Archive for the ‘pop’ Category

Album Review: Todd Rundgren — At the BBC 1972-1982

Friday, March 20th, 2015

Several years back, Todd Rundgren took a proactive approach to the myriad live recordings that exist documenting his long and varied career. A true renaissance man who engenders fierce loyalty in his fan base, Rundgren may still be a “cult artist,” but he’s one of the most well-documented ones. For many years (during the tape- and CD-trading era) a surprisingly large network of Rundgren fans recorded, collected, cleaned-up and traded recordings of nearly every shwo the man ever did. So there’s a massive list of live shows dating back to the very early 1970s, and including Rundgren’s various guises: solo artist, member of the early progressive-phase Utopia, member of the more pop-leaning Utopia lineup, collaborator with Bourgeois Tagg, Hello People, Ian Hunter, Joe Jackson and many others…on and on.

But there aren’t just audience bootlegs out there. From his earliest post-Nazz days, Rundgren has appreciated and embraced television and radio performances as a means for reaching potential fans. As such, there are “board tapes” and/or professionally recorded documents of pretty much every tour he’s ever done. And as he sought to have the best among these released officially, the traing market has somewhat died down (by and large, Rundgren’s fans are an ethical lot; they want him to profit from his work).

The latest entry in the “Todd Rundgren Archive Series” is a near-comprehensive collection of his work for the British Broadcasting Corporation. At the BBC 1972-1982 is a 3CD + 1 DVD set documenting four concerts (three in audio, one audiovisually) and various other related bits and bobs.

The first disc showcases an early solo gig Rundgren did for BBC’s Radio One. An excellent quality mono recording from 1972 finds Rundgren at the piano, using backing tapes to accompany himself. An experienced studio rat even then, he created “karaoke” versions of his hits, allowing him to present them in a live onstage manner that combined the precision and arrangement of a recording with the spontaneity of a live show. Of course such an approach is old-hat now, and has been since the dawn of MIDI (musical instrument digital interface), a digital means of syncing multiple sounds sequences. Buti n 1972 it was innovative stuff.

Even with the confining nature of the backing tapes, Rundgren delivers an off-the-cuff, intimate performance, most notably on the Something/Anything? tune “Piss Aaron.” Few would count the tune among Rundgren’s best, but his onstage delivery of it is undeniably entertaining. And the inclusion of “Be Nice to Me” from his early album The Ballad of Todd Rundgren is a rare and welcome delight. Rundgren even rocks out at the end, turning in a performance of “Black Maria.”

The first disc also includes two songs from the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test television program(me). These feature the seven-piece Utopia in 1975, performing “Real Man” from his solo album Initiation) and “The Seven Rays,” a highlight of the Utopia Another Live LP (The package’s DVD also features a/v versions of these same two performances).

Speaking of Another Live, the second disc of At the BBC 1972-1982 is similar but expands upon the content of that set. Utopia’s set of the time (1975) included material from Rundgren’s solo albums in addition to their own songs. The BBC disc features a full concert (or at least something approaching one) in excellent stereo, and as such includes songs that weren’t on the single LP Another Live set (recorded elsewhere). Rundgren introduces “Freedom Fighters” as “the first Utopia single” that was never released. The studio version of the tune was on the group’s debut LP; at nearly six minutes, the live reading here is nearly half again as long as its studio version. Live versions of “The Last Ride” and “Sons of 1984” showed up on other Rundgren albums (Back to the Bars and Todd, respectively), but here they’re presented in the context of a full Utopia concert. And “Sunset Boulevard / Le Feel Internacionale” from A Wizard / A True Star hasn’t been released in a live version before (possibly excepting other archival releases), and it’s a highlight of this set.

By 1977 and time of the Utopia Radio One “In Concert” set documented on disc three, Utopia had pared down to a foursome: Rundgren on guitar, Roger Powell on synthesizer, John “Willie” Wilcox on drums, and Kasim Sulton replacing John Siegler on bass (“all four boys sing,” as they say). Touring to promote both the transitional album Ra and the more mainstream-rock oriented Oops! Wrong Planet, the group performed newer material from those albums, with a quick dip into Rundgren’s solo catalog (“Love of the Common Man” from Faithful) and the set closer “Utopia Theme.” The tighter, compact lineup meant an emphasis upon shorter, more concise songs, but the band still stretches out instrumentally on some longer pieces.

As previously mentioned, the fourth disc in the At the BBC 1972-1982 box set is a DVD. All three sets included are sourced from the TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test. The first (mentioned above) features two songs from a 1975 broadcast. The second (from May 1978” documents “The Bearsville Picnic” (the Albert Grossman-headed Bearsville Records was Todd’s and Utopia’s label at the time) and features the extended “Singring and the Glass Guitar (An Electrified Fairy Tale)” from the proggy Ra album.

And the final set of performances on this set brings things full circle in a way, featuring Todd solo in 1982, this time without the gimmicky backing as he winds his way through a solo material set. The performance – featuring Todd variously on acoustic piano and 12-strong acoustic guitar, and even electric “Fool” Gibson SG on “Tiny Demons” – highlights songs from his Hermit of Mink Hollow LP, and includes the innovative “Time Heals” promo video, one of the earliest clips ever broadcast on MTV (the cable channel had premiered the previous fall). Two songs are included that were recorded but cut from the original broadcast: “The Song of the Viking” (originally on Something/Anything?) and “Lysistrata” (a full group performance of which could be found on Utopia’s Swing to the Right album). His reading of “Compassion” (one of his best but least-known songs) is a highlight. Because of the vintage of the video material, it is presented in old format (4:3 ratio) as it was originally broadcast.

Each of the four discs is encased in a mini-LP style sleeve, and the whole affair is in a box slightly larger than a double-CD. An sixteen-page booklet includes photos and an informative essay by Mark Powell.

