Archive for the ‘rawk’ Category

On the Fringe of Consonance: Double Naught Spy Car + Stew (Part 3)

Friday, March 27th, 2015

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: So the actual sessions for Panorama City took place ten years ago?

Paul Lacques: Actually thirteen; we did these sessions in 2002. Y’know, we feel kinda bad. We did the sessions, and thought, “That was weird.” And then we went our separate ways. Then Marc went into mad scientist mode, and sent some mixes. But we didn’t know what to do with all of this. In a way, the mix that evolved over a decade into something that could be on a CD.

BK: I suppose it’s fair to say that the free-form approach you brought to the sessions was informed by everything you had heard and done before. And so now you’re thirteen years older. How do you think the sessions might have been different had you recorded them in 2015 instead of 2002?

PL: That’s an excellent question. We all would have been in a million bands since, but I’ve go to say that I think it would be fairly similar. Maybe some more advanced concepts. Maybe different effects boxes that the guitar players are using.

But we’re pretty much who we are. The band is made up of some pretty strong personalities. I think it would have been fundamentally the same. Stew came out in the fall [2014], and we did a live show. We didn’t know the songs at all; we just played ‘em. It was kind of live renditions of song he knew but we didn’t! And it went really well. I think our love of the unknown is still intact. So I think the sessions would have turned out just as well if they had been done today, because we’re just as naïve and willing to try new things.

BK: Panorama City is an unusual project, to say the least. Do you think that the American Composers’ Forum got what they bargained for with the end result?

PL: They’re very cool. We lost touch with them over the years; there was a period when we were doing some pretty avant-garde music, and someone heard it and interpreted it as “modern classical!” [laughs] So we’re hanging with the Cal Arts serial, atonal musical academics with their banks of synthesizers. Some of the meetings were crazy. We’d do some song, us being this brash rock band. And I think half of them were offended.

But the people that ran it at the time – the L.A. chapter – were really pushing us and helping us. And they actually suggested that we write the grant. And it was very open-ended; that’s the thing about this forum. It’s made up of people whose main goal is to break the rules of what’s considered music. So I think they had no expectations. If anything, it might have turned out a little more reasonable sounding than they had expected. They might have been expecting white noise or an Ornette Coleman kind of chaos. But oddly enough, it didn’t turn out that way. It turned out far more structured than any of us had guessed. And to me, that’s the most surprising thing about the whole project: it sounds like pop music.

BK: I wonder if that’s because fundamentally, you have a popular music sensibility. So that even when you’re being experimental, the music is grounded in, for lack of a better word, accessibility.

PL: For sure. We all grew up playing Rolling Stones songs, blues, and country music. For Marcus Watkins and myself as guitarists, country and blues is sort of our first vocabulary. Our bass player Marc Doten was raised on more of a jazz band [foundation]. He can play classical piano. Same with Joe [Berardi, drummer]. They went to music school. And Marcus has developed very sophisticated skills over the years. I’m probably the least schooled at this point.

We all came up with a shared taste for what I guess could be called the experimental. But we come out of rock, for sure.

Thank you for appreciating what we’re doing. It’s not for the faint of heart!

Panorama City will be released on April 14, 2015 on 11 Foot Pole.

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On the Fringe of Consonance: Double Naught Spy Car + Stew (Part 2)

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: The press release that accompanies my copy of Panorama City also uses the phrase “group ESP” when describing the interaction among you and your fellow musicians. I chuckled when I read that, because while I understand what was meant – an unspoken communication among the musicians – the avant-garde music also reminded me of the kind of thing that came out on ESP-Disk: The Fugs, Paul Bley, Albert Ayler, and Sun Ra, for example – all what one might term “outsider” music. Do you feel a kinship with those sort of exploratory artists?

Paul Lacques: Oh, definitely. Absolutely. And occasionally, the textures will sound a little…I’m not even sure what the category is. Experimental? The tonalities certainly go out on a limb, and that is how we approach our music. It’s not like, “Oh, we accidentally played a major seventh over a minor sixth chord.” That is how we think as a band. We look for melodies that are kind of on the fringe of consonance. We look for memorable phrases, but they can be quite dissonant.

It sounds kind of like…I don’t expect people to believe it, but we did start reading each others’ mind. You’ll hear the band switch on a dime. And hearing it now, I truly don’t know how we decided to change keys or chords, but we did. We weren’t looking at each other and signaling; we just felt it.

One of the things we’ve done is to make all of the raw tracks available. So you can hear it as it was played. We really hope people check that out, because you can hear the changes happening without any cues. It was an interesting experience, for sure.

