Archive for the ‘pop’ Category

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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Hundred-word Reviews: January 2015, Part 4

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

There’s a never-ending stream of new music, so it’s time once again for some hundred-worders to work off some of my backlog. As always, these all deserve full reviews, but with limited time and resources, 100 words will have to do. I’ll cut to the chase. Today I look at five new releases form indie (i.e. not on a big label) artists.

Jason Sadites – Tales
The prog community is rife with all sorts of cross-fertilization, collaboration and creativity. Guitarist Jason Sadites is well plugged into this scene; his list of collaborators on his previous four releases reads like a who’s who of progressive rock. On Tales, he’s joined by the ubiquitous Marco Minnemann (drums) and bassist Ric Fierabracci. The eight accessible instrumental tracks on Tales have enough melodicism to hold the interest of a general audience, while the players execute enough musical twist and turns to keep prog fans’ attention. The album’s excellent mix makes the listener feel as if s/he is in the studio.

Arrica Rose & the …’s – Wavefunction
Gently rocking, catchy indie rock is the order of the day here. Rose’s smoky, alluring and slightly breathy voice is mixed out front, with the band sometimes sounding as if they’re in the next room. Rose and producer Daniel Garcia are confident enough of her pipes to keep the production free form effects on her vocals. Rose is up-front about the importance of song sequencing; the tracks on Wavefunction are arranged around two different moods. The later tracks are more subdued and contemplative, but Rose’s voice is the glue holding everything together. “Love You Like That” is the standout track.

Abbie Barrett & the Last Date – The Triples
In 2011, I made an exception and reviewed a three-song EP by Barrett; the tunes were strong enough – and showed enough promise – to warrant the coverage. Her preferred format continued after that, but this disc offers nine tracks, half of which are new. The promise suggested on the earlier EPs is delivered upon here. Fans of New Pornographers – at least ones who enjoy the more rocking end of their oeuvre – should check this one out. And those who missed the earlier discs will find their highlights collected here. You can expect more good things from Barrett.

David Bierman Overdrive – Standard Skies
On Standard Skies, the former Junk Monkey guitarist presents an indie-rock perspective on classic melodic midwestern rock. Catchy, near-singalong melodies are placed into straightforward arrangements that feel warm and intimate. When Bierman plays it up close and personal (“Clock”), he’s effective, but when he rocks out (“Superhuman”), that feels every bit as authentic. Subtle shades of Gin Blossoms are given added weight by the Cheap Trick-like energy of Bierman’s band; the word “Overdrive” is part of their name for good reason. Every tune has a strong hook, and that’s no small feat. Apparently live gigs by the group are rare.

Anton Vezuv – Into the Sea
In 2012, I was turned onto the wonderful guitar pop of Budapest-based The Poster Boy. I had always assumed that there would be good music coming out of the former Eastern bloc, but most of it would never reach the ears of most westerners. So I was pleased when one of The Poster Boy’s members referred me to Anton Vezuv. (That’s a band name, not a person.) Leader Istvan Gyulai sings in English, and is pointedly credited for the band’s “sad songs.” I’d suggest the words wistful and melancholy instead: wonderfully textured songs in classic tradition with a rainy-day vibe.

Still more capsule reviews to come.

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Hundred-word Reviews: January 2015, Part 2

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

There’s a never-ending stream of new music, so it’s time once again for some hundred-worders to work off some of my backlog. As always, these all deserve full reviews, but with limited time and resources, 100 words will have to do. I’ll cut to the chase. Today it’s a wide assortment of music, from rock to jazz to Americana.

Keith Emerson & Greg Lake – Live From Manticore Hall
It would seem that the days of Emerson, Lake and Palmer are gone forever; other than their one-off reunion several years ago, they’ve all moved on to other things. That said, one of those other things was a 2010 concert series featuring the keyboardist and the guitarist/vocalist. This CD documents that dinner-theatre styled tour; there’s no Manticore Hall; this show was recorded in Connecticut. Toned-down readings – with less synthesizer than you’d expect – of the many classics from the ELP catalog are showcased here, and a lovely version of “I Talk to the Wind” recalls Lake’s King Crimson days.

