Archive for the ‘new release’ Category

Back to Bassics: A Chat with Tony Levin

Friday, October 24th, 2014

Among musicians, Tony Levin is as close as once can come to being a household name. Among the wider public, he’s not well known at all. That may be because recordings under his own name have had a relatively low profile, despite Levin’s having played on several hundred recordings with and by other artists. He’s one of those stellar musicians about which one can say, “you may not know his name, but you’ve heard his playing.” His instrument (chiefly but certainly not exclusively bass guitar) and voice have graced recordings by everyone from John Lennon to King Crimson, from Alice Cooper to Pink Floyd, from Buddy Rich to Yes. This dizzyingly versatile musician has just finished up a highly acclaimed tour with the three-drummer version of King Crimson, and has just released a collaborative album with his brother – pianist/organist Pete Levin – called Levin Brothers. But the music on the album is neither progressive rock nor pop: it’s jazz, fifties-style.


Bill Kopp: More than any other musician I can think of, you’ve played live and recorded in most every genre. Do you bring any specific sort of mindset to bear on a project based on the style you’ll be playing? In other words, do you approach sessions for The Levin Brothers album differently than, say, King Crimson?

Tony Levin: I listen to the music (assuming it’s not my compositions that I wrote for the project); I listen and just try to hear a bass part that best suits that music. I don’t come in with an agenda of what I want to play, or even pick what bass (unless I have to travel to the studio – in that case I’ll try to hear the music ahead of time and decide then.)

That describes my playing too, not just the process — like any fan of the music, I’m listening to the song if that’s what it is, or to Robert Fripp‘s guitar line if that is what it is. And I try to do something to enhance it.

Bill: To what degree were the tracks on Levin Brothers “composed,” and to what extent did they develop in the studio?

Tony: We wrote the songs completely, like you do with jazz records – then left the soloing for the players. The drum parts, Jeff [Siegel] sorted out very quickly and easily.

Bill: You play (at least) bass guitar, Chapman Stick, NS electric cello, and upright bass. Do you view those as four wholly distinct instruments, or is it more of a case of them being different extensions — tools — of your musical expression, chosen based on the project at hand?

Tony: I hadn’t thought about it, but I’d agree with your description of them as tools. I’m always the bassist in the band, so looking at what the bottom end will provide, and the sound differences among those instruments, even subtle differences, mean a lot to me in determining what will work. Sometimes the drum sound affects the amount of low end that’s left for me, so I may choose an instrument just because it has a big warm sound, or because it doesn’t have that.

Bill: Is this the first recorded collaboration with your brother? When working with him, do you experience anything musically unique, any sort of unspoken-yet-silently-understood level of communication?

Tony: We’ve worked together a lot, in various bands, through the years. We work great together and if we’re straight on where the music is heading, we each trust each other’s vision of how to do it. We also play locally, as a duo, pretty much whenever there’s a benefit show that needs a duet to help raise some funds… so the album isn’t really the first time we’ve played jazz together — but it is our first release.

Bill: The style of music you’re playing on Levin Brothers is most closely associated with the late 1950s and early 60s. But the style has clearly endured, sounding fresh today. Why do you think that this kind of music is so timeless (assuming you do think so)?

Tony: I was indeed struck by how the cool jazz I’d heard as a kid stayed with me all these years. I attribute that to the great songwriting and soloing of those players – Oscar Pettiford on cello and bass, Julius Watkins on French horn, Charlie Rouse on sax. So we didn’t copy their songs, but we did stay with the simpler chord structures of that style, and tried — hopefully with a little success — to write some songs that will have you humming them to yourself.

Bill: The album has that everybody-playing-together feel that’s so important on jazz recordings. Was it in fact done that way, or were the pieces assembled with other parts — drums, guitar etc. – overdubbed?

Tony: We tried a variety of approaches: we did demos that were there to overdub onto, and did some stuff from scratch in the studio. Usually, though, we had worked out in advance the tempo that was just right for each song. In my experience it can be a big time waste if you’re searching for the tempo, and with Pete and I together all the time it was pretty easy to practice them at different tempos ’til we arrived at the best one.

Bill: Considering all the tracks you’ve played on, and all of the musical styles you’ve played, is there a type of music you haven’t yet but would like to work on?

Tony: I don’t think about styles too much…and though I’m flattered about your description, really there are lots of styles I don’t play, or have only played a little. I think Latin music, particularly Latin jazz, is really fun and cool, but have only done a little of it. Likewise I love the power of heavy metal, which requires a particular recording style — and I’ve only been exposed to that a couple of times.

Bill: Is there anyone you’d really like to work with that you haven’t?

Who would I love to play with? Jimi Hendrix. Think you can arrange it?

Bill: Are there any plans for live dates in support of the Levin Brothers album?

Tony: We will tour for sure, but it’s hard to predict the season at this time. It depends on scheduling of a number of bands, and we’re trying to sort that out now and make plans to bring our music everywhere we can.

