Autumnal farewell from Leonard Cohen

By Tom Von Malder | Dec 14, 2019
Photo by: Columbia/Legacy Recordings The cover of Leonard Cohen's posthumous album, "Thanks for the Dance."

Owls Head — Leonard Cohen: Thanks for the Dance (Columbia/Legacy CD, 29 min.). In the months before his death three years ago, Cohen continued to work on songs at home – mostly lyrics, with the instruction to his son, Adam Cohen, they he set the vocal recordings to music. And thus, we have this beautiful, often haunting disc of remembrances and farewells from the man who brought us “Hallelujah,” “Bird on a Wire” and “Suzanne.” The Canadian poet and novelist did not launch his career as a singer-songwriter until 1967, when he was 33. This is his 15th album in all, with three of the others coming during the last five years of his life.

Having left these musical sketches – some of which were just vocals – meant Adam wrote or co-wrote the music, which usually are autumnal settings, very sparse and letting Cohen’s words hit home. The title track is a ballad, which Cohen gave to a lover in 2006 to record. Here, it is performed as a farewell waltz with backing vocals by Jennifer Warnes and Leslie Feist. Javier Mas plays Moorish lines on Spanish laud, and Mas and Cohen play guitar on the track.

Cohen addresses sexual politics in both “Happens to the Heart” and “The Night of Santiago,” with the latter portraying him as a troubadour with a necktie and gun holster. The latter features flamenco guitarist Carlos de Jacoba, Beck on Jew’s harp and acoustic guitar, Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry on bass and Daniel Lanois on piano and vocals. Cohen returns to political concerns in “Puppets,” which talks of Nazis killing Jews and “puppet presidents” involved in puppet conflicts.

Sometimes, the songs are rather grim, as in “It’s Time,” but they can be haunting too, as in “The Hills,” as he talks about being unable to “make the hills/The system is shot/I’m living on pills/For which I thank G-d.” The booklet contains all the lyrics. Grade: A+

Warren Storm: Taking the World, by Storm (APO CD, 36 min.). Warren “Storm” Schexnider, called the godfather of swamp pop, was 82 when he recorded this wonderful album. The idea for the album came as Yvette Landry was interviewing Storm for his biography of the same name (UL Press). Storm is a Louisiana music legend with a career that spans more than 70 years. Swamp pop was created in the 1950s and early 1960s in the Acadiana region of south Louisiana. It is a mixture of New Orleans rhythm & blues, country, Cajun and zydeco music.

In this special album, Storm revisits his first single, “Prisoner’s Song,” which made the Billboard Top 100 in 1958, and its B-side, “Mama, Mama, Mama,” with new renditions. Here, the latter is a duet with Yvette Landry and is one of several songs that evoke the early sounds of rock ‘n’ roll. Two others are “Let the Four Winds Blow” with sax by Derek Huston and “Troubles, Troubles.” The album opens with a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Long as I Can See the Light” by a band that played a few swamp rock numbers, and songwriter John Fogerty himself contributes vocals to the track. There’s also swamp feel to Sonny Landrith’s slide guitar on “Mathilda,” which has Marc Broussard on vocals.

As he did in the Fifties, all but three of the recordings here were performed live to 2-track analog. The exceptions were the two just-mentioned swamp rockers and the slow “Tennessee Blues,” which features pedal steel and fiddle. For the bluesy “Lonely Nights,” Roddie Romero plays a nice, non-flashy guitar solo. Storm also covers Merle Haggard’s lament, “My House of Memories,” and finishes with the similar-themed “Raining in My Heart.” Grade: A

Mariah Carey: Merry Christmas (Columbia/Epic/Legacy, 2 CDs, 100 min.). Usually this time of year there are a couple dozen Christmas albums on hand, but this is the only one I received this year. It is an expanded edition of Carey’s classic1994 album, with the first disc containing the original 11 tracks, both secular and religious. For example, she adds some rhythm & blues and gospel to “Silent Night,” and a lot of gospel and a big chorus on “Jesus Oh What a Wonderful Child.”

Carey co-wrote three of the tracks, including the rocking and Phil Spector-influenced “All I Want for Christmas is You,” which is a standout track along with her cover of an actual Spector co-written song, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” (It amazes me how well the Spector co-written and produced 1964 album, “A Christmas Gift for You,” has held up musically. It is a true classic that has never gone out of style.) There’s more rock in “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” with its wild piano. The other two songs Carey co-wrote are softer: the ballad “Miss You Most (At Christmas Time)” and “Jesus Born on This Day,” which uses a children’s choir. Another song with a big chorus is “Joy to the World,” which is upbeat and has the drums upfront.

