Archive for the ‘pop’ Category

World Party’s Karl Wallinger: He’s the One (Part 2)

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: I’ve been a fan and follower of World Party ever since the 1986 release of Private Revolution, but the album I return to the most is Egyptology. I saw World Party on that tour. From what I gathered at the time, the entity that supported the release – I don’t even know if it was a record label per se – was The Enclave…

Karl Wallinger: It was a label that was formed out of EMI in New York, by Tom Zutat, the guy who signed Guns N’ Roses. It was his label, but it folded a year, maybe two years, after it started.

BK: Right, and that was very shortly after Egyptology came out, leading to the album getting less of a promotional push, and less distribution, than it otherwise would have. Can you tell me more about that?

KW: It was already starting to unwind, the whole relationship with EMI. A lot of things were going on that I didn’t really know much about; it was between management and the label in England. So we got quietly done in by the stupidity around the place.

That’s what happened. But that’s your life, you know? You have to deal with it; you just get on with it. I was lucky enough to get everything back in the end. And it was mainly because of the way they treated that album. It had some good songs on it; it had “She’s the One” on it. It was a good album, and it shouldn’t have just faded away. But that enabled me to go along and say, “Well, you fucked that up, and I’ve got an album to do, but I don’t want to do it with you. And you haven’t got a say on whether I do it or not, so give me my catalog and scrap the debt. See you later; I’ll walk, and give me control of my catalog.”

I got [the rights to] all my records back after that. Everything that’s bad doesn’t have to have a bad ending. It was actually very fortuitous that they fucked up like that. Because now I own my catalog.

BK: You hold the guitar left-handed – as do I – but you play a guitar that’s strung right-handed…

KW: I play it upside down, but I play it strung right-handed. I didn’t know any difference when I was a kid. I just thought, “I’ll use my right hand to make the shapes, because it’s easier.”

BK: So…you’re right handed?

KW: Yeah. I just flipped it over and started playing it upside down.

BK: Do you think that having the low strings on the bottom affects your overall sound?

KW: Oh, yeah. It’s strange, but I’m sort of into it. And it’s too late now! I can’t just switch over like Jimi Hendrix. I mean, he could play with his feet, couldn’t he? I can’t do anything like that; I just bang out some chords. I’m not really…I just sort of mess about on guitar.

BK: In the cases I’ve read wherein someone suffers a stroke or a similar medical calamity, I’ve often read of the idea that they have to “learn how to do certain things all over again.” After you recovered from your 2001 brain aneurysm, did you find yourself in a situation like that?

KW: Yeah, in some ways. There were things like, where you look when you’re playing the piano. Because I’ve been left with no right-hand vision in both eyes. So it’s a sort of strange, 3-D vision. It’s only from the center to the left.

Looking at the piano, I always used to look at my right hand, and be aware of the shapes it’s making. And it’s weird now because I can’t see it, even though it’s right in front of me. Stuff like that just makes you have to play and play, and get used to it.

The same with guitar: I can’t see my hand on the neck. I can’t see which fret it’s on, so I started playing a lot of jazz! A lot of very, uh, abstract sort of jazz chords. A semitone down. But eventually I got the hang of it, and I don’t really think about it now.

BK: Not counting the Arkeology spiral-bound set in 2012, the last album of new material from World Party was the first issue of Dumbing Up in 2000. What can you tell me about the new album?

KW: Hopefully we’ll be putting a new album out in March [2016]. And it’ll be great to do that. Who knows what it will be like? It’s been fourteen years. So who knows how mad I’m gonna get?

I’m feeling really into being in the studio again; I kind of wanted to wait. After I left Seaview [studio] three or four years ago, I’ve been on the road and playing, or sitting at home playing guitar and not really recording it. So I’m really, really itching to get into the studio again. I’ve got to sort all my stuff out first; I’ve got lots of stuff in storage: [recording] desks and tape recorders and grand pianos and all that stuff.

