Archive for the ‘new release’ Category

Album Review: The Soul of Designer Records

Monday, August 18th, 2014

From a certain point of view, gospel music can be pigeonholed as a bunch of love songs all written to or about one person. But as with any music genre, there’s much more than one dimension to it, especially if one digs a bit deeper into the music. And that’s certainly the case with the (mostly) African-American gospel cut for Designer Records, a tiny “custom” label run by the colorful Style Wooten.

Designer was a precursor of what would later be called a “vanity” label: acts would come in, pay their fees, and cut a song or two. Rarely did anyone scheduling a session harbor the anticipation of scoring a hit single. Especially in the case of the gospel sides cut for Designer (many, many hundreds of other artists in other genres recorded tunes under Wooten’s supervision), it was often a case of traveling gospel groups coming to town for a church gig, passing the hat to collect “love offerings” and then dropping by the studio to cut a one-off, low budget track.

Of course all of this is wonderfully described in Michael Hurtt‘s liner notes that accompany the 4CD set The Soul of Designer Records. Packaged in a lavish and sturdy sleeve that mimics the gatefold LP jackets of old, this compilation showcases 101 recordings done for the label. And even for those not attuned to gospel, it’s a wonderful set of music. The musicianship – provided by local Memphis players including guitarist Roland Janes – is surprisingly first-rate: Designer and its myriad sub-labels might have been cut-rate, and Sonic Studios wasn’t exactly Stax or Ardent – but most everything about these tunes is first-rate.

As Roland Janes (quoted in one of Hurtt’s accompanying essays) said, “Style [Wooten]…didn’t know a thing about music.” But that didn’t stop him from making sure these recordings were as good as they could be. It certainly helped that the vocalists tended to be in super-tight, road-tested outfits who were able to give a high quality performance in a few takes. And while exactly zero of the tunes on this collection would go on to any measure of distribution (much less financial success), The Soul of Designer Records is a treasure trove of excellent music. Though the players on many tracks were drawn from the same relatively small pool of musicians, the instrumentation never once sounds phoned-in: there’s a surprising variety of styles on display, albeit within the confined framework of gospel. And the performances handily and vividly illustrate the musical cross-fertilization of soul, rock, blues, r&b, country, gospel and other forms.

The liner notes include brief biographies of some of the acts preserved on this set, but what is most remarkable is the lack of detail: the information simply doesn’t exist. Hurtt provides what information he can, but in many cases, a sentence or two (or nothing) is all that remains to document these groups’ sessions for Designer.

Except, of course, the music. Thanks to modern-day label Big Legal Mess and the archivists behind this ambitious project, hours of fine music is now saved from total obscurity. With luck, the release will be remunerative enough for the label that they’ll see fit to issue future volumes, chronicling Style Wooten’s recordings of rockabilly and other musical styles. The Soul of Designer Records is enthusiastically recommended; I won’t be a bit surprised to see it nominated next year for a Grammy Award or three.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 5

Friday, August 15th, 2014

My week-long run of hundred-word reviews wraps up with five new and recently-released jazz albums.


Michael Bellar and The As-is Ensemble – Oh No Oh Wow
Keyboards anchor this varied release that goes in many directions at once: even on the opening (title) track, Bellar alternates between creamy, fusion-y electric piano and Vince Guaraldi-styled acoustic piano runs. Too melodic to be prog, too rocking to be jazz, too adventurous to be labeled rock’n'roll, Oh Now Oh Wow is delightfully all over the map. The ten instrumentals – all Bellar originals save a reading of Jimi Hendrix‘s “Voodoo Chile” and a Bob Marley song – show a dizzying command of instruments, the studio, and arrangement. Your ears might fool you into thinking you hear guitars. (You don’t.)


