Archive for the ‘rawk’ Category

World Party’s Karl Wallinger: He’s the One (Part 2)

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: I’ve been a fan and follower of World Party ever since the 1986 release of Private Revolution, but the album I return to the most is Egyptology. I saw World Party on that tour. From what I gathered at the time, the entity that supported the release – I don’t even know if it was a record label per se – was The Enclave…

Karl Wallinger: It was a label that was formed out of EMI in New York, by Tom Zutat, the guy who signed Guns N’ Roses. It was his label, but it folded a year, maybe two years, after it started.

BK: Right, and that was very shortly after Egyptology came out, leading to the album getting less of a promotional push, and less distribution, than it otherwise would have. Can you tell me more about that?

KW: It was already starting to unwind, the whole relationship with EMI. A lot of things were going on that I didn’t really know much about; it was between management and the label in England. So we got quietly done in by the stupidity around the place.

That’s what happened. But that’s your life, you know? You have to deal with it; you just get on with it. I was lucky enough to get everything back in the end. And it was mainly because of the way they treated that album. It had some good songs on it; it had “She’s the One” on it. It was a good album, and it shouldn’t have just faded away. But that enabled me to go along and say, “Well, you fucked that up, and I’ve got an album to do, but I don’t want to do it with you. And you haven’t got a say on whether I do it or not, so give me my catalog and scrap the debt. See you later; I’ll walk, and give me control of my catalog.”

I got [the rights to] all my records back after that. Everything that’s bad doesn’t have to have a bad ending. It was actually very fortuitous that they fucked up like that. Because now I own my catalog.

BK: You hold the guitar left-handed – as do I – but you play a guitar that’s strung right-handed…

KW: I play it upside down, but I play it strung right-handed. I didn’t know any difference when I was a kid. I just thought, “I’ll use my right hand to make the shapes, because it’s easier.”

BK: So…you’re right handed?

KW: Yeah. I just flipped it over and started playing it upside down.

BK: Do you think that having the low strings on the bottom affects your overall sound?

KW: Oh, yeah. It’s strange, but I’m sort of into it. And it’s too late now! I can’t just switch over like Jimi Hendrix. I mean, he could play with his feet, couldn’t he? I can’t do anything like that; I just bang out some chords. I’m not really…I just sort of mess about on guitar.

BK: In the cases I’ve read wherein someone suffers a stroke or a similar medical calamity, I’ve often read of the idea that they have to “learn how to do certain things all over again.” After you recovered from your 2001 brain aneurysm, did you find yourself in a situation like that?

KW: Yeah, in some ways. There were things like, where you look when you’re playing the piano. Because I’ve been left with no right-hand vision in both eyes. So it’s a sort of strange, 3-D vision. It’s only from the center to the left.

Looking at the piano, I always used to look at my right hand, and be aware of the shapes it’s making. And it’s weird now because I can’t see it, even though it’s right in front of me. Stuff like that just makes you have to play and play, and get used to it.

The same with guitar: I can’t see my hand on the neck. I can’t see which fret it’s on, so I started playing a lot of jazz! A lot of very, uh, abstract sort of jazz chords. A semitone down. But eventually I got the hang of it, and I don’t really think about it now.

BK: Not counting the Arkeology spiral-bound set in 2012, the last album of new material from World Party was the first issue of Dumbing Up in 2000. What can you tell me about the new album?

KW: Hopefully we’ll be putting a new album out in March [2016]. And it’ll be great to do that. Who knows what it will be like? It’s been fourteen years. So who knows how mad I’m gonna get?

I’m feeling really into being in the studio again; I kind of wanted to wait. After I left Seaview [studio] three or four years ago, I’ve been on the road and playing, or sitting at home playing guitar and not really recording it. So I’m really, really itching to get into the studio again. I’ve got to sort all my stuff out first; I’ve got lots of stuff in storage: [recording] desks and tape recorders and grand pianos and all that stuff.

BK: I saw you in Asheville last year in a trio format: you on guitar and keys, plus a guitarist and fiddle player. [Tour manager] Michael tells me that you’ve recently added back in two players long associated with World Party. How did that come about?

KW: Just on the phone. The idea was to bring Dave Catlin-Birch in on bass, and Chris Sharrock on drums. But then Chris wouldn’t fly, for some unknown reason. His arms were very tired. So he basically bailed.

I called an old friend, Brian McLeod, who’s a very good drummer in L.A. He’s on loads of stuff that you’d have heard; he was in Wire Train. We played together years ago, on the Goodbye Jumbo tour. And it was great.

And then Dave got held up with a visa thing. But we got Brian anyway, and we did a three-piece plus drummer in Napa and San Francisco, and then in San Juan Capistrano we basically did a three-piece gig. Because we weren’t going to do it any more without the bass.

And then I saw a bit of film that a friend of mine shot in San Francisco, with the drummer, and it was really great. And tonight we’re a three-piece again. And then across the middle [of the USA], we’re two pieces. So that’ll be interesting.

BK: By the time you get to Asheville (July 6), what’s it going to be then?

KW: Who knows? We’ll see what happens.