BK: As we’ve touched upon, Stew recited his more-or-less free-form lyrics live while you played. Did the cadence of his lyrics affect the organic direction that the music took, or did you more or less tune it out while you were playing?

PL: We were very much listening. We could hear each other really well; we were gathered in a fairly tight circle, and Stew was in a vocal booth. (He also played a lot of guitar, keys, and melodica.) He was very much “in the room” with us. We were definitely supporting what he was doing, and responding to it.

Our approach was sort of, “We’ve got this recording date with this singer/songwriter Stew, and we’re pretending like we have charts to play.” Like a good Wrecking Crew or backing band, yeah. You support the lyrics, once they’re in.

BK: The difference being that in your case, it was done on the fly, spontaneously…

PL: A good studio band…you know, there’s that movie about The Wrecking Crew coming out. They played on hundreds of hits, and they were making licks up on the spot, too. They didn’t have two days to work on a song; they were expected to crank out at least one song in a couple of hours. If they were hot, they’d do a couple of songs. They made guitar licks and so forth up on the spot; that’s what they were hired to do.

And that was part of the model for us, too: “First thought, best thought.”

BK: So said Allen Ginsberg

PL: Yeah.

My personal mission is to steer people toward the long versions, so they can hear them as they were played. If they like the CD, they should explore the extended versions. Rather than imitating conventional music, this is what we did.

BK: The album clocks in under an hour, and it’s tightly edited. That is the exact opposite of what you started with once the sessions were over. But the extended tracks version you mention clocks in over four hours. Would you say that the album represents the “best” of the sessions, or is it just one perspective on them?

PL: I’ve got to lean toward the idea that it was just one distillation. If someone else had edited it, it would have come out completely different. And the tracks on their own – the seventeen-minute versions – I find them just as listenable, if slightly more dramatic. We left a lot of good solos out, some amazing bass and drum stuff. It’s just not there, because when you start with seventeen minutes, you’ve got to make some brutal choices.

So rather than a best-of, it’s one angle, one pathway into the swamp. And I think Marc did a fantastic job. Someone else could have carved a completely different path, and it would sound much different.

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On the Fringe of Consonance: Double Naught Spy Car + Stew (Part 1)

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

The members of Double Naught Spy Car don’t seem put off by the genre labels that (cough, cough) certain rock writers tend to apply to musical artists. In fact they’ve offered up a label of their own to describe their sound: “spaghetti/jazz/prog/surf/twang.” Now, if that doesn’t confuse listeners, their music just might. On their latest album Panorama City, the southern California quintet are joined by singer/lyricist Stew, formerly of equally-though-differently-quirky group The Negro Problem.

The project that gave rise to Panorama City started its life more than a decade ago, the product of a grant from the American Composers’ Forum. The resulting tapes languished for years, but now they’re available in both edited album form and in their raw, largely unaltered state.

I spoke with guitarist Paul Lacques about the development of the grant-financed sessions into a finished product that is decidedly avant-garde, yet somehow still accessible. And I’m also pleased to present a Musoscribe World Premiere in advance of Panorama City‘s April 14 release: the track “Bumpin’ Morton Subotnick” (see link below).

Bill Kopp: The nature of improvisation is that you free yourself from preconceptions as to where you’re going with the music. I understand that’s how a lot of late ’60s and early ’70s Miles Davis sessions were done. But then Teo Macero and Miles would splice, chop, edit, and reassemble the results into something they liked. Frank Zappa did something conceptually related: he’d take tapes of his live guitar solos, extract them from the multitracks and then craft new studio backing around them. To what extent did you engage in post-recording “sculpting” of these tracks?

Paul Lacques: Our bass player Marc Doten did the lion’s share of it. For example, if we had a seventeen-minute song, we needed to trim it down to four and a half minutes or so, maybe six minutes. So eleven minutes vanish right there. I think he moved a few things around, but the general flow is somewhat how we played it, but with big sections chopped out.

I think, as we were doing it, we had in our minds, “Maybe we’ll chop this up someday.” I don’t know; it really was leaping into the unknown when we started doing it. We didn’t really even talk about it. We just wrote this grant [proposal], promising to make songs up on the spot. Those were sort of broad instructions. But we actually did do it; one of us would just start playing, and the others would just fall in. The rule of improv is that you don’t leave your partner hanging.