Elias Haslanger – Live at the Gallery
This disc features tenor saxophonist Haslanger’s quintet at their weekly haunt, Austin Texas’ Continental Club Gallery; the gig is known as “Church on Monday.” And the group does testify, as they blow their way through a mix heavy on standards (“Watermelon Man,” “In a Sentimental Mood”). Jake Langley‘s electric hollowbody guitar runs are alternately mellow and biting. Dr. James Polk’s B3 adds a soulful foundation to the mix. The inventive yet solid rhythm section (Scott Laningham on drums, bassist Daniel Durham) take their turns in the spotlight as well. The appreciative but unobtrusive audience adds the right amount of texture.


Alessandro Scala Quartet – Viaggio Stellare
I’m still working to be as well-versed in jazz as I’d like to be; I suspect it will be a lifelong process. But the opening strains of “Mood” sound to these ears like a hard-bop reading of something off of Dave Brubeck‘s classic 1959 Time Out LP. It’s more than the 5/4 meter; there’s a vibe that this Italian quartet-plus-two seems to achieve effortlessly. But then that’s the trick, isn’t it: making the difficult seem effortless. Perhaps it was: the entire eleven-track album was cut in a single Summer 2012 session. Fun fact: the album title translates as “Star Trek.”


Yves Léveillé – Essences du Bois
This light, airy and gentle album is full of classical-leaning instrumentation (flute, oboe, Cor Anglais, clarinet and bass clarinet) along with instruments more readily identified with jazz (piano, upright bass, saxophones and drums). The result is pretty, impressionistic and contemplative, but not really adventurous or exciting (the subtle and varied drum work of Alain Bastien is a notable exception). Only on the strutting “Monarque” (with a very nice bass solo and some skittering piano) do things get inventive. Extra points are happily given for the fact that all eight pieces by this French Canadian ensemble are pianist Léveillé’s original works.


Vincent Gagnon – Tome III Errances
This 2013 Québec concert date showcases the compositions of bandleader and pianist Vincent Gagnon (plus one cover). The small band consists only of Gagnon plus two sax players, a double (upright) bassist and drummer. But that quintet makes the most of what they have, and the result feels like refined yet swinging Eurojazz, occasionally leaning in a big band style (if not arrangement). There’s a pleasing groove even when the rhythm section is blowing in something outside the 4/4 format. Plenty of tasty solos abound on this seven-track collection culled from the best of a three-night stand at Palais Montcalm.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 4

Thursday, August 14th, 2014

This set of five 100-word reviews focuses on new music, some of which is from familiar names; others might be new to you. All are worthwhile and enthusiastically recommended.


Murali Coryell – Restless Mind
This son of legendary fusion guitarist Larry Coryell is charting a musical path quite different from his dad: he plays tasty blues with a clear melodic rock sensibility and a well-developed playful sense of humor (see the Sammy Hagar-ish “Sex Maniac”). Fans of Robert Cray and Eric Johnson will dig this well-produced (but not slick) album. Not as fiery as Steve Ray Vaughan, this guitarist prefers the slow burn. The disc features a nice cover of Marvin Gaye‘s “Let’s Get it On.” Bonus points to Coryell for titling his album with a sly reference to one of his pop’s records.


Worldline – Compass Sky
Compass Sky is the kind of music they rarely make any more. Worldline creates alluring melodies with that hint of melancholy you might find in a Pink Floyd record (or a Porcupine Tree CD). Brian Turner‘s synth lines don’t aim to dazzle as much as they help carry the song along, and Andrew Schatzberg‘s strong vocals bear the influence of most any great band of the 70s you can think of, but they’re more classic (in a good way) than retro. The record’s strong start to finish. They’re from my hometown (Asheville) but sadly I’ve yet to see them live.


The Verve Pipe – Overboard
I can almost hear you thinking, “weren’t these guys a 90s band?” Yes: they scored a few chart singles in the second half of that decade, but haven’t charted since 2001. As is too often the case, the music is better than the chart performance suggests. While the album artwork is derivative (Storm Thorgerson? Bill EvansUndercurrent?), the music is fresh. Only leader/producer/songwriter Brian Vander Ark remains from the 1990s lineup. Their breezy, heartland-styled rock is vaguely reminiscent of fellow midwesterners Semisonic; the melancholy “Crash Landing” is nearly anthemic in its arrangement, but there’s lots of varied texture throughout. Recommended.


