Archive for the ‘new release’ Category

Ask Me Some Questions: The Graham Parker Interview, Part 4

Monday, April 21st, 2014

Continued from Part Three…

Bill Kopp: As much as I love your songwriting, two of my favorite tunes of yours have always been “Hold Back the Night” and “I Want You Back,” both soul/r&b covers. How did you discover that sort of music when you were young, and – since it has clearly influenced your style – what do you think it was and is about that kind of music that connected with you on an emotional level?

Graham Parker: None of that was a stretch in England in the 70s. After The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, there was a sort of subculture of soul, ska and Motown. And a sort of mod look, but more like skinheads. We looked like skinheads, but without the violence. Well [chuckles], sometimes, but not always.

And the culture was going to the clubs and listening to that music. Even going to see The Skatalites in the suburbs of England! I saw them, for goodness’ sake, in a provincial town, a nowheresville. These people would tour ’round here. [In the 60s] Otis Redding would play at a big scene about five miles from me. I was probably about fourteen [circa 1964-5]. Maybe sixteen. And in those days, we knew abut things by seeing posters. And if you didn’t go out in a car that week, you wouldn’t see a poster. And you’d miss Otis Redding, playing down the road!

It wasn’t a stretch for us to be into that kind of music. It was a semi-underground thing; the charts were still much more pop music. But it was really something that got into my blood at that age. And then you get out of that and into the psychedelic era, then the blues era – Peter Green and Chicken Shack – I went through all that and forgot about soul music.

By the time I got to my early 20s, I might hear “I Want you Back” on the radio. And I realized, “That’s never gonna die.” Whereas a lot of this progressive rock, it’s dead in the water, y’know? So my entire attitude changed once again. I rediscovered that music, and I suddenly had a plan, as it were, or a direction to reinstate soul music into the culture. But to do it in an English way, of course. Like the Rolling Stones had done blues in an English way. And the Beatles did “Please Mr. Postman” and stuff like that.

BK: It’s part of the proud tradition of British artists serving up American music to Americans, filtering it though a British sensibility.

GP: Right. There was really nothing original about what I was doing. I was just doing it in my way, and it sounded like me. And it was extremely aggressive. We were also doing “You Can’t Hurry Love.” It’s on the [1976] Live at Marble Arch record, I think. Which at the time, 1976-76, was radical. The audience would see us doing that, and they would think we were doing bad pop music. They didn’t understand, because it wasn’t progressive, and there weren’t big lead guitar solos. But we took soul music and beefed it up into hard rock’n'roll style. But as I say, it wasn’t any more original than what The Beatles or Stones or Chris Farlowe were doing.

I was writing songs that were very soul influenced, but with more intellectual lyrics. But it wasn’t slavish, like the Alabama Shakes, which is basically a very good slavish copy. I wasn’t doing that, ever.

BK: A good bit of the film focuses on the events leading up to and including the making of Three Chords Good. What abut the experience of making that record was the same as the old days, and what was different?

GP: It was much different because we didn’t have a producer. It was me and my engineer/co-producer Dave Cook, saying, “We’re doing it. No way are we looking for some outside producer; it’s not going to happen.” And the band went along with it. Everybody in the studio was very glad of that. We know what we’re doing now; all that mystique about a great producer, that’s gone. It’s rubbish. What you need is an engineer who knows what he’s doing. And I had the experience to know what my songs are about. You don’t need someone walking in who’s heard them twice and thinks they know what they are! They never did; it was really getting in the way.

It was better. Everyone cold relax and come up with their own ideas. And nobody had to listen to another guy who they’d barely met. Because [producers] always want to put their ten cents in. They’re being paid to do that.

BK: All the upcoming dates listed on your site are in the UK or western Europe. Do you have any plans to tour the states, or is that even feasible?

GP: Because we did it twice – and we did all of my markets in the States, and let’s face it: I have a limited amount of markets – there are only so many markets that make it feasible for a six-piece band and crew to come through without going broke.