The Satisfactors – The Satisfactors
This quartet plays rock’n'roll of the old-fashioned variety: power chords, shouted and swaggering vocals, songs about women, and so forth. Fans of stripped-down yet clever songwriting – think of The Romantics, Smithereens and the like – will appreciate the back-to-basics approach of The Satisfactors. An arena-rock feel is applied to songs that recall 70s punk, New York variety. Rolling Stones and Mott the Hoople sensibility shines through on tunes like the self-explanatory “I Love Girls.” Something about these guys reminds me of Donnie Iris (“Ah! Leah!”) but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Either way, it’s fun stuff.

Dylan Howe – Subterranean: New Designs on Bowie’s Berlin
Using music from one of David Bowie‘s most fascinating periods – his Berlin years which borne “Heroes,” Low and Lodger – seems like an intriguing approach for a new album. But presenting those songs – most of which are quite static and impressionistic, owing to Brian Eno‘s involvement – in a jazz idiom is downright odd. But that’s the idiosyncratic concept at work on this album from drummer Dylan Howe. The drummer’s dad (a certain Steve Howe) guests on one track, but not on guitar. My advice is to ignore the Bowie connection and instead enjoy the arrangements for what they are.

The Psycho Sisters – Up On the Chair, Beatrice
Near-lifelong friends Susan Cowsill (The Cowsills, Continental Drifters) and Vicki Peterson (Bangles, Continental Drifters) have worked together extensively, but Up On the Chair, Beatrice is the first collaborative album from the duo. Not rock a la Bangles (save for “Numb”), and not especially Americana-leaning as were Continental Drifters, the music here resembles a baroque, pop-centric rethink of The Roches. Quite varied in texture, the album is full of delights. “Never Never Boys” is reminiscent of the criminally-overlooked Cowsills album, Global, though it has a more countrified feel. Think of The Psycho Sisters as a sort of distaff Holsapple and Stamey.

The Apache Relay – The Apache Relay
The sweeping, majestic strings that open “Katie Queen of Tennessee” will pull you in, right from the get-go; there’s a depth of emotionality that’s conveyed by the string arrangement, a sort of modern Phil Spector wall of sound that adds dimension to the otherwise Americana styling of this Nashville band. If they never did anything beyond that opening track, they’d be noteworthy. But their self-titled debut is filled with goodies that combine the modern folkie-ness of Fleet Foxes with the studio-as-instrument aesthetic of SMiLE-era Brian Wilson. They’ll play Asheville February 28; look for more about them closer to that date.

More capsule reviews to come.

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Hoo-Ever Land: A Chat with Jamie Hoover, Part 2

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

Continued from Part One

What I didn’t realize at the time is that the setback of rotator cuff surgery and recovery wouldn’t keep Jamie Hoover from creating new music and new recordings. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m not gonna be able able to play guitar for while,’” Hoover recalls. “So I got interested in the idea of trying to sing the parts.” Thus began the process of a vocals-only project. Initially, Hoover had in mind another Jamie and Steve EP. “I talked with Steve [Stoeckel] about it, and he wasn’t really into doing a whole record like that. And you’ve got to really be into something like this to be able to do it.” So Hoover began work on what would become Jamie Two Ever. (In the end, only a portion of the disc is vocal-only tracks.)

“I wanted to make a point of not using drum machines on it,” he says. “I played buckets and pots and pans instead. So it has that sound to it.” Despite the inclusion of a track titled “Honest Work,” Jamie Two Ever is very much unlike Todd Rundgren‘s A Cappella, a 1985 album that – on paper, at least – seems like pretty much the same sort of musical excursion as the original idea for Jamie Two Ever. “I’m a big Todd fan,” Hoover says. “I make no bones about that. And I’m very familiar with that record. But I didn’t want to do what he did, which was basically sampling [vocals] on an Emulator.” Rather than treating his vocals through a sampler, on Jamie Two Ever‘s vocal tracks, it’s mostly Hoover’s natural voice.

Despite the grab-bag approach to songs on the album – some vocals-only, some with instruments, most solo, one with Steve Stoeckel guesting – Jamie Two Ever holds together as a cohesive whole, and provides a good sampler of the Jamie Hoover signature sound. The guiding principle when making the recordings was simple, Hoover laughs. “I just wanted to please myself. If I get it to where I’m happy with it, then the narcissism comes out, and I’m ready to say, ‘Hey! Look at this!’” And since the disc wasn’t made with the idea of creating an album, it has more of a collection-of-singles feel. “I always think in terms of, what sounds like a single? And then it’s a matter of sequencing those songs so they flow together.”

