Archive for the ‘pop’ Category

Jeff Daniels’ Fallback Plan, Part 1

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

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Matthew E. White’s Calibrated Subtlety

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Matthew E. White has been musically active for many years, including collaborations with Megafaun and the Mountain Goats and three albums with avant-jazz group Fight the Big Bull. But as an artist recording and touring under his own name, he’s a relative newcomer.

The story making the rounds is that White’s debut – 2012′s Big Inner – wasn’t really intended as an album at all. White recorded the collection of songs to demonstrate the capabilities of the Spacebomb House Band and his record label of the same name. That record caught on with critics and listeners alike, and effectively launched White’s career as a name artist. “I think that story has gotten lost in translation a little bit,” says White. “By no means is Big Inner a ‘demo’ in the sense that we didn’t work as hard on it as we might a normal album.” White makes it clear that the album is intended as “a purposeful and intentional personal artistic statement.”

The success of Big Inner did attract some high-caliber artists to the Spacebomb label, most notably singer/songwriter Natalie Prass. “I try to be successful both personally and with the Spacebomb team,” White says. “And I work pretty hard on both of those things.”

Born and raised in Virginia Beach, White grew up listening to pop music. “I listened to Chuck Berry and Beach Boys as a little kid, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden in middle school, and all kinds of stuff in high school: good and bad,” he recalls. He discovered jazz while in college, and subsequently “really went back, started at the beginning, and connected it all.” The result of his talent filtered through those influences is music that’s tough to describe. “If I have to say one thing, I say ‘soul’ or maybe ‘r&b.’ But I know that’s not quite right. Sometimes,” he laughs, “I say ‘gentleman’s psychedelia from the New World.’” I suggest that to my ears, he’s sort of a cross between Isaac Hayes and Berlin-era Lou Reed. He smiles and says, “I’m just going to start saying that. Perfect.”

 

Photo credit: Shawn Brackbill

On the just-released Fresh Blood, White builds upon the sonic foundation established by his debut. He concedes that he didn’t want to repeat himself musically. “But at the same time, I don’t believe in just changing variables and setting a completely different course. There’s a vocabulary that I’m working on, and I want it to develop.” On Fresh Blood, White sought to create an album that “contain[s] bits and pieces of old vocabulary as well as pushing the language farther into something new.”

On both records, there’s a lush, dense and richly layered texture, in part the result of the sonic effect of the large Spacebomb House Band. But White’s touring band is four musicians, including himself. “Obviously we have to adapt [arrangements] a little bit,” he concedes. “But to me, the songs are the centerpiece of the record. And in the live show it’s the same.” He prefers not to think of studio work and live performance as connected. “They are such different mediums that interact with people, budgets, administrative details and cultural context so differently. To make decisions on one based on the other limits both,” White believes.

Matthew E. White’s records feature strong hooks and melody, yet one word that comes to mind when hearing them is subtlety. “Well,” White chuckles, “the live show with the band isn’t so subtle, that’s for sure. It’s much more direct than the album is.” He goes on to say that the records’ subtlety is “less purposeful than it seems, actually. There are a lot of times when I think I’m being pretty direct and it’s taken as being much more subtle than I think it is. I think I’m just calibrated a little differently in that way.”

An edited version of this feature appeared in Mountain Xpress Magazine.

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The Corner Laughers Let the Music Do the Selling

Monday, May 18th, 2015

It’s a source of some mild amusement that when I Google “corner laughers,” the right-hand side of the resulting screen lists a number of the Bay Area group’s songs as dating from 1971. I’m pretty certain that at least two of the group’s number – bassist Khoi Huynh and his spouse, vocalist/ukulele player Karla Kane – weren’t even born in ’71.

But I can see where the mistake might have been made. There’s no doubt that the tuneful, upbeat, ba-ba-ba flavored music of the Corner Laughers has at least some of its roots the AM radio pop styles of the early 1970s. There’s certainly more to the group and their music than that: there’s a wickedly clever postmodern sensibility to their often-abstruse (but never obtuse) lyrics, and there’s nothing dated about the band’s crystal-clear production aesthetic. Their earlier two albums – most notably the discs recorded for and released on Mystery Lawn Music – set out and defined a sonic and lyrical style that was both distinctive and possessed of enough wiggle room to allow the group the freedom to move in many musical directions.

