Archive for the ‘new release’ Category

Hundred Word Reviews for March 2015, Part 2

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Powerpop and jazz rarely go together. But in this edition of hundred-word reviews, they do.



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The Jeanies – The Jeanies
I look back fondly upon the early-to-mid 1980s, an era in which the cost of studio time began to fall within the range of local, unsigned acts. And others just scored a Tascam Portastudio and went the DIY route at the tail-end of the analog era. It’s that latter approach that is suggested on a new(!) recording from The Jeanies. The album sounds like it was mastered direct from cassette. The lo-to-mid-fi production doesn’t mask the energy of the group, who aim for (and hit) a winning Romantics vibe. Absolutely no keyboards were used in the making of The Jeanies.


Jason Adasiewicz’s Sun Rooms – From the Region
If you like upbeat, thrilling jazz in a bop style – and if you like the buttery sound of the vibraphone – then From the Region belongs on your must-hear list. The trio – Adasiewicz on vibes, Ingebrit Haker-Flaten on bass, and Mike Reed on the drums – turn out eleven original pieces on this disc, and the instrumentals are heavy on melody. As is somewhat standard in jazz, all three players are doing their thing at all times – not merely backing up the other players – but the whole thing holds together in an edge-of-mayhem way. Highly recommended.


Jason Roebke Octet – High Red Center
As presented here, the octet operates on the small end of big band. Influenced greatly (and unapologetically) by the mighty Duke Ellington, this vibes-centric outfit combines free jazz with more melodic variants of jazz. It’s thrilling, challenging and alluring all at once, and the interplay between alto sax, tenor sax, bass clarinet, oboe, cornet and trombone alternates between out-there and harmonious. A solid bass (band leader Jason Roebke) and drums rhythm section wisely keeps things from flying away into the realm of outer space (because that’s Sun Ra‘s territory), and across eleven tracks, it’s an exciting ride. Check it out.

Sax Gordon – In the Wee Small Hours

Here in Asheville, there’s an older African American gentleman who goes by the name of Bobby Sax. He’s inevitably found at the exit gate after a ballgame at McCormick Field, or outside after a Civic Center concert. He seems to know every standard ever written, and he plays for tips. That aesthetic (except for the remuneration, one hopes) is not unlike the approach of one Sax Gordon on this album. Backed only by organ and drums, Gordon winds his way through a familiar songbook, with a swinging soul jazz style that will please fans of Jimmy McGriff and the like.



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The Mangoes – The Mangoes
On one hand, The Mangoes is a concept album, a rock opera, or something like that. But at the same time, it’s a winning pop album in the tradition of 10cc‘s best work. The album’s opener “I Told You So” sets out the storyline, but you can ignore the story/concept and focus on the singalong melodies. Loads of 70s-styled keyboards, soaring power-chording guitars and tight harmonies (sometimes recalling Sweet) make The Mangoes an unexpected pleasure. Underground hero Tim Morse is half of The Mangoes, a group that even has its own theme song (chorus: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s the Mangoes!”).

More of these brief reviews to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for March 2015, Part 1

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Time for some more backlog-clearing hundred-word reviews. All of these are worth my (and your) time in some way, but because of the sheer volume of worthy material in my inbox, I regularly do these short-form reviews to keep them from languishing on my desk. Today’s four are all artists I’ve covered before.


The New Trocaderos – Frenzy in the Hips
Recently I reviewed the recent three-song disc from this Northeastern trio, and while I liked it a lot, I found the stylistic ground covered disparate enough so as to be confusing. This six-song disc repeats three of those cuts. The new three are reminiscent of some quality Southern acts of the 80s — specifically Georgia Satellites and Jason & the Scorchers — and serve better to define the group’s sound. Little Steven (he of the Underground Garage digital radio program) is a fan; he’s bestowed the “Coolest Song in the World” designation to two of the cuts on this disc.


The Well Wishers – A Shattering Sky
Jeff Shelton is one prolific guy; almost like clockwork a CD from him shows up in my mailbox every few months. And even though he’s not high profile, I cover his stuff because it’s good. If you’re the sort who picked up Jordan Oakes‘ peerless Yellow Pills powerpop compilation CDs back in the 90s (or most anything from Bruce Brodeen‘s NotLame label) then this is the stuff you’re looking for circa 2015. Any of the twelve cuts here would be right at home on a Yellow Pills set. Like-minded pals Chuck Lindo and Bradley Skaught help out on some cuts.