The digital and physical (CD) versions of Jamie Hoover’s new album differ significantly: the CD includes nearly twice as many tracks (fifteen total). “The difference is simply financial,” Hoover states. In days gone by, a record label would handle the distribution of composer royalties for songs “covered” on an artist’s album; today, the onus sits squarely on the recording artist himself. As far as the songwriters getting paid, Hoover has no qualms with that. “It’s the right thing to do, of course.” But the current arrangement exerts significant front-end financial pressures on the recording artists. “I did that for my [2004] Jamie Hoo-Ever album, and it cost me an additional $800. That – for an individual doing an independent release – is really expensive.” So the digital version includes only Hoover originals, leaving off his vocals-only reading of The Beatles‘ “Misery” and a truly weird all-minor-chords reinvention of Rubber Soul‘s “I’m Looking Through You.”

“I decided to make it a kind of marketing thing: only the 300 physical copies would include those other songs. If you want those, you have to buy the CD.” He laughs and adds, “Shameless promotion.”

Meanwhile, Hoover is still on the mend following his recent surgeries. Another Jamie and Steve EP is in the works. “We [The Spongetones] did some unannounced gigs not long ago. And I’m still producing, working on a lot of projects. And I can play. But my arms still hurt like hell. I can’t do push-ups or anything like that, but I can play. I’ll play until I’m tired.” He chuckles, “I think I could still do a four-hour gig, but at the end I’d feel like I’d been thrown off a truck.”

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Hoo-Ever Land: A Chat with Jamie Hoover, Part 1

Monday, January 19th, 2015

For the last thirty-plus years or so, Jamie Hoover has been known as a highly regarded producer, musical collaborator, and member of the Spongetones. I first noticed his production credit on 1983′s Emotional Geography, an excellent (if obscure) album from Charleston SC’s Killer Whales, a Police-like trio who frequented the Atlanta clubs I haunted in those days. He went on to produce albums for Robert Crenshaw (Marshall’s brother), Bob Lind and (quite recently) up-and-comers Porch 40. Hoover’s collaborative projects first caught my notice with his credits on mid-80s albums from Don Dixon and Marti Jones. And in the 1990s, Hoover released a pair of albums with Bryan Shumate; the duo dubbed themselves The Van DeLecki’s. And all along the way, Hoover released solo material, first as scattered tracks on compilations, and then via solo albums.

But despite those impressive lists of credits, it has been as a member (and a primary songwriter) in The Spongetones that Hoover gained the most recognition. Beginning with 1982′s Beat Music, Hoover crafted songs in the tradition of pre-Sgt. Pepper Beatles. As the group progressed, they widened their musical scope, keeping the Beatlesque characteristics that established them, while adding songs to their catalog that displayed the wealth of less-derivative riches they were quite capable of producing.

The Spongetones wound down as a recording entity around the time of the release of Scrambled Eggs; while that 2009 album ranks among the finest in the band’s catalog, diminishing commercial returns convinced the quartet that future albums weren’t practical (they continue as a performing group). “Spongetones albums have always been a labor of love for me,” says Hoover. “They also take an incredible amount of time. If I’m going to make an album that has my name on it anywhere, I’m going to take the time it needs.” But after 2008′s Too Clever by Half and then Scrambled Eggs, the time and effort required didn’t make sense. “I didn’t feel like anybody really wanted [another Spongetones album].” But to Hoover, working alone or as part of a smaller unit did make sense: “I can make stuff in an afternoon that sounds like a record,” Hoover points out.

With that in mind, Hoover and his bandmate Steve Stoeckel (the group’s other most prolific songwriter) launched a new career as Jamie and Steve. To date the duo have released an album (English Afterthoughts) and three EPs. The Jamie and Steve project is a logical extension of the musicians’ Spongetones work: it features their original-minded songs plus other compositions that cast a wider stylistic net for their influences. As impressive as The Spongetones were/are, it seems that casting off the yoke of that brand has allowed Stoeckel and Hoover to assert their individuality (and collaborative identity) more effectively. EPs are now the duo’s preferred format: “I think that’s about the attention span of listeners nowadays,” chuckles Hoover.

