Archive for the ‘new release’ Category

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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Album Review: Bobby Patterson – I Got More Soul!

Monday, July 28th, 2014

If you happened upon a spin of I Got More Soul!, the new album from Bobby Patterson, you could be forgiven for thinking he’s the latest in young new recording artists playing an authentic 21st century brand of classic southern soul. Patterson name-checks Johnnie Taylor, BB King and other soul/blues/r&b giants in the title track, a funky groove that nails the Stax, Ardent, Muscle Shoals and Hi studio vibes of yore, and the band is in the pocket, providing for each of the ten tracks the sort of backing that fits the songs’ moods perfectly.

The thing is, Bobby Patterson is 70, and I Got More Soul! was cut a nine-hour drive southwest of Memphis, in Austin TX’s Arlyn Studios. And Patterson (who co-produced the album with Zach Ernst of The Relatives, who back Patterson) is a journeyman soulster who released a tasty string of singles in the period 1969-1976 on smallish Jetstar and Paula Records, and cut the now-impossibly-rare It’s Just a Matter of Time LP in 1972.

On I Got More Soul!, Patterson serves up songs that put his voice – an amazingly youthful instrument – right out front. On the deep funk of “Can You Feel Me?” Patterson assumes the persona of a tough-talkin’ dude, not unlike early hip hop vocalists whose tunes were often about how hip they were. And in Patterson’s capable hands and voice, the song leaves no doubt that Patterson truly is the man. Shades of Sly Stone (whose “Poet” gets a knowing reading from Patterson) and Little Willie John are shot through this collection of eight originals and two covers.

Patterson belts it out when he needs to, but he brings it way down low for semi-spoken bits, proving that a skilled and effective vocalist can command attention without having to shout. The funky “It’s Hard to Get Back In” sounds like the best blaxploitation film theme you’ve never heard, a streetwise swagger of a tune with charts that nail the Memphis Horns vibe to the wall.

The album’s no-frills production never calls attention to itself; the sound is clean but never slick, and the band’s rhythm section and the horn players do most of the musical heavy lifting; the keyboards and guitar are subtle and used more sparingly. The net effect of the arrangements is to provide sympathetic backing for the star of the show. On the smoky and alluring “The Entertainer Pt.1,” Patterson tells us he’s in the house while what sounds like the percussion setting on a 70s organ lays down the beat. The tasty electric piano backing behind Patterson’s sung/spoken vocal feels like vintage Donny Hathaway. “I don’t care if you’re on the hood or in the trunk,” Patterson tells us, “Ain’t no way you can get away from my funk.” He truly is The Entertainer. And when Patterson lights a torcher as on the Otis Redding-styled “I Know How It Feels,” you’ll believe that he really does know. And the gospel-flavored “Everybody’s Got a Little Devil in Their Soul” proves that this soul veteran knows how to testify. Open your ears to the deliciously varied I Got More Soul! and Bobby Peterson will make you a believer.

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Hundred-word Reviews July 2014, Part Four

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

I’m bound and determined to reduce the contents of my in-box to manageable levels, so this week I’ll be covering 25 albums, each adhering to a 100-word limit. Don’t mistake brevity for a negative review; these are all worthwhile releases.

Today’s five are the last in this particular run of new releases; tomorrow’s five will be recent reissues and compilations of note.

Chris Braide – Fifty Dollar Planets and Twenty Cent Stars
This British rocker is based -n Los Angeles, and on his new lengthy-titled long player, he’s aided by Pete Glenister, best known as the late Kirsty MacColl‘s guitarist. That said, listeners won’t find much jangle on this disc; Braide prefers a swaggering rock style that owes more to David Bowie and INXS. This is mostly wide-screen arena-ready rock with a melancholy feel. On tracks like “Fascinating,” Braide dials it down for a smoky, intimate vibe, but most tracks on Fifty Dollar Planets straddle the line between heavy rock and yearning power balladeering (but is far better than that label suggests).

Howlin’ Rain – Live Rain
This band began their life as a near-homage to The Allman Brothers, but quickly outgrew that on subsequent offerings such as The Russian Wilds. This set – compiled from “various locations around the world in the year 2012” – captures the emotional intensity of their live show. The band rocks hard on the eleven-minute-plus “Self Made Man,” and they resurrect the ghost of Led Zeppelin on the stomping “”Can’t Satisfy Me.” For those who dig the 70s sound but want to see it live, Howlin’ Rain is the band; until they’re in town, Live Rain is the next best thing.