Red Jacket Mine – Pure Delight
As with their 2013 long player, on this six-song disc, Lincoln Barr‘s Red Jacket Mine is stylistically varied. Barr’s voice is the centerpiece of these well-assembled tunes, and some interesting keyboard textures (funky 70s-styled clavinet, some really well-recorded piano) plus some tasty synth strings give the disc a vaguely Ben Folds feel (minus the humor), even though Barr’s a guitarist. The soulful “Crow” and the sing/songwriter-flavored “AM” are both a bit of a left turn, departing from the group’s generally upbeat approach. “Nearly Marjorie” is retro in that “(Just Like) Starting Over” kind of way. “Get Paid” is wryly humorous.

Dewa Budjana – Hasta Karma
This Indonesian guitarist is a busy guy; like Jeff Shelton (see above), he seems to always have something new for his listeners. Of course where Shelton’s nominally powerpop, Budjana is progjazz, with a style that’s reminiscent of the better mainstream fusion albums of the 1970s (specifically Jean-Luc Ponty‘s albums). His music is ambitious and intricate while remaining highly melodic and accessible. Joe Locke‘s vibraphones keep things in a jazz vein, as does Ben Williams‘ upright bass (which often sounds like a fretless electric bass guitar). Recommended as a disc to spin for jazz friends who don’t think they like prog.

More capsule reviews to come.

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Third Time’s The Charm: Pugwash Aims for America, Part Three

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

Continued from Part Two

Unlike their earlier deals with other labels, Pugwash‘s recent A Rose in a Garden of Weeds is not a one-off licensing deal. “Omnivore is our label,” Thomas Walsh says. “At this stage in our lives, we try to hold onto our records, but when it comes to Omnivore, they’re definitely our label. And we’re so proud and honored to be with them.” He goes on to reveal that the label has plans for Pugwash’s older material as well. “They’re doing full catalog remastering of all our albums. They have great people running the label from top to bottom. To say they’re seasoned campaigners would be an insult, really. They’re incredible successful music people.” He name-checks Cheryl Pawelski and several others at the label. “And it’s been Lee Lodyga, of course, who’s been our staunchest supporter. He’s a huge fan. And he’s taken on a lot more [with us] than he planned, I’m sure.”

Walsh reflects on the traditional relationships between artist and label. “There can be a lot of miscommunication between America and us in Ireland. Because we can be lazy fuckers, and Americans are so full of of energy. Noting that he’s long since put hard drugs and drink behind him, he chuckles and wryly characterizes Americans’ high energy level: “It’s consistently like they’re on drugs! And you know that they’re not on drugs. We equate it with a drug thing, but it’s really a lifestyle thing! These people are incredibly energetic and passionate. When you meet them you ask yourself, ‘Are these people freaks?’ They’re beautiful; they put us to shame. After a gig, we go back to our hotel room, and I think, ‘We’re a fuckin’ disgrace.’ But the energy that Lee has put into Pugwash is incredible. It would take us ten weeks to do [in Ireland] when they do in ten minutes in America.”

Pugwash did a brief US tour in late 2014 to support A Rose in a Garden of Weeds. “That tour was such an eye-opener,” Walsh says. “It was incredibly quick. And Omnivore have done exactly what they said they would, right from the very beginning. It’s not like some other labels where they try to do everything; they do what they do. Our drummer Joey [Fitzgerald] gets the gigs. We know what we have to do, and so does Omnivore. It’s a great relationship. I’ll be honest with you: I’m forty-five now. And most of us are in our forties. And even if in five or ten years if we say our goodbyes, I’ll still love these people. Straightaway, they’re friends.” I remark how unusual such comments are. “Well,” Thomas retorts, “They’ve been nominated for a Grammy. And I’m just trying to get an invite to the awards ceremony.”


Pugwash’s compilation A Rose in a Garden of Weeds is available from Omnivore Recordings, and the group’s as-yet-untitled album will be released on Omnivore sometime in 2015. Also keep an eye out for Omnivore reissues of Pugwash’s back catalog (five albums originally released between 1999 and 2011), and for Pugwash’s limited number of stateside concerts in March 2015 (mostly in the Northeast).

