Archive for the ‘pop’ Category

Hundred-word Reviews for July 2015, Part 2

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

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

Lunatic Soul – Walking on a Flashlight Beam

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

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

Camouflage – Greyscale

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

Brainticket – Past Present & Future

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

Last Days of April – Sea of Clouds

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

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

Hundred-word Reviews for July 2015, Part 1

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

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

The Shoe Birds – Southern Gothic

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

Kurt Baker Combo – Muy Mola Live!

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

The Hangabouts – Illustrated Bird

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

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


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

The Super Fuzz – Super Famous

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

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

Album Review: The Volt Per Octaves — Joining the Circuits

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Long-lost Artist Biographies

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015

Way back in the depths of the Great Recession (2007-2009), one of my former writers (from my time as Editor in Chief of a now-defunct magazine I won’t dignify by naming) put me in touch with the good people at Amoeba Music. The California-based record chain had an ambitious plan: creating artist bios to serve as a resource on their website. Right alongside online ordering, visitors could click on an “Artist Biography” link, and read a concise bio about that act.

I was commissioned to do several dozen of these, but owing to that little worldwide financial debacle I mentioned earlier, the project was shelved indefinitely. And because the pieces I turned in before deadline were “works for hire,” they were the property of Amoeba. So I couldn’t publish them myself. Fair is fair.

Fast forward more than six years, to a couple of weeks ago. I stumbled upon one of those essays online! Turns out that – and I don’t know when this happened; could’ve been years ago – Amoeba has published five of the six essays I penned; most (but not all) of them include my byline.

If you enjoy any of the acts listed below, you might also find these short biographies an interesting read. For my part, I’m just happy that they’re available. All excerpts below ©Amoeba Music.

Badfinger
The story of Badfinger is one filled with tantalizing promise, modest success, and crushing tragedy. Initially viewed as something of an heir apparent to the Beatles’ legacy, a combination of naivete, emotional fragility and misplaced trust served to rob this quartet of greater fame; their brief time in the limelight (1970-1974) ended with the suicide of their primary songwriter, effectively spelling the end for this talented group. Despite the band’s tumultuous history, Badfinger has earned its place among the top tier of power pop groups. [read more...]

Blind Faith
The aptly-named Blind Faith is a textbook example of unrealized potential. Formed in 1968 from the remnants of other high-profile groups, this “supergroup” brought together some of rock’s greatest talents. The quartet issued one hastily-recorded album, did a quick tour and disbanded. In some ways, Blind Faith is no more than a footnote to the careers of three of its members. Yet in its lineup, approach and songs, the group possessed immense potential to push popular music in new and exciting directions. They made tentative steps in those directions, but left fans wondering what could have been. [read more...]

The Rutles
The mockumentary/rockumentary genre didn’t start with the 1984 film This is Spinal Tap. As far back as 1978, NBC-TV aired All You Need is Cash, a prime-time special that purported to tell the story of The Rutles, England’s “Pre-Fab Four.” Former Monty Python troupe member Eric Idle had conceived of the project years earlier, and the project’s musical director (Neil Innes from the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band) had already written and produced a few songs in a mock-Beatles vein both with The Bonzos and The Grimms. [read more...]

Spinal Tap
Rock music is often funny; rarely is it intentionally so. The 1984 film This is Spinal Tap was a faux documentary (“rockumentary” or “mockumentary”) that followed the exploits of fictional British heavy metal band Spinal Tap (“one of Britain’s loudest bands”). Like The Monkees before them, Spinal Tap went from being a fictional group to a real one; unlike The Monkees, Spinal Tap never had ambitions to be taken seriously. Turning every rock cliché on its head for laughs, Spinal Tap (the band and the movie) may be the most fully-realized parody in all of popular culture. [read more...]

The Tubes
The Tubes successfully combined rock, theatre and satire. Their biting combination of offbeat subject matter, complex yet muscular arrangements, and provocative presentation pushed the boundaries of rock like few before or since. Most modern visually-oriented acts owe a debt—knowingly or not—to the Tubes. [read more...]