The Fleshtones – Wheel of Talent
This Greenpoint (Brooklyn) quartet is a sentimental favorite of mine. On Wheel of Talent, they’ve changed their approach, but just a little. In addition to the quartet (guitar, bass, keys and drums), tunes like “Available” make prominent use of cello and violin(!) There’s one other major departure: more tracks than usual feature the lead vocals of guitarist Keith Streng rather than nominal lead singer (and keyboardist) Peter Zaremba. But the wit and swagger of the quartet that bills itself as “America’s garage band” is delightfully intact on tunes like the (previously available only as a single) tribute “Remember the Ramones.”

Archie Powell & the Exports – Back in Black
This album has nothing – insofar as I can tell – to do with AC/DC. But if you can wrap your mind around the idea of a singer/songwriter – that is, someone concentrating on lyrics first – backed by a hard rocking, ramshackle band, you’ll have an idea of what this sounds like. In fact, Archie Powell and his band sounds a lot like a less-drunk prime-era Replacements on the opener, “Everything’s Fucked.” Elsewhere they take singalong melodies and rock ‘em up; up-front acoustic guitar is too seldom used in uptempo rock; this band understands how to do it right.

Jim Mize – Jim Mize
It’s fair to label Jim Mize a “late bloomer.” This 57-year-old Arkansan has been knocking around for years, but he didn’t get into a recording studio until well into his thirties. His latest – this self-titled effort on the tastemaker Big Legal Mess imprint/sub-label of Fat Possum Records – is soulful rock that should appeal to fans of Tom Petty, John Hiatt and Nick Lowe‘s more rock-oriented material. Aided on this LP by John Paul Keith and Jimbo Mathus, Mize delivers finely-honed songcraft wrapped in memorable melodies. Mize says he plans to tour when he retires; for now, there’s this.

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Hundred-word Reviews July 2014, Part Three

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

I’m bound and determined to reduce the contents of my in-box to manageable levels, so this week I’ll be covering 25 albums, each adhering to a 100-word limit. Don’t mistake brevity for a negative review; these are all worthwhile releases.

Today’s five – all new music – can all be labeled as progressive, though they differ widely from one another.

Curved Air – North Star
Founding members Sonja Kristina (vocals) and Florian Pilkington-Miksa plus once-and-again member Kirby Gregory on guitar are joined by three younger members who have been with the group for more than five years on this latest studio album. Paul Sax‘s violin is very much in the style of departed founder Darryl Way, and Kristina’s voice remains very much an acquired taste (Kate Bush fans take note). The album’s production values could be be termed intimate and unadorned by fans, and demo-y by those less inclined toward the group’s music. “Puppets” is tough going, but the hazily rocking “Images and Signs” is better.

Transatlantic – Kaleidoscope
This band has long suffered from the tension between their ambitious progressive music and the inescapable religiosity of keyboardist Neal Morse. To some degree, Transatlantic has addressed that issue: The sprawling “Into the Blue” fills nearly a third of the run time with long instrumental passages full of doom abd grandeur. Still, all compositions are group-credited, so who knows to what degree Mike Portnoy, Pete Trewavas and Reine Stolt can be held responsible for crypto-Christian lyrics like “There’s a deeper meaning if you want to know.” If you don’t care to know, the playing and arrangement are still pretty ace.

Pray for Brain – None of the Above
Imagine funk if it were played by musicians with a prog/metal sensibility. Some will find that mental image irredeemably gruesome; other will be intrigued. For the latter group – however small – there’s Pray for Brain. This trio features upright bassist Christine Nelson, drummer/percussionist Jefferson Voorhees and Mustafa Stefan Dill on guitars..and oud. Yes, oud; there’s a world-music undertone to these deliberate (but not plodding) instrumental numbers. In places the group’s tracks feel like the guitar solo passages on late-period Frank Zappa albums. The aptly-named “Sufisurf” hints at the group’s stylistic mashup of disparate genres. Challenging but worth the effort.

Matte Henderson with Marco Minnemann – The Veneer of Logic
Henderson’s CD+DVD comes to me with a presskit that includes a recommendation from no less an authority than Robert Fripp. That should be a tipoff that The Veneer of Logic is an uncompromising sonic excursion, and indeed it is. With a rip-roaring guitar tone reminiscent of King Crimson‘s Thrak, it’s recommended only for those who appreciate the harder end of the prog spectrum (my fianceé and the cats are cowering in the corner, hoping I’ll soon move onto the next CD). But for those who dig the style, it’s an embarrassment of riches with a staggering lineup of guest stars.