BK: I saw you in Asheville last year in a trio format: you on guitar and keys, plus a guitarist and fiddle player. [Tour manager] Michael tells me that you’ve recently added back in two players long associated with World Party. How did that come about?

KW: Just on the phone. The idea was to bring Dave Catlin-Birch in on bass, and Chris Sharrock on drums. But then Chris wouldn’t fly, for some unknown reason. His arms were very tired. So he basically bailed.

I called an old friend, Brian McLeod, who’s a very good drummer in L.A. He’s on loads of stuff that you’d have heard; he was in Wire Train. We played together years ago, on the Goodbye Jumbo tour. And it was great.

And then Dave got held up with a visa thing. But we got Brian anyway, and we did a three-piece plus drummer in Napa and San Francisco, and then in San Juan Capistrano we basically did a three-piece gig. Because we weren’t going to do it any more without the bass.

And then I saw a bit of film that a friend of mine shot in San Francisco, with the drummer, and it was really great. And tonight we’re a three-piece again. And then across the middle [of the USA], we’re two pieces. So that’ll be interesting.

BK: By the time you get to Asheville (July 6), what’s it going to be then?

KW: Who knows? We’ll see what happens.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

 

World Party’s Karl Wallinger: He’s the One (Part 1)

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

For all intents and purposes, World Party is Karl Wallinger. Across five studio albums, a spiral-bound 4CD closet-clearing set, and a few best-of collections, the Welsh-born Wallinger has delivered a consistent set of wonderfully melodic music that draws from the classic era of rock without ever directly referencing it. With a new album slated for release next year, World Party will break what to the uninitiated might look like a “dry spell,” but Wallinger has remained very active with playing, touring, and writing music. He’s currently on tour with (as you’ll read) a World Party of varying size, and that tour will bring him to Asheville, North Carolina’s Altamont Theatre on Monday, July 6. I spoke with Wallinger during a brief break before a show last week. We discussed his early days, his approach to recording, some setbacks over which he’s triumphed, and his plans for the immediate future. Here, in two parts, is our conversation. – bk


Bill Kopp: Way, way back when, you were musical director for the London version of The Rocky Horror Show. I’m interested to know what kind of lessons you feel you learned from that experience; did it affect your approach to songwriting?

Karl Wallinger: I learned that it was very pleasant to have rehearsals during which you’d have a lady sitting on your lap and wearing only the bottom half of a suspender belt and stockings, and nothing on the top.

I learned that it was great fun being in a theatre. It’s like a mother, with lots of these kids running around in it. It’s a strange thing; you’d think it would be kind of monotonous every night. But every day is a different day, and it’s its own crazy world. It’s a lovely thing to do. Rocky Horror was really one of things I could do; I wasn’t really a person who was going to do that kind of thing, but I was lucky enough that I did do it. I always loved it, even before I worked on it. I had a great time.

I paid to see it years earlier, with my girlfriend at the time and her mother, in London. And I didn’t know I was going to be the Musical Director at the end of that run; pretty funny.

BK: Over the course of your career, you’ve done a lot of your recording at home at Seaview and so forth, and you’ve worked in more conventional studios. I’m sure there are advantages and disadvantages to both work situations. Can you talk a bit about that?

KW: One of the advantages of using someone else’s studio is that you can leave it in a mess, and someone else will clear it up!

I’ve always been somebody who would rather work on their own, in their own space. But when you’re doing something like a film soundtrack, if you’re working on something that’s got a purpose beyond the getting out of ideas — something that’s got to be matched to a picture — then it’s good to be in a place where other people have got the technical worries. Then you can just do the creativity-kind of thing.

Not that I can’t do the [technical tasks]; I’ve probably done that, but it’s nice in those situations to be taken care of by somebody. I find the technical bits quite boring, actually. It’s a drag when things don’t work, or [when] they take a lot of setting up. I’d rather get someone else to blow the paddling pool up, and then I can just add the water.