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World Party’s Karl Wallinger: He’s the One (Part 1)

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

For all intents and purposes, World Party is Karl Wallinger. Across five studio albums, a spiral-bound 4CD closet-clearing set, and a few best-of collections, the Welsh-born Wallinger has delivered a consistent set of wonderfully melodic music that draws from the classic era of rock without ever directly referencing it. With a new album slated for release next year, World Party will break what to the uninitiated might look like a “dry spell,” but Wallinger has remained very active with playing, touring, and writing music. He’s currently on tour with (as you’ll read) a World Party of varying size, and that tour will bring him to Asheville, North Carolina’s Altamont Theatre on Monday, July 6. I spoke with Wallinger during a brief break before a show last week. We discussed his early days, his approach to recording, some setbacks over which he’s triumphed, and his plans for the immediate future. Here, in two parts, is our conversation. – bk


Bill Kopp: Way, way back when, you were musical director for the London version of The Rocky Horror Show. I’m interested to know what kind of lessons you feel you learned from that experience; did it affect your approach to songwriting?

Karl Wallinger: I learned that it was very pleasant to have rehearsals during which you’d have a lady sitting on your lap and wearing only the bottom half of a suspender belt and stockings, and nothing on the top.

I learned that it was great fun being in a theatre. It’s like a mother, with lots of these kids running around in it. It’s a strange thing; you’d think it would be kind of monotonous every night. But every day is a different day, and it’s its own crazy world. It’s a lovely thing to do. Rocky Horror was really one of things I could do; I wasn’t really a person who was going to do that kind of thing, but I was lucky enough that I did do it. I always loved it, even before I worked on it. I had a great time.

I paid to see it years earlier, with my girlfriend at the time and her mother, in London. And I didn’t know I was going to be the Musical Director at the end of that run; pretty funny.

BK: Over the course of your career, you’ve done a lot of your recording at home at Seaview and so forth, and you’ve worked in more conventional studios. I’m sure there are advantages and disadvantages to both work situations. Can you talk a bit about that?

KW: One of the advantages of using someone else’s studio is that you can leave it in a mess, and someone else will clear it up!

I’ve always been somebody who would rather work on their own, in their own space. But when you’re doing something like a film soundtrack, if you’re working on something that’s got a purpose beyond the getting out of ideas — something that’s got to be matched to a picture — then it’s good to be in a place where other people have got the technical worries. Then you can just do the creativity-kind of thing.

Not that I can’t do the [technical tasks]; I’ve probably done that, but it’s nice in those situations to be taken care of by somebody. I find the technical bits quite boring, actually. It’s a drag when things don’t work, or [when] they take a lot of setting up. I’d rather get someone else to blow the paddling pool up, and then I can just add the water.

When I’m doing songs, I prefer to be in a place where I can forget that I exist. Then I just try to let the old brain do the work, really. Rather than the body. It’s a space to be creative in, to do whatever you want to do. And there’s no other considerations; you’re not paying an hourly rate, and there aren’t engineers or producers who are around, people who have also got lives. So you can let it all hang out when you’re working on your own. And I prefer that. As a way of creating what I do as World Party, that’s the way.

I haven’t got a studio at the moment; I haven’t had one for four years now. I’m just about now, hopefully, to have a studio again. I’m in negotiations with a particular place in England. And as soon as I do have, I’m going to lock myself away in it.

BK: When I try to describe your music to those who haven’t heard it – and I do evangelize about World Party a good bit – I describe it as original music that bears the influence of (among other things) three specific artists: Van Morrison, Sly Stone, and The Beatles. Do you think that’s a fair assessment, and are there any artists you’d add to the top of that list?

KW: I don’t really think of it in terms of artists, really. Obviously the Beatles have had a large effect. But it’s just in terms of intake, really. It’s up to experience, what you’ve been around on the planet.

I certainly wouldn’t think that Van Morrison would be, to me, that much of an important influence. I suppose there’s some part of it: that carefree, facing-the-wind, running across the plinth tops kind of aspect. Generally, the sixties; to me, those were the formative years. Anybody’s formative years make them seem like they were the center, the start, the basis of their thought.

So it’s not really a specific thing. It’s as much the soundtrack of Hair, or Cat Stevens. A whole bunch of stuff.

BK: Among hardcore World Party fans – and I suppose I’m one of those – there circulate recordings that you’ve made, cover versions of songs you like. The approach reminds me of Dave Gregory‘s Remoulds project. Some of these include John Lennon‘s “#9 Dream,” Peter and Gordon‘s “World Without Love,” “Nowhere Man,” Mott the Hoople‘s “All the Young Dudes,” and so on. When you were a pre-teenage kid growing up in Wales in the late 1960s, what were your favorite songs? Anything “outside the box” or a bit unusual, like Keith West‘s “Excerpts From a Teenage Opera,” or things like that?

KW: We had quite a middle-of-the-road record collection. Maybe twenty albums and forty singles; that and the radio. That’s what we had. I used to endlessly rotate them through, using the auto-drop arm on the record player. I’d sort of deejay myself into happiness, because I loved all the music. I loved it. I don’t know why; I just gravitated toward it.

I spent most of my time in front of the stereogram that we had, which had a pull-out drawer for the radio, and a drop-down door for the turntable. And two elliptical speakers. And I’ve just now had it done up; I’ve kept it all these years; it’s been in my studio. This eighty-year-old guy came round to the house, and took the radio and deck away, repaired them, and came back with them. He actually put a socket into it so you can put an iPhone through it as well. So if you’ve got Billie Holiday or Aretha Franklin on your iPhone, it sounds really warm and gorgeous through the valve amplifier. It’s great.