Ian Anderson – Homo Erraticus
Live concerts notwithstanding, flautist/vocalist Ian Anderson seems to have retired the Jethro Tull brand. But his music – now released under his own name – hasn’t changed that much. On Homo Erraticus, Anderson’s brand of rock, informed as ever by medieval and European folk – will sound warm and familiar to Tull fans. Anderson’s flute playing is as expert as ever, but his vocals sound winded, labored. Onstage he’s worked around his diminishing vocal power by adding a second vocalist; on this record he employs this back-up approach little if at all, and sadly, the excellent music suffers for it.

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Hundred-word Reviews July 2014, Part Two

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

I’m bound and determined to reduce the contents of my in-box to manageable levels, so this week I’ll be covering 25 albums, each adhering to a 100-word limit. Don’t mistake brevity for a negative review; these are all worthwhile releases.

Today’s five – all new music – are all within the (very loosely defined) jazz idiom.

The New Mastersounds – Therapy
At every turn, this Leeds-based group finds new and exciting ways to expand upon their original brief: soul-infused boogaloo music. Pleasing jazz fans, the noodle-dancing jam band crowd and general-purpose festival crowds all at once is a tall order, but The New Mastersounds deftly achieve that goal. On Therapy, the group delivers a dozen original tunes heavy on soul and groove; fans of their earlier material will recognize the signature style, but they’ll also find some surprises. The heavy yet downtempo soul stew of “Old Man Noises” owes as much to Jimi Hendrix or Brian Auger as to modern trip-hop.

B11 – B11
This (nominally) jazz trio plays pop-jazz and originals in a style that feels more post-rock or even metal in places. A reading of Henry Mancini‘s “Peter Gunn Theme” is rendered in slowed-down super-heavy style. B11 covers Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme” even slower. And the heavily reverbed “Moon River” sounds like Chris Isaak played at 16 RPM. ( Lou Donaldson‘s “Alligator Boogaloo” gets similar treatment. But the original tunes cover a wider palette, from spaghetti-western instros to excursions into bolero, waltz and such. The no-lyrics, downtempo vibe makes B11 suitable as groovy background music, but it’s a fun intentional listen too.

Machine Mass – Inti
It’s fascinating to observe players constantly on the lookout for new direction in which to push the jazz idiom. Machine Mass features electric (and often heavily processed) guitar from Michael Deville, plus drums (and loops) from Tony Bianco. Together they make a sort of avant-garde kind of sound. But acclaimed saxophonist Dave Liebman adds his innovation to the mix, making Inti more of a jazz/post-rock hybrid. In the liner notes, Bianco describes the trio’s approach as “improvising over structures.” In practice this means that there’s a cohesive foundation for all nine tracks, but what happens within each piece is unpredictable.

Bex Ferris Goubert – Now or Never
This trio is so French that the liner notes aren’t even in English. But music is indeed the universal language, so these musicians on Hammond B3 organ, trombone and batterie (that drums to you and me) get their point across in a way that most everyone can understand and appreciate. Deconstructions of “Take Five” and Thelonious Monk‘s “Bluehawk” stay true to the jazz aesthetic of not saying true to the original arrangement, and the live recording (captured by a mobile unit in an intimate crowd in Paris’ Sunset Club) captures the group’s winning yet uncompromisingly idiosyncratic approach to good effect.

Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein, Bill Stewart – Ramshackle Serenade
With a more conventional lineup (Hammond, guitar and drums, respectively), this trio plays snaky, subtle tunes – six originals plus three covers – all of which are understated yet expressive. At times, the trio seems ready to take off into a heavier, faster tempo, but they keep it mostly in a head-nodding, pensive manner throughout the disc. In particular, Bill Stewart’s loping drums hold the emergency brake on the other two, reining in any tendency they might have to cut loose. Those looking for excitement are advised to keep moving; nothing to hear here. Still worth a listen.

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Hundred-word Reviews July 2014, Part One

Monday, July 21st, 2014

I’m bound and determined to reduce the contents of my in-box to manageable levels, so this week I’ll be covering 25 albums, each adhering to a 100-word limit. Don’t mistake brevity for a negative review; these are all worthwhile releases.

Today’s five – all new releases – are all more or less pop (in its classical definition) releases.

