Album Review: Jethro Tull – Minstrel in the Gallery, 40th Anniversary La Grande Edition

May 27th, 2015

The latest example of Ian Anderson‘s ongoing twofold mission (to encourage a modern-day reconsideration of Jethro Tull‘s back catalog, and to provide be-all-and-end-all versions of those albums) continues with Minstrel in the Gallery: 40th Anniversary La Grande Edition.

The 1975 album featured only one single a-side release (the title track, briefly appearing at #79 on the charts) but did include one of the group’s best-ever – if lesser-known – cuts, “Summerday Sands,” included on the 1979 pirate/bootleg various artists compilation T’anks for the Mammaries.

Following the established and successful format of the earlier Jethro Tull box/box releases, the new Minstrel in the Gallery provides a Steven Wilson stereo remix. The first disc also includes a handful of alternate/early takes of songs from the album, and a three-song appearance on BBC radio. (As he makes plain in the liner notes, Anderson is not fond of the band’s performance on that BBC session.)

While Wilson’s remix is reliably superb — bringing to the fore previously-buried sonic subtleties – the real jewel of this new set is the second disc. Live at the Palais des Sports, Paris, 5th July 1975 is reason enough to purchase the set. The extremely well-recorded concert has been mixed for release by Jakko Jakszyk (now of King Crimson). While the audience is all but inaudible, this set provides a terrific document of the band’s live onstage prowess in the middle of the 1970s.

Curiously – at least with the benefit of forty years’ perspective – the concert features hardly any music from Minstrel in the Gallery (only the title track). Perhaps the more acoustic-flavored music of Minstrel was thought not to be of sufficient power to carry live onstage. Whatever the reason, the show is best thought of as a greatest-hits-up-to-now concert by prime-era Jethro Tull. (During its heyday, the band wouldn’t release a live disc until 1978′s Live – Bursting Out in 1978.)

The first DVD in the set follows what is by now a predictable pattern: it provides high-bitrate versions of the album (Surround 5.1), the original stereo mix, and a flat transfer of the 1975 quadrophonic mix.

The fourth disc is something of a red herring. The packaging suggests it contains an audiovisual version of the Palais des Sports concert; in reality it has the Jakko audio mix plus a slide show featuring hundreds of stills from the concert and related visuals. But no moving images.

But wait! That DVD does include nearly nine minutes of video footage form the concert, professionally filmed. It’s superb, and will leave viewers wishing the rest of the footage could be found.

Much is made in the liner notes of the supposed limited musical abilities of bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond. But to my eyes and ears, there’s little evidence to support such carping. Jethro Tull’s music has always been demanding, and both in the studio and live onstage, Hammond always seems up to the task.

The massive liner notes booklet is of the high standard to which all of the Tull reissues subscribe, and it features plenty of discussion of Ian Anderson’s codpieces, for those who are interested in such matters. An essay/interview about the band’s mobile recording unit is of great interest, too, even for those who aren’t fascinated by technical details.

Though it boasts fewer outtakes than most other entries in the Jethro Tull 40th Anniversary Series, the new Minstrel in the Gallery earns its status as the definitive version of the album. The live concert, the images, the remixes, and the booklet make it the comprehensive document of 1975 Jethro Tull.

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Album Review: Jethro Tull – WarChild, 40th Anniversary Theatre Edition

May 26th, 2015

Jethro Tull‘s 1974 album WarChild occupies a curious place in the band’s history. Their previous album, 1973′s A Passion Play, had been roundly shellacked by critics. That album certainly had its fans; it made #1 on the charts, though that might have been a coattail effect of their earlier albums. But by the time of WarChild, the critical honeymoon was over, and the knives were out.

History (revisionist and otherwise) has been kinder to WarChild, however. A contemporary look at it shows that all of the traditional Jethro Tull elements are in place: Ian Anderson‘s provocative lyrics; a degree of thematic unity; lots of flutes; and a generally sardonic musical attitude. And a deeper exploration into classical instrumentation was a hallmark of the WarChild sessions. Moreover, shorter songs were the order of the day.

What those sessions didn’t have, however, was any music that seemed suitable for a single release. For that purpose two songs from the album (but recorded much earlier) were put out as singles, and they remain among Jethro Tull’s most popular and well-known numbers: “Bungle in the Jungle” and “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day.”

Plans for WarChild originally involved a film, the ambitious premise of which was a battle between Good and Evil. Though a lot of effort went into the initial planning, nothing ever came of the film. Financial difficulties played a part in scuppering the WarChild multimedia production. In the expansive liner notes of the new Anniversary Theatre Edition, Anderson tells readers about the 83% tax rate levied by the UK government, and the band’s failed attempts to avoid having to pay.

But in the end, it’s all about the music. WarChild has plenty of that; not unlike their previous efforts, the album was designed to be taken as a whole. Though as with all of their albums, the linear narrative matter can (if one wishes) be ignored, and the listener can just dig the theatricality of the music itself.

