Archive for the ‘new release’ Category

Honeymoon Hundred-word Reviews, Part 4

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

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

Today’s three reviews look at new music from American artists.


Lucky Peterson – I’m Back Again
On his 2010 album You Can Always Turn Around, Peterson displayed his prowess on vocals and the duolian resonator guitar; this new set shows his power onstage in front of an appreciative crowd. Backed by a crack blues trio, Peterson shows this Berlin audience that he can tear things up on Hammond B3 as well. In addition to standards, he takes on Ray LaMontagne‘s “Trouble” and a few original numbers. He may sport the nickname, but listening to this CD suggests that it was the people in the audience at the 55 Arts Club who were truly the lucky ones.


Backhouse Lily – Stand the Rain
As with their previous release, the duo calling themselves Backhouse Lily creates music that seems to have more instruments than are actually present. This album is a bit more groove-oriented than their last, but the bass-and-drums configuration is no gimmick; it’s merely what they do. To classify this in a narrow genre would do it a disservice; instead I’ll note that listeners who enjoy the melodic yet adventurous side of modern rock (say, Porcupine Tree) may well enjoy Stand the Rain. The music on this instro set in turns rocks hard and grooves, and it’s never too clever for itself.


The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Revelation
New music from Anton Newcombe‘s retro-minded Brian Jonestown Massacre is always welcome here at Musoscribe. Unlike some other modern psych bands (Black Angels, for example), BJM takes The Rolling Stones‘ oft-maligned Their Satanic Majesties Request as their jumping off point. The results are equal parts dark and catchy. There’s a garage-y, slipshod/scuzzy vibe at work on Revelation, and that’s a very, very good thing. Things kick off with the hypnotic “Van Hande Med Dem? (possibly “What Happened to Them?”) and the level of quality stays high. Some of the sax work recalls early Psychedelic Furs; lots of depth found here.

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Honeymoon Hundred-word Reviews, Part 3

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

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

Today’s four feature music from acts based in Europe or southeast Asia.


Three Minute Tease – Bite the Hand
A few years ago, American expatriate Anton Barbeau relocated to Germany, and then he commandeered Robyn Hitchcock‘s old band mates Andy Metcalfe (bass) and Morris Windsor (drums); the resulting trio serves up some fine dark-hued powerpop. On their latest, Bite the Hand, they’re joined (on vocals) by wonderful husband-and-wife team Khoi Hunyh and Karla Kane from The Corner Laughers, and on one track, the legendary and still-active Keith Allison (Paul Revere and the Raiders) on guitar. But it’s Barbeau’s voice songs at the center of it all, from the anthemic opener of “Bravely Fade Away” right through to the end.


Dewa Budjana – Surya Namaskar
Though Budjana’s Indonesian, listeners won’t hear much in the way of “world music” on this progressive/fusion outing. Featuring former Frank Zappa drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and sought-after session bassist Jimmy Johnson, this is a melodic trip through the instrumental progjazz world. The influence of John McLaughlin is one Budjana wears on his sleeve (and, as the gatefold photo shows, on his chest as well; I have the same t-shirt). The album occasionally sounds like mid 70s Jean-Luc Ponty sans violin. Stinging guitar runs and knotty bass figures atop crackling drums makes this electric outing a delight for fans of the genre.


The Group – The Feed-back
Here’s a very strange – and until now, extremely rare – album: an avant-garde noisefest featuring Ennio Morricone (yeah, the spaghetti western soundtrack composer). But this sounds nothing like the soundtrack from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. This collective of composer/players officially bore the moniker Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza, hence the shortened Il Gruppo (“The Group”). Sounding like a cross between Freak Out! Mothers, Can, and The United States of America, it’s a weird yet wonderful foray into the outer reaches. It’s also not miles away from the kind of thing you’d hear on Bitches Brew.

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Honeymoon Hundred-word Reviews, Part 2

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

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

Today’s three feature new music from British and/or part-Australian acts.


