Archive for the ‘pop’ Category

Best of 2014: Videos

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

With 1/1/15 mere days away, it’s time for Musoscribe’s annual best-of lists. These are – of course — wholly subjective, and reflect my tastes and interests. I viewed quite a few music-related DVDs this year, and while quite a few were excellent (and none truly awful), four stood out. As it happens, all four concern music of the past, but remain sturdily tooted in the present.

Ian Anderson – Thick as a Brick Live in Iceland
I’ve written a fair amount about Anderson and Jethro Tull on this blog, and have interacted with the man in two (#1 and #2) wide-ranging interviews. This DVD documents a night on his celebrated and successful 2012 tour. I’ve written about Anderson’s strengths and limitations; this tour (and by extension, this DVD/Blu-Ray) makes the best of the former and deal creatively with the latter. Recommended. (Watch for my review of the four-disc WarChild set, coming soon.)

Money for Nothing
This fast-past documentary is tailor-made for the ADD generation: thought it’s packed with images, ideas and information, nothing stays on the screen for more than a few seconds. As such, it suits its subject matter: the rise and fall of the music video as an artistic and commercial medium – exceedingly well.

I Dream of Wires
Speaking or rise and fall, this documentary – presented in a “hardcore edition” that appends the original film with hours of fascinating bonus material – charts the history of the analog modular synthesizer. The film had a premier at a recent Moogfest here in my hometown of Asheville; it received a warm welcome. If you’re at all interested in the electronic side of music where technology and creativity meet, you’ll enjoy this. Note that because of the breadth and depth of its subject, the DVD is best digested in small portions.

The Doors – R-Evolution
These Los Angeles-based legends might not be the first 60s rock act one thinks of when considering intelligent use of the visual medium, but since both Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek had backgrounds in film, it makes sense. A passel of rare video clips show the group wriggling free of convention and creating enduring audiovisual works of their own. The quality of the clips here is nothing short of amazing.

Stay tuned for best-of lists covering 2014′s music-related books; concerts; archival and compilation releases; and new music.

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Album Review: Willow Willow — Listening to Music

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

Sweetly jangling pop that recalls everything from Let’s Active to Lesley Gore to The La’s to The Cranberries (especially them) to The Roches, Listening to Music benefits form its fetchingly homespun production vibe and understated approach. The crystalline vocal harmonies of Jessica Vohs and Miranda Zeiger are Cowsills-level swoonworthy. If this music doesn’t make you smile at least a little bit, you’ve got a heart of stone. Innocent but just the rock side of what the British call “twee,” this self-released effort deserves a wide hearing; in a just world this duo would hit the big time. Find this album.

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Psychedelic Resurrection: The Blues Magoos Interview, Part 2

Friday, December 12th, 2014

Continued from Part One

From a commercial standpoint, The Blues Magoos were largely over after the lackluster chart performance of their third LP. “After Basic Blues Magoos, we broke up, because we knew we were banging our heads against the wall,” Peppy Castro admits.

But the band did continue, albeit in an unusual fashion. With a new lineup – only Castro would remain – and a wholly different musical approach, a reconstituted Blues Magoos would release Never Goin’ Back to Georgia (1969) and 1970′s Gulf Coast Bound. Castro is pleased to be given the opportunity to discuss those rarely-considered (and long out of print) albums.

“First,” he stresses, “you have to understand that at that point in time I was only nineteen years old. My father was born in Bogotá, Colombia. He died when I was five months old, so I never got the history or the culture of being half Colombian. So I decided that if I was going to continue to do music, I wanted to do something new for myself. I started putting a band together to explore, to be the first band to come out with ‘Latin rock.’ And at the time, the only things I had access to were offices with The Blues Magoos’ managers, and they offered me a place to rehearse and stuff like that.”

“My idea was to come out with a whole new band, in that style. But when they saw what I was doing, they came to me and said that they – the managers – owned the name The Blues Magoos, and that they had signed the name to ABC Dunhill. So if I wanted to, they wanted me to continue as The Blues Magoos. They were ready to offer me a deal.” Their strategy would be to take Castro’s new project and leverage it with a “brand” that was already known.

