Archive for the ‘powerpop’ Category

Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 9

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still more to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 8

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 5

Friday, May 8th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 2

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

My march through the CD backlog in my office continues today with quick (100-word) looks at five new albums. Though the artists themselves might not always welcome the classification, these are all what I consider powerpop (or guitar pop, if you prefer). Fans of the genre will recognize some of the names as exemplars of the genre; the artists you don’t know create music of a very high standard as well.

Lazy Lions – When Dreaming Lets You Down…
With a sound that suggests a more pop-flavored Smithereens (or an American Rockpile), this Brooklyn (NYC) quartet adds a few unexpected ingredients to the mix: female vocals (bassist Anne-Marie Stehn) and combo organ. Rather than playing full-on, the group favors a more finely textured approach that gives the songs room to breathe. The disc includes twelve memorable melodies, most of which feel familiar without overtly quoting anyone else. With a different vocalist (not that they need one, but one can imagine Jim Allen singing c&w), any of the songs would have fit nicely on the That Thing You Do! soundtrack.

The Rubinoos – 45
These guys are true believers in the power of pop. And the title of their latest album is a reminder that the Berkeley-based group has been at it for 45 years. In a just world, The Rubinoos would have made the big time; instead, they’re known primarily to powerpop fanatics. That’s a shame, because four and a half decades on, they’re crafting winning tunes as endearing as anything they’ve done before. Fantastic harmonies and a preternatural knack for creating wonderful earworms are hallmarks of the Rubinoos approach. There’s a warm, inviting vibe throughout this album; it’s polished without being slick.

The Grip Weeds – How I Won the War
Another group that has kept the powerpop fire burning, The Grip Weeds favor an approach that recalls The Who (Pete Townshend is often credited with coining the term powerpop) and The Kinks. Finally getting ’round to the most obvious of album titles, The Grip Weeds have another winner on their hands. With a perfect balance of creamy (and often intricate) vocal harmonies and heavy power chording, the New Jersey group’s latest shows that 27 years after their debut, they still have plenty to say musically. If anything, they’re getting better with age; when they want to, they rock quite hard.

Dwight Twilley – Always
Since the mid 1970s, this Tulsa, Oklahoma-born singer-guitarist has been plying his trade. Though his “I’m on Fire” is a stone classic of the genre, Twilley has rarely seen much in the way of commercial success. In 2015 he shows that his skill at crafting pop gems remains sharp. While he’s clearly the star of his own album, the list of musicians involved reads like a powerpop who’s who, with Cowsills and Posies, members of Let’s Active and 20/20 playing alongside Tommy Keene and Leland Sklar. In a clever bit of self-referencing, the title track quotes his famous 1976 single.

Various – Power Pop Planet Volume 4
Powerpop fans know the name Bruce Brodeen. Founder of legendary label NotLame, Brodeen was at the vanguard of the genre’s 1990s renaissance, right alongside Jordan Oakes and a select few others. While NotLame is long gone now, Brodeen remains active. This fourth in an ongoing series picks up the baton that Oakes launched with his own Yellow Pills compilation series. As always, your individual taste might mean you dislike a few of the 34 bands (and 34 songs) on this 2CD set, but most of it is excellent, upbeat pop that will remind you of everything you love about powerpop. [BUY]

More to come.

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Album Review: Todd Rundgren — At the BBC 1972-1982

Friday, March 20th, 2015

Several years back, Todd Rundgren took a proactive approach to the myriad live recordings that exist documenting his long and varied career. A true renaissance man who engenders fierce loyalty in his fan base, Rundgren may still be a “cult artist,” but he’s one of the most well-documented ones. For many years (during the tape- and CD-trading era) a surprisingly large network of Rundgren fans recorded, collected, cleaned-up and traded recordings of nearly every show the man ever did. So there’s a massive list of live shows dating back to the very early 1970s, and including Rundgren’s various guises: solo artist, member of the early progressive-phase Utopia, member of the more pop-leaning Utopia lineup, collaborator with Bourgeois Tagg, Hello People, Ian Hunter, Joe Jackson and many others…on and on.

