Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Best and Worst Christmas Albums Around, Volume 3

Amy Grant, A Christmas Album (Myrrh, 1983; rights have reverted to Grant, who has licensed it to Sparrow Records – but my copy says BMG Records, so who knows?)

1. Tennessee Christmas
2. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
3. Preiset Dem Konig! (Praise the King!)
4. Emmanuel
5. Little Town (new melody to O Little Town of Bethlehem)
6. Christmas Hymn
7. Love Has Come
8. Sleigh Ride
9. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
10. Heirlooms
11. A Mighty Fortress/Angels We Have Heard on High

I don’t listen to a lot of Christian music – nothing against the genre, but it’s not my cup of tea.  Yet, somehow, I’ve accumulated six Amy Grant albums through the years – I find her very likable, with a surprising sense of humor (I distinctly remember her doing a promo for a VH1 golf tournament and saying in voiceover, “If anybody tells me I’m sweet…” WHACK!  “I’ll kill ‘em.”).  She’s gone through a few career phases; her 1980s albums were almost all Christian, she moved to the mainstream in the 1990s (1991’s Heart in Motion yielded five top 20 pop hits), and some of her albums are a mix.  It’s her first Christmas album (she’s released so many Christmas songs over the years I might be able to do a greatest hits albums review for her based on her Christmas best-ofs alone), and it’s a nice mix of religious and non-religious Christmas material.  Grant co-wrote four of the songs herself, including the pretty, family-oriented “Tennessee Christmas” (which she just re-recorded for a recent collection) and the bold “Love Has Come,” which is far more of a faith declaration.  Among the standards: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Sleigh Ride,” and “The Christmas Song.”  This was given to me on a cassette many, many moons ago by a friend of mine along with a pile of Mannheim Steamroller Christmas albums, but this is the only one for which I’ve actually gone out and bought the CD – it’s perfectly okay to play at a party or with the family while opening presents.

Best songs:  “Tennessee Christmas,” “Emmanuel,” “Love Has Come,” “The Christmas Song,” “Heirlooms.”
Worst song:  “Preiset Dem Konig! (Praise the King!)” is a synth-only piece that has not aged well.

Amy Grant, Home for Christmas (A&M, 1992; rights have reverted to Grant)

1. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
2. It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
3. Joy to the World/For Unto Us a Child Is Born
4. Breath of Heaven/Mary’s Song
5. O Come All Ye Faithful
6. Grown-Up Christmas List
7. Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
8. Winter Wonderland
9. I'll Be Home for Christmas
10. The Night Before Christmas
11. Emmanuel, God With Us
12. Jesu, Joy of Man's Desire [instrumental]

Nine years later, and this was Grant’s third album (her second, The Animals’ Christmas, with Art Garfunkel and written by Jimmy Webb, is supposed to be pretty good, but I haven’t heard it and I don’t think it’s on any of her anthologies), released between Heart in Motion and the less successful album House of Love.  (As a result, this has gone triple platinum, better than any of her other albums other than Heart in Motion – although I’m not sure if her early albums on Myrrh were scrutinized by the RIAA.)  Much more secular than A Christmas Album, and also far more orchestrated (the London Studio Orchestra, whoever they are, are on eight of the 12 songs).  Grant only co-wrote two songs here (“Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song)” and “Emmanuel, God With Us,” although she’s credited with additional lyrics for the David Foster-Linda Thompson penned “Grown-Up Christmas List”), but they’re both pretty good – better than the usual shuffle of standards.  I’d go with A Christmas Album first.  Note:  this was reissued by UMG (when they still had the rights to the album) as a budget-line item as 20th Century Masters: The Best of Amy Grant – The Christmas Collection, making it sound like an anthology, which it’s not.  That version is out of print, but it might still pop up in a few stores.  Don’t make the mistake of buying that if you already have it as Home for Christmas.

Best songs:  “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song),” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
Worst song:  “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desire” is an instrumental – Grant neither sings nor plays a note – so why bother putting it on her album?

Friday, November 17, 2017

Double Live Album!: Loggins & Messina, On Stage

This seems like a good album to listen to on a rainy Friday night (at least it’s raining here).

      It’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these – right after I wrote this first one, I suffered a leg infection that kept me in the hospital for a week and threw me off my game for months. And after that… well, no excuses. So, let’s try it again. Just a reminder, here are the rules for what I review:

  • The album will need to be at least two vinyl LPs (which means Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty isn’t eligible). For compact disks, I’ve set the minimum running time at 68 minutes – so I may have a single CD here from time to time.
  • Reissues that add to the running time are okay. Cheap Trick has reissued At Budokan in a two-disk version, so that would be okay.
  • I’m also okay with reviewing albums that are a combination of studio and live, as long as the live content is more than 2/3 of the total running time. (David Bowie’s Station to Station has been reissued with a full concert from Nassau Coliseum, which bumped the running time up to 135 minutes or so.)
  • I’m not going to review comedy albums (most comedy albums are live, anyway) or classical albums (no background in the subject).

Loggins & Messina, On Stage

Year Issued: 1974

Running Time: 82:53

Dates of Live Performances: April 28 and 29, 1972 at Winterland, San Francisco, CA; March 4, 1973 at The Orpheum Theatre, Boston, MA; March 12, 1973 at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY.

