Beatles vs. Rolling Stones: Another Round

April 2nd, 2015

Back when I was a kid, the Beatles-or-Stones question was a real thing: among my childhood peers, one had to pick a side. That one could like both groups was, it seems, not a concept around which we could wrap our minds.

These days I’m much older and slightly wiser, and I enjoy both (Beatles still win by a long shot if I must pick). The folks at Cleopatra Records agree, as do the roster of acts whom they’ve employed to help create a pair of tribute albums (the label’s specialty). Magical Mystery Psych-out: A Tribute to The Beatles and Stoned: A Psych Tribute to The Rollings Stones bring together a cross-section of modern psych (and/or psych influenced) bands.

Of the two, the Beatles tribute disc plays it safer track-wise. Most of the songs on that disc are covers of material The Beatles cut in the Rubber Soul, Revolver and White Album eras. And the one outlier – “And I Love Her” – is given a relatively straight, faithful reading by The Lucid Dream. They keep the jangling guitar largely intact, and give the tune an arrangement somewhat reminiscent of what Best Coast might do. (A note-for-note copy of George Harrison’s guitar solo is a nice reminder that sometimes simplicity is the best approach. Electric Moon‘s reading of “Tomorrow Never Knows” sounds a lot like how one might expect The Brian Jonestown Massacre to cover it (though BJM’s vocals are better than the weedy vox on this version).

While other psych tributes from Cleopatra enlisted the help of a few “name” acts (Allah-Las, for example) Magical Mystery Psych-out features groups who will be familiar only to the hardest of hardcore modern-psych aficionados.

A few of the featured bands on this set are clearly not intimidated by the massive popularity of The Beatles; maybe it’s because they’re young and have less reverence (which is a good thing in this case), but The Vacant Lots‘ “Julia” creates an arrangement that owes nearly nothing to the 1968 original. Kudos to them for thinking outside the box. The same can be said about The Ruby Sun‘s cover of “Martha My Dear,” though in this case they win on originality but lose on musicality; the dirge-like pace of their arrangement might make some listeners grind their teeth. The Underground Youth‘s trip-hop reinvention of “Come Together” is a curio if nothing else. Kikagaku‘s “Helter Skelter” is a eardrum-splitting, punishing noisefest that makes the original sound like ear candy. And Strangers Family Band‘s “Sun Kings” is evocative of nothing so much as the still unattributed not-Beatles bootleg outtake, “Candle Burns.”

At least musicwise, The Rolling Stones’ psychedelic period lasted for all of one album, Their Satanic Majesties Request. But on the psych tribute to the band, tunes from all through the Stones’ catalog are given the treatment. A highlight of the set is The KVB‘s cover of “Sympathy for the Devil.” Instead of building an arrangement around a familiar riff, they strip the tune down to its basic parts, rebuilding it in a hazy, gaudy manner that recalls The Psychedleic Furs or any number of 90s shoegaze bands. Well done.

Shiny Darkly‘s “Under My Thumb” is close to the original (if the original was recorded in an airplane hangar with squalls of echo and feedback). Yeti Lane‘s “Sway” is appealing in a zonked-out way. Clinic‘s drum-machine-led reading of “It’s Only Rock & Roll (But I Like It)” sounds like Trio (“Da Da Da”), and doesn’t really work, but like some of the acts mentioned on the Beatles tribute, they score for originality if nothing else.

Sons of Hippies play it straight on “Gimme Shelter,” which raises an interesting question: on a tribute album, is it better to copy the original or reinvent it? Their reading of the classic Stones tune is just about the best thing on the pair of albums.

Surprisingly, The Allah-Las‘ version of “Stoned” is perfunctory; the certainly can do better. Pink Velvet‘s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is a slavish copy of the original, albeit one with the lead vocal bumped up an octave. But Pure X‘s reading of “Beast of Burden” is interesting and nicely textured, a sort of cross between indie rock and Martin Denny‘s bachelor pad tropicalia.

Like most albums of their ilk, this pair of releases aren’t likely to end up in most listeners’ heavy rotation, but they’re both reasonably well done. Thanks to somewhat more adventurous song selection, in this Beatles-vs.-Stones round, the decision goes to The Rolling Stones.

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Back to School with Les McCann (Part 3)

April 1st, 2015

Continued from Part Two

I make the (not at all original) observation that many American musical forms seem to get more respect in Europe than at home. “That’s all right,” says Les McCann. “Ninety percent of the stations are playing the same thing every day. It’s about playing that number-one. And it’s songs, not really music. People talk about ‘rap music.’ I say, ‘Where’s the music?’ People have been talkin‘ on records ever since they were first recorded. You ever heard The Ink Spots? Early Eddie Harris? Ever heard of Les McCann? I’m talkin’ on my records. I’ve even got a record called Talk to the People. But every rapper I meet tells me they’re the greatest, they started all this. ‘I got the beat. These are my beats.’”

When I point out that his work has been sampled by quite a few hip-hop artists, McCann bristles. “Those guys who sample, they don’t know what they do. They’re not musicians; they’re technicians. It takes it to another place. I’m not calling it right or wrong, because it goes where it’s got to go.”