And 33[1/3rpm] is actually 33 now. The rubber bands were so rotten that 78s played at 33!

But that used to fascinate me. There was all kinds of stuff there, from Frank Sinatra to Georgie Fame to the Beatles. Just weird bunches of stuff: the Head soundtrack, the Easy Rider soundtrack. Just all those great songs. And some turkeys, things you can’t really explain to other people when you reminisce to yourself. It might mean one thing to them, and you think, well, what’s this crap?

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Album Review: Todd Rundgren — Global

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

In one sense, the best artists are those who confound their fans. There’s certainly a place for the reliable musical act that releases pretty much the same album over and over again; entire careers have been built on doing just that, and it’s not without aesthetic value. “More of the same” is most assuredly not a bad thing in and of itself.

But the more intriguing creative artists are moving targets. They tire quickly of what they’ve just done, and are ceaselessly moving forward, trying new things. And that can make being a fan some pretty rough sledding. Perhaps no other currently-active musician better illustrates this situation than Todd Rundgren.

I won’t recapitulate his long and varied musical career-to-date here; for a tidy summary of his work from the late 1960s through 2004 – yeah, the essay needs updating – I’d direct you here. Suffice to say that Rundgren has made more stylistic detours than most anyone else you’d care to name. And the degree to which any of those tangential moves “works” will differ for each fan. When it comes to Todd Rundgren, the phrase your mileage may vary truly applies. For me, his Broadway-leaning material (1989′s Nearly Human and the related 1997 set Up Against It) is his least satisfying, though even those have some stellar moments. And I’m in the minority with my great admiration for the widely-maligned No World Order from 1992, a set in which Rundgren – temporarily rebranded as TR-i – takes on a sort of hip-hop-meets-Nine Inch Nails approach.

These days it’s fair to call the impossibly talented Rundgren a cult artist, though in a very real sense he’s always been one. His infallible sense of melody never fails him, no matter what musical context into which he places his music.

But cult artists don’t always have massive studio budgets, and that’s especially true of an artist who went bankrupt and sold off some of his recurring-revenue assets. Because of those realities – and, likely, owing to his actual desire to do things this way – his last several albums have been recorded on a computer, using the one-man-band approach that he (as much as anyone else) can be said to have invented.

After the stylistic missteps and dead end of Todd Rundgren’s Johnson (blooz retreads) and the truly wretched (re)Production (in which he essentially allowed other people to wreck his music), it was encouraging to hear Rundgren return to songcraft with 2013′s State. He did seem unnaturally interested in the latest trendy sounds and approaches, but he bent those forms to his own musical will.

And that’s pretty much what Todd Rundgren has done with Global. Continuing his 2004-and-onward practice of naming his releases with a single word (easier to remember than, say, The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect), on Global, Rundgren presents perhaps his best set of melodies since 1995′s The Individualist. In fact, some of these cuts (“Blind,” in particular) sound as if they could have been written around that time.

Rundgren has always been a thoughtful (as in full of thought) songwriter, and he’s long concerned himself with big ideas. As the title telegraphs, the songs on Global are no exception. But he does so with characteristic good humor: paraphrasing Albert Einstein‘s remark about God not playing dice with the universe, he throws in an aside: “Doesn’t take an Einstein” to figure that out.

Global has been described in some quarters as Todd’s EDM album. And I’ll admit, that description very nearly scared me off. I needn’t have worried. Many of the songs on Global do indeed have some very kinetic, dance-ready beats (for those so inclined); boing-boing synths; Cylon-sounding vocal treatments; and other “modern” trappings, but the songs themselves are very organic, and include more “real” instrumentation that we’ve heard on some of Rundgren’s other recent releases. Bobby Strickland’s sax work on “Blind” is nothing less than thrilling.

“Earth Mother” features guest spots by friends and associates including Rachel Haden (bassist extraordinaire from a fine lineage of musicians) Janet Kirker, Michele Rundgren (she was great with The Tubes back in the 80s), Jill Sobule, and Jeff Beck associate Tal Wilkenfeld. At first, Todd’s exhortations (“Can I get a shout from my sisters?”) feel a bit awkward, but it’s a groovy track. And old Utopia band mate Kasim Sulton shows up on “Skyscraper.”

Yes, it’s nearly all Todd all the time (save those guest spots) but if anyone can make that approach work – make it real, so to speak – it’s Todd Rundgren. Just when some might have counted him out – I nearly did after (re)ProductionGlobal shows that at 67 years of age, the man still has it. Whatever it is. Here’s hoping he keeps sharing it with his listeners.

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Album Review: Little Richard — Directly From My Heart

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

For music lovers of a certain age range, the work of Richard Penniman is the sort of music that one might only rarely make an effort to hear. The name and image of Little Richard is a virtual shorthand for some of the best qualities music has to offer: excitement, bravado, melody, energy, skill, humor…on and on. And because of his larger-than-life persona – wildly in-your-face effeminate posturing and his (nearly but not quite outsized) estimation of his own importance) – he seems somehow to always be there, and the same is true for his music.