There’s a timeless sunshine pop sensibility to the group’s music. In the great tradition of groups like The Turtles, The Corner Laughers are never afraid to use “la la la la” as a lyric. And their music is very effective at conveying an upbeat feel, even when the lyrics are a bit dark, or a bit bent.

In my review of The Corner Laughers’ Poppy Seeds (2012), I characterized the group’s music as “earwigs,” that is, music that stays in the listener’s head long after the last note has faded away. And that quality is consistent on their upcoming release as well: the ten songs on Matilda Effect (out officially in mid-June 2015) continue in the tradition of catchy musical confections.

And the group’s approach has ukulele as a central component. The uke isn’t rock or pop’s most common instrument – not by a long shot – but it is enjoying a resurgence, thanks to the tuneful uses to which it is being applied. The Corner Laughers weren’t hitching onto some bandwagon by adding a ukulele player, though. “I just happened upon it,” Karla Kane says. “Khoi just had one laying around.” she picked it up and “started noodling a bit, and then learned a few chords.” Though until that time she didn’t play any instrument, Kane notes that she had already begun writing songs. “That was a long time ago,” she hastens to add. “I’ve been playing for awhile now.”

Karla goes on to note that the instrument’s small size and lightweight qualities make it great for using live onstage. Hers is amplified so it can be heard alongside the guitar work of KC Bowman and the rhythm section of Huynh and drummer Charlie Crabtree.

The group’s live dates sound a bit different than the record, because the studio recordings make full use of multi-tracking techniques to layer Kane’s multiple vocal parts. Onstage, Kane says that “Khoi and KC do a lot of the backing vocals. But,” she laughs good-naturedly, “they don’t always have quite the same range as I do.”

Not only are The Corner Laughers superb musicians, but they’re all serious fans of music. Not long ago they got the chance to work with Martin Newell. Kane believes that Newell should be “the most famous musician in the world.” And while the music that Newell makes – both under his own name and as Cleaners From Venus – has a more DIY aesthetic to it than the highly-polished Corner Laughers releases (thank producer Allen Clapp for that), Newell’s music shares a deep understanding of the value of melody and carefully-thought-out lyrics.

So what did the band learn by working with the Grand Old Man of DIY? “Playing a show with him was my ideal show,” Kane gushes. Her thought right after the gig: “What do I do now? I don’t know! That was my dream.” Karla has a special appreciation for Newell’s words. “He’s the best lyricist I know. He puts such care into making the lyrics count. He literally is a poet.” She goes on to praise the quintessentially British tone of Newell’s lyrics; those same values figure into The Corner Laughers’ music. Kane says that the tune she describes as an “insomniac’s lullaby” (“Lammas Land”) was inspired by – and written immediately after – the group’s performance with Newell.

Some of the group’s songs are lyrically impressionistic; others are about more defined subjects. “The song ‘Octavia A’ was written to be the theme song for my daughter,” Kane says (Like Kane and Huynh, drummer Charlie Crabtree and his wife became parents recently). “But you don’t have to know that, or know her,” Kane says, to enjoy the song.

There’s another band on the Mystery Lawn Music label, a group called Agony Aunts. And that group sounds similar (but not identical to) The Corner Laughers. “Khoi and I had been big KC Bowman fans,” Kane recalls. “But we didn’t know him at all; we didn’t even know that he lived close by. But through Facebook, we became friends with him. And Agony Aunts, when it started, was us and KC. That was before he joined The Corner Laughers.” Today the core lineup of both bands (the three mentioned plus drummer Crabtree) is identical, but the lyrical approaches differ. “Agony Aunts songs tend to be written by KC,” Kane says. And Agony Aunts songs are, “I don’t know…maybe a little more psychedelic,” suggests Kane. “A little more mysterious. They’re the Dukes of Stratosphear to our XTC,” she laughs.