I mention to McCann that a yard sale purchase of Cannonball Adderley‘s Somethin’ Else LP changed my life. “That’s how it works,” he observes. “Some people say, ‘I just like what I heard when I was in high school.’ They hear something new that they enjoy, and it’s like, ‘What’s that?’ ‘It’s jazz.’ ‘Oh, I don’t like jazz.’ I say, don’t call it jazz. Just like it, and take it home with you.”

Something unclassifiable that many listeners liked and took home with them was the 1966 LP Freak Out, the debut record from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Inside the gatefold of the 2LP set, there’s a photo of – of all people – Les McCann with blues singer and harmonica player Paul Butterfield. The caption says the pair are “freaking out,” but there’s no further explanation. McCann laughs heartily at the mention of this. “Nobody ever believes me when I tell them about that!”

“It was a moment that happened,” McCann recalls. “I didn’t really know [Zappa] but I knew there was something he was looking for. As we talk about Invitation to Openness, it’s exactly the kind of thing that Frank Zappa did. He handed an instrument to everyone that walked into the room that day. There were more than three hundred people there, and he recorded it.” I note that the instruments assigned had nothing to do with a person’s ability to actually play them. “Half of ‘em weren’t even musicians!” McCann laughs. “And that was the beauty of it all; it was great. And I am sure that stuck in my mind as a great way to approach my music from a different angle, too. We’re all connected to each other. When something beautiful comes, expand on it. Take it to another place.”

Returning to his favored concept of life-as-school, McCann makes this observation: “The curriculum in this school is complete. There’s nothing that needs to be taught; nothing new that’s going to come around. We are all in school. And everything you think of is what you can have. Everything you think of – good or bad; I don’t care what you judge it as – it is happening. Period.”

Les McCann is a vocalist, a keyboard player, a painter, a photographer. He tends to view these various sides of himself as dimensions of the same creative and artistic impulse. “There’s one thing that’s same [in all of them], and that’s me. What mode we come out of and how we do it is a choice we make, maybe. Music is part of what I asked God to give me when I chose to be human and to have a great earthly experience: ‘Let me know what I need to do; take me to where I need to go.’”

“Sometimes,” McCann concludes, “we come in with different colors, different height, different sizes. We eat different food, we’re born in different places. That all accommodates the goal we’re looking for, and leads us to that. So you can’t go wrong. You can fight it, but it’s already in your DNA. My only message to the world is this: at all times, choose love above fear.” After I thank him for his insight, he laughs and says, “Now I’m gonna go smoke a joint and see if I can take it up a notch.”

Omnivore Recordings’ deluxe reissue of Les McCann’s classic album Invitation to Openness is available now. And McCann’s book documenting his lifetime of photography, Invitation to Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography of Les McCann 1960-1980, will be released officially on April 19. McCann made an in-store appearance last weekend (March 28, 2015) in Los Angeles, showing slides from his book and telling stories about the old days.

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Back to School with Les McCann (Part 2)

March 31st, 2015

Continued from Part One

Among the most celebrated releases in Les McCann‘s extensive catalog, Swiss Movement is his 1969 live collaboration with saxophonist Eddie Harris. The album was controversial on its release thanks to its inclusion of “Compared to What,” a tune with lyrics that remain as provocative today as they were thirty-five years ago. In fact, a special “radio edit” LP of Swiss Movement clumsily bleeped out the offending lyrics.

The song’s lyrics might have hurt its chances for chart success, but McCann never worried himself about such matters. “It’s art. It sells, or it doesn’t sell. The word ‘abortion’ was not permitted to be played on the radio. And the station [that did initially play it] was fined $25,000 for playing the song.” Controversy or no, the single “Compared to What” ended up a million seller, as did Swiss Movement.

“I’ll tell you a shocking story,” McCann offers. “Six years before that record was made, when I first heard the song from Gene McDaniels (who wrote it) – he was a dear friend of mine, and he was in my band – I recorded it. But I knew that [recording] wasn’t it, but I wanted to keep that song. Whether I recorded it right or wrong, I know that at some point it’s going to come to me. So six or seven years later, it came to me. Onstage, at that very moment.”

So “Compared to What” wasn’t even on the set list for McCann’s Montreux Jazz Festival performance? “The band never made it to rehearsal!” McCann laughs. “Everything was spontaneous! Even the melodies for a couple of the songs: I’m telling a couple of the guys – trumpet players – and they’re scared to death! ‘Cause they didn’t know any of the songs. ‘Just do who you are,’ I told ‘em. And I trusted ‘em.”

He continues. “A great lesson for me was when guys came in and were writing everything down, and saying, ‘This is the way I want everything played.’ And we’d get to a big moment, times in my career when people wouldn’t show up for rehearsal, couldn’t make it to rehearsal. I’d get mad, and I’d say, ‘Let’s just play.’” Being in front of an appreciative audience no doubt helped. “In France and Switzerland, they loved me. I don’t know what it is, but from the very first moment I ever played there, they said, ‘you belong to us.’ Maybe,” he chuckles,” it’s because my name is Les.”

