Monday, November 30, 2015

Update re: Missing Songs (R.I.P. Divshare)

Those of you who have enjoyed the Kool Kovers blog site should know (or have already discovered) that the featured songs, which were a key element to the articles, no longer show up there. This is due to the extinction of the Divshare file storage website, which has vanished from the intertubes, along with all of the content that everyone stored there. A most frustrating development for all concerned.

I am evaluating the time-consuming task of updating all of the articles by re-uploading all of the relevant files, and tweaking the embedding links in each article. This will (ahem) take a while, so I'm trying to decide if it's going to be worth all the work. I may try reviving a couple of articles, just to see how the process goes.

Any suggestions for a reliable, online file storage service that has an Mp3 widget available (preferably with the option of turning off downloading) would be gratefully appreciated.

My warmest thanks to all Kool Kovers readers, past and present.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Good Night... and Godspeed

Dear friends o' the blog,

You may have noticed that there hasn't been a new feature article on the blog for some time now. That's because I've been a busy boy with real world things. I am currently working on no less than 3 band projects(!). I am also getting my new business, Wire & Wood Guitar Maintenance, up and running. These new enterprises are now commanding my time and resources, though in a positive way. I am reminded of why it's important to be careful what we wish for. Sometimes, abundance can be its own burden, yet I remain grateful.

I do have a backlog of ideas for songs to feature in blog articles, so it's not for lack of inspiration. It's just that the average article takes me a good 8-12 hours (at least) to research, compile, write and edit. My time is now at a premium, and the blog doesn't bring me any income. It never has.

I will continue to post articles and reviews on the blog when I can squeak out the time, and find the incentive to write at length. It will just be a lot less frequently than I would like. No matter what, I do plan to continue posting Kool Kovers on Facebook, as it's a smaller context and much easier to keep up with. So, bookmark that page!

My sincerest thanks go out to all of you who have enjoyed the Kool Kovers blog, and have voiced your support. I am indebted to every single one of you. Be kind to all, let the music play, and keep it sunny!

Bill Sammon

Friday, February 27, 2015


Joni Mitchell, 1973 by Henry Diltz
If you ask different people what their favorite Joni Mitchell album is, the answer will likely depend on their primary preferred musical genre. If they enjoy Jazz, they'll pick "Hejira" or "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter". Folkies will go for earlier classics like "Blue" and "Ladies Of The Canyon", and those who like Rock will almost always choose "Court & Spark" as their go-to Joni album, although some crossover rebels will pick "For The Roses" or "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns". All are fine choices, as Joni Mitchell had an ever-evolving run of musical creativity and profound originality that engaged several different audiences; confusing some while enthralling others, often simultaneously.

Following the success of "For The Roses" in late 1972, Mitchell decided to spend the whole of 1973 writing and recording a new album that revealed her growing interest in new sounds, particularly those involving Jazz. Her stage appearances were far fewer than in previous years, as Joni performed a grand total of 3 shows in '73. She spent the majority of that year creating "Court & Spark", her 6th album, which was released in January of 1974.

There's no arguing that "Court & Spark" was the record that took her already successful career to superstar heights. Both critics and the public enthusiastically embraced the album, and success was reaffirmed when a 45 of "Help Me", was released in March. It received heavy radio airplay and became Mitchell's first and only Top 10 single in the Billboard charts, peaking at #7 on the Hot 100 in the first week of June, and reaching #1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary charts. "Court & Spark" went on to be a big seller that year, peaking at #2 on the Billboard album charts, and holding that position for four weeks. It was kept from the top spot by three other albums that reached #1 during that time: Bob Dylan's "Planet Waves", Barbra Streisand's "The Way We Were" and John Denver's Greatest Hits. The album nonetheless became the pinnacle of Mitchell's commercial success.

At the 1975 Grammy Awards, "Court & Spark" was nominated for Album Of The Year honors, which went to Stevie Wonder's "Fulfillingness' First Finale". The single "Help Me" was also nominated for Record Of The Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, but didn't win either. Perhaps as a consolation prize, or perhaps not, another track from the album, "Down To You", did take home a Grammy in the category of Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s). It's not like the Grammys have any sort of reputation for being out of touch and missing the boat on anything, but truly, Stevie was on quite a roll in the 70's.

"Court & Spark" explored plenty of interesting new territory as the grooves wound their way through the album. But at the end of Side 2, things took a swingin' comic turn with the rapid fire lyric of "Twisted", a perfect album closer that lent a sly touch of needed humor to these wonderful, but fairly serious musical proceedings. "Twisted" gave as much, or even more of a clue to Joni's newfound path than the other songs on the album did. It even included a brief cameo from Cheech & Chong, whose pothead humor was, pardon the expression, peaking at the time. "Twisted" fast became a fan favorite. I well remember a group of girls on our high school bus singing it to each other at the top of their lungs, and laughing like the giggly schoolgirls they were. I'll bet they still sing along with it to this day.

Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks, Annie Ross
"Twisted" was lovingly adapted by Joni from the original recording by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, a popular vocal trio that had a relatively short run together, but made a giant impact on how vocals could be used in Jazz. Furthering the pioneering work of Ella Fitzgerald, their harmony work evolved into a style they called Vocalese. The idea behind their technique was to compose real lyrics and match them to written out instrumental solo parts, which was an arresting and innovative thing to hear at the time. To match up scat singing with precise lyrical poetry was far more difficult than it sounds.

Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross applied their style beyond the usual intimacy of a small combo to full big band arrangements. Their sharp and witty vocals, energetic delivery, and stupendous harmonies took the Jazz world by storm, making instant stars of the three performers and inspiring a host of similar acts, such as The Hi-Los, The King Sisters, and eventually, The Manhattan Transfer, who would likely not have existed in the form they did without the influence of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. (The Transfer did a terrific album called "Vocalese" in 1985 that featured both Jon Hendricks and Bobby McFerrin).

Beginning as a duo in the mid-50's, Lambert and Hendricks decided to take on the challenging music of Count Basie. Their daring plan called for the use of a 12 man vocal choir to recreate full Basie arrangements, with one singer representing one instrument. Unable to find enough talented vocalists who could sight read music, they decided to hire studio singers and contacted Jazz vocalist Annie Ross to coach them. The results were disastrous and the idea of using a choir was dropped. Unwilling to give up, Lambert and Hendricks decided to experiment with the relatively new process of studio multi-tracking to create the same effect. They asked Ross to help. Ross could not sight read music but knew the original Basie recordings by heart.

When their debut recording, "Sing A Song Of Basie" was finally released in 1957 by ABC/Paramount, it became a smash hit. An equally successful follow-up album ensued, with Basie himself supporting the trio. The three singers were now in high demand. In 1959, they decided to take a different direction. Realizing the limits of multi-tracking for live performance, they abandoned it and hired a rhythm section. The resulting effort earned them even greater accolades. The trio then recorded four more albums together on the Columbia label, and also pursued solo projects.

By 1962, Annie Ross had tired of touring and called it quits. Lambert and Hendricks choose Yolande Bavan for the impossible job of replacing Ross. Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan recorded three albums for RCA. None were as successful as those of the previous trio, and the group broke up in 1964. Sadly, Dave Lambert was killed in a car accident in 1966. Jon Hendricks continues to perform. Annie Ross also continued singing and working in films.

Here is the original 1960 recording of "Twisted" by Lambert, Hendricks, and mostly, Ross. The music was composed by Wardell Gray, and Annie Ross wrote the scatty lyric. Enjoy!

"Twisted" can be found on this excellent CD reissue at Amazon. It's a good one to have, as it contains 3 of their best Columbia albums in one reasonably priced 2 disc set. There's also an interesting import boxed set that's certainly affordable, but I can't vouch for the packaging or sound quality. Either way, the innovative music of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross is well deserving of your time and effort to seek out and immerse yourself in.

Much like Bob Dylan's "Blood On The Tracks", Joni Mitchell's "Court & Spark" is a terrific place to begin your collection of her work, as you can proceed either forward or back from there. Some of her earlier works like "Blue", "Hejira", "Ladies Of The Canyon" and of course, "Court & Spark" have already been reissued on 180 gram vinyl through Rhino/Warner Brothers.

If you should happen to have none of Joni's amazing recordings on your shelves, you may want to take the plunge and pop for this wonderful 10 disc box set that contains all of her recordings for Reprise and Asylum, packaged in mini LP jacket reproductions, and all of them freshly spiffed up sonically for your enjoyment. You'll need a magnifier to read the lyrics, but less than $38 including shipping, that's a per-disc price you shouldn't pass up.

For those of you that are fans of Joni's earlier, more Folk-oriented work, you'll want to check out the the recently released "Live At The Second Fret", a 1966 coffeehouse performance recorded by Philadelphia's Temple University radio station WRTI. The audio isn't perfect, but still rather good, considering the age of the source tapes. It's circulated for decades as a bootleg, but is just now getting a semi-official release. Just the same, I'd pick it up before someone changes their mind and files an injunction.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Review: Beyond Belief - A Tribute To Elvis Costello

As I asked in a previous article, who could have guessed that out of all the new acts that popped up every week back in the Punk / New Wave era of the late 70's, that it would be Elvis Costello who would still be turning out meaningful work and touring regularly nearly 40 years on? I might have picked Joe Jackson, but what did I know? I loved the first 5 or 6 Elvis Costello albums, and still do, along with much of his later work. What I didn't know then was how much the brilliant work of bassist Bruce Thomas of The Attractions would influence my own bass playing over time. I consider that a bonus.

