Archive for the ‘new release’ Category

Album Review: Warren Haynes — Ashes & Dust

Friday, July 24th, 2015

A true son of the South, guitarist Warren Haynes has built a varied career imbued with musical values that proudly display his Appalachian roots. And though he’s strongly associated with the electric guitar – largely through his work with Gov’t Mule and The Allman Brothers Band – his interests have always extended well beyond the relatively narrow idioms of blues and rock. Even a decade ago he was featuring an acoustic guitar reading of Radiohead‘s “Lucky” in his solo live sets.

So it’s not at all without precedent for Haynes to release an album that digs deeper into his affinity with the more acoustic-flavored and rootsy parts of his own musical makeup. On Ashes & Dust (released today), Haynes enlists the musical support of newgrassers Railroad Earth, a group renowned for their own skill at folding in influences from a wide variety of American musical styles (which, come to think of it, is as good a definition as any for the slippery genre known as Americana).

While a significant portion of the disc features quiet, relatively simple arrangements, Haynes makes intelligent use of Railroad Earth’s instrumental prowess (not to mention his own chops). The yearning fiddle work of Tim Carbone helps connect musical dots with some of the 1970s’ best singer/songwriters (Jackson Browne, Neil Young). The prominence of mandolin and banjo on Ashes & Dust gives the music a decidedly Americana air, but Haynes isn’t afraid to apply mostly acoustic tools to decidedly rocking-out goals. The eight-minutes-plus “Spots of Time” executes a slow burn that rocks, while still showcasing Haynes’ Latin-flavored acoustic and electric guitar licks.

From its title, it’s clear that “Company Man” – one of two tracks that have been premiered ahead of the album’s release – is a story song. A tune written years ago by Haynes, it explores the decisions the songwriter’s father had to make when facing a company shutdown. It’s a story familiar to anyone who’s lived in a small town, and Haynes delivers the lyrics in a heartfelt manner.

Ray Sisk‘s “Glory Road” has been a part of Haynes’ repertoire for more than ten years; with the nuanced backing of Railroad Earth, Haynes renders it in a more thoughtful and evocative manner than he was able to do in a solo setting (for Ashes & Dust, he’s radically transposed it, too).

Haynes doesn’t, however, do anything interesting with Fleetwood Mac‘s “Gold Dust Woman.” Beyond an extended instrumental break, there’s little difference between his reading and the Rumours original. But that track is the only comparatively weak spot on an otherwise solid, varied and engaging album. With a long intro that suggests melodrama leavened by the sound of a band tuning up on stage, “Hallelujah Blvd.” unfolds into a weary, melancholy and contemplative tune.

Ashes & Dust is widely being described as Haynes’ “Americana album.” But attempting to pin the record down to a single genre – however stylistically inclusive that genre might be – does it and Warren Haynes a disservice. The music on Ashes & Dust invites all listeners.

An edited version of this review was previously published in Mountain Xpress.

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Hundred-word Reviews for July 2015, Part 3

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

Blues, r&b, post-jazz and country-flavored singer/songwriter music: never let it be said that I only write about rock. Here are five fine releases in a wide array of musical styles.

Rusty Wright Band – Wonder Man

Take the attitude of big-band swing and electric guitar blues, and apply it to uptempo rock’n'roll, and you might end up with something like The Rusty Wright Band. Too many modern-day blues exponents have nothing interesting to offer musically. Wright deftly avoids falling into the strict confines of 21st century blues by widening his musical scope to incorporate other styles. And he does it in a way that won’t offend blues purists (neat trick, that). “Black Hat Boogie” feels like a cross between ZZ Top and Deep Purple; that’s just a hint of what’s on offer here. Wonder Man indeed.

The 24th Street Wailers – Where Evil Grows

I get letters; I do. Actually, they’re usually emails. But owing to the large number of ‘em, few get a “yes, please send a CD” reply from me. Here’s a worthy exception. Imagine a group that plays like JD McPherson and boasts songwriting and a production aesthetic reminiscent of the late and great Nick Curran. Add in some gritty 40s and 50s rhythm and blues, and top it all off with a strong female lead singer who just happens to site behind a trap kit. Whaddya got? This group. On Where Evil Grows, they tear shit up. Get this now.

Victor Krummenacher – Hard to See Trouble Coming

If asked to name a musical act of the last few decades that draws from the widest possible range of musical styles and genres, I’d answer without hesitation: Camper Van Beethoven. That group’s bassist, Victor Krummenacher is endlessly busy with all manner of projects in and outside that group. His latest is this, his tenth solo album. An acoustic-leaning affair, the disc features strong melodies in a slow-to-midtempo vein; the tracks find Krummenacher in an agreeable troubadour/singer-songwriter album, and should appeal to fans of Crosby, Stills and Nash (but not so much Young) and the solidly dependable Bakersfield c&w sound.

Tas Cru – You Keep the Money

Another example of an artist who deftly expands his musical scope beyond the solid lines some draw around the blues idiom (see Rusty Wright, above), Tas Cru starts with the tried-and-true electric blues elements – electric guitar, bass, drums, B-3-sounding organ, overdriven blues harp – but he applies those tools to a rock songwriting style. His assured and expressive vocal style is strong and unaffected, and the production style avoids cliché. Oh, and as “A Month of Somedays” and the subtle, smoldering “La Bell Poutine” both illustrate, Cru can play some mean guitar in the traditional blues style as well.