When I’m doing songs, I prefer to be in a place where I can forget that I exist. Then I just try to let the old brain do the work, really. Rather than the body. It’s a space to be creative in, to do whatever you want to do. And there’s no other considerations; you’re not paying an hourly rate, and there aren’t engineers or producers who are around, people who have also got lives. So you can let it all hang out when you’re working on your own. And I prefer that. As a way of creating what I do as World Party, that’s the way.

I haven’t got a studio at the moment; I haven’t had one for four years now. I’m just about now, hopefully, to have a studio again. I’m in negotiations with a particular place in England. And as soon as I do have, I’m going to lock myself away in it.

BK: When I try to describe your music to those who haven’t heard it – and I do evangelize about World Party a good bit – I describe it as original music that bears the influence of (among other things) three specific artists: Van Morrison, Sly Stone, and The Beatles. Do you think that’s a fair assessment, and are there any artists you’d add to the top of that list?

KW: I don’t really think of it in terms of artists, really. Obviously the Beatles have had a large effect. But it’s just in terms of intake, really. It’s up to experience, what you’ve been around on the planet.

I certainly wouldn’t think that Van Morrison would be, to me, that much of an important influence. I suppose there’s some part of it: that carefree, facing-the-wind, running across the plinth tops kind of aspect. Generally, the sixties; to me, those were the formative years. Anybody’s formative years make them seem like they were the center, the start, the basis of their thought.

So it’s not really a specific thing. It’s as much the soundtrack of Hair, or Cat Stevens. A whole bunch of stuff.

BK: Among hardcore World Party fans – and I suppose I’m one of those – there circulate recordings that you’ve made, cover versions of songs you like. The approach reminds me of Dave Gregory‘s Remoulds project. Some of these include John Lennon‘s “#9 Dream,” Peter and Gordon‘s “World Without Love,” “Nowhere Man,” Mott the Hoople‘s “All the Young Dudes,” and so on. When you were a pre-teenage kid growing up in Wales in the late 1960s, what were your favorite songs? Anything “outside the box” or a bit unusual, like Keith West‘s “Excerpts From a Teenage Opera,” or things like that?

KW: We had quite a middle-of-the-road record collection. Maybe twenty albums and forty singles; that and the radio. That’s what we had. I used to endlessly rotate them through, using the auto-drop arm on the record player. I’d sort of deejay myself into happiness, because I loved all the music. I loved it. I don’t know why; I just gravitated toward it.

I spent most of my time in front of the stereogram that we had, which had a pull-out drawer for the radio, and a drop-down door for the turntable. And two elliptical speakers. And I’ve just now had it done up; I’ve kept it all these years; it’s been in my studio. This eighty-year-old guy came round to the house, and took the radio and deck away, repaired them, and came back with them. He actually put a socket into it so you can put an iPhone through it as well. So if you’ve got Billie Holiday or Aretha Franklin on your iPhone, it sounds really warm and gorgeous through the valve amplifier. It’s great.

And 33[1/3rpm] is actually 33 now. The rubber bands were so rotten that 78s played at 33!

But that used to fascinate me. There was all kinds of stuff there, from Frank Sinatra to Georgie Fame to the Beatles. Just weird bunches of stuff: the Head soundtrack, the Easy Rider soundtrack. Just all those great songs. And some turkeys, things you can’t really explain to other people when you reminisce to yourself. It might mean one thing to them, and you think, well, what’s this crap?

Click here to continue

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

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.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Album Review: The Fad — The Now Sound

Monday, June 29th, 2015

If you lived through the early 1980s in the United States – and were old enough to be at least somewhat plugged in to popular culture – you were aware of the proliferation of “new wave” groups. Many of these acts traded in a style of music that drew inspiration from the pre-“rock star” era, that is to say the time before the rise of the dinosaurs of rock. The wave might have been called new, but the streamlined sounds often recalled sixties garage, 50s rockabilly, and other styles that predated Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and all those kinda guys.

