Like most everybody, I love it when my basic beliefs are confirmed by experience. I love it even more when confirming those beliefs show up my biases and prejudices as just what they are – worthless biases and prejudices. I don’t much care for country music, in fact I’ve been known to get up and leave to avoid having to listen to it. But I also believe that having an open mind and open ears is fundamentally important. So, periodically I pick up a well-thought-of album in a genre I don’t typically enjoy and try and listen to it with open ears. I heard a song by Little Big Town, liked it, looked into the band, found out they are marketed as a county band, and decided to test my open ears practice with their first album, The Road to Here. Smart move. Open ears are good, bias is not.
Little Big Town are four singer-songwriters Kimberly Schlapman, Karen Fairchild, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook who do two things exceptionally well – write songs and sing them.
The first thing that will strike you when you hear The Road to Here are the vocals. Each member of the group can sing, their voices work beautifully together, and The Road to Here is built from the ground up on their ensemble singing. Little Big Town is vocal group first and a collection of individual singers second. Moreover, they emphasize harmony vocal charts rather than unison singing (everybody sings the same note). It’s hard to write a good song with a strong vocal lead. It’s a lot harder to write a song with four intertwining vocal parts. Little Big Town hit it time and time again. “Boondocks” has the kind of lyrics that embarrass sophisticates who turn their nose up at this kind of music but the vocal harmonies are so exquisite and the hooks are so strong that the song is irresistible. And if that isn’t enough they sing a break down and then launch into a four way round for the out choruses. “A Little More You” has what first appears to be a standard lead vocal playing off a choral background until the chorus turns the word “you” into an eight note riff every fourth measure. It’s a jaw-dropper.
Little Big Town’s exceptional vocal skills are matched by their songwriting. Not only can they write killer quartet vocal charts they have a pronounced ability to fit the words to the rhythm and melody lines. They know when to stretch a word and when to hit it short and sharp so that melody, rhythm and lyrics come across as a smooth and seamless whole. When this is done well the result sounds effortlessly natural and deceptively simple. It’s not.
If I have one complaint about The Road to Here it lies in the way the album was mixed. With one exception, the vocals on all of the tracks on the album are mixed tight. This strategy works because the voices are so tightly meshed. However one track, “Bones”, was mixed by a different engineer and he used closer miking and gave each individual vocal more space in the mix. The exceptional communication these four singers have with each other isn’t lost but the individual harmony parts are sharpened. It’s a small thing but I would have enjoyed hearing more of the album mixed this way.
Before the internet allowed bands with little experience actually playing together to become overnight sensations, first albums were often career highlights because the band had perfected the songs through long practice and many live performances. The Road to Here has this sound of songs that have been refined and buffed to perfection. If you like vocal harmony, listen to this album. It’s terrific. Recommended.
“A Little More You”
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ The Live Anthology comes in two basic packages. One has 4 CDs of music. The other, which is being reviewed here has 5 CDs of music (the same 4 as in the CD-only set plus another), a Blu-Ray disc that contains all of the 62 tracks that are on the 5 CDs in both 5.1 Surround and 96K, 24-bit PCM stereo, a vinyl LP with a remastered bootleg of 4 tracks from 1976, a DVD with an unreleased documentary about the band called 400 Days made in the mid-1990s, a second DVD with an unreleased concert from 1978, a large booklet with “zomg! this band is so . . . !!!” from various people, Petty’s track-by-track comments on the tracks in the set and full details on when and where each track was recorded and who plays what on the track, and assorted other bits and pieces including silk screened stage passes and a Live Anthology blank-page notebook (?? wtf ??).
