Archive for the ‘compilation’ Category

Sometimes People Remember: A Conversation with Translator’s Steve Barton (Part 2)

Friday, April 24th, 2015

Continued from Part One

“When you’re working with a producer like David Kahne or Ed Stasium, they care about the process, too,” Steve Barton notes. “Everyone has an interest in how the final record is going to sound. So it’s all of a piece: the punkier stuff on the demos, and how the records ended up sounding.” There are any number of approaches a band can take in the studio. One is to attempt to capture a performance that more or less captures and documents the group’s live song. Another is to employ a studio-as-instrument philosophy, crafting a work as you go along. Barton believes Translator did both. “On the first album, Heartbeats and Triggers, we were trying to capture ourselves live, but then we would do a few little [studio] touches here and there. On the second album [1983's No Time Like Now], we purposely wanted it to be more ‘produced.’” Barton says that the group liked some of the “production qualities” found on classic albums by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and The Kinks. They modeled their approach on those records. “If we could have afforded it,” he laughs, “we probably would have put flutes and strings on some of the songs.”

Barton continues a chronology of Translator’s albums and the aesthetic mindset for each. “With the third album [1985's self-titled release], we wanted to do something a bit more stripped-down. And then with the fourth album, we again wanted to capture ourselves live.” In fact, the original idea for Evening of the Harvest was to record the songs live in the studio. “I like all of the albums, “Barton says, “and we never wanted to make them all sound the same, anyway.”

Shortly after the release of their second album, Translator issued a three-song 12” EP called Break Down Barriers. That disc featured a cover of a very early Beatles song – in fact, the only composition credited to George Harrison and John Lennon – called “Cry for a Shadow.” In 1983 the Beatles Anthology project remained off in the distant future, so the song was little known outside the cadre of Beatles fanatics. Barton was just such a fanatic. “We were a trio in L.A.,” he recalls. “and a friend of ours was getting married. We were going to play at her wedding. And another band was going to play there as well. The guitar player in that band was Bob Darlington, who later would be my Translator brother.” At one point, the groups decided that they should play something together. “I don’t know how we ever came up with ‘Cry for a Shadow,’ but obviously it was on all of our radars.”

Barton had grown up with the song. “As a little kid, I remember calling a radio station in Los Angeles.” Affecting a child’s voice, Barton continues. “’Hi! Can you play The Beatles’ “Cry for a Shadow”?’ I don’t know how they did it, but [the deejay] hung up the phone, and the song started. So the song came naturally to us, especially with the two guitar parts.” And once the group became a four-piece, the song was part of their set.

But Translator has always been mostly about original songs. Though guitarists Barton and Darlington both compose prolifically for their band, they only rarely write together. Yet Barton insists that there was never a sense of competition between the two songwriters. “If there is any competition,” Barton says, “it’s healthy. Especially for the third and fourth albums, we had this spurt of songwriting. I had a little room in my flat in San Francisco where we’d write. Bob would come over, and he’s say, ‘Look, I have these four songs.’ And they’d be really good. So I’d say, ‘Oh, I’d better write some more, too.’ We kind of sparked off of each other.” He says that “the handful of songs that we wrote together came out of jams.”

Barton is initially lost for words when asked to characterize the differences between his songwriting and that of Robert Darlington. After considering the question, he says, “I know that when Bob first came to the band, one of the songs he brought to our set was ‘Pablo Picasso’ [by The Modern Lovers]. And he knew all of the John Cale stuff; Paris 1919…he turned us on to all of that. I had mostly known Cale as part of the Velvet Underground.” That music informed Darlington’s songwriting, Barton says. “Bob has always been willing to really embrace the idea” of just using a couple of chords in a song. “I tend to write like, here’s a verse, chorus, and bridge. So I think we have unique styles that really complement each other.”

That contrast between Barton’s music and that of his fellow guitarist was placed in stark terms via a production choice the band made for Evening of the Harvest. Barton’s guitar parts on the record are all hard-panned in one stereo channel, while Darlington’s guitar is panned to the other. For his part, today Barton doesn’t remember why the band and producer Ed Stasium did that, but he thinks he might have been influenced by Neil Young and Crazy Horse employing that approach on one of their records.

All four of the group’s 1980s albums have in fact been reissued in the 21st century. “About eight years ago, maybe,” Barton says. But those Wounded Bird reissues were widely criticized for their subpar sonic quality. Diplomatically allowing some level of dissatisfaction with the quality of those CD reissues, Barton says, “That’s something I’d like to revisit, eventually.”

