Concert Review: The Musical Box, 22 July 2014, The Orange Peel, Asheville NC

July 31st, 2014

When most modern-day listeners think of Genesis, their thoughts turn to the Phil Collins-fronted trio that released a string of pop albums and singles in the late 1970s and early 80s. Or, to riff on the old Beatles joke, they refer to Genesis as “the band Phil Collins used to be in.” But to those who paid attention in the early 70s, Genesis is, at least, the band Peter Gabriel used to be in. And that Genesis was a highly theatrical outfit, with Gabriel onstage in an assortment of outlandish costumes, introducing the lengthy story-songs in his trademark clipped, back-of-the-throat manner. And Genesis’ albums of that era – most notably, 1973′s Selling England By the Pound – featured musical flights of fancy that capitalized on the instrumental prowess of Tony Banks (keyboards), guitarists Steve Hackett and Mike Rutherford, Gabriel on vocals and flute, and the (too-often forgotten) superb drum work of Phil Collins.


All photos © 2014 Audrey Hermon and Bill Kopp
 

The work of that classic era lineup is treasured among many Genesis fans, and save for a few one-off reunion projects, no new music was released by that configuration after the 1970s. Those who wanted to enjoy the live spectacle that was early-mid Genesis had to content themselves with a Peter Gabriel concert (though Gabriel didn’t and doesn’t perform Genesis era material) or track down one of the handful of unofficially-released films documenting Gabriel-era shows.

One group of people who have most assuredly seen those films is the five-man group calling itself The Musical Box. This Montreal-based quintet formed over twenty years ago with the express mission of bringing that classic-era Genesis back to present-day audiences. The group’s current tour features alternating set lists: one night centers around material from the 1972 album Foxtrot; the next builds a setlist around songs from Selling England By the Pound.

As it happens, the latter is both my favorite Genesis album and the basis for The Musical Box’s July 22 performance at Asheville’s Orange Peel. I scored a front-row seat for the spectacular show, but made a point of not watching any Youtube clips of the group ahead of time; I wanted to be surprised.

 

Indeed I was surprised, and delightfully so. From the moment we arrived, it was clear that The Musical Box takes great care to faithfully re-create the visual components of an early 70s Genesis show. A pre-concert look at the equipment onstage showed that vintage (or, at the very least, vintage-looking) instruments and amplifiers would be in use wherever possible.

The “Steve Hackett” guitarist (François Gagnon) would be seated on a stool stage-right, with amp controls and pedal at his easy disposal. “Mike Rutherford” (left-handed player Sébastien Lamothe) would, for most of the evening, be sporting a custom Rickenbacker double-neck axe containing both bass and six-string guitar. The drum kit of “Phil Collins” (Marc Laflamme) was large but made use of older, less-substantial hardware, the kind that can tip over when the drums are hit hard. And while there was a concession to modern technology in the form of a digital keyboard (with its nameplate airbrushed matte black), most of the keyboards played by “Tony Banks” (Guillaume Rivard) were the real thing: a Mellotron, an organ with pedals and Leslie cabinet were prominent onstage fixtures.

None of that technical information would mean a thing if the music wasn’t right. And it most certainly was: as the band ran through selections from the early Genesis catalog (not, in fact, playing Selling England start to end, but instead peppering the set with album tracks), the audience was provided with a true Genesis experience.

The single most important component of that experience was vocalist Denis Gagné (“Peter Gabriel,” of course). His purposefully stilted, bird-like onstage demeanor captured the essence of Gabriel’s public persona of the 70s. Making ample and effective use of costume changes, Gagné led the band on a dizzying trip through the early part of the Genesis catalog.

Other than Gagné (who remained firmly in character the entire time), none of the band members addressed the audience during the performance, though all provided backup vocal support. If any of the band have French-Canadian accents, no one in the audience could tell. The fanciful backdrop and occasional projected images helped make the illusion complete.

Little details helped, to be sure: the group’s long history as a tribute band has clearly afforded them the opportunity to hone the presentation to perfection. Laflamme wore a pair of white overalls with no undershirt, just as Collins did onstage in the 70s. And the overall white-clothing theme of the band helped keep visual focus directly on the flamboyant visual spectacle that was Gagné.

A few songs from Selling England By the Pound were left off the night’s setlist (most notably the beautiful, heart-rending Collins spotlight number “More Fool Me”), but it’s difficult to imagine anyone having come away disappointed from an evening that featured the keyboard-centric “Firth of Fifth,” the melodrama of “The Battle of Epping Forest” (both from Selling England) and an encore that included “The Knife,” from Genesis’ 1970 LP Trespass. As it was, the setlist provided each band member ample opportunities to show off (a) their instrumental chops and (b) their skill at re-creating the sound of Genesis studio albums onstage, a feat that even the original band could rarely manage.