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Book Review: Wounds to Bind

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

The 1960s music scene was populated with people who – if they survived – have tales to tell. First-hand witnesses to (or participants in) the social and cultural upheavals that changed the way we looked at the world; movers and shakers in the development of new and groundbreaking musical forms: those are the stories we enjoy reading.

With due respect to Jerry Burgan, one of several guitarists in folk-rock group We Five, his new book Wounds to Bind: A Memoir of the Folk-Rock Revolution is not a leading exemplar of those kinds of stories. This is not to say that his tale isn’t interesting; it most certainly is, and he (aided by coauthor Alan Rifkin) tells his story in brilliant detail, with much shade, light and color.

But the thing is, We Five are notable in equal parts for having one hit (the gloriously spine-tingling “You Were On My Mind”) and, it must be said, for being on the periphery — as opposed to being an active part –  of the scene. As worthy as “You Were On My Mind” was and is, the group didn’t write the song – Sylvia (Fricker) Tyson composed it. And Burgan didn’t come up with We Five’s inventive arrangement: guitarist/arranger Mike Stewart did that.

To his credit, Burgan never casts himself in the role of hero/protagonist: he never makes outsized claims as to his importance. Instead he places himself as close-proximity witness to the events that unfolded around him, and his recounting of the story maintains his sense of awe and wonder. Wounds to Bind isn’t a score-settling tome: Burgan has good things to say about (nearly) everyone with whom he worked. Still, Wounds to Bind does present one man’s perspective on the folk rock scene of the mid 1960s.

Burgan is at his rhapsodic best when writing about the arrangement and recording of “You Were On My Mind.” His (and Rifkin’s) written deconstruction of the song and its genesis serves to highlight the brilliance of the We Five version of the Ian and Sylvia tune. In fact, theirs is less a “version” and more a rethinking: in addition to changing the lyrics (for airplay), Mike Stewart and company created lyrical emphases that didn’t exist in the original, and added instrumental flourishes that made the song a timeless, transcendent piece of earnest folk-pop-rock.

Burgan’s recounting of his time on the road in Dick Clark‘s traveling revue is also a richly rewarding read. Of particular note are his characterization of Paul Revere and the Raiders, and his telling of a Thanksgiving episode in rural West Virginia. And Burgan rightly highlights the significance of having drummer John Chambers in the band in a time when mixed-race groups were highly unusual (to say the least). And his stories about We Five (by then on the downhill side of success) performing in front of ultraconservative audiences in Texas and Utah are well-told and (rare within the context of the book) simply hilarious.

The fact of the matter remains that We Five never capitalized on the success of their lone hit single. Near the book’s tail-end, Burgan recounts a recent conversation with Jerry Moss, co-founder (with Herb Alpert) of A&M Records, the label that released We Five’s music. Moss apparently has fond memories of the first We Five album, struggled to recall the second…and as for the third? Nothing. That same reaction likely holds true for even the hardest of hardcore sixties folk fans: nothing We Five did post-”You Were On My mind” got notice, and – based on Burgan’s telling of the story – not a whole lot of it was all that memorable anyway.

And therein lies the challenge in a book such as Wounds to Bind. The story that most people want to know about takes place within the space of a few years in the middle of the 1960s. But of course Burgan can’t just leave it like that; doing so wouldn’t make sense. So a chunk of the book (arguably a disproportionate amount) is given over to discussing events post-”You Were On My Mind.” Sadly, it gets less and less interesting – and farther from the core of the folk-rock story – as it goes along. Anecdotes about Burgan and his wife playing desultory gigs in Las Vegas and Reno are more than a little depressing, and his memories of Sammy Davis Jr., Jerry Van Dyke, and Gary Lewis are serious downers as well. And though Burgan makes no apologies for it – nor should he – the story of him moving into pharmaceutical sales seems to exemplify the “selling out” that so many sixties luminaries railed against.

That said, Burgan makes it clear that he – unlike pretty much every other figure from that era about whom I’ve ever read – was largely apolitical. And a guy’s gotta eat. So while no one’s questioning his life choices, a significant percentage of Wounds to Bind covers material that’s just not all that compelling.

Sad, too, are the fates met by all of Burgan’s ex-bandmates. Wounds to Bind does “solve” the “mystery” of whatever happened to vocalist Beverly Bivens, but that story might be met by most readers with a resigned shrug and a sigh. Surprisingly little is discussed about Burgan’s wife Debbie’s role as Bivens’ replacement in We Five (documented on the now-rare Return of the We Five and Catch the Wind LPs), beyond the author making clear again and again the Debbie didn’t much care for touring (or drugs).

Some mention is made of the 2009 compilation There Stands the Door, a best-of/rarities CD that shows We Five to far better effect than did their A&M releases, highlighting the fact that the group drew influences not only from folk (such as the group Mike Stewart‘s brother John was in, The Kingston Trio), but Tin Pan Alley and show tunes. That focus suggests that – had We Five held together and been better marketed by A&M, they might have had a shot at a place in the music scene not unlike Spanky and Our Gang achieved. But because A&M had their hands full with “adult” pop (The Tijuana Brass, Sergio Mendes’ Brasil ’66, The Baja Marimba Band), and viewed We Five as too far into the rock sound (ironic considering how little regard its members had for rock music in general), things never went that way.

