Archive for the ‘powerpop’ Category

Album Review: American Professionals — We Make It Our Business

Friday, March 21st, 2014

Opinions vary – they’re in fact quote polarized on the issue – but people seem to either love or hate powerpop. While at its worst, it’s weak and derivative, at its best, powerpop expresses a sort of exuberance that few other types of music can communicate.

When it’s insipid, it suffers from being what the British call twee: excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental. But when it goes the other way: muscular and oftentimes lyrically clever and even sarcastic – it’s a thrill. Cheap Trick is an exemplar of the latter, as are many of the tracks on Jordan OakesYellow Pills compilations (find ‘em if you can), most notably The Critics‘ “You Can’t Lie” on YP Volume 1.

Now, honestly, when We Make It Our Business arrived in my mail several weeks ago, I was fooled: I honestly thought it was a data CD from one of my clients (in my “spare time” I’m a marketing consultant and web designer). The oh-so-business logo and monochrome globe image, coupled with the track list disguised as sales-chart-graphic threw me. The band name: American Professionals (shortened to AMPROS on the digipak)…well, that offered few clues itself.

But when I popped the CD into the player, I realized the We Make It Our Business is that rarest of creatures: a fully-executed album, from start to finish. It’s a powerpop album – often a smart-alecky one – disguised as corporate marketing materials. If that makes some of my readers of a certain age think of Completion Backward Principle by The Tubes, well, we’re on the same page in our annual report.

The music is first-rate. Crunchy guitar riffage, thundering bass, and Adam White‘s assured, smash-n-crash drums all support the driving tunes. If there’s a formula at work here, it’s a solid one: strong lead vocals, tight, soaring harmonies on the choruses, and memorable hooks throughout. Guitarist Chuck Lindo‘s lead vocals remind me just a bit of Van Temple of The Producers, but the fact that AMPROS have a female bassist (Cheryl Hendrickson) with a great voice expands their vocal range manifold. The vocal harmony parts twist around each other like snakes on a caduceus. While there’s judiciously applied fret buzz and distortion, the songs are sleek and streamlined.

And when AMPROS briefly go melancholy and midtempo — as on the lovely “The Mist” — they’re every bit as wonderful.

Simply put, there are no weak tunes on We Make It Our Business. Contenders for best and/or representative might be “Dr Holly” or “Champion” or “The Way It Goes,” but if you like one, you’ll like ‘em all (which is most definitely not to imply that the songs are similar or run together).

We Make It Our Business is one of those albums that makes this listener hope that there’s a follow-up, and soon. Essential.

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Album Review: Various — The Del Shannon Tribute: Songwriter Vol. 1

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

The history of rock’n’roll is littered with artists who — for one reason or another – never quite got their due. Del Shannon is on that list. Best known as the man who gave the world the 1961 hit “Runaway,” he also achieved permanent trivia question-fodder status as the first American to cover a Beatles song on record, “From Me to You.” Shannon’s version actually hit the charts before the original did so.

Shannon enjoyed several hits (albeit mostly in the lower reaches of the charts) in the period 1961-67, and then faded from view for many years, due in large part to his alcoholism. Newly sober by the 80s, he enjoyed a brief return to prominence when the now-cult-status TV show Crime Story used “Runaway” as its theme song. Though he was mooted to replace Roy Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys, that never came to pass. A lifelong sufferer of depression, Shannon took his own life in 1990.

His influence has persisted, though, and a new tribute album (with the hopeful subtitle “Volume 1”) is titled The Del Shannon Tribute: Songwriter. As the title suggests, this sixteen-track CD focuses on Shannon’s original works. A who’s who of powerpop and established-indie acts participated in this nonprofit, with proceeds going to the Del Shannon Memorial Scholarship Fund in Coopersville MI, the town in which Shannon grew up.

Kelley Ryan’s reading of “Drop Down and Get Me” has a pop-country (in the best way) feel that’s reminiscent of Jackie DeShannon or Marti Jones (the latter of whom also has a cut on this set). Her arrangement completely removes anything that would peg the obscure song as having been written decades ago.

Randy Bachman’s version of “Runaway” wisely steers clear of the original arrangement; instead, it’s a breezy, acoustic flavored tune that sounds like a modern number as well. Son Tal Bachman (who did “She’s So High” in 1999 and then all but disappeared) assists. The tune has a toes-in-the sand, cocktail-in-hand vibe.

Pixies singer/guitarist Frank Black turns in a dark, moody interpretation of “Sister Isabelle.” Like most of the artists on this collection, he makes the song his own. It’s a testament to Shannon’s songwriting skills that these songs nearly all up sounding like originals; his song construction allows each artist to sculpt the songs to their own aesthetic.

