Hundred-word Reviews July 2014, Part Four

July 24th, 2014

I’m bound and determined to reduce the contents of my in-box to manageable levels, so this week I’ll be covering 25 albums, each adhering to a 100-word limit. Don’t mistake brevity for a negative review; these are all worthwhile releases.

Today’s five are the last in this particular run of new releases; tomorrow’s five will be recent reissues and compilations of note.

Chris Braide – Fifty Dollar Planets and Twenty Cent Stars
This British rocker is based -n Los Angeles, and on his new lengthy-titled long player, he’s aided by Pete Glenister, best known as the late Kirsty MacColl‘s guitarist. That said, listeners won’t find much jangle on this disc; Braide prefers a swaggering rock style that owes more to David Bowie and INXS. This is mostly wide-screen arena-ready rock with a melancholy feel. On tracks like “Fascinating,” Braide dials it down for a smoky, intimate vibe, but most tracks on Fifty Dollar Planets straddle the line between heavy rock and yearning power balladeering (but is far better than that label suggests).

Howlin’ Rain – Live Rain
This band began their life as a near-homage to The Allman Brothers, but quickly outgrew that on subsequent offerings such as The Russian Wilds. This set – compiled from “various locations around the world in the year 2012” – captures the emotional intensity of their live show. The band rocks hard on the eleven-minute-plus “Self Made Man,” and they resurrect the ghost of Led Zeppelin on the stomping “”Can’t Satisfy Me.” For those who dig the 70s sound but want to see it live, Howlin’ Rain is the band; until they’re in town, Live Rain is the next best thing.

The Fleshtones – Wheel of Talent
This Greenpoint (Brooklyn) quartet is a sentimental favorite of mine. On Wheel of Talent, they’ve changed their approach, but just a little. In addition to the quartet (guitar, bass, keys and drums), tunes like “Available” make prominent use of cello and violin(!) There’s one other major departure: more tracks than usual feature the lead vocals of guitarist Keith Streng rather than nominal lead singer (and keyboardist) Peter Zaremba. But the wit and swagger of the quartet that bills itself as “America’s garage band” is delightfully intact on tunes like the (previously available only as a single) tribute “Remember the Ramones.”

Archie Powell & the Exports – Back in Black
This album has nothing – insofar as I can tell – to do with AC/DC. But if you can wrap your mind around the idea of a singer/songwriter – that is, someone concentrating on lyrics first – backed by a hard rocking, ramshackle band, you’ll have an idea of what this sounds like. In fact, Archie Powell and his band sounds a lot like a less-drunk prime-era Replacements on the opener, “Everything’s Fucked.” Elsewhere they take singalong melodies and rock ‘em up; up-front acoustic guitar is too seldom used in uptempo rock; this band understands how to do it right.

Jim Mize – Jim Mize
It’s fair to label Jim Mize a “late bloomer.” This 57-year-old Arkansan has been knocking around for years, but he didn’t get into a recording studio until well into his thirties. His latest – this self-titled effort on the tastemaker Big Legal Mess imprint/sub-label of Fat Possum Records – is soulful rock that should appeal to fans of Tom Petty, John Hiatt and Nick Lowe‘s more rock-oriented material. Aided on this LP by John Paul Keith and Jimbo Mathus, Mize delivers finely-honed songcraft wrapped in memorable melodies. Mize says he plans to tour when he retires; for now, there’s this.

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Hundred-word Reviews July 2014, Part Three

July 23rd, 2014

I’m bound and determined to reduce the contents of my in-box to manageable levels, so this week I’ll be covering 25 albums, each adhering to a 100-word limit. Don’t mistake brevity for a negative review; these are all worthwhile releases.

Today’s five – all new music – can all be labeled as progressive, though they differ widely from one another.

Curved Air – North Star
Founding members Sonja Kristina (vocals) and Florian Pilkington-Miksa plus once-and-again member Kirby Gregory on guitar are joined by three younger members who have been with the group for more than five years on this latest studio album. Paul Sax‘s violin is very much in the style of departed founder Darryl Way, and Kristina’s voice remains very much an acquired taste (Kate Bush fans take note). The album’s production values could be be termed intimate and unadorned by fans, and demo-y by those less inclined toward the group’s music. “Puppets” is tough going, but the hazily rocking “Images and Signs” is better.