And his name is closely linked with what is known as soul-jazz. “I’m told that I was one of the first people the record companies put that title to,” McCann says. “The first album I did, on Pacific Jazz [in 1960], was called Plays the Truth. ‘Soul’ is just another word for feeling, and love. It’s all good. Soul is becoming aware of what’s inside of us. When you get passionate about something, you discover yourself.”

Cannonball Adderley is another figure closely associated with the soul jazz genre. One of Adderley’s basic beliefs was that jazz is the people’s music, that it can be boundary-pushing and innovative, but that it should be accessible, too. And that kind of philosophy is felt in much of McCann’s music. In fact, in Leonard Feather‘s liner notes for his 1961 LP In San Francisco, McCann is quoted as saying, “I want my music to hit the emotion of human beings.” He goes on to say, “If jazz is played so it can be accepted, it will be accepted.” Since that quote comes from near the beginning of his recording career, I ask him if he’d like to expand on his comment. His terse reply: “No.”

“That was then. I don’t go back, no,” he adds. “That’s what I said then; I’m not going to try and go back and figure out what I meant.” I press the subject a bit and ask if he agrees that music should be accessible. Again: “No. Don’t make no rules! Everything is already accessible. People say, ‘This is hard to play. This is hard to listen to.’ They have all these fuckin’ excuses. Shit. Give me a break! Just go do it. Find your heart, your passion. That’s the word. That’s soul, that’s love: everything that is the opposite of fear. We’ve all heard it a thousand, a million times. But we take a long time to heed the message.”

Not surprisingly, McCann has strong opinions regarding the current state of jazz. “Everything must change. And they’re trying to keep it the same. It won’t go nowhere; it died.” He observes, “Once you make a recording, it’s recorded that way: that’s how it is. And that’s the way that people who buy the records want to hear it.” That runs counter to the jazz aesthetic of never-the-same-way-twice. “Musicians understand that, but record companies are sayin’, ‘Fuck that. Make me some money!’”

“Jazz is dead,” McCann repeats. “We have to make it because we like it. I tell all the young people now, ‘If you’re really into it, it’s got to be a matter of life and death. If not, go find your passion.’”

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Back to School with Les McCann (Part 1)

March 30th, 2015

Invitation to Openness is not only the title of one of jazz great Les McCann‘s most celebrated albums (newly reissued; more on that later); it’s also the title of his new book of photography and essays. Throughout his storied career as a touring and recording jazz musician, McCann came face to face – in personal, intimate settings – with legends in music, film and public life. An accomplished amateur (though he’d effectively “go pro,” as well see), McCann shot countless photos in crisp black-and-white, capturing his subjects in a knowing manner that (for example) publicity photos often fail to convey.

And one of the book’s most striking qualities is its variety. McCann’s lens captures onstage photos, backstage photos. He includes posed shots, candids. His subjects are famous musicians and unidentified people. Comics like Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx are featured, as are photos taken at pro basketball games. Yet somehow, with all this diverse imagery, there’s a unifying aesthetic within the pages of Invitation to Openness. “Every artist, every creative project has a sequence,” McCann says. That gives the finished work flow and rhythm, he says. A project like his book, then, is “based on something you haven’t seen before. So you’re looking at [the raw material], assessing it: now what do I do with it? And maybe you can’t do it, so you get somebody whose eye you can trust.” And in this case, McCann had a pair of collaborators that he describes as his “corps of angels”: his longtime manager and confidante Alan Abrahams, and Pat Thomas, author of the book Listen Whitey: The Sounds of Black Power. “I took all of the pictures,” McCann says, “but then I put it in their hands.”

There was some healthy back-and-forth involved in the book’s creation. “I gave them all my pictures,” McCann recalls. “And they came up with about 700, I think. And then we narrowed it down to about 300 or so: ‘What do you think of these?’ ‘Yeah, I like that.’ ‘No, I don’t want that.’” McCann notes that initially, the project was to focus only on his photos of jazz musicians. “But my photographs are not just one thing, like my music is not just one thing. So they got the message.”

Some of the photos in Invitation to Openness are left to speak for themselves; others include McCann’s annotation. McCann writes that the book’s early 1970s photos of jazz great Julian “Cannonball” Adderley are some of his favorites. “There’s a little story that goes with that in the book,” he says. “It was the first time somebody picked one of my photographs, saying, ‘We’d like to use this.’ And they paid me for it.” But the Japanese magazine made an amusing error. “They put my name in there as ‘Les McCann Keyboard!’ I liked that, y’know? I’ve been all over the world, and people have called me everything.” Reflecting on fellow soul-jazz giant Adderley, McCann says, “I have nothing but fond memories of his joyful life, his joyful music, and his zest to be great. And [seeing him] was the first time that I went to a club and was totally blown away with everything I heard the band play.”

Asked if there’s a subject he missed the opportunity to photograph, McCann answers quickly: “God.” Pausing a beat, he wryly adds, “The day I met Jesus, he was in a hurry to get someplace.” After the laughter subsides, he continues. “I can’t think of anyone, no. ‘Cause I met everybody. I’m not talking about me being onstage and all that; I was put in a position to just be everywhere. Everything I ever wanted to do, I ended up doing ten times as much…stuff I didn’t even plan on. I came into this life with the beautiful understanding that I was ‘in school.’ I’m here to learn what this Earthly adventure is about. I might mumble and stumble, but the goal is to love myself. And then by loving myself, I’ll know how I want to love and treat everyone else. Because I truly love people, and everything that’s on this Earth.” He adds, “I’m not confused about it; not anymore.”

