February 2023 Rock/Pop Record Reviews

Peggy Lee: Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota (Expanded Edition)
Capitol B0036601 (CD), 1972/2022. Tom Catalano, prod.; Armin Steiner, eng.; Holly Foster Wells, reissue prod.; Robert Vosgien, remastering.
Performance ****½ Sonics ****

There are singers, crooners, songwriters, and there's Peggy Lee—she was all three, earning both a Grammy and a place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. From her beginnings in the days of "old-time radio" and swing music, to her pop hits of the '50s and '60s to her later years singing in concert halls and lounges, Lee stood out for her unique vocal delivery and spot-on timing, plus her ability to adapt and evolve with pop musical styles.

The album at hand was recorded when Lee was age 51, an "aging" pop singer by 1972 standards. Producer Tom Catalano, who had already struck gold with Neil Diamond, was recruited for the project by Lee's manager. It was to be her last album for Capitol, her label since 1944 aside from a 4-year stint with Decca Records in the early '50s, which produced the classic album Black Coffee (footnote 1). That album is cited as a favorite by Catalano and arranger Artie Butler in their extensive liner notes.

For this album, Catalano and Lee selected songs of current vintage, including two from Leon Russell. One of them, "Superstar," was already a huge Carpenters hit. Lee put a world-weary, lost-love twist on it and made it hers. She stamped her mature, worldly-wise brand on the then-modern songs, replacing youthful idealism with a deeper perspective on love, relationships, and the arc of a human life. But it's not heavy; it's bracing. Superb A-list West Coast session players make Butler's arrangements swing and sparkle.

Lee's granddaughter produced this "Expanded Edition," which includes a session outtake, a contemporary single from the soundtrack of the Peanuts movie Snoopy, Come Home!, and several alternative takes. It was done with love and respect.—Tom Fine

Blancmange: Private View
London Records LMS 5521738 (CD; also LP, download). 2022. Neil Arthur, Ben Edwards (aka Benge), prods.; Arthur, Edwards, Shawn Joseph, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

You probably know Blancmange, if you know them at all, as a 1980s band. Back then, they were a duo: Stephen Luscombe (synths) and Neil Arthur (vocals). Similar-sounding bands include OMD, Soft Cell, and Gary Numan, though Blancmange is less self-consciously robotic than Numan was. Blancmange never charted as high as any of those bands did, either; their second album, Mange Tout, was their most successful, hitting #8 on the UK charts, and they never made a mark in the US at all.

Blancmange split up in 1986 then re-formed briefly, in 2011, releasing one album (Blanc Burn) before Luscombe was forced to retire due to a health issue. Arthur, though, continued to perform and record, keeping the name Blancmange and working with session musicians. He has released music steadily ever since, touching UK's independent music charts occasionally.

It's easy to appreciate a band named after a British pudding, especially one that once released a song called "I Smashed Your Phone," with lyrics like these: "I smashed your phone tonight oh joy / The consequences will reverberate / Until eternity I'm told." What drew me to this new Blancmange album, Private View? Mainly it was contributions from David Rhodes, Peter Gabriel's guitarist.

Today's Blancmange sounds much like the '80s version, although the recent recordings sound much better than the early stuff did; most of those albums were poorly recorded. To me, the new album's first song, "What's Your Name," sounds like a hit; but then what do I know? The album's lyrics are interesting, poetic, obscure—as on "Everything Is Connected": "Take the washing down, take the whole world on / Take it on the chin, take in the washing / Everything is connected." A subtly dark album.—Jim Austin

Weyes Blood: And In the Darkness, Hearts Aglow
Sub Pop SPCD 1485 (CD; also LP and 24/96, Qobuz). 2022. Natalie Mering, Jonathan Rado, Rodaidh McDonald, prods.; Kenny Gilmore, mixing; Chris Allgood, Emily Lazar, mastering.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

"These songs may not be manifestos or solutions, but I know they shed light on the meaning of our contemporary disillusionment." So says singer/songwriter Natalie Mering about her latest album, released under the stage name Weyes Blood (pronounced like "wise," a tribute to a Flannery O'Connor novel).

And In the Darkness, Hearts Aglow, her fifth album, is the second part of a planned trilogy. Its 2019 predecessor, Titanic Rising, brought the American singer international attention for her rich, expressive voice and ethereal music. That album warned of perils humanity would soon face. Hearts Aglow moves on to what Mering sees as the current chaos. But she was expecting this "time of irrevocable change" and views it stoically.