It just seemed to happen. We did four dates in England; Shepherd’s Bush was sold out months in advance. To a certain extent, the response was even better than in America. In America, we’d just fill out a 1000-seat venue in New York for the last few dates. In England, we’d fill out a 2000-seater months in advance. So basically, I go where I’m in demand. And as soon as my agent saw that – him and the promoter – they went out thick as thieves and said, “Let’s do some more!” And I kind of got bowled along with it. Now we’ve got all this stuff lined up, including Europe, and I don’t really know how much I want to do this all year’ round. And – to talk in hard terms – I don’t think I can strain my market. And to tour America again that soon with The Rumour, I think that this year is out as far as the U.S. Is concerned. I’ve got other markets, like Scandinavia and Spain, that I have not toured in a long time. They want me to go other there solo, or any way possible. But how much life there is in this dog, I don’t know. I really take it bit by bit.

BK: Two Chords Good was released more than a year and a half ago. And while the bootleg box set is a recent release, what are your plans as far as recording releases for the future?

GP: Well, the lot of us are meeting in London, and we’re doing a record in about a week’s time. How about that? [chuckles]

BK: Fantastic!

GP: You may be the first to know that.

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Ask Me Some Questions: The Graham Parker Interview, Part 3

Friday, April 18th, 2014

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: As the new Ask Me No Questions documentary points out, you parted ways with The Rumour after The Up Escalator (1980), but with the exception of Another Grey Area (1982), you pretty much continued to work with guitarist Brinsley Schwarz on many of your recordings. What was it about him that led you to keep using him but not the other guys in The Rumour?

Graham Parker: I’ve never really been able to answer that questions, really. Actually it was him and Andrew [Bodnar] on the bass as well. They continued on quite a lot of stuff. If you think of The Mona Lisa’s Sister [1988] – which was quite a radical record for me, production-wise – I had gotten fed up with all these 80s-sounding producers, and wanted something with as few instruments as possible. I had never really done that, and I pulled off something quite different, I think. Brinsley and Andrew were part of that, and they were on the road with me. So we did quite a lot together.

But I don’t really know the answer; it just seemed to fall into place without me thinking about it. Brinsley is a foil for me; he can take off the rough edges a bit. Martin [Belmont], as a guitarist, is sort of rough-edged. He’s a brilliant guitarist, and he actually played some incredible guitar on Howling Wind. That’s a lot of him playing the lead on songs like “Don’t Ask Me Questions.” Much more than people think. But he’s got that incredible intensity: Martin cannot lay back. Brinsley adds a dimension that real counts against what I do. So it seemed normal and natural to me; I don’t know how it happened, but I just started talking to Brinsley, and I said,”I want you to help me with The Mona Lisa’s Sister.” He was also on Steady Nerves [1985].

Also, some of the guitarists I was finding myself working with via producers like Jack Douglas on Another Grey Area, I didn’t think they were quite right for me. I didn’t think they had enough individuality in their playing; Brinsley has great individuality. So he has both of those things: a style that can smooth of some of my edges, making a very nice balance, and also individuality as a player. But it’s only now looking back and analyzing it that I can see why I did it.

BK: You mentioned about the 80s sound on some of the records. For me, the only one that really has what I’d consider “dated” production is the one that has “Break Them Down” on it…

GP: Steady Nerves, yeah. That was around the time I was saying, “Oh, I should be my own producer.” But I didn’t really have the guts to do it completely. So I got this guy Bill Whitman, who had engineered the She’s So Unusual album by Cyndi Lauper. And if you think of the sound of that, it personifies the 80s. Not that it wasn’t good; it was very good. He had done that record, and he was in that mode. There was no shaking him out of that. And I went along with it, because it was what you did then. You made an absolutely enormous drum sound, and all the instrument had a load of reverb on them. Everything was drenched in that sound. And that one’s definitely a culprit.

And that’s why I went radically against it with The Mona Lisa’s Sister. I really wanted to do the opposite. Although, if you listen to “Start a Fire” now, you could very well say, “That sounds very 80s.” The difference is, there’s one acoustic guitar doing the rhythm on a sort of disco beat song. Which is sort of unusual; that song is on a lot of alternative [compilation] records. But on that record, I stopped at four instruments: “We’re not gonna double the guitars.” That’s what you did on 80s records; if I played a rhythm guitar on Steady Nerves, the producer would say, “Double it.” So then you’d play what you did again, and they’d copy it. Because it made everything “bigger.” But in hindsight, it made everything smaller, in as strange kind of way. It squashed it with lots of treatment, lots of reverb. And that kind of production really canceled out the rock’n'roll element. It did so very effectively. And we were all guilty of that. We were searching ofr a bigger sound, but what we were getting was a louder sound. So it was very good to make The Mona Lisa’s Sister, and even better to make Struck by Lightning [1991]. By then, everything was much more grassroots again. There are a couple of tracks on that one that are overdone with production, but mostly, it’s back to the roots.

