Saturday, May 23, 2009

Guest Stars: Raleigh and Spencer

Tony Furtado Band w/ Kelly Joe Phelps: Raleigh and Spencer

People keep recommending that I check out the jazz and delta blues fusion sound of Kelly Joe Phelps, and here's just one more reason to pursue it: a wonderfully slow and mystical blues take on American oldtime tradtune Raleigh and Spencer from the Tony Furtado Band's 2001 self-titled album, in which Tony's jambanjo and jazzy summery production mix exquisitely with Kelly Jo Phelps' gorgeous lapstyle slide guitar and vocals.

Phelps has made a name for himself as a guest and session player -- you've heard him with Tim O'Brien, Greg Brown, Bo Ramsey, Jay Farrar and Townes Van Zandt -- but it's less common to hear his voice alongside the playing. Personally, I think his vocal style rivals his prowess with the lap steel.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Guest Stars : September Song

Pascal Comelade : September Song (with Robert Wyatt)


Pascal Comelade is a French (or,I'd better say, Catalan) musician with a passion for instrumentals (he doesn't sing)and unconventional arrangements.

In this 2000 EP, dedicated to covers of pop standards played with toy instruments (along with "Knockin' On Heaven's Door", "The Sheik of Araby" and others) the only vocal track was by Robert Wyatt, legendary musician and genius, I mean the one who made my all-time favorite album (Rock Bottom), and another specialist for quirky covers of great standards (remember his version of "I'm a beliver" in 1974). He also plays the trumpet on this one.

Guest Stars: Four Leaf Clover

The Old 97's: Four Leaf Clover

The Old 97's feat. Exene Cervenka: Four Leaf Clover

"Four Leaf Clover" is the perfect example of how the right guest can enhance a track and really turn it into something special.

The song first appeared on The Old 97's 1994 debut Hitchhike to Rhome. It was a decent enough song at the time with a rolling drum beat and bit of a harder edge than the rest of the songs on the countrified album. But, even with that edge 97's vocalist Rhett Miller still sounds a little reserved. Solid... but not a standout track by any means. That's the first version of the song that is linked above.

In 1997, the band reworked the track for their classic album Too Far to Care. Here, they played up the rock side of the track even more with feedback, ramped up guitars, and a scorching vocal from Exene Cervenka. As a veteran of L.A. punk rock stalwarts X, Cervenka certainly knew how to bring a fire and energy to the track that was lacking in the original. Miller fed off that fire... peppering his own vocal with growls and howls that were absent the first time around.

Exene Cervenka's mere presence transforms the track from a forgettable filler to an essential album closing rocker.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Guest Stars: Song No. 6

Ane Brun (feat. Ron Sexsmith): Song No.6

Norwegian singer-songwriter Ane Brun teamed up with Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith for a track on her 2005 album "A Temporary Dive". The song is a love song, and one of the few marginally upbeat songs that Brun has sung, as her music usually tends to be more melancholic and filled with longing. Her voice is mesmerizing to me. It usually sounds like the flutter in her voice is out of despair, but in this track it doubles for enthusiasm.

Featuring a male vocalist in the song brings an already great song to a whole new level, making it feel more intimate and real, like a conversation between smitten lovers. Ron Sexsmith's slow laid-back vocals make a beautiful match to hers. This could be considered a duet as well, but at the same time, the song could have been successful as her song alone, and the obvious caliber of the singer chosen makes this most certainly something special.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Guest Stars: Steady Pull

Jonatha Brooke feat. Michael Franti: Steady Pull


2001's Steady Pull represented new directions for Jonatha Brooke. She had just completed a cross country move prior to recording the album and was feeling refreshed and reinvigorated in the studio.

The album itself contained many artistic leaps and experiments for Brooke. She co-produced the album, played several instruments (guitars, wurlitzer, finger bells, ukulele, piano, bass), and even arranged strings for the first time in her career. The feeling of experimentation was carried over on the album's title track as well when Brooke enlisted the help of socially conscious hip-hop artist Michael Franti. Franti's involvement is minimal on the track... mostly just a background vocal. His presence, however, lends credibility to the track that the folky Brooke may not have been able to achieve by herself.

Brooke says she just wanted the song to have a nice groove. Franti's funky vocals helped to ensure that happened.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Guest Stars: If I Could

Phish feat. Alison Krauss: If I Could


Alison Krauss was just 22, the youngest cast member of the Grand Ole Opry and two Grammys into her career when her sweet and breathy twang startled the hell out of me on this dreamy, swirling slowjam from Phish's underrated 1994 studio album Hoist.

Eventually, of course, Krauss would become the go-to sidegirl for harmonies and countrygrass credibility. But Krauss was still a true blue bluegrass voice back then, known only to the in-crowd, not yet the Grammy-sweeping cross-over artist she would become with Raising Sand. The track is gorgeous, and the boys of Phish deserve major props for correctly gauging just how much string-band legitimacy and ballad beauty would come of such a guest.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Guest Stars: Old Times Good Times

Stephen Stills: Old Times Good Times


Stephen Stills's first solo album is a buffet of guest appearances. I could post to this week's theme at least five times from this album alone, and each post would include an amazing guest appearance by a well known artist (think Eric Clapton, Cass Elliot, Ringo Starr and others). But I think out of all of the guest appearances on this album the best one has to be the performance by Jimi Hendrix on Old Times Good Times. I have always thought it was a bit odd that Hendrix, a superstar at this point in his career, didn't force himself on the song more than he did. He plays a solo, but it's not blaring and self-serving like Clapton's is on the following track, instead his contribution is more understated and supportive. But this is exactly what makes his work on this song so excellent. He adds a unique sound, a bluesy grit, that few other people could add as effectively.

Give it a listen.

Guest Stars: Galileo

Indigo Girls: Galileo


I was an active Indigo Girls fan throughout my teen years, and well into my late adolescent protogrunge period; though their first album Strange Fire and their subsequent major-label self-titled debut remain the gold standard for their dark acoustic alternative folk, in many ways, 1992 release Rites of Passage, which many ex-fans mark as the beginning of the end, was also the best of their subsequent high-production albums, most notably for the tight harmonies, full band orchestration, and percussive rhythms that pepper the disk.

My two favorite songs on that album, the one above and album denoument Let It Be Me, feature especially rich vocal mixes, starring the distinctive backup tones of both Jackson Browne and David Crosby. Their presence in the tracks themselves is light and sparse -- that's Browne on the three part harmony, and Crosby on the faint frills between the lines -- but the addition of such elder statesmen into the mix makes all the difference.