Album Review #40: Live at the Apollo by James Brown (1963)

Live at the Apollo, James Brown

I’m back, everyone! Terribly sorry about the unannounced hiatus. I fully intend on making my posts much more frequent than they have been.

James Brown was known as “the hardest working man in show buisness.” After all, he played a gig almost every single night, (and sometimes even multiple times in a single day,) and the concept of a “break” was pretty much completely alien to him. So for a single 30-minute concert, performed at the Apollo Theater in 1962, to consistently rise above all other sets of the man’s entire career and frequently place on lists of “greatest live albums ever”, it has to be something truly special. Well, worry not, because this album more than lives up to the endless hype. You know you’ve got a hell of an album on your hands when the only complaint you can think of regarding it is that it’s just too short. At just over 32 minutes, it almost always leaves the listener unsatisfied and wanting more. But hey, an album sure can do worse when its only drawback is that there just isn’t enough of it.

Side A

The album starts with a passionate intro from Fats Gonder. He lists off all the songs on the setlist, each one punctuated by a burst of brass that increases in pitch each successive time, creating an awesome sense of buildup and anticipation. After his opening, the band launches into a cool yet crazy-energetic instrumental, with the guitar alternating with the brass section with a great call-and-response style. After a minute of this, the man himself, James Brown, steps up to the microphone and screams out the opening lines to the first song, “I’ll Go Crazy,” with an astonishing raw power only he could pull off. The guitar strums out the opening chords, before the song finally kicks off with hypnotic arpeggios and excellent singing from both Brown and his underrated backup singers. This is probably the single catchiest song on the record, with flawless hooks, melodies, and instrumentals that all work together perfectly to create what is possibly the perfect R&B song. They then seamlessly transition into the next track, “Try Me,” which is much more subdued and calm, but still just as enjoyable as the first. Putting these two tracks right next to each other does a great job of emphasizing Brown’s emotional range: he can sing and scream the loud-and-exciting songs and soulful-and-tender songs with equal effortless proficiency. From this track until the end of the side, there is a brief ten-second bridge between each song performed by the brass section that really serves to maintain the momentum between each song. Because of this, the whole side feels like a sort of epic suite, with even the quiet and calm tracks acquiring a feeling of tension and anticipation. After “Try Me” comes “Think,” a short and rambunctious song with a chaotic rhythm and a jaw-dropping sense of power throughout. Brown’s vocals on this track are barely-coherent and really come off as more of a background to the instruments—unusual for this album, as his singing is usually so demanding of attention that he becomes the centerpiece of any one song—but honestly, in this instance, it really works. His vocals here perfectly complement the unhinged nature of the track. Next comes another slow ballad, “I Don’t Mind,” opening with a very understated, barely audible organ in the background that gives the song a strange, calming-yet-tense vibe that really makes the track stand out among the rest. As always, Brown’s vocals make the song, with an impressive level of sheer intensity delivered in a quiet tone. Even when he brings out the trademark scream, it’s quiet and incredibly controlled. This whole track is, simply put, a masterclass in restraint.

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James Brown delivering a riveting vocal performance. Image source: clickamericana.com

Side B

The album’s second half kicks off with the showstopper, the ten-minute soulful blues jam, “Lost Someone.” This is the reason this album is still remembered all these years later, and is frankly worth the price of admission alone. It’s incredible length (which, by the way, is a third of the entire album’s running time) doesn’t hold it down at all: in fact I would argue that it wouldn’t even work with a shorter time frame. It’s an excellent example of repetition in music done right. The band plays, for the most part, the same bassline and trumpet part repeatedly, but with minute variations that keep it engaging, and, of course, James Brown’s once again jaw-dropping vocal performance. His voice really does carry this entire album, and on this track especially he imbues every line with passion. His singing is captivating, emotional, and engaging to no end. The audience simply can’t contain their excitement here, screaming and shouting with him along the way, with James even calling for some screams himself in a brilliant moment of call-and-response. After this ten-minute behemoth, the band transitions into a rapidly-changing medley of several songs, all packed into six minutes of time. Where “Lost Someone” was expansive and took it’s time, this medley moves from melody to melody faster than the listener can even keep track of it. In perfect honesty, I don’t like this track nearly as much as I do the rest of the album. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still great. It’s just that all of the musical ideas aren’t given nearly enough time to develop, and while I recognize that it’s a medley of preexisting songs, I just think it would’ve done better if it had given the song snippets a little more room to breathe. The vocals and band are just as captivating as they are on the rest of the album, but this track still stands out as an “alright” point in an album of incredibles. The album ends on a high note with the classic “Night Train,” with its instantly-recognizable brass part and a truly exhilarating bass and rhythm.