Meanwhile, Sometimes People Forget is a worthy addition to Translator’s recorded legacy. A number of bands that rose to fame in the 1980s have seen retrospective releases of their material on Omnivore Recordings: Jellyfish, Game Theory, The Posies, and Trip Shakespeare are only four of many. “I’d love for Sometimes People Forget to be the beginning of a relationship with Omnivore,” Barton says. “We’ll see how it goes.” Translator are doing a number of shows in May to promote the release – dates in Los Angeles, Long Beach, and, of course, San Francisco – and post updates on their site, translatormusic.com.

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Sometimes People Remember: A Conversation with Translator’s Steve Barton (Part 1)

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

Though they’re perhaps best known for their 1982 single “Everywhere That I’m Not” – a quirky yet extremely catchy rock tune that subsequently found its way onto more than a half dozen compilations of the 80s/new wave era – San Francisco’s Translator released four excellent albums during their major-label run (roughly 1982 to 1986). The band’s sound combined then-current new wave textures with a psychedelic influence, but somehow Translator’s music steered clear of the (Los Angeles-based) “Paisley Underground” scene.

Part of that uniqueness may have been due to the fact that San Francisco and L.A. have always had separate and distinct musical undercurrents – nobody confuses The Grateful Dead with The Doors, or The Byrds with Moby Grape – but a bigger factor is likely Translator’s emphasis on inventive, powerful guitar. While other bands in the 80s folded synthesizer textures into their music – often to great effect – Translator was always primarily a guitar band, led by the two-guitar front line of Robert Darlington and Steve Barton, with able, muscular support from bassist Larry Dekker and drummer Dave Scheff.

Though the band’s string of first-run releases concluded with 1986′s Evening of the Harvest (this writer’s clear choice for their best, most fully-realized album), in some ways Translator never really went away. The band more or less went inactive after 1986, but all four members remain active musically. A highlight of their 21st century activity is Steve Barton’s 2011 album Projector, named by this blog as one of that year’s best releases. Translator reunites on occasion for live performances, and even released an album of new material — 2012′s Big Green Lawn — that’s easily on a par with their 80s work (and thus highly recommended).

For a band that only released four LPs during their initial run, Translator is well-represented with posthumous compilations: 1986′s (inevitably-titled) Everywhere That I’m Not: A Retrospective was the first, followed by 1985′s Translation, then by the less-imaginatively titled Everywhere That We Were: The Best of Translator, and most recently a UK-only collection titled, well, Collection. And there’s also Different Time, the hard-to-find 2008 two-disc CDR compilation of thirty demos, outtakes and live material.

So why, in 2015, another compilation of music from Translator? There are at least two very good reasons. The first is summed up in the title of the new collection released by Omnivore Recordings. Sometimes People Forget, so let’s remind them. The second, better reason is that the new compilation doesn’t travel well-trodden musical ground: Sometimes People Forget is 22 tracks of rare and previously unreleased material from the band, demos and outtakes spanning material that reaches back to the group’s earliest, pre-record deal days. (It’s worth pointing out there there is less than five minutes’ worth of overlapping music between Different Time and the new Sometimes People Forget.) And for those drawn in by Translator’s official canon, there are many riches to be found in these previously unissued tracks.

The band has always acknowledged a clear debt to The Beatles, but in Translator’s music there are strong echoes of the kind of guitar heroics found on albums by groups like Television. “Even in the really early days of Translator, we didn’t really think of ourselves as a cross between anything,” recalls Steve Barton. “But if we were forced to, [we'd admit to a] kind of a Beatles-meets-Cream [approach]. I love all of the Cream albums, but especially Wheels of Fire. And there’s some Translator stuff that evoked that for me. And the Television comparison: I get that, especially with two [lead] guitars.”

There’s arguably a more “punky” sensibility to some of the songs collected on Sometimes People Forget. As effective and fruitful as the official album sessions were for the band, sometimes those served to sand down some of the music’s rough edges as found on the demo versions. Barton describes the demos on the new collection as “warts-and-all.” He allows that the demos sometimes feature “Some flat singing, some things I would have fixed.” But he professes to love those recordings, aptly comparing them in some ways to “Let it Be before Phil Spector.”