Over the years, as various related bits of music have been unearthed from the vaults, scattered tracks for the WarChild era have found their way onto reissues and compilations. But the entire approach of this 40th Anniversary series of Jethro Tull albums is to set things right, and (where possible) render all previous releases of the materiel as moot.

Anderson largely succeeds in those efforts with this new WarChild release. The first CD provides a new stereo mix from Steven Wilson, now generally accepted as the master of such things (he’s done similar duties for King Crimson, Yes, Caravan and other 1970s progressive legends). The second disc is filled with related recordings: alternate versions, outtakes, and songs that simply didn’t make the cut of what was originally planned as a 2LP set. It’s worth noting that these tunes are in most ways every bit the equal of the already-released material. And the production values (no doubt aided by Wilson’s remix skills) are first-rate. The hard-rocking “Saturation” is a standout among these. And though he pretty well disowns it these days, Anderson’s saxophone work is impressive. And Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond‘s rocking and idiosyncratic “Sea Lion II” shows that Anderson wasn’t the only one who could write lyrics that fit the Tull mold.

The vibraphones and classical trappings of the ambitious “Quartet” aren’t exactly commercial (from a rock-fan point of view), but they’re fascinating nonetheless. But perhaps the most fascinating part of this new set’s audio portion is the ten tracks of orchestral pieces, only one of which (“Waltz of the Angels”) has been released previously. In fact with the exception of the orchestral “The Third Hoorah” and bits of “The Orchestral WarChild Theme,” none of the orchestral tracks are directly related to the WarChild album as originally released. But taken together, they make a fairly substantial classical (or pseudo-classical) work. At times these tracks feel a bit like film music, which makes sense when one knows that the original project envisioned a film.

A pair of DVDs rounds out the audiovisual component of the new WarChild box (book) set. As is now customary, these include a Surround 5.1 mix (the modern-day equivalent to quadrophonic) as well as a transfer of the original quad LP from 1974. The first DVD also includes silent color footage from the band’s press conference in Montreux, Switzerland, with new (and predictably droll and witty) audio commentary from Anderson. A multi-camera live shoot of “The Third Hoorah” is included, but the blurry footage features studio audio applied to it; no attempt is made to sync the audio and video, but it’s clear that the band is actually playing that song. The fourth DVD includes high-bitrate audio versions of the material from the second CD.

An 80pp booklet provides all of the detail one could ever hope to place WarChild in its historical context, along with lots of photos and additional relevant material. Detailed discussion of (and by) the bewigged female string quartet that joined Tull on the WarChild tour dates will give readers a flavor of what 70s touring was like.

The net effect of this new set is to effectively rehabilitate WarChild, to lead modern-day listeners to reconsider it and its worth. Listening, watching and reading, you may well decide that WarChild is a far, far better thing than you had thought before.

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Album Review: Leo Bud Welch – I Don’t Prefer No Blues

May 25th, 2015

When I first heard the debut album by then-81 year old Leo “Bud Welch (2014′s Sabougla Voices), one of my initial thoughts was that the fine record would have even wider appeal if it wasn’t so lyrically gospel-centered. Of course that’s the man’s right to make the kind of music he wants to, I told myself. And there’s no denying the power and allure of Welch’s music, even if one isn’t especially receptive to the message in songs like “Praise His Name.”

While I’m all but certain that the octogenarian gospel-bluesman from Bruce, Mississippi is well above issues of commercialism and unit-shifting, his followup album – the ironically-titled I Don’t Prefer No Blues focuses many of its lyrical concerns on subjects more suited to the blues idiom. And the instrumental support – once again led by the inimitable Jimbo Mathus, a Southern musical treasure in his own right – increases the wattage a few notches over the approach used on Sabougla Voices.

Now, it’s mere speculation on my part, but while Welch’s first outing on Big Legal Mess used what I call the Syd Barrett approach to recording (the artist sings and plays his idiosyncratic tunes solo, and then later the producer and support musicians create and overdub [underdub?] a sympathetic backing), there’s good reason to suspect that I Don’t Prefer No Blues was cut with the whole band live in the studio.

Whether that guess is correct or not, the resulting recording sure feels like it. There’s an organic sensibility that one rarely finds in today’s ProTools-based digital recordings. Many of the tracks on the album are based around the I-IV-V blues pattern that has served generations of blues players so well. “Poor Boy” features Sharde Thomas on support vocal, echoing Welch’s lyrics. And the instrumental backing is not just spare, it’s stark: bass guitar and a bit of brushes on a snare drum, and that’s it. Anything more would take the attention away from the soulful vocals.

“Girl in the Holler” takes a wholly different approach: fret-buzzing electric guitars sound like their strings are about to fall off the instrument, and the entire track is a (just-barely) two-chord jam that suggests what some fictional swamp-rocking musical grandpappy of John Fogerty might’ve sounded like. By all accounts Welch is a lovely gent, but here he sounds like he’d cut you if you looked at him wrong.