But there aren’t just audience bootlegs out there. From his earliest post-Nazz days, Rundgren has appreciated and embraced television and radio performances as a means for reaching potential fans. As such, there are “board tapes” and/or professionally recorded documents of pretty much every tour he’s ever done. And as he sought to have the best among these released officially, the trading market has somewhat died down (by and large, Rundgren’s fans are an ethical lot; they want him to profit from his work).

The latest entry in the “Todd Rundgren Archive Series” is a near-comprehensive collection of his work for the British Broadcasting Corporation. At the BBC 1972-1982 is a 3CD + 1 DVD set documenting four concerts (three in audio, one audiovisually) and various other related bits and bobs.

The first disc showcases an early solo gig Rundgren did for BBC’s Radio One. An excellent quality mono recording from 1972 finds Rundgren at the piano, using backing tapes to accompany himself. An experienced studio rat even then, he created “karaoke” versions of his hits, allowing him to present them in a live onstage manner that combined the precision and arrangement of a recording with the spontaneity of a live show. Of course such an approach is old-hat now, and has been since the dawn of MIDI (musical instrument digital interface), a digital means of syncing multiple sounds sequences. But in 1972 it was innovative stuff.

Even with the confining nature of the backing tapes, Rundgren delivers an off-the-cuff, intimate performance, most notably on the Something/Anything? tune “Piss Aaron.” Few would count the tune among Rundgren’s best, but his onstage delivery of it is undeniably entertaining. And the inclusion of “Be Nice to Me” from his early album The Ballad of Todd Rundgren is a rare and welcome delight. Rundgren even rocks out at the end, turning in a performance of “Black Maria.”

The first disc also includes two songs from the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test television program(me). These feature the seven-piece Utopia in 1975, performing “Real Man” from his solo album Initiation) and “The Seven Rays,” a highlight of the Utopia Another Live LP (The package’s DVD also features a/v versions of these same two performances).

Speaking of Another Live, the second disc of At the BBC 1972-1982 is similar but expands upon the content of that set. Utopia’s set of the time (1975) included material from Rundgren’s solo albums in addition to their own songs. The BBC disc features a full concert (or at least something approaching one) in excellent stereo, and as such includes songs that weren’t on the single LP Another Live set (recorded elsewhere). Rundgren introduces “Freedom Fighters” as “the first Utopia single” that was never released. The studio version of the tune was on the group’s debut LP; at nearly six minutes, the live reading here is nearly half again as long as its studio version. Live versions of “The Last Ride” and “Sons of 1984” showed up on other Rundgren albums (Back to the Bars and Todd, respectively), but here they’re presented in the context of a full Utopia concert. And “Sunset Boulevard / Le Feel Internacionale” from A Wizard / A True Star hasn’t been released in a live version before (possibly excepting other archival releases), and it’s a highlight of this set.

By 1977 and time of the Utopia Radio One “In Concert” set documented on disc three, Utopia had pared down to a foursome: Rundgren on guitar, Roger Powell on synthesizer, John “Willie” Wilcox on drums, and Kasim Sulton replacing John Siegler on bass (“all four boys sing,” as they say). Touring to promote both the transitional album Ra and the more mainstream-rock oriented Oops! Wrong Planet, the group performed newer material from those albums, with a quick dip into Rundgren’s solo catalog (“Love of the Common Man” from Faithful) and the set closer “Utopia Theme.” The tighter, compact lineup meant an emphasis upon shorter, more concise songs, but the band still stretches out instrumentally on some longer pieces.

As previously mentioned, the fourth disc in the At the BBC 1972-1982 box set is a DVD. All three sets included are sourced from the TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test. The first (mentioned above) features two songs from a 1975 broadcast. The second (from May 1978” documents “The Bearsville Picnic” (the Albert Grossman-headed Bearsville Records was Todd’s and Utopia’s label at the time) and features the extended “Singring and the Glass Guitar (An Electrified Fairy Tale)” from the proggy Ra album.