The Britannicas – High Tea
It’s thanks to the wonders of modern technology that an act such as the Britannicas could even exist: the members are scattered across the globe (USA, Sweden, Australia). But the infectious, highly melodic result of their internet-based collaboration belies that fact. Creamy vocal harmonies, beefy bass lines and chiming electric guitars are the order of the day. The music is richly textured, not unlike a slightly more jangly (and occasionally, slightly less rocking) Smithereens. For people who believe that the best kind of music came out of A Hard Days’ Night, The Britannicas’ High Tea will be manna from heaven.


The Penguin Party – Mesherlek
Don’t let the endlessly inventive packaging distract you from the fact that Mesherlek is simply wonderful. Equal parts snotty and uncompromising pub rocker (think: Graham Parker, early Elvis Costello or Nick Lowe) and wry commenter on lives writ small (think: Fountains of Wayne or Ray Davies), Dave Milligan has a seemingly bottomless well of wry/hilarious story songs wedded to killer riffage. Topping Sex Furniture Warehouse would seem an unachievable feat; with this album, Milligan and his mates have pulled it off. From the jaunty ska of “Do You Know Who I Am? to “Token Tree Hugging Ecological Song,” it’s essential.


Cleaners from Venus – Return to Bohemia
Martin Newell‘s witty observations are always wrapped in lovely melodies. His latest one-man effort is no exception. “Cling to Me” sounds like the demo of a hit tune (and is a bit reminiscent of Robyn Hitchcock‘s “Element of Light”), and the rest of the album is just as swell. Newell won’t likely win scores of new converts with this low-key affair, but those who’ve been hipped to the wonderment of his work will surely find plenty to treasure here. He has a huge catalog, but Return to Bohemia is as good a place as any for the initiated to start.

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Album Review: John and Yoko w/ Harry Smith: I’m Not the Beatles

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

Way back in 1990, author John Robertson published a provocative book called The Art & Music of John Lennon. The title might lead one to think it’s a coffee table book or somesuch; in fact it’s something much more weighty (metaphorically speaking, that is). Robertson’s central thesis – consistent with a largely unspoken viewpoint espoused by John Lennon and wife/partner/collaborator Yoko Ono – is that everything John and Yoko did was essentially part of one big work of art. Yes: not only music, but written pieces (such as Yoko’s Grapefruit), public appearances (like the 1969 Amsterdam and Toronto bed-ins), films (Apotheosis, Erection, and so on) and interviews.

If one buys that argument (and I do), it points out John and Yoko’s commonality with Frank Zappa: Zappa’s entire body of work somehow fits together, puzzle-like, into something aficionados call the Project-Object.

Robertson doesn’t make explicit mention of the series of interviews the couple held with Village Voice journalist Howard Smith, but passing mention is made to those interviews in the larger context of the bed-ins and other milestones in their timeline. As it happens, John and Yoko sat (occasionally over the phone, more often in person) with Smith for no less than a half dozen interviews between May 1969 an January 1972. Totaling more than four hours of audio, these previously unreleased conversations have now been released as an eight-CD set called I’m Not the Beatles.

Of course the Lennons gave many interviews in that period; before John’s self-imposed retirement (1975-79), he was one of the most accessible artists in the pop world. And as the couple lent their high profiles to a dazzlingly varied assortment of causes, there was nearly always a timely and relevant reason to sit down with them for a chat.

A few things are especially remarkable about these interviews. One, John and Yoko are nearly always patient and respectful of their interviewer. One must realize that they had answered these very same questions – or slight variations on them — dozens of other times; especially in the case of the bed-ins: how many ways are there to respectfully respond to a question that basically asks, “What the hell is it you’re doing?” the flip-side remarkable quality of the interviews is that Smith seems unafraid to ask tough questions. He pushes Lennon hard (and repeatedly) on the efficacy of sitting in bed, planting acorns, posting billboards and the like, all “for peace.” And when he doesn’t get an answer that satisfies him, he asks again, from a slightly different angle.

All of the big events that John and Yoko were involved with in the period get discussed in these interviews. The Toronto Peace Festival and the couple’s involvement with Greenwich Village leftists are explored in some detail.