After Welch counts in “I Don’t Know Her Name,” he and his players tear into some insistent, uptempo blues that might remind listeners of a certain age of Muddy Waters by way of Savoy Brown. The stinging lead guitar howls menacingly while Welch tells us he can’t eat, can’t sleep. And he even howls like a wild dog. As the track fades, we hear a bit of organ; it’s almost filigree on this largely unadorned record.

Though it slows things back down, “Goin’ Down’ Slow” is even more aggressive, with a delightfully sludgy backbeat supporting a dirty electric guitar that answers Welch’s vocal phrasing. He sings “please forgive me for my sins,” but one can imagine a sly wink that suggests it’s a pro forma apology. The drums sound like they’re being played as they tumble down a flight of stairs, and that’s meant in the best way.

The swaggering “Cadillac Baby” reminds listeners of one of the unwritten tenets of country blues: the form doesn’t require equal numbers of measures per phrases. The song structure bends to fit the lyrical storytelling. Generations-old blues tropes sound fresh and new coming from Welch and his fellow musicians. And a bit of piano crops up, leading into the chant about riding, baby, all night long. (Another sly wink.)

“Too Much Wine” adds some early 70s-style wah-wah guitar textures into the mix. Welch testifies about the dangers inherent in overindulging, and seems to be having the time of his life delivering the message. The song is reminiscent of some of the late 60s attempt at hybridizing blues and rock (Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud, for example), but there’s an informal vibe at play here. The support players never overwhelm the main man.

“I Woke Up” continues in a similar vein, but the band changes up the tempo throughout the song; the net effect leans in a Chicago electric blues style. It absolutely swings. The band slashes and thrashes for nearly five minutes, and things never get dull. (The fadeout suggests that they might have kept right on jamming; maybe they still are.)

“So Many Turnrows” returns to the stripped-down approach. Skronky electric blues guitar, a slow yet insistent footstomp, and Welch’s voice are all that’s heard for the first minute of the tune. The bass eventually comes in to provide bottom-end support, but it’s another minute before the drums arrive. An appropriately primitive guitar solo is followed by a second solo for the long, long fade.

“Pray On” wouldn’t have been out of place on Sabougla Voices, save for the effects applied to the second guitar (it sounds like Mathus is using an envelope follower, a pedal famously used on The Who‘s “Goin’ Mobile”). Never before has “The Lord’s Prayer” sounded so down-home funky. When Welch tells you that you’d best pray on, you’d best listen.

The disc wraps up with “Sweet Black Angel,” a tune that distills all of I Don’t Prefer No Blues into one song. Some very subtle use of accordion adds the perfect bit of texture.

Now 83, Leo “Bud” Welch is an in-demand live performer, having appeared at a number of high-profile blues festivals. And filming is now complete on a soon-to-be-release documentary about his life. The only criticism of I Don’t Prefer No Blues – and it’s an exceedingly minor one – is that the album is short. It blows by quickly: listeners won’t be unsatisfied, but they likely will be left still somehow wanting more. Here’s a toast to Welch, and the hope that he has many years of recording ahead of him.

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Matthew E. White’s Calibrated Subtlety

May 22nd, 2015

Matthew E. White has been musically active for many years, including collaborations with Megafaun and the Mountain Goats and three albums with avant-jazz group Fight the Big Bull. But as an artist recording and touring under his own name, he’s a relative newcomer.

The story making the rounds is that White’s debut – 2012′s Big Inner – wasn’t really intended as an album at all. White recorded the collection of songs to demonstrate the capabilities of the Spacebomb House Band and his record label of the same name. That record caught on with critics and listeners alike, and effectively launched White’s career as a name artist. “I think that story has gotten lost in translation a little bit,” says White. “By no means is Big Inner a ‘demo’ in the sense that we didn’t work as hard on it as we might a normal album.” White makes it clear that the album is intended as “a purposeful and intentional personal artistic statement.”

The success of Big Inner did attract some high-caliber artists to the Spacebomb label, most notably singer/songwriter Natalie Prass. “I try to be successful both personally and with the Spacebomb team,” White says. “And I work pretty hard on both of those things.”

Born and raised in Virginia Beach, White grew up listening to pop music. “I listened to Chuck Berry and Beach Boys as a little kid, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden in middle school, and all kinds of stuff in high school: good and bad,” he recalls. He discovered jazz while in college, and subsequently “really went back, started at the beginning, and connected it all.” The result of his talent filtered through those influences is music that’s tough to describe. “If I have to say one thing, I say ‘soul’ or maybe ‘r&b.’ But I know that’s not quite right. Sometimes,” he laughs, “I say ‘gentleman’s psychedelia from the New World.’” I suggest that to my ears, he’s sort of a cross between Isaac Hayes and Berlin-era Lou Reed. He smiles and says, “I’m just going to start saying that. Perfect.”

 

Photo credit: Shawn Brackbill

On the just-released Fresh Blood, White builds upon the sonic foundation established by his debut. He concedes that he didn’t want to repeat himself musically. “But at the same time, I don’t believe in just changing variables and setting a completely different course. There’s a vocabulary that I’m working on, and I want it to develop.” On Fresh Blood, White sought to create an album that “contain[s] bits and pieces of old vocabulary as well as pushing the language farther into something new.”