Thanks, too, to the fact that Little Richard exerted so much influence on those who would follow (no less a figure than Paul McCartney has long held as part of his own stock-in-trade a convincing Little Richard vocal imitation), generations who grew to age after Little Richard’s heyday still know his songs. Covered by an impossibly long list of artists, and used in everything from film soundtracks to television commercials, Little Richard’s classic music is deeply embedded into popular culture and our collective consciousness.

The downside of that ubiquity, however, is that listeners might forget to stop for a moment and appreciate just how superb – not to mention wildly innovative for its time – his music really is. To help us in our modern-day reconsideration of Little Richard’s early, best-loved material, Concord Music Group has compiled a 3CD set, Directly From My Heart: The Best of the Specialty and Vee-Jay Years.

Penniman’s musical recording career began more than three years before he’d enter a studio to cut a demo for Specialty Records in early 1955. By the time he began recording for Specialty, Richard had released two albums (one each on RCA and Peacock) and six singles, none of which charted. Once at Specialty, Little Richard recorded in various sessions over a period of just more than two years; that body of work is the primary foundation upon which his musical legacy rests.

Surprisingly – or at least surprisingly to those who know the man’s work on cuts like “Long Tall Sally (The Thing)” – Little Richard cut a number of tracks that don’t have that wild, manic vibe at all. The first few cuts on Directly From My Heart are r&b/blues numbers, with none of the reckless abandon that would characterize his hit singles. They’re good, albeit a tad ordinary. Their inclusion on this set does serve to place those crazy, uptempo singles in a context more representative of Little Richard’s musical output of that era.

But it’s through the first (and a good portion of the second) disc that Little Richard’s Specialty work is chronicled. All of the greats are here: “Tutti Frutti,” “Kansas City,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’ (Peepin’ and Hidin’),” “Long Tall Sally (The Thing),” “Miss Ann,” “Ready Teddy,” “Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey,” “Rip it Up,” “Lucille,” “Jenny Jenny,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Keep A Knockin’,” “Ooh! My Soul,” and quite a few others.

Renouncing the sinful ways of rock’n'roll, Richard left Specialty in late 1957, going on to cut religious-themed sides for several labels. But when The Beatles exploded on the scene – and in light of their championing of him as an influence – Little Richard returned to Specialty, where he cut five songs, a few of which are featured on this set. The most notable of these is “Bama Lama Bama Loo,” but they’re all rocking numbers.

From there he went to Vee-Jay (coincidentally, the U.S. label that had released early Beatles tracks), remaining with them for a year. The third disc of Directly From My Heart focuses on this lesser-known era of Little Richard’s music, and is notable in part for the appearance of pre-fame Jimi Hendrix as guitarist for several cuts.

The entire 2015 compilation is housed in a duotone (black and pink!) box, and the accompanying liner note booklet features lots of photos and an essay from Little Richard superfan Billy Vera. The booklet handily provides matrix numbers for all sixty-three tracks, but the compilers deigned not to specify (recording and/or release) dates for the tracks. The booklet makes no mention of the mastering involved in bringing this compilation to market, but the sound throughout is superb.

Beware of imitations: notoriously, Little Richard re-recorded many of his hits in greatly inferior versions, and an unknown number among the vast array of available compilations draw tracks from those. The surest way to get a tidy collection of the man’s best work is to pick up Directly From My Heart.

A few related items, if I may…

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Album Review: Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba — Ba Power

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

Ask most informed music enthusiasts to cite an example of “world music” from Africa, and one of the first names offered up will likely be Malian guitarist/vocalist Ali Farka Touré. Thanks in large part to Talking Timbuktu, the 1994 album (Touré’s twelfth) released in collaboration with Ry Cooder, the music of the late Touré is the standard by which much world music is measured.

The term itself is more than a bit suspect: in most cases all it really means is music originating from somewhere outside North America and Europe. And that’s a pretty narrow way of looking at things, the same kind of mindset that leads some to refer to certain countries in Africa and elsewhere as “third world.”

The seeds of much that is called American music had their origin in Africa. And that may well be the reason that – labels aside – for Americans, there is often something familiar (on an almost molecular, unconscious level) in music that originates in what was once known as the dark continent.

In any event, when one approaches the music of Malian lute master Bassekou Kouyaté, the sonic touchstones are the preconceived idea of world music, and the international appeal of Ali Farka Touré. Adopting an approach similar to the one used on Talking Timbuktu, the latest album from Kouyaté aims to synthesize a current-day American style (rock) with a homegrown one. The ancient Malian lute known as the ngoni is the “lead” instrument on Ba Power, and Kouyaté’s backing musicians (known as Ngoni Ba) supply more ngoni textures (there are four ngonis played on the album, including one played by son Mamadou Kouyaté that has a bass frequency range) along with percussion, vocals and – on several tracks – drums (Dave Smith from Robert Plant‘s group) and trumpet (Jon Hassel).

In keeping with the rock-leaning aesthetic of Ba Power, the arrangements make use of wah-wah and distortion pedals, effects customarily applied to electric guitar. But they add fascinating textures to the ngoni, and help to root the music in a fashion more accessible to American ears. The bass ngoni – which often doubles the melodic lines of the upper-register instruments – helps lay down a propulsive, solid musical foundation.

