Album #10: ‘Lyle Lovett and His Large Band’

I’m not exactly sure when I first heard “Lyle Lovett and His Large Band,” Lovett’s third album, but it was surely within a year or so of its 1989 release. For a long time I thought his fourth album, “Joshua Judges Ruth” (1992), was his best. But I relistened to both before writing this post, and though I love both albums, “Large Band” is the one that sticks with me.

It’s also the album that remains the backbone of his live shows. The Large Band is an old-style Texas swing band. Their musicianship is impeccable. If you think Lovett’s albums tend to be overproduced, you really need to go to a concert. These musicians are every bit as good and precise in person as they are on record. And they swing.

As for the album itself, it’s divided into two halves, as albums sometimes were before CDs and streaming. Side A is with the full band, and if I have a complaint, it’s that it doesn’t sound much like Texas swing; it’s more like the big-band music your grandparents listened to. That said, the songs are terrific. “Here I Am” (“If it’s not too late, make it a cheeseburger”) and “What Do You Do/The Glory of Love” (a duet with Large Band stalwart Francine Reed) are staples of his concerts.

Side B is all country, including his cover of “Stand By Your Man” (included in the movie “The Crying Game”) and songs that have become Lovett standards, like “I Married Her Just Because She Looks Like You,” “If You Were to Wake Up” and “Nobody Knows Me.” Lovett’s range consists of about three notes — but he knows how to make the best of his limitions, sounding sly or heartbroken depending on what the song calls for.

Starting with “Joshua Judges Ruth,” Lovett expanded into gospel, and the Large Band more explicitly embraced Texas swing. An especially good example of the latter is “That’s Right (You’re Not from Texas),” which is on “The Road from Ensenada” (1996).

Lovett is one of those rare talents who drove me to get all of his albums. I’ve heard almost every one of them, and each has something to offer. My wife and I have seen him three times, all in outdoor venues — the last in August 2017 at a winery near Rockport, Maine. The highlight of that show came near the end, when he brought on a gospel choir he’d bused in from Boston and performed a lengthy gospel set.

Lovett always comes across as humble and grateful for the opportunity to make a living from music. His songwriting may have faded, but he remains a vibrant, relevant performer. We’d go see him every summer if we could.

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Album #11: John Prine, ‘The Missing Years’

As with Tom Waits, Van Morrison and a few of the others on this list, I didn’t tune in to John Prine until his career was well under way. In 1991, songs from his remarkable album “The Missing Years” began popping up on the radio, and I liked them enough to buy the CD. It is a wonderful piece of work, warm, funny and wistful, showing off Prine at his best.

The title was in part a play on Prine’s five-year absence from recording — but it also echoes the last song on the album, “Jesus The Missing Years,” a hilarious meditation on what Jesus may have been up to during all those years between childhood and his public ministry. But that song is a trifle — the rest of the album consists of more substantial fare, alternating between solo acoustic songs and full-band workouts. The highlights are “All the Best,” “The Sins of Memphisto,” “Take a Look at My Heart,” “Everything Is Cool” … actually, everything on the album is pretty great.

“The Missing Years” was Prine’s first album since the death of his longtime friend and producer Steve Goodman. Howie Epstein, the bassist in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, lent Prine a crisper, more pop-oriented sound without sacrificing any of Prine’s rootsiness. Epstein also brought in a raft of guest singers, including Bruce Springsteen and Bonnie Raitt. Unfortunately, Epstein’s hack tendencies came to the fore on Prine’s 1995 follow-up, “Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings,” which has some fine songs but is marred by a generic rock sound. (It does have the greatest album cover of all time.) Prine recorded only sporadically after that.

Prine was something of a legend from the beginning of his career in the 1970s, when he was hailed as a “new Dylan” — like so many others, including Springsteen. I had long been smitten with Bonnie Raitt’s version of his song “Angel from Montgomery.” “The Missing Years” sent me back into Prine’s catalog. But though he was a strong songwriter right from the start, I’d argue that “The Missing Years” is his best album. His singing, thin and unattractively smug when he was in his 20s, had mellowed into something deeper and more empathetic. And though the young Prine was justly celebrated for wise-beyond-his-years songs like “Hello in There,” he was also capable of cranking out a nasty piece of work like “Donald and Lydia,” which cruelly mocks two young losers for no discernible reason. By contrast, “The Missing Years” is the work of someone who sounds like you’d enjoy having a few beers with to discuss the meaning of life.