And just like that, the album’s over. Like I said before, the only bad thing I can say about this record is that there just isn’t enough of it. It’s one of the greatest live recordings ever put to record, and if you’ve never listened to this non-stop thrill ride before, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice. Let me know what you thought of the album, I’d love to hear your opinions!

Favorite Tracks: “Lost Someone,” “I’ll Go Crazy,” “I Don’t Mind,” “Think”

9/10 (by the way, starting with this review, I’ve decided to start giving albums numerical ratings out of ten! Let me know what you think about this, I’d really love to know.)

Next Up: Getz/Gilberto by Stan Getz and João Gilberto (1963)

 

Album Review #39: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady by Charles Mingus (1963)

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Charles Mingus

It’s about time we got around to Charles Mingus. Truly one of the greats of the world of jazz, his bass playing was unparalleled and his composing was mind-blowing. With this album, released 1963, he took the already well-respected genre of jazz and brought it to a level of challenge, aggression and complexity almost unheard-of by his peers and contemporaries. At the time, jazz was a lot of things: it was soft, gentle and soothing, it was loud, exciting and danceable. But until Mingus, it was never angry or even scary. With this masterpiece, Charles Mingus confronted the jazz scene with a mind-boggling opus of constant movement, frantic performances and musical concepts that until that point in music history had only been touched upon by some of classical’s great composers. Put simply, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is a complete game-changer for not just jazz, but popular music as a whole, filled with innovations, surprises and a style/structure that ensures it an incredible re-listening potential. (It is important to note, however, that a previous album of his, Mingus Ah Um, is just as highly regarded by critics, but for some baffling reason was sadly not included in this book. There’s a good chance I’ll get around to talking about that one sometime soon, but for now, Black Saint is more than deserving of our full attention.)

Side A

Track-by-track wise, this is a difficult album to review. It isn’t quite split into “tracks” per se, but rather into four continuous movements like some sort of modern-day jazz symphony. The whole record is intended as a single piece, so you can’t really have a “favorite track” here. I’ll at least try to analyse it, however, so let’s begin with the first of four movements, “Solo Dancer.” The opening to this album is just fantastic in every way. It starts off slowly and gradually, punctuated with buzzing notes from a roaring tuba played by Don Butterfield with a brilliant, distinctive timbre. Over the first few minutes the elements pile on and build in speed and intensity, ever-so-patiently stirring up a maddening whirlwind of sound that is both daunting and completely breathtaking to hear. Most of the album is improvised, but every performer on display has clearly mastered their craft to the peak of their abilities, and every solo is exhilarating. The second movement, “Duet Solo Dancers,” starts off much more mellow than the previous track, with a gentle piano intro and easy-going tempo and melody. Then, about two minutes in, it takes a turn for the menacing, with a slow one-two rhythm that stomps up and down, speeding up and building to a massive, disorganized crescendo that wields an energy so great that it leaves listeners speechless. The movement’s last couple minutes return to the main melody of the opening movement, which I actually quite like as it serves to further strengthen the full album as one long piece intended to be experienced as one. The final movement of Side A, “Group Dancers,” opens with another piano solo, but this time much more dark and ominous than the last. When the flutes come in with their swift, light but still slightly sinister melody, they give the impression of pirouetting ballet dancers, and the effect is strangely beautiful and awe-inspiring. Then comes what is honestly one of my absolute favorite parts of this record: Jay Berliner’s flamenco-style acoustic guitar work. With its angry, rapid and hypnotic strumming that reflects Latin Jazz, it’s a definite highlight of the album in my personal opinion. Although it only appears briefly in this movement, don’t you worry, because it’ll make a glorious return on Side B. Speaking of which…