The first couple of tracks on Sometimes People Forget – “Translator” and “Lost” – are from the band’s first demo tape, recorded “in someone’s garage,” Barton laughs. They recorded five songs in a single August 1979 afternoon, using a basic tape recorder. “So by definition, those are going to be kind of rough around the edges.” But Barton rightly believes that even the studio versions of the band’s songs avoid slickness. “I remember listening to [The Clash's] London Calling. It was a huge album for me in the early days of Translator. I thought, ‘Wow! This so polished for The Clash.’ But you listen to it now, and it’s this huge, sprawling mess of a record, in the best possible way. So while in the studio there is a tendency to go, ‘Oh, that might be a little flat; let’s fix that,’ or to do little things here and there, we tried to keep it as bare-bones as possible.” That approach is a big part of the reason why Translator’s music doesn’t sound “dated” as does the music of many other bands of the era.

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Album Review: Stevie Ray Vaughan — The Fire Meets the Fury

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

To a lot of people in the 1980s, Stevie Ray Vaughan was the guitar hero they had been looking for. Seemingly bursting on the scene without warning, the Texas guitarist had in fact been paying his dues for some time, and he was quite well known locally and regionally. His pre-fame activities included a stint in a band called the Nightcrawlers, where he was lead guitarist but not lead singer; that task was ably filled by bassist (and later songwriting collaborator) Doyle Bramhall II. That band recorded an album that remains unreleased to this day.

Vaughan went on to more acclaim, eventually capturing the notice of David Bowie. Vaughan played lead guitar on the blockbuster album Let’s Dance, and was in rehearsals with Bowie and band to play on the subsequent tour (bootlegs of these rehearsals do exist). As one story goes, Bowie forbade band members – especially SRV – to do interviews about their own work while on the tour, and so Vaughan, having just finished recording his debut Texas Flood, quit the band days before the tour was to begin.

Vaughan’s albums were released to greater and greater acclaim (and sales), and he can rightly be credited for ushering in a new era of appreciation for hotshot guitarists. But as his fame grew, so did his problems with drugs and alcohol. By the time I first saw him in concert (November 7, 1985 at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre), he was in the depths of addiction, yet he showed signs of having turned a corner of sorts: throughout the show he was uncharacteristically loquacious, making repeated comments of a positive and uplifting nature. Mere months after this date, SRV returned to Atlanta, this time not for a concert but for a four-week rehab program at Peachford Hospital, mere blocks from my home (no, we never saw him around the neighborhood).

Newly clean and with a markedly improved attitude toward life, Vaughan’s playing only improved, and his stature grew further. By 1989 he was taking part in a co-headlining concert tour with Jeff Beck; the tur was billed as “The Fire Meets the Fury.” The shows consisted of a set by each of the acclaimed guitar slingers, and often ended with them appearing onstage together for an encore.

Near the end of the tour were dates in Albuquerque, New Mexico (November 28) and Denver (November 29); both were recorded for broadcast on the Westwood One radio network. Highlights from those two shows are collected on The Fire Meets the Fury, a new single-disc live concert set. (The error-filled liner notes erroneously refer to these dates as the tour’s final performances when in fact two more dates – Los Angeles and Oakland – followed.)

While none of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s onstage collaborations with Jeff Beck are featured on the set, The Fire Meets the Fury nonetheless represents an excellent live document of SRV’s playing near the end of his life (he’d perish in a tragic helicopter accident nine months after these dates). The compilers have wisely chosen not to duplicate songs from the shows, so the finished disc (six tracks from New Mexico followed by five from Colorado) approximates a full concert set.

Vaughan and band – which by this time included keyboardist Reese Wynans alongside mainstays Chris “Whipper” Layton on drums and bassist Tommy Shannon – are in fine form throughout, and the set list runs the gamut from the hits (a very brief opening run-through of “The House is Rockin’”) to the classic covers (“Superstition,” a song that Stevie Wonder had originally written for Jeff Beck; and Jimi Hendrix‘s “Voodoo Chile”). The Hendrix cover in particular is an extended affair, running in excess of eleven minutes. Another long cut is “Life Without You,” wherein SRV engages in a monologue about his journey to sobriety (the title of his then-current album In Step was a reference to his working through Alcoholics Anonymous’ twelve step program).

While there are other live albums in the man’s catalog (1986′s Live Alive and the 1983 Albert King collaboration In Session, to name two of the most well-known), the well-recorded The Fire Meets the Fury is the only officially released document of late-period Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Note #1: There also exists a promo-only CD issued by Epic and also titled The Fire Meets the Fury; compiling then-current and back-catalog studio tracks from both Vaughan and Jeff Beck, it was intended to promote the then-current tour and should not be confused with this release.