On both records, there’s a lush, dense and richly layered texture, in part the result of the sonic effect of the large Spacebomb House Band. But White’s touring band is four musicians, including himself. “Obviously we have to adapt [arrangements] a little bit,” he concedes. “But to me, the songs are the centerpiece of the record. And in the live show it’s the same.” He prefers not to think of studio work and live performance as connected. “They are such different mediums that interact with people, budgets, administrative details and cultural context so differently. To make decisions on one based on the other limits both,” White believes.

Matthew E. White’s records feature strong hooks and melody, yet one word that comes to mind when hearing them is subtlety. “Well,” White chuckles, “the live show with the band isn’t so subtle, that’s for sure. It’s much more direct than the album is.” He goes on to say that the records’ subtlety is “less purposeful than it seems, actually. There are a lot of times when I think I’m being pretty direct and it’s taken as being much more subtle than I think it is. I think I’m just calibrated a little differently in that way.”

An edited version of this feature appeared in Mountain Xpress Magazine.

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Album Review: Shanti — Shanti

May 21st, 2015

At this stage in the game, nobody’s sure who developed the genre (or, much less, coined the phrase) “world music.” And a definitive explanation for what is and isn’t world music remains elusive. But to paraphrase the Supreme Court justice, I know it when I hear it.

Some strong candidates for early pioneers in what would come to be known as world music include George Harrison and Herbie Mann. The former, as early as the mid 1960s, was working in sounds and influences of Indian music into songs he wrote (“Within You Without You” from Sgt. Pepper and “Love You To” from Revolver) and tunes from Lennon and McCartney (“Norwegian Wood”). And even earlier, jazz flautist Herbie Mann was synthesizing tropicalia into the jazz idiom (and later, he’d cast an even wider stylistic net). The Paul Butterfield Blues Band‘s epic title track from the East-West album fused Eastern styles with the blues. And there are countless other examples.

But one of the most aesthetically successful forays into cross-genre synthesis is the self-titled 1971 debut by a group called Shanti. Led by master of the tabla Zakir Hussain, this Bay area collective combined the rock aesthetic (thanks to a four-man lead/rhythm/bass/drums section) with a decidedly Eastern approach (Hussain on tabla, dholak and naal; Ashish Khan on sarod; and guest musician Pranesh Khan on tabla and naal). The result of the collaboration is an album full of exotic flights of fancy that remain firmly rooted in a Western pop sensibility. And that’s no simple trick.

“We Want to Be Free” features a lovely lead vocal with exquisite harmonies, all backed by Indian instruments playing some decidedly riff-oriented Western pop. And that piece sets the tone for the entire album. Neil Seidel‘s lead guitar trades licks with the sarod masters, and Frank Lupica‘s rock/jazz drumming engages in a running dialogue with Eastern percussion.

Khan’s extended piece “Innocence” initially leans more in a traditional Indian direction, but quickly moves into a hook-filled piece of transcendent pop. Shanti stands in great contrast to the more “serious” (and ultimately less musically accessible) excursions into musical cross-fertilization. Seidel’s ‘Out of Nowhere” comes from the opposite direction (rock) and ends up in nearly the same place, again featuring rhythm guitarist Steve Haehl‘s soothing yet powerfully assured vocals. At times Shanti sounds a bit like Santana, albeit with Indian flavor in place of the Afro-Cuban/Latin styles.

Shanti just plain rocks out on the good-timing riff rocker “Lord I’m Comin’ Round,” which isn’t totally unlike something The Allman Brothers – stylistic gap-bridgers themselves (jazz and rock) – might have done. Here, it’s the Indian percussion that gives the tune its worldly flavor. And the group sounds even more like Gregg Allman and his pals on “Good Inside,” which sounds to all the world in 2015 like the kind of thing that would have stormed the rock charts in ’71.

But that’s not what happened. As Richie Unterberger‘s liner notes in this Real Gone Music reissue explain, Harrison wanted to sign Shanti to The Beatles‘ Apple label, but Indian music legend Ravi Shankar counseled him against doing so, purportedly because Shanti was “too pop” and as such its Indian members weren’t making proper use of their god-given talents.

Your mileage (like mine) may vary on that score. Those aforementioned talents are in full flower on the lengthy “Shanti,” which starts out sounding a bit like The Rolling Stones‘ “Paint It, Black,” and then moves into sonic territory close to Butterfield’s “East-West.” Those Eastern textures are always right there, but the grounding in Western pop aesthetics makes Shanti perhaps the most musically accessible of all stylistic hybrids. Heck, even that most clichéd of 1970s western rock tropes – the drum solo – feels fresh and new in Shanti’s capable hands.

The album ends with the contemplative and exceedingly brief “I Do Believe,” reminding listeners that power and subtlety can peacefully coexist on a single album. And that album would, sadly, be the only release from this group. Forgotten at worst, overlooked at best, Shanti is an exemplar of cross-cultural styles that serves as a showcase for the boundary-pushing mindset that took hold at the tail-end of the 60s and the early 1970s. Highly recommended.