Charles Mingus likesuccess[dot]com

Mingus and his legendary bass. Image source: likesuccess.com

Side B

“Trio and Group Dancers” starts off the record’s second half with a familiar motif from earlier in the record. Let me stress that when he does this, it is not a mark of laziness, but rather it helps to give the album a strong sense of continuity. It makes the album truly feel like one continuous symphony rather than a collection of tracks, and the effect is wonderful. After a few minutes of as-always well performed variations on the theme, it segues into another brilliant guitar solo. Berliner’s playing style simply demands attention, hence why his guitar usually shows up solo on this record: he’s just so good that his presence would distract from everyone else playing. The couple of times he does collaborate with another instrumentalist, it is usually only a duet, either that or everyone else just gets ultra-quiet as if in awe. The rest of the movement is dominated by a lengthy, improvised piano solo, expertly performed by the auteur himself, Charles Mingus. Every piano solo on display in this record is excellent, but this one takes the cake, making expert use of every second it has and refusing to lose the listener’s attention for a second. The fifth movement that follows, “Single Solos and Group Dance,” continues building on the momentum of the previous movement, once again finding unique ways to riff on the recurring motif. The guitar makes a return, this time accompanied by an easy-to-miss marimba. It isn’t as shy this time, participating with the band to great effect. Over the next few minutes the music grows deranged and unhinged, making a ruckus and chaotically beating the time signature into submission. The line between this movement and the final movement, “Group and Solo Dance,” is a little blurred, and I’m not actually quite sure where one ends and the other begins, but in the end, that doesn’t really matter much. The album works much better as a single piece anyways. It closes with one final rendition of the original opening melody from the first movement, serving as a brilliant bookend to an often hectic, crazy, but constantly masterful album.

So I guess you can probably tell what I think of this one. What can I say? I loved it to no end. It’s probably my favorite jazz album on the list so far, and it’s an album I can absolutely see myself revisiting years down the line. It may seem intimidating at first, but it is a consistently exciting, engaging, and enthralling recording that knows what it’s doing and does it damn well. All I can say is that you need to hear it, and it will probably take me a long, long time before I find a better jazz album.

Favorite Tracks: “Movement C: Group Dancers,” “Movement D: Trio and Group Dancers,” “Movement A: Solo Dancer”

Next Up: Live at the Apollo by James Brown (1963)

Album Review #33: Jazz Samba by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd (1962)

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This right here is widely credited as the album that first introduced the genre of bossa nova to American ears, and there really is no better album to do the job. There doesn’t seem to be a moment within this album without a catchy rhythm, ultra-soothing melody, or just overall relaxing sound. This album is calm, cool, and just plain enjoyable and feel-good. Art can just get so gloomy and depressing sometimes, you know? It’s refreshing when an album comes along with the sole goal of simply making the listener smile and enjoy themself. So if you’re feeling down, this is a great album to pick you right up.

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Stan Getz. Image source: bassic-sax.info

Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd on this record are a match made in heaven. With Stan on the sax and Charlie on the classical guitar, the two work together and combine perfectly, complimenting each other excellently with each note and chord. This album uses stereo very interestingly, splitting the two between the two audio channels so that the two both get a channel all to themselves, with Stan on the left, Charlie on the right, and the bass and drums centered in the middle. This makes for an absolutely blissful experience when wearing headphones, and I really think it’s the best way to experience this record. Anyways, back to the performances themselves. Stan plays wonderful improvised melodies on his tenor, and Charlie’s harmonies and chords are pure perfection as a backup instrument. The other players are not to be ignored however: Bill Reichenbach Sr. and Buddy Deppenschmidt provide excellent percussion, and Keter Betts’ bass is indispensable. They all work together to create the perfect relaxing mood, and simply sitting back in a comfortable chair and enjoying the record is something that simply must be experienced.