And the final set of performances on this set brings things full circle in a way, featuring Todd solo in 1982, this time without the gimmicky backing as he winds his way through a solo material set. The performance – featuring Todd variously on acoustic piano and 12-strong acoustic guitar, and even electric “Fool” Gibson SG on “Tiny Demons” – highlights songs from his Hermit of Mink Hollow LP, and includes the innovative “Time Heals” promo video, one of the earliest clips ever broadcast on MTV (the cable channel had premiered the previous fall). Two songs are included that were recorded but cut from the original broadcast: “The Song of the Viking” (originally on Something/Anything?) and “Lysistrata” (a full group performance of which could be found on Utopia’s Swing to the Right album). His reading of “Compassion” (one of his best but least-known songs) is a highlight. Because of the vintage of the video material, it is presented in old format (4:3 ratio) as it was originally broadcast.

Each of the four discs is encased in a mini-LP style sleeve, and the whole affair is in a box slightly larger than a double-CD. A sixteen-page booklet includes photos and an informative essay by Mark Powell.

Taken as a whole, At the BBC 1972-1982 is essential for the Rundgren fan who must have it all, and recommended equally to the relative novitiate looking for an entry point into Rundgren and Utopia’s large catalog.

You may also enjoy: my career-spanning critical look at all of Todd Rundgren’s output (now quite outdated, but worthwhile nonetheless).

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Album Review: Various Artists — Beyond Belief

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

Not long ago, a Facebook friend of mine initiated what turned into a lively discussion. Paraphrasing, the open question that he posed was this: What is the artistic/aesthetic value – if any – of so-called “tribute albums?” And because his list of Facebook friends includes a wide variety of music-focused people, the answers could be said to represent a cross-section (if an unscientifically self-selected one) of opinions.

Many of his friends are recording artists. Many are musicians, serious music fans, record collectors, and so on. And some are perhaps merely casual observers. But a surprising (to me) surprising number of people – men and women, young and not-so-young – weighed in on the topic.

I’d be delighted to report that there was consensus. But there was not. Opinions varied widely, and my own (again unscientific) takeaway settled upon a few possible truths. The first of these is that those who have been involved with tribute album projects – either as artists or as the people in charge of the projects – tend to think that tribute albums are just swell. That said, a number of artists who have provided recordings for some of these projects think that from an artistic standpoint, they’re relatively worthless exercises. Plenty point out that many tribute albums are fundraising projects, with profits directed toward one or another wonderfully deserving cause.

Music writers, on the other hand, tend to approach the subject with much less mercy. While many of them concede the worthiness of the “doing good” album, several made the point (and/or agreed with others making the point) that many tribute albums are good for one curious listen, but – if they’re even kept – they’re rarely taken off the shelf for another listen. A number of those in the discussion mentioned some outliers – those rare tribute albums that somehow transcended the genre – but there was a general agreement that such animals were pretty rare.

Which, finally, brings me to the latest of these. Beyond Belief: A Tribute to Elvis Costello finds no less than fifty artists digging into the catalog of Elvis Costello, (sometimes) pulling out a gem, and then covering it. And the good cause in the case of this project is the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation.

The artists cut a swath across the music landscape, but many of them lean toward powerpop and (just occasionally) alt-country. (Aside: Why this is so often the case, I do not know. But powerpop acts seem first in line for this kind of project. Maybe it’s a case of selective perception on my part, since I dearly love the genre.)

Some of Costello’s biggest hits (and best-known album tracks) are covered here, but there are quite a few tunes that will be familiar only to hardcore Costello fans (I’m not one of those).

As is so often the case, the manner in which the songs are interpreted varies widely. Some of the artists seem to be trying to reproduce the originals to the highest degree possible; Chris Richards + the Subtractions‘ reading of “No Action” could pass for an Elvis Costello outtake. (Is that a good or bad thing? It’s up to each listener to decide). And Rob Smith‘s cover of “Girls Talk” sounds very close to Dave Edmunds‘ 1979 version. (And those are merely the first two cuts on Disc One). Butch Walker picks a lesser-known song in “The Other End of the Telescope,” but his reading is pretty faithful to the original. David Myhr‘s “Veronica” has slightly more country flavor that the original, but the arrangement follows the Spike version right down to the vocal harmonies and instrumentation.