But, Castro says, “I turned down the deal. This wasn’t The Blues Magoos. But what I realized – at age nineteen – is that what I’d have to do is go back to square one with this entirely new entity. And that was going to take an awfully long time to get it off the ground. And I was worried that it might take so long, that the style might come and go, and it wouldn’t be fresh any more.” He recalls what he told himself at the time: “If I take the deal, at least I can still be productive. I can still move along as a talent, as an artist.” So he reconsidered, and took the deal.

Complicating matters, the remaining members (or ex-members, depending on how one views the complicated circumstances) regrouped and released a single of their own, “Let Your Love Ride” b/w “Who Do You Love,” on a small west coast record label, billing themselves as – you guessed it – The Blues Magoos. The inevitable round of legal wrangling quickly ensued. As a result, Castro says, “the release of Never Goin’ Back to Georgia got tied up for nine months. And in that time…Santana came out! I had the record cut, covered, and in the can.” Castro’s plan of premiering the first Latin rock band were preempted by the Carlos Santana-led band’s debut. Eventually Never Goin’ Back to Georgia came out, with the Blues Magoos name on it. Old fans were confused, and as for new fans, there weren’t many. (“It got tremendous airplay in New York,” says Castro.) He pauses. “Looking back on it now, I would have done things differently.”

But Castro makes clear that he can’t – and doesn’t – complain. “I’ve been able to make music on my own terms for fifty years,” he points out with pride. And part of those terms led to Castro reforming The Blues Magoos (with some original/early members plus some younger, new ones) in 2008. He felt the time was right. “There’s a feeding frenzy in modern culture,” he says. “Every week there’s a new this, a new that. Our society is so fast-paced, it’s like a runaway train. You never know where the fashion is going to go, what’s going to hit next. But when push comes to shove, people still look back upon the [1960s] era as being the most potent, the most intense. A new generation comes along every ten years, rediscovering the genre.”

And a key part of that genre was always the visual presentation. The Blues Magoos were famed for their Diana Dew-designed electric suits; the lights grew brighter as the music’s intensity increased. So what ever became of those suits? “God knows what the others did with theirs,” Castro laughs. “But I still have mine. It’s in ratty condition.” He mentions that at some point he might donate it to the Hard Rock Café; I strongly suggest he send it instead to a place of honor at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. “One of the suits,” Castro chuckles, “was put into a time capsule by the Smithsonian Institute. It’s there as an example of 1960s art. It’s to be opened in the year 2065! Hopefully my kid can go see it then with his grandkids, and tell ‘em, ‘Hey, here’s your great-grandfather.’”

“For me to bring back the Magoos,” Castro says, “this is like my high school reunion! I left home at fourteen, and I never went through high school. Now, I’m retired; it’s not about money. This is about a love for the genre, and it’s nice to spend a moment going back to the era that was the most exciting time in my life.”

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Psychedelic Resurrection: The Blues Magoos Interview, Part 1

Thursday, December 11th, 2014

Forty-six years after the release of their last psychedelic-flavored release, New York City-based rockers The Blues Magoos have returned with a new album, Psychedelic Resurrection. From its multicolored fractal cover art to its song titles (“D’Stinko Me Tummies on the Blinko”), it’s clear that the band’s original approach – slightly goofy lyrics paired with aggressive psychedelic melodies – remains largely intact. Prime-era Blues Magoos members Peppy Castro (vocals, guitar), Ralph Scala (lead vocals, keyboards) and drummer Geoff Daking return, and original members Ronnie Gilbert and Mike Esposito make cameo appearances on the disc. Psychedelic Resurrection is a mix of new songs and new versions of Blues Magoos classics, including the Top 5 smash single, “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet.”

Those early Blues Magoos albums were products of their time; the studio tracks have a distinctive mid-sixties vibe to them. The songs on the group’s new Psychedelic Resurrection album maintain some of that vibe, despite nearly everything having changed about recording music in the years between Electric Comic Book and 2014. Peppy Castro says that “it’s probably easier” to capture the band’s intended sounds now than in the old days. “Because, for example, in the old days, editing was a nightmare!” He laughs. “You had to get the razor blade out. But I love challenges – I love solving problems – so for me, the goal has always been ‘How close can I get to the warmth of analog?’ I’m one of those guys who, as the technology was advancing, didn’t want to be left behind the curve. So in embracing digital technology, I bring with it my wealth of history, my experience of being in the business for fifty years. It’s a fun journey.”