Taken as a whole, At the BBC 1972-1982 is essential for the Rundgren fan who must have it all, and recommended equally to the relative novitiate looking for an entry point into Rundgren and Utopia’s large catalog.

You may also enjoy: my career-spanning critical look at all of Todd Rundgren’s output (now quite outdated, but worthwhile nonetheless).

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Album Review: Supertramp — Crime of the Century (Deluxe Edition)

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

Among fans of progressive-minded 1970s rock, Supertramp have rarely gotten a fair shake. And the reasons are difficult to discern. Could it be the high-pitched lead vocals of co-lead singer Roger Hodgson? That’s doubtful; many prog fans took a strong liking to Jon Anderson‘s upper-register vocals in Yes (and please don’t get me started on Geddy Lee). Could it be the fact that Supertramp scored some Top 40 hit singles, most notably during the Breakfast in America era? That’s more likely to have been a factor, one potentially damaging their prog street-cred.

But their music remains. And once the group found their musical footing (though good, their earliest albums find them struggling for a defined sound), Supertramp produced some of the finest and most accessible prog-leaning “album rock” of the 1970s. And their high water mark came with their third LP, 1974′s Crime of the Century. By that point in the band’s career, all of the musical pieces of the puzzle had come together effectively. With a pair of singers (guitarist/keyboardist Hodgson and founder/keyboardist Richard Davies), neither of whom greatly enjoyed the spotlight(!), onstage the band’s spokesman and focal point was sax/reedman John Helliwell. The disparate influences upon the two primary songwriters (Hodgson and Davies) might have given the group’s sound a split personality, but somehow the two blended effectively.

Crime of the Century sports one of the era’s most seamlessly effective first sides. One wonders if the atmospherics that open “School” impressed Roger Waters; with a schoolyard scream leading into the song, “School” presages a similar approach used on Pink Floyd‘s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part Two),” a centerpiece of The Wall, a 1979 concept album with not-dissimilar subject matter. And the song’s dynamics – especially the slow-burn buildup to the delightful electric piano solo – are nothing short of thrilling.

“Bloody Well Right” is the earliest among the band’s well-known songs, and was released as a single (U.S. #35), but even it is a bit “progressive” for the singles charts. While the chorus is pretty well a singalong, the power-chording verses are another thing entirely.

“Hide in Your Shell” is this writer’s all-time favorite Supertramp song. Combining all of the sonic elements that make the band special, the melancholy yet uplifting lyric is a thing of beauty. And a good portion of its run time (nearly seven minutes) consists of hypnotically repeated musical motifs. Saxophone – an instrument with a mixed pedigree as part of a progressive rock lineup — is used to exceedingly good effect here and throughout Crime of the Century. Side One ends with “Asylum,” a lament that’s (again) melancholy, but that also possesses the widescreen grandeur one might expect to find on a Queen album of the era.

It would be difficult to top the first side of the album, and Side Two doesn’t really do that. But it’s effective enough, and carries forth the aesthetic established in the album’s first half. “Dreamer” kicks things off with its memorable and insistent Wurlitzer electric piano. In fact, “Dreamer” was the first single released off of Crime of the Century, but it failed to dent the charts in the USA (it reached #13 at home in the UK). But the determination that “Dreamer” was a commercially viable track wasn’t exactly wrong; it was simply a bit ahead of its time: a live version of “Dreamer,” released as a single off of 1980′s Paris, reached #15 on the American charts (and #1 in Canada).

“Rudy” is another melancholy number, providing contrast with the side’s opening cut. With Davies’ plaintive lead vocal and soulful, nimble acoustic piano work, the tune might remind some of Billy Joel at his best. The contemplative ambience continues with “If Everyone Was Listening,” another piano-led number that has a feel not completely removed from The Beatles‘ “Fool on the Hill.” As the song progresses and instruments are added, the arrangement unfolds into something quite lovely.

Back in the 70s, artists didn’t feel the need to extend their albums to eighty minutes; the album closes with the title track, a melodramatic number featuring arrangement and production flourishes that recall/foreshadow Bob Ezrin‘s work for Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, and…Pink Floyd’s The Wall. (Crime of the Century was in fact ably produced by the estimable Ken Scott with the band.) Some lovely twin lead guitar work – a feature not in great supply on this keyboard-centered album – is a nice touch. The track’s soaring string arrangement is the cherry on top.

The 2015 Deluxe Edition of Crime of the Century includes the original album in a digipak that features an excellent and lengthy liner note essay by Mojo editor-in-chief Phil Alexander. And a bonus disc provides an audio document of a March 1975 Supertramp concert in London. The live disc serves to illustrate a couple of key points about Supertramp of that era. One, they were very, very good live onstage, succeeding at recreating the sonic landscape of their studio album with only their five-piece lineup. And two, Supertramp had some seriously high-caliber live sound reinforcement. The mid 1970s are not remembered as a golden era for live concert sound, and the subtleties of electric and acoustic pianos, saxophones, harmonicas and the like could often be lost onstage. But not on this night, and not with this band.

The concert as presented here includes the entirety of Crime of the Century, played start to finish in order, with five additional songs inserted in the space where home listeners would have flipped over their vinyl LP. All of these (save an impromptu reading of “A – You’re Adorable”) would appear on the group’s next album, Crisis? What Crisis?, released six months later, but at this stage they most likely had not yet been recorded in any form.

Sometimes Deluxe Editions offer up little in the way of an upgrade over the original release. But Supertramp’s Crime of the Century: Deluxe Edition effectively supplants earlier releases of this classic album, and is recommended in the strongest terms.

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A Trip Back in Time with Trip Shakespeare (Part Three)

Friday, March 13th, 2015

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: As we discussed earlier, you’re credited as co-producer on the new Trip Shakespeare reissues of Applehead Man and Are You Shakespearienced? I assume that the original albums were cut on analog equipment, right?

John Munson: Yup.

BK: So were the masters in good shape? Did you do anything along the lines of remastering or fiddling with the mixes for the reissues?