Something else you would have known about was the cassette. Designed as a smaller, more portable alternative to the LP record, the cassette had a few obvious advantages: not only was it small, but it was recordable. But it had one serious disadvantage: inferior sound quality. Say what you will; it was undeniably fun to stroll around with a Walkman (or, as in my case, a much cheaper JCPenney-branded alternative) with headphones blasting a life soundtrack of your choice directly into your skull, but the wow, flutter, and gauss could ruin the greatest music. That whooshing sound – sort of like a speaker being slowly dipped into a bucket of water, lifted out, and dunked again – is one that most any cassette owner has experienced.

Now, thanks to the intrepid archival efforts of the guys at Kool Kat Musik, you can experience not one but both of these early 80s treasures once again!

Philadelphia-based trio The Fad were not unlike hundreds – thousands? – of groups that sprang up in that era that gave birth to MTV. And like the better among that crop, The Fad rose to some prominence: regular small-venue gigs and the occasional opening spot on a bill supporting The Stray Cats, The Ramones, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers (hey, two out of three ain’t bad).

During their time, The Fad relocated to Huntington Beach, California; they’d eventually return home to Philly and break up. But while together, they recorded and released a six-song EP and a half-dozen other tunes. All twelve of these are collected on the CD The Now Sound.

The good news is that these tracks are a lot of fun. They’re tight, snappy tunes that straddle the line between new wave and, let’s say, nerd-rock. Unlike some of their self-consciously counterparts with clip-on safety pins and accoutrements of the punk identikit, The Fad were a smiling, go-go kinda trio. Their outfits made them look like relatives of the Robinson family, heroes of the kitschy 1960s TV classic Lost in Space. Their gear featured Rickenbacker basses and twelve-strings through Vox amps, all of which would have been viewed as resolutely retro choices in the 1980s.

And their music matched it. While they could play with the tight force of, say, The Jam, their slightly nasally vocal delivery made them sound closer to Gary Lewis and the Playboys. They had the good nature to write and record their own theme song (“Fad Theme”) and the equally good sense to have it clock in just under minute, as if for the intro of their own (nonexistent) TV show. Their ginchy vocal harmonies were the cherry on top of their compact pop tunes.

The songs have a good deal of subtlety for what’s essentially vocal-focused power pop. There’s a wide-eyed innocence that recalls the 60s garage bands who drew their inspiration not from those dirty Rolling Stones boys, but from relatively cheerful, clean cut young men like The Turtles. At times (“Where the Colors Are,” for example), The Fad sound a bit like Jan and Dean with ’65 version of The Who backing them up. Put another way, Keith Moon would have loved these guys. Another quickie, the 1:04 “Lark City” is a twister-riffic tune that Los Straitjackets would be proud to count among their repertoire. “Watch the Sky” is The Fad’s contemplative folk-rock moment; here they recall The Beau Brummels or The Association with fewer vocalists.

The six songs that make up the second half of The Now Sound widen the group’s stylistic lens a bit, but the elements that made the original EP so appealing are all relatively intact. The Phil Spector-ish intro to “Tomorrow She is Leaving” gives way to a wistful tune. “Genie” is a speedy number with some nicely chiming guitar and impressive, near-whispered vocals. “Broken Hearts” features ba-ba-ba harmony vocals, and the three-part harmonies coupled with guitar jangle suggest a cross between early Beach Boys and The Records.

The Fad clearly aimed for, well, fads: the instrumental “Fad Twist” encourages the listener to do just that while guitarist Frank Max plays one long (and very tasty) guitar solo. And the set ends with “The Swing’s the Thing,” a tune that would have worked perfectly in the movie That Thing You Do! if the story had included some serious rivals to The Wonders. It’s a delight, as is every track on The Now Sound. It’s no exaggeration to characterize this CD as a collection of rescued musical treasures.

