Archive for the ‘rawk’ Category

Album Review: The Moody Blues — The Magnificent Moodies (Part 2)

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Continued from Part One...

The early Moody Blues certainly deserved better success than they found. Their lack of chart action was certainly a factor in Denny Laine‘s departure. But during his time with the group, The Moody Blues recorded enough material for another album in a pair of sessions (one day in July 1964 and then a string of dates between April and September 1966, with Denny Cordell in the producer’s chair). Those previously unreleased sessions form half of the new The Magnificent Moodies set’s second disc.

An almost painfully slow reading of “Go Now” serves to point how right a decision it was to record and release the faster version we all know. The bits of studio chatter are fun for those (like myself) who enjoy studio outtakes and such, and remind listeners that in those days, a band tended to play their live set, live in the studio, for recording sessions with minimal overdub.

A quite bizarre reading of the 23rd Psalm is one of this new box set’s great finds. Arranged by the entire group, the song finds Ray Thomas singing in a vaguely Elvis balladeer style while the band provides vocal accompaniment and some vaguely Merseybeat musical backing. Then the song lurches unexpectedly into an upbeat “negro spiritual” arrangement, replete with handclapping. Talk about stylistic left-turns; it’s easy to understand why this track was left in the can for decades, but it’s an interesting curio to be sure.

The BBC Saturday Club tracks remind listeners yet again that The Moody Blues were a tight, impeccably rehearsed outfit; the BBC versions differ little from their official counterparts. Clearly they were given little time in the studio for either situation (Decca or BBC), but their songs and arrangements didn’t seem to require more time or effort than was given/spent. “From the Bottom of My Heart” showcases Mike Pinder‘s piano and Thomas’ flute. While enjoyable, the group’s reading of Rufus Thomas‘ “Jump Back” is perhaps the least-convincing of their r&b excursions; likely part of their live set, no Decca studio version of the tune exists.

A pair of tries at Tim Hardin‘s waltzing “How Can We Hang on to a Dream” again lead (in context) to the later Moody Blues sound. And while neither “Jago & Jilly” nor “We’re Broken” rank as a lost classic, they do feature the closest thing to guitar riffage as one is likely to find in the early Moody Blues catalog. Those two tracks are also much closer to the rock-leaning side of later Moodies, having almost completely shed any rhythm and blues trappings.

Pinder’s barrelhouse piano is the centerpiece of his “I Really Haven’t Got the Time,” a chirpy number that wouldn’t have been out of place in the crowded UK charts of early 1967. “Red Wine” suggests what The Who might have sounded by had they been led by a pianist instead of a guitarist.

The set’s third version of “This is My House (But Nobody Calls)” is the best, both in terms of recording (it’s in stereo) and performance, and it wraps up the 2CD The Magnificent Moodies in style. The entire set is housed in an attractive, study and colorful box; both CDs are packaged in LP facsimile sleeves with color artwork. A 24-page booklet is stuffed with discographical information, informative essays and great photo memorabilia. A handful of reproduced fan club handbills and a large, foldout full-color poster will remind music fans of a certain age of rock’s golden days when every album seemed to come stuffed full of relevant (if extramusical) goodies. Taken as a whole, The Magnificent Moodies is an essential purchase for fans of British sixties pop, as well as for those who love the Days of Future Passed-and-onward lineup of the group but remain interested in from whence the group came.

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Album Review: The Moody Blues — The Magnificent Moodies (Part 1)

Monday, April 27th, 2015

Not long ago I interviewed Moody Blues founding member/flautist/vocalist Ray Thomas; much of our conversation centered around a new box set documenting the group’s pre-Days of Future Passed material. That music originally took the form of a UK album called The Magnificent Moodies (issued around the same time stateside as Go Now: The Moody Blues #1). The group also issued a number of non-album singles during that time, and – as was standard practice, especially for a group with the relatively high profile they enjoyed – they appeared on a number of radio programs in the UK.

There have been several reissues of The Magnificent Moodies, but none has approached the level at which the term “comprehensive” is an accurate description. Until now, that is: the new Esoteric Recordings release of The Magnificent Moodies collects the original July 1965 Decca album, adds fourteen non-album cuts from the era, and also adds an earlier, unreleased take of “Go Now!”

And that’s only the first disc. A second CD features seven additional studio outtakes (including, as Ray Thomas mentioned, material he doesn’t even recall having recorded), a dozen songs from various Saturday Club radio sessions, a mid-60s interview (also from Saturday Club) with Thomas and co-founder/drummer Graeme Edge (here’s my 2010 interview with him), a Coca-Cola radio spot, and an entire additional seven-song session the band cut with producer Denny Cordell. Pretty much the only audio missing from this set is the French radio appearances the Moody Blues did in the 1960s, but as Thomas told me, they couldn’t come to financial terms with the French (he used another word) that would secure rights to the recordings.

Taken as a whole, the new The Magnificent Moodies set paints a picture of a group very different from the one that would go on to worldwide success as a Mellotron-centric band fronted by vocalists Justin Hayward (guitar) and John Lodge (bass). The early lineup included neither of them. Instead, the early Moody Blues featured Denny Laine (later of Wings) on lead vocal and guitar, plus bassist Clint Warwick. Keyboardist Mike Pinder (here’s my interview with him) was the remaining member, another co-founder and one of three (with Thomas and Edge) who would go on to the “new” Moody Blues, much as the rhythm section of John McVie and Mick Fleetwood would form the basis of the old and “new” versions of another British group of the era(s), Fleetwood Mac.

