Monday, May 31, 2010

Rainbow - "On Stage" (LP Review)

So I've been wondering how to commemorate the passing of Ronnie James Dio... Anyone who knew me in high school remembers that I was a huge fan. I believe it was Chris Miller that gave me a tape of "Holy Diver" right after it came out in 1983, and from there I slowly worked my way backwards through Dio's canon: Black Sabbath, Rainbow, then Elf. That was back in the pre-Web days when working out a discography took a lot of research (time and $) in the record store. I was proud that I had eventually collected all of his LPs on vinyl, including the Elf LPs which, truth be told, aren't very good.

By college I had mostly outgrown my fascination with the D&D / fantasy / metal genre, of which RJD was a central figure, but he'll always be nostalgically significant and I was saddened by his passing. But which LP to review for F-Measure? "Holy Diver" and "Heaven and Hell" are obvious choices -- too obvious, IMO. The same argument could also be made for "Mob Rules", which is at least as good as the latter two but often overlooked.

But perhaps the most important to me was "On Stage", the mostly forgotten 1977 live double LP from Rainbow. For one, I really love Ritchie Blackmore's guitar playing: fluid, effortless, expressive. I'm a Deep Purple fan as well, but Blackmore seems more comfortable here than any of his previous or later LPs. The rest of the lineup features Rainbow at the their finest: Cozy Powell (drums), Tony Carey (keyboards), and Jimmy Bain (bass). Dio would work with most of these people again in later lineups (Dio/Sabbath/Rainbow/Purple/Whitesnake all regularly swapped members from LP to LP), but this lineup, the same as on "Rainbow Rising", is Rainbow's strongest.

The second reason this is a good LP to revisit is that Dio's latter fantasy themes are only partially developed here. Sure, songs like "Kill the King", "Sixteenth Century Greensleeves" and "Man On the Silver Mountain" hint at the thematic direction for the rest of his career, but imagery is not quite as over the top here. Granted, I liked the fantasy themes 25+ years ago (cf. my review of "Queensryche"), but they seem silly now. At the time, I thought Blackmore's presence reined in some of the fantasy imagery, but ironically Blackmore's project of the last 10+ years, Blackmore's Night, is 100 times worse in its Spinal Tap cliches.

The LP itself features some of the excesses of 1970's live LPs: lots of patter with audience, long songs featuring extended solos of every kind, etc. Blame Frampton, the Grateful Dead, or maybe even Deep Purple: there was a template for live LPs at the time, and extended fusion jams is what you got. For some songs, it doesn't work: the medley of "Man on the Silver Mountain / Blues / Starstruck" would be stronger as two separate songs and without the "Blues" interlude.

On the other hand, the extended jams work in the case of "Mistreated" (a cover from "Burn" by Deep Purple, Mk. III), "Still I'm Sad" (a cover off the "Having a Rave Up" LP by The Yardbirds) and "Catch The Rainbow". The latter song is really the jewel of the entire LP; a 15:36 long workout of soft-loud-soft-loud-soft. Dio, Blackmore and Powell are all in exceptional form on this song. Occupying the entire side two of the vinyl, I used to listen to this song on maximum volume more times than I can remember. The soft->loud transition from ~8:15-9:40 remains one of my favorite musical passages. Listening to this version of "Catch the Rainbow" is an investment for me and is something that can't be done casually.

I've recently discovered that in 1990 Polydor reissued "Live in Germany" which appears to be recorded from the same tour as "On Stage", but perhaps without some of the editing required to fit "On Stage" to vinyl. I haven't brought myself to purchase this LP yet -- revisiting new/old RJD recordings isn't something I've been especially eager to do, "The Last in Line" was the last LP of his I really enjoyed even though I bought a few after that. Perhaps "Live In Germany" is actually a better LP, but I'm choosing to remember RJD with "On Stage" and in particular "Catch the Rainbow".

Standout songs: "Catch the Rainbow", "Mistreated", "Kill the King", "Sixteenth Century Greensleeves", "Still I'm Sad".

Skip 'em songs: "Man on the Silver Mountain / Blues / Starstruck" (or at least the "Blues" portion of this track; the link here is nicely just MOTSM).

Final score: 9/10. I've tried to adjust for the nostalgia factor, but it should be apparent from the above that is not easily done.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Johnny Cash - "God's Gonna Cut You Down" (the song remains the same)

Both Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin had Hall of Fame careers even if they had never hooked up for Cash's American Recordings series. But they did, and the result was nothing short of amazing...

On the surface, Cash & Rubin would seem to be an unlikely pairing: Cash is a born-again Christian from Arkansas and Tennessee who is best known for singing gospel, folk and country; and Rubin is a Jew from Long Island who is best known for producing hip hop and metal bands and founding the seminal record label Def Jam Recordings (with Russell Simmons in 1984).

On further inspection, it is a perfect match: Sun Records was the Def Jam / Def American of its time and Cash certainly lived (invented?) the rock and roll lifestyle. Furthermore, Rubin is renowned for his powerful, stripped-down, spare production style that gets the most out of the artist; and Cash's career had been foundering, in part because the major labels were overproducing his records and trying to make him into something he was not. Cash and Rubin released their first record in 1994, American Recordings, and that was the beginning of a critically and commercially successful string of LPs each of which consisted of originals, re-recording of Cash's early songs, covers and standards.

Released as a single from 2006's posthumously released "American V: A Hundred Highways", "God's Gonna Cut You Down" is Cash's version of the traditional song generally credited as "Run On". The song has been recorded by many different artists and although it is a homily about abandoning sinful ways, it is generally presented as an up-tempo and joyful song -- a New Testament reading, if you will.

Not so with Cash and Rubin -- you could say they give an Old Testament presentation: dark, booming and vengeful. Changing the title from "Run On" captures the shift of emphasis -- "God's Gonna Cut You Down" was always in the lyrics, but it never seemed to be the main point of the song. Now it is, and the song sounds like the wrath of God.

You might (barely) recognize the song from Moby's 1999 LP "Play", where it was titled "Run On" and sampled a 1947 recording by Bill Landford & The Landfordaires (then titled "Run On for a Long Time"). I must have heard this song dozens of times before I even realized they were singing the lyrics "God will cut you down". This song is a typical example of Moby's gift for recontextualizing early recordings (folk, blues, etc.) in an electronica format.

Another notable version is from the Blind Boys of Alabama, from their 2001 LP "Spirit of the Century". This is a more conventional gospel arrangement, probably closer to Moby's source recording from Landford.

There are countless other recordings of this song but this should give a good sampling of the various versions. And as good as these other versions are, Cash and Rubin have pretty much closed the book on this song -- no one else is going to come close.

Johnny Cash: "God's Gonna Cut You Down"

Moby: "Run On", "Run On" (live acoustic version)

Bill Landford & The Landfordaires: "Run On for a Long Time"

Blind Boys of Alabama: "Run On"