For those who saw and loved Genesis with Peter Gabriel, The Musical Box are a vivid present-day re-creation of that era. And for those who are too young to have seen Genesis the first time ’round, this feels like the real thing.

Five Years!

July 30th, 2014

Today, July 30th, marks what I consider the Official Anniversary of this Musoscribe blogzine. Five years ago today I began what would quickly become a daily blog: every business day since, I’ve posted something here – an interview, a review, an essay – generally in the 500- to 1100-word range.

At right: Bill Kopp with Tim DeLaughter of The Polyphonic Spree (2007)

The blog started in the wake of the effective death of the print magazine where I was Editor-in-Chief; for some time I had worked for them in various capacities. I got my start as contributor of a column (the still-occasionally-seen-here “Bootleg Bin”) for their online arm. In fairly short order I started writing album reviews, and since assignment of those was luck of the draw, I found myself covering hip-hop acts, black metal bands, crypto-Christian hardcore groups, and insipid singer/songwriters. Soon thereafter, I scored a few feature assignments, doing interviews and writing about some bands you may have heard of: Fall Out Boy, The Flaming Lips, KT Tunstall and several others. A few of them were even cover stories.

Things progressed from there as the magazine (which, owing to how things ended, I won’t dignify by naming) sought to increase its stature and credibility. I took on the role of co-copy editor, honing into shape the often very rough copy submitted by paid (but often inexperienced) reviewers and writers. When my co-editor found he couldn’t keep up with the demands of the workload, I took on the entire responsibility for the final edit on every word that appeared in or on the magazine (except advertisements). Things went well, the magazine expanded, and I was soon able to enlist the expert talents of some of the best writers-on-music working today, including J. Poet and Evie Nagy (the latter of whom went on to top positions at Paste and Billboard), while incurring the enduring wrath of some lesser lights who were sent packing. I also scored feature/interviews with Yoko Ono, Dungen, and Neil Finn.


Bill Kopp with Keith Emerson
 

In April 2008 I traveled – on behalf of the magazine – to New Orleans for Ponderosa Stomp #7, where I had the extreme pleasure of conducting an in-person interview with the mysterious ? of ? (Question Mark) and the Mysterians, and with no-hit wonders Green Fuz. Upon arriving home, I learned that the sole benefactor of the magazine (yeah, one guy was keeping it afloat while the “ad exec” did f**k-knows-what all day) had abruptly closed his purse, and that forthcoming issues of the print magazine would not be…forthcoming. To make matters worse, a few months’ pay owed to me would also not be arriving, ever.


Bill Kopp with Todd Rundgren
 

Thus ended the magazine and my association with it. I remain grateful to the people who put their trust in me to help produce a quality product, and I am proud of the work my team and I did during my time there.

But I quickly found myself at loose ends: I had made writing about music a major part of my daily life, and I enjoyed the heck out of it. I had no wish to stop. I began doing a bit of writing for my hometown’s excellent altweekly, Mountain Xpress, including feature interviews with The Moody Blues, Todd Rundgren, Henry Rollins and other big names. (Today I write a twice-monthly blog for MtnX, called “30 Days Out.”) I wrote for some other outlets as well, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy my creative urges.


Bill Kopp with Shuggie Otis
 

A good friend of mine (and a left-high-and-dry magazine subscriber who never got the lion’s share of her money’s worth) suggested I start a blog. I had a decent number of written pieces (about a hundred or so, including work I had done for other print and online outlets), so why didn’t I publish them on a site of my own, say, one a week or so?

Good idea, I thought. If nothing else, it would be a place to store all of my music-related content. So I started musoscribe.com, initially hosted on a free (read: crappy) web server. I loaded all of my written pieces on there, including full versions of some pieces that had been edited down to fit in a printed space. And there were also a handful of pieces slated to appear in the magazine: written, edited and laid out, they nonetheless had never appeared in print. The most notable of these was an interview with David Johansen of The New York Dolls. This new site wasn’t really a blog; it was more of an archive.

Not long after I took my friend’s advice (which also included getting active – against my initial better judgment – on Facebook and Twitter), I decided to go ahead with the blog idea, but with new material. And since I remained on good terms with many industry and publicity people, I was continuing to receive music for potential review, and offers to conduct interviews.