The booklet enclosed with the CDs sketches the arc of Smith’s getting to know the couple, and places the series of interviews into historical context. Liner notes writer (and Beatles expert) Chip Madinger credits Smith with introducing John and Yoko to the nearly talentless John Peel, but listeners shouldn’t hold that sin against Smith; just appreciate his skills as an interviewer and delight in this fascinating box set of conversations wit John and Yoko.

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Album Review: Jethro Tull — A Passion Play: An Extended Performance

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

Unlike, say, Creedence Clearwater Revivial – or even The BeatlesJethro Tull have rarely been anyone’s idea of a “singles group.” As the leading folk-prog group of the rock era, the Ian Anderson-led group released a steady line of albums, one a year from 1968-80. And many of those did spawn a single: seven of the group’s 45s in that period charted in the USA, and five made the UK charts. (There’s little overlap in those two lists, suggesting that Tull’s appeal was quite different to American and British audiences.)

But of course, from a commercial point of view (and an artistic one, as well), albums and singles are aimed at different segments of the listening audiences. While the group’s 1973 album A Passion Play spawned only one single (“A Passion Play” [edit 8] b/w “A Passion Play” [edit 9]), and it reached only the lower rungs of the charts in the USA (and Germany), the album itself was a number-one hit stateside. Some of that success could be down to its following on the heels of the band’s biggest success, the previous year’s Thick as a Brick. And like that record, A Passion Play is designed as a single piece of music, designed to be taken as a whole.

In 2003, a CD version of A Passion Play was released; it included a bonus video track, but otherwise offered no new tracks. Now in 2014, Chrysalis has released a sprawling, four-disc set, filled with goodies.

The first disc features the original A Passion Play album but it’s been given a new stereo remix by Porcupine Tree‘s Steven Wilson; Wilson has previously performed his stellar remix work on catalog items from King Crimson and Caravan, as well as on other Tull albums. Wilson has a knack – no doubt aided by modern technology that simply didn’t exist back in the 70s – for bringing out previously buried sonic elements in these forty-year-old tapes. In some cases, it’s a matter of limitations on the number of available tracks back in the 1970s; artists would often fill up the multitracks, then “mix down” to fewer tracks, then continue. The result would effective set in stone the early parts of the mix, and each “bounce” caused a slight (but noteworthy) loss in fidelity.

With today’s digital technology, the number of tracks is limited only by the size of the studio’s hard drive (in practical terms, that’s limitless). So Wilson is able to go back to all of the first-generation discrete tracks for each instrument, vocal and sound effect (when the tracks are available) and construct a new mix using all first-generation audio signals. Add his talent, creativity and keen ear, and the results are fantastic.

The sessions that yielded what we now know as A Passion Play were in fact the second attempt that Anderson and his bandmates made at a followup to Thick as a Brick. In 1973 Jethro Tull decamped to Château D’Hérouville studios and recorded a full album’s worth of material; ultimately it was not used. For this expanded reissue of A Passion Play, Steven Wilson has constructed a new remix based on those sessions; this material fills the second CD in the set.

As was done on other Wilson remixes, this set also includes the material in higher bitrate, in a number of formats. The third disc – a region-free DVD – features Wilson’s A Passion Play remix in DTS 96/24 5.1 Surround; Dolby Digital AC3 5.1 Surround; and 96/24 PCM. You’ll need a DVD-A-compatible player to read that data, of course. And quite honestly, you’ll need ears not damaged by decades of loud rock’n'roll to appreciate Wilson’s work in full; to me, it all certainly sounds splendid, but I imagine that there’s a lot I’m unable to hear.

The third disc also includes some related video content: a music video for A Passion Play‘s “The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles,” and film footage used onstage during Jethro Tull’s concerts in support of the album. The fourth disc gives the Château D’Hérouville sessions the same high-bitrate treatment.