The band’s first two albums were very successful, and both Psychedelic Lollipop and Electric Comic Book (both 1967) are exemplars of the psychedelic rock/pop style. As far as the production techniques employed on those records, “that was not so much our call,” Castro says. “We were involved in the music. We found our niche and decided, ‘Okay, this is the direction for the band.’ We were so inside the music; constantly writing, working like gears in a machine. As far as us being concerned with things like ‘panning,’ we didn’t get into that stuff so much on the first two albums. It was all very new to us. We went in, we tracked the songs, we overdubbed the vocals, and that was it.”

At the time of its release, many acts whose songs appeared on Lenny Kaye‘s 1972 2LP compilation, Nuggets, had no idea that their tunes were on that record, or that the record even existed. It certainly had a role in instigating the psychedelic rock revivals of the 1980s and beyond. The Blues Magoos’ “Tobacco Road” is right there on Side Two. “Somebody had told me about it,” Castro recalls. “But I didn’t know Lenny then. I always thought it was a nice thing, and I didn’t pay it any mind. Now I look back on it, knowing Lenny, and I see just how influential the record was. With the perspective, I see it, but at the time, it was just, ‘Oh, that’s good.’ I blew it off; I thought of it as, ‘We’re in the 99¢ bin now,’ like it was a sort of K-Tel thing.”

Castro reflects upon the culture that brought forth the music of bands like the Blues Magoos. “Between the [Vietnam] war, and flower power, and half of the United States getting stoned and dropping out, the music was so creative. Every band was entirely different! It was just an amazing explosion of creativity.” During that time, The Blues Magoos were successful enough to be asked to appear on several TV shows of the era; the “Pipe Dream” clip from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour is a classic. Many of those variety shows brought together edgy rock groups who sang – if a bit obliquely – about drugs and whatnot, right alongside what most would consider “square” performers.

“Life was so simple then, in comparison to today,” Castro observes. Cable TV didn’t exist; FM radio was just starting up.” Pop culture was more homogeneous. “And we we thrown onto those shows,” he says, “for the kids. Variety shows were for Mom and Dad and the family…’And now, for the kids, here’s the Blues Magoos!’ So it was taken in stride. In those days, if you had a hit record, these were the normal things that got done. But it was like being in a dream state for me, because I was so young.”

The Blues Magoos’ third release, 1968′s Basic Blues Magoos, is held in high regard among critics today. But it failed to chart at all. “I don’t know if a lot of people know this,” Castro says, laying out the circumstances that led to its commercial failure. “’Pipe Dream’ was the first single from Electric Comic Book. In those days – and nothing’s changed, really – the conglomerates owned the business. And every ABC-owned or -syndicated AM station – that means hundreds of radio stations, all over the United States – banned the record. Because they were afraid of the drug reference.”

It mattered little that “Pipe Dream” carried what was effectively an anti-hard drugs message; that nuance was lost on the suits. “We thought we were putting a positive message on it,” Castro says, “but purely because of part of the lyrics, WABC banned it.” And other stations quickly followed. “We lost the record, basically,” Castro sighs. “Mercury panicked, and they flipped the record, making ‘There’s a Chance We Can Make It’ the new a-side. And then that went Top 40. But once we got banned by ABC, the vultures were out. There was a smell of, ‘These guys got one hit, but their second one didn’t make it. So…’ And thus came the one-hit-wonder tag upon the band.” Going forward, Mercury’s promotion of The Blues Magoos was halfhearted at best.

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Album Review: Various Artists — Right Now

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

I’ve observed before that Fantastic Voyage makes full advantage of the unique copyright/licensing laws as they exist in the UK; in the United States, putting together a package such as Right Now would be prohibitively expensive, and also certainly a money-losing proposition.

As it is, once again we have Fantastic Voyage to than for compiling a peerless set of music, classic recordings that have long gone unheard by all but the most fanatical crate diggers. The mighty Atlantic label – along with its Atco subsidiary label – was home to some of the best rhythm and blues, soul, rock and roll, and blues artists. And while the most well-known cuts are easily found in myriad places, there are countless “deep cuts” that are rarely heard. Many are excellent songs, and quite a few are of great historical import. And on this new 3CD set, 86 of them are collected in best-available sound quality.

Most of the Atlantic r&b greats are represented here: Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, and The Isley Brothers are just some of the artists found on this set. But it’s the lesser-known cuts that surprise and delight the most. So while Joe Turner‘s seminal rock’n'roller “Boogie Woogie Country Girl” is here in all its influential glory, so is the amazing “Right Now” by – of all people – Mel Tormé. Electric piano and combo organ are out front in a Cuban-flavored tune that – like so many of the tunes here – sounds like the missing link between rock’n'roll and pretty much any other earlier style you’d care to name.