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Review: Two New Albums featuring Larry Coryell

May 20th, 2015

One of music’s greatest guitarists, Larry Coryell has enjoyed – and continues to enjoy – a long and storied career. After his professional start playing with Chico Hamilton, Coryell launched a solo career, enlisting the musical help of some of the most innovative, boundary-pushing musicians to aid in his own musical explorations. He’s played in most every style, and one of the qualities that differentiates him from many of his contemporaries is that he does so with an unparallelled level of authenticity; there’s no whiff of dilettantism in Coryell’s excursions into hard rock, soul jazz, classical, acoustic, or other forms and styles.

Being such a restlessly varied musician carries with it a price, as others in the rock idiom know too well; I’m thinking here of artists such as Neil Young. When you can’t be counted on to make an unbroken string of recordings in roughly the same style, you’re hard to market. Thankfully, Coryell has sustained a career that lets him remain safely above such concerns. The result is a buffet of musical wonders. And though the man rarely looks back (as he told me, he has little or no interest in his back- catalog, and he has no control over it either), there’s nothing – other than the scarcity of some of those discs – that prevents listeners from exploring his older material.

And modern-day listeners have the best of both worlds. Two new releases make this plain: Coryell has just released another new album on Wide Hive Records, Heavy Feel, and something called the LiveLove Series has a new archival release of a January 1975 concert recording featuring Coryell’s underrated and under-appreciated fusion ensemble, The Eleventh House. What follows is a look at both of these new releases.

Larry Coryell & The Eleventh House – January 1975
At the time of this recording, Coryell’s Eleventh House were near the peak of their powers and popularity. Thanks to the foresight of Radio Bremen, prime-era Eleventh House were captured onstage in Germany. This flawless recording documents twelve numbers from the show, including three compositions that have never been released before in any form. After grabbing the audience’s rapt attention with a fiery “Bird Fingers,” The Eleventh House settle into a groove that showcases the many talents of Coryell and his bandmates: Mike Lawrence on trumpet and flugelhorn, bassist John Lee, keyboard whiz Mike Mandel (by this time, a longtime Coryell associate), and powerhouse drummer Alphonse Mouzon.

It’s worth recalling that in the early and mid 1970s, musicians could get away with making music that didn’t invite easy classification. Is this stuff jazz? Rock? Fusion? It’s often all three at once; listeners unfamiliar with The Eleventh House might appreciate knowing that their approach is in roughly the same vein as John McLaughlin‘s work with Mahavishnu Orchestra, but perhaps leaning a bit more toward smaller, less busy (or cluttered if you don’t dig the approach) arrangements.

January 1975 features tunes from the 1974 debut Introducing the Eleventh House, and Level One, which was either very recently or (more likely) soon-to-be released. The highlights of the entire show, however, are Coryell’s “Low-Lee-Tah,” and Mouzon’s aptly-titled “Funky Waltz,” both from the debut disc. An extended version (twice the length of its studio counterpart) of “Suite (Entrance/Repose/Exit)” is pretty thrilling, too, what with Coryell making intelligent use of the wah-wah pedal (a device pretty well thought out of fashion by ’75) while his bandmates show that horns and analog synths can coexist (though not exactly “peacefully”).

Those three previously-unheard tunes are Mouzon’s blindingly fast “Tamari,” a Mandel multi-keyboard showcase called “Untitled Thoughts,” and a Coryell one-chord workout to close the set, “The Eleventh House Blues.” All are worthwhile, and hold up when considered alongside The Eleventh House’s official canon.

Larry Coryell – Heavy Feel
One could argue that in 2015 Larry Coryell has a lot less to prove. As such, he could – should he choose – rest on his laurels, reiterating what he’s said musically. But that doesn’t seem to be his approach. Not counting some contributions to a compilation, Heavy Feel is Coryell’s third album working with The Wide Hive Players. Produced by label head Gregory Howe, the album features Coryell on both electric and acoustic guitars, joined by bassist Matt Montgomery, drummer Mike Hughes, and George Brooks on soprano sax.

The slow burn is the favored approach by the ensemble for most of Heavy Feel‘s nine tracks. “Ghost Note” is an exemplar of that approach, with the band subtly laying down a backing while Coryell plays thickly chorded jazz guitar. After Coryell’s exhortation to his fellow musos, the ensemble launches into the romantic “River Crossing,” with Coryell providing ace acoustic support while Brooks takes the lead. There’s a north African feel to the tune. When Coryell executes some lightning runs on the fretboard, he moans along somewhat tunelessly; it’s either maddeningly annoying or disarmingly endearing, depending on your point of view.

Some reviews of Coryell’s first outing on Wide Hive noted that the disc was a bit less powerful than it could have been. Whether in response to that criticism or simply as a function of where Coryell and his bandmates chose to go, Heavy Feel does live up to its title. It’s simultaneously subtle and understated while rocking.