The bonus disc has 18 tracks, including the newly recorded “Sugar Plum Fairy Interlude,” which is brief, but nice and has Carey vocalizing. The disc ends with an acapella version. Six of the bonus tracks are live recordings from her 1994 concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Devine. Next are five songs she co-wrote that did not make the original album, including “When Christmas Comes,” sung with John Legend, from 2011; the rocking “Lil Snowman,” from the 2017 direct-to-video animated film, “All I Want for Christmas is You”; and the hip hop-influenced “Oh Santa!”

Next are five bonus remixes, which frankly are the weakest part of the album, with one of the two remixes of “Joy to the World” stretched out way too long. Grade: A

Rod Stewart with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: You’re in My Heart (Warner CD, 71:47). That this album exists is no surprise; after all, Stewart has recorded four volumes of the American songbook by 2007. So now, he and producer Trevor Horn have set Stewart’s own recordings to an orchestral setting. The surprise is that, in all but two songs, the vocals are Stewart’s original tracks from way back when. In general, the approach works very well, covering 13 of his big hits.

To concentrate on the two new tracks first, they are a duet with Robbie Williams (ex-Take That and sort of a current member since 2010) and the ballad “Stop Loving Her Today,” recorded with a different orchestra. The duet is a rocker without orchestra, while the ballad is the better track.

Of the reworked hits, several of the orchestral introductions are very much I the style of Frank Sinatra. Highlights include a beautiful “Sailing,” “Maggie May,” a still up-tempo “Reason To Believe’ and “Handbags and Gladbags,” more complementary orchestration on “Tonight’s the Night,” “I Was Only Joking” and “Forever Young.” The orchestration helps “Young Turks” sweep along.

The album also has been released as a double-CD with seven more songs (109 min.), which is available as a British import or as a Target exclusive.

Producer Horn, by the way, was one-half of The Buggles with Geoffrey Downes. Their 1979 hit, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” helped define the early days of MTV. Both Horn and Downes joined Yes for a year (1981). Since then, Horn has mostly been an award-winning music producer, working with Seal, ABC, Yes and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, among many, many others. See below for what Downes has been up to. Grade: A-

Geoffrey Downes and Christopher Braide: Live in England DBA (Magical Thinker/Cherry Red, 2 CDs + DVD, 103 min.). Keyboardist-songwriter Downes, renowned for his work with Trevor Horn (see above) both as The Buggles and, for a year, in Yes, as well as with Asia then and now, has worked with songwriter-vocalist Braide as DBA or the Downes Braid Association off and on since 2010, when both participated in an inaugural Buggles live show for charity. Downes rejoined Asia in 2006 and Yes in 2011. As a songwriter, Braide is known for working with Sia, Lana Del Rey, Beyoncé and Christina Aguilera, among others.

Downes and Blaide have issued three albums, with the contributors goring in number for each: “Pictures of You” in 2012 with only the two of them; “Suburban Ghosts” in 2015 with three others; and 2017’s Skyscraper Souls” with some seven others. Meanwhile, Downes continued to perform with Yes and Asia, which he co-founded. The concert captured here, from Sept. 28, 2018 at Trading Boundaries in East Sussex, England, was the first time DBA performed live. The venue is rather intimate, basically a restaurant with stage. The facility also has a gallery of Roger Dean’s art. Dean, who is famed for his artwork on Yes covers, as well as a multitude of others, did the cover for this release and actually introduces the band on stage.

Pre-recorded voices are sometimes used, such as for the opening “Prelude,” the band then launches into the 22-minute “Skyscraper Souls,” a marvelous piece of progressive rock that took up a whole side of that album. The band includes Braide on vocals, Downes on multiple keyboards, Dave Colquhoun on guitar (several fine leads throughout the show, including here) and Andy Hodge on bass. There is no live drummer. The band then plays tracks from “Suburban Ghosts,” including “Machinery of Fate,” with a hard edge, the softer “Live Twice” and the political “Vanity,” whose message is “love is all we need.” Also fine is that album’s title track.

Before a break, Downes performs solo, playing his “Bolero” from work with Asia and The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” The latter is disappointing because it lacks the vocals.

Reassembled, the band plays the complete second side of “Skyscraper Souls,” all seven tracks, including “Glacier Girl” and the outstanding “Angel on Your Shoulder,” which has more of a beat and another good guitar solo. David Longdon of Big Big Train sings and plays flute on “Tomorrow” and also plays flute on “Skin Deep.” For “Darker Times,” a tape of XTC’s Andy Partridge’s voice is used. The encore consists of two songs written by the late John Wetton (also King Crimson) for Asia, “Heat of the Moment” (co-authored by Downes) and “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes,” both very well done, and DBA’s own “Dreaming of England.”