Jimmy Ricks & The Raves‘ “Daddy Rollin’ Stone” features an out-front baritone vocal and a swaggering, vaguely sinister air. Also here is Richie Barrett‘s “Some Other Guy,” a relatively obscure tune that influenced a Hamburg, Germany bar band called the Beatles (a decade later, John Lennon nicked the song’s intro for his own “Instant Karma”).

The lyrical themes here are pretty much the usual stuff: love, betrayal, sex. The Coasters‘ “I’m a Hog For You” is a random and delightful example. Making things more interesting than they might otherwise be, Right Now compiles well-known artists doing lesser-known versions of of well-known tunes: so we have The Top Notes (instead of The Isley Brothers) doing “Twist and Shout,” and Stick McGhee & His Buddies‘ 1950 recording of “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show” (instead of any of the successful cover versions). Joe Turner makes Lead Belly‘s tune absolutely swing with “Midnight Special Train.”

Lois Wilson‘s detailed liner notes provide the context so often missing in lesser compilations: every tune is noted with its Atlantic or Atco matrix number, release date and composer. Wilson also presents brief, concise background (when available) on the artists and songs included.

Right Now focuses primarily on the 1949-1962 period, in part because of (once again) the UK’s approach to copyright of older material; in practical terms, this might mean that a decade from now – if we’re very lucky – Fantastic Voyage might put together some amazing compilations of Atlantic material from the Muscle Shoals/Stax era.

Fantastic Voyage has released a raft of worthy historical compilations, but Right Now may well be the very best from among them.

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Album Review: A Kool Kat Kristmas, Vol. 2

Friday, November 28th, 2014

It’s that time of year again. In the USA, at least, the days after Thanksgiving is the unofficial kickoff of the Christmas season. And every year about this time, I find at least one Holiday-themed CD in my inbox. This year the disc of note is A Kool Kat Kristmas, a thirteen-track compilation of Christmas-themed tunes fomr as many artists, most of whom fall into the powerpop genre.

As is always the case, Christmas music can easily fall into the maudlin, overly gimmicky, or just plain awful. When it works – when something appears that’s worth adding to the Holiday section on one’s CD shelf – it’s pretty good. A few wonderful but lesser-known tunes are out there: Bill Lloyd‘s “Under the Christmas Tree” is a favorite that most people have never heard.

And for the most part, the tunes on A Kool Kat Kristmas work. The general approach that these artists use is to take a sturdy pop melody, add some bells, and put a Holiday-themed lyric to it. If you didn’t understand English, little beyond the tubular bells would hip you to the fact that these songs are about Christmas and such.

For the most part, the bands here don’t sound all that different from each other; listen casually – -while you’re doing other things, like, say trimming your Christmas tree or writing a review – and you might not even notice that the disc is a various-artists set until you’re several cuts into the album.

Taken as a compilation of powerpop, it’s quite nice: not the most remarkable collection ever, and certainly no Yellow Pills, but sturdy and enjoyable.

Several of the acts found here have had their music covered here on Musoscribe: The Bottle Kids, The Genuine Fakes, Dan Kibler, Stephen Lawrenson, Martin Newell – and not surprisingly, their offerings are among the strongest tunes on this disc.

The Bottle Kids’ “Christmas in Paris” actually includes an actual guitar solo, something few of these yuletunes bother with; it’s a gentle number that perhaps fits with the theme of the Holidays better than some rave-up powerpop tune might do. The Genuine Fakes’ “You Always Come Back Home” is a plaintive, elegiac number, and its gently unfolding arrangement is a highlight of the set.

The Connection‘s “Poor Boy” has a goodtime jug band feel reminiscent of Sopwith Camel or Spanky and Our Gang. And though a good half of the tunes on the disc lean toward the melancholy, Shake Some Action up the uptempo jangle quotient for the wonderfully Byrdsy “Christmas in the Sun.” In fact they may have done themselves a disservice by penning a song destined only for play around the holidays; it’s perhaps the best song on the entire set. And save for the goofy “ho ho ho” that kicks it off, The Tor Guides‘ “Beatles Vinyl” is a winner: chiming guitars and warm vocal harmonies provide backing for a sentiment most everyone can agree upon.