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Charlie Byrd. Image Source: archive.jsonline.com

The opener and hit single “Desafinado” is probably the highlight of the album’s seven tracks, with an almost stupidly calming and ear-pleasing intro, but the other six aren’t slouches either. “O Pato” is short but incredibly sweet, and the final track, “Bahia,” acts as a perfect wrap-up of the album. Picking favorites really just does the album a disservice though, and much like Bill Evans Trio’s Sunday at the Village Vanguard, it really is better when taken as one cohesive whole, rather than a simple collection of tracks. They’re all so calm and soothing anyway, that you’re pretty much too relaxed and at peace to really differentiate the tracks. And I guess that more than anything is a better sign of a great album, rather than having anything that could be called the “best track” out of the bunch.

So this record was my first experience with the bossa nova, and let me tell you, I am in love. This record truly was the best ambassador for the genre to the general American listener, and whether its popularity is owed to its sound being unfamiliar or simply because it’s a great record is a little hard to tell. But really, does it matter? Album’s good. That’s all I really care about. Do yourself a service and just chill out to this album. You’ll thank me.

Favorite Tracks: “Desafinado,” “O Pato,” “Samba de Uma Nota Só,” “Bahia”

Next Up: Night Life by Ray Price (1963)

Album Review #30: Sunday at the Village Vanguard by Bill Evans Trio

Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Bill Evans Trio

Now this is a jazz album. Featuring nothing but a piano, stand-up bass, and drums, this album is a masterpiece despite (or, perhaps, because of) its minimalism. Recorded over the course of a day at the Village Vanguard jazz club, this record’s got a distinctive atmosphere, with clinking glasses and background chatter throughout, and the playing is just fantastic. All three of them have clearly mastered their instrument, and put together, they can create pure jazz perfection seemingly effortlessly. Telling, that there was so much good material recorded that day that they had to release two albums worth of it, each over an hour in length. The other record to come out of the day of performance is titled Waltz For Debby, and was released the same year.

Sadly, this record will forever be in the shadow of tragedy. Bassist Scott LaFaro would die in a car accident just ten days after this album’s recording, at the age of 25. As such, the album is a sort of memorial record for him; all of the tracks featured were either written by him, or feature a bass solo performed by him as the centerpiece of the track. And there truly couldn’t be a better way to remember him, as every track is a perfect display of his virtuosic playing. Every solo is gripping and masterful, and in only a single day of performance he established himself as one of the greatest bassists of the 20th century. He is truly the core of this record, and without him, it would be nothing. With his contributions however, it becomes one of the all-time greatest jazz masterpieces.

Bill Evans Trio songbook1

From left to right: Scott LaFaro, Bill Evans, Paul Motian. Image source: songbook1.wordpress.com

Picking a favorite track is a little bit difficult, because the album works as more of a cohesive whole than as a collection of separate tracks. Distinguishing track from track as you’re listening to it is a little hard, as the record’s so smooth, relaxing, and chilled-out that it all sort of feels like one extended jam session. Of course, individual tracks still all have their own motifs, usually on Bill Evans’ piano, but picking favorites still just feels futile. I guess I can at least try, though. The opener, “Gloria’s Step,” features some super calming and peaceful piano melodies, and Scott LaFaro’s bass accompanying it is excellent as usual. “My Man’s Gone Now” is sombre and melancholy, creating a cool mood with its piano chords and bass improvisation. Finally, “Jade Visions” is a truly haunting track that’s brilliantly minimal even by their standards.

Sunday at the Village Vanguard is one of my favorite jazz albums. It does an amazing amount with only a piano, bass, and drums, and each of the three performers are highly skilled musical geniuses in their own right. There couldn’t be a better album to remember Scott LaFaro by, featuring some of the best bass playing you’ll ever hear, carrying many songs on its strength alone. Bill Evans isn’t a slouch when it comes to his piano playing, either. His melodies and improvisation are just a joy to listen to, and really compliment the atmosphere the record cultivates so well. So whether you’re a jazz aficionado or are simply looking for something calm to soothe your nerves, this record’s just for you.

