Sunday, December 19, 2010

Michael Fremer Album Review

Court and Spark

Joni Mitchell

Asylum/Rhino R1 1001 180g LP

Produced by: Free Man in Paris?
Engineered by: Henry Lewy
Mixed by: Henry Lewy
Mastered by: Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering



Court and Spark Revisited
by Michael Fremer
November 01, 2010

Joni Mitchell’s move to jazz on this 1974 game changer upset her hippie contingent, who wished she’d remained a “lady of the canyon,” and it didn’t exactly thrill fans who considered themselves jazz aficionados either—not with the likes of “jazz-lite” guys like Tom Scott, Joe Sample, Wilton Felder and Larry Carlton involved.

Yet in retrospect, they were the right talent for the job and their work here was superb, helping to move Mitchell in a new direction without taking her too far from familiar musical territory. Helping the firm footing were friends Graham Nash, David Crosby (who had produced here debut album) and Robbie Robertson among others.

Mitchell’s mature subject matter—the tensions between yearning for traditional domesticity and having a successful career (in her case “stoking the star maker machinery behind the popular song”) demanded a more intense musical dynamic that the rhythmic freedom of the “smooth jazz” arrangements provided.

All of these elements on this pivotal album, not to mention a string of memorable and mostly very personal songs help explain its enduring value and modernity 36 years after it was first released. It sounds as fresh today as it did all those years ago.

Mitchell was moving fast in her life, and in circles filled with people moving at an equally fast clip. The title tune and “Help Me” both defined Mitchell’s dilemma, while “Free Man in Paris” chronicles her exhilarating escape from a pressure-filled life most of us couldn’t imagine produced any kind of trap from which one might need extrication. Is the “he” referenced at the beginning of the song David Geffen? That’s been surmised by many since 1974.

“People’s Parties” eye-witnesses a dread everyone has felt being eyed by others but Mitchell’s willingness to express it and admitting to “…living on nerves and feelings with a weak and a lazy mind” is both surprising and daring given her exalted position in pop stardom at the time when her fans imagined nothing else but that she was riding high and the life of the party.

The vulnerability expressed and the sense of being examined and judged ratchets up considerably in “The Same Situation” as Mitchell wishes release “caught in my struggle for higher achievement and my search for love…”

Side two opens with more exasperation and insecurity with “Car on a Hill” as the singer waits anxiously for her boyfriend who is three hours late. “He’s a real good talker…and makes friends easily.”

Who hasn’t been there? Or looking back at a regrettable one night stand as Mitchell does in “Down to You.” “Just Like This Train” produces liberation in the thought that “jealous lovin’ll make you crazy” so “…with no one to give your love to,” perhaps it’s best to just settle back and dream of a committed relationship.

The album shifts musical and lyrical gears for the exuberant and mischievous “Raised on Robbery” before returning to a repressed “Trouble Child” “breaking like the waves at Malibu.” If you have the DCC Compact Classics Reissue, have you ever noticed the typo “Still you know how yourneed it?”

The album ends with Mitchell’s cover of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross’s “Twisted,” with hipster lyrics by the great Annie Ross. Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong’s little interlude adds to the cheekiness. Mitchell’s playful performance and her crisp phrasing hint that she’s going to head this way again.

So how does Rhino’s new reissue cut from the master tape by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering compare to what’s come before? I compared it to an original white label promo Asylum, the Nautilus half-speed mastered version cut by Jack Hunt at the JVC Cutting center and the DCC Compact Classics edition mastered by Steve Hoffman, probably cut by Kevin Gray.

The original, cut by Bernie Grundman at A&M Mastering, which he ran for Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss on the A&M lot that once was Charlie Chaplin studios and where I visited often when I Iived in L.A. (not work related-a girlfriend worked there) is clearly the standard against which to measure the others.

The tape was fresh, Bernie ran a meticulous shop and probably was being directed by his friend Henry Lewy who engineered the album, probably at A&M studios. By the way, there is tape over-saturation on “Car on a Hill” and it can be heard on every pressing at a peak in one of Mitchell’s multi-voiced interludes so it’s not your cartridge mistracking!

The original is open and spacious with a slightly strident vocal sound that must driven early digital converters crazy. I bet the original CD would have scorched your eardrums. I never heard it. Overall, the original sounds really fine. The instrumental textures are well-captured, not surprising given Grundman’s background in jazz. The only criticism I have of the original is that it’s bass-light.