So we did that. Somebody starts with a crazy drum or guitar lick, and we would literally follow along, thinking, “Oh, that’s how the song goes, okay? Well, then my part should go like this…” And then Stew would come in – sometimes right away, sometimes he’d wait five minutes – with some lyrics he had scrawled that morning or the day before. He’d go looking through his notebook for something that might match the groove. And then when it started sounding like music, he’d start singing. There were literally no second takes.

But to get back to your question about shifting order, it’s about 75% in the order we played it, with sections moved around.

BK: So did you do things like pulling the fader down on one of the guitars, taking things out of the mix?

PL: Oh, yeah. Sure. And you can hear it, where one guitar is very low in the mix. Because we didn’t have isolation, you’ll still hear it a little bit, but we definitely did some post-recording arranging with faders. There was a fair amount of manipulation done to the original tracks.

BK: I couldn’t help but notice that the press release that accompanied Panorama City seemed to go out of its way not to mention Captain Beefheart. Within my musical frame of reference, the music of Beefheart is the closest thing to what you’re doing on this album. Do you consider him an influence, and if so, in what ways?

PL: I agree. “Beefheartian” is the number one adjective that I would use. But the process we used was the opposite of what Beefheart did. I think he basically had a slave shop going, where he’d make his players learn his crazy parts absolutely verbatim. And they’d rehearse them until people were ready to run out of the desert shack and take their chances.

But that was very much the opposite of what we did. Still, it does sound like some Captain Beefheart stuff. Especially the guitars; there’s some really angular guitar playing and tone.

We were heavily influenced by Beefheart when we were growing up; all five of us. So I would embrace that influence, certainly. And I do hear the similarity in sound, sometimes.

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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: Supertramp — Crime of the Century (Deluxe Edition)

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

Among fans of progressive-minded 1970s rock, Supertramp have rarely gotten a fair shake. And the reasons are difficult to discern. Could it be the high-pitched lead vocals of co-lead singer Roger Hodgson? That’s doubtful; many prog fans took a strong liking to Jon Anderson‘s upper-register vocals in Yes (and please don’t get me started on Geddy Lee). Could it be the fact that Supertramp scored some Top 40 hit singles, most notably during the Breakfast in America era? That’s more likely to have been a factor, one potentially damaging their prog street-cred.

But their music remains. And once the group found their musical footing (though good, their earliest albums find them struggling for a defined sound), Supertramp produced some of the finest and most accessible prog-leaning “album rock” of the 1970s. And their high water mark came with their third LP, 1974′s Crime of the Century. By that point in the band’s career, all of the musical pieces of the puzzle had come together effectively. With a pair of singers (guitarist/keyboardist Hodgson and founder/keyboardist Richard Davies), neither of whom greatly enjoyed the spotlight(!), onstage the band’s spokesman and focal point was sax/reedman John Helliwell. The disparate influences upon the two primary songwriters (Hodgson and Davies) might have given the group’s sound a split personality, but somehow the two blended effectively.

Crime of the Century sports one of the era’s most seamlessly effective first sides. One wonders if the atmospherics that open “School” impressed Roger Waters; with a schoolyard scream leading into the song, “School” presages a similar approach used on Pink Floyd‘s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part Two),” a centerpiece of The Wall, a 1979 concept album with not-dissimilar subject matter. And the song’s dynamics – especially the slow-burn buildup to the delightful electric piano solo – are nothing short of thrilling.

“Bloody Well Right” is the earliest among the band’s well-known songs, and was released as a single (U.S. #35), but even it is a bit “progressive” for the singles charts. While the chorus is pretty well a singalong, the power-chording verses are another thing entirely.

“Hide in Your Shell” is this writer’s all-time favorite Supertramp song. Combining all of the sonic elements that make the band special, the melancholy yet uplifting lyric is a thing of beauty. And a good portion of its run time (nearly seven minutes) consists of hypnotically repeated musical motifs. Saxophone – an instrument with a mixed pedigree as part of a progressive rock lineup — is used to exceedingly good effect here and throughout Crime of the Century. Side One ends with “Asylum,” a lament that’s (again) melancholy, but that also possesses the widescreen grandeur one might expect to find on a Queen album of the era.

It would be difficult to top the first side of the album, and Side Two doesn’t really do that. But it’s effective enough, and carries forth the aesthetic established in the album’s first half. “Dreamer” kicks things off with its memorable and insistent Wurlitzer electric piano. In fact, “Dreamer” was the first single released off of Crime of the Century, but it failed to dent the charts in the USA (it reached #13 at home in the UK). But the determination that “Dreamer” was a commercially viable track wasn’t exactly wrong; it was simply a bit ahead of its time: a live version of “Dreamer,” released as a single off of 1980′s Paris, reached #15 on the American charts (and #1 in Canada).

