Archive for the ‘new release’ Category

Back to School with Les McCann (Part 1)

Monday, March 30th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

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

Friday, March 27th, 2015

Continued from Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

Continued from Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BK: So said Allen Ginsberg

PL: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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: Gong – I See You

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

Daevid Allen departed this temporal plane a last week. The music legend was best known as one of the founding members of Soft Machine, Canterbury England jazz/rock heroes. To continental fans, he was equally revered for founding and maintaining Gong, the (more or less) French hippie collective. (Oddly enough, Allen was neither British nor French; he was born in Melbourne, Australia.)

Neither of those groups was what most would call mainstream. Their approaches folded in elements of free jazz, space rock, and other styles that lay at the margin of the commercial spectrum. But both were capable of some deeply experimental and exciting work that sometimes made small moves in the direction of mass appeal.

Allen bowed out of involvement with Gong in the mid 1970s, choosing instead to work on other projects; the band continued (and continues) billed as Pierre Moerlen’s Gong. But around 2000, Allen reactivated his own Gong lineup. 2014′s I See You would be the final album form the gorup, as by its release, it was clear that Allen’s medical condition was terminal. But fortunately, – and though he didn’t even get the six months he though he had remaining, I See you shows Allen and band still making the music they wanted to, on their own terms.

“Occupy” sounds a lot like the more manic moments of King Crimson‘s “21st Century Schizoid Man,” but beyond that, on I See You, Gong sound like…Gong. Flutes and saxes (courtesy of Ian East) flutter in and out of the mix, while Allen’s vocals share the out-front space with guitar work from Kavus Torabi and Favio Golfetti (Gong has always been an international affair).

There’s an overall feel on I See You that’s halfway been hypnotic and unsettling. Once its spoken intro is out of the way, “The Eternal Wheel Spins” feels like a cross between Hawkwind and Ozric Tentacles (the latter of whom were most certainly influenced by Gong).

The odd thing about Gong as showcased on I See You is that though they’ve always had a predilection for jazz-flavored, jammy space rock, there is a sense of – dare I say – discipline at work in the crafting of these tunes. Without compromising the weird ‘n’ wooly Gong vibe, Daevid Allen and his band mates created one of the most appealingly accessible works in Gong’s catalog. The free-wheeling sense that one can find in live albums of this sort of music is wholly in place, yet with the structure and tight editing that one usually find only in studio albums.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of off-the-wall strangeness on I See You: the opening sounds of “Syllabub” are deeply weird, as is the track itself, which may remind some listeners of early Kevin Ayers (yet another Gong-related figure of legendary reputation). Gong’s publicist seems to think “’Syllabub’ sounds like a hit song,” but I’m wondering in what solar system that could be the case. Not the one in which Earth resides, I should think. And that’s all to the good: if Gong got too accessible, they’d doubtless lose much of what constitutes their appeal. That said, I See You shows us an uncharacteristically accessible side of the band. That’s no small feat for a group led by a 75-year-old man with terminal cancer.

Daevid Allen delivers a soliloquy of sorts with “This Revolution” a sort of modern-day follow-on to Gil Scott-Heron‘s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The spoken word track may also be something of a farewell message from Allen. In light of his passing, it sounds bittersweet yet hopeful. “Zion My T-shirt” may have an inscrutable title and vocals, but its opening is reminiscent of the Mapuga tribe vocals on the somewhat obscure Pink Floyd tune “Absolutely Curtains.” And the playful “Pixielation” suggests what McDonald & Giles might have sounded like with Donovan on lead vocals.

Anyone who enjoys the work of, say, Steve Hillage (still another Gong associate) will find a lot to enjoy in I See You. And as the last recorded musical statement from Daevid Allen (just listen to “Thank You”), it’s both a fitting work to cap an intriguing career and a fine place for a Gong novitiate to begin (and then work backward).