The title of “Polished” must be meant sarcastically, because Coryell’s playing here is anything but. It has the immediacy of a first take, and could almost be called sloppy. But it’s good. The title track finds the band laying down a garage-band foundation, but the players still find interesting things to do with it musically.

“2011 East” returns to a jazz vibe vaguely suggestive of what The Bill Evans Trio might have sounded like without a piano (and with a guitarist and sax player). “Sharing Air” goes for the boogaloo, sounding not unlike something The New Mastersounds might cut in a late-night session. “Jailbreak” is not a jazz-rock reading of the Thin Lizzy classic; instead it’s a marching tune with Coryell and Brooks playing lockstep (and then call-and-response) as they execute some exceedingly trick (yet tuneful) melodic lines. It’s a highlight of Heavy Feel. The disc closes with “Foot Path to Oasis,” a return to the sound and vibe of “River Crossing.”

Heavy Feel isn’t Larry Coryell’s most groundbreaking album. But it’s thoroughly enjoyable and – as a document of where the 72-year-old guitar master is today – a recommended purchase.

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Book Review: Feedback: The Who and Their Generation

May 19th, 2015

I’ve mused before on these virtual pages about the uncomfortable – and arguably even tenuous – relationship between scholarship and rock music. Somehow the pairing just doesn’t seem natural, even though a significant portion of rock is intelligent, and (I imagine) some scholarly works are at least in part informed by a rock’n'roll sensibility. But in general, the two go together like…oh, pick your own metaphor; I haven’t had my coffee yet. Oil and water? That’ll do for now.

Still, I remain open and receptive to endeavors in that area. And that openness – wise or misguided; you decide – led me recently to Casey Harison‘s Feedback: The Who and Their Generation. This book seeks to place The Who into the author’s context of something he calls “Atlantic history.” For the purposes of his study, Harison constructs a cultural and geographical entity he calls the Atlantic; this region includes the United States (and presumably Canada, though it doesn’t figure into the narrative) and Western Europe (with a decided emphasis on England).

With that basic scene/premise set and accepted, Harison endeavors to place The Who into the context of social, historical, and even political trends throughout the second half of the 20th century. Fair enough, you might say. But he doesn’t stop there: the author widens his historical lens to place that narrative into the context of the last, oh, five hundred years.

What that means in practical terms is that readers find a discussion of Renaissance minstrelsy alongside a look at Pete Townshend‘s guitar playing. Harison draws some very interesting connections – and, you may be glad to learn – avoids making grand, sweeping hyperbolic assertions about The Who’s place in it all. But somehow the whole enterprise feels a bit overcooked, a bit of, dare I say, a stretch.

Based on his knowledge, his writing skill, and his ability to elucidate a point, I have enough respect for the author to believe that the genesis of this book was more than a case of Harison saying to himself one day, “Hey, I’m a history professor with a special interest in Atlantic history. And I also dig The Who. Now there’s a book idea!”

And to his credit, Harison devotes a good portion of the book’s 175 (or so) pages to a survey and analysis of what he calls the “crosscurrents of influence” between the USA and Europe. There’s plenty of interest within that topic, for both the scholarly-inclined and the general rock-fan reader (as well as the six or seven people who fall into both categories, ha), and Harison does not disappoint. He really does know his stuff. I’ll wager that Who fans reading this will learn some fascinating things about the history of the Western world, and that Feedback: The Who and Their Generation will spark new interest in The Who among sheltered academic types. And what’s not to like about those outcomes?

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The Corner Laughers Let the Music Do the Selling

May 18th, 2015

It’s a source of some mild amusement that when I Google “corner laughers,” the right-hand side of the resulting screen lists a number of the Bay Area group’s songs as dating from 1971. I’m pretty certain that at least two of the group’s number – bassist Khoi Huynh and his spouse, vocalist/ukulele player Karla Kane – weren’t even born in ’71.

But I can see where the mistake might have been made. There’s no doubt that the tuneful, upbeat, ba-ba-ba flavored music of the Corner Laughers has at least some of its roots the AM radio pop styles of the early 1970s. There’s certainly more to the group and their music than that: there’s a wickedly clever postmodern sensibility to their often-abstruse (but never obtuse) lyrics, and there’s nothing dated about the band’s crystal-clear production aesthetic. Their earlier two albums – most notably the discs recorded for and released on Mystery Lawn Music – set out and defined a sonic and lyrical style that was both distinctive and possessed of enough wiggle room to allow the group the freedom to move in many musical directions.

There’s a timeless sunshine pop sensibility to the group’s music. In the great tradition of groups like The Turtles, The Corner Laughers are never afraid to use “la la la la” as a lyric. And their music is very effective at conveying an upbeat feel, even when the lyrics are a bit dark, or a bit bent.

In my review of The Corner Laughers’ Poppy Seeds (2012), I characterized the group’s music as “earwigs,” that is, music that stays in the listener’s head long after the last note has faded away. And that quality is consistent on their upcoming release as well: the ten songs on Matilda Effect (out officially in mid-June 2015) continue in the tradition of catchy musical confections.