McCann’s 1971 album Invitation to Openness is a landmark release, as evidenced by the fact that it’s been kept in print and/or reissued so many times since its original release. The latest CD reissue, on Omnivore Recordings, is produced by Pat Thomas, and features a bonus track, a live reading of McCann’s signature tune, “Compared to What.” When I suggest that it’s one of his best releases, McCann is quick to correct me. “You can never say that; I don’t think you say that about any music. Because for me, it’s kind of personal. When I came to do [Invitation to Openness], I went into New York City and within one day I had told the producer what I wanted to do. And then organizing the people who’d be on the record – over fifteen people – and having them all in New York at once, it was a magic moment. The whole project was. So my special feelings and memories about it are about the session and the people.” He also notes that the album “was extremely well recorded. They captured the essence and ambience of what people were doing.”

McCann recalls his reaction at the Invitation to Openness session: “Oh my God: it really worked!” He says, “What you have to do is experiment. I’m creating 24 hours a day, and that’s the message I try to share with people. We came from creation; therefore, we are creation. It drives me crazy when people say [about themselves], ‘Oh, I wish I had a talent; I can’t do nuthin’.’ I say, ‘Shut the hell up. Get quiet, and look deeper into yourself. Not outside; look inside, and you’ll find everything you’re looking for.’”

“A song may live awhile, but as far as style, you can’t keep doing the same thing. That’s another reason I’m so happy about the idea I had for Invitation to Openness. I gave very few – if any – instructions. No rules; just play. Swiss Movement broke the door open for me: don’t lock everything into a set pattern. And that was very enlightening for me.

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On the Fringe of Consonance: Double Naught Spy Car + Stew (Part 3)

March 27th, 2015

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: So the actual sessions for Panorama City took place ten years ago?

Paul Lacques: Actually thirteen; we did these sessions in 2002. Y’know, we feel kinda bad. We did the sessions, and thought, “That was weird.” And then we went our separate ways. Then Marc went into mad scientist mode, and sent some mixes. But we didn’t know what to do with all of this. In a way, the mix that evolved over a decade into something that could be on a CD.

BK: I suppose it’s fair to say that the free-form approach you brought to the sessions was informed by everything you had heard and done before. And so now you’re thirteen years older. How do you think the sessions might have been different had you recorded them in 2015 instead of 2002?

PL: That’s an excellent question. We all would have been in a million bands since, but I’ve go to say that I think it would be fairly similar. Maybe some more advanced concepts. Maybe different effects boxes that the guitar players are using.

But we’re pretty much who we are. The band is made up of some pretty strong personalities. I think it would have been fundamentally the same. Stew came out in the fall [2014], and we did a live show. We didn’t know the songs at all; we just played ‘em. It was kind of live renditions of song he knew but we didn’t! And it went really well. I think our love of the unknown is still intact. So I think the sessions would have turned out just as well if they had been done today, because we’re just as naïve and willing to try new things.

BK: Panorama City is an unusual project, to say the least. Do you think that the American Composers’ Forum got what they bargained for with the end result?

PL: They’re very cool. We lost touch with them over the years; there was a period when we were doing some pretty avant-garde music, and someone heard it and interpreted it as “modern classical!” [laughs] So we’re hanging with the Cal Arts serial, atonal musical academics with their banks of synthesizers. Some of the meetings were crazy. We’d do some song, us being this brash rock band. And I think half of them were offended.

But the people that ran it at the time – the L.A. chapter – were really pushing us and helping us. And they actually suggested that we write the grant. And it was very open-ended; that’s the thing about this forum. It’s made up of people whose main goal is to break the rules of what’s considered music. So I think they had no expectations. If anything, it might have turned out a little more reasonable sounding than they had expected. They might have been expecting white noise or an Ornette Coleman kind of chaos. But oddly enough, it didn’t turn out that way. It turned out far more structured than any of us had guessed. And to me, that’s the most surprising thing about the whole project: it sounds like pop music.

BK: I wonder if that’s because fundamentally, you have a popular music sensibility. So that even when you’re being experimental, the music is grounded in, for lack of a better word, accessibility.

PL: For sure. We all grew up playing Rolling Stones songs, blues, and country music. For Marcus Watkins and myself as guitarists, country and blues is sort of our first vocabulary. Our bass player Marc Doten was raised on more of a jazz band [foundation]. He can play classical piano. Same with Joe [Berardi, drummer]. They went to music school. And Marcus has developed very sophisticated skills over the years. I’m probably the least schooled at this point.

We all came up with a shared taste for what I guess could be called the experimental. But we come out of rock, for sure.

Thank you for appreciating what we’re doing. It’s not for the faint of heart!

Panorama City will be released on April 14, 2015 on 11 Foot Pole.