And that’s the good news. But as I mentioned earlier, you also get a flashback to the dreadful sonic qualities inherent in the cassette. All of the tracks on The Now Sound were sourced from the best media available. But that media seems to have been some unknown-generation cassettes. The sound is very much like what you’d expect if a friend made you a cassette dub of his cassette dub of somebody else’s dub, with all tapes in that lineage being Type 1 cassettes. Probably at least one of ‘em was a three-for-a-buck Realistic cassette from Radio Shack. Put more succinctly, the sound is a notch or two above “suck.” (The story goes that some of the audio issues are the fault of the EP sessions’ producer, who is pointedly not credited anywhere on the CD release.)

The thing is, the music on The Fad’s The Now Sound is so damn good that I can still recommend it in the most glowing terms. Don’t worry about the whooshy sound on some tracks. Just turn it up and enjoy.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

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.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

 

Album Review: Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

There’s always a place for solid, midtempo, soft-rock. Or at least there was one before what passes for country music co-opted the style, watered it down and called it modern country (or, heaven forfend, bro country).

For a time in the mid to late 1970s, artists like Pure Prairie League, post-prog Ambrosia, Ace, Michael Martin Murphey, and even (dare I say this) The Eagles bridged the sonic gap between rock and singer-songwriter-oriented material, and for their trouble were often rewarded with chart success.

But not always: sometimes fine, solid albums sank without a trace. “Such,” writes Ed Osborne in his liner notes for the Real Gone Music expanded reissue of Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz, “are the vagaries of the music business.”

Their 1978 LP slipped right by the notice of this then-fourteen year old, but then I was into other things. Had I heard the record, I might have thought to myself, “this sounds a lot like Pure Prairie League.” And I would have been a very clever pubescent teen, because Craig Fuller was the lead singer on many of that group’s hits, 1972′s “Falling In and Out of Love” (though you may know it as “Amie”).

By the late 70s, Fuller had teamed up with fellow singer/songwriter Kaz for what would be a one-off collaboration. On Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz, the two take turns at the lead vocal spot, turning in borderline easy listening melodies, many of which fall into the sonic space where The Eagles’ “Desperado” lives.

All of Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz‘s ten tracks were written by one or the other singer, with the most commercially appealing cut (“Let the Fire Burn All Night”) the album’s sole co-write. Because of both musicians’ close connection to Columbia Records, they drew on a number of related artists to back them up on their eponymous disc. While the names Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel, Michael McDonald, J.D. Souther and Leo Sayer don’t suggest anything remotely approaching straight-ahead rock’n'roll, all were near the top of their soft-rock game in the late 70s, and their presence gives Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz a familiar air. Listening to the “expanded edition” (one extra track, a single edit of the original LP closer “Annabella”), one might think, “Hey, I’ve heard these songs before, years ago. Were they hits?”

One would likely be wrong on both counts, but the feeling of familiarity remains. David Campbell‘s string arrangements – most notably on “’Til You Come Back” – sound like the kind of thing Paul Buckmaster did for Elton John a few years earlier.

Ultimately, Ed Osborne’s liner notes essay – drawing upon in-depth interviews with both musicians – is the most interesting thing about the reissue. In one of those bits of trivia that supports the theory that everything is connected, Osborne explores Kaz’s earlier involvement with the proto-Latin rock version of The Blues Magoos.

There’s not a thing wrong with Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz. Polished to a shine, the album presents these yearning, often melancholy songs in the best light possible. But in the late 1970s, there was simply so much of this kind of thing that it was easy to miss a few efforts, however fine they might’ve been. Musically, the album drifts by pleasantly enough, but it leaves little lingering impression. “That was nice,” you might say after “Annabella” fades out. “But now let’s listen to something with a little oomph in it.”

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

 

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.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Video Review: Genesis — Sum of the Parts

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

One could say that The Beatles did it first, and thus set the tone and standard for future official biographies. Their Anthology documentary series afforded them the opportunity to tell their story the way they wanted: they could put in what they wanted in, and leave out what they didn’t care to discuss. Creative control coupled with hey-we-were-there access to archival material made for a very satisfying and comprehensive historical document.