JM: I really left the actual masters to Omnivore. I approved the masters. Because they sounded just great to me. Immediately. It was like, “Oh, this is just so much better.” On Are You Shakespearienced? in particular.

In some cases, we didn’t have great stuff to work with. A lot of the source material has been lost to the sands of time. [laughs] The sands have washed over and buried a lot of the stuff. So while I think they had the original half-inch masters for Are You Shakespearienced?, we couldn’t find them for Applehead Man. So they might have had to work with a CD version, and then remaster it. But they improved both of them so much, in my opinion.

BK: When Trip Shakespeare ended, you went on to work with Dan Wilson in Semisonic, and then when that ended you teamed up with Matt Wilson for The Twilight Hours. From that I assume you’re all still on pretty good terms. I know you got together to play two songs onstage in December 2013. With the buzz created around these reissues, has there been any talk of a Trip Shakespeare reunion, even just a one-off?

JM: [grasps for the right words] You know, I would love to do it. And certainly a lot of friends are like, “Come on!” [laughs, and then turns more serious] It was…a complicated band. It’s not like you could just uncork it and pour out the magic. If we were going to do a full show, it would take a lot of effort and time to do that. And I think we’re all a bit leery of…crapping on our legacy. [laughs]

BK: I appreciate your candor.

JM: Well, you know, a lot of my mates tell me, “You guys were the tightest fuckin’ band I ever saw.” And we spent the time. So it’s not necessarily so easy to fall back into it. Think about what Elaine [Harris] does, for example. That stand-up drumming thing is not like falling off a log. Even to do the couple of tunes that we did at the [2013] Holiday gig, I chose the songs that I thought would be the least strain on her. And she killed it, of course. But she practiced for months to get herself back up to a level where she felt comfortable.

And so that’s what it would take. And I don’t know if anybody has the time. I would do it in a heartbeat. But I think it would have to be the right offer, or something like that.

BK: You make a good point. A big part of what made Trip Shakespeare loved by the people that loved them was the fact that so much care did go into the music. I love the Replacements, too, like you mentioned. But their aesthetic was, if they screwed up, that was part of the charm. That was never the Trip Shakespeare approach. It was finely honed. And if you got together for a ramshackle performance, it would be kind of crapping on the legacy, quite honestly: “What’s this!?”

JM: I think that’s true. So if we were to do it, we would do it with tender loving care. And if we didn’t do it, the reason would be because we didn’t have the time to pour the attention that we wanted to into it.

BK: Changing subjects a bit now, if you don’t mind. As I mentioned at the beginning, I absolutely loved Stereo Night by The Twilight Hours. I have the red vinyl. In fact on my blog I named it one of 2009′s best albums along with Pugwash (who are now also on Omnivore), along with albums by Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, a Big Star box set, and the like. What’s the current status of The Twilight Hours?

JM: It’s funny that you should ask, because I was just comping a vocal for a record that we’re all but done with…

BK: I am so happy to hear that.

JM: We have about three vocals left to do. And then it’s going to be mixed, and – by God – it’s gonna be out this year! It’s definitely going to happen.

It’s been such a journey. The thing about it is, it’s hard to have it be anything less than exactly what you want it to be. Because there’s no urgency to sort of just kick it out the door. Because what’s going to happen? No one knows. Very little, probably. There’s no momentum that we have to pursue, so we just have to satisfy ourselves, essentially, and get it out.

I should mention – no big secret – that Dan actually sang on a couple of tracks. I almost feel like we should get Elaine to play on it a little bit, and then it would almost be like a little bit of a Trip Shakespeare reunion in some sense.

BK: As much as I loved Semisonic, when I first heard Twilight Hours, I thought, “This is more of a straight line from what Trip Shakespeare did.” It’s different, certainly, but it had more in common with Trip Shakespeare than Semisonic did. To my ears, anyway.

JM: For sure. That’s Matt. Dan and Matt, they’re brothers, and their voices sound very similar sometimes, but their artistic sensibilities are quite different. Dramatically different, really.

For me, when we started up Semisonic, that was really refreshing. Because as great a time as we all had doing Trip Shakespeare, by the time that we kind of augered in [laughs] and were like a burning heap on the runway, I was done with it. All the baroque moves and the attention to detail, I – and all of us in the band, even Matt – had become tired of it. It was just too much.

Have you ever heard Matt’s [1998 solo] record Burnt, White and Blue?

BK: No, I haven’t…

JM: Oh, you must get that. If you’re a fan of Matt’s music – and it sounds like you most definitely are – you should find it. It’s a truly great record. He made that right around the time that Dan and I were making Feeling Strangely Fine, which has “Closing Time” on it.

It kind of shows: both projects were kind of incompatible with the Trip Shakespeare sensibility. It was more like a straight rock approach. But I think that by the time we came around to Stereo Night, the Trip Shakespeare viewpoint was a little more…it was back, a little bit.


And in a sense, Trip Shakespeare are back. The new Omnivore Recordings reissues of their first two albums, Applehead Man and Are You Shakesperienced? are out now, packed with previously unreleased bonus tracks and featuring excellent liner notes by Jon Niccum, including numerous quotes from John Munson, Elaine Harris, Matt Wilson and Dan Wilson.

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A Trip Back in Time with Trip Shakespeare (Part Two)

Thursday, March 12th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: When Trip Shakespeare cut Applehead Man, you were originally a trio. By the time of the second album, Matt Wilson‘s brother Dan had joined. Two brothers. How did that change the dynamics of the band?

John Munson: Well, it did change it. I was sheepishly telling somebody the other day that when Dan joined the band, I cried. Literally. It broke my heart. I was quite content to have it be a trio, and I suspected that with Dan coming in, it would change the dynamic in way that would lock me out.