“Rudy” is another melancholy number, providing contrast with the side’s opening cut. With Davies’ plaintive lead vocal and soulful, nimble acoustic piano work, the tune might remind some of Billy Joel at his best. The contemplative ambience continues with “If Everyone Was Listening,” another piano-led number that has a feel not completely removed from The Beatles‘ “Fool on the Hill.” As the song progresses and instruments are added, the arrangement unfolds into something quite lovely.

Back in the 70s, artists didn’t feel the need to extend their albums to eighty minutes; the album closes with the title track, a melodramatic number featuring arrangement and production flourishes that recall/foreshadow Bob Ezrin‘s work for Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, and…Pink Floyd’s The Wall. (Crime of the Century was in fact ably produced by the estimable Ken Scott with the band.) Some lovely twin lead guitar work – a feature not in great supply on this keyboard-centered album – is a nice touch. The track’s soaring string arrangement is the cherry on top.

The 2015 Deluxe Edition of Crime of the Century includes the original album in a digipak that features an excellent and lengthy liner note essay by Mojo editor-in-chief Phil Alexander. And a bonus disc provides an audio document of a March 1975 Supertramp concert in London. The live disc serves to illustrate a couple of key points about Supertramp of that era. One, they were very, very good live onstage, succeeding at recreating the sonic landscape of their studio album with only their five-piece lineup. And two, Supertramp had some seriously high-caliber live sound reinforcement. The mid 1970s are not remembered as a golden era for live concert sound, and the subtleties of electric and acoustic pianos, saxophones, harmonicas and the like could often be lost onstage. But not on this night, and not with this band.

The concert as presented here includes the entirety of Crime of the Century, played start to finish in order, with five additional songs inserted in the space where home listeners would have flipped over their vinyl LP. All of these (save an impromptu reading of “A – You’re Adorable”) would appear on the group’s next album, Crisis? What Crisis?, released six months later, but at this stage they most likely had not yet been recorded in any form.

Sometimes Deluxe Editions offer up little in the way of an upgrade over the original release. But Supertramp’s Crime of the Century: Deluxe Edition effectively supplants earlier releases of this classic album, and is recommended in the strongest terms.

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Album Review: JD McPherson – Let the Good Times Roll

Monday, March 16th, 2015

For music to retain its vital edge, it must keep pushing forward. Trying new things, seeking out new songs; those are key to music remaining vital. It’s a clumsy metaphor, but music is like a shak: it simply has to keep moving. When things get moribund, eventually something comes along to give music a sift kick up the arse (so to speak). It happened with punk, in many ways a reaction to “corporate rock” of the 70s (and not, I’d argue, so much as a reaction to arty/progressive music; think of how many so-called punks were art school students, how many liked, say, Can, even if they didn’t admit it).

But there’s nothing wrong with an occasional look back over one’s musical shoulder, a revisiting of the sounds and musical aesthetics of the past. The value of such an approach is evident in some ways through the current resurgence of popularity of “classic soul.” It wasn’t that many years ago that a band like Charles Bradley and the Extraordinaires, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, or Lee Fields couldn’t get a headlining gig. But now they do, and the music scene is far better for it being so.

Back in early 2010 I reviewed a thrilling album by former Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist Nick Curran: his Reform School Girls was a knowing pastiche of the rawest 50s sounds, filtered through a modern (postpunk) sensibility. Sadly, Curran passed away far too young, leaving that album as his final recorded musical statement.

Happily, however, there’s another musical of note who’s covering similar (but not identical) musical ground today. JD McPherson‘s Let the Good Times Roll is another slab of musical red meat. I missed him on his recent swing through Asheville, but Let the Good Times Roll is pretty exciting for a studio recording. On this, McPherson’s sophomore release, the wild and reckless feel of early rock’n'roll (as captured on the essential Loud, Fast & Out of Control box set) is brought forth largely intact to the second decade of the 21st century, informing the music with a knowledge and understanding of all the hard rock that came in the wake of those early pioneers.

As such, Let the Good Times Roll is more timeless than retro-minded. And though its overall feel is decidedly uptempo, not every track is balls-out rocking. Among the subtle numbers is the standout “Bridgebuilder,” which shows the influence of Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and the like. The production aesthetic on Let the Good Times Roll does sometimes recall Phil Spector or Shadow Morton (or Sun Studios) at times, but even on that score McPherson somehow updates and modernizes things.