It’s fitting that Genesis would get around to mounting a similar project of their own. Though the band splintered several times – they went so far to as call attention to it by titling one of their albums And Then There Were Three… – they seem to have remained on relatively cordial terms with one another.

And so it is that Tony Banks (keyboards), Phil Collins (drums), Peter Gabriel (flute, vocals), Steve Hackett (guitar), and Mike Rutherford (bass, and later, guitar) came together to star in, and oversee, Sum of the Parts. Released theatrically and then on DVD and Blu-Ray, this documentary covers the band’s history, its fractiousness, and its popularity. As Tony Banks is quoted in the accompanying liner notes booklet, “Let’s just put it all out there and people can make up their own minds.”

The film provides plenty of content to allow viewers to do just that. Speeding through the group’s formation and early days, the film chronicles – in chronological order – the band’s history. The footage of the Gabriel-era band is fascinating; truly odd stuff that – whether one likes the music or not (and I very much do) – must be recognized for its adventurous, often groundbreaking nature.

For the most part, Sum of the Parts is a rather candid look at the stress points within the band, issues that would hasten the departures of (most notably) Gabriel and Hackett. When current-day footage of the reunited group (reunited for the film, not to make music) is shown, there’s a pretty clear remaining undercurrent of tension between Banks and…well, the rest of the band. It’s handled with a typical English understatement and reserve, but it remains palpable.

Since their 1974 double LP The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway looms so large in the band’s legend, it makes sense that so much time is spent in the film discussing the album, its development, its tour, and its eventual fallout. The band’s earlier and later material all gets comparatively less screen time. The solo career of Peter Gabriel (who these days looks to all the world like Burl Ives‘ snowman in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) gets some discussion, but Collins’ solo work is covered in greater depth. That, too, makes perfect sense, since Collins released his solo albums while remaining in Genesis. (Prog jazz fans: if you’re wondering, Sum of the Parts makes no mention of Brand X.)

A few characters outside the band do weigh in with their onscreen contributions. None is so out of place, however, as Jonathan King. Though the impresario was an important part of the band’s early days, his reputation is so tarnished (Google him if you must) that his appearance onscreen competes with making that “I Can’t Dance” video for MTV as the worst idea the group has ever had.

Lots of live footage and archival photographs help tell the story. Even for those with only a passing interest in the band, Sum of the Parts never drags. The latter-day lineup (specifically Collins, Rutherford and Banks) get just a tad defensive on the subject of having largely ditched their progressive musical approach in favor of a (some would say cynically) radio-ready sound and image (complete with those dreadful MTV-era videos), but it’s hard to see what other approach they could have taken in the film. They couldn’t very well ignore the subject, could they now?

Good question. A wag might suggest that this video would be more accurately titled SOME of the Parts: no mention at all is made – not even in passing – of the group’s 1997 album Calling All Stations. Ray Wilson had taken Collins’ place as vocalist, and guest drummers (including Nick D’Virgilio of Spock’s Beard) took Collins’ place on the throne. But despite the fact that Genesis mounted a 47-date European tour in the first half of 1998, the entire era – and most notably, Wilson’s name – seems to have been purged from the group’s collective memory bank.

Instead, Sum of the Parts blithely skips over the period between 1992 and 2007 (as if to say, “and then – suddenly! – fifteen years passed”) and lands on the group’s semi-reunion tour and live album featuring the Banks-Rutherford-Collins trio plus longtime Genesis drummer Chester Thompson and guitarist Daryl Steurmer. To the band’s credit, both get some additional screen time.

That mild criticism notwithstanding, for fans of the band – or, really, anyone with an interest rock music’s arc of history in the 1970s and beyond – Sum of the Parts is a satisfying, engaging and entertaining video.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Jeff Daniels’ Fallback Plan, Part 2

Friday, May 29th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: When most people think of well-known actors – or musicians for that matter – we more or less assume that they live in New York City or Los Angeles. You live in Chelsea, the small town in which you grew up, about an hour west of Detroit. This might be a chicken-or-egg question, but in what ways do you think your decision to live there colors your work?