Favorite Tracks: “Gloria’s Step,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “Jade Visions”

Next Up: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music by Ray Charles (1962)

Album Review #28: Back at the Chicken Shack by Jimmy Smith (1960)

Back At the Chicken Shack, Jimmy Smith

A new instrument’s in town, and it’s called the Hammond organ. Creating a completely original, fresh sound that no other jazz musician was doing at the time, Jimmy Smith paved the way for a whole new generation of musicians such as Booker T and the MG’s, not to mention later rock bands such as The Doors. It truly is a shame that, despite this record’s huge impact and influence, Jimmy Smith is largely forgotten about when discussing the jazz greats.

This album’s sound is cool, relaxing, and unique, and none of it would happen without Jimmy Smith’s signature instrument, the organ. It is simultaneously a great lead and background instrument, with its smooth, muted chords providing both an excellent centerpiece and a superb accompaniment to the record’s other performers. The other instruments that make up the quartet are drums, sax, and guitar, and they are equally as important as the organ. Donald Bailey’s drum playing is minimalistic but perfect for the music being played. It’s simple, usually playing just a basic rhythm throughout the song for the other three to play off of, but he still gets in the occasional improvised flourish. Kenny Burrell’s guitar is understated, but effective, complementing the organ with quietly strummed chords. Even though it stays quiet and in the background for most of the record, it still adds quite a bit to the album as a whole, working with the organ to create an instantly recognizable sound that’s ludicrously catchy and incredibly soothing at the same time. And of course, Stanley Turrentine on saxophone is absolutely excellent. Almost all the time he appears on the album he immediately takes center stage, getting in solo after incredible solo, with an improvisational skill that is just a marvel to behold. All four of these instruments are excellent on their own, but put together, they create a mood and tone that simply can’t be done justice with words.

Jimmy Smith musicbloodline.info

Jimmy Smith at his fabled keyboard. Image source: musicbloodline.info

The album is composed of four extended tracks, and each one is great. The opening title track kicks off with a hypnotic mix of organ chords and rhythmic guitar strumming, and for the next 8 minutes takes the main melody and puts it through countless improvised variations, never once losing momentum or becoming boring. The saxophone takes the lead on the second track, “When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” and goes on a quiet, understated journey over the next 9 minutes that truly showcases Stanley Turrentine’s skill as a sax player. Seriously, how you can be so good at your instrument that you can just step up to the microphone and play a masterpiece on the fly is beyond me. This track doesn’t feature any guitar, and as such has a more minimal, quiet feel to it. The third track, “Minor Chant,” is the shortest of the four, at only 7 minutes in length. What it lacks in (relative) length it makes up for completely in content. It’s definitely the most repetitive of the four, but that is absolutely a good thing in this case. The organ plays a catchy bassline that repeats throughout, while the saxophone and even the drums improvise over it. It doesn’t sound like much, but in execution it makes for probably my favorite out of the four tracks. It’s quiet and yet exciting, and if it doesn’t make you want to get up and move at least a little, then you might just be a little dead inside. And finally, “Messy Bessie” closes out the album with a lengthy jam incorporating all four performers perfectly. Pretty much everyone gets at least a little time in the spotlight on this one, and it’s a great showcase of the pure talent contributed by everyone involved.

Jimmy Smith truly deserves more credit than he gets. Almost single-handedly responsible for introducing the organ into popular music, he created a whole new sound in a near vacuum; the organ had never been used in a jazz ensemble before, let alone made the centerpiece of the group. And even if you take the album as it is, with no consideration of its importance or impact on both contemporary and future musicians, it still holds up as a masterpiece of a jazz album, and is thoroughly enjoyable by the jazz fiend and the complete outsider alike. So if you’ve never heard this one, you have my highest recommendation. Now go give this one a listen.

Favorite Tracks: “Back at the Chicken Shack,” “Minor Chant”

Next Up: Muddy Waters at Newport by Muddy Waters (1960)

Album Review #23: Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet (1959)

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The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Take Five is the final album of the book’s 50’s section, being released in December of 1959, and oh boy, does it end the decade on a high note. This is an excellent jazz album, rivaling the likes of Brilliant Corners and even Kind of Blue. Featuring only four musicians and yet at times sounding like a full orchestra, this album is extravagant, and at the same time subtle, with expert musicianship shining through each and every second. I think it’s needless to say that I enjoyed this one greatly.

