Archive for the ‘new release’ Category

Hundred-word Reviews for September, Part 5 of 8

Friday, September 4th, 2015

Lightening the mood a bit today with some power-pop leaning releases, leavened with some heavier, more adventurous sounds.


The Prime Ministers – Youngstown Milk Run
Don’t allow yourself to be put off by the song titles that make use of tired Prince-isms (“Can U B My Dreams,” “I Wait 4 Your Guitar”). The songs are better than all that. Betraying a strong influence of mainstream 80s rock (Huey Lewis, but don’t hold that against ‘em either), the eleven songs on this disc are catchy, rocking stuff. Sure, the occasional hip-hop vocal break is jarring, leaving a vaguely Smash Mouth flavor behind, but let’s not hold that against the band either. If you liked 80s FM radio, you won’t find this music past its sell-by date.



Gretchen’s Wheel – Fragile State
Gretchen’s Wheel is Lindsay Murray, a singer songwriter from smalltown Tennessee. On Fragile State, she handles songwriting, vocals and the lion’s share of instrumentation. The remaining instruments and production engineering duties are the domain of Ken Stringfellow (The Posies). Murray’s sturdy, inviting songs tread the space between singer/songwriter and midtempo power pop. The songs occasionally remind one of Warner Brothers era Badfinger. There’s a subtle country (the good kind!) influence imbued into the arrangement; this album rewards the listener who spends time with it. Sources say that another album is on its way soon; that’s welcome news in these quarters.



Ligro – Dictionary 3
Liner notes author Dr. Brad Stone makes the point that jazz isn’t always mellow and relaxing. It certainly isn’t on this five-track album on the MoonJune label from this guitar/bass/drums trio. The textures are warm and inviting, but there’s an adventurous spirit at work that keeps things interesting. With a high melodic quotient, and lots of engaging interplay between the instrumentalists, Dictionary 3 is an enjoyable listen start to finish. And because of its relatively accessible character, it might be a good entry point (for your non progjazz-inclined friends) into the world of MoonJune artists. Tasty piano on track one.

Blurred Vision – Organized Insanity

Chiming melodies and massed (chorused/overdubbed) vocals give the songs on Organized Insanity a feel not wholly unlike some of Crowded House‘s work. It’s a safe bet that these songs are “about stuff,” as the first track (“No More War”) features clips from a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The trio ostensibly plays guitar/bass/drums, but lots of electric piano, south-of-the-border horns and banjos (all but the first are uncredited) add nicely to the texture. One’s predilection toward message-y music (see also: U2) will surely indicate how one will react to this music. Often anthemic, often swinging for the fences.



Godsticks – Emergence
In the music biz, everything has to have a label; I believe the label for this music is “active rock.” You might also call it “aggressive progressive.” Musically akin to some of Porcupine Tree‘s more metallic moments (circa Fear of a Blank Planet), on Emergence Godsticks gets the chunka-chunka vibe down tight, with a vocalist who reminds this listener of Eddie Vedder. Punishingly precise riffage underpins the songs; only one track features keyboards; otherwise it’s power trio and vocals pretty much all the way. “Much Sinister” sounds like its title suggests. The Pineapple Thief‘s Bruce Soord guest-vocals on two tracks.

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Hundred-word Reviews for September, Part 4 of 8

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

More quickie reviews today. Some familiar names, some not-so-well-known ones. All worth a spin.



John Wetton – New York Minute
This disc – recorded live at New York City’s Iridium in fall 2013 – has an odd, busman’s holiday quality about it. Though Wetton is pictured with a guitar, on the record he’s just singing. He’s backed by The Les Paul Trio, an outfit named not for who’s in it, but instead for the man who founded it. Save for a couple of tracks, this set finds Wetton covering other people’s songs. Steely Dan, Marvin Gaye, The Beach Boys, Traffic, Dylan by way of Hendrix, and The Beatles all get the treatment. It’s good, but it does feel a bit…pointless.



Holly Golightly and The Brokeoffs – Coulda Shoulda Woulda
This is Golightly’s other 2015 album; her solo-billed Slowtown Now! is wonderfully eclectic and recommended. Here with her band (and Lawyer Dave) she’s less stylistically varied but an equally rewarding listen. Golightly’s a kindred spirit with such names as Wanda Jackson, The Cramps, and JD McPherson. Imagine if rock ‘n’ roll hadn’t splintered and “evolved” into myriad forms, and Coulda Shoulda Woulda might give clues to how it would sound today: full of c&w’s lyricism, and rock’s energy. The delightfully “live” mix suits the songs perfectly, and Golightly’s humor is never far from the surface (check “Apartment 34” for evidence).