But mostly, McPherson and his bandmates do indeed rock. And their brand of rock owes a lot to the crazed, hi-octane style of Little Richard. There’s no denying the timeless appeal of “It Shook Me Up,” with its impossibly low, rubbery and twangy lead guitar solo. But the diamond-hard rocking guitar on “Head Over Heels” (decidedly not the Tears for Fears tune) owes as much to The Stooges, MC5 or New York Dolls as any 50s rocker.

Simply put, there are no weak tracks on Let the Good Times Roll. From the opening title track to its end, it’s a solid collection of tunes and performances, the sort of which might make you (like me) regret having missed a chance to check out JD McPherson live onstage. And speaking of the last track, “Everybody’s Talking ‘Bout the All American” is – as I rediscover reading the liner notes booklet – “dedicated to the memory of Nick Curran: guitar hero, teen idol, true rock n’ roller, and friend.”

JD McPherson’s Let the Good Times Roll is highly recommended, and it’s an early contender for best album of 2015.

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A Trip Back in Time with Trip Shakespeare (Part Three)

Friday, March 13th, 2015

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: As we discussed earlier, you’re credited as co-producer on the new Trip Shakespeare reissues of Applehead Man and Are You Shakespearienced? I assume that the original albums were cut on analog equipment, right?

John Munson: Yup.

BK: So were the masters in good shape? Did you do anything along the lines of remastering or fiddling with the mixes for the reissues?

JM: I really left the actual masters to Omnivore. I approved the masters. Because they sounded just great to me. Immediately. It was like, “Oh, this is just so much better.” On Are You Shakespearienced? in particular.

In some cases, we didn’t have great stuff to work with. A lot of the source material has been lost to the sands of time. [laughs] The sands have washed over and buried a lot of the stuff. So while I think they had the original half-inch masters for Are You Shakespearienced?, we couldn’t find them for Applehead Man. So they might have had to work with a CD version, and then remaster it. But they improved both of them so much, in my opinion.

BK: When Trip Shakespeare ended, you went on to work with Dan Wilson in Semisonic, and then when that ended you teamed up with Matt Wilson for The Twilight Hours. From that I assume you’re all still on pretty good terms. I know you got together to play two songs onstage in December 2013. With the buzz created around these reissues, has there been any talk of a Trip Shakespeare reunion, even just a one-off?

JM: [grasps for the right words] You know, I would love to do it. And certainly a lot of friends are like, “Come on!” [laughs, and then turns more serious] It was…a complicated band. It’s not like you could just uncork it and pour out the magic. If we were going to do a full show, it would take a lot of effort and time to do that. And I think we’re all a bit leery of…crapping on our legacy. [laughs]

BK: I appreciate your candor.

JM: Well, you know, a lot of my mates tell me, “You guys were the tightest fuckin’ band I ever saw.” And we spent the time. So it’s not necessarily so easy to fall back into it. Think about what Elaine [Harris] does, for example. That stand-up drumming thing is not like falling off a log. Even to do the couple of tunes that we did at the [2013] Holiday gig, I chose the songs that I thought would be the least strain on her. And she killed it, of course. But she practiced for months to get herself back up to a level where she felt comfortable.

And so that’s what it would take. And I don’t know if anybody has the time. I would do it in a heartbeat. But I think it would have to be the right offer, or something like that.

BK: You make a good point. A big part of what made Trip Shakespeare loved by the people that loved them was the fact that so much care did go into the music. I love the Replacements, too, like you mentioned. But their aesthetic was, if they screwed up, that was part of the charm. That was never the Trip Shakespeare approach. It was finely honed. And if you got together for a ramshackle performance, it would be kind of crapping on the legacy, quite honestly: “What’s this!?”

JM: I think that’s true. So if we were to do it, we would do it with tender loving care. And if we didn’t do it, the reason would be because we didn’t have the time to pour the attention that we wanted to into it.

BK: Changing subjects a bit now, if you don’t mind. As I mentioned at the beginning, I absolutely loved Stereo Night by The Twilight Hours. I have the red vinyl. In fact on my blog I named it one of 2009′s best albums along with Pugwash (who are now also on Omnivore), along with albums by Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, a Big Star box set, and the like. What’s the current status of The Twilight Hours?

JM: It’s funny that you should ask, because I was just comping a vocal for a record that we’re all but done with…

BK: I am so happy to hear that.

JM: We have about three vocals left to do. And then it’s going to be mixed, and – by God – it’s gonna be out this year! It’s definitely going to happen.