Note #2: This album was also released in the UK as a 2LP (vinyl) set with the same track listing, featuring tracks from the Albuquerque show on one record, and the Denver performance on the other. My review concerns the CD release.

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Beatles vs. Rolling Stones: Another Round

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

Friday, 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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Album Review: Various Artists — Beyond Belief

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

Not long ago, a Facebook friend of mine initiated what turned into a lively discussion. Paraphrasing, the open question that he posed was this: What is the artistic/aesthetic value – if any – of so-called “tribute albums?” And because his list of Facebook friends includes a wide variety of music-focused people, the answers could be said to represent a cross-section (if an unscientifically self-selected one) of opinions.

Many of his friends are recording artists. Many are musicians, serious music fans, record collectors, and so on. And some are perhaps merely casual observers. But a surprising (to me) surprising number of people – men and women, young and not-so-young – weighed in on the topic.

I’d be delighted to report that there was consensus. But there was not. Opinions varied widely, and my own (again unscientific) takeaway settled upon a few possible truths. The first of these is that those who have been involved with tribute album projects – either as artists or as the people in charge of the projects – tend to think that tribute albums are just swell. That said, a number of artists who have provided recordings for some of these projects think that from an artistic standpoint, they’re relatively worthless exercises. Plenty point out that many tribute albums are fundraising projects, with profits directed toward one or another wonderfully deserving cause.

Music writers, on the other hand, tend to approach the subject with much less mercy. While many of them concede the worthiness of the “doing good” album, several made the point (and/or agreed with others making the point) that many tribute albums are good for one curious listen, but – if they’re even kept – they’re rarely taken off the shelf for another listen. A number of those in the discussion mentioned some outliers – those rare tribute albums that somehow transcended the genre – but there was a general agreement that such animals were pretty rare.

Which, finally, brings me to the latest of these. Beyond Belief: A Tribute to Elvis Costello finds no less than fifty artists digging into the catalog of Elvis Costello, (sometimes) pulling out a gem, and then covering it. And the good cause in the case of this project is the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation.

The artists cut a swath across the music landscape, but many of them lean toward powerpop and (just occasionally) alt-country. (Aside: Why this is so often the case, I do not know. But powerpop acts seem first in line for this kind of project. Maybe it’s a case of selective perception on my part, since I dearly love the genre.)

Some of Costello’s biggest hits (and best-known album tracks) are covered here, but there are quite a few tunes that will be familiar only to hardcore Costello fans (I’m not one of those).

As is so often the case, the manner in which the songs are interpreted varies widely. Some of the artists seem to be trying to reproduce the originals to the highest degree possible; Chris Richards + the Subtractions‘ reading of “No Action” could pass for an Elvis Costello outtake. (Is that a good or bad thing? It’s up to each listener to decide). And Rob Smith‘s cover of “Girls Talk” sounds very close to Dave Edmunds‘ 1979 version. (And those are merely the first two cuts on Disc One). Butch Walker picks a lesser-known song in “The Other End of the Telescope,” but his reading is pretty faithful to the original. David Myhr‘s “Veronica” has slightly more country flavor that the original, but the arrangement follows the Spike version right down to the vocal harmonies and instrumentation.

One has to venture nearly halfway into the first disc of Beyond Belief to find anything approaching originality (but perhaps that’s missing the point). To their credit, Cloud Eleven makes “Little Triggers” their own. But will listeners ever pick the cover over the original on This Year’s Model? My guess is no. There are some left-field reinventions, here, however. Jamie & Steve turn in a vocals-only reading of “Blame it On Cain.” The track almost surely comes from the same sessions that provided part of Jamie Hoover‘s most recent album. And though (as we discussed in a recent conversation) Hoover used an approach quite different than the one used by Todd Rundgren on his A Cappella album, “Blame it On Cain” sounds more like a Todd recording than a Jamie & Steve one.

Kurt Baker‘s version of “High Fidelity” is one of the best cuts on the set; Baker reinvents the tune (one of Costello’s best) in a style that – in places – may remind listeners of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (a group that, it should be noted, enjoyed some of their own biggest successes covering the material of others, namely Costello peers Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen).

A lovely reading of “I Hope You’re Happy Now” represents a rare solo outing from Severo Jornacion, longtime bassist for The Smithereens (who knew he played guitar, much less sang?). And the first disc ends with The Rubinoos finding the pop at the core of Costello’s “Pump It Up.” Lots of beefy horn charts take the tune in a different direction, leaving the listener to ponder how much of Costello’s catalog might benefit by such treatment.