And that did not turn out to be the case. What it really did was put the whole vocal concept way more forward. I was recently listening to the Applehead Man remaster, and there’s a lot of cool vocal stuff going on there. But it’s almost all Matt. After Applehead Man came out, and we started to do more gigs, Matt’s voice revealed itself to be a pretty fragile instrument. And as we were talking with agents about doing more shows, one guy said, “Well…Dan can sing really well. And John can sing. Why don’t you figure out a way that Matt can sing a little bit less? Maybe that will make it easier on you.” Matt really took that to heart, and that’s when the larger vocal concept moved forward. That’s when the vocal arrangements got really dense and [laughs] baroque.

Matt would write songs and then say, “I think this is one for you to sing.” So it wasn’t necessarily even songs that I was writing that I’d sing; Matt would just say, “This one’s for you, John. You sing it.” Also, another thing that would sometimes happen is that Matt would write a song, and then everyone would try it, to see whose voice it worked best with.

BK: A band is dealing from a position of strength when they have multiple lead singers.

JM: It’s true. But on the other hand, while from a musical point of view it makes good sense, it makes it more confusing for the audience: “Who’s really in charge?” It’s kind of important to audiences to kind of know who’s the sort of heroic, artistic auteur. I think audiences want that on some level. So sometimes when I think about what went wrong, I sometimes wonder if that was a factor. For a certain kind of fan, it was something they really attached to, gravitated toward. But I think for most, for more general audiences, it made it harder to understand the band.

BK: Good point, I guess. But…it worked for the Beatles.

JM: [laughs] I guess that’s true! Lest we forget.

BK: We’ve already begun to touch on this point. I’m not the first to comment on the seemingly magical qualities of sibling vocalists in a band. The Everly Brothers, The Kinks, hell, even Oasis. So that was something you picked up on once Dan joined…

JM: Most definitely. There’s something that happens there; maybe it’s the shape of the voice box. It’s magical, or just genetic. And beyond understanding. You can’t coach it; it just happens.

BK: Both of the new reissues – Applehead Man and Are You Shakespearienced? – include lots of bonus material in the form of previously unreleased tracks. When you heard these bonus cuts again recently, did you remember them? Or had they all faded away in the mists of memory?

JM: As a matter of fact, I basically oversaw the gleanings and cullings and all that. So I was quite familiar with those tracks by the time these reissues came out. To me, in every single case with any and all of that stuff, there was a good reason why it didn’t see the light of day originally. But also, I believe that in every case there’s a reason why it might be interesting to the more serous fan. There are some gems in there.

I had kind of gone through…hmm…I want to say maybe as long as fifteen years ago…and gathered up a bunch of outtake stuff and said, “Look. We’ve got all this stuff. There’s an interest. People would enjoy it. Let’s put it out.” I presented it to the band, and there was [pauses] a real reluctance to go down that road at that time. And so I put it away, sat on it. And then when Cheryl [Pawelski] called, she asked, “Do you have any outtake-type material?” And I said, “Oh, yes I do.” And enough time had gone by so that – even reluctantly – people were willing to let it come out.

There are still a few things hanging around, that we’re saving for the next record if that actually happens. And if it doesn’t…maybe I’ll put that stuff up online or something…

BK: …Which leads very nicely into my next question. I know you did one EP after Lulu. I’ve never heard Volt but I’m sure I’d like hearing Trip Shakespeare do covers. Are there plans for Omnivore Recordings to eventually reissue Across the Universe and Lulu, and if so, do you think the songs from Volt will end up as bonus tracks?

JM: Most definitely Across the Universe and Lulu. Or…at least we’re discussing it. I think the big issue for Cheryl and for Brad [Rosenberger, both of Omnivore] is, does it make financial sense? I don’t have any idea if this [Trip Shakespeare reissue program] is working out the way that they had hoped, or better than they had hoped, or not as well. I really don’t know. I do know that the initial reissues were really nicely received here in the Twin Cities. But beyond that I don’t really have any concept of how it’s done.

That was the thing about the band: it was well-loved in the Midwest, and as you got farther and farther from there, it [dwindled]. We had an audience in New York and Boston; it became a thing that was only in bigger towns. It kind of petered out as we got toward the coast, a little bit.

BK: Well, yeah. I grew up in Atlanta, and I bought both of the A&M albums when they came out, on vinyl. But I didn’t know anyone else who did. [laughs]

JM: Not very many people did. We had very good friends down at Wax n’ Facts [record store]. I think we played in Little Five Points here and there. We had a good friend named Jim Barber, who was a big mover and shaker down that way. Atlanta was actually one of our little strongholds. But the records did best in the upper Midwest, for sure.

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A Trip Back in Time with Trip Shakespeare (Part One)

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

My interview with John Munson, bassist with late 1980s critical darlings Trip Shakespeare, began with him noting that my name sounded familiar to him: “How might I have heard your name before?” he asked me. I told him that it may well have been in connection with my enthusiastic 2009 review of an album that he and Matt Wilson (as The Twilight Hours) released, a record called Stereo Night. (I’d go on to name Stereo Night one of 2009′s best albums, and I stand by that assertion more than five years later.)

We would discuss that subject more later in the interview, but Munson agreed that that was probably where he had heard/seen my name: “Whatever reviews that record ever got, I read them with great interest,” he laughed. “Because there weren’t that many of them!” He then made a keen observation. “Every musician becomes accustomed to the fact that at least a goodly portion of their total output will be ignored.” He laughed when he said that, too, but his comment serves as good an introduction as any into the main subject of our interview.

In 1986, Minneapolis-based Trip Shakespeare released Applehead Man, their first album, on tiny local label Gark records. At the time the group was a trio: founder and guitarist Matt Wilson, bassist John Munson, and stand-up drummer Elaine Harris. The album was a bit out of step with the prevailing “Minneapolis sound” (whatever that was) but it was an excellent debut. The group followed that disc up two years later with Are You Shakespearienced? again on Gark. By that point they had added a second guitarist, Dan Wilson, who also happened to be Matt’s brother.