Those early Moody Blues sides show a band very much in a American r&b vocal vein, the kind of group one would expect to see and hear in a club in a period-piece film like The Who‘s Quadrophenia, or perhaps on an episode of the Inspector Morse prequel Endeavour. Their torrid run-through of James Brown‘s “I’ll Go Crazy” doesn’t attempt to ape the original, but it’s more soulful than The Blues Magoos‘ version from 1967. And though it was their biggest early hit, “Go Now” is a cover, too; the original was cut shortly before by Bessie Banks (wife of the song’s composer) in the USA.

It’s only on Side Two of that original album that one finds any group-penned tunes, making clear the fact that – at least in those early days – The Moody Blues métier was the interpretation of rhythm and blues classics and obscurities. And that they did quite convincingly.

That second side introduces the Laine/Pinder writing team, and tracks like “Let Me Go” display a softer, more refined sound that presages the later lineup’s sound in some subtly yet important ways. The layered vocals of Pinder and Thomas are shown to more nuanced effect, and Ray Thomas’ flute playing is showcased. The songwriting is solid, but nothing of the sort that would give Lennon/McCartney a run for their money; “Thank You Baby” is not unlike the kind of thing Graham Gouldman was writing for The Mockingbirds at the time.

The singles (A’s and B’s) that fill out the first disc of the new expanded The Magnificent Moodies are quality as well, and none would have been out of place on the album proper. They’re mostly covers as well, but the highlight among these is an original, “Lose Your Money (But Don’t Lose Your Mind)”. Soulful tracks like “Steal Your Heart Away” stay safely in that modified r&b style in which the band traded. The band cut a credible reading of a song first recorded a year earlier by Kai Winding and His Orchestra. That b-side, “Time is on My Side,” was of course a hit for another better-known British band (albeit eight months later).

By 1965, however, The Moody Blues singles released would consist only of original compositions, all from the Laine/Pinder writing team. These songs reflect a more mature songwriting style, one that seems to attempt to continue the r&b flavor of the group’s earlier material while moving past it in some ways. Production values increase, and while tunes like “Boulevard de la Madeleine” may have seemed a stylistic left-turn in January 1967, viewed in the context of the group’s later material, they make perfect sense. In fact, those songs suggest that had somehow the original lineup (or at least Denny Laine) continued as the Moody Blues, they might have made music not altogether unlike what the Hayward/Lodge-led group did. (A listen to the post-Moodies Denny Laine String Band provides further evidence supporting this idea.)

Meanwhile, the melancholy yet somehow goodtiming “This is My House (But Nobody Calls)” sounds very much like the kind of thing that would have scored on the charts in ’67 London. (It’s a bit reminiscent of The Beatles‘ “Another Girl” from their Help! soundtrack.) Alas, neither it nor the group’s three subsequent singles did much (“House” did scrape the bottom of US charts, briefly reaching #119 in 1967).

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Sometimes People Remember: A Conversation with Translator’s Steve Barton (Part 2)

Friday, April 24th, 2015

Continued from Part One

“When you’re working with a producer like David Kahne or Ed Stasium, they care about the process, too,” Steve Barton notes. “Everyone has an interest in how the final record is going to sound. So it’s all of a piece: the punkier stuff on the demos, and how the records ended up sounding.” There are any number of approaches a band can take in the studio. One is to attempt to capture a performance that more or less captures and documents the group’s live song. Another is to employ a studio-as-instrument philosophy, crafting a work as you go along. Barton believes Translator did both. “On the first album, Heartbeats and Triggers, we were trying to capture ourselves live, but then we would do a few little [studio] touches here and there. On the second album [1983's No Time Like Now], we purposely wanted it to be more ‘produced.’” Barton says that the group liked some of the “production qualities” found on classic albums by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and The Kinks. They modeled their approach on those records. “If we could have afforded it,” he laughs, “we probably would have put flutes and strings on some of the songs.”

Barton continues a chronology of Translator’s albums and the aesthetic mindset for each. “With the third album [1985's self-titled release], we wanted to do something a bit more stripped-down. And then with the fourth album, we again wanted to capture ourselves live.” In fact, the original idea for Evening of the Harvest was to record the songs live in the studio. “I like all of the albums, “Barton says, “and we never wanted to make them all sound the same, anyway.”

Shortly after the release of their second album, Translator issued a three-song 12” EP called Break Down Barriers. That disc featured a cover of a very early Beatles song – in fact, the only composition credited to George Harrison and John Lennon – called “Cry for a Shadow.” In 1983 the Beatles Anthology project remained off in the distant future, so the song was little known outside the cadre of Beatles fanatics. Barton was just such a fanatic. “We were a trio in L.A.,” he recalls. “and a friend of ours was getting married. We were going to play at her wedding. And another band was going to play there as well. The guitar player in that band was Bob Darlington, who later would be my Translator brother.” At one point, the groups decided that they should play something together. “I don’t know how we ever came up with ‘Cry for a Shadow,’ but obviously it was on all of our radars.”