At its best, Wounds to Bind is a fascinating memoir of an important time in music and culture. Unfortunately, at its worst, it’s simply not all that compelling. Many glaring errors (one moment The Raiders’ lead singer is named Marc Lindsay; the next’s he’s Mark Lindsay, then Marc again; that’s just one example of several I could cite) suggest that Wounds to Bind could have benefited from an editor’s careful once- or twice-over.

Verdict: a qualified recommendation. Parts One and Two are well-written, essential reading, and those who get that far will want to read the rest, but Part Three is downbeat and less rewarding for the reader.

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Concert Preview: Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

Shine a light into some of rock history’s less well-lit corners, and you’ll discover some strange yet intriguing detours. Among the most remarkable of these is the conceptual mash-up: combining not two different songs, but two different musical sensibilities. The results can often be noteworthy.

Take, for example, the one-off music film clip made for early 1990s Australian television by tribute group The Beatnix: their reinvention of Led Zeppelin‘s “Stairway to Heaven” as a Meet the Beatles-era raver is inspired beyond description. And speaking of Zep, the group Dread Zeppelin had a high concept of their own: a rotund Elvis Presley impersonator fronting a reggae band, covering Led Zeppelin. And so on: Hayseed Dixie got a surprising bit of mileage out of their inspired and hilarious bluegrass readings of classic rock songs by the likes of AC/DC.

The one quality that all these examples share, of course, is humor: in all cases they’re playing it for laughs. But the conceptual pastiche doesn’t have to be a joke. The latest (and perhaps the best) example of we-mean-it-man combining of styles has to be Brownout. The idea of wedding a Tex-Mex horn section and a soulful/funky heavy lead guitar to the songs of Black Sabbath might read like some sort of cosmic joke, but it doesn’t sound like one.

This Austin TX band describes their music as “hardcore Latin funk,” and this outfit – a spinoff from Grupo Fantasma — has long been folding other elements into their signature sound. And they do in fact have a sense of humor: how else to explain the creation of an instrumental that sounds like it could have come out of a Mexican ripoff of the Shaft soundtrack, and the titling of said tune “Brown Wind and Fire.”

The group’s third and latest album is called Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath, and it’s exactly that: clever and inventive reimaginings of seven classic-era Sabbath tunes. Three tracks from the debut album by Birmingham’s metal masters, three more from their 1970 followup Paranoid, and one from Masters of Reality make up the disc. (This leaves at least three – possibly five – Ozzy Osbourne-era Sabbath LPs to cover on a potential followup disc.)

And while when one hears these tunes, a grin is likely to spread across one’s face, it’s really about much more than humor. The uber-heavy dropped-E riffage of Tony Iommy is recast by Brownout as peppy horn charts that owe as much to Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass or early Blood, Sweat and Tears. And the melodicism of Sabbath’s group-penned music – a quality that didn’t always shine through on Black Sabbath albums – comes through loud and clear in the hands of this eight-man group.

As tasty as the album is, seeing the group live promises to be an even more attractive prospect. And if you’re in or near Asheville NC, you’ve got the perfect opportunity. Brownout will appear onstage at the Asheville Music Hall – as eclectic a venue as you’ll likely encounter – on Saturday, October 25. Advance tickets are a mere $12 ($14 at the door), and these Austin Music Awards winners will take the stage at 10pm. I’m going; if you make the show, find me and say hello.

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Jason D. Williams: A Mixing Bowl Combined With a Sponge (Part Two)

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Continued from Part One

By 1993, as the first signing of the reactivated Sun Records, Jason D. Williams released Wild. Sessions for that disc took place in the storied studio at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis. “A lot of big name entertainers who’ve recorded there use the word channel. They feel like they’re channeling the greats who have recorded there before them. Not me,” he insists. “That took care of itself. But my reason for being there was that, believe it or not, it was on my bucket list.” Jason had only played there previously, he says, “as a youngster, playing one song on a Johnny Rivers album.” In the 90s, while doing session in Memphis for Dale Watson, Williams thought, “Sun is right around the corner. Why have I never done a session of my own there? I know everybody who’s ever recorded here!” So he did.

“I had my little boy there with me,” Jason beams. “To see him asleep on the floor there at two in the morning was a real joy. My wife would be in the booth, and I’d be in the studio. We’d cut something, and I’d have to step over my son to get back to the engineer’s room. It was fun.”

Eventually starting his own label, Williams followed up Wild with a string of albums, and the titles set the tone: 2004′s Don’t Get None Onya; Rockin’; Killer Instincts; Recycled; and his latest, Hillbillies and Holy Rollers. While the sessions for 2010′s Killer Instincts were initially planned as a mostly-covers project, the strength of Williams’ original numbers – including the standouts “You Look Like I Could Use A Drink” and “White Trash Wife” – tilted the song selection toward new material.