Transatlantic – Kaleidoscope
This band has long suffered from the tension between their ambitious progressive music and the inescapable religiosity of keyboardist Neal Morse. To some degree, Transatlantic has addressed that issue: The sprawling “Into the Blue” fills nearly a third of the run time with long instrumental passages full of doom abd grandeur. Still, all compositions are group-credited, so who knows to what degree Mike Portnoy, Pete Trewavas and Reine Stolt can be held responsible for crypto-Christian lyrics like “There’s a deeper meaning if you want to know.” If you don’t care to know, the playing and arrangement are still pretty ace.

Pray for Brain – None of the Above
Imagine funk if it were played by musicians with a prog/metal sensibility. Some will find that mental image irredeemably gruesome; other will be intrigued. For the latter group – however small – there’s Pray for Brain. This trio features upright bassist Christine Nelson, drummer/percussionist Jefferson Voorhees and Mustafa Stefan Dill on guitars..and oud. Yes, oud; there’s a world-music undertone to these deliberate (but not plodding) instrumental numbers. In places the group’s tracks feel like the guitar solo passages on late-period Frank Zappa albums. The aptly-named “Sufisurf” hints at the group’s stylistic mashup of disparate genres. Challenging but worth the effort.

Matte Henderson with Marco Minnemann – The Veneer of Logic
Henderson’s CD+DVD comes to me with a presskit that includes a recommendation from no less an authority than Robert Fripp. That should be a tipoff that The Veneer of Logic is an uncompromising sonic excursion, and indeed it is. With a rip-roaring guitar tone reminiscent of King Crimson‘s Thrak, it’s recommended only for those who appreciate the harder end of the prog spectrum (my fianceé and the cats are cowering in the corner, hoping I’ll soon move onto the next CD). But for those who dig the style, it’s an embarrassment of riches with a staggering lineup of guest stars.

Ian Anderson – Homo Erraticus
Live concerts notwithstanding, flautist/vocalist Ian Anderson seems to have retired the Jethro Tull brand. But his music – now released under his own name – hasn’t changed that much. On Homo Erraticus, Anderson’s brand of rock, informed as ever by medieval and European folk – will sound warm and familiar to Tull fans. Anderson’s flute playing is as expert as ever, but his vocals sound winded, labored. Onstage he’s worked around his diminishing vocal power by adding a second vocalist; on this record he employs this back-up approach little if at all, and sadly, the excellent music suffers for it.

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Hundred-word Reviews July 2014, Part Two

July 22nd, 2014

I’m bound and determined to reduce the contents of my in-box to manageable levels, so this week I’ll be covering 25 albums, each adhering to a 100-word limit. Don’t mistake brevity for a negative review; these are all worthwhile releases.

Today’s five – all new music – are all within the (very loosely defined) jazz idiom.

The New Mastersounds – Therapy
At every turn, this Leeds-based group finds new and exciting ways to expand upon their original brief: soul-infused boogaloo music. Pleasing jazz fans, the noodle-dancing jam band crowd and general-purpose festival crowds all at once is a tall order, but The New Mastersounds deftly achieve that goal. On Therapy, the group delivers a dozen original tunes heavy on soul and groove; fans of their earlier material will recognize the signature style, but they’ll also find some surprises. The heavy yet downtempo soul stew of “Old Man Noises” owes as much to Jimi Hendrix or Brian Auger as to modern trip-hop.

B11 – B11
This (nominally) jazz trio plays pop-jazz and originals in a style that feels more post-rock or even metal in places. A reading of Henry Mancini‘s “Peter Gunn Theme” is rendered in slowed-down super-heavy style. B11 covers Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme” even slower. And the heavily reverbed “Moon River” sounds like Chris Isaak played at 16 RPM. ( Lou Donaldson‘s “Alligator Boogaloo” gets similar treatment. But the original tunes cover a wider palette, from spaghetti-western instros to excursions into bolero, waltz and such. The no-lyrics, downtempo vibe makes B11 suitable as groovy background music, but it’s a fun intentional listen too.

