Archive for the ‘psych’ Category

Beatles vs. Rolling Stones: Another Round

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

Back when I was a kid, the Beatles-or-Stones question was a real thing: among my childhood peers, one had to pick a side. That one could like both groups was, it seems, not a concept around which we could wrap our minds.

These days I’m much older and slightly wiser, and I enjoy both (Beatles still win by a long shot if I must pick). The folks at Cleopatra Records agree, as do the roster of acts whom they’ve employed to help create a pair of tribute albums (the label’s specialty). Magical Mystery Psych-out: A Tribute to The Beatles and Stoned: A Psych Tribute to The Rollings Stones bring together a cross-section of modern psych (and/or psych influenced) bands.

Of the two, the Beatles tribute disc plays it safer track-wise. Most of the songs on that disc are covers of material The Beatles cut in the Rubber Soul, Revolver and White Album eras. And the one outlier – “And I Love Her” – is given a relatively straight, faithful reading by The Lucid Dream. They keep the jangling guitar largely intact, and give the tune an arrangement somewhat reminiscent of what Best Coast might do. (A note-for-note copy of George Harrison’s guitar solo is a nice reminder that sometimes simplicity is the best approach. Electric Moon‘s reading of “Tomorrow Never Knows” sounds a lot like how one might expect The Brian Jonestown Massacre to cover it (though BJM’s vocals are better than the weedy vox on this version).

While other psych tributes from Cleopatra enlisted the help of a few “name” acts (Allah-Las, for example) Magical Mystery Psych-out features groups who will be familiar only to the hardest of hardcore modern-psych aficionados.

A few of the featured bands on this set are clearly not intimidated by the massive popularity of The Beatles; maybe it’s because they’re young and have less reverence (which is a good thing in this case), but The Vacant Lots‘ “Julia” creates an arrangement that owes nearly nothing to the 1968 original. Kudos to them for thinking outside the box. The same can be said about The Ruby Sun‘s cover of “Martha My Dear,” though in this case they win on originality but lose on musicality; the dirge-like pace of their arrangement might make some listeners grind their teeth. The Underground Youth‘s trip-hop reinvention of “Come Together” is a curio if nothing else. Kikagaku‘s “Helter Skelter” is a eardrum-splitting, punishing noisefest that makes the original sound like ear candy. And Strangers Family Band‘s “Sun Kings” is evocative of nothing so much as the still unattributed not-Beatles bootleg outtake, “Candle Burns.”

At least musicwise, The Rolling Stones’ psychedelic period lasted for all of one album, Their Satanic Majesties Request. But on the psych tribute to the band, tunes from all through the Stones’ catalog are given the treatment. A highlight of the set is The KVB‘s cover of “Sympathy for the Devil.” Instead of building an arrangement around a familiar riff, they strip the tune down to its basic parts, rebuilding it in a hazy, gaudy manner that recalls The Psychedleic Furs or any number of 90s shoegaze bands. Well done.

Shiny Darkly‘s “Under My Thumb” is close to the original (if the original was recorded in an airplane hangar with squalls of echo and feedback). Yeti Lane‘s “Sway” is appealing in a zonked-out way. Clinic‘s drum-machine-led reading of “It’s Only Rock & Roll (But I Like It)” sounds like Trio (“Da Da Da”), and doesn’t really work, but like some of the acts mentioned on the Beatles tribute, they score for originality if nothing else.

Sons of Hippies play it straight on “Gimme Shelter,” which raises an interesting question: on a tribute album, is it better to copy the original or reinvent it? Their reading of the classic Stones tune is just about the best thing on the pair of albums.

Surprisingly, The Allah-Las‘ version of “Stoned” is perfunctory; the certainly can do better. Pink Velvet‘s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is a slavish copy of the original, albeit one with the lead vocal bumped up an octave. But Pure X‘s reading of “Beast of Burden” is interesting and nicely textured, a sort of cross between indie rock and Martin Denny‘s bachelor pad tropicalia.

Like most albums of their ilk, this pair of releases aren’t likely to end up in most listeners’ heavy rotation, but they’re both reasonably well done. Thanks to somewhat more adventurous song selection, in this Beatles-vs.-Stones round, the decision goes to The Rolling Stones.

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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 shwo 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 traing 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. Buti n 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. An 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: Gong – I See You

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

Daevid Allen departed this temporal plane a last week. The music legend was best known as one of the founding members of Soft Machine, Canterbury England jazz/rock heroes. To continental fans, he was equally revered for founding and maintaining Gong, the (more or less) French hippie collective. (Oddly enough, Allen was neither British nor French; he was born in Melbourne, Australia.)

Neither of those groups was what most would call mainstream. Their approaches folded in elements of free jazz, space rock, and other styles that lay at the margin of the commercial spectrum. But both were capable of some deeply experimental and exciting work that sometimes made small moves in the direction of mass appeal.

Allen bowed out of involvement with Gong in the mid 1970s, choosing instead to work on other projects; the band continued (and continues) billed as Pierre Moerlen’s Gong. But around 2000, Allen reactivated his own Gong lineup. 2014′s I See You would be the final album form the gorup, as by its release, it was clear that Allen’s medical condition was terminal. But fortunately, – and though he didn’t even get the six months he though he had remaining, I See you shows Allen and band still making the music they wanted to, on their own terms.

“Occupy” sounds a lot like the more manic moments of King Crimson‘s “21st Century Schizoid Man,” but beyond that, on I See You, Gong sound like…Gong. Flutes and saxes (courtesy of Ian East) flutter in and out of the mix, while Allen’s vocals share the out-front space with guitar work from Kavus Torabi and Favio Golfetti (Gong has always been an international affair).