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Third Time’s The Charm: Pugwash Aims for America, Part Two

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Some listeners might peg the music of Pugwash as “retro,” though in reality it’s classic pop in the best sense of the word. Many reviewers have pointed out sonic similarities between Thomas Walsh‘s voice and Jeff Lynne‘s. But the hallmark of Pugwash’s music is the song construction. At its best, it’s on a par with the finest efforts from writers such as Difford and Tilbrook (Squeeze), Neil Finn (Split Enz and Crowded House), and Paddy McAloon (Prefab Sprout). Walsh is modest when mentioned in the same breath as those names. “If I knew the hallmarks of a successful song,” he says, “I’d have written a hit by now! The thing is, I do know – and I’ve known for a long time – if you have any talent for writing a song, there are certain tricks you use.” He goes on to explain his craft in a bit more detail. “There’s a lot of chords in my songs. But they won’t do much else than repeat themselves.” Exaggerating slightly to make his point, he says, “If there are twenty-four chords in one of my songs, they won’t jump all over the place. They’ll stay in a nice little cage and wait to be fed. And I don’t do a lot of ‘bridges.’ At least I don’t think I do; I never check!”

“Funnily enough, Neil Hannon [of fellow Irish band The Divine Comedy] was over the other day, helping with stuff for the new record. There’s a song called ‘Oh Happy Days.’ The demo of it was up on the pledge site [for crowd funding of the next Pugwash album, due out in 2015]. So Neal says to me, ‘Did you ever even think of bothering your ass to write a second verse?’ I said, ‘No, nope…No.’ And he just laughed. The great thing is that Neil and I work so great together. He probably would have written an eight-verse life story of how happy the old days were, and how sad it could be now. That’s Neil, and I love him. But with me, it’s, ‘Oh happy days,’ then “ba ba ba,’ and then…goodbye. In two minutes.”

Walsh is an avowed fan of the leave-them-wanting-more style of songwriting. “There’s so many songs that I love, where you think, ‘Ohhh…this is going to be great for three and a half minutes.’ And then boom, it’s gone. That’s especially true of ’60s bands like The Kinks. And The Lemon Pipers. I’m such a fan of their ‘The Shoemaker of Leatherwear Square.’ It’s so short, like a minute-forty or something [actually 2:01 – ed.] I have to play it six times to get the feeling of having heard it once. There’s all that arrangement – harps, and flutes – and they did all that for such a short song!”

I point out the contrast between that approach and the one used on such tracks as Bob Dylan‘s seven-minute, nine-verse opus, “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.” Walsh replies, “I was an anti- ‘leave them wanting more’ person when I was younger. But I remember when I first heard Michael Penn‘s Free for All. I had to import it from Canada because you couldn’t get it in Ireland. ‘Free Time’ is the fourth track. And on the fade, you hear this great trumpet thing, and you think, ‘Why the fuck is he fading it? It’s so wonderful!’ It’s a mark of genius, really. Michael might have made me start thinking that way about songs. It’s something you’d think every writer would know, eventually.”

The aforementioned crowdfunding effort – a very successful PledgeMusic campaign – has helped raised funds allowing Pugwash to record their upcoming album. The crowdfunding concept is “great for bands like us,” Walsh says. He makes an analogy, then observes, “No, that was a shitty analogy. But you can make it sound brilliant in text, okay?” In essence, the point he endeavors to make is that free downloads do hurt the band’s ability to stay afloat financially. “We couldn’t sustain making records with people investing in us any more,” he says. “So we thought long and hard about how to do it. We could play a bunch of gigs and get the money up ourselves. But it would have been ridiculous. What this pledge approach does is reaffirm our love of people. Because all of these fans, some of them might have money and some might not. But they all put their hand in their pocket and gave us something. It’s an incredible thing to see. We got a hundred-odd percent [of our goal] in ten days.”

The crowdfunding model reminds Walsh of how things used to be when he was very young. “It’s almost like a revival of the old fan club idea,” he observes. “Instead of sending ten dollars and getting a membership card, you send ten dollars and get the album and get your name on it. I’d have been all for that when I was a kid. Not all of the new ideas are killing the old ethics of music.”