It’s been such a journey. The thing about it is, it’s hard to have it be anything less than exactly what you want it to be. Because there’s no urgency to sort of just kick it out the door. Because what’s going to happen? No one knows. Very little, probably. There’s no momentum that we have to pursue, so we just have to satisfy ourselves, essentially, and get it out.

I should mention – no big secret – that Dan actually sang on a couple of tracks. I almost feel like we should get Elaine to play on it a little bit, and then it would almost be like a little bit of a Trip Shakespeare reunion in some sense.

BK: As much as I loved Semisonic, when I first heard Twilight Hours, I thought, “This is more of a straight line from what Trip Shakespeare did.” It’s different, certainly, but it had more in common with Trip Shakespeare than Semisonic did. To my ears, anyway.

JM: For sure. That’s Matt. Dan and Matt, they’re brothers, and their voices sound very similar sometimes, but their artistic sensibilities are quite different. Dramatically different, really.

For me, when we started up Semisonic, that was really refreshing. Because as great a time as we all had doing Trip Shakespeare, by the time that we kind of augered in [laughs] and were like a burning heap on the runway, I was done with it. All the baroque moves and the attention to detail, I – and all of us in the band, even Matt – had become tired of it. It was just too much.

Have you ever heard Matt’s [1998 solo] record Burnt, White and Blue?

BK: No, I haven’t…

JM: Oh, you must get that. If you’re a fan of Matt’s music – and it sounds like you most definitely are – you should find it. It’s a truly great record. He made that right around the time that Dan and I were making Feeling Strangely Fine, which has “Closing Time” on it.

It kind of shows: both projects were kind of incompatible with the Trip Shakespeare sensibility. It was more like a straight rock approach. But I think that by the time we came around to Stereo Night, the Trip Shakespeare viewpoint was a little more…it was back, a little bit.


And in a sense, Trip Shakespeare are back. The new Omnivore Recordings reissues of their first two albums, Applehead Man and Are You Shakesperienced? are out now, packed with previously unreleased bonus tracks and featuring excellent liner notes by Jon Niccum, including numerous quotes from John Munson, Elaine Harris, Matt Wilson and Dan Wilson.

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A Trip Back in Time with Trip Shakespeare (Part Two)

Thursday, March 12th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: When Trip Shakespeare cut Applehead Man, you were originally a trio. By the time of the second album, Matt Wilson‘s brother Dan had joined. Two brothers. How did that change the dynamics of the band?

John Munson: Well, it did change it. I was sheepishly telling somebody the other day that when Dan joined the band, I cried. Literally. It broke my heart. I was quite content to have it be a trio, and I suspected that with Dan coming in, it would change the dynamic in way that would lock me out.

And that did not turn out to be the case. What it really did was put the whole vocal concept way more forward. I was recently listening to the Applehead Man remaster, and there’s a lot of cool vocal stuff going on there. But it’s almost all Matt. After Applehead Man came out, and we started to do more gigs, Matt’s voice revealed itself to be a pretty fragile instrument. And as we were talking with agents about doing more shows, one guy said, “Well…Dan can sing really well. And John can sing. Why don’t you figure out a way that Matt can sing a little bit less? Maybe that will make it easier on you.” Matt really took that to heart, and that’s when the larger vocal concept moved forward. That’s when the vocal arrangements got really dense and [laughs] baroque.

Matt would write songs and then say, “I think this is one for you to sing.” So it wasn’t necessarily even songs that I was writing that I’d sing; Matt would just say, “This one’s for you, John. You sing it.” Also, another thing that would sometimes happen is that Matt would write a song, and then everyone would try it, to see whose voice it worked best with.

BK: A band is dealing from a position of strength when they have multiple lead singers.

JM: It’s true. But on the other hand, while from a musical point of view it makes good sense, it makes it more confusing for the audience: “Who’s really in charge?” It’s kind of important to audiences to kind of know who’s the sort of heroic, artistic auteur. I think audiences want that on some level. So sometimes when I think about what went wrong, I sometimes wonder if that was a factor. For a certain kind of fan, it was something they really attached to, gravitated toward. But I think for most, for more general audiences, it made it harder to understand the band.

BK: Good point, I guess. But…it worked for the Beatles.

JM: [laughs] I guess that’s true! Lest we forget.