Prior to Killer Instincts, Williams seemed uncomfortable trading on his genetic connection to Jerry Lee Lewis; even today he answers questions on that subject with uncharacteristically brief replies. Clearly he prefers to be measured on the strength of his own work. Still, there’s no denying that Williams’ visual style is highly reminiscent of a young Jerry Lee: stomping the upper registers of the piano with his right foot; his long forelocks dangling in front of his sweaty face; his overall playing approach that is equal parts mania and assured control.

On 2014′s Hillbillies and Holy Rollers, Williams serves up an assortment that is weighted evenly between originals and other people’s songs, but his renditions of the latter are Jason D. Williams through and through. Joe Ely‘s “Fingernails” ends up serving as a theme song of sorts: Williams pounds the daylights out of the ivories while explaining that “I leave my fingernails long so it clicks when I play the piano.” He’s as comfortable playing flowery licks on weepers like Hank Williams‘ (no relation) “You Win Again,” and though Elvis cut the most well-known version of “Mean Woman Blues,” Williams makes the tune his own. And Jason demonstrates his command of uptempo tent-revival gospel with the album’s two final cuts, “Old Time Religion” and “I’ll Fly Away.”

Jason returned to Sun Studio for Hillbillies and Holy Rollers, and the studio’s aesthetic formed an important part of the sound captured there. Williams says that all the album’s songs were recorded in “one take. On everything except ‘You Win Again,’ where I went in and added strings afterward. If we messed up, we’d just start over. And we just had a mic in the middle of the room.”

“You know,” Williams continues, “Roy Orbison said that he became a stronger singer every time he recorded at Sun. He had to sing over the instruments, the way they used to record. And I could certainly see what he was talking about when I recorded there, too.”

Though his trademark sound is to most ears an agressively-attacked acoustic piano, most days Williams plays an amplified Kawai piano. He favors a model that he says the company “stopped making in 1980,” and he has made an effort to find as many as possible of that increasingly-rare model for himself ever since. For live gigs – Williams tours to more than 160 dates annually – he’s joined by guitar, bass and drums. He chuckles and adds that the band is occasionally augmented by “another piece on the end: violin, saxophone, trombone…anything, as long as they can add to the show!”

These days, there are still a few items remaining on Jason D. Williams’ bucket list. Jerry Lee Lewis “lives just down the street; we visit from time to time.” And though it hasn’t happened recently (they have played together informally a select few times), Williams hopes that he will once again get to share a performance stage with his biological father. Until – and doubtless after – that happens, concertgoers will get the chance to see a high energy show that builds on the music foundation of old.

Jason D. Williams will appear onstage at the Martin-Lipscomb Performing Arts Center in Highlands NC on Friday, November 28 (that’s the day after Thanksgiving). Visit his website at www.rockinjasondwilliams.com.

Note: An edited version of this feature originally appeared in print in the September 2014 issue of Stomp and Stammer Magazine.

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Jason D. Williams: A Mixing Bowl Combined With a Sponge (Part One)

Monday, October 20th, 2014

Though his in-the-grand-tradition bio sheet asserts that Jason D. Williams first played a piano at age three, when I ask him about it, he concedes that his serious interest in the keyboard commenced around his ninth year. “I started taking piano lessons from a local piano teacher. I had a lot of great influences, from [African American blues pianist] Booker T. Lowery to Memphis Slim to classical artists. A lot of jazz greats like Phineas Newborn, too, plus a lot of good, left-hand boogie woogie players. And all points in between.”

Jason grew up in a small south Arkansas town called El Dorado. And there, his schooling in music would expand into some unlikely directions. He recalls, “There was a group of kids – they were a little older than I was – and they were into some of the west coast record labels like Takoma. We’d listen to people like John Fahey, Leo Kottke, George Winston, and Doc Watson. At the time, those were as big an influence on me as anything.” He also consumed a steady diet of big bands and jazz greats; he mentions Della Reese as a favorite.

As a direct result of distilling those influences, one of the most fascinating dimensions of Williams’ own music is its variety. Jason is sometimes pigeonholed as a rockabilly pianist, but his style is too expansive to fit neatly into any such box. In his original and carefully-chosen covers, one hears blues, jazz, r&b, country, gospel. And that all-encompassing approach might remind listeners that the music of the early pioneers of rock’n'roll – Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, even Ike Turner – didn’t fit neatly into any one of those boxes, either.

“I was a mixing bowl combined with a sponge,” Williams says, mixing a couple of metaphors in that bowl. “I could watch anybody entertain, from Al Jolson to Jerry Lee to Cab Calloway. And I would take a little bit from each of them.” He muses on the all-around-entertainer nature of vaudeville performers who inspired him: “You had to be able to tap dance, balance stuff on your head. And play upside down. And I got all that from people like Sammy Davis, Jr., and watching old episodes of The Lawrence Welk Show.”

And in fact, though Williams was raised by a pair of loving adoptive parents, he eventually learned that his biological father was none other than the man known as The Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis. Jason was conceived mere months after Jerry Lee’s “High School Confidential” (from his debut LP on Sun Records) scaled Top 40 pop, country and r&b charts. So while he had studied and absorbed the work of many performers and composers, Jason is convinced that heredity played a part: “The style was probably genetically already there.”