Throttle Elevator Music – Jagged Rocks

Maybe you’ve heard the term post-rock; it attempts to describe a sort of music that’s both cerebral and visceral, but that moves beyond the idiom from which it was borne. Well, with that in mind, here’s some post-jazz for ya. This trio is shepherded by Gregory Howe, head of Wide Hive Records, and features a sax/drums/guitar lineup. The instrumentation pieces tend toward the short-and-snappy, and they’re alternatively mysterious/gauzy and noisy/aggressive. Howe’s intimate production aesthetics make it feel like you’re in a small room with the band. That’s good, but be warned: like the old saying goes, it might get loud.

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Hundred-word Reviews for July 2015, Part 2

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

Five releases from five acts from five different countries (Poland, The United States, Germany, Belgium and Sweden) are the focus of today’s brief reviews.

Lunatic Soul – Walking on a Flashlight Beam

Bassist/vocalist Mariusz Duda seems to be taking a cue from the astoundingly busy Steven Wilson; he’s involved in several musical projects all at once, and each is both unique and very worthwhile. His primary band, Riverside, has been slightly less active of late (new album coming later this year), but as Lunatic Soul, Duda has released four albums. Walking on a Flashlight Beam continues the project’s avoidance of electric guitars, and Duda sings and plays everything except drums. The music is ambient-leaning melodic progressive rock; it’s deeply textured and contemplative music that holds up well to active listening. DVD included.

Hildegard – Hildegard
I’ve occasionally wondered why hardly anybody has come up with music that spans the divide between accessible, electronic-leaning vocal pop and more adventurous progressive-minded rock; it seems as if that could – if it’s done right – be a winning combination. To my delight, I’ve found that such a thing does exist. And it comes from an unlikely place: New Orleans. Hildegard is guitarist Cliff Hines and vocalist Sasha Masakowski, and on their self-titled debut, the seamlessly blend a dizzyingly wide variety of musical styles. The subtle, quieter moments are a slow burn; the many rocking parts do indeed rock.

Camouflage – Greyscale

It’s my firm belief that the musical styles of the 1980s aren’t all used up; while the MTV era gave us untold amounts of by-the-numbers synth-pop and -rock (and then moved on to other things), there’s a lot that can be done with the musical tools and aesthetics of that period. The cool synthesizers of that period represented the gradual displacement of analog by digital machines. On Greyscale (their eighth studio release), Camouflage continues their winning approach of sturdy, moody music. The German group’s sound suggests a less bloodless Human League, or a less melancholy Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark.

Brainticket – Past Present & Future

Originally a (sort of) krautrock band of the early 1970s, Brainticket released two of the odder entries in the genre, 1971′s Cottonwoodhill (reissued in 2013) and 1972′s Psychonaut. The prime mover of the group was keyboardist Joel Vandroogenbroeck. Now it’s more than forty years later, and while everyone else involved with the 70s lineup is long gone, Belgium-born Vandroogenbroeck has enlisted members of non-German krautrockers Hedersleben to craft a new album. Past Present & Future features hypnotic works a la Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd; it’s dreamier and less insistent than the early stuff, and thus more accessible. Quite enjoyable and recommended.

Last Days of April – Sea of Clouds

It’s a peculiarly American perspective to think of ourselves as the center of the pop-culture universe. But the truth – of course! – is that there’s some great pop coming from places that don’t have English as their primary language. As I’ve just now discovered, Sweden’s Last Days of April is one of these acts. They’ve been around for two decades, and their sound is one that should please American ears. Singing in non-accented English and featuring simply lovely use of pedal steel guitar, they trade in an engaging, hooky, country-flavored timeless pop. A serious contender for best of 2015.

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Hundred-word Reviews for July 2015, Part 1

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

Power pop is a term that can be taken to mean a lot of different things. For me it almost always means fun and appealing music. Here are five examples, each reviewed in brief.

The Shoe Birds – Southern Gothic

During my recent conversation with him, Drivin’ n’ Cryin‘s Kevn Kinney threw out a phrase I hadn’t heard before: kudzu rock. The phrase was new to me, but I knew exactly what he meant: a kind of jangly southern rock that draws from classic rock but is informed with a c&w sensibility. R.E.M. and Tom Petty are kudzu rock; Charlie Daniels and Danny Joe Brown are most assuredly not. But The Shoe Birds are: their music features heartfelt lyrics coupled with memorable, hooky song craft. At its best, Southern Gothic conjures the ghosts of Big Star without copying their style.

Kurt Baker Combo – Muy Mola Live!

As part of The New Trocaderos, guitarist/vocalist Baker showcases his skill at crafting fast, catchy and memorable rockers. But here, fronting his own four-piece, Baker ups the wattage considerably. The songs are even better, and – thanks to the live setting for this recording – the energy is much more palpable. The visceral feel of punk is combined with the cheery perspective of power pop and the swagger of full-on rock’n'roll. They start and stop on a dime, and play to the small audience like rockstars. Their reading of The Remains‘ “Don’t Look Back” is stellar and incendiary. Vigorously recommended.

