Keep or Cull – Jonah Jones’ Along Came Jonah

Born in 1909, Jonah was nearly sixty when he landed at Motown for a couple of LPs in the late 60s, starting with this one.

IMG_20200318_130341You might think, based on that title, that he does Along Comes Mary, a top ten hit for The Association.

He does not.

Instead, the jazz trumpeter does a mix of then-contemporary pop hits, jazz standards, and a couple of Motown songs.

And the results are… well, pleasant enough.

For example, here’s his take on My Girl.

 

Nice, but not revelatory.

The same is true for the rest of the songs.

IMG_20200318_130405On For Once in My Life, Jonah (who sings it) and the backing musicians slow the tempo down a bit, leaning more into the reflective nature of the lyric, and thus giving it more of a lounge sound.

On Love is Blue, Jonah does his best impersonation of Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass.

On I Say a Little Prayer, the band starts with a little allusion to Walk on By before he comes in for a measured take on the Bacharach classic.

And on The End of Our Road, he and the backing musicians, likely the Funk Brothers, very nearly veer into the kind of funk that Jr. Walker traded in, although the results here are cleaner and brighter.

In many ways, it is the epitome of a sixties album in that it gives you a survey of the current scene in a way that is clearly meant to appeal to nearly anyone.

But despite the sweetness of Jones’ tone, which does hearken back to the swing era, and the 60s arrangements, not much really stands out.

And what does is more for novelty sake, such as the string laden stroll through the Beatles Michelle, which closes out the set.

You get the sense that someone wanted Jones to be hip, but not too hip, and faithful to his legacy, but not really draw on it to his benefit.

So it never really comes on.

And that makes it a cull for me.

 

Keep or Cull – Silver Convention

Today, kids, we are putting on our dancing shoes and heading for the Silver Convention, which sounds more like a gathering of cutlery collectors than a band name.

For a brief moment, the group, which essentially started as a studio project conceived in West Germany by the writing/production team of Sylvester Levay and Michael Kunze, ruled the airwaves and the discos with a couple of really, really big hits.

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Their first hit, Save Me, was popular enough in the UK that Levay and Kunze had to put a group together, with Penny McLean, Ramona Wulf, and Linda G. Thompson serving as the Silver Connection despite the fact that different singers, including Roberta Kelly, who went on to score a few disco hits herself with Zodiacs.

But it was Fly, Robin, Fly, a song so lyrically concise at just six words that it made The Ramones seem prolix by comparison, that went to number one on the Billboard charts in late 1975.

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I won’t deny that Fly, Robin, Fly is wonderfully sublime in its very simple way, and it is kind of perverse that a song that is little more than a five-minute vamp with exhortations for a robin to fly up to the sky managed to soar up the charts.

But a little of that goofy charm goes a very long way.

Especially over the course of a long-playing record.

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Take Tiger Baby, which runs 4 minutes and change but has twice as many words as Fly, Robin, Fly but probably half the inspiration, and a tiger growl that sounds like someone snoring.

But listening to these songs, you kind of understand why there are stereotypes about German engineering because the disco grooves have a crispness, a preciseness, that makes them get over despite their rigid adherence to formula.

Once in a while, Kunze and Levay trade the disco for the bedroom, slipping into something comfy like Please Don’t Change the Chords of This Song, which you may have noticed packs more words into its title than Fly, Robin, Fly does in its five-minute run time.

But for the most part, they are content to knock out string-laden dance songs so inscrutable, it seems churlish to ask questions like what the ‘it’ is in a song like I Like it.

If you like disco and songs that don’t demand much of you beyond dancin’ and lovin’, this has certain bubblegum charms.

But outside of those contexts, the Silver loses some of its luster.

So this and the album that featured their other monster hit, Get Up and Boogie (that’s right!) are culls for me.

Keep or Cull – John O’Banion

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Thrift stores are kind of great fodder for a blog about albums.

In part because LPs tend to be priced so affordably that if you see something you don’t know, you have incentive to try it since it isn’t a huge drain on your wallet.

I had no idea who John O’Banion was before seeing this in a goodwill bin.

Based on the cover, I’d have guessed vaguely country or singer-songwriter, but nope.

Most of the songs on this 1981 Elektra album were written by Joey Carbone and/or Richie Zito.

Although Zito has worked with folks like Neil Sedaka and Elton John, he scored his biggest success producing sleek radio pop rock for folks like Heart, Eddie Money, Bad English, and Cheap Trick.

Carbone’s credentials range from session work for Rod Stewart and Cher, to music director for Star Search, to crafting the theme to It’s Gary Shandling’s Show.

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The album is very much an early 80s pop rock album.

In fact, the very first song Love You Like I Never Loved Before sounds very much in the vein of Huey Lewis and the News’ If This is It.

Many other songs vaguely remind me of Foreigner, but not quite with that band’s signature hooks, although O’Banion does sound slightly like Lou Gramm.

One or twice, the album veers more toward pop, like the vaguely post disco champagne fizz of If You Love Me or the romantic balladry of Love is In Your Eyes.

There is even a cover of Walk Away Renee that reminds me of the contemporaneous TV theme work of Mike Post, which is to say that the bittersweetly baroque 60s song becomes a bit bombastic.

Love You Like I Never Loved Before – one of seven songs with the word love in the title – was a top 40 hit, but that was about it for his chart action in the US.

He acted a bit, recorded a bit more, and died just a few days shy of his 60th birthday in 2007.

That story is kind of sad.

But this album doesn’t really resonate with me.

It is well crafted, but nothing really stands out or transcends the formulations of radio friendly pop rock.

And so it’s a cull for me.