Mick Abrahams – Revived!
Quick question: who was the guitarist in Jethro Tull? Answer: Martin Barre. Right? Well…yes. But the original axeman in Ian Anderson‘s folk-prog group was none other than Mick Abrahams. In those days Tull was a bluesier outfit; it was disagreement over the group’s musical direction that led to Abrahams’ exit. Revived! is a 17-track set (plus bonus DVD) that features Abrahams and a passel of musical pals (including Barre, Bill Wyman, Bernie Marsden and others. It’s a varied set that recalls Wyman’s solo work more than anything else, most notably on a cover of Lieber/Stoller‘s Coasters classic “What About Us?”



Anton Fig – Figments
Anton Fig is an in-demand drummer best known as a longtime member of Paul Shaffer‘s band on David Letterman‘s TV program. In 2002 he recorded and released a solo album (newly reissued in 2015), Figments, featuring a selection of guests from his (no doubt) ample Rolodex. Fig plays other instruments besides drums, but the passel of guests gives the disc most of its character. Very much of its time, Figments sounds a bit like a Mike + the Mechanics disc. Players include Blondie Chaplin, Sebastian Bach, Ace Frehley, Chris Spedding, Shaffer (naturally!), Randy Brecker, Chip Taylor, and many, many more.


Caddy – The Better End
Dreamy, gauzy, vaguely shoegazey pop a la Teenage Fanclub crossed with The Church is the order of the day on The Better End. Less densely textured than either of those groups, the music is nonetheless well-crafted and immediately likable. For all intents and purposes, Caddy is Tomas Dahl, with the occasional guest vocalist. Dahl is Norwegian, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any trace of a Nordic accent in his vocals. The melancholy ambience of the songs is redolent of Starling Electric, full of shimmering guitars and ringing chords that hang in the air. Available only from Kool Kat Musik. [ORDER HERE]

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Hundred-word Reviews for September, Part 3 of 8

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

Still more hundred-word reviews. Today’s collection features shredding instro-rock, and, well, other kindsa rock as well.



Aristocrats – Tres Caballeros
Speaking of Marco Minnemann, he’s also part of power trio The Aristocrats. He’s behind the drum kit while Guthrie Govan handles (or, shall we say, shreds) guitar and Bryan Beller holds down the busy bottom end with his bass. This is muscular music that deftly straddles the line between look-at-me solo showoffery and tight ensemble playing. Which is just as it should be for an instrumental trio. There’s an off-kilter musical sensibility that, at times, is reminiscent of Frank Zappa‘s late 70s and early 80s work, but The Aristocrats never quite sound like anyone else. Beats the hell outta Chickenfoot.



Rhys Marsh – Sentiment
Marsh is part of a musical universe that includes Tim Bowness (No-Man). The Norwegian multi-instrumentalist is involved in a number of musical projects; this solo album is merely one of several projects of his. The handiest musical reference point for Marsh’s solo album might be Porcupine Tree – vocals and lyrics are the album’s prominent focus – but his writing isn’t always quite as hook-filled as Steven Wilson‘s. Lots of real Mellotron adds a nice, suitably dark texture. “Pictures of Ashes” is one of the disc’s most memorable tunes, with lots of shade, light and musical texture. A worthwhile listen.



Mandala – Midnight Twilight
And here’s Rhys Marsh yet again, joined by Will Spurling (percussion) and bassist Francis Booth. Mandala rocks harder than Marsh’s solo disc, and there’s an early 70s heavy power trio vibe (Blue Cheer, Black Sabbath) that’s leavened only by Marsh’s soaring and slightly mannered vocals and his keyboards. With its lovely string section work, “The Dark Waltz” is a highlight, and overall, the song quality is a notch or two above what you’ll find on Sentiment. When Booth gets the chance – which isn’t often – to showcase his skills, he shines. Spurling’s precise-yet-splashy drum work perfectly suits the music.


The Aaron Clift Experiment – Outer Light, Inner Darkness
Violin isn’t the most common instrument used to expand rock’s sonic palette. Save for Jean Luc Ponty‘s 70s fusion outings and perhaps Kansas, it’s simply not widely used in rock. And while The Aaron Clift Experiment‘s core lineup is a semi-standard rock setup, nearly half of the tunes on this album feature violin. And it works, adding a yearning, melancholy vibe that plays well off the soaring guitars and melodramatic keyboards. Clift’s impassioned vocals are the cherry on top. Tricky, prog-leaning rhythms are beaten into a melodic form, so meant-n-potatoes rock fans can dig this as much as progheads will. [ORDER HERE]



The Shrike – s/t
The Rorschach-inspired cover art begs the question: what do you hear in the music? Imagine Metallica fronted by Pat Benatar, maybe. Strutting, macho rock textures with assured female lead vocals. You won’t find a less-likely looking collection of musicians anywhere this side of Cheap Trick. But it’s the music that matters, and for those who Just Wanna Rock, The Shrike might just be the ticket. There are enough solo bits to satisfy the air-guitar-wielding listener, and the snaky riffs will stick in your head long after the disc finishes its spin. There’s a dark, angsty tinge to the lyrical content.