Some of The Corner Laughers’ label mates – most notably The Orange Peels and The Paul & John – have launched crowd funding initiatives to finance some of their releases. But not so The Corner Laughers. The answer why may be as simple as this: they’re a bit on the bashful side. “None of us feels comfortable doing it,” Kane admits. “It’s a lot of work, and a lot of…salesmanship. We’re all a bit shy; I guess we’d rather let the music speak for itself. ”

Happily, Matilda Effect does just that. The album will be available on CD, MP3, FLAC and – a first for The Corner Laughers – good ol’ vinyl, on June 12.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 10

Friday, May 15th, 2015

Over the last nine business days, I’ve surveyed 45 albums of new, reissued, and/or archival music from a wide array of artists in jazz, prog, soul, rock and other genres. Each review has been exactly 100 words. Today I wrap up that series of capsule reviews with a quick look at five video releases.

Jack Bruce – The 50th Birthday Concerts
Though it’s long been in the archives of German television program Rockpalast, this set was presumably rush-released in the wake of Bruce‘s October 2014 death. A wildly varied set in terms of musical styles, this 2DVD document of 1993 concerts shows off the amazing versatility of the vocalist/bassist. Opening with a solo (acoustic) bass reading of J.S. Bach’s “Minuet No. 1,” switches to piano (with vocal) and then brings on supporting musicians (including multi-instrumentalist Gary Husband and Bruce’s sparring partner, drummer Ginger Baker.) All involved are in fine form as they tear through Bruce solo material and several Cream favorites.

Queen – Live at the Rainbow ’74
On the strength – or rather the lack thereof – of their 1979 double LP Live Killers, I decided that Queen were pretty dreadful live. Not Rolling Stones dreadful, but simply unable to draw upon the balance of refinement and energy that made their studio albums so rewarding. This set from a few years earlier (in other words, at the height of their powers) has set me right. Live sound reinforcement in the mid 1970s was primitive by today’s standards, but you’d never know it from this performance and recording. If anything, these versions are better than their studio counterparts.

Yes – 35th Anniversary Concert: Songs From Tsongas
Even a semi-hardcore Yes fan has to admit that they milk their repertoire pretty thoroughly. As Jon Anderson admits toward the end of this set, “We seem to get together so many times over the years.” This 2004 performance in Massachusetts was part of the Magnification tour, and featured the more-or-less classic lineup (Anderson, Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe, Alan White and Chris Squire) halfway through the final period they’d all make music together. A bit mannered – as are all Yes shows – it shows the five in full possession of their sharp musical faculties. An excellent show on Blu-Ray.

The Rutles – Anthology
Long before The Beatles got around to making their Anthology, some of the guys from Monty Python made a Beatles history (a “mockumentary” that predated This is Spinal Tap), All You Need is Cash. (They had help from one Hari Georgeson, as well.) It’s now legendary as one of NBC-TV’s lowest-rated specials ever broadcast (I saw it). This new Blu-Ray reissue greatly improves the audiovisual quality over earlier versions, and adds relevant bonus material (some earlier, some much later) to create an Anthology of their own. The packaging art alone is wickedly clever, as are the bits on the disc.

Various – A MusiCares Tribute to Paul McCartney
In 2012, the nonprofit organization MusiCares honored Paul McCartney as their Person of the Year. The gala event included a superstar lineup of artists paying tribute to Sir Macca. And while rock fans might be disappointed in the soft lineup (only Duane Eddy, Dave Grohl, Neil Young and Joe Walsh can be called rockers), the performances are nuanced and often quite good. Alison Krauss & Union Station win the night as they capture the beauty of “No More Loney Nights,” a highlight of the hour-long Blu-Ray. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, however, are in wobbly, old guy garage band mode.

See you next week as we return to one-a-day full-length reviews, features and interviews.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 9

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

Today’s roundup of capsule reviews focuses on reissues or previously-unreleased material by acts who came to prominence (or something approaching it) in the 1980s or later.

