Archive for the ‘powerpop’ Category

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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Best of 2014: Concerts

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

One of the many pleasures associated with living in the small mountain city of Asheville NC is access to great live music. I grew up in the 70s and 80s in Atlanta, where going to a concert often meant traveling to a sports arena, and watching the tiny performers from the nosebleed seats (where you’d get a “contact high” from the pot smoke).

Here in Asheville, I go to shows that have anywhere from a few dozen to just over a thousand people in the audience, and the bands are up close and personal (especially when I have a photo pass). Because my town is such a go-to destination for touring acts, I get the pleasure of seeing high profile performances in small venues. That just wouldn’t happen in other cities.

I go to a lot of shows here in town. That said, I travel to regional festivals fairly often as well. Looking back on 2014 – an especially eventful year for me all ’round – three of my four favorite concert events were festivals.

Big Ears
Designed as a relatively small-scale festival with a decided emphasis on the edgy, this Knoxville TN festival presented a long list of fascinating acts, few of whom do the festival circuit as a rule. The scale of the event meant that it felt almost like a series of house concerts. Highlights included Marc Ribot, David Greenberger, Steve Reich, Television, Dean Wareham, Rachel Grimes, and Radiohead‘s Jonny Greenwood.

Moogfest
This one’s a sentimental favorite: it takes place in my hometown; it honors the late, great Robert A. Moog (a man whom I was lucky enough to meet a number of times), and it features some great music. Without a doubt the highlight of 2014′s Moogfest for me was meeting and interviewing Keith Emerson, but the three-day event (all within walking distance of my home) was packed with memorable experiences.

Musical Box
For me, Genesis lost their magic not long after the departures of Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett. This Canadian tribute group recreates said magic in a most authentic fashion, both visually and aurally. It’s a total experience, and from the packed house at The Orange Peel that night, I’d say that classic 70s progressive rock still has a significant following.

Transfigurations
In celebration of ten years of success, Asheville’s Harvest Records staged a festival that leaned toward the delightfully eclectic. For me the highlights were Quilt (modern psych), The Clean (Antipodean janglepop), Reigning Sound (garage rock), and Lee Fields & the Expressions (soul). Transfigurations featured all of the best things about a festival, and none of the negatives.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t make note of the Zombies show here in Asheville as well. Four decades on, Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (and their bandmates) have still got it.

More 2014 best-ofs to come.

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Album Review: A Kool Kat Kristmas, Vol. 2

Friday, November 28th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Thanksgiving Feast of Mini-reviews

Thursday, November 27th, 2014

Customarily, I take Thanksgiving Day off from posting to the blog (it’s one of very few days in which I do that). In fact I generally write the pieces days in advance, so trust me: I am taking today off with family. But for anyone who tunes in today or after, I present a few short-form album reviews. The theme here is new music that seeks to pay tribute to music and/or artists from the past. My (as always, wholly arbitrary) word limit for each of these is 150 words.


The Call – A Tribute to Michael Been
Santa Cruz, CA-based straight-ahead rock band The Call was one of those curious bands who got some critical cred, despite other styles having taken over as the rock du jour (See also: Grant Lee Buffalo.) No less a light than Todd Rundgren regularly covered “And the Walls Came Down” – The Call’s signature tune – in live shows, for whatever reason (he also did Red Rider‘s “Lunatic Fringe,” so, I dunno.) Leader Michael Been died of a heart attack in 2010; his son Robert (of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) collaborated with the surviving band members. This album (CD+DVD) is a live concert document of that one-off performance. The set is expertly played and sung, but the mix is lifeless: as a direct result, the whole affair fails to excite as it should. In this role, Been sounds unlike his BRMC material, favoring a vocal style closer to that of Bono.


Here Comes the Reign Again: The Second British Invasion
I’ve always held that a good song is a good song, and stands up to reinterpretation in many styles. Clearly those involved in this album agree: a collection of 27 songs – from what we could rightly call the MTV music era – recasts pop songs in a modern-rock/pop format. There are lots of winners here; Chris (Fountains of Wayne) Collingwood‘s cover of The Dream Academy‘s “Life in a Northern Town” opens the set in delightful fashion. Several of the artists manage to add heft to what otherwise might be thought of as lightweight piffle (“Relax”). A few covers hew too close to the originals to make the exercise worthwhile (“West End Girls,” “True”), but overall this is an excellent set from the same high-concept folks who brought you Drink a Toast to Innocence. People on Vacations‘ shimmering rethink of Bananarama‘s “Cruel Summer” is delightful. A few missteps, nonetheless essential.


Light My Fire: A Classic Rock Salute to The Doors
Overstuffing a project with talent – the kitchen sink approach – is no surefire recipe for success. So bringing together 45 male rock stars for a Doors tribute doesn’t mean the results will be any good. As with many of these things, it’s a Billy Sherwood project; Sherwood (who plays bass on nearly all tracks) likely laid down reference demos for everybody to follow for their flown-in parts. Lesser lights (the late Jimi Jamison) share the spotlight with some big names. Larry Coryell reminds us that he can rock. Lou Gramm shows us why he’s not fronting Foreigner any more. Leslie West solos all over “Roadhouse Blues,” wasting Brian Auger‘s presence. YesTony Kaye and Steve Cropper? Okay: that’s an interesting pairing. Robert Gordon‘s vocals on “Touch Me” are positively gruesome. “Light My Fire” reunites Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman. The Jim Morrison-as-a-winged-Jesus cover art is good for a laugh.


Garden Music Project: Inspyred by Syd Barrett’s Artwork
This project differs significantly from the three discussed above. All of the sounds here are original music, inspired by the work of Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett. But not by his music: no, the songs are a product of synesthesia (simply put: hearing colors) experienced viewing the paintings Barrett did in his cloistered, post-Floyd days. True, that concept reads a bit gimmicky, but the results are quite interesting. The four piece group that produced this work are European musicians following the lead of artist Adriana Rubio, who spearheaded and produced the session. The vocals (by guitarist Alexander Ditzend) are reminiscent of “Baby’s On Fire” era Brian Eno, and Stefan Ditzend‘s sax work recalls Psychedelic Furs circa Forever Now. Musically, the style does favor Syd-era Floyd, but then it would, wouldn’t it? It’s appealing, retro-minded modern psych, like Robyn Hitchcock used to do. Enjoyable even without knowing (or appreciating) the backstory.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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