Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Kat's Korner: Stills & DiFranco

Kat: New is best! The newer the better! Gotta' be shiny and new!

Except sometimes that's not the case. In fact, with most of the studio created crap being put out on disc these days, it's usually not the case.

This summer two "older" releases came out -- one by Stephen Stills, the other by Ani DiFranco.

Just Roll Tape is Stephen Stills "new" CD. It's studio time he caged at the end of then girlfriend Judy Collins' studio time. April 26, 1968, the cover tells you. Stephen's a third of one super group and a fourth of another -- Crosby, Stills & Nash as well as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. "Teach Your Children Well," "Woodstock," et al. Before that, he was a member of Buffalo Springfield and he wrote their big hit "For What It's Worth:"

There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

That song was released at the start of the year that would produce the Summer of Love (1967). Just Roll Tape is studio time a year and several months later. Cass Elliot was working on getting him, Nash and Crosby (with the Hollies at the time) together shortly after but David and Stephen, by the point the studio sessions that produced the 12 tracks of Just Roll Tape took place, had already begun working together.

"Wooden Ships" -- a classic for both CS&N as well as Jefferson Airplane -- had already been written (by Crosby, Paul Kantner and Stills) and is the twelfth track on the CD. The tracks are Stephen with just his guitar and, in today's heavily produced world, what's shocking is how amazing just that can be. "All I Know Is What You Tell Me" starts the album off and you may think, "Oh, of course it's good. It's the first track. He's not going to put the dog up front." But as he works his way through "Change Partners," "Bumblebee (Do You Need A Place To Hide?)," "Helplessly Hoping," et al, you grasp there's not a bad performance here. How did that happen? Twelve wonderful songs played in a single session, just him and his guitar. That wasn't so hard once upon a time. We can forget that today due to the fact that even the live albums get "tweaked" and no one even bothers to raise an objection. Or the "singer" you paid money for and waited and waited to come out on stage shows up lip synching vocals. Once upon a time, if you were a singer, you really were expected to be singing the notes people were hearing on those recordings. You might get double tracked in the studio, but it was your voice.

The advance from 4-track to 8-track and on down the line led to a lot of studio fiddling and a lot of shortcuts. Just Roll Tape is so strong that, even with today's closed radio playlists, if it came out today by an unknown artist, it would still find an audience.

Listening to it, I found myself thinking what I often think with the latest Tracy Chapman release, "Get back to the basics." The recent CSN&Y tour was incredible. But listening to Just Roll Tape will have you wishing they'd get back into the studio for an acoustic album. Not even Neil on electric guitar. No frills, no extras, just the basics.

They might not be able to pull it off. I hope they could, they are one of my favorite American groups. But it's true that these moments of brilliance usually happen out of frustration. An artist has written a set of songs, the best he or she can put together, and it desperate to prove him or herself. It produces an immediacy that often gets lost after the years of success set in. Just Roll Tape contains a bonus song ("Treetop Flyer") that's not from these sessions. If you listen closely, you'll grasp that. The energy level is different. So maybe these moments in time -- these bits of lightning in a bottle -- are impossible to recapture? I'd still love to see CSN&Y try. And if you caught the last tour, you know exactly what I'm talking about. They may have kicked the ___ out of each other offstage (I don't know) but onstage, they were working tighter than they have in years. That magic needs to be carried over to the studio.

When I saw Ani DiFranco's Canon, the title didn't hit me. The plastic sticker may have been covering it. It's a double disc set and my first thought was excitement that she'd released another live set. It's not a concert. As the title indicates, it's a best of.

That's not a bad thing. She's been recording since 1991 and has only put out one collection before, Like I Said back in 1993. Even if you don't know a thing about her and she's a new name, you're probably nodding at this point. Over fifteen years of recording, it's time for a collection! If you don't know her work, you may think she -- like too many -- releases an album every three or four years. Ani's pretty much released an album a year (2007's sole release appears to be Canon). In addition to those studio albums, she's also released many live CDs (I have 13 of her concerts on CD). So she's got more than enough output to qualify for a multi-disc box set.

If you're someone who has heard her name repeatedly -- Ani is a legend -- this makes for a good starter set. It will provide you with an overview of the career and let you be on the same basic page as everyone else when the next studio album comes out.

However, if you've been around for awhile, you may have reservations. It'll come down to your own personal choices.

For me, disc one works exceptionally well. "Napoleon" and "Shameless" are new recordings. Both work well and although you may, for instance, miss the bass heavy sound "Napoleon" had on Dilate, if you know the Dilate version, you're probably familiar with the live versions since and will be able to enjoy the way Ani continues to shape the vocal on this song each year. I'm speaking of her delivery, not her range. She's been reworking this for some time. "Shameless" is a song that I never really noticed until the live version showed up on Living in Clip.

Disc two really doesn't work for me. I've tried to figure out why that is. One reason may be because the songs on disc one (the classics like "Fire Door," "Joyful Girl," "Gravel," "32 Flavors," "Little Plastic Castle," "Untouchable Face," et al are all present) are ones I've heard so often. I play Ani's CDs a great deal and I play the live albums just as much as the studio albums. So the older songs are probably better known to me. But I don't think it's just a case of "I love it because I've known it for years!" Disc two's problem for me is "Half-Assed."