There’s an overall feel on I See You that’s halfway been hypnotic and unsettling. Once its spoken intro is out of the way, “The Eternal Wheel Spins” feels like a cross between Hawkwind and Ozric Tentacles (the latter of whom were most certainly influenced by Gong).

The odd thing about Gong as showcased on I See You is that though they’ve always had a predilection for jazz-flavored, jammy space rock, there is a sense of – dare I say – discipline at work in the crafting of these tunes. Without compromising the weird ‘n’ wooly Gong vibe, Daevid Allen and his band mates created one of the most appealingly accessible works in Gong’s catalog. The free-wheeling sense that one can find in live albums of this sort of music is wholly in place, yet with the structure and tight editing that one usually find only in studio albums.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of off-the-wall strangeness on I See You: the opening sounds of “Syllabub” are deeply weird, as is the track itself, which may remind some listeners of early Kevin Ayers (yet another Gong-related figure of legendary reputation). Gong’s publicist seems to think “’Syllabub’ sounds like a hit song,” but I’m wondering in what solar system that could be the case. Not the one in which Earth resides, I should think. And that’s all to the good: if Gong got too accessible, they’d doubtless lose much of what constitutes their appeal. That said, I See You shows us an uncharacteristically accessible side of the band. That’s no small feat for a group led by a 75-year-old man with terminal cancer.

Daevid Allen delivers a soliloquy of sorts with “This Revolution” a sort of modern-day follow-on to Gil Scott-Heron‘s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The spoken word track may also be something of a farewell message from Allen. In light of his passing, it sounds bittersweet yet hopeful. “Zion My T-shirt” may have an inscrutable title and vocals, but its opening is reminiscent of the Mapuga tribe vocals on the somewhat obscure Pink Floyd tune “Absolutely Curtains.” And the playful “Pixielation” suggests what McDonald & Giles might have sounded like with Donovan on lead vocals.

Anyone who enjoys the work of, say, Steve Hillage (still another Gong associate) will find a lot to enjoy in I See You. And as the last recorded musical statement from Daevid Allen (just listen to “Thank You”), it’s both a fitting work to cap an intriguing career and a fine place for a Gong novitiate to begin (and then work backward).

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Album Review: Harvey Mandel — Snake Box

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

Meaning absolutely no disrespect to the artists to whom I refer, the music scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s was filled with what one might call second-string guitarists. These guys (and at this point in history, nearly the entire roster was male) weren’t on the notoriety level of Jimmy Page, John McLaughlin, or Eric Clapton. But at their best, they were as good, even if their music was known (much less heard) by fewer listeners. Some of the names that come to mind include fusion great Larry Coryell; three of pre-pedestrian Fleetwood Mac‘s guitarists (Peter Green, Danny Kirwan, Jeremy Spencer); and Canned Heat‘s Harvery Mandel (I am certain readers can think of many others).

Alongside his work with Canned Heat (he was a member of the group’s “second classic” lineup circa 1969-1970, and rejoined briefly on several later – and less noteworthy – occasions), Mandel maintained a solo career. Between 1968 and 1972, Mandel released six solo albums. Five from this period – all but the ’72 release Get Off in Chicago – have now been released in a set titled Snake Box (Mandel’s nickname is “The Snake”). While all of the original vinyl albums (Cristo Redentor from 1968, Righteous from 1969, 1970′s Games Guitars Play, 1971′s Baby Batter, and The Snake from 1972) can still be acquired for small sums (i.e. often under $5), none of the albums has had a recent CD/digital release. So the new box set presents them all together, each housed in an LP reproduction style sleeve, in one tidy package.

Snake Box also includes a rare onstage recording called Live at the Matrix, a set from Christmas Eve 1968 in San Francisco that features an all-star lineup of Frisco locals: Mandel with Jerry Garcia, Elvin Bishop, Steve Miller, Mickey Hart, and John Chambers.

Mandel was and remains a guitarist of great versatility, and one with a wide stylistic vision. Nominally a blues player, he sounds comfortable in any number of musical idioms. Widely recognized as an originator of the two-hand tapping technique (see also: Eddie Van Halen and Stanley Jordan), Mandel sounded as comfortable playing jazz-inflected licks as he did within the context of blues (or blues rock).

Mandel’s ability to trade in multiple styles resulted in albums that could seem all over the place. His interests and influences on these disc are so vast that it’s quite difficult to pin down a Mandel style. As often as not working with an ensemble, Mandel created albums that were cohesive wholes, not merely showcases for his guitar playing. For example, the first track on his first album, the title track of Christo Redentor, features a wordless female soprano vocal that sounds eerily like a Theremin. And the track’s lush string arrangement (complete with harps) is pretty well outside the rock idiom. From there Mandel left-turns into “Before Six,” a tune that anticipates early Blood, Sweat and Tears, and sounding not unlike The Paul Butterfield Blues Band crossed with, say, Cold Blood.

For those who haven’t heard Mandel’s solo work, the nearest artist to whom he might be compared is Shuggie Otis, another musician of singularly wide musical vision. Mandel’s playing is often exciting, featuring thickly sustained notes that are both economical and expressive at once. For his albums, he enlisted some legendary talent, including Graham Bond, Larry Taylor, Eddie Hoh, Pete Drake, and Emil Richards (to name but a few). Vocals show up occasionally, but Mandel seems to understand his strengths (and they are many), sticking to those.

Dave Thompson‘s liner note essay is informative, but the reader may be left wishing the box’s producers had given him more space. But that’s really a minor complaint, as the music on Snake Box largely speaks for itself. Snake Box is a treasure trove of heretofore underappreciated gems. Harvey Mandel is an artist who starts with blues and then pushes far beyond the supposed boundaries of the genre. Those receptive to such an approach are well advised to dive into this box set.

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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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