Archive for the ‘pop’ Category

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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November Hundred-word Reviews, Part 5

Friday, November 14th, 2014

Once again, it’s time for a run of hundred-word reviews. My inbox has been overflowing of late, and even after removing the material that I deem not worth my time (nor yours), I’m left with far too many discs to cover in my customary manner (500-800 word reviews). So herewith are twenty-five – count ‘em, twenty-five – brief, to-the-point reviews. The final set of five reviews looks at some contemporary artists – new releases – that fall loosely into the powerpop category.


Rick Hromadka – Trippin’ Dinosaurs
As leader of Maple Mars and then 75% of Ruby Free, Hromadka has created music characterized by his strong voice and knack for arrangements that straddle Cheap Trick power with an unerring melodic sense. On this album he goes the solo route, in the tradition of Paul McCartney, Todd Rundgren et al. In some ways, Trippin’ Dinosaurs is a musical travelogue through Hromadka’s influences, but filtered through his sensibility. In the same way that keen listeners can spot a “Todd chord” in Rundgren’s work, Hromadka’s compositional style is distinctive in its own way, and that quality ties together the disparate songs.


Ransom and the Subset – No Time to Lose
Opening with a red-herring melody and arrangement that sounds straight out of Pet Sounds, this album quickly detours into shimmering powerpop territory. With the clear, out-front vocals of songwriter/guitarist RanDair Porter, the twelve songs on this disc will appeal to fans of Tommy Keene. Most of the tunes rock forcefully, but never at the expense of nuance and melody. The crystalline production values allow the individual instruments to shine, and the propulsive melodies equally emphasize the beat and Porter’s lyrics. There’s a whiff of Fountains of Wayne in Porter’s compositional approach; it’s most evident on “Leaving With You.” Great stuff.


Sunrise Highway — Windows
Sunrise Highway is singer and multi-instrumentalist Marc Silvert plus, it seems, whomever else is around at that given moment. But Windows still sports a unified sound. Powerpop is unlikely to ever set the music world on fire, but within the modest confines of the genre, discs like this deserve a hearing. The bass lines – regardless of who’s playing ‘em on any given track – owe a lot to Paul McCartney circa 1966. Silvert’s slightly nasal vocals evoke the Buddah stable of 1970s bubblegum acts, but the strong rock-centric songs provide enough heft to keep that vibe from overwhelming things.


Lannie Flowers – Live in NYC
It sounds as if there were no more than about fifty people in the audience at The Trash Bar for this show. But one listen to Live in NYC and you’ll sense just how fortunate those few truly were. Flowers’ three previous albums — studio efforts all, must-haves all – presented his preternaturally strong melodic sense, and his unerring skill with a hook. The chiming melodies are intact onstage, as is Flowers’ inimitable Texas vocal twang. These live versions aren’t all that different from their studio counterparts, but a powerpop fan can never hear “Around the World” and “Circles” enough.


The Jeremy Band – All Over the World
Generally, I’m completely put off by crypto-religious music; it’s simply not my thing, as it generally gloms its not-especially-welcome praise message onto other styles in a shamelessly derivative manner. But when a writer/singer such as Jeremy Morris crafts lovely and irresistible, jangly melodies of this quality, I’m willing to overlook his lyrical subject matter. (See also: George Harrison.) Its seems The Jeremy Band is a mainstay of David Bash‘s International Pop Overthrow, and that right there is one serious trademark of quality. This is an anthology of the group’s live odds and sods, but holds up as a cohesive collection.

That’s it for this week-long round of 25 capsule reviews. Expect more, though; that inbox of mine never seems to empty.

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November Hundred-word Reviews, Part 2

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

Once again, it’s time for a run of hundred-word reviews. My inbox has been overflowing of late, and even after removing the material that I deem not worth my time (nor yours), I’m left with far too many discs to cover in my customary manner (500-800 word reviews). So herewith are twenty-five –count ‘em, twenty-five – brief, to-the-point reviews. The second set of five reviews looks at music from the 1980s: three reissues and two compilations.


Scruffy the Cat – The Good Goodbye
The music scene of the 1980s featured a handful of inventive, talented acts that bridged the gap between powerpop and what would come to be known as Americana (or “alt.”). The Long Ryders were at the rocking end of that continuum; Scruffy the Cat worked at the gentler, more melodic end. This collection of previously-unreleased material covers sessions that bookended the band’s career: a set of demos and live-in-the-studio material from 1984-5, and an Ardent (Memphis) session from 1989. You’ll either dig the group’s raggedy vocals or you won’t, but there’s no denying that they fit the music. Good stuff.