The Hangabouts – Illustrated Bird

Swimming in the less powerful – but supremely melodic – end of the power pop pool, The Hangabouts (John Lowry and Gregory Addington) craft melodic, acoustic flavored pop of the highest order. Their songs are reminscent of some of Pilot‘s best work, and fans of Matthew Sweet, Michael Penn and Jeff Lynne will quite possibly fall head-over-heels in love with the thirteen songs on Illustrated Bird. This music is proof (if it were needed) that one needn’t rock out all of the time. The production and arrangement (by the duo) are both up to the standard of the songs, too.

Aerial – Why Don’t They Teach Heartbreak at School?

The album graphics and packaging suggest a sort of teenage, angst-filled punk pop, and in some ways, that’s what the music delivers. But this American band has a more nuanced and textured musical approach than, say, Green Day. With guitars that pummel along like Bob Mould‘s old band Sugar, Aerial definitely have one foot in the punk/hardcore camp. But the poppy songs lean very much in a melodic direction; listening to their wonderfully hooky songs, one might guess that the group’s favorite Ramones album is End of the Century. Bonus points awarded for the ace backing vocals throughout the album.

The Super Fuzz – Super Famous

Taking a page from the way-out-front, exuberant playbook of Cheap Trick (“Speedball” even musically quotes Rockford’s finest), The Super Fuzz play a sort of glam-inflected, power-chording rock that puts strong emphasis on melody, groove, vocal harmony and roaring-guitar-centered performance and arrangement. One might detect hints of Fastball and Redd Kross in the grooves of Super Famous. Song titles like “Surprised Your Boyfriend’s Still Around” make it clear that this isn’t deep philosophy. What it is, is fun, fist-pumping rock that will have most listeners singing along. But please keep a hand on the steering wheel. Find this and buy it.

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Blu-ray Review: Elliott Smith — Heaven Adores You

Monday, July 20th, 2015

The life and music of Elliott Smith bears some superficial similarities to Nick Drake: a quiet, introspective songwriter who never quite seemed at ease, and whose life ended tragically maybe or maybe not by his own hand – at a far too young age. But while Drake didn’t achieve anything approaching stardom during his lifetime, Smith was catapulted int othe spotlight.

A new film, Heaven Adores You, explores Smith’s life and music. Over the course of an hour and forty minutes, the film charts his life and career. Remarkably little footage of Smith talking or being interviewed surfaces in the film; whether that was an aesthetic choice or due to such material simply not existing, the effect is to render Smith as a ghostly, enigmatic figure who’s sort of half present, half not.

And that ambience seems to suit the subject very well. As some of those relatively rare audio interviews show, Elliott Smith didn’t want to (or perhaps could not) reveal much of himself in conversation. During an interview for KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic, Smith is asked why he had relocated – years earlier – from Dallas, Texas to Portland, Orgeon. He begins to answer, and then thinks the better of it. The tension hangs in the air until the subject changes back to music.

Heaven Adores You draws upon interviews with friends, family and musical associates. Many of them remain visibly moved by the thought of Smith, and there’s a fair amount of holding-back-tears onscreen. This is one of those stories where most viewers know how it ends before they see it, and director Nickolas Rossi wisely starts the narrative at the end. Only once that part of the story is covered does he wind back to the beginning.

The film has a distinctive visual style. High resolution, shallow depth-of-field camera work is used, and the camera lens lingers on its subjects – trains in yards and at crossings; traffic at night; buildings – for unusually long periods. The subjects (or elements within the frame) move, sometimes via time-lapse techniques, but there’s a quiet, forlorn and meditative feel to the visuals. That feel – heightened by the directorial choice to eliminate the audio tracks from those scenes – provides a pleasing backdrop for the musical and narrative audio that moves the story forward. Heaven Adores You isn’t exactly an “arty” film, but it’s an artful one, a film in which the visual approach fits the story like a glove.

Viewers familiar with Smith’s work will find many gems; the soundtrack is packed with music form all phases of his career, including some unreleased material. Those who know Elliott Smith only from his work on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack are in for a treat. And those who know only his acoustic side may be intrigued to discover his much more rocking side, most notably with the band Heatmiser.

But it’s not necessary to know anything at all about the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist (he was a fine and expressive pianist, by the way) to enjoy Heaven Adores You.

Interview: Kevn Kinney of Drivin N Cryin

Friday, July 17th, 2015

Yesterday I published my feature based on an interview with Kevn Kinney. Today I present the entire interview. — bk

Bill Kopp: The new vinyl album Best of Songs compiles songs from the four EPs that Drivin N Cryin released between 2012 and 2014. How did you decide which tracks went on and which were left off?

Kevn Kinney: I tried to keep it kinda poppy. Because it’s supposed to be like a 1970s record – we designed it to look like a K-Tel record – I wanted to keep it upbeat and groovy. So I focused more on our power pop type stuff, like “Hot Wheels,” “Turn,” and “Strangers.”

I didn’t put “Sometimes the Rain (is Just the Rain)” on there for that reason. Once again, it’s an album. So we had to think of things in the same way that we did when we made our fist album [1986's Scarred But Smarter]. We’d think, “well, that song is too long.” I love the [long] intro to “Sometimes the Rain” – I love how the lyrics and the music work together – and so I asked myself, “Do I want to put it on the album but without [the intro]?” Because the song is, like, seven minutes. And I realized, “I don’t want to put a seven-minute song on here.

So I looked at the times of the songs, and I thought about which ones we do live, like “Dirty,” “Ain’t Waitin’ on Tomorrow,” and “Roll Away the Song,” and that’s kind of how I decided.