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On the Fringe of Consonance: Double Naught Spy Car + Stew (Part 2)

March 26th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: The press release that accompanies my copy of Panorama City also uses the phrase “group ESP” when describing the interaction among you and your fellow musicians. I chuckled when I read that, because while I understand what was meant – an unspoken communication among the musicians – the avant-garde music also reminded me of the kind of thing that came out on ESP-Disk: The Fugs, Paul Bley, Albert Ayler, and Sun Ra, for example – all what one might term “outsider” music. Do you feel a kinship with those sort of exploratory artists?

Paul Lacques: Oh, definitely. Absolutely. And occasionally, the textures will sound a little…I’m not even sure what the category is. Experimental? The tonalities certainly go out on a limb, and that is how we approach our music. It’s not like, “Oh, we accidentally played a major seventh over a minor sixth chord.” That is how we think as a band. We look for melodies that are kind of on the fringe of consonance. We look for memorable phrases, but they can be quite dissonant.

It sounds kind of like…I don’t expect people to believe it, but we did start reading each others’ mind. You’ll hear the band switch on a dime. And hearing it now, I truly don’t know how we decided to change keys or chords, but we did. We weren’t looking at each other and signaling; we just felt it.

One of the things we’ve done is to make all of the raw tracks available. So you can hear it as it was played. We really hope people check that out, because you can hear the changes happening without any cues. It was an interesting experience, for sure.

BK: As we’ve touched upon, Stew recited his more-or-less free-form lyrics live while you played. Did the cadence of his lyrics affect the organic direction that the music took, or did you more or less tune it out while you were playing?

PL: We were very much listening. We could hear each other really well; we were gathered in a fairly tight circle, and Stew was in a vocal booth. (He also played a lot of guitar, keys, and melodica.) He was very much “in the room” with us. We were definitely supporting what he was doing, and responding to it.

Our approach was sort of, “We’ve got this recording date with this singer/songwriter Stew, and we’re pretending like we have charts to play.” Like a good Wrecking Crew or backing band, yeah. You support the lyrics, once they’re in.

BK: The difference being that in your case, it was done on the fly, spontaneously…

PL: A good studio band…you know, there’s that movie about The Wrecking Crew coming out. They played on hundreds of hits, and they were making licks up on the spot, too. They didn’t have two days to work on a song; they were expected to crank out at least one song in a couple of hours. If they were hot, they’d do a couple of songs. They made guitar licks and so forth up on the spot; that’s what they were hired to do.

And that was part of the model for us, too: “First thought, best thought.”

BK: So said Allen Ginsberg

PL: Yeah.

My personal mission is to steer people toward the long versions, so they can hear them as they were played. If they like the CD, they should explore the extended versions. Rather than imitating conventional music, this is what we did.

BK: The album clocks in under an hour, and it’s tightly edited. That is the exact opposite of what you started with once the sessions were over. But the extended tracks version you mention clocks in over four hours. Would you say that the album represents the “best” of the sessions, or is it just one perspective on them?

PL: I’ve got to lean toward the idea that it was just one distillation. If someone else had edited it, it would have come out completely different. And the tracks on their own – the seventeen-minute versions – I find them just as listenable, if slightly more dramatic. We left a lot of good solos out, some amazing bass and drum stuff. It’s just not there, because when you start with seventeen minutes, you’ve got to make some brutal choices.

So rather than a best-of, it’s one angle, one pathway into the swamp. And I think Marc did a fantastic job. Someone else could have carved a completely different path, and it would sound much different.

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On the Fringe of Consonance: Double Naught Spy Car + Stew (Part 1)

March 25th, 2015

The members of Double Naught Spy Car don’t seem put off by the genre labels that (cough, cough) certain rock writers tend to apply to musical artists. In fact they’ve offered up a label of their own to describe their sound: “spaghetti/jazz/prog/surf/twang.” Now, if that doesn’t confuse listeners, their music just might. On their latest album Panorama City, the southern California quintet are joined by singer/lyricist Stew, formerly of equally-though-differently-quirky group The Negro Problem.

The project that gave rise to Panorama City started its life more than a decade ago, the product of a grant from the American Composers’ Forum. The resulting tapes languished for years, but now they’re available in both edited album form and in their raw, largely unaltered state.

I spoke with guitarist Paul Lacques about the development of the grant-financed sessions into a finished product that is decidedly avant-garde, yet somehow still accessible. And I’m also pleased to present a Musoscribe World Premiere in advance of Panorama City‘s April 14 release: the track “Bumpin’ Morton Subotnick” (see link below).

Bill Kopp: The nature of improvisation is that you free yourself from preconceptions as to where you’re going with the music. I understand that’s how a lot of late ’60s and early ’70s Miles Davis sessions were done. But then Teo Macero and Miles would splice, chop, edit, and reassemble the results into something they liked. Frank Zappa did something conceptually related: he’d take tapes of his live guitar solos, extract them from the multitracks and then craft new studio backing around them. To what extent did you engage in post-recording “sculpting” of these tracks?

Paul Lacques: Our bass player Marc Doten did the lion’s share of it. For example, if we had a seventeen-minute song, we needed to trim it down to four and a half minutes or so, maybe six minutes. So eleven minutes vanish right there. I think he moved a few things around, but the general flow is somewhat how we played it, but with big sections chopped out.