To be continued…

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Ask Me Some Questions: The Graham Parker Interview, Part 2

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: In the new documentary film Don’t Ask Me Questions, you come off very authentically as a sensitive, soft-spoken individual. But back in the 80s, like many people, I think, I was convinced of your reputation as an angry, sort of perhaps even confrontational artist. How and why do you think that reputation developed?

Graham Parker: Well [laughs], there’s some brilliant stuff from Bruce Springsteen on that, about my material. He said that there was always this “caustic sound.” And that’s true. Because when I started, I’d had pretty much zero experience. I’d written these songs, and was totally green to the whole process. And I found myself instantly with a record deal. I had found the right people, like David Robinson, who managed me and then got all those great musicians behind me. And once that had happened, there was a record deal. Out of the blue, really.

So my style was already very aggressive. That just seemed to be the way I was writing and singing at that point in my life, in my early twenties leading up to 1975 when we started. I developed that style of singing, and I didn’t really know anything else.

It’s still there in my vocals, but it’s softened a lot. Because I enjoy actually singing now. I think it’s much more suitable for the kind of songs I write, and probably would have been more suitable in the first place. But there again, hindsight et cetera.

You can’t help but hear it: “This guy is really pissed off!” And [laughs] I did it on love songs as well. It was a style; I just wanted to be harder and louder and nastier. Remember, in that part of the 70s, there wasn’t any punk rock or any of that, and I wanted to sort of change what was going on. And somehow I found this extremely aggressive vocal style, and stuck to it.

So it’s understandable that people have that impression. And that’s okay.

BK: You’re know for your heartfelt lyrics; A Graham Parker song is never a simple moon-june love ditty. But many of those deeply heartfelt songs – especially from the period during which you worked with The Rumour – were written by a man in his 20s. When you sing those now, do the lyrics still resonate with you, or do you feel that since you’re singing the words of a man less than half your age that they sentiments are somehow alien or even naïve?

GP: Ah, that’s an interesting point. It doesn’t strike me that they’re out-of-date. It doesn’t strike me that way at all. Because obviously – with or without The Rumour – I do play those songs from my early-early career. There’s a few periods where I might be doing shows where I’m really concentrating on a newer period, but there’s always old ones. Especially from Howling Wind; they seem fairly universal to me.

There are some songs where I think, “Nah, I don’t really want to do that.” They’re not quite right; they don’t quite sit right for me, now. But for the most part, I don’t listen to them and think, “I don’t understand this.” I know what I was thinking. They all make sense. Some of them I wouldn’t write now, but there’s nothing alien to me there.

BK: There’s a belief among some that conflict, turmoil and distress are somehow essential ingredients for artists to create enduring works. And while I’d say that that “Mercury Poisoning” is one of my favorite of your tracks, I’m not sure I buy the argument that – if you’ll pardon the horrible metaphor – you have to have sand in the oyster to get the pearl. What do you think?

GP: “Mercury Poisoning,” for instance, is a joke. When an artist starts complaining about his record company in his songs, you should start worrying. It’s not a good sign; it’s a sign of running out of ideas.

My manager was much angrier than me, and he told me to write an entire album of hate-songs. That’s literally how it came about! I wrote one, and said, “I’ve said it all in this song, Dave. That’s enough. Okay?” So I stopped there, thankfully, and wrote [the songs for] Squeezing Out Sparks. A much better idea, really; let’s face it.

People never, ever seem to get it. But the first album had songs like “Between You and Me” on it. And “Gypsy Blood,” though that’s a song I don’t like now; it’s a sort of maudlin, romantic song. But they don’t remember that, and so they think that “Mercury Poisoning” sums it all up. “New York Shuffle” is another one. And that’s really a very, very small part of what I do. But again, I would even do a love song back in the 70s as if I were trying to hurt somebody. And it took a long time for me to temper that with some actual singing.