BK: We’ve already begun to touch on this point. I’m not the first to comment on the seemingly magical qualities of sibling vocalists in a band. The Everly Brothers, The Kinks, hell, even Oasis. So that was something you picked up on once Dan joined…

JM: Most definitely. There’s something that happens there; maybe it’s the shape of the voice box. It’s magical, or just genetic. And beyond understanding. You can’t coach it; it just happens.

BK: Both of the new reissues – Applehead Man and Are You Shakespearienced? – include lots of bonus material in the form of previously unreleased tracks. When you heard these bonus cuts again recently, did you remember them? Or had they all faded away in the mists of memory?

JM: As a matter of fact, I basically oversaw the gleanings and cullings and all that. So I was quite familiar with those tracks by the time these reissues came out. To me, in every single case with any and all of that stuff, there was a good reason why it didn’t see the light of day originally. But also, I believe that in every case there’s a reason why it might be interesting to the more serous fan. There are some gems in there.

I had kind of gone through…hmm…I want to say maybe as long as fifteen years ago…and gathered up a bunch of outtake stuff and said, “Look. We’ve got all this stuff. There’s an interest. People would enjoy it. Let’s put it out.” I presented it to the band, and there was [pauses] a real reluctance to go down that road at that time. And so I put it away, sat on it. And then when Cheryl [Pawelski] called, she asked, “Do you have any outtake-type material?” And I said, “Oh, yes I do.” And enough time had gone by so that – even reluctantly – people were willing to let it come out.

There are still a few things hanging around, that we’re saving for the next record if that actually happens. And if it doesn’t…maybe I’ll put that stuff up online or something…

BK: …Which leads very nicely into my next question. I know you did one EP after Lulu. I’ve never heard Volt but I’m sure I’d like hearing Trip Shakespeare do covers. Are there plans for Omnivore Recordings to eventually reissue Across the Universe and Lulu, and if so, do you think the songs from Volt will end up as bonus tracks?

JM: Most definitely Across the Universe and Lulu. Or…at least we’re discussing it. I think the big issue for Cheryl and for Brad [Rosenberger, both of Omnivore] is, does it make financial sense? I don’t have any idea if this [Trip Shakespeare reissue program] is working out the way that they had hoped, or better than they had hoped, or not as well. I really don’t know. I do know that the initial reissues were really nicely received here in the Twin Cities. But beyond that I don’t really have any concept of how it’s done.

That was the thing about the band: it was well-loved in the Midwest, and as you got farther and farther from there, it [dwindled]. We had an audience in New York and Boston; it became a thing that was only in bigger towns. It kind of petered out as we got toward the coast, a little bit.

BK: Well, yeah. I grew up in Atlanta, and I bought both of the A&M albums when they came out, on vinyl. But I didn’t know anyone else who did. [laughs]

JM: Not very many people did. We had very good friends down at Wax n’ Facts [record store]. I think we played in Little Five Points here and there. We had a good friend named Jim Barber, who was a big mover and shaker down that way. Atlanta was actually one of our little strongholds. But the records did best in the upper Midwest, for sure.

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A Trip Back in Time with Trip Shakespeare (Part One)

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

My interview with John Munson, bassist with late 1980s critical darlings Trip Shakespeare, began with him noting that my name sounded familiar to him: “How might I have heard your name before?” he asked me. I told him that it may well have been in connection with my enthusiastic 2009 review of an album that he and Matt Wilson (as The Twilight Hours) released, a record called Stereo Night. (I’d go on to name Stereo Night one of 2009′s best albums, and I stand by that assertion more than five years later.)

We would discuss that subject more later in the interview, but Munson agreed that that was probably where he had heard/seen my name: “Whatever reviews that record ever got, I read them with great interest,” he laughed. “Because there weren’t that many of them!” He then made a keen observation. “Every musician becomes accustomed to the fact that at least a goodly portion of their total output will be ignored.” He laughed when he said that, too, but his comment serves as good an introduction as any into the main subject of our interview.

In 1986, Minneapolis-based Trip Shakespeare released Applehead Man, their first album, on tiny local label Gark records. At the time the group was a trio: founder and guitarist Matt Wilson, bassist John Munson, and stand-up drummer Elaine Harris. The album was a bit out of step with the prevailing “Minneapolis sound” (whatever that was) but it was an excellent debut. The group followed that disc up two years later with Are You Shakespearienced? again on Gark. By that point they had added a second guitarist, Dan Wilson, who also happened to be Matt’s brother.