On the strength of those two albums and their live performances, Trip Shakespeare finally got noticed, and by 1989 the group had signed with A&M Records. They’d go on to release two major-label albums and an EP before breaking up around 1992. After the group ended, two members (Munson and Dan Wilson) went on to form Semisonic, a more musically straightforward band that scored major hits, most notably the single “Closing Time.” After that band ended, Munson teamed again with Matt Wilson for Twilight Hours. Dan Wilson then embarked on a successful solo career.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: those first two Trip Shakespeare albums have now been reissued by Omnivore Recordings, each appended with bonus tracks that nearly double the length of each disc. The former members of the band remain on good terms (as you’ll discover reading our conversation), and they cooperated on this new reissue. In fact, John Munson is credited (along with Omnivore’s Grammy-winning Cheryl Pawelski) as co-producer of the reissues.

As a longtime fan of Trip Shakespeare and the members’ subsequent musical activities, I jumped at the opportunity to chat with John Munson. Picking up again just after his observation about toiling in obscurity, here’s our conversation. – bk


Bill Kopp: For me, one of the most appealing hallmarks of Trip Shakespeare’s sound has been your bass. Not only what you play, but how. It sounds like a lot of what you did was played on a fretless.

John Munson: That kind of started to happen a little after the first two records. I did play some fretless on Are You Shakesperienced? But none on Applehead Man. I had started to learn it when the band started, but I wasn’t confident enough with it to subject people to my learning curve. Later, I got bolder about making mistakes.

BK: The only other rock player of note I can think of who played a good bit of fretless was Colin Moulding of XTC. Are there any bass players you’d name as influential on your style?

JM: I grew up [listening to Paul] McCartney. My brother had all those records; he would get them as soon as they came out. And I really love Colin Moulding, too, as a matter of fact. And John Paul Jones was another guy who used some fretless bass here and there. I’m really an admirer of his; he’s a really funky, groovy bass player. People don’t always think of him that way, but he’s got a lot going on.

It’s the melodious players that I love the most. And certainly if you’re playing fretless, you know that Jaco Pastorius is a guy that always comes to mind. I could never be him, never play “Donna Lee.” But I love his sound; it was so very expressive.

BK: And now you can say that you have music out on the same label as he does…

JM: Is that right?

BK: Yes. Some really early Pastorius stuff came out on Omnivore in 2014. An album called Modern American Music…Period! The Criteria Sessions. Really good.

JM: Oh, I’m gonna have to pester Cheryl for that! [laughs]

BK: To me, a strong sense of melody has always been at the heart of Trip Shakespeare’s music. The band was never “twee” so to speak, but neither was it as funky as Prince or as hard-edged as Hüsker Dü. At the time – in the mid 1980s – how did you see yourselves fitting into the music scene in Minneapolis?

JM: You know, I think that we never did fit in, to be perfectly honest. At that time, I remember that people would talk about the “Minneapolis sound.” And if you were actually in Minneapolis, it never really made all that much sense. Because there was so much going on, and it was all really different. I mean, how do you square Hüsker Dü with Prince? It doesn’t add up. And both artists would be characterized as the Minneapolis sound. Not to mention The Replacements and the nascent version of Soul Asylum, Loud Fast Rules. There was a lot of different music going on, and to some extent Trip Shakespeare stood a little bit outside of that mainstream of rockin’ Minneapolis. It was a little bit…it’s hard to characterize yourself, but it was a little bit more…melodious and worked-over.

There was a real attitude, certainly among The Replacements, that they were tossing it off. Like, “Aw, it’s something we rolled out of bed and made into a record.” There were never any illusions for us, other than that we wanted to work really hard to make the music the best that we possibly could. And so some people, I think, thought that we worked it too hard, that to a certain strain of Minneapolis rockers we were kind of embarrassing: “Don’t show that you want it.”

BK: While composition of some of the songs on the albums are credited to the whole band, most are by Matt Wilson and/or his brother Dan Wilson. But on every Trip Shakespeare album, and later, on every Semisonic album, you have at least one composition credit or co-credit. To what extent were you involved in things like vocal arrangement, musical arrangement and so forth?

JM: I think everyone in the band was pretty darn involved in developing the songs. A band needs a kind of engine, an urgent aesthetic point of view. And for Trip Shakespeare, that was definitely Matt. It was Matt’s vision from the get-go. He had a concept for what it was that he wanted to accomplish. But he was also the foremost advocate for a democratic band view; he wanted the whole band to be involved in the band. And so everybody really was involved, and we worked really hard to make vocal arrangements and things like that that really worked for all of us.

And he’s also very encouraging in terms of writing. Both Dan and Matt were always encouraging me to put my ideas forward, which is great.

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Book Review: Who Did it First?

Monday, March 9th, 2015

Have you ever wandered into (or been drawn into) a conversation with a trivia master? Not to make outsized claims, but by some measures, I’m one of those guys. Many years ago – not long after the game Trivial Pursuit took off – I received as a gift a board game called Rock Trivia. But the problem was, no one would play the damn game with me. Even at that age (early 20s) I could spot mistakes in the answers printed on the cards. “Who first recorded the hit song ‘(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone?” Well, I’d answer, of course it was Paul Revere and the Raiders! The Monkees version came very soon thereafter. But of course the card read, “The Monkees.” I’m told it was no fun to play with me, as I would invariably contest the answers, heading to my bookshelf to provide substantiation for my own (“officially” wrong) response.

Happily, I’m much less insufferable now. No, really, I am. A few years ago I was involved for awhile with a group of people who gathered weekly to play Quizzo, a beer bar version of trivia. I served as the music and pop culture guy, the one to call upon when questions related to “dad rock” and whatnot came up. Luckily there were other team members who knew about subjects such as professional sports; my knowledge of (and interest in) such things is laughably negligible.

