Archive for the ‘new release’ Category

Album Review: Todd Rundgren — Global

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

In one sense, the best artists are those who confound their fans. There’s certainly a place for the reliable musical act that releases pretty much the same album over and over again; entire careers have been built on doing just that, and it’s not without aesthetic value. “More of the same” is most assuredly not a bad thing in and of itself.

But the more intriguing creative artists are moving targets. They tire quickly of what they’ve just done, and are ceaselessly moving forward, trying new things. And that can make being a fan some pretty rough sledding. Perhaps no other currently-active musician better illustrates this situation than Todd Rundgren.

I won’t recapitulate his long and varied musical career-to-date here; for a tidy summary of his work from the late 1960s through 2004 – yeah, the essay needs updating – I’d direct you here. Suffice to say that Rundgren has made more stylistic detours than most anyone else you’d care to name. And the degree to which any of those tangential moves “works” will differ for each fan. When it comes to Todd Rundgren, the phrase your mileage may vary truly applies. For me, his Broadway-leaning material (1989′s Nearly Human and the related 1997 set Up Against It) is his least satisfying, though even those have some stellar moments. And I’m in the minority with my great admiration for the widely-maligned No World Order from 1992, a set in which Rundgren – temporarily rebranded as TR-i – takes on a sort of hip-hop-meets-Nine Inch Nails approach.

These days it’s fair to call the impossibly talented Rundgren a cult artist, though in a very real sense he’s always been one. His infallible sense of melody never fails him, no matter what musical context into which he places his music.

But cult artists don’t always have massive studio budgets, and that’s especially true of an artist who went bankrupt and sold off some of his recurring-revenue assets. Because of those realities – and, likely, owing to his actual desire to do things this way – his last several albums have been recorded on a computer, using the one-man-band approach that he (as much as anyone else) can be said to have invented.

After the stylistic missteps and dead end of Todd Rundgren’s Johnson (blooz retreads) and the truly wretched (re)Production (in which he essentially allowed other people to wreck his music), it was encouraging to hear Rundgren return to songcraft with 2013′s State. He did seem unnaturally interested in the latest trendy sounds and approaches, but he bent those forms to his own musical will.

And that’s pretty much what Todd Rundgren has done with Global. Continuing his 2004-and-onward practice of naming his releases with a single word (easier to remember than, say, The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect), on Global, Rundgren presents perhaps his best set of melodies since 1995′s The Individualist. In fact, some of these cuts (“Blind,” in particular) sound as if they could have been written around that time.

Rundgren has always been a thoughtful (as in full of thought) songwriter, and he’s long concerned himself with big ideas. As the title telegraphs, the songs on Global are no exception. But he does so with characteristic good humor: paraphrasing Albert Einstein‘s remark about God not playing dice with the universe, he throws in an aside: “Doesn’t take an Einstein” to figure that out.

Global has been described in some quarters as Todd’s EDM album. And I’ll admit, that description very nearly scared me off. I needn’t have worried. Many of the songs on Global do indeed have some very kinetic, dance-ready beats (for those so inclined); boing-boing synths; Cylon-sounding vocal treatments; and other “modern” trappings, but the songs themselves are very organic, and include more “real” instrumentation that we’ve heard on some of Rundgren’s other recent releases. Bobby Strickland’s sax work on “Blind” is nothing less than thrilling.

“Earth Mother” features guest spots by friends and associates including Rachel Haden (bassist extraordinaire from a fine lineage of musicians) Janet Kirker, Michele Rundgren (she was great with The Tubes back in the 80s), Jill Sobule, and Jeff Beck associate Tal Wilkenfeld. At first, Todd’s exhortations (“Can I get a shout from my sisters?”) feel a bit awkward, but it’s a groovy track. And old Utopia band mate Kasim Sulton shows up on “Skyscraper.”

Yes, it’s nearly all Todd all the time (save those guest spots) but if anyone can make that approach work – make it real, so to speak – it’s Todd Rundgren. Just when some might have counted him out – I nearly did after (re)ProductionGlobal shows that at 67 years of age, the man still has it. Whatever it is. Here’s hoping he keeps sharing it with his listeners.

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Rising Appalachia: Making Music with Intention (Part 3)

Friday, June 26th, 2015

Continued from Part Three

Leah Song relates that Rising Appalachia have many friends around the country who are involved in art and creative projects. “Many of them,” she notes, “end up being codependent on grants. They call it the Nonprofit-Industrial Complex. We wanted to have that feeling of being independent; and if we’re indebted to anybody, it’s to the community that supports us. We don’t want to be indebted to a third party. Because even if it’s a ‘silent donor,’ it’s something that we’re really not interested in. We want our responsibility to be to the fans, to the community, to our peers, and to our collaborators. So we decided we would [crowd fund] again. And we were really able to direct the funding we got into producing the most nuanced and delicate work we’ve ever done.”

As always, Rising Appalachia is about more than the music. “We were able to tie in some amazing nonprofit work. We did the first leg of our [current] tour via rail. At the headwaters of the Mississippi, we did some work with a Native rights organization.” She makes the point that if artists are paid enough, they can put their efforts into becoming spokespeople for the causes in which they believe, and they can do work that supports those values. “Then they’re not just overworked and exhausted and always eating grilled cheese sandwiches,” she says. The goal is to make the efforts “people powered, and involving everyone in the work. And that’s a very important part of it for us.”