Old 97′s – Hitchhike to Rhome
In the 1950s, country and rock’n'roll were sometimes hard to discern form one another. Then they split into to two very different styles, only occasionally re-intersecting. By my count, country rock has had three periods of resurgence. The first centered around The Byrds. The second happened during the 1980s (Lone Justice etc.). And the third – which could be said to have influenced Americana – took place in the 1990s and featured Austin’s Old 97′s as its exemplar. Omnivore Recordings continues its intelligent digging into the past with this expanded (2cd) set built around the band’s excellent 1994 debut LP.

Willie Nile – The Bottom Line Archive
One of the observations made about 1960s rock is that owing to a glut of great acts, many very good ones fell through the cracks and languished in obscurity. Good point, but it happened in other decades, too. When I saw The Who on their mini-tour of the USA in 1980, Willie Nile was the opener. He never did quite make the big time, but he gigged pretty hard. Disc One features a great show from that same year. A second disc documents a 2000 show. Nile’s “Vagabond Moon” is a highlight of both. Nile sounds not unlike Roger McGuinn.

Game Theory – Real Nighttime
Among fans of the band, 1985′s Real Nighttime is generally considered their best album. With improved songwriting and excellent signature production from Mitch Easter, Real Nighttime is a great improvement over already-very-good earlier albums. As I’ve noted before, to my ears Game Theory often sound a bit like Let’s Active crossed with The Three O’clock and Sneakers; based on this album I’d add R.E.M.,the Bangles and maybe even a bit of Hoodoo Gurus to that list. Great company to be in, I’d say. The reissue features the original 12-track album plus thirteen bonus tracks, most of which are previously unreleased.

Camper Van Beethoven – New Roman Times
This one’s a bit of a head-scratcher. Camper Van Beethoven enjoyed their heyday in the second half of the 1980s, a time during which they were that decade’s answer to Kaleidoscope (not that many asked the question). After folding in 1989, they reunited with an idiosyncratic “cover album” of Fleetwood Mac‘s Tusk. Only then did they release 2004′s New Roman Times. It’s a strong return to form, and was released on the tiny indie Pitch-A-Tent label. It’s still available, and Amazon has used copies for 1¢. But Omnivore has seen fit to reissue the album, now with four bonus tracks.

Mike + the Mechanics – Living Years
Phil Collins took breaks from his gig with Genesis, venturing out to make popular solo albums. It was only reasonable that his bandmates would make similar moves. Guitarist Mike Rutherford had success of his own with Mike + The Mechanics. Their second album Living Years (1988) was a big seller thanks to the haunting title track, and led to successful touring that continued on and off into 2004. The group’s lineup featured mainstay vocalists Paul Young and Paul Carrack (Young died in 2000). This reissue adds a disc full of live tracks and a studio remake of the title tune.

Still more to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 8

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

Today, it’s five more capsule reviews. It’s great stuff all, dating from the 1970s.

Stories – Stories Untold: The Very Best of Stories
The, um, story of Stories in inextricably tied up with that of the Left Banke (“Walk Away Renee”). The music on this set from Real Gone Music draws not only for the band’s (rather slim) catalog, but from relevant solo work by Steve Martin (no, not that one) and Ian Lloyd. The only thing more remarkable than the quality of the music is that little of it charted. Sure, you remember “Brother Louie,” but do you recall “Mammy Blue”? I was nine when it briefly hit charts (#50) and hadn’t heard it more than twice in the next forty-plus years.

Todd Rundgren and Utopia – Live at the Electric Ballroom
This radio broadcast recording of an October 23, 1978 show in Milwaukee documents the entire show. Even if one doesn’t count the nearly countless live bootleg recordings in circulation, there are quite a few Rundgren/Utopia live sets available. But if this one circulated among hardcore collectors before now, it’s news to me. At this point in Utopia’s history, they had settled into their core quartet lineup. That said, the set list draws more from Rundgren’s superb solo catalog, with only a few Utopia tunes (mostly from Oops! Wrong Planet). Performancewise, it’s tight, though bassist Kasim Sulton drops an occasional clam.