While Marshall Crenshaw is an esteemed songwriter himself, he often records thoughtfully-chosen covers. “The House Where Nobody Lives” is catchy, with subtle flavorings of Vox organ. The result sounds not wholly unlike a laid-back version of “Runaway” (it shares a similar structure and chord pattern).

Dave Smalley will be familiar to powerpop fans thanks to his work with The Choir (“It’s Cold Outside”) and The Raspberries. But the country flavor with which he imbues “Restless” might come as a surprise. It sounds more like something The Eagles (or Against the Wind era Bob Seger) might do.

The aforementioned Marti Jones turn in a two-step countrified “You Still Live Here.” Her clear-as-a-bell voice shines through on this old-fashioned weeper.

Back in the 90s, Nash Kato was one-third of Chicago scenesters Urge Overkill (that band is back together, sources say). A feedback-drenched high lonesome reading of “Silver Birch” continues in the countrified style that pervades this record.

Carla Olson and Peter Case pick things up with the ebullient “Keep Searchin’,” with all of the energy – albeit in acoustic fashion – one finds on Plimsouls records. Yes, it’ll probably remind you of “Runaway,” but it’s great anyway.

The Brittanicas are an American/Australian act (yup, technology allow such things) that have been covered in this blog before. Guitarist Joe Algeri (working as The JAC)’s latest EP Love Dumb is well worth seeking out. Here they tackle I Got You,” a melancholy number that’s well suited to their jangling approach.

I first met my pal Patrick Potts at 2012’s Americana Music Fest, while together we enjoyed the tribute to a band we both love, Big Star. So it’s no surprise that Patrick’s band The Drysdales takes on a chiming, catchy number like “I Go To Pieces,” one of the strongest tracks on this entire disc. Listen for a brief yet tasty guitar solo, and lots of George Harrison-esque rhythm guitar work.

I’m totally unfamiliar with husband-and-wife duo StayStillPills, but this Irish band’s take on the riffy rocker “Move it on Over” (a cowrite with Dennis Coffey) is another contender for the album’s best cut. Note to self: find out more about this act.

Joe Glickman & the Zippity Doo Wop Band are equally unknown to me. Their yakety-sax version of “So Long Baby” is gimmicky and retro; they sound like a cross between They Might Be Giants and Sha Na Na. Tracks like this are why the “skip” button was invented. The track is redeemed – if only slightly – by the participation of Max Crook, Musitron player on the original “Runaway.”

Lovely electric 12-string adorns Richard Snow’s cover of “Over You.” Snow played and engineered every sound heard on the track.

The Rubinoos take a retro approach to “Hats Off To Larry,” but in their capable hands, the backward-looking approach works. The tune is a joyous, fun-filled couple of minutes, featuring the par excellence vocals of Jon Rubin, and a tasty horn section. And though it might seem a bit odd, the drum throne is ably filled on this track by Nick D’Virgilio, former drummer/lead singer for America’s best prog band, Spock’s Beard.

Overlord is the third totally-unknown-to-me act on this set. They turn in a gentle, Merseybeat flavored cover of Del Shannon’s “Kelly.” While everything about the tune is well done, it’s the vocal harmonies that truly excel.

Pop auteur Don Dixon wraps up the disc with “Distant Ghost.” The subtle, midtempo number ends the album on a suitably melancholy note.

The Del Shannon Tribute: Songwriter (Volume 1) is a belated sampler of the underappreciated songwriting talents of this American artist, as interpreted by an excellent collection of sympathetic acts influenced by him. Recommended.

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Hundred-word Reviews: New Rock/pop

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

More albums that deserve your time, but that I haven’t the time nor space to cover in a more in-depth fashion.

Levin Minnemann Rudess – s/t
This project brings together three of the busiest, most in-demand players on the scene today. Tony Levin (King Crimson) has played on literally thousands of sessions. Marco Minnemann is a sought-after percussionist who has lent his expertise to numerous projects. Jordan Rudess is the keyboard player in Dream Theater. So, yes, this is a prog album, of the most kinetic and imposing kind. The dizzying lead lines often suggest the presence of guitar where there is one. Uber-heavy, but also rooted in a high level of tunefulness. If you dig previous work by any of these men, you’ll dig this.

The Well Wishers – Dunwoody (EP)
The provenance of this EP’s title is a bit strange to me, seeing as I lived in the place called Dunwoody (Georgia) from 1972 to 1988. The disc’s connection to Dunwoody isn’t made clear, but I do know that these five tunes by Jeff Shelton – who is The Well Wishers – are fresh, breezy, Southern-flavored jangle pop, a bit like Pure Prairie League crossed with R.E.M. The tunes lean more upon acoustic guitar than the lion’s share of Shelton’s previous recorded output; the disc gets more rock-flavored as it goes along, pulling back to the all-acoustic closer “Butterflies.”