Jamie & Steve – Circling
This duo (half of The Spongetones) have maintained a regular schedule of EP releases of late. On Circling, the pair sound decidedly liberated from The Spongetones’ trademark sound, though the hooks, power and vocal harmonies are happily present in abundance. All six tracks on this disc are delightful, but the edge goes to the title track, with its breathtaking vocal arrangement and detailed (though never fussy) arrangement. Steve Stoeckel and Jamie Hoover have quite a way with a melody, and the vaguely Merseybeat-ish “You” and the closer “Wonder Girl” will leave listeners waiting for the next EP. Shouldn’t be long.

Neil Finn – Dizzy Heights
From Split Enz through Crowded House and his string of solo albums, Neil Finn has demonstrated an uncanny ability to craft enduring melodies. But his solo work – while excellent – somehow sounds less immediate than his other music; the songs often require multiple spins to sink in. That’s truer than ever on Dizzy Heights; the soft-focus arrangements bury the melodies a bit deep. On first listen, I was wholly disappointed in the album, but on subsequent spins I appreciated the groove on tracks like “Flying in the Face of Love.” Finn remains in a league with Lennon and McCartney.

Dan Wilson – Love Without Fear
As a key member of the grievously under-appreciated Trip Shakespeare and the more successful Semisonic, Dan Wilson proved the skill with which he could sing, play and compose. And if that weren’t enough, he penned three tracks on Adele‘s massively popular 21 album. On Love Without Fear, Wilson heads in quite the low-key direction. His radio-ready voice soars above arrangements that owe more to pop-country production values than anything he’s done previously. Fans of his earlier music may have to adjust their thinking a bit, but this collection might just bridge the gap between critical success and unit-shifting commercial triumph.

Various – I Saved Latin! A Tribute to Wes Anderson
Now, Wes Anderson isn’t a songwriter. What he is – besides a successful and idiosyncratic filmmaker – is a keen fan of great music. His films unfailingly make effective use of great, left-field tunes, working them into the narrative. This 2CD collection includes knowing covers of classic (but not overexposed) tunes by twenty-three hip/current artists. The originals all figured in Anderson’s films, and I Saved Latin!‘s bouquet of song originally recorded by The Who, Love, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Bobby Fuller and others is a delight; the tracks manage to sound fresh and new. This album is highly recommended.

Rotary Downs – Traces
This New Orleans outfit creates music that is hypnotic, catchy and alluring. They prefer to be thought of as “psychedelic art-pop,” but putting them in that bag might chase away listeners who would appreciate their strong and hooky songwriting. Their driving yet generally midtempo tunes make extensive use of synthesizers, but they do so in a way that never feels “synthy” or over-processed. You’ll find plenty of real guitar, bass and drums, too. For once, I don’t hear any clear antecedent in a band’s music, but Rotary Downs’ feel (though not their actual sound) isn’t miles away from The Church.

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Short Cuts: July Mini-reviews Part Three

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

Here are three more shortish reviews, this time all new releases.

Randy Jackson – Empathy for the Walrus
As a rule, I’m rather wary of tribute albums. More often than not, they’re bereft of original ideas, and too reverent by half. And when they’re not, they seem likely to miss what was/is important about the subject of the tribute, and instead use the opportunity to press their own identity onto the songs of a (generally superior) composer.

Thing is, those truths (I call ‘em like I hear ‘em) mean that the exceptions end up being pretty special. And here, I am pleased to report, is one of those. Randy Jackson (not the jazz bassist/American Idol guy, and not Michael Jackson‘s little brother) was and remains leader of rock band Zebra (you may recall their 1983′s “Who’s Behind the Door,” an excellent AOR rock single of the era, no mean feat). And on his new solo album Empathy for the Walrus, Jackson takes a relatively unique approach and applies it to the peerless catalog of The Beatles.

Armed only with acoustic guitars (most of ‘em sound like 12-strings) and his voice, he runs through some of the best Beatles tunes from the later half of their career arc. Jackson allows himself virtually unlimited overdubs on these arrangements, but all he adds are more guitars and more vocals. And more, and more.

The results are nothing short of stunning. His deeply textured, percussive style on the guitars and his strong voice both lend themselves to this multi-layered technique. Here, Jackson favors John Lennon‘s compositions ever so slightly over those of Paul McCartney, but they both get the Jackson treatment. (so does George Harrison, on “Something.”) Drawing from the best cuts you’d find on Beatles 1967-1970 (the “blue” album) and throwing in a few from outside that era – “Norwegian Wood” and, wait for it, “Free As a Bird” – Jackson highlights both the strength of the songs (melody and lyrics) and his own strengths as player, singer and interpreter. Even the songs that were originally light on guitar (the Abbey Road suite in particular) come off well in Randy Jackson’s capable hands. Highly recommended, even to those who might be put off by the overall concept.