BK: I think it’s a good call not to have edited a song down just to fit it on there…

KK: But it’s fun to listen to. The songs all go together. But I also wanted to try to include at least something from all four of the EPs, if I could.

BK: When I first learned about the EP series, I was reminded of Marshall Crenshaw‘s similar project that’s ongoing. When I asked him about it, he said that part of the thinking behind doing a series of short-form releases was to keep his name and music in the minds of listeners, as opposed to the normal couple-of-years between albums, which is a lifetime in pop culture. People can forget about a group in that time. Did you have a similar motivation for your Songs EPs, or was it something else?

KK: Yeah, that was part of the motivation, the idea of putting something out more often. But also, I love the 45rpm format. Maybe I’ll do a series of 45s in the future, one every two months or so.

But also the EP idea came about because I think that twelve songs is too many songs! Too many songs by one band for a person to listen to. When my friends give me their CDs, I only make it to the tenth song. I’m in the car, I hear the first five or six songs, and then I’m usually wherever I need to be, or I’m bored.

I made the Bubble Factory record [2009's The Great American Bubble Factory]; that was meant to be a long playing, listen-to-all-the-songs album, because it was a “theme” record. But then I released EPs that each dealt with a different musical era. The first one is ‘kudzu rock’n'roll’ [Songs From the Laundromat] like R.E.M., Fetchin’ Bones and all of our heroes of that era. The punk rock one [Songs About Cars, Space, and The Ramones] is our hard rock side. And the psychedelic one [Songs From the Psychedelic Time Clock] is pretty obvious. I wanted to deconstruct the band through those EPs. Because if any band needs to be deconstructed, it’s Drivin N Cryin. We’re all over the map. And if I can do anything to confuse the audience even more, that’s what I want to do!

BK: You mentioned the thematic approach of those four EPs. I reviewed three of them, and I wrote that Songs From the Laundromat sounded to me like The Replacements crossed with Foghat or Grand Funk

KK: Yeah. There you go.

BK: The 1970s thing, but through a more modern, punky kind of sensibility…

KK: Right. And also, we really wanted to take advantage of this great kid who was playing with us. Sadler Vaden co-produced almost all of these EPs with me. He co-wrote and played guitar, and he played bass on some of the tracks. This guy is a genius. We had him in our band, and I knew that this kid was gonna be big. What was happening was like lightning striking. So I wanted to make as many records, as fast as I could, with the guy while he was with us. Because he’s just a pleasure. Now he’s with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, but this kid is gonna be a famous producer someday. You’re gonna hear about him for the rest of your career, his career. I just love the guy. He’s somebody who I wish I had to work with back when I was 19 or 20.

Paul Ebersold produced Three Doors Down; he’s an enjoyable guy to work with, so we thought, “Let’s go to Nashville. There are so many producers who were Drivin N Cryin fans when they were young. They do these million-selling albums, but then they say, “ I want to do something fun: I want to produce Drivin N Cryin.”

All of the famous songs you can think of – “Satisfaction,” “Louie, Louie,” even “Whole Lotta Love” – these songs weren’t recorded in three days. They were recorded in an hour.

BK: The first Beatles album was recorded in twelve hours…

KK: Right. So a lot of the [choice of producers] was them being a good personality, having a group of good musicians that I’m happy to work with, and having a good environment in which to do it.

We could do an EP in a week; it’s not a big commitment like recording an album. It’s like the difference between making a movie and making music video. In a movie, it takes months; there’s a story arc, there’s editing.

BK: And of course you know a bit about that, having had the 2014 Scarred But Smarter documentary made about you and the band. [link: my review of Scarred But Smarter]

You mentioned earlier that you believe twelve songs is too many. With iTunes and streaming and the like, people aren’t interested in albums, but instead in individual songs. If true, that’s sort of a return to the era of 45rpm singles. Do you think the era of the album – as a creative medium – is over?

KK: I don’t know if it’s over. I just don’t know if it’s necessary. If Lucinda Williams wants to put out 40 songs, twelve songs, or five songs, that’s cool with me. It’s gonna end up on my iTunes anyway. If I like it, I’m gonna put it on my playlist. I’m gonna construct my own thing.

And this little Best of Songs project is kind of a playlist. You can take all four of the EPs, download ‘em on your computer, and you can make your own album. All those twenty-odd songs that are on the EPs, that’s the amount of material that a band would usually give to a record label’s A&R [Artists and Repertoire] person back in the 1970s and 80s.

BK: And then they’d pick…

KK: Right. They would pick the ten that they like. And they would have you re-record them in the order that they like, and all that. These would all be demos to them.

BK: And the others might end up as b-sides…

KK: Yeah. Or end up on another record, or they might never see the light of day.

BK: The various songs were recorded in Atlanta, Nashville, and at Ardent in Memphis. The band lineup was consistent across all the EPs. To what degree did the use of a particular studio affect the sound – or even the vibe – of the songs cut there?

KK: It doesn’t really matter that much. But – compared to home studios – what happens in studios where you’re spending $100 and hour is that you tend to work a little faster. When we were at Ardent, it was like, “You’ve got from 11 to 7. You can either make something happen, or you can’t. It’s up to you. But you’ve got 11 to 7. And the meter’s running.”