Machine Mass – Inti
It’s fascinating to observe players constantly on the lookout for new direction in which to push the jazz idiom. Machine Mass features electric (and often heavily processed) guitar from Michael Deville, plus drums (and loops) from Tony Bianco. Together they make a sort of avant-garde kind of sound. But acclaimed saxophonist Dave Liebman adds his innovation to the mix, making Inti more of a jazz/post-rock hybrid. In the liner notes, Bianco describes the trio’s approach as “improvising over structures.” In practice this means that there’s a cohesive foundation for all nine tracks, but what happens within each piece is unpredictable.

Bex Ferris Goubert – Now or Never
This trio is so French that the liner notes aren’t even in English. But music is indeed the universal language, so these musicians on Hammond B3 organ, trombone and batterie (that drums to you and me) get their point across in a way that most everyone can understand and appreciate. Deconstructions of “Take Five” and Thelonious Monk‘s “Bluehawk” stay true to the jazz aesthetic of not saying true to the original arrangement, and the live recording (captured by a mobile unit in an intimate crowd in Paris’ Sunset Club) captures the group’s winning yet uncompromisingly idiosyncratic approach to good effect.

Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein, Bill Stewart – Ramshackle Serenade
With a more conventional lineup (Hammond, guitar and drums, respectively), this trio plays snaky, subtle tunes – six originals plus three covers – all of which are understated yet expressive. At times, the trio seems ready to take off into a heavier, faster tempo, but they keep it mostly in a head-nodding, pensive manner throughout the disc. In particular, Bill Stewart’s loping drums hold the emergency brake on the other two, reining in any tendency they might have to cut loose. Those looking for excitement are advised to keep moving; nothing to hear here. Still worth a listen.

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Hundred-word Reviews July 2014, Part One

July 21st, 2014

I’m bound and determined to reduce the contents of my in-box to manageable levels, so this week I’ll be covering 25 albums, each adhering to a 100-word limit. Don’t mistake brevity for a negative review; these are all worthwhile releases.

Today’s five – all new releases – are all more or less pop (in its classical definition) releases.

Jamie & Steve – Circling
This duo (half of The Spongetones) have maintained a regular schedule of EP releases of late. On Circling, the pair sound decidedly liberated from The Spongetones’ trademark sound, though the hooks, power and vocal harmonies are happily present in abundance. All six tracks on this disc are delightful, but the edge goes to the title track, with its breathtaking vocal arrangement and detailed (though never fussy) arrangement. Steve Stoeckel and Jamie Hoover have quite a way with a melody, and the vaguely Merseybeat-ish “You” and the closer “Wonder Girl” will leave listeners waiting for the next EP. Shouldn’t be long.

Neil Finn – Dizzy Heights
From Split Enz through Crowded House and his string of solo albums, Neil Finn has demonstrated an uncanny ability to craft enduring melodies. But his solo work – while excellent – somehow sounds less immediate than his other music; the songs often require multiple spins to sink in. That’s truer than ever on Dizzy Heights; the soft-focus arrangements bury the melodies a bit deep. On first listen, I was wholly disappointed in the album, but on subsequent spins I appreciated the groove on tracks like “Flying in the Face of Love.” Finn remains in a league with Lennon and McCartney.

Dan Wilson – Love Without Fear
As a key member of the grievously under-appreciated Trip Shakespeare and the more successful Semisonic, Dan Wilson proved the skill with which he could sing, play and compose. And if that weren’t enough, he penned three tracks on Adele‘s massively popular 21 album. On Love Without Fear, Wilson heads in quite the low-key direction. His radio-ready voice soars above arrangements that owe more to pop-country production values than anything he’s done previously. Fans of his earlier music may have to adjust their thinking a bit, but this collection might just bridge the gap between critical success and unit-shifting commercial triumph.

Various – I Saved Latin! A Tribute to Wes Anderson
Now, Wes Anderson isn’t a songwriter. What he is – besides a successful and idiosyncratic filmmaker – is a keen fan of great music. His films unfailingly make effective use of great, left-field tunes, working them into the narrative. This 2CD collection includes knowing covers of classic (but not overexposed) tunes by twenty-three hip/current artists. The originals all figured in Anderson’s films, and I Saved Latin!‘s bouquet of song originally recorded by The Who, Love, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Bobby Fuller and others is a delight; the tracks manage to sound fresh and new. This album is highly recommended.