Matt Boroff – Sweet Hand of Fate
The music here is nearly as dark as the album cover. Boroff plays nearly everything, enlisting occasional guests on some tracks. This record is moody, atmospheric and has the feel of a concept album, regardless of whether it is one or not. Plenty of artists have crafted one-man bands; few have come up with something that sounds as unified and coherent as this. Bits of The Church and Soundgarden seem to inform his work, and it’s full of hypnotic beats that bubble under soaring, feedback-drenched guitar lines. Did I mention that Sweet Hand of Fate is moody? Well, it is.

Kate Tucker + The Sons of Sweden – The Shape The Color The Feel
Part of – the basis of, in fact – an ambitious multimedia project, The Shape The Color The Feel is a collection of catchy midtempo pieces. The songs really do scream out for video interpretations; I haven’t seen any of the clips, but I suspect that tracking shot over an expanse of sea with a grey sky would figure largely in the presentation. Press for the album focuses on the videos (not included as part of the album package) but the ten tracks stand on their own, with an approach redolent of A Camp and underrated 80s band Wire Train.

Sam Phillips – Push Any Button
This Californian creates music that steadfastly refuses to be categorized; on this, her ninth album, she self-produces the nine tracks, her first collection of new material since 2008 (an eternity in the music business). Nominally a singer/songwriter, but that’s only because she sings and writes songs. There’s a sonic connection between her work and other edgy/fascinating female artists (see also: Suzanne Vega, Marti Jones, Aimee Mann), but she never sounds like anyone besides herself. The tunes are intentionally timeless; they neither evoke the past nor suggest the present; they simply are. Heavy friends help, but it’s resolutely Phillips’ show. Recommended.

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Clearing the Backlog: Ten Micro-reviews

Friday, December 6th, 2013

As the end of 2013 closes in, I look at my inbox and see a massive stack of CDs. Best as I try, I don’t always follow a first-in/first-out policy with regard to covering releases I find worthy. And while my occasional capsule reviews do help reduce the pile of CD on my desk, today I realize that more drastic measure are necessary. Each of the following albums deserves more space than I’m about to give, but waiting until I have time and space would likely mean that some never get covered at all. So instead, I give you some exceedingly brief (50-word) reviews, with the additional comment applicable to all: these are worth hearing. All feature new music for 2013.

Pete Anderson – Birds Above Guitarland
Loping electrified blues with feeling. Tasty electric guitar licks (hints of c&w among the blooze) with soulful, greasy backing by a crack team, compete with horn section and Wurlitzer electric piano (almost always a good thing). Anderson can sing, too. Delaney and Bonnie‘s daughter Bekka Bramlett guests on one track.

Nathan Angelo – Out of the Blue
Neo-soul, Motown revival…whatever you care to label it, the funky sounds of Angelo’s debut are fetching indeed. Album opener “Get Back” (not the Beatles classic) is perhaps little more than a rewrite of The Jackson 5ive‘s “I Want You Back,” but it’s still fun. For fans of Mayer Hawthorne.

Chris Biesterfeldt – Urban Mandolin
I’m all in favor of outside-the-box musical approaches. And I believe this one certainly qualifies: a jazz trio led by a mandolin player. He charges his way through reinventions from among the best – Charlie Parker bebop, the soul-jazz of Jimmy Smith, the fusion of Chick Corea, even Frank Zappa.

The Bottle Kids – Such a Thrill
This isn’t a “they,” it’s “him.” Eric Blakely is the latest in a long line of powerpop do-it-all auteurs, and he knows his way around a Beatlesque hook. Harmonies meet guitar crunch and the result is as good as the genre gets. He sounds like a “them.”

Hickoids – Hairy Chafin’ Ape Suit
The title has nothing to do with Harry Chapin (the king of maudlin), thank goodness. Instead, this is a comedy-leaning meat’n'potatoes rock album. Jeff Smith roars while the band spits out licks behind him. The production is on the homespun side, but that fits the loose vibe of the music.

The Nomads – Solna (Loaded Deluxe Edition)
Who would have ever predicted that in the 21st century, uncompromising punk rock would be made by middle aged guys? Guys from Sweden, no less, the land of ABBA. Anyone who digs no-bullshit rock (see: Smithereens, Sex Pistols) will get a charge out of this. It’s also available on vinyl.

Third of Never – Downrising
Arena-sized riff rockage with soaring harmonies and fret buzz, but without all the trappings of strutting rock-star poseurs. Kurt Reil (The Grip Weeds) does this outfit as a side project. Kindred spirits Dennis Diken (Smithereens) and John “Rabbit” Bundrick (The ‘Oo) guest, but it’s great at its core anyway.

Pat Todd & the Rankoutsiders – 14th & Nowhere
Familiar chord progressions delivered in a spirited, barroom-brawl country-rock style. Fifteen songs, zero bullshit. Sample/representative song title: “Small Town Rock Ain’t Dead.” Guitars, guitars and more guitars (and hardly any keyboards). Earle Mankey pops up on banjo(!) Infectious and fun, this will delight fans of Jason & the Scorchers.