When you do that at a studio, they’ve got three engineers, they’ve got everything happening. If you need something done, it’s done now. We did “Turn” and “Roll Away the Song” [both on Best of Songs] at Ardent. Those just had a great vibe. I could play my acoustic guitar and sing, and they’d isolate the band; the band was in a different room. There’s more space, and you can do more to cut live. We did “Turn” live; we did it a bunch of times, and then everybody went and had dinner. When we came back, I was tired and kinda sleepy; I said, “I’m just gonna play my acoustic.” And that was the one. We weren’t pushing it.

BK: Did the loose concepts of the EPs give you the freedom to write music in styles not typically associated with you, and your band?

KK: No. I always do what I want to do, and then sort it out later.

BK: On some albums, the songwriting is credited to the group, not to you. On other albums, it’s credited individually. And on the EPs and the record, it’s back to group credit again. To me that makes sense, because although you write the lyrics, shared credit acknowledges the value that the other musicians bring to the music. Why does it seem to keep changing back and forth?

KK: It just depends on what song it was, and how it turned out. Eighty percent of everything is mine; basically, I write all the songs. That’s just a practical statement. But if, say, Sadler really helped put something together, then that’s groovy, y’know? I think he should be recognized. Even if it’s just for arrangement.

The band didn’t want credit on [unintelligible], which I thought was stupid. It’s a great fuckin’ song. So I said, fine, I’ll keep that one for myself.

BK: The EPs were released on New! Records, and the LP is on Cheetah Chrome‘s label Plowboy. Having had plenty of experience with the majors, do find that you have more creative control over your material now? What are the other benefits? Would you sign with a major if one came along today?

KK: Yeah, well, obviously. ‘Cause no one’s giving me a hundred thousand dollars. If they give you $100k, you gotta let them have their input. Which is not good; it’s not good. I think some of the [major label] Drivin N Cryin albums sound horrible. Like Whisper Tames the Lion [1988] and Fly Me Courageous [1991]. All of my acoustic records, I think they sound great. They were all babysat, they were all done really fast. I think Smoke [1993] is the best Drivin N Cryin record. Wrapped in Sky [1995], some of those records aren’t really even the band…it’s kinda weird. They were really heavy-handed producers – Anton Fier and Geoff Workman – with producers back then, it was like you were working with [Francis Ford] Coppola. They want this record to sound like they produced it. And that was kind of a drag. From the minute the producer sits down, you end up compromising. And then you just give up, eventually: “I don’t know; whatever. Maybe this one will be huge.”

You have to get lightning in a bottle, like R.E.M. Did. But even R.E.M. hates some of their early stuff. But I love it. And my fans love Mystery Road [1989]. They love Fly Me Courageous. So I get it. But I remember what the demos sounded like. These songs could all be re-recorded next week with Jack White, and they’d be totally different.

BK: Not counting the new LP – which is essentially a compilation – the last release from Drivin N Cryin was The Great American Bubble Factory back in 2009. Six years ago. What’s in the future for the band?

KK: This is our last project for awhile. We’re gonna tour on this record, and now we’ve got Warner Hodges from Jason and the Scorchers on guitar.

BK: Just a quick aside: notwithstanding the literal meaning of the lyric on “The Great American Bubble Factory,” the line that goes, “if you can make it here / why dontcha make it here?” Reminds me of the line from “New York, New York.” Coincidence or intentional?

KK: That was intentional. Totally intentional.

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Drivin N Cryin’s Kevn Kinney: Sowing Confusion

Thursday, July 16th, 2015

Since their debut in the mid 1980s, Atlanta-based Drivin N Cryin have crafted their own take on southern rock. Led by guitarist/songwriter Kevn Kinney, the group has distilled its many influences into a sound that is all their own. A recent series of EPs set out to explore those various styles, and selections from those CDs have been compiled on the new vinyl-only release, Best of Songs.

With more than two dozen songs released on those EPs between 2012 and 2013, Kinney had a lot to choose from when sequencing Best of Songs. “I tried to keep it kinda poppy,” Kinney says. “We designed it to look like a 1970s K-Tel record…upbeat and groovy. So I focused more on our power pop type stuff.”

The motivation for that original EP series was twofold. Because two years between albums can seem a lifetime in pop culture, shorter and more frequent releases keep a group in the public’s mind and ears. But there was another reason for smaller musical servings. “Twelve songs is too many songs,” says Kinney. So does he think that the era of the album is over? “I don’t know if it’s over,” he says. I just don’t know if it’s necessary. If Lucinda Williams wants to put out 40 songs, twelve songs, or five songs, that’s cool with me. It’s gonna end up on my iTunes anyway. If I like it, I’m gonna put it on my playlist. I’m gonna construct my own thing.” That thinking influences Kinney’s ideas for future releases. “Maybe I’ll do a series of 45s in the future, one every two months or so.”

Each of the four Drivin N Cryin EP releases focuses on a musical style. “The first one is ‘kudzu rock’n'roll’ like R.E.M., Fetchin’ Bones, and all of our heroes of that era,” says Kinney. “The punk rock one is our hard rock side. And the psychedelic one is pretty obvious.” A fourth, Songs for the Turntable, is a five-song stylistic grab-bag. “I wanted to deconstruct the band through those EPs,” says Kinney. “Because if any band needs to be deconstructed, it’s Drivin N Cryin. And if I can do anything to confuse the audience even more, that’s what I want to do!”