Assisting her is a New York–based duo called the Lemon Twigs on drums and guitar, plus a couple of keyboardists. But the focus is always on Mering's voice, and this voice echoes singers of the 1970s, Karen Carpenter and Joni Mitchell in particular. In "Children of the Empire" and "A Given Thing," Mering's arrangements—wistful, floating melodies over piano chords—strongly evoke Laurel Canyon in her heyday. "Twin Flame" lays syncopated, percussive electronic layers, a nod to synthpop, as Mering's vocal soars above. "The Worst Is Done," with its folky strumming through surprising harmonic twists and its musings on the psychological impact of COVID, brings to mind Rufus Wainwright. The meditation on Narcissus's self-absorption, "God Turn Me Into a Flower," draws from the tradition of church choirs singing chordally against organ.

Whatever the last installment of the trilogy brings, be it contentment, puzzlement, or oblivion, it's bound to be worth hearing.—Anne E. Johnson

Pit Pony: World to Me
Clue Records CLUE118LP (LP, also CD, download). 2022. Chris Mcmanus, prod., eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ***½

Pit Pony is a young band from Newcastle, once one of Britain's major coal-mining areas. In the early days of that industry, pit ponies—think mine-sized little horses—were the engines used for moving coal. The poor animals rarely saw the light of day.

I truly hope this Pit Pony does, because this is a powerhouse of an album. Categorizing music is always tricky. The obvious labels for Pit Pony are punk or maybe post-punk, but those labels might create misconceptions. True, the driving force of the quintet is two buzzsaw guitars, with the powerful voice of Jackie Purver in between, but their sound is hardly old-school punk; contemporary and exciting. At times, they remind me of Penetration, which hails from the same region; at others, early Blondie. But while their name may pay homage to the past, this album is no nostalgia trip.

World to Me, Pit Pony's debut album, is fresh and snappy. A great live band, their stage energy is captured convincingly in this Chris Mcmanus production. It's not fussy, it's honest, and the sound is clear without being clinical.

The songs on this album are mostly concerned with love and problematic relationships, with the occasional nod to the stresses and strains of modern British life. They use a wide range of cultural references, from Cruella de Vil to supermarkets, the Empire State Building to William Blake. Some are high-speed numbers, such as the single, "Black Tar"; others are carefully crafted songs, such as the wonderful "Supermarket," which builds up from a slow tempo to a wall of sound. It's one of those songs that demand to be played again and again (bearing in mind that while it's a joy to the listener, it may not be to the neighbors). That's true of a host of wonderfully catchy numbers on World to Me. Evidently, Pit Pony have mined a superb seam of music here.—Phil Brett

Various Artists: Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver
New West Records LPNW 5648 (LP; also CD). 2022. Freddy Fletcher, Charlie Sexton, prods.; Steve Chadie, Jacob Sciba, James Barone, Patrick Meese, Shani Gandhi, Lowell Reynolds, Larry Greenhill, Ray Kennedy, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

While the tribute-record craze of the 1990s has, thankfully, abated, many 1990s artists remain worthy of tribute. None is more deserving than Billy Joe Shaver, who died in October 2020. Johnny Cash called Shaver "my favorite songwriter."

Shaver, a native of Corsicana, Texas, inspired the outlaw movement in the 1970s. He lived an intense, eventful life, joining the Navy at 17, having a go at rodeo, and shooting a man in a bar at age 68. His rowdy, free-spirited nature and idiosyncratic religious beliefs provided raw material for a compelling song catalog.

Produced by guitarist Charlie Sexton, a former band member of Bob Dylan, and Freddy Fletcher, Shaver's former drummer, Live Forever was recorded in five different studios, most of them in Nashville or Austin. The album was balanced and mixed by Jacob Sciba.

The 12 tracks follow a pattern that's common in tribute albums: Artists who genuinely felt something for the songs produced the most successful tracks. Other than slowing the tempos, as George Strait did in his take on "Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me," no great stylistic liberties were taken. Willie Nelson, who was a friend of Shaver, opens the album with the title track and appears again toward the end with a spirited take on "Georgia on a Fast Train," where he pulls off the best acoustic guitar solo he's recorded in many years. Miranda Lambert comes off as savvy pro in a perky cover of one of Shaver's best, "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I'm Gonna Be a Diamond Someday"), and Steve Earle sings "Ain't No God in Mexico." Edie Brickell's whispery, tentative cover of "I Couldn't Be Me Without You" is the album's least successful tribute by far. Overall, a fine homage to a songwriting original.—Robert Baird

Footnote 1: Black Coffee is currently available as a swell-sounding LP from Verve/Analogue Productions.