One has to venture nearly halfway into the first disc of Beyond Belief to find anything approaching originality (but perhaps that’s missing the point). To their credit, Cloud Eleven makes “Little Triggers” their own. But will listeners ever pick the cover over the original on This Year’s Model? My guess is no. There are some left-field reinventions, here, however. Jamie & Steve turn in a vocals-only reading of “Blame it On Cain.” The track almost surely comes from the same sessions that provided part of Jamie Hoover‘s most recent album. And though (as we discussed in a recent conversation) Hoover used an approach quite different than the one used by Todd Rundgren on his A Cappella album, “Blame it On Cain” sounds more like a Todd recording than a Jamie & Steve one.

Kurt Baker‘s version of “High Fidelity” is one of the best cuts on the set; Baker reinvents the tune (one of Costello’s best) in a style that – in places – may remind listeners of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (a group that, it should be noted, enjoyed some of their own biggest successes covering the material of others, namely Costello peers Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen).

A lovely reading of “I Hope You’re Happy Now” represents a rare solo outing from Severo Jornacion, longtime bassist for The Smithereens (who knew he played guitar, much less sang?). And the first disc ends with The Rubinoos finding the pop at the core of Costello’s “Pump It Up.” Lots of beefy horn charts take the tune in a different direction, leaving the listener to ponder how much of Costello’s catalog might benefit by such treatment.

Fifty songs is a lot of music to wade through. And a fifty-song “rock block” of one artist might be too much for the casual listener. But because of the various-artist nature of Beyond Belief, it plays more like a mixtape. Tim Cullen‘s “Radio Radio” is a straight copy of Costello’s original, but Sundial Symphony does some interesting things with “God’s Comic,” arguably improving on the Spike original.

Part-way into Disc Two we find Matthew Sweet, only the second name likely to be familiar to the casual listeners (Rubinoos being the first). His piano-and-voice reading of “Alison” is elegiac, and ups the pathos ante of the original. (at this point some reader might be wondering why each tune is compared here to its original version; honestly, there’s no other useful measure that comes to mind.)

But being well-known and/or changing the song ’round aren’t necessary prerequisites to a successful tune, as The Tickets‘ winning “From a Whisper to a Scream” ably demonstrates.

Beyond Belief features contributions from many names that will be familiar to those who enjoy guitar pop: Ron Flynt (20/20), Hans Rotenbery (The Shazam), Paul Myers (The Paul & John; Myers’ “So Like Candy” is a major highlight of this set), young powerpoppers A Fragile Tomorrow, Mike Viola (the guy who sang “That Thing You Do!”), Lannie Flowers, Bill Lloyd, An American Underdog, Frank Royster. And every one the tunes they turn in has something to recommend it (as do all of the others).

Which pretty well sums it up. There aren’t any weak tracks on Beyond Belief. The production quality is of a uniformly high standard (something that’s not as given on projects such as this). The mastering (simply put, matching the volume of fifty disparate recordings) is superb. And the selection of artists is excellent (heck, I like the original music from some of these acts more than I dig Costello’s music). And of course there’s the fact that proceeds benefit a good cause. But what remains is that nagging question: is there any musical point to the whole project? Some will insist yes; others cast a resolute “no” vote. The final choice is up to the individual, and your enjoyment of Beyond Belief will be based on your attitude toward tribute collections more than any other factor. Me, I like it just fine. But I really liked 1990′s Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson and 1993′s Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix, and I can’t tell you when the last time was that I played either one of those CDs.

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Hundred Word Reviews for March 2015, Part 2

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Powerpop and jazz rarely go together. But in this edition of hundred-word reviews, they do.