Global Noize – Sly Reimagined: The Music of Sly and The Family Stone
Sylvester Stewart didn’t fare too well on his most recent comeback/self-tribute, but there’s no denying the strength of his 1967-73 material. This aggregation, put together by producer/keyboardist Jason Miles, shows the enduring power of Stone’s songs, interpreted here for modern audiences by a long list of players. The marquee names here are Family Stone drummer Greg Errico (on four cuts), Nona Hendryx (lead vocal on three cuts), Roberta Flack (sultry vocals on “It’s a Family Affair”) and – for the young folks – turntablist DJ Logic. Sly Reimagined is the next best thing to the originals, and that’s saying something.


Ian McLagan & the Bump Band – United States
Former Small Faces and Rolling Stones keyboardist Ian McLagan told me about this forthcoming album last year when I interviewed him about the Small Faces box set. Long having relocated to Austin TX, London-born McLagan shows influence of American musical forms more than British ones. A New Orleans flavor is shot through his bluesy tunes; using the widest interpretation of the term, the music on United States can reasonably be termed Americana. Mac’s always-engaging keyboard work (acoustic and electric pianos, organ) are the highlight but never steal the show: this really is a band, not some guy with faceless sidemen.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 3

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

Five new releases are the focus of this clutch of hundred-word reviews.


Analog Son – Analog Son
The name might conjure mental visions of a synthesizer outfit, but the sounds that this duo-plus-friends (guitarist Jordan Linit and Josh Fairman on bass) produces is some fresh and uptempo funk. Seven of the ten tracks are instrumentals that satisfy on multiple levels: there’s plenty of hot soloing and musical interplay, but both groove and melody are deftly woven into the mix. The studio guest list includes members of The New Mastersounds and Dumpstaphunk among others, but Analog Son never sounds like a jam. Linit wrote or co-wrote all the tunes, and was involved in the horn arrangements as well.


Wishone Ash – Blue Horizon
Wishbone Ash are one of those hard-working second-string bands who never quite hit the big time. Enjoying some chart success in the early 1970s, the band has gone through myriad lineups – both John Wetton (King Crimson, Asia, UK) and Trevor Bolder (David Bowie’s Spiders From Mars) have passed through the band’s ranks. Today only Andy Powell (guitarist on the group’s more than two dozen albums) remains. The group’s sound is radio-ready, making their lack of high profile success more perplexing. Fans of melodic meat’n'potatoes rock with hooks, appealing vocals and twin lead guitars shouldn’t let Blue Horizon go unheard.


Focus – Golden Oldies
On one hand, it’s mystifying that a band that’s been around forever would record new versions of their best material: aren’t the originals still available? (Yes.) Do the arrangements differ wildly from those originals? (No.) But considering that the 2014 lineup of Focus features only two members of the classic lineup – leader and multi-instrumentalist Thijs van Leer and drummer Pierre van der Linden – it makes some sense to show that a band now fitted with a pair of young axemen can still play the intricate, jazzy, loopy prog that has always been the band’s trademark. Surprisingly, refreshingly fun.


The Bamboo Trading Company – From Kitty Hawk to Surf City
A breezy, laid back and highly polished sound reminiscent of early 70s Beach Boys is the chosen style of this aggregation. And in fact Beach Boys connections abound on this song cycle about a cross-country biplane journey: Matt Jardine (son of Al) is one of the vocalists; Mark Linett mastered the recording; Randell Kirsch and Gary Griffin used to back Jan & Dean. And Dean Torrence himself guests on the so-odd-you-gotta-hear “Shrewd Awakening.” The production and arrangements are intricate but not overly fussy, reminiscent of that other former Beach Boy, the one who had a sandbox in his living room.