I think, as we were doing it, we had in our minds, “Maybe we’ll chop this up someday.” I don’t know; it really was leaping into the unknown when we started doing it. We didn’t really even talk about it. We just wrote this grant [proposal], promising to make songs up on the spot. Those were sort of broad instructions. But we actually did do it; one of us would just start playing, and the others would just fall in. The rule of improv is that you don’t leave your partner hanging.

So we did that. Somebody starts with a crazy drum or guitar lick, and we would literally follow along, thinking, “Oh, that’s how the song goes, okay? Well, then my part should go like this…” And then Stew would come in – sometimes right away, sometimes he’d wait five minutes – with some lyrics he had scrawled that morning or the day before. He’d go looking through his notebook for something that might match the groove. And then when it started sounding like music, he’d start singing. There were literally no second takes.

But to get back to your question about shifting order, it’s about 75% in the order we played it, with sections moved around.

BK: So did you do things like pulling the fader down on one of the guitars, taking things out of the mix?

PL: Oh, yeah. Sure. And you can hear it, where one guitar is very low in the mix. Because we didn’t have isolation, you’ll still hear it a little bit, but we definitely did some post-recording arranging with faders. There was a fair amount of manipulation done to the original tracks.

BK: I couldn’t help but notice that the press release that accompanied Panorama City seemed to go out of its way not to mention Captain Beefheart. Within my musical frame of reference, the music of Beefheart is the closest thing to what you’re doing on this album. Do you consider him an influence, and if so, in what ways?

PL: I agree. “Beefheartian” is the number one adjective that I would use. But the process we used was the opposite of what Beefheart did. I think he basically had a slave shop going, where he’d make his players learn his crazy parts absolutely verbatim. And they’d rehearse them until people were ready to run out of the desert shack and take their chances.

But that was very much the opposite of what we did. Still, it does sound like some Captain Beefheart stuff. Especially the guitars; there’s some really angular guitar playing and tone.

We were heavily influenced by Beefheart when we were growing up; all five of us. So I would embrace that influence, certainly. And I do hear the similarity in sound, sometimes.

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Book Review: Mavericks of Sound

March 24th, 2015


There’s something endlessly fascinating about the creative process. And of course it’s not merely one process; it’s wholly unique for each individual. And because that’s true, conversations with those engage in creative output are often illuminating. David Ensminger clearly agrees: he’s compiled a book’s worth of his own conversations into a volume called Mavericks of Sound: Conversations with the Artists Who Shaped Indie and Roots Music.

A few of these names will be familiar to casual music enthusiasts (Merle Haggard and perhaps Billy Joe Shaver), but mention of the bulk of the artists interviewed will elicit furrowed brows or blank stares from most people. That doesn’t make them any less important; it’s worth recalling how influential artists such as The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, and Big Star were in their days, and it’s helpful to recall that none sold very many records or broke into the mass culture consciousness in a meaningful way. So the fact that the names interviewed in Mavericks of Sound are not well known is no detriment.

And so it is that may of Ensminger’s interview subjects are “cult” or “underground” acts. But to a man (and, much less often, a woman), the acts spotlighted in Mavericks of Sound are about expressing their own product of the creative muse. And nearly all are what one might call critics’ darlings.

They’re also pretty much all excellent interview subjects. It helps immeasurably that in Ensminger they have an intelligent interviewer; in fact he’s often more of a peer (on some or another level) with those he interviews. Occasionally that can result in a somewhat insular conversation, one in which the reader may feel that he or she has wandered into a deep conversation already long in progress. When both of the parties in a conversation are discussing theoretical concepts, dialectics, philosophy and such, Mavericks of Sound threatens to get a bit too egg-headed for the casual reader (present company included). But my advice is to force your way through those heady chats, as even when the subject matter gets a big dense and/or academic, there’s value to be found.

Interviews with Michael Gira and Jarboe (Swans) and Deke Dickerson are among the most revelatory of the twenty-two major interviews, and even the shorter pieces (Richard Thompson, Rob Younger, Wayne Kramer) are well worth reading.

I do have two criticisms of the book. First off, and relevant to the points already made, the lack of contextualization hampers wider enjoyment of the interviews. I understand that nearly all of the material as presented in Mavericks of Sound has been published elsewhere (in ‘zines or other periodicals), and that by definition, readers of the pieces in their original publications would have understood who these artists are and what they’re about. But in a book such as this, containing interviews that have taken place over the last decade and a half or so, it would be helpful if Ensminger had penned a brief introduction for each, with at least a thumbnail biographical sketch.

Secondly, since the pieces are (again, for the most part) being re-published, it’s reasonable to hold the author to a high standard of fact-checking. With that in mind, I ask, who exactly is Brian Seltzer* (sic)? And who is this guitarist Link Ray** (sic)? There are other less egregious errors, but those two – the first of which is made multiple times – are the most wince-inducing.

Ensmigner clearly knows his subject, and much much more (a fact that he makes sure to put on full display), and he’s a keen interviewer who (it seems) allows his interviews to follow interesting paths, rather than hewing to a predetermined set of questions. And if one can look beyond the dismissive tone occasionally taken with regard to a handful of other artists who are not interviewed in its pages*, Mavericks of Sound is indeed a bright and wide-open window into the creative process, and is thus recommended.