Stephen Lawrenson’s “Glad It’s Christmas” is perhaps the disc’s most musically ambitious number; the acoustic guitar runs are reminiscent of Led Zeppelin III. Wyatt Funderburk‘s “Cold” suggests Brian Wilson‘s musical approach. And while Martin Newell (or anyone, for that matter) would be hard pressed to top “Christmas in Suburbia” from his 1993 The Greatest Living Englishman, the stately and melancholy “Ghosts of Christmas” ends the disc on a memorable ­(if slightly eerie) note.

In keeping with the sensibility of the season, a portion of the disc’s proceeds goes to The Susan Giblin Foundation for Animal Wellness and Welfare. The album is available from Kool Kat Musik.

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Album Review: The Movements — Like Elephants II

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

Less than a year after releasing Like Elephants I (reviewed separately), The Movements came back with 2014′s Like Elephants II. And the two discs truly are of a piece: sonically related, thematically linked. In fact, with a combined run time of just shy of 80 minutes, The Movements could have combined the entire work onto a single disc. But having done so would have overstuffed the resulting work: by the time one got to the material that comprises Like Elephants II, that music’s charms might not get the attention and appreciation they deserve.

The reverbed guitar lines that accent “Six Feet Under” give the tune an epic, cinematic feel; the tom-heavy drum work creates a feeling of anticipation, and the George Harrison-styled slide guitar (often in unison with single-note organ lines) fits perfectly. “Stolen Love” delivers on the promise of more minor-key psych-pop. “Icecold” is a companion piece to Like Elephants I‘s “Shady Wind.” The insistent beat of “Give it to Me” heightens the tension quotient.

“Everybody Needs Something” is space rock a la Nektar; notes are often left hanging in the air, and the spaces between them create drama. It’s a sort of Shadow Morton meets The Lords of the New Church, with psychedelic guitar for extra effect. And after all that, a comedown is necessary: “Redemption” serves that purpose expertly. Its deliberate pace is adorned with keening pedal steel, gentle electric piano and a fragile lead vocal.

With that song’s countrified feel fresh in your mind, the mania of “Yesterday, Now and Forever” feels like cowpunk crossed with psych rock: space cowboy music, perhaps? “Like Elephants II” has little in common with the previous disc’s title track; the droning organ sounds more like a harmonium here, and the ghostly guitar accents take on a vaguely North African feel.

But then it’s back to hypnotic guitar pop, with densely layered vocal harmonies for “Winter’s Calling.” An extended vamp provides a sympathetic bed upon which the band adds an extended, wah-wah guitar solo. As the track unfolds, the arrangement heads father toward the outer reaches of psychedelia, with what one might call structured jamming.

Like Elephants II closes in similar fashion to its companion disc. “What Would Happen If I Tried” rewards those who’ve hung on for the full ride. Heavily distorted organ lines are joined by acoustic guitars and hand-held percussion. A vulnerable lead vocal enters, joined by swooning guitar figures, all atop a simple, two-chord foundation. The instruments fade, leaving behind a heavily echoed repeat of the the song’s title.

I remember how pleased I was when I discovered Porcupine Tree around the time of the release of Fear of a Blank Planet: not only was that a great album, but the band already had a catalog nearly two dozen discs deep. So I had a lot of digging to to, and greatly enjoyed nearly all of it. I’m equally intrigued to explore The Movements’ back catalog, a collection of four or so albums dating back to 2005. It will be interesting to hear if the sound as presented on Like Elephants is present on their earlier work, or if the current approach is one they grew into. Meanwhile, look for Like Elephants I and II on my Best of 2014 lists, coming in late December.

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Album Review: The Movements — Like Elephants I

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

Every so often an album comes along that really pushes all of the right buttons with me. And as with most listeners, for me, what exactly those buttons are constitutes a very eclectic, nearly unknowable mix.

I recall an evening several years ago, when I arrived for band practice at the home of our bass player. He always had the stereo going ahead of practice, and he always had something interesting and unusual on the turntable. This particular evening, I entered the room to the ambient sounds of flies buzzing, crickets chirping, and a small, single-engine airplane whirring distantly overhead. And when the ambient section ended, the music itself was very appealing.