The entire affair is packaged in a hardcover book (roughly the size of an old Hardy Boys mystery) and includes an expansive 80-page booklet. In addition to Wilson’s notes on the remixes, a lengthy and enlightening essay from Martin Webb (based on interviews with the players on the sessions), there are various other bits of photos, clippings, quotes and the like. The compilers have endeavored to create an “ultimate” version of Jethro Tull’s 1973 work product, and they’ve succeeded on most every level.

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Everything Comes Together: The Paul & John Interview, Part Three

Friday, September 12th, 2014

Continued from Part Two

The album that would become Inner Sunset was announced in 2013, but the project’s gestation was a lengthy process, especially when compared to the quick, DIY measure employed by most other artists on the Mystery Lawn label. “Several factors contributed to the album taking so long to come out,” John Moremen explains. “First, we wanted to record it at Mystery Lawn Studio with Allen Clapp engineering. It was a very busy four-year period for Allen, working with The Corner Laughers, Alison Levy, Jim Ruiz, Agony Aunts, William Cleere, Marshall Holland and [John Moremen's] Flotation Device. We had to wait until Allen and the studio were available.” Paul Myers stresses that “Allen was ridiculously generous with his time, resources and talent, but that often meant we had to wait while The Orange Peels recorded and toured, or while other Mystery Lawn people had their turn with him.”

And while The Paul & John‘s mid-project decision to use only newer songs resulted in a better record, that too set the completion date back somewhat. “Over the course of four years,” says Myers, “our sound evolved, and the later songs were better than the early ones. We’d decided that there’d be no filler or dead weight songs; every moment had to be uniformly ‘awesome,’ if only to ourselves.” Moremen notes that “we completely rewrote the album about a year after we started working on it.” And that, Myers adds, “meant throwing out stuff, re-cutting some stuff, and writing new stuff. Time flies when you’re having fun.”

Moreoever, while Inner Sunset is a carefully crafted work from start to finish, it’s the product of two men who remain very involved in a multitude of other musical (and music-related) endeavors. “ We aren’t a day-to-day thing,” Paul Myers points out. “We both have other projects and jobs, so we end up taking weeks and months to accomplish what some bands do in a couple of days.” During the years leading up to the eventual release of Inner Sunset, music journalist/author Myers was writing and doing promotional work for A Wizard / A True Star, his excellent book on Todd Rundgren. Meanwhile, Moremen was “busy working on The Orange Peels’ Sun Moon album, recording a new album with Flotation Device and playing shows with Alison Levy, Roy Loney, and Half Japanese.” He laughs and says that “It’s kind of a miracle that we finished Inner Sunset with all those other projects happening.”

Yet another factor that affected the release timetable for Inner Sunset was the pair’s reliance upon crowd funding to finance the album. “I was a nervous wreck when we first launched our Kickstarter and donations weren’t coming right away,” Myers candidly admits. “You start to doubt your mission, and for me, it stirred up old demons about social popularity. Insecurities run deep with me, and I really began to feel scared.” But once word got out about the planned album, support grew quickly. “The best part was the overwhelming support,” Moremen says. “People really, really wanted to see this album come out. We had so many positive vibes coming our way from so many people wishing us well.” As the funding deadline approached, fans rallied. Myers explains that “in the final weeks, the drought lifted, and a deluge of pledges came in. We exceeded our goal. So now, I feel gratified that people really did care. And I hope they actually play and enjoy the record.”

And though it was ultimately successful, Myers and Moremen learned a lot from the Kickstarter experience. “The next time I do one of these, I’m going to put a little more planning into it regarding budgeting,” says Moremen. Striking a hopeful note, he adds, “the next one should be a lot easier!” Myers sums up the crowdfunding concept in a single sentence: “People ultimately love to help creative people bring their artistic dreams to life.”

The Paul & John’s Inner Sunset is available now from Mystery Lawn Music. And as Todd Rundgren, one of Myers’ musical heroes, might say “And there’s more.” Paul says, “we’re putting together the live band [a record release show in San Francisco is scheduled for October 30], and we hope to start writing more songs together real soon. That’s where it all starts for me. I really hope it’s not another four years until a follow up!”