In poor health for many years, Prine died of COVID-19 back in April. We were fortunate enough to see him perform in Boston in 2018; he was in surprisingly fine voice and in even finer spirits. If you get a chance, check out his two albums of duets with female singers on classic country songs, “In Spite of Ourselves” (1999) and “For Better, or For Worse” (2016). Also worth a listen is his final album, “The Tree of Forgiveness” (2018), his last collection of original songs.

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Album #12: Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’

As far as I was concerned, Van Morrison was just a voice on the radio. I liked some of his stuff, not all of it. I wasn’t motivated to buy any of his albums. If I had to describe him, I’d have said he was, well, OK.

But I’d heard about an album he’d made near the beginning of his career that never got played on the radio and that supposedly established him as a genius on the order of Bob Dylan or the Beatles. So on the same day in 1990 that I was picking up Tom Waits’ “Franks Wild Years” in the used-CD bin at Tower Records, I decided to take a chance on Morrison’s “Astral Weeks.”

Released in 1968, “Astral Weeks” is mostly acoustic jazz/folk/rock with a first-rate band anchored by the bassist Richard Davis. It is an intensely spiritual record, explicitly on the title track, implicitly on the rest. The melodies are simple and repetitive, giving Morrison’s singing — improvisational and heartfelt — plenty room to stretch out. Morrison supposedly didn’t like the strings that were added later, but I disagree.

I’m nothing but a stranger in this world
I got a home on high
In another land
So far away
So far away
Way up in the heaven

The most fully realized songs on “Astral Weeks” are the title track, “Cypress Avenue” and “Madame George,” which transport you — as Morrison sings — to “another time, in another place.” Overall, “Astral Weeks” is so much better than anything else Morrison recorded that you are left in awe, wondering where it came from. And we’re talking about a musician who’s recorded many fine albums over the years.

There’s a wild backstory to it as well. Morrison wrote and rehearsed much of the album while in Cambridge and Boston while in hiding amid a nasty dispute over the rights to his recordings following his big 1967 hit, “Brown Eyed Girl.” Ryan Hamilton Walsh wrote it up for Boston magazine in 2015; he later expanded it into a book.

“Astral Weeks” is a gift from above.

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Album #13: Tom Waits, ‘Franks Wild Years’

My earliest exposure to Tom Waits was in the 1970s, when I saw him on television performing “Step Right Up.” He struck me as an obnoxious hipster, and I paid little attention to him for many years.

Then, in 1990, I was browsing through the used CDs at Tower Records and came across Waits’ “Franks Wild Years,” as well as No. 12. I was in the midst of getting over a bad period in my life, and something about “Franks” appealed to my dark side. I hadn’t heard any of the songs. Maybe I had read something about it.

It proved to be a smart decision. “Franks Wild Years,” which came out in 1987, was the soundtrack for a play that disappeared not long after its debut. It features outrageous percussion, a pump organ that sounds like something you’d hear on a 1930s radio drama, accordion, sound effects (including a rooster that, as I later learned, turns up on just about every Waits album) and Waits’ otherworldly singing, with seemingly a different voice for every song. Waits wrote every song either solo or with a collaborator; his wife, Kathleen Brennan, shares credits on three and Gary Cohen on one.

At the time that I first listened to “Franks,” I was also reading William Kennedy’s “Ironweed.” There was a certain synchronicity between the boozy losers whose personae Waits adopted and those whom Kennedy wrote about. Waits truly inhabits his characters. He’s also a hopeless romantic, and songs like “Innocent When You Dream,” “Franks Theme” and “Train Song” are suffused with depth and humanity.