I was in touch with Stoeckel in mid 2014, discussing the possibility of hiring The Spongetones to play at my wedding reception in September. Discussions didn’t get very far at all before a piece of news scuttled the idea: Jamie Hoover was due for rotator cuff surgery on both shoulders – two separate surgeries, months apart – and as a result, he would be out of commission as a player/performer for several months.

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Book Review: British Invasion

Monday, January 12th, 2015

I’ve read countless books about The Beatles, about their fellow British Invasion (aka Beat Era) acts, and about the sixties from both musical and socio-cultural points of view. To say that the overall topic interests me is grand understatement. So I was intrigued when I learned of a new book called British Invasion: The Crosscurrents of Musical Influence. Having some familiarity with other works from the book’s publish (Rowman & Littlefield), I suspected that British Invasion wouldn’t be a pop-culture, general readership tome; no, I fully expected it to lean in a more scholarly direction. And that would be fine by me.

Author Simon Philo is a British citizen who – as he relates in the book’s introduction – first traveled to the USA many years ago. That inaugural visit lit a fire within him to better understand the ways in which British music of the 1960s influenced American music and culture. What an interesting idea, I thought: many books have looked through the lens from the opposite end, charting how The Beatles (and others) were influenced by such things as (a) the film The Girl Can’t Help It, (b) Bill Haley’s UK tour, and (c) records brought to Britain by merchant seamen landing at Liverpool docks (though this last one has been – if not debunked – shown to have happened much less often than many music chroniclers have claimed/guessed).

But considering how the music of The Beatles and other British groups influenced American music at the time (as opposed to in the grand scheme of things) is a topic that hasn’t been done to death. So Philo’s book is welcome. In the earliest chapters – truth be told, the best, most insightful ones among the book’s 150-plus pages – Philo outlines British pop music history, and he does so in a manner that places skiffle and trad jazz (the two biggest pre-rock musical sensations in postwar England) in their proper context. Philo displays a deep understanding of these forms and how they fit into the big picture.

As the story progresses, British Invasion focuses more than one might expect upon The Beatles. Yes, they were the biggest (and I’d say best) among the British musical exports of the era, but the bands that followed in their wake get perfunctory discussion in the book. Philo does a commendable job of outlining the American cultural scene into which The Beatles sprang in early 1964, debunking a few myths of his own (namely, that the country was in a deep depression post-JFK, and that The Beatles single-handedly rescued American consciousness from that malaise). But immediately after making a good case for his viewpoint, he writes (though in far more eloquent terms than I’m paraphrasing), “well, but yeah, they kinda did cheer things up.”

From there, Philo’s analysis is astute, and he makes all manner of useful connections. Still, he all but breaks down every single Beatles album, exploring its cross-cultural effects, and spends little time on the works of any other artists (save The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan). Granted, since the Beatles had the lion’s share of the hits, they do deserve full discussion. But the work of other groups (The Animals, for example) is perhaps deserving of a more thorough and nuanced analysis than it gets here.

Where British Invasion seems to falter is in its last third: while Philo is very careful to include citations for many of his quotes (and conclusions stated previously by others), toward the end of the book, he makes some serious mistakes. The author discusses (at some length) the genesis of the Byrds song “Eight Miles High,” and while he gets many of the details right, he cites Roger (Jim) McGuinn‘s fear of flying as the source from which his (McGuinn’s) lyric came. The thing is, it was Gene Clark who was uncomfortable in airplanes, and the song featured his lyrics (with help from David Crosby). McGuinn was responsible for the music.

And so on. In the most offhand manner, Philo unquestioningly repeats the long-discredited urban legend that mass murderer Charles Manson auditioned for The Monkees in 1965 (Manson was a guest of the United States Federal Prison System in the years 1961-67). And he seems to think that Abbey Road was met with roundly thumbs-down reviews upon its release (that sounds more like Let it Be). All that said, it’s only because of Philo’s overall careful and thorough approach to his subject that these lazy mistakes are so glaring.

That final third of British Invasion is actually the part in which Philo’s keen observations are the most significant. He discusses the “Britishness” of the Monterey Pop Festival; touches on the (discussed-ad infinitum) contrast between the Woodstock and Altamont festivals, and then breezily discusses the relationship between UK and American music from the mid 1970s onward. But he then jumps back to his own personal story circa 1981, neatly stepping over punk and new wave.