A select few of you might recognize my description of Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle, the 1996 album from Athens, Georgia’s Olivia Tremor Control. For me, that album – with its near-perfect balance of weirdness, found sound, hooks and melody – is an all-time favorite.

That all-time-favorite list rarely gets appended, but it looks like another album – or, more accurately, pair of albums – might join the ranks of Dusk at Cubist Castle, The Flaming LipsThe Soft Bulletin, Radiohead‘s OK Computer, and Teenage Fanclub‘s Grand Prix.

A shaggy Swedish group calling themselves The Movements have recorded and released a pair of albums titled Like Elephants I and II, and their mix of space rock, psychedelic and garage rock – all with a strong sense of melody and flow – is as strong a new-to-me set of tunes as I’ve heard in a very long while.

My mentioning Dusk at Cubist Castle is relevant beyond my love of the music: there’s a very similar musical sensibility at work on the Like Elephants albums.

The first Like Elephants album kicks off with “The Death of John Hall D.Y.,” and at first it sounds like a single-mic recording of a band practice. But a few measures in, the fidelity improves, the aural equivalent of a stage curtain opening wide to reveal the band behind it. Soaring vocal harmony and a country-inflected rock approach – sort of The Byrds meet Quicksilver Messenger Service meets The Flaming Lips – start the album in grand fashion. The lengthy “Boogin’” is built around a hypnotic riff based on repetitive guitar licks and a bracing combo organ figure. The song’s arrangement will sound familiar to fans of, say, Black Mountain, but the melodies within this tune are more memorable. The band does engage in some jamming mid-song, but the feel has more in common with Love or Jefferson Airplane than The Grateful Dead. Put another way: the band seems to know where they’re going.

With its ramshackle piano and acoustic guitar, the brief “Shady Wind” is reminiscent of early Neil Young, but with some delightfully psychedelic guitar that sounds as if it’s being played with an e-bow.

A sustained guitar note leads into the speedy “Two Tongues,” a tune with all the elements of a hit rock single, but (happily) rendered less commercial by its breakneck pace and wild, distorted approach. Like most everything on the disc, the song is deceptively simple on the surface, but quite complex (almost but not quite “busy,” in fact) when one listens more intently.

Like Elephants I is structured so that most all songs tumble into each other; when breaks do exist, even they seem on-purpose. It may not always be clear what The Movements are singing about – they’re from Gothenburg, Sweden, and their English is perfect, but they remain inscrutable – but they get the ambiance and emotion across without ambiguity. They rock hard, as one listen to the guitar break on “Great Deceiver” illustrates, but they do so with finesse. The four chords that form the foundation of “All the Lost” have been used this way in countless songs, as have the drum beats and the sinister-sounding organ lines. But while The Movements are conjuring 1966 in the tune, their music doesn’t feel as if it’s looking backward.

The lilting “David’s Song” has hints of Merseybeat, and its placement on the album makes plain that the group is capable of many different musical colors and shades; Like Elephants I is a deeply textured work. The title track feels like Led Zeppelin at their most Fairport Convention-influenced, and sends a reviewer such as myself to the thesaurus looking for different ways to tell you how hypnotic the song is. A pair of acoustic guitars — one six-string, one twelve-string – engage in delicate interplay.

Another longish tune, “Ingeting Kommer Ur Ingeting” may remind some listeners of Dungen, another Swedish group who has found inspiration in the past while always looking to the musical future. The song unfolds into a gauzy sonic swirl, but keeps a toehold on the ground; once again, no mater how far out The Movements reach, they never lose their way, never trail off into self-indulgence. And Like Elephants I closes with its finest song, “It Takes a Spark.” the tune induces a sense of déjà vu: you may swear you’ve heard the song before, but you haven’t. Its dialogue between shimmering, jangly guitar and combo organ provides lovely support as the band sings the song’s (and the album’s) most memorable line: “The first thing that you said to me / was the last thing on my mind.” And then it’s over.

Stay tuned: tomorrow I’ll review The Movements’ followup, Like Elephants II.

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Album Review: Midge Ure — Fragile

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

In my last review, I took a look at a new release from Colin Hay, an artist who came to prominence in the early 1980s with his group Men at Work. His latest album revisits the songs of those days, but not the sound. Today I’m focusing on another artist who first broke out in that same era; his new album features almost the opposite approach.