The vinyl and pressing quality at that point were not great so the residual background noise is relatively high compared to what we get now on well-pressed reissues.

The Nautilus is even brighter than the original and has a hollowness about it that’s not exactly pleasant. Surprisingly, the sibilants aren’t as clean as on the original. Clean high frequencies are supposed to be one of the advantages of cutting at half speed, so I don’t know what happened there.

The DCC Compact Classics is really interesting in retrospect. Hoffman’s version is a definite revision. At the risk of upsetting the fanbase, it’s clear the Steve did some major EQ to warm up the lower midbass and give the production some bass weight. At the same time he appears to have pushed the presence region up just a tad to give it some sheen. The result is rich instrumental timbres, a coherent and clean bass line and a very pleasant overall tonal picture, though I think Mitchell’s voice sounds a bit muffled compared to the original and to Chris Bellman’s recent cut.

I did these comparisons using a very revealing and extended Soundsmith Strain Gauge cartridge as well as the Ortofon A90 using a variety of phono preamps, both tubed and solid state. There were very different presentations of course, but the variables did not shift the ultimate sonic conclusion.

I think the new Rhino pressed at RTI is by far the best version of this album yet. If it sounds too bright for you, don’t blame the record. The bottom end is strong without creeping up into the midbass, the transient details are spectacular, with clean and natural percussion and when you hear the rim hits on “Twisted” you’ll recognize reality. Bellman delivers the picture with a vital three-dimensionality none of the others come close to providing.

If you love this record you will not regret investing in this superb reissue, which is packaged with equal care and is faithful to the original, complete with the embossed lettering and well-reproduced cover art, though the paper stock is a paler yellow.

For the life of me, I cannot understand why no one has done a reissue of Mitchell's For the Roses, which I think is an even better album and on the original white label Asylum release, sonic masterpiece. That was when the label was distributed by Atlantic so the record was probably cut by George Piros.

Thanks to Michael over at for the exclusive rights to reprint this material. Stop by for more reviews and features.

Copyright © 2008 & Michael Fremer - All rights reserved Reprinted by Permission

Music News & Notes

GWAR Announces Vinyl Releases Of Past Two Records

Space thrashers Gwar have announced that it will be re-issuing its past two albums, 2009's "Lust In Space" and 2010's "Bloody Pit Of Horror" on limited edition vinyl in early January.  'Lust In Space' will be first, reaching store shelves on January 18th, 2011 followed by the release of 'Bloody Pit Of Horro'" on February 15th, 2011 both through Metal Blade Records.


Captain Beefheart Dies Aged 69

The avant-garde musician Captain Beefheart, the musical alias of Don Van Vliet, has died at the age of 69 from complications from multiple sclerosis at a hospital in Northern California on Friday, December 17.

Born in California in 1941, Van Vliet achieved notoriety with his rotating ensemble of musicians, The Magic Band and released twelve albums with the group, most notably 1969’s ‘Trout Mask Replica,' which achieved widespread critical acclaim. Most of 'Trout Mask Replica' was recorded in March 1969 at Whitney Studios in Los Angeles, California. The lineup of The Magic Band at this time consisted of Bill Harkleroad and Jeff Cotton on guitar, Mark Boston on bass guitar, Victor Hayden on bass clarinet, and John French on drums and percussion. Beefheart played several brass and woodwind instruments (including saxophone, musette, and hunting horn) and contributed most of the vocal parts, with Zappa and various members of the band providing occasional vocals and narration. The well-rehearsed Magic Band recorded all instrumental tracks for 'Trout Mask Replica' in a single six-hour recording session; Van Vliet's vocal and horn tracks were laid down over the next few days. Upon release in the US, Trout Mask Replica sold poorly and failed to chart. It was more successful in the UK, where it spent a week on the charts, at #21.

A widely recognized and acclaimed composition, Trout Mask Replica was ranked #58 on Rolling Stone's 2003 list The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Allmusic's Steve Huey wrote that "its inspiring reimagining of what was possible in a rock context laid the groundwork for countless future experiments in rock surrealism, especially during the punk/new wave era."

As well as being known for his powerful singing voice, he was also a multi-instrumentalist, playing the saxophone and harmonica.

