Off the charts: Leon Russell, War on Drugs, Miles Davis

2014-04-25T00:15:00Z Off the charts: Leon Russell, War on Drugs, Miles Davis The Billings Gazette
April 25, 2014 12:15 am

Leon Russell

“Life Journey”

Universal Music

For aging artists, nothing says “I’m out of ideas” like a covers album.

Paul McCartney released one recently. So have Queen Latifah, Sinead O’Connor, and even Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. Rod Stewart has been dining out on the great American songbook for years.

Sometimes, the albums can be masterpieces. Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” comes to mind, and Linda Ronstadt’s “What’s New.” More often, they’re just contract fillers.

Leon Russell’s new “Life Journey” falls somewhere in between.

The two-time Grammy-winning piano rocker celebrates his 72nd birthday with a set of chestnuts from Delta blues to New York City pop.

As a songwriter, Russell has nothing to prove. His songs have been covered by everyone from Ray Charles, B.B. King, Joe Cocker, The Carpenters and George Benson. As a singer, he never was much of a vocalist and while some artists age nicely into a new voice (Johnny Cash), Russell has not.

Still, his squeaky croak sounds oddly appropriate on songs like Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen” and “Lucky Old Sun.” Not so much on orchestral jazz swingers like Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” and the string-sweetened lullaby “The Masquerade is Over.”

There are two originals here, the boogie-woogie “Big Lips” and “Down in Dixieland.” It’s when he’s banging the piano that Russell has always been best.

The War on Drugs

“Lost in the Dream”

Secretly Canadian

Kurt Vile leaving The War on Drugs in 2009 was supposed to be the death of the Philadelphia band.

Frontman Adam Granduciel carried on, producing the band’s well-deserved breakout album “Slave Ambient” in 2011.

He’s done himself one better with the new “Lost in a Dream,” easily the Vile-less band’s finest work and one of the best albums of the year so far.

It’s still signature War on Drugs, with long stretches of layered sounds, and haunted

organs weaving in and out of R&B drum machine throbs. That’s classic Granduciel. In the 7-minute “An Ocean in Between the Wave,” the howling guitars blaze over a soft, wavering electric piano line.

“I bet against the company again / They tried to redefine me,” he sings over jangling Mark Knopfler-inspired guitars. In the New Wave-y “Red Eyes,” the keyboards drone over baritone sax grunts and ghostly strings.

By the time you finish the nearly nine-minute “Under the Pressure,” with its mounting swells of classic rock guitars, synth and horns, you’ll be gasping for breath.

Granduciel it seems isn’t even close to finding the peace he pleads for, but at least he’s found a beautiful way of living with it.

Miles Davis

“Miles at the Fillmore 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3 ”

Columbia Legacy

By 1970, jazz was out and rock and soul were the new language of youthful rebellion.

That was just fine with Miles Davis.

During the late 1960s, Miles was clearly being influenced by funk and rock and the canny promoter Bill Graham started booking him into his Fillmore clubs, opening for bands like the Grateful Dead and Santana.

Young rock fans didn’t know what to make of Miles’ bombastic, chaotic sound, but they could tell he was up to something important.

The new four-CD set gathers shows from both the Fillmore East in New York City and Fillmore West in San Francisco, and restores more than two hours of previously unreleased material.

This is not Miles Davis for beginners. It takes some patience to appreciate the dark, primal, beauty to the jagged 12-minute explorations of songs like “Bitches Brew,” “The Mask” and “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down.”

Miles has surrounded himself with other like-minded jazz rebels, including Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and others. It’s not his most listenable period, but it may be his most interesting.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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