* Brian Setzer
** Link Wray

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Blu-ray Review: Syncopation

March 23rd, 2015

Spend any time reading online forums discussing what currently-unavailable motion pictures deserve a proper reissue/restoration, and you’ll likely come across the title Syncopation. This 1942 black-and-white film is at its heart a conventional love story – in fact one with little conflict – but it has gone down in history as a legendary title thanks to the setting of that story, and to some noteworthy guest stars.

By then a young adult, former child actor Jackie Cooper is the leading man in this tale of a young woman (to be played as an adult by Bonita Granville) named Kit, born and raised in dawn-of-the-20th-century New Orleans. To the (mild) consternation of her (presumably widowed) father (played by Adolphe Menjou), piano-playing Kit has developed a deep love for jazz. The son of Kit’s nursemaid/nanny is a young African American boy of her age (played as an adult by Todd Duncan), who discovers that though his “unschooled” musical approach won’t get him anywhere in formal musical studies, it gets him a good jazz gig.

After father, daughter and nanny relocate to Chicago (and the calendar flips over a decade or so), Kit wanders out one night, meeting a young man (Cooper) on the sidewalk. The two wander into a rent party, where Kit hears another kind of music that stirs her soul. It’s not quite like New Orleans jazz, but it’s jazz all the same. Mild hilarity ensues when Kit takes over on piano, causing a riot that eventually lands her in juvenile court. (She gets off scot-free after an impromptu performance that sets the jury’s feet a-tapping.)

The breezy, lighthearted story takes a few additional twists and turns, and ends on a predictably happy, hopeful note (this was ’42, after all). But the setting for the decidedly lightweight (if well-acted) story is what makes Syncopation noteworthy. Starting with a wordless montage of scenes that show African villagers being sold by their leader into slavery, Syncopation sets out with no less a lofty goal than to chart the development of the American musical form of jazz. That it manages to do so within the context of a pop culture romance film is nothing short of extraordinary. And – as modern-day audiences will surely take note – the film treats African Americans in a manner not often seen onscreen in that era, especially in a film populated by plenty of white actors.

No, lifelong friends Kit Latimer and Rex Tearbone never embrace upon meeting, but their arms’-length friendship is nonetheless palpable, without even a whiff of white-over-black superiority. Even Rex’s mother’s character (the nanny) is portrayed in what by 1940s standards must have been a very dignified manner. Black and white characters almost (but don’t quite) mix onscreen, yet there’s a sensibility throughout Syncopation that seeks to depict African Americans as different but not in any way inferior to their white counterparts. And the film all but insists that the music favored by the black musicians (and, to his credit, Cooper’s Johnny Schumacher) is better than the stiff white pop music.

One of the film’s most effective moments is the scene in which Johnny finds himself frustrated playing regimented, dull classical music as part of a large ensemble. He stares at the sheet music in front of him, and (in a sort of dream sequence), the staves and notes become three-dimensional, with Johnny helplessly entwined inside them, like an animal gored on a barbed-wire fence.

Syncopation was (and is) billed for a lineup of “stars” that is billed collectively as the poll-winning All-American Dance Band. Their all-music, no dialogue, no-acting sequence is tacked onto the film’s end, and has little if anything to do with what has come before. And though it’s quite brief, it remains worthwhile. The band includes manic, show-stealing drummer Gene Krupa, clarinetist Benny Goodman, trumpeter Harry James, saxophonist Charles Barnet, and even steel guitarist Alvino Rey.

The restored film print for the 2015 Blu-ray reissue of Syncopation is stunning in its clarity; the visual detail is staggering. A very few scenes (totaling well under a minute) seem to be sourced from a lower-quality dub, but most viewers won’t notice, instead focusing on the rich visual detail and the superb sound. The latter is equally important, because while Syncopation isn’t really a musical (although Connee Boswell does burst into song near the film’s close), it’s chock full of music.

A long list of bonus features deserves mention, too. Ten Columbia “soundies,” each starring a giant of jazz (a young Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, etc.) aren’t directly related to the RKO Syncopation, but by subject matter alone they’re wholly relevant.

Director William Dieterle‘s Syncopation sets a high standard for the care in which older films should be brought to modern-day audiences. A delightful little film that has more on its mind that the main plot would suggest, Syncopation is recommended viewing for anyone with at least a passing interest in jazz.

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Album Review: Todd Rundgren — At the BBC 1972-1982

March 20th, 2015

Several years back, Todd Rundgren took a proactive approach to the myriad live recordings that exist documenting his long and varied career. A true renaissance man who engenders fierce loyalty in his fan base, Rundgren may still be a “cult artist,” but he’s one of the most well-documented ones. For many years (during the tape- and CD-trading era) a surprisingly large network of Rundgren fans recorded, collected, cleaned-up and traded recordings of nearly every shwo the man ever did. So there’s a massive list of live shows dating back to the very early 1970s, and including Rundgren’s various guises: solo artist, member of the early progressive-phase Utopia, member of the more pop-leaning Utopia lineup, collaborator with Bourgeois Tagg, Hello People, Ian Hunter, Joe Jackson and many others…on and on.