Read full obit Here


George Pickow, Artist Who Chronicled Musical Life, Is Dead at 88


George Pickow, a photographer best known for the thousands of album covers in which he captured the titans of folk, jazz and pop music — including Theodore Bikel, Louis Armstrong and Lena Horne — in their midcentury prime, died on Dec. 10 in Roslyn, N.Y. He was 88 and lived in Port Washington, on Long Island.

The cause was respiratory failure, his son Jon said. Mr. Pickow also had a home in Viper, Ky., the birthplace of his wife, the folk singer Jean Ritchie.

Working quietly behind the scenes, Mr. Pickow (pronounced PEEK-oh) documented the bubbling cultural ferment of New York City, and in particular Greenwich Village, where he and Ms. Ritchie lived after their marriage in 1950.

For Elektra Records and other labels, he photographed folk singers like Josh White, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins and, of course, Ms. Ritchie, as well as jazz and pop artists like Little Richard, Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Bennett, Nina Simone and Louis Jordan.

Read the rest   Here

Rock & Roll Trivia

David Rose, who led his orchestra to Billboard's number one position with "The Stripper" in July, 1962, was a prolific composer of television theme songs in the 1950s. At one point, there were 22 TV shows on the air using his music. He later went on to win Emmy Awards for the theme for "Bonanza", and "An Evening With Fred Astaire", as well as writing music for "Little House On The Prarie" and "Highway To Heaven".

Mr. Aker Bilk, who took "Stranger On The Shore" to Billboard's number one spot in May, 1962, learned to play the clarinet while he was in prison. He had been sentenced to three months in jail after falling asleep while on guard duty for the British Army in Egypt.

Elvis Presley was number 1 in record sales in the US in the 1950s. In the 1960s he was number 2 and in the 70s he was number 13.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney were always on the look-out for interesting titles to write a song around. They did just that when a tired Ringo uttered "God, it's been a hard days night" and again when a chauffer told Paul, "I'm very busy at the moment. I've been working eight days a week."

Ellas Bates was still in grammar school when classmates started calling him "Bo Diddley". He says he doesn't know why. A bo diddley is actually a one-string, African guitar.

Songwriters Felice and Boudleaux Bryant wrote "All I Have To Do Is Dream" in 15 minutes, but the tune would reach the US charts in four straight decades. The Everly Brothers took it to number one in 1958, Richard Chamberlain's version went to number 14 in 1963, Glen Campbell and Bobby Gentry reached number 27 with it in 1970, and Andy Gibb and Victoria Principal peaked at number 51 in 1981.

Dan Whitney, the comedian known as "Larry The Cable Guy" has been influenced by show business all his life. His father used to played guitar with the Everly Brothers.

Herman's Hermits recorded "Mrs. Brown, You've Got A Lovely Daughter" as an album filler, never intending it for release as a single. After an American DJ started giving it airplay, MGM issued it as a 45 and it became the group's third Billboard number one hit in a row.

The first time that Del Shannon and his keyboard player, Max Crook, ever played "Runaway" on stage, Crook improvised the organ solo as he went along. When it came time to record the song and in all future performances, he never changed a single note.

John Fred and his Playboy Band hit the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in January, 1968 with "Judy In Disguise". At one time, John's father, Fred Gourrier was a professional baseball player.

Before Pete Townshend of the Who began working on the rock opera "Tommy," he had planned to write an opera about a big white rabbit that ruled the world.

After The Tokens achieved a number one record with "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" in 1961, follow up recordings failed to sell. The group however continued to perform and sang back up vocals for Connie Francis, Del Shannon and Bob Dylan, as well as recording commercials for Pan Am, Ban Deodorant, Wendys and Sunkist.

In the 1960s, during the height of Beatlemania, there were about 90 records released every week in the UK. Only 2 or 3 ever made the charts.

The Shirelles 1962, US Top 10 hit, "Baby, It's You" was actually recorded with only Shirley Alston Reeves' voice over the instrumental demo. The other members of the group don't appear on the record at all, as the original backup vocals, provided by male singers, were left in place.

It took Elvis Presley 31 takes of "Hound Dog" to get the final version that we hear today. In 1988, the song was named the most played record of all time on American juke boxes.

'Wake Me Up Before You Go Go' by Wham! was inspired by a note that group member Andrew Ridgeley left lying in his bedroom.