That's a track from Ani's last studio album (Reprieve). It's an amazing song with an amazing vocal where Ani's voice seems to stroke the notes in the most playful manner. It's also a faster song and it's not on this collection. That's really the problem for me with regards to the second disc. The songs aren't bad, they aren't poorly performed, but the tempo of many of the songs is too similar. Knuckle Down never made it for me. It's the only album she didn't produce herself (she co-produced it with Joe Henry) and it's just never spoken to me. Joe Henry produced Aimee Mann with wonderful results, but Knuckle Down is not an album I've ever been able to enjoy. So the two songs selected from it may be the best on that album or not. But "Hypnotized," though wonderful, is not "Half-Assed." Educated Guess is an album I loved on first listen and my feelings for it only increase each year. "Swim" is nice but the title track and "Origami" are the best standouts to me. And the sole track from Evolve "Here For Now" wouldn't have been my pick either.

"So your problem is your faves didn't make the cut?" Possibly. But if you know the songs I'm mentioning, you know they are fast paced ones. Disc one varies the tempos but disc two really seems set in a slow groove. I don't believe one is supposed to be the "fast" disc and the other the "slow." The way the discs are divided, disc one covers the first half of the career and disc two covers the second. "Educated Guess" or "Half-Assed," just one of them, would really add some variety to disc two. By the time "Marrow" comes on you really need something fast to follow that but instead it's slow and mid-tempo pieces one after the other.

Thus far, Ani hasn't frozen any song. They're all being reworked in concert with her searching for (and finding) new levels to them. So even if I disliked the songs on disc two (I don't except for the two from Knuckle Down but they pass quickly), a good expectation would be that five years on down the line, I'll be crying out for them at one of her concerts.

The choice was her choice. It is, after all, her Canon. But if you've heard "School is in session, put your head on your desk" ("Educated Guess"), you'll probably know what I'm talking about and the busyness of "Here For Now" won't get your heart racing. That's an amazing song and one that is going to grow and grow with each concert tour but it doesn't make it for me as is (the arrangement) and the fast start ends with a slowed down tempo leading into another slow tempo song. Disc two contains three new recordings: "Your Next Bold Move," "Both Hands" and "Overlap." "Both Hands" is the only one I've heard negative comments on and they have been severe. One person compared it (the re-recording) to The Hooters. That band's famous for songs like "And We Danced" but the comparison was to the work they did with Cyndi Lauper on her album She's So Unusual. Four other people complained that the vocal was rushed and "phoned in." It's a reworking and, with "Both Hands," that is a problem because that's a song that people are very possessive of. Ani's been reworking it for years in concert and to tremendous effect but this version does seem rushed and when she's singing "How hard we try" the "try" is disappointing. It's a beautifully written song and if this is your first introduction to it, you'll fall in love with it the way everyone does. But if you know the song already you may likely feel that not only is she not going for the notes of "try" but she's got no breath on the word. It no longer flies, it's tossed out strong and then just dies -- never exploring the word or her own range. That may be due to the clipped pace it's set at. I haven't formed an opinion on this version yet. When she reworked it on Living in Clip, she reached a level that would mean anything after -- that didn't recreate the live version note for note -- would be a disappointment.

Everyone I know is into Ani so I had to search high and low, far and wide to find someone who wasn't familiar with her work. Dak-Ho's cousin agreed to listen to disc two. She'd heard of Ani's name but never listened to the music. The second disc spoke to her. She bought the set and disc two is the one that makes it for her. She loves "Both Hands" and goes around singing it. So you can consider disc two Ani reaching out to new fans which is the only thing that will allow her to continue to grow and explore. But if you've been along for the ride for sometime, disc one is the one you'll keep playing.

It's a testament to her strengths that she can't be captured on a two disc set.

The set includes a booklet with lyrics and credits. I do wonder what the reception from the die hard would be if she'd written a little about why she selected each song? I can't help feeling like I'm missing something here and, when I mention that, the reaction is usually agreement. I think, for the long term listeners, disc two creates confusion. The 'newest' song on disc one is from 1998. We've had time to hear those on our CD players and in concert -- almost ten years -- and they are songs Ani performs frequently in concerts. With disc two, we haven't lived with them as long and the bulk of the live albums don't cover them unless you order online. (Only one of the last nine concert CDs was released in stores, Carnegie Hall - 4.6.02 -- and all but one of them is from 2004 and earlier meaning songs from Knuckle Down and Reprieve are lived with only in studio form.) The set retails for $19.99 so even if you have some reservations about disc two, it's reasonably enough priced that you won't be beating yourself up over it. Each disc contains 18 tracks so she's not just covering a huge terrain, she's providing one.

And possibly those less enchanted with disc two (including me) will appreciate it more with each listen. I'll note in the year-in-review (and it is the best collection of the year) and hopefully, at that point, I'll be more jazzed on disc two. But maybe not. When we hit the road recently, I grabbed Canon with great excitement, ready to blast disc one. In the car, I opened up the box and was crestfallen to discover I'd left disc one in the player and just had disc two with me. We ended up listening to Tori Amos' American Doll Posse instead.

[C.I. note: Kat reviewed Joni Mitchell's Shine on Monday and Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals' Lifeline on Sunday.]