Barton had grown up with the song. “As a little kid, I remember calling a radio station in Los Angeles.” Affecting a child’s voice, Barton continues. “’Hi! Can you play The Beatles’ “Cry for a Shadow”?’ I don’t know how they did it, but [the deejay] hung up the phone, and the song started. So the song came naturally to us, especially with the two guitar parts.” And once the group became a four-piece, the song was part of their set.

But Translator has always been mostly about original songs. Though guitarists Barton and Darlington both compose prolifically for their band, they only rarely write together. Yet Barton insists that there was never a sense of competition between the two songwriters. “If there is any competition,” Barton says, “it’s healthy. Especially for the third and fourth albums, we had this spurt of songwriting. I had a little room in my flat in San Francisco where we’d write. Bob would come over, and he’s say, ‘Look, I have these four songs.’ And they’d be really good. So I’d say, ‘Oh, I’d better write some more, too.’ We kind of sparked off of each other.” He says that “the handful of songs that we wrote together came out of jams.”

Barton is initially lost for words when asked to characterize the differences between his songwriting and that of Robert Darlington. After considering the question, he says, “I know that when Bob first came to the band, one of the songs he brought to our set was ‘Pablo Picasso’ [by The Modern Lovers]. And he knew all of the John Cale stuff; Paris 1919…he turned us on to all of that. I had mostly known Cale as part of the Velvet Underground.” That music informed Darlington’s songwriting, Barton says. “Bob has always been willing to really embrace the idea” of just using a couple of chords in a song. “I tend to write like, here’s a verse, chorus, and bridge. So I think we have unique styles that really complement each other.”

That contrast between Barton’s music and that of his fellow guitarist was placed in stark terms via a production choice the band made for Evening of the Harvest. Barton’s guitar parts on the record are all hard-panned in one stereo channel, while Darlington’s guitar is panned to the other. For his part, today Barton doesn’t remember why the band and producer Ed Stasium did that, but he thinks he might have been influenced by Neil Young and Crazy Horse employing that approach on one of their records.

All four of the group’s 1980s albums have in fact been reissued in the 21st century. “About eight years ago, maybe,” Barton says. But those Wounded Bird reissues were widely criticized for their subpar sonic quality. Diplomatically allowing some level of dissatisfaction with the quality of those CD reissues, Barton says, “That’s something I’d like to revisit, eventually.”

Meanwhile, Sometimes People Forget is a worthy addition to Translator’s recorded legacy. A number of bands that rose to fame in the 1980s have seen retrospective releases of their material on Omnivore Recordings: Jellyfish, Game Theory, The Posies, and Trip Shakespeare are only four of many. “I’d love for Sometimes People Forget to be the beginning of a relationship with Omnivore,” Barton says. “We’ll see how it goes.” Translator are doing a number of shows in May to promote the release – dates in Los Angeles, Long Beach, and, of course, San Francisco – and post updates on their site, translatormusic.com.

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Sometimes People Remember: A Conversation with Translator’s Steve Barton (Part 1)

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

Though they’re perhaps best known for their 1982 single “Everywhere That I’m Not” – a quirky yet extremely catchy rock tune that subsequently found its way onto more than a half dozen compilations of the 80s/new wave era – San Francisco’s Translator released four excellent albums during their major-label run (roughly 1982 to 1986). The band’s sound combined then-current new wave textures with a psychedelic influence, but somehow Translator’s music steered clear of the (Los Angeles-based) “Paisley Underground” scene.

Part of that uniqueness may have been due to the fact that San Francisco and L.A. have always had separate and distinct musical undercurrents – nobody confuses The Grateful Dead with The Doors, or The Byrds with Moby Grape – but a bigger factor is likely Translator’s emphasis on inventive, powerful guitar. While other bands in the 80s folded synthesizer textures into their music – often to great effect – Translator was always primarily a guitar band, led by the two-guitar front line of Robert Darlington and Steve Barton, with able, muscular support from bassist Larry Dekker and drummer Dave Scheff.

Though the band’s string of first-run releases concluded with 1986′s Evening of the Harvest (this writer’s clear choice for their best, most fully-realized album), in some ways Translator never really went away. The band more or less went inactive after 1986, but all four members remain active musically. A highlight of their 21st century activity is Steve Barton’s 2011 album Projector, named by this blog as one of that year’s best releases. Translator reunites on occasion for live performances, and even released an album of new material — 2012′s Big Green Lawn — that’s easily on a par with their 80s work (and thus highly recommended).

For a band that only released four LPs during their initial run, Translator is well-represented with posthumous compilations: 1986′s (inevitably-titled) Everywhere That I’m Not: A Retrospective was the first, followed by 1985′s Translation, then by the less-imaginatively titled Everywhere That We Were: The Best of Translator, and most recently a UK-only collection titled, well, Collection. And there’s also Different Time, the hard-to-find 2008 two-disc CDR compilation of thirty demos, outtakes and live material.

So why, in 2015, another compilation of music from Translator? There are at least two very good reasons. The first is summed up in the title of the new collection released by Omnivore Recordings. Sometimes People Forget, so let’s remind them. The second, better reason is that the new compilation doesn’t travel well-trodden musical ground: Sometimes People Forget is 22 tracks of rare and previously unreleased material from the band, demos and outtakes spanning material that reaches back to the group’s earliest, pre-record deal days. (It’s worth pointing out there there is less than five minutes’ worth of overlapping music between Different Time and the new Sometimes People Forget.) And for those drawn in by Translator’s official canon, there are many riches to be found in these previously unissued tracks.