Game Theory – Blaze of Glory
Apparently, I’m not alone in having completely missed Game Theory when they were around. Though the group’s off-kilter brand of 80s powerpop certainly appeals to me now, there’s a modest, aw-shucks feel to most of the songs on the ironically-titled 1982 Blaze of Glory, crossing skinny-tie new wave aesthetics with quirky songs. Their debut album (like most of their subsequent output) has long been out of print; this Omnivore reissue adds a wealth of bonus material and the liner notes feature contributions from former members (leader Scott Miller passed away in 2013). Oh, and they remind me of Let’s Active.


The Dream Academy – The Morning Lasted All Day
Two CDs packed with 24 tracks might seem excessive for a retrospective on a group that scored a total of two hit singles (the lovely “Life in a Northern Town” from 1985, and a 1986 tune you probably don’t recall). They only released three albums. But their shimmering chamber-pop – championed by no less a light than Pink Floyd‘s David Gilmour – has worn quite well. The band’s original raison d’être was to create songs using unconventional (for rock) instrumentation. “The Edge of Forever” may not have charted, but it’s the best thing the band did, arguably superior to “Life.”


X – Under the Big Black Sun
By 1983, X hadn’t yet achieved a level of success that would translate into record sales. So they signed with Elektra and enlisted the production skills of The Doors‘ keyboardist Ray Manzarek. Manzarek may have seemed an odd choice: he wasn’t known as a producer, and his old band’s sound had little in common with the aesthetic of X. But it worked. Under the Big Black Sun presented the Johnny-and-June-styled vocal harmonies of John Doe and Exene Cervenka, along with the insistent punk drumming of DJ Bonebrake and Billy Zoom‘s wild-eyed rockabilly guitar. This reissue features five bonus tracks.


X – More Fun in the New World
By the time (1983) of this, their fourth LP, X had achieved some fame. Again working with Manzarek behind the boards, the band crafted a set of songs that sought to capture the excitement of their live show (the package’s reliance on live concert shots makes that goal more explicit). Overall, More Fun boasts a slightly more polished approach; the drums sound a bit “bigger,” and the whole affair feels a bit more radio-ready. Four demo tracks from the period (in remixed form) are appended to the original album’s thirteen songs. Still essential, as is Under the Big Black Sun.

15 more capsule reviews to come.

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November Hundred-word Reviews, Part 1

Monday, November 10th, 2014

Once again, it’s time for a run of hundred-word reviews. My inbox has been overflowing of late, and even after removing the material that I deem not worth my time (nor yours), I’m left with far too many discs to cover in my customary manner (500-800 word reviews). So herewith are twenty-five –count ‘em, twenty-five – brief, to-the-point reviews. The first five are reissues of albums originally released in the 1970s (with one late ’69 title slipped into the mix).


The Ides of March – Vehicle
You know the title song: it’s the one you were sure was by another, more well-known artist. “Vehicle” is the 70s answer to The Knickerbockers‘ “Lies.” And like Head East‘s Flat As a Pancake, hardly anyone has heard anything beyond the single. But the other tunes on this ten-track LP (newly reissued with four bonus tracks) show that this, er, Chicago-based band had a pretty wide breadth of style in their bag of tricks. Not all the tracks are horn-laden, either. Some interesting covers (CSN, Jethro Tull, Beatles) and some tasty lead guitar work make this album well worth re-discovering.


The 5th Dimension – Earthbound
After their string of hits, The 5th Dimension began to tire of their soul-meets-MOR formula. This album – long out of print – was an attempt to try something new. Commercially, it was largely a failure, yielding no hit singles and barely scraping the album charts. But this Jimmy Webb-produced album (with Larry Coryell on guitar!) is a surprisingly varied affair, with some gems waiting to be discovered. Though the opening title number is syrupy and mawkish, “Don’t Stop For Nothing” is some deep funk. And the group’s inventive reading of The Beatles‘ “I’ve Got a Feeling” is excellent. Groovy.


Ian Matthews – Stealin’ Home
Though he was a one-time member of Fairport Convention, on this solo LP – the most well-known of oh-so-many – Matthews is in soft-rock mode. The songs here sound like a softer version of Alan Parsons Project: flawlessly performed, arranged and recorded, full of catchy melodies. Nothing here rocks – not by a long shot – but nearly every track sounds as if could have been a radio hit in the late 70s (“Shake It” was indeed). Fans of that laid-back Southern California sound (see also: Fleetwood Mac, Stephen Bishop) will dig. A live ’78 concert adds nine bonus tracks.