Jeff Daniels: Hmm. I don’t know.

I had a journalist ask me once, ‘Are you trying to attain the same success you have as an actor with your songwriting?’ No. I’m just doing it because I have to. Jim Carrey and I were talking recently, and he said, ‘I have to create.’ He’s turned into this fabulous artist and sculptor. We have to be creating something; that’s kind of what we were born to do. So in my case it ends up being plays that go straight to the Purple Rose; if they’re done anywhere else, terrific. If they’re not, I don’t care.

And the same thing for the songs: I’m doing it for me, and I’ve figured out a way to do it in clubs and smaller theaters where it’s fun for me. It works, so I enjoy doing it. That’s the Broadway for me, walking onto the Diana Wortham Theater stage [in Asheville NC]. I’m thinking, ‘I don’t need anything else; I get to do this tonight.’ So that’s kind of where it lies for me. And that’s enough: the fact that somebody else wants me to play somewhere else is gold.

BK: Your website says that you’ve authored about 400 songs. I’m guessing it’s safe to assume that this is a raw number, as in, some of those are ones you’re not pleased enough with to record or perform them.

JD: Yeah. You’ve got to write four [songs] to get to the good one: one out of five.

BK: Do the really good songs reveal themselves to you right out of the gate, or do they sort of grow on you as they develop?

JD: Mostly, it [just] happens. You write a good one, and it may take a day. It may take months. But you know that this one is worth chasing. And there are others that are just throwaways, that you just think, ‘Okay, let me get it down. Maybe someday.’ On this last CD, Days Like These, there are some songs from the 1980s. Ones that just needed a band, or that needed something. There would be half a song there, and I’d think, ‘Instead of creating from a blank page, I wonder if I could turn “Days Like These” into something.’ I enjoy that.

BK: From my reading, I see that you bought your Guild D-40 in 1976, around the time, I think, that you were at acting in plays in Ypsilanti at Eastern Michigan University. So clearly music was already a part of you; you didn’t start then. The early 1970s was the era when singer/songwriters really started to catch on in a big way; was that whole scene the primary musical influence on you, at least initially?

JD: I was in New York to be an actor. So the songwriting and the guitar and the performing anywhere were all a distant second. My effort was made at songwriting, and in trying to get better at the guitar, but there was no ‘Hey, I can play’ to the agents. I focused on one thing.

I remember going to see Steve Goodman at The Bottom Line. I remember seeing Doc Watson, and T. Michael Coleman, and Merle Watson – the three of them – playing The Bottom Line. I looked at it from afar and thought, ‘I wish I could do that. Maybe someday’. And I kind of looked at what I do now with the guitar, and touring with my son’s band [The Ben Daniels Band], as where I probably would end up when the acting career failed. I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t you get good at the guitar privately, get better as a songwriter, so that when it all falls apart you at least have something to fall back on.’ And the acting career never died.

I moved back to Michigan in 1986 after three or four movies, expecting to make three or four more. And them, like every other actor, that would probably be it. And then I’d do something else, probably with the guitar. But the acting went on, and I’m fitting in the playing because I just love it. I’m lucky; I get to do both. And I didn’t see that [coming] back in the 1970s. And it beats opening a restaurant with your own 8x10s all over the wall, pictures from some show you did twenty years ago.

BK: I’m a fan of The Verve Pipe, but I wouldn’t have necessarily connected you to them musically. But then I listened again to “Overboard,” the song you co-wrote with Brian Vander Ark, and I do perceive a shared musical sensibility. The idea of song as story is as old as songs in general. When you write a song, is the goal to paint a portrait of characters or situations that listeners can relate to, or is it a more internally-directed thing?

