hold You In My Arms – Ray LaMontagne
One thing you know about Ray LaMontagne if you listen to his music: he loves his woman to pieces. He has an absolutely beautiful voice and this song almost hurts.
- Sweet Thing – The Waterboys
This is, in my opinion, the best cover anyone has ever done of a Van Morrison song. I might even like it better than the original, and that is saying something. The mandolin and strings are a perfect foil for the whining vocals. I have read that the ‘Blackbird’ homage at the end of this song was a studio ad lib. Wow.
- Lovin’ In My Baby’s Eyes – Taj Mahal
The versatile Taj Mahal gives us a mellow, bluesy love song. And it’s a little prettier than ‘Big Legged Mommas Are Back In Style.’
- I’ll Make Love To You Anytime – J.J. Cale
The man who wrote ‘After Midnight’ and ‘Cocaine’ for Eric Clapton performs his own music now (and occasionally collaborates with Clapton). This is a cool love song.
- Into Your Arms – The Lemonheads
I always liked Dando’s songwriting and especially his voice. This one takes me back to college, which may be why it speaks to me.
- How Deep Is Your Love? – Jonatha Brooke
Brooke is fantastic. I always thought she was going to break through and be huge. This is a funky groove with an oozy chorus and great, bending vocals.
- Gift – Rocco DeLuca & The Burden
OK, so I wrote this up just the other day. It is a beautiful love song and I really wanted to include it in this mix. This one is all about the great vocal melody and how it fits with the lyrics.
- Passion – Dionne Farris
And speaking of talented women who I always thought would break through and be huge… Give a listen to this great track. Her vocal performance is inspiring and the lyrics lay it right out there. You really can feel the passion.
- Weight of the World – The Samples
I honestly don’t know if anyone outside of the Denver/Boulder area is familiar with The Samples. I heard them a lot when I lived out there and I always thought this was a beautiful pop song.
- Here In My Room – Incubus
They didn’t coin the phrase “Love is verb” but I like they way they use it here with solid piano and wailing guitar.
- The World Exploded Into Love – Bob Schneider
I have followed Bob Schneider for his entire career, starting with Joe Rockhead almost 20 years ago. He continues to grow as a songwriter and a few years ago he came up with this gem. People are already covering it.
- Joy Inside My Tears – Stevie Wonder
Stevie has brought a lot of joy himself, but this one is to his wife, who brought him joy. Like most of the songs on “Songs in the Key of Life,” this one is laid out in the first few minutes, but goes on for several more minutes of fantastic riffing and soloing.
- Transatlanticism – Death Cab For Cutie
I couldn’t pick another song as a closer for this mix. Sometimes these guys lose me, but this love anthem is perfect. I like how he repeats “I need you so much closer” over and over again before the big layered vocals at the end demand “So come on! Come on!”
Enjoy this mix with a hot toddy. Have a great weekend.