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Hundred-word Reviews for September, Part 2 of 8

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

More hundred-word reviews. Today it’s progjazz, prog-rock, and rock rock.



Lorenzo Feliciati – Koi
Rare Noise Records can reliably be counted upon to release challenging, outsider-flavored music that leans toward, jazz, avant-garde, and/or progressive directions. Koi is Lorenzo Felicati (basses, guitars, keyboard and more), Alessandro Gwis (keyboards and computers) and percussionist Steve Jansen. But they’re joined by various horn players and (on one track) King Crimson drummer extraordinaire Pat Mastelotto. The musical vibe is sinister yet atmospheric and tuneful, and it’s more accessible (that is to say less avant-garde) than many Rare Noise offerings. Think of it as bop-jazz influenced music (with a touch of space-rock) played on modern, state of the art instruments.



XaDu – Random Abstract
If you want to know about interesting new music (generally in progressive rock/jazz idioms) being made in southeast Asia and other non-USA locales, your first stop should be Leondardo Pavkovic‘s MoonJune Records. The artists in Leonardo’s stable are as prolific as they are skilled, and they often team up in various collaborative efforts. Two artists I’ve covered before – Xavi Reija and Dusan Jevtovic – come together to make this free-form work displaying the power of rock, the grandeur of prog, and the precision and exploratory nature of jazz. Drums and guitar duos don’t usually pique my interest; this does.



Landmarq – Roadskill: Live in the Netherlands
This long-running progressive act from the UK has largely flown under the radar for most of their existence. Their music deserves a wider audience, and clearly somebody knows who they are, as this live disc demonstrates. Tracy Hitchings is one of relatively few female lead vocalists in the progressive idiom, and while her pipes are vaguely reminiscent of Annie Haslam (Renaissance), the musical backing rocks harder (and a tad more interestingly) in a sort of Spock’s Beard kind of way. The special edition features a 78-minute concert CD plus a DVD that adds two tunes plus interviews and other goodies.



Kinetic Element – Travelog
Five long tracks – the shortest is a shade under ten minutes; the longest, more than twice that – make up this disc. The four-piece group is made up of some decidedly not-young musicians, but their sound is delightfully timeless progressive rock. Kinetic Element are and instrumental outfit, but they bring in guest vocalists for each of the tracks. That said, the pieces are still primarily instro in nature. Those who enjoy the slow burn of epic prog – think YesClose to the Edge more than Tales From Topographic Oceans – will enjoy this delightfully adventurous yet accessible set.



Marco Minnemann – Celebration
One of music’s busiest, most in-demand players has somehow found time to write, play and record a solo album. And Celebration is a solo set in the truest sense of the word: save a bit of spoken-word on one track, everything you’ll hear on this disc is Minnemann. If Joe Satriani made a progressive rock record, it might sound something like this. Metallic guitar and drums push up against vibes, synthesized horns, and uber-heavy, bone-crushing bass lines. Imagine 70s-era Jean-Luc Ponty putting down the violin and picking up a really bad attitude. Thrillingly out-there, tuneful, endlessly varied and thus unclassifiable.

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Hundred-word Reviews for September (sic), Part 1 of 8

Monday, August 31st, 2015

Time to clear the backlog of discs – worthy ones all – cluttering my office. Beginning today, and occasionally interrupted by other content, here’s a solid two weeks of hundred-word reviews.


Terell Stafford – BrotherLee Love

Lee Morgan was a hard bop trumpeter who recorded between the mid 1950s and 1971, mostly for the Blue Note label. His most renowned sideman session was John Coltrane‘s Blue Trane (1957), and he was a longtime member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. On this album, Philadelphia-based trumpeter Stafford pays homage to Morgan. Stafford and a tight four-piece run through nine cuts associated with – and nearly all composed by – the late Morgan. Tasty stuff indeed, rendered in adventurous hard bop style. Plenty of solo breaks make this a worthwhile listen even for those who don’t know Morgan’s work.


Alison Faith Levy – The Start of Things

Former Sippy Cups member Levy records for Mystery Lawn Music, a label renowned for its intelligent power pop and art-pop artist stable. Levy makes music for kids, but her appeal extends far beyond the tot-rocking set. The lyrics are squarely aimed at youngsters, but not in a saccharine-sweet manner; Levy never “sings down” to her audience. And adults will find plenty to like in the music and arrangements. Levy’s music truly does bridge the gap between music for children and for grown-ups; in that way she’s heir to the music of The Banana Splits, nearly always a very good thing.