Marshall Crenshaw – Red Wine
The fourth in Crenshaw’s excellent series of EP releases follows the same format as the previous three. As his website succinctly describes it, Red Wine “features a new song (‘Red Wine’), a cover (James McMurtry’s ‘Right Here Now’), and a new take on an old Marshall classic (‘Hey Delilah’).” The title track features a spare arrangement in support of Crenshaw’s characteristically evocative vocals. The reverb on those vocals here and there will transport listeners back to Crenshaw’s self-titled 1982 debut. Electric sitar on “Right Here Now” is a delight; the stripped-down reading of early 90s “Hey Delilah” is ace too.

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Album Review: Steve Hillage – Rainbow 1977

Friday, August 8th, 2014

This week of archival, previously-unreleased live sets wraps up with one that’s both accessible and of excellent sonic quality. In 1977, guitarist Steve Hillage (erstwhile of Gong) was near the apex of his commercial ascendancy, on the heels of the Todd Rundgren-produced L album. This date, captured at London’s Rainbow, finds Hillage and band wheeling out several songs from that album onstage. The perennial Hillage concert favorites that bookended LDonovan‘s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and George Harrison‘s Yellow Submarine-era Beatles track, “It’s All Too Much” – get some of their earliest live performances here.

While Hillage’s voice isn’t the strongest instrument, he holds his own vocally amidst the swirl of his guitar, backed ably by his longtime partner Miquette Giraudy (synths), drummer Joe Blocker and bassist Curtis Robertson. The band previews more than half of the songs that would appear on L‘s followup, 1977′s Motivation Radio; that LP ranks with L as among the best of Hillage’s long and varied career. With its oh-me-oh-my vocals, “Light in the Sky” makes the best of Giraudy’s voice, while – as every song here does – highlighting Hillage’s fluid and spectacular guitar work. “Radio” is among the set’s most subtle pieces, and among its most musically effective as well. A pleasing mix of short, snappy tunes and longer (but not meandering) pieces renders Rainbow 1977 the second next best thing to having been there. (A concert DVD would be the next-best thing, of course.)

There’s a fair amount of overlap between the tracks on this live set and with those on Hillage’s live compilation 2LP set Live Herald from 1977; the primary appeal of this set is that it (purportedly) represents a single show rather than picking-and-choosing from a tour’s worth of recordings.

Space rock with mystical hippie trappings and ecological subject matter was and remains the metier of the multifarious Hillage, and it’s all shown to good effect – and excellent fidelity – on Rainbow 1977.

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Album Review: The Move — Live at the Fillmore 1969

Thursday, August 7th, 2014


Here’s another case of a long-circulating bootleg finding official release (see also: yesterday’s review of an Iron Butterfly live set). The Move were big in the UK, but went largely unknown in America. At least, that is, until they shifted personnel a bit and rebranded themselves as Electric Light Orchestra.

The band certainly knew all about America, though. Many years before its inclusion on Lenny Kaye‘s influential Nuggets compilation, The Nazz‘s “Open My Eyes” was a staple of The Move’s live set. Though the group had an impressive string of hit singles, on this night in 1969 at San Francisco’s Fillmore, they chose to open with a tune released two years earlier (to no great sales) by the Philadelphia group featuring a very young Todd Rundgren. The Move’s excellent live version does overextend the excellent tune just a bit, however.

On this recording – sourced from low-generation copies of that circulating tape* and/or subjected to some expert sound clean-up – The Move turns in exciting covers of Tom Paxton (“Last Thing on My Mind”) and relatively obscure art-prog group Ars Nova (“Fields of People,” included on The Move’s 1969 Shazam LP). The Carole King and Gerry Goffin tune “Goin’ Back” gets The Move treatment as well. The sound isn’t quite up to standard release quality on this 2CD set, but the music is good and important enough to give the audio quality a pass.