Rotary Downs – Traces
This New Orleans outfit creates music that is hypnotic, catchy and alluring. They prefer to be thought of as “psychedelic art-pop,” but putting them in that bag might chase away listeners who would appreciate their strong and hooky songwriting. Their driving yet generally midtempo tunes make extensive use of synthesizers, but they do so in a way that never feels “synthy” or over-processed. You’ll find plenty of real guitar, bass and drums, too. For once, I don’t hear any clear antecedent in a band’s music, but Rotary Downs’ feel (though not their actual sound) isn’t miles away from The Church.

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Album Review: Eric Clapton – Unplugged (CD+DVD)

July 18th, 2014

Here’s a slightly unusual candidate for reissue: Eric Clapton‘s 1992 Unplugged album. To my knowledge, this massively commercially successful album has never gone out of print, which begs the question: why reissue it? To be fair, this 2014 reissue does include some bonus material. But first, let’s take a look at the original album.

Filmed – as was standard procedure for the cable series MTV Unplugged – in front of a small audience and featuring more-or-less acoustic readings of the artist’s work, Clapton’s Unplugged came pretty far into the whole “unplugged” story arc. The TV series had begin its life as a Jules Shear-hosted show with all manner of musical guests. Artists would render stripped-down, often more subtle versions of their (generally) well-known material. Beginning in late 1989, MTV Unplugged began airing, and by 1991 at least a couple of major stars had not only appeared, but had subsequently released live recordings documenting their performances: Paul McCartney‘s Unplugged (The Official Bootleg) and Mariah Carey‘s single cover of the Jackson 5‘s “I’ll Be there.” So by the time of Clapton’s Unplugged date, the idea was certainly neither new nor groundbreaking.

And by this point in Clapton’s career, his style had calmed considerably from the days of Derek and the DominosLayla and Other Assorted Love Songs (not to mention Cream), so the mellow approach was no significant stylistic departure for him.

Still, Clapton – joined by longtime musical associates including percussionist Ray Cooper, keyboardist Chuck Leavell and guitarist Andy Fairweather-Low – used the format to explore his love of the more acoustic-leaning “country blues” sounds that had long been a major influence on his playing. The result was a set heavy on covers (some might call them standards), with a few contemporary originals tossed into the mix. For his trouble, Clapton’s Unplugged LP scored him more than 10 million units sold, plus six Grammy awards.

The album’s most memorable cuts are a version of “Tears in Heaven,” the song about the tragic loss of Clapton’s son Conor, and a reinvention of “Layla” that bizarrely denudes the tune of its passion (and its classic extended instrumental coda), though it remains popular in many corners.

The new set expands the original album and offers three discs total. The first is an exact duplicate of the original 1992 CD, featuring fourteen songs form the television performance. The second disc features material recorded but not aired as part of the TV program, including three numbers (“Circus” and “Worried Life Blues” plus two takes of the unaired “My Father’s Eyes”) not broadcast, and four alternate takes/breakdowns of songs that did appear. A third disc (DVD) features the entire program as broadcast, plus an hour of previously unseen footage. None of the previously-unseen/unheard material is especially revelatory; they’re all very much of a piece. The booklet that accompanies the digipak is short on details; the opportunity to feature a contemporary essay on the performance has been passed up. And the cover art again features the grainy, “screen capture”-looking photo that graced the original release.

Verdict: good for Clapton fans who somehow don’t already have the lion’s share of this material on CD and DVD (or perhaps VHS); worthy of interest for most others, but not an essential purchase.

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In Memoriam: Johnny Winter, 1944-2014

July 17th, 2014

According to his publicist, legendary guitarist John Dawson Winter III died on July 15 in his Zurich, Switzerland hotel room.

I count myself lucky to have interviewed Johnny Winter twice (please see the list of links at bottom of this essay), and to have seen him play onstage once. I know very little about albinism, but what little I have read suggests that those with the condition tend to have a shorter life expectancy than the general population. And the same is true of junkies; though Johnny was a great talent, nobody will deny that he was hooked on hard drugs for a major portion of his life. Those two facts taken together make it all the more remarkable that the Beaumont, TX-born guitarist made it past his 70th birthday.