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Third Time’s The Charm: Pugwash Aims for America, Part One

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

Irish band Pugwash has been around for fifteen years, and during that time, leader and songwriter Thomas Walsh has worked with a long list of people whose names will be familiar to fans of what one might call guitar pop: Andy Partridge, Dave Gregory, Ben Folds, Jason Falkner, Nelson Bragg, Michael Penn, Eric Matthews and many others. But for whatever reason, in all the years they’ve been together, Pugwash has escaped the notice of most American listeners. Walsh believes he knows why this is the case. “We never had a label on the mainland of the U.S.” Thanks to fans who happened to own record labels, Pugwash has had their best music compiled on no less than three separate best-of collections: Australian label Karmic Hit released Earworm in 2003. Ape House, the label run by ex-XTC guitarist/vocalist Andy Partridge, put together the Giddy compilation in 2009. And now, Grammy Award-winning USA-based label Omnivore Recordings has released A Rose in a Garden of Weeds, a seventeen-track survey of Pugwash’s most timeless melodies.

Walsh says that early on, he and his Pugwash bandmates thought, “We could release an album in Ireland or Europe, and then people [all across the globe] would say, ‘Oh, that’s pretty good.’ But no.” That’s not how it worked in the real world.

“We should never have gone into any business together” with Partridge, says Walsh. “Because we’re friends first. And you should never mix [business and friendship] with certain people. We all have our foibles. Andy’s such a lover of what he does; he’s such a passionate person about his music and all aspects of it – his label as well – that he has strong views about everything. He has strong views about milk! So it made itself into a bit of a clash that should have never happened, really.”

But Partridge’s love of Pugwash’s music didn’t pave the way for a proper stateside release of Giddy. “When it came to America,” Walsh recalls, “his deal with the people who were going to bring records to America wasn’t as strong as he thought it was. And it certainly wasn’t as strong as I thought it was. So it didn’t really come out there.” Walsh paints a description – kidding only slightly, one can assume – of boxes upon boxes of Giddy being unloaded on a New York loading dock, waiting for fans to come around and pick them up. And nobody ever did. “It just flopped,” Walsh says.

“It made a tiny bit of a ripple,” he allows. Certainly promotional copies found their way into the hands of some reviewers (this writer included), so some small level of buzz was set alight in the States. “But we knew that we’d only have a chance in the States if we got a label there. And then of course the whole Omnivore thing happened,” Walsh says, positively beaming. “They’ve done it so quickly, and so beautifully. In the last six months, it’s been like, ‘Where has America been all our lives!?’” He notes that he fully understands what it takes to have any chance of breaking into the market in the USA. “You have to embrace the wonderful people in the USA. You have to go over there and play. And we always wanted to do that, but we couldn’t before. It’s incredible how you won’t get any gigs, or any help, when you’re not promoting something. When you’re not on a label.”

Just like The Beatles discovered in early 1964, America is still where it’s happening when it comes to rock and pop. Part of that has to do with the potential that lies within such a massive market. “We’re not interested in playing in Ireland,” Walsh says. “We love our Irish fans, of course. But they can go to someone else’s gig for free for awhile,” he laughs. “It costs us a lot of money to play a gig in Ireland, and everyone [there] goes, ‘Ah, can you get us in for free? Stick my name on the door. And I’ve got nine people comin’ with me!’ I’ll tell you something: You can’t see the fuckin’ door for all the names stuck on ‘em. So we’re happy to get away from that for awhile. We can’t wait to get back to America in February and March.”

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Album Review: Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas – Secret Evil

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

It’s easy – too easy, in fact – to note that on Secret Evil, Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas sound a good bit like Amy Winehouse. Yes, there are similarities in both vocal style and instrumentation. But the comparison underestimates the strength and originality of Hernandez and her music.

The Detroit-based vocalist paid some serious dues to bring Secret Evil to the musical marketplace; originally signed to Blue Note, she recorded an album that ended up in the musical equivalent of what the film industry calls “turnaround.” Put simply, it never came out on Blue Note. Eventually she freed herself from the contract, released a EP, and now we have the first full-length from Hernandez and her band.

“No Place Left to Hide” has hints of KT Tunstall‘s early style, albeit with soulful backing from a full band. It’s a strong opening track for an album, but it’s eclipsed by the classic-to-be, “Sorry I Stole Your Man.” Equal parts trash-talking swagger and coyly knowing giggle, the song has everything a hit ought to have: great vocals with memorable “Ah-ooo” lines, solid musical backing with plenty of hooks, some subtle acrobatics from the players (check the descending organ line in the chorus) and a punchy mix.

Hernandez is equally effective turning out torchy, romantic numbers like the contemplative “Cry Cry Cry,” in which the singer shows off her precise vocal control. And she does it without the all-over-the-scale showoffy melismas so common to female pop singers. When Hernandez reaches for the upper register, she makes it sound like the most effortless thing in the world. She sings like most of us talk.