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The Jeanies – The Jeanies
I look back fondly upon the early-to-mid 1980s, an era in which the cost of studio time began to fall within the range of local, unsigned acts. And others just scored a Tascam Portastudio and went the DIY route at the tail-end of the analog era. It’s that latter approach that is suggested on a new(!) recording from The Jeanies. The album sounds like it was mastered direct from cassette. The lo-to-mid-fi production doesn’t mask the energy of the group, who aim for (and hit) a winning Romantics vibe. Absolutely no keyboards were used in the making of The Jeanies.


Jason Adasiewicz’s Sun Rooms – From the Region
If you like upbeat, thrilling jazz in a bop style – and if you like the buttery sound of the vibraphone – then From the Region belongs on your must-hear list. The trio – Adasiewicz on vibes, Ingebrit Haker-Flaten on bass, and Mike Reed on the drums – turn out eleven original pieces on this disc, and the instrumentals are heavy on melody. As is somewhat standard in jazz, all three players are doing their thing at all times – not merely backing up the other players – but the whole thing holds together in an edge-of-mayhem way. Highly recommended.


Jason Roebke Octet – High Red Center
As presented here, the octet operates on the small end of big band. Influenced greatly (and unapologetically) by the mighty Duke Ellington, this vibes-centric outfit combines free jazz with more melodic variants of jazz. It’s thrilling, challenging and alluring all at once, and the interplay between alto sax, tenor sax, bass clarinet, oboe, cornet and trombone alternates between out-there and harmonious. A solid bass (band leader Jason Roebke) and drums rhythm section wisely keeps things from flying away into the realm of outer space (because that’s Sun Ra‘s territory), and across eleven tracks, it’s an exciting ride. Check it out.

Sax Gordon – In the Wee Small Hours

Here in Asheville, there’s an older African American gentleman who goes by the name of Bobby Sax. He’s inevitably found at the exit gate after a ballgame at McCormick Field, or outside after a Civic Center concert. He seems to know every standard ever written, and he plays for tips. That aesthetic (except for the remuneration, one hopes) is not unlike the approach of one Sax Gordon on this album. Backed only by organ and drums, Gordon winds his way through a familiar songbook, with a swinging soul jazz style that will please fans of Jimmy McGriff and the like.



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The Mangoes – The Mangoes
On one hand, The Mangoes is a concept album, a rock opera, or something like that. But at the same time, it’s a winning pop album in the tradition of 10cc‘s best work. The album’s opener “I Told You So” sets out the storyline, but you can ignore the story/concept and focus on the singalong melodies. Loads of 70s-styled keyboards, soaring power-chording guitars and tight harmonies (sometimes recalling Sweet) make The Mangoes an unexpected pleasure. Underground hero Tim Morse is half of The Mangoes, a group that even has its own theme song (chorus: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s the Mangoes!”).

More of these brief reviews to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for March 2015, Part 1

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Time for some more backlog-clearing hundred-word reviews. All of these are worth my (and your) time in some way, but because of the sheer volume of worthy material in my inbox, I regularly do these short-form reviews to keep them from languishing on my desk. Today’s four are all artists I’ve covered before.


The New Trocaderos – Frenzy in the Hips
Recently I reviewed the recent three-song disc from this Northeastern trio, and while I liked it a lot, I found the stylistic ground covered disparate enough so as to be confusing. This six-song disc repeats three of those cuts. The new three are reminiscent of some quality Southern acts of the 80s — specifically Georgia Satellites and Jason & the Scorchers — and serve better to define the group’s sound. Little Steven (he of the Underground Garage digital radio program) is a fan; he’s bestowed the “Coolest Song in the World” designation to two of the cuts on this disc.


The Well Wishers – A Shattering Sky
Jeff Shelton is one prolific guy; almost like clockwork a CD from him shows up in my mailbox every few months. And even though he’s not high profile, I cover his stuff because it’s good. If you’re the sort who picked up Jordan Oakes‘ peerless Yellow Pills powerpop compilation CDs back in the 90s (or most anything from Bruce Brodeen‘s NotLame label) then this is the stuff you’re looking for circa 2015. Any of the twelve cuts here would be right at home on a Yellow Pills set. Like-minded pals Chuck Lindo and Bradley Skaught help out on some cuts.