The group has learned a great deal through their Kickstarter experiences. “You don’t just ask and then get a bunch of money,” Leah cautions. “It’s a ton of work. We’re still licking stamps and sealing packages. On the back end, I think it’s really wise to make sure you put together offers that you can [deliver on]. And you want to be able to do that right; you don’t want to just make your goal and, ‘Thanks! Bye!!’”

Long based in New Orleans – and closely identified with the varied musical scene there – Leah and Chloe Smith relocated to Asheville NC, a city with its own musical identity. “I don’t really want to be considered an ‘Asheville band,’ says Leah, good-naturedly. “I want us to be thought of as representing the South: the mountain culture, the urban culture, the swamps. We hold this whole region as our home base. And I think our relationship to New Orleans will continue to be cultivated and long-term.”

Leah explains the group’s reason for moving north to Asheville. “We came to the mountains to get some respite. We wanted the quiet relationship with nature, and we’ve been able to get parts of that on our off-time.” She sees Asheville as an ideal place to “get into the local crafts, and study the culture. We’ve spent a lot of time in Latin America and in New Orleans, so we wanted to make sure we were adding fuel to the mountain culture that is also part of our story.” Leah notes that she doesn’t intend for Asheville to be her forever home. “But,” she adds, “I don’t think that we know.”

The move to Asheville has certainly enriched the group. “An amazing team of musicians and leaders and management has stepped into our circle through this community,” Leah says. “It’s very powerful, and it has been very grounding for us.”

Another grounding experience was the group’s Amtrak tour. Train travel affords one a perspective on America that is very different from the one absorbed via airplane or car travel. Train travel was part of a larger goal of Rising Appalachia, the concept Leah calls the “slow music movement. Very loosely, it’s our entire philosophy of music, independence, and self-management. So as we fleshed it out, we asked ourselves, ‘What if it also entailed slower travel?’” The idea came about while traveling through Europe via train, something much easier done there than in the States. “We started looking into routes,” Leah recalls, “and we found that there was a lot we could not do. But there was a lot that we could do, so we built the first leg of our tour around the route itself.”

The trip highlighted both the advantages and limitations of the passenger railway system in the United States. “The resources and infrastructure are there,” insists Leah. “We have this vast country, with a codependency on fuel, on cars. And it’s really isolating. And that leaves out a whole population of people who can’t afford – or don’t choose to prioritize – a personal vehicle.” She poses a rhetorical question: “What would actually happen if we made rail travel a viable option? We feel mostly inspired. The tour involved labor and logistics, and there’s a lot to configure when you have a band and instruments, but it worked. And we went through rural areas that I had never seen in my life. You don’t see billboards and casinos and McDonald’s. You see open spaces, small towns. People sit on their porch and wave. It evoked a wonderful nostalgia and a slow pace, but it also worked. It was functional. You could see a labor force that was proud of their work. There is a beautiful pride in the work that you don’t always see at a gas station.”

There’s a similar pride on display in the music (and extramusical efforts) of Rising Appalachia. Like train travel, one of the benefits is a greater emphasis on interpersonal, community relationships. And like train travel, taking part in Rising Appalachia’s ongoing musical journey is – in and of itself – a big part of what the experience is all about.

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Rising Appalachia: Making Music with Intention (Part 2)

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

Continued from Part One

In those years, music as a professional pursuit was never a goal. Leah Song says that even when she and sister Chloe Smith did begin making music, “we were just trying to create a project that paid homage to all of our musical influences. It was only later – three or four years into the project – that we said to ourselves, ‘Okay: we’re really going to take this seriously, crafting and cultivating what we want to be doing. Let’s think about what we want our lyrics to convey.’ And in that sense, all of those [earlier] travel experiences were important. And will be forever.” Rising Appalachia endeavors to tie in world culture. “We want to represent the South,” Leah acknowledges, “but in a context with the rest of the world.”

Rising Appalachia manage and produce themselves. From the beginning of their recording career, they’ve made a conscious decision not to take part in the machine, in the music industry as it used to be known. Based on the current state of that industry, the business choices that the sisters made in 2006 show their prescience in opting to stay outside many of the traditional distribution channels for music.

“We have a really hilarious and wonderful relationship with all of that,” Leah laughs. “We recorded our first album [2006's Leah and Chloe] in a day.” They recorded the album as a gift “for our dad, who was having a hard time. We had both left our home city, and we wanted to do a project that tied in all of our parents’ musical influences. And ours, as well. We recorded it in a basement with some friends, and made several hundred copies. We figured, ‘Cool. That was fun. We’ll be able to sling those albums for the next fifteen, maybe twenty-five years.’”

But that’s not how the story developed. “We were at a music jam. It was a once-a-week thing at a pub in Atlanta, and we were singing with our mom. The director of a Celtic Studies program came in.” He wanted Leah and Chloe to perform at a three-day concert festival that featured musicians from around the world, representing different forms of Appalachian and Celtic folk music. Leah chuckles as she recalls what the man said: “I want you to represent the young face of Appalachia.”

