My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Booker T. Jones

Album Review: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Today Is Christmas’

today is christmasLeAnn Rimes has often had one foot in country and one in pop, but as she has struggled to find her audience the last few years she has concentrated more on her country roots with the lovely Vince Gill-produced covers album Lady And Gentleman and the personal Spitfire. Unfortunately on her new Christmas album she has reverted to pop and jazz, and while some of it is well done (some isn’t), none of it is country, which is a disappointment for me . Very brassy production overwhelms a rather bizarre selection of material, although I do have to give her some credit for not repeating the same handful of songs which appear on every other Christmas album. It’s just a shame the result does not pay off better. Also featured instrumentally to better (though non-country) effect is the legendary Booker T Jones on B3 organ and Wurlitzer.

Particularly dreadful is ‘Must Be Santa’, a 1960 pop hit which is a noisy mess dominated by a brass section, and whose admittedly silly lyrics LeAnn dashes out so fast it sounds as if the whole track gas been speeded up artificially. The title track, newly penned by LeAnn and her regular collaborator Darrell Brown, is apparently this year’s Christmas theme for NBC’s Today show. It may work in context as a glorified jingle but it’s very irritating as a standalone song, even in a Christmas party setting.

A cover of Kenny Loggins’ seasonal 1970s soft rock hit ‘Celebrate Me Home’, performed as a duet with pop star Gavin De Graw, is inoffensive but exceptionally boring. A second new Rimes/Brown tune, ‘I Still Believe in Santa Claus’ is bearable but bland MOR. LeAnn’s version of ‘Little Drummer Boy’ is very well sung, but isn’t one of my favourite Christmas songs.

A perky version of ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’ in medley with Frosty The Snowman’ is quite entertaining, with LeAnn showing off her jazz scatting. The brass instruments are jettisoned here. LeAnn recruits R&B star Aloe Blacc as her duet partner on ‘That Spirit Of Christmas’, originally recorded by Ray Charles. This mellow soul tune works very well, and I enjoyed it.

‘We Need A Little Christmas’ is a loungy ballad from Broadway musical Mame, which LeAnn sings very well, backed by a restrained piano and string arrangement. The similar ‘Christmas Time Is Here’ (originally composed for A Charlie Brown Christmas) is good too, with an accomplished and tender vocal and delicate arrangement. I really liked this.

My favorite track is Brandi Carlile’s ‘The Heartache Can Wait’, a beautiful, understated ballad about holding on to a relationship through one last Christmas. LeAnn’s vocal is excellent, bearing favorable comparison with the very best of her work, and is sympathetically backed by a tasteful string arrangement. It feels a bit out of place in the midst of the party atmosphere which dominates on the album, but is outstanding, and would work on a non-Christmas record. I would definitely recommend this track.

Scottish New Years tune ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and a medley of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’, ‘Angels We Have Heard On High’ and ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’ sound lovely aurally, although she takes too many liberties with the melodies, which are unrecognisable in places.

This is a jazzy pop album rather than a country one, so it wasn’t really to my taste as a whole, but there are some tracks I enjoyed.

Grade: B-

Album Review – Willie Nelson – ‘Stardust’

220px-Willie_Nelson_StardustWillie Nelson was one of the biggest artists in country music in the mid-1970s. Red Headed Stranger and Wanted! The Outlaws had solidified his place as a genre superstar, selling at previously unheard of volumes. He also had complete creative control over his music; with Columbia Records allowing him to make whatever records he wanted.

Nelson had been mulling over the idea of making a standards album for a while, even trying to arrange “Stardust” on guitar from sheet music he and his sister Bobbie had, to no avail. By 1977 he was living in the same Malibu, CA Neighborhood as R&B/Soul Musician Booker T. Jones. They became such good friends that Nelson asked Jones to arrange a version of the standard “Moonlight In Vermont” for him. He was so pleased by the results, he asked Jones to produce an entire album of pop standards for him. The pair went into the studio and recorded the project in just nine days early that December.

The resulting album, Stardust, initially had the executives at Columbia Records nervous. A fusion of pop, jazz, folk, and country, the sonic direction of the project bared little resemblance to Nelson’s previous ‘outlaw’ album and thus they feared it wouldn’t sell. The label went forward anyways, releasing the ten-song collection in April 1978.

The label chose Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell’s “Georgia On My Mind” (a hit for Ray Charles in 1960) as the lead single. The song, despite a slow and prodding acoustic guitar-led arrangement, shot to #1 on the country chart. Nelson, who won the 1979 Best Male Country Vocal Performance Grammy for the track, gives a tender and endearing vocal on the recording.

Second single “Blue Skies” followed suit. Jones was smart, giving Nelson a more muscular arrangement to complement his somewhat free flowing vocal. Third and final single “All of Me,” easily the best and peppiest of the album’s singles, peaked at #3.

“Moonlight In Vermont,” the track that started it all, is a very slow jazzy/folk ballad that Nelson sings well. “Stardust” isn’t any livelier although the ethereal aspects of the production give it a gorgeously pleasant quality that nicely frames Nelson’s voice.

The Gershwin’s “Someone To Watch Over Me” is aided by a distinctive melody that allows Nelson to give a more structured vocal performance. “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” is just as good, showing off Nelson’s interpretation skills as a jazz vocalist, with a nice upright bass and harmonica heavy production that suits the song well. “Unchained Melody” could’ve used a little more cadence in the production, allowing Nelson to give a more rhythmic vocal but he gives a nice effort, working with Jones’ arrangement.

“On The Sunny Side of the Street” gives Nelson a nice opportunity to step outside his musical comfort zone and embrace a finger snappin’ jazz style that actually works for his voice and overall persona. “September Song,” meanwhile, is nothing more than a deliberate pop/jazz ballad, although Nelson sings it very well (It peaked at #15 in 1979). The reissue edition includes two more songs – a beautiful folkish take on “Scarlet Ribbons” and a straight up jazz rendition of “I Can See Clearly Now.” Both are very good and compliment the original album very well.

The execs at Columbia had a reason to be scared, as Stardust has a very unapologetic sound. Thankfully their nervousness was quickly put to rest. The album went platinum upon release and spent 540 weeks, ten years, on the top country albums chart and two years in the top 10 of the Billboard 200. Stardust went quintuple (5 million) platinum in 2002 and Nelson performed the entire album live – start to finish – at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles this past August to mark the thirty-fifth anniversary.

Stardust is nothing short of a classic and one of the greatest country albums of all time. I wish I could say it appeals more to my taste, but Jones’ production is too slow and sleepy for me to fully enjoy it. The project could’ve used some more uptempo numbers to even out the heaviness, and I probably would’ve enjoyed it more. But I can still appreciate the project for what it is, and there are some moments of brilliance here from Nelson.

Two Grades:

Personal Grade: C+ (I wish I could enjoy it more – it’s too slow and prodding for me)

On it’s own merit: A (I can fully see why it’s such an amazing album, and Nelson is brilliant here)