As scholarly works go, British Invasion is good on the merits (Philo strives to make as many original points as he possibly can, and nearly always hits the mark), but it falls down on the details (perhaps a looming deadline resulted in some glossing over of easily fact-checked errors). As a general audience reader, it’s a bit heady, lacking in any firsthand reportage (seemingly all musician quotes are sourced from the works of other writers) and occasionally getting pretty far into the academic weeds. But there’s enough straightforward analysis to make the required few hours spent with British Invasion most rewarding.

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Album Review: Jellyfish — Bellybutton and Spilt Milk

Friday, January 9th, 2015

Nineteen-ninety was a curious year in rock music. The top hitmaking artists of the year included Madonna, Mariah Carey, Phil Collins, Michael Bolton, Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson. If you liked rock music and wanted to find it in the mass-consumption media (in other words, on radio), your choices were largely limited to Jon Bon Jovi, Heart, Billy Idol, or (shudder) Poison. (The so-called grunge rock of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam was still a few years away.)

There wasn’t a whole lot going on in high-profile rock that suggested the form was anything besides moribund. For more compelling rock-based music, one had to turn to an emerging format called “new rock” or “alternative rock.” (For the purposes of this discussion, I’m conveniently forgetting about non-commercial college radio – which counted for a lot of what I enjoyed in those days – because it wasn’t as widespread).

Alternative rock stations such as the one in my then-hometown of Atlanta set their sights on what one might call “guitar pop.” Melodic, rock based music was in, and synthesizer-based pop confections were out. Out, too, were the “dinosaurs” of rock who had (supposedly) been left behind in the wake of punk and new wave; one wouldn’t likely hear Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Dire Straits or any number of classic acts on alternative rock playlists.

In the same manner as early MTV did almost exactly a decade earlier, this new format paved the way for some very good artists to get their music heard by the masses. Those rock fans who dug “classic rock” and perhaps new wave were often left cold by the glam-metal antics of Poison, and perhaps a bit bored by Genesis drummer/lead singer Phil Collins‘ turn toward adult MOR balladeering. But the music found on these alternative rock stations often hit the sweet spot for those listeners, programming as it did new music from younger artists whose musical sensibilities were rooted in a similar mindset to the rock acts of the past.

What this meant in practical terms is that artists like Michael Penn (1992′s “Seen the Doctor”), Matthew Sweet (1991′s “I’ve Been Waiting”), Greenberry Woods (1994′s “Trampoline”) and even Bob Mould‘s harder-edged Sugar (1992′s “If I Can’t Change Your Mind”) all broke into the mainstream. Arguably, none of these acts would have enjoyed mainstream success on the level they did without the rise of alternative rock radio.

Into this mix came Jellyfish. And for rock fans like myself, it was a huge breath of fresh air. Jellyfish’s original music drew upon the highly complex arrangements aesthetic of 1970s bands such as Supertramp, Queen, 10CC, Paul McCartney and Wings, and the like. Their visual appeal drew upon glam rock, but rather than the androgynous, faux-sexy approach favored by (shudder) Poison, Jellyfish’s visual aesthetic was filtered through a playful, Sid & Marty Kroft kind of sensibility. In short, Jellyfish were fun.

And the music was fun, too. Hardcore Jellyfish fans (see: this writer) have long been divided on which of the group’s two albums is the superior effort, but for those who dig the style, both Bellybutton (1990) and 1993′s Spilt Milk are crammed to the brim with ear-candy gems.

The band split amidst internal dissent not long after the release of Spilt Milk, and that was it. After a long silent period, additional Jellyfish material turned up on Fan Club, a 4CD set that was expensive to begin with. Issued on the now-defunct NotLame label, it was pressed in rather limited quantities, and soon went out of print. Today, used copies fetch hundreds of dollars. Fan Club served up a buffet of demos, outtakes and live tracks that – besides tripling the amount of officially-available Jellyfish music – showed that the collective musical artistic vision of Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning and their band mates burst forth fully formed.

While there are differences between the demo- and official versions of Jellyfish songs, the demos show that the subtle ideas and flourishes were there from the start; it took only a bigger recording budget and the expertise of producers Albhy Galuten and Jack Joseph Puig to present the ideas in a shinier, commercially-digestible format.