To be continued…

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Ask Me Some Questions: The Graham Parker Interview, Part 1

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Once pegged as one of rock’s angry young men, these days Graham Parker is neither angry nor young. And while his profile these last few decades has been lower than in his commercial heyday (1976 to the mid 80s, and even then only a modest commercial success), Parker has continued to release a remarkably consistent string of albums that are true to the virtues he’s long championed. As he sang on his (best) album, 1979′s Squeezing Out Sparks, “Passion is No Ordinary Word.” But it’s a word that aptly sums up Parker and his music. As he told an NME interviewer in 1979, “All I want to do is send a shiver up people’s spines.”

Bursting on the scene in the late 70s, Parker thrilled critics but confounded the marketplace; was he a punk? Was he part of the then-nascent UK pub-rock scene? Was he part of rock’s heartfelt old guard (Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Phil Lynott)? Or was he – as the odd passerby still sometimes asks him – Gram Parsons?

A new documentary film, Don’t Ask Me Questions attempts to answer these and other burning questions. And it does so with the full and enthusiastic cooperation of Parker, who – surprisingly to those taken in by his angry persona – happily fields queries, reggaefied song titles be damned. Luckier still for me, he is happy to answer my questions as well.

Bill Kopp: When you were first approached about the film Don’t Ask Me Questions, what was you reaction? Were you skeptical? Suspicious? Enthusiastic?

Graham Parker: It was in the late 90s that I met them. I was doing a gig; I remember it specifically. It was something for the Long Island Brewing Company. I don’t know why I remember that, because there’s a lot of gaps in my memory! But that’s when (director/producer) Michael Gramaglia and his brother approached me. They had done the Ramones film, End of the Century. And I said, “Well, that’s a story: The Ramones.” It’s sort of Shakespearean, y’know. I said, “You won’t get much material from me. It’s boring, really.” But they didn’t really believe that.

It took a couple of years. I’d just put them off, really. I told them, “I just don’t think there’s the material there. I don’t think it’s worth it.” It would be a lot of trouble for something that would just be…a flop. I didn’t have any confidence in it.

In 2001, I had this short story book, Cod Fishing on Valium published. And I thought that was quite an exciting thing, that I’d got St. Martin’s Press behind it, and a literary agent who loved it. It was going very well, and then I did a little tour promoting the book, reading bits of it. And playing songs specifically written for the stories, which is a very gutsy, unusual sort of thing to do. I did about eight to ten gigs like that, mostly in the Northeast.

I called them up and said, “Why don’t you do a film about this?” And of course then I had opened the door. Once you open the door, all bets are off. So from then it just kept going. So every year, a few times, Michael might film a bit of me, come to a studio, do an interview. So now he’s got tons of footage of stuff that didn’t make it [into the finished film].

It just went on like that. That’s why it took so long. Filmmaking can take many, many years. And it was really finished…until I went and dropped the bomb. I’d done it: I’d re-formed The Rumour. And I was going to be in this Jud Apatow film [This is 40]. The documentary was finished; we’d already had a screening in New York. Three of The Rumour came, and we had all these [Kickstarter] donors. And suddenly I dumped this [reunion project which culminated in the release of 2011's Three Chords Good] on them, and so it wasn’t finished at all.

But then [Gramaglia] had the finish he wanted; he had always wanted something dramatic. And I had been telling him, “It’s not gonna happen.” I don’t work on plans; I work more on whims, really. But we got a more satisfying finish for the film.

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Book Review: The Evolution of Mann

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

Lately I’ve been mulling the age-old question: what makes a bandwagon-jumper? Pop music’s history is filled with examples of bands and solo artists who have adopted stylistic u-turns in a naked bid for the commercial brass ring. Perhaps The Bee Gees are the most celebrated example: though they started out as a Beatles-lite sort of act in the 60s (and proved they could rock when backing Ronnie Burns; see Nuggets II for proof), they jumped on the disco bandwagon and reaped serious financial rewards for their trouble.

And then there are the artists who are constantly changing if only to amuse themselves. David Bowie and Neil Young have both built careers around stylistic reinvention, and both were (often but not always) rewarded with both commercial success and critical plaudits.

Such career reboots – of the commercial or artistic kind – are far less common in the jazz idiom. But the jazz artist who first comes to mind when one thinks of hopping from style to style is flutist Herbie Mann. Biographer Cary Ginell (also author of an excellent Cannonball Adderley bio, part of the same Hal Leonard Jazz Biography Series) takes a look at Mann’s long and storied career in the punningly titled The Evolution of Mann: Herbie Mann and the Flute in Jazz.