Vegas With Randolph – Rings Around the Sun
In reviewing their last album (Above the Blue) I made comparisons to Fountains of Wayne; this time out VWR have asserted a bit more of their own identity. It’s still catchy, intelligent and slightly adventurous powerpop, with a slightly harder edge. Maybe the Seattle recording studio helped conjure that vibe.

Steve Weinstein – Last Free Man
Reading the press kit I learned that Weinstein is both a philosopher and physicist, and that the album includes protests against our modern surveillance society. None of which I found especially appetizing propositions, so I was surprised to find a tuneful, friendly album in an earnest, heartland Tom Petty mode.

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Album Review: Jellyfish — Radio Jellyfish

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

It’s pointless (not to mention plain wrong) to argue against the assertion that the “unplugged” concept had played itself out by the middle of the 1990s. But the format – originally devised (with others) by Jules Shear – was itself a good one: stripped-down, intimate live performances of rock songs. That concept was oft-abused and just plain overused, and the resulting product often added little to listeners’ understanding and appreciation of the music.

But there were exceptions. And though baroque/powerpop act Jellyfish never in fact appeared on the television program MTV Unplugged, they would make use of the presentation style in a few radio performances during their time together.

In many ways, Jellyfish were perfectly suited for the unplugged format. Most who had heard the finely-wrought arrangements on their pair of studio albums (Bellybutton in 1990 and Spilt Milk in 1993) could be forgiven for thinking that the band were a bunch of studio rats a la Steely Dan or Alan Parsons Project, and that those intricate (but not-quite-fussy) arrangements could never be successfully translated to a live setting (see: Queen Live Killers). But that was not the case: the band’s co-leaders Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning were dynamic and spot-on during the band’s relatively few live shows.

And so it was in 1993 that Jellyfish found themselves doing a number of unplugged-style radio dates. Tracks from two of these, in Holland and Australia, make up the new ten-track Radio Jellyfish. And in addition to proving that they could play the songs live in the unplugged format, Jellyfish illustrated just how strong the tunes themselves were (and remain).

Running through an essentially best-of list of tracks from the two albums, the band also served up a pair of ace covers. The Move‘s “I Can Hear the Grass Grow” is no easy tune to cover; not only does Jellyfish nail it, they reinvent the tail-end of the song, effectively making it their own. And even without thunderous bass lines and electric guitars, the song remains powerful, if a bit less psychedelic than the original version.

Newcomer and former Producers bassist Tim Smith plays acoustic guitar on the set, as does Roger’s brother Chris, who had been brought into the band specifically for the ’93 tour Eric Dover, who had replaced the departed Chris Manning*.  Sturmer – normally the band’s drummer – sticks to vocals here, while Manning plays mostly acoustic percussion (instead of his customary bank of keyboards). But again: even without the electronics, the band shines. Badfinger‘s “No Matter What” was a highlight of the band’s live shows, and it too is delivered in spirited fashion on Radio Jellyfish.

Only the Move cover tune has been released before; as a teaser of what the band could do acoustically, it was a highlight of the 4CD (out of print and hard to obtain) Fan Club set from years ago. The remainder of these tracks are appearing on CD (and vinyl!) for the first time when this set hits the street on December 10.

It would have been nicer if the set had gone on a bit longer: at ten tracks, Radio Jellyfish is a bit on the short side. But with a catalog that initially counted a mere two albums, the latter-day Jellyfish post-breakup releases are to be treasured…no matter what.

* My apologies for initially getting this wrong. — bk

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Album Review: The Paley Brothers — The Complete Recordings

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

File these guys under Music You Probably Missed. Chalk it up to record execs not knowing exactly what to do with The Paley Brothers, or perhaps assign some of the blame to the artists themselves for not fitting neatly into a “box” as the record business demanded (and demands) of recording artists.

Whatever the reason, The Paley Brothers (Andy and Jonathan) would release but one long-playing album for Sire (1978′s cleverly-titled Paley Brothers) and then fade into obscurity. But that album was a real cracker, as was the cache of material they recorded before and after.

But even the hardest of hardcore powerpop fanatics weren’t all fully aware of The Paley Brothers. My first exposure to them was within the pages of The New Music, an excellent (if now charmingly dated) 1980 survey of new wave and cutting-edge musical acts penned by renowned music journalist/critics Glenn A. Baker and Stuart Coupe. Granted a full column in the book, The Paley Brothers’ history is laid out in potted fashion, and the authors make it clear that their album (“produced by Earle Mankey, an original member of Sparks”) is worthwhile.

But in those days I never heard their music, never stumbled across Paley Brothers in new or used record bins.