 

 

 

Keep or Cull: The Carpenters – The Singles 1974-1978

IMG_20200220_150544Karen Carpenter had one of the most beautiful voices in pop music.

It was rich and resonant.

Somewhat melancholy.

And yet there was a sweetness, a lightness, to it that prevented rainy days and Mondays from getting you too down.

Because in anyone else’s hands, a song like the one I am referencing could have turned very bleak.

Carpenter was half of The Carpenters, a duo that really eptiomized 70s pop radio.

Politely produced to the point where it was almost scrubbed of any character, their songs really got over not just because they were drawing on talents like Paul Williams but also because Carpenter’s contralto gave them weight, or import.

She made them come alive.

And yet, she thought of herself as a drummer who sang.

But that voice brought her out from behind her kit into the spotlight, something she was not initially comfortable with.

That voice helped make The Carpenters a constant presence on the charts, starting with their cover of Ticket to Ride, a modest hit in 1969, through to their last minor hit, a cover of Beachwood 4-5789.

In fact, they had enough hits that, just four years after their first one, The Carpenters were anthologized by A&M with The Singles: 1969-1973.

Just five years later, another compilation appeared, this time gathering up everything from 1974-1978.

IMG_20200220_150613According to Discogs, it was released in the UK, Canada, and a couple of other countries, but not the U.S., where sales of their records had tapered off considerably.

Looking at the track listing, you can kind of see why.

There is one indisputable classic here that could and should have been on that first set of hits.

I Won’t Last a Day Without You.

Written by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols, that song was initially released in 1972 on A Song for You, but it was not released as a single until 1974.

So it really does belong on the first set.

The other songs on here are not at that level, but there are a couple that are relatively nice, such as Sweet, Sweet Smile, which Juice Newton co-wrote, intending to cut it herself.

And there is the absolutely odd choice of Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft, a song written and recorded by Klaatu, a band that, for a brief moment, was thought to be The Beatles incognito.

But with one notable exception, nothing quite sticks with you the way that the songs on the first set of singles.

Even Karen seems a bit lost in the increasingly slick productions to the point where the longing and bittersweetness that added ache to songs like Superstar or Sing has been smoothed over, and you can hear why some critics dismissed them as saccharine, and why A&M declined to put this out in the U.S.

The selections just lack the tension, the sentiment, the depth that Karen applied to make The Carpenters stand out from other glossy radio fare.

If you want to hear her at her finest, that first singles collection is a must.

With every sha-la-la-la, every whoa-whoa-whoa, she makes it feel like yesterday once more.

So this one is a cull for me.

 

 

 

Keep or Cull – Renaissance’s Azure d’Or

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First up, Renaissance, a band that, even in the twisty world of prog rock, have a complicated history.

Formed from the ashes of The Yardbirds, the original lineup featured Keith Relf and Jim McCarty (as well as Keith’s sister), but the band started disintegrating before completing its second album, Illusion.

The then-keyboardist, John Hawken, brought in a couple musicians, including Michael Dunford, from his previous group,  Nashville Teens to try and finish that album

And then the original band, without Hawken, regrouped to do more work on it.

By the third album, Prologue, there were no original members at all, although McCarty contributed material.

As did Dunford, who would rejoin the band a couple of years later.

Confused?

Well, the original Renaissance, except for Keith Relf, who had passed away, reunited in the mid 70s as Illusion.

If the story of the band is very much like that of any prog rock band, the sound was somewhat unique.

Unlike pretty much every prog rock band, Renaissance was not entirely dominated by men.

Annie Haslam was their vocalist.

And many of their lyrics were written by Betty Thatcher, and that combination made their best material stand out from, say, Genesis or Yes.

Azure d’Or was their ninth album, and their last for Sire.

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You could be forgiven for thinkng that they are some kind of sketch comedy group based on that photo.

Azure d’Or was released in 1979, but apart from some synthesizer colorations, you’d never know it.

And it certainly doesn’t sound like anything you’d expect from the label that signed or licensed artists like The Ramones, The Replacements, Echo & the Bunnymen, The Smiths, and Madonna.

Azure d’Or is the sound of a band trapped in amber.

Something preserved.

But not like Lark’s Tongue in Aspic.

There is a quaintness about it.

A sense that it was recorded half a decade earlier, unearthed, tatted out with some synths, and sent out in the world with fingers crossed.

But between the production and the material, it didn’t connect with me.

It’s pretty, but it doesn’t really have that otherness that defined other prog bands like King Crimson, Genesis, and Yes.

It’s all smooth, pretty, and it settles comfortably into the background.

The only thing tactile about it is the cover, which has raised textures.

Otherwise, it doesn’t seem like what you’d associated with Sire Records.

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Of course, Sire had been around for several years before it filled its roster with artists like Talking Heads, Madness, and The (English) Beat, and for much of its early years, it had licensed a bunch of odd UK artists, including Renaissance, so there is a whole other history that, if you followed that, would make its punk and new wave titles seem odd.

I played this a few times and I cannot remember any aspects of it a few days on, except that it was a bit too well produced, a bit too pretty, a bit too elegant to resonate with me.

Don’t get me wrong, Annie’s singing is exemplary, the musicians are accomplished, and so there is clear talent on display.

But the songs are a bit too ethereal.

And the band sounds like it has tapped out it’s creative potential a bit.

In fact, the band splintered following the album’s release.

There have been subsequent Renaissance albums by various combinations of members, but I haven’t heard them.

I do have a few albums that precede this one, so now I want to revisit those and see how they sound.

At some point.

I have thousands of others to choose from.

And I add more regularly.

So this will be a long ongoing project.

But the verdict on this one is to cull it.