Leah thought the guy was crazy. “We hadn’t ever sung into a microphone at that point. We hung out in Atlanta. We sang folk music with our parents! It was like, ‘this isn’t…we don’t…we can’t.’ But…we did. We sang onstage with Grammy award-winning musicians at this showcase for about 700 people, three nights in a row. I was okay [regarding] stage fright; Chloe had some issues with stage fright. But we sold all of the albums that we had made at that show.”

The performance earned the sisters – at this point about 20 and 24 years old – some attention. They were approached by a record label that had been a big part of the festival, and that played a leading role in the emerging Americana music scene. “We went to Nashville,” Leah says, “and met with this record label. Chloe and I went to a dive bar afterward, and had a beer. We thought about it, and really talked about it. We thought, ‘We could sign this contract, and we would be handed a silver-platter career. We would be billed as those harmony-singing sisters who play folk festivals all around the world. We would be a well-supported project without having to think much further about it.’”

“And,” recalls Leah, “we said no. We decided, ‘if we want to do this, we want to do it on our own terms. We want to learn what we’re doing, and then decide how we want to do it.’ We didn’t really want fame, glitz, glamor. But,” she smiles, “it was nice to be asked.”

Leah reflects on what signing that contract might have meant. “We might have been turned into some sort of pawn. In those early days, we knew that our combining of folk music, Appalachia, hip-hop, blues and jazz was weird. And rare. There weren’t a lot of people who had all of those things in their upbringing since they were two years old. And we knew that there was no genre for that.” The music industry, on the other hand, often likes to put its artists into boxes, to give decisions about musical direction over to marketing people. This is especially true where attractive female artists are concerned.

“We were very aware that we were marketable,” Leah admits, “in our story, and our…aesthetic,” she laughs. “But we were not marketable in our genre. For the first several years that we worked, it drove the places we’d play crazy: ‘We don’t know where to put you.’ And we wanted to figure that out.” In the end, she says that “it took years for people to write about our music correctly, to not write ‘Girls with banjos! Playing bluegrass! And then they throw in this crazy, wonky, weird beat!’” Bemoaning the pandering aspect of some genre-fusion music (“It’s so piecemeal and awkward!”), Leah says that Rising Appalachia strives to “give air to what we hear, which is a very strange and wonderful conglomeration of influences.”

Continuing to embody the DIY ethos, Rising Appalachia has been at the forefront of self-funding and crowd funding. Recorded at Asheville’s Echo Mountain Studios, Wider Circles is being crowd funded to the tune of $30,000. “This will be our second Kickstarter project,” says Leah. “Our first one was a really amazing honor, and very exciting. When we got to a place where we were ready to record this album, we thought long and hard about [whether or not to do] a Kickstarter. Because we’re not really interested in taxing our fan base. We don’t like to always be asking; we’ve been taught to be self-sufficient. And we did have some funding opportunities; we did have some donors who were interested. So we round-tabled it: Chloe and I will sit and have a glass of wine, and philosophize until we we get to how we want to move forward.”

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Rising Appalachia: Making Music with Intention (Part 1)

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

Sisters Leah Song and Chloe Smith lead Rising Appalachia, a renowned folk/world music group whose music is as intriguing as it is hard to classify. Their eighth album, Wider Circles, has just been released, and the group (also featuring percussionist Biko Cassini and bassist/guitarist David Brown) appeared onstage in their current hometown at Asheville, North Carolina’s New Mountain Theatre (Amphitheatre Stage) on June 13.

To the uninitiated, the group’s name suggests Americana. But even a quick listen to one of their songs reveals that such a term would be far too limiting. “We actually – years and years ago – wanted to change the name,” says Leah. “Because we did want to be exploring roots music and folk music from all around the world. We even put in some effort to change [our name].” 2008′s Evolutions in Sound: Live re-branded the group as R.I.S.E. “But our collective fan base sort of put their foot down and said, ‘No. You should stick with it; there’s a legacy that’s important for you to hold onto. You’re redefining what Appalachia[n music] means to the mountain culture.’ They really didn’t want us to let go of that. It was part of our initial identity; we had folk traditions in our upbringing.”

She elaborates. “Several generations [of our family] have studied and played Appalachian fiddle. We were also brought up in this wonderful, urban metropolis of Atlanta, with all that that includes. So we had the idea that we could rise out of the traditions, and see how they mixed. The name Rising Appalachia was an attempt to redefine that tradition, and to figure out all the other ways in which we have a folk tradition. So we have found the name limiting, but we have also found it a really, really valuable part of our pursuits.”

The sisters’ parents both have strong roots in the arts. The idioms in which they work differ somewhat from what Rising Appalachia does, but there is a common thread running through all of it. “We have one of those family dynamics that is really treasured,” observes Leah. “And it’s pretty rare. We were raised in a very modest, lower-middle-class, hard working family. We went to public school, and we played on all of the community sports teams.” But she says that there was always a strong foundation in art and culture. Leah characterizes her parents as “big jazz record-playing, NPR-listening people.” That common thread of the family’s everyday life was part of shared meals, discussions and debates. “Holidays weren’t necessarily built around ‘stuff.’” The focus was, she says, more about sharing the product of some or other creative expression.