The band were big fans of American rock: their sets often included The Byrds‘ “So You Want to Be a Rock’n'Roll Star” and Moby Grape‘s “Hey Grandma,” though neither were performed on this Fillmore date. Rick Price‘s super-heavy bass lines and Bev Bevan‘s drums presage the approach used by Black Sabbath, but Carl Wayne‘s lead vocal plus Roy Wood‘s keen harmony vocals add a pop sensibility that leavens the heaviness. “Cherry Blossom Clinic Revisited” is perhaps the best example of all of the Move’s strengths in a single tune: gentle guitar parts, a capella vocal harmonies, and thunderous backbeat; the song’s suite-like character may remind some listeners of The Who‘s “A Quick One (While He’s Away).” They also manage a clever juxtaposition of a classical theme (you’ll recognize it) into the tune, before doing such things was (for a time) a de rigeuer part of rock performance. The Move manage to convey power and subtlety onstage without the use of keyboards or acoustic guitar.

The Move’s set closes as it began, with another Nazz cover: this time it’s “Under the Ice,” from Rundgren’s group’s then-current Nazz Nazz LP. The tapes as circulated among collectors purported to document a set from October 1969. As presented on this official set, the recording features additional performances of “Don’t Make My Baby Blue, “Cherry Blossom Clinic Revisited” and “The Last Thing on My Mind,” plus a contemporary recording – more than ten minutes in length – in which drummer Bevan recalls the ’69 tour.

Completists note: If you have the bootleg version of this tape, you might want to hold onto it: most copies include a live version of The Move’s Tchaikovsky-meets-psychpop classic, “Night of Fear” that’s not found on this new official set.

Live at the Fillmore 1969 is highly recommended to anyone who appreciates late 60s hard rock, British variant, done with a deft combination of panache and excessive volume.

* A quote in the liner notes suggests that vocalist Carl Wayne was in possession of the original tapes.

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Album Review: Iron Butterfly — Live at the Galaxy 1967

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

There’s been a spate of previously-unreleased live albums released of late; this week I’m focusing on five of them. The first, a 1975 set by Magma, offered way-out music and excellent sonic quality. The second, a 1980 Captain Beefheart set, showcased equally strange (but quite different) music in terrible audio quality. Today’s entry features much more accessible music, from psychedelic -era heroes Iron Butterfly, in sound quality that falls somewhere in between the previous two.

In 1967 Iron Butterfly were still several months away from recording and releasing their classic “In-a-gadda-da-vida,” so listeners who give Live at the Galaxy 1967 a spin won’t hear that tune. What they’ll find instead is a club gig heavy (ha) on tracks from the band’s debut LP Heavy which hadn’t even been recorded at the time of this set.

In addition to the hypnotic “Possession” (featuring Doug Ingle‘s husky vocalizations atop a lockstep riff that is equal parts his Vox organ and Danny Weis‘ fuzztone lead guitar), perennial closer “Iron Butterfly Theme” and “Gentle As it May Seem,” the set offers up a few standards along with some tracks that wouldn’t surface until the band’s third LP Ball (the excellent “Filled With Fear,” “Lonely Boy”). The lineup that is documented on this set wouldn’t remain together long enough to tour behind their debut album; buy that point in the band’s lifespan, Ingle had recruited new players to join him and drummer Ron Bushy.

Live at the Galaxy 1967 seems to be a soundboard recording (albeit an nth generation dub of one); between tracks, when Ingle addresses the crowd, his voice is clear and distinct. But when the band all launches in (this seems to have been an extremely loud performance at the band’s regular Hollywood hangout), Ingle’s vocals are largely obscured by the instruments. His Vox survives the onslaught, however: his simple but effective keyboard riffage rises above the thunder of the bass, guitars and cymbal-heavy drumming. The recording has circulated for years among bootleg collector circles; I’ve had a copy going all the way back to the days when we traded cassette dubs. It’s likely that this official release was sourced from one of those unknown-generation tapes.

Iron Butterfly’s music has often been described as riffs in search of songs: as exemplified on this recording, the band often hit its mark. While the vocals can’t easily be followed, the tunes never meander; built around solid and memorable riffs and allowing space for effective solos, tracks like “It’s Up to You” (a good tune they’d never release) make their point in rather economical fashion. Ingle introduces “Gloomy Day to Remember” (which is quite reminiscent of The Blues Magoos) as another of the band’s original tunes; it, too has gone unreleased in any form until now.