In his last decade or so, Johnny really did turn things around. The stories I heard strongly suggested that he had been at the mercy of manipulative and exploitative management for many years. But my the time I first connected with him (2007) he had hooked up with Paul Nelson, who served as his manger and second guitarist. Nelson worked with Johnny to reassert control over parts of his catalog, and was clearly a very positive figure in Winter’s life and career.

The qualities that came through to me about the man were his forthrightness and his taciturn nature. Even though Nelson had warned me in advance (“Hit him hard,” he coached me in advance of my first interview with Johnny), I found myself unable to get much out of the guitarist. If there were any conceivable way to answer one of my questions with a single word – usually “yup” or “nope” – Johnny would find it.

I did manage to draw him out a bit in our first talk, enough to have him tell me about the time he had a date with one Janis Joplin; they went to see Candice Bergen‘s Myra Breckenridge in a movie house. But the cliché “He prefers to let the music do the talking” may as well have been written to describe Johnny Winter.

When we spoke again in 2011 about his involvement with the latest “comeback” album from Sly Stone, he made it clear that he – like everyone else associated with the project – had never met the enigmatic artist. Though he never came right out and said it, the clear implication was that Winter’s guitar playing on one of Stone’s tracks was just a job, nothing more.

That certainly wasn’t true of Johnny Winter’s rock and blues recordings released under his own name. Even when his health was poor and he was (reportedly) being exploited by those close to him, the music rarely suffered. His Alligator releases of the 1980s have worn well, and are happily free (for the most part) of the era’s production/arrangement clichés. And of course his output in the 1970s is virtually without peer. My favorite of all his recordings are a pair of tracks form his 1978 LP White, Hot and Blue: “Walking By Myself” and the Junior Wells standard “Messin’ with the Kid.” On both of these Johnny is joined by a second guitarist, freeing Winter to spit out blistering solos. And that –along with Winter’s growling vocals – is what draws people to Winter’s music.

I didn’t manage to meet Johnny in person when he played Asheville’s Orange Peel in 2007, but I did manage to snap a number of photos. As my own tribute to the man and his music, I’m sharing a few of these below. With the exception of the one in which he’s seated at the front of the stage (with the “Bar” neon sign clearly visible behind him), these are all previously unpublished shots form my private collection.

At the close of our first interview, I thanked Johnny for taking the time to speak with me, and made a point – as I often do – to thank him for his music. I thank him again and send positive thoughts to those – his band mates, business associates and his wife – that he leaves behind.

For more of my writings on Johnny Winter, feel free to explore these links:

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Short Cuts: July Mini-reviews Part Three

July 16th, 2014

Here are three more shortish reviews, this time all new releases.

Randy Jackson – Empathy for the Walrus
As a rule, I’m rather wary of tribute albums. More often than not, they’re bereft of original ideas, and too reverent by half. And when they’re not, they seem likely to miss what was/is important about the subject of the tribute, and instead use the opportunity to press their own identity onto the songs of a (generally superior) composer.

Thing is, those truths (I call ‘em like I hear ‘em) mean that the exceptions end up being pretty special. And here, I am pleased to report, is one of those. Randy Jackson (not the jazz bassist/American Idol guy, and not Michael Jackson‘s little brother) was and remains leader of rock band Zebra (you may recall their 1983′s “Who’s Behind the Door,” an excellent AOR rock single of the era, no mean feat). And on his new solo album Empathy for the Walrus, Jackson takes a relatively unique approach and applies it to the peerless catalog of The Beatles.

Armed only with acoustic guitars (most of ‘em sound like 12-strings) and his voice, he runs through some of the best Beatles tunes from the later half of their career arc. Jackson allows himself virtually unlimited overdubs on these arrangements, but all he adds are more guitars and more vocals. And more, and more.

The results are nothing short of stunning. His deeply textured, percussive style on the guitars and his strong voice both lend themselves to this multi-layered technique. Here, Jackson favors John Lennon‘s compositions ever so slightly over those of Paul McCartney, but they both get the Jackson treatment. (so does George Harrison, on “Something.”) Drawing from the best cuts you’d find on Beatles 1967-1970 (the “blue” album) and throwing in a few from outside that era – “Norwegian Wood” and, wait for it, “Free As a Bird” – Jackson highlights both the strength of the songs (melody and lyrics) and his own strengths as player, singer and interpreter. Even the songs that were originally light on guitar (the Abbey Road suite in particular) come off well in Randy Jackson’s capable hands. Highly recommended, even to those who might be put off by the overall concept.