When the vocals are present (Koyaté’s wife Amy Sacko), the scales and textures of the voice are clearly rooted in African tradition. Sacko sings [I think] in Bambara, the indigenous language of Mali. (French is the country’s official language, and Ba Power‘s gatefold LP sleeve features English and French lyric translations.) But during the instrumental-only passages, the music is decidedly rock-oriented, albeit interpreted on non-western instruments.

Many of Ba Power‘s nine tracks (all under six minutes) feature extended passages built around a single chord, giving the music a hypnotic effect. The dizzying percussion pushes the music forward constantly, and the guest musicians – most notably trumpeter Hassel and an electric organist – add to the texture without ever calling much attention to themselves.

There are bits of electric guitar on Ba Power, but they’re played by guest musicians and are subtly mixed. So it’s Bassekou Kouyaté’s ngoni-through-pedals that you’ll hear blasting out the opening licks of “Aye Sira Bla” (“Make Way”), which the liner notes explain is a reworking of a traditional praise song. With no Malian frame of reference, it sounds to these Western ears like a pretty hot riff-based tune.

And in the end, it’s that Western musical perspective that most listeners outside of Mali will bring to their enjoyment of Ba Power. It’s exotic, yes, but the album is rooted in just the right amount of rock aesthetic to be a genre-bridging exercise that’s fun to hear, and one suspects it’s not any kind of sellout that would betray the music’s indigenous character.

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Video Review: Genesis — Sum of the Parts

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

One could say that The Beatles did it first, and thus set the tone and standard for future official biographies. Their Anthology documentary series afforded them the opportunity to tell their story the way they wanted: they could put in what they wanted in, and leave out what they didn’t care to discuss. Creative control coupled with hey-we-were-there access to archival material made for a very satisfying and comprehensive historical document.

It’s fitting that Genesis would get around to mounting a similar project of their own. Though the band splintered several times – they went so far to as call attention to it by titling one of their albums And Then There Were Three… – they seem to have remained on relatively cordial terms with one another.

And so it is that Tony Banks (keyboards), Phil Collins (drums), Peter Gabriel (flute, vocals), Steve Hackett (guitar), and Mike Rutherford (bass, and later, guitar) came together to star in, and oversee, Sum of the Parts. Released theatrically and then on DVD and Blu-Ray, this documentary covers the band’s history, its fractiousness, and its popularity. As Tony Banks is quoted in the accompanying liner notes booklet, “Let’s just put it all out there and people can make up their own minds.”

The film provides plenty of content to allow viewers to do just that. Speeding through the group’s formation and early days, the film chronicles – in chronological order – the band’s history. The footage of the Gabriel-era band is fascinating; truly odd stuff that – whether one likes the music or not (and I very much do) – must be recognized for its adventurous, often groundbreaking nature.

For the most part, Sum of the Parts is a rather candid look at the stress points within the band, issues that would hasten the departures of (most notably) Gabriel and Hackett. When current-day footage of the reunited group (reunited for the film, not to make music) is shown, there’s a pretty clear remaining undercurrent of tension between Banks and…well, the rest of the band. It’s handled with a typical English understatement and reserve, but it remains palpable.

Since their 1974 double LP The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway looms so large in the band’s legend, it makes sense that so much time is spent in the film discussing the album, its development, its tour, and its eventual fallout. The band’s earlier and later material all gets comparatively less screen time. The solo career of Peter Gabriel (who these days looks to all the world like Burl Ives‘ snowman in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) gets some discussion, but Collins’ solo work is covered in greater depth. That, too, makes perfect sense, since Collins released his solo albums while remaining in Genesis. (Prog jazz fans: if you’re wondering, Sum of the Parts makes no mention of Brand X.)

A few characters outside the band do weigh in with their onscreen contributions. None is so out of place, however, as Jonathan King. Though the impresario was an important part of the band’s early days, his reputation is so tarnished (Google him if you must) that his appearance onscreen competes with making that “I Can’t Dance” video for MTV as the worst idea the group has ever had.

Lots of live footage and archival photographs help tell the story. Even for those with only a passing interest in the band, Sum of the Parts never drags. The latter-day lineup (specifically Collins, Rutherford and Banks) get just a tad defensive on the subject of having largely ditched their progressive musical approach in favor of a (some would say cynically) radio-ready sound and image (complete with those dreadful MTV-era videos), but it’s hard to see what other approach they could have taken in the film. They couldn’t very well ignore the subject, could they now?

Good question. A wag might suggest that this video would be more accurately titled SOME of the Parts: no mention at all is made – not even in passing – of the group’s 1997 album Calling All Stations. Ray Wilson had taken Collins’ place as vocalist, and guest drummers (including Nick D’Virgilio of Spock’s Beard) took Collins’ place on the throne. But despite the fact that Genesis mounted a 47-date European tour in the first half of 1998, the entire era – and most notably, Wilson’s name – seems to have been purged from the group’s collective memory bank.

Instead, Sum of the Parts blithely skips over the period between 1992 and 2007 (as if to say, “and then – suddenly! – fifteen years passed”) and lands on the group’s semi-reunion tour and live album featuring the Banks-Rutherford-Collins trio plus longtime Genesis drummer Chester Thompson and guitarist Daryl Steurmer. To the band’s credit, both get some additional screen time.