And the group’s approach has ukulele as a central component. The uke isn’t rock or pop’s most common instrument – not by a long shot – but it is enjoying a resurgence, thanks to the tuneful uses to which it is being applied. The Corner Laughers weren’t hitching onto some bandwagon by adding a ukulele player, though. “I just happened upon it,” Karla Kane says. “Khoi just had one laying around.” she picked it up and “started noodling a bit, and then learned a few chords.” Though until that time she didn’t play any instrument, Kane notes that she had already begun writing songs. “That was a long time ago,” she hastens to add. “I’ve been playing for awhile now.”

Karla goes on to note that the instrument’s small size and lightweight qualities make it great for using live onstage. Hers is amplified so it can be heard alongside the guitar work of KC Bowman and the rhythm section of Huynh and drummer Charlie Crabtree.

The group’s live dates sound a bit different than the record, because the studio recordings make full use of multi-tracking techniques to layer Kane’s multiple vocal parts. Onstage, Kane says that “Khoi and KC do a lot of the backing vocals. But,” she laughs good-naturedly, “they don’t always have quite the same range as I do.”

Not only are The Corner Laughers superb musicians, but they’re all serious fans of music. Not long ago they got the chance to work with Martin Newell. Kane believes that Newell should be “the most famous musician in the world.” And while the music that Newell makes – both under his own name and as Cleaners From Venus – has a more DIY aesthetic to it than the highly-polished Corner Laughers releases (thank producer Allen Clapp for that), Newell’s music shares a deep understanding of the value of melody and carefully-thought-out lyrics.

So what did the band learn by working with the Grand Old Man of DIY? “Playing a show with him was my ideal show,” Kane gushes. Her thought right after the gig: “What do I do now? I don’t know! That was my dream.” Karla has a special appreciation for Newell’s words. “He’s the best lyricist I know. He puts such care into making the lyrics count. He literally is a poet.” She goes on to praise the quintessentially British tone of Newell’s lyrics; those same values figure into The Corner Laughers’ music. Kane says that the tune she describes as an “insomniac’s lullaby” (“Lammas Land”) was inspired by – and written immediately after – the group’s performance with Newell.

Some of the group’s songs are lyrically impressionistic; others are about more defined subjects. “The song ‘Octavia A’ was written to be the theme song for my daughter,” Kane says (Like Kane and Huynh, drummer Charlie Crabtree and his wife became parents recently). “But you don’t have to know that, or know her,” Kane says, to enjoy the song.

There’s another band on the Mystery Lawn Music label, a group called Agony Aunts. And that group sounds similar (but not identical to) The Corner Laughers. “Khoi and I had been big KC Bowman fans,” Kane recalls. “But we didn’t know him at all; we didn’t even know that he lived close by. But through Facebook, we became friends with him. And Agony Aunts, when it started, was us and KC. That was before he joined The Corner Laughers.” Today the core lineup of both bands (the three mentioned plus drummer Crabtree) is identical, but the lyrical approaches differ. “Agony Aunts songs tend to be written by KC,” Kane says. And Agony Aunts songs are, “I don’t know…maybe a little more psychedelic,” suggests Kane. “A little more mysterious. They’re the Dukes of Stratosphear to our XTC,” she laughs.

Some of The Corner Laughers’ label mates – most notably The Orange Peels and The Paul & John – have launched crowd funding initiatives to finance some of their releases. But not so The Corner Laughers. The answer why may be as simple as this: they’re a bit on the bashful side. “None of us feels comfortable doing it,” Kane admits. “It’s a lot of work, and a lot of…salesmanship. We’re all a bit shy; I guess we’d rather let the music speak for itself. ”

Happily, Matilda Effect does just that. The album will be available on CD, MP3, FLAC and – a first for The Corner Laughers – good ol’ vinyl, on June 12.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 10

May 15th, 2015

Over the last nine business days, I’ve surveyed 45 albums of new, reissued, and/or archival music from a wide array of artists in jazz, prog, soul, rock and other genres. Each review has been exactly 100 words. Today I wrap up that series of capsule reviews with a quick look at five video releases.

Jack Bruce – The 50th Birthday Concerts
Though it’s long been in the archives of German television program Rockpalast, this set was presumably rush-released in the wake of Bruce‘s October 2014 death. A wildly varied set in terms of musical styles, this 2DVD document of 1993 concerts shows off the amazing versatility of the vocalist/bassist. Opening with a solo (acoustic) bass reading of J.S. Bach’s “Minuet No. 1,” switches to piano (with vocal) and then brings on supporting musicians (including multi-instrumentalist Gary Husband and Bruce’s sparring partner, drummer Ginger Baker.) All involved are in fine form as they tear through Bruce solo material and several Cream favorites.