Track Listing:
House at Pooh Corner
Danny’s Song
You Could Break My Heart
Lady of My Heart
Long Tail Cat

Listen to a Country Song
Holiday Hotel
Just Before the News
Angry Eyes
Golden Ribbons

Another Road
Back to Georgia
Trilogy: Lovin’ Me/To Make a Woman Feel Wanted/Peace of Mind
Your Mama Don’t Dance
Nobody But You

Background: Loggins & Messina became a duo/band in kind of a strange way – Messina was a staff producer at Columbia Records after quitting Poco (the band he helped form with Richie Furay after Buffalo Springfield broke up), and was hired to produce Loggins’ first album. But Messina wound up contributing so much (guitar, vocals) to the album it wound up being called Kenny Loggins With Jim Messina Sittin’ In, and they stayed together after that. Their second album yielded a major hit in “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” and the third album, Full Sail did pretty well too, so a live album was a natural next step.

Obviously, they weren’t rockers (Buffalo Springfield was a seminal folk-rock act, but Poco leaned more toward country stylings, so Messina wasn’t going to bring hard rock to the table, and Loggins was a folkie at this point in his career), but the live album let them show lots of different styles.

Does It Have the Hits?: Not as many as you’d think, primarily because the live shows used for the album were recorded well before Full Sail came out (the April 1972 dates were six months before their eponymous second LP hit the stores). Of their six chart hits to that point, “Vahevala,” “Nobody But You,” and “Your Mama Don’t Dance” are here, but “Thinking of You,” “My Music,” and “Watching the River Run” are not.

Any Rarities?: “You Could Break My Heart” and “Another Road,” both written by Loggins, appear here and nowhere else. Of the remaining songs, seven of them come from Sittin’ In and seven from their second album, Loggins & Messina, so Full Sail isn’t represented at all (not really a surprise given the recording dates).

Studio Tracks?: None at all. Their fourth studio album, Mother Lode, would be released just six months later, and the running time didn’t allow for any additional material.

Musicians: Loggins on rhythm guitar and harmonica, Messina on lead guitar and mandolin; both sing and play acoustic as well. Merel Bregante on drums and backing vocals; Jon Clark on flute, tenor and baritone saxophone, and percussion; Al Garth on violin, tenor and alto saxophone, recorder, and percussion; Larry Sims on bass guitar and backing vocals. No special guests.

Performance: Decent. Loggins gets most of the first side of the vinyl edition (about 40 percent of the first CD) to himself in a solo acoustic performance. Messina’s a pretty good guitar player given he got his start with Buffalo Springfield as a producer/engineer (and wound up playing bass on their final album after Bruce Palmer’s drug and deportation issues made it impossible for him to continue), and songs like “Angry Eyes” make that clear.

Sound Quality: Okay. It’s possible the harmonies may have been sweetened a little in postproduction, but I can’t really tell.

Any Songs Over 10 Minutes?: “Angry Eyes” clocks in at 10:06, which is a bit longer than the studio version, which is 7:40. “Trilogy” is 12:12, but the studio version there was 11:13. “Vahevala,” on the other hand, is twenty-one freaking minutes long. That’s over four times the length of the studio version, and as Wilson and Alroy’s Record Reviews notes, it’s the main culprit of songs “rambling past the point where you can remember what tune you’re listening to.” I mean, the song has both a percussion (conga?) and flute solo.

Stage Patter: Very little other than introductions.

Still Available: Sure. Too bad about the running time; it’s just long enough so that it had to be a two-CD set rather than one.

Chart History: This was actually Loggins & Messina’s highest-charting album, peaking at #5. It looks like it went gold (500,000 copies sold), but remember double albums counted as two sales as far as RIAA was concerned.

Any More Live Albums?: Lots. Loggins & Messina broke up after their sixth and final studio album, Native Sons, in January 1976. They hadn’t had any top 40 hits since 1973’s “My Music,” and Native Sons didn’t yield any chart hits at all. Columbia Records decided the world needed another double live album from the duo, and so dropped Finale on stores in January 1977, after their breakup had been announced and two months after a greatest-hits set, The Best of Friends, had been released by Columbia. Deservedly, that second live album died quickly, and although it’s available for download, it’s been out of print for awhile (rare on CD, but not on vinyl). I will say only three songs from On Stage are duplicated on Finale, and they are incorporated into a medley.

Loggins released two live albums during his solo career, Alive! (1980), which contains all solo material to that point (a subsequent video release did include some solo versions of Loggins & Messina songs, however), and Outside From the Redwoods (1998), which was mostly acoustic and did include solo versions of “Your Mama Don’t Dance” and “Angry Eyes.” Both of these are in print and available for download.

Finally, the duo did a reunion tour in 2005 and released Live: Sittin’ In Again at the Santa Barbara Bowl later that year. No new songs, but that probably meant all of the nostalgia buttons were pushed. It’s out of print and unavailable for download, so check the used record stores.

Is It an Absolute Necessity?: If you’re a big Loggins & Messina fan (or even a fan of Kenny Loggins solo, although be warned there’s nothing like “Footloose” or “Danger Zone” here), absolutely. If you’re just getting into Loggins & Messina, this would probably be my second stop after the 2005 hits set The Best: Sittin’ In Again (the 1976 hits set The Best of Friends is short and not especially well chosen, and I think it’s out of print anyway). Another alternative, if you’re a Kenny Loggins fan first, is getting The Essential Kenny Loggins (which contains seven songs from the duo), and then getting this one.

My Favorite Song: “Nobody But You,” which was a minor hit off the first album, and ends this set. It’s not a flat-out rocker, but it’s as much of one as Loggins & Messina would ever release, and it’s much more straightforward than the pseudo-nostalgia of “Your Mama Don’t Dance” and “My Music.”