Hard Swimmin’ Fish – One Step Forward
When I hear or read the name Mitch Easter, thoughts of a certain kind of music fill my head. The Winston-Salem-based producer/musician was a key part of the success of R.E.M., The dB’s and his own band, Let’s Active. And that’s only naming three from a much longer list. And while all those bands had/have their own sonic personality, they do share a certain sensibility.

All of this makes Hard Swimmin’ Fish‘s One Step Forward a bit unexpected. This electric blues quartet from Frederick, Maryland plays a swinging style of blues that relies on the sonic textures found in hollowbody electric guitar, snare-centric drumming, solid doghouse bass playing, overdriven harp wailing and soulful vocals. And none of that has anything to do with producer Mitch Easter.

At least I didn’t think so until I heard One Step Forward. The brief band-penned liner notes explain that the band generally employs a DIY approach, but that this time ’round they wanted something different. I haven’t heard any of their earlier self-produced material, but one listen to the album makes it clear that Easter knew what to do: set up the mics, get the levels, and then get the hell out of the way. And if that’s not how it went down, it’s how it sounds. The production never calls attention to itself.

The band’s twelve tunes (mostly originals with a few standards mixed in) are successful at holding interest while remaining safely within the (occasionally restrictive) blues idiom. The album highlight is “Hear Your Mama Calling” with its extended blistering lead guitar solo, but all the tracks are good. They swing, they swagger, they deliver.

Supersuckers – Get the Hell
From the moment I heard the opening air-raid-siren that leads into the crashing title track, I knew I wanted to review Get the Hell. Imagine the best characteristics of 70s, 80s and even 90s heavy rock. Now subtract all the artifice and posing. Not left with much, you say? I beg to differ. The howling, growling delivery on this, the nineteenth(!) album from this quartet, proves once again that there’s plenty of life left in the hard rock idiom.

They call themselves the “Greatest Rock’n'Roll Band in the World,” and even if you might dispute that claim, there’s no denying that The Supersuckers play as if they’ve won the title and have to fight to keep it. Look elsewhere for subtlety; cast your ears in another direction for nuance. The thirteen tunes on Get the Hell rock, and they rock hard. Vocalist/bassist Eddie Spaghetti shouts his snarly, leering lyrics while the rest of the band pummels along in an unrelenting yet always tuneful manner.

The song titles tell the story: “Disaster Bastard,” “Bein’ Bad,” “Shut Your Face,” “Rock On.” If you fret that all today’s hard rock is retreads and posturing, get the hell over to a record store and get Get the Hell. It’ll cure what ails ya.

Still more “short cuts” to come.

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Short Cuts: July Mini-reviews, Part Two

July 15th, 2014

Here’s another entry in my short-review series; these three are instrumental albums.

Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Boy Named Charlie Brown
An entire generation grew up with the music of Vince Guaraldi, becoming familiar with he melodic brand of music even if they (we) might have claimed not to like jazz. As the background music of the enduring and popular Peanuts cartoons, Guaraldi’s piano-based tunes reinforced the onscreen emotional content of the animated characters and action. The most popular entry in the series remains A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Fantasy/Concord reissued the accompanying soundtrack several times, most recently in a cleverly designed die-cut package.

But an earlier program was made, and it too had a soundtrack featuring Guaraldi’s trio (the pianist plus drummer Colin Bailey and bassist Monty Budwig). But for a host of complicated reasons, A Boy Named Charlie Brown never actually aired on television. Yet in an unusual move, Fantasy Records (Guaralidi’s label at the time) did release its soundtrack, originally titled Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown. Subsequent pressings played down the connection to the unaired program and shortened the album’s title.

The music is just how anyone who’s ever heard a note of “Linus and Lucy” remembers it: emotionally expressive without the use of lyrics, varied in tone and style to fit the demands of the program’s scenes. The trio’s music bears close listening, but is effective as (dare I say it) background music as well. The 2014 reissue appends an unreleased alternate take of “Baseball Theme” and Guaraldi’s reading of the standard “Fly Me to the Moon,” though the latter has noting to do with Peanuts. The original edit of the accompanying animated film is lost – presumably forever – but the music remains, and it’s delightful as ever. (A limited edition orange vinyl pressing – with the original Jazz Impressions artwork – is also available.)