Though Ginell was lucky enough to have interviewed the flutist extensively several years ago (Mann passed away in July 2003), he steered clear of the sort of over-familiarity that leads to hagiography. Ginell is an unapologetic fan of Mann the man and Mann the innovator, but he doesn’t make outsized claims about the flutist’s musical abilities. No, in fact, he quotes many of Mann’s former associates as being somewhat unimpressed with his chops, his ability to improvise. But none of that takes away, Ginell argues (and I would agree) from Mann’s accomplishments. What he did do was establish the flute as a legitimate instrument in jazz, and the flautist (as opposed to a player who seconds on flute) as a legitimate jazz player. For that alone he should be honored.

Moreover, Mann’s endless restlessness did result in some pretty fine music. Herbie Mann at the Village Gate (1961) is an exemplar in the soul jazz subgenre, and Memphis Underground (1968) is an incendiary set that features both Larry Coryell and the waaay-out-there guitar sounds of Sonny Sharrock.

Mann wasn’t always admired – much less taken seriously – by his peers, but he was known for crowd-pleasing, and for paying his sidemen atypically well. But back to the question of bandwagon jumping: Mann was an early proponent of the bossa nova movement that swept the USA in the very early 60s, but because of label delays and other factors, his releases came out later than, say, the Getz/Gilberto stuff. And others – notably Adderley –were well into the soul jazz bag before Mann was. As such, Mann was often criticized for following trends rather than setting them.

But, he might well have asked, what’s so bad about that? Mann was always more interested in making the fans happy. He adopted a rock star persona (one look at the cover of 1971′s Push Push makes that clear), with all the groupie-excess that connotes. By the 70s he had hitched his musical wagon to the disco train, and while his credibility took a big hit, he sold lots of records, and lots of concert tickets. And he doubtless got laid a lot.

Ginell charts Mann’s rise and fall (and sort of post-fame rise) with a reporter’s eye, drawing on interviews with those who knew him best, most notably selected sidemen and Mann’s third wife. Ginell recounts how, in Mann’s waning years as he dealt with prostate cancer, the flutist re-engaged with the ethnic sounds most dear to him. And in reconnecting with his earlier Brazilian musical bent (plus the music of his Eastern European roots), Mann – intentionally or not – made a final compelling case for his stature as an innovator in what we now call world music.

Ginell never paints his subject as a hero or a world-class musician, but he makes a strong case for Mann’s importance thanks to his popularization of his instrument, and for his role in the mainstreaming of ethic sounds into the fabric of American pop and/or jazz.

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Album Review: Magic Sam — Live at the Avant Garde

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Soulful blues guitarist Magic Sam (Sam Maghett) was only documented on album-length studio recordings twice in his short career. West Side Soul in 1967 and the following year’s Black Magic – both released on the venerable Delmark label – showed the electric guitarist to good effect. But quite a few live recordings (of varying fidelity) provide a more intimate sonic portrait of Magic Sam. One of those – this newly-released set – documents a date at Milwaukee’s Avant Garde in summer 1968.

Fro a field recording, the recording quality is superb. While it’s a bit thin and tinny in places, all of the instruments come through: Sam’s piercing guitar and thick lead lines, Big Mojo Elem‘s tight bass work, and Bob Richey‘s rock solid drumming are all well-placed in the house mix, and so that’s what was captured by Jim Charne‘s multiple-microphone setup.

The recording was planned and carefully executed; this was no “reel-to-reel hidden inside a bag” sort of recording. Though Charne was merely a high school senior when he captured this performance, he clearly knew how to operate the equipment. The resulting tapes are, as Charne writes in the set’s liner notes, a faithful document of the show: “When the band went on, the tape rolled. What we heard in the room is what we got on the machine.”

And what they got was Sam and his bandmates confidently running through sixteen tunes in just over an hour. Blues standards from Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters are prominently featured, alongside several Magic Sam originals and modern blues numbers like Freddie King‘s immortal “San-Ho-Zay” (the set opener). Soulful lead vocals and plenty of tasty guitar solos abound. Even on the nearly-one-chord workout “Feelin’ Good,” Sam thrilled the assembled small crowd with his singing and guitar work while Big Mojo and Richey provided peerless support. The slower blues (such as Lowell Fulson‘s“It’s All Your Fault Baby” were just as exciting in their own way as the more uptempo blues numbers. A highlight of the set is a reading of Amos Blakemore‘s “Come On In This House,” in which Sam engages in call and response between his vocal and guitar licks; every lyric line is answered with some fleet-fingered guitar work; the rhythm section lays back and provides their most subtle backing on the set.

