Bunny Wailer – “Blackheart Man”

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Blackheart Man

Any music fan should own Bunny Wailer’s Blackheart Man.  It is an unbelievably soulful album full of conviction, passion, and truly great musicianship.  I would easily put it in a list of greatest reggae albums of all time, but it deserves exposure with fans outside of its genre. 

The playing and production are astounding.  When I listen to the album I am constantly reminded of a beautiful mosaic.  Lots of little pieces are put together to create a striking larger whole.  The record is full of interesting musical textures.  You almost feel like you could run your hands over it.  This is recording as art form.  It’s not simply trying to convey a message or song, but painting with sound.  The keyboards alone are some of my favorite on any record. One song begins with acoustic guitar.  The acoustic is manipulated ever so slightly, so that it becomes an interesting texture, something unique.  It is like they left no detail unnoticed in creating this record. 

Bunny Wailer’s voice is truly a beautiful thing.  It’s mellow, but there is a real stoicism to it.  You get the sense that he could weather any storm.  When the record touches on the political, and it is a spiritually political record, he sounds like the peace he wants to see brought about.  You have no doubt that Wailer will outlast any opressors.  The lyrics are great, but it is really the way that they are delivered that gives them their magic.  

This is the kind of record that could change conciousness.  If you love soul music, music for the heart, soul, and intellect, than this is a must. 

When I was just a kid, little children
My old man used to sing a little song
But now I’ve grown to be a man
But it still lingers deep within my soul
Oh yes it lingers deep within my soul

He say now this train it is bound to glory, this train
This train it is bound to glory this train, this train
This train it is bound to glory, This train it don’t carry no unholy
This train is bound to glory, this train

The Four Tops’ Still Waters Run Deep

The Four Tops’ album Still Waters Run Deep is an soul album that any fan of the genre should check out.  The Four Tops were not known as an album act, as they came to popularity in the singles era.  However, in keeping with the times, they wanted to make an album, a complete statement, and Still Waters Run Deep, which came out in 1970, was their chance.  The album was not a huge commercial success and it would mark their last new release for Motown.  (Surprisingly the album actually came out before Marvin Gaye’s  What’s Going On, which was the Motown album that took soul music into the realm of the concept album in the public consciousness. The Wikipeda page states that the Tops album was an influence on What’s Going On, but I haven’t seen any other info that definitively supports that, though the chronology would make sense.)

It’s a shame that this album was not more successful, and even now not widely known, as it is simply a fantastic piece of pop soul that plays like a complete piece.  Every song bleeds into the next one.  The melodies and arrangements are top notch and Levi Stubbs is as great a soul singer as anyone.  Although the album, as stated, plays as a complete piece, the topic of the songs doesn’t go too far away from the standard Motown fair.  There is something about the arrangements and the innocence the lyrics of the album that reminds me of a soul Pet Sounds.  The songs are largely reflections on human relationships.

One of the reasons I love this album, aside from the strong songwriting and excellent musicianship evident, and the always astounding singing of Stubbs, is the fact that in listening to it one can get a different outlook on one of Motown’s greatest acts. Aside from two minor hits, as Still Water (Love) and It’s All in the Game are featured on some of the Tops’ greatest hits, this album features music you haven’t heard anywhere else in a format that is a great front to back listen.  It also serves as a bridge, musically, between the more pop soul of standard Motown, and the more psychedelic and forward thinking arrangements of later Temptations and Marvin Gaye records.  (It is still extremely melodic and features many nods to 60’s pop, but it branches out in the margins through some of its production touches.)

So here you have a great album from the Motown era that has largely been forgotten.  However, this is a record that truly deserves an audience.  It was shaped by the world around it, by its immediate past, by those searching for the future.  It’s a one off that remains unique to this day.

Van Morrison’s Wavelength, Common One, and Rich Catalog

Last night I mentioned that I am going through a bit of a Van Morrison phase.  My friend Trey introduced me to this song.  It is one that, even though it appeared on one version of a greatest hits, is not as well known as many of his others.  It is sort of a strange song for Van Morrison as the production is more synthetic than a great deal of his work.  There are synthesizer noises, handclaps, distorted electric guitar, etc.  I half wonder if there was cocaine on the mixing board.  One of those songs that makes you wish you were flying down the highway with a doobie in a convertible, flying high like a mutant.  A song to lift the spirits. I haven’t seen it available in any online retailers lately.  But if you love pop music and Van Morrison, this is one that absolutely demands seeking out.

I also want to mention, as I don’t want to tie up my blog with too many Van Morrison posts, that if you are a fan of his more sprawling work, such as Astral Weeks, that you should check out his 1980 album Common One.  And although Van Morrison is too much of a soul singer to not come up with brilliant melodies, there is definitely a strong jazz influence on this album.  The last song in particular recalls moments of the Miles Davis album In a Silent Way.