That mild criticism notwithstanding, for fans of the band – or, really, anyone with an interest rock music’s arc of history in the 1970s and beyond – Sum of the Parts is a satisfying, engaging and entertaining video.

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Album Review: Shanti — Shanti

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

At this stage in the game, nobody’s sure who developed the genre (or, much less, coined the phrase) “world music.” And a definitive explanation for what is and isn’t world music remains elusive. But to paraphrase the Supreme Court justice, I know it when I hear it.

Some strong candidates for early pioneers in what would come to be known as world music include George Harrison and Herbie Mann. The former, as early as the mid 1960s, was working in sounds and influences of Indian music into songs he wrote (“Within You Without You” from Sgt. Pepper and “Love You To” from Revolver) and tunes from Lennon and McCartney (“Norwegian Wood”). And even earlier, jazz flautist Herbie Mann was synthesizing tropicalia into the jazz idiom (and later, he’d cast an even wider stylistic net). The Paul Butterfield Blues Band‘s epic title track from the East-West album fused Eastern styles with the blues. And there are countless other examples.

But one of the most aesthetically successful forays into cross-genre synthesis is the self-titled 1971 debut by a group called Shanti. Led by master of the tabla Zakir Hussain, this Bay area collective combined the rock aesthetic (thanks to a four-man lead/rhythm/bass/drums section) with a decidedly Eastern approach (Hussain on tabla, dholak and naal; Ashish Khan on sarod; and guest musician Pranesh Khan on tabla and naal). The result of the collaboration is an album full of exotic flights of fancy that remain firmly rooted in a Western pop sensibility. And that’s no simple trick.

“We Want to Be Free” features a lovely lead vocal with exquisite harmonies, all backed by Indian instruments playing some decidedly riff-oriented Western pop. And that piece sets the tone for the entire album. Neil Seidel‘s lead guitar trades licks with the sarod masters, and Frank Lupica‘s rock/jazz drumming engages in a running dialogue with Eastern percussion.

Khan’s extended piece “Innocence” initially leans more in a traditional Indian direction, but quickly moves into a hook-filled piece of transcendent pop. Shanti stands in great contrast to the more “serious” (and ultimately less musically accessible) excursions into musical cross-fertilization. Seidel’s ‘Out of Nowhere” comes from the opposite direction (rock) and ends up in nearly the same place, again featuring rhythm guitarist Steve Haehl‘s soothing yet powerfully assured vocals. At times Shanti sounds a bit like Santana, albeit with Indian flavor in place of the Afro-Cuban/Latin styles.

Shanti just plain rocks out on the good-timing riff rocker “Lord I’m Comin’ Round,” which isn’t totally unlike something The Allman Brothers – stylistic gap-bridgers themselves (jazz and rock) – might have done. Here, it’s the Indian percussion that gives the tune its worldly flavor. And the group sounds even more like Gregg Allman and his pals on “Good Inside,” which sounds to all the world in 2015 like the kind of thing that would have stormed the rock charts in ’71.

But that’s not what happened. As Richie Unterberger‘s liner notes in this Real Gone Music reissue explain, Harrison wanted to sign Shanti to The Beatles‘ Apple label, but Indian music legend Ravi Shankar counseled him against doing so, purportedly because Shanti was “too pop” and as such its Indian members weren’t making proper use of their god-given talents.

Your mileage (like mine) may vary on that score. Those aforementioned talents are in full flower on the lengthy “Shanti,” which starts out sounding a bit like The Rolling Stones‘ “Paint It, Black,” and then moves into sonic territory close to Butterfield’s “East-West.” Those Eastern textures are always right there, but the grounding in Western pop aesthetics makes Shanti perhaps the most musically accessible of all stylistic hybrids. Heck, even that most clichéd of 1970s western rock tropes – the drum solo – feels fresh and new in Shanti’s capable hands.

The album ends with the contemplative and exceedingly brief “I Do Believe,” reminding listeners that power and subtlety can peacefully coexist on a single album. And that album would, sadly, be the only release from this group. Forgotten at worst, overlooked at best, Shanti is an exemplar of cross-cultural styles that serves as a showcase for the boundary-pushing mindset that took hold at the tail-end of the 60s and the early 1970s. Highly recommended.

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Review: Two New Albums featuring Larry Coryell

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

One of music’s greatest guitarists, Larry Coryell has enjoyed – and continues to enjoy – a long and storied career. After his professional start playing with Chico Hamilton, Coryell launched a solo career, enlisting the musical help of some of the most innovative, boundary-pushing musicians to aid in his own musical explorations. He’s played in most every style, and one of the qualities that differentiates him from many of his contemporaries is that he does so with an unparallelled level of authenticity; there’s no whiff of dilettantism in Coryell’s excursions into hard rock, soul jazz, classical, acoustic, or other forms and styles.

Being such a restlessly varied musician carries with it a price, as others in the rock idiom know too well; I’m thinking here of artists such as Neil Young. When you can’t be counted on to make an unbroken string of recordings in roughly the same style, you’re hard to market. Thankfully, Coryell has sustained a career that lets him remain safely above such concerns. The result is a buffet of musical wonders. And though the man rarely looks back (as he told me, he has little or no interest in his back- catalog, and he has no control over it either), there’s nothing – other than the scarcity of some of those discs – that prevents listeners from exploring his older material.