“Our mom is a folk fiddler; our father is as well,” Leah notes. “And they both have been playing in contra dance bands and old time jam circles since we were babies. There was music in our house five days a week. And then on weekends, we’d attend a lot of old time folk studies; we’d go to fiddle camps; contra dances. We were very, very much musical. My mom started a sort of gospel/Appalachian/jazz singing group, a 12-woman project. They rehearsed at our house.” So in many ways, Rising Appalachia was predestined, an extension of the family tradition. Leah and Chloe were going to do something. They certainly weren’t going to grow up and go off to law school, now, were they?

“Well,” laughs Leah, “you never know! My sister actually thought she would go into entertainment law. And I think I was going toward [becoming a] college professor or some sort of social justice activism. Music was just a permanent part of our expression; I don’t think we ever thought it would be a career choice. It would always have been a [life] soundtrack, a front porch project. But we didn’t go into this at any point saying, ‘Yeah! Let’s make a band!’”

Leah does see Rising Appalachia’s raison d’être as very connected to her family tradition. She connects it to “how we were raised, and the stories we were given.” And the way they were raised does reflect itself in the group’s music and overall outlook. The sisters attended Atlanta’s inner city Henry W. Grady High School, a multicultural institution in which they were the minority. “It informed both of our approaches to music and to social justice,” Leah says, noting that local events, activities and gathering places all reflected the influence and character of many cultures. “The local farmer’s market represents 250 countries, and many, many languages. So we grew up with this incredibly vibrant relationship with diversity, in an urban community that represented so many cultures. Atlanta has strong black leadership, and incredibly powerful international business owners. Where we grew up was wonderful to be part of a community that had that many different perspectives: religious, educational, economic.”

She doesn’t view that community through rose-colored glasses, however. “It wasn’t perfect,” she stresses. “It wasn’t without strife. But there’s a really strong collective mentality. And in hindsight, I realize now what an unusual upbringing that was. And it’s something that we’re always trying to bring into our social and musical awareness. And we encourage our audiences to really think about what justice and equality look like.”

At eighteen, Leah left home to travel the world, most notably in Latin America. There she found herself “on the periphery” of the Zapatista movement. The sisters’ worldly, real-life experience gives their work a degree of authenticity that is sometimes missing in musical acts who merely suit themselves in the Americana identikit of vintage suits and the like. “I did want those experiences to serve as fertile ground for the rest of my life,” she says. But she wasn’t going about collecting life experiences as fodder for songs she might write in the distant future. The traveling was a World Studies project of sorts. “I was given really strong direction by my family: ‘If you want to travel, do it with intention.’ And Chloe – she’s my younger sister – would do the same.” Eventually the two “met up again, and started doing some traveling together. And music was a very different wellspring that we tapped into later.”

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Album Review: Little Richard — Directly From My Heart

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

For music lovers of a certain age range, the work of Richard Penniman is the sort of music that one might only rarely make an effort to hear. The name and image of Little Richard is a virtual shorthand for some of the best qualities music has to offer: excitement, bravado, melody, energy, skill, humor…on and on. And because of his larger-than-life persona – wildly in-your-face effeminate posturing and his (nearly but not quite outsized) estimation of his own importance) – he seems somehow to always be there, and the same is true for his music.

Thanks, too, to the fact that Little Richard exerted so much influence on those who would follow (no less a figure than Paul McCartney has long held as part of his own stock-in-trade a convincing Little Richard vocal imitation), generations who grew to age after Little Richard’s heyday still know his songs. Covered by an impossibly long list of artists, and used in everything from film soundtracks to television commercials, Little Richard’s classic music is deeply embedded into popular culture and our collective consciousness.

The downside of that ubiquity, however, is that listeners might forget to stop for a moment and appreciate just how superb – not to mention wildly innovative for its time – his music really is. To help us in our modern-day reconsideration of Little Richard’s early, best-loved material, Concord Music Group has compiled a 3CD set, Directly From My Heart: The Best of the Specialty and Vee-Jay Years.

Penniman’s musical recording career began more than three years before he’d enter a studio to cut a demo for Specialty Records in early 1955. By the time he began recording for Specialty, Richard had released two albums (one each on RCA and Peacock) and six singles, none of which charted. Once at Specialty, Little Richard recorded in various sessions over a period of just more than two years; that body of work is the primary foundation upon which his musical legacy rests.

Surprisingly – or at least surprisingly to those who know the man’s work on cuts like “Long Tall Sally (The Thing)” – Little Richard cut a number of tracks that don’t have that wild, manic vibe at all. The first few cuts on Directly From My Heart are r&b/blues numbers, with none of the reckless abandon that would characterize his hit singles. They’re good, albeit a tad ordinary. Their inclusion on this set does serve to place those crazy, uptempo singles in a context more representative of Little Richard’s musical output of that era.

But it’s through the first (and a good portion of the second) disc that Little Richard’s Specialty work is chronicled. All of the greats are here: “Tutti Frutti,” “Kansas City,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’ (Peepin’ and Hidin’),” “Long Tall Sally (The Thing),” “Miss Ann,” “Ready Teddy,” “Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey,” “Rip it Up,” “Lucille,” “Jenny Jenny,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Keep A Knockin’,” “Ooh! My Soul,” and quite a few others.