Express Rising – Express Rising
Music is filled with the work of outsider artists. Decidedly and determinedly avoiding the mainstream, those following their singular and idiosyncratic paths create and release music wholly free of commercial considerations. Most of these artists are, by definition, underground, neither seeking nor finding mass acceptance. Some of these artists are quite prolific: pop auteur R. Stevie Moore has self-released literally hundred of albums. Others turn out music at a much more measured pace.

One example of the latter is Express Rising. The inscrutable Dante Carfagna is Express Rising, but nobody can tell you much beyond that. What is known is that Carfagna’s earlier release featured breakbeats and sampling, two things you’ll find very little of on Express Rising. Moody, hypnotic, gauzy, impressionistic, melancholy: those are just a few of the adjectives that come to mind while listening to this album of instrumental (with occasional wordless vocalizing) music. Real instruments feature prominently here: Wurlitzer electric piano, acoustic guitar and gentle tapping of a drum kit.

But for something that at first glance seems forbiddingly outré, Express Rising is exceedingly tuneful and accessible. More textured and nuanced than new age, gentler than rock, the album’s eleven tracks are fully-thought-out musical excursion, modest in their approach but memorable. By design, the package provides little information, but the press kit offered this suitably oblique nugget: “Carfagna had this to say about himself and about Express Rising: ‘My last record came out ten years ago. Much has changed and much has not.’” The modest and assuming yet lovely Express Rising is well worth seeking out.

Percy Jones – Cape Catastrophe
Outside jazz/fusion/prog circles, the name Percy Jones isn’t well known. But within that rarefied world, Jones’s reputation looms large. As a key member of pioneering fusion group Brand X, Jones’ rubbery bass lines were an integral component of that group’s sonic attack.

After Brand X ended, the Welsh bassist relocated to New York City, where he would eventually cut a solo album called Cape Catastrophe. The album is a decidedly DIY effort, laid down in 1988-89 in a Harlem studio using drum machines, Casio synthesizers,digital delays and loads of Jones’ signature bass.

On the ten-minute-plus title track, clattering drum beats collide with Jones’ kinetic bass figures; “found” spoken word bits float in and out. The overall effect is a but like slightly funkier, equally arty My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Jones’ fretless work on “Slick” is expressive and entrancing, and overall the album sounds far less “dated” than one might expect. “Hex” feels like what The Police might have produced had they all given in to their suppressed prog-rock backgrounds. And the lengthy “Barrio” (which fills more than a third of Cape Catastrophe‘s run time) feels like an inspired, exploratory in-studio live jam, belying its one-guy-with-overdubs origin.

More “short cuts” to come.

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Short Cuts: July Mini-reviews, Part One

July 14th, 2014

The in-box here at Musoscribe World Headquarters is overflowing once again, thanks in no small part to my focusing on other matters (including my recent move and impending nuptials) in addition to keeping up my reviewing schedule. So here’s the first in another series of shorter-than-usual reviews. All of these albums were worth my time; they may well be worth yours as well. Dig.

Cowboy – Reach for the Sky
I’ve been meaning to cover this one for awhile. A reissue of a 1971 album originally released on Capricorn Records, Reach for the Sky rates notice as one of the label’s first signings; Cowboy got their deal with Phil Walden‘s label on the strength of a strong recommendation from one Duane Allman. The album is mellow, tuneful country rock, but (thankfully) you’re not likely to mistake this north Florida group for The Eagles. Allman associate Johnny Sandlin produced the album in a clean, unadorned, intimate style, and that approach perfectly suits the warm and friendly tunes.

Scott Schinder‘s liner notes tell the story of this modest group, and (unusually for a Real Gone Music release) the lyrics are printed in the booklet. Most of the gentle, harmony-laden tunes are written by (guitarists) Scott Boyer or Tommy Talton, but a couple are composed or co-written by piano/multi-instrumentalist Bill Pillmore, who today happens to live here in Asheville. He’s also my piano tuner; the world certainly is a small place. I saw a vinyl copy of this in a local record store just a couple of weeks ago; I might go snag it and ask for an autograph next time the apartment grand gets a tuning.