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Album Review: JD McPherson – Let the Good Times Roll

Monday, March 16th, 2015

For music to retain its vital edge, it must keep pushing forward. Trying new things, seeking out new songs; those are key to music remaining vital. It’s a clumsy metaphor, but music is like a shak: it simply has to keep moving. When things get moribund, eventually something comes along to give music a sift kick up the arse (so to speak). It happened with punk, in many ways a reaction to “corporate rock” of the 70s (and not, I’d argue, so much as a reaction to arty/progressive music; think of how many so-called punks were art school students, how many liked, say, Can, even if they didn’t admit it).

But there’s nothing wrong with an occasional look back over one’s musical shoulder, a revisiting of the sounds and musical aesthetics of the past. The value of such an approach is evident in some ways through the current resurgence of popularity of “classic soul.” It wasn’t that many years ago that a band like Charles Bradley and the Extraordinaires, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, or Lee Fields couldn’t get a headlining gig. But now they do, and the music scene is far better for it being so.

Back in early 2010 I reviewed a thrilling album by former Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist Nick Curran: his Reform School Girls was a knowing pastiche of the rawest 50s sounds, filtered through a modern (postpunk) sensibility. Sadly, Curran passed away far too young, leaving that album as his final recorded musical statement.

Happily, however, there’s another musical of note who’s covering similar (but not identical) musical ground today. JD McPherson‘s Let the Good Times Roll is another slab of musical red meat. I missed him on his recent swing through Asheville, but Let the Good Times Roll is pretty exciting for a studio recording. On this, McPherson’s sophomore release, the wild and reckless feel of early rock’n'roll (as captured on the essential Loud, Fast & Out of Control box set) is brought forth largely intact to the second decade of the 21st century, informing the music with a knowledge and understanding of all the hard rock that came in the wake of those early pioneers.

As such, Let the Good Times Roll is more timeless than retro-minded. And though its overall feel is decidedly uptempo, not every track is balls-out rocking. Among the subtle numbers is the standout “Bridgebuilder,” which shows the influence of Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and the like. The production aesthetic on Let the Good Times Roll does sometimes recall Phil Spector or Shadow Morton (or Sun Studios) at times, but even on that score McPherson somehow updates and modernizes things.

But mostly, McPherson and his bandmates do indeed rock. And their brand of rock owes a lot to the crazed, hi-octane style of Little Richard. There’s no denying the timeless appeal of “It Shook Me Up,” with its impossibly low, rubbery and twangy lead guitar solo. But the diamond-hard rocking guitar on “Head Over Heels” (decidedly not the Tears for Fears tune) owes as much to The Stooges, MC5 or New York Dolls as any 50s rocker.

Simply put, there are no weak tracks on Let the Good Times Roll. From the opening title track to its end, it’s a solid collection of tunes and performances, the sort of which might make you (like me) regret having missed a chance to check out JD McPherson live onstage. And speaking of the last track, “Everybody’s Talking ‘Bout the All American” is – as I rediscover reading the liner notes booklet – “dedicated to the memory of Nick Curran: guitar hero, teen idol, true rock n’ roller, and friend.”

JD McPherson’s Let the Good Times Roll is highly recommended, and it’s an early contender for best album of 2015.

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Book Review: Who Did it First?

Monday, March 9th, 2015

Have you ever wandered into (or been drawn into) a conversation with a trivia master? Not to make outsized claims, but by some measures, I’m one of those guys. Many years ago – not long after the game Trivial Pursuit took off – I received as a gift a board game called Rock Trivia. But the problem was, no one would play the damn game with me. Even at that age (early 20s) I could spot mistakes in the answers printed on the cards. “Who first recorded the hit song ‘(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone?” Well, I’d answer, of course it was Paul Revere and the Raiders! The Monkees version came very soon thereafter. But of course the card read, “The Monkees.” I’m told it was no fun to play with me, as I would invariably contest the answers, heading to my bookshelf to provide substantiation for my own (“officially” wrong) response.