But my love of the minutiae of rock history remains. I can’t quote deadwax matrix numbers, but I know a good bit of music pop culture. And I’m always on the lookout for more. So I was pleased to discover a new book called Who Did it First? Great Rock and Roll Cover Songs and Their Original Artists. Across more than 250 pages, author (and well-known radio deejay) Bob Leszczak takes readers on a trip through time, covering (ha) several hundred well-known songs.

For each tune, Leszczak provides some basic information, clearly formatted: the composer, original artist, a cover artist, year of release, and chart positions (where there are any). Some of his listings are pretty obvious, ones that nearly any casual pop music fan could rattle off: Van Halen‘s cover of Roy Orbison‘s “Oh! Pretty Woman” is a good example of the obvious cover.

But there are plenty of less well-known examples, and in more than a few cases, the cover versions are worth seeking out. Also, there’s the reverse scenario, wherein the original wasn’t all that monster of a hit, but the cover scored on the charts. And there are a few ringer, examples where some unimaginative artist cut a whole album of covers (Rod Stewart, Elton John and some country artist whose name I’ve happily forgotten, I’m looking at you). Those covers serve as space-filling examples in a book that doesn’t need padding. There’s so much worthwhile and interesting material to discuss.

The author’s breezy alphabetical-order run through several hundred songs is trivia-filled and entertaining. And by its very nature, Who Did it First? Is the sort of book one can work through in small bites. It’s chock full of information, presented in a clear, concise and informative fashion.

Leszczak left out a few major covers, however. Badfinger‘s “Without You” is the first of these to come to mind. The Apple Records group released the song as an album track on their No Dice LP in 1970. Though it was a very good song, their version felt unfinished and raw. But no less a talent than Harry Nilsson fell in love with the tune, and recorded his own version in 1972; he scored a worldwide hit for his efforts. (Mariah Carey added nothing of value to the song in her own 1992 cover, but she got a hit with it as well). He also passes by Translator‘s great cover of the early (pre-fame) Beatles tune, “Cry For a Shadow,” and not once does he mention any off the immortal covers turned out by Mrs. Miller. (To his unending credit, Leszczak does discuss “Senator Bobby‘s” memorable cover of The Troggs‘ “Wild Thing.”

The book is not without its glaring errors, and those are of concern in a book that is meant to serve as a trivia guide. (Imagine if I had used it to contest one of the Rock Trivia answers, only for it to be discovered that the book was wrong! The shame! The horror!) Leszczak discusses Crowded House‘s classic tune “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and the subsequent cover by Sixpence None the Richer; both versions charted. But then he wanders off the reservation by mentioning Crowded House’s follow-up hit, a tune he calls “Something So Wrong” (emphasis mine). Funny choice of word: the actual title is “Something So Strong.”

A bit more egregious than a possibly typographical error is the author’s seeming unfamiliarity with one of rock history’s most notorious episodes. In his discussion of the Rolling Stones‘ “Sympathy for the Devil,” Leszczak notes that when the group performed the song at Altamont in 1969, “…a young girl was killed.” Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Rolling Stones – not to mention anyone who’s ever seen the Gimme Shelter film documenting the event – knows that Meredith Hunter was an eighteen year old African American male.

There are a few other, lesser, mistakes in Who Did it First?, but overall the book is reliably accurate, and a fun read. The reader will be able to spot instances were the author has conducted first-hand interviews with some of the artists involved (most notably Tommy James), because the entries for those songs are much longer than the sometimes cursory entries found throughout the book. And occasionally, Leszczak’s level of insight seems nonexistent, and sometimes the writing seems designed to do little more than fill the page. How else to characterize such comments as – for example, when discussing Bachman-Turner Overdrive‘s “Takin’ Care of Business” – “It’s a song that compares and contrasts the singer’s life to that of the average nine-to-five worker (letting the listener know that the life of a rock star is far better).” But such empty-headed faux-analysis doesn’t detract from the overall value of Leszczak’s book, and in fact it might elicit a few (unintended) chuckles. No harm done.

Significantly, Who Did it First? never presents itself as something it is not (say, a scholarly work), and its tone is designed for a casual reader, not a trainspotting boffin who can’t help but play gotcha! when reading it. Who Did it First? is a lightweight, fun and informative trip through rock’s history.

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Hundred Word Reviews for March 2015, Part 5

Friday, March 6th, 2015

For the final entry in this run of hundred-word reviews, I take quick looks at some rare and/or reissued music. I think it’s all worth your time.

TV Eyes – TV Eyes
TV Eyes was a 90s alternapop supergroup. Jason Falkner has a stunningly high quality catalog of his own. Roger Manning was a prime mover in Jellyfish, one of the 1990s’ best, least-appreciated bands. And Brian Reitzell is renowned for his work with Air and Moog Cookbook. The bad news is that the group’s sole (2006) album was Japan-only. Until now, that is. Its dance-friendly sound weds guitar pop to an electroclash underpinning; it will appeal to Gary Numan fans. TV Eyes also helps explain what Beck saw in Falkner and Manning (both toured as part of his band in 2014).

Ron Nagle – Bad Rice
I find it endlessly fascinating just how many truly creative artists are lurking right around the fringes of rock’s universe. Nagle was a member of The Mystery Trend, a band who were historically important (if largely unknown) in the 60s San Francisco scene. And as co-leader of Dūrocs, he created some skewed (and again underheard) pop music. And there’s his solo album, done in the interregnum between those projects. It’s even less known, originally released on the cult-friendly Warner Brothers label (see also: Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, etc.). It’s more mainstream than its pedigree suggests, and it’s funny, too.

Linda Jones – The Complete Atco, Loma, & Warner Brothers Recordings
Jones’ 1967 single (R&B #4) “Hypnotized” may well be where the malpropism “hyp-mo-tized” originated. Regardless, that and many of her other singles of the era are fine examples of gospel-flavored soulful R&B. When she passed away prematurely in 1972 (as the result of a diabetic coma) at age 27, she left behind an impressive if under-appreciated body of work. Her expressive voice and breathtaking range are showcased in her music. Real Gone Music once again does yeoman’s work in rescuing these 21 sides from obscurity, and working through the knotty licensing to bring them all together on a single disc.