The Lucky Losers – A Winning Hand

To my ears, most modern blues is stale and uninspired. I can’t think of another genre that cranks out so much dull material. So when an exception comes along, it’s all that ore remarkable. Cathy Lemons and Phil Berkowitz sing together in harmony, and trade vocal lines on this album’s dozen tunes, backed by a solid but not showy) band and horn section. They capture the fun and excitement of a bluesy band in a dimly lit bar. And at its core, that’s what modern blues is about. That Berkowitz is a skilled blues harpist only adds to the enjoyment.



Otis Taylor – Hey Joe Opus: Red Meat
Sixty-seven year old bluesman Otis Taylor has a long and storied career. This idiosyncratic outing finds the multi-instrumentalist and singer constructing a sort of song cycle built around the chestnut “Hey Joe.” His readings don’t recall Hendrix or The Leaves; no, they have more of an Americana feel. Some of the guitar work recalls The Allman Brothers (thanks to guest Warren Haynes), and the musical dialogue between guitar and fiddle) has shades of Jefferson Airplane with Papa John Creach. Extensive use of cornet (Taylor Scott) adds an interesting character to the songs. On the whole, exceedingly eclectic, understated, and worthwhile.


Phil Lee – Some Gotta Lose…

Lee’s previous album, The Fall & Further Decline of the Mighty King of Love, knocked me out with its windswept singer-songwriter vibe. He reminds me a bit of James McMurtry crossed with Leon Russell, and his music is equally informed by blues, Americana, old-school country and plain old rock’n'roll. Some Gotta Lose… is another showcase for Lee’s well-worn voice. This is as real as it gets, straightforward poetry and stories set to music. One of these days, he and I really will meet up for that cup of coffee; until that day, I’ll enjoy his music on this shiny disc.

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The Chocolate Watchband: Give the People What They Want (Part 2)

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Chocolate Watchband guitarist Tim Abbott believes that these new versions of the band’s old songs are an “opportunity for us to rewrite history, to make it right.” Because any way you slice it, Richard Polodor‘s “Expo 2000” which leads off the new disc, is a pretty ace psychedelic instrumental, well worth revisiting.

And there was another compelling reason for the re-formed Watchband to record these songs: “None of these songs were on iTunes,” Abbott points out. “They weren’t available to the fans. Universal [Music Group] had control of it.” The band initially released the tracks independently under the title Revolutions Reinvented, and – interestingly enough – right as those versions hit iTunes, Universal decided it was the right time, finally, to make the original versions available, too. “Pretty much par for record companies,” Abbott observes ruefully.

But ultimately, all of the songs featured on I’m Not Like Everybody Else have been staples of the modern-day band’s set list for quite some time. “We’ve been doing these tunes since 1999,” says Abbott. Back then, vocalist David Aguilar rang up Abbott, told him that there was renewed interest in the band, and suggested they get things going again. Their first gig was in San Diego. “The promoter basically paid us to put the band back together,” laughs Abbott. Fans came from all over – as far as Europe – to see the revived Watchband play live. The band were surprised at the positive reception they got. “I knew something was going on,” recalls Abbott, “but I didn’t realize to what extent. When we finished the show, a guy came up to us and said, ‘I want to bring you guys to New York to do a live show. And we want to record it.’ And then another guy said, ‘We want to take you to Rome.’” And all those things did indeed come to pass.

In the wake of that success, The Chocolate Watchband recorded an album of new material. But Abbott admits that “fans didn’t really embrace” it. He concedes that the band “weren’t thinking about our direction; we just made music.” And while the music may have been worthwhile – the band’s current website pointedly makes only the briefest mention of its existence – it didn’t sound at all like the Watchband of old. And that’s what fans want. As Allmusic‘s Bruce Eder wrote in his measured review of Get Away, “coming off of a 32-year layoff from music, do you try to sound like who you were, which is to say, as people remember you, or who you are?” Abbott contends that the material was good, and suggests that the band might revisit and re-record the songs in a style more akin to their signature sound.

That’s what they did – very successfully – for I’m Not Like Everybody Else. “We had an experience in New York,” Abbott says, “where we brought some of our updated-sounding stuff. And what we found was that our fan base just rejected it. We had done our show, and when we came back for an encore, we did new music. And that was the worst possible thing we could have done! We didn’t know, but it was very educational.” He laughs as he recalls something David Aguilar said to him one night, post-show, after running through a set of the Watchband’s best-loved – “genuine” or not – songs. “We should have done these songs back then. They’re good!”

The new album takes its title from a Watchband cover of the classic Kinks song. But the lesson that The Chocolate Watchband learned happens to be the title of a later Kinks album: Give the People What They Want. Abbott observes, “a lot of bands get to evolve. The Beatles: you watched them evolve. There was an evolution of the style, the sound. But we don’t have that privilege, because we basically dropped out, and then we came back. And so our fan base wants The Chocolate Watchband that they love. They don’t want it changed. They don’t want it updated; they don’t want me to shred on guitar. They want to hear it in that style; that’s why they like it.”

