Archive for the ‘psych’ Category

Album Review: Son of Kraut: The Next Generation of Krautrock

Friday, January 16th, 2015

Though it might seem otherwise to the casual observer, the term krautrock is neither pejorative nor disparaging. In its classic sense, the label refers to improvisationally-based rock with spare musical foundation. As the word suggests (in an undeniably gauche manner), the form originated in Germany.

When one thinks of krautrock, the first bands that often come to mind are Can, Tangerine Dream, and Kraftwerk (the latter’s hypnotic, album-length “Autobahn” is an exemplar of the genre).

The style reached its apex in the 1970s; today when one sees or hears the term, it’s nearly always I nthe context of music form the past. But – depending on how the term is understood – the krautrock label can be applied to modern-day music. Especially if a strictly literal interpretation is used (in other words, German rock), all manner of musical artists fit under the umbrella.

Certainly garage/psych revival bands like The Roaring 420s don’t fit into this discussion. Nor, of course, do some fantastic American expat artists who have made Berlin their base of operations (Anton Barbeau, The Fuzztones, and Brian Jonestown Massacre‘s Anton Newcombe, to name but three). But a number of interesting artists do fit the bill, and while they’re made barely a ripple on the musical consciousness of American listeners, collectively they’ve created a body of work that bears further investigation.

But how to do so? One could start by reading Krautrocksampler, the 1995 book by the genre’s most prominent champion, Julian Cope. But there are two problems with that idea: first off, the book is now twenty years old, so it can’t address, y’know, current acts. More problematic is the going rate for the long out-of-print title: currently upwards of $230 for a used copy on Amazon.

With that option off the table (PDF scans of Cope’s book do circulate online, and as of summer 2014 there’s “talk” of reissuing it), we turn instead to a compilation CD. The German label Sireena released a fine overview of “classic” krautrock not long ago: Live Kraut: Live Rock Explosions from the Heyday of Krautrock! focused on what one might call the first wave of the genre. Band names like Grobschnitt, Guru Guru and Jane will be wholly unfamiliar to American audiences, but for the most part, their music isn’t so out-there as to be unintelligible to American ears. (The same can’t be said for some of krautrock’s more adventurous acts: Kraan and Birth Control are pretty freaky; I have a few vinyl albums by each, and hope to find more later this year when I visit Germany.)

Happily, Sireena has filled this niche by releasing another compilation, Son of Kraut: The Next Generation of Krautrock (never let it be said that the Germans don’t spell it right out for you in their titles). Once again, here is a disc (with twelve tracks) filled with artists who are virtually unknown in the USA. RPWL might be familiar to those who regularly visit this blog; I’ve both reviewed their music and interviewed the group’s Yogi Lang. RPWL are featured on this set with “World Through My Eyes,” the title track off their 2005 album. It’s fine enough, but doesn’t show the group at their best, and isn’t truly representative of the band’s oft-displayed appealing characteristics.

The other eleven tracks are a varied lot. Some do explicitly build on the motorik textures of older krautrock: Ear Tranceport‘s “Lock In (Namby Pamby)” has that chugging, mechanical beat applied to a melody that’s largely driven by acoustic guitar. And the one-chord “Stranded” from Space Debris will delight fans of Pink Floyd‘s Ummagumma, as it meanders purposefully though similar sonic territory over the course of its nearly ten minutes.

Sankt Otten‘s vaguely sinister instrumental “Nach Dir Die Sinnseflut” will remind listeners of Tangerine Dream at their soundtrackiest. Electric Moon deliver a deeply textured vibe on “Madrigal Meridian,” sounding like a Teutonic (and at times, more tuneful) Nine Inch Nails. One man band Level Pi engages in some evocative krautrock that features some straightforward rock guitar riffage; it too wouldn’t be out of place in a film soundtrack.

The Perc Meets the Hidden Gentleman is a wholly different affair. Seemingly taking its sonic inspiration from former Berlin resident David Bowie, “The Moon of Both Sides” is perhaps the track on Son of Kraut most likely to connect with the casual listener. The brooding, dreamy “I Can’t Walk My Floor” by Tarwater is cut from similar cloth as the music of Austin’s Black Angels.

“Psysomsyl” from Electric Orange features seven minutes’ workout on a single chord; the track grows in intensity, not unlike some of Glenn Branca‘s work, or classic-period Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Things take a decidedly more tuneful direction with “On Stranger Tides” from Fantasyy Factoryy. The hand drumming and repetitve electric guitar riff suggest a campfire version of Pink Floyd, as does the track’s Roger Waters-like vocal.

The intriguing instrumental “”O.M.E.N.” from Le Mur initially heads back into the psych revival region, but some treated saxophone riffage suggest what Black Sabbath might sound like with some added brass instrumentation.

Son of Kraut wraps up with some prog-metal, a genre heretofore unexplored on the set. Both the band name (Panzerballet) and the song title (“Vulgar Display of Sauerkraut”) provide hints as to where this Teutonic Metallica are headed. Some tenor sax will throw metalhead for a loop, but otherwise, the genre’s hallmarks – blindingly fast guitar licks, thundering rhythm semitone – are all here. Overall, it’s a bit jarring in the context of Son of Kraut‘s mostly moody atmosphere, but it gets better as it goes along.