Hard Swimmin’ Fish – One Step Forward
When I hear or read the name Mitch Easter, thoughts of a certain kind of music fill my head. The Winston-Salem-based producer/musician was a key part of the success of R.E.M., The dB’s and his own band, Let’s Active. And that’s only naming three from a much longer list. And while all those bands had/have their own sonic personality, they do share a certain sensibility.

All of this makes Hard Swimmin’ Fish‘s One Step Forward a bit unexpected. This electric blues quartet from Frederick, Maryland plays a swinging style of blues that relies on the sonic textures found in hollowbody electric guitar, snare-centric drumming, solid doghouse bass playing, overdriven harp wailing and soulful vocals. And none of that has anything to do with producer Mitch Easter.

At least I didn’t think so until I heard One Step Forward. The brief band-penned liner notes explain that the band generally employs a DIY approach, but that this time ’round they wanted something different. I haven’t heard any of their earlier self-produced material, but one listen to the album makes it clear that Easter knew what to do: set up the mics, get the levels, and then get the hell out of the way. And if that’s not how it went down, it’s how it sounds. The production never calls attention to itself.

The band’s twelve tunes (mostly originals with a few standards mixed in) are successful at holding interest while remaining safely within the (occasionally restrictive) blues idiom. The album highlight is “Hear Your Mama Calling” with its extended blistering lead guitar solo, but all the tracks are good. They swing, they swagger, they deliver.

Supersuckers – Get the Hell
From the moment I heard the opening air-raid-siren that leads into the crashing title track, I knew I wanted to review Get the Hell. Imagine the best characteristics of 70s, 80s and even 90s heavy rock. Now subtract all the artifice and posing. Not left with much, you say? I beg to differ. The howling, growling delivery on this, the nineteenth(!) album from this quartet, proves once again that there’s plenty of life left in the hard rock idiom.

They call themselves the “Greatest Rock’n'Roll Band in the World,” and even if you might dispute that claim, there’s no denying that The Supersuckers play as if they’ve won the title and have to fight to keep it. Look elsewhere for subtlety; cast your ears in another direction for nuance. The thirteen tunes on Get the Hell rock, and they rock hard. Vocalist/bassist Eddie Spaghetti shouts his snarly, leering lyrics while the rest of the band pummels along in an unrelenting yet always tuneful manner.

The song titles tell the story: “Disaster Bastard,” “Bein’ Bad,” “Shut Your Face,” “Rock On.” If you fret that all today’s hard rock is retreads and posturing, get the hell over to a record store and get Get the Hell. It’ll cure what ails ya.

Still more “short cuts” to come.

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Short Cuts: July Mini-reviews, Part Two

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Here’s another entry in my short-review series; these three are instrumental albums.

Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Boy Named Charlie Brown
An entire generation grew up with the music of Vince Guaraldi, becoming familiar with he melodic brand of music even if they (we) might have claimed not to like jazz. As the background music of the enduring and popular Peanuts cartoons, Guaraldi’s piano-based tunes reinforced the onscreen emotional content of the animated characters and action. The most popular entry in the series remains A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Fantasy/Concord reissued the accompanying soundtrack several times, most recently in a cleverly designed die-cut package.

But an earlier program was made, and it too had a soundtrack featuring Guaraldi’s trio (the pianist plus drummer Colin Bailey and bassist Monty Budwig). But for a host of complicated reasons, A Boy Named Charlie Brown never actually aired on television. Yet in an unusual move, Fantasy Records (Guaralidi’s label at the time) did release its soundtrack, originally titled Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown. Subsequent pressings played down the connection to the unaired program and shortened the album’s title.

The music is just how anyone who’s ever heard a note of “Linus and Lucy” remembers it: emotionally expressive without the use of lyrics, varied in tone and style to fit the demands of the program’s scenes. The trio’s music bears close listening, but is effective as (dare I say it) background music as well. The 2014 reissue appends an unreleased alternate take of “Baseball Theme” and Guaraldi’s reading of the standard “Fly Me to the Moon,” though the latter has noting to do with Peanuts. The original edit of the accompanying animated film is lost – presumably forever – but the music remains, and it’s delightful as ever. (A limited edition orange vinyl pressing – with the original Jazz Impressions artwork – is also available.)