Like Colin Hay, Midge Ure was born in Scotland. But he remained in the UK for his musical career: his first musical endeavor of note (and historical importance) was as a member of Rich Kids, the 1977 group that also featured ex-Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock (aka The One Who Actually Knew How to Play). After that, of all things, he ended up replacing Gary Moore on guitar in Thin Lizzy.

Ure’s next ventures were the ones with which most people associate him: first, he rose to fame as guitarist and lead singer of Ultravox (most notably on their worldwide hit, “Vienna”). Next, in cooperation with cohort Bob Geldof (formerly of Boomtown Rats, later Sir Bob), he organized three musical mega-ventures: Band Aid‘s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” (which Ure wrote), the 1985 Live Aid concert extravaganza, and the 2005 Live 8 shows (during which classic-lineup Pink Floyd appeared in their only post-The Wall reunion). Ure also scored a UK #1 single with his solo cut, “If I Was,” in 1985.

That song appeared on Ure’s solo debut, The Gift. He followed that album up with other solo discs every few years, but the time between new releases seemed to get longer with each release. Not counting some expanded repackaged reissues and an all-covers disc, the most recent music from Midge Ure had been 2001′s Move Me.

In 2014, Ure finally got ’round to a new disc, Fragile. The new album – available on vinyl – has already charted respectably (#66) in the UK, but hasn’t done so Stateside. That’s a shame, actually, because Fragile is quite good. All of the songs are new (well, as in, we haven’t heard them prior to now), but Ure’s sonic palette has a decidedly 80s sheen about it.

Ultravox’s sound might be described as a deft mix of cold, bloodless synth work and melodrama; those seemingly opposite qualities somehow worked splendidly when combined, creating a grandeur and elegance rarely matched by other synth-centric groups of its era. (Human League, for example, never did anything with the wide sweep of “Vienna.”)

And it’s that sound – or an updated rethinking of it – which forms the sonic tableau of Fragile. Ure’s voice alternates between a yearning, impassioned, keening approach (“Are We Connected”) and a near-whisper (“Let it Rise”). If you can imagine a more emotionally-based, much less angry version of Gary Numan, that’s close to what Ure sounds like on Fragile. He plays all of the instruments, save a bit of drum sampling and keyboard work (the latter by Moby).

As strong and compelling as Ure’s voice is throughout, it’s the seven-minute-plus “Wire and Wood” that is the highlight of Fragile. Ure’s multilayered instrumental approach folds in all sort of goodies: nylon string guitar, crystalline acoustic piano, tympani, analog-sounding synth pads, even what sounds like a just-slightly (as it should be) out of tune Mellotron.

Fragile rarely rocks, and rocking isn’t its goal. Instead it’s a collection of ten floating, shimmering melodies that highlight Ure’s wide array of talents: singing, composing, playing, and arranging. “Become” is a bit reminiscent of The Dream Academy, moved along with a throbbing synth line that makes good use of the stereo spectrum. And on “Star Crossed,” Ure combines the synthy sound of Ultravox with some roaring, 70s-styled sustained guitar, and even a bit of surprise-it’s-not-annoying vocal effect work.

The lovely vinyl package includes a lyric sheet – remember those? – that also sports a brief note from Ure more or less apologizing for (or at least seeking to explain) the long wait between his last disc and Fragile. A really nice black-and-white 12×12 photo insert is a bonus; my copy didn’t include a download card.

On Fragile, Ure conjures the vibe of his music of thirty years past, but he does so in a way that sounds wholly modern. File Fragile right next to Zero 7‘s 2001 classic Simple Things in the make-out music section of your collection.

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Album Review: Colin Hay — Man @ Work

Monday, November 17th, 2014

If you’re a pop music listener of a certain age, you remember Men at Work. Smiling, photogenic darlings of early MTV, they broke through in that early period of the cable channel, a time when – because the major labels and artists didn’t yet take music video seriously – a raft of new pop acts broke through into the mainstream.

While Men at Work’s videos were fun, visually appealing slices of pop culture/product, it hurt not a bit that the band crafted infectious, upbeat tunes. And so it was that the Band From the Land Down Under scored a string of hits. But as it was with so many of the era’s stars, the group that introduced Vegemite® into the North American lexicon burned brightly on their first two albums (1982′s Business as Usual, and Cargo from the following year) and then faded as quickly; their third album (1985′s Two Hearts) achieved neither critical plaudits nor any sort of significant record sales.