Bill Kopp with Henry Rollins
 

And that’s how I got here, five years ago today. For the first month or two, I did in fact post just weekly, and the pieces were very short. But on July 30, 2009, I posted three reviews, and since then I’ve never looked back…

Well, of course I have looked back: I’m doing so right now. But what I really want to say here is a big, sincere thank-you to anyone and everyone who’s ever read one of my reviews, features or essays. Even if you didn’t agree or didn’t like what I wrote (or how I wrote it). Thank you also to all of the fine music label and publicity folks who keep me current on the surfeit of great music that continues to come out every day (about that: reader, don’t let anyone ever try to convince you otherwise). And a massive, heartfelt thanks to each and every recording artist who has had their album reviewed or covered by me, and/or who has taken the time to talk with me about their life, career and music.

I have so much stuff in store for this blog’s future that I’m nearly bursting with excitement. Stay tuned. And once again, thank you.

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Album Review: NRBQ — Brass Tacks

July 29th, 2014

NRBQ are one of America’s great musical treasures. Though they’ve never enjoyed the sort of commercial success of, say, a Creedence Clearwater Revival or The Band, the catalog of this band formed in 1967 is filled with riches that draw from all manner of musical forms. Listeners are as likely to hear shades of cajun swamp pop as they are hints of pianist Terry Adams‘ hero Sun Ra. And though the lineup of NRBQ has changed significantly from the old days (only leader Adams remains from the original lineup), the group’s signature approach to music remains intact.

Wry lyrics are the highlight of many NRBQ tunes, and “Greetings From Delaware” on Brass Tacks, the group’s latest, continues that tradition. Like all the tunes on the disc, “Greetings” sounds as if it was recorded live in the studio. There’s a loose-limbed feel that never feels about to fall apart; it’s the kind of aesthetic that results from a band touring and playing together for a long time, road-testing the tunes and honing them to sharpness before ever setting foot in a studio.

Adams’ assured and stylistically varied piano playing is often the centerpiece of the musical arrangements, but the rest of the band (guitarist Scott Ligon, bassist Casey McDonough, and Conrad Choucron on drums) all shine. Adams’ “Sit in My Lap” feels like a distant cousin to John Lennon‘s “(Just Like”) Starting Over,” minus the retro trappings. McDonald’s “Fightin’ Back” has a pop-country vibe (the good kind), and this lineup of NRBQ gains strength from its drawing upon the songwriting talents of three members.

NRBQ’s approach has always been modest and unassuming; the band’s music doesn’t reach out and grab listeners; instead the tunes are warm, welcoming and inviting: it’s up to to the listener whether to come in or not. The song titles alone give a tidy overview of the concerns dealt with on Brass Tacks: “It’ll Be Alight,” “Love This Love We Got,” and a knowing reading of the Great American Songbook classic “Getting to Know You.” Adams’ harmonica on “I’d Like to Know” sounds and feels like an accordion, and his piano on “Places Far Away” – the disc’s most outré number – sounds as if it’s informed equally by Randy Newman and Sun Ra. “Can’t Wait to Kiss” You” is a delightful singalong in a classic pop vein, and features a brief, ear-candy guitar solo.

Brass Tacks isn’t likely to catapult the band into mega-stardom, but for fans of the band’s friendly and intimate aesthetic, it’s a joy to hear that the band is busy and as vital as ever.

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Album Review: Bobby Patterson – I Got More Soul!

July 28th, 2014

If you happened upon a spin of I Got More Soul!, the new album from Bobby Patterson, you could be forgiven for thinking he’s the latest in young new recording artists playing an authentic 21st century brand of classic southern soul. Patterson name-checks Johnnie Taylor, BB King and other soul/blues/r&b giants in the title track, a funky groove that nails the Stax, Ardent, Muscle Shoals and Hi studio vibes of yore, and the band is in the pocket, providing for each of the ten tracks the sort of backing that fits the songs’ moods perfectly.

The thing is, Bobby Patterson is 70, and I Got More Soul! was cut a nine-hour drive southwest of Memphis, in Austin TX’s Arlyn Studios. And Patterson (who co-produced the album with Zach Ernst of The Relatives, who back Patterson) is a journeyman soulster who released a tasty string of singles in the period 1969-1976 on smallish Jetstar and Paula Records, and cut the now-impossibly-rare It’s Just a Matter of Time LP in 1972.

On I Got More Soul!, Patterson serves up songs that put his voice – an amazingly youthful instrument – right out front. On the deep funk of “Can You Feel Me?” Patterson assumes the persona of a tough-talkin’ dude, not unlike early hip hop vocalists whose tunes were often about how hip they were. And in Patterson’s capable hands and voice, the song leaves no doubt that Patterson truly is the man. Shades of Sly Stone (whose “Poet” gets a knowing reading from Patterson) and Little Willie John are shot through this collection of eight originals and two covers.