Van Morrison has a rich a deep catalog, but somehow many people are only aware of his greatest hits, or classic albums like Moondance and Astral Weeks.  With his last album, 2012’s Born to Sing: No Plan B, an album that featured lyrics that were often about the state of the world, he keeps putting out exceptional work that deserves a large audience.

My original blog post stated that their were soul horns in Wavelength.  Although they are there in the background of the song near the end, they are nowhere near as prevalent as I imagined.  This error was the result of a slipshod memory!  

The Amazing Ted Hawkins

Tomorrow the Shinyribs band is going into the studio to record a song for an upcoming Ted Hawkins tribute record.  If you don’t know Ted Hawkins he is an absolutely amazing soul singer.  His first album, Watch Your Step, is especially breathtaking.  He had it all:  He had an incredible singing voice that was like Sam Cooke with more grit, he wrote uniquely interesting and personal songs, and he wrote beautiful uplifting melodies.  He could convey complex intense emotions, often with nothing more than his voice and guitar.  I’ve never seen anyone that has heard his records not like them.  He is one of the great largely unknown artists of this country.  Above is one of my favorite songs by him.

The Great Bobby Patterson

Yesterday I saw one of the best shows I have seen in awhile.  Shinyribs played The BBQ Fest at the LongCenter in Austin yesterday.  Kev had mentioned that some R&B guy named Bobby Patterson was playing after us and he was worth checking out.  It sounded interesting, but I had never heard of him, and I was exhausted after three back to back shows.  Luckily for me the headliners didn’t show up on time and Bobby Patterson’s bass player needed to use my rig.  I was originally annoyed, because like I said I was exhausted, but musicians should always help each other out.  And honestly, it was the best thing that could have happened.  The bass player offered me a 20 spot to thank me for using my rig, which I tried to turn down, but he insisted.  These guys were so good I ended up giving him the 20 spot back after the show.  I would have gladly paid $20 to see that show.  

Bobby Patterson tore that place down.  He is 70 years old and wore an outfit of black and red with red snakeskin shoes.  He was jive talking and telling stories.  He was singing sweet melodic R&B songs and screaming over the baddest funk music.  He might have spent five minutes on stage.  The rest of the time he was out in the audience playing air guitar with kids, dancing with people, pulling out moves that people half his age wouldn’t try, and cracking jokes with the crowd.  You knew you were seeing an entertainer like they just don’t make much of anymore.  A rare breed.  

I wish I had something more artful to say about him today, but my brain power is declining for the afternoon.  However, maybe it is best if I just keep it simple:  If his show comes to your town, whatever you do, don’t miss it.  

Van Halen and George Orwell

I am 34 years old and I remember a silly argument going on in music when I was younger. (There’s always a silly argument going on in music.)  When I was in my early teens, and first started playing, I used to read guitar magazines.  In these magazines there were often arguments about whether the players that were the most valid were those that were in the heavy metal genre and could shred, or those that were in the indie genre and played with more simplicity and heart.  Each side claimed their own heroes.  The metal players claimed that the indie players couldn’t play.  The indie players claimed that the metal players were all about technicality and lacked soul.

It was a silly tribal argument that probably had as much to do with haircuts as it did with music.  I was a fan of both genres, having been just old enough to be into the hair bands, but young enough to get swept away by the rise of the indie bands.  I always, and still to this day, feel like it doesn’t matter how people make music so long as they effectively communicate whatever emotion that they are trying to.

Someone like Eddie Van Halen was like Jackson Pollock with a guitar.  Throwing out a barrage of notes on the canvas and seeing what stuck.  His solos have more passion, aggression, and soul than most punks could ever dream of.  Van Halen records, especially with Roth, are high brow and low brow.  There is avant-garde playing mixed with the baser human elements of sex, anger, and fun.

Meanwhile, in any art form limitation is a powerful thing.  It can often lead to innovation.  When someone can’t do something like someone else, they often stumble onto something that is all their own.  Johnny Ramone couldn’t play anything but bar chords.  This helped lead to the invention of punk rock.  And by the way, anyone that thinks it’s easy to do what he did, try playing down stroke bar chords for an entire set.  You will experience some serious cramping in your hands.

A writer like David Mitchell, in his book Cloud Atlas, uses an innovative structure that features challenging language in several chapters.  He is writing imaginative fiction.  George Orwell was often writing essays where clarity of thought was important.  He never believed in using a complex word where a simple one would do.  It just depends on what you are trying to accomplish.  There are different tools for different forms and emotions.

All that matters in art is if it’s effective and interesting.  If I had to choose between Van Halen or the Ramones, or David Mitchell or George Orwell, I couldn’t.  All have brought value and meaning and entertainment to my life.  I’m glad I have them all.  The world is a much richer place, because these individuals chose to be themselves.