Express Rising – Express Rising
Music is filled with the work of outsider artists. Decidedly and determinedly avoiding the mainstream, those following their singular and idiosyncratic paths create and release music wholly free of commercial considerations. Most of these artists are, by definition, underground, neither seeking nor finding mass acceptance. Some of these artists are quite prolific: pop auteur R. Stevie Moore has self-released literally hundred of albums. Others turn out music at a much more measured pace.

One example of the latter is Express Rising. The inscrutable Dante Carfagna is Express Rising, but nobody can tell you much beyond that. What is known is that Carfagna’s earlier release featured breakbeats and sampling, two things you’ll find very little of on Express Rising. Moody, hypnotic, gauzy, impressionistic, melancholy: those are just a few of the adjectives that come to mind while listening to this album of instrumental (with occasional wordless vocalizing) music. Real instruments feature prominently here: Wurlitzer electric piano, acoustic guitar and gentle tapping of a drum kit.

But for something that at first glance seems forbiddingly outré, Express Rising is exceedingly tuneful and accessible. More textured and nuanced than new age, gentler than rock, the album’s eleven tracks are fully-thought-out musical excursion, modest in their approach but memorable. By design, the package provides little information, but the press kit offered this suitably oblique nugget: “Carfagna had this to say about himself and about Express Rising: ‘My last record came out ten years ago. Much has changed and much has not.’” The modest and assuming yet lovely Express Rising is well worth seeking out.

Percy Jones – Cape Catastrophe
Outside jazz/fusion/prog circles, the name Percy Jones isn’t well known. But within that rarefied world, Jones’s reputation looms large. As a key member of pioneering fusion group Brand X, Jones’ rubbery bass lines were an integral component of that group’s sonic attack.

After Brand X ended, the Welsh bassist relocated to New York City, where he would eventually cut a solo album called Cape Catastrophe. The album is a decidedly DIY effort, laid down in 1988-89 in a Harlem studio using drum machines, Casio synthesizers,digital delays and loads of Jones’ signature bass.

On the ten-minute-plus title track, clattering drum beats collide with Jones’ kinetic bass figures; “found” spoken word bits float in and out. The overall effect is a but like slightly funkier, equally arty My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Jones’ fretless work on “Slick” is expressive and entrancing, and overall the album sounds far less “dated” than one might expect. “Hex” feels like what The Police might have produced had they all given in to their suppressed prog-rock backgrounds. And the lengthy “Barrio” (which fills more than a third of Cape Catastrophe‘s run time) feels like an inspired, exploratory in-studio live jam, belying its one-guy-with-overdubs origin.

More “short cuts” to come.

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Album Review: The Roaring 420s – What is Psych?

Friday, July 11th, 2014

There’s a bubbling-under sort of cottage industry in sixties revivalism. And it’s been around for at least a couple of decades now, occasionally popping into the mainstream consciousness to enjoy a charting single or album. Of course Oasis raised the practice to fetishism in the 1990s, shifting millions of units for their trouble. And the (admittedly more modest) success of Rhino’s Children of Nuggets box set proved that, for many, the sounds and aural aesthetic of the 1960s have never really gone away.

Today we have Elephant Stone, The Allah-Las, The Black Angels and many others. Each has their own style based in whole or part on what was happening in the second half of the 1960s, but each, too, has their own identity. And the similarly-named (yet quite distinct from one another) bands The Fuzztones and The Fleshtones have been keepers of the flame for the more garage-y end of 60s style.

Paradoxically perhaps, it requires more than a modicum of originality to earn success in 2014 while reaching back half a century for one’s musical touchstones. The Orgone Box is one act (based in the UK) whose music somehow builds upon the sounds of old while transcending the eras to create something fresh and lasting; look for my review of their Centaur album soon in this space.

Another group of note with a similar level of quality is The Roaring 420s.

Okay, now that you’ve had a second or so to chuckle at the group’s name and get it out of your system, you’re ready to digest (or, ingest) their music. Yes, this is a case of band name as truth-in-advertising, though the music of this German-based group often suggests the intake of something stronger than a bit of weed.