I didn’t watch the DVDs, listen to the vinyl or read the essays. I did listen to the music on the CDs and both mixes on the Blu-Ray disc. The Blur-Ray has the nice feature that you can switch back and forth between the stereo and surround mixes and it keeps you at the same point in the song. This made it possible to do an ABC comparison of the CD, high resolution stereo and surround versions by syncing the CD in it’s transport with the Blu-Ray in the Blu-Ray player. The Surround mix is very gentle with the rear speakers providing crowd noise and a much-dampened delay of the front channels in order to give a slight feeling of being in a live venue. As expected, the high resolution stereo provides greater clarity, depth, detail and dynamic range. However, this will only be apparent if you have a sound system that can reproduce the sound captured on the Blu-Ray. The recording engineers did an excellent job on The Live Anthology and the sound on the CDs is very, very good. The hi res stereo is better but you’re not getting a markedly inferior product if you buy the CDs. You are getting one less disc of music, however.
The Live Anthology is a love letter from the band to their fans. In many ways it is the polar opposite of the recently reviewed box set from Kraftwerk. With Kraftwerk you get nothing but eight of their albums remastered so that the sound is much better than what had previously been available on CD. With The Live Anthology you don’t get any of the the band’s previously released albums. Instead you get live versions (and I’m guessing most are previously unreleased) of (some of) their hits, album tracks, and covers. For many fans, this is all going to be new material.
The collection was produced by Mike Campbell, Ryan Ulyate and Petty. The lengths they went to in putting The Live Anthology together and making sure it was a box set that fans would treasure were extreme. They started with multi-track recordings of 169 live shows stretching over a 32 year period. Those shows were stored on 245 reels of 2″ analog tape and 36 500-GB hard drives. The 245 tapes had to be baked in an industrial oven at 130 degrees for 10 hours each in order to play back properly. Putting it all together they had 3,509 songs. They did rough mixes of all 3,509 (!). Played non-stop, back-to-back, that was 12 days worth of music. There were 245 different songs among the 3,509. They listened for five weeks and pulled what they considered the best version of each of the 245 songs. They evaluated all 245 and ended up with a final cut of 80 songs. These 80 songs were fully mixed (it took 6 months to do the full mixes). Petty then worked on sequencing the 80 tracks. He eliminated 19 songs because he didn’t find a way to sequence them that he liked. That left the 61 songs that are in the collection (the first track on disc one is a band introduction which puts the number of tracks in the set at 62). All of this took more than a year of work. That’s a lot of effort and the result is clear for all to hear on the discs. The Live Anthology is a brilliant collection. Sometimes obsession can be a very good thing.
Every fan of Tom Petty and Heartbreakers will want The Live Anthology. There are many ways to build a successful boxed set, but for a set designed to give fans of the band something they don’t already have it’s hard to imagine anything better than this. Tom Petty has thrown down the gauntlet to every other band with a reputation of putting on a good show. This is the way it should be done. Outstanding.
Listening to parts of The Live Anthology while working on the review I thought “This is the track I’ll add to the review”, then another track played and I thought “No, this is the one.” Then another track played and I thought “I have to have that one.” This went on for five discs of music. This is a band that’s all about the live show and The Live Anthology is a collection of what they think are their best live tracks from 32 years of performing. There’s no way one, two or ten tracks is going to cut it. So here’s two tracks from the disc that happened to be in the player as I write this sentence.
“Learning to Fly”
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance”
If having an abundance of talent, the ability to write and perform fine, sometimes great, songs, and working relentlessly on the touring circuit were enough to bring success in the music business, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals would be a household name. They started strong and have gotten better over time. This is a first-class band fronted by an exceptionally strong singer, songwriter and musician.
The band’s 2007 album This is Somewhere opened with the spectacular track “Ah, Mary”. On the one hand, I don’t think that anything on Grace Potter and the Nocturnals is as good, on the other I think the new album is markedly stronger overall than This is Somewhere. In my review of the earlier album I described the band as primarily country-oriented with a somewhat thin rock overlay and wished these emphases were reversed. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals doesn’t do the reversal but it brings the country and rock elements much more in balance with each other which is probably a better idea. I also noted in the earlier review that my lack of enjoyment of the country aspects of This Is Somewhere reflected my own tastes and that many listeners would probably prefer the band just as they were. Those listeners might not be as happy with the shift toward rock on Grace Potter and the Nocturnals but I think the balance makes for a stronger album.