The list of acts I was planning to cover for Amoeba (but didn’t) was long, and included Syd Barrett, Boston, Brinsley Schwarz, Junior Brown, Cheap Trick, Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Neil Finn, Fleetwood Mac, Flo & Eddie, Fountains of Wayne, Robert Fripp, Gentle Giant, David Gilmour, Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, Jellyfish, John Lennon, Nick Lowe, Nazz, Porcupine Tree, Procol Harum, Raspberries, Redd Kross, The Replacements, Rockpile, Todd Rundgren, Soft Boys, Ringo Starr, Pete Townshend, Traffic, The Turtles, Utopia, Steve Ray Vaughan, Roger Waters, The Who, Brian Wilson, Johnny Winter, and Roy Wood. As you might note from the links embedded in that last sentence, I’ve since written about many of them – and even interviewed several – on this site.

As of this writing, my completed-and-submitted biography of Moby Grape remains unavailable. Far be it from me to suggest that the (allegedly, I say) dastardly Matthew Katz has anything to do with its omission. I’m sure he’s a lovely man. Really. Honestly. Everyone says so.

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

Album Mini-review: The Veronicas — The Veronicas

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015

File Next to: P!nk, t.A.T.u.

When Australian twins Jess and Lisa Origliasso scored their first record deal, it made sense: though young, they had already established themselves as skilled songwriters. Their 2005 debut, The Secret Life of The Veronicas was packed with intelligent, well-crafted pop, with a decidedly rock-oriented sensibility. No pop tarts were they. But then came the sophomore slump: 2007′s Hook Me Up reeked of market analysis and packaging, and found the sisters mired in ill-advised electroclash arrangements. Next came a several-year battle with their label, a time during which the Origliasso sisters all but dropped off the pop landscape. But all has been made right with a label change and a self-titled album. “Sanctified” is all melodrama and heavy beats, and “Did You Miss Me (I’m a Veronica)” is a hip-hop flavored musical statement of renewed purpose. The Veronicas is a welcome musical rapprochement of modern production flourishes and solid pop songcraft.

An edited version of this review previously appeared in the Colorado Springs Independent.

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

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

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

Continued from Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BK: So…you’re right handed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to continue

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

Album Review: Todd Rundgren — Global

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

In one sense, the best artists are those who confound their fans. There’s certainly a place for the reliable musical act that releases pretty much the same album over and over again; entire careers have been built on doing just that, and it’s not without aesthetic value. “More of the same” is most assuredly not a bad thing in and of itself.

But the more intriguing creative artists are moving targets. They tire quickly of what they’ve just done, and are ceaselessly moving forward, trying new things. And that can make being a fan some pretty rough sledding. Perhaps no other currently-active musician better illustrates this situation than Todd Rundgren.

I won’t recapitulate his long and varied musical career-to-date here; for a tidy summary of his work from the late 1960s through 2004 – yeah, the essay needs updating – I’d direct you here. Suffice to say that Rundgren has made more stylistic detours than most anyone else you’d care to name. And the degree to which any of those tangential moves “works” will differ for each fan. When it comes to Todd Rundgren, the phrase your mileage may vary truly applies. For me, his Broadway-leaning material (1989′s Nearly Human and the related 1997 set Up Against It) is his least satisfying, though even those have some stellar moments. And I’m in the minority with my great admiration for the widely-maligned No World Order from 1992, a set in which Rundgren – temporarily rebranded as TR-i – takes on a sort of hip-hop-meets-Nine Inch Nails approach.

These days it’s fair to call the impossibly talented Rundgren a cult artist, though in a very real sense he’s always been one. His infallible sense of melody never fails him, no matter what musical context into which he places his music.

But cult artists don’t always have massive studio budgets, and that’s especially true of an artist who went bankrupt and sold off some of his recurring-revenue assets. Because of those realities – and, likely, owing to his actual desire to do things this way – his last several albums have been recorded on a computer, using the one-man-band approach that he (as much as anyone else) can be said to have invented.

After the stylistic missteps and dead end of Todd Rundgren’s Johnson (blooz retreads) and the truly wretched (re)Production (in which he essentially allowed other people to wreck his music), it was encouraging to hear Rundgren return to songcraft with 2013′s State. He did seem unnaturally interested in the latest trendy sounds and approaches, but he bent those forms to his own musical will.

And that’s pretty much what Todd Rundgren has done with Global. Continuing his 2004-and-onward practice of naming his releases with a single word (easier to remember than, say, The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect), on Global, Rundgren presents perhaps his best set of melodies since 1995′s The Individualist. In fact, some of these cuts (“Blind,” in particular) sound as if they could have been written around that time.