Judging solely by the music, there’s little or nothing to suggest that The Roaring 420s are from Germany. In fact their sound is firmly rooted in mid 1960s Los Angeles: you’ll hear strong hints of The Music Machine, The Electric Prunes, and even (shudder) The Doors. The group has a real knack of combining the vibe of yesteryear with something far more important: a hook. Every track on What is Psych? is loaded with at least one – sometimes two, occasionally three – killer riffs or hooks.

The Roaring 420s come blasting out of the gate with “Bury My Burden” sounding for all the world like a much more pop-leaning Black Angels. Fuzzy guitars and a heavier bass than is usually the case in sixties garage stomp forward, aided by some especially tasty combo organ work. And it’s the keyboards that push the music on What is Psych? past the very-good mark toward something really special. The band’s call-and-response vocal approach (employed on some but certainly not all tracks) pulls the listener in, if they weren’t already all-in.

Typically, songs of the type one will find on What is Psych? are of the three-minutes-and-out variety. It’s a testament to the strength of the band’s songwriting and arranging that many of the cuts on What is Psych? extend well beyond that mark. Catchy soloing that actually goes somewhere is backed by hypnotic backing; even at seven-plus minutes, a tune like “Bury My Burden” never so much as threatens to wear out its welcome.

The band cleverly builds its arrangements in a way that means sometimes one member is turning out a memorable solo, while the rest are providing sympathetic support. But then, perhaps, the bass and guitar will engage in lockstep riffing. Then it’s Florian Hohmann‘s combo organ and Timo Elmert‘s guitar in octave-apart unison. Then, maybe Martin Zerrenner‘s bass and Hohmann’s keys. And it all works, anchored by Luisa Mühl‘s solid drumming.

In places (as on “Blue Jay,”) The Roaring 420s sound like early Velvet Underground supercharged with the sort of pop sensibility the VU wouldn’t display until Loaded. (And the 420s are not nearly as dark as the Velvets; they seem to be having a good time.)

Like Elephant Stone (who, at will, they they can sound like) the 420s make intelligent use of sitar, as on “These Woods of Stone.” But their shimmering, riff-based pop tunes – exemplified by “Another Chance (to Blow)” are where they truly shine. The Roaring 420s have figured out to just what degree they can employ repetition: more and it would be overkill, less and they’d be leaving riffs on the table (so to speak).

Mid-album (especially on “Hey Hey Rider”), the group seems to take a brief detour into a slightly different style, one that suggests a Blonde on Blonde era Dylan crossed with, I dunno, The Fugs. Hohmann does his best Dylan but ends up sounding more like Lou Reed. But on “Yes I Am” the quartet make it clear that they won’t be pigeonholed on every tune. The bright piano work that forms the track’s basis illustrates that there’s still room for expanding the parameters of what-is-psych, Sixties style.

It’s Blues Magoos time on “You Had to Learn it the Hard Way,” taking a familiar blues lick and building a track around it. The result threatens to yield a less notable tune, but the “ba-ba-ba” vocals suggest what might’ve happened if The Mamas and the Papas dropped by a Magoos recording date.

Thick fuzz riffage against a piano backing makes “Saturday Night” alright for this album, though here the lead vocals sound curiously like Tom Verlaine. The folky strains of “Pill Hill” suggest the Velvets’ more gentle, contemplative moments. Rhyming “jello” and “pillow” is a bit dodgy, but the Al Kooper-style organ work means they earn a pass.

The Roaring 420s save the best for next-to-last: the slow chugging vibe of “Tourist” crosses a Neil Young and Crazy Horse approach with (again) Television, and the result feel like epic storytelling, whether it is or not. After several guitar solos – none of which feels excessive – an extended (and finely textured) keyboard solo conjured pleasant memories of the late Ray Manzarek. Even at eight minutes, not a second of “Tourist” feels gratuitous or wasted.

The fuzzed-out, low-key “You Will Never Be the Same” ends the album on a blurry note, providing a calming chill-out to send listeners home after this trip through the past. But not too calming: in spots, the tune feels like C.A. Quintet‘s dark classic “A Trip Thru Hell.”

For those who dig the psychedelic vibe of the 60s but want strong melodic underpinning, but who insist upon something they haven’t heard before, The Roaring 420s’s What is Psych? may be just what the doctor ordered.

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Book Review: One Way Out

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

The members of The Allman Brothers Band – and there have been many – tend to think of themselves as a jazz band. The onstage interplay owes, they argue convincingly, more to a jazz players’ aesthetic than to the comparatively aimless, noodling approach employed by a “jam band.”

