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  • Writer's pictureNeil Rajala

ALBUMS WORTH A SPIN: Mid-Winter Winners

A short month, but quite a few new releases grabbed my attention. I wanted to give the last week’s new stuff time to sink in, so this is posting a few days later than planned. Here’s the stuff that’s sticking around and I gotta say, jazz had itself a month. I couldn't leave either of those marvelous records out.

• Brad Mehldau, Your Mother Should Know: Brad Mehldau Plays The Beatles (2/10) – Brad is one of a remarkably talented group of jazz musicians who all hit it big in the 1990s and are still going strong today. Christian McBride, Joshua Redman, Branford Marsalis, et al, have successfully made the move from being hot young upstarts to respected elders now that they’re hitting their 50s and 60s.

Mehldau is the mad scientist pianist of the group; a creative genre-hopper and bold improvisor. This time out he tackles the world’s most familiar song catalog as solo piano arrangements, in front of a small studio audience in Paris. The first time I played Your Mother Should Know, the opening “I Am the Walrus” gave me an unexpected and welcome flashback. The combination of the live recording's atmosphere and Brad's playing technique sounds so much Keith Jarrett’s seminal Köln Concert I thought I was listening to an outtake. But it’s an alternate universe version of the Köln Concert where Jarrett can’t get a Beatles tune out of his head and decides to work it into the improvisation. I’m still amazed. The rest is as delightfully surprising as the opener, in a variety of compelling ways. “I Saw Her Standing There” is a rolling, ragtime-flavored, bit of boogie-woogie. “Baby’s in Black” is slowed down to caress Lennon's beautiful melody. “Here There and Everywhere” was crying out for an interpretation like this, Brad's gently comping improv never loses the thread. In fact, that’s the genius of this record. While Mehldau certainly takes some creative diversions throughout, he never strays too far from the familiar, brilliant melodies; a balancing act deftly performed. Oh, and for the encore he throws in Bowie's "Life on Mars." Brilliant stuff.

EARWORM: "For No One" - I could've picked any of them, they're all beautiful and surprising.

• Shonen Knife, Our Best Place (2/17) – There have been a lot of rotating chairs in Osaka's Shonen Knife since they first arrived in 1982. The heavily Ramones and Green Day influenced pop-punk trio has seen nine different members come and go, with the only constant being singer/guitarist Naoko Yamano. They're huge in Japan, with a significant cult following around the rest of the globe. Kurt Cobain was a big enough fan to invite them to open for Nirvana in Europe pre-Nevermind. The world didn’t really know yet who Nirvana was at that point, and Shonen Knife didn’t know who Kurt was at all, but they took the gig and it ignited their popularity outside of Japan.

Our Best Place is Shonen Knife’s 24th album and, truth be told, it doesn't stray very far from the previous 23. They seem to have an endless supply of insanely catchy power hooks in them, and their lyrics (bouncing back and forth between Japanese and English) celebrate the many delights of modern consumer culture, especially the glories of junk food. Naoko sings like it’s all just so wonderful, and completely irresistible. Every time I hear them I think they’re having more fun than just about every other band out there. If you’re curious, Our Best Place is a fine record to start with. I also have a soft spot for their tribute to their biggest influence, Osaka Ramones, from 2011. They were born to play those songs alongside their own.

EARWORM: "Spicy Veggie Curry" - A dish they obviously love enough to sing about. Who knew its name would make such a great pop hook?

• Laurie Styvers, Gemini Girl: The Complete Hush Recordings (2/17) – The very definition of an obscure, coulda-been, maybe shoulda-been, career. I’ll tell Laurie's story as succinctly as I can:

A young woman from Texas moves to London in the late 60s. because her father is transferred there for work. She attends the American School and starts a folk band with her friends that actually gets to make a record. Her father is transferred back to the U.S. before the album’s release, so her band, Justine, leaves her photo off the album cover. Justine, the album, has enough success in the U.K. that she moves back to London, and the band promptly breaks up.

Hush Productions likes Laurie’s voice and songwriting enough to believe there’s a solo star to be groomed, so they bring her into their London studio for her first album, 1972’s Spilt Milk. The album is released by Warner Brothers in the U.S., the label brings her back to the States for some gigs and promotion, which fails to ignite her career. After Laurie leaves the music business and goes back to college, Spilt Milk’s first single, “Beat the Reaper,” catches a bit of spark on the U.K. charts. Hush brings her back to London and records her second, and last, album, 1973’s The Colorado Kid. It gets excellent reviews, sells poorly, and there's no U.S. release this time.

Laurie’s music career ended there. She spent the rest of her life back in Texas, running an animal sanctuary with her father. Laurie tragically passed away in 1998, succumbing to hepatitis at 46. Now the miracle of modern tape vault excavation brings us this very fine and largely unheard collection. Like the title says, it's everything Laurie recorded in London for Hush Productions. Both solo albums and all the outtakes and demo recordings. I have grown to love it all, and the poignant story behind it.

It’s easy in some ways to see why she didn’t become the star Hush thought she would be. This was the 1970s, when strong, independent female songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Carole King were finding huge commercial success and changing the pop landscape. Hush decided to make Laurie’s albums more like the sweeter, orchestrated female pop of the 1960s, so they likely sounded a bit dated even when they were released (especially to radio programmers). There are big, sweeping choruses with strings that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Carpenters or Dionne Warwick record. At the same time, Laurie’s lyrics were more introspective and less sunny than those earlier pop records, so the sound and words weren't a perfect fit. They likely would have benefited from arrangements more in keeping with the times, as the outtakes and stripped-down demos clearly show. “Beat the Reaper” should’ve been a hit radio single in either version, on both sides of the Atlantic. The song that gives the album its title, “Gemini Girl,” is even more remarkable – the huge piano chord hook that swells through the final arrangement stopped me in my tracks on the first listen. And the second, and the third.

I’ve played the whole collection start to finish several times now. There’s an overall familiarity to it that tells me Laurie wasn’t reinventing the wheel with her songs, like Joni and Carole and others were, but she was certainly creating top shelf classic pop music. And did I mention she's a gifted singer? I've also been mentioning Joni and Carole a lot because Laurie's voice reminds at times me of both. I’m truly glad to have found her music and I expect to keep playing it. And hoping she'll find a few more fans now that it's out in the streaming universe.

EARWORM: "Beat the Reaper" - Might as well start with the "hit."

• Buster Williams, Unalome (2/24) – In the long tradition of excellent jazz combo and female singer. All awfully pretty stuff – melodic but sizzling horns, a grooving, gliding foundation of piano chords, some sassy vibraphone over the top, the bandleader’s beautifully rich bass, and smooth, smoky vocals from Jean Baylor, formerly of the R&B duo Zhane´.

Buster’s been doing this a while, he turns 81 next month. He’s played with the modern greats like Hancock, Tyner, Gordon, and Shorter, but his main claim to fame in the jazz world is as an accompanist behind some of the greatest female singers in the game - Nancy Wilson, Shirley Horn, Helen Merrill, etc. When he decides to gather up some friends to make the kind of old-school jazz vocal record he loves, few do it better.

EARWORM: "I've Got the World on a String" - A classic sound requires a classic song.

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Mar 11, 2023

You beat Pitchfork to the punch:. I'd never heard of this gal.


Mar 09, 2023

My picks:

Sly & The Family Stone: 'There's A Riot Going On

John Cale: 'Paris 1919'

Yoko Ono: 'Approximately Infinite Universe'

Childish Gambino: '3.15.20'

Neil Rajala
Neil Rajala
Mar 09, 2023
Replying to

That list is pretty much the definition of eclectic.

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