The poster-styled liner notes (in both German and a chuckle-eliciting English translation) provide enough information to help those wishing to investigate the bands further. For listeners interested in a sampler that is both adventurous and not music not a million musical miles away form their comfort zone, Son of Kraut is recommended. It’s a safe bet that you’ll find something you enjoy in this album field with unfamiliar names.

N.B.: There’s an additional title in this series, a disc called Jazzkruat: Teutonal Jazz Rock Excursions. It features the aforementioned Kraan and Volker Kriegel; I will do my best to score a copy and review it here when I can.

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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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Psychedelic Resurrection: The Blues Magoos Interview, Part 2

Friday, December 12th, 2014

Continued from Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Psychedelic Resurrection: The Blues Magoos Interview, Part 1

Thursday, December 11th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Album Review: The Movements — Like Elephants II

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Album Review: The Movements — Like Elephants I

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Album Review: Casual Strangers — Casual Strangers

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

A fellow music lover and good friend of mine is quite wary of what one might call deceptive packaging in music. You know, that thing where a band says that the sound like some other band, or that they’re in some particular subgenre (or when their publicist uses the RIYL* and references another well-known band), and then they sound nothing like you expect.

It happens more often than he or I would like. Oftentimes, my resultant disappointment is enough to put me off the band completely. But occasionally, I’ll find that I appreciate what they have on offer even if it doesn’t sync with how they were being marketed. That’s largely the case with Casual Strangers. On their self-titled and self-released debut (vinyl) LP, this Austin quartet purports to have elements of krautrock and psychedelia in their mix. And while there’s a droning vibe to some of their songs (ostensibly, that’d be the krautrock), and they have male-and-female lead vocals a la fellow Austinites The Black Angels (that’s where you’d check the psych box), Casual Strangers have more of an 80s alternarock sound about them.

Certainly there are elements that at least partially justify the genre associations in their press kit: Moog analog synths on the record, and 3D graphics on the cover (complete with 3D glasses in the package). On the opening track, “Tune Your Brain,” crunchy/grunge-y guitars are supported by thudding basslines and sampled drums. But the song quickly unfolds into something more interesting and deeply-textured. “Casual Strangers (We Used to Be Friends)” has a romantic, slinky feel, and the juxtaposition of gentle picking on electric guitar with warbling synthesizer provides a dreamy air of regret. But when Katey Gunn launches into her spoken-word monologue (complete with “no duh” and “dude,”) I couldn’t help be reminded of Moon Unit Zappa on “Valley Girl,” or Julie Brown‘s “Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun.” Comedy songs both; I’m pretty sure that’s not the association that Casual Strangers were hoping for.

Several of the songs employ drum machines that give way to real drums; it’s an odd signature, but it pulls the listener into the songs in unexpected ways. The band goes all-out with a stinging lead guitar solo to open “Looking Good.” Coupling that with the song’s male/female vocal dialogue between Gunn and Paul Waclawsky, and you end up with a rocking take on Berlin‘s “Sex (I’m a…).” That said, the tune could use a few more lyrics; here, they’re approaching Silver Convention territory in their lyrical sparseness.

“Banshee” features more of Gunn’s icy spoken-word approach; here she has a sort of Nico feel (without the Teutonic accent, of course). Waclawsky’s soaring guitar is the best thing about the song (and, I’m beginning to think, the album as a whole). “Space Blues” could well be titled “Hey Joe, Part 23.” But the band’s combination of the blues form and a psychedelic feel might remind some of Muddy WatersElectric Mud album. It’s not very original, but it’s fun, and I expect it goes over great live onstage.

“Caribbean Cask” applies the band’s style to a vaguely exotica-flavored tune (courtesy of Gunn’s lap steel), with bonus points for spaghetti western-styled reverb guitar. An instrumental track (save for some “found” vocal snippets), it’s one of the best and most original tracks on Casual Strangers.

The start-every-song-with-a-drum-machine schtick being to wear thin by “Don’t Worry About a Thing.” The song itself is good, full of Dream Syndicate-style melodrama. Here Waclawsky takes his turn at talking-not-singing, which is fine if you enjoy an album filled with that kind of thing.

Despite its drum machine intro (see also: too friggin’ many other tracks here) and yet more spoken vocals (Waclawsky), the guitar and sonic effect on “Cats Meow” make it worth checking out.

The less said about “Put Your Mussy On My Mussy,” the better. It might be a piss-take on early 80s suburban punk; it might not. Either way, listening to it is an annoying way to spend 1:48.

More found audio provides the opening of the album closer, “Casual Strangers (See You Around).” Once the drum machine does its obligatory thing, the brief number serves up a catchy melody. Though it features a too-spare-by-half lyric, its boppy, Cure-like arrangement is catchy. And when I hear the “See you next time” shout-out as the song fades, I want to respond, “Okay, but bring more songs like on Side One and this last bit, leave the drum machine at home, and…sing!

Verdict: Mostly not psychedelic. Mostly not krautrockish. But not without its charms, in a vaguely 80s retro sort of way.

* “Review If You Like…”

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