“Dead Brains” weds an effects-laden electric guitar figure to a pop-centric arrangement. The upbeat melody is almost bubblegum, but The Deltas’ arrangement gives it a harder edge, providing an effective backdrop for the lyrics-heavy track.

The band is strong and assured throughout the disc’s eleven cuts, and The Deltas manage to sound like a cohesive band rather than a group of musicians backing a singer. Hernandez’s vocals augment the instruments, and vice versa. The bridge of “Tired Oak” evokes a carnival carousel, but does so in an understated way. The track’s dynamics are emblematic of a group that sounds like they’ve been together for ages.

In “organic” styles of music, synthesizers must be used judiciously; otherwise the tunes can end up with a sterile, assembly-line feel. The synths (or treated guitars; it’s tough to tell which) on “Over” enhance the melody without overwhelming it.

On “Caught Up,” The Deltas open with a familiar drum pattern that gives way to a rocker. For those who fell in love with “Sorry I Stole Your Man,” this track may well be your second-favorite track on Secret Evil. It’s cut from similar musical cloth but isn’t a “Sorry” rewrite. The shifts in dynamics – and the great guitar solo – are thrilling, and a bit reminiscent of fellow Detroiters Dirtbombs.

“Neck Tattoo” – a rumination on romance and regret – affects a musical arrangement that feels film-noir-ish, and it curiously evokes some of John Lennon‘s better mid 1970s work. “Run Run Run” has an odd ambience that seems to combine a gypsy jazz feel with elements of techno, though it really doesn’t sound like either of those things.

Some clever horn charts enliven “Downtown Man,” a track in which Hernandez continues to demonstrate her skill at jumping vocally around the scale without distracting from her lyrics.

Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas choose a melancholy, low-key number to close out Secret Evil. “Lovers First” has a late-night, low-lights vibe. Restrained musical accompaniment from The Deltas showcases a vocal that’s both subtle and dazzling.

As a whole, Secret Evil is as impressive a debut long-player as I’ve heard from a vocalist (and her band) in some time. Recommended.

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Album Review: Dengue Fever — The Deepest Lake

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

The band Dengue Fever has been together for about twelve years; prior to their latest album, they’ve released six full-lenth albums (including a film soundtrack) and three EPs. But somehow I’ve missed them until now. My only prior exposure to the group was via their curating a 2010 compilation called Dengue Fever Presents Electric Cambodia. In my measured review, I put across the reaction that the disc was a bit exotic for my tastes. And my tempered enthusiasm for it stuck with me, making me (by extension) less receptive to music from Los Angeles-based Dengue Fever.

The loss was clearly mine, as I discovered when I gave the band’s latest, The Deepest Lake, a spin. Where the tracks on the 2010 compilation betrayed miniscule or nonexistent recording budgets and a musical sensibility somewhat alien to western ears, the music of Dengue Fever bears none of those characteristics.

Sure, it leans in a decidedly “world music” direction, but Dengue Fever’s music is firmly rooted in western styles – most notably (but by no means exclusively) sixties garage and psychedelic rock – with a pan-global sensibility folded into the music.

Right out of the gate, Dengue Fever employs an approach that seamlessly blends east and west: on “Tokay,” drum machines chug along right alongside “real” percussion by Paul Dreux Smith, and a southeast Asian-flavored melodic line is delivered using western instruments like Ethan Holtzman‘s venerable combo organ and synthesizer. Lead vocalist Chhom Nimol sings in an unfamiliar language (Khmer), but Zac Holtzman delivers some delightfully reverberated spaghetti-western electric guitar. The result is exotic and familiar all at once, and quite hypnotic. We don’t know what Nimol is singing about, but we like it.

“No Sudden Moves” is, if anything, an even more successful hybrid of Asian and western textures; David Ralicke‘s soulful horns nudge the group’s sound in the direction of bands like New Mastersounds and DC Fontana, and Zac Holtzman’s surf-n-spy guitar licks. But Nimol’s delightful, expressive and high-register Khmer vocals take the music other places indeed.

For “Rom Say Sok,” Nimol not only sings in English, but the band adds in backing harmony vocals; the result sounds not unlike X crossed with the go-go-dance aesthetic of The B-52′s, with some ultra-cool guitar and synth work layered on top. As good as the first two tracks are, with “Rom Say Sok,” The Deepest Lake really hits its stride. And Ralicke’s horn charts on the cut are thrilling.