Fifty songs is a lot of music to wade through. And a fifty-song “rock block” of one artist might be too much for the casual listener. But because of the various-artist nature of Beyond Belief, it plays more like a mixtape. Tim Cullen‘s “Radio Radio” is a straight copy of Costello’s original, but Sundial Symphony does some interesting things with “God’s Comic,” arguably improving on the Spike original.

Part-way into Disc Two we find Matthew Sweet, only the second name likely to be familiar to the casual listeners (Rubinoos being the first). His piano-and-voice reading of “Alison” is elegiac, and ups the pathos ante of the original. (at this point some reader might be wondering why each tune is compared here to its original version; honestly, there’s no other useful measure that comes to mind.)

But being well-known and/or changing the song ’round aren’t necessary prerequisites to a successful tune, as The Tickets‘ winning “From a Whisper to a Scream” ably demonstrates.

Beyond Belief features contributions from many names that will be familiar to those who enjoy guitar pop: Ron Flynt (20/20), Hans Rotenbery (The Shazam), Paul Myers (The Paul & John; Myers’ “So Like Candy” is a major highlight of this set), young powerpoppers A Fragile Tomorrow, Mike Viola (the guy who sang “That Thing You Do!”), Lannie Flowers, Bill Lloyd, An American Underdog, Frank Royster. And every one the tunes they turn in has something to recommend it (as do all of the others).

Which pretty well sums it up. There aren’t any weak tracks on Beyond Belief. The production quality is of a uniformly high standard (something that’s not as given on projects such as this). The mastering (simply put, matching the volume of fifty disparate recordings) is superb. And the selection of artists is excellent (heck, I like the original music from some of these acts more than I dig Costello’s music). And of course there’s the fact that proceeds benefit a good cause. But what remains is that nagging question: is there any musical point to the whole project? Some will insist yes; others cast a resolute “no” vote. The final choice is up to the individual, and your enjoyment of Beyond Belief will be based on your attitude toward tribute collections more than any other factor. Me, I like it just fine. But I really liked 1990′s Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson and 1993′s Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix, and I can’t tell you when the last time was that I played either one of those CDs.

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Album Review: Harvey Mandel — Snake Box

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

Meaning absolutely no disrespect to the artists to whom I refer, the music scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s was filled with what one might call second-string guitarists. These guys (and at this point in history, nearly the entire roster was male) weren’t on the notoriety level of Jimmy Page, John McLaughlin, or Eric Clapton. But at their best, they were as good, even if their music was known (much less heard) by fewer listeners. Some of the names that come to mind include fusion great Larry Coryell; three of pre-pedestrian Fleetwood Mac‘s guitarists (Peter Green, Danny Kirwan, Jeremy Spencer); and Canned Heat‘s Harvery Mandel (I am certain readers can think of many others).

Alongside his work with Canned Heat (he was a member of the group’s “second classic” lineup circa 1969-1970, and rejoined briefly on several later – and less noteworthy – occasions), Mandel maintained a solo career. Between 1968 and 1972, Mandel released six solo albums. Five from this period – all but the ’72 release Get Off in Chicago – have now been released in a set titled Snake Box (Mandel’s nickname is “The Snake”). While all of the original vinyl albums (Cristo Redentor from 1968, Righteous from 1969, 1970′s Games Guitars Play, 1971′s Baby Batter, and The Snake from 1972) can still be acquired for small sums (i.e. often under $5), none of the albums has had a recent CD/digital release. So the new box set presents them all together, each housed in an LP reproduction style sleeve, in one tidy package.

Snake Box also includes a rare onstage recording called Live at the Matrix, a set from Christmas Eve 1968 in San Francisco that features an all-star lineup of Frisco locals: Mandel with Jerry Garcia, Elvin Bishop, Steve Miller, Mickey Hart, and John Chambers.

Mandel was and remains a guitarist of great versatility, and one with a wide stylistic vision. Nominally a blues player, he sounds comfortable in any number of musical idioms. Widely recognized as an originator of the two-hand tapping technique (see also: Eddie Van Halen and Stanley Jordan), Mandel sounded as comfortable playing jazz-inflected licks as he did within the context of blues (or blues rock).