Sweet – Level Headed Tour Rehearsals 1977
By this point in their career, Sweet had fought to extricate themselves from the strong grip of the ChinniChap musical empire; they had also sought to shed the bubblegum image that accompanied it. Their Level Headed album introduced a progressive-leaning sound that was equal parts Alan Parsons Project and hard rock; the result – exemplified in the hit “Love is Like Oxygen” – might be termed bubbleprog. This home tape of a rehearsal finds them with an ace keyboardist, and a sound that clearly presages the L.A.-based hair metal sound of the 80s and onward. Don’t hold that against them.

Gentle Giant – Live at the Bicentennial 1776-1976
Few progressive-era bands engender the sort of divided opinion that Gentle Giant can claim. One is either impressed by their technical and vocal skills, or completely put off by the decidedly European musical sensibilities of the UK group. This double CD set documents a July 3 show in Hempstead, NY. Sound quality is excellent, and the band is in fine form as they run through material from throughout their career. The set boasts no post-production fixing or fiddling. Sadly, the encore mentioned in the liner notes (a rare cover of Wilson Pickett‘s “In the Midnight Hour”) didn’t make it to tape.

Various – Local Customs: Cavern Sound
When the small Numero Group releases something, you can count on excellence. This set focuses on recordings made for the label in the period 1970-73. More varied stylistically than many Numero comps, this one features little-known bands who coughed up the relatively modest session fees. There’s soulful hard rock a la Rare Earth, but the real oddity is American Sound Limited‘s “Aunt Marie.” It shamelessly rips off the signature melody of Status Quo‘s “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” plus some of the lyrics and phrasing. And when they do it, they sound like a cross between Billy Joe Royal and BS&T.

More to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 5

Friday, May 8th, 2015

This week of capsule reviews spotlighting new music wraps up today with five releases that all came to me on vinyl. I love vinyl. Did I mention that I really enjoy listening to music on vinyl? Well, I do.

Anthony W. Rogers – Wrong…
When this record arrived in my mailbox, I thought to myself, “I know that name…”. Then it came to me. Through the 1990s and beyond, a network of hardcore fans collected and traded live recordings of Todd Rundgren and related artists. And Anthony Rogers was one of the scene’s leading lights. But on this new solo album, Rogers stakes out musical territory that supposedly draws on SMiLE-era Brian Wilson. The tunes on Wrong… have a distinct DIY/lo-fi ambience, occasionally recalling Wilson, sometimes Rundgren. But Rogers’ music nearly always reminds me of that most idiosyncratic of pop artists, R. Stevie Moore.

Harpoon Forever – American Flag EP
This four-song EP sounds as if it were recorded in somebody’s garage, on cheap equipment. But that lo-fi approached worked for Guided by Voices; it works here, too. Shifting time signatures applied to sturdy, vaguely folk-rocking songs might confuse some listeners, but the catchiness of the melodies and the fetching everyman vocals of guitarist/songwriter Alex Goldstein shine right through. A gauzy approach vaguely recalls Third/Sister Lovers era Big Star, filtered through the sensibility of someone whom (I’m guessing) digs prog as much as he likes Pavement. On this disc, Harpoon Forever is a duo; these days they’re a full band.

Lannie Flowers – “Best I Can” b/w “Back of a Car”
Lannie Flowers really has it going. He writes, play and sing fantastic, infectious pop tunes. And he’s quite consistent at it. Better still, he’s quite prolific these days. Just last year he released an excellent live set, Live in NYC. That collection presented Flowers and band in front of an audience that was as enthusiastic as it was small. This single’s b-side, a lovely Big Star cover, is taken from that set. But the a-side is another in Flower’s growing catalog of winning rocking pop tunes. To his tried-and-true mix he adds some simple but dramatic keyboard work. Another winner.

Alvin Youngblood Hart – “Helluva Way (For a Man to Make a Livin’)” b/w “Watchin’ Brian Jones”
An object lesson in the “never judge a book by its cover” category, this single features the customarily acoustic guitar playing Hart (of the South Memphis String Band) rocking out in a big way. If his greying beard and Gibson Flying V don’t provide enough cognitive dissonance, a listen to this blistering 45rpm single should do the trick. Taking his “Helluva Way” at breakneck speed, it’s garage punk at its finest. The flip is a low-and-slow bluesy romp full of sly, clever lyrics. Less than seven minutes with Hart will convince you he could succeed in damn near any genre.