Original bassist Bill “Flo” Flores is featured on the album, but had to retire shortly thereafter for health reasons. Music journalist/author Alec Palao is the group’s official historian, and he advises the group as well. Some of his most well-regarded advice: “Make it sound correct: make it sound vintage.” So both live onstage and in studio recordings, that’s what The Chocolate Watchband does. Abbott smiles when he cites a Belgian reviewer’s concert writeup: “For just a moment, I felt as if I was 17 years old, at the Fillmore Auditorium watching one of my favorite bands in the world.”

One of the other heroes of the 60s garage/psych era is The Seeds. That group’s keyboard player, Daryl Hooper, has now joined the Watchband for live dates and recording. “We have another album in the can,” says Abbott, “and we’re probably going to finish it in the fall.” Hooper is on the disc, playing both keyboards and guitar.

Based on the band’s early recorded legacy, they’re often thought of as major Rolling Stones acolytes. Not so, says Abbott. “We were kind of a blues-influenced band,” he says, noting that the only song from their albums that ever found its way into their live sets in the 60s was “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.” So oddly enough, today’s Chocolate Watchband doesn’t really sound like the vintage band at all. At least not like the vintage band when they played live. “We did a lot of Chicago bluesy kind of things,” Abbott says. Flores and he “were influenced by James Brown and soul. And Gary [Andrijasevich, drummer] had a jazz background. David was an artist. And Mark, who I replaced, was really into Jorma Kaukonen from The Jefferson Airplane.” Not to put too fine of a point on it, but as Abbott says, “the live Chocolate Watchband was nothing like the records.” He laughs and adds, “It is now.”

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The Chocolate Watchband: Give the People What They Want (Part 1)

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

Among aficionados of 1960s garage and psychedelic music, The Chocolate Watchband is dearly loved. Though the band’s history is – even by the standards of that era – a mightily convoluted one, the band (and its ersatz versions; more on that subject shortly) left behind some durable music that captures the 1960s zeitgeist.

In many ways, the story of San Jose, California-based The Chocolate Watchband is typical of its time. Richie Unterberger‘s chapter on the band in his 1998 book Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll is highly recommended; suffice to say that the story is too complicated to recount here. The short version is that while the band recorded a number of excellent sides, producer Ed Cobb (and engineer Richie Polodor) brought in studio musicians to cut additional tunes, ones that the “real” band had nothing to do with. Complicating matters for those who value so-called “authenticity,” some of those not-really-Watchband tracks are very good-to-excellent.

In 2015, many might look back with bemusement (not to mention ridicule) upon 60s bands with “silly” names: Electric Prunes, Peanut Butter Conspiracy, Vanilla Fudge, Strawberry Alarm Clock…you get the idea. It should be noted that these weren’t comedy bands in any sense of the term; no, they were often as deadly serious as, say, Love and The Doors. And while the Watchband didn’t score any megahits along the lines of the Alarm Clock’s “Incense and Peppermints” (which featured a lead vocal by a guy who wasn’t even in the group, but that’s yet another story), they created some excellent music.

Oddly enough, The Watchband have some connections to The Grateful Dead. Prior to joining the Watchband, guitarist Tim Abbott played in a band that sometimes featured drummer Bill Kreutzmann “Our regular drummer was a ski bum, and he used to desert us all the time,” Abbott chuckles. “In college, I played with Mickey Hart in The Five of Harts, his band. And I knew Bob Weir; he used to come down to The Chocolate Watchband’s cabin in Los Gatos. One time, in 1967, he brought along what might have been the very first wireless guitar rig, a prototype. And Jerry Garcia helped me get one of my favorite guitars; he worked at a music store.”

Abbott recalls the circumstances of his most memorable Chocolate Watchband concert date of the 1960s. It also happens to have been his first one. “Mark [Loomis] had left the band, and there were a lot of bookings left. They called me in on a Wednesday afternoon: ‘Tim, we’ve got a gig Saturday.’ We rehearsed all the way from Wednesday all the way up to Friday night. Almost without sleeping. Saturday morning, we jumped into the manager’s Lincoln and then, off to Mt. Tamalpais [just north of San Francisco] for the Mount Tam Fantasy Fair.” That festival drew more than 36,000 people on June 10-11, 1967, and featured an eclectic lineup that included Dionne Warwick, The Doors, Tim Buckley, The Byrds, The Merry-Go-Round (with Emitt Rhodes) and many others. “I walked out onstage,” Abbott remembers, “and I thought, ‘this is cool.’”

But that wasn’t all. “When we finished our set, the manager for The Fifth Dimension walked over to me and said, ‘Our guitar player didn’t make it. The band really like the way you played. They want to know if you’d substitute.’ I said yes.” He went over and met the band, and was all set to play with them. “I asked, ‘Do you guys have any charts?’ They said yes and opened their book for me.” He pauses for emphasis. “Not a chord in sight! All written out, ‘golf clubs on fences.’ And I hadn’t sight-read in years. I mean, I could sight read, but not in front of that many people! I asked them, ‘Don’t you have anything with chords on it?’ They said, ‘No, this is what we have.’ Those were studio charts for seasoned studio guys.” Abbott had to bow out, but he still has fond memories of the festival.