Mandel’s ability to trade in multiple styles resulted in albums that could seem all over the place. His interests and influences on these disc are so vast that it’s quite difficult to pin down a Mandel style. As often as not working with an ensemble, Mandel created albums that were cohesive wholes, not merely showcases for his guitar playing. For example, the first track on his first album, the title track of Christo Redentor, features a wordless female soprano vocal that sounds eerily like a Theremin. And the track’s lush string arrangement (complete with harps) is pretty well outside the rock idiom. From there Mandel left-turns into “Before Six,” a tune that anticipates early Blood, Sweat and Tears, and sounding not unlike The Paul Butterfield Blues Band crossed with, say, Cold Blood.

For those who haven’t heard Mandel’s solo work, the nearest artist to whom he might be compared is Shuggie Otis, another musician of singularly wide musical vision. Mandel’s playing is often exciting, featuring thickly sustained notes that are both economical and expressive at once. For his albums, he enlisted some legendary talent, including Graham Bond, Larry Taylor, Eddie Hoh, Pete Drake, and Emil Richards (to name but a few). Vocals show up occasionally, but Mandel seems to understand his strengths (and they are many), sticking to those.

Dave Thompson‘s liner note essay is informative, but the reader may be left wishing the box’s producers had given him more space. But that’s really a minor complaint, as the music on Snake Box largely speaks for itself. Snake Box is a treasure trove of heretofore underappreciated gems. Harvey Mandel is an artist who starts with blues and then pushes far beyond the supposed boundaries of the genre. Those receptive to such an approach are well advised to dive into this box set.

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Hundred-word Reviews: January 2015, Part 5

Friday, January 30th, 2015

There’s a never-ending stream of reissued music, too. So it’s time once again for some hundred-worders to work off some of my backlog. As always, these all deserve full reviews, but with limited time and resources, 100 words will have to do. I’ll cut to the chase. This week-long run of quick reviews wraps up with a look at five reissue/compilation releases.

Game Theory – Dead Center
Omnivore Recordings‘ championing of this under-appreciated 80s group continues with the reissue of the band’s 1984 compilation, Dead Center. Like all Game Theory albums, this one has long been out of print, and tough to find. Dead Center collected the band’s strongest material in hopes of helping them catch onto a wider audience. The Three O’Clock‘s Michael Quercio produced several tracks, and whether it’s his influence or simply a musical like-mindedness, much of this music sounds like him. Another crystal clear influence is (post-Big Star) Alex Chilton; Game Theory’s reading of “The Letter” sounds like how Alex might’ve done it.

Frank Rosolino – I Play Trombone
Part of the ongoing reissue of long-lost Bethlehem Records jazz releases, this six-track album (originally released in 1956) presents the trombonist Rosolino. He had previously appeared on sides by Stan Kenton and alongside Zoot Sims, but this was only his second album as leader. The agreeably swinging tunes balance subtlety with melodic interplay between Rosolino and his piano-bass-drums sidemen. Rosolino would go on to release several more albums, but the bulk of his work would be as sideman to a list of jazz greats that included Horace Silver and Dizzy Gillespie. I Play Trombone is an early and auspicious outing.

Dick Wagner – Dick Wagner
Long held in high esteem by rock aficionados, songwriter/guitarist Dick Wagner gained his greatest fame lending his considerable talents to the work others. But in 1978 he recorded and released an album under his own name. With a wide-screen vibe that recalls Meat Loaf and/or Jim Steinman, that album showed Wagner’s talent to excellent effect. Unfortunately, a generic album cover and a poorly-thought-out title (Richard Wagner) doomed the album to obscurity; it was often mis-filed in record stores in the classical section. Happily, it’s again available (with a revised title); sadly, Wagner passed away just before Real Gone Music‘s reissue.

Blood, Sweat & Tears – Child is Father to the Man
Though they would enjoy commercial success with an altered lineup (fronted by the gruesome vocals of David Clayton-Thomas), Blood, Sweat & Tears started out as a highly ambitious (almost progressive) outfit led by Al Kooper. Kooper left (or was forced out) after their debut, but the album the original lineup left behind is a stone classic. With a sound not miles away from The Butterfield Blues Band, early BS&T was soulful and loaded with chops. This hybrid multichannel SACD presents the debut in stunning audio quality, making it the definitive version. This is what Chicago wishes they could have been.