TimLee3 – 33 1/3
Tim Lee was a key member of 80s alternarock underground darlings The Windbreakers. These days he shares the spotlight with his missus (Susan Bauer Lee) and drummer Chris Bratta. Lee’s old group’s twangy take on powerpop is built upon in his trio: Susan takes many lead vocals, giving the band an original sound reminiscent of Jason & the Scorchers crossed with X, but decidedly upping the hooks-and-melody quotient to Plimsouls level. The chiming “Photo Booth” is guaranteed ear candy; the sweeping, dusty grandeur of “Our Lady of the Highway” is breathtaking. “Daddy’s Girl” is a delightful c&w romp. Highly recommended.

More to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 4

Thursday, May 7th, 2015

My unrelenting trip through my CD backlog continues today with five more capsule reviews. These five are rock and/or soul and/or pop.

The Monochrome Set – Spaces Everywhere
Heroes of the first wave of new wave, The Monochrome Set formed in the late 1970s. Though they never achieved any measurable success in the USA, they’ve persisted. Lucky us. Their songs have a lot in common with that UK style pub rock. On their latest, they head in some new directions: on several tunes, lead singer Bid sounds uncannily like The Smiths‘ singer Morrisey. Guitarist Lester Square (great stage name!) turns in tasty lead guitar lick after lick, making Spaces Everywhere a consistently rewarding listen. And dig that Hammond organ and those female backing choruses! You should hear this.

Dina Regine – Right On, Alright
Soulful rocking with assured lead vocals is the order of the day on this, the debut disc from New York-based Dina Regine. None of that fancy Autotune nonsense – or synthesizers, for that matter – appear on Right On, Alright. Instead it’s an organic album with solid rocking rhythm section and beefy horn section. The disc’s winning opening track, “”Gotta Tell You,” was named one of Underground Garage‘s “coolest song(s) in the world,” but there are even better tunes elsewhere on the disc. The ominous “Can’t find You Anywhere” bears the hallmarks of a mature songwriter. Check this one out.

The Neighborhood Bullys – Callin’ All Rockers!
This five-song EP is the band’s second in a planned series of four releases, and features straight-ahead rock’n'roll tunes that all but compel the listener to follow along with fist-pumps, air guitar or air drums. Though they’ve worked with famed bubblegum/glam producer Mike Chapman before, the production aesthetic here doesn’t betray those origins. You’ve heard all of these riffs before – hundreds if not thousands of times – but this Los Angeles quartet makes every one of them sound fresh and new, and whets your appetite for the next EP release. Neat trick. I suspect they’re very good live, too.

Paul Kelly Presents the Merri Soul Sessions
Paul Kelly is rightly revered in Australia and beyond for his music. He writes and sings memorable tunes, and his catalog is deep, with twenty albums released between 1981 and the present. On his latest, he takes a radically different approach: while he wrote or co-wrote all of the album’s eleven songs (and play rhythm guitar), as a vocalist he’s nearly absent. Instead, vocal duties are variously handled by several singers (mostly women). The band assembled for this project, Merri Soul, has a very slinky Memphis vibe that is true to the classic Stax/Volt arrangement aesthetic without slavishly copying it.

BP Fallon – Live in Texas
I know my rock history pretty well, but even I didn’t know that BP Fallon was a recording artist. I’ve always known of him as a disc jockey and, well, personality. Apparently his career as a recording artists didn’t really commence until a 2009 collaboration with the ubiquitous Jack White. That track – “Fame #9” – kicks off this set. Fallon doesn’t play an instrument; guitar duties are ably handled by Joe “King” Carrasco. What Fallon does is recite is poetry/lyrics, occasionally breaking into a singsong that follows the music. It’s fascinating stuff, and the guitar fireworks add tone color.

More to come.

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Album Review: The Moody Blues — The Magnificent Moodies (Part 2)

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Continued from Part One...