Renouncing the sinful ways of rock’n'roll, Richard left Specialty in late 1957, going on to cut religious-themed sides for several labels. But when The Beatles exploded on the scene – and in light of their championing of him as an influence – Little Richard returned to Specialty, where he cut five songs, a few of which are featured on this set. The most notable of these is “Bama Lama Bama Loo,” but they’re all rocking numbers.

From there he went to Vee-Jay (coincidentally, the U.S. label that had released early Beatles tracks), remaining with them for a year. The third disc of Directly From My Heart focuses on this lesser-known era of Little Richard’s music, and is notable in part for the appearance of pre-fame Jimi Hendrix as guitarist for several cuts.

The entire 2015 compilation is housed in a duotone (black and pink!) box, and the accompanying liner note booklet features lots of photos and an essay from Little Richard superfan Billy Vera. The booklet handily provides matrix numbers for all sixty-three tracks, but the compilers deigned not to specify (recording and/or release) dates for the tracks. The booklet makes no mention of the mastering involved in bringing this compilation to market, but the sound throughout is superb.

Beware of imitations: notoriously, Little Richard re-recorded many of his hits in greatly inferior versions, and an unknown number among the vast array of available compilations draw tracks from those. The surest way to get a tidy collection of the man’s best work is to pick up Directly From My Heart.

A few related items, if I may…

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Album Reviews: Four from The Residents

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

Though they initially submitted demo recordings to major record labels (the bootleg The Warner Brothers Tapes documents the most notorious of these), the inscrutable collective that once jokingly billed themselves “North Louisiana’s Phenomenal Pop Combo” released most of their albums on their own Ralph Records label. That entity – though not The Residents themselves – ceased operations in 2010. Since that time, The Residents have set about reissuing large swaths of their massive back catalog via the MVD Audio label. MVD is also the licensed distributor for new and current Residents album releases. Here’s a look at two archival reissues and two new titles, all from the world’s most mysterious musical outfit.

The Residents – God in Three Persons

This conceptual work from 1988 often employs a favorite Residents musical device: taking the signature melodic line of a popular song – say, The Swinging Medallions‘ “Double Shot (of My Baby’s Love)” and reapplying it in a different musical context. Musically rich and deeply textured, God in Three Persons features that tune re-contextualized throughout the record. The opening track is a recitation of the work’s credits, and the album features unusually (for the Residents, that is) melodic vocals from Laurie Amat, and brass and woodwind arrangements from Richard Marriot. It’s on a par with The River of Crime in terms of its musicality. But lovers of the outré need not worry: the horrifying story line (involving siamese twins, rape and other fun subjects) and its execution are just as transgressive as hardcore Residents fans could want. The album art is unabashedly risqué, too. Randy’s sung/spoken delivery suits the project perfectly.

The Residents – Our Finest Flowers

When it comes to The Residents, one should expect the unexpected. When they released a greatest hits (sic) collection (1997′s Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses), the group put all the songs in reverse-chronological order. The liner notes of this collection from 1992 celebrate the group’s “twenty long years of painful regurgitation.” The sixteen tracks recombine elements from The Residents’ vast catalog, proving that their mutated approach to song construction can provide endless — and endlessly fascinating — variation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Our Finest Flowers‘ new pieces draw greatly upon material from Commercial Album, a disc full of intentionally underdeveloped musical ideas. All of these tunes feature the southern drawl vocal delivery of the Resident Known Only As Randy, with synthesizers (samplers, analog synths, drum machines) providing the musical accompaniment, textures and sound effects. By Residential standards, this is fairly accessible material overall, though much of the music is nightmarish in tone.

The Residents – Marching to the See!

Another commemorative project of sorts, March to the See! documents The Residents’ “The Wonder of Weird” 40th Anniversary Tour. Starring Residents Randy (“singer for The Residents”), Chuck (“he writes all of the music”) and Bob (guitar), the album is a recording of their May 20, 2013 performance in Amsterdam. Howling electric guitar – a musical element not often found on Residents albums – is a prominent part of the sonic landscape on this set. Chuck’s hypnotic synthesizer lines provide more musical texture, and our pal Randy works the crowd like some bizarro-world cross between rock star and carnival barker. The music –  Marching to the See! is mostly about music, not story lines and narratives – is sweeping and cinematic, and a bit less creepy than most Residents albums. Note: there’s a 2CD version, The Wonder of Weird, that documents the complete concert, rather than just the highlights found here.)

The Residents – Shadowland

Subtitled “Part 3 of the Residents’ Randy, Chuck and Bob Trilogy,” Shadowland is musically very much of a piece with Marching to the See! A document of the tour of the same name, the live Shadowland features the loops, synths, textures and avant-metal guitar sounds that characterize the current (mid-2010′s) Residents. The group’s recurring Timmy character makes an appearance in the Shadowland storyline, but listeners more attuned to the aural weirdness of The Residents can safely ignore what Randy’s singing/talking about and just revel in the spooky sound ambience. “Herman the Human Mole” could well be an outtake from 2006′s The River of Crime; with the Residents, you never know if something is new, old, recycled, or somehow all of the above. All you know is that it never sounds like anyone except The Residents. (At press time, a Shadowland performance was scheduled for midnight, August 7 in Katowice, Poland.)