Happily, I’m much less insufferable now. No, really, I am. A few years ago I was involved for awhile with a group of people who gathered weekly to play Quizzo, a beer bar version of trivia. I served as the music and pop culture guy, the one to call upon when questions related to “dad rock” and whatnot came up. Luckily there were other team members who knew about subjects such as professional sports; my knowledge of (and interest in) such things is laughably negligible.

But my love of the minutiae of rock history remains. I can’t quote deadwax matrix numbers, but I know a good bit of music pop culture. And I’m always on the lookout for more. So I was pleased to discover a new book called Who Did it First? Great Rock and Roll Cover Songs and Their Original Artists. Across more than 250 pages, author (and well-known radio deejay) Bob Leszczak takes readers on a trip through time, covering (ha) several hundred well-known songs.

For each tune, Leszczak provides some basic information, clearly formatted: the composer, original artist, a cover artist, year of release, and chart positions (where there are any). Some of his listings are pretty obvious, ones that nearly any casual pop music fan could rattle off: Van Halen‘s cover of Roy Orbison‘s “Oh! Pretty Woman” is a good example of the obvious cover.

But there are plenty of less well-known examples, and in more than a few cases, the cover versions are worth seeking out. Also, there’s the reverse scenario, wherein the original wasn’t all that monster of a hit, but the cover scored on the charts. And there are a few ringer, examples where some unimaginative artist cut a whole album of covers (Rod Stewart, Elton John and some country artist whose name I’ve happily forgotten, I’m looking at you). Those covers serve as space-filling examples in a book that doesn’t need padding. There’s so much worthwhile and interesting material to discuss.

The author’s breezy alphabetical-order run through several hundred songs is trivia-filled and entertaining. And by its very nature, Who Did it First? Is the sort of book one can work through in small bites. It’s chock full of information, presented in a clear, concise and informative fashion.

Leszczak left out a few major covers, however. Badfinger‘s “Without You” is the first of these to come to mind. The Apple Records group released the song as an album track on their No Dice LP in 1970. Though it was a very good song, their version felt unfinished and raw. But no less a talent than Harry Nilsson fell in love with the tune, and recorded his own version in 1972; he scored a worldwide hit for his efforts. (Mariah Carey added nothing of value to the song in her own 1992 cover, but she got a hit with it as well). He also passes by Translator‘s great cover of the early (pre-fame) Beatles tune, “Cry For a Shadow,” and not once does he mention any off the immortal covers turned out by Mrs. Miller. (To his unending credit, Leszczak does discuss “Senator Bobby‘s” memorable cover of The Troggs‘ “Wild Thing.”

The book is not without its glaring errors, and those are of concern in a book that is meant to serve as a trivia guide. (Imagine if I had used it to contest one of the Rock Trivia answers, only for it to be discovered that the book was wrong! The shame! The horror!) Leszczak discusses Crowded House‘s classic tune “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and the subsequent cover by Sixpence None the Richer; both versions charted. But then he wanders off the reservation by mentioning Crowded House’s follow-up hit, a tune he calls “Something So Wrong” (emphasis mine). Funny choice of word: the actual title is “Something So Strong.”

A bit more egregious than a possibly typographical error is the author’s seeming unfamiliarity with one of rock history’s most notorious episodes. In his discussion of the Rolling Stones‘ “Sympathy for the Devil,” Leszczak notes that when the group performed the song at Altamont in 1969, “…a young girl was killed.” Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Rolling Stones – not to mention anyone who’s ever seen the Gimme Shelter film documenting the event – knows that Meredith Hunter was an eighteen year old African American male.