Tommy Bolin – Whirlwind
Though he lived until just past his twenty-fifth birthday, Tommy Bolin left behind an impressive body of work. Most notable as the guitarist who (a) took Joe Walsh‘s place in The James Gang and (b) replaced Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple, Bolin left behind a recorded legacy shows that his style and ability transcended the hard rock of those bands. He released two solo albums in the 70s, and a long list of posthumous live and compilation discs have been released, mostly since the turn of the 21st century.

His catalog, then, bears some similarities to that of Jimi Hendrix: seemingly there’s a push to release every note the man every committed to tape. That said, the quality of the new 2CD set Whirlwind is impressive and consistent. The eighteen tracks on this collection run the gamut from unfinished demo recordings to polished, why-wasn’t-this-released quality. The sequencing is seemingly haphazard, jumping around the various phases of Bolin’s career., but that won’t diminish the enjoyment of the set. Some of the music is meat’n'potatoes rock; some of it is much more ambitious. What most all tracks share is lead guitar work that manages to be both tasteful and flashy. The styles run from fusion to hard rock to gentle acoustic work, with some exploratory jamming tossed in for good measure. Every track here is either a Bolin composition or a Bolin co-write; the man clearly had ideas and energy to burn. An embryonic version of what would become “Marching Powder” on Bolin’s 1975 Teaser LP takes up a big chunk of the second disc; the 26-minute version on Whirlwind (titled “Marching Bag”) is a highlight, and will likely please fans of Hendrix’s later work, which it (in places) recalls. Keen listeners might hear shades of Jeff Beck in there, too, but in the end Bolin was a true original.

The Dramatics – Greatest Slow Jams
Best remembered for their hits “In the Rain,” Hey you, Get Off My Mountain” and “Whatcha See is Whatcha Get” (the first two of which are included on this new compilation), The Stax-Volt soul group’s main stock in trade was what we now (and for awhile now, really) call slow jams. This thematic collection was put together by late-night radio host Kevin “Slow Jammin” James – but of course it was – and may well serve as the soundtrack to your next 70s-themed evening of makin’ love.

The production and arranging on these twelve tracks are smooth and stellar; the Detroit band’s tight harmony is expertly backed by top-notch instrumentation. The band’s arrangers had a keen sense of the value of quiet; on numbers like the supremely melodramatic “In the Rain,” the audio shade and light take a relatively straightforward tune and make it into one for the ages.

Those looking for detailed information about the group and their music are advised to look elsewhere; the compiler of Greatest Slow Jams figures that (unlike me) you probably won’t be sitting around scanning the booklet while these tunes are spinning. Get busy, and enjoy. Greatest Slow Jams may only showcase one side of the Dramatics’ abilities, but it’s a damn fine side.

More “short cuts” to come.

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Bonus Weekend Post: Call Me “Steve Asheville.”

July 12th, 2014

I needed some chimney work done this week, so on the recommendation of a Facebook friend, I called a local business. When I spoke to the guy, his name (Joe Carlson) sounded familiar. I asked him if he was also a musician (in Asheville, you have to be one of those, a poet, a massage therapist or “life coach,” otherwise they turn you away at the city limits).

Anyway, he said yes. “I thought so,” I said. Then I reminded him of a studio session I did for an album he was working on. I laid down keyboard overdubs on four or five of his original songs, mostly using Wurlitzer electric piano and Mellotron string samples. This would have been back in February 2006 (I checked my records). We hadn’t met before the brief studio session, nor did our paths ever cross again, until today.

Turns out that when time came to finally release the finished album (in 2011, some five-plus years after my overdub sessions) he didn’t remember my name. So on the liner notes, the credit reads: “Steve Asheville: mellotron and synthesizer.” I had never heard the finished mixes until today when he brought me a copy…and sealed my chimney flue.

I had totally forgotten the session, as well as the session fee. I gotta say, I really like the ‘Tron textures on the title track of Living Sideways (I come in just before the one-minute mark). And I’m a fan of any mix that puts my work up-front, especially when it also means I can claim to be on an album with such musical heavyweights as Eliot Wadopian and River Guerguerian!

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