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Everything Comes Together: The Paul & John Interview, Part Two

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Speaking of the process of songwriting, the songs on The Paul & John‘s Inner Sunset are truly the product of a collaborative approach between Paul Myers and John Moremen. “When we originally started working on The Paul & John stuff, Paul was writing lyrics for some of my music,” explains Moremen. “Then we decided to try a few face-to-face, and those were fantastic. Things were going so well writing this way that we decided to scrap the old original tunes and basically rewrite the album.”

“While John graciously deferred all the lyric writing to me,” Myers says, “we wrote all the music 100% together. We made a rule that, even though either of us could probably start and finish entire songs, that wasn’t what The Paul & John was about.” Moremen adds, “Usually Paul or I would have a little piece of something, but that would just be the kindling to get the fire started. Often the original idea would be unrecognizable by the time the song was finished.”

Since the pair had, in Myers’ words, “opted to only record songs where we had a chance to collaborate on all the music,” the songs bear the distinct character of their collaborative approach. “On ‘Hungry Little Monkey,’ John had made a GarageBand recording of the verse chords and melody, then I took that home to my studio and pasted in my original musical idea for the chorus. It was like Frankenstein’s monster, but it really worked. That’s one of my favorite songs now.”

The pair crafted all of the sounds on Inner Sunset without the enlisting of outside musicians. Moremen handled guitars (more often than not, the lead parts) plus drums and vocals. Myers played guitars (usually, but not exclusively, rhythm parts) plus bass guitar, vocals, and Mellotron-like “string” keyboard sounds. Moremen says that a goal of upcoming live dates to promote Inner Sunset will be to keep “the vibe of the performances… as close to the album as possible.” In practice that means The John & Paul will stick to guitars and vocals, joined by players from a pool that Myers characterizes as “a lot of talented friends locally here in the Bay Area, and all over North America. There’s a lot of potential there to have unique backing lineups in different cities.” In addition to a bassist and drummer, they’ll feature “two extra players to help on the big background vocals, and to play percussion and other things that we overdubbed in the studio,” says Myers. “I think,” says Moremen, “with the addition of the multi-instrumentalist and the extra harmony, we should have all the parts pretty well covered. We put quite a bit of four-part singing on the album, so that was important in considering the live thing.”

When the label “power pop” is mentioned in connection with their music, the two men offer distinctly different responses. “I’ve never been a fan of the term ‘power pop,’” admits John Moremen. “To me, it does seem limiting for music such as this. We love The Beatles, and we love it loud just as much as the last power popper. I feel that our influences are diverse; that’s where I can see the difference between us and a band that would be called power pop.” He’s not adamant about the issue, however. “It doesn’t matter too much, though. If people dig what we’re doing and they call it power pop, it’s actually fine with me!”

Paul Myers takes a view that puts the subject in some historical context. “Fifteen or so years ago, when major labels were courting bands like ours, a lot of these bands felt ghettoized by the term ‘power pop,’ like it meant ‘lightweight’ or bubblegum. The labels hated the term, and good power pop bands had to kind of keep it under their hats. I never backed away,” he admits, name-checking a who’s-who list of artists who’ve suffered (or proudly worn) the power pop tag. “I always loved Cheap Trick, XTC, Squeeze, Big Star, Badfinger, Wings, Raspberries, The Who, Jellyfish, Teenage Fanclub, and too many more.” Myers smiles and says, “If there’s a power pop revolution, you’ll find me marching out front, head and banner held high.” And The Paul & John deserve mention in that list: Inner Sunset‘s standout track, the swoonworthy “Everything Comes Together” is as good as the best from any of those groups.

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Everything Comes Together: The Paul & John Interview, Part One

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Music lovers who appreciate highly melodic and memorable rock-based songs – the kind of instantly hummable tunes that stick in your head long after the song is over – should take heart: though the style (however you might label it) doesn’t top the music 2014 charts, the style is far from moribund. In fact, San Francisco’s Bay Area might be considered something of a “ground zero” for the upbeat (yet occasionally melancholy) form that some call “sunshine pop,” “power pop” or some other label that attempts to distill a description down to a couple of words. The Mystery Lawn label has quickly established itself as a reliable purveyor (or perhaps “curator”) of high quality music from a wide array of thoughtful, individualistic artists. Though each has their own distinct musical personality and vision, all Mystery Lawn acts share a love and appreciation (as well as an uncanny knack) for well-crafted melodies with substance.