Now in the 21st century, the long-gone Jellyfish are fondly remembered. To my knowledge, there’s never once been any serious talk of the band reuniting, but a steady flow of additional Jellyfish material has found its way to the marketplace, thanks to the efforts of Omnivore Recordings. A live-for-radio set (Radio Jellyfish ) and instrumental mixes of both albums (Stack-a-Tracks ) have been released in the last few years. But (likely owing to the expense involved and the limited commercial appeal) there hasn’t been a reissue of that Fan Club box set.

What Omnivore has done instead is to comb through the eighty(!) tracks on Fan Club, collect the ones relevant to Bellybutton and Spilt Milk, and then create new reissues of each of those two albums, appending the original discs (now remastered) with bonus material that fills the first disc of each to capacity, and a second disc as well.

The contextual placement of live and demo versions of tunes such as “The King is Half Undressed” makes sonic sense for listeners, and it makes for a better listen overall than the solely odds-and-sods Fan Club. The well-known versions of the songs remain the definitive versions, though: it’s hard to top the chiming, upbeat arrangement and production of “Baby’s Coming Back.”

Live and onstage, Jellyfish were – as the live tracks illustrate – a much better band than one might expect. With (at least on the first album) the guitar skills of Jason Falkner, they managed the nigh-on-impossible feat of presenting Just Like the Record versions of complicated arrangements. And that’s no small feat if your lead singer’s the drummer (just ask Phil Collins. Or Chester Thompson).

Bellybutton is the more musically straightforward of the two original albums; it is, I’m told, the favorite of most listeners expressing a preference. I give the nod to Spilt Milk, an even richer tapestry of ideas woven into a seamless whole. Though perhaps my favorite individual tracks are on the first (specifically ‘Baby’s Coming Back” and “That is Why”), Spilt Milk stands up better as a start-to-finish album. Appended with bonus tracks that – among other things – tip the band’s hands as to their influences, both albums benefit from the added context.

As essential for the Jellyfish fan as Fan Club is (or was), these new expanded versions of Bellybutton and Spilt Milk earn the right to be termed definitive.

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Best of 2014: New Music, Part 2

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

Yesterday I surveyed four of my favorite albums of new music from this year. There was modern psych/garage; raw Americana; punk; and classic guitar pop aka powerpop. Today I present the second half of my “top eight,” and – perhaps unsurprisingly – these four tread similar territory in musical genre-land.

American Professionals – We Make It Our Business
This group’s smart-alecky powerpop strikes me as a cross between the high-energy guitar-based rock of Cheap Trick and the large-canvas, theatrical lyricism of The Tubes circa Completion Backward Principle. Like the latter, We Make It Our Business is high-concept rock’n'roll, tightly played and arranged. In a perfect world, this music would shift millions of units. The tunes are great, and the lyrics stand up to close scrutiny (and they’ll often make you chuckle).

Gramercy Arms – The Seasons of Love
Whether one views Gramercy Arms as supergroup, side project or both, there’s no denying the strength of the songs. Fans of Ben Folds Five and Elton John are all but guaranteed to fall deeply in love with this album. Timeless pop that is informed by the song construction of such greats as Carole King and (of course) The Beatles, The Seasons of Love is long on melody and – once again on my Best of 2014 list – the lyrics are really, really strong.

The Movements – Like Elephants I and II
A dizzying, sometimes intentionally unfocused collection of songs, this paired set (I and II are ostensibly separate albums) reveals its charms gradually. But once you allow it time to burrow its way into your consciousness, for you it may (like me) stand proudly among such albums as The Flaming LipsThe Soft Bulletin, Radiohead‘s OK Computer and Olivia Tremor Control‘s Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle. The Like Elephants albums sound unlike any of those, but the Swedish group’s music seems to flow from a like-minded sensibility.

Sloan – Commonwealth
When I first listened to Commonwealth, everything about it – the sequencing, the overall sonic approach, the production values, the songs themselves – made me think of The Beatles‘ self-titled 1968 double LP (the so-called White Album). Future listens – and there have been many, I’m here to tell you – have only reinforced that initial impression. Sloan often sound to my ears like Belle and Sebastian, and their all-hands-on-deck songwriting presence reminds me of Teenage Fanclub circa Thirteen and Grand Prix. The individual songs are delightful when chosen at random, but this is – here’s an old-school quality for you – an album that is best enjoyed in one start-to-finish listen. It’s also my pick for the best album of new music released in 2014.

Tomorrow, I’ll present a list of my favorite reissue/compilation albums of 2014.

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