As a document of the band’s earliest incarnation, replete with songs you won’t hear anywhere else, Live at the Galaxy 1967 is recommended to fans of the band as well as to fans of that particular brand of 60s psych that bridges the gap between heavy and poppy.

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Album Review: Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band — Live From Harpo’s 1980

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

The late Captain Beefheart is one of those rare creatures. The casual music fan is unfamiliar with his name; a subset of those who know of him have actually heard him; fewer still can make a reasonable claim to actually enjoying his music.

Appreciate it, yes: I know of quite a few of my friends (certainly not a cross section of American pop music fans) who own Beefheart’s classic Trout Mask Replica. I have an original vinyl copy myself. But neither they nor I play our copies all too often. Beefheart’s music is challenging at best, making few if any concessions to musical convention. Beefheart’s music can be described as a sort of wild, unhinged free jazz/blues hybrid, often featuring the man’s growling vocals (he reportedly had a five-octave range), along with his saxophone. While his band lineup (generally dubbed The Magic Band) followed the standard rock configuration, Beefheart’s music can’t be called rock, not by any reasonable understanding of the term. That said, Beefheart’s critical reputation is stratospheric.

By 1980, Beefheart (born Don Van Vliet) had entered the second of his most highly-regarded phases; the string of albums released between 1978 and 1982 rank among his best, and those three records – Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow actually sold in some quantities as well. Around the time of Doc at the Radar Station, Beefheart and band were the musical guests on Saturday Night Live. And it was days after that SNL performance – December 11, 1980, that Beefheart and The Magic Band appeared onstage at Detroit’s Harpo’s Concert Theatre. The good news is that someone recorded the show: very few legitimate Beefheart live albums exist, and none of those (up to now) date from this fertile period in his career.

The bad new is that the sound quality is awful. Bootleg enthusiasts – a group that includes myself – may not have such a tough time sitting through this boomy audience recording, but those whose ears are more attuned to studio albums and professional recording techniques might find Live From Harpo’s 1980 tough going. And there’s nothing here that approaches the accessibility of such Beefheart cuts as “Zig Zag Wanderer” (included on the Where the Action Is: Los Angeles Nuggets compilation) or “Diddy Wah Diddy” (featured on the 4CD expanded version of the original Nuggets set).

Those who do endure or tolerate the dreadful audio quality will, however, find their reward: on this night, Beefheart and band (Eric Drew Feldman on bass and synthesizer, drummer Robert Williams, and three guitarists: Richard Snyder, Jeff Tapir/White and Jeff Moris Tepper) tear through a set that draws both from new and old material. Tunes from his first three albums are performed right along with newer material, including about half of the songs on Doc at the Radar Station. The night’s lineup is quite close to the personnel that recorded Doc six months earlier.

The brief liner notes offer a capsule history of Beefheart’s career, noting that the man retired from public performance in 1982, less than two years after this recording was made. The liners also assert that “this CD catches the Captain at his best.” That may well be true, but the capture itself is dodgy; owing to the execrable sound quality, Live From Harpo’s 1980 is best left to completists only; everyone else should stick with Beefeart’s, um, more accessible studio output.

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EP Review: The Fauntleroys — Below the Pink Pony

Friday, August 1st, 2014

I can’t find the specific quote I’m looking for at the moment, but there’s an entry in Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia (the original 1969 edition, not the lousy and lifeless early 70s update edited by Ed Naha) in which the author predicts the rise of one-off collaborations between established music. Again, I can only paraphrase, but Lillian Roxon cites the artistic freedom inherent in such temporary musical unions.

The whole concept didn’t catch on in rock to quite the degree Roxon predicted (though it was and remains a fundamental principle in jazz, where “groups” often assemble for a single project and then dissolve and move on). But when it does happen, the results can be impressive, and do fall in line with Roxon’s predictions.