Downes Braid Association may not be well known in this country, but they should, and this is a very fine introduction. Grade: B+

David Crosby: Remember My Name (Sony Pictures Classics, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 93 min.). Back in 1971, after the traffic death of a dear friend, Crosby recorded his first solo album, “If I Could Remember My Name.” This documentary on Crosby, produced by Cameron Crowe who also serves as the interviewer, appears to be an answer to that title. Indeed, it is a very candid warts-and-all biography, as a reflective Crosby talks about his career, his mistakes, his regrets, his loves and his battles with addiction (both heroin and cocaine, which he finally beat while serving time in prison). The film also touches on his reunion through music with the sun, James Raymond, that he had no hand in raising.

Crosby, who had a creative “rebirth” at age 76, starts the interview with an accidental run-in with John Coltrane, during which he apes some crazy horn playing. He says he is afraid of dying and knows it is real close. He also says he dislikes leaving home for touring but has to “to buy groceries and pay the mortgage.” He also says he is the guy in Crosby, Stills and Nash and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young who has never had a solo hit.

However, Cosby has written songs for his groups. He was a founding member of the Byrds – ex-bandmates Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman are both interviewed for the documentary – and co-wrote “Why” and “Eight Miles High,” while appearing on the group’s first five albums, before being asked to leave. He also co-founded CSN, for which he wrote “Guinnevere” and co=-wrote “Wooden Ships” (also recorded by the Jefferson Airplane). For CSNY, he wrote “Almost Cut My Hair” and “Déjà vu.” He claims that the Byrds’ hit recording of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” led Dylan to going electric, and that Dennis Hopper patterned his character in the film “Easy Rider” after him.

Crosby tells of his love of Harmony singing, which he started doing to Everly Brothers records, and how perfect his and Graham Nash’s voices mesh. Yet, he says none of the other major members of his previous bands will talk to him.

There is a little about his youth: his father, Floyd Crosby, won an Oscar for Best Cinematography for “Tabu: A Story of the South Seas” (1931) and a Golden Globe for “High Noon” (1952); and his brother Ethan, also a musician, turned him on to 1950s jazz. Images from his career show him playing with the Byrds, hanging out with the Beatles and on the yacht be bought after being fired from the Byrds. Of particular interest is a visit to “The Dave Cavett Show” right after Woodstock. There are archival interview bits with Glenn Frey, Nash, Neil Young and Jackson Browne.

Crowe and the camera follow Crosby around points of special meaning to him, including the house in Laurel Canyon where CSN wrote “Our House.” He discusses his relationships with singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, Christine Hinton (she died in a car accident at age 21) and his wife Jan, who also is interviewed. The camera also follows Crosby on his six-week tour in 2017, with brief musical excerpts and including a stop in Portland, Maine.

Bonus features include a very good discussion between Crowe and Crosby after a screening of the film at the Asbury Park Festival, which includes answering audience questions (26:25); eight good deleted scenes (17:33); an extended scene about the Coltrane meeting (3:22); an extended interview with Hillman (6:44); and an extended interview with McGuinn, who says he first saw Crosby as an actor popping out of a garbage can on stage (6:40). Grade: film A; extras B+

Holly Near: Singing for Our Lives (Omnibus/Film Movement DVD, NR, 62 min.). Another singer-songwriter and even more so political activist than David Crosby is Holly Near, the subject of this documentary by four-time Emmy Award-winner Jim Brown. Near’s songs served as anthems for women’s rights, gay rights, anti-war protests (both this and the Crosby documentary touch on the Kent State murders) and human rights in general.

Overall, this documentary leans more heavily on the movements that Near supported with her songs than does the Crosby documentary, which therefore seems more personal. The Near documentary was part of the American Masters broadcast series. There are new interviews with Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, the late Ronnie Gilbert and the late Tom Hayden. Near does talk about her relations with both women and men. Some footage is of her touring to support Chilean rights and later, against gender-based violence. Her cousin, actor-musician Kevin Bacon, also is interviewed. Perhaps forgotten is her acting career, including roles of “The Mod Squad,” “Room 222,” “All in the Family” and “The Partridge Family,” as well as the Broadway musical “Hair,” with some clips included here.

The documentary also covers her founding independent Redwood Records in 1972 to produce and promote music by “politically-conscious artists from around the world,” especially women. There are brief bits from recent live concerts, with the extras include two full performances: “One Good Song” (3:18) and “Somebody’s Jail” (5:04). The other bonus feature is 30 minutes of additional interview footage, seven with others and seven with Near. Grade: film B; extras C+

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