“The Ghost Voice” dials back the energy, creating a gentle, swaying ambience. Nimol returns to singing in Khmer, and the stuttering beat of the tune – lots of cowbell – will draw listeners in. But everyone in the band contributes something interesting and valuable, so picking the song apart in one’s head yields further delights. That it all works together smoothly – that it’s not some sort of gruesome or precious hybrid – is a testament to Dengue Fever’s skill at songwriting and (especially) arrangement. (Composition of all of the band’s music is credited to the full band.)

“The Deepest Lake on the Planet” weds western ba-ba-ba vocals (from the Mamas & the Papas / Turtles school of pop) to a spooky, slinky melody with a dreamy Khmer vocal from Nimol. One could imagine the band playing this in some smoky Cambodian bar while a tuxedoed James Bond sips on a vesper nearby. “Cardboard Castles” continues in that vein, adding some appealingly twangy lead guitar licks throughout. Here, Nimol alternates effortlessly between Khmer and English.

I’m not sure if it’s a real or sampled flute that opens “Vacant Lot,” but whichever it is, the effect is lovely. Because of the Khmer vocals (and lack of a lyric sheet), it’s impossible to know for sure, but one can’t help wonder if Dengue Fever’s songs on The Deepest Lake concern themselves with melancholic and poignant subject matter; some of the titles certainly suggest it’s the case. The music on “Vacant Lot” and many of the album’s nine other tracks delivers beauty and sadness in equal parts.

The upbeat “Still Waters Run Deep” uses Nimol’s vocal lines as a musical instrument; the Memphis-styled horn battle that provides the song’s centerpiece is easily the most exciting musical moment on an already highly engaging album. “Taxi Dancer” is one of the few tracks on The Deepest Lake in which male (backing) vocals can be heard clearly; the English-language response to Nimol’s Khmer call is a bit unexpected, but it works.

The album closes with “Golden Flute,” featuring a stripped-down arrangement that feels like Martin Denny crossed with Parisian street music; it’s delightfully disorienting in its musical hard-to-pin-down-ness.

Listeners who are open to an album featuring little in the way of English-language vocals are strongly encouraged to give Dengue Fever’s The Deepest Lake a spin; the alluring performances and strong melodies will win over the open-minded.

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Album Review: District 97 with John Wetton — One More Red Night

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

With exceedingly few exceptions, progressive rock is a man’s game. There’s certainly no law against women singing or playing in the style – Julie Slick, for example, is one of the best bassists around these days, irrespective of genre and gender – but the truth is that the progressive rock scene is one in which males vastly outnumber females. (Put another way, straight single guys shouldn’t go to a prog festival hoping to hook up with a nice chick; the competition is likely to be fierce.)

As is so often the case, it’s the exception that proves the rule. District 97 is prog rock’s exception. Fronted by the immeasurably capable Leslie Hunt (yeah, yeah: a 2007 American Idol semi-finalist; hold that against her and it’s your loss), their 2010 debut album Hybrid Child is a dazzling display of prog rock chops wedded to engaging songs and arrangements.

The world being what it is, the group’s success to date is thanks in no small part to having an attractive vocalist out front. But their skill and musical appeal is beyond question, so if a pretty woman who happens to have an excellent voice helps get people to take notice of the band, small or no harm done. District 97 have built a solid reputation on the strength of their studio efforts and their live performances, and they’ve become a fixture at many of North America’s prog festivals. (Compared to other music genres, the progressive rock world is a relatively small community, especially in the USA.)

Not long ago, the band came to the attention of John Wetton, the bassist/vocalist best known from his long tenure as the lead singer in Asia. Among longtime admirers of his work, however, its Wetton’s work with King Crimson that tops his impressive résumé. Wetton handled bass and lead vocals through one of King Crimson’s most creatively fertile periods, appearing on Larks Tongues in Aspic (1973), Starless and Bible Black, the mighty Red (both 1974), and 1975′s live USA album.

Because King Crimson’s subsequent lineups were always possessing of a forward-looking bent, the opportunities to hear songs from Red played at all (much less in arrangements faithful to their studio versions) were all but nonexistent. The closest anything came was the group billing itself as the 21st Century Schizoid Band, populated largely by ex-Crimson members and fronted by Jakko Jakszyk (himself now in the current incarnation of King Crimson, “Mk VIII” as it is commonly known). But the 21CSB was too expensive a proposition to keep alive, and ceased activities after an all-too-brief run (2002-2004).