Queen – Live at the Rainbow ’74
On the strength – or rather the lack thereof – of their 1979 double LP Live Killers, I decided that Queen were pretty dreadful live. Not Rolling Stones dreadful, but simply unable to draw upon the balance of refinement and energy that made their studio albums so rewarding. This set from a few years earlier (in other words, at the height of their powers) has set me right. Live sound reinforcement in the mid 1970s was primitive by today’s standards, but you’d never know it from this performance and recording. If anything, these versions are better than their studio counterparts.

Yes – 35th Anniversary Concert: Songs From Tsongas
Even a semi-hardcore Yes fan has to admit that they milk their repertoire pretty thoroughly. As Jon Anderson admits toward the end of this set, “We seem to get together so many times over the years.” This 2004 performance in Massachusetts was part of the Magnification tour, and featured the more-or-less classic lineup (Anderson, Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe, Alan White and Chris Squire) halfway through the final period they’d all make music together. A bit mannered – as are all Yes shows – it shows the five in full possession of their sharp musical faculties. An excellent show on Blu-Ray.

The Rutles – Anthology
Long before The Beatles got around to making their Anthology, some of the guys from Monty Python made a Beatles history (a “mockumentary” that predated This is Spinal Tap), All You Need is Cash. (They had help from one Hari Georgeson, as well.) It’s now legendary as one of NBC-TV’s lowest-rated specials ever broadcast (I saw it). This new Blu-Ray reissue greatly improves the audiovisual quality over earlier versions, and adds relevant bonus material (some earlier, some much later) to create an Anthology of their own. The packaging art alone is wickedly clever, as are the bits on the disc.

Various – A MusiCares Tribute to Paul McCartney
In 2012, the nonprofit organization MusiCares honored Paul McCartney as their Person of the Year. The gala event included a superstar lineup of artists paying tribute to Sir Macca. And while rock fans might be disappointed in the soft lineup (only Duane Eddy, Dave Grohl, Neil Young and Joe Walsh can be called rockers), the performances are nuanced and often quite good. Alison Krauss & Union Station win the night as they capture the beauty of “No More Loney Nights,” a highlight of the hour-long Blu-Ray. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, however, are in wobbly, old guy garage band mode.

See you next week as we return to one-a-day full-length reviews, features and interviews.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 9

May 14th, 2015

Today’s roundup of capsule reviews focuses on reissues or previously-unreleased material by acts who came to prominence (or something approaching it) in the 1980s or later.

Old 97′s – Hitchhike to Rhome
In the 1950s, country and rock’n'roll were sometimes hard to discern form one another. Then they split into to two very different styles, only occasionally re-intersecting. By my count, country rock has had three periods of resurgence. The first centered around The Byrds. The second happened during the 1980s (Lone Justice etc.). And the third – which could be said to have influenced Americana – took place in the 1990s and featured Austin’s Old 97′s as its exemplar. Omnivore Recordings continues its intelligent digging into the past with this expanded (2cd) set built around the band’s excellent 1994 debut LP.

Willie Nile – The Bottom Line Archive
One of the observations made about 1960s rock is that owing to a glut of great acts, many very good ones fell through the cracks and languished in obscurity. Good point, but it happened in other decades, too. When I saw The Who on their mini-tour of the USA in 1980, Willie Nile was the opener. He never did quite make the big time, but he gigged pretty hard. Disc One features a great show from that same year. A second disc documents a 2000 show. Nile’s “Vagabond Moon” is a highlight of both. Nile sounds not unlike Roger McGuinn.

Game Theory – Real Nighttime
Among fans of the band, 1985′s Real Nighttime is generally considered their best album. With improved songwriting and excellent signature production from Mitch Easter, Real Nighttime is a great improvement over already-very-good earlier albums. As I’ve noted before, to my ears Game Theory often sound a bit like Let’s Active crossed with The Three O’clock and Sneakers; based on this album I’d add R.E.M.,the Bangles and maybe even a bit of Hoodoo Gurus to that list. Great company to be in, I’d say. The reissue features the original 12-track album plus thirteen bonus tracks, most of which are previously unreleased.

Camper Van Beethoven – New Roman Times
This one’s a bit of a head-scratcher. Camper Van Beethoven enjoyed their heyday in the second half of the 1980s, a time during which they were that decade’s answer to Kaleidoscope (not that many asked the question). After folding in 1989, they reunited with an idiosyncratic “cover album” of Fleetwood Mac‘s Tusk. Only then did they release 2004′s New Roman Times. It’s a strong return to form, and was released on the tiny indie Pitch-A-Tent label. It’s still available, and Amazon has used copies for 1¢. But Omnivore has seen fit to reissue the album, now with four bonus tracks.

Mike + the Mechanics – Living Years
Phil Collins took breaks from his gig with Genesis, venturing out to make popular solo albums. It was only reasonable that his bandmates would make similar moves. Guitarist Mike Rutherford had success of his own with Mike + The Mechanics. Their second album Living Years (1988) was a big seller thanks to the haunting title track, and led to successful touring that continued on and off into 2004. The group’s lineup featured mainstay vocalists Paul Young and Paul Carrack (Young died in 2000). This reissue adds a disc full of live tracks and a studio remake of the title tune.

Still more to come.

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