That surprising fact was but one of the many things I learned reading Alan Paul‘s new “oral history” of the band, One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band. This surprisingly engrossing book – I say “surprising” because while I enjoy large swaths of the ABB catalog, their history hasn’t interested me much beyond the all-too-brief Duane Allman days – draws the reader in and holds attention through the rocky, twisted path the group follows to the present day.

Causal fans (and for once, that term applies to me) tend to believe that keyboardist Gregg Allman and his guitarist brother Duane were the centerpiece of the band. But One Way Out argues forcefully – by the totality of its multi-person point of view – that the band was and remains much more than that. Bassist Berry Oakley, guitarist Dickey Betts and drummers Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson (Jaimoe) all contributed in their own significant ways to the band’s sound, personality, and aesthetic. The book explores the band’s history from its earliest days (in the form of the bands that would end up serving as “farm teams” for the original ABB) by quoting all of the available personalities involved. Alan Paul’s history with the ABB extends far back into the mists of time, so many of his interviews date back far as well. The author occasionally weighs in at key points (noting his contributions in italics) only to provide context where a direct quote won’t work as well. And as he notes in his introduction, when accounts vary – or stand in mirror opposition – he does his best to give both (or all) sides equal time, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions (or not).

The band’s history is so tumultuous – and some of its mid-period work so drearily uninspired – that readers may be cheering part-way through for the band to throw in the towel. But just when things look the darkest, some sort of turnaround takes place. Maybe it’s a half-hearted, cash-inspired one (see: the group’s Arista years), or maybe it’s thanks to the infusion of some fresh, new talent into the fold (see: the additions of Chuck Leavell, Warren Haynes, and Derek Trucks).

As best as he can, author (“editor” might be a better word) Paul alternates between featuring band member voices as fluidly as possible. But at key points in the story – most notably whenever Gregg Allman is in one of his frequent drug- and alcohol-related downward spirals – certain members seem to go silent. (By “certain members,” I of course refer to Gregg Allman.) It’s not difficult to envision in one’s mind’s eye a scene in which some or other member is recounting Gregg’s detachment from active membership in the band, while across the room, the keyboardist is staring at the floor, quietly and ineffectually mumbling. This is, however, the only characteristic of the book that can conceivably be termed a flaw. The book’s narrative style overall has the feel of being in a room with all the principals, each weighing in when they have something relevant to offer.

Those whose interest lay more with the intricacies of how the band worked in the studio might find One Way Out a bit shallow on that score; far more space is given over to exploring the interpersonal relationships among the band members, their crew (nominally considered equals to the band, but often not treated as such), and wives/girlfriend etc.

That said, the voices of most of the female characters (and nearly all of the crew) fade away mid-way through One Way Out. Judging from the manner in which the members are quoted, it would seem that around the time of Haynes’ first tenure with the ABB, the collective focus was placed (back) onto the music. The results as represented by their music tend to support this interpretation.

With the obvious exception of the departures of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley (and Haynes, though he’d return), when a member leaves the band, the collective voice portrayed in One Way Out makes it seem largely for the best. The wondrously talented Leavell is seen to have not been given a fair chance, and to have had certain factions aligned against him (fairly or not), dooming any chance of his long-term success within the ABB.

And when Dickey Betts finally leaves (did he jump or was he pushed?), many readers will breathe a sigh of relief, while never questioning the man’s talent. Those not deeply familiar with the band may well wish they had a bookmark in the form of a laminated “Rock Family Tree” a la Pete Frame to help them keep score on the who’s-in-who’s-out nature of the band, and especially in the earlier parts of One Way Out, it’s easy to lose track of whether a given quoted character is a player, roadie, friend, or something else. But in the end (and with some key exceptions), who’s saying what matters less than the overall collective thrust of the narrative.

As any book of this sort should do, One Way Out will renew the reader’s interest in revisiting long-forgotten tracks, and may lead them to explore material with which they hadn’t previously bothered. To that end, Paul helpfully appends the book with a critical rundown of the ABB catalog. Perhaps his decision not to present the catalog in chronological order might have something to do with a wish to avoid exposing just how lengthy a weak patch the ABB endured. But Paul argues convincingly for some lesser-known gems among the dross, and he isn’t afraid to call out the band for their ill-advised, lifeless product when doing so is warranted.

Essential reading for fans of this widely-loved band that calls itself a jazz group, One Way Out is also a fascinating read for anyone wishing to go deeper than the music of The Allman Brothers Band.

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