The band has always acknowledged a clear debt to The Beatles, but in Translator’s music there are strong echoes of the kind of guitar heroics found on albums by groups like Television. “Even in the really early days of Translator, we didn’t really think of ourselves as a cross between anything,” recalls Steve Barton. “But if we were forced to, [we'd admit to a] kind of a Beatles-meets-Cream [approach]. I love all of the Cream albums, but especially Wheels of Fire. And there’s some Translator stuff that evoked that for me. And the Television comparison: I get that, especially with two [lead] guitars.”

There’s arguably a more “punky” sensibility to some of the songs collected on Sometimes People Forget. As effective and fruitful as the official album sessions were for the band, sometimes those served to sand down some of the music’s rough edges as found on the demo versions. Barton describes the demos on the new collection as “warts-and-all.” He allows that the demos sometimes feature “Some flat singing, some things I would have fixed.” But he professes to love those recordings, aptly comparing them in some ways to “Let it Be before Phil Spector.”

The first couple of tracks on Sometimes People Forget – “Translator” and “Lost” – are from the band’s first demo tape, recorded “in someone’s garage,” Barton laughs. They recorded five songs in a single August 1979 afternoon, using a basic tape recorder. “So by definition, those are going to be kind of rough around the edges.” But Barton rightly believes that even the studio versions of the band’s songs avoid slickness. “I remember listening to [The Clash's] London Calling. It was a huge album for me in the early days of Translator. I thought, ‘Wow! This so polished for The Clash.’ But you listen to it now, and it’s this huge, sprawling mess of a record, in the best possible way. So while in the studio there is a tendency to go, ‘Oh, that might be a little flat; let’s fix that,’ or to do little things here and there, we tried to keep it as bare-bones as possible.” That approach is a big part of the reason why Translator’s music doesn’t sound “dated” as does the music of many other bands of the era.

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The Broadcast Will Continue Touring After This Important Local Message

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

“We can jam, but we are definitely not a jam band,” says Caitlin Krisko, vocalist and songwriter of The Broadcast. Her band’s albums feature shorter songs because “we write songs; we’re songwriters.” Krisko and guitarist Aaron Austin are co-writers on all of the group’s music, which is as tight and concise on record as it is soulful and exhilarating live onstage.

“My favorite artists are storytellers,” Krisko adds. “I think that it’s really important that we continue to tell stories about our lives,” she says, describing music as a means to create “a sense of oneness between artist and listener.”

Coming out of a tumultuous year that saw two of its founding members depart, Asheville-based (though originally from Brooklyn) The Broadcast is gearing up for what looks to be its busiest year yet. The buzz around the group’s set at 2014’s Warren Haynes’ Christmas Jam led to an invitation to perform at an Allman Brothers Band tribute event being planned for this summer. And while preproduction for a second studio album is well underway, The Broadcast scheduled a local performance (Saturday, April 11, at The Grey Eagle) before returning to the road and then to the studio.

 

Photo by Jenn Ross Photography

“So much has changed since last year,” Krisko says. “I am really proud of the core members who were able to make it through this transition,” and now the band is “committed on an even deeper level.” Krisko and Austin and percussionist Tyler Housholder remain from the original lineup. Observing that making music for a living is not the easiest path, Krisko believes that “you have to be willing to lose everything for it.”

The Broadcast’s members are savvy users of modern technology as a means of building relationships with fans and potential fans. While acknowledging the advantages of that technology, Krisko believes that instant, accessible quality also disconnects the listener from being able to discover new music. That means in order to break through, a band has to be better and then market itself better. Krisko is optimistic and determined: “Touring on the road has given me a sense of hope that there still are people who want to come together, connect and share in a joined experience.”

Krisko focuses on two important components of the band’s overall strategy: “The live performance emotionally grabs people; the vibrations literally have an effect on their bodies.” And the album is a souvenir, a package that concertgoers can take home to relive the experience of the show. “You can’t completely capture the live experience on an album,” Krisko says. “Where a great producer comes in is being able to capture that energy.”

For The Broadcast’s first album (2013’s Dodge the Arrow, recorded at Asheville’s Echo Mountain Studios), the band worked with producer Eric “Mixerman” Sarafin. “We were so blessed to have one of the most positive first-album experiences,” Krisko says. But the musicians came away from that experience knowing what they would do differently on the next album. For their second recording, Krisko and Austin wanted a producer who truly understood how to record a female-fronted band. They wanted someone like Jim Scott, who produced and engineered albums for the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Wilco and other big names.

“So I emailed [Scott] last November,” Krisko says, “and when I woke up the next morning, I had an email from his people. I screamed!” Scott said yes. And with a large catalog of new material from which to choose, Krisko is confident that The Broadcast’s upcoming album (out early 2016) will please longtime fans while earning new ones.

An edited version of this feature was previously published in Mountain Xpress.