After having released seven albums on major labels (Island and Geffen) followed by several on smaller labels, Drivin N Cryin chose to release Best of Songs on Plowboy Records, a small indie label that features Cheetah Chrome (of punk legends The Dead Boys) as its A&R guy. Kinney muses on the difference between indies and the majors. Smaller labels allow the artist more creative control. “Because,” laughs Kinney, “No one’s giving me a hundred thousand dollars. If they give you $100k, you gotta let them have their input. Which is not good.” He repeats for emphasis. “It’s not good.”

Kinney says that guitarist Sandler Vaden was a star of – and a motivating force behind – the songs on the EPs and Best of Songs. “Sadler co-produced almost all of these EPs with me. He co-wrote and played guitar, and he played bass on some of the tracks. This guy is a genius. We had him in our band, and I knew that this kid was gonna be big. What was happening was like lightning striking. So I wanted to make as many records, as fast as I could, with the guy while he was with us. This kid is gonna be a famous producer someday. You’re gonna hear about him for the rest of your career, his career. I just love the guy. He’s somebody who I wish I had to work with back when I was 19 or 20.”

With the amicable departure of Vaden – “Now he’s with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit,” notes Kinney – Drivin N Cryin has brought Warner Hodges, guitarist with another southern institution, Jason and the Scorchers, on board for touring dates. After more than ten Drivin N Cryin albums, four group EPs and eight Kevn Kinney solo albums, what’s in the future for the band? “This is our last project for awhile,” says Kinney. Catch them while you can.

An edited version of this feature was published previously in Mountain Xpress. Tomorrow I’ll run my entire original Q&A with Kevn Kinney. — bk

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Album Review: The Volt Per Octaves — Joining the Circuits

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015

There’s a line of thinking that insists electronic-based music is cold, bloodless, and bereft of emotion. And in its most high-profile variant (EDM, or electronic dance music), the style places infinitely more emphasis on beat than melody. But while there’s plenty of aural evidence to support those assertions, that perspective simply doesn’t account for the music created by Asheville NC-based trio The Volt Per Octaves. As displayed on Joining the Circuits, their new (and fifth) album, the group’s music is emotionally evocative, lush and textured, melodic, and – for lack of a better word – organic.

The Volt Per Octaves are a family group: Nick Montoya plays an assortment of synthesizers (more on those in a moment) as well as a talkbox unit, Theremin, and electric piano. He also handles drum programming; there are no “real drums” on Joining the Circuits. Nick’s spouse Anna Rhoney Montoya plays more synthesizers and electric piano. And the couple’s daughter Eva Montoya plays yet-more-synths and melodica. Though their music is largely instrumental, all three handle vocals. Most songwriting is credited to Nick and Anna, with occasional compositional collaborations with daughter Eva; famed Parliament/Funkaledelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell (a longtime friend and mentor of the VPOs); and multi-instrumentalist Jason Daniello (of the very different synthesizer outfit Orgatroid), who also lends lap steel guitar to “Trim Pot.”

If such a thing were needed, Joining the Circuits could serve as a demonstration disc for a wide assortment of products manufactured (hand-built, in fact) by Moog Music, the Asheville-headquartered company that employs all three Montoyas. The gear list – happily printed on the back of the album sleeve – features new and vintage Moog instruments including Minimoog Model D (circa 1972), various Little Phatty synths (a current-day Moog innovation), the Memorymoog Plus (dating from the early 1980s), and various Moog-built Theremins. The trio also makes use of several Korg instruments, as well as the distinctive Wurlitzer Electric Piano (“student model” 206), featured on several cuts.

But none of that would matter to anyone beyond synth geeks and gear fetishists were it not for the music itself. With a sound that recalls the warmer, more humanistic end of Kraftwerk, the Volt Per Octaves apply their analogue technology to catchy, midtempo melodies. Unlike the dark and distant aesthetic favored by many of the 80s-vintage synth acts (Depeche Mode, New Order) or the sometimes hyperkinetic, dance-oriented synth outfits of that era (The Human League), The VPOs favor a warmer, friendlier approach that doesn’t reply upon any kind of faux-mopey poseur stance. It’s not difficult to imagine the trio’s songs recast as acoustic melodies; they would certainly sound different, but the sturdy underlying song structures would retain their appeal.

But The Volt Per Octaves’ chosen medium is the analog synthesizer – many of which are monophonic (capable of playing a single note at a time) – and so while the realization of their songs remains complex enough to interest musicians and other musically demanding types, the music’s firm rooting in melody means that the songs on Joining the Circuits are accessible to all listeners. There’s a playful feel to many of the disc’s seven tracks, one that may remind listeners of another trio, Trio (the German group that gave the world 1982′s “Da Da Da”). In fact, Trio described their music as Neue Deutsche Fröhlichkeit (New German Cheerfulness), which gets to the heart of The Volt Per Octaves’ musical personality: electronic but not foreboding; technology-based but never emotionless.