The latest in the consistent line of highly regarded releases is the long-awaited debut from The Paul & John. The duo of singer/songwriter/guitarists Paul Myers and John Moremen released Inner Sunset this summer.

The duo are careful not to let critics lump all Mystery Lawn groups into a single, confined genre. “To me all of the [label's] groups are very different from each other,” Moremen insists. Myers concedes that groups releasing their music on Mystery Lawn do have much in common, but believes they’re distinct as well. “I think that while John and I come at this approach to pop rock songwriting from oh-so-slightly different angles, the unified region of our Venn diagram is larger than the non-aligned regions,” he says. “By filtering it all through (label head/producer) Allen Clapp‘s ears (and gear) the sound is even more unified, and of course more Mystery Lawn.”

Moremen agrees: while he allows that “the one thing we have in common would be Allen’s influence, which is immeasurable.” Citing a shared predilection toward “big harmony vocals and broad sonic gestures like reverb-y guitars, and roomy drums,” Myers notes that “all of the acts on Allen’s label make records that sound like records…just maybe not records from today.” And to those who might tag The Paul & John’s music as “retro” – myself, I’d more likely call it timeless – Paul Myers says, “no one involved in Inner Sunset was self-consciously “retro” in our approach to the sonic design. It just so happens that our ideals are the accumulation of a lot of 70s and 60s records, and we’ve all been doing this for a long time.” Moremen admits that The Paul & John will occasionally “venture into Orange Peels territory a little, but that’s mainly because I play guitar and co-write the music in both groups.”

A unifying hallmark of the ten songs on Inner Sunset – from “Inner Sunrise,” the brief, Everly Brothers-styled acoustic opener, through the disc’s more rocking, full-band styled tunes, to the soaring, pastoral “Inner Sundown” that closes the album – is an unerring insistence upon memorable melodic lines. Or, as we used to call them, hooks. “We love hooks,” Myers readily admits. In his view, “A hook can be a compelling melody, an ear-grabbing riff, or even a life-altering chord change. So we do begin with some kind of initial hook, then refine, add to and arrange.” He considers song arrangement a critical component in songcraft. “The layout is built around nurturing and protecting the hooks. This is not a cynical thing,” he hastens to add. “We really do approach it based on what excites us as listeners.” Moremen approaches the subject from a subtly different perspective. “For the most part, we started [writing] the melody, or words and a melody. I find that the hooky bits just naturally present themselves as the tune is coming together.” In fact, he says, “I can’t remember a time when I’ve actually put a hook into a song, unless it’s a recurring riff or something like that.” But almost immediately, he amends his remark: “In the case of the song ‘Inner Sunset,’ it was completely rewritten, because we felt something was missing. I guess,” he allows, “in that case you could say we made it ‘hookier.’” The texture of Moremen’s hollowbody electric guitar solo on “Inner Sunset” is evocative of George Harrison‘s lead work circa A Hard Day’s Night; listeners can decide for themselves if that quality classifies as hooky.

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Album Review: Sloan — Commonwealth

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

Rock fans who fall into a certain age bracket may recall the buzz around the release of Liz Phair‘s major-label debut, 1993′s Exile in Guyville. As the popular story went, the album was a track-by-track feminist response to The Rolling Stones‘ 1972 double LP Exile on Main Street. Or something like that; on close examination, the argument didn’t hold up. But the album was superb, regardless.

I’m not here today to convince you that Sloan‘s Commonwealth is the Canadian quartet’s answer to The Beatles‘ self-titled 1968 double LP. But surface similarities do exist.