Modern-day listeners may know The Chocolate Watchband best through their inclusion on the Nuggets compilations. The original 1972 double LP featured “Let’s Talk About Girls,” an aggressive, macho Rolling Stones-flavored rocker. But when Nuggets was expanded to four CDs in 1998, the band scored two more inclusions: “Sweet Young Thing” (not the Monkees‘ tune) and the immortal “Are You Gonna Be There (At the Love-in),” which had been featured in the 1967 teen exploitation film Riot on Sunset Strip.

In the group’s (again, convoluted) heyday, they released three LPs – 1967′s No Way Out, The Inner Mystique in 1968, and 1969′s One Step Beyond – all of which command extremely high prices on today’s collector’s market. And all three feature a mix of originals, covers, actual-group performances, and recordings made without the band’s knowledge or involvement. Their time apparently having passed, The Chocolate Watchband broke up in 1970.

Fast forward more than thirty years. With the renewal of interest in all things garage-psych – thanks in no small part to the aforementioned Nuggets reissue – four key members of the 60s era band reunited and began to play live dates. Various compilations and live discs followed, and eventually the group entered the studio to record a new album. Now available as I’m Not Like Everybody Else, that disc collects thirteen tracks from the band’s history, in newly-recorded (but faithful) versions.

“There were a couple of things that were on our minds,” explains Abbott. Acknowledging that some of the songs weren’t recorded by band members – much less played live at concert dates back then – he says, “There were a few times when the band got to do what it does, but not often. Not to the extent we wanted to. David [Aguilar, lead vocalist] was replaced by a studio guy, and then they took pieces of what we had done, and built new songs out of them.”

“The record companies back then were in complete control,” Abbott says. Understandably, the band wasn’t happy to learn their record label was passing off songs written and performed by others as the Chocolate Watchband. “The band hated ‘em. I remember using those records for target practice,” Abbott says with a chuckle. “And when those albums started going for two, three and four hundred dollars apiece, I started thinking, ‘Oh my god. What have we done?’”

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Album Review: Muddy Waters 100

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

I’m on record stating my belief that the majority of tribute albums are generally a waste of nearly everyone’s time. Often, the tribute version of the tributee’s songs are too reverent by half, adding nothing to the original. Or, in other cases, the artists go too far, applying their own trademark “sound” for better or worse (usually the latter) to a song that really didn’t need any help, thanks.

Tribute albums tend to be indulgent and self-conscious even when they don’t involve the participation of the omnipresent three (Bono, Jack White, Dave Grohl) who seem, somehow, to attach themselves to every project that’s ostensibly about someone else.

And it’s because of that baggage that I bring to my listening experience that very few tribute albums make it past my slush pile. But I’m very pleased to report that Muddy Waters 100 is a highly worthy exception to the rule. In celebration of what would have been the 100th birthday of Muddy Waters (born McKinley Morganfield), Chicago producer Larry Skoller has brought together a superb band to interpret  fifteen of Waters’ best-loved songs, and some well-chosen guests help out.

John Primer is no youngster himself; at 70 years of age, he’s a well-seasoned journeyman bluesman. His guitar and vocal skills are stellar, and he manages to conjure the ambience and spirit of Muddy while (a) not aping the great man and (b) maintaining his own identity in the process. Backed by a crack team of musicians that includes guitarist Bob Margolin (he and Primer were members of Waters’ band) plus some younger but supremely talented players, Primer leads the band through Waters tunes that are well-known (“Got My Mojo Working,” “Mannish Boy”) as well as some that won’t be familiar to those who aren’t hardcore blues fiends.

The guests are players whose presence make sense: musicians who’ve been influenced by Muddy Waters show up here, as opposed to flavor-of-the-month stars brought in more for their marquee value. But nonetheless, they’re names most listeners will recognize, and their participation is welcome. Derek Trucks, Johnny Winter (in one of his last sessions before his death), James Cotton, Gary Clark Jr., and Keb’ Mo’ are just some of the spotlighted guests.

The arrangements are familiar enough that purists shouldn’t be put off, but they happily avoid that slavish reverence to which I alluded earlier. Modern beats find their way into some of the performances, but unobtrusively so. One can’t help think that the man who once deigned to make Electric Mud would have smilingly approved.

The well-annotated booklet provides some historical context for the songs chosen. An excellent essay on Muddy Waters provides more background. And the photography deserves mention: all manner of archival photos of the master at work are included in stunning clarity. The hardbound case makes the whole package a souvenir-of-sorts, but it’s all in service to the music therein.