On the album’s opener “Trim Pot,” Anna Montoya’s faraway, kittenish vocals are reminiscent of Beach House‘s Victoria Legrand, with a touch of Cocteau Twins mixed in for greater expressiveness. Guest player Steve Maass‘ bass trumpet adds a delightfully unexpected non-electronic character to the instrumental “Altadena.” Whirring and whistling synth lines buzz by while a simple percussion program and a bass-bombtastic foundation hold things together. The groove-centered, dance-oriented “Mimi Cupcake” continues the instrumental approach with a melodic line that will lodge itself in the listener’s memory. Another instrumental, “Squidgity” takes things in a moodier direction; subtle touches of broken chords on the Wurlitzer heighten the pleasingly eerie, hypnotic vibe of the track.

The minor-key dynamics of “Divide Down” suggest film soundtrack music; here, The Volt Per Octaves are at their most Tangerine Dream-sounding. The track makes the disc’s most effective use of percussion simply by dropping the synth drums out of the mix at strategic parts of the tune. Nick Montoya’s talk box work on the cut calls to mind some of the best moments on The Alan Parsons Project‘s 1977 I Robot album.

“Equidistant” again features Maass’ trumpet, albeit in a slightly less prominent role. The track’s relatively simple, spare melody could have rendered it as Joining the Circuits‘ least fully-realized tune, but the varied and interesting synth textures throughout the track more than rescue it. The primary musical focus of “Ehbah” is a dance-flavored synthdrum beat, but creamy synth lines float in and around the percussion; the contrast between the motorik-styled beat and the lush synthesizers is very effective. The track fades out to the sound of electronic “wind.”

Joining the Circuits wraps up with the title track, and features Worrell on synthesizer and Wurlitzer. It’s the busiest track on the album, and it’s also among the disc’s best. Multiple melodic line crisscross one another, atop a relatively intricate synthdrum track and a propulsive (yet still decidedly midtempo) bass line. Joining the Circuits finds The Volt Per Octaves moving forward musically while remaining faithful to the sonic approach upon which their musical aesthetic is based.

Note: a release party/show for Joining the Circuits will be held on Friday, July 17 at Asheville’s Grey Eagle. The Volt Per Octaves welcome their friend, mentor and guest, “Uncle” Bernie Worrell, onstage for the performance.

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Album Review: The Standells — Live on Tour 1966!

Friday, July 10th, 2015

The Standells – considered a quintessential protopunk band of the 1960s – got their start as a matching-suited, club band playing frat-rock and covers of the day. The pride of Boston thanks to their name-checking 1966 hit, “Dirty Water,” The Standells weren’t even from Massachusetts; they were a Los Angeles group.

But with the passing of a few months and a few band members, The Standells quickly coalesced a lineup around founder and former solo act, keyboardist Larry Tamblyn, and former Mouseketeer Dick Dodd on vocals and drums. The band toughened their image, and signed with Tower Records, where they began to work with producer Ed Cobb. Cobb would write (or co-write) “Dirty Water” for (or with) the group, and went on to produce another legendary 60s garage group, The Chocolate Watchband.

Buoyed by the success of “Dirty Water,” the group cut more songs in the nascent garage rock style, including genre classics “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White,” “Riot on Sunset Strip” (from the 1967 teen exploitation movie of the same name), “Why Pick on Me,” and the banned-in-Texas “Try It.” By ’68 the group’s style was past its sell-by date, and though they would continue with various lineups, no new music was forthcoming.

Back in ’64 an early Standells lineup released The Standells in Person at P.J.’s, but that set captured the pre-garage version of the group. In 2001, Sundazed released a 10” vinyl record, The Live Ones! (a riff on the title of The Standells’ second of three 1966 LPs, The Hot Ones!). That set provided the first officially-available live document of the garage-era group. Recorded in the summer of 1966 at Michigan State University, the surprisingly good quality recording found the band at their snarling yet good-natured, fuzztone best.

Now – almost fifty years after it was recorded – Sundazed has unearthed yet another live document of The Standells from that banner year of 1966. Recorded no more than a couple of months after the show that would yield The Live Ones!, and performed less than sixty miles southeast, Live on Tour – 1966! is equally exciting, and it features twice as many songs.

The recording opens with a laughably tepid introduction (probably by a college administrator) explaining that there will be two acts on the evening’s bill: The Standells (curiously, this is met by silence from the audience) and The Beach Boys. The crowd seems to chuckle inwardly at the announcement before breaking into delayed applause. But once the announcer introduces The Standells, the crowd’s reaction is much more enthusiastic. A friendly bit of pandering from Dick Dodd (“We hear somebody won a game today; is that right?”) leads straight into the guitar buzz of “Mr. Nobody.”

Dodd’s vocals come through loud and clear, as do Tony Valentino‘s electric guitar, Larry Tamblyn’s Vox Continental organ, and Dave Burke‘s Fender bass. Dodd’s drums are less distinct, but overall Live On Tour – 1966! is a superbly recorded (and preserved) recording.

The setlist doesn’t differ greatly from what’s showcased on The Live Ones!; while that set featured songs closely associated with The Standells, this disc features the complete opening-act length set, a setlist that included covers that were well-known (and oft-played) by garage bands across the USA: “Good Lovin’,” James Brown‘s “Please, Please, Please,” Wilson Pickett‘s “Midnight Hour,” and the all-but-required “Gloria.” But The Standells imbue their readings of these tunes with just the right combination of polish and grunge.