The 5 Stairsteps – Our Family Portrait / Stairsteps
A family band in the Jackson 5ive style (though the Burke family recorded before the Jacksons), The Five Stairsteps are sometimes characterized as bubblegum (or “bubblesoul”). True, there’s an undeniable family-friendly vibe to their music, but that shouldn’t diminish their work in the ears of music lovers. From the doo-wop-meets-TV-variety-show music of “A Million to One” to their smash “O-o-h Child,” there are pleasures to be found throughout their catalog. But their first two albums (now compiled on CD with bonus tracks) are their best. Their covers (“The Look of Love” and studio-era Beatles album cuts) are often quite impressive.

The Unforgiven – The Unforgiven (Expanded Edition)
Imagine if The Alarm were from Los Angeles instead of Wales, and you’ll have an idea of what this six-piece sounded like. Very dated 80s production flourishes (gunshot drum sounds, roaring arena-styled guitar) wedded to the odd c&w flourish (an occasional dab of pedal steel) and a perhaps ill-advised preoccupation with their look (cowboy dusters before every lame country band started wearing ‘em) are the three legs of The Unforgiven‘s musical stool. Every song swings for the fences, wanting to be an anthem, and it’s all a bit too earnest. Worth a listen but in no way a lost classic.

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Third Time’s The Charm: Pugwash Aims for America, Part Three

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

Continued from Part Two

Unlike their earlier deals with other labels, Pugwash‘s recent A Rose in a Garden of Weeds is not a one-off licensing deal. “Omnivore is our label,” Thomas Walsh says. “At this stage in our lives, we try to hold onto our records, but when it comes to Omnivore, they’re definitely our label. And we’re so proud and honored to be with them.” He goes on to reveal that the label has plans for Pugwash’s older material as well. “They’re doing full catalog remastering of all our albums. They have great people running the label from top to bottom. To say they’re seasoned campaigners would be an insult, really. They’re incredible successful music people.” He name-checks Cheryl Pawelski and several others at the label. “And it’s been Lee Lodyga, of course, who’s been our staunchest supporter. He’s a huge fan. And he’s taken on a lot more [with us] than he planned, I’m sure.”

Walsh reflects on the traditional relationships between artist and label. “There can be a lot of miscommunication between America and us in Ireland. Because we can be lazy fuckers, and Americans are so full of of energy. Noting that he’s long since put hard drugs and drink behind him, he chuckles and wryly characterizes Americans’ high energy level: “It’s consistently like they’re on drugs! And you know that they’re not on drugs. We equate it with a drug thing, but it’s really a lifestyle thing! These people are incredibly energetic and passionate. When you meet them you ask yourself, ‘Are these people freaks?’ They’re beautiful; they put us to shame. After a gig, we go back to our hotel room, and I think, ‘We’re a fuckin’ disgrace.’ But the energy that Lee has put into Pugwash is incredible. It would take us ten weeks to do [in Ireland] when they do in ten minutes in America.”

Pugwash did a brief US tour in late 2014 to support A Rose in a Garden of Weeds. “That tour was such an eye-opener,” Walsh says. “It was incredibly quick. And Omnivore have done exactly what they said they would, right from the very beginning. It’s not like some other labels where they try to do everything; they do what they do. Our drummer Joey [Fitzgerald] gets the gigs. We know what we have to do, and so does Omnivore. It’s a great relationship. I’ll be honest with you: I’m forty-five now. And most of us are in our forties. And even if in five or ten years if we say our goodbyes, I’ll still love these people. Straightaway, they’re friends.” I remark how unusual such comments are. “Well,” Thomas retorts, “They’ve been nominated for a Grammy. And I’m just trying to get an invite to the awards ceremony.”


Pugwash’s compilation A Rose in a Garden of Weeds is available from Omnivore Recordings, and the group’s as-yet-untitled album will be released on Omnivore sometime in 2015. Also keep an eye out for Omnivore reissues of Pugwash’s back catalog (five albums originally released between 1999 and 2011), and for Pugwash’s limited number of stateside concerts in March 2015 (mostly in the Northeast).

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Third Time’s The Charm: Pugwash Aims for America, Part Two

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Some listeners might peg the music of Pugwash as “retro,” though in reality it’s classic pop in the best sense of the word. Many reviewers have pointed out sonic similarities between Thomas Walsh‘s voice and Jeff Lynne‘s. But the hallmark of Pugwash’s music is the song construction. At its best, it’s on a par with the finest efforts from writers such as Difford and Tilbrook (Squeeze), Neil Finn (Split Enz and Crowded House), and Paddy McAloon (Prefab Sprout). Walsh is modest when mentioned in the same breath as those names. “If I knew the hallmarks of a successful song,” he says, “I’d have written a hit by now! The thing is, I do know – and I’ve known for a long time – if you have any talent for writing a song, there are certain tricks you use.” He goes on to explain his craft in a bit more detail. “There’s a lot of chords in my songs. But they won’t do much else than repeat themselves.” Exaggerating slightly to make his point, he says, “If there are twenty-four chords in one of my songs, they won’t jump all over the place. They’ll stay in a nice little cage and wait to be fed. And I don’t do a lot of ‘bridges.’ At least I don’t think I do; I never check!”

“Funnily enough, Neil Hannon [of fellow Irish band The Divine Comedy] was over the other day, helping with stuff for the new record. There’s a song called ‘Oh Happy Days.’ The demo of it was up on the pledge site [for crowd funding of the next Pugwash album, due out in 2015]. So Neal says to me, ‘Did you ever even think of bothering your ass to write a second verse?’ I said, ‘No, nope…No.’ And he just laughed. The great thing is that Neil and I work so great together. He probably would have written an eight-verse life story of how happy the old days were, and how sad it could be now. That’s Neil, and I love him. But with me, it’s, ‘Oh happy days,’ then “ba ba ba,’ and then…goodbye. In two minutes.”