But there are many high points on Live at the Avant Garde, and those who enjoy blues guitar work will want to hear it all. The question that arises at the end of listening to this CD is: are there even more Magic Sam live treasures waiting to be released? While we wait for an answer – should one even be forthcoming – this set should provide many hours of pleasure.

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Album Review: Tower of Power — Hipper Than Hip

Monday, April 7th, 2014

For quite a number of years – primarily the mid 90s to around 2006 – I was immersed in a consuming hobby of sorts: I collected and traded bootlegs (aka ROIOs or recordings of indeterminate origin). For me, listening to unreleased recordings of artists I like – studio outtakes, live concert tapes, radio broadcasts and the like – provided an additional window of understanding into their work, a depth of understanding often unavailable through more conventional means.

With the rise of faster internet speeds and peer-to-peer sites, the trading of physical artifacts has largely died off. In the same way that trading of those physical CDs put a practical end to the for-profit (and illegal and unethical) practice of commercial bootlegging, the end of trading came on suddenly.

But a desire for these kinds of recordings persists. And just when one thinks the unreleased cache has been completely mined, something new turns up. The latest example of this is Hipper Than Hip: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by Tower of Power. This 2CD set documents a WLIR radio broadcast from Long Island’s Ultrasonic Recording Studios on May 14, 1974. While Real Gone Music focuses primarily on rare and archival reissues, Hipper Than Hip is two-plus hours of previously unreleased material.

Tower of Power was (and remains) an eleven-piece band to be reckoned with. They brought the energy and fire of funk by expanding the basic rock lineup (guitar, bass, drums) with keyboards, percussion and a horn section. With Lenny Williams fronting the band on vocals, TOP tore through their tunes, giving ample spotlights to soloists. Chester Thompson‘s keyboard work is the centerpiece of many of these tracks, often engaging in incendiary dialogue with the horns (trumpet, two tenor saxes and a baritone sax).

Recorded in the studio but with a live audience, the recording is the best of both worlds: high quality recording techniques and the energy that can only be captured when the band plays in front of real human beings. The 2CD set captures the band at the height of their success, running through their hits (“Soul Vaccination,” “You’re Still a Young Man,” and “What is Hip” along with perennial favorite “Squib Cakes”) and a dozen others.

Led by founders Emilio Castillo and Stephen “Doc” Kupka (both of whom remain in the band today, along with a couple others from back in the 70s), Tower of Power provided a sort of updating of the hard-charging road bands of the swing era (Duke Ellington‘s band, for example), injecting the music with heavy doses of soul, r&b and the ever-present funk.

From start to finish, Hipper Than Hip is a thrilling document of a band and horn section at their best. Whether it’s a smooth soul ballad such as “You’re Still a Young Man” or an irresistible groove, Tower of Power delivers. The liner notes provide a bit of history and context along with some background on the sessions that produced this historic recording. As successful as the studio albums of that era were (1974′s Back to Oakland was the group’s then-current release), it was in concert that Tower of Power were best experienced. And while they did release a live album in the 70s (1976′s Live and Living Color) that contains versions of four of the numbers on Hipper Than Hip, this new 2CD set is worth having for its combination of up-close-and-personal with studio production values.

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Album Review: Lisa Loeb — No Fairy Tale

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

Last weekend I was wandering about in an antique/ephemera mall that also housed a coffeehouse (this is Asheville; you routinely find such things here). There was an acoustic guitar singer-songwriter type of middling to good ability purveying his tunes to the assembled coffee drinkers. He wasn’t bad, but his original songs were a bit run-of-the-mill for my tastes, so I kept rifling through the piles of old Paul Revere and the Raiders LPs. Eventually he threw in a cover, and it was (for me, anyway) the best tune of the set. But his choice of, um, “oldie” was something totally unexpected. He ran through a credible reading of Oasis‘ “Chapagne Supernova” from their 1995 album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? It was a bit of sweet nostalgia for me, because I love that whole album. I still play it at least once a month.