Note: if you enjoy reading about The Residents, you may want to check out some or all of the following:

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Album Review: stephaniesĭd – Excavator

Friday, June 19th, 2015

It’s rare that I review the music of artists based in my adopted hometown of Asheville NC. My reason is simple: I gotta live in this town. I feel it my duty to pull no punches when reviewing music, so if I perceive flaws or shortcoming in someone’s music, I’ll say so in my review. But when those people are my neighbors, my general approach is to take a pass, or (as I do quite often) write a feature/interview that explores the artist’s creative process and such, and leave the reviewing to others in other venues.

stephaniesĭd are the exception to that unofficial policy of mine. Both onstage and on disc, their music is distinctive, arresting, and compelling. I enthusiastically reviewed Starfruit in late 2011, and that album has worn well these ensuing three and a half years.

Excavator is the group’s latest, and it represents a darker, more contemplative and melancholy ambience than its predecessor. Ten of the eleven tracks on Excavator are written or co-written by Stephanie Morgan, an intriguing vocalist of uncanny expressiveness and range. On this record, there’s a kittenish, just-awoken quality to Morgan’s voice, and the arrangements – led primarily by Chuck Lichtenberger – are often spare, often using silence – the spaces between the notes, as they say – as the backing for Morgan’s vocalizing.

A sense of melodrama pervades the songs on Excavator. There’s a feel of regret and resignation that hangs upon the tunes. Yet despite the often minimalistic approach to the music, at times Excavator sounds like the exact opposite: the wide-screen arrangements of Polyphonic Spree.

When the band moves away from the heartbreak and melancholy – as they do on the uptempo “Battery Room” – they end up sounding like a postmodern rethink of Astrud and Joao Gilberto-styled Brazilian jazz, crossed with The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner-era Ben Folds Five. On “Baseball Player,” they sound a good bit like 2015 America’s answer to Radiohead (Morgan is on record as a big fan of Thom Yorke‘s group) circa Kid A. Halfway through Excavator, “Baseball Player” is the first instance of electric guitar taking a prominent – albeit exceedingly textural – role in the music. The album’s instrumental lineup (beyond Morgan and Lichtenberger) features upright bass, trombone, saxophone, bass clarinet, violin and cello.

As such, it’s difficult (not to mention pointless) to classify Excavator as a rock album. It’s certainly not jazz, though the group’s inventive reading of “My Funny Valentine” has elements of jazz, especially in Lichtenberger’s nimble piano work. It’s also not at all what one could call an immediate record; one has to immerse oneself in the music, or more accurately, allow the music to envelop the listener. That’s a tall order for a musical act to place upon a potential listener, but with Excavator, stephaniesĭd provide a handsome reward for the investment. Simply put, Excavator is worth the effort required to get into the current musical world of stephaniesĭd.

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Album Review: The Orange Peels — Begin the Begone

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

On Begin the Begone, the sixth album from northern California pop group The Orange Peels, the group continues to redefine its stylistic parameters while still crafting that winning ear-candy pop with which it has built a solid reputation.

Begin the Begone rocks a bit harder than earlier albums like the near-perfect 2020, and while part of that is thanks to the guitar work of John Moremen (also of The Paul & John, Flotation Device and who-the-hell-knows how many other fine aggregations), but the increased heaviness is clearly a product of Allen Clapp‘s songwriting and arrangement ideas as well. The indie aesthetic meets a baroque pop sensibility (see also: Pet Sounds, The Polyphonic Spree) but wraps it in a heavier rock feel, anchored by bassist Jill Pries and drummer Gabriel Coan.

In some ways, Begin the Begone moves away from the immediacy and hookiness of earlier tunes like the sunshiny power pop of “We’re Gonna Make It,” weaving a gauzier textured musical tapestry that requires (and rewards) repeated listens. But the group’s uncanny knack for pop confection remains on full display with “Embers,” which sports not only a lovely Allen Clapp lead vocal but finds Moremen channeling early 1970s George Harrison.

The skewed pop-centric approach goes completely off the rails with the brief “Post & Beam,” basically a manic two-minute drum solo in which the sounds are treated with effects, and a bit of bloops (synthesizer or treated guitar) add interest. At first listen, “Post & Beam” seems wholly out of place on Begin the Begone, but once it gives way to the intro of “9,” everything makes some sort of contextual sense.

“9” starts off sounding very much like a sample-happy treat from Japan’s Pizzicato Five, but once it’s joined by Moremen’s chiming guitar, Pries’ rock solid bass, and Clapp’s vocal, it reveals itself as a swell (and slightly transcendent) pop tune. The song’s lyric reflecting amazement at being alive refers to a 2013 car accident that could well have killed both Clapp and wife Pries; happily and amazingly, they were both unhurt.

Clapp’s reverberating piano forms the centerpiece of “Satellite Song,” a soaring melody that seems to lift the band sonically, fading off into the ether (or perhaps the, um, aether tide). It would have served as a fine ending to Begin the Begone. But instead, an acoustic guitar intro (something not found elsewhere on the disc) leads into the real closing track, “Wintergreen.” Here The Orange Peels sound a bit like XTC in their Dukes of Stratosphear guise, yet without the 60s trappings.