Mid-set, they feature a Tamblyn lead vocal (with ample vocal support from the rest of the band) in a faithful cover of the then-brand-new “Sunny Afternoon.” The Kinks‘ single had been released in the USA weeks before; at the time of this concert (October 22, 1966) the tune was riding high on the singles charts. Dodd notes afterward, “That song can be found on an album of ours which will be released around Christmas time, where we do nothing but everybody else’s hits…probably the best album we ever made.” It wasn’t, not by a long shot; the world didn’t really need a Standells reading of “Eleanor Rigby.”

But there are no Beatles ballad covers on Live on Tour –1966! “Now that we’ve messed up everybody else’s number, we’d like to mess up one of our own.” Drawing out the tension with a serious of groan-eliciting one-liners, the band finally relents and launches into the garage rock anthem, “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White,” playing it in a fashion that’s both Just Like the Record and shot through with the energy that only comes from an onstage performance. The crowd claps along start to finish while the band closes their set with their million-selling hit, “Dirty Water.”

With the fine exception of the low-key Kinks cover, Live on Tour –1966! is a consistently uptempo, rocking good time, and proves – in case there were any doubts – that The Standells were a solid, engaging live band, one that leveraged a garage-punk image with professional musicianship.

This review was previously published in BLURT Magazine.

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Album Review: The Shadows of Knight — Live 1966

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

In their heyday – a period that began in 1966 and ended, well, in 1966 – Chicago’s Shadows of Knight embodied what we now look back upon as the garage rock aesthetic. A group of suburban teens inspired – like countless other groups of teens in those days – by the British Invasion, the Shadows of Knight channeled American blues through the filter of British sensibilities (Them, Rolling Stones, Animals), reinterpreting it yet again and creating something fresh and exciting in the process. A newly-released live recording, Live 1966 offers a previously unheard document of the group’s onstage power.

The group released two albums in 1966 (and one more a few years later) but their strength was best expressed on the 45rpm single. Their reading of Van Morrison‘s “Gloria” – originally a b-side of Them’s top ten hit “Baby Please Don’t Go” – helped enshrine the tune as a garage rock classic. Though the group’s success was short-lived, The Shadows of Knight received belated attention when their reading of Bo Diddley‘s “Oh Yeah” was featured on Side Two of Lenny Kaye‘s influential 1972 compilation, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968.

On the group’s 1966 singles and albums, the production (credited on the sleeve only as “A Dunwich Production”) was of the basic, let’s-get-it-done variety. In those days – especially where a small regional label such as Dunwich was concerned – bands were expected to have their repertoire tight, ready to lay down in the studio in one take. (With their bigger budgets, larger labels often dispensed altogether with the niceties, enlisting so-called Wrecking Crew session players to record, one-and-done, in the stead of the named groups.)

What this meant in practice for The Shadows of Knight is that their finished studio recordings did indeed sound a good bit like the actual group. The eleven songs on the group’s Gloria LP – nine overs, three originals – captured the band’s assertive, energetic playing and singing. They had certainly gotten tight playing live gigs, and the records captured that vibe as best as could be expected.

But there’s nothing like the real thing, and Live 1966 is that real thing. Recorded in front of what Jeff Jarema‘s liner note essay calls “suburban Chicago’s hands-down hippest teen club,” Arlington Heights’ Cellar, Live 1966 finds the group playing to a familiar and appreciative hometown crowd. Jarema notes that there’s no way of knowing the date of this performance – club owner Paul Sampson was known to record shows – it likely dates from late in the year, after two of the group’s albums had been released (the compilers’ best guess is December ’66).

These white suburban kids sure did have a thing for the blues; their first LP featured no less than three Willie Dixon numbers alongside covers of Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters. Live 1966 features several of these. Even their Chuck Berry cover (“Let it Rock”) was delivered in a bluesy manner. And their original tunes were a clear attempt to write in that same blues-based style.

The second album widened the group’s scope a bit to include their take on New Orleans funky pop (Huey “Piano” Smith‘s “High Blood Pressure”). A cover of the Boyce/Hart number “Tomorrow’s Going to Be Another Day,” released at almost the same time as the Monkees‘ version, couldn’t have less in common with the prefab four’s reading; in the hands of The Shadows of Knight, the tune sounds like early Rolling Stones.

A solid selection of tunes from Back Door Men figures into the Live 1966 set, too, including a soulful run-through of Jimmy Reed‘s “Peepin’ and Hidin’” sung here not by drummer Tom Schiffour (he sang on the single version) but by lead guitarist Joe Kelley.

Live 1966 is presented in astonishingly good audio quality; the monaural recording accurately captures David “Hawk” Wolinski‘s walking bass lines. The drums aren’t as forward in the mix as modern tastes might dictate, but overall Live 1966 is quite the well-balanced recording. Occasional amplifier hum only adds to the you-are-there feel of the recording, and Kelley’s stinging guitar leads punch through the mix. The group shines on “Oh Yeah,” with the band – led by a screaming Jim Sohns – adding just a bit more swagger and abandon than found on their studio version.

Closing with six wild minutes of “Gloria,” The Shadows of Knight deliver a loose yet forceful performance that renders The Doors‘ posthumously-released live version (recorded in the late 60s) completely unnecessary. And a brief quote from The Mothers of Invention‘s just-released Freak Out! suggests that the group had more than just the blues on their mind.

As a heretofore undiscovered document of mid-sixties garage rock at its rawest and most authentic, The Shadows of Knights’ Live 1966 is essential for fans of the genre.

The review was previously published in BLURT Magazine.

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