Rundgren has always been a thoughtful (as in full of thought) songwriter, and he’s long concerned himself with big ideas. As the title telegraphs, the songs on Global are no exception. But he does so with characteristic good humor: paraphrasing Albert Einstein‘s remark about God not playing dice with the universe, he throws in an aside: “Doesn’t take an Einstein” to figure that out.

Global has been described in some quarters as Todd’s EDM album. And I’ll admit, that description very nearly scared me off. I needn’t have worried. Many of the songs on Global do indeed have some very kinetic, dance-ready beats (for those so inclined); boing-boing synths; Cylon-sounding vocal treatments; and other “modern” trappings, but the songs themselves are very organic, and include more “real” instrumentation that we’ve heard on some of Rundgren’s other recent releases. Bobby Strickland’s sax work on “Blind” is nothing less than thrilling.

“Earth Mother” features guest spots by friends and associates including Rachel Haden (bassist extraordinaire from a fine lineage of musicians) Janet Kirker, Michele Rundgren (she was great with The Tubes back in the 80s), Jill Sobule, and Jeff Beck associate Tal Wilkenfeld. At first, Todd’s exhortations (“Can I get a shout from my sisters?”) feel a bit awkward, but it’s a groovy track. And old Utopia band mate Kasim Sulton shows up on “Skyscraper.”

Yes, it’s nearly all Todd all the time (save those guest spots) but if anyone can make that approach work – make it real, so to speak – it’s Todd Rundgren. Just when some might have counted him out – I nearly did after (re)ProductionGlobal shows that at 67 years of age, the man still has it. Whatever it is. Here’s hoping he keeps sharing it with his listeners.

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

Album Review: The Fad — The Now Sound

Monday, June 29th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album Review: stephaniesĭd – Excavator

Friday, June 19th, 2015

It’s rare that I review the music of artists based in my adopted hometown of Asheville NC. My reason is simple: I gotta live in this town. I feel it my duty to pull no punches when reviewing music, so if I perceive flaws or shortcoming in someone’s music, I’ll say so in my review. But when those people are my neighbors, my general approach is to take a pass, or (as I do quite often) write a feature/interview that explores the artist’s creative process and such, and leave the reviewing to others in other venues.

stephaniesĭd are the exception to that unofficial policy of mine. Both onstage and on disc, their music is distinctive, arresting, and compelling. I enthusiastically reviewed Starfruit in late 2011, and that album has worn well these ensuing three and a half years.

Excavator is the group’s latest, and it represents a darker, more contemplative and melancholy ambience than its predecessor. Ten of the eleven tracks on Excavator are written or co-written by Stephanie Morgan, an intriguing vocalist of uncanny expressiveness and range. On this record, there’s a kittenish, just-awoken quality to Morgan’s voice, and the arrangements – led primarily by Chuck Lichtenberger – are often spare, often using silence – the spaces between the notes, as they say – as the backing for Morgan’s vocalizing.

A sense of melodrama pervades the songs on Excavator. There’s a feel of regret and resignation that hangs upon the tunes. Yet despite the often minimalistic approach to the music, at times Excavator sounds like the exact opposite: the wide-screen arrangements of Polyphonic Spree.

When the band moves away from the heartbreak and melancholy – as they do on the uptempo “Battery Room” – they end up sounding like a postmodern rethink of Astrud and Joao Gilberto-styled Brazilian jazz, crossed with The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner-era Ben Folds Five. On “Baseball Player,” they sound a good bit like 2015 America’s answer to Radiohead (Morgan is on record as a big fan of Thom Yorke‘s group) circa Kid A. Halfway through Excavator, “Baseball Player” is the first instance of electric guitar taking a prominent – albeit exceedingly textural – role in the music. The album’s instrumental lineup (beyond Morgan and Lichtenberger) features upright bass, trombone, saxophone, bass clarinet, violin and cello.

As such, it’s difficult (not to mention pointless) to classify Excavator as a rock album. It’s certainly not jazz, though the group’s inventive reading of “My Funny Valentine” has elements of jazz, especially in Lichtenberger’s nimble piano work. It’s also not at all what one could call an immediate record; one has to immerse oneself in the music, or more accurately, allow the music to envelop the listener. That’s a tall order for a musical act to place upon a potential listener, but with Excavator, stephaniesĭd provide a handsome reward for the investment. Simply put, Excavator is worth the effort required to get into the current musical world of stephaniesĭd.

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