The early Moody Blues certainly deserved better success than they found. Their lack of chart action was certainly a factor in Denny Laine‘s departure. But during his time with the group, The Moody Blues recorded enough material for another album in a pair of sessions (one day in July 1964 and then a string of dates between April and September 1966, with Denny Cordell in the producer’s chair). Those previously unreleased sessions form half of the new The Magnificent Moodies set’s second disc.

An almost painfully slow reading of “Go Now” serves to point how right a decision it was to record and release the faster version we all know. The bits of studio chatter are fun for those (like myself) who enjoy studio outtakes and such, and remind listeners that in those days, a band tended to play their live set, live in the studio, for recording sessions with minimal overdub.

A quite bizarre reading of the 23rd Psalm is one of this new box set’s great finds. Arranged by the entire group, the song finds Ray Thomas singing in a vaguely Elvis balladeer style while the band provides vocal accompaniment and some vaguely Merseybeat musical backing. Then the song lurches unexpectedly into an upbeat “negro spiritual” arrangement, replete with handclapping. Talk about stylistic left-turns; it’s easy to understand why this track was left in the can for decades, but it’s an interesting curio to be sure.

The BBC Saturday Club tracks remind listeners yet again that The Moody Blues were a tight, impeccably rehearsed outfit; the BBC versions differ little from their official counterparts. Clearly they were given little time in the studio for either situation (Decca or BBC), but their songs and arrangements didn’t seem to require more time or effort than was given/spent. “From the Bottom of My Heart” showcases Mike Pinder‘s piano and Thomas’ flute. While enjoyable, the group’s reading of Rufus Thomas‘ “Jump Back” is perhaps the least-convincing of their r&b excursions; likely part of their live set, no Decca studio version of the tune exists.

A pair of tries at Tim Hardin‘s waltzing “How Can We Hang on to a Dream” again lead (in context) to the later Moody Blues sound. And while neither “Jago & Jilly” nor “We’re Broken” rank as a lost classic, they do feature the closest thing to guitar riffage as one is likely to find in the early Moody Blues catalog. Those two tracks are also much closer to the rock-leaning side of later Moodies, having almost completely shed any rhythm and blues trappings.

Pinder’s barrelhouse piano is the centerpiece of his “I Really Haven’t Got the Time,” a chirpy number that wouldn’t have been out of place in the crowded UK charts of early 1967. “Red Wine” suggests what The Who might have sounded by had they been led by a pianist instead of a guitarist.

The set’s third version of “This is My House (But Nobody Calls)” is the best, both in terms of recording (it’s in stereo) and performance, and it wraps up the 2CD The Magnificent Moodies in style. The entire set is housed in an attractive, study and colorful box; both CDs are packaged in LP facsimile sleeves with color artwork. A 24-page booklet is stuffed with discographical information, informative essays and great photo memorabilia. A handful of reproduced fan club handbills and a large, foldout full-color poster will remind music fans of a certain age of rock’s golden days when every album seemed to come stuffed full of relevant (if extramusical) goodies. Taken as a whole, The Magnificent Moodies is an essential purchase for fans of British sixties pop, as well as for those who love the Days of Future Passed-and-onward lineup of the group but remain interested in from whence the group came.

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Album Review: The Moody Blues — The Magnificent Moodies (Part 1)

Monday, April 27th, 2015

Not long ago I interviewed Moody Blues founding member/flautist/vocalist Ray Thomas; much of our conversation centered around a new box set documenting the group’s pre-Days of Future Passed material. That music originally took the form of a UK album called The Magnificent Moodies (issued around the same time stateside as Go Now: The Moody Blues #1). The group also issued a number of non-album singles during that time, and – as was standard practice, especially for a group with the relatively high profile they enjoyed – they appeared on a number of radio programs in the UK.

There have been several reissues of The Magnificent Moodies, but none has approached the level at which the term “comprehensive” is an accurate description. Until now, that is: the new Esoteric Recordings release of The Magnificent Moodies collects the original July 1965 Decca album, adds fourteen non-album cuts from the era, and also adds an earlier, unreleased take of “Go Now!”