Showing that he has at least a touch of his biological father’s bravura, Williams asserts, “I’m a combination of Joe Namath, Vladimir Horowitz, and Jackson Pollock.” I laugh and then pause, giving him space to elaborate. He doesn’t, leaving me to ruminate on this name-checking non sequitur.

The Jason D. Williams story – or at least the performing and recording part of it – began when he left El Dorado at sixteen. He joined the touring band of rockabilly legend Sleepy LaBeef; he still occasionally performs with the guitarist. At the tail-end of the 1980s, he – or at least his hands – starred on the big screen in the feature film Great Balls of Fire, performing the songs made famous by Jerry Lee Lewis. That same year Williams signed with RCA and cut his first album, Tore Up. On that record, his original songs fit in seamlessly with rocked-up readings of chestnuts like “St. James Infirmary” and Larry Williams‘ 1958 classic “Slow Down.”

A regular solo gig at Memphis’ famed Peabody Hotel (the one with the ducks) increased Williams’ profile. A vertigo-inducing 1990 music video of Williams and band atop Knoxville, Tennessee’s iconic Sunsphere (performing “Tore Up” and “Everybody Rockin’ on a Saturday Night”) does a good job of capturing the excitement of the pianist in a live setting, and showcases his dazzlingly precise speed-riffing on the ivories.

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Album Review: Halloween Nuggets

Friday, October 17th, 2014

Halloween’s coming: October 31 is a mere two weeks away. Personally, it’s my favorite holiday: for several years I lived on one of my city’s busiest residential streets, the go-to location on Halloween. This upscale neighborhood (we were firmly at the bottom of of the street’s socioeconomic scale there, by the way) was very popular with trick-or-treaters. So much so, in fact, that people chartered vans and buses – I kid you not – just to drive their kids to our street where they could collect candy. One year, we had over 500 kids ring our doorbell.

Leaving other family members to dispense the loot, I stood out front in a creepy mask, hood and gloves, playing (well, playing after-a-fashion) my Theremin. The spooky tones fit perfectly for the play-fun that is modern Halloween. Music – especially music laden with eerie, gimmicky sounds – has long been a staple of this fall holiday.

Like Christmas, Halloween has engendered a fair amount of its own theme music. But not a lot of it has hit the charts in a big way, despite its quality. And so when an artist records a Halloween-themed tune, it usually slides quickly into obscurity. I mean, who wants to hear spooky music once November rolls around?

Well, if you’re thinking to yourself, “Me,” then I have a treat for you. Rock Beat Music has put together a box set – three discs packed to the limit – of 1960s music loosely built around the theme of ghosts, goblins, witches and monsters. Drawing mostly from among the era’s hopelessly obscure sides, Halloween Nuggets: Monster Sixties A Go-go is a fun if modest collection of ninety-plus tracks.

Because from a cultural point of view “the sixties” really began circa February 1964, there are a number of 50s-sounding tunes here. Most lay on the gimmicky theme a bit thick – loads of spooky sonds, scream and whatnot – but the underlying theme is an undeniably kitschy sort of fun. While there are a few duds – Ralph Nieson and the Chancellors‘ manic psychobilly raver “Scream” is repetitive enough to give even the most die-hard listeners a headache – there are plenty of gems here. The song titles (“Tombstone No. 9,” “Cha Cha with the Zombies”) and one-off band names alone (Frankie Stein and His Ghouls, The Graveyard Five) are entertaining enough, and a lot of songs are goofily wonderful.

Some of these tunes will be familiar to connoisseurs of garage rock obscurities: Positively 13 O’clock‘s reading of The Count Five‘s “Psychotic Reaction” has been comped many times, as has Kiriae Crucible‘s “Salem With Trial.” But for every one of those, there’s a too-rarely-heard track like Baron Daemon & the Vampires‘ “Ghost Guitars.”

The track sequence is peppered with laughably awful audio tracks from B-movie trailers. You don’t really need visuals to know what The Astro Zombies or Night of the Blood Beast are about; their inclusion here doesn’t impede the flow of the music. Instead they just add to the fun.

James Austin – the label’s leading light when it comes to compilations: see also Los Nuggetz – has done his usual fine job of collecting and choosing the songs. What he hasn’t done – and where Halloween Nuggets leaves me a bit wanting – is to provide anything along the line of discographical information, or any sort of liner notes, for that matter. So listeners are left to wonder exactly what was behind an admittedly ace number such as Ervinna & the Stylers‘ “Witch Queen of New Orleans” or the good-timing garage jangle of The Circus‘ “Burn Witch Burn.” (The exceedingly tiny type used for track listing on the box’s back is frustrating to readers of a certain age, too).

But those are minor issues; we’re here primarily for the music. And Halloween Nuggets digs deeply into the graveyard of rock’n'roll (and pop) obscurities for this set. And this 3CD set might be just the ticket to enjoying a little bit of lightweight fun before the Christmas decorations come out. (How’s that for scary?)