But there aren’t just audience bootlegs out there. From his earliest post-Nazz days, Rundgren has appreciated and embraced television and radio performances as a means for reaching potential fans. As such, there are “board tapes” and/or professionally recorded documents of pretty much every tour he’s ever done. And as he sought to have the best among these released officially, the traing market has somewhat died down (by and large, Rundgren’s fans are an ethical lot; they want him to profit from his work).

The latest entry in the “Todd Rundgren Archive Series” is a near-comprehensive collection of his work for the British Broadcasting Corporation. At the BBC 1972-1982 is a 3CD + 1 DVD set documenting four concerts (three in audio, one audiovisually) and various other related bits and bobs.

The first disc showcases an early solo gig Rundgren did for BBC’s Radio One. An excellent quality mono recording from 1972 finds Rundgren at the piano, using backing tapes to accompany himself. An experienced studio rat even then, he created “karaoke” versions of his hits, allowing him to present them in a live onstage manner that combined the precision and arrangement of a recording with the spontaneity of a live show. Of course such an approach is old-hat now, and has been since the dawn of MIDI (musical instrument digital interface), a digital means of syncing multiple sounds sequences. Buti n 1972 it was innovative stuff.

Even with the confining nature of the backing tapes, Rundgren delivers an off-the-cuff, intimate performance, most notably on the Something/Anything? tune “Piss Aaron.” Few would count the tune among Rundgren’s best, but his onstage delivery of it is undeniably entertaining. And the inclusion of “Be Nice to Me” from his early album The Ballad of Todd Rundgren is a rare and welcome delight. Rundgren even rocks out at the end, turning in a performance of “Black Maria.”

The first disc also includes two songs from the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test television program(me). These feature the seven-piece Utopia in 1975, performing “Real Man” from his solo album Initiation) and “The Seven Rays,” a highlight of the Utopia Another Live LP (The package’s DVD also features a/v versions of these same two performances).

Speaking of Another Live, the second disc of At the BBC 1972-1982 is similar but expands upon the content of that set. Utopia’s set of the time (1975) included material from Rundgren’s solo albums in addition to their own songs. The BBC disc features a full concert (or at least something approaching one) in excellent stereo, and as such includes songs that weren’t on the single LP Another Live set (recorded elsewhere). Rundgren introduces “Freedom Fighters” as “the first Utopia single” that was never released. The studio version of the tune was on the group’s debut LP; at nearly six minutes, the live reading here is nearly half again as long as its studio version. Live versions of “The Last Ride” and “Sons of 1984” showed up on other Rundgren albums (Back to the Bars and Todd, respectively), but here they’re presented in the context of a full Utopia concert. And “Sunset Boulevard / Le Feel Internacionale” from A Wizard / A True Star hasn’t been released in a live version before (possibly excepting other archival releases), and it’s a highlight of this set.

By 1977 and time of the Utopia Radio One “In Concert” set documented on disc three, Utopia had pared down to a foursome: Rundgren on guitar, Roger Powell on synthesizer, John “Willie” Wilcox on drums, and Kasim Sulton replacing John Siegler on bass (“all four boys sing,” as they say). Touring to promote both the transitional album Ra and the more mainstream-rock oriented Oops! Wrong Planet, the group performed newer material from those albums, with a quick dip into Rundgren’s solo catalog (“Love of the Common Man” from Faithful) and the set closer “Utopia Theme.” The tighter, compact lineup meant an emphasis upon shorter, more concise songs, but the band still stretches out instrumentally on some longer pieces.

As previously mentioned, the fourth disc in the At the BBC 1972-1982 box set is a DVD. All three sets included are sourced from the TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test. The first (mentioned above) features two songs from a 1975 broadcast. The second (from May 1978” documents “The Bearsville Picnic” (the Albert Grossman-headed Bearsville Records was Todd’s and Utopia’s label at the time) and features the extended “Singring and the Glass Guitar (An Electrified Fairy Tale)” from the proggy Ra album.

And the final set of performances on this set brings things full circle in a way, featuring Todd solo in 1982, this time without the gimmicky backing as he winds his way through a solo material set. The performance – featuring Todd variously on acoustic piano and 12-strong acoustic guitar, and even electric “Fool” Gibson SG on “Tiny Demons” – highlights songs from his Hermit of Mink Hollow LP, and includes the innovative “Time Heals” promo video, one of the earliest clips ever broadcast on MTV (the cable channel had premiered the previous fall). Two songs are included that were recorded but cut from the original broadcast: “The Song of the Viking” (originally on Something/Anything?) and “Lysistrata” (a full group performance of which could be found on Utopia’s Swing to the Right album). His reading of “Compassion” (one of his best but least-known songs) is a highlight. Because of the vintage of the video material, it is presented in old format (4:3 ratio) as it was originally broadcast.

Each of the four discs is encased in a mini-LP style sleeve, and the whole affair is in a box slightly larger than a double-CD. An sixteen-page booklet includes photos and an informative essay by Mark Powell.

Taken as a whole, At the BBC 1972-1982 is essential for the Rundgren fan who must have it all, and recommended equally to the relative novitiate looking for an entry point into Rundgren and Utopia’s large catalog.

You may also enjoy: my career-spanning critical look at all of Todd Rundgren’s output (now quite outdated, but worthwhile nonetheless).

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