For most of The Orange Peels’ career, they’ve allowed four years between album releases. But even though Mystery Lawn Music, the label that Clapp heads, has increased its overall output (and, one would think, Clapp’s workload), they turned out Begin the Begone a mere two years after Sun Moon. That they did so without sacrificing quality is a testament to the group’s deep well of talent, and it bodes well for the future. Now, if they’d just tour widely, all would be right in the world.

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Album Review: Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba — Ba Power

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

Ask most informed music enthusiasts to cite an example of “world music” from Africa, and one of the first names offered up will likely be Malian guitarist/vocalist Ali Farka Touré. Thanks in large part to Talking Timbuktu, the 1994 album (Touré’s twelfth) released in collaboration with Ry Cooder, the music of the late Touré is the standard by which much world music is measured.

The term itself is more than a bit suspect: in most cases all it really means is music originating from somewhere outside North America and Europe. And that’s a pretty narrow way of looking at things, the same kind of mindset that leads some to refer to certain countries in Africa and elsewhere as “third world.”

The seeds of much that is called American music had their origin in Africa. And that may well be the reason that – labels aside – for Americans, there is often something familiar (on an almost molecular, unconscious level) in music that originates in what was once known as the dark continent.

In any event, when one approaches the music of Malian lute master Bassekou Kouyaté, the sonic touchstones are the preconceived idea of world music, and the international appeal of Ali Farka Touré. Adopting an approach similar to the one used on Talking Timbuktu, the latest album from Kouyaté aims to synthesize a current-day American style (rock) with a homegrown one. The ancient Malian lute known as the ngoni is the “lead” instrument on Ba Power, and Kouyaté’s backing musicians (known as Ngoni Ba) supply more ngoni textures (there are four ngonis played on the album, including one played by son Mamadou Kouyaté that has a bass frequency range) along with percussion, vocals and – on several tracks – drums (Dave Smith from Robert Plant‘s group) and trumpet (Jon Hassel).

In keeping with the rock-leaning aesthetic of Ba Power, the arrangements make use of wah-wah and distortion pedals, effects customarily applied to electric guitar. But they add fascinating textures to the ngoni, and help to root the music in a fashion more accessible to American ears. The bass ngoni – which often doubles the melodic lines of the upper-register instruments – helps lay down a propulsive, solid musical foundation.

When the vocals are present (Koyaté’s wife Amy Sacko), the scales and textures of the voice are clearly rooted in African tradition. Sacko sings [I think] in Bambara, the indigenous language of Mali. (French is the country’s official language, and Ba Power‘s gatefold LP sleeve features English and French lyric translations.) But during the instrumental-only passages, the music is decidedly rock-oriented, albeit interpreted on non-western instruments.

Many of Ba Power‘s nine tracks (all under six minutes) feature extended passages built around a single chord, giving the music a hypnotic effect. The dizzying percussion pushes the music forward constantly, and the guest musicians – most notably trumpeter Hassel and an electric organist – add to the texture without ever calling much attention to themselves.

There are bits of electric guitar on Ba Power, but they’re played by guest musicians and are subtly mixed. So it’s Bassekou Kouyaté’s ngoni-through-pedals that you’ll hear blasting out the opening licks of “Aye Sira Bla” (“Make Way”), which the liner notes explain is a reworking of a traditional praise song. With no Malian frame of reference, it sounds to these Western ears like a pretty hot riff-based tune.

And in the end, it’s that Western musical perspective that most listeners outside of Mali will bring to their enjoyment of Ba Power. It’s exotic, yes, but the album is rooted in just the right amount of rock aesthetic to be a genre-bridging exercise that’s fun to hear, and one suspects it’s not any kind of sellout that would betray the music’s indigenous character.

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Album Review: The Weeklings

Monday, June 15th, 2015

Beginning in the early 1980s out of their home base in Charlotte NC, The Spongetones offered up what was then a new and unique concept: new and original songs, written in the style of The Beatles. Though they’d later expand upon their sound and develop a style they could call their own, on early records (most notably the album Beat Music and the Torn Apart EP) The Spongetones cleverly wrote and performed songs that sounded like hidden gems from the Lennon/McCartney songwriting team.

These days The Spongetones gather for the occasional live gig, while their songwriting efforts are manifested in the steady output of two members, Jamie Hoover and Steve Stoeckel; they do business as Jamie & Steve.

So who remains to carry the banner taken up by The Spongetones (and, before them – and to varying degrees — The Bee Gees, Badfinger, Electric Light Orchestra, Klaatu, The Rutles, and for a moment, Utopia)? The answer seems to be The Weeklings.

Featuring (unsurprisingly enough) four guys who unashamedly describe their music as “Beatles-inspired power pop,” The Weeklings have released their twelve-track, self-titled debut. And while as a just-plain-listen it’s quite enjoyable, its contents deserve a bit of unpacking.