Walsh is an avowed fan of the leave-them-wanting-more style of songwriting. “There’s so many songs that I love, where you think, ‘Ohhh…this is going to be great for three and a half minutes.’ And then boom, it’s gone. That’s especially true of ’60s bands like The Kinks. And The Lemon Pipers. I’m such a fan of their ‘The Shoemaker of Leatherwear Square.’ It’s so short, like a minute-forty or something [actually 2:01 – ed.] I have to play it six times to get the feeling of having heard it once. There’s all that arrangement – harps, and flutes – and they did all that for such a short song!”

I point out the contrast between that approach and the one used on such tracks as Bob Dylan‘s seven-minute, nine-verse opus, “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.” Walsh replies, “I was an anti- ‘leave them wanting more’ person when I was younger. But I remember when I first heard Michael Penn‘s Free for All. I had to import it from Canada because you couldn’t get it in Ireland. ‘Free Time’ is the fourth track. And on the fade, you hear this great trumpet thing, and you think, ‘Why the fuck is he fading it? It’s so wonderful!’ It’s a mark of genius, really. Michael might have made me start thinking that way about songs. It’s something you’d think every writer would know, eventually.”

The aforementioned crowdfunding effort – a very successful PledgeMusic campaign – has helped raised funds allowing Pugwash to record their upcoming album. The crowdfunding concept is “great for bands like us,” Walsh says. He makes an analogy, then observes, “No, that was a shitty analogy. But you can make it sound brilliant in text, okay?” In essence, the point he endeavors to make is that free downloads do hurt the band’s ability to stay afloat financially. “We couldn’t sustain making records with people investing in us any more,” he says. “So we thought long and hard about how to do it. We could play a bunch of gigs and get the money up ourselves. But it would have been ridiculous. What this pledge approach does is reaffirm our love of people. Because all of these fans, some of them might have money and some might not. But they all put their hand in their pocket and gave us something. It’s an incredible thing to see. We got a hundred-odd percent [of our goal] in ten days.”

The crowdfunding model reminds Walsh of how things used to be when he was very young. “It’s almost like a revival of the old fan club idea,” he observes. “Instead of sending ten dollars and getting a membership card, you send ten dollars and get the album and get your name on it. I’d have been all for that when I was a kid. Not all of the new ideas are killing the old ethics of music.”

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Third Time’s The Charm: Pugwash Aims for America, Part One

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

Irish band Pugwash has been around for fifteen years, and during that time, leader and songwriter Thomas Walsh has worked with a long list of people whose names will be familiar to fans of what one might call guitar pop: Andy Partridge, Dave Gregory, Ben Folds, Jason Falkner, Nelson Bragg, Michael Penn, Eric Matthews and many others. But for whatever reason, in all the years they’ve been together, Pugwash has escaped the notice of most American listeners. Walsh believes he knows why this is the case. “We never had a label on the mainland of the U.S.” Thanks to fans who happened to own record labels, Pugwash has had their best music compiled on no less than three separate best-of collections: Australian label Karmic Hit released Earworm in 2003. Ape House, the label run by ex-XTC guitarist/vocalist Andy Partridge, put together the Giddy compilation in 2009. And now, Grammy Award-winning USA-based label Omnivore Recordings has released A Rose in a Garden of Weeds, a seventeen-track survey of Pugwash’s most timeless melodies.

Walsh says that early on, he and his Pugwash bandmates thought, “We could release an album in Ireland or Europe, and then people [all across the globe] would say, ‘Oh, that’s pretty good.’ But no.” That’s not how it worked in the real world.

“We should never have gone into any business together” with Partridge, says Walsh. “Because we’re friends first. And you should never mix [business and friendship] with certain people. We all have our foibles. Andy’s such a lover of what he does; he’s such a passionate person about his music and all aspects of it – his label as well – that he has strong views about everything. He has strong views about milk! So it made itself into a bit of a clash that should have never happened, really.”

But Partridge’s love of Pugwash’s music didn’t pave the way for a proper stateside release of Giddy. “When it came to America,” Walsh recalls, “his deal with the people who were going to bring records to America wasn’t as strong as he thought it was. And it certainly wasn’t as strong as I thought it was. So it didn’t really come out there.” Walsh paints a description – kidding only slightly, one can assume – of boxes upon boxes of Giddy being unloaded on a New York loading dock, waiting for fans to come around and pick them up. And nobody ever did. “It just flopped,” Walsh says.

“It made a tiny bit of a ripple,” he allows. Certainly promotional copies found their way into the hands of some reviewers (this writer included), so some small level of buzz was set alight in the States. “But we knew that we’d only have a chance in the States if we got a label there. And then of course the whole Omnivore thing happened,” Walsh says, positively beaming. “They’ve done it so quickly, and so beautifully. In the last six months, it’s been like, ‘Where has America been all our lives!?’” He notes that he fully understands what it takes to have any chance of breaking into the market in the USA. “You have to embrace the wonderful people in the USA. You have to go over there and play. And we always wanted to do that, but we couldn’t before. It’s incredible how you won’t get any gigs, or any help, when you’re not promoting something. When you’re not on a label.”

Just like The Beatles discovered in early 1964, America is still where it’s happening when it comes to rock and pop. Part of that has to do with the potential that lies within such a massive market. “We’re not interested in playing in Ireland,” Walsh says. “We love our Irish fans, of course. But they can go to someone else’s gig for free for awhile,” he laughs. “It costs us a lot of money to play a gig in Ireland, and everyone [there] goes, ‘Ah, can you get us in for free? Stick my name on the door. And I’ve got nine people comin’ with me!’ I’ll tell you something: You can’t see the fuckin’ door for all the names stuck on ‘em. So we’re happy to get away from that for awhile. We can’t wait to get back to America in February and March.”

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