Barbara Lynn – The Complete Atlantic Recordings
Some of the most interesting and important work that Real Gone Music does is its series of compilation albums, collecting the work of underappreciated artists from the catalogs of Atlantic, Dunhill and others. Texas-born Barbara Lynn cut one album for Atlantic (the left-handed electric guitarist went on to a blues-oriented career that continues to this day); that disc (Here is Barbara Lynn) is included here in its entirety along with an impressive number of singles and rarities. This material focuses on Lynn’s vocals. Many of these tunes sound like hits; only one (“This is the Thanks I Get”) actually was.

As always, more reviews of CDs, DVDs and vinyl, plus interviews and essays to come.

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Album Review: Son of Kraut: The Next Generation of Krautrock

Friday, January 16th, 2015

Though it might seem otherwise to the casual observer, the term krautrock is neither pejorative nor disparaging. In its classic sense, the label refers to improvisationally-based rock with spare musical foundation. As the word suggests (in an undeniably gauche manner), the form originated in Germany.

When one thinks of krautrock, the first bands that often come to mind are Can, Tangerine Dream, and Kraftwerk (the latter’s hypnotic, album-length “Autobahn” is an exemplar of the genre).

The style reached its apex in the 1970s; today when one sees or hears the term, it’s nearly always I nthe context of music form the past. But – depending on how the term is understood – the krautrock label can be applied to modern-day music. Especially if a strictly literal interpretation is used (in other words, German rock), all manner of musical artists fit under the umbrella.

Certainly garage/psych revival bands like The Roaring 420s don’t fit into this discussion. Nor, of course, do some fantastic American expat artists who have made Berlin their base of operations (Anton Barbeau, The Fuzztones, and Brian Jonestown Massacre‘s Anton Newcombe, to name but three). But a number of interesting artists do fit the bill, and while they’re made barely a ripple on the musical consciousness of American listeners, collectively they’ve created a body of work that bears further investigation.

But how to do so? One could start by reading Krautrocksampler, the 1995 book by the genre’s most prominent champion, Julian Cope. But there are two problems with that idea: first off, the book is now twenty years old, so it can’t address, y’know, current acts. More problematic is the going rate for the long out-of-print title: currently upwards of $230 for a used copy on Amazon.

With that option off the table (PDF scans of Cope’s book do circulate online, and as of summer 2014 there’s “talk” of reissuing it), we turn instead to a compilation CD. The German label Sireena released a fine overview of “classic” krautrock not long ago: Live Kraut: Live Rock Explosions from the Heyday of Krautrock! focused on what one might call the first wave of the genre. Band names like Grobschnitt, Guru Guru and Jane will be wholly unfamiliar to American audiences, but for the most part, their music isn’t so out-there as to be unintelligible to American ears. (The same can’t be said for some of krautrock’s more adventurous acts: Kraan and Birth Control are pretty freaky; I have a few vinyl albums by each, and hope to find more later this year when I visit Germany.)

Happily, Sireena has filled this niche by releasing another compilation, Son of Kraut: The Next Generation of Krautrock (never let it be said that the Germans don’t spell it right out for you in their titles). Once again, here is a disc (with twelve tracks) filled with artists who are virtually unknown in the USA. RPWL might be familiar to those who regularly visit this blog; I’ve both reviewed their music and interviewed the group’s Yogi Lang. RPWL are featured on this set with “World Through My Eyes,” the title track off their 2005 album. It’s fine enough, but doesn’t show the group at their best, and isn’t truly representative of the band’s oft-displayed appealing characteristics.

The other eleven tracks are a varied lot. Some do explicitly build on the motorik textures of older krautrock: Ear Tranceport‘s “Lock In (Namby Pamby)” has that chugging, mechanical beat applied to a melody that’s largely driven by acoustic guitar. And the one-chord “Stranded” from Space Debris will delight fans of Pink Floyd‘s Ummagumma, as it meanders purposefully though similar sonic territory over the course of its nearly ten minutes.

Sankt Otten‘s vaguely sinister instrumental “Nach Dir Die Sinnseflut” will remind listeners of Tangerine Dream at their soundtrackiest. Electric Moon deliver a deeply textured vibe on “Madrigal Meridian,” sounding like a Teutonic (and at times, more tuneful) Nine Inch Nails. One man band Level Pi engages in some evocative krautrock that features some straightforward rock guitar riffage; it too wouldn’t be out of place in a film soundtrack.

The Perc Meets the Hidden Gentleman is a wholly different affair. Seemingly taking its sonic inspiration from former Berlin resident David Bowie, “The Moon of Both Sides” is perhaps the track on Son of Kraut most likely to connect with the casual listener. The brooding, dreamy “I Can’t Walk My Floor” by Tarwater is cut from similar cloth as the music of Austin’s Black Angels.