Zephyr – Zephyr
The career of guitarist Tommy Bolin is looked upon as one of promise largely unfulfilled. His solo albums have some great moments, but remain spotty; his posthumous outtake collections show he had plenty of talent and ideas. This album – originally released in 1969 – is his earliest recorded effort. Though the group is sonically dominated by husband-and-wife duo David Givens (bass) and Candy Givens (histrionic, Janis Joplinesque vocals), Bolin does get the chance to strut his stuff on some lengthy numbers. If one can get past the vocals, Zephyr is a very good album in the Big Brother mold.


Renaissance – Scheherazade and Other Stories
Arguably, British “progressive” music has long drawn from a different set of influences than its North American counterpart. Renaissance built their music upon a foundation that was equal parts classical and European folk. With the five-octave voice of Annie Haslam as its central focus, the group made gentle yet ambitious music. Scheherazade remains the high water mark of the group’s 1970s output. This new reissue doesn’t add bonus tracks or liner notes; what it does instead is present the album in SACD format, an ideal move for a record that featured crystalline production (by the band themselves) to begin with.

20 more capsule reviews to come.

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Album Review: Nina Persson — Animal Heart

Friday, November 7th, 2014

People sometimes express a liking for music that conveys what might be termed “decadent elegance.” They vibe they’re grasping for is one that’s equal parts scuzz and beauty. It’s an elusive quality, and far too often, those musicians who – consciously or otherwise – try to capture it lean too far one way or the other. The decadent end of it gives you Nico-era Velvet Underground or the unrelenting angst of early Nine Inch Nails; the other direction gives something that at times can be a bit too “pretty,” like, say, Fiona Apple.

On rare occasions, the balance is just right. So it was sometimes with The Cardigans. And on both of their albums – their self-titled 2001 debut and 2009′s near-flawless Colonia – Sweden’s’ A Camp nailed it. And as it happens, both of those groups feature the voice and compositional skills of Nina Persson. So it’s not a surprise of earthshaking proportions that on Animal Heart, her 2014 solo debut, Persson refines that approach to a fine point.

The album kicks off with the title track, a propulsive dance pop-meets-motorik melody topped by Persson’s crystalline vocal mixed way out front. Her degree of vocal control is superb: she hits the notes with precision, adding her trademark vibrato only at key moments; she’s careful not to overuse the technique, saving it for when it fits best. That the song has a delightfully memorable hook – in the form of the tune’s repeated vocal refrain – makes it even better.

“Burning Bridges for Fuel” starts with a somber, one-per-measure piano chord, joined gradually by throbbing synth, Persson’s dreamy vocal, and other exceedingly subtle flourishes. The drums don’t come in until halfway through the tune, and even then, they don’t do much. Nor need they: the synthesizer lines provide as much of a beat as is needed. Some nice Leslie’d guitar near the song’s outro has the feeling of a horn section.

“Dreaming of Houses” starts off as an elegiac, grey-day melody, but unfolds into a pop song of grandeur. Listeners who didn’t know better would never think Persson is Swedish; her vocals betray not a trace of being from anywhere specific. “Clip Your Wings” is a more conventional pop tune, but some echoey piano and slide guitar elevate the tune into something more durable.

Electronica textures might at first seem out of place on a tune called “Jungle,” until one sorts out that the jungle is but Persson’s metaphor for modern life. On this track – as with all others on Animal Heart – Persson is ably supported by husband Nathan Larson, Eric D. Johnson and (on most tracks) drummer Brain Kantor. Johnson and Larsson co-wrote all but one of the twelve songs with Persson.

“Food for the Beast” takes a different approach than the tunes that precede it: its radio-ready beat seems designed for airplay, and lyrics about the discotheque floor reinforce that impression. But once again, it’s Persson’s voice that carries the whole affair. A constantly shifting beat shows that even on a “commercial” number, Persson remains musically ambitious.

The brief instrumental “Digestif” gives way to “Forgot to Tell You,” a tune that recalls some of Colonia‘s more close and intimate musical arrangements. “Catch Me Crying” is built upon a stuttering drum pattern and feels a bit like Autoamerican era Blondie; here Persson displays her knack of showing off her vocal range without seeming at all like she’s showing off.

Americana-flavored guitar kicks off “The Grand Destruction Game,” but it’s quickly joined by synthesizer and 60s-flavored combo organ. Persson’s wistful lyric tells the tale of love gone wrong. The stately “Silver” reveals its charms gradually, as it unfolds across three-plus minutes (Persson’s direct, economical writing style keeps all of Animal Heart‘s tunes relatively brief: only two break the four-minute mark.) And despite its title, “This is Heavy Metal” closes the album in a spare yet sophisticated manner – simply piano and vocal – that recalls Tori Amos‘ best work.