The arrival of a new tribute album dedicated to the songs of Elvis Costello is a surprise in the sense of how overdue it is. It's curious that no one had thought of doing a project like this, on this level, before now. The only other ones I can think of were a 2010 indie band collection that flew way under the radar, and an album assembled by the Rhino label in the late 90's that was just a compilation of tunes Costello wrote for other artists, and did not feature songs recorded specifically for that album. So they only came close. This one hits the bullseye squarely. It's the Elvis Costello tribute album we've all been waiting for. The kicker is that it manages to deliver consistently high quality recordings along with ear popping quantity; a rare achievement indeed. Co-produced by longtime Costello fans Olivia Frain and John Borack, this collection features independent artists putting their own spin on Elvis Costello classics and some essential deep cuts. Borack also produced one of my favorite tribute albums, the long out of print and now collectable Bubblegum compilation, "Right To Chews".

In keeping with Elvis Costello's own history of cramming a lot of songs onto an album, ("Get Happy" and "Taking Liberties" each had 20 songs on a single vinyl LP), "Beyond Belief: A Tribute To Elvis Costello" features a whopping 50 songs by 50 bands spread out over 3 CDs. Even with that much to choose from, Costello has written so much good material over the last three decades or so that it would not be difficult to have included at least 1 or 2 more discs worth of cover songs, and still keep the quality level high. But really, I'm delighted with 50. It's a nice round number.

I've been listening to "Beyond Belief" for the last couple of weeks and I can't believe how consistently good it is, to the point where it's been difficult to remain critically objective. Even a single CD of 10- 20 tunes will have at least a couple that may not work for you, or even rub you wrong. But here, we have 50 songs over 3 CD's, and I haven't heard one track that made me say "OK, that's just wrong". The clear majority of the musicians here have taken the original recording as a guide, and played it as they would play it. That doesn't sound like much of a statement, but the key is that when they play the song, they sound like themselves, while fully respecting the song's integrity. Very few, if any of the recordings rely solely on mimicry, but those that do have it, offer their share of Costello-isms with a sincere affection.

The evolution of Elvis
Despite the ample evidence that Costello has proven to be a brilliant lyricist and a most musical composer, and having done some co-writing with the likes of Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach, I know there are some folks who just can't seem to get past either the sound of his voice, or some of the knottier complexities of his more advanced music. I can understand and appreciate that point of view. It is with that in mind that I will suggest that an album of well executed cover versions, such as this one, might prove a fine way to nudge someone who is on the fence about Costello's music to listen a little further, and hear some of the things that the musicians doing the covers have heard in the songs. It's an exploration well worth your time, and theirs.

Some of my favorite tracks include the Everly-esque vocal harmonies on "Brilliant Mistake" by Dennis Schocket & Cliff Hillis, and the faithful recreations of David Myhr's "Veronica", "(I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea" by The Stars Explode, and "Beyond Belief" by Nelson Bragg & Ken Cleveland. Honeychain rocks their energetic and crunchy version of "This Year's Girl". Brandon Schott's fine orchestral take on "Riot Act" explores the compositional and dynamic potential of the original. The punchy brass parts on "Pump It Up" by The Rubinoos would make it a dance floor packer for any live band with a horn section. I also enjoyed the brave and creative Doo-Wop vocals of "Blame It On Cain" by Jamie & Steve, the sultry groove on Kelley Ryan's "Monkey To Man", the acoustic mood shift of "I Hope You're Happy Now" by Smithereens bassist, Severo Jornacion, and the soulful bounce of Gail George's reading of "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror". That's only about 20% of the album, but any omission here does not infer anything negative. It's just that there's so much terrific music on the album that a track-by-track review would be an overly lengthy read. I'm sure you will discover your own favorites.

Here's a brief sampler of 3 random songs from the album. Enjoy.

It must be said that I like the packaging of the discs. The artwork is appropriately eye catching, in a nod to EC's classic late 70's cover art, but the producers were also smart to go with a glossy and reasonably sturdy paperboard wallet design that holds the 3 CD's and a booklet. I much prefer this design over the clunky, shelf space hogging multi-boxes of old, or the slim plastic triple cases that crack if you look at them cross-eyed. This is an aesthetically solid design that uses no plastic, and was likely a wise choice for the album's production budget as well.

I would be greatly remiss if I didn't tell you that 100% of the proceeds from the release will go to the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation, which was founded by the late composer, Michael Kamen. The foundation helps put musical instruments into the hands of children in underserved areas. This fundraising is going towards a great cause, which is all the more reason for you to pick up this album promptly.

You can acquire the album at the Spyderpop Records website, which has links to buy the CD direct from the label, or you can visit CD Baby to listen to samples and choose the CD's or the digital download. The CD edition is currently limited to 1000 copies, so act now. There's also a 3 hour radio program on Soundcloud, The Time Machine, featuring DJ Michael McCartney playing many of the tracks from the album, along with a phone interview with co-producer John Borack.

This album provides further reinforcement of my theory that independent producers and artists will outperform major labels on tribute projects like this every time. "Beyond Belief" is clearly a labor of love, and a serious contender for Best Tribute Album of 2015, even though it's only February. It also happens to be one of the best tributes to the music of any one artist that I've yet seen. I understand that Costello himself is aware of the project, and is no doubt pleased. If you enjoy the songs of Elvis Costello to any extent, then this exceptional tribute is well deserving of an immediate spot in your collection, and plenty of spins in your CD player.