The disc kicks off with an original tune, “Little Tease,” that is packed to the breaking point with Beatleisms. Keen listeners will spot chord progressions from “I Saw Her Standing There,” as well as guitar licks and tambourine flourishes that call to mind specific moments in other Beatles tunes. But beyond that, “Little Tease” is a song worthy of the term Beatlesque. From the bop-shoo-wop baking vocals to the way that John “Rocky” Merjave slows down the tail-end of his guitar solo (a la George Harrison), it’s a true gem. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve spun this tune in the last few days. And while it’s not the equal of the infectious opener, “Leave Me With My Pride” is a solid number in the 1964-65 Beatles mold.

From here, things get really interesting. What, you might ask yourself, would it sound like if some songs that have previously existed only as Beatles demos (or versions tackled by other artists) were rendered in true Beatles style? The Weeklings are here to help answer that question. George Harrison’s early solo composition “You Know What to Do” is unique as one of the very few demos showcased on the Anthology series that had not leaked to rabid fans before release of the retrospective sets. Harrison’s solo performance of the tune is pleasant enough, but nothing special beyond its historical value. The Weeklings, however, give the song a full Beatles-style arrangement, and the results do indeed sound a lot like what the Beatles probably would have done with it.

“One and One is Two” was a lesser Lennon-McCartney original quickly written and given away to The Strangers with Mike Shannon. Most people will have never heard the song (nor anything by The Strangers, for that matter). The Weekings’ cover version re-imagines the tune with all the power and nuance of a Beatles version. What previously sounded like a throwaway now sounds like – if not a hit single – a very good album track circa The Beatles’ Second Album.

“I’m in Love” was a Lennon composition, though like everything from the Beatles days, it was credited to both him and Paul. The Fourmost did a decent enough version of it, and for their trouble were rewarded with a respectable #17 showing on the UK charts. (The Fourmosts’s first single, another Lennon/McCartney number called “Hello Little Girl,” reached #9 on the charts, but The Weeklings skipped that one, presumably because the fab four cut their own version at their ill-fated Decca audition.) Hardcore Beatles fans know “I’m in Love” from the poorly recorded informal Lennon demo version. (Aside: my own theory is that Lennon’s demo does not represent a 1963-4 recording; I am convinced that it’s a mid 1970s “self-cover” done as part of the work on the planned – but never completed – musical retrospective he was writing, a project called The Ballad of John & Yoko. But it’s just a theory.) The Weeklings’ version of “I’m in Love” does a good job of taking the tune to its logical proper end as a Beatles tune.

“It’s For You” was first cut by Cilla Black (UK #7, US #79), but it was also covered by Three Dog Night on their 1968 debut (and again on their 1969 Captured Live at the Forum LP). There’s only so much one could be expected to do with this slight number, and while The Weeklings’ version is more interesting than Black’s or Three Dog Night’s readings, it’s still no great shakes.

At this point in the proceedings (the beginning of the so-called “side two” of The Weeklings), the band shifts back to original compositions. “Mona Lisa” sounds like Beatles twice removed, or A Hard Day’s Night-era Beatles filtered through a Raspberries sensibility. In fact, if I told you that “Mona Lisa” was a Raspberries tune (it’s not), you might even believe me. “Come on come on” indeed. Bonus points for a guitar solo that reminds one of The Bobby Fuller Four‘s classic “I Fought the Law.”

“Breathing Underwater,” “If I Was in Love” and the slyly-titled “Oh! Darla” (get it?) showcase the softer, acoustic-leaning and more contemplative takes on The Weeklings’ Beatlesque songwriting. Taken together as a mini-suite, the tunes have the feel of a Spongetones tribute more than a Beatles pastiche.

The Weeklings wraps up with a pair of songs that The Beatles finished in the studio, but held back until Anthology. It’s fairly easy to understand why The Beatles didn’t see fit to release “If You’ve Got Trouble” and “That Means a Lot.” Neither is awful, but both suffer from some weaknesses, structurally and/or lyric-wise.

To their credit, The Weeklings do what they can with “If You’ve Got Trouble.” Taking note of Ringo Starr‘s frustrated plea in the Beatles’ version (“oh, rock on…anybody!”) The Weeklings try to up the ante musically. They achieve this by adding Revolver-era sonics: a bass line straight out of “Rain,” vocal treatments that recall “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and a fistful of cues from “Paperback Writer.” Moreover, they gamely rewrite the lyrics to dial back some of the original’s inanity. And while the overall result is an improvement, it all serves to highlight that, hey, “If You’ve Got Trouble” is basically some pretty weak stuff, Beatlewise.

Lifting the arrangement of “Till There Was You” straight off of Meet the Beatles, The Weeklings interpret “That Means a Lot” through that filter. And while stripping the semi-rock arrangement of The Beatles’ failed attempt is a good idea, we’re still left with one of the least-interesting tunes in the Beatles catalog.

It would be delightful to report that the clever endeavor that is The Weeklings ends on a strong note – something on the par with the exquisite “Little Tease,” or their reading of “One and One is Two” – but that’s not the case. As a project of originals in the style plus very well-thought-out re-imaginings of obscure Beatles material, The Weeklings is a modest success. One or two more cuts in the mold of “One and One is Two” and they might have had a near-classic. Instead it’s merely very good. Which – until the Spongetones decide to create new music, and that is unlikely – is well and good enough.

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