Animal Heart was released back in February of this year; it charted in Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the UK. Despite some stateside press and reviews, it hasn’t made a dent on American charts; it deserves better. Recommended.

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Big Star Lives! with “Live in Memphis” (Part 2)

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

Continued from Part One

As Jon Auer pointed out in metaphor form during our conversation, speaking of Big Star in a slightly different context, “You can write the greatest letter in the world to someone, but if the postman loses it, or doesn’t deliver it, and no one ever gets it, no one’s gonna know how great it was.”

As it turned out, the Memphis date wasn’t the revived Big Star’s final show; not by a long shot. They continued to perform on and off for more than sixteen years, and even cut an album of new material, 2005′s In Space.

Thankfully, and no doubt in part owing to the success of the earlier box set* and movie**, Omnivore Recordings did — as filmmaker Danny Graflund would say — indeed give a flying fuck. Omnivore has quickly developed a reputation as musical curators: their approach to releases might be described as, “You probably haven’t heard this before, but you should hear it. This deserves your attention.” They do important, eclectic musical work. So now we have Live in Memphis as both a single audio CD and a concert DVD.

The twenty-song setlist as presented on Live in Memphis doesn’t differ significantly from the Columbia set performed and recorded a year and a half earlier, but the songs included here provide a more well-rounded portrait of the “new” Big Star. A faithful cover of The Kinks‘ “Till the End of the Day” reminds listeners of the studio version that was among the in/outtakes from the band’s Third/Sister Lovers LP. And Alex Chilton‘s off-kilter choice of covers is made manifest not only with Todd Rundgren‘s “Slut” and the T. Rex number “Baby Strange,” but with a surprising run-through of Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire,” the bossa nova smash “Girl From Ipanema” (long a staple of Chilton’s solo shows), and the rock’n'roll obscurity “Patty Girl” by Dick Campbell and the Scarlets.

Chilton doesn’t hog the spotlight, though. While his idiosyncratic style all but guarantees that he’d alter the phrasing of his vocal and guitar lines, Auer and Ken Stringfellow take a more faithful approach, following the original arrangements to, um, the letter. The result is an odd juxtaposition: at times, The Posies duo sound more like “classic” Big Star than does Chilton. But when they take the lead vocals – most notably on Chris Bell‘s searing “I Am the Cosmos,” they achieve the feat of both remaining true to the original (and thus honoring Bell, who died in 1978) and making the song truly theirs. And when Jody Stephens takes his vocal turns, his fragile, heartfelt readings of “For You” and “Way Out West” rank among the disc’s most scintillating moments.

Still, Live in Memphis is perhaps not the best place for a Big Star neophyte to begin; such a person would be best served by finding a copy of the (now out-of-print) single-CD set that pairs #1 Record and Radio City (the 2014 individual album reissues add no bonus tracks, and even use the same brief Mills-penned liner note essay in both!). Moreover, Live in Memphis does lack a bit in terms of sound quality: while it’s entirely listenable, it’s only a few notches or so above an audience bootleg fidelity-wise. (Fortunately, and thanks to improvements in consumer technology, audience bootlegs from the 90s onward tend to sound pretty fine.) Still, for the faithful, Live in Memphis is a must-have. And though I haven’t yet screened the companion DVD (sold separately), I suspect it’s even more essential for lovers of Big Star.

Besides, in the wake of Chilton’s sudden death in March 2010, Live in Memphis might just be the final word on Big Star…

No, wait: acclaimed music journalist Holly George-Warren (with whom I shared a cab ride once; file under “brush with greatness”) published a Chilton biography, A Man Called Destruction, earlier this year. Word also is that a Chilton biopic is in development, and then there’s the absolutely wonderful Big Star 3rd series of concert performances: those feature a rotating cast of luminaries, including Stephens, Auer, Stringfellow, Mike Mills and Chris Stamey. Those shows are a living testament to the enduring appeal of the music created by that little band in Memphis who could never seem to find a break during their original existence. “That we’re still talking about Big Star now,” Jon Auer said to me, “is a testament to how passionate people are about this music.”

* Omnivore’s Cheryl Pawelski produced the Keep An Eye on the Sky box set during her time at Rhino.
** Omnivore served as music supervisors and executive producers for the Nothing Can Hurt Me motion picture documentary.

 

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