And so I’m reminded that there was quite a lot of really good, tuneful music on the rock/alternative/whatever charts in the 90s. It was but a year before “Champage Supernova” that Lisa Loeb‘s “Stay (I Missed You)” ruled the airwaves. Thanks in no small part to its prominence as part of the Reality Bites soundtrack, the wistful tune – with a sweet melody and Loeb’s fetching voice – gave Loeb a #1 charting single before she had even inked a record deal.

I will admit I didn’t follow her career after that. But neither did I ever change the station when the song came on; had I listened to a lot of radio, I might have found the song overplayed. But as it was, I liked it, and still do.

Lisa Loeb is still busy recording and releasing albums. While her tenth album (2011′s Lisa Loeb’s Silly Silly Sing-Along) was made for kids, her most recent is most definitely aimed at an older market. No Fairy Tale was initially released in 2013, but of late it’s been getting a renewed marketing push, with vinyl copies (with different cover art, more of which presently) sent to reviewers who respond with interest.

No Fairy Tale is quite good, though not in the way that “Stay” was, or, I suspect (but cannot verify) in the way her kid-themed album was successful. The songs have, if you’ll pardon the dated reference, a sort of Riot Grrl vibe to them. Loeb (on vocals, electric and acoustic guitars) is ably supported by her co-producer Chad Gilbert on guitar, with Colin Strahm on drums plus a handful of other musicians on various tracks.

It’s worth noting, perhaps, that one of those other musicians is one Brad Wood, who also mixed No Fairy Tale. Wood is best known as a producer himself, and his best known production is Liz Phair‘s Exile in Guyville. He’s also worked the boards for Veruca Salt and The Bangles. So it’s safe to say he knows how to help female rockers get the sound they want.

None of which is intended to take away from Loeb’s talents. About half of the twelve tunes were written by Loeb herself, and most of the remainder are co-writes. The two songs she didn’t pen herself were composed by Tegan and Sara (Quin), credible female indie rockers themselves.

But it’s still Loeb’s show all the way. No Fairy Tale rocks far more often than it doesn’t. The opening title track kicks off with crunchy power chords worthy of The Who. The power trio of Loeb, Gilbert and Strahm charges through the song, and Loeb’s tightly arranged overdubbed vocals make “No Fairy Tale” a statement of grown-up purpose in a modern world.

Loeb doesn’t kid around: she’s got a riffy rocker called “The ’90s” that mentions videos, name checks MTV, and tells listeners, “You say you loved me then, but I don’t want to go back.” Her wry, acerbic wit and refreshing self-awareness are on full display as she sings, “So alternative, just like everybody else in the mainstream.”

Even when she runs through a more plaintive, contemplative number like “Weak Day,” Loeb delivers it in the manner of a rocker who’s dialing it down, rather than a folkie who finally gets to play with fewer of those nasty electric guitars. “Walls” is another appealing rocker with a soaring melody. For “A Hot Minute,” Loeb spits out the lyrics at top speed, right in line with the song’s urgent tone. She teases with the lyric, “I”m not asking for forever / I’m just asking for tonight,” but the remaining lyrics suggest that she knows the object of the song feels pretty much the same way, at best. In its own way, “A Hot Minute” (one of the Tegan and Sara tunes) is more forthright than anything on the supposedly nakedly confessional Exile in Guyville.

The shifting tempos of the folk-rocker “Sick, Sick, Sick” show that Loeb’s got a lot going on musically, but she couches it all in winning, tuneful and memorable songcraft.

Side Two kicks in with “Matches,” another chugging rocker that Cheap Trick wouldn’t be embarrassed to include on one of their albums. “Married” is a cautionary message to a friend (“He’s married / you don’t know what you’re doing”). “Swept Away” is a midetempo rocker with another strong melody, made even better by the overdubbed vocals and multiple-guitar leads that evoke not the 90s but the 70s.

“He Loved You So Much” is a sort of rock answer to the sort of song Loeb did nearly two decades ago with “Stay.” And on “”Ami, I’m Sorry,” Loeb does (briefly) return to her folkie singer-songwriter roots, with a song of heartbreak. Gilbert and Wood are on hand, but their contributions are nearly inaudible, and – it seems – not really needed. The album wraps with “The Worst,” a sort of campfire pop tune that offers words of encouragement (“Don’t worry; the worst is there to comfort you”). A lovely end to a lovely record.