There are a few other, lesser, mistakes in Who Did it First?, but overall the book is reliably accurate, and a fun read. The reader will be able to spot instances were the author has conducted first-hand interviews with some of the artists involved (most notably Tommy James), because the entries for those songs are much longer than the sometimes cursory entries found throughout the book. And occasionally, Leszczak’s level of insight seems nonexistent, and sometimes the writing seems designed to do little more than fill the page. How else to characterize such comments as – for example, when discussing Bachman-Turner Overdrive‘s “Takin’ Care of Business” – “It’s a song that compares and contrasts the singer’s life to that of the average nine-to-five worker (letting the listener know that the life of a rock star is far better).” But such empty-headed faux-analysis doesn’t detract from the overall value of Leszczak’s book, and in fact it might elicit a few (unintended) chuckles. No harm done.

Significantly, Who Did it First? never presents itself as something it is not (say, a scholarly work), and its tone is designed for a casual reader, not a trainspotting boffin who can’t help but play gotcha! when reading it. Who Did it First? is a lightweight, fun and informative trip through rock’s history.

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Hundred Word Reviews for March 2015, Part 4

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

Prog, jazz, blues: there’s something for most musical tastes in today’s roundup of hundred-word reviews.

Mark Wingfield – Proof of Light
If there’s a common raison d’être among the varied acts signed to Leonardo Pavkovic‘s MoonJune label, it’s to explore the sweet spot at which jazz and rock convene. Wingfield’s disc features a trio format – electric guitar, upright bass and drums – but what you’ll hear suggests the presence of other instruments. Imagine a low-key Joe Satriani with less flash and more of a jazz sensibility — albeit with plenty of skronky electric guitar texture – and you’ll be on the path to what this all-instrumental sounds like. The arrangements are subtle, but listen closely and there’s a lot going on.

Winter in Eden – Court of Conscience
Just when I finish a piece in which I assert that there are pretty much no women in prog, along comes this disc, by a UK symphonic progressive act. Soaring Mellotron-sounding keyboards (on the “choir” setting) are met by thundering bass lines, and the requisite tricky time signature work from the drummer. Lots of sonic light and shade means that graceful piano lines are met by crushing, edge-of-metal arrangements. The one-sheet tells us that the band is popular at “various Femme Metal Festivals.” That such a thing exists is news to me. A worthy purchase for fans of the genre.

Mississippi Heat – Warning Shot
I’m always a little guarded when I stumble across an album that sports of a picture of a really large band. It makes me think of those terrible horror-metal bands like Slipknot: does it take nine people to make that sound? To be fair, while the Warning Shot credits list thirteen players, the photo only shows seven. What we have here is traditional, Chicago-styled electric blues with harmonica and vocals out front. Nothing new, really, but then “new” isn’t what most people want from a blues outfit. It swings, and for fans of the harp-through-the-Green-Bullet vibe, it’s just the ticket.

Tony Joe White – The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings
The early 70s music scene seems to have been filled with white singers who could traffic in a credible southern soul style. Louisiana-born Tony Joe White was one of the best, often outshining guys like Elvis Presley (no slouch himself). With a style that sometimes sounds very much like Creedence Clearwater Revival fronted by Mark Lindsay, White turned out three fine albums for Warner Brothers. His guitar playing is pretty impressive, too, in an understated rhythm-guitarist kinda way. Nearly every track here is a White original. No “Polk Salad Annie” (that was earlier in his career), but many other gems.

The Soft Machine – Tanglewood Tails
Canterbury legends The Soft Machine are one of the genre’s best-loved groups. With their jazz meets rock aesthetic, they were an early bridge between the then-disparate styles. Their first several albums are legendary, and deserve to be part of every serious music lover’s core collection. The 2CD set Tanglewood Tails, however, is really a for-the-faithful set of rarities, outtakes and other lo-fi oddities from the group’s earliest days. Studio tracks (such as the delightful “Clarence in Wonderland”) are cracked pop that will appeal to fans of Syd Barrett, as long as one can overlook the consistently distracting dodgy sound quality.

This series of hundred-word reviews wraps up tomorrow.

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