My second exposure to the duo was many years later, when I discovered their delightful 1976 single “Come Out and Play,” the title track on Rhino’s Come Out and Play: American Power Pop I (1975-1978) compilation. With an infectious vibe that was equal parts distilled Beatles influence and bubblegum, it hit the sweet spot (if not the top of the charts).

But that was it, until now. But the intrepid archivists at Real Gone Music have compiled all available Paley Brothers recordings onto a jam-packed 26-track CD called The Complete Recordings. And it’s exactly that: the entire contents of the Sire LP, plus a Sire EP titled Ecstasy, plus well more than a dozen other compilation-only or previously-unreleased tunes. There’s even a live cut from 1978, “Felicia,” recorded at Madison Square Garden when the Paleys opened for Shaun Cassidy.

Yes, you read that right: Shaun Cassidy. And that little fact may help to explain the situation within which The Paley Brothers found themselves. They were signed to a label hip enough to include The Ramones and Talking Heads, but bubblegum-sounding enough to earn (or “earn”) a slot as openers for the twee teen idol of the month.

The thing is, The Paley Brothers actually were – if not all things to all people – successful in both hip-quotient and candy-coated goodness. When they rocked hard, they rocked hard. When they took it a little softer, it worked, too. The brothers (who penned nearly all of their own material, with the odd cover such as Tommy Roe‘s “Sheila” thrown in now and again) were adept at writing hooky, catchy tunes, and they paid attention in the studio as well. Andy would go on to become an in-demand producer and writer, working extensively with Brian Wilson (there’s a huge cache of unreleased material from those sessions) and most recently, co-writing the latest single from Charleston’s wonderful Explorers Club.

The Complete Recordings even includes a track from their (surprise!) abortive sessions with Phil Spector, and an odd little ditty, a cover of “Theme From Fireball X-L5.” The previously unreleased material holds its own alongside the Sire material. While powerpop never made the inroads its adherents had hoped, the highly-regarded (among those in the know, anyway) body of work from The Paley Brothers is highly recommended, and RGM has made discovering it easy.

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Album Review: The Bye Bye Blackbirds — We Need the Rain

Monday, October 21st, 2013

Since getting into this whole Musoscribe racket, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon when it comes to that rock genre known as powerpop. Specifically, when some of its most celebrated practitioners – I’m not naming names, but suffice to say these are people I’ve interviewed – are confronted with the idea that they play powerpop, they react in a manner less than enthusiastic. Perhaps they recoil; maybe they change the subject; maybe they protest that what they do is actually better called something else. But to a man, these artists – and I can think of three without trying – seem wholly uncomfortable with the term powerpop, and if they wear the crown at all, they do so reluctantly.

In a sense, it’s easy to understand why. To its detractors, powerpop is a shamelessly derivative substyle. Within rock history, it’s a kind of music that was and is often championed by rock writers (go figure) but one that enjoys relatively little as far as commercial success. Its most successful exponents are all held in high regard by fanatic types (your humble writer among them), but all were flawed in some way that prevented larger acceptance. So while Big Star, The Raspberries, Badfinger and Blue Ash made (arguably) some of the best music of their era, they did so either without honor at the time (Raspberries and Blue Ash) or at great personal cost (Big Star and Badfinger). And it’s worth noting that all of those acts released their prime material in the first half of the 1970s, a period that – need we be reminded – occurred some forty years ago.

With all that baggage, it’s little surprise that modern bands are often loath to accept the powerpop label. But the fact remains that when it’s done well, the style yields some music that combines emotional punch with the visceral punch of a memorable riff. But thank goodness some artists embrace the label.

What brings all of this to mind once again is the new album We Need the Rain by The Bye Bye Blackbirds. This Oakland aggregation hits all the right notes on their fourth collection of songs.

Yes, the requisite components are present: chiming guitars, ear candy hooks, punchy guitar riffage, tight vocal harmonies. But as ever, none of those qualities matter a bit if they’re not built into solid songs. Ten songs might not seem like a lot, and it isn’t unless you’re a prog outfit (which The Bye Bye Blackbirds most certainly are not). But if one values quality over quantity, then one can’t go wrong with We Need the Rain. From the loose snare intro of the glammy, anthemic “All in Light,” the band makes it clear they have not only the ingredients but a winning recipe. And while they do earn the “derivative” epithet thanks to the Rolling Stones nick of the opening strains on “Don’t Come Back Now,” in the end they deliver an original tune, one that has more in common overall with The Records (Crashes era) than “Honky Tonk Women.” And with its great riff, “Waiting for the Drums” – like all the tracks on this album written or co-written by Bradley Skaught – transcends heights so lofty that it’s the equal of the best work The Spongetones ever turned out, and that’s saying quite a lot. What’s more, the tune combines that tuneful appeal with the good-natured aggression of The Smithereens.