And modern-day listeners have the best of both worlds. Two new releases make this plain: Coryell has just released another new album on Wide Hive Records, Heavy Feel, and something called the LiveLove Series has a new archival release of a January 1975 concert recording featuring Coryell’s underrated and under-appreciated fusion ensemble, The Eleventh House. What follows is a look at both of these new releases.

Larry Coryell & The Eleventh House – January 1975
At the time of this recording, Coryell’s Eleventh House were near the peak of their powers and popularity. Thanks to the foresight of Radio Bremen, prime-era Eleventh House were captured onstage in Germany. This flawless recording documents twelve numbers from the show, including three compositions that have never been released before in any form. After grabbing the audience’s rapt attention with a fiery “Bird Fingers,” The Eleventh House settle into a groove that showcases the many talents of Coryell and his bandmates: Mike Lawrence on trumpet and flugelhorn, bassist John Lee, keyboard whiz Mike Mandel (by this time, a longtime Coryell associate), and powerhouse drummer Alphonse Mouzon.

It’s worth recalling that in the early and mid 1970s, musicians could get away with making music that didn’t invite easy classification. Is this stuff jazz? Rock? Fusion? It’s often all three at once; listeners unfamiliar with The Eleventh House might appreciate knowing that their approach is in roughly the same vein as John McLaughlin‘s work with Mahavishnu Orchestra, but perhaps leaning a bit more toward smaller, less busy (or cluttered if you don’t dig the approach) arrangements.

January 1975 features tunes from the 1974 debut Introducing the Eleventh House, and Level One, which was either very recently or (more likely) soon-to-be released. The highlights of the entire show, however, are Coryell’s “Low-Lee-Tah,” and Mouzon’s aptly-titled “Funky Waltz,” both from the debut disc. An extended version (twice the length of its studio counterpart) of “Suite (Entrance/Repose/Exit)” is pretty thrilling, too, what with Coryell making intelligent use of the wah-wah pedal (a device pretty well thought out of fashion by ’75) while his bandmates show that horns and analog synths can coexist (though not exactly “peacefully”).

Those three previously-unheard tunes are Mouzon’s blindingly fast “Tamari,” a Mandel multi-keyboard showcase called “Untitled Thoughts,” and a Coryell one-chord workout to close the set, “The Eleventh House Blues.” All are worthwhile, and hold up when considered alongside The Eleventh House’s official canon.

Larry Coryell – Heavy Feel
One could argue that in 2015 Larry Coryell has a lot less to prove. As such, he could – should he choose – rest on his laurels, reiterating what he’s said musically. But that doesn’t seem to be his approach. Not counting some contributions to a compilation, Heavy Feel is Coryell’s third album working with The Wide Hive Players. Produced by label head Gregory Howe, the album features Coryell on both electric and acoustic guitars, joined by bassist Matt Montgomery, drummer Mike Hughes, and George Brooks on soprano sax.

The slow burn is the favored approach by the ensemble for most of Heavy Feel‘s nine tracks. “Ghost Note” is an exemplar of that approach, with the band subtly laying down a backing while Coryell plays thickly chorded jazz guitar. After Coryell’s exhortation to his fellow musos, the ensemble launches into the romantic “River Crossing,” with Coryell providing ace acoustic support while Brooks takes the lead. There’s a north African feel to the tune. When Coryell executes some lightning runs on the fretboard, he moans along somewhat tunelessly; it’s either maddeningly annoying or disarmingly endearing, depending on your point of view.

Some reviews of Coryell’s first outing on Wide Hive noted that the disc was a bit less powerful than it could have been. Whether in response to that criticism or simply as a function of where Coryell and his bandmates chose to go, Heavy Feel does live up to its title. It’s simultaneously subtle and understated while rocking.

The title of “Polished” must be meant sarcastically, because Coryell’s playing here is anything but. It has the immediacy of a first take, and could almost be called sloppy. But it’s good. The title track finds the band laying down a garage-band foundation, but the players still find interesting things to do with it musically.

“2011 East” returns to a jazz vibe vaguely suggestive of what The Bill Evans Trio might have sounded like without a piano (and with a guitarist and sax player). “Sharing Air” goes for the boogaloo, sounding not unlike something The New Mastersounds might cut in a late-night session. “Jailbreak” is not a jazz-rock reading of the Thin Lizzy classic; instead it’s a marching tune with Coryell and Brooks playing lockstep (and then call-and-response) as they execute some exceedingly trick (yet tuneful) melodic lines. It’s a highlight of Heavy Feel. The disc closes with “Foot Path to Oasis,” a return to the sound and vibe of “River Crossing.”

Heavy Feel isn’t Larry Coryell’s most groundbreaking album. But it’s thoroughly enjoyable and – as a document of where the 72-year-old guitar master is today – a recommended purchase.

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Book Review: Feedback: The Who and Their Generation

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

I’ve mused before on these virtual pages about the uncomfortable – and arguably even tenuous – relationship between scholarship and rock music. Somehow the pairing just doesn’t seem natural, even though a significant portion of rock is intelligent, and (I imagine) some scholarly works are at least in part informed by a rock’n'roll sensibility. But in general, the two go together like…oh, pick your own metaphor; I haven’t had my coffee yet. Oil and water? That’ll do for now.