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Lloyd Cole: Standards and Practices, Part 2

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

Continued from Part One

I laughed and expressed my surprise that the sometimes singer/songwriterly Lloyd Cole is a fan of 1970s krautrock. “I’m going to be in Berlin in September, making my debut as a modular synth player onstage live,” he told me. I asked him if he’d be wearing a cape. “I haven’t thought about my outfit yet,” he said. “More importantly, I have to compose some pieces specifically to perform live. Which is,” he said with dry understatement, “a bit different than playing a song live. There will be all monosynths, though you’ve got some polyphony via the use of oscillators.”

On one level, the project represents some uncharted territory for Cole. “I haven’t exactly mapped out what I’m going to do yet,” he said. “I’ve only just accepted the contract to do it.” But the endeavor is not wholly without precedent for him. “Six months before Standards came out, I released an album with a guy called [Hans-Joachim] Roedelius, from Cluster. We made a record called Selected Studies Vol. 1. And I made an instrumental record in 2001 called Plastic Wood. And frankly, if you knew Cluster and you knew Roedelius and you listened to Plastic Wood, you’d say, ‘Ah, Cole must be a Cluster fan.’”

Roedelius is a fan of Plastic Wood. “He even took a copy of the album and put overdubs of his own on it,” Cole told me. “He said, ‘Why don’t you put it out?’ I said, ‘But I can’t! I’ve already released the album!’ So he suggested that maybe we could do something else like this together. It just took ten years for us to get around to doing it.” The two composers brought deliberately unfinished pieces to the project, completing each other’s work. Their working methods are a study in contrasts. Cole said that Roedelius “is a virtuoso, and he can think on his feet. I, on the other hand, construct structures which allow other people to be virtuosos on top of them.”

Cole is clearly excited about the upcoming project. “In Berlin in September is the celebration of [Roedelius'] 80th birthday. And they’re having a festival, or a series of events, for it. And they’ve invited me to perform. Maybe something on my own, and maybe something collaborating with him. It’s exciting, and slightly frightening.”

We went on to discuss the Big Ears Festival, taking place in Knoxville the day after our meeting. Cole mentioned his love of the work of Steve Reich. I observed that composers like Reich and Philip Glass approached minimalism from a classical background, compared with Brian Eno, who came from the rock idiom. “But where they ended up,” I said, “isn’t all that different.” Cole agreed. “I discovered all this type of music as a kid, purely through the fact that I liked Eno and [David] Bowie. I went to see Steve Reich at the South Bank Centre in 1979 in London. I didn’t know anything about him; all I knew was that Bowie liked him.”

Our conversation eventually rounded back to Standards. The album was initially a more or less self-released item. “I gambled on people liking it,” Cole said, with the hope that eventually an American distributor would pick it up. “It still took a little longer than I wanted,” he said. He got several offers, in fact, but settled on Omnivore Recordings. “They were the ones who seemed the most enthusiastic about it. There’s only four people there, but they have a lot of energy.”

Between all of his current activities – live gigs, chatting with journalists about Standards, writing more songs, preparing for the Berlin show – Cole is quite busy. But there’s even more. He told me that later in 2015 there will be a Lloyd Cole and the Commotions box set, a “sort of semi-completist thing” that will gather all of the group’s material in one package.

Cole has been writing and recording his songs for more than thirty years now. As we finished our drinks, I asked him how his approach to songwriting has changed over they years. “I think one of the negative things is that I know what I’m doing now,” he said. “On Rattlesnakes, I just had an idea, and everybody trusted me. And we got lucky. As soon as I started to analyze what I was doing, I got worse at it.” He said that knowing what he is doing is “sometimes an advantage, and I think I’ve got to the point now where I’m past the point where it’s not a disadvantage any more.” He cited the adage of talking [actually writing] about music being like dancing about architecture. “Trying to explain music with language is very difficult. You’ve got to give people a frame of reference, when you’re trying to tell people what you want them to play. So you have to give them reference points.”

Cole went on to make a thought-provoking observation. “Having naivete when things are going well can be a huge advantage. Because you never think of the worst; you never think you’re going to fail. So that’s lovely. Trying to make a record almost thirty years later, you don’t have that. And you can’t fake it. I think that now I know how to make records. I don’t necessarily think I’m very good at it in terms of being a producer, but I think I know what a good producer is. I wish – and I’m not sure if there is enough time in my life to do all these things – I don’t know if I could be that person. A good producer is not somebody who tells people what to play. A good producer is somebody who makes people feel good about themselves when they’re playing. And if they’re not going in the right direction, he somehow or other points them in the right direction by making them think it’s their idea, not his.”

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Lloyd Cole: Standards and Practices, Part 1

Monday, April 20th, 2015

Lloyd Cole and the Commotions debuted onto the music scene in the 1980s, a period that dovetailed nicely with my college years. Their debut Rattlesnakes came out in 1984, and Mainstream, their third and last album (not counting posthumous live and compilation sets) was released in 1987. Cole went on to a highly regarded solo career, releasing ten albums of new music between 1990 and 2010. His eleventh studio release, Standards, was released in the UK and Europe in 2013, and in 2014 Omnivore Recordings released the album in the USA.