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Album Review: Caleb Hawley

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

While it might come off a bit melodramatic to say so, sometimes I experience some emotional rollercoasterism when receiving new music in my mailbox. Case in point: not long ago I went outside to collect the mail, only to find a box leaned up against my front door (it wouldn’t fit in the mailbox). The familiar cardboard dimensions – a bit over 12” x 12” – made all but certain that it was vinyl.

I love vinyl.

The return address indicated that said package was shipped to me from a publicist in whom I trust, one with whom I share similar musical tastes; further, she”gets” my specific likes and dislikes, and tends to steer toward me music that is likely to get a fair listen. She turned me on to The Explorers Club, in fact. In short, a professional.

I took the package inside and opened it. What I found was a record with cover art as you see above. A guy who looks a bit like Noah Wyle, the actor who rose to fame on ER. My first thought was, “Oh. A singer songwriter.”

My heart sank.

But knowing the publicist as I do, I was more than willing to give the record a spin. How bad could it be? So I removed the shrink wrap and put the vinyl platter on the turntable. The first track, “Would You Even Try,” blasted out of the speakers.

I was thrilled.

And so it goes. One can’t always judge an LP by its cover. The self-titled debut from Minneapolis-born Caleb Hawley has much more in common with, say, Mayer Hawthorne – another white guy who creates authentic, heartfelt soul music – than any navel-gazing, overly precious singer-songwriter.

“Would You Even Try” has slinky, soulful guitar riffs and thundering bass as its foundation, but Hawley’s strong voice – supported by hot Latin-flavored percussion, bright horn charts and subtle Motown-styled strings – is the focus here. It’s undeniably retro, and it’s also exciting as hell.

“Sometimes a Good Feeling (Just Can’t Last)” is another pop delight. It’s as strong as any soul/r&b 45 from the early 70s. The sax work and female vocal chorus are standout elements, but it’s a deftly executed tune all around.

Hawley slows things waaay down for “I Just Want You,” heading for a gospel-flavored Wilson Pickett style. The thrill quotient is lower, but that’s clearly by design. Hawley’s neo-soul approach here is reminiscent of James Morrison‘s debut (let’s hope Hawley can maintain the quality of his music, a feat Morrison hasn’t quite been able to master).

While “When My Baby’s Gone” is a fine tune, here Hawley oversteps the boundaries just a bit: the tune is a too-direct lift of The Supremes‘ “You Can’t Hurry Love.” The not-exactly-original lyric “just my imagination running wild” doesn’t help things, either. Still, let’s give Hawley a one-time pass on this one: Mayer Hawthrone gave us a similar product with A Strange Arrangement‘s “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’,” and he’s done okay for himself since.

Some tasty Memphis-styled guitar funk forms the basis of “Crying Wolf.” On “Let a Little Love In,” Hawley and his players build the song around some lovely piano work; the resullt feels like Tapestry-era Carole King, and that’s never, ever a bad thing.

The vocal chorus fades slowly in on “My Hell,” a tune much more upbeat than its title might suggest. Hawley’s impassioned delivery is heightened by massed handclaps moving the tune along. The drum corps intro of “Little Miss Sunshine” is fascinating, and it leads into a slinky dim-the-lights-baby jam.

“Bada Boom, Bada Bling” puts the focus more on the instrumentation. Wahwah guitars and a super-funky beat make the tune; the melody isn’t as strong as most of what’s on Caleb Hawley, but perhaps as a dance floor number it works.

A few odd production choices mar “Long Life,” and the seemingly autobiographical lyrics detract from the fun a bit. Too gimmicky by half, it’s the album’s weakest track, and sticks out like a sore thumb ion an otherwise fine disc.

Hawley gets back on solid footing with the Earth, Wind & Fire-styled “Give it Away.” His command of falsetto is impressive; it’s a testament to his (or someone’s) restraint that the vocal technique isn’t splashed all over the album. Leaving ‘em wanting more is always a good strategy for a performer new to the scene. Musically, it feels not unlike something Michael Jackson might’ve done in the mid 1980s.

Caleb Hawley wraps up with “Find It,” a number that starts out understated, only to unfold halfway through as a pull-out-all-the-stops big finish. Vocals and instruments go all-in here, and “Find It” sounds to these ears like the perfect live set closer. It fulfills that role equally well on this album.

Perhaps a bit oddly, Hawley initially released an EP called Side 1; his latest short-form release is – wait for it – Side 2. The first focused on 60s styles, while the second has a more (but not too) contemporary feel. His self-titled vinyl LP includes both sides, and it’s the way to go.

In the future, when and if I receive a package indicting Caleb Hawley’s involvement, I’ll be expecting good things.