Interestingly, when The Bye Bye Blackbirds venture outside their powerpop milieu, as they do on the straight-ahead rock of “Broad Daylight,” the results are mixed. Not a bad tune in any way, it merely pales in comparison to the other tunes on this overall high quality release. “Shook Down Softly” heads back in a timeless direction, with soaring, creamy harmonies atop a chunky riff. And in contrast to “Broad Daylight,” when the band tries its hand at a Neil Young and Crazy Horse flavored rocker (“Spin Your Stars”) it works quite well; save for Skaught’s distinctive and lovely vocals, it could be an outtake from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. In the end, it shows that The Bye Bye Blackbirds are a fine powerpop band who – if and when they choose to – can be more. We Need the Rain is likely to please both camps: those who want The Bye Bye Blackbirds to explore outside the lines, and those who simply love another example of the best powerpop has to offer.

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X Marks the Spot: The 2013 Richard X Heyman Interview, Part Two

Friday, October 4th, 2013

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: You’ve long been one of those artists who can handle everything in the studio; other than Nancy engineering, most of your albums have featured you on nearly everything. But sometimes you’ve brought in other musicians. On X you’re back to playing and singing everything. What to you is the difference in the end product between doing it all yourself and bringing in some other players to work under your direction?

Richard X Heyman: A lot of it just comes down to pragmatic reasons, financial reasons. In my bedroom recording, I can play guitar and piano; I’ve already done the drums in the studio. With those drum tracks [already done], I’ll put down a scratch guitar part and a scratch keyboard, then do my vocals, pick up a guitar…next thing you know, the track is done. So, it’s like, “We don’t really need to bring anybody in.”

Lately, people who were brought in were string players or horn players.

BK: Another of the hallmarks of your work is the manner in which you layer soaring harmonies – things that in another context might seem baroque, like Pet Sounds era Beach Boys – on top of hard-rocking playing that has more in common with The Smithereens. “Compass” is a great example of this dynamic. Would you say that’s just happy coincidence, or has that been an explicit goal of yours all along?

RXH: It goes back to the saying, “Nothing’s created in a vacuum.” Go back to The Who‘s first album [The Who Sing My Generation] and you’re gonna hear that. Three-part baroque harmonies on top of rockin’ playing. It’s just a style tat I grew up with; I’m not creating anything new there. You have groups like The Byrds where the backing track wasn’t maybe quite as rocking, but you’ve still got that idea of this powerful rock band playing with these big harmonies on top. And of course it goes back to The Every Brothers and The Beatles‘ stuff, too.

BK: With “Firing Line,” you’re disproved the argument that all the great riffs have been done already. Did this song arise out of a riff, or did you write the song and then come up with a riff to layer on top of it?

RXH: I’ll tell you a story about that. I wrote that riff in about 1969. On piano. I had this song called “My Baby Sleeps With the Angels,” but I could never get the song to work. It was a good song, but I never was crazy about the whole thing. But it had that riff, a piano riff. So I tried for years to figure out what to do with this song, and I finally just gave up.

Eventually, I took the riff, transferred it to guitar, and, “Ah! This kind of fits with this song over here!” That’s how it happened. And it just happened to be in the right key.

BK: I bought the VHS tape of your music videos (X-Posures) several years ago. To my knowledge you’ve never reissued it on DVD. Is that something you’re considering?

RXH: Umm…if there was any sort of demand! I’m kinda waiting for something. (laughs) I’m glad when there’s a demand for anything I do; then I’ll take the proper action. Every now and then, people write to us and ask for a DVD, and we’ll physically make a copy of it ourselves, and send it to them.

BK: Several months ago – on one of the last episodes of NBC’s The Office, a warehouse worker had a copy of Hey Man! in his hand. I took a picture of the screen and posted it on Facebook. It was only there for a second, but I thought it fascinating that someone in the prop department (I assume) chose to give an actor a CD released in 1991. It was clearly no accident; it was done on purpose. This sort of encapsulates for me the idea that – like it or not – you’re something of a “cult artist.” How do you feel about that?

RXH: Well…that could be looked at as a euphemism…

BK: I don’t mean it as one…

RXH: I know you don’t but I’m just saying…in context, it could be like the old story of, “I am a cult artist” meaning not-very-popular.

Those kinds of things are just in the view of particular people who think that way; some people don’t think that way. See, it’s human nature to categorize. You listen to music, and your first reflective action is to ask yourself, who does it sound like? People just need some sort of reference point when they’re dealing with any sort of art at all: “What does this painting remind me of?” It’s just the way people think; I do it myself. But most of the time I don’t get the connection that some people say that I”m supposed to sound like. But I’ve heard all kinds of things.

BK: What are your plans if any for presenting the music of X in a live setting?

RXH: We haven’t really been pursuing the live thing. We’re doing a one-off show here in New York on October 4th [TONIGHT! – ed.]. It’s a Sirius XM radio broadcast called The Loft. I have my old band together, and we’re rehearsing for that show. We’ll debut a bunch of songs from the new album, and do a couple of the old ones. So if anybody’s in New York, that’s where we’ll be. Seven o’clock.