True, April 4, 2013 was the actual 100-year anniversary of Muddy’s birth, but these things take a while to assemble, and the care that went into the making of this package – the music, the liner notes, the booklet and the physical package itself – is such that Skoller and company deserve a pass on that minor point.

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Album Review: Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia

Friday, August 21st, 2015

On one hand, the existence of this album makes perfect sense. Among many Who fans (myself most assuredly included), Quadrophenia ranks among the most celebrated work from Pete Townshend and/or The Who. While Tommy was arguably more groundbreaking – often (and incorrectly) cited as the first “rock opera” – Quadrophenia remains a more musically and lyrically satisfying work. While it’s true that Quadrophenia‘s story line remains more than a bit murky, it’s far more straightforward and linear than that of Tommy (or, to be sure, the never-finished Lifehouse project).

And as an expression of Townshend’s understanding – both emotionally and intellectually – of the Mod phenomenon (what Pete Meaden described as “clean living under difficult circumstances,” or something like that), Quadrophenia represents one of the composer’s most fully-realized and deeply textured works.

When The Who attempted to mount a tour in support of Quadrophenia, it didn’t really work. Between songs, Roger Daltrey(!) would attempt to explain the songs and story line, and while his intentions were good, the narration destroyed some of the flow. One can easily imagine an early 70s concert crowd responding with something along the lines of “shut up and rock!” The Quadrophenia tour-as-such was quietly abandoned in favor of a hit-laden set that featured a few Quadrophenia tracks.

But Townshend was demonstrably not finished with Quadrophenia. Though having moved on (into what we might call the post-Who era) to working on a stage version of Tommy, as well as the vastly underrated solo rock opera Psychoderelict, Townshend still wanted to put across the Quadrophenia material in its original, complete form.

The late 70s film went some way toward realizing that goal; it’s a far more nuanced movie than the overblown Tommy could have ever hoped to be, and the film version made some linear sense out of the muddled, slightly obscure story line.

But that wasn’t enough. In the early years of the new century, a reactivated Who toured the Quadrophenia material, enlisting guest vocalists to flesh out the characters. With the advantage of being able to draw upon modern sound technology, the group was able to put Quadrophenia across onstage in a way impossible a few decades earlier. They did it again on their 2012-2013 tour as well.

But even that wasn’t enough, which brings us ’round to what’s billed as Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia. Proper operatic-type vocalists (and then some) are backed by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Oriana Choir in a new version of the extended work. Townshend’s significant other, Rachel Fuller, took on the daunting task of adapting Townshend’s material into the classical idiom.

How much one enjoys this new reading of Quadrophenia will depend to a great degree upon what it is that one liked/likes about the original 1973 double album. If John Entwistle‘s powerful bass work and the propulsive, barely-reined-in drumming of Keith Moon were among the highlights for you, then Classic Quadrophenia might feel like a letdown. As thrillingly bombastic as the orchestra can be, there’s simply no way to channel the power of the original Who’s rhythm section using classical/orchestral instrumentation.

And if Townshend’s slashing guitar and glistening, lyrical piano were big parts of what you enjoyed in Quadrophenia, you still might be disappointed in this new reading. Townshend is present on guitar here and there, and in voice. But not unlike his role in the (now greatly maligned) 25th Anniversary tour, Townshend’s presence is not a central component of Classic Quadrophenia. He’s more akin to a celebrity guest in his own work.

And finally, if Roger Daltrey’s expressive vocals were what caused you to appreciate Quadrophenia, then you’ll miss the vocals greatly on this new set. Taking the lead vocal here is Alfie Boe, a tenor most closely associated with musical theatre (Les Misérables, La bohème). Boe’s vocal performance doesn’t stray too far notes-wise from Daltrey’s version, but Boe definitely adds a “showy” and operatic shade to his reading that would be completely out of place on a rock recording.

And in fact, as rendered on Classic Quadrophenia, the material isn’t really rock at all. The orchestral trapping don’t seem at all out of place, and in many ways one suspects that this version might be closer to what Townshend originally had in mind for the material; it may well have been that since in 1973 The Who was his primary musical vehicle, that’s the route he took.

A few other vocalists of note appear on the album. Billy Idol had been involved in some of those early 21st-century performances of Quadrophenia, and few could argue that he’s the wrong choice to assist on “Bell Boy,” picking up the baton once held (shakily) by Keith Moon and then more assuredly by Sting.

And the star of Franc Roddam‘s film version of Quadrophenia, Phil Daniels, is now all grown up (56 in fact!) and lends his vocals to “Helpless Dancer” and a few other tracks. His presence establishes some conceptual continuity between this and those earlier versions of Quadrophenia, even though he’s not playing the “Jimmy” role in this new version.