After that, I picked up a few more Waits albums. I remember that, sometime in the mid-1990s, WRKO Radio was bringing in guest hosts on Sundays, and I got the call one week. They asked me what I wanted for bumper music. They told me I could pick anything within reason — not, you know, Tom Waits, ha ha. Well, as a matter of fact … I asked for the instrumental that opens “Goin’ Out West,” from “Bone Machine” (1992). It’s pretty straightforward, so I got my way.

And may I just say that “Georgia Lee,” from “Mule Variations” (1999), is probably the most heart-breaking song I’ve ever heard. The bridge will bring you to your knees.

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How Amazon’s ‘Audible Exclusives’ screw independent bookstores

I don’t listen to a huge number of audiobooks. But when I do, I buy them through Libro.fm, which lets you designate an independent bookstore to receive some of the proceeds. The bookstore I’ve chosen is An Unlikely Story Bookstore & Café in Plainville, founded by children’s book author Jeff Kinney and his wife, Julie Kinney. If you’ve never been, you’re in for a treat.

A few months ago, though, the audiobook I wanted to buy was an “Audible Exclusive,” meaning I couldn’t buy it through Libro. Audible, as you may know, is part of Amazon. So instead of helping to support a great independent bookstore, I put a few more dollars in Jeff Bezos’ bulging pockets.

Today An Unlikely Story sent me an email from Libro that goes into a bit more detail on the harm being caused by “Audible Exclusives.” Here’s an excerpt:

Libraries, bookstores, schools, and anyone who isn’t affiliated with Amazon cannot distribute audiobooks that are Audible Exclusives. This means Libro.fm can’t sell Audible Exclusive audiobooks, which means our 1,200 bookstore partners can’t sell them, either.

Audible Exclusives also work in direct opposition to the basic principles of libraries — free access to books, both digital and print. By limiting distribution, Amazon aids in making books, perspectives, and information inaccessible to certain communities and users.

This is predatory capitalism, which is, as we know, Amazon’s specialty. I will continue to buy audiobooks through Libro whenever possible. Meanwhile, think of this as yet another reason to keep pushing for antitrust action against Amazon and its fellow tech giants.

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Album #14: Charlie Parker, ‘Bird/The Savoy Recordings (Master Takes)’

When I was in my teens and early 20s, there were a number of albums that I would have liked to buy but couldn’t afford — intriguing records I hadn’t heard and couldn’t justify spending the money on. What if I bought one and hated it? I was out $12 or $15, and that just wasn’t acceptable.

So record reviews were important. I discovered several albums on this list from reviews. One of them is an awkwardly titled Charlie Parker double-record anthology called “Bird/The Savoy Recordings (Master Takes),” which comprises every officially released piece that the great alto saxophonist recorded for Savoy, from 1944 to ’48.

Needless to say, it was not the sort of thing I could pick up on a whim. But I ran across a review by Robert Palmer in Rolling Stone, dated Sept. 9, 1976, that convinced me to give it a try. (Yes, I still have it, tucked inside the album sleeve.) Among other things, Palmer wrote:

Parker didn’t just “sing” the blues, he preached them with the fervor of an evangelist; only in the world of born-again church, healing services and holy dances are there adequate analogies for his particular kind of power.

Of the Savoy anthology, Palmer added: “Should we call it the one essential jazz album? The most important collection in American music in print? The most rewarding musical compendium in the world?” It was pretty hard to resist such praise. And the album lives up to the hype.

No one could play like Parker. His technique was unparalleled; the sheets of notes that he’d call forth from his horn sounded literally impossible to play, and by anyone else they would have been. His tone was flawless. And he played with depth and feeling.

There are some odd match-ups on the Savoy recordings, with a number of early songs featuring a neophyte Miles Davis on trumpet and Dizzy Gillespie on piano. Parker must have heard something in Miles that showed what he would become. Gillespie, already a star in his own right, probably just wanted to be there.

Many of the pieces sound similar and are played at a breakneck tempo; you just listen to Parker and try to hang on. For me, though, the standout is “Parker’s Mood,” a slowed-down blues into which Parker pours every last piece of his humanity. It is an astonishing accomplishment. If the Savoy recordings are the greatest American album, then “Parker’s Mood” may be the greatest American song — the mark of a genius who, tragically, would soon fall victim to addiction and an early death.