Concurrent with – but not strictly in support of – Standards, Cole mounted a series of live solo dates. “I don’t feel that I’m really out here supporting an album,” Cole says. “I’m just letting people know that I’m still here.” That tour brought him through Asheville NC in late March. I attended the lightly-populated (but well received) show, and met Cole for drinks and conversation afterward. We quickly discovered that we’re both serious music fans (and fans of serious music), and as a result our time together was less an interview than a freewheeling conversation.

We discussed the evening’s show and its light turnout. “Am I wrong? This town has got something of a modern hippie-punk feel to it,” he observed. “Which is not really my audience.” He related a quick account of a lunchtime stroll he had taken through town earlier in the day. “On that particular walk,” he chuckled, “I saw examples of stereotypes, people who I knew would not be interested in my music.” He noted that he lives in Northampton Massachusetts, a place “with a similar vibe,” but smiled wanly as he recalled becoming “filled with loathing” and dread about the evening’s show. But then he walked into a popular and informal local eatery, looked around, and thought, “These are my people. This will be nice.”

Cole wasn’t being flippant; the people he first encountered – a small but vaguely menacing lot of semi-homeless types dressed in ragged military fatigues – do indeed give off a certain vibe, and not one of them did in fact come to The Grey Eagle for Cole’s engaging one-man performance. It’s fair to say that those who attended the show really enjoyed it. And Cole agreed with that assessment. “It was a nice gig. It was a little bit more spontaneous show than my normal ones, because I usually play two sets.” This one-off paired Cole on the bill with Peter Mulvey. “This is the only show we’re doing together,” Cole said. “We’ve never met before. He’s a nice guy. I’m kind of glad I went on before him,” Cole said. “Because his guitar playing is…he’s much more of a musician than me. I’m more of a songwriter.”

At Cole’s leading, our conversation quickly turned to an abiding interest of his, one I had no idea was part of his musical makeup. “Make Noise is located here in Asheville,” he said. “They’re a synth company founded by a guy called Tony Rolando, who used to work for Moog Music” [also in Asheville]. The company hand-builds synthesizer modules and systems for the serious musician and hobbyist alike. “They’re an amazing company, and world-renowned,” Cole said. But what, I wondered, does that have to do with a transplanted Briton who sings his songs while (mostly) playing an acoustic guitar?

“I’ve been making music with modular synths for the last three or four years,” Cole told me. “There’s a tiny, tiny bit of modular synth on Standards, too. And I visited Moog and got a Moog guitar the last time I was here,” he said. “’Period Piece’ has modular synth and Moog guitar on it. But the record I’m working on making next will have a lot more of both.”

I mischaracterized his albums prior to Standards as mostly acoustic. “They weren’t really acoustic,” Cole replied. “They were just quiet. And they weren’t even all that quiet, at times. They just weren’t electric rock records. Standards is the first electric rock record I’ve made since Negatives in 2000.”

“Why? I just wrote some songs that needed to be treated this way,” he said. “The choice I had was either discard these songs and make quiet music, or I follow the lead of the songs.” For awhile, Cole expected the resulting album would be “half loud and half quiet.” But he contacted Fred Maher and Matthew Sweet (“they had played on my first two solo records in the late ’80s, early 90s”), telling them, “I’m thinking of making this rock record. Would you be interested in playing on it?” Happily, both said yes. Standards was cut in Los Angeles, since both Maher and Sweet live there. “I got into a groove, finishing writing the songs for the album,” Cole said. “Knowing that I was going to be working with them – knowing what kind of record I’m making – seems to influence my songwriting.”

“So,” Cole said, in the end, “what I thought was going to be an album of half quiet, half loud songs turned out to be loud and slightly-less-loud.” Cole reflected on the development of the album that would become Standards. “I had ten weeks to get all of the songs finished. And I knew I had to finish, because once I got to L.A., I would have to be the producer as well as the singer. And it’s just a nightmare to be the producer when you haven’t finished writing the songs.”

That restriction affected the creative process. “I decided, I’m not making any demos for this record,” Cole said. “I’m just going to finish [writing] the songs, and then present the songs to Fred and Matthew. And then the three of us will figure out how to do them.” The approach yielded a collection of finished songs that have an energetic, band-oriented feel. “Basically what I did every morning was say to them, ‘Listen to this. I want it to be as insistent as this.’ I made them listen to Neu! every morning.”

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Album Review: Stevie Ray Vaughan — The Fire Meets the Fury

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

To a lot of people in the 1980s, Stevie Ray Vaughan was the guitar hero they had been looking for. Seemingly bursting on the scene without warning, the Texas guitarist had in fact been paying his dues for some time, and he was quite well known locally and regionally. His pre-fame activities included a stint in a band called the Nightcrawlers, where he was lead guitarist but not lead singer; that task was ably filled by bassist (and later songwriting collaborator) Doyle Bramhall II. That band recorded an album that remains unreleased to this day.

Vaughan went on to more acclaim, eventually capturing the notice of David Bowie. Vaughan played lead guitar on the blockbuster album Let’s Dance, and was in rehearsals with Bowie and band to play on the subsequent tour (bootlegs of these rehearsals do exist). As one story goes, Bowie forbade band members – especially SRV – to do interviews about their own work while on the tour, and so Vaughan, having just finished recording his debut Texas Flood, quit the band days before the tour was to begin.