The track that pretty much everyone knows this album for (and by extent, Brubeck’s entire oeuvre,) has to be “Take Five.” If you’ve never even heard of Dave Brubeck, you’ve probably heard this song at some point, possibly without even knowing it. It’s a great melody, but what I like the song even more for is the rhythmic, persistent piano that serves as a sort of grounding point for the rest of the band to do its thing. Funnily enough, the iconic saxophone melody that the song is famous for only appears at the beginning and very end of the piece, with the bulk of the song being an extended drum solo, accompanied by piano and bass. With such sparse instrumentation and such a (relatively) long running time, you’d think the song would tire itself out before it ends, but it doesn’t. Joe Morello, the percussionist, is so talented that he easily carries the majority of the song on his own. Although I love the song, I have to admit that it’s a wonder the song became a major hit, being over five minutes long and about %70 drum solo. Good on the public for digging this song so much.

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The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Image Source: theguardian.com

But of course, “Take Five” isn’t the whole album. There are six other tracks that make up the record, and all of them are worth mentioning. My favorite of these is track number two, “Strange Meadow Lark.” It has an incredible introduction, with a little over two minutes worth of solo piano that I can only describe as “Gershwin meets Debussy.” Brubeck is truly talented with the piano, and it shines here more so than anywhere else on the album. The rest of the band is great as well, with the four instruments working together excellently to create a soothing, cool and highly relaxing mood for the remainder of the track’s seven minutes. More so than any other track (which is saying quite a lot), this one is simply a goldmine of pure, undiluted ear candy.

Time Out is truly a top-tier jazz album. The playing is masterful, the melodies are memorable and the freestyles are flowing and effortless. The Dave Brubeck Quartet was one of the 50’s greatest jazz combos, and this album is their crowning achievement. Give this one a listen, it deserves it.

Favorite Tracks: “Take Five,” “Strange Meadow Lark”

Next Up: Joan Baez by Joan Baez (1960)

Album Review #21: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis (1959)

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This right here is a turning point, folks. Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue is not only the highest selling jazz album of all time (currently at 4x Platinum according to the RIAA), it also had an incalculable influence on almost every other genre of music for decades to come. I’ve been a pretty big fan of this album for quite a while now, and while I still prefer his 1970 release Bitches Brew, it still stands as a hugely important masterpiece in its own right.

With the help of a ridiculously star-studded cast of session musicians, including piano virtuoso Bill Evans and jazz legend John Coltrane, this set of five mostly-improvised jazz compositions becomes absolutely incomparable in performance, melody and sound. The record opens up with “So What,” containing one of the greatest introductions in music history.  The piano and bass play off each other excellently, and the moment where the cymbal crashes and the song goes into full swing is just pure perfection. The following track, “Freddie Freeloader,” continues the great improvised playing and harmonies, but track three, “Blue in Green,” is just indescribable. Evans’ piano playing is at its peak in this track, and gives off a mournful, even otherworldly vibe. My only complaint is that it is the album’s shortest track, at only five minutes. Its a song I definitely wouldn’t mind listening to for longer.

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Photo from the Kind of Blue sessions. Source: NPR.com

After “Blue in Green” comes the album’s lengthiest track, “All Blues.” This one’s probably my favorite out of the five. It may be long, but the great (as usual) performances, with repeating drum/high hat and bass that persists throughout, providing a sort of base for the trumpet, sax and piano to do their thing. It just keeps going for 11 straight minutes, and doesn’t wear out for even a second. It’s followed by the album’s closing track, “Flamenco Sketches.” An excellent send-off for one of music’s great masterpieces, it’s slow, morose and calming, and takes its time serenading the listener with latin-inspired melodies in some of the most smooth nine minutes of jazz ever put to record.

If you haven’t listened to Kind of Blue yet, do it. Now. I mean it. Simply one of the finest jazz albums ever, it’s something everyone should experience at some point in their lives. Never once feeling flashy or over the top, it remains cool and subtle throughout, making a lasting impression without ever raising its voice. Do yourself a favor and listen to this one.

Favorite Tracks: Uhh… Can I just say all of them?

Next Up: Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins (1959)