The Fauntleroys are the latest example of an ad-hoc group made up of established artists. This alt-rock supergroup (there, I’ve said it) features Alejandro Escovedo (The Nuns, Rank and File, substantial solo work), Ivan Julian (Richard Hell and the Voidoids, excellent solo work, and production for such greats as Richard Barone and The Fleshtones), Linda Pitmon (Miracle 3, The Baseball Project) and Nicholas Tremulis* (Candy Golde, and yet more stellar solo work), all coming together to record and release the six-song EP Below the Pink Pony.

Each of the quartet’s straightforward melodies comes wrapped inside a slashing, barbed-wire arrangement that conveys danger, and a sort of elegant scuzziness, a streetwise beauty that will feel familiar to fans of these players’ back catalogs. Their collaborative approach to songwriting – working from snippets and building the tracks in Julian’s NYC studio – means that the songs have the fingerprints of all four members on them, rather than sounding like the work of one member backed by three others. Below the Pink Pony is, then, the antithesis of something like The Beatles’ white album.

That said, Tremulis’ powerful and commanding lead vocals gives him what sounds like a slightly larger role in the finished product. Pitmon’s backing vocal on “(This Can’t Be) Julie’s Song” and others balances things out a bit, though. Julian’s snaky guitar slashes and Escovedo’s distorted, buzzing guitar work mesh together to convey a sense of peril, even when the lyrics lean (slightly) toward the positive and uplifting.

The production finish on the album is spiky and rough, and one senses that’s exactly as the four musicians hoped it would be. The balance between studio polish and first-take vitality is perfect. And the best news about The Fauntleroys is that – unlike what Roxon described in 1969 – the group has plans to tour and release a full-length album. I’ll be keeping an eye and ear out for that one, as should you.

* I’m still waiting for Tremulis to paint my house as promised (inside joke).

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Album Review: NRBQ — Brass Tacks

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

NRBQ are one of America’s great musical treasures. Though they’ve never enjoyed the sort of commercial success of, say, a Creedence Clearwater Revival or The Band, the catalog of this band formed in 1967 is filled with riches that draw from all manner of musical forms. Listeners are as likely to hear shades of cajun swamp pop as they are hints of pianist Terry Adams‘ hero Sun Ra. And though the lineup of NRBQ has changed significantly from the old days (only leader Adams remains from the original lineup), the group’s signature approach to music remains intact.

Wry lyrics are the highlight of many NRBQ tunes, and “Greetings From Delaware” on Brass Tacks, the group’s latest, continues that tradition. Like all the tunes on the disc, “Greetings” sounds as if it was recorded live in the studio. There’s a loose-limbed feel that never feels about to fall apart; it’s the kind of aesthetic that results from a band touring and playing together for a long time, road-testing the tunes and honing them to sharpness before ever setting foot in a studio.

Adams’ assured and stylistically varied piano playing is often the centerpiece of the musical arrangements, but the rest of the band (guitarist Scott Ligon, bassist Casey McDonough, and Conrad Choucron on drums) all shine. Adams’ “Sit in My Lap” feels like a distant cousin to John Lennon‘s “(Just Like”) Starting Over,” minus the retro trappings. McDonald’s “Fightin’ Back” has a pop-country vibe (the good kind), and this lineup of NRBQ gains strength from its drawing upon the songwriting talents of three members.

NRBQ’s approach has always been modest and unassuming; the band’s music doesn’t reach out and grab listeners; instead the tunes are warm, welcoming and inviting: it’s up to to the listener whether to come in or not. The song titles alone give a tidy overview of the concerns dealt with on Brass Tacks: “It’ll Be Alight,” “Love This Love We Got,” and a knowing reading of the Great American Songbook classic “Getting to Know You.” Adams’ harmonica on “I’d Like to Know” sounds and feels like an accordion, and his piano on “Places Far Away” – the disc’s most outré number – sounds as if it’s informed equally by Randy Newman and Sun Ra. “Can’t Wait to Kiss” You” is a delightful singalong in a classic pop vein, and features a brief, ear-candy guitar solo.

Brass Tacks isn’t likely to catapult the band into mega-stardom, but for fans of the band’s friendly and intimate aesthetic, it’s a joy to hear that the band is busy and as vital as ever.

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