Vaughan’s albums were released to greater and greater acclaim (and sales), and he can rightly be credited for ushering in a new era of appreciation for hotshot guitarists. But as his fame grew, so did his problems with drugs and alcohol. By the time I first saw him in concert (November 7, 1985 at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre), he was in the depths of addiction, yet he showed signs of having turned a corner of sorts: throughout the show he was uncharacteristically loquacious, making repeated comments of a positive and uplifting nature. Mere months after this date, SRV returned to Atlanta, this time not for a concert but for a four-week rehab program at Peachford Hospital, mere blocks from my home (no, we never saw him around the neighborhood).

Newly clean and with a markedly improved attitude toward life, Vaughan’s playing only improved, and his stature grew further. By 1989 he was taking part in a co-headlining concert tour with Jeff Beck; the tur was billed as “The Fire Meets the Fury.” The shows consisted of a set by each of the acclaimed guitar slingers, and often ended with them appearing onstage together for an encore.

Near the end of the tour were dates in Albuquerque, New Mexico (November 28) and Denver (November 29); both were recorded for broadcast on the Westwood One radio network. Highlights from those two shows are collected on The Fire Meets the Fury, a new single-disc live concert set. (The error-filled liner notes erroneously refer to these dates as the tour’s final performances when in fact two more dates – Los Angeles and Oakland – followed.)

While none of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s onstage collaborations with Jeff Beck are featured on the set, The Fire Meets the Fury nonetheless represents an excellent live document of SRV’s playing near the end of his life (he’d perish in a tragic helicopter accident nine months after these dates). The compilers have wisely chosen not to duplicate songs from the shows, so the finished disc (six tracks from New Mexico followed by five from Colorado) approximates a full concert set.

Vaughan and band – which by this time included keyboardist Reese Wynans alongside mainstays Chris “Whipper” Layton on drums and bassist Tommy Shannon – are in fine form throughout, and the set list runs the gamut from the hits (a very brief opening run-through of “The House is Rockin’”) to the classic covers (“Superstition,” a song that Stevie Wonder had originally written for Jeff Beck; and Jimi Hendrix‘s “Voodoo Chile”). The Hendrix cover in particular is an extended affair, running in excess of eleven minutes. Another long cut is “Life Without You,” wherein SRV engages in a monologue about his journey to sobriety (the title of his then-current album In Step was a reference to his working through Alcoholics Anonymous’ twelve step program).

While there are other live albums in the man’s catalog (1986′s Live Alive and the 1983 Albert King collaboration In Session, to name two of the most well-known), the well-recorded The Fire Meets the Fury is the only officially released document of late-period Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Note #1: There also exists a promo-only CD issued by Epic and also titled The Fire Meets the Fury; compiling then-current and back-catalog studio tracks from both Vaughan and Jeff Beck, it was intended to promote the then-current tour and should not be confused with this release.

Note #2: This album was also released in the UK as a 2LP (vinyl) set with the same track listing, featuring tracks from the Albuquerque show on one record, and the Denver performance on the other. My review concerns the CD release.

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DVD Review: Freak Jazz, Movie Madness and Another Mothers

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

The back catalog of Frank Zappa is massive, and massively intimating. Never the most commercially-minded of artists, the virtuoso Zappa recorded and released more than fifty albums during his lifetime. (His estate has more than doubled his catalog, with all manner of posthumous releases; his so-called “100th album” is due out soon.) With albums that explored everything from doo-wop to fusion, from big band jazz to musique concrète – not to mention a lot of scatological lyrical content – Zappa’s oeurve could easily scare off (or even repel) the casual listener.

None of which seemed to bother him in the least. Zappa was a restless innovator, and what that often meant in practical terms is that he’d make what could seem (especially at the time) as one musical left-turn after another. Just when you’ve gotten used to the early Mothers records, exemplified by We’re Only in it For the Money, Zappa fires the entire band and makes a weird orchestral album (Lumpy Gravy) and then a blues/jazz LP (Hot Rats).

To make dealing with his vast catalog a bit easier, fans, critics and the like have attempted to divide Zappa’s work – his so-called “project/object” – into eras. There’s certainly overlap between some of those era – his work doesn’t lend itself to neat classification – but it’s a worthy endeavor to break Zappa’s music into more easily-digestible pieces.

And the piece that remains most controversial among his fans is what one might call the Flo and Eddie years. From around 1970 until 1971, Zappa’s band was fronted by a pair of vocalists who – for contractual reasons – called themselves The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie. Better known as Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, the duo had come to fame as the front men of The Turtles. The Turtles were always known for their sense of humor and lively stage personae, so on some level, they were a good fit for Zappa. Enlisting top-notch musicians who were able to play the increasingly complicated music that he was composing, Zappa brought Flo and Eddie on board to handle vocals, a task that was not among the strongest qualities of the original Mothers.

Taking a detailed and incisive look at this period requires backing up a bit to provide proper context. And that is why the new documentary Freak Jazz, Movie Madness and Another Mothers covers the period 1969-1973. Beginning with a quick history of the Mothers up to the start of that era, the lengthy (more than two hours) documentary seeks to put the work of the Flo and Eddie period into its proper historical perspective.