Still, I remain open and receptive to endeavors in that area. And that openness – wise or misguided; you decide – led me recently to Casey Harison‘s Feedback: The Who and Their Generation. This book seeks to place The Who into the author’s context of something he calls “Atlantic history.” For the purposes of his study, Harison constructs a cultural and geographical entity he calls the Atlantic; this region includes the United States (and presumably Canada, though it doesn’t figure into the narrative) and Western Europe (with a decided emphasis on England).

With that basic scene/premise set and accepted, Harison endeavors to place The Who into the context of social, historical, and even political trends throughout the second half of the 20th century. Fair enough, you might say. But he doesn’t stop there: the author widens his historical lens to place that narrative into the context of the last, oh, five hundred years.

What that means in practical terms is that readers find a discussion of Renaissance minstrelsy alongside a look at Pete Townshend‘s guitar playing. Harison draws some very interesting connections – and, you may be glad to learn – avoids making grand, sweeping hyperbolic assertions about The Who’s place in it all. But somehow the whole enterprise feels a bit overcooked, a bit of, dare I say, a stretch.

Based on his knowledge, his writing skill, and his ability to elucidate a point, I have enough respect for the author to believe that the genesis of this book was more than a case of Harison saying to himself one day, “Hey, I’m a history professor with a special interest in Atlantic history. And I also dig The Who. Now there’s a book idea!”

And to his credit, Harison devotes a good portion of the book’s 175 (or so) pages to a survey and analysis of what he calls the “crosscurrents of influence” between the USA and Europe. There’s plenty of interest within that topic, for both the scholarly-inclined and the general rock-fan reader (as well as the six or seven people who fall into both categories, ha), and Harison does not disappoint. He really does know his stuff. I’ll wager that Who fans reading this will learn some fascinating things about the history of the Western world, and that Feedback: The Who and Their Generation will spark new interest in The Who among sheltered academic types. And what’s not to like about those outcomes?

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 10

Friday, May 15th, 2015

Over the last nine business days, I’ve surveyed 45 albums of new, reissued, and/or archival music from a wide array of artists in jazz, prog, soul, rock and other genres. Each review has been exactly 100 words. Today I wrap up that series of capsule reviews with a quick look at five video releases.

Jack Bruce – The 50th Birthday Concerts
Though it’s long been in the archives of German television program Rockpalast, this set was presumably rush-released in the wake of Bruce‘s October 2014 death. A wildly varied set in terms of musical styles, this 2DVD document of 1993 concerts shows off the amazing versatility of the vocalist/bassist. Opening with a solo (acoustic) bass reading of J.S. Bach’s “Minuet No. 1,” switches to piano (with vocal) and then brings on supporting musicians (including multi-instrumentalist Gary Husband and Bruce’s sparring partner, drummer Ginger Baker.) All involved are in fine form as they tear through Bruce solo material and several Cream favorites.

Queen – Live at the Rainbow ’74
On the strength – or rather the lack thereof – of their 1979 double LP Live Killers, I decided that Queen were pretty dreadful live. Not Rolling Stones dreadful, but simply unable to draw upon the balance of refinement and energy that made their studio albums so rewarding. This set from a few years earlier (in other words, at the height of their powers) has set me right. Live sound reinforcement in the mid 1970s was primitive by today’s standards, but you’d never know it from this performance and recording. If anything, these versions are better than their studio counterparts.

Yes – 35th Anniversary Concert: Songs From Tsongas
Even a semi-hardcore Yes fan has to admit that they milk their repertoire pretty thoroughly. As Jon Anderson admits toward the end of this set, “We seem to get together so many times over the years.” This 2004 performance in Massachusetts was part of the Magnification tour, and featured the more-or-less classic lineup (Anderson, Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe, Alan White and Chris Squire) halfway through the final period they’d all make music together. A bit mannered – as are all Yes shows – it shows the five in full possession of their sharp musical faculties. An excellent show on Blu-Ray.

The Rutles – Anthology
Long before The Beatles got around to making their Anthology, some of the guys from Monty Python made a Beatles history (a “mockumentary” that predated This is Spinal Tap), All You Need is Cash. (They had help from one Hari Georgeson, as well.) It’s now legendary as one of NBC-TV’s lowest-rated specials ever broadcast (I saw it). This new Blu-Ray reissue greatly improves the audiovisual quality over earlier versions, and adds relevant bonus material (some earlier, some much later) to create an Anthology of their own. The packaging art alone is wickedly clever, as are the bits on the disc.

Various – A MusiCares Tribute to Paul McCartney
In 2012, the nonprofit organization MusiCares honored Paul McCartney as their Person of the Year. The gala event included a superstar lineup of artists paying tribute to Sir Macca. And while rock fans might be disappointed in the soft lineup (only Duane Eddy, Dave Grohl, Neil Young and Joe Walsh can be called rockers), the performances are nuanced and often quite good. Alison Krauss & Union Station win the night as they capture the beauty of “No More Loney Nights,” a highlight of the hour-long Blu-Ray. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, however, are in wobbly, old guy garage band mode.

See you next week as we return to one-a-day full-length reviews, features and interviews.

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