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X Marks the Spot: The 2013 Richard X Heyman Interview, Part One

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

Richard X Heyman is nominally a powerpop artist, but ever since his first solo album in 1988, there has been a lot more going on in his music than a slavish devotion to a certain subset of rock history. He’s long synthesized a wide swath of influences into his music, crating his own identifiable sound in the process. After heading in a perhaps unexpected direction with his last album (though long-time followers shouldn’t have been surprised), he has now put together a collection of songs that are more in line with what listeners expect from him. But as always, here on his tenth album X, Heyman has written and recorded songs that are catchy on top, complex when you dig deeper, and memorable all the while. I recently spoke with him about the new record. — bk


Bill Kopp: You’ve always used keyboard on your albums – your piano work is, for me, a highlight of Hey Man! But on “Please Be Mindful,” “The Difference Between Us,” and other cuts on X you seem to have taken it to a new level, sort of (I think) working in some of the textures from the last album, but into a more rock idiom.

Richard X Heyman: I’ve always looked at my keyboard playing as an extension of drumming; after all, the piano is classified as a percussion instrument. So it’s all rhythmic for me. I worked out the parts thinking like a drummer, trying to incorporate the left hand to do [rhythmic parts]. More so than on the last album [Tiers / And Other Stories] where my left hand was doing arpeggios.

The stuff you’re referring to, a lot of these songs were written for Tiers, or during the Tiers sessions. And we just never got to them; there were too many songs at that point. So here, we tried to incorporate as many guitars into those songs as possible, to kind of disguise the keyboard aspect. Several of these songs were written on piano, but on a lot of them, I took the piano [part] completely out. Like on the first song on the album, “When Denny Dropped out of the Scene.” That was a piano song on which I transferred all of the piano riffs to guitar. One of the riffs is an idiosyncratic one that I played in a sort of Floyd Cramer country style. With the help of my wife Nancy, I figured out note by note what I actually played on the piano, and then transferred it to a guitar part. With the same voicings, so it’s not like a guitar voicing; it’s the actual piano intervals.

BK: That’s probably a little complicated…

RXH: It was very complicated and time-consuming. But it was worth a try as an experiment. And it had interesting results, because you had these guitar riffs that you’d never come up with just sitting around playing the guitar.

BK: The voicings would be radically different…

RXH: Yeah, your fingers are stretched in some odd configurations on the guitar to make it work.

BK: I have noticed on other artists’ work, in places, where a song was clearly written on a piano. You can tell by the voicings used, the chord patterns employed.

RXH: That was sort of one of the ideas that I had, to take piano songs and transfer them to guitar for this album.

BK: You have a signature sound; in large part to my ears it’s the product of the way you overdub vocal harmonies. There are other commonalities in our music, but that’s the quality that, I think, ties all of your work together. That said, Tiers / And Other Stories was a clear departure, and as a result X might fairly be viewed as a return to form. I know that Tiers was a project you had in mind for many years; you even mentioned it to me way back in 2007 when I interviewed you about Actual Sighs. So, my question: with perspective and hindsight of a few years, do you think that – fairly or unfairly – you’re “boxed in” and expected to make music like what we’re hearing on X?

RXH: It all depends on who’s critiquing. There are certain people, I guess, who look at me as kind of a melodic pop guy, a guitar jangle guy. So that’s what they expect. I look at it more – and this might sound pretentious – as an artistic thing. I try to just create stuff, write songs. I don’t think about styles so much; it’s more about the emotion in the music, and about coming up with something good.

Some people do like to pigeonhole artists into these categories. But I generally look at myself as a singer/songwriter. Obviously, I’m heavily influenced by 60s music, but a lot of that is not just British invasion; it’s Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young…I love The Band.

Y’know, I remember when I first came out with Living Room!! (1988), there was a review in Rolling Stone by Michael Azerrad. And one of the editors was David Wild. And they said, “There’s something different about [Heyman's] approach to this sort of British invasion influenced music.” And I think a big part of it is that there are a lot of Americanisms in my music. And I think that’s what they were referring to, without realizing it. There’s a little bit of country in there, some folk. It’s not this archetypical powerpop. And I find that people that are really into that don’t always totally get what I’m doing.

To be continued…

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Book Review: Boys Don’t Lie: A History of Shoes

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

Sidestepping tired allusions to Boston‘s Tom Scholz, Guns’n'Roses and Chinese democracy, Boys Don’t Lie: A History of Shoes was a long time coming. Author Mary Donnelly began work on the book several years ago. Lots and lots (and lots) of interviews would form the basis of this exhaustive and supremely well-researched tome, and then various and unspecified production delays resulted in the publishing date being moved out, and moved out again. Still, I’m happy to report that the results are well worth the wait.