It’s a shame that so many great compilations are allowed to go out of print, only to be replaced by newer collections that lack the charms of their predecessors. “The Savoy Recordings” appears to be long gone, and I don’t have a record player. It looks like “The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes” is a reasonably good facsimile.

For me, Charlie Parker’s Savoy recordings represent not just the power of music but the power of the written word as well. Thank you, Robert Palmer.

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Album #15: ‘The Essential Johnny Cash, 1955-1983’

Johnny Cash was one of the coolest people in music. With that pompadour, that rugged face and that utterly self-assured manner, he projected authenticity and pure charisma. He was larger than life — the son of poor Arkansas farmers, outlaw, drug addict, Christian, family man, country music personified. Bob Dylan wanted to be him. Who didn’t?

One of my biggest regrets as a music aficionado is that I never got to see Cash in concert. My memories extend back to childhood, when my parents and I often watched “The Johnny Cash Show.” My parents didn’t like country music, and neither did I; but we liked Johnny Cash. Years later, on a long drive to Washington and back for a book project, I passed much of the time by listening to “The Essential Johnny Cash, 1955-1983,” a three-CD set released in 1992.

Cash was a transformational figure, welding country music with early rock and roll and later, through his marriage to June Carter, uniting country music’s earliest roots with the present. His final albums, produced by Rick Rubin, are spare and heartbreaking, with each one harder to listen to than the one before as illness took its toll.

But it’s his peak that’s on display in “Essential.” What can you say about a song like “Folsom Prison Blues,” maybe his greatest and most emblematic song? It begins with a line that he ripped off from someone else (“I hear that train a-comin’ / It’s rolling ’round the bend”) and quickly segues to a line of his own that would justify any writer’s entire career: “But I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die.” You’ve heard it hundreds of times. Pause and let it settle a bit.

That’s just one of the 75 songs on “Essential” — farm songs, gospel, songs that sound like they were someone’s idea of turning him into Buddy Holly (“Ballad of a Teenage Queen”), novelty songs (“A Boy Named Sue”) and social-justice songs. It’s this last category that seems especially relevant today — especially “Man in Black,” which you could imagine him and June singing in front of Donald Trump’s White House:

I wear black for the poor and beaten down
Livin’ on the hopeless, hungry side of town
I wear it for the prisoners who has long paid for his crime
But is there because he’s a victim of the times

And the hits — good Lord, so many hits. Who doesn’t love “Ring of Fire,” with its crazy mariachi-band accompaniment, written by June as her marriage was breaking up and she was falling in love with Johnny? Or their duet on “Jackson”? Or his cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down”? The album’s also got one of the best Dylan covers ever (“Wanted Man”) and a pretty good Bruce Springsteen cover (“Highway Patrolman”).

He frequently sang off-key, and he wasn’t much of a guitar player. It didn’t matter, because he was Johnny Cash. What a life. We miss you, Johnny.

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Album #16: Paul Simon, ‘Graceland’

One night in 1986, I tuned in “Saturday Night Live” to see Paul Simon, who back in those early years was practically a regular. He had a new album to promote. At the appointed hour, out he came with an enormous band of African musicians, launching into “You Can Call Me Al.” What the hell was that?

Soon enough, I learned that it was the first single from “Graceland,” Simon’s masterpiece, a deft and compelling blend of South African and American music. It’s hard to come up with enough superlatives for this album; 34 years after its release, it still sounds fresh. The title track, “The Boy in the Bubble,” “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” “Homeless” — these are all wonderful songs, a completely unexpected gift from a musician who was already a superstar on the basis of his ultra-polished folk-rock as half of Simon & Garfunkel and the gospel-, jazz- and even Bach-inflected pop of his early solo career.