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Book Review: The Next Elvis

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

There have been countless books written about Elvis Presley and/or the early years of Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. But a new book by someone who was there (for a time, at least) sheds some new light on the tiny yet famous and incalculably important label. Barbara Barnes SimsThe Next Elvis: Searching for Stardom at Sun Records is a quick, episodic trip through the period 1957-1960 at Sun Records. The author (then known by her coworkers at Sun as “BB,” short for her then-unmarried name) effectively replaced legendary figure Marion Keisker and worked as assistant to Sam Phillips for more than four years.

Viewed from one point of view, it can be said that during Barnes’ time at Sun, she was firsthand witness to the steady decline of the label: Elvis’ contract had already been sold to RCA; Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison both cut material for Sun and left for greener pastures; Jerry Lee Lewis‘ promising career effectively imploded in the wake of his marriage to his “almost fourteen year old” cousin Myra; and –as Barnes recounts in vivid detail – the promising talent of Charlie Rich was overlooked as not worth nurturing.

Barnes isn’t afraid to shine a light on the shortcomings of her boss and co-workers; she never does it from the standpoint of a dirt-disher; rather, as someone who knew these people as flesh-and-blood humans rather than iconic figures of pop culture history – she merely calls ‘em like she sees ‘em.

There’s a Mad Man-esque quality to Barnes’ reminiscences of her trips to the big (New York) and comparatively bad (Chicago) cities to take part in the old-boys networks of record company execs, mobbed-up jukebox companies, and the like; the sense of wonder experienced by the young Barnes (then in her mid-twenties) is palpable. Clear, too, is the impression that she was nobody’s fool, no pushover, no shrinking violet.

If you’ve ever read the (relatively brief) liner notes on the back of such treasured LPs as Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar! or Dance Album of Carl Perkins, you’ve read Barnes’ prose already. Her writing in The Next Elvis is every bit as clear and concise, but the book’s pace – a slightly choppy series of one- to three-page vignettes (the one-page “Sam Tells Me His Life Story” is an illustrative example) – feels a bit more like a manuscript than a finished book. Also – and, one supposes, befitting a Southern woman now in her late seventies or beyond – The Next Elvis has the feeling of a book that has left out some of the juicier bits.

A few characters from Barnes’ story leap off the pages, characterized by the author as in possession of more talent than their overall success might suggest. Billy Riley (aka Billy Lee Riley) is one; Jack Clement is another. And some of the characters – people you might think of as somewhat lovable – come off as just the opposite (Orbison is one, painted by Barnes as a deeply depressed figure). Of course Jerry Lee is every bit as volatile as one might expect. And The Next Elvis tells the reader more about the overlooked Jud Phillips (Sam’s brother) and his role in the label’s operations than any other book of which I’m aware.

Still, the author’s depiction of the man at the center of it all feels a bit too circumspect: Barnes seems to be trying mightily to walk the fine line between sketching a full and accurate portrait of Sam Phillips and honoring his memory by not going too far into the dark corners. To be fair, her characterization of Phillips (whose family cooperated to a great extent in providing images for the book) does suggest a divided, flawed man capable of greatness and its opposite, just like everybody.

The author’s work at Sun – or, more accurately, for Phillips International, an associated label – included the key responsibility of writing and laying out an industry tip sheet of sorts called Scandal Sheet. In this periodical, Barnes not only highlighted current Sun and Phillips International releases, but weighed in on worthy material put out by – gasp! – Phillips’ competitors. Such a broad-minded vision is all but unthinkable in the modern marketplace, but Barnes was a pioneer of this even-handed approach. It’s the sort of thing only a true fan of the music (and a gifted writer) could think of pulling off.

While it’s a worthy gambit to draw interested readers, the book’s title is ever-so-misleading as well: there’s little in Barnes’ written history that suggests anything along the lines of a talent search. More representative is the throwaway line about Sun staffers making an enemy of the postal carrier by refusing any and all unsolicited “audition tapes” sent in the mail. And though Barnes’ own tastes in those days often ran toward the harder rhythm and blues stuff, she makes it clear that Phillips’ failure to appreciate the importance of country music (not to mention his failure to anticipate its commercial rise) helped lead to the demise of the label’s best years.

The Next Elvis tells one person’s story of her experiences at Sun during an important period, and so for anyone with even the mildest interest in the history of rock’n'roll, it’s a worthwhile read.

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DVD Review: Money for Nothing

Monday, October 13th, 2014

I approached this DVD with more than a bit of trepidation: would the filmmakers attempt to bestow great and weighty cultural importance upon the music video format? Or would they take a History Channel sort of approach to it, adding melodrama where little actually existed?

I was delightfully surprised when I viewed Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video. The whole affair is aimed squarely at the sort of viewer who’s closely familiar with music videos in general. The 78-minute DVD is paced for the ADD generation(s), with the narrative broken into a long menu of bite-sized pieces, none lasting much longer than two minutes.

Money for Nothing charts the history of the music video via two timelines, two points of view. First, the form itself. After tossing a red herring or three the viewer’s way – suggesting that music videos began with MTV’s broadcast of The Buggles‘ “Video Killed the Radio Star” – the film tells us, hey, wait a minute. The BeatlesA Hard Day’s Night, right? But no: Money for Nothing rightly (if in exceedingly brief fashion) points to Scopitones (from the 1960s) “Soundies” (from the mid ’40s) and finally Walt Disney‘s Fantasia (1940), and even to early animated color films out of Germany in 1933.