Another in the long series of music documentary DVDs from the Sexy Intellectual team, Freak Jazz relies on true experts to weave its narrative. Some of these are faces familiar to those who’ve screened other documentaries from the team: Zappa biographer Billy James and Mojo Magazine‘s Mark Paytress weigh in with their own informed perspectives. And a number of players and Zappa associates from that era provide their own accounts: Ian Underwood, Jeff Simmons, Aynsley Dunbar, and (most notably) the late George Duke all get a good amount of screen time to tell their stories.

Two hours and forty minutes might seem like a long time, but it breezes by when watching Freak Jazz. The knotty twists and turns that Zappa’s music, band and personal life took during this period require a good bit of explaining, and this DVD does just that in an exceedingly expert fashion. The filmmakers rightly hold Zappa’s work to a high standard, and the onscreen commenters are unafraid to criticize what they see as ill-advised (say, “Billy the Mountain”) or just plain lousy musical output.

A good amount of time is spent discussing the film 200 Motels, and while there are very few clips from the actual movie (likely due to licensing issues), some behind-the-scenes footage helps tell the story. And while Howard Kaylan isn’t involved in the documentary, Mark Volman provides the Flo and Eddie perspective. Rarely-seen photos and onstage footage make Freak Jazz essential for the hardcore Zappaphile, but the conversational tone of the DVD makes it recommended viewing for even the most casual Zappa fan.

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Album Review: The Mavericks — Mono

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

There’s much talk these days about the sorry state of country music. The genre – commercially, more popular than ever – is overrun with what its detractors call “bro country.” Hopelessly (some might say defiantly) clichéd songs about yellow beer, Friday nights, pickup trucks, mean ol’/clueless big city types and whatnot are the coin of the realm, and they all sound like one another. “Even non-fans are starting to take notice,” wrote one recent commentator.

It all largely passes me by, as I’ve never been a fan of modern c&w. Though I did briefly find it inescapable late last summer: I live quite near our city’s baseball stadium, home one sweaty afternoon to a concert pairing Florida Georgia Line and rapper Nelly. To call it awful and lowbrow gives it too much credit. And it was louder than most rock concerts (and I’d know) making it even worse.

Those who appreciate things like musicianship and authenticity (of a sort) in their twang seem to prefer music that falls under the Americana label. And while nobody knows exactly what is and is not Americana, there’s general agreement that it’s the better stuff. And on that I’d agree.

One of the best things about Americana today is The Mavericks. They’re widely celebrated among Americana fans, though I’m not convinced that they are country. Their approach is too wide-encompassing for that – or perhaps any other – label. Founded in Miami at the beginning of the 1990s, the group has released eight albums, including two since their 2013 reunion. Mono, their latest, features two founding members – vocalist Raul Malo and drummer Paul Deakin – plus two more recently-added members, keyboardist Jerry Dale McFadden (with them since the mid 90s) and guitarist Eddie Perez (he joined in 2003). And the music on Mono might best be described – if we need a label – as norteAmericana.

There’s a strong Latin undercurrent to the songs on Mono, most notably the thrilling “All Night Long,” a musical cousin to Santana‘s “Smooth.” It’s a wholly successful hybrid of Latin rhythms, Cuban arrangement, and modern rock/pop. It has hit-single written all over it, though as of this writing it hasn’t in fact charted.

But “All Night Long” doesn’t sound all that much like the remaining eleven tracks on Mono. What it has in common, however, is quality: this is a strong album that’s enjoyable from start to finish. Rock fans – and those with little musical grounding in country (in other words, listeners like me) – will find many musical touchstones throughout the album. “Summertime (When I’m With You)” sounds a bit like Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns crossed with Louis Prima. “Pardon Me” is Mono‘s only real country tune; it sounds like classic c&w of the late 1960s and early 70s, with Malo’s yearning vocal a highlight. “What Am I Supposed to Do” is a romantic midtempo number with a great singalong chorus. “Stories We Could Tell” feels like early dance-oriented rock’n'roll a la Bill Haley and the Comets, with a Texas swing feel. “What You Do to Me” could almost be termed ska-country; the accordion works quite well, and some Mariachi-flavored horn charts and electric guitar add to the tune’s excitement.

The stylistic variation continues, though in The Mavericks’ hands, it’s all somehow musically unified. “Let it Rain” is a lovely, lump-in-the-throat ballad. “The Only Question Is” is fifties-styled blues; one could easily imagine Stevie Ray Vaughan joining in on the tune. But here we get a honking sax solo with just a bit of electric guitar answering it. “Out the Door” feels a lot like The Sir Douglas Quintet. “(Waiting for) The World to End” is a swinging party number that no doubt goes over great live (I’ve seen The Mavericks live, and they’re fantastic). The song’s outro repeats the title lyric over and over, though eventually Malo sings, “We’re all waiting for this song to end.”

A romantic weeper, “Fascinate Me” sounds like a late-night barroom closer, with Malo’s voice and rickety tack piano out front. Listed as a bonus track, “Nitty Gritty” is a wry midtempo tune with loads of wonderfully cheesy combo organ (sounds like a Farfisa) that will remind sixties garage fans of Augie Meyers, Doug Sahm, Sam “The Sham” Samudio and other greats. The dialogue between accordion and electric guitar is a delight.

The good-timing Mono is a strong contender for my Best of 2015 album list. If any band is poised to “save” modern country and western music, my money’s on The Mavericks.

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