First off, the new Sloan album is divided into four sections. All four members of the band compose, play and sing, and rather than mix things up (like, say, John and Yoko did on Double Fantasy), each member gets his own side (the album is available on vinyl, though my review copy is a silver CD). Each songwriter gets thirteen to fifteen minutes or so to present a suite of songs that display his own distinct personality and perspective. But here’s the kicker: unlike the white album, where some tracks featured only Lennon, and others might even have Paul McCartney behind the drum kit(!), on Commonwealth, the all-for-one/one-for-all approach means that each side finds the composer/vocalist ably and enthusiastically backed by his band mates. Commonwealth is that rarest of albums: a series of tracks from distinct individuals, all presented in a way that makes the disc into a cohesive whole.

The first five songs are labeled Diamond Side and are composed by Jay Ferguson. Sounding a bit like Belle and Sebastian, Ferguson’s songs – most notably the lovely midtempo “Three Sisters” feature clever flourishes that might remind listeners of Ringo Starr‘s Revolver-period drum fills. Each of the tunes is generally built around a piano melody, but plenty of muscular lead guitar is woven into the arrangement. The five tunes segue smoothly into one another; let your attention slip a bit and you might miss the transition to the shimmering “You’ve Got a Lot on Your Mind.” The band ups the tempo and energy level for the infectious vibe of “Cleopatra.” Guaranteed ear candy, Ferguson’s songs alone plus filler would equal a very, very good album.

Chris Murphy‘s Heart Side is next. His “Carried Away” may well be the most soaring tune on Commonwealth, but he and his band mates offer strong competition. A lovely string section leads into a chorus you won’t soon forget. With its elegiac piano and cynical lyrics, “So Far So Good” sounds like something off John Lennon’s Imagine. More of those wonderful drums-down-the-stairs fills, Leslie’d lead guitar and creamy ahhh vocal harmonies make it a standout track. The stuttering beat of the brief “Get Out” distantly recalls George Harrison‘s “Old Brown Shoe.” The melancholy “Misty’s Beside Herself” is full of beauty and heartbreak. Murphy rocks out on his last spotlight track, “You Don’t Need Excuses to Be Good.” The minor-key number features a lengthy but stinging riff as the basis of its chorus. It’s a rare songwriter who can compose ballads and rockers of equal quality, and then sequence them on an album in a way that isn’t jarring, in a sequence that makes sense. Murphy succeeds.

Shamrock Side features four songs from Patrick Pentland. Right out of the gate he serves up “13 (Under A Bad Sign),” a rocker that swaggers like T. Rex. Wonderfully distorted guitar fills leave the listener wanting more. Some bursts of noise and what initially sounds like the same backing track used on “13” lead straight into “Take it Easy.” Even more distorted, nearly atonal guitar skronk atop the chugging, insistent rhythm section brings out the rock in Shamrock Side. “What’s Inside” is a slow, gauzy, almost psychedelic swirl that is highly appealing and will draw listeners into its musical maelstrom. Pentland’s side wraps up with the Rolling Stones-y “Keep Swinging (Downtown).” Some wonderfully retro combo organ textures recall the mid 1960s garage scene, and a brief effects-laden guitar solo is yet another highlight.

Commonwealth ends with Spade Side, an eighteen-minute suite of Andrew Scott compositions all woven together under the singe title “Forty-eight Portraits.” The opening section could – if one wishes to labor the white album comparison – be thought of as Commonwealth‘s “Revolution #9.” Found sounds (barking dogs, alarm clocks, out-of-tune parlor piano) unfold gradually, and then the piano rises from the aural mist, seamlessly unfolding into a beautiful melody topped by some tight dual lead vocal harmony work. While none of Scott’s melodies sound like lifts, there’s a definite Abbey Road (Side Two, specifically) vibe to the mini-songs; the manner in which they hang together only strengthens the similarity. Had he cared to, Scott could have easily extended any and all of the brief “songlets” into full-length numbers, creating an entire excellent album in the process. It’s a testament to the democratic approach of Sloan that he and his band mates chose otherwise. The thirty-second section that begins around the 11:20 mark is perhaps the hookiest segment of “Forty-eight Portraits,” but there’s not a weak moment in the entire track. Around 12:15 Sloan take us back –albeit briefly – to the Summer of Love, with insistent piano and brass that backs the vocal countermelodies. Then there’s a bit that recalls the weary yet jubilant rooftop vibe of “I’ve Got a Feeling,” featuring some children’s chorus vocals that recall early Traffic, XTC and the Rolling Stones all at once. The song then gradually takes off into the ether, explicitly recalling either Abbey Road‘s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” Badfinger‘s “Timeless,” or – most likely – both.