“Graceland” was not without controversy. For one thing, by traveling to South Africa to record the album, Simon had violated the boycott called by many of his fellow musicians who were fighting against that country’s apartheid regime. (And let us pause here to watch “Sun City,” by Artists United Against Apartheid, one of the three or four greatest music videos ever.) For another, Simon was hit with charges of plagiarism that were not only well-founded but also completely unnecessary. Everyone understood that “Graceland” was a collaborative effort, and a number of the songs have co-writing credits. Why not be more generous?

Simon followed up with another album of world music, “Rhythm of the Saints” (1990), focusing on the music of South America — and damn if it wasn’t almost as good as “Graceland.” Throughout his long career, from the 1960s right up until recently, Simon has made a lot of great music. But “Graceland” will stand as his singular achievement.

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Album #17: Various artists, ‘The Harder They Come’

Like many people who went to college in Boston during the 1970s, I visited the Orson Welles in Cambridge one midnight to see “The Harder They Come,” the Jimmy Cliff movie that introduced us all to reggae. Oh, sure, Eric Clapton had had a huge hit with “I Shot the Sheriff” and Johnny Nash with “I Can See Clearly Now.” But this was the real thing.

The movie, released in 1972, stars Jimmy Cliff as an outlaw who tries to elude the police while a record that he made on a whim moves up the charts. Cliff is the focus of the soundtrack album as well as the movie, singing the title track and classics like “Many Rivers to Cross” and “You Can Get It If You Really Want.” But my favorite tracks are by Toots and the Maytals, who burn it up with “Sweet and Dandy” and “Pressure Drop.” Another favorite: “Johnny Too Bad,” by the Slickers.

Among other things, “The Harder They Come” is one of the greatest summer albums ever, along with Bruce Springsteen’s “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle” and the Beach Boys’ “Endless Summer.” What’s odd, in retrospect, is that there’s nothing here by the Wailers, even though Bob Marley, one of the Wailers’ three front men, would soon emerge as reggae’s biggest star.

Unfortunately, I don’t think you can see “The Harder They Come” these days — but you can listen to it. Perfect for a socially distanced backyard summer cookout. And check out that album cover!

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Album #18: Neil Young, ‘Decade’

I’m guessing that the idea behind the sprawling Neil Young anthology “Decade” was that his career was on an irreversible downward arc. Why not cash in while he still had some record-store cachet?

As it turned out, Young had a long way to go. “Rust Never Sleeps,” one of his best albums, was released in 1979, just two years after “Decade.” “Freedom,” another classic, came 10 years after that (“Decade II”?), and he remains active and relevant. Still, “Decade” is a great introduction to one of the most remarkable musicians of our time, taking us from his early years with the Buffalo Springfield to his long solo career, with and without Crazy Horse, with pit stops along the way for Crosby, Still, Nash and Young and, for a nanosecond, the Stills-Young Band.

Young has two modes: acoustic singer-songwriter and all-out rocker. I prefer the loud stuff with Crazy Horse, featuring Young’s cosmic guitar solos (definitely the triumph of feel over technique), but I’ll listen to either anytime. “Decade” covers both phases of his work; even though it comprises 35 songs over just 10 years, he was so productive during that period that it still manages to leave out some my favorites, like “Out on the Weekend,” from 1972’s “Harvest.” On the other hand, “Decade” includes a “Harvest” clunker, “A Man Needs a Maid,” anti-feminist claptrap with strings that may be the only song you’ll want to skip over. (Trust me on this, kids: Evolving sensibilities aside, he was criticized for it 48 years ago.)

On the acoustic side, there are so many great songs here that it’s hard to narrow them down. Some have suffered from too much radio time over the years, like “Sugar Mountain,” “Heart of Gold,” and “After the Gold Rush.” Try listening to them with fresh ears, because they are truly for the ages.

Of the rockers, again, the list is endless. My favorite is “Like a Hurricane,” among the loudest, longest, most guitar-drenched songs Young ever recorded. But it’s hard to go wrong with anything here other than “Maid.” It’s two and a half hours of love songs, drug songs, lost-youth songs, and songs that appear to be about everything and nothing.

Bob Dylan once sang: “I’m listening to Neil Young, I gotta turn up the sound/
Someone’s always yellin’ ‘Turn it down.'”

Nope. Turn that sucker up to 11.

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