The special repackaging of No Fairy Tale features a cartoon image of Loeb, who in actual photos looks a bit like a bespectacled cross between Jennifer Garner and Rachael Ray. And each of these special LP versions is personalized with Loeb’s autograph and brief message. Hey, if it’s a shameless marketing ploy, it’s done for a good reason: it got me to listen to a wonderful album by an artist whose name I knew, but whose catalog I did not. Fair enough. Lisa Loeb’s No Fairy Tale is highly recommended.

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EP Review: Marshall Crenshaw — Driving and Dreaming

Monday, March 24th, 2014

By now, most have either been hipped to the songwriting genius of Marshall Crenshaw, or they haven’t and sadly probably never will. With Crenshaw’s releases stretching all the way back to the early 1980s, you’re guaranteed heartfelt songwriting, ear-candy melodies and crystalline, no-bullshit production values. All that’s in evidence on this, the third in his ongoing series of EP releases.

This three-song EP follows the format laid out for the series: a new song (in this case, the catchy, midtempo title track) backed with a pair of tunes, one a cover (Bobby Fuller‘s “Never to be Forgotten” and a re-imagining of a tune from Crenshaw’s deep catalog. Ever the archivist, Crenshaw makes the Fuller tune his own, emphasizing the quick-riffage of the song’s signature and adding some lovely double-tracked vocal lines. He plays and sings everything on this and the other two tracks.

The loose-limbed rethink of “Someday, Someway,” his most well-known tune is, to say the least, not reverent. It’s his song, so he’s well within his rights to recast it in the manner he sees fit, but this version is dodgy. The beat is completely rethought, and the feel is totally different. He definitely scores points for having the moxie to attempt such a rethink, but in practical terms, this listener prefers to stick with the 1980 original.

Still, as Meat Loaf sang, two out of three ain’t bad. And any Crenshaw is better than none at all, so my advice is to pick this up if only so he’s encouraged to keep the flow of new recordings coming.

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Album Review: American Professionals — We Make It Our Business

Friday, March 21st, 2014

Opinions vary – they’re in fact quote polarized on the issue – but people seem to either love or hate powerpop. While at its worst, it’s weak and derivative, at its best, powerpop expresses a sort of exuberance that few other types of music can communicate.

When it’s insipid, it suffers from being what the British call twee: excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental. But when it goes the other way: muscular and oftentimes lyrically clever and even sarcastic – it’s a thrill. Cheap Trick is an exemplar of the latter, as are many of the tracks on Jordan OakesYellow Pills compilations (find ‘em if you can), most notably The Critics‘ “You Can’t Lie” on YP Volume 1.

Now, honestly, when We Make It Our Business arrived in my mail several weeks ago, I was fooled: I honestly thought it was a data CD from one of my clients (in my “spare time” I’m a marketing consultant and web designer). The oh-so-business logo and monochrome globe image, coupled with the track list disguised as sales-chart-graphic threw me. The band name: American Professionals (shortened to AMPROS on the digipak)…well, that offered few clues itself.

But when I popped the CD into the player, I realized the We Make It Our Business is that rarest of creatures: a fully-executed album, from start to finish. It’s a powerpop album – often a smart-alecky one – disguised as corporate marketing materials. If that makes some of my readers of a certain age think of Completion Backward Principle by The Tubes, well, we’re on the same page in our annual report.

The music is first-rate. Crunchy guitar riffage, thundering bass, and Adam White‘s assured, smash-n-crash drums all support the driving tunes. If there’s a formula at work here, it’s a solid one: strong lead vocals, tight, soaring harmonies on the choruses, and memorable hooks throughout. Guitarist Chuck Lindo‘s lead vocals remind me just a bit of Van Temple of The Producers, but the fact that AMPROS have a female bassist (Cheryl Hendrickson) with a great voice expands their vocal range manifold. The vocal harmony parts twist around each other like snakes on a caduceus. While there’s judiciously applied fret buzz and distortion, the songs are sleek and streamlined.

And when AMPROS briefly go melancholy and midtempo — as on the lovely “The Mist” — they’re every bit as wonderful.

Simply put, there are no weak tunes on We Make It Our Business. Contenders for best and/or representative might be “Dr Holly” or “Champion” or “The Way It Goes,” but if you like one, you’ll like ‘em all (which is most definitely not to imply that the songs are similar or run together).

We Make It Our Business is one of those albums that makes this listener hope that there’s a follow-up, and soon. Essential.

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