JD: Coming from the theater, play writing and story, when a song locks in and you know that you’re going to be spending a considerable amount of time on, you know if it’s a story song or it isn’t. If it is, you know that with the rhymes and such you’re going to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. And maybe a twist. With other ones, sometimes it’s just imagery. I’ll go back into the third, fourth and fifth rewrites of something. Then you’re picking over every word like you would with a play. And you’re thinking, ‘There’s a better word here that paints a better picture in line three of the second verse.’ I enjoy that, the finding of the perfect word or phrase.

And that comes from people like Lanford Wilson, the [Pulitzer Prize winning] playwright who I grew up with in New York. That’s what he did, and – knowingly or not – passed on to me. Sometimes you write something that’s quick: ‘You look fine, you look good.’ But I tend not to write those. I get bored with those.

I get playwrights in the theater company asking me, ‘I’ve got twenty pages; do you want to read it?’ ‘No. Call me when you’ve got a hundred pages, with a beginning, middle, and end. And then we’ll read it. And that’s when you’ll start writing.’

My feature based on this interview appeared previously in Mountain Xpress. – bk

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Jeff Daniels’ Fallback Plan, Part 1

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

Not only is Jeff Daniels a screen and stage actor and a playwright, but he’s an accomplished musician with six albums to his credit. He is currently touring in support of his latest, Days Like These. Just ahead of the Asheville NC date, we had a conversation about his music and how it fits into his busy life. – bk

Bill Kopp: It occurs to me that one one level, acting is about giving life – albeit through your own sensibility – to the work of someone else: the playwright or screenwriter. And it’s often collaborative, working closely with a director who has his or her own ideas about how things should turn out. But a songwriters can – if he wishes – work completely alone and guide his vision from spark of idea all the way through to finished song, finished album, live performance. So in that way, acting and music are two very different things, which may be why so few people do both. How for you are acting and music similar, and how are they different?

Jeff Daniels: I have seen a lot of stars far bigger than I am who have kind of bristled at that. They want to get in the editing room, and they want to get their hands on what the next shot is on the storyboard. They want control, creative control, of what’s going to be seen. If you don’t have that, you end up giving the performance to someone else, and they for months on end do whatever they’re going to do with it. And you hope that it comes out in some kind of form that makes sense. But it’s not in your hands.

Certainly, walking out with a guitar, and having written it and directing it, and having chosen the set list and how it’s going to be performed, there’s no one else to answer to. No one but yourself. But there is a collaboration with the songs and the songwriting and performing, and that’s with the audience. And I learned that from the theater: you have to have a connection with the audience from the moment the play starts to the moment that it ends, and you’ve got to hang on to that. So the writer and the director are constantly refining that, so we don’t lose them.

And it’s the same thing with a song. If you’re up there singing a song that only means something to you, then you’re navel gazing. And I’ve always tried to pay attention to keep the connection with the audience. Whether it’s the funny setting up the sad, or vice versa, you’ve got to hang onto that connection. If the material doesn’t retain that connection, it gets cut.

BK: Now a flip side to that question, if you don’t mind. You’re a playwright, so you’re writing parts and dialogue for actors, and I would think that you often have very specific ideas about what the actors should do, as well as when and how they should do it. But as far as music, most songwriters that I’ve interviewed tended to at least pay lip service to the idea of allowing their fellow players space to come up with their own musical ideas within the song. How do you see your roles as playwright and songwriter as similar, and how are they different?

JD: You try to give the play to [the actors]. It’s part of what I learned in the film end of things. It took a lot of plays for me to learn that once you give it to them, it’s no longer just yours. You can get too specific with actors; it’s a trap. And I fall into it sometimes. But having acted, I try just try to say, ‘Here’s the play; I look forward to seeing what you do with it.’ I will come in at some point to steer the Titanic away from the iceberg.

If you get the right people – and at the Purple Rose Theater Company, I do; Guy Sanville is the director of all my stuff – then you’re in good hands. It’s more my problem to just shut up and let them do what they’re going to do with it. And you know what? They might make it better. To be patient and wait is the hardest thing for a playwright to learn. I’m still learning it.

Click here to continue…

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.