Red Jacket Mine – Pure Delight
As with their 2013 long player, on this six-song disc, Lincoln Barr‘s Red Jacket Mine is stylistically varied. Barr’s voice is the centerpiece of these well-assembled tunes, and some interesting keyboard textures (funky 70s-styled clavinet, some really well-recorded piano) plus some tasty synth strings give the disc a vaguely Ben Folds feel (minus the humor), even though Barr’s a guitarist. The soulful “Crow” and the sing/songwriter-flavored “AM” are both a bit of a left turn, departing from the group’s generally upbeat approach. “Nearly Marjorie” is retro in that “(Just Like) Starting Over” kind of way. “Get Paid” is wryly humorous.

Dewa Budjana – Hasta Karma
This Indonesian guitarist is a busy guy; like Jeff Shelton (see above), he seems to always have something new for his listeners. Of course where Shelton’s nominally powerpop, Budjana is progjazz, with a style that’s reminiscent of the better mainstream fusion albums of the 1970s (specifically Jean-Luc Ponty‘s albums). His music is ambitious and intricate while remaining highly melodic and accessible. Joe Locke‘s vibraphones keep things in a jazz vein, as does Ben Williams‘ upright bass (which often sounds like a fretless electric bass guitar). Recommended as a disc to spin for jazz friends who don’t think they like prog.

More capsule reviews to come.

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Best of 2014: New Music, Part 2

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Best of 2014: New Music, Part 1

Monday, December 29th, 2014

In my blog posts of last week, I surveyed some of my 2014 favorites: music-related books; DVDs; concerts; and interviews. For these last few days of the year, I’ll wrap up with a look at my favorite music of 2014, specifically new and reissued titles. Today, it’s four of my eight favorite albums of new music released in 2014.

Night Beats – Sonic Bloom
I make no apologies for the retro-mindedness that pervades my favorite new music. I’m one of those who believes that the mid-sixties gave popular music (rock in particular) its best material. And I daresay the members of Night Beats agree; everything about Sonic Bloom screams 1966. But that doesn’t mean one needs to be a garage-punk aficionado to dig them. When reaching for a modern corollary, I tend to think of Night Beats’ music as a more tuneful rethink of the sort of thing Black Angels (another favorite) create.

Jimbo Mathus – Dark Night of the Soul
I was never any sort of fan of Squirrel Nut Zippers, so I didn’t approach the solo music of Jimbo Mathus with anticipation of finding much I’d dig. But what I discovered – first on his blue vinyl EP, then onstage in and person at the 2013 Americana Fest, then on Dark Night of the Soul – was the work of a man who appreciated, understood and (most importantly) synthesized various American musical forms, creating something very much his own. Mathus’ wide-screen style suggests a more rock-minded version of The Band, with hints of Alex Chilton‘s wild devil-may-care abandon. You can hardly beat that.

The Last – Danger
Middle-aged guys playing thrashy punk? Yeah, that happens. This high-speed rock owes a debt to The Minutemen and the stop-on-a-dime pyrotechnics of Fugazi and Hüsker Dü. But piano in the mix? Didn’t see that coming. And combo organ, and vocal harmonies? Hey, that’s unexpected. Taken as a whole, their early Kinks-like presentation suggests a group that has assimilated all the best of what’s edgy and exciting about rock’n'roll. Like all the albums on this list, highly recommended.

The Paul & John – Inner Sunset
There’s always room in my collection for what I call “pop.” My definition differs from the widely understood one in that I focus more on guitar-based music with a classic songwriterly approach. And I can think of few better exemplars of the style than this duo featuring Paul Myers (also a fine author and clever Twitter user) and John Moremen (also a hotshot guitarist who’s worked with the Mystery Lawn stable of artists, Half Japanese and many others). If you like acts such as XTC and Marshall Crenshaw, you’ll swoon when you hear cuts like “Everything Comes Together.” Me, I get shivers. An outstanding LP start to finish.

Stay tuned for more of Musoscribe’s best new music of 2014.

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