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Willie Nelson Willie Nelson, Crazy: The Demo Sessions (Sugar Hill 2003) - I bought Crazy: The Demo Sessions on spec, the first day it went on sale. I'd heard only one comment about this release, a favorable remark from a country music writer whose opinion I respect.

So when it hit the stores, I jumped on it. If this were a bootleg, I would have bought it based solely on the title. And while I hold Willie in the highest regard (I've reviewed almost all of his releases during the last ten years), Crazy: The Demo Sessions is a disappointment to me, as the recordings are too somber to hold my attention.

Willie NelsonThese are demo sessions, cut quickly to two-track in Nashville during 1960 to 1966, when Willie was riding a songwriting devil bronc. The sparse solo performances were found in 1994 on a large, unmarked one-quarter inch real of tape labeled "Tamper Demos" in the vaults of Nashville publishing giant Sony/ATV/Tree.

Not meant for public release, the album covers 15 tracks, most of which are better known in versions by other artists, or later recordings by Willie himself. The tapes were intended as demonstration recordings, or demos, for pitching new songs to artists and producers.

Willie NelsonSo the first eight cuts are acoustic numbers, with Willie and his guitar on songs like "Three Days" and "Permanently Lonely." While Willie had the ability to write a monster hit, his somber visions come through on tracks like "I've Just Destroyed the World."

The sessions are one-take studio efforts that offer a first-hand look at Nelson's artistic vision, and serve as a missing link between the era of his 60's, polished Nashville sound, and his breakthrough, "Outlaw," music from the mid-1970's on, starting with Red Headed Stranger.

Willie NelsonThe second half of the album are tracks recorded with a studio band (most likely the band that also backed Hank Cochran), and include the 1961 demo of "Crazy" that was pitched to Patsy Cline, and that later became a country standard.

Let's say it this way. Patsy is a towering country artist, with one of the best female voices of the 20th century. Crazy: The Demo Sessions doesn't capture the essence of Patsy. It does capture the essence of early Willie. The tracks are true and clean. Yet they are more interesting as historic artifacts than as an album meant for repeated listenings. Thus, Crazy: The Demo Sessions is for completists and country purists only.

Bonnie Raitt Bonnie Raitt, Silver Lining (Capitol 2002) - When Bonnie Raitt's new album was released, I heard a harsh criticism from one critic - "You can't polish this turd." Yet I think Bonnie will have the last laugh, as Silver Lining will generate at least one ubiquitous radio track.

Of course, Bonnie will never recapture the lightning in a bottle that was Nick Of Time. For her 16th album, the singer works with her seasoned touring band, including guitar player George Marinelli (formerly of the Bruce Hornsby band), bassist James "Hutch" Hutchinson (ex-Neville Brothers), New Orleans legend Jon Cleary on keyboards, and Beach Boys alumnus Ricky Fataar on drums. The twelve tracks were produced by Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake.

Bonnie RaittThere are some funky features, such as a growling sax on "Gnawin' On It" (also featuring slide guitar by Roy Rogers). Yet Bonnie's gone Hollywood on us. Left behind is the road-seasoned performer with sass on her lips and a few extra pounds on her hips.

Instead, we get the slimmed down, production model of Bonnie. Says the singer, "Where I am at this point in my life is really reflected in this record-all the fire and wisdom, humor and wounds laid out in all their beauty. I've watched my peers get better with age and hoped that would happen with me. That's up to the public to decide."

And the public will decide with the album's best track, "Time of Our Lives." A happy, perky number, "Time of Our Lives" is finding air play in diverse places, and will turn out to be a hit single. The problem is, when fans buy the album, they won't find a whole lot more than the hit single. Too bad.

Pere UbuPere Ubu, St. Arkansas (Cooking Vinyl/Spinart 2002) - I don't usually like to do negative reviews. But St. Arkansas earns this distinction. As much as I respect Pere Ubu, St. Arkansas borders on being unlistenable.

The band (now in its 8th line-up, stretching over a 27-year history) admits that St. Arkansas is one of its "darkest and most dramatic statements yet." But tracks like "Hell" make Nick Cave seem like a sunny optimist.

Pere UbuPere Ubu is David Thomas on vocals, Tom Herman on guitar and organ, Jim Jones on organ and guitar, Robert Wheeler on synthesizer, theremin, and piano, and Michelle Temple on bass, piano, and organ. Pere Ubu boasts eighteen albums, including 12 studio releases, with roots in Cleveland.

On its FAQ section, the band offers some insights, such as the following:

  • For what reasons do you consider yourself "unsuccessful?" How do you define success?
  • THIS IS REALLY simple: we don't sell any records and nobody comes to our shows. Can't get much more unsuccessful than that!

Yet Pere Ubu has had stretches that were very rewarding, such as Worlds In Collision (1991).

David ThomasAnd their recording style is remarkable. Says leader David Thomas, "Parametric EQ confuses me. It seems a very strange idea to torture sound waives in such a way. Instead we record the sound source with many different mics and then combine the tracks to get the desired composite sound. The drums, for example, were recorded live with approximately 20 mics including a number that Paul Hamann has invented and specially constructed for our purposes. [Note - Paul Hamann died in January 2003.] We therefore achieve a range of bands similar to those on a passive filter."

Which is all well and good, but at the end of the day, the question is whether the end product passes the ear test. St. Arkansas fails, in spades.

This is some kind of weird, self-produced project. Brooding experimental music is ok in concept, but you have to achieve a listenable level. No such luck on St. Arkansas.

- Randy Krbechek © 2003

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