Potter sings, writes or co-writes their songs, and plays acoustic and electric guitars, piano and Hammond B3 organ. Although comparison of the album photos on Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and This is Somewhere might give you the idea that she may be trying to market herself as a Hot Blonde© in the band’s continued search for the widespread recognition they deserve, all you have to do is listen to the album to know she isn’t this month’s pitch-corrected bimbo with plastic tits & great hair. Potter’s song craft and musician skills are rock solid and she is a very powerful singer. Actually, “very powerful singer” doesn’t quite get the idea across – how about King Kong in heels? Potter can not only rock and roar but she can sell a ballad which gives the band exceptional range.
In addition to Potter the band features Scott Tourney on lead and lap steel guitars, Benny Yurco on rhythm guitars, Catherine Popper on bass and drummer Matt Burr. As you would expect from a band that tours as hard as this one does, they are a very tight unit that superbly complements and supports Potter in her role as front woman.
The history of popular music is littered with great bands who had everything they needed but who didn’t make it for no discernible reason and ended up giving up in frustration. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals are a great band who have honed their skills the old-fashioned way on stage after stage in club after club. It must drive them out of their minds every time a group that has been together for a couple of months gets a glowing Pitchfork review and becomes the darlings of the blogosphere for 10 minutes until they are forced to play in front of an audience and it becomes clear they can barely play their instruments, let alone work together as a band. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals is a very good album from an accomplished professional band. Listening to it you get the sense that as good as they are, they could get even better. The world ain’t bad now but it will be better if they achieve a level of success that is commensurate with their ability and reach those heights.
“Paris (Ooh La La) from Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
About a month ago Grace Potter and the Nocturnals played a local club. I’d ordered “This is Somewhere” but it hadn’t arrived yet and I wasn’t familar with the group. The gig was at an awkward time so we decided not to go. A few days later the CD arrived and we put it on. “This is Somewhere” opens with “Ah Mary” and when it crashed through the speakers and came close to burning our house down I looked at Laura, my wife, and said “We made a big mistake.” “Ah Mary” is a roaring rock tune with a driving chorus and brilliant lyrics that Potter sings with power, attitude and serious balls. Your first thought is that it’s uncommon for a woman to sing such an open love song to another woman but then the words start to register. “She’s the beat of my heart / She’s the shot of a gun / She’ll be the end of me and maybe everyone” You realize it’s a love/hate song and you wonder just who the hell this Mary is anyway. When the band tells you in the final raging crescendo it’s both a surprise and a mind blower. “Ah Mary” is the best single song I’ve heard in a long time.
The next track, “Stop the Bus”, starts off like a dirty blues but then seques into a fairly standard issue anthemic rocker. It’s not as good as “Ah Mary” but neither is any other rock song I’ve heard in months. With the third track “Apologies” the ballads start, the CD begins to slide downhill, and the true nature of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals becomes apparent. They open like a rock band with maybe a hint of a country influence but it soon turns out it’s the other way around. They sound like a country-oriented band that is playing around with some straight out rock. For my tastes the rock works but I could do without the country twang and my problem with “This is Somewhere” is that there’s a lot more twang than bang. Long before the CD ended I was just as happy we hadn’t made the gig.
Laura is enjoying “This is Somewhere” the more we play it. I’m having exactly the opposite reaction but I expect more people will agree with Laura on this one. The band is tight, they have some serious songwriting chops and Potter is a powerful front woman. If they weren’t doing this hee-haw shit I’d like them a lot more. But I’m thinking that’s more my problem than anything else which merely means someone with different tastes may have an entirely different take on this CD. In any case, that first tune is so good I’d forgive them just about anything just to have the chance to rock out to it one more time. “Ah Mary”, indeed.
Picking the best song of the decade is a dopey thing to do but if someone were to hold a gun to my head and say “Choose or die”, this is the one I’d pick – “Ah, Mary”