On the strength of those two albums and their live performances, Trip Shakespeare finally got noticed, and by 1989 the group had signed with A&M Records. They’d go on to release two major-label albums and an EP before breaking up around 1992. After the group ended, two members (Munson and Dan Wilson) went on to form Semisonic, a more musically straightforward band that scored major hits, most notably the single “Closing Time.” After that band ended, Munson teamed again with Matt Wilson for Twilight Hours. Dan Wilson then embarked on a successful solo career.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: those first two Trip Shakespeare albums have now been reissued by Omnivore Recordings, each appended with bonus tracks that nearly double the length of each disc. The former members of the band remain on good terms (as you’ll discover reading our conversation), and they cooperated on this new reissue. In fact, John Munson is credited (along with Omnivore’s Grammy-winning Cheryl Pawelski) as co-producer of the reissues.

As a longtime fan of Trip Shakespeare and the members’ subsequent musical activities, I jumped at the opportunity to chat with John Munson. Picking up again just after his observation about toiling in obscurity, here’s our conversation. – bk


Bill Kopp: For me, one of the most appealing hallmarks of Trip Shakespeare’s sound has been your bass. Not only what you play, but how. It sounds like a lot of what you did was played on a fretless.

John Munson: That kind of started to happen a little after the first two records. I did play some fretless on Are You Shakesperienced? But none on Applehead Man. I had started to learn it when the band started, but I wasn’t confident enough with it to subject people to my learning curve. Later, I got bolder about making mistakes.

BK: The only other rock player of note I can think of who played a good bit of fretless was Colin Moulding of XTC. Are there any bass players you’d name as influential on your style?

JM: I grew up [listening to Paul] McCartney. My brother had all those records; he would get them as soon as they came out. And I really love Colin Moulding, too, as a matter of fact. And John Paul Jones was another guy who used some fretless bass here and there. I’m really an admirer of his; he’s a really funky, groovy bass player. People don’t always think of him that way, but he’s got a lot going on.

It’s the melodious players that I love the most. And certainly if you’re playing fretless, you know that Jaco Pastorius is a guy that always comes to mind. I could never be him, never play “Donna Lee.” But I love his sound; it was so very expressive.

BK: And now you can say that you have music out on the same label as he does…

JM: Is that right?

BK: Yes. Some really early Pastorius stuff came out on Omnivore in 2014. An album called Modern American Music…Period! The Criteria Sessions. Really good.

JM: Oh, I’m gonna have to pester Cheryl for that! [laughs]

BK: To me, a strong sense of melody has always been at the heart of Trip Shakespeare’s music. The band was never “twee” so to speak, but neither was it as funky as Prince or as hard-edged as Hüsker Dü. At the time – in the mid 1980s – how did you see yourselves fitting into the music scene in Minneapolis?

JM: You know, I think that we never did fit in, to be perfectly honest. At that time, I remember that people would talk about the “Minneapolis sound.” And if you were actually in Minneapolis, it never really made all that much sense. Because there was so much going on, and it was all really different. I mean, how do you square Hüsker Dü with Prince? It doesn’t add up. And both artists would be characterized as the Minneapolis sound. Not to mention The Replacements and the nascent version of Soul Asylum, Loud Fast Rules. There was a lot of different music going on, and to some extent Trip Shakespeare stood a little bit outside of that mainstream of rockin’ Minneapolis. It was a little bit…it’s hard to characterize yourself, but it was a little bit more…melodious and worked-over.

There was a real attitude, certainly among The Replacements, that they were tossing it off. Like, “Aw, it’s something we rolled out of bed and made into a record.” There were never any illusions for us, other than that we wanted to work really hard to make the music the best that we possibly could. And so some people, I think, thought that we worked it too hard, that to a certain strain of Minneapolis rockers we were kind of embarrassing: “Don’t show that you want it.”

BK: While composition of some of the songs on the albums are credited to the whole band, most are by Matt Wilson and/or his brother Dan Wilson. But on every Trip Shakespeare album, and later, on every Semisonic album, you have at least one composition credit or co-credit. To what extent were you involved in things like vocal arrangement, musical arrangement and so forth?

JM: I think everyone in the band was pretty darn involved in developing the songs. A band needs a kind of engine, an urgent aesthetic point of view. And for Trip Shakespeare, that was definitely Matt. It was Matt’s vision from the get-go. He had a concept for what it was that he wanted to accomplish. But he was also the foremost advocate for a democratic band view; he wanted the whole band to be involved in the band. And so everybody really was involved, and we worked really hard to make vocal arrangements and things like that that really worked for all of us.

And he’s also very encouraging in terms of writing. Both Dan and Matt were always encouraging me to put my ideas forward, which is great.

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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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