“Psysomsyl” from Electric Orange features seven minutes’ workout on a single chord; the track grows in intensity, not unlike some of Glenn Branca‘s work, or classic-period Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Things take a decidedly more tuneful direction with “On Stranger Tides” from Fantasyy Factoryy. The hand drumming and repetitve electric guitar riff suggest a campfire version of Pink Floyd, as does the track’s Roger Waters-like vocal.

The intriguing instrumental “”O.M.E.N.” from Le Mur initially heads back into the psych revival region, but some treated saxophone riffage suggest what Black Sabbath might sound like with some added brass instrumentation.

Son of Kraut wraps up with some prog-metal, a genre heretofore unexplored on the set. Both the band name (Panzerballet) and the song title (“Vulgar Display of Sauerkraut”) provide hints as to where this Teutonic Metallica are headed. Some tenor sax will throw metalhead for a loop, but otherwise, the genre’s hallmarks – blindingly fast guitar licks, thundering rhythm semitone – are all here. Overall, it’s a bit jarring in the context of Son of Kraut‘s mostly moody atmosphere, but it gets better as it goes along.

The poster-styled liner notes (in both German and a chuckle-eliciting English translation) provide enough information to help those wishing to investigate the bands further. For listeners interested in a sampler that is both adventurous and not music not a million musical miles away form their comfort zone, Son of Kraut is recommended. It’s a safe bet that you’ll find something you enjoy in this album field with unfamiliar names.

N.B.: There’s an additional title in this series, a disc called Jazzkruat: Teutonal Jazz Rock Excursions. It features the aforementioned Kraan and Volker Kriegel; I will do my best to score a copy and review it here when I can.

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Album Review: Black & Blue – The Laff Records Collection

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

A new 4CD collection of vintage comedy records, Black & Blue: The Laff Records Collection exemplifies the abbreviation NSFW (“Not Safe for Work”). The low-budget stand-up comedy records (usually but not always recorded in front of raucously appreciative audiences) released on the independent Laff Records label in the 1970s were a sensation in African American communities across the USA. But to buy these records, you had to know whom to ask: titles like Eatin’ Ain’t Cheatin’ by Wildman Steve simply couldn’t be put on prominent display in a record store.

The story of Laff Records is a sort of underground, sub- or counter-cultural history. The labels’ so-called “party records” were put together using the smallest of budgets – the cover art is often amateurish, and the recording techniques won’t win any audio awards – but then those measures completely miss the point. These extraordinarily “dirty” records featured the likes of Redd Foxx and Lawanda Page, both giants in the black standup comedy world. The public at large knew Foxx as Fred Sanford on the hit TV sitcom Sanford & Son; they knew Page, too, as Aunt Esther, the uptight sister-in-law of the main character. But TV viewers would be shocked (shocked, I say) to hear Page on record, on her Pipe Layin’ Dan LP. There she runs through routines with titles like “Bustin’ Cherries” and “Douche Powder.” Needless to say, as with most Laff Records titles, Page’s LPs were not for the easily offended.

But there’s an undeniable (dare I say) charm to be found in routines like Jimmy Lynch‘s “Tricky Dick & Pussy,” Dap Sugar Willie‘s “Duck You,” and Mantan Moreland‘s immor(t)al classic, “That Ain’t My Finger.” And while this caucasian writer can merely hazard a guess here, one suspects that there was a certain degree of liberation at work, an I’ll-say-anything-I-want mindset that was, in its own way, empowering to both the comics and their (almost wholly black) listening audience.

To this day, original Laff Records are fairly difficult to come by; seemingly they’ve all been melted in conservative church bonfires, or (more likely) they’re hidden away in the collection of now-aging African Americans (note to self: hit some nearby intown garage sales this coming spring). Ten or so representative titles from the Laff catalog are now collected on this new 4CD set. Robert Townsend‘s brief essay helps modern listeners understand the debt that today’s black comics owe to these underground party records. And a richly detailed booklet provides biographical and contextual information about the performers and their recordings. There’s no Richard Pryor material here (though Laff released several Pryor discs, the man’s relationship with the label was contentious), but the lesser-known names make their raunchy mark nearly as well. With Black & Blue: The Laff Records Collection, Rock Beat Records are once again to be commended for their edgy (if limited-appeal) approach to compilations and reissues.

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