Paul Evans, who sang the US Top Ten hits "Seven Little Girls" and "Happy-Go-Lucky Me", wrote the music for Bobby Vinton's hit, "Roses Are Red" in 3 minutes, just after seeing Al Byron's lyrics for the first time. After Vinton recorded it, the song went to #1 in the US and sold over 4 million copies.

Poor Ringo. In 1989, after becoming clean and sober, Starr sued to stop the release of an album that he had recorded during his drinking days, claiming he sounded too drunk. The court agreed and the album was never released.

Antoine "Fats" Domino came by his nickname because he stood 5 feet, 2 inches tall and weighed 225 lb. Could have been worse, the name Butterball was available....

Tommy James and the Shondells' "It's Only Love" album cover was the first professional photo shoot by Paul McCartney's wife, Linda Eastman.

Robert Todd Storz is credited with being the father of the Top 40 radio format. In the early 1950s, he noticed that people would play the same juke box selections over and over, and gradually converted his stable of radio stations from playing dramas and variety shows to an all-hits format. He dubbed the result "Top 40". Storz also pioneered the practice of surveying record stores to determine which singles were the most popular each week. Ironically, he died of a stroke in 1964, in his 40th year.

This Date In Music History - December 19


Maurice White - Earth Wind and Fire (1941)

Alvin Lee - Ten Years After (1944)

John McEuen - Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (1949)

Janie Fricke (1952)

Doug Johnson - Loverboy (1957)

Kevin Shepard - Tonic (1968)

Daniel Patrick Adair - Nickelback (1975)

They Are Missed:

Born on this day in 1918, Professor Longhair, rock & roll piano player. Influenced Fat's Domino and Dr John. Died on Jan 30, 1980.

Born today in 1940, Phil Ochs, folk singer songwriter. Wrote "There But A Fortune," a hit for Joan Baez. Hung himself on April 9, 1976 suffering from chronic depression.

Michael Clarke, drummer with the Byrds, died of liver failure in 1993 (age 47). After The Byrds, he went on to play for the Flying Burrito Brothers from 1969 to 1973 and Firefall from 1974 to 1981. Before his death Clarke had expressed a wish of alerting children to the dangers of alcoholism. Following his wishes, Clarke's girlfriend Susan Paul started a foundation in Clarke's name, called the Campaign for Alcohol-free Kids. He and the rest of The Byrds were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in January 1991.

10,000 Maniacs guitarist Robert Buck died of liver failure in 2000 (age 42). Best know for "Hey Jack Kerouac," "What's The Matter Here" and "Candy Everybody Wants."

English singer/songwriter Kirsty MacColl was killed in 2000 while vacationing in Mexico (age 41). She was sccuba diving with her two sons when she was hit by a speedboat.

Songwriter, guitarist and singer and founder member of The Staple Singers, Roebuck 'pop' Staples died in 2000. Best known for their 1970s hits "I'll Take You There," "Respect Yourself," and "Let's Do It Again."

Born on this day in 1944, Zal Yanovsky, the Lovin Spoonful. Died of a heart attack on December 13, 2002.


Carl Perkins recorded the immortal hit "Blue Suede Shoes" in 1955. The idea for the song comes from Sun Records labelmate Johnny Cash.

Elvis Presley made US chart history in 1956 by having 10 songs on Billboard's Top 100.

'The Music Man' opened on Broadway in 1957.

In 1957, Elvis Presley had his draft notice served on him for the US Army. He went on to join the 32nd Tank Battalion third Armor Corps based in Germany.

In 1958, Booby Darin recorded his signature cut "Mack The Knife."

Neil Sedaka's "Calendar Girl" was released on RCA Victor Records in 1960. The song would climb to #4 on the Hot 100 and become Sedaka's sixth record to make the US charts.

Also in 1960, Frank Sinatra recorded his first session with his very own record company, Reprise Records. Frank did "Ring-A-Ding-Ding" and "Let’s Fall in Love."

After reaching #15 with "Tonight I Fell In Love" earlier in the year, a Brooklyn, New York group called The Tokens scored the top tune in the US in 1961 with "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

The Beatles fourth album 'Beatles For Sale' started a seven-week run at #1 on the UK album charts in 1964. It would stay in the Top 20 for an amazing 46 weeks.