And that’s only the first disc. A second CD features seven additional studio outtakes (including, as Ray Thomas mentioned, material he doesn’t even recall having recorded), a dozen songs from various Saturday Club radio sessions, a mid-60s interview (also from Saturday Club) with Thomas and co-founder/drummer Graeme Edge (here’s my 2010 interview with him), a Coca-Cola radio spot, and an entire additional seven-song session the band cut with producer Denny Cordell. Pretty much the only audio missing from this set is the French radio appearances the Moody Blues did in the 1960s, but as Thomas told me, they couldn’t come to financial terms with the French (he used another word) that would secure rights to the recordings.

Taken as a whole, the new The Magnificent Moodies set paints a picture of a group very different from the one that would go on to worldwide success as a Mellotron-centric band fronted by vocalists Justin Hayward (guitar) and John Lodge (bass). The early lineup included neither of them. Instead, the early Moody Blues featured Denny Laine (later of Wings) on lead vocal and guitar, plus bassist Clint Warwick. Keyboardist Mike Pinder (here’s my interview with him) was the remaining member, another co-founder and one of three (with Thomas and Edge) who would go on to the “new” Moody Blues, much as the rhythm section of John McVie and Mick Fleetwood would form the basis of the old and “new” versions of another British group of the era(s), Fleetwood Mac.

Those early Moody Blues sides show a band very much in a American r&b vocal vein, the kind of group one would expect to see and hear in a club in a period-piece film like The Who‘s Quadrophenia, or perhaps on an episode of the Inspector Morse prequel Endeavour. Their torrid run-through of James Brown‘s “I’ll Go Crazy” doesn’t attempt to ape the original, but it’s more soulful than The Blues Magoos‘ version from 1967. And though it was their biggest early hit, “Go Now” is a cover, too; the original was cut shortly before by Bessie Banks (wife of the song’s composer) in the USA.

It’s only on Side Two of that original album that one finds any group-penned tunes, making clear the fact that – at least in those early days – The Moody Blues métier was the interpretation of rhythm and blues classics and obscurities. And that they did quite convincingly.

That second side introduces the Laine/Pinder writing team, and tracks like “Let Me Go” display a softer, more refined sound that presages the later lineup’s sound in some subtly yet important ways. The layered vocals of Pinder and Thomas are shown to more nuanced effect, and Ray Thomas’ flute playing is showcased. The songwriting is solid, but nothing of the sort that would give Lennon/McCartney a run for their money; “Thank You Baby” is not unlike the kind of thing Graham Gouldman was writing for The Mockingbirds at the time.

The singles (A’s and B’s) that fill out the first disc of the new expanded The Magnificent Moodies are quality as well, and none would have been out of place on the album proper. They’re mostly covers as well, but the highlight among these is an original, “Lose Your Money (But Don’t Lose Your Mind)”. Soulful tracks like “Steal Your Heart Away” stay safely in that modified r&b style in which the band traded. The band cut a credible reading of a song first recorded a year earlier by Kai Winding and His Orchestra. That b-side, “Time is on My Side,” was of course a hit for another better-known British band (albeit eight months later).

By 1965, however, The Moody Blues singles released would consist only of original compositions, all from the Laine/Pinder writing team. These songs reflect a more mature songwriting style, one that seems to attempt to continue the r&b flavor of the group’s earlier material while moving past it in some ways. Production values increase, and while tunes like “Boulevard de la Madeleine” may have seemed a stylistic left-turn in January 1967, viewed in the context of the group’s later material, they make perfect sense. In fact, those songs suggest that had somehow the original lineup (or at least Denny Laine) continued as the Moody Blues, they might have made music not altogether unlike what the Hayward/Lodge-led group did. (A listen to the post-Moodies Denny Laine String Band provides further evidence supporting this idea.)

Meanwhile, the melancholy yet somehow goodtiming “This is My House (But Nobody Calls)” sounds very much like the kind of thing that would have scored on the charts in ’67 London. (It’s a bit reminiscent of The Beatles‘ “Another Girl” from their Help! soundtrack.) Alas, neither it nor the group’s three subsequent singles did much (“House” did scrape the bottom of US charts, briefly reaching #119 in 1967).

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