And then it’s over. Luckily you can play it again. And you’ll want to. Commonwealth truly displays the common wealth of songwriting prowess among Sloan’s four very equal members. Easily a strong contender for Musoscribe’s best album of 2014, Commonwealth earns my enthusiastic Must Buy recommendation.

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Album Review: The Legal Matters

Monday, September 8th, 2014

My friend Bruce Brodeen occasionally endures some good-natured ribbing for those mini-reviews he penned in his NotLame mail order catalogs of the 90s. If you viewed his writing a certain way, it seemed like he thought everything was great. But I’m reminded of the (possibly apocryphal) conversation between a fan and Raymond Burr of TV’s Perry Mason: approached on the street and asked how he could possibly win every case, Burr is said to have replied, “Well, madam, you only see the cases I try on Thursdays!” Point being, some reviewers (myself included) don’t waste much time shining light on lesser efforts, unless they deserve it. With that in mind, here’s another review in which I basically tell you that I really dig the music.

I first stumbled across the music of Andy Reed in early 2012, around the time his album Always on the Run (credited to An American Underdog) was released. Reed’s a busy guy: he’s also a member of The Verve Pipe, whose recent album Overboard is enthusiastically recommended to fans of timeless pop (rock guitar and vocal variant). But those two ongoing projects are seemingly not enough to keep him occupied; he has of late joined forces with two songwriters (and musicians and singers) of comparable merit to form The Legal Matters. Fans of shimmering, memorable pop rock won’t want to miss their self-titled debut album. Joining Reed are Keith Klingensmith and Chris Richards; the trio share composition duties, and take turns on lead vocals.

“Stubborn” is some delightful midtempo rock with just a hint of country influence, on the level of Tom Petty or Gin Blossoms. There isn’t any filler on The Legal Matters: subtly distorted guitars are joined by rhythm guitar (often acoustic, always a good thing in this sort of context), plus plenty of lovely vocal harmonies, like the “la la la” and “ooh” bits peppered throughout Reed’s “The Legend of Walter Wright.” The Legal Matters don’t sound exactly like anyone else, but there are some production and composition signatures that suggest a stripped down answer to Rick Hromadka‘s Maple Mars.

Klingensmith and Reed cowrote “Mary Anne,” one of the most gentle and contemplative tunes on the disc. Subtle instrumental backing supports some carefully stacked vocals.

The Legal Matters might be thought of as a songwriters’ collective. Richards’ “It’s Not What I Say” would work well enough as a guitar-and-single-vocal tune, but here, with the (still understated) backing of band mates, Richards and his song end up recalling the best of soft rockers like Pure Prairie League. An acoustic guitar solo is the cherry on top.

The spare and restrained instrumentation on Richards’ rock-oriented “Before We Get it Right” recalls The Beatles‘ “Getting Better.” Reed’s “So Long Sunny Days” strikes a wistful tone, and his lyrics are wholly consistent with that approach. Once again, the tight and carefully-applied vocal harmonies are a highlight. The c&w influence is more pronounced on “Outer Space,” but it’s presented well within a melodic pop context, free of artifice; the song’s bridge takes things to another (higher) level entirely.

The Legal Matters closes with Reed’s “We Were Enemies,” wherein the trio judiciously applies a bit of keyboards to support the melancholy number. The soaring harmonies and electric lead guitar balance things nicely, ending the album on a perfect note. The extended outro (full of ahhh vocals) is a delight.

More, please. Timeless pop like this is never in great enough supply, though The Legal Matters are certainly doing their part.

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