To those weaned on a steady diet of rock’n'roll, Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia might – upon first listen — seem mannered and a bit stiff. But if one can open one’s mind to hearing the material presented in a classical-cum-stage idiom, there are many joys to be found.

Note: the album is available digitally, on CD, and on vinyl. This review is based upon the vinyl-format release.

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Book Review: So Many Roads, The Life and Times of The Grateful Dead

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

I’m on record as being very critical of The Grateful Dead. Despite what some of the hardest of hardcore Dead Heads might think, I don’t hate the Dead; not at all. I own and enjoy quite a few of their studio albums, and even like a couple of the live ones, most notably, Europe ’72 and Reckoning (aka For the Faithful). And far be it from me to deny their cultural (if perhaps not so much musical) importance. So I was very interested to read David Browne‘s So Many Roads, a new history of the band that takes a unique approach to its storytelling.

That unique approach is the best thing about Browne’s book. Rather than attempt a linear narrative, Browne picks fifteen specific dates in the history of the band, and expands the story from there. Those dates are sometimes pivotal, sometimes not. But they provide anchors of a sort from which the author can weave the tale. Browne recounts the important dates in the band’s history – December 6, 1969, for example, was the date of the notorious festival at Altamont Motor Speedway – but he doesn’t build the narrative around them; Altamont is discussed in the first chapter, one that ostensibly centers on a date some two months later.

As the author explains in the book’s acknowledgments, So Many Roads draws upon extensive interviews with many people in and around the group: musicians, friends and ex-friends, lovers and ex-lovers, business associates and ex-associates, fans. In general, such an approach can provide the opportunity to create a nuanced, balanced portrait of its subject. And to an extent, that’s what happens with Browne’s book. But although most key members of the group cooperated with the author, So Many Roads seems to draw remarkably little from their input. Perhaps the information Browne gleaned from those interviews formed a narrative rather than direct quotes; but that’s merely a guess.

Browne is a clear and insightful writer, and although So Many Roads is a long book (nearly 500 pages), its most striking quality is its lack of surprises. There are no real revelations within its pages. Instead readers get relatively cursory accountants of how Lenny Hart (Mickey Hart‘s father) ripped the band off of substantial sums of money; how they were caught off guard by the tragic events of Altamont; and so on. None of that will be news to even the most casual fan of the Grateful Dead.

Neither is it news that the band approached album recording sessions with a the sort of dismissive, let’s-get-it-over-with attitude most people bring to a dentist appointment (and it often showed on the albums). It’s not a surprise that (on one hand) the Grateful Dead were totally out of their depth running a record label of their own, or any business, for that matter, and (on the other hand) that they strongly resisted “interference” from outsiders (“suits”) who might have been able to do a better job. And it will surprise absolutely no one that they took a whole lot of drugs, only instituting a “no piles of cocaine on the performing stage” policy in the 1990s. Yes, the nineteen-nineties. (Apparently the nitrous oxide tanks stayed.)

Browne makes the point that there really is not a “keyboard player curse” upon the band, pointing out that Tom Constanten and Bruce Hornsby remain among the living (Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland and Vince Welnick, however, all did die prematurely). The band members’ laissez-faire approach to each others’ private lives – even when said behavior had serious effects upon the band – is shown to be a primary cause of many of the problems they’d endure.

Though the band seemed to operate in a way that encouraged a sort of leaderless democracy by consent, So Many Roads illustrates that in practice Jerry Garcia was the leader of the band. Any number of meetings are described in which the various members and auxiliary staff would chew on a topic for some time, unable to reach agreement. Garcia would utter a few words – “let’s do it” or some such – and that would be that. This approach may have served them well in their earlier days, but as Garcia’s health problems (drug-induced and otherwise) worsened, it seems pretty clear that having him in a so-called leadership role was, in practice, a pretty awful idea.

In fact, the band’s method of dealing  with Garcia — seemingly as a sort of cash cow that they’d need to prop up so they could keep the machine running — made me think of him as a sort of corollary to The Beach Boys‘ pimping of Brian Wilson (witness the endless “Brian’s back!” efforts of the 70s and 80s).

I suppose one cannot understand the mindset of a Dead Head unless one is a Dead Head. For me, the group’s hardcore appeal is dubious: if one wants exploratory music, any number of jazz artists did it far better than the Grateful Dead. And if one desires musicality within the “jam band” idiom, The Allman Brothers – live and studio – make for a much more fulfilling listen. Sloppy and listless are two words that come to mind when discussing the onstage musicianship of the Dead. And their hardcore fan base seems inexplicably uncritical when it comes to the Dead’s legacy: they love it all, seeming to make little discernment between the dross and the relatively fleeting flights of creativity.

And with that kind of mindset, they’ll probably want to read So Many Roads regardless of whether a reviewer eviscerates it or holds it up as the greatest book ever written. Truth be told, it’s quite good; it’s simply not anything like a definitive biography of the band.

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