Patterson belts it out when he needs to, but he brings it way down low for semi-spoken bits, proving that a skilled and effective vocalist can command attention without having to shout. The funky “It’s Hard to Get Back In” sounds like the best blaxploitation film theme you’ve never heard, a streetwise swagger of a tune with charts that nail the Memphis Horns vibe to the wall.

The album’s no-frills production never calls attention to itself; the sound is clean but never slick, and the band’s rhythm section and the horn players do most of the musical heavy lifting; the keyboards and guitar are subtle and used more sparingly. The net effect of the arrangements is to provide sympathetic backing for the star of the show. On the smoky and alluring “The Entertainer Pt.1,” Patterson tells us he’s in the house while what sounds like the percussion setting on a 70s organ lays down the beat. The tasty electric piano backing behind Patterson’s sung/spoken vocal feels like vintage Donny Hathaway. “I don’t care if you’re on the hood or in the trunk,” Patterson tells us, “Ain’t no way you can get away from my funk.” He truly is The Entertainer. And when Patterson lights a torcher as on the Otis Redding-styled “I Know How It Feels,” you’ll believe that he really does know. And the gospel-flavored “Everybody’s Got a Little Devil in Their Soul” proves that this soul veteran knows how to testify. Open your ears to the deliciously varied I Got More Soul! and Bobby Peterson will make you a believer.

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Hundred-word Reviews July 2014, Part Five

July 25th, 2014

All this week, I’ve been working to reduce the contents of my in-box to manageable levels; these are the last five of 25 albums in that effort, each review adhering to a 100-word limit. Don’t mistake brevity for a negative review; these are all worthwhile releases.

Today’s five – all reissues – are all over the map stylewise.

Mike Keneally & Beer for Dolphins – Sluggo!
Mike Keneally shares a rather unique quality with fellow Frank Zappa alum with Adrian Belew: the ability to straddle two camps: angular, progressive rock and catchy, hook-filled rock. Nowhere is that ability more on display than on Keneally’s 1997 album Sluggo! Reissued after being out of print for more than a decade, Sluggo! is perhaps the one album that prog fans can play for their ostensibly prog-hating friends. This reissue offers an improved, Keneally-approved remix, plus a second (DVD) disc featuring the album in all sorts of hi-res formats, plus yet another DVD with a bunch of related audiovisual goodies.

The Bats – Volume 1
There was a time when (cough) some people thought that Kiwi rock was going to be the Next big Thing™. Despite the fact that few New Zealand bands wormed their way into global pop consciousness, they left behind some lovely music that drew from the tuneful end of rock’s spectrum. And one of the most enduring of all the acts in that category is Christchurch-based quintet The Bats. Their 1987 debut Daddy’s Highway has been compiled with 1990′s The Law of Things and Compiletely Bats (itself a compilation of the band’s first three EPs), yielding this splendid tidy 3CD set.

Gary Windo – Steam Radio Tapes
I had seen Windo’s name on albums by The Psychedelic Furs and Todd Rundgren, but I had never heard any of the music released under his own name. Playing tenor sax, alto sax and bass clarinet, Windo’s solo material bears a passing resemblance to the sole album made by one of his associates, Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason. On the posthumous compilation, he’s joined by a long list of heavy friends including Julie Tippets (neé Driscoll), Soft Machine‘s Hugh Hopper, 801‘s Bill MacCormick, and Mason himself. Those artists are a good signpost indicating what this delightfully eclectic set sounds like.

Gary Windo – Dogface
Along with the above title, a reissue of this 1982 album has been part of Gonzo Multimedia’s campaign of interesting, previously-overlooked releases. This is an (instrumental) concept album: each track features a different lineup with its own fanciful moniker (Gary and the Woofs, Gary and the K9s…you get the idea) playing primarily instrumental tunes with related titles (“Guard Duty,” “The Husky”). The guys from the then-current lineup of NRBQ back up Windo on three tunes. Some tracks are one-chord workouts laying the groundwork for Windo’s impressive soloing (“Puppy Kisses”). The trebly, lo-fi production values detract from an otherwise splendid album.

Ned Doheny – Separate Oceans
Numero Group has a well-deserved reputation for digging deeper than your average cratedigger in search of material for release. Ned Doheny isn’t a name you’re likely to recognize, despite the fact that he recorded and released a half dozen albums between 1973 and 1993. Part of the California singer/songwriter mafia (The Eagles, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt et. al.), Doheny never achieved success on a par with any of his mega-famous pals. This new collection draws from his catalog, imbued with a sort of discofied cocaine cowboy vibe that calls to mind a hybrid of Stephen Bishop and “Lowdown”-era Boz Scaggs.

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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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