Luckily for fans of Wetton-era King Crimson (“Mk III” if you’re keeping score), the bassist-vocalist looks fondly upon his work from that period. And who better – who better, I ask – to back him up on a set of classic Crim than this crack midwestern prog band?

None better, as it happens. A brief tour took place in 2013, bringing the music of King Crimson Mk III to modern-day audiences through the musical vehicle of District 97 with John Wetton. And the cleverly-titled One More Red Night (you’ll get it if you’re a fan of Red) documents a single performance from the tour.

The small performance venue Reggie’s Music Joint in the band’s hometown of Chicago hosted the October 2013 set. From the sound of the live recording, one can assume that D97 came out and did a set of their own music first. And then at the show’s midpoint, they were joined by John Wetton at the mic (he doesn’t play bass on this set; that daunting role is ably handled by District 97′s Patrick Mulcahy). The group then proceeds to tear through largely faithful versions of songs from the four Crim albums that featured Wetton.

John Wetton is in fine voice throughout, hitting the notes with power, subtlety and just the right amounts of emotion (when called for). He’s ably assisted by Hunt, who sometimes trades vocal lines with him, and other times provides live accompaniment in places where Wetton had originally overdubbed his voice (she does both on “The Great Deceiver” and several others).

The band is stunning throughout. Playing any King Crimson material requires a level of finesse and precision unachievable by the garden-variety musician, but the members of D97 are clearly up to the task. And while they’re all on fire on this set, guitarist Jim Tashjian deserves special notice for his precise recreation of mid 70s Robert Frippery. Jonathan Schang‘s drum work compares favorably (and sounds a helluva lot like) drum master Bill Bruford, as well. If there’s a criticism of this set – and this really isn’t one – ace keyboardist Rob Clearfield is somewhat underutilized in this show. That’s due, of course, to the relatively minimal amount of keyboards called for on these numbers.

The band stomps through “21st Century Schizoid Man,” a song that dates from King Crimson’s earliest days when Greg Lake was their singer. But the song figured into Mk III sets, so its inclusion makes sense here. And it also gives Clearfield an opportunity to display his abilities within the context of the King Crimson material, making it even more welcome. A truncated arrangement of the malevolent and majestic “Starless” provides another opportunity for dark, Mellotron-flavored keyboard lines; it’s also a showcase for Wetton’s vocal. Serving up a severely abbreviated summary of the dissonant second half of “Starless,” the band segues into “Easy Money,” where Wetton and Hunt engage in some wordless vocal harmony.

With Bruford retired and Fripp otherwise engaged, One More Red Night is as close as modern-day listeners are ever going to get to a Red-era King Crimson reunion. Put this CD on, close your eyes, and you’ve pretty much got one.

Note: I haven’t a clue why the album is going for upwards of US$56 on Amazon (see box). But it’s available from the D97 web site at a vastly more reasonable price.

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Album Review: Siena Root — Pioneers

Monday, February 16th, 2015

I feel that it’s my duty to take an unusual approach to this review: instead of some sort of contextual introduction, I’m going to go directly to my main thesis. Here it is. Ready?

On Pioneers, Siena Root sound very, very, very much like Deep Purple.

There it is. And I’m not talking Book of Taliesyn Deep Purple; no, Siena Root has the Machine Head / Who Do We Think We Are / Burn / Made in Japan sound down pat. From the husky, assured rock’n'roar of Jonas “Joe Nash” Ahlén‘s lead vocal, to the swirling, assertive, leading-the-pack organ pyrotechnics of Erik “Errika” Petersson to the fiery yet lean-and-mean fretwork of lead guitarist Matte Gustafson (whose ability to conjure Blackmore-styled riffage is nothing short of uncanny), this group succinctly and superbly nails the early 70s vibe of one of rock’s most popular hard rock outfits.

But that’s not the most important thing about Siena Root. No: putting together a band that sounds like it includes Ian Gillan, Jon Lord and Ritchie Blackmore isn’t (in and of itself) all that remarkable; Deep Purple did it for a few years, after all. What makes Siena Root special is the music. This five piece from (as you might have guessed from the surnames) Stockholm creates songs with strong hooks, solid, hummable melodic lines, and enough high-octane rock punch to hit the mark squarely.