In 1964, the Supremes scored their third US #1 single of the year when "Come See About Me," went to the top of the charts.

For reasons that are never fully explained, a Los Angeles radio station announced in 1966 that Mick Jagger had died.

Buffalo Springfield appeared at the Community Concourse, San Diego, California in 1967.

The Friends of Distinction recorded "Grazin' In The Grass" in 1968.

Santana play San Francisco’s Fillmore West for the first time in 1968. The group regularly appeared at the venue after that.

The Beatles' seventh Christmas record, 'The Beatles' Seventh Christmas Record' was released to members of their fan club in the UK and the US in 1969.

Elton John's first US hit, ‘Your Song’ entered the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970, where it went on to reach number eight. The Hollies had been offered the song and Three Dog Night had already recorded a version which was included on their ‘It Ain't Easy’ album.

Ron Woods joined the Rolling Stones in 1974.

As if Disco wasn't bad enough, the US music scene reached a new all time low in 1975 when "Convoy" by C.W. McCall earned a Gold record. It would go on to top the Billboard Pop in early January. The novelty tune tells the story of interstate truck drivers and their run-ins with the law. It reached #2 in the UK.

In 1979, Elvis Presley's personal physician, George Nichopoulos, was charged with 'illegally and indiscriminately' prescribing over 12,000 tablets of uppers, downers, and painkillers for the star during the 20 months preceding his untimely death. Although he was acquitted this time, he was charged again in 1980 and again in 1992 and was stripped of his medical license in July 1995.

In 1981, the Rolling Stones wrap up their US tour with a televised closed-circuit concert broadcast throughout the country.

In 1986, a California Superior Court Judge refused to reinstate a lawsuit brought against Ozzy Osbourne by the parents of a teenager who committed suicide while listening to Osbourne's "Suicide Solution". The judge ruled that Ozzy was protected by The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which gives him the right to freedom of speech.

An oddity happened in 1987 - Paul Simon the musician, and Paul Simon, the presidential candidate, both hosted 'Saturday Night Live.'

Marty Raybon made his last appearance with country group Shenandoah at the Wildhorse Saloon in Nashville, TN in 1997.

In 2001, VH1 premiered "Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story."

Also in 2001, Dick Clark filed a $10 million lawsuit against Recording Academy President Michael Greene. The charge was that Greene would bar artists who appear first on Clark's American Music Awards from performing on the Grammy Awards.

Peter Eckenrod was sentenced to 25 months in prison in 2003 for pretending to be Creed guitarist Mark Tremonti. He pleads no contest to scheming to defraud and fraudulent use of a credit card.

Ludacris went to #1 on the US album chart in 2004 with 'The Red Light District', the rappers second US #1 album.

Bono was named one of Time magazine's '05 Persons of the Year, along with Microsoft founder/CEO Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda. The trio is recognized for their efforts to aid Africa in its fight against disease and destitution." This can be a generation that can end extreme poverty," says U2's frontman, who claims he is "humbled" by the honor.

Two giant eyeballs donated by Pink Floyd raised over $25,000 for the homeless charity Crisis in 2006. The 6ft-high props, made to promote the Pulse DVD, were on the auction site eBay for a week and attracted 46 bids. Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, a vice-president of Crisis, said extra help was needed in the winter months.

As many as 30 concertgoers were treated for minor injuries received at a Music As A Weapon tour stop in Ashwaubenon, WI in 2006. Two fans are transported to a local hospital for treatment during the Disturbed-headlined event. Many mosh pit mavens suffer cuts, bruises or overheating. Dern mosh pit....

In 2006, the FBI release documents related to their investigation of John Lennon in the early ‘70s. The Nixon administration thought Lennon, an anti-war (Vietnam) advocate, was aiding left wing causes and therefore an undesirable alien. Unsuccessful deportation efforts ensued. While Lennon had contact with representatives from radical organizations the FBI could find no evidence that he was a member or financially supported these groups.

Neil Young’s “Living With War - Raw” CD (live studio renditions of the 10 “Living With War” songs) and DVD, was in stores in 2006.

Christine Grahame, a member of Scotland's parliament, filed a parliamentary motion in 2008 recognizing AC/DC’s achievements. Founding members Angus and Malcolm Young were born in Glasgow before the family moved to Australia in ‘63. Also, the late vocalist Bon Scott and his successor, Brian Johnson, are Scottish natives.