But their songs were enduring slices of highly melodic pop. As recently as last year, I created a Pandora “station” for casual listening around the house. The station was built around the music of one of my most treasured bands, Crowded House. And though they came on the scene a bit after Men at Work, the New Zealand/Australia-based band traveled in sonic territory that (at least according to the complex algorithms that Pandora uses) isn’t miles away from what Men at Work did. So it was that several of Men at Work’s songs popped up on the “station.”

But the versions I was hearing weren’t the originals: instead, they were re-recorded, sometimes slightly rearranged readings from the group’s singer, songwriter and front man, Colin Hay. (Hay was born in Scotland, by the way, but yes, he’s the guy you think of when you picture Men at Work in your mind’s eye.)

These new versions, as it happens, were originally released on Hay’s 2003 album, Man @ Work (a self-explanatory title if there ever was one). Man @ Work was Hay’s eighth album; he began his solo career in earnest with 1987′s Looking for Jack, released not long after Men at Work had broken up. That string of solo releases is held in reasonably high regard by many critics, and the releases chart Hay’s gradual reinvention as a singer/songwriter (primarily on acoustic guitar), shedding his ostensible “new wave” image (though there was precious little about Men at Work that truly qualified as new wave). With Man @ Work, he applied his current, stripped-down style to the songs that had originally brought him to fame. The album does revisit a bit of his solo catalog, but for the most part, it’s about recasting the Men at Work hits and album tracks in a mold that’s less dated – no 80s drum sounds nor PPG Wave synth burbles here – so as to fashion the tunes in a more, shall we say, time-honored fashion.

Hay delivered these recast versions not only on Man @ Work, but – more crucially and with a much higher profile – also onscreen, with an occasional appearance on the American sitcom Scrubs (that show’s Zach Braff is a major fan of Hay’s work). Hay also toured with Ringo Starr‘s All-Starr Band in 2003 and 2008. Meanwhile, however, Man @ Work reportedly sold 100,000 copies yet clearly escaped the notice of many people who would have enjoyed it (read: me).

It seems that Man @ Work is a pretty fair distillation of Hay’s current musical guise as a solo pop-centric troubadour, and as such, the decision was made to reissue the album in 2014. Moreover – and again recalling the early 1980s – Man @ Work is now available as a vinyl release.

The 2003 CD release of Man @ Work featured thirteen tracks; the 2014 vinyl reissue (with the appended front-cover subtitle of [acoustic vinyl]) drops five tunes: “Looking for Jack,” “Storm in My Heart,” “Don’t Be Afraid,” and “To Have and To Hold,” all tunes from his solo career, and “Be Good Johnny,” one of the Men at Work hits. And then he adds a few new (or should I say, “new”) tracks, including a radio edit of “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You.” Another new track of note is a reading of Business as Usual‘s “Down by the Sea,” here featuring Hay’s longtime bandmate Greg Ham (the guy who played the flute in the tree, and lost a 2009 plagiarism suit for its riff). That track would be the last time Ham and Hay collaborated in the studio; Greg Ham passed away in 2012.

The resulting retooled album represents an improvement over the 2003 release: the hyperkinetic “Be Good Johnny” in particular was ill-served by being recast as an acoustic number. But overall, the 2014 collection of new-old and old-old versions of old-old-old tunes will remind listeners that those Men at Work songs had a whole lot more going for them than just their amusing, heavy-rotation video clips.

Hay’s voice has changed little in the decades since Men at Work, and though the acoustic-led versions (many of these songs feature full-band, electric backing, albeit with Hay’s six-string and voice out front) are more subdued and subtle than the Men at Work originals, that serves mainly to highlight how strong the melodic lines really are. If Hay’s versions sound like anybody else, their combination (most notably on “Down Under”) of gentle acoustic guitar and drum machines is very reminiscent of yet another antipodean act, Flight of the Conchords.

So while the point can be made (and certainly was upon Man @ Work‘s original release) that this album of greatest hits self-covers seems a dubious enterprise, the reworked versions present the songs in a manner that – not to overstate things – is timeless. Hay’s readings remind us of the quality of the songs, without forcefully conjuring mental images of a guy in a palm tree playing a wooden flute. For that alone, Man @ Work has value. That it’s a pleasant listen makes it even better. Though it falls somewhere short of being an essential purchase, it’s recommended to those who might think or say, “Sure, I liked those hits that Men at Work had back then, but I never listen to that stuff now.”

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