Siena Root’s lyrics aren’t deathless poetics: their topics range from women who done them wrong (the album’s standout “7 Years”), who-we-are position statements (“Root Rock Pioneers”), and what sounds like “Highway Star” styled space travel (“Spiral Trip”). And when they do cover someone else’s tune, it’s not Blackmore and Co.; it’s the early Led Zeppelin chestnut, “Whole Lotta Love.” But when Siena Root covers Zep, they make it their own: The signature riff that underpins the song is delivered via Hammond organ routed through an extremely overdriven Leslie speaker.

If your idea of a good time includes a fist-in-the-air rock soundtrack a la the early 1970s, but you want something you haven’t heard hundreds of times (no “Smoke on the Water” in Guitar Center, please), then you can’t do much better than Siena Root’s Pioneers.

There are plenty of dynamics with Siena Root’s tunes; they’re not lunkheaded, piledriving rockers. (Or put another way, they don’t look to Status Quo for inspiration.) The musical twists and turns on tracks like “7 Years” make sense, and unfold in a logical way; Siena Root are here to rock you, not impress you with fussy, progressive arrangements. But the shifting gears of that tune’s tempos – driven largely by the rhythm section of bassist Sam Riffer (his real name?) and Love “Billy” Forsberg on drums – add an element vaguely sinister excitement to the proceedings. (They all have long hair and beards, too. Which helps.)

The sticker on the CD case calls Pioneers – the group’s sixth(!) album but their U.S. debut – “stoner rock,” and unapologetically describes it as “a heavy blend of Deep Purple & Iron Butterfly.” As if there could be any other variety of blend. And as if there should be.

So yes, Siena Root are derivative, and they’re unashamed to admit it. But their musical fountainhead is some seriously prime rock that combines the best aspects of heaviosity and melody, and they up the ante with good songs. If you thought Wolfmother‘s first few albums were good and you wished they hadn’t run out of steam, you’ll greet Siena Root’s Pioneers with welcome ears.

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Album Review: Lead Belly — Lost Radio Broadcasts: WNYC, 1948

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

In 1948, on a Sunday evening in August, a new radio series premiered. Featuring beloved and renowned folk singer Huddie Ledbetter (aka Lead Belly), The Story of Folklore presented the then-fiftyish Lead Belly doing what he did best: singing songs accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, and introducing the songs with brief spoken interludes. As was the standard practice, the shows would be recorded, pressed onto 16” “aircheck” discs and then broadcast shortly thereafter. The source for this vinyl release is a set of 78rpm 12” discs cut from a playback of those aircheck discs. The resulting quality is quite clear for a recording of this vintage, and the modern-day producers (noted jazz author Cary Ginell and Michael Kieffer) are to be commended for their largely hands-off approach that seeks only to present the performance its best form.

Modern listeners who know “House of the Rising Sun” from its popular interpretation by The Animals may be surprised to hear Lead Belly’s upbeat, almost happy reading of the tune. On “Leavin’ Blues,” the guitarist shows his skill with the twelve-string; he often sounds as if he’s playing more than one instrument (he’s not; nothing like overdubbing existed in the 40s).

Side One presents the August 1 program, and August 15 episode is documented on Side Two. The song list is similar for both episodes: both include brief run-throughs of “Irene” as the opener and closer, plus distinctly different versions of “House of the Rising Sun” and the astounding guitar workout “Hollywood and Vine” (almost prototypical rock’n'roll, Lead Belly characterizes it as “a little boogie”). The man billed as “American’s greatest living folksinger” performs “Backwater Blues” and “Leavin’ Blues” on the first session, with a focus on love songs of a sort (“If It Wasn’t for Dicky” and “Careless Love”) on the second-documented show. The bits of banter between Ledbetter and the (unidentified) announcer are a bit stiff, but they may have served to guide listeners into the somewhat unfamiliar musical world of Lead Belly.

The disc captures the first and third episodes of The Story of Folklore, and the announcer makes mention of the program format for the fourth episode (spirituals), but only these two episodes have surfaced. Presumably the series didn’t continue for much more than four installments total.

The vinyl release of Lost Radio Broadcasts: WNYC, 1948 is pressed on beautiful translucent blue vinyl, housed in a sturdy full-color ten-inch sleeve, and includes a well-put-together liner note booklet that provides background on the recording, the songs, the performer, and the modern transfer of the recording. Happily, the entire project was done with the blessing and cooperation of the Lead Belly Estate.

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