But Money for Nothing never goes all academic on the viewer; like the subject it’s chronicling, the film keeps moving, never lingering on any image of idea for more than a brief second. Certainly the arc of MTV’s rise and fall is followed, since the Viacom cable channel was the embodiment of the medium for many years.

Money for Nothing isn’t afraid to chart the downfall of the form, and even makes its own suggestions as to why music videos became moribund on television (and why they still exist, albeit in a different form). The film rightly categorizes music videos as “advertisements,” but concedes that quite often it wasn’t clear what exactly was being sold.

Well, except when it was: fantasy and sex (and often both) are unsurprisingly the top items being pushed by music videos. Music videos have rarely been a means of delivering subtlety, and the film concedes that as well. But neither does Money for Nothing ridicule the form: it seems to suggest that music videos are a bit like a painter’s canvas, or a blank piece of paper: what is done with them depends largely on the artist.

And the “artist” is the focus of the second timeline the film follows: not the music artist, but rather the filmmaker. As the hundreds (literally hundreds) of film clips flicker across the screen, the bottom corner info lists the artist, album, director and year, just like good ol’ MTV did back when it broadcast music videos. And the second timeline explores the work of notable filmmakers. After giving props to the music video heavweights (Godley and Creme chief among them), I was surprised to see the names of so many well known motion picture directors among the credits: Julien Temple and Jonathan Demme, sure. But Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese? Their participation helped legitimize the form. Or did it just help them pay some bills in a lean era? Money for Nothing leaves that call to the viewer.

The DVD isn’t without its flaws. While mentioning The Monkees as a key component in the early history of the music video, no mention is made of Mike Nesmith, the man who pretty much invented the idea of a channel that showed music videos all the time (he sold that idea to Viacom). And no mention is made of Paul Revere and the Raiders, even though they appeared on television mugging and miming to their songs more often than any other musical artist before or since. And while I’m not a particular fan of the videos, not a single clip (nor mention thereof) of the 1980s’ most ubiquitous music video trio, ZZ Top, shows up in Money for Nothing. (They also missed mentioning Todd Rundgren‘s important and pioneering work in music videos, but I’ll give ‘em a pass on that one since he’s not the household name he deserves to be.)

Near its end, Money for Nothing largely concedes that the era of the music video has long since ended, but it makes the case that some interesting work is still being done in the form. (It manages to do so without mentioning YouTube; neat trick, that.) Like the ephemeral and ultimately fun if insubstantial form it chronicles, Money for Nothing isn’t a wholly satisfying film, but it’s the best look at the history of the music video that’s been done so far. Recommended.

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Honeymoon Hundred-word Reviews, Part 5

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

I’m on my honeymoon this week, so I thought it would be a good time to offer up some backlog-clearing entries in my occasional series of Hundred Word Reviews. And though the musical styles are all over the map, there’s a theme of sorts this time: each of the acts reviewed has been covered previously, either via review or feature/interview.

The series wraps up – for now – with looks at new music from American artists.


Steve Wynn – Sketches in Spain
This Omnivore Recordings collection isn’t exactly a reissue: the albums from which the 19 tracks are drawn (Smack Dab and Australian Blonde) were released only in Spain. Sounding like a cross between Television and Gang of Four, Smack Dab prominently features Linda Pitmon‘s thundering bass. The even-earlier (but released later) Australian Blonde material is surprisingly poppy, shimmering ear candy that may come as a shock to those familiar with Wynn’s other work. Some unexpected and thematically linked covers (Three Dog Night‘s “Never Been to Spain,” Los Bravos‘ “Black is Black”) showcase Wynn’s latent skill at interpreting the work of others.


Alarm Clock Conspiracy – Harlequin
Back in early 2012 I championed their first album, but on Harlequin, this Asheville NC-based quartet has seriously raised the bar. Thanks in large part to the songwriting prowess of two very different composers (guitarists Chris Carter and Ian Reardon) the album is a near-perfect balance of powerpop, Southern rock and progressive-leaning rock. Reardon’s title track hints at what “modern country” could sound like if the genre didn’t, y’know, suck. The soaring yet understated harmonies on Carter’s “Thinking Of” are delightful. It wouldn’t surprise me to see this album picked up by a larger label and reissued. Buy this disc.


The Squires of the Subterrain – s/t
As on the last outing from this “group” (Christopher Earl and occasional guests), this disc – either self-titled or called Stereo – feels like a lo-fi update of The Beach Boys, SMiLE era. That said, its most modern corollary might be Olivia Tremor Control; Earl and those Elephant 6 guys share a common aesthetic vision. Ba-ba-ba vocalisms rest comfortably aside jangly guitars and intentionally gauzy production. With its chirpy horn section and chiming backing, “History” weds Sgt. Pepper stylings to Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. With his deft way around a melody, Earl could be labeled America’s Martin Newell.

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