But wait: maybe you weren’t even waiting: who the hell, you might ask, are Shoes anyway? Well, if one uses normal measures of fame and notoriety, Shoes are a little-known group working in a little-known musical subgenre, hailing from a little-known Midwestern town. Not having ever visited Zion IL, I can’t vouch for the is-it-worth-knowing of the last part of that equation, but as far as whether you should know about Shoes, there can be no question.

Among the most revered of all groups in powerpop, Shoes have forged a long (if largely under-the-radar) career filled with gems of the highest order. Their brand of music – often as not, smooth and creamy vocals singing love/angst-oriented lyrics atop chunky guitars and a solid, propulsive beat – deserves a wider hearing than it’s ever got. Shoes’ deep catalog extends backward into the mid 1970s, and forward to right-damn-now. While the trio (they haven’t had a drummer as a full-time band member in decades) aren’t known for being serious road dogs (they have day jobs, families and and lives), their rare live performances show that their music does translate well to the stage. Among those who do know about Shoes, they’re sometimes spoken of in that same rarefied air in which Rapsberries, Badfinger and Big Star live. And you’ve heard of at least two of those, yes?

Donnelly’s book does an excellent job of sketching out the context in which Gary Klebe (vocals and guitars), Jeff Murphy (vocals and more guitars) and John Murphy (vocals and still yet more guitars, and bass) formed the band – with an especially wonderful and vivid first-chapter portrait of Zion, the decidedly odd town in which the three grew up and still reside – but she takes it a welcome step farther and helps the reader understand why it all happened. Only in Zion, you might say.

But it’s not as if their hometown encouraged Shoes in their musical pursuits; Boys Don’t Lie illustrates the paradox that the trio were all but unknown in their hometown; one suspects it’s still pretty much that way. They might be known as Gary, John and Jeff, but…Shoes? As likely as not, no.

The band’s history is a long and deeply textured one, filled with all of the kinds of things any story involving humans is bound to have: success, failure, alienation, hope, estrangement, and so on. Boys Don’t Lie is a very human story, and while it has neither the hugely uplifting denouement of the film Searching for Sugar Man nor the crushing disappointment, tragedies, death and what-ifs that defined the careers of Big Star and Badfinger, it’s a very good story.

One need not be a fan of Shoes – or even of their chosen genre (because, truth be told, Shoes’ music often extends beyond the narrow definition of powerpop) – to dive into the long written work that is Boys Don’t Lie. But odds are, part way through, you’ll want a soundtrack to help provide the context that no amount of excellent writing can provide. And for that, there are plenty of CDs available. The most succinct of these is Real Gone Music’s 2012 compilation 35 Years: The Definitive Shoes Collection 1977-2012.

That compilation (with Stephen “Spaz” Schnee‘s liner notes that could well serve as a teaser to the long-form Boys Don’t Lie) will also lead listeners to Shoes’ latest material, their 2012 album Ignition. Now, for a good chunk of the book, especially from the midpoint onward, thoughtful readers will begin to wonder, will this band even exist by the final pages of Boys Don’t Lie?

My take on the genesis of the project is that Donnelly wasn’t even sure herself of the answer to this question. In fact, the chapters that deal with Ignition have a slightly tacked-on feel, as if the book had neared its putative ending with Shoes more or less fizzling out, and then a spark of life was, er, ignited. In fact, in the end that tacked-on feeling fits the narrative perfectly; everything leads toward a somewhat desultory ending, and then near the last minute, pow: they’re back.

Whether events were quite that simple in real life doesn’t matter; Mary Donnelly’s telling of the story – based on more hours of interviews than one can probably imagine with the principals plus relevant witnesses and bystanders – is richly detailed. It never drags, and most readers will find themselves rooting throughout for the protagonists. Unlike some other famous (or infamous) acts, the men of Shoes were not their own worst enemies; with few exceptions, they didn’t get in the way of their own success. And on those rare occasions when they did, their actions were of a sort of common-sense character that might leave the reader saying, “Yeah, well, in their situation, I might have done the same thing.”

I’ve endeavored to avoid usage of the word cult in describing Shoes and/or their fan base, but it’s true that the group has enjoyed very modest commercial success, and also that their fan base is a small as it is dedicated. But they have some friends and allies in high places: renowned music-journalist-then-label-rep-then-music-publicist Cary Baker was an early and steadfast champion of the band from the earliest days, and Real Gone Music head Gordon Anderson has been (like music journalist John Borack, producer of a tribute CD) a lifelong fan of Shoes.

Badfinger got their book (Dan Matovina‘s controversial 2000 Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger), and Big Star got their movie (2013′s Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me) and now, thanks to Mary Donnelly and the patient and